The Double Lives of Servants: A Comparison and Contrast Between the Representation of Servants in Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts and Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy

February 11, 2019 by Essay Writer

In her novel Between the Acts, Virginia Wolf explores the dichotomy that arises when two entirely separate social classes live under one roof together. Likewise, Jamaica Kincaid gives an intimate portrayal of a young au pair working in a wealthy, white household. Though the two authors differ greatly in the use of servants in their novels, many of their ideas about servants’ roles in society are similar. Even though the servants in Woolf’s novel are, for the most part, secondary characters, Woolf hints at their importance by using words and phrases suggestive of the servants equality, perhaps even superiority, over the main characters. Kincaid does not bother with subtlety in showing how her servant character Lucy is vastly superior to the people for whom she works. In both books, the authors use careful diction, imagery and symbolism to portray their ideas about servants. For purposes of clarity and length this essay will solely focus on comparing and contrasting the following passages: Pages 31-34 in Between the Acts and pages 32-33 and 58 in Lucy .In the passage from Between the Acts, Woolf’s diction gives the reader information on the position of servants in the household. Firstly, Woolf declines to give the reader the real name of “Mitchell’s boy”, indicating that his fleeting existence in and out of the household (as well as in and out of the novel), is not important, even though his real name was written in the “Doomsday Book” (31), a book of antiquity that listed family names. Woolf’s omission of Mitchell’s boy’s name is contrasted by the list that follows of three family names “Waythorn, Roddam, and Pyeminster”, all of which are also in the Doomsday book. The implication of listing these names while leaving out the real name of Mitchell’s boy is that even though the Mitchell’s boy’s name is in the Doomsday book along with the others, his name no longer retains importance because he is a servant. While the other three names are of wealthy families who get fresh fish delivered from one hundred miles away, Mitchell’s boy is simply the means by which these wealthy families get their fish, and therefore his name is not important. By telling the reader that Mitchell’s boy’s name and the other three names were all in the Doomsday Book, Woolf is suggesting that all four names have some sort of equality, at least in terms of the “oldness” of their names. The longevity of a name holds no power for those who are presently servants, yet it is a nice accouterment for the wealthy, for they can brag that their wealth is a result of their old name.As a final thrust to this argument, Woolf writes “The cook – Mrs. Sands she was called, but by old friends Trixie-had never in all her fifty years been over the hill, nor wanted to.” The reversal of calling a servant “Mrs. Sands” when her old friends know her as Trixie suggests that Mrs. Sands has resorted to her more refined name so that she may earn the respect of her employers, who place great importance on names. Woolf does not state specifically whether Mrs. Sands’ name is in the Doomsday Book or not, but either way, Mrs. Sands is a woman who has completely morphed into her role as a servant in that she seems completely uninterested in the world beyond her kitchen. Unlike Mitchell’s boy, Mrs. Sands has never traveled over the nearest hill, nor has she any desire to do so. In this way she provides a great contrast to Mrs. Swithin, who is always daydreaming about some far away place or time.Another example of how Woolf’s word/name choice reflects the role of servants is Woolf’s description of the metamorphous of the name of the “very fine yellow cat who rose majestically from the basket chair and advanced superbly to the table” (32). The name of the cat changes depending on whether it is located in the drawing-room, where it is called Sung-Yen, or in the kitchen, where it is called Sunny. Even though it is not directly stated, the implication of this metamorphous is that the family calls the cat Sung-Yen, while the servants call it Sunny; this is an inference that the reader draws just by the contrasting purposes of the drawing room and the kitchen. In other words the servants are not very likely to spend much time in the drawing room (unless cleaning it) and the family is not likely to spend time in the kitchen, for the servants prepare all the food. Ironically, it is Mrs. Swithin who notes that, “Next to the kitchen the library’s always the nicest room in the house” even though it is probable that Mrs. Swithin spends far less time in the kitchen than the servants.More interestingly are the symbolic meanings of the names Sung-Yen and Sunny. It is important to note that Sung Yen was an emperor of a province in China in 520 AD who saw one of the regions in his control, Gandhara, invaded and destroyed by the White Huns. The Huns “virtually expiated Buddhism, had destroyed monasteries and had slashed most of the population of Gandhara” (Marx). This information is important for several reasons. Firstly, it draws a parallel between the Huns destroying a Buddhist civilization and the Nazi invasion of Britain in the early 1940s, the time period in which Woolf wrote Between the Acts. The Huns, like the Nazis, are infamous in history for their brutal and savage methods of war. Secondly, the “very fine yellow cat” can be interpreted to mean an Asian emperor, as yellow is often a term used by Western