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Analysis of “Woman’s Work” by Julia Alvarez

Julia Alvarez is a distinguished Dominican-American writer and poet whose work mainly focuses on the Latinx immigration experience and bicultural identity (“Julia Alvarez Biography”). Her writing often focuses on the inherent paradoxes and contradictions of human existence, indicating that “nothing is impossible in this world”. Woman’s Work is one of Alvarez’s most famous poems that evokes rich emotional imagery with only nineteen lines. It explores the themes of gender roles, mother-daughter relationships, and the construction of female identity in a patriarchal society.

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We are immediately faced with the ingrained societal expectation of fulfilling household duties as “women’s work” in the first line (Alvarez, line 1). Alvarez juxtaposes devalued women’s labor with the concept of “high art”, intellectual and aesthetic work that has historically been the domain of rich white men (Alvarez, line 1). Even though it is not specified in the poem, we can infer that the anonymous woman is Alvarez’s mother, who instructs young Alvarez to “keep house as if the address were your heart” (Alvarez, line 3). This simile of house and heart suggests that the mother does not find chores degrading or trivial. It is of vital importance to her, equal to taking care of her heart. The beginning of the poem illustrates the societal devaluation of women’s work and the mother’s opposing viewpoint.

The next six lines convey Alvarez’s reluctance to accept her mother’s ideology. Alvarez describes herself as a “prisoner in her [mother’s] housebound heart” (Alvarez, line 9). This metaphor expresses her unwillingness to follow her mother’s values, which were born out of powerlessness. As a woman, the only area that the mother had any control over was her household, and her heart is now “housebound” (Alvarez, lines 9-11). The mother’s professional and artistic urges were sublimated into housework and childrearing (Alvarez, line 13). The mother constructed her identity around household duties because of her internalized misogyny.

Alvarez’s mother unknowingly places her daughter in the same position of powerlessness. Alvarez uses alliteration to emphasize the repetitive rhythm of her mother’s indoctrination (Alvarez, lines 14-15). Her mother never taught her to cultivate her individuality or take care of her emotional wellbeing since she was never taught that herself. Even though the mother suffers from misogynistic gender expectations, she cannot recognize her internalized biases and passes them on to her daughter. With these lines, the author describes the intergenerational transfer of socially ingrained gender norms.

Although Alvarez had resented her mother for being “housebound”, she finds herself “a woman working at home on her art” and compares her profession as a writer to “housekeeping paper” (Alvarez, lines 9, 18-19). Alvarez understands that despite her initial rebellion, she has accepted the primordial role of the household despite breaking into the white man’s domain of “high art” (Alvarez, line 1). Household duties are not inferior to intellectual labor; they are simply unpaid and devalued. This realization highlights the central theme of “nothing is impossible in this world”. As Alvarez becomes an adult and learns more about the world’s complexity, she behaves and thinks in ways she never anticipated.

In conclusion, Woman’s Work is a poignant masterpiece that uses literary devices such as simile, metaphor, and alliteration to evoke multiple emotions and images in condensed form. Alvarez discusses the complicated construction of female identity, the intergenerational transfer of gender expectations, and the misogynistic devaluation of women’s labor. The evolution of Alvarez’s attitude to her mother’s values illustrates the central thesis of her work, which is that “nothing is impossible in this world”. Woman’s Work is a prime example of literature’s power to challenge our beliefs by narrating personal experiences.

Works Cited

Julia Alvarez Biography“. Chicago Public Library. Web.

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Alvarez, Julia. “Woman’s Work”. Genius. Web.

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