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The Maids

Jean Genet
Milan Gupta

Jean Genet stands out among playwrights classed under the Theatre of Absurd in that he is a
criminal who expressed the absurd condition that he experienced in his own life, rather than as a
career writer, which is what Beckett, Ionesco and Pinter can be described as. Whereas Beckett and
Ionesco present a generalized and highly ambiguous individual experiencing the absurd condition,
Genets characters have a very specific role within society, and it is within the context of the specific
role of the character that Genet explores their absurd dilemma. Beckett, Ionesco and Pinters
protagonists can be described as being passive men who have accepted their inability to escape
the absurd condition. Genets characters however, conspire to change their status, and use crime to
reach the state of revolt.
The absurd condition can be described as the divorce between the mind that desires and the world
that disappoints. Criminals are not constrained by the social norms and conventions in the pursuit of
their desires. Genet, by having the criminal as his protagonist, wishes to more openly show man in a
state of revolt against the absurd condition if achieving the desire is forbidden by the social norms
and hierarchies, Genet seeks to change the desire to a revolt against the laws and powers that forbid
The protagonists of Genets play The Maids occupy the lowest order in the social hierarchy among all
the characters. It is essentially the nature of revolt of these characters against their immediate
superiors that is the subject for examination in the play.
Jean Genet a literary introduction
Genet was arrested at age of ten, and since then, when accused of being a thief, he resolved to be a
thief. His life as a criminal was consciously an act to destroy the order of things, the very order of
things which had rejected him. This motivation for crime is clear when he speaks of Hitlers
Even on Unter den Linden I had a feeling of being in a camp organized by banditsthis is a nation of
thieves, I felt. If I steal here, I accomplish no special act that could help me to realize myself. I merely
obey the habitual order of things. I do not destroy it.
In prison in Vichy France, in response to a self-pitying poem written by a fellow prisoner, Genet
wrote the Condamne a Mort a long and solemn elegy dedicated to the memory of his friend
Maurice Pilorge who was executed for the murder of his friend. His poetry was followed by four
novels all of them stories set in a world of homosexual outlaws. Genets novels possess a religious
atmosphere, only with an inverted set of values his characters pursue their own highly immoral
objectives with practically religious zeal. In his detailed analysis of Genets development, Sartre
points out that if sainthood comprises of an acceptance of the sinfulness of the human condition and
the surrender of the self before the absolute, Genet qualifies as a Saint much more so than many
traditional saints. The only difference between the revered saints and Genet is that unlike the
Christian saint, Genet does not renounce his self before the world, but instead surrenders himself to
the mysterious and chaotic world, fashioning his fantasies and daydreams after the hate, destruction
and power that rules the world.
The Characters
Genets characters live in a world of fantasy in a way Genet measures the influence of an individual
on society as being determined by how much the individual is capable of entering into the fantasy
world of the outcast and the aspiring. Genets plays have a definite hierarchy of roles within them,
based on how much they affect the consciousness of the remaining characters. In The Maids, Genet
explores the conflicts that arise out of the particular hierarchy. At the top of the social order is the
Monsieur. A reading of the play indicates that Madame is a kept woman, just like the Maids are
subservient to Madame, so is the Madame subservient to Monsieur. Monsieur is actually absent in
the play, but it is clear that the Monsieur defines the space within which the two maids and Madame
create their own realities. As head of the household, Monsieur is the individual who creates the roles
of Madame and the maids. His arrest and possible imprisonment, and later the news of his release
and its implications are what drive the dialogue among the maids, and Madame. Madames resolve
to follow her husband to Devils Island if need be shows that Madame also resolves to aspire to
reach the same level of power as that which is associated with him, and that such an act would make
her a martyr. The Maids relation to Madame is a reflection of Madames relation to Monsieur.
Monsieur is arrested because of a petty theft this resonates with Genets arrest and his tendency
towards committing petty crimes. Madames fantasy of renunciation and martyrdom in devotion to
Monsieur shows that he has been elevated to the level of God within the play.
Madame, is only actually present in the fourth movement of the play, but shown from the mirror
image of the maids, pervades the entire length of the play. She possesses both Claire and Solange,
and is the object of the immediate focus of the play. When being reflected by Claire, it is clear that
Madame is insulting and patronizing towards the maids. She knows that she and the maids occupy
the polar opposite positions within the power dynamic her happiness lives off the maids
unhappiness. By her own mixture of benevolence and dominance, Madame makes sure that the
maids remain subservient to her.