peoples, sometimes derivatively, to describe the Asian race.The fact that the cat is called Sung Yen when it is in the vicinity of the drawing room also emphasizes an earlier scene in the novel, in which Woolf writes “Many old men only had their India” (18), implying that the men in the house read books about the far east to escape into a romantic, Orientalist fantasy. This fantasy has manifested itself in the naming of the cat after an emperor who saw the downfall of his civilization. The irony of this is that while the men are dreaming of the fantastic and romantic stories of ancient gory battles and the lost civilizations of China, their own present civilization is on the verge of collapsing in a very unromantic, unexotic way to the Nazis. When Woolf adds later that the “chapel had become a larder, changing, like the cat’s name, as religion changed” (32) she adds the Protestant Reformation as another example of one society conquering another.Meanwhile, the servants in the kitchen see that the cat is yellow and therefore call him “Sunny” which makes much more sense to them than Sung-Yen since they most likely have never read any literature about ancient China. And it can also be inferred that just as the servants have turned a chapel into a larder, they have taken a name full of symbolic and historic meaning and turned it into something childishly simple. (This is also the case on page 32 when the servants take all of the glamour and respect out of the name “Master” by calling him “Bartie” in the kitchen, and the fact that they call Mrs. Sands “Trixie”). In this way Woolf shows that the servants are much more practical people than the family for which they work; Sunny is a much more common-sense name for a yellow cat than a name derived from an obscure Chinese emperor that lived over 1500 years ago. The name “Sunny” also implies that the servants, though their lives contain more tangible hardships, are actually more carefree about their situations than the members of the family. Even though the family members do not have to work (nor do they seem to do anything except read and put on pageants) they create their own hardships by pining for a fictitious, romantic past and brooding over the present. Perhaps this is because if the Nazis, like the Huns, were to destroy British civilization, the servants would have the least to lose, whereas the nobility, like the emperor Sung Yen, would lose their long maintained superiority.Another example that shows Woolf’s ability to subtly reflect the roles of servants through her diction and imagery is when Mrs. Swithin enters the kitchen to help Mrs. Sands prepare the sandwiches (34). Woolf writes “Mrs. Sands fetched bread; Mrs. Swithin fetched ham” and in this way reflects the social status of each woman; the servants eat bread while the wealthy can afford pricey meats. At first it seems that Mrs. Swithin is being generous by helping the cook prepare the sandwiches, but then Woolf lets the reader know that while the women performed this “handiwork together” the cook is the only one who is really working. While the “cook’s hands cut, cut, cut” Mrs. Swithin daydreams about bread, yeast, alcohol, Bacchus, and a youthful romantic encounter “under purple lamps in a vineyard in Italy”. Once again, Woolf shows the practicality of the servant and the flightiness of the master. Woolf continues this idea until it seems that not only are the servants more practical than their masters, but they are also somewhat superior in intelligence, at least in common sense intelligence. Woolf writes “In the kitchen they humored old Mother Swithin’s fancies”. This suggests that instead of the masters looking after the servants, the exact opposite is true; Mrs. Sands looks upon Mrs. Swithin as sort of a childlike figure, who must be humored and not taken seriously. Even though Woolf makes it clear that Mrs. Sands understands her place (as demonstrated when Mrs. Sands says her nephew has been doing “what boys shouldn’t; cheeking the master”) the reader can interpret the entire scene as evidence that in many ways the servants of the household are stronger and more intelligent than their masters.In her novel, Lucy, Jamaica Kincaid uses tactics similar to Woolf’s to come to a similar conclusion that servants often excel their masters at perceiving reality. The main difference between the servants in Woolf’s novel and Kincaid’s character Lucy is that while the servants play a secondary part in Between the Acts, Lucy is the main character throughout Kincaid’s novel. Instead of relying on intermittent scenes to infer the author’s thoughts on servants as the reader must do in Woolf’s work, Kincaid allows the reader to directly experience the life of the traditionally secondary character. In other words, Between the Acts is a book about the type of people represented by Mariah and Lewis in Lucy, whereas Lucy is a book that focuses on the character represented by Mrs. Sands in Woolf’s novel.By giving the reader the perspective of the servant Kincaid is able to highlight the intricacies of society that often go unnoticed by non-servants. Kincaid writes “The other people sitting down to eat dinner all looked like Mariah’s relatives; the people waiting on them all looked like mine” (32). This statement points out something that is obvious yet overlooked; it is clear that everyone sitting at the table is white and that everyone serving them is black, yet Lucy is the only one that seems to notice this, or think about it. Even though it is clear to everyone in the scene that the whites are eating dinner while the blacks are serving them, the people at the table seem to have never thought