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Week 8--Literary Interpretation

Anne Dalke's picture

Your formal writing assignment this week is to interpret Prodigal Summer from the point of view of Paula Gunn Allen or Lewis Hyde--or some other theorist whose work we've read together this semester (such as Michael Pollan or Barry Schwartz). If this critic were writing a review of the novel, what would s/he say about it: how it works, what's going on, what's important? (i.e.: what would Allen say about the structure of foreground/background? what does Hyde's coyote have to do w/ the coyotes in the novel? what would Schwartz's take be on the presentation of choice? or Pollan's on the treatment of the food chain?).

As a kind of "story starter"... post here your initial thoughts about/toward this assignment.

swhitt's picture

Human Interference mutates Salamanders

Here's a link to a brief article Deanna would have crowed about:
mmg's picture

Paula Gunn Allen's perspective

I am writing my paper as Paula Gunn Allen, and am recognising the Yellow woman in the main female characters of the novel and then evaluating the Keres atrributes (gynecentricity) in the novel. I will also be using some of Allen's feminist perceptions in the paper.
mlapiana's picture

Pollan's Interpretation of Kingsolver's Prodigal Summer

Pollan and Kingsolver tend to agree on evolution/natural selection, the interconnectedness of every aspect of the natural world and that human's role as an omnivore shapes who we are. Pollan tends to focus on the ethics and effects that humans food choices have on the natural world wheras Kingsolver addresses the animal-like urges and instintual apects of human nature especially related to sex. Does anyone have more imput on how Pollan would interpret Prodigal Summer? Ann? Peter? Any suggestions?
Anne Dalke's picture

argumentation...or not?

It's certainly the case that you can find lots of passages in Prodigal Summer that sound as though they could have come straight out of The Omnivore's Dilemma: from "I don't love animals as individuals...I love them as a whole species...they should have the right to persist in their own ways" (177) to "specializing makes life more risky. If their food dies, they die" (348-9). So one way to read the novel would be as a re-interpretation of the story of what is "normal," what is "right" in farming; it describes what might happen if we make different choices than we have in the past.

But this assumes that a novel makes an argument...does/can it? Or is a fictional text a different "kettle of fish" from the sort of non-fictional prose project Pollan's taken on? (I use this passage to kick off another of my courses, in Critical Feminist Studies: “…literature is...the place where impasses can be kept and opened for examination, questions can be guarded and not forced into a premature validation of the available paradigms. Literature…is…the work of giving-to-read those impossible contradictions that cannot yet be spoken." Barbara Johnson: The Feminist Difference: Literature, Psychoanalysis, Race and Gender, 1998).

akaltwasse's picture

"I love crotchety old men and sassy old women."

For my paper, I'll be examining Garnett and Nannie through Hyde's lens of the "trickster" character.  At first Nannie seems like she's the trickster, but Garnett is often fooled by his own misreadings of ambiguous figures (Nannie).  Still, it is not fully correct to say that Nannie doesn't embody the qualities of a trickster at all, but it is possible that they are a construct of Garnett's mind.  Also, Garnett has poor vision, and so his vision could be an aspect of him that has trickster characteristics.  Garnett is pretty much his own trickster, resulting in hilarity such as shoplifting chemicals and false-alarm strokes.
msmith07's picture

... you really DO love

... you really DO love crochety old men and sassy old women! :D
jfahl's picture

My Paper topic. unless i'm inspired by another choice

I plan to write from Lewis Hydes perspective and annalyze the Lusa, Deanna and Garrets choices throughout the book. What their individual methods for choosing goals and satisfying appetites . Why they make choices based on these needs or wishes. How the context or setting of a situation effects choice. I also want to focus on the seperation of goals, why they are so different. And how the interaction of story lines effects this.
mkmerrill's picture

Eating the organs of appetite

I am interested in comparing Deanna's cycle to that of the Raven in Hyde's telling of "Raven Becpmes Voracious". I don't think Deanna is a trickster, but rather, like the young prince she eats the scabs of her wounds. I think her interaction with Eddie Bondo (who is fits the image of a trickster and who I will try to prtray as one) results in her becoming like the raven; becoming more hungry for a world that is unlike her own and as a result of her hunger she is forced to leave her ideal setting (her descent from the mountains) and start a new.

abhattacha's picture


1. The leitmotif in Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver is appetite . Through time and space , appetite drives action .
2. Like Coyote the Trickster , Man walks the path between high and low ( descending into hunger or ascending or restraining hunger ) .
3. The day might might even dawn when we find a trickster who has managed to distance himself from appetite .
ebrennanpr's picture