Of the two maids, Solange is the elder one, and emerges the dominant one through all the conflicts
in the play. The sisters display both affection and hatred towards one another. The root cause of
their revolt against Madame is that their roles are identity are directly dependent on the identity
and existence of Madame. In the role-playing ceremony it is clear that the maids wish to accept this
fate by accepting their roles and solidifying their roles irrespective of Madame. The act of killing
Madame ritually, even before the release of Monsieur becomes a reality, is an attempt by the maids
to make their reality of maids independent of Madame.
The plot and analysis
The setting of the play is inside the conventional bourgeouis bedroom of Madame. Claire, the
younger sister, is dressing up as Madame, while Solange, the elder sister is playing the role of Claire.
As Madame Claire begins to order Solange-as-Claire around the house ordering her to take her
gloves back to kitchen, and asking her to shine her shoes, and then reprimanding her when she uses
her spit to shine them. In response to being reprimanded Solange-as-Claire responds that she merely
wants Claire-as-Madame to look beautiful. Claire-as-Madame replies to this by starting teasing
Solange-as-Claire about the milkman. This exchange, of alternating tenderness and violence, reflects
the constant shifts in the power dynamics and the volatile nature of the relationship between the
maids. Within the context of psychological realism in literature, Genet is a descendant of
Dostoevsky, seeking to show both positive and negative motivations in human relationships.
Speaking of the milkman, Claire for the first time breaks character and says That young milkman
despises us. The breaking of character in such an elaborate ritual shows how strongly Claire and
Solange identify with each other, and the fact that any intrusion of objective reality into the role-
playing game inevitably leads to a breakdown in the ritual machinery. The role-playing ritual is a
reflection on Madame, with whom the two maids can be said to be possessed. However, by
disguising themselves as the other, they are seeking to discover themselves through being each
others mirror images. Just as they are mirrors for Madame, likewise they are mirrors for
When Madame asks for her dress, Solange insists that Madame wear her red dress. By forcing
herself on Madame within the ritual, Solange is taking control of Claire in their shared reality. An
objective fact of reality enters into the ritual when Solange seeks to justify her choice by saying that
Your widowhood really requires that you be entirely in black. The intrusion of reality into the
fantasy ritual unsettles Claire, who wrote the anonymous letters because of which Monsieur was
arrested and sent to jail, who is defensive of herself-as-Claire, and then protests against being
insulted as herself-as-Madame. There is clearly a breakdown in the ritual because of the objective
fact of reality Genet seeks to show the inherent inconsistency between the world of imagination
and the world of reality. The attempt at forcing their own imaginary sub-world into the real world
fails. The failure of the sub-world to replace the real world is later highlighted in the same
movement when the ringing of the alarm clock stops the play before its climax. It can probably be
argued that the two maids lengthen the preliminaries and deliberately waste time so as not to reach
the climax performing the climax within the imaginary sub-world would amount to the acceptance
that Madame can only die inside their imagination. By leaving out the climax, the maids are
accepting that the role-playing game in their own sub-world is unsatisfactory and leaving open the
possibility of carrying out the revolt in real life. At the climax of the ritual, Solange-as-Claire says
You have your flowers. I my sink. Im the maid. You, at least, you cant defile me. Here Solange tries
to establish her own position independently of the madame she effectively appropriates the sink
itself as being the object for identification of her position.
The alarm clock breaks the role-playing game, and is therefore the symbol of objective reality within
the limits of which the maids perform their ritual.
Filth doesnt love Filth
With the second movement, the role-playing game is at an end. The first dialogue between the two
maids when they have returned to their normal roles is just as full of conflict with Claire accusing
Solange of not going through with the murder of Madame which was to be the climax. The violent
and dominant-possessive nature of the relationship between the two sisters becomes clearer.
Solange accuses Claire of mingling her insults with details of her inner life regarding the milkman.
Claire tries to escape from Solanges recriminations by reminding her of Madames return. Solange,
however is insistent on establishing her dominance over Claire, confronting her with her game of
strolling about the apartment at night, looking at the mirrors and playing her own fantasy of being
Madame. She accuses Claire of putting them both and their ritual in danger by sending the
anonymous letters which sent Monsieur to prison. It is now Claires turn, who accuses Solange of
reading her letters and using them in the ritual when playing Madame, Solange is jubilant,
imagining following Monsieur just as the real Madame does. Claire accuses Solange of being happy
in love with Monsieur, and being happy and contended with the ritual. The accusations continue
with Solange accusing Claire of sending the anonymous letters just for the sake of her own secret
adventure, and Claire returning the favour by mentioning Solanges failed attempt to kill Madame,
which Solange directed towards Claire in the game by really intending to kill Claire. Solanges
confession, in this context, is horrifying - she admits to wanting to kill Claire so as to set her free.
