When Objects Attack!: Struggling with Domesticity

When I’m living on my own, my house is very often a disaster. I only have a limited amount of time and energy, and for me, making sure that I fulfill my teaching and other life responsibilities is more important than whether or not my house is in order. No one except my fiance and family is allowed to visit my house, and I go through cycles of feeling bad or guilty about truly how much of a disaster my house can be at times (I generally cycle from mildly remorseful to downright mortified).

But this is not (entirely) a post about my housecleaning guilt. Instead, what I’ve been pondering is the way that women often end up very emotionally tied to their domestic spaces. For many women, their house (and the state of their house) is very much connected with both their general emotional state and how they see themselves as women (as was evidenced by the uproar over President Beck’s talk in GC last year).

“The Room of My Life” by Anne Sexton and “It’s Shaped Like a Fork” by Olena Kalytiak Davis represent the relationship between women’s houses and individual identity. These poems both portray distressing domestic scenes, but they are not about the stresses of housecleaning; instead, Davis and Sexton represent their emotional experiences through domestic objects.

Davis begins her poem,

This house is a mess. Full
of solid notions
that keep turning into objects:
this simple sadness
that’s shaped like a fork
and the vague fear that crusts
these dishes.

While in Davis’ poem, negative emotions merely coalesce into domestic imagery, in Sexton’s poem, the objects turn violent:

the lights
poking at me,
light up both the soil and the laugh.
The windows, the starving windows
that drive the trees like nails into my heart.

What interests me about these poems is that the women are not talking about the stresses of housecleaning. Instead, they are talking about the negative emotion in their lives, and they represent this emotion through domestic objects. The poems use the following formula: my house is my identity, and the objects are my emotions.

I also find the contrast between the two poems interesting. While in both poems, the domestic sphere is a threatening space, in the Davis poem, her house is threatening because it’s being invaded by the outside (“the things you keep carrying home from work”), and in the Sexton poem, it’s the space itself that’s threatening. We see a contrast between a woman whose interior space is being invaded by external negative influences and a woman whose interior life is going haywire on her all on its own (perhaps because of the constraints of maintaining a certain kind of order within this sphere).

As I think about these two poems, I think about my own life and the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) messages I get at church to embrace my inner domesticity. While I certainly have managed to find fulfillment in academic pursuits, and while I don’t yet have to deal with the pressures of partnership and children, there’s still a lot of tension in my life surrounding houses and interior spaces. While I’m not really the domestic type, I have a lot of emotional investment in the space that surrounds me. At home and at work, I don’t like to share spaces, I don’t like intruders in my space, etc. I don’t view the space around me in a conventionally “domestic” way, but yet it’s still a heavily invested space for me.

I’m not quite sure what sense to make of this. I can make sense of it with feminist geography–theories about masculine spaces and feminine spaces and a culture that encourages me to identify with the latter–but it surprises me every time I come home to a messy house, that the objects which I have permitted to laze about the house in various stages of disarray really do attack me with their presence in a very visceral way. On my better days (when I’m not reminding myself that God and I both prefer houses of order or that being so domestically angst-ridden is too stereotypically feminine for my taste), I attempt to adopt an optimistic, H.D.-ish approach. In her novel HERmione, H.D. repeats the phrase “Things are in people. People are in things.” in order to indicate her central female character’s innate connection with the world around her. And while this spatial and emotional connectedness is often disorienting and occasionally dangerous, Hermione manages to find a kind of freedom in living in a world filled with this kind of intense related-ness.

Now, if only those objects had smaller claws.


“It’s Shaped Like a Fork” by Olena Kalytiak Davis (from And Her Soul Out of Nothing)

This house is a mess. Full
of solid notions
that keep turning into objects:
this simple sadness
that’s shaped like a fork
and the vague fear that crusts
these dishes. I’m vacuuming
over this grass-like pain.
Emptying pockets for the wash:
such a burden: not just wrappers
but keys and mints, those sticky
and sorrow-coated stones.

And this larger grief
that always needs to be folded.

All day I’ve been chewing
on my own acrid gloom,
trying to put away
the things you keep carrying
home from work: the possessions
of children and women
and drunks, stolen or cheated,
the tasteless unhappiness
of others into jars labeled.
Heartbrea, Injustice,

From “The Room of My Life” by Anne Sexton (from The Complete Poems)

in the room of my life
the objects keep changing.
Ashtrays to cry into,
the suffering brother of the wood walls,
the forty-eight keys of the typwriter
each an eyeball that is never shut,

the lights
poking at me,
lighting up both the soil and the laugh.
The windows,
the starving windows,
that drive the trees like nails into my heart.
Each day I feed the world out there,
although birds explode
right and left,
I feed the world in here too,
offering the desk puppy biscuits.
However, nothing is just what it seems to be.
My objects dream and wear new costumes,
compelled to, it seems by all the words in my hands
and the sea that bangs in my throat.


  1. Great post, Seraphine.

    It’s telling the way we often automatically assign responsibility for domestic space and for the various objects in it. For example, if the house is a mess, it’s generally considered the woman’s fault, not her husband’s. If a single man’s apartment is messy, well, that’s only to be expected of a bachelor (in fact, too neat or well-decorated an apartment might suggest he’s insufficiently heterosexual)–but I don’t think single women get the same cultural pass.

  2. Interesting post, Seraphine. Your mention of “the way that women often end up very emotionally tied to their domestic spaces” reminded me of Susan Maushart’s experience described in Wifework of getting married and being shocked at how she immediately felt the need to take responsibility for the state of her and her husband’s house.

    Eve, that’s such a good point about who people outside at household think is responsible for mess at home. Regardless of who works outside the home or how much, it’s always the wife. This is a point my wife has made to me. If someone comes over and there’s unfolded laundry on the couch because I haven’t folded it yet, they’re not going to wonder whose turn it was to fold it. In fact, they’re extremely unlikely to consciously consider the issue at all; they’ll just jump to the conclusion that my wife is falling down on the job.

  3. Thanks, Michelle!

    Eve and Ziff, I didn’t really touch on questions of responsbility in my post, but you’re right that this is a natural extension of my ideas. I think one reason why women sometimes tie up their identity so closely with the domestic sphere is because they are inundated with messages that tell them that taking care of the family and home is their primary responsibility in life.

  4. Intriguing thoughts. Like you, I’m uneasy with letting most people into my living space–and interestingly, I find that this is true even when it’s (relatively) clean and organized. Maybe because it feels so self-revelatory, and I tend to be a pretty private person? And my space feels intensely personal, like an extension of who I am. That makes it really interesting to think of possible connections between the objects in the environment I inhabit, and my emotional life (and even my identity).


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