“Howl’s Moving Castle” Is the Perfect Read If You’re Struggling Under Pandemic Housework
Diana Wynne Jones's children's classic is one of the only fantasy novels to take domestic labor seriously
You’re trapped in your house. Every attempt to leave it is charged with danger. You’re overwhelmed with housework. You feel like you’ve aged 20 years. For many of us, that’s been our experience of the pandemic.
It’s also the plot of Diana Wynne Jones’s children’s fantasy classic, Howl’s Moving Castle.
In the novel first published in 1986, Sophie Hatter, a young woman growing up in the fairy tale land of Ingary, is turned into an old woman by the villainous Witch of the Waste. As a result, she decides to leave home to seek her destiny. Jones seems initially to adhere closely to the traditional arc of the fantasy genre established before her by writers like J.R.R. Tolkien and Lloyd Alexander, albeit with a female protagonist and a lot more hat-trimming. Sophie’s first encounter is with the castle of the supposedly wicked wizard Howl, which is lurching across the countryside near Sophie’s town. But rather than serving as the initial trial in a grand quest, as it might for Frodo or Bilbo, the castle becomes Sophie’s new home. There are quick excursions outside—the castle has a magical door to four different locations—but Sophie and the novel always return to the castle, and mostly just its one main room. Indeed, whenever Sophie, exasperated by the selfish Howl, resolves to leave permanently, she is prevented, whether by a magical scarecrow, by the arrival of guests, or by her own self-doubt.
The claustrophobic quest of Howl’s Moving Castle is a perfect read for this pandemic year, when many of us are trapped inside, or when the outside world that we need to navigate is historically perilous. Not only is it delightful and psychologically complex, but it focuses on a topic that dominates our contemporary lives: housework. As my wife and I talk over and divvy up the never-ending series of domestic tasks—I do the cooking, she does the meal planning, I sweep the floors, she scrubs the sinks—it’s refreshing to encounter a fantasy novel that actually validates that people can’t just cast spells all day, but have to shop for food and clean. This year of course has brought domestic labor to the forefront of popular consciousness. As article after article has chronicled, the pandemic has been especially brutal on women: our lack of a strong federal response to the pandemic and deep-seated devaluation of carework has forced many women to continue in their jobs while simultaneously shouldering a disproportionate burden of child care and domestic chores. Meanwhile, the ever-present risk of infection renders help from the community—from family, friends, or professionals—literally dangerous.
Like so many women, in Howl’s Moving Castle it is Sophie who does the housework. A lot of housework. One of Jones’s chapter titles is, “Which is far too full of washing.” She also makes spells, but whole chapters of the novel are devoted to Sophie cleaning the castle, cooking breakfast, or mending Howl’s suits. This may sound like regressive gender politics, but Jones always points out how Howl’s relationship to Sophie is, at least at first, fundamentally exploitative. Indeed, the word “exploit” is used constantly in the novel. At one point, Sophie’s half-sister remarks that her mother “knows you don’t have to be unkind to someone in order to exploit them.” And Howl, who also seems to know this, likewise acknowledges that he is exploiting Sophie in the novel’s final pages.
Through this focus on housework and exploitation, Howl’s Moving Castle is clear-sighted about how gender functions in society. Sophie is remarkable because she remains so unaware of herself and her own powers, a trait she shares with protagonists of other of Jones’s novels like Fire and Hemlock and Hexwood. We as readers—and certainly the other characters—may pick up on the fact that Sophie is a powerful witch from the first few pages, but Sophie only recognizes her own magical capabilities near the end. Her negative self-perception derives, the novel implies, from her stepmother, who has her work without pay in her hat shop at the beginning of the novel. But that sense of inadequacy is also a function of larger ideology: the first sentence of the novel reads, “In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes.” Sophie—the eldest of three daughters—has internalized this story that “everyone knows” so thoroughly that she has become completely unaware of her own exceptional agency. This is how gender ideologies work as well, with “being born a daughter” carrying with it a set of implicit messages which confer a sense of internalized inferiority onto women, just like “being born the eldest of three.”
Habituated to this subordinate position once she arrives at the castle, Sophie quickly puts herself to work doing housework for Howl. While she grumbles and curses Howl as she cleans up after the green slime left behind by one of his frequent tantrums, she has a hard time imagining alternative ways of existing. Nor is she compensated for that labor, except through room and board in the castle. As such, the novel works as a companion piece to the work of a feminist theorist who has been increasingly cited as the pandemic has progressed: Sylvia Federici. Federici was one of the founders of the Wages for Housework movement in the 1970s, and in her classic essay “Wages Against Housework,” from 1975, she rails against how domestic labor has been systematically devalued: “To demand wages for housework is to make it visible that our minds, bodies and emotions have all been distorted for a specific function, in a specific function, and then have been thrown back at us as a model to which we should all conform if we want to be accepted as women in this society.” Sophie too has been literally “distorted” by the spell that has turned her into a “hale” old woman, but the idea that she must conform to this model of selfless service remains the same whether or not she is young or old.
