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The Maids

Jean Genet

Part Four: From after the doorbell rings until Madame leaves

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

Part Five: From after Madame leaves until the maids go to the kitchen

Summary

After the doorbell rings, Claire and Solange scramble to prepare for Madame's entrance. Solange says they need to put ten pills in her tea, and Claire agrees to do it. They both leave the bedroom, and a moment later, the extravagantly dressed Madame enters with Solange behind. Madame laughs at the cheap flowers she saw wherever she was. As Solange helps her with her coat, Madame explains that she managed to see Monsieur briefly from a distance where she was. Told Claire is preparing her tea, she says she is ashamed to ask for tea when Monsieur is alone without any amenities. Solange says they will not keep him long, as his innocence will be proven. Madame pledges her devotion to him, vowing never to desert him, and says that she would even become his accomplice were he found guilty. She says the affair has brought out her deeper feelings for him, and would even break him out of prison, using her "weapons" against the guards. When Solange tells her she should not have such ideas and must rest, Madame accuses Solange of pampering her like an invalid. Her venom grows, and she lashes out at Solange for her stifling sweetness. She quickly apologizes, blaming her rage on her condition. She then calls herself old, and says she is thinking of going into mourning, unable to lead a worldly life with her husband imprisoned. When she suggests the maids may leave her, Solange promises never to abandon her. Madame asks if they have been unhappy with her, and reminds her that she gave them whatever they needed, and says she is through with her excessive life.

Claire enters with the tea. Madame continues to disavow her lifestyle, and says the sisters will inherit it. She gives Claire the red dress Claire previously wore. Claire says it is too beautiful to wear. Madame gives Solange a fur cape, to her shocked delight. Madame refuses their thanks, as making others happy is reward enough, and spots the telephone off the hook. Claire says it was Monsieur, but stops short. After Madame presses, Solange says they wanted to keep it as a surprise, and reveals that Monsieur is free and waiting for her at the Hong-Kong Bar. In a flurry, Madame orders Solange to get her a taxi and Claire to get her furs ready. She laments that the tea will be cold, and asks Claire what Monsieur said. After Claire informs her of a few things, Madame spots make-up on Claire. Though Claire is embarrassed, Madame finds it amusing, thinking Claire has a crush on somebody. She applauds Claire's effort and puts a flower in her hair, and asks where Solange is with the taxi. Claire says she will heat up the tea, but Madame says she and Monsieur will drink champagne out tonight, and tells her to go to bed. She sees the alarm clock and asks why it's in the room. Claire says it comes from the kitchen, and Madame, admitting her ignorance of the culinary area, asks why Claire brought it in. Claire says Solange brought it in for cleaning, as she doesn't trust the big clock, then leaves with the clock.

Madame finds this odd, and wonders why Solange is taking so long, but looks at herself in the mirror and starts critiquing her aging appearance. Still, she is happy about Monsieur's return, and about the way the maids worship her, but finds their mediocre housekeeping a mixture of luxury and filth. Claire comes in and hears the last bit, and asks if Madam is unhappy with their work. Madame laughs it off, and wonders who sent the letters to the police. She asks Claire if she has any idea; Claire says "Does Madame mean?" Madame says she is simply curious, and feels worn down by the whole process. Claire assures her it is all over, but Madame is still piqued by the letters, Solange's delay, and the sisters' not telling her Monsieur had called. Claire says they were afraid of shocking her, and Madame praises their caution, saying they are "quietly killing" her with flowers and kindness, and that one day she will be found dead beneath the roses. She asks Claire's opinion about her hair, and Claire suggests an alteration that pleases Madame. She praises Claire's sensitivity and says she was meant for "better things," and says she understands that it is hard to live with "them," but at least she has her sister. Madame hears the car, and Claire urges her to have some tea because of the cold. Madame laughingly says she is trying to kill her with "your tea." Claire insists, but Solange runs in, pushes Claire aside, and says the taxi is finally ready. Madame leaves and tells Claire to close the door behind her.

Analysis

The play's conflict grows when Madame is truly generous to the maids, even satisfying Claire's previous fantasy with the red dress and sincerely gratifying her ego. But just when the audience begins to doubt the maids' opinion of her, Madame quickly takes back the furs she bequeathed to Solange. Madame's altruism is an occasional benefit for charity she produces to make herself feel better. Her wealth allows her these whims and even her sense of upper-class shame contrasts with the maids'. Madame's shame stems from guilty excess, as she feels guilty about getting tea when her husband is in prison, and not from deprivation. Even her "weak" values, then, do not conform to Nietzsche's reactive slave morality, but are active—she brings the guilt, one borne from her wealth, upon herself, whereas the maids have virtually no choice but to feel ashamed over their lower positions. Her lack of real shame emerges when she smilingly declares that she is a "stranger" in the kitchen, while the maids are its "sovereigns." The very wording—"stranger" and "sovereign"—suggest the Other and aristocracy. The regular meaning is flipped, in that Madame is the Other and the maids are the aristocracy for the servile task of cooking. Madame would not own up to this so willingly were she truly ashamed at her Otherness. Again, it is a shame of excess, hardly as devastating as a shame of poverty. The only real shame she displays, in fact, is when she pities her age and virtual widowhood, showing that she is even more hemmed in by the patriarchal society than the maids. Their dependence on their man, Mario, is minimal compared to the havoc Monsieur's absence wreaks on Madame.

The audience now also has reason to believe that Madame's love for her husband is suspect. She is unhealthily dependent on him for her self-esteem, as when she coquettishly implies that her sexual "weapons" would free him from prison, which suggests that she is aroused mostly by his criminality. She says she would do what the sisters fantasized about, and flee with her felonious lover to Devil's Island. With this, Genet throws out another unexpected whirligig, showing that the boundary between the maids and Madame is more porous than one might assume. Madame is even jealous, it seems, about the maids' more advanced knowledge of crime, garnered through reading crime news and stories but also, she probably assumes, by their association with the lower social spectrum.

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