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The Maids

Jean Genet

Study Questions and Essay Topics

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Quiz

Study Questions

What are the effects of Solange's fantasy of a play's ending at the end of The Maids? Consider this with respect to other instances of self- consciousness in the play.

The Maids is a self-conscious play, often drawing attention to its theatricality. Genet even wrote in his early novel Our Lady of the Flowers that if he were to write a play with female roles, he would have young boys play them, and place a placard next to the stage to call the audience's attention to their gender. Much of Genet's work focused on the themes of illusion and artificiality. For the theater, the most artificial of the three main literary forms, in that it presents scripted action on-stage as "reality," whereas textual media allow the reader to imagine the words unfolding. Another level of illusion—boys playing women—sends the artificiality to a second level. This second level of artifice somehow returns the play to a greater depth of realism. The self-conscious placard grounds the audience in their reality by forcing them to recognize the on-stage illusion.

The maids' self-consciousness often undermines their own ability to create illusion. Claire worries that someone is watching them and that something is recording their gestures. In other words, the audience and the written text of the play, respectively, and Solange declares they are performing for God in their "last act." Solange connects the illusory world even more strongly with the real world when she imagines the end of a play Madame is attending at the end of The Maids. The fantasy is first a comment on Madame's lavish, cultural lifestyle, as she departs the theater and leaves in a car with the "charming" Monsieur. But Solange also gives more revealing details in her monologue, itself a theatrical tour de force—she acts as different characters, writes virtual dialogue, and narrates the action. She says the attendant draws the red velvet curtain, and this material recalls the red velvet dress she made Claire wear at the beginning of the play, which Madame eventually gave to Claire. Just as the theater curtain is the boundary between illusion and reality, so is the dress for the maids. When she wears it, Claire is given temporary respite from her dreary reality and is transformed into aristocracy. The illusion, however, is fleeting. She could only wear the dress a short time before Madame returned, and were Claire not dead at the end, Madame would have most likely withdrawn her gift, as she did with the furs she gave to Solange. The theater curtain, too, must close at the end of a performance, and the illusion of theater ends for the audience of The Maids as the illusion has ended for the poisoned Claire. We suspect that the illusion will end for Solange soon after she realizes what she has done.

Discuss eroticism in The Maids. What usually arouses the different character, and where are the exceptions?

The most salient moment of arousal occurs when Claire insults Solange in their final role-play. Solange's urgings of "Go on!" and "I'm getting there!" echo an orgasmic approach made possible by her masochistic need to be humiliated and abused. Before the role-play started, she says she cannot stand the shame any longer, and that she's "shuddering with pleasure" and is going to "whinny" joyfully. Her choice of words is key. Part of this orgasmic pleasure is being dominated and ridden, as it were, as if she were a whinnying horse. Then, when she plays the dominant role, she grabs a riding whip and strikes Claire with it. She is now the rider, and the masochistic brutality she endured earlier make her sadistic reversal that much sweeter. Her transformation goes beyond species—she chides the supine Claire for groveling at a "man's feet," and says she will "marry" her standing up, possibly implying a rape.

The sisters show near-erotic affection toward each other in less graphic ways, as well. Solange sometimes holds a deeply maternal instinct for Claire that verges on the incestuous. As she comforts her little sister, Claire murmurs how beautiful Solange is, a compliment Solange sometimes returns during their role- plays. Their jealousy over Mario, however, splits them apart. Each sister wants to feel as if he has chosen her over her sister, and Claire, especially, uses him as a pawn to inflame Solange. Finally, Madame also exhibits some arousal when she fantasizes about using her "weapons" against the prison guards that hold Monsieur. Thoughts of poverty and criminality provoke her latent sexuality, a world the maids already know intimately.

How does dependency function in The Maids? Think particularly about the maids as slaves and Madame as their master.

Claire and Solange, as self-proclaimed slaves, are dependent on Madame as well as on each other. Without the other, the fantasies of each would take form only in reading or mental escapes, as opposed to the physical, realistic role-plays they enact. Solange's status as the elder sister also makes a co- dependent relationship possible. Solange performs her maternal duties when Claire works herself into a frenzied exhaustion. Just as Claire really does depend on Solange, Solange needs to ensure Claire's dependency. Their dependency on Madame, on the other hand, is a complex paradox. If Madame did not exist, or if she were completely kind to the maids, they would not feel so humiliated and would not have a vent for their oppression, since, as maids, they would feel oppressed somehow simply because of their low income. They depend on Madame to flaunt her superiority, even though it contributes to their sense of shame.

But the master also has weaknesses. Madame fears the maids will desert her, and even though Solange says that Madame loves them as she loves a bidet or toilet- seat, one is still dependent on these debased objects, however repulsive they may be. Moreover, she is highly vulnerable without Monsieur. Without him, she feels old and wants to go into mourning. Everyone, even Monsieur, who has been jailed, is a dependent slave at some point in The Maids.

Suggested Essay Topics

Before settling on Madame, why does Solange shift between Claire and Madame in her identification of the murder victim in her final monologue?

Discuss the importance of props and the set in the play—the clothing and the apron; the alarm clock, telephone, and doorbell; the tea set; the mirror; the riding whip; the balcony; the curtains; and the garret (not seen).

Discuss how Genet's life—especially as a homosexual and a thief—informs The Maids.

Near the end of the play, Solange remonstrates her sister for wanting to pray, thus bringing God or, worse, the "Mother" of God, into their murderous plot. What do the other references to God say about the sisters?

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