University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth
English & Sociology
Mentor: Dr. Katherine Tarbox, Professor of English
The Architecture of Women’s Lives: How Women Construct Identity Through Home and Nature
The tensions and conflicts surrounding domesticity have always existed for women, as home and nature are the antithesis of one another. While the house is constructed to produce order, nature coexists with chaos. The house is built against nature and serves culture by replicating and duplicating societal values. It is in the home that women have become domesticated and disconnected from their original ties with nature.
The most influential role for women thus far has been keeper of the house. No two commentaries about this role have been as influential, as those that came from Catherine Beecher and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. To Beecher, the housekeeper was one who upheld the political, social, and moral values of America by creating the idealized space, the home. Beecher’s staunch opponent, Charlotte Perkins Gilman saw the construct of the home as imprisoning all its inhabitants but most specifically women, for they were performing devalued household work and ill-equipped to be the purveyors of moral and social order. Both ideals of womanhood demonstrate the confusion felt by women regarding their role in society. Three primary texts illustrate the tensions and conflicts surrounding domesticity. The female protagonists of each text, like Beecher and Gilman before them, seek to construct identities among cultural givens. In The Country of Pointed Firs (c.1910) the narrator, an unnamed writer, is elevated to the status of Everywoman as she is pulled through many houses and gardens and ideas about female identity and place. Sylvie, the protagonist of Housekeeping (c.1980), rejects outright those values Beecher extols in her treatise. And in doing so, she critiques domesticity and its underlying values. Sue Hubbell, the most contemporary of these three writers, seeks to build “a new kind of order, a structure on which a fifty-year old woman can live her life alone, at peace with herself and the world around her (Hubbell, 12). She does so in her 1986 book, A Country Year: Living the Question. It is through this quest for identity that the constructs of home and nature are finally realized.