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Two Perspectives on the Cult of Domesticity, Essay Example

Pages: 7

Words: 1845

Essay

The Cult of Domesticity has been around in the United States just about as long as the country itself:  this way of thinking arose during the presidency of Andrew Jackson.  This paradigm proposed three major roles for women in the home, which was considered a detached, proper room for women to express themselves:  to ensure that the home would be a refuge for their husbands from the outside world; to train the children in proper adult ways; and to serve as a moral example to the rest of the family.  Fittingly, women were to strive after four virtues:  “piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity”.  Not surprisingly, given the revolutionary events happening worldwide, many of the early feminist thinkers rose up against this way of thinking.

In the years between 1919 and 1937, historians in much of the world termed the conflict that had engulfed Europe, parts of Asia, and even dragged the United States out of its isolationism, the Great War.  While the war that followed, featuring Tojo, Hitler, Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt is much more commonly mentioned in the public consciousness, because of the horrors of the Holocaust and the absolute destruction that is nuclear war, it was the first World War, the Great War, that changed more paradigms in history than the second did.  This was the last war that featured cavalry on horseback; this was the first war that featured biological weapons on a large scale.  This war saw the toppling, or at least the loosening, of the last vestiges of feudalism and imperialism.  The Wilsonian ideal of self-determination of nations began the final crumbling of colonial empires, which would come to a complete halt in the Asian embarrassments in Vietnam in the 1970’s.

One shifting paradigm that is often left out of discussions of the ramifications of World War I is the final end to empire in China.  During the age of empire, the status of women was starkly different than it is today, and it is definitely different than writers in the West would have liked for it to be.  Confucianism taught such tenets as “Man is to woman as the sun is to the moon.  He leads, she follows; thus harmony reigns” (Yanfan).  The twin pillars of ancestor worship and the submission of women bolstered the family in this way of thinking (Yanfan).  The family concept during this time was also different than it is today:  it was common to find three or more generations living together in one home, including not just grandparents, parents and children, but also aunts, uncles and cousins.  This way of living was taught by Confucianism and supported by customs and laws.  Interestingly, this led to a more complex classification of family in relationships in the Chinese language than is found in Western languages.  While “aunt” and “sister” are used to describe those relationships in the West, the Chinese language has different words for “elder brother” and “younger brother” as well as for “maternal uncle” as opposed to “paternal uncle” (Yanfan).  For peasants, life was somewhat different.  Because land was split up into tiny plots, peasant families were often split up and scattered for their entire lives, since they did not have the economic means to live together.

This convention did not mark a sudden end to centuries of forced gender roles:  in fact, 1950’s television did much to usher in a newer era for the cult of domesticity, with its shows about model housewives who were able to vacuum, cook dinners, and handle minor household difficulties, all while smiling and wearing pearls. However, there is also a great deal of literature concerning – both in Western and Chinese literature on – the disgruntled women that raised families under this line of thinking.  Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes and Ba Jin’s The Family are two contrasting examples of works that explore the restrictions placed upon women by this cult of domesticity, using rhetorical devices richly to show the harm of this paradigm. Both stories are different in their consideration of family roles, mutual obligations, and the ways in which gender expectations carry a heavy toll.

The main character of Angela’s Ashes is McCourt himself, as a young child who just has returned from the United States to Ireland, because life in America did not live up to its promise (West 29).  Note the use of juxtaposition to describe his mother Angela, seen as “a pious defeated mother moaning by the fire.”  Three of the images (pious, mother, by the fire) could be seen as nurturing, positive images; however, the insertion of the words “defeated” and “moaning” in between those other images undermines the warmth of the domestic scene, showing the turmoil that rakes at Angela’s soul (West 30). As one can imagine, this sort of repression led to dissent, from a number of Chinese sources too.  The Family was written in the context of the May Fourth Movement, in 1919, by Ba Jin, a noted opponent of the brutal repression associated with the imperialist (and later Communist) governments in China (Feng 15).  Despite the fact that these works were written in different countries, their messages about the repression of women are, in many ways the same.

Perhaps the cruelest tactic of keeping women submissive in China was the practice of foot-binding (Feng 16). Literally intended to keep a woman’s foot growing, this practice was intended to keep women weak, and to ensure that they would need their husbands to perform basic functions. While the exact date that this practice started is unknown, when the Mongols started the Yuan dynasty in 1273, it was a practice that they supported (Feng 17).  Bandages were used to keep a woman’s foot from growing past the size of a small child’s.  The physical effects included the physical death of the tissues of the foot within three years, which led to a highly unpleasant odor.  Infections ran rampant, and the balls of the feet would actually fold into the heels; toes would snap off, or crumble with gangrene.  Despite these effects, however, foot-binding continued until 1911, when the revolution of Sun Yat-sen officially ended it, but it continued even later in the rural regions of China (Hutchins).

