This is all he will do. He will not kill them. He will merely see them.
He does not burn down his employers’ house, for example, but he does make some heated observations: the madam’s flowers are, she tells him, the “toast of all of Ghana”; some of us, he responds, do not have bread. But he doesn’t say it; he only imagines saying it to her. It’s the kind of bitter play on words that a frustrated mind would knot itself up with, but it’s a signifying that he doesn’t dare speak out loud. He doesn’t dare burn down their house, though he kind of wants to; instead, he ruminates on how the pots of flowers “burst into flames” as they “pretty” the walls of the compound. How beautiful their house would look in flames, he doesn’t say. The story does not turn into Faulkner’s “Barn Burning.” He does not attempt to reclaim his masculinity with violent action. He is passive. He observes.
It took a second reading before I noticed how intensely freighted the protagonist’s words are, in fact, how tightly wound his consciousness is. The antagonism is there, but the double meanings are also not quite meant to be heard; they might even be unconscious to him. His observations to us are as guarded as his words to his employers, his thoughts couched and hidden; he is surprised, at one point, to find himself crying. Nothing in what he has said, up until that point, explains why he has tears in his eyes. Which is another way of saying that he does not speak: he’s not telling any stories about what he sees, as the second meaning of “observations” indicates. He observes, passively, but he does not—except to us, and we must still draw it out of him—say what he has seen. He remains silent. He sees but is not heard.
He certainly doesn’t speak back to his employers, for instance. His great fear is that his employers will see him seeing them, and fire him for his observation, so he is scrupulously dumb, mute. His father is sick with cancer, his family needs the money from the job, and he particularly likes this particular job because it allows him time to read, to continue his studies, as he puts it.
Instead of observing what he sees, then, he says what he is supposed to say to keep his job, which is, mostly, nothing. Like his father—“a smiley man…a dimpled, deferential, diminutive man”—he plays the part well. He says “yes, ma’am” and “yes, sir,” as little as he can get away with. But unlike his father, he knows the mask he’s wearing. His father believed. The son does not. His father thought that hard work and subservience would pay off; his son has seen that it does not, but he makes the best of it.
This, at least, is how the story is set up at the start. Our protagonist wears the mask, plays the role he has been hired to play. He follows the rules. He does what he is told, and he keeps his mouth shut. He is defensively cynical, making a protective shell out of a mute exterior. But the persistent difficulty of servile life is that his employers do not keep their end of the bargain, and do not have to. Employment is not a contract; employment is a form of subjection.
For one thing, his father’s boss does not take care of his sick servant’s family, as the father had expected, as the implied contract of their relationship does not turn out to enforce. Instead of acting as a benevolent patron, the boos simply offers a job as driver to the son (“offers”). If anything, the father’s sickness is an opportunity for his boss: another driver becomes available, and his sister needs a driver (for reasons which later become apparent).
Another example, is the employer who pretends the situation is something other than what it is, who pretends they are equals, friends, when they are not. The boss’s stepdaughter tells him he can call her “Bianca,” for example, but there is no choice implied by the word “can”; when he chooses to call her “ma’am,” she corrects him, compelling him to choose correctly. She tells him that she knows how he feels—implicitly compelling him to “feel” that way—and forces a range of intimacies on him: she takes him to coffee, sits in the front seat of the car, and touches him frequently. He wants none of it; the last thing he wants from a employer is the pretense of sympathy. The last thing he wants is to be touched. The last thing he wants is intimacy with his employer.
The protagonist’s masculinity makes it easier to overlook the undercurrent of aggressive seduction that threads through the entire story, but it is there. Were the protagonist a woman, it would be easier to see his employers harassing him, forcing intimacies upon him that he spends the story trying to evade, but which he cannot avoid. We’d recognize this story in an instant if it were a frustrated male employer seducing his female servant, forcing her to choose to be seduced; Samuel Richardson wrote Pamela in 1740, and it’s been written a time or two since. But though it’s less clear that we are seeing a version of that story, we are: his mistress is frustrated with her husband’s infidelity, and she eventually forces the protagonist to choose to be seduced.
It begins when he walks past his mistress’s bathroom window and accidentally sees her naked. He is doubled over with panic that he will be fired for “peeping”; he hides, and literally weeps with fear. “Peeping” is a firing offense. But like most forms of policing, what seems like a contract—don’t do the crime, don’t do the time—is actually a power relationship masked by the illusion of choice. He sees her naked, but not because he “peeped”; it is her who left the window “undressed,” projecting her naked body out of the room where she bathes, onto the eyes of the unsuspecting Webster, who had no intention of seeing her. He didn’t actively look; he was just walking by, and was, passively, made to “peep.” But the moment he does, he is in her power.
The story ends when, fifteen minutes later, she walks out into the garden, where he is frozen, speechless, paralyzed. She tells him what he has feared: she saw him seeing her. She tells him he can keep a secret. Finally, she tells him that she will help his father if he has sex with her and, without using words, that she will fire him—like the last driver—if he will not. Here the story ends. She takes him in her arms; he reciprocates, and a curtain of modesty falls over the proceedings.
If she had used violence, it would be possible to call this “rape.” But he does not say no, does not resist, is not forced. He reciprocates, as he has no choice but to do. Which is the point. Because she allows economics to do the work for her, there is no word for his violation. We cannot say he was raped, because he chose, even if it wasn’t the choice he would have chosen, even if we see him weeping with fear and frustration, even if she catches him like a spider catches a fly. Of course, she needn’t be the spider in her own mind; she didn’t force him, after all, and maybe he really does want it? He doesn’t say no, after all, and she’s doing him a favor. She can think all of these things, plausible. And he says nothing to contradict her.
This, then, is the movement of the story: from an impulse to violent action to words, and from words—from actually speaking—to merely seeing, silent acquiescence. The silence of seeing and knowing what one does not dare to say. And the violation without violence of economic force. With no power to say no, silence is subjection.