The telephone rings, beginning the third movement, and bringing reality back to the front. Monsieur
has been released on parole. The release is the defining event in the objective reality of the play
either the maids get found out and get sent to jail for a relatively petty crime, or they really kill
Madame. We see how the dangerous game of their imagination has taken a morbid turn in real life
it is not just a game anymore. Solange accuses Claire of landing them in the difficult position which
they reach now. Claire accuses Solange of not going through with the original plan where she was to
kill Madame Claire decides to commit the crime herself she will put Gardenal in her tea.
The following scene is a detailed examination of the psychology of crime. For Genet, a criminal is a
person whose idea of reality fundamentally conflicts with the objective reality of the world. Crime is
the means by which the person seeks to assert their own sub-world to the existing order of things
it is the criminal striving to make his mark, to become a part of the world. Claire begins feverishly
planning the murder, as the grand cathartic event that would deliver her and Solange. She starts
bossing Solange around to raise her to the same emotional level. She integrates their respective
desire of being criminal and saint respectively Claire would commit the crime, which is her
responsibility, and Solange would get to follow her to the Devils Island which is Solanges idea of
The fourth movement begins with the ringing of the doorbell. We have looked at Madame from her
mirror images in Claire and Solange so far now we get to see Madame playing out her reality from
her own perspective. Madame bears the same relationship to Monsieur as the two maids do to
Madame. She recounts the whole affair to the maids, and seeks to glorify the extent of her suffering.
Soon enough, we realize that Madame is actually enjoying her role of martyr and saint she will be
faithful to Monsieur whatever happens. She is offered tea by the maids, but in her fantasy of
renunciation, she refuses. The fate of Madame depends in her hands that is the power that her
position has accorded her. Her fantasy of renunciation overpowers the maids fantasy of killing her.
Madame starts wondering about who could have written the anonymous letters, asking Solange.
Soon she notices the irregularities in the room, all the little changes that happened because of the
ceremony. The maids inability to completely control the physical space around them makes
Madame suspicious, and she spots the telephone, and learns that Monsieur has been released. She
patronizes Claire by remarking on her makeup and putting a flower in her hair. Her hatred for the
maids is channelled to a false benevolence.
The fifth movement begins with the departure of the maids. The maids have been defeated in their
plot to kill Madame. The maids know that the anonymous letter would be traced to Claire, and the
maids would be sent to jail. But they would be sent to jail as petty criminals. Whereas they were
heroines of their sub-world previously, they would be ordinary thieves now. The concept of a
hierarchy of crime can be seen now. Claire accepts defeat. But it is in the very acceptance of their
defeat that the two maids find their salvation. Solange and Claire resume the ritual, but this time
they skip the preliminaries. Claire-as-Madame starts hurling insults at Solange-as-Claire. After a
while Claire realizes that the conclusion of the ritual will be death, and she tries to escape from it.
However by this point Solange has taken possession of Claire. Claire-as-Madame is the scapegoat for
her revolt against the world. With the death of Claire, Solange would become Madame Solange
Lemercier, the famous criminal. She will have a grand identity, and will escape the anonymous fate
of being a mere servant. She is finally able to assert her sub-world into the reality of the world. As a
murderess, she has the respect of the police, and her execution will be a triumph. Finally, Claire-as-
Madame asks for her tea. Claire has acquired an individuality by accepting her death. With her death
all the characters that she serves as mirror to Solange, Madame, Monsieur, die too. However her
only hope is that she could share the glory that is set for Solange that Solange would hide her
away, secretly, within herself, when she is in jail.
Role of the Theatre
Genets writing progressed from poetry to narrative prose to finally the most objective form of
writing the dramatic form. Only with his plays did Genet finally break away from the world of
prisons and homosexual outlaws, although they are similar in that they explore the same world of
inverted values and fantastic imagination over the real form.
Society had ostracized Genet ever since he was arrested at age ten. The motive of the crimes that he
continued to commit in his early life was to outrage the same bourgeois society, and to undermine
and disturb the existing order. Genet takes this same attitude to theatre theatre provided Genet a
ready collective audience that he could scandalize by confronting them with daydreams and
fantasies of the societys outcast, threatening to disturb the social order within which the bourgeois
find their identity. The disparity between the motivations of the two maids and the ideal of the
conventional bourgeois theatregoer heightens the absurdist dimension of the play.
