Originally published in The Iowa Review in 1979 as a long short story, Spanking the Maid was collected in Best American Short Stories of 1981 and Best American Short Stories of the 1980’s under the title “A Working Day.” It was later published with only minor changes as a novella as Spanking the Maid (with illustrations in 1981 and without illustrations in 1982).
Spanking the Maid describes a day in the life of a maid, “she,” and her employer or “master,” “he.” They are the only two characters in a single setting: the master’s bedroom, which the maid comes to clean. The story is told through a series of thirty-nine fragments much like scenes in a stage play or a film.
In the first fragment, the maid enters and then enters again, much as an actor might exit the stage to redo a scene. The bed is empty, the master not present. The second fragment is told from the master’s point of view. In general, the remaining sections alternate point of view from servant to master and back again. The actions, though essentially the same, change and expand incrementally with each new fragment. The maid clearly seeks to do her duty, to clean the master’s bedroom suite properly, with proper demeanor. Sometimes the room is empty, sometimes the master is in bed or in the shower. The two talk, or they do not.
She seeks, and cannot attain, perfection. For that, she must be punished, and just as her attempts at cleaning reiterate themselves but change over time, so too does her punishment. He uses a belt, a rod, his hand, a whip, a switch, a leather strap, a hairbrush, according to the instructions in “the manuals.” The manuals in question refer to Victorian guides for domestic servants on which Coover based this story, though he has taken the repetition of those guides to new extremes. Indeed, the repetition and its variations end only because the text ends. There is no resolution. The characters are doomed to repeat endlessly their assigned roles and tasks. The reader, too, is contained within the paradox of the text and is unable to distinguish between what is fantasy and what is reality.