Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters: Domesticity and Its Discontents

By Knight, Christopher J | Literature/Film Quarterly, January 1, 1996 | Go to article overview

Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters: Domesticity and Its Discontents


Knight, Christopher J, Literature/Film Quarterly


"[A]ll really inhabited space bears the essence of the notion of home."

-Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

"It seems to me that a man must have faith, or must search for a faith, or his life will be empty, empty. ... To live and not to know why the cranes fly, why babies are born, why there are stars in the sky.... Either you must know why you live, or everything is trivial, not worth a straw."

-Masha, in Anton Chekhov, Three Sisters

The Gendering of Domesticity

In his well received essay, Home, Witold Rybczynski charts the history of the concept "home" and its offshoot "domesticity." Respecting the former, Rybczynski argues that home reflects the conflation of a state of consciousness' with a physical condition. To this end, he quotes John Lukacs: "as the self-consciousness of medieval people was spare, the interiors of their houses were bare, including the halls of nobles and of kings. The interior furniture of houses appeared together with the interior furniture of minds" (36). A chicken and egg argument, it seems suasive enough, and I find myself accepting of Rybczynski "s notion that home-intertwined with other notions such as consciousness, comfort, physical space, sanitation, etc.-is a relatively recent invention, at least as it projects a sense of private space which reaches beyond, even as it includes, family and hearth.

As for domesticity, Rybczynski conceives of it in both historical and gender terms. Particularly, he locates its irruption in the seventeenth-century Netherlands. Here, where favorable intellectual, political, and religious conditions combined with a sudden spurt in prosperity, the home became at once both more intimate and more feminine:

not only was the house becoming more intimate, it was also, in the process, acquiring a special atmosphere. It was becoming a feminine place, or at least a place under feminine control. Thus control was tangible and real. It resulted in cleanliness, and in enforced rules, but it also introduced something to the house which had not existed before: domesticity.1

Part of Rybczynski's own achievement here is that he extols that (i.e., domesticity) which we, in twentieth-century North America, have come to take for granted and to be dismissive of. That is, Rybczynski reminds us of the value of that which we have almost ceased to value, not acknowledging that domesticity is a created value, and not yet ready to grant recognition to that work which remains identified as women's work. The long and short of this is that we are beginning to witness, at the end of the twentieth century, the demise of domesticity, as women, so instrumentally present at its creation, flee its confines for more culturally esteemed realms. Of course, the pity is not that women have sought value elsewhere, but that we-men and women-have yet to find a way to invigorate domesticity with new value. If we cannot reimagine domesticity as anything more than a female ghettothe sort which left Little Women's Jo March full of "disappointment in not being a boy" (3)-then we should do well to give the matter completely up. The hope remains, however, that domesticity has a future as well as a past.

Paean and Lament

All of this is meant to serve as an introduction to a discussion of Hannah and Her Sisters, for it seems to me that the Alien film is in many ways a paean to domesticity, even as it both acknowledges and offers evidence to the fact that domesticity is in decline. Certainly, there must be few narratives which foreground so many as three Thanksgiving dinners, as this film does, using the dinners both to open and close the story as well as to mark the passage of time within the story. Yet the dinners serve not simply to mark time. They are there primarily to celebrate a way of life, a way in which a great deal of importance is placed upon the larger family's ritual regathering in the same domestic space: Hannah's apartment. …

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