To go further:
• Hilda and some philosophical concepts:
-The dialectic of Master and Slave in the philosophy of Hegel.
Mrs. Lemarchand, in the play seeks to hire Hilda, wife of Franck. Throughout the story, we see how she makes Hilda a tool who becomes her "penitent," her "serf," her "Jill of all trades." Madame Lemarchand accepts no obstacle to her power as mistress, boss, and employer of Hilda. The simple fact that Hilda refuses to have a cup of coffee with her irritates her, and she goes so far as to give her baths, finding her "a little dirty," even to the point of dressing her in her old dresses. Madame Lemarchand exercizes such complete power over Hilda as to consider her "modeling clay."
However, certain phrases raise a reciprocal relationship between the status of Madame Lemarchand and that of Hilda:
Mrs. Lemarchand: "These women, Mr. Meyer, that I employ make of me their slave, since I could not do without them." (Hilda, scene I)
Mrs. Lemarchand: I will no longer stand to not know Hilda, Franck, her face, her waist. I am the slave of that name and of women in general. (Hilda, sceneI)
Mrs. Lemarchand is thus herself Hilda's slave because "she can not live without her" gives her her status of Mistress. This cyclic relationship brings us to the dialectic of Master and of Slave that one finds in Hegel's The Phenomenology of Spirit (Phanomenologie des Geistes) first printed in 1807. This consists of a bilateral theory of acknowledgement in a conflictual relationship with another.
The story of Master and Slave is that of a fight to the death for acknowledgement. In the play, Mrs. Lemarchand fights Hilda's refusals to give in to her manipulations. The two adversaries in Hegel's dialectic are profoundly unequal. One fears the other and gives in to the desire of the other, that is to say, recognizes her status as superior. Thus Hilda little by little grants completely to Mrs. Lemarchand her status as mistress--she does so out of weakness, out of obedience to her husband, and out of fear of the poverty and misery into which her family may fall.
"The slave prefers to live as slave than to die for liberty. Consequently, he is dependent upon organic life; it is the organic life that he prefers; it is his life." Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit
Hild, as slave accepts to being dependent upon Mrs. Lemarchand to the point of becoming her "dog, her old crazy and useless beast" by the end of the play. However, for Hegel, the other is indispensable for acknowledgement of one's self. Thus Mrs. Lemarchand has need of Hilda in order to be recognized as mistress. In effect, Hegel writes, "In order to have value and be recognized as free, it is necessary that the self-conscious be seen by the other as liberated from natural reality." Mrs. Lemarchand is for Hilda the person who dresses her, who feeds her, who houses her, who opens to her reading and writing, and, above all, who takes her to Paris. She is part of another reality for Hilda since Mrs. Lemarchand is not driven by necessity, but lives in luxury. The Meyer family center their lives around money to meet their daily needs, to get by; Mrs. Lemarchand by comparison lives to expand her comfort:
Mrs. Lemarchand: "I have at home parquetry that Hilda waxes every week; you have linoleum which imitates parquetry. Very well. I would, myself, willingly have linoleum, but then what would my maid do?" (Hilda, scene II)
Mrs. Lemarchand, then, is part of another reality for the Meyers:
Mrs. Lemarchand: "What would become of you, such as you are, abominable rascals, without a dame of my sort?"
But these two realities interpenetrate and are dependent upon each other.
• Hilda, apprenticeship and servitude
Hilda's story poses a serious problem for attaining dignity for the human person. If Hilda is French, her husband, Franck, does odd jobs and works at the sawmill at night. He is, thus, not covered financially after his accident at the sawmill which causes him to lose the phalange of his right index finger. Mrs. Lemarchand profits from the situation by blackmailing Franck when he asks to see Hilda. By trapping him into accepting an advance on Hilda's salary, she proves that he does not have the means to buy back Hilda. The vicious circle is, thus, presented as a symbol by Mrs. Lemarchand who categorizes the Meyer family as being "in distress." Several signs in the play point equally to the problem of social class and racial difference. Expressions such as:
Mrs. Lemarchand: "What would become of you, such as you are, abominable rascals, without dames of my sort?" (Hilda, scene II)
Mrs. Lemarchand: "You want to get into mischief, but we will always have the better of you and of people like you, Franck." (Hilda, scene II)
Mrs. Lemarchand: "What do we have to do to be like by people like you." (Hilda, scene V)
Mrs. Lemarchand: "I prefer that my children don't come up here. They are not accustomed to yours." (Hilda, scene V)
Mrs. Lemarchand: "Why does Hilda experience such a great repugnance for our flesh and blood, Franck?" (Hilda, scence II)
Mrs. Lemarchand: "Why does our flesh disgust her? We are clean and beautiful and well dressed, well groomed, perfumed, agreeable to the touch. So? I would be in your place, Franck." (Hilda, scene II)
There is then a radical difference in nature between the world of the Lemarchands and of the Meyers in spite of the hypocritical remarks of Mrs. Lemarchand about her "good conscience."
