The Story of a Man Who Wanted to Do Housework: A Proto-Feminist Children’s Book from 1935
A visionary fable about equality delivered through a comic Rube Goldberg machine of domestic disaster.
By Maria Popova
In 1928, nearly a century before the internet cat memes reached their crescendo, pioneering artist, author, illustrator, and translator Wanda Gág won the prestigious Newbery and Lewis Carroll Shelf awards for her children’s book Millions of Cats, the oldest American picture-book still in print. But Gág’s visionary storytelling presaged social phenomena far more consequential than Buzzfeed. Her most prescient book was her penultimate one, Gone Is Gone: or the Story of a Man Who Wanted to Do Housework (public library) — a proto-feminist story published in 1935, two decades before the second wave of feminism and more than 75 years before Lean In.
Gág, who inspired beloved artists like Maurice Sendak and who did for picture-books what Nellie Bly did for journalism, tells an old fable-like story relayed to her by her grandmother — a witty parable about gender equality in work and housework, written mere months before George Orwell contemplated the subject.
Gág tells the story of the peasant Fritzl, who works the fields all day long, and his wife Liesi, who tends to their humble house:
They both worked hard, but Fritzl always thought that he worked harder. Evenings when he came home from the field, he sat down, mopped his face with his big red handkerchief, and said: “Hu! How hot it was in the sun today, and how hard I did work. Little do you know, Liesi, what a man’s work is like, little do you know! Your work now, ’tis nothing at all.”
“’Tis none too easy,” said Liesi.
“None too easy!” cried Fritzl. “All you do is to putter and potter around the house a bit — surely there’s nothing hard about such things.”
To prove her point, Liesi suggests that they swap roles for a day, so that Fritzl can “putter and potter around” for a taste of her life. Naively, he agrees.
At the crack of dawn, Liesi sets out for the fields with a jug of water and a scythe, while Fritzl begins “frying a string of juicy sausages for his breakfast.”
But as he holds the pot over the burning fire, he is lured by fantasies of a cold glass of cider. And so begins his Rube Goldberg machine of domestic disaster.
When he heads to the cellar to help himself to some cider, the dog runs off with the sausages. Fritzl chases after it, only to shrug “Na, na! What’s gone is gone.” in defeat. He returns to the house, only to find that he had forgotten to the bung back in the barrel and the cider had flooded the cellar.
“What’s gone is gone,” he sighs once more and moves on to his next task — churning butter. Stationing himself under a tree, where his little daughter Kinndli is playing in the grass, Fritzl begins to churn as hard as he can, only to realize he had forgotten to give the cow water on this hot summer day.
Once at the barn, he figures he should also feed her, but instead of taking her to the meadow, decides to keep her close by and let her graze on the grassy roof of the house, which is built on the side of a small hill.
But just as he returns to the churning station, he sees little Kinndli climbing on, then falling off the churn, spilling all the half-churned cream onto herself. Already exasperated, Fritzl leaves the little girl to dry in the sun and moves on to another urgent errand — making dinner for Liesi, as the day had progressed and she would be home soon. Gág writes:
With big fast steps Fritzl hurried off to the garden. He gathered potatoes and onions, carrots and cabbages, beets and beans, turnips, parsley and celery.
“A little of everything, that will make a good soup,” said Fritzl as he went back to the house, his arms so full of vegetables that he could not even close the garden gate behind him.
As he stations himself in the kitchen to begin cutting and paring away — “How the man did work, and how the peelings and parings did fly!” — he hears a strange sound coming from above. The comedy of errors is about to climax: To keep the cow from strutting on the roof, Fritzl ties a rope around her belly, drops it through the chimney, and loops the other end around his own waist.
He merrily continues making the soup, when suddenly…
Before long, there came Liesi home from the fields with the water jug in her hand and the scythe over her shoulder.
But Hulla! Hui! What was that hanging over the edge of the roof? The cow? Yes, the cow, and halfchoked she was, too, with her eyes bulging and her tongue hanging out.
Liesi lost no time. She took her scythe — and ritsch! rotsch! — the rope was cut, and there was the cow wobbling on her four legs, but alive and well, heaven be praised!
Liesi walks over to the garden only to find the gate open, with all their pigs and goats and geese gone. Nearby, she spots her little daughter sticky with semi-dried butter. She sees the dog laying in the grass, looking “none too well” from his mischievous sausage feast. She discovers the cellar flood, with cider “all over the floor and halfway up the stairs,” and the kitchen, covered with produce peelings and filthy pots.
Finally, she walks toward the fireplace — anyone with even a basic understanding of physics can guess what happened to poor Fritzl once the cow was set free from the rope:
Hu! Hulla! Hui What was that in the soup-kettle? Two arms were waving, two legs were kicking, and a gurgle, bubbly and weak-like, was coming up out of the water.
“Na, na! What can this mean?” cried Liesi. She did not know (but we do — yes?) that when she saved the cow outside, something happened to Fritzl inside. Yes, yes, as soon as the cow’s rope was cut, Fritzl, poor man, he dropped down the chimney and crash! splash! fell right into the kettle of soup in the fireplace.
Wág’s refreshing inversion of gender stereotypes shines once more as Liesi plays the knight-in-shining-armor part and rescues her husband from this domestic nightmare of his own making, pulling him out of the pot “with a cabbage-leaf in his hair, celery in his pocket, and a sprig of parsley over one ear.”
The story ends with an exchange partway between morality tale and political statement:
“Na, na, my man!” said Liesi. “Is that the way you keep house — yes?”
“Oh Liesi, Liesi!” sputtered Fritzl. “You’re right—that work of yours, ’tis none too easy.”
“’Tis a little hard at first,” said Liesi, “but tomorrow, maybe, you’ll do better.”
“Nay, nay!” cried Fritzl. “What’s gone is gone, and so is my housework from this day on. Please, please, my Liesi — let me go back to my work in the fields, and never more will I say that my work is harder than yours.”
“Well then,” said Liesi, “if that’s how it is, we surely can live in peace and happiness for ever and ever.”
And that they did.
All these decades later, Gone Is Gone remains an absolute delight, layered and lovely, as does the rest of Wág’s work. Complement this particular gem with Susan Sontag on how gender role stereotypes limit us.
Published July 8, 2014