Genets plays are effectively set in a four-walled space, wherein the audience are placed on the
stage. The audience are forced to make an effort of the mind and imagination similar to Genet
himself. It is important for man to use his imagination to participate in human life, as opposed to
merely knowing. The world of maids grows upon us the more we are forced into their world, and
slowly the audience realizes that their own secret fantasies are not much different from the ones the
maids are presented to be having.
Role of Crime
The vast chaotic nature of the modern world is increasingly less familiar to the modern man. One
way an individual becomes familiar with the world is by making his own mark in the consciousness of
other individuals. The convict, in Genets novels, or the maids in this play have been deprived of any
means to make their presence felt outside their immediate world the maids therefore experience
the absurd condition much more intensely and more directly than any of us. Crime is the last resort
of the criminal to make his own mark. However it is classified as crime because the sub-world of the
criminal is inherently incompatible with the world outside, and the assertion of sub-world ends up
merely breaking down the social rules and norms of society. It is this breaking of social rules that is
classified as crime.
Apparent Reality as Illusion
Genets works have been described as not being reality, but the feverish imagination of a criminal or
outcast of society. The Maids can be interpreted as the product of the disturbed imagination of a
maid. The audience sits through the first movement expecting the two roles being played to be the
objective reality this illusion is shattered when an actual object of reality the alarm clock starts
ringing. It is at this point that we realize that the scene was a play-within-a-play. The fixed point from
which the audience thinks they can safely watch the play is shattered, throwing the audience into
the same confusion as the characters are in. The appearances that we reduce to an ultimate reality
are themselves shown to be a mere reflection in a mirror.
His characters likewise are merely characters in appearance Genet at first insisted` that the first
production of play in 1946 comprise an all-male cast. This disconnect between outward appearance
and the constructed reality shows that the characters are mere symbols and reflections in a dream.
The philosophy of Absurdism argues that there are no absolute truths and values that are applicable
for the entire humanity. Genet goes a step further and argues that there is no empirical reality
applicable to man. Genet pushes this principle to the extreme by playing with gender roles
envisioning male actors for female roles. By showing the inverted morality and aspiration for power
of characters playing a role in the bourgeois society, and yet excluded from it, Genet seeks to show
the monsters created by the greater monsters of official western bourgeois society.
Hall of Mirrors
The image of man caught in a maze of mirrors defines Genets works. All three characters present in
the play are mirror reflections of each other each progression of images that the sisters and
Madame encounter are a distorted reflection of their own reality. The individual is trapped within
the lie-covering-lie and the fantasy-battening-upon-fantasy that normal human interaction is.
A discussion of Theatre of Absurd is incomplete without a review of the effect of religion on the play.
The concept of salvation is much discussed during the play for example Claire accuses Solange of
taking up the role of the martyr in her fantasy and imagining following Monsieur from prison to
prison. Christian church holds up the martyr as the ultimate upholder of faith and belief, and by
showing Madames willingness to martyr herself for the criminal Monsieur Genet equates the
master criminal with God.
An interesting example of wordplay is seen in the first movement, which is representative of the
religious imagery. Solange-as-Claire says The fall of your dress. I am arranging your fall from grace.
Fall from Grace is a concept that Camus himself used as the central idea of his novel The Fall.
Whereas Madame seeks to glorify her own role in dealing with Monsieurs arrest, the two maids are
plotting for the Madame to lose the very basis of her position. The fall from grace here refers to the
maids attempts to disinherit Madame of the position that accords her power and the chance for
salvation. The maids believe that it is only by arranging the fall of Madame that they could
themselves achieve their own salvation.
The Maids is a fantasy examining minutely and in detail the power dynamics within a conventional
bourgeois setting. Genet has succeeded in his intention to outrage bourgeois society by showing the
sinister layer of fantasy and imagination at the very heart of a bourgeois home. If experiencing the
absurd condition is being forced to confront the chaotic and mysterious world, Genet adds to that
experience by showing the unfamiliar as being fundamentally violent and malevolent. Solange and
Claires attempt to find a meaning in their life, and unable to obtain that using positive objectives,
the pair focus their attention on the dysfunctional nature of their relationship with Madame and
Monsieur, and seek to find a meaning in crime. For Genet crime is the only means by which the
individual can authentically assert their own reality to the outside world the non-criminal has
made his piece with his sub-world being subservient to the outside world.

1. The Rites of Passage of Jean Genet: The Art and Aesthetics of Risk Taking by Gene A. Plunka
2. The Theatre of Absurd by Martin Esslin
3. Tragedy, Genet and The Maids: Oreste F. Pucciani, The Tulane Drama Review, Vol. 7, No.
3(Spring. 1963)
4. Saint Genet, by Jean-Paul Sartre