Fay Weldon’s story “Pumpkin Pie,” published in the 1991 collection Moon over Minneapolis: Or Why She Couldn’t Stay, uses a shifting style of narration and integrated symbolism to comment on class and gender issues. The story follows Antoinette, a maid to the rich and absurd Honey Marvin, as Antoinette prepares the Marvin household for Thanksgiving. While the narrative voice and tone fluctuate throughout the story, ultimately the plot serves as a warning against class domination.
“Pumpkin Pie” demonstrates the concern with class and gender relationships that is evident in much of Weldon’s fiction. As Lana Faulks writes of Weldon’s later work, “Domestic and romantic scenarios parallel the political line, with children and women grouped among the powerless who, especially those of the lower classes, remain victims of the powerful” (57). In “Pumpkin Pie” Antoinette must acquiesce to the ludicrous whims of her employer. Honey, whose name reflects an outer façade that is wryly dismissed throughout the story, throws out a refrigerator and destroys a $500 centerpiece with no sense of consequence. Antoinette wishes for such a refrigerator, even if it would only fit sideways in her kitchen or in a backyard, but she would not dream of asking for it. When Antoinette takes discarded paper home from work for her children to build collages with, Honey notes that no items, even “apparently discarded” ones may “be removed from the dwelling” (85).
Beyond material concerns, the work Antoinette endures is also demeaning. Although she has her own family, including a new grandchild and a daughter in crisis, she is expected to serve the Marvin family on Thanksgiving Day or risk losing her job. She polishes silverware that was carefully polished and wrapped away the season before and bakes pumpkin pie while a vicious dog lacking proper housetraining creates messes afoot. The dog becomes a symbol for the larger power system, as Antoinette tolerates its cruelties, placates its anger, gives in to its whims, and cleans up its messes.
Faulks notes that “Weldon relishes the mundane, exaggerating human circumstances and nuances, crystallizing our most intimate interactions so that we may look more closely at the daily act of living, in particular our relations with others. Out of these particulars, she proposes a large social vision: the powerful lack compassion and victims will do anything to be empowered” (3). It is difficult not to sympathize with Antoinette. Even Honey’s ill husband becomes a burden to Antoinette with his need for special cholesterolfree food, and we are left with the feeling that he too is a pawn in Honey’s drive to control others.
The narrator asks us what we feel, who we identify with: “A bit of all of them? I hope so. That way progress lies. If it hurts, it heals” (85). Nonetheless, the narration primarily follows Antoinette as she prepares for Thanksgiving dinner, and it is the power dynamic between Antoinette and Honey that creates tension as Honey’s frivolous requests show her absurdity (and, implicitly, the absurdity of much of the behavior of those in power).
While Honey may hold the overt power, Antoinette exercises cunning of her own as she sneaks out of Honey’s kitchen to visit her own family, realizes Honey’s pie will be burnt, and so returns to Honey’s with her own family’s egg-laden (and cholesterol-containing) pumpkin pie. She feeds the burnt cholesterol-free pie to the dog and covers up the switch. When Honey asks, “You didn’t put egg yolk in it, did you? Because, as you know, egg yolk can kill my husband,” and Antoinette replies, “Why, ma’am here’s the proof no egg yolk went into that pumpkin pie” (87) while showing a previously obtained bowl of egg yolks, we can see Antoinette’s strategic power and sneaky meanderings. Ultimately the story is a warning that the oppressed will create their own kind of power, and it will be to the detriment of those who thoughtlessly wield control. The pumpkin pie represents the commodities of time, enjoyment, and family holiday taken from Antoinette and granted to Honey through Antoinette’s labor. Weldon writes that the poor “begin to know that the pumpkin pies of the poor taste as good if not better than the pumpkin pies of the rich; so if you can’t make your own, do without, and let the hired help stay home for a change. Or you’ll find cholesterol in your pie and a knife in your back, and a good thing too” (88).
The beginning and ending narrator is didactic, preaching about the proper treatment of others. Perhaps it is the voice of the author who ends the story, “See the drop of blood on the page? That’s mine. That’s just the beginning” (88). Because the ending is left ambiguous, we can speculate whose blood is on the page. Did the narrator bleed, or cause another to bleed? Her words are also on the page, intense like blood, and embracing both condemnation and culpability—as, we are meant to infer, must we all.
Faulks, Lana. Fay Weldon. New York: Twayne, 1998.
Weldon, Fay. Moon over Minneapolis: Or Why She Couldn’t Stay. New York: Penguin, 1992.
Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story
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