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The Maids

Jean Genet

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Analysis of Major Characters

Part One: From beginning until alarm clock rings

Themes

Illusion as a Reaction Against Authority

The Maids is filled with illusions created by the maids as a way to combat their oppressive circumstances. They feel ashamed and dirty because of their poverty, and act out elaborate role-plays in which Claire fulfills her dreams of wealth and prestige by playing the haughty Madame and Solange satisfies her desire to prove herself worthy as a maid by beating down Madame. They employ cutting insults and even resort to physical violence in their "ceremony," the most cherished time of their day. The illusions they craft are so powerful, they confuse both sisters as to their reality—Claire several times refers to Solange as "Claire," and in Solange's final monologue she plays and addresses a dizzying array of characters. Their role-play is far from the only illusion they engage. There are numerous references to the theater, and Solange vicariously revels in Claire's escapist stories, and even Madame fantasizes about her criminal escape with Monsieur.

It seems obvious enough that the maids play out these illusory roles to give them more power as each sadistically reduces her sister before her eyes. Claire, as Madame, feels elevated above her real position as a maid, and Solange can cut the fake Madame down to size. While Claire is generally quick to defend Madame, as she is her favorite, even she admits, when Solange professes her love for Claire-as-Madame, that it is "As one loves a mistress." They both know that love for an authority figure is tempered by hatred. They aim to please mostly out of fear, and they resent their employer for her higher standing. On the other hand, their love for each other is impure, as well—Solange even declares that love betweens "slaves" is not love. In The Genealogy of Morals, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche conceived of the "slave morality." He posited that the oppressed are always reactive, and their values are accordingly weaker, while the ruling class actively controls their destiny with stronger values. Controversy over Nietzsche's idea notwithstanding, it appears that Genet confirms them in The Maids. Both Claire and Solange recognize that they are slaves, that any victory for Madame is a defeat for them, and that true love between them is not possible. Claire and Solange's sadistic impulses in their role-play, then, is offset by another characteristic—masochism. Part and parcel with hurling insults is receiving them, since take turns playing the dominant and submissive roles. But reception of the insults is as pleasurable an experience as doling them out—Solange gets physically aroused at one point and nears a virtual orgasm. This masochism stems logically from deep self- loathing in the face of Madame's superiority. Both sisters repeatedly denounce themselves as much as they deplore Madame. The sado-masochistic reaction to authority is evident when Solange impersonates a horse and then a rider in her final role-play with Solange. She says she is going to "whinny" with joy as Claire prepares to insult her, then when it is over, strikes Claire with a riding whip. In this illusion, and in all that they fashioned, both submission to authority and the assimilation of it creates the escapist world the two maids need. Their slave morality disappears, at least partially. While their self- loathing slavishness is confirmed with their submission, they also get their required dosage of authoritarian dominance. It makes sense that Claire always plays the dominant role first, and Solange follows. Claire is already the higher-up; even the later insults carry with them a thrill of being insulted as royalty. Solange bears the brunt of insults while knowing that soon she will overturn them, still as the maid. The transaction forms a chiasmus, a literary term for a crossing of two rhetorical or narrative lines. The authoritarian Claire ends up as a submissive Madame, while slavish Solange ends up as a dominant maid. The only hitch in this equal crossing is that, as Solange complains about at the end of their first-role play, they sometimes have to finish early—before Solange can dominate. The illusion can only last so long before reality takes it proper place, before the theatrical curtain is drawn and the story ends.

THEMES Otherness and whirligigs /THEMES

In his introduction to The Maids and Deathwatch, another Genet play, French Existentialist and fellow Theatre of the Absurdist Jean-Paul Sartre argues that both maids are "Others," defined by their opposition to societal convention. Not only are they Others to Madame, however, but they are Others to themselves. Each sister plays the role of the other sister, as evidenced by the many times Claire calls Solange "Claire." Each maid is so defined by her sister that she cannot separate the two of them. Note Solange's announcement, as she holds up a mirror, that she and Claire are "merged" in their hatred of Madame. This comment comes on the heels of her declaration of the importance of boundaries between her and Claire, and her contradiction follows a specific logic, according to Sartre. He posits that their identities follow the course of a "whirligig." That is, they alter positions in a circular pattern, the first sister adapting herself to the second sister's behavior until the second then adapts herself newly to the first, and so on. Aside from the momentous shifts of dominance and submission, note the ways they flip-flop more specific attitudes; Solange at first hates filth and especially the filth spread between the maids, for instance, but later Claire is repulsed by Solange's mixing her hairpins and "muck" with her own.