Ba Jin (the pen name of Li Yaotang) wrote the trilogy Torrent, which was composed between 1931 and 1940, and is said to be semi-autobiographical in nature. The first of these novels was The Family; all three novels attacked the way that the traditional Chinese family structure worked, by following the particular struggles faced by one family.  The protagonist, Gao Juexin, is influenced by the May Fourth Movement to want to see the world; however, he remains at home with his multi-generational, feudal family, as tradition demands, even though his younger brothers leave home (Ba Jin:  A Centenary Literary Giant).

The May Fourth Movement, of course, was a series of student uprisings in the wake of the Treaty of Versailles.  Although the Chinese had supported the winning Allies as part of the Triple Entente, they were overshadowed by the Western Allies, who were busy deciding how to keep Germany from ever emerging as a military power again.  Japan, also an Allied power, had taken over parts of China that had been taken over by the Germans, including Shandong.  The student uprisings were spurred by the unfair peace process, and these walkouts led to general strikes all over China.  In response, the Chinese representatives in Paris rejected to sign the “Treaty of Versailles”.  What began as a movement of anger against the peace process swelled into a movement against emperors and against feudalism.  The discussion of issues occurred on a wider level than had ever happened before in the stratified history of Chinese government (Chen 1-10).

When The Family has been adapted for the stage, one of the more common symbolic details is a large, black-tiled roof that serves as curtain.  The effect of this symbol is to show the repression of emotional and physical needs that took place within each Chinese home during the imperial era of repressive family structures.  There are those who say that this era never ended:  the current policy of the Chinese government is to permit each family had one child, to bring down the population.  One unintended effect of this policy has been the near extermination of women, because so many families want a male heir (Feng 20).

The central woman in Angela’s Ashes suffers from considerable emotional damage.  Angela has suffered through life with a husband who, by and large, is indifferent to her needs, and is irresponsible. Their family began through an unplanned pregnancy:  six children later, she assumes the “role of bearer of children, but the word love is never heard from her or in the family.”  Despite this lack of affection, the deaths of three of her six children appear to affect her significantly, because she begins to loser her grip on reality.

Ultimately, the cult of domesticity becomes a deadly trap for women in these novels. Angela in McCourt’s Angela Ashes is doomed to a role of raising a family in an environment devoid of home, even of basic necessities. In The Family, women were imprisoned by their obligation to take care of male – while this obligation is colored by the fact that they love him, it still remains a chain around them.

The primary contrast between the two stories involves the eventual fate of the protagonist.  Frank McCourt eventually returned to the United States at the age of nineteen, and found success. This was not due to any assistance from his family:  he had to work at odd jobs to get the fare over to America. Despite this, however, he remembers his childhood “without anger and with so much tolerance, forgiveness and understanding” (West 29).  The Family, however, was written in the context of the May Fourth Movement, in 1919, by Ba Jin, a noted opponent of the brutal repression associated with the imperialist (and later Communist) governments in China.

McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes serves to express the brutal results of unfair gender roles, and how those roles take young, vibrant women and leave them as husks of their former selves, completely shriven of their ideals about love that had given them hope in their younger years.  The Family depicts family structures rife with repression. Much like the bound feet of the women of pre-modern China, the hopes and dreams of many young people, particularly women, struggle within similarly tight bandages, with similar psychological results on the children of China. Both authors artfully utilize a wealth of rhetorical devices to make their arguments richer, deeper, and ultimately more gripping.

Works Cited

Chen, Joseph T. The May Fourth Movement in Shanghai: The Making of a Social Movement in Modern China. Brill Archive, 1971. Print.

China Daily. Ba Jin:  a Centenary Literary Giant. October 2005.  Web

Feng, Jin. The new Woman in Early Twentieth-Century Chinese Fiction. Purdue University Press, 2004. Print.

Hutchins, Candace.  Chinese foot binding. Heyoka Magazine. Web.

McCourt, Frank.  Angela’s Ashes.  New York:  Scribner, 1996. Print.

Yanfan, Qi. “The empire of the ancestors – the family, past and present in ancient China.” UNESCO Courier, July 1989. Web

West, Clare. Originals With Key: Classic and Modern Fiction and Non-Fiction in English. Cambridge University Press, 2010. Print.

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