Paper Plan

For my paper, I’m going to examine the duality within Deanna’s character.  Does she fit squarely within a modern feminist perspective?  Deanna is certainly independent and presents a predatory, formidable opponent for men.  On the other hand, does her inability to accept her human shortcomings render it impossible for her to maintain a balanced, integral role in the surrounding world?  I am still toying with a variety of ideas in the process of forming my conclusions, but this is what I’m thinking so far ☺
jpfeiffer's picture

I plan on writing my essay

I plan on writing my essay this week on the conspicious similarities between Prodigal Summer and the Yellow Woman story. In the novel, many of the characters were women, and they were women that lived alone, whether by choice ( in the case of Deanna), or through unfortunate circumstances such as in the case of Lusa after Cole's death. The Yellow Woman's story, according to our reading, "highlights her alientation from the people" or a "woman who refuses to marry". The behavior of women is described as being unconventional or non-conforming in the Yellow Woman Tales, and I think that most of the behavior of the women seen in the novel coincides with this idea. For example, Lusa, through staying at the Widener farm is essentially going against the will of Cole's family, however her willingness to love and accept Jewel's children as her own highlights the "Role of a woman"' and accentuates the characteristics of what can be seen as a role model - an idea that is highly praised in Yellow Woman tales. Again, Deanna's desire to live her life on own greatly portrays the Yellow Woman ideal of self independence.
msmith07's picture

As much as I'm interested in

As much as I'm interested in the other aspects of Prodigal Summer (such as the interdependency of species in the foodchain), I think the ideas I find most interesting are the roles of women in the stories. In the "Predator" storyline there is a very distinct difference between males and females, described at length from a pedantic biological viewpoint. The difference between the sexes carries over to the other two storylines, though in more colloquial contexts, with "Old Chestnuts" and "Moth Love". All three of these storylines are presented with a nature-heavy background, similar to the native american Yellow Woman folk tales, and I would like to explore all four of these stories' characters by looking at the relationships and interdependency not of the species, but of the sexes.
swhitt's picture

Who's the villain?

I like the way the Kingsolver novel plays with each character's perceptions of villainry. Are coyotes a threat to the farmer, is the modern aggressive farmer a threat to the ecosystem (and thereby himself), is the Widener family hostile toward Lusa or vice versa, etc.? Beyond the buckets of misunderstanding, each character speaks as if they are choosing the most moral path, while in reality they may simply be choosing the lives that best suit them and weaving a justification after the fact.  If this is the case, they are all tricksters to some extent, primarily tricking themselves. My question then becomes: which is better, to be an unwitting or intentional trickster?  I'll argue the latter, although our society tends to assign sinister qualities to these folks (not without reason, although perhaps narrowminded/short-sighted-ly).
Anne Dalke's picture

Weaving a Justification After the Fact...

You're anticipating here the territory of ethics that we'll be traveling into once we're done with Prodigal Summer. One of the upcoming essays, "The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail," argues that moral judgment is generally the result of quick, automatic evaluations (intuitions); moral reasoning comes after, is usually a post-hoc construction, generated after a judgment has been reached.
nmackow's picture

predator becomes prey becomes predator anew.

I think Hyde's trickster and Kere's Yellow Woman (nature's aide between itself, the seasons and mankind) are both manifested in the characters of Prodigal Summer. I would like to focus on Deanna's character through the lens of Hyde, taking into account his notion that tricksters, despite all cleverness, are capable of being tricked and that they have also been shown to learn from their mistakes.
Shoshi's picture


I am going to write my paper about balance, or the lack of it, in the story. There is always some sortof balancein the story that needs to be fixed, interpersonal relationships and relationships with the ecosystem as well. I believe this goes along well with the tale of compromise in the Keres Indian tale. 
Yellow's picture

Prodigal Summer Paper Prewrite

I will write my paper on the predator prey relationships in the novel Prodigal Summer as well as in Hyde's interpretation, specifically focusing on the fact that the trickster is one step ahead of the prey. I will analyze who "wears the pants" in each relationship, and how the role of women as continuing the species or picking up the projects left by men is a fundamental principle in ecology.

Also, the idea of scabs creating appetite has caught my attention. Is it possible that each character's development arises from overcoming their own woundedness and their hunger for a normal/better life is caused by their personal tragedies/incompleteness? 

