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The Maids

Jean Genet

Analysis of Major Characters

Character List

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Solange

Solange displays an intriguing blend of dominance and submissiveness. She is older than Claire, and one might assume that her seniority would mean she would play the role of Madame in their role-plays. But Claire does, and Solange remains the lowly maid. Solange is a masochist, and she first requires that their role-plays shatter her esteem. This is easily accomplished, since Solange is self-loathing, and all Claire needs to do is humiliate her sister by reminding her of her poverty and, notably, her filthiness. "Sol" means "dirt" in French, and the filth Solange must clean up as a maid is one of her greatest sources of shame. Solange even becomes aroused during this barrage of insults, at which point she begins to dominate Claire-as-Madame. The revenge is that much greater, for now she can feel as if she, the "slave," is superior to her mistress. Claire does not have as much of a sadistic impulse as Solange, and it helps make the elder sister the more interesting character from a psychological standpoint. Further contradictions fill out Solange's personality. She is cutthroat, beating Claire at times, but we learn she was also cowardly, unable to finish off Madame when she had the chance. She rebukes Claire for pretending to be aristocracy and dipping off into escapist reveries, but Solange, we find out, has been secretly reading Claire's fantastical crime and romance stories. Her critique of Claire's illusory life is entirely hypocritical. Aside from her own participation in the role-plays with Claire, she also launches a long monologue at the end of the play in which she acts out the dialogue surrounding a number of invented events and characters. She has too long tried to come to grips with being an "Other," an oppressed or alienated figure identified by her opposition to the status quo or ruling power, and finally breaks down and becomes everyone else. In similar fashion, she had previously warned Claire of the importance of frontiers between them, but then had proclaimed them "merged" in their hatred of Madame.

One other main detail of Solange's life explains much of her character. Early in the play, Claire chastises Solange for not yet being impregnated by Mario—most likely, it is part of some devious scheme of theirs and not an attempt to bring to life a love child. Later, Solange violently tells Claire that she has performed painful abortions on herself so she could continue taking care of her younger sister. The revelation is not irrelevant, and at a few points in the play, Solange is a maternal figure to the child-like Claire. Deprived of a real child, she compensates with her fixation on Claire, and one can read the shifts of power between them as a kind of tempestuous mother- daughter dynamic.

Claire

Claire is more open than her sister is in her hatred of her poverty. While Solange usually focuses her aggression on resenting Madame, Claire wants to be Madame. She lives as much as she can in a fantasy world, penning escapist romance stories, strolling about Madame's balcony at night as if she were royalty, and playing Madame in her role-plays with Solange. She tries to forget her filthy occupation—"Claire" means "clear" in French—and she seems to resent Solange, who reminds her of her filth, more than she resents Madame. Her pleasure in the role-plays results from humiliating her sister, and her sadistic insults revolve around her loathing of servants. She says that Solange is like her own "image thrown back at me by a mirror, like a bad smell," and the transformation present in the phrase—from an image to a smell—captures the essence of Otherness which Claire hates. The "Other" is defined by having a marginalized opposition to the status quo, and in the comparison the Other not only sees herself differently, but integrates her view of the status quo into her identity. In other words, a beggar not only looks at what he is, but through comparing himself with a rich person, sees what he is not. The problem for Claire is that both she and Solange are Others, and she often changes her personality in what Jean-Paul Sartre calls "whirligigs." The sisters revolve in circles, adapting parts of the other's personality, and we can see this mostly in their changing power dynamics. The whirligigs overtake them, Claire especially, and Claire often even calls Solange "Claire."

Claire's whirligigs also impact her attitude toward Madame. Favored by her mistress, Claire is quick to defend her against Solange's verbal attacks, insisting she is kind and loving. But as the play wears on Claire expresses her rage against the Madame with even more venom than Solange. Unlike Solange, who cowardly backed out of the murder, Claire is willfully ruthless and tries her hardest to get Madame to drink the poisoned tea. Her rash nature is also at stake here and Solange has to come in to save Claire from giving away the plot. In addition, Claire's illusory is life constantly undercut by her self- consciousness—she often feels someone is watching her and Solange or recording their gestures. These anxieties are, above all, a theatrical self- consciousness. She understands that an audience is watching them and that a writer scripted out their actions. Her cherished red velvet dress, which she initially disdained, becomes a symbol of the theater, as it is made out of the same material as the theater curtain Solange imagines in her final monologue. Just as Claire cannot keep up the illusion for too long, dying in the poisonous manner she prescribed for Madame, the theater will draw its curtains when the on-stage fantasy has ended.

Madame

Madame is not as merciless as the maids paint her to be, but she is not altogether kind, either. While she favors Claire, whom she thinks was fit for better things, she lashes out at Solange and thoughtlessly takes back her gift to Solange. Whatever guilt or shame she has is minimal; she feels guilty over having tea when Monsieur is in prison, and she feels mildly ashamed for not knowing her way around the kitchen—an indictment that only affirms her wealth. Madame would not be out of place in modern-day America as a trophy wife who sets up fund-raisers to make herself feel better—she admits that giving to others is pleasurable, showing that her altruism is mostly self-directed. Like a trophy wife, imprisoned by her husband, and having few skills of her own, Madame dreams of independence. She fantasizes about breaking into Monsieur's prison with her sexuality as a weapon and fleeing France with him. While she remains dependent on her husband in these fantasies, her imaginary "descent" into a criminal lifestyle is arousing. She is even jealously shocked when the maids demonstrate their superior knowledge of crime.

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