Mrs. Lemarchand: "We have domestics, like the rest of the world, but we never forget our word to bring them up to our level. I will never forget that Hilda is my servant by accident, and not by nature. Only circumstances have made Hilda obey me rather than command me." (Hilda, scene I)
The mise en scene of our play proposes for the first time to present a work touching on the racial question with a choice of Hiatian actors. The idea of servitude should be distinguished from that of apprenticeship (domesticite) in Haiti. Apprenticeship concerns children, generally between 10 and 16 years of age) who are confided to a house mistress who employs them without remuneration but with a promise of educating and training them. However, it is rare for these children to be sent to school or to receive any instruction whatsoever on the part of their employer except that of exploitation. They are called the Restaveks and are often maltreated by the more or less well off Haitian families who receive them.
Jean from Haiti
Jean declared himself to be twelve years of age, but was younger. He was originally from the north, near Cap-Haitien, and thought that his parents were still living, although he had lost all contact with them several years earlier. Two or three years ago, a woman he had never seen before came to his village and chose him to be her restavec. She took him, all alone, to Port-au-Prince. She beat him frequently; he feared her and felt like her prisonner. Finally, this woman gave Jean leave to go. She requested he leave her house, suggesting that he return home to the country. He had no way of returning home, not even a precise idea of where he had lived. He lived for a while on the street in Port-au-Prince, then he made friends with a boy about his own age. The boy's mother took Jean in, where from then on he took care of the five children of the family, but he did not go to school (the children of the family attended on scholarships). However, Jean had time to play, received adequate food, and was not beaten. He considers that his situation was much improved. Nevertheless, Jean said he would return voluntarily to his natural family if he knew how. When one asked him if he thinks his parents would help him if they knew about his desire to return, he began to cry.
Restavek: child domestic labour in Haiti, (Minneapolis, Minnesota Lawyers International Human Rights Committee, 1990), page 12-13. [Paraphrased, not original text.]
The idea of servitude in Haiti takes us back to the situation in the play that Hilda makes us confront. An adult, generally a female accepts to serve in a house in the role of maid and governess in return for a salary that she negotiates at the moment of making a verbal contract. She is most often fed and housed by her employer. The average wage one finds is between 100 and 200 Haitian dollars per month, or about 12 to 29 American dollars per month. The word "maid" is still frequently used to in Haiti to describe these general servants. In the play, the word comes out of the mouth of Corinne, Hilda's sister, in scene V:
Mrs. Lemarchand: "You would not work for me, Hilda's charming sister?"
Corinne: "I do not work as a maid."
Mrs. Lemarchand: "No one works as a maid. One no longer talks like that. There are no longer any maids, Corinne."
Corinne: "I do not serve others."
There are, then, many Mrs. Lemarchands in Haiti with the sole difference that it is unthinkable that any of them would have any intimacy with their maid. The two worlds are radically separated in terms of class, and the maid is not part of the family. She is a grafted exterior element who is only there to serve. In the play, this is the attitude Hilda adopts at the beginning at Mrs. Lemarchand's.
Mrs. Lemarchand: "Do you know many bosses who like me have the sincere, generous, gratuitous desire to have a cup of coffee with their servant... Then, Franck, do you understand why Hilda would want only to be a domestic. She could have me for a friend: what servant would refuse? Hilda returns it with disdain. She prefers to puff herself up, yes, puff herself up, along with the children, behind their chair, argue, subsist, like a slave." (Hilda, scene II)
Mrs. Lemarchand, though, does not respect the boundaries between the two social worlds when she dresses Hilda, cuts her hair, bathes her, teaches her to read, to wirte, takes her to Paris... She seeks to make her domestic her friend, which is improbable in an employer/employee relationship in Haiti. But in wishing to educate her, to train her, Mrs. Lemarchand ruins Hilda by violating her privacy and her identity. Hilda at the end of the play is dead psychologically and almost physically:
Mrs. Lemarchand: "There is no more Hilda. Burst, phooey, like a balloon." (Hilda, scene VI)
Dead from being too submissive. Dead of wanting to change her social class or her nature. Dead of not sayingng again the only words that would have protected her from the seductive and pernicious propositions of Mrs. Lemarchand: "Thank you very much." The equivalent of the Haitian saying "Tampri Tande," which declines politely, but firmly, the proposed offer. At the end of the play, Hilda is dead from not having said "No."
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