On the threshold: Placing servants in modernist domesticity

Mary Elizabeth Wilson, University of Massachusetts Amherst


Virginia Woolf dates the beginning of modernity "In or about December, 1910," when "human character changed." This change appears first not in the writer's study, nor the cosmopolitan metropole. It begins in the servants' hall, when a cook leaves the kitchen and unexpectedly crosses the threshold to chat with her mistress in the drawing-room. This dissertation examines novels by four modernist women writers: Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Nella Larsen, and Jean Rhys. Their texts demonstrate that the influence of domesticity and domestic servants on modernist fiction both appears in the content of the novels and pervades their forms . Analyzing the depictions and deployments of domestic servants in modernist fiction reveals how the structure of modernist formal experimentation can be read as a reaction to, and as an often-uncomfortable negotiation with, those servants' still-necessary presences in the house of fiction.

A new way of engaging with modernist fiction, and particularly with modernist fiction written by women, is at stake in this study. These writers' encounters with the intersections of modernism, domesticity, and the labor of domestic servants lead to two types of structural innovations. One adopts some of the characteristics of servant labor into the shape of narrative, as seen in Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse and Stein's Three Lives . The other, which surfaces in Larsen's Passing and Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea , mirrors the central characters' myopia and paranoia about the meaning and controllability of that labor. Both of these narrative types center on representations of and control over the space of the threshold, and the concept of the threshold centers my argument. The threshold as physical and psychological space takes on a new resonance in modernism, as seemingly stable divisions within personal and national spaces begin to shift under the pressure of modernity. Attention to liminality also refocuses attention on those servant characters who open doors, who stand at and cross these crucial thresholds. All four novelists recognize and dramatize the degree to which the employer class is dependent upon the labor and the loyalty of their servants. Their formal experiments reveal how each grapples with this dependence.