‘The Housewife’ by Charlotte Anna Perkins Gilman is a five stanza poem that is made up of sets of four lines, or quatrains. These quatrains are consistent in their rhyme scheme, following the pattern of ABAB CCDD EEFF… etc.
The poem begins with the speaker motioning around her to the most important, and only, elements of her world. She has the house, her children, and her husband, her “lord” that is in charge of all she is.
The speaker describes the bonds that keep her in the home and how they are the oldest type of chains in existence. They are there no matter what she does and her children and husband are always there to re-solidify them if she ever feels like she could escape.
The Housewife continues on to speak on the type of life that the speaker lives and the things that she is allowed to occupy herself with. She can worry about what the family will eat, wear, and how she is to lavish the most praise and love that she can. Beyond that is not her purview.
In the final stanza, she states that above all else the most important goal a housewife can hope for is to cover the Earth in children.
Analysis of The Housewife
Here is the House to hold me — cradle of all the race;
Here is my lord and my love, here are my children dear —
Here is the House enclosing, the dear-loved dwelling place;
Why should I ever weary for aught that I find not here?
The first lines of this piece stand out due to the form in which they are written. The lines take on the impression of a piece of devotional prayer or some kind of internal mantra that one might speak to themselves in the hopes of retaining a certain way of thinking. The subject matter of the poem only enhances the format.
The speaker begins by addressing the world that she is the most familiar with, her home. “Here,” she states, is the “House to hold me.” It is her entire world, as the reader will come to find out as the poem progresses.
Her situation is not original, the “House” holds many others, “all of her race,” in fact. Through this comment, taken in tandem with the title, the reader should become aware that the race that the speaker is talking about is all of womankind.
She continues on. It is easy to imagine her motioning around herself, pointing all the basic aspects of her world, “Here,” she says, “are my children dear.” In addition to her home and house, is her connection to “my lord and my love.” On first reading it might seem as if she is speaking of God, but in fact she is referring to her husband who is lord of her life. He dictates who she is and what she will do.
In the last lines of this stanza, she speaks of the house as being an “enclosing…dwelling place.” It works as both home and prison. Then she asks why she should ever bother herself in worry of what is outside the home, or what she might find there. This comment should not be taken at surface value. She has a deep desire for a world outside her own.
Here for the hours of the day and the hours of the night;
Bound with the bands of Duty, rivetted tight;
Duty older than Adam — Duty that saw
Acceptance utter and hopeless in the eyes of the serving squaw.
In the second stanza, the speaker discusses the duty that she has to her house and her husband and children all hours of the day and night. She is “Bound with the bands of Duty” and they are “rivetted tight” there is no way that she can get out of what she is now a part of.
This “Duty” to which she is forcibly “bound” is the oldest on Earth. It is “older than Adam.” It sees the “Acceptance” of a woman’s lot in life. The bonds of a housewife bring her, and keep her, in the world of the home.
Food and the serving of food — that is my daylong care;
What and when we shall eat, what and how we shall wear;
Soiling and cleaning of things — that is my task in the main —
Soil them and clean them and soil them — soil them and clean them again.
The third stanza of The Housewife is used to describe the duties that the speaker must attend within her home. Her “daylong care” is the making of, and “serving of food.” She must busy herself worrying over “What and when we shall eat.” Additionally, she is allowed to worry about what the family is going to wear and the completion of laundry.
These are her main tasks, the “Soiling and cleaning of things.” She will see them soiled and sees them “clean…again.”
To work at my trade by the dozen and never a trade to know;
To plan like a Chinese puzzle — fitting and changing so;
To think of a thousand details, each in a thousand ways;
For my own immediate people and a possible love and praise.
The work she does at home is like a “trade.” But, she states, she has never known a trade. She is made to figure out the complexities of the home that fit together like “a Chinese puzzle.” They are always changing and she has to keep up with “each in a thousand ways.”
She needs to make sure she is up to date with all the people around her and the “possible love and praise” that she is to receive and give.
My mind is trodden in circles, tiresome, narrow and hard,
Useful, commonplace, private — simply a small back-yard;
And I the Mother of Nations! — Blind their struggle and vain! —
I cover the earth with my children — each with a housewife’s brain.
In the final stanza of The Housewife, the speaker describes the state of her own brain. She sees it as being “trodden” on and tired from it’s walking in “circles.” The places in which it is allowed to walk are “narrow and hard.” There is nothing special or interesting about the circle she walks in. All she sees is “commonplace,” her mind is a “small back-yard.”
In the last two lines, she attempts, facetiously, to celebrate her own position. She is the “Mother of Nations,” and here she is forced to the same tasks over and over again. It is her one goal in life to “cover the earth” with children and give each one, at least the girl children, “a housewife’s brain.”
About Charlotte Anna Perkins Gilman
Charlotte Anna Perkins Gilman was born in 1860 in Hartford, Connecticut. After a difficult childhood in which she and her mother were abandoned by Gilman’s father, she was moved around frequently. This kept her from receiving the best education. She married the artist Charles Stetson in 1884 and suffered frequently from depression over the next decade. She was subject to the “rest cure” detailed her most famous short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper” in which the narrator slowly goes mad while confined to her room.
Throughout her life, Gilman also published works of nonfiction and lectured on women’s rights. After the failure of her marriage to Stetson, in 1900 she married her cousin, George Gilman, they remained together until his death. Shortly afterward Gilman discovered that she had inoperable breast cancer and committed suicide in 1935.