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The Maids

Jean Genet

Part Three: From Monsieur's telephone call until the doorbell rings

Part Two: From after the alarm clock rings until the telephone rings

Part Four: From after the doorbell rings until Madame leaves

Summary

Claire picks up the telephone; Solange tries to listen in, but is pushed away. Claire learns from Monsieur that he has been freed from prison—the judge let him out on bail—and she promises to tell Madame. Trembling, she is unable to hang up the phone. Solange insincerely congratulates Claire on the fine job she did with the letters, and suggests they may event recognize her handwriting. Claire says Solange should have finished off Madame when she had the chance, and points out that their game, which leaves traces each time the Madame catches, endangers them. She accuses Solange of being weak, getting flustered even at the thought of Mario, but Solange defends herself—she couldn't murder her because she was so close to Madame in her sleep. Claire says she could have done it, and will.

After Solange tries to calm her, Claire maintains she is fed up, and Solange tries to assuage both their anxieties. She recognizes that she disgusts Claire, since Claire disgusts her, and concludes, "When slaves love one another, it's not love." Claire agrees, and pronounces herself ready. She will have her "crown" tonight. She says it is her turn to dominate Solange, and gives her a number of household orders. She synopsizes a few stories they have read, all about women who poisoned other people, and says that Solange will help her escape—they will be the "eternal couple of the criminal and the saint." She falls on to Madame's bed, and tells Solange to turn out the light. Solange removes Claire's shoes, kisses her feet, and caresses her. Claire says she is ashamed, but Solange hushes her and says she will put her to sleep. Claire compliments Solange's hair in sleepy murmurs, but before she drifts off, she gets up, declaring "No weakness!" She says they must eat, to be strong, and mentions the Phenobarbital, a sedative. Gaining energy, she encourages Solange to sing and laugh, then tells her to shut the window, at which points she says murder is "unspeakable." Solange fantasizes about how they will kill Madame. The doorbell rings.

Analysis

In his introduction to the play, French Existentialist philosopher and writer Jean-Paul Sartre argues that both maids are "Others," figures who are defined by their opposition to the status quo. Otherness is a term now frequently used in post-colonial theory and Queer theory, for instance. Part of this otherness, he claims, is that each sister plays the role of the other sister, that each is so defined by her sister that she assumes her identity as well. The logic of this identity-absorption does not mean that the maids become the same person, but that each follows the other in a circular "whirligig," to use Sartre's word. Just as Claire is disgusted by Solange's mixing her hairpins with hers—mixing their "muck" together—Genet mixes the sisters' personalities, making it unclear where the boundaries Solange spoke of before stand. They flip-flop their attitudes constantly: before, Solange despised filth and especially filth spread between them, but now Claire does. Before, Solange introduced the idea of boundaries between them, but also said that they had "merged" in revolt against Madame. Now Solange says she "can't stand our being so alike," her tumultuous whirligigs of identity fully supporting Sartre's idea. Most saliently, Solange was previously the ruthless, powerful one, but now, threatened by the possibility of being caught for her letter, Claire becomes the dominant sister as Solange betrays her weakness and literally kisses Claire's feet.

Claire likens Solange to her own "image thrown back at me by a mirror, like a bad smell," and the curious image she conjures up complicates Genet's brand of Otherness. While the image is exactly the same, it gets turned into a smell on the return trip. The brilliant transformation not only emphasizes the sisters' disgust toward filth, but also shows how Otherness always operates along two levels. The first person has her own image, and when the second person confirms that image, the image is also changed and reflects part of the second person. For example, a beggar only knows he is a beggar when put in opposition to someone wealthy, and the wealthy person stands not merely in opposition to the beggar, but defines the beggar in further ways. In the cracks, warts, and roughness in his hands, for instance, the beggar may see absent reflections of the wealthier person's smoother skin. This second level is all the more magnified when the two people are already mirror images and are both Others themselves, as the sisters are, since their self-loathing can skew any mirrored image. They are both beggars whose vision of another beggar makes them despite themselves even more.

Previously, the sisters had decided that love of Madame was tinged with ulterior motives, and that Madame's love of them was one of repulsion. Now, Solange defines love between slaves as "not love." In his book The Genealogy of Morals, 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche used the phrase "slave morality" to describe the weak, reactive values of the oppressed, and exalted the stronger values of the nobility who, he argued, could be active in ways slaves could not. The reactivity of the maids is apparent, even when no one is around. The three sequences so far have been demarcated by a ringing bell—the alarm clock, the telephone, and now the doorbell—and each time it excites an almost Pavlovian fear that they will be somehow discovered. Nietzsche's ideas remain controversial, aided by Adolf Hitler's exploitation of them in Nazi Germany, and some would argue that slavery fuels one's desire to break free, while the oppressor slackens with his life of ease. Genet applies Nietzsche's idea to the murky field of love and he seems to prove its validity. While hatred tinges all loves noted above, the maids' love for each other is not only hateful externally, but internally. Although the maternal love Solange exhibits to Claire at the end of this section appears genuine, when they are their true selves or playing Madame, their self-hatred dominates their slavish love. The only healthy love we have seen any evidence of so far is that between Madame and her husband—two aristocrats who own the "crown" Claire so ravenously seeks. Whether this aristocratic love is a true love has yet to be determined.

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