April 8th, 2009

A Pocket Full of Murder

Servants or Doormats?

It seems to me that for most people nowadays, servant is a dirty word. We tend to think of it as a synonym for slave, associating it with drudgery, dependence, and bondage. Oh, sure, we may have to work for a living, we may have other people telling us what to do, but still we're employees, or contractors, or caregivers – definitely not servants.

Stylized drawing of a maid on a WPA poster.Image via Wikipedia

In a way this is understandable, because it conflicts with our ideal of personal freedom – the ability to say proudly along with the poet, "I am the master of my destiny / I am the captain of my soul." We resent any system or belief that threatens to constrain us, and we admire those who cast aside tradition and break conventions in pursuit of their individual passions and dreams. There's something exhilarating to many of us about a heroine whose inner blaze of self-will cannot be quelled by duty, or guilt, or even love – or so it would seem judging by some of the popular books I've read in the past year or so.

Nevertheless I'd like to suggest, with all respect to the talented authors of those books, that this view is wrong.

Collapse )

I'm all in favor of delivering people from slavery, and I don't think there's anything good about being a doormat. To be forced into servitude is a horrible thing, and it can be just as terrible to be enslaved by the fear of others. There's also a tragedy in selflessly but ignorantly giving your life to the service of the wrong master, as Kazuo Ishiguro's brilliant novel The Remains of the Day illustrates.

But willing, principled, intelligent servanthood, given out of love and as a free choice, is a very different and much more positive thing. And personally, I would like to see more stories that acknowledge and even celebrate this kind of servanthood, and fewer that seem to disparage it.