At one point, Claire calls Solange a "bungler," but Solange mishears it as "burglar." The pun is not accidental. Genet was falsely accused of theft when he was a child, and he thereafter resolved to become a real thief. He believed that since society had disowned him, he would disown society. The maids are thieves, too, but their use of Madame's possessions is less important than their major role-playing theft of her identity. Just as Genet, a homosexual and a thief, was stamped with several labels of Otherness, the maids are also poor, filthy, and thieves. They are outcasts, and they have a reminder of that alienation every time they see each other. Claire brings up an intriguing image when she describes Solange as her own "image thrown back at me by a mirror, like a bad smell." The image transforms into a smell on the way back, and the two sensory levels capture the essence of Otherness: one already has a self-image of difference, of alienation from society, and when that image is put in contrast with someone else, the image is distorted even more. When Claire sees a fellow Other who is just like her, it makes that secondary image that much more painful—it turns it into a bad smell.

Genet does not leave Madame out of the Otherness equation. She wants to be an Other, as she is restricted by the patriarchal society. Without her husband, Madame feels alone and vulnerable. She fantasizes about breaking her husband out of prison with her sexual wiles and fleeing France with him. While she remains dependent on her husband in these fantasies, her Otherness is arousing enough. She even seems jealous when the maids demonstrate their superior knowledge of crime and police procedures. Genet even plants a whirligig in her relationship with the maids. In Madame's fantasy, she and Monsieur flee to Devil's Island—where Claire wrote about and Solange earlier fantasized about fleeing to with her own criminal. At any rate, Otherness seeps into the maids' lives so much that in Solange's final monologue, it is difficult to determine which character she is portraying or addressing. At this point, she is an Other even from herself.

Self-conscious theatricality

Genet wrote in his novel Our Lady of the Flowers, written before his plays, that if he wrote a play with female roles, he would place boys in the parts, and would set up a placard next to the stage to call the audience's attention to the Shakespearean device. His point is clear—that in a play about illusions, a secondary illusion (boys playing women) returns the artificiality to the real, albeit a self-conscious real (the placard). This self-conscious reality undermines the maids' attempts to cloud their lives over with illusion. Claire often feels that someone is watching them and that something is recording their gestures—i.e., the audience and the written text of the play—and Solange say they are performing for God in their "last act." Solange's final monologue blurs the lines between the illusory and the real; as The Maids winds down, she imagines Madame and Monsieur attending a play which has just ended. Self-consciousness was a major technique of the Absurdist playwrights, and without too many wink-and-nudge moments, as Samuel Beckett used, Genet exploited the form to great effect.

Filth

"Claire" means "clear" in French; "sol" (from "Solange") means "dirt." Although Claire aspires to nobility more than her sister, painting herself with make-up and the like, Solange, for the most part, has a greater repulsion from dirt. She bitterly says Madame loves them like her bidet or toilet-seat. She can't stand the filth of their garret and, referring to herself and Claire, quips "Filth doesn't love filth." She is a maid, whose job it is to clean up filth, so filth throughout the play serves as a reminder of her slavishness, of her shame, and of her poverty.

Red velvet dress

When Claire and Solange argue about which dress Claire will wear as the fake Madame, Solange makes her wear a red velvet dress. Later, in a temporary altruistic mood, Madame bequeaths the red dress to Claire. It becomes Claire's status symbol, an aristocratic cloth. But at the end of the play, in her monologue about the end of another play, Solange says the attendant is drawing the red velvet curtain. Throughout The Maids, as well, the sisters constantly draw curtains in Madame's bedroom. The dress suddenly symbolizes a theater curtain and a passport to an illusory world on-stage. Were she not dead at play's end, one suspects that, just as she took back the furs she gave to Solange, Madame would also recall her dress from Claire's wardrobe. The illusion is only a temporary veil over reality, and the theatre curtain will be drawn at the end of the play.

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