Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Gone is Gone

I've been delving into Alison Lurie's book "Clever Gretchen and other forgotten folktales" and enjoying it immensely.  My favorite story is from the Norse tradition (those who know me are aware that I have a weakness for all things Scandinavian), and starts with a husband and wife who decide to switch places for a day.  She heads off to the fields with his scythe, and he stays home to do her chores.  In short order he screws things up so badly that when his wife gets home in the evening, she finds him with his head in the porridge, dangling at the end of a rope from inside the chimney.  (You'll never guess who is at the other end of the rope.) 

The story's message is clear: men and women should stay within their proper spheres and do the work alloted to them, to which they are well-suited.  Absolute chaos will ensue if a man so much as attempts to cook.  Step away from the stove, Wolfgang Puck!!

Interestingly, the story does not describe how the wife fared, except to note that she "had been cutting hay all morning".  We are given to understand that while men are incapable of anything other than straightforward manual labor, the story implies that women are able to perform a man's job competently.  Moreover, with no lunch!

So I have found myself another quandry.  Can I, in good conscience, tell a story whose moral asserts that men and women must remain in separate work spheres?  Is there a way to tell this lovely little tale without doing violence to the socio-cultural ethos from whence it derives?  Must I return the George Forman grill that I just bought for my husband?  

In Lurie's telling, the wife has the last word: she tells her husband to do his work while she does hers, and not talk about it.  I wonder what might have happened if she had given him another chance?  

Obviously she's never tried my husband's waffles.



Melissa said...

maybe the idea isn't that the husband and wife should each do their own thing only, but that while the husband's work seems difficult, and the wife seems to be "just staying home," that perhaps there is complexity to her work, and value in the knowledge and skill she uses each day to keep their household running smoothly for their family each day. are you obligated not to add to stories with your own ideas? i don't know how it works, but maybe a slight shift of perspective makes it a story about how important household know-how (contributed by men and women both, curtis as an example) keeps the world running as it does.

Doria said...

A wise observation. It's true that in recent years it has become fashionable to look down upon women who are full time home-makers. Perhaps this story is a timely reminder that their work is valuable, complex and interesting, to those who are perceptive enough to look carefully.

Connecting Stories said...

Home makers work is indeed "valuable, complex and interesting" - I second (or third?) that interpretation. I have sent this story to many a new mom. I was a stay at home mother of 4 for over ten years and caught tons of flak - left and ...well left and left, for my lack of participation in the important and "difficult" work of the world. Making homes that work and nurture is indeed very hard work and this story seems to say," Go ahead, sneer if you like, Why don't you just try it for a day? And then tell me if you think it is easy.
I also have a husband who can cook, clean and sew, not for us strict adherence to gender work roles. But when it came time to support a family, one of us had some mad money making skills and the other of us, some serious multitasking skills. The multitasker stayed home. And never regretted a moment of it.