But, crucially, Federici declares that housework is about economics, not just ideology: “To say that we want wages for housework is to expose he fact that housework is already money for capital, that capital has made and makes money out of our cooking, smiling, fucking.” For Federici, capitalism is only possible through the fact that it creates a category of work—housework—and of workers—overwhelmingly female—that are not compensated for that work. Indeed, Jones is hyper-aware of the importance of pay and markets in the novel: Sophie grows up in the parallel world town called Market Chipping, and Sophie’s sister complains about her mother not paying Sophie a wage for trimming hats: “That hat shop is making a mint these days, and all because of you!” Hats are themselves an interesting choice of profession, since their production straddles the line between housework and the market economy—they are trimmed as a kind of domestic craft labor within the home, but then are sold in Sophie’s family’s shop. It’s unclear how familiar Jones, writing in the mid-’80s, was with the transnational Wages for Housework movement established the previous decade, but Howl’s Moving Castle similarly represents housework as uncompensated, exploitative, and difficult to escape.
Through the focus on Sophie’s housework, Howl’s Moving Castle risks naturalizing domestic labor as “women’s work.” But women in the novel are not just doing the housework. They are also, or instead, powerful—and professional—witches: the Witch of the Waste, Mrs. Pentstemmon, Mrs. Fairfax, Sophie’s sister Lettie, and, eventually, Sophie herself. Indeed, the witch is central to Federici’s theories in her classic book Caliban and the Witch, in which she argues that women who resisted the devaluation of their labor in the transition to capitalism were demonized and terrorized as witches. As a witch specifically, then, Sophie is particularly caught in the middle of these conflicts about the relationship between the market and the home. Witches are of course common in YA fantasy, but they function for Jones to break down the gender binaries which normally structure fantasy, and specifically the divide between domestic space and the public sphere. For interestingly Jones does not make the narrative trajectory of her novel Sophie leaving behind her housework and becoming a more traditional fantasy heroine: she doesn’t become, for example, Lucy Pevensie sitting atop a throne or Hermione Granger slaying Voldemort’s minions. The novel does not reject domestic space and domestic tasks: it’s one of the few fantasy novels to focus not on grand quests but on what Hannah Arendt calls “labor”: the cyclical never-ending tasks like childcare and cleaning. Rather than having to choose between the domestic space and the outside world, Sophie is able to turn domestic spaces and features—kitchens, and bathrooms, and cleaning supplies—into the stages and tools of adventure. Sophie helps craft spells for duels and sea voyages in the kitchen, deploys magical powders to absurdly enlarge one of Howl’s suits, and cooks breakfast each day on a fire in the hearth that is actually a demon named Calcifer.
The moving castle that provides the backdrop for almost all of the novel’s scenes provides a spectacularly apt metaphor for how Jones dissolves the divide between the public and the domestic, the famously specious “separate spheres.” In a moving castle, your home moves around with you; Sophie is able to go on quests without leaving home for long. She can meet the King, tangle with the Witch of the Waste, pick flowers, journey through a portal to Wales, and still be back in time for lunch and to tend the (demon) hearth.
Yet this is not a fairy tale ending, despite the fairy tale setting, and despite the fact that Sophie gets to have by the conclusion power, a profession, and love with Howl. Like Sophie, Howl changes over the course of the novel, gaining a heart (literally) and becoming more honest, so that he can serve as a more suitable romantic partner. Yet he remains Howl: still manipulative, still on some level afraid of commitment, or a “slitherer-outer,” in the novel’s parlance, a nice phrase for those who are always finding ways to avoid household (and other) labor. You can’t quite imagine Howl sitting down and dividing up the chores with Sophie like my partner and I do, but you also can’t imagine Sophie not giving him hell for leaving the kitchen a mess. Sophie and Howl at novel’s end are not so much equals as equally matched: when they finally acknowledge their feelings for each other, with Howl saying, “I think we ought to live happily ever after,” Jones writes,
Sophie knew that living happily ever after with Howl would be a good deal more eventful than any story made it sound, though she was determined to try. “It should be hair-raising,” added Howl.
“And you’ll exploit me,” Sophie said.
“And then you’ll cut up all my suits to teach me,” said Howl.
At a time when much of our lives and our relationships are a muddle, Howl’s Moving Castle provides a satisfying ending while not insisting that all problems are solved, all characters fully redeemed. After a year in which most men seem incapable, even under historically adverse circumstances, in doing anything more than the bare minimum of caretaking responsibilities, Howl’s Moving Castle does not magically turn Howl into a perfect partner, and instead insists even at its end on the potentially exploitative conditions of housework. Rather than disavowing or solving the unequal conditions of domestic work, or accepting its exploitative basis, the novel by its end acknowledges and makes visible the domestic space as a place of inherent and ongoing struggle over labor.
When I’ve taught Howl’s Moving Castle to undergraduates this pandemic year in my online class on children’s fantasy literature, I’ve found that of all the novels we read it provokes the most enthusiastic reactions. When all year long you’ve been stuck inside of the same house, it’s liberating to imagine being able to flip a knob and have your door open to four different locations, as it does for Howl. When all year long you’ve been relentlessly doing housework—often without the essential caregiving help you need—it’s exciting to fantasize that those chores might themselves be part of a magical journey. And when all year long you’ve been at best repeatedly rehashing how to parcel out the endlessly required chores with your housemates or at worst trying to get your partner to accept their fair share, it’s gratifying to read a novel that acknowledges and centers that deeply gendered conflict. So in a pandemic we might not need to turn to fantasy literature simply as an escape from our locked-down lives. We might turn instead to Howl’s Moving Castle to represent both the possibilities and the limitations of those at-home explorations.