IMPACT: The Research Magazine for John Jay College of Criminal Justice

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Illustration: Sonia Pulido

The guilty butler, the devious housemaid, the greedy cook—servants in literature have typically been reduced to stereotypes, used as plot devices, or even written out of the story altogether. But throughout history and around the world, domestic service is a vital industry that not only employs thousands but also makes the creation of great literature and other art possible, by taking care of the dirty work.

Dr. María Julia Rossi, an assistant professor of modern languages and literature, has long been interested in the role servants play in literature and in the rare works that depart from the norm, acknowledging the agency and personhood of domestic workers. Her forthcoming monograph tackles the question of how to counter our socially determined reading protocols and divorce ourselves from the point of view of the master in order to understand the motives and needs of servant characters in Latin American literature. She also co-edited a 2018 collection of essays, Los de abajo. Tres siglos de sirvientes en el arte y la literatura de América Latina, that explores the socio-historical context behind the representation of service in Latin America. From servants’ invisibility and lack of agency to the idea of the importance of the body and manual labor, the authors tackle visual arts, cinema and literature from the 19th to the 21st century.

Rossi emphasizes in all her work how servants are more than the hands that carry out their masters’ wishes. To see them clearly where they live in the margins, we need to learn to read literature in a new way.