Anne Dalke's picture

The Trickery of Pregnancy

See above for some related interesting thoughts about what happens when woman becomes the trickster--and then becomes pregnant: does that move her out of the category, or expand it in some fundamental way?
lwacker's picture

Tricky Tricksters

After reading Hyde's interpretation of the archetypal trickster character as seen in various cultural contexts I have decided to write my paper on Kingsolver's incorporation of the trickster character in the form of the coyote and the predator prey relationship that evolves between Deanna and the coyotes she is tracking. I think it will be interesting to determine who really acts as the dominant trickster, Deanna or the coyote clan, because both possess the qualities of trickster as Hyde describes the character. Also, I am curious as to why Kingsolver chose the coyote over the raven as the physical animal embodiment of the trickster in her novel. 
hwiencek's picture

paper topic

I am planning on writing my paper through the lens of Lewis Hyde, analyzing the main characters of the novel (Lusa, Deanna, and Garnett) as tricksters.  I want to focus on their methods of obtaining their goals/fulfilling their appetites--including the fact that both the methods and goals themselves are quite different.  Also, I would like to explore the outcomes of each of their storylines--particularly the idea that these could be "prerequisites of art".
Anne Dalke's picture

traveling aimlessly

Interesting. One way I'm not sure that these characters work as tricksters is that they are all so embedded in their location, and so knowing of it. Hyde says that the trickster "travels aimlessly," "wanders blindly," has a "context of no context"--as opposed to those with "species knowledge," who are "situated in space by nature." Isn't that a pretty good description of each of Kingsolver's well-situated characters?
cantaloupe's picture

woman trickster

Lewis Hyde soley uses the pronoun "he" when he describes the trickster, but in Prodigal Summer Deanna has characteristics of a trickster.  I am going to compare and contrast Deanna and Eddie Bondo to prove that women can be tricksters as well as men.  My final, open-ended thought is going to consider that Deanna returns home from the mountain because of her pregnancy, while Eddie Bondo moves onward fulfilling his life as a trickster.  Are women fundamentally unable to be tricksters because they can bear children?    
Anne Dalke's picture

tricky proof!

I like your attempt to "extend" Hyde's trickster character, to "test" whether--or how, or how differently--the role might be played by a woman. One caution only: a single data point (and a fictional one @ that, the character of Deanna) doesn't constitute a "proof." What does? What might? How conclusive can your proof be?
mcchen's picture

Paper Topic

I will be interpreting the coyotes in Prodigal Summer from the eyes of Lewis Hyde.  Coyotes are misunderstood by the characters in Prodigal Summer because they fall prey to the Coyotes' trickster ways.  As a trickster, coyotes will take on multiple roles within a setting, for example Eddie Bondo interprets coyotes as the enemy and predator while Deanna feels they are the victim and should be protected.  They take on these roles in order for survival and to learn from their mistakes.  Coyotes survive the traps set out by all the farmers because they are motivated by their appetite to not be tricked more than once.  Therefore, even though the farmers set out more and more traps, coyotes still thrive and possibly endanger their livestock. 
Anne Dalke's picture


what interests me about this project is the way it "loops"--on the one hand, Hyde uses the "natural" behavior of coyotes in the wild to explain, metaphorically, the behavior of certain literary characters. what i hear mcchen doing is looping back: applying Hyde's metaphoric attributes back to some "real" (okay, well, fictional, but animal) characters to explain why the humans don't get 'em, don't understand their behavior. cool.
emily's picture

compare and contrast

At first I was at a loss because I did not see any connections between either of the essays to the novel. I also did not know how to interpret a novel without creating a foreground and background. However, I have decided to write from Allen's perspective and use her model of a tribal story, that of balance with no foreground or background as a model for my essay, comparing and contrasting the novel to her ideas about tribal feminism. I will explain in the first paragraph that I am doing this from "my" own model, comparing and contrasting to avoid conflict, foregrounding and backgrounding, with harmonious balance. However in my conclusion I will write about how while it is possible for a story, like the tribal story of yellow woman, to have no foreground or background, it is impossible to interpret anything using "my" model of an ecosystem because by interpreting, I am picking and choosing and therefore creating a foreground and background. 
Anne Dalke's picture


This is so intriguing: really sounds like a straight-on challenge to the model of focused argumentation that we've been working towards in the other papers so far. Can't wait to see where it goes...maybe (w/ the help of Paula Gunn Allen and emily) I'll be re-evaluating my dismissal of "compare and contrast" papers as being too "even-handed."
emily's picture

Allen drives me crazy.

Allen contradicts herself everywhere!!! Every time I prove one of my points with a quote or idea from her, I find one that opposes it!!!! She is driving me crazy.
Anne Dalke's picture


...maybe because you are expecting consistency and logical argumentation, in a context which is modeling a different way of seeing the world...?
eolecki's picture

Importance of Women

I didn't not realize until after our discussion about the connections between the yellow woman story and Prodigal Summer that Prodigal Summer is mainly about women. 2/3 of the main characters are women, and even the story line about Garnett revolves around woman.  In the very first section about Garnett, he thinks "a woman is an anchor" and his neighbor Miss Nannie Rawley, is basically the main focus of his life.

I am going to focus on the connections between Garnett's story and the characteristