Jade Marzolf

“Trials of a Housekeeper”

For my Digital Humanities Project, I explored Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Trials of a Housekeeper.” Her work interested me because domesticity is a subject I do not find humorous, and would not have found even slightly enjoyable during the 1800s when housekeeping was a woman’s primary responsibility. However, through taking an almost sarcastic approach to writing about the duty of managing a household, Stowe engaged me with her wit. Her style was pleasing and powerful. I decided to analyze it with a couple questions in mind:

  1. What makes Harriet Stowe’s “Trials of a Housekeeper” “relatable” or appealing?
  2. Did her style have an impact on the popularity of her work, or influence the work of other men/women authors around the time?
  3. What message(s) is Stowe attempting to send through her satire?

In order to answer these questions, I collected about 115 descriptive words and phrases from the short story and sorted them into categories in an excel document.

I had 16 categories, including an “Other” section where ambiguous descriptions were placed. It was possible for a descriptive word or phrase to belong in multiple categories. For example, I categorized “one of the lords of creation” in the “Quantity” column as well as the “Other” section because “one” was a number describing the “lord,” while “of creation” functioned as a title illustrating his superiority over the household. The highest number of categories a description belonged to was four.

Out of all the words and phrases, I discovered through using Tableau and Voyant that most descriptions involved physical appearance – of both people and objects. It seemed to be one of the most important attributes in determining character.

But why? Because outward presentation is often the easiest and quickest way to assess a person or thing? Still, “judging a book by its cover” seems superficial. How did a character’s features impact how other characters reacted to them? When taking a closer look at the “Physical Appearance” category, I discovered that appearance was also connected to age. Stowe frequently used words such as “old,” “young,” or “new” to represent a person or thing.


In fact, “old” was the descriptive word used the most out of all 115 phrases.

Most descriptions belonged to multiple categories, and “Physical Appearance” possessed the highest frequency with 45 instances. It was the keystone class linking all 16 groups together. Appearance was connected to age, but it was also connected to intelligence, and thus value as a person. Looking old meant the object was perceived as useless, or the character was unintelligent and incapable. For example, the narrator often wrote about one of her hired helpers, the “old cook,” not knowing how to prepare a proper meal or use any of the modern kitchen appliances. This suggested that her age not only was an inhibiting factor when it came to physical work, but also limited her mentally, as she had no knowledge about current cookware or techniques.

When I uploaded my data into Voyant, it showed a direct connection between the word “woman” and “old.” Meanwhile, “girl” was linked to efficiency, being “trained” and the “best.” This accurately represented the narrator’s viewpoints of her housekeeping candidates. Young women might have been seen as unreliable just as the older women were, but they were usually “clever” at the same time and it was because of this cleverness that they were unreliable.

Stowe was ultra-conscious of the politics of housekeeping, which allowed her to take a relatable and humorous approach to writing about them. Her descriptions about the process were vivid and often contained hyperboles, which contributed to their appeal. Contrasting a simple “plain join of meat” with the intense struggle of preparing said meat made for a funny situation (Stowe, 499). Additionally, Stowe used repetition as a device to incorporate relatable comedy. For example, when she describes moving into their new house: “spent in that process of hammering boxes, breaking crockery, knocking things down and picking them up again, which is commonly called getting to housekeeping. As usual, carpets were sewed and stretched, laid down, and taken up to be sewed over; things were formed, and reformed, transformed, and conformed…” it is excessive and outrageous, but still realistic. Readers may laugh because they understand the struggles of the characters and housekeeping, but also because certain aspects are written with such an overly serious air, they become sarcastic.

Stowe places more emphasis on imagery over plot which creates a characteristic piece of fiction that readers find friendly and enjoyable. Her style is what makes “Trials of a Housekeeper” relatable and appealing, and contributed to its popularity.


I chose to do my Digital Humanities Project on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Trials of a Housekeeper.” This story interested me more than the others because Stowe took a comedic approach to presenting the subject matter and characters. She turned domesticity and labor into something witty and engaging to read about. It showed skill and confidence as a writer, especially coming from a woman writer during the 1800s. I wanted to analyze her style, so I decided to categorize as many of the in-text descriptions I could, in hopes that it would show how different phrases are associated with humor or invoke feelings of entertainment. I chose to focus on imagery because it seemed to be the most common device she used to characterize her writing. The questions I wanted to find answers to during the project process were:

  1. What makes Harriet Stowe’s “Trials of a Housekeeper” “relatable” or appealing?
  2. Did her style have an impact on the popularity of her work, or influence the work of other men/women authors around the time?
  3. What message(s) is Stowe attempting to send through her satire?

I began with tediously combing through “Trials of a Housekeeper,” collecting a massive list of descriptive words and phrases in an excel document along with their page numbers. Then, as I went along, I created appropriate groups the descriptions would fit in. Placing each word or phrase properly was more difficult than I anticipated. I was worried that one incorrect placement could completely ruin the results. Most descriptions belonged in more than one category, and some did not seem to belong anywhere, which is why I ended up with 16 divisions, including an “Other” class.

As I worked, the list constantly changed. I found out there are actually dozens of types of adjectives, technical kinds like “comparative” or “demonstrative” adjectives that made me realize the scope of my project was about to grow to an unmanageable size if I wasn’t careful to create categories that stick specifically to organizing what image the adjectives paint in the mind instead of how the adjectives work. I decided keeping the list to a sample size of around 100 would prevent chaos. At the conclusion of the grouping process, I had 115 words and phrases.

After I had the excel document completed, I tried using Tableau Student to represent my data. Unfortunately, my laptop refused to download the software even when I took it to IT, so I had to use Tableau Public – a more limited version. While working in Tableau, I ended up creating six more different excel sheets in an attempt to plug the right data into the software and generate the graphs I wanted. I hoped to somehow represent the the direct connections between each category instead of just writing about how they were all linked, but could not figure out how. In the end, I turned to Voyant with the aim of better displaying connections between categories or words, and found better success. One of the most insightful but unfair discoveries was the correlation between age and intelligence/capability. Based on the data, the narrator of “Trials of a Housekeeper” believed both women and girls were unreliable, but girls were usually untrustworthy because of their cleverness and women were unreliable because of their older age.

I think my project answered my research questions, but I may have also been able to answer them myself by thinking about them or researching online. The graphs did, however, provide the answers to some questions I had not asked but maybe should have, like “which types of adjectives were most often used to invoke humor?” They also shed light on subjects I did not consider the first time reading the story, as with the age and intelligence connection.

If I had unlimited time and energy to continue with this project, I would expand my list of descriptions to encompass other categories such as demonstrative, possessive, and interrogative, instead of just descriptive. Doing so would definitely require an extensive version of Tableau. It could uncover more connections between words and their categories, or even just how words are connected to each other. Working with Tableau was easily the most frustrating and difficult part of the project, and if I had been able to get access to the complete version, I believe my graphs would have been different and I could have gone more in depth with exploring how exactly descriptive words worked together to create an appealing writing style.