After reading the intro, a lovely one by Glenn Close (did you know she played Albert in NYC as one of her first characters ever?), I knew that I must read it.
Alfred is a girl who doesn't realize she has dreams. As head waiter at a prestigious restaurant she uses her secret identity as a man to grow a nice nest-egg for herself. She understands that it is this identity that enables her to live a decent life and she doesn't want to ruin it. That is until she is forced to bunk with a man named Hubert and a flea threatens to ruin her secret.
After Albert's encounter she begins to wish for a wife and home, children and freedom, all the things that Hubert told her that she could have. Without Hubert around to guide her, she begins a relationship with a flirty, money-grubbing maid. This relationship will be her downfall.
At first glance this story seems to be nothing more than a sorrowful tale of lost identity and of love; how sad it must be to recognize that you can have more in life, but not know how to get it.
But, it's so much more than that as it comments on...
Societies treatment of gender
Albert wouldn't even be considered for her job as a woman. As a woman she would have become a prostitute or worse to survive. Being a man during this time period forced Albert into her livelihood and into her falsehoods. It would seem that men, too, are limited by their gender roles and can only be in pursuit or alone. Albert learns that to get and keep a woman he must spend money and time...it seems that it does not require honesty and forth-rightness.
As a man, Albert wants a woman to complete her, but not in the sexual sense. Only a woman can help her raise a family and only a room can help her keep her house. In this respect she reminds me of the women in the novel The Fox. It isn't that she wants a relationship, it's that she can't see the way around getting what she wants without being in one. It is this thought that proves to be disastrous.
In the end, Albert's false feelings ruins him. Having had no other friends, because he didn't allow himself out of fear, and having never been in a relationship, he cannot figure out how to make it work. Albert learns about the ideals of love from those that would rather use it has an ends to a means. He cannot have what Hubert has with Cathleen because he is searching in all the wrong places.
Albert is used by society, by women, and by men. Her naive nature limits her experiences. In the end every relationship is crushed.
And, all I could think about while reading this book was this poem:
by John Donne
MARK but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is ;
It suck'd me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be.
Thou know'st that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead ;
Yet this enjoys before it woo,
And pamper'd swells with one blood made of two ;
And this, alas ! is more than we would do.
O stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where we almost, yea, more than married are.
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is.
Though parents grudge, and you, we're met,
And cloister'd in these living walls of jet.
Though use make you apt to kill me,
Let not to that self-murder added be,
And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.
Cruel and sudden, hast thou since
Purpled thy nail in blood of innocence?
Wherein could this flea guilty be,
Except in that drop which it suck'd from thee?
Yet thou triumph'st, and say'st that thou
Find'st not thyself nor me the weaker now.
'Tis true ; then learn how false fears be ;
Just so much honour, when thou yield'st to me,
Will waste, as this flea's death took life from thee.
Donne, John. Poems of John Donne. vol I.
E. K. Chambers, ed.
London: Lawrence & Bullen, 1896. 1-2.