I think that the class is familiar enough with the critical tools we’ve amassed in the last ten weeks to bring them to bear on The Girl. We need to consider two things with regard to this novel. First, its ideological content– specifically Le Sueur’s critique of Depression Era society and her sense of what it would take (what values would be necessary) to change that situation. Second, we should focus on the methods by which Le Sueur establishes that content. Using all of the familiar terms of literary analysis– plot, character, diction, etc.– we should be able to assess how the formal aesthetic choices of The Girl work to assert a definite vision of society.
This will mean thinking about some of the overt themes present in the novel. Clearly the status of women– their position in the world and their relationships to men and one another– is significant. In addition, as was discussed in lecture on Friday, the Body itself is an object of Le Sueur’s scrutiny. Her characters are all deeply rooted in their physicality: they hunger, they suffer, they desire. In a sense this is the basis for a possible solidarity. At our most elemental we are natural beings with all of the limits and possibilities that embodiment implies. Each of us understands what it means to be cold, to seek warmth, or to feel alone.
Le Sueur makes no secret of the fact that hers is an explicitly political position. The statements, conversations, and interior monologues of her characters– particularly Amelia, an organizer for the Workers’ Alliance– criticize harsh economic conditions and narrow gender roles. In this context– no jobs, no money, little hope– the American Dream, the promise that hard work leads to prosperity, becomes a kind of sick joke. The Girl, written in a moment of profound crisis, turns on its head the virtually compulsory optimism of Americans not to reject out of hand the possibility of a better life, but to argue that our redemption can come only through the redefinition of our relationships and, ultimately, collective action. In this sense the novel runs directly counter to one of the most powerful claims of US “common sense”– a core ideological investment in the potency of “enlightened self-interest” which animates Frank Cowperwood and, to a lesser extent, Olaudah Equiano. Such a belief– that society is an aggregate of self-interested individuals, a whole that is always reducible to its constituent parts– is the very lifeblood of the culture of capitalism and has been naturalized to a degree that many people have great difficulty in even acknowledging it as a cultural value rather than an objective fact. Recall that this particular situation– the conflation of fact with value– is ideological in the extreme. As has been argued by Roland Barthes and others, ideology is that which is most present when it seems to be absent, when culture is perceived to be nature.
In other words a careful reading of The Girl in light of the concepts of culture and ideology– their various meanings and functions– can ultimately help us to interrogate the very values which structure our sense of what is real and what is possible, socially.
On Monday I will ask you to reflect on a passage from Le Sueur’s novel, paying particular attention to the values critiqued and/or expressed.
If you have any questions about the above please raise them with me, either in the comments section or in class.