Last Updated September 5, 2023.
The protagonist of The Kitchen House is a young Irish girl, Lavinia, who loses her parents and her memory at sea while her family is immigrating to the United States. As she recovers her memory, she goes to live on a Southern plantation. Her experiences as a white, indentured, European American worker are contrasted to those of the enslaved, black, African Americans. The differing situations of men and women are addressed for upper-class as well as working people.
Social Inequality in the Antebellum South
The overarching theme of the novel is the highly unequal character of US society at the turn of the nineteenth century. The limited mobility of working-class people, especially in the rural South, is detailed in numerous contexts. Although slavery is the dominant form of social injustice and economic exploitation, the author shows that poor whites also had limited opportunities to significantly alter their situations.
Slavery and Unfree Labor
Grissom uses the device of placing an anomalous protagonist into an unpredictable situation. Lavinia learns about slavery firsthand as she is confronted with the highly specific characteristics of a system from which she, for reasons of skin color and national origin, is exempted. The idea of enslavement as a method of social control as well as labor organization is detailed. The racial component of the systems is emphasized through Lavinia’s opportunities, including the move to Williamsburg, for social advancement. The assignment of mixed-race children to slave status is also explored.
Gender Relations and Oppression
Lavinia learns about gender relations through her experiences working in the owner’s house and through her interactions, both living and working, with the other plantation workers, many of whom are women. She learns of the difficulties mothers face, including high infant mortality, as well as the important role of the matriarchs among enslaved African American people, most of whom were involuntarily separated from their biological parents and other relatives. Especially through the character of Belle, the novel addresses the problem of the white male slaveholders’ sexual assault of enslaved women. While this entitlement is explored in relation to race and slavery, it also includes the idea that male sexual desire could not be restrained. The extreme dependency of white women on their fathers and husbands is also discussed.