Analysis of "On Her Knees" by Tim Winton
Tim Winton is an award winning Australian writer. His short story "On Her Knees" was published in 2004 in the short story collection The Turning.
This article has a summary of the story, then looks at themes and a few questions.
Summary of On Her Knees
The narrator, Victor, was sixteen when his father left. A year later, he and his mother move back to the city. She cleans houses to pay their debt, bills and to put him through university. She wouldn't let him get a job; he had to focus on his studies. Her previous job, eighteen years prior, was a receptionist for a doctor. She says there's honor in cleaning for others. He doesn't like her doing that kind of work, and he likes helping even less. Sometimes he wouldn't go with her, which made him feel guilty.
His mother, Carol Lang, believes in order, hygiene, rigor, discretion and honesty. She earns a reputation as the best house cleaner in the riverside suburbs.
She takes pride in her situation, but he resents how she's treated. Some of her clients try to get her cheaply and they're slobs. His mother left jobs if they didn't pay appropriately.
In twenty years of cleaning, Carol was only fired once over a missing pair of earrings. She was given a week's notice. She cried. Victor told her not to go back. Her personal pride compelled her to finish the job. It was the first time they'd argued since his father left.
They were still arguing the morning of her last visit to this house. He says he won't go. She doesn't mind. She loads the supplies into the car. He joins her at the last moment and they leave.
The car reeks of the supplies. She drives very cautiously. She's glad he came. They argue the situation again. Victor thinks it's demeaning to work for a woman who's trying to replace her for stealing. Carol thinks it's the client's loss. She won't find anyone as good.
Victor thinks the woman hasn't even gone to the police. She just wants an angle to reduce his mother's pay.
Carol thinks the woman knows she didn't steal the earrings. She's probably found them. If not, there are plenty of other jobs. She plans on showing the woman by cleaning her place beautifully.
They pull onto a street of Art Deco flats. Carol parks back from the home. They take the supplies out of the car. Normally, she'd use the client's gear, but not today. As they walk up the garden steps, Victor thinks his mother looks old.
The apartment smells of cats. He hears an envelope being torn open. Carol puts a note in her pocket. She won't tell him what it says. There's money in the envelope.
Victor looks in the fridge and at the wine rack. He's curious about the person who treated his mother so badly.
He cleans out the cat litter. It smells so bad that he does it halfheartedly.
He hears his mother singing from the bathroom. Victor damp-dusts the elaborate assortment of ornaments. The apartment is lonely and stale. He continues dusting other things. He thinks you'd have to be self-assured to have strangers in your home.
The bookshelf is full of novels, pop psychology and celebrity books. There are also feminist and erotic works.
Victor dusts academic materials and biographies in the study. There's a student paper in the typewriter.
He dusts the photos over the desk. He identifies the home owner, who looks like a decent person. He wants to finish the job.
He works through the bedroom quickly, and then vacuums the whole place. He's distracted by the fact that the theft wasn't reported. He speculates on her motives. Perhaps she knows him from school.
The cats leap out from behind the bedroom curtains. Victor chases them into the kitchen, where his mother is working. He asks about the note, whether he was the suspect. She says not to be stupid.
While Victor vacuums the bedroom curtains, his mom comes in for the Windex. He says they should have just done a light cleaning or none at all. He wants her to force the issue. She says the talk would be too damaging. It's better to bear it.
Victor resumes vacuuming a pile of chocolate wrappers at the head of the bed. He knows his mom is still there. There's a noise in the line. His mom turns off the vacuum. They open it up and find an earring. The other one is up against the skirting board.
Victor says she's in the clear—just tell the woman where they were. His mother knows it's hopeless. The woman has only to say Carol brought them back to save her job. She can't fight back, and Victor can't help her.
They finish up. Victor takes the earrings off the bed and throws them into the cat litter.
Carol is ready to go. Victor asks about the envelope with the money. She's not taking it.
Victor goes to get the vacuum. He stops at the catbox and picks out the earrings. He dusts them off. He lays them by the money in the kitchen. They leave the apartment.
Theme: Pride and Dignity
Carol takes pride in her work, her honesty, her attitude and, by extension, the good reputation that results from these things. These things are also a part of her personal dignity. There's going to be some overlap between them, but we'll look at them one at a time.
Carol takes pride in being the best house cleaner in her area. This is related to how she views her job, as she believes "there was more honour in scrubbing other people's floors than in having strangers scrub your own."
She knows that her clients won't find a better worker.
Victor views his mother as a scrupulously honest person: "For her to be called a thief was beyond imagining." This outrageous slur on her character is the reason he doesn't want her to go back to the accuser's home.
