The review excerpts that preface Stanley Crawford's Some Instructions to my Wife Concerning the Upkeep of the House and Marriage, and to my Son and Daughter, Concerning the Conduct of their Childhood (1978) can't quite settle on what, exactly, the novel parodies: "Victorian marriage manuals"? Maybe "instructions by Renaissance husbands to their younger wives"? How about Swift or Franklin? In fact, we might as well go all the way back to Plutarch's Conjugalia Pracepta, with its historical exempla and what now seem like over-the-top moral analogies, to find Crawford's target. Some Instructions consists of precisely that: seventy-three entries (plus index) on topics like "Doors," "Storing Toys," "Dolls," and the like, written by an unnamed husband to his similarly unnamed wife, son, and daughter. (For some reason, I was reminded of the book Hugh Crain left for his daughters in The Haunting of Hill House.) There is no narrative--indeed, no plot. Instead, we have a House.
The husband engages in an astonishing program of relentless objectification. He externalizes anything that might be lurking within the self, primarily through metaphor--above all, metaphors of the marriage and the house. "The house is the Marriage," he explains, "and thus to maintain and keep in good repair the house, tidy and well cleaned, is to keep the Marriage too in good repair, tidy, well cleaned" (20). This sentence exemplifies the husband's obsession, as well as his inability to fully carry out his project. On the one hand, the central metaphor (house = marriage) introduces the potential ambiguity of any literary figure into the husband's otherwise concrete mix. On the other, the husband tries to combat this ambiguity by really making marriage-keeping and house-keeping into the same act. To clean the house is to maintain the marriage. Marriage, it turns out, must either be an object (the house metaphor) or a verb--and a verb that produces tangible results, at that. This approach leads the husband into flights of metaphorical fancy that are simultaneously wild and prosaic: marriages are "covered or upholstered" (29); marriage "vows" are "clothing" (35); "genitalia" are "animals of the barnyard" (!) (64). Each time, the husband does his best to avoid simile, which would introduce a dangerous difference between the marriage and whatever is under discussion at the time. And in each case, the husband carefully elaborates the significance of the metaphor, seeking to eliminate any alternative reading of the entry. For all that the husband's metaphors seem to indicate that he sees the world as pregnant with signification, he nevertheless intends to make these signs speak only to him.
It's no accident that the book starts off with a brief entry on "Putting Things Away," which instructs the wife to "[k]eep all things clean and keep them put away in their proper places, whereof you know, and take them out when needed and, when used, put them back into their places, whether they be cupboards, shelves, cabinets, boxes, sacks or bags, or the yellow or green trash containers under the sink; the ones made of plastic" (9). (That's the whole thing.) In a sense, this is the organizational principle of Some Instructions: a world defined by an endless taxonomy of places and things, governed not by logic so much as by the list, and devoted to the ever-elusive goal of absolute specificity. It's not enough to mention the trash containers by color--they must be identified by material! This dizzyingly complex system, which encompasses everything from crop rotation to preplanned concert outings, cannot be produced by the wife, whom the husband casts throughout as the silent recipient of his wisdom. Nor, for that matter, can she ever truly master it; hence her near-virtual banishment from the garden (an ironic allusion to Eve in the Garden of Eden, apparently unnoticed by our narrator). The wife's apparent silence before the power of the list turns out to herald the narrator's larger fear of the unmastered and the unknown: not only does he dissuade visitors, but also he recommends that visits to others should not interrupt their own schedule--right down to "afternoon naps," if necessary (70)--so that the "Marriage" persists outside the controlled space of their own home. The "Visits" entry is, as it happens, the final entry in the first section devoted to the wife, and its increasingly hilarious precepts for maintaining normalcy indicate just how messy a classified world can be...
The true mess comes with the counterpart to the wife, the daughter. Even though the daughter's entries echo the mothers--an entry on the proper system for classifying and discarding "trash," an entry on the "house," and so on--the daughter herself rampages through the husband's careful organizational principles. For she insists on playing with her brother's toys, and shows a "present aversion" to her tiny household appliances (120). Nor has she yet "learned the proper use of your dolls"; with any luck, the husband sighs, she "shall soon cease chewing on their hands and feet and stop detaching them and throwing them across the room or stuffing the whole dolls and animals into your refrigerator, oven, or freezer, where they do not belong, and leaving them for dead in the middle of the floor" (126). The daughter resists propriety, categorization, order. She appropriates objects, transforms them into different uses for her own pleasure, abandons them when finished. In other words, she plays. Instead of engaging in the utilitarian play intended by the husband, which will prepare her to become a xerox copy of her mother, the daughter insists on "misusing" her toys. This play disturbs the husband in part because it suspiciously resembles the properties of life and language he seeks to erase--wildness, uncontrolled and unpredictable transformations, spontaneity. Only with the daughter does the husband wrestle with the sheer unknowability of another's mind, even as he tries to tame it by invoking an undeniable future of propriety--her discovery of his will, that is. After all, his suggestions for how the wife ought to behave after he dies, despite granting her purported liberty, merely write her back into passivity again. But the nature of the daughter's challenge escapes the husband, who, at the end of her section, comforts her--or himself--with the promise of stability: "What force on earth could possibly ever change these things?" he asks of the "Marriage house" and its physical location (140). Here, the husband's literalized metaphor writes a completely certain future into existence. And yet, the daughter's play suggests that some foundations can be shaken to their depths.