Most of Liz’s difficulties in “Cake” stem from the mechanisms of capitalism. She and her husband, Andrew, are “locked into” a mortgage that requires two incomes to pay off, and even though Liz’s work is necessary in this respect, she finds the actual content of her work menial and pointless. Her dependence on the salary provided by her dull 9-to-5 office job forces her to endure tedious, repetitive work and separate from her child before she feels ready. Kennedy uses Liz’s despair surrounding work and finances to showcase the toll modern capitalism takes on families, especially working mothers.
After struggling with the sadness of dropping off her son, Daniel, at daycare, Liz drives to her workplace, where her first impression is of stagnation. The office appears unchanged from when she took maternity leave, and “only the calendar has been changed.” She finds the note she left her replacement, rife with underlined reminders about copies and spreadsheets, and is struck by the meaninglessness of it. “As if it meant something, as if things would all fly apart without her, as if anyone would give a flying toss,” she thinks bitterly. As Liz goes through her day, she experiences “the endless clock-watching dreariness of it.” When she feels overwhelmed by boredom and longing for her son, she reminds herself “The salary. Eyes on the salary.” Kennedy draws the reader’s attention to the monotony of office work by juxtaposing Liz’s boredom and stress with the cheerful informational pamphlet’s assurance that a return to work, “where your expertise and skills are valued,” is a relief after staying home. For Liz, however, the financial obligation to return to meaningless tasks when she would rather be at home raising her son is the opposite of relief—it is a source of immense unhappiness.
Even though Liz returns to work for the sake of earning money, her return ends up costing her in more ways than one. “Can you put in three dollars? For the morning tea,” Liz’s coworker asks her. In addition to contributing her labor and time to her office, Liz is also expected to contribute actual money to social activities she feels no enthusiasm for. When she reaches to remove a five-dollar note from her wallet, she notices a picture of Daniel and is reminded of the time she is spending away from him. Kennedy uses the juxtaposition of the picture of Liz’s son and the money she is paying for a work-related event to illustrate that capitalism has both an emotional and financial cost.
The difficulties of capitalism, the necessity of work and the implications of home ownership also impact Liz’s relationship with her husband. When Liz returns home from her stressful day and tells her husband of her struggles, he doesn’t sympathize. Instead, he reminds her of the necessity of her income by emphasizing that they’re stuck in this situation because of their finances. Kennedy reveals that prior to Liz’s return to work, she and her husband spent a great deal of time conducting a “grim assessment of their down-to-the-wire mortgage.” Liz experiences a strong sense of hopelessness as she reminds herself, “She’s going to have to do this every day, so she’d better pull herself together right now.” She also notices that her unsympathetic husband’s job seems to have had a physical effect on him. He is someone “on a peak-hour commuter train, unfit and round-shouldered.” This observation characterizes the capitalist cycle of consumerism and work as a kind of trap, one that warps both physical bodies and personal relationships.
Liz’s unhappiness with the eight-hour workday and the financial pressures of homeownership put the challenges of working motherhood on display. As Liz struggles to find sympathy for her plight, Kennedy invites readers to speculate on solutions that might offset the personal and financial costs of a capitalist society.
Capitalism Quotes in Cake
And he’s in there, alone, where she’s left him. Abandoned him to a roomful of rampaging strangers: big, chunky, runny-nose buzz-cut boys in miniature camouflage gear, already seasoned commanders of the play equipment and the puzzles.
Another set of glass doors: her own boundary gates this time, back at her old office, still with the two dusty ficus trees in the foyer, unchanged; perhaps they’re plastic, she’s never noticed before. Her work colleagues all at the same desks, Stella at the front reception, same smell of cardboard and carpet vacuum powder; only the calendar has been changed.
‘I mean,’ she fumbles, feeling her face flush, ‘I’m very glad to be back, of course, but I actually like staying home. I’ve liked it, I mean.’ She senses, as they nod and smile, that this is not the answer they want.
These are the cakes that have marked each office birthday and celebration, cakes that leave a fur of sugar on your teeth and a pile of brightly colored crumbs, cakes you need to empty the remains of into your desk bin when nobody’s looking.
Being a stay-at-home mum can begin to seem mundane and repetitive to many women who have experienced the challenges of a satisfying job and the stimulation of daily adult conversation, it begins.
Liz fishes out her wallet and finds a five-dollar note, snaps it shut before she has to look at the photo of Daniel tucked in there. His shy smile like a boobytrap. He’d have his thumb in his mouth right not. Not smiling, that’s for sure.
And those conscientious exclamation marks, as if it all urgently mattered. As if it meant something, as if things would fall apart without her, as if anybody could give a flying toss.
Liz concentrates on swallowing the claggy paste of cheese and pasta in her mouth. God in heaven, she thinks, forcing it down, if anyone else mentions fucking cake again today I’m going to burst a blood vessel.
‘That’s what I mean. Having to walk into a room full of pretty competitive strangers, all with their own agendas. That’s a bit of a tough gauntlet to run, doing it cold like that, getting thrown into the mix.’
The day yawning ahead with tiny variations, the endless clock-watching dreariness of it. The salary. Eyes on the salary.
‘We agreed it was always only going to be a temporary thing, you staying home,’ he goes on in a low, reasonable voice, his back still to her. ‘Because, you know, we’re locked into this.’
Something is tearing inside her, slowly and deliberately, like a perforated seam. And even as she’s admonishing herself that giving in will only make things worse tomorrow, her hands are functioning outside her own volition again, unbuttoning her shirt.