She uses the quality of her work to speak about her character. On the way to the woman's place who accused her of stealing, she says they'll show her by cleaning "that flat within an inch of its life." It's as if doing a great job in this difficult situation will prove her honesty beyond doubt.
Carol also places value on keeping herself presentable. Regarding her tennis shoes, Victor tells us she "scrubbed and bleached every week to keep them looking new. As if anyone but her gave a damn." This sounds like a detail that others might notice. In any case, it's important to her regardless.
On her last cleaning visit, Carol won't use the flat owners parking space or supplies. It's the principle of it. "I wouldn't give her the satisfaction," she says. Carol's pride and dignity prevent her from taking anything from a woman who insulted her.
We see another example before Carol leaves the flat. She doesn't take the money, saying "I'm worth more." This isn't about the money as, presumably, she's being paid the amount they agreed on. Her personal dignity is worth more than the money. She won't take anything from this woman who falsely accused her.
The image that the flat owner will see when she comes home sums up Carol—a clean home, her missing earrings, the key and her money. Even if she doesn't admit she was wrong, the possibility will likely nag at her for a long time.
Carol's reputation is sterling: "people bragged about her and passed her around like a hot tip."
She won't "force the issue," as Victor wants, because of "the talk. I'd lose the rest of my jobs." She knows the importance of protecting her reputation. An accusation of theft, even one that was unproven, would destroy her livelihood.
Carol doesn't maintain her standards just for others. They're a part of her personal ethics. She wouldn't do a poor job on her last visit or just take the money and leave "Because it would look like an admission of guilt." Remember, this client already believes she's guilty. This gesture is for herself, not someone else.
Theme: Class Distinctions
The narrator and his mother are from the working class. Their situation is more difficult because his father left the family. In contrast, Carol cleans the homes of rich people who either do white collar work, or who possibly don't work at all.
Carol's cleaning job is a step down from her previous employment as a doctor's receptionist.
Victor emphasizes the difference in their neighborhoods. When they pull onto the client's street which is by a river, he says "that constant brothy presence stank of old money, of posh schools and yacht clubs."
Class differences also mean a power imbalance. When they find the missing earrings, Carol says, "All she has to say is that she made me guilty enough to give them back. That I just wanted to keep the job. To save my good name . . . they can say anything they like. You can't fight back." Her clientele won't take her word over one of their own. Since she can't afford to lose clients, she's in a no-win situation.
There's also a disconnect between how the upper class claims to view the working class and how they actually treat them. The client's study has books by feminist writers and social activists. Her paper in the typewriter is about consciousness-raising and change. This woman probably feels she's an ally of the working class, but in practice, she takes advantage of the imbalance. She assumes Carol, a working class woman with an excellent reputation, is a thief. This is without even doing a proper search of her flat.
1. How does Victor's attitude change?
When the story starts, Victor views his mother's work as demeaning, especially with the way she's sometimes treated. He disagrees with his mother's principles, feeling she's kowtowing to these rich people.
When Carol says they'll show her by cleaning her flat "within an inch of its life", Victor sarcastically responds, "That'll put her back in her box. Go, Mum."
When Carol insists on parking well back and lugging her own gear into the flat on principle, Victor says, "She winked and I felt sick for her." He thinks she's just being taken advantage of. He doesn't appreciate his mother's standard of dignity.
His attitude remains intact throughout the cleaning. However, at the end, after everything has played out, he views his mother differently: "It seemed that the very light of day was pouring out through her limbs. I had my breath back." While before he noticed how old his mother looked, now she looks angelic. It's implied that he now appreciates her exalted standard of personal dignity.
2. What does the note say?
Carol doesn't reveal what it says, but we're given a few clues:
- After reading it "she held up the mauve paper, one hand on her heart."
- "Nothing, she said too quickly. She stuffed the note into her pocket and patted her hair." This is what happens after Victor asks what it says.
The "one hand on her heart" suggests the message is affecting her emotionally. The fact that the situation wasn't resolved tells us it wasn't an apology.
She doesn't want to tell Victor what it says, which suggests it's something that supports the argument he was making earlier. Her client is lording it over her.
She pats her hair after putting it away, which suggests she's recomposing herself, making sure she looks dignified.
All these things suggest the note was accusatory in some way. The client is maintaining her position, and Carol has no choice but to put up with it.
3. What is the significance of the title?
The most telling allusion to the title occurs during the final cleaning. "At one point, when the old girl glanced up from the kitchen floor, I averted my eyes." Carol is on her knees cleaning the floor. Victor looks away. Why?
This image disturbs him because it represents how demeaning her job is. His mother literally has to get down on her knees for rich people to earn her living. What makes things worse for Victor is the knowledge that she does it for him. He feels partly responsible for his mother's situation, and he's powerless to help her.