Summary and Analysis
May 1970 (I)
Norah is dropping off six-year-old Paul at school. Her grief over Phoebe has turned into a deep anxiety about life. She’s been drinking secretly and sometimes drives for hours to be beside a river, where she feels closer to Phoebe. While at the school, she sees Kay Marshall, a model mother with well-behaved children. Kay asks if Paul will sing with her daughter in an upcoming fundraiser. Norah says that he will. She also tells Kay that she needs to go home and destroy a wasp nest.
She leaves the school and walks by a protest in response to the recent Kent State shootings and the Vietnam conflict. Bree is among the protestors with her latest boyfriend, Mark. Bree asks Norah whether she’s heard back about the job she applied for at a travel agency, and Norah says that she’s unsure if she even wants the job. Secretly she envies Bree for her world-changing activities. Bree and Norah get into an argument: Bree calls Norah a typical housewife because she won’t get a job, and Norah says that Bree is just waiting around for the next available man.
At home, Norah chops down the wasp nest because Paul is allergic to them and gets stung. She takes a vacuum outside, sucks up the flying wasps, then puts the nozzle in her car’s tailpipe. The vacuum explodes. Angry and feeling like the protestors she saw earlier, she demolishes the vacuum bag. She decides to take the job at the travel agency—to have a life of her own.
Norah is caught once again between two opposing female role models. In the space of a few hours, she feels envy toward both a perfect mom and a feminist protestor. On the one hand, she longs to please and emulate Kay but also feels pleased when Kay is shocked that she plans to knock down a wasp nest by herself. On the other hand, she wishes she could be like Bree, protesting the injustices of the world, but she still disapproves of her sister’s sexual impropriety.
The strange scene with the wasps and the vacuum cleaner symbolizes this struggle vividly. When Norah tells Bree that finding work at a travel agency isn’t how she imagined her life, Bree replies, “And pushing a vacuum cleaner is?” In other words, Bree identifies a vacuum cleaner as a symbol of traditional womanhood. Meanwhile, the wasp nest, representing the wildness native to Bree’s 1970s feminism, invokes Kay’s shock and horror.
When Norah sucks up the wasps with the vacuum, her choice becomes clear: She will not be a wallflower, nor will she be a wild child. Instead, she will seek power by being the perfect woman—both a homemaker and a careerist. She will seek to “have it all.” She will express the power of the feminist in the strength of her drive at work, and the propriety of the housewife in her flawless self-presentation. Ironically, Norah seeks freedom through control.