about this; for them it is a way of living that is unquestioned. As children, it is possible that they had an au pair like Lucy that subconsciously taught them that black people were their servants. And as for the black servants that Lucy observes as well, they too seem unquestioning of their position. Lucy describes them as “very dignified, as if they were just emerging from a church after Sunday service”. But whether the other black servants, like Lucy, are consciously thinking about the separation of whites and blacks in the room or not, their dignity, in addition to Lucy’s lucidity in sizing up the situation is a testament to Kincaid’s positioning of servants as equal to, perhaps even superior to, their masters.Lucy’s realization of racial segregation in the dining room, however, is not a realization that she is just like the other servants because of her color. Kincaid writes “On closer observation, they were not at all like my relatives, they only looked like them. My relatives gave backchat”. Lucy’s distinction between the servants and her relatives is an important one because it shows that she sees that even though she may share the same skin color as the other servants she is not necessarily like them. It is possible that Mariah and the other white diners believe that Lucy has more in common with the black servants because they look alike. Kincaid makes it clear, however, that Lucy is as different from the other black servants as she is from the white people at the table. By doing so, Kincaid also highlights one of the major themes throughout Lucy; namely that each person is unique and comes from a very specific background. Lucy does not like it when people ask her if she is from “the islands” because Lucy’s island is very specific to her, and every other island is very different from hers. Likewise, the dining room scene lets the reader know that it is wrong to believe that her race is the only thing that defines her personality, for her personality and personal experiences differ widely from those of the other servants.Another scene in which Kincaid uses Lucy’s perspective to reflect the different roles of servants is when Mariah shows Lucy the “freshly plowed fields that she loved so much” (33). In this passage Kincaid’s diction is especially reflective of the idea that servants see much more than what their masters think they see. Kincaid writes “Mariah left her own compartment” indicating the separation between where the rich white woman sleeps and where her au pair sleeps. Mariah draws up Lucia’s “blind” for her. The word blind in this context has several connotations. Firstly it suggests that Lucy can not draw the blind for herself, that Mariah must draw the blind for her, and then condescendingly “enlighten” Lucy with something Lucy had supposedly not been aware of before. Secondly it suggests that Lucy was “blind”, as in, she had no idea what beauty a plowed field could hold. As Kincaid shows the reader, Lucy is not only beyond appreciating the beauty of a field, but she also realizes what a plowed field symbolizes – the enforced slavery of millions of her ancestors. Mariah is unaware of this symbolism; she is only able to see the beauty of the freshly plowed fields. This episode intensifies the feeling throughout the book that the most naive characters are the masters while the servants have a much sharper perception.Perhaps the passage that reflects Lucy’s role as a servant most poignantly in Kincaid’s novel is the one in which Lucy describes what Dinah thinks of her (58). This passage directly states that while others view Lucy as a kind of sub-human entity, she intelligently dissects who they are, and what they want. Kincaid writes “To a person like Dinah, someone in my position is Œthe girl’ – as in Œthe girl who takes care of the children'”. By showing Dinah’s refusal to give Lucy her own specific name, Kincaid echoes the theme that people like Dinah are able to ignore disturbing thoughts (such as a servant being more intelligent than her master) by dissociating that servant from any specificity. Dinah can more easily ignore Lucy as a person if she thinks of her as “the girl who takes care of the children” instead of “Lucy”. Dinah’s refusal to acknowledge Lucy’s name is an indication that Dinah feels she is superior to Lucy in some way; after all, Dinah is “Dinah”. Yet Lucy sees that Dinah is not a specific person, but a “cliche…something I was very familiar with”. Lucy’s accurate portrayal of Dinah creates irony; Dinah is the stereotypical jealous woman, while Lucy is anything but the stereotypical servant that Dinah perceives her to be.Both Virginia Woolf and Jamaica Kincaid have elevated the roles of servants in their novels to be more than transient accoutrements to the main characters of the plot. In Woolf’s case this elevation is more subtle and its extent can only be seen by a careful analysis of her prose. In Kincaid’s novel the servant is the main character, and through relatively simple language Kincaid reveals complex intricacies in the relationships of the servant to the master. Both authors show how servants live in double worlds, the worlds of their masters, and the worlds which are uniquely their own. These worlds come alive when Woolf and Kincaid show the servants trying to balance them and transcend through the barriers that each world holds. When Woolf and Kincaid show that Mrs. Sands is also Trixie, and that “the girl who takes care of the children” is also Lucy, the reader is introduced to the complicated lives of the servants.Work CitedIrma Marx. “Gandhara School”. (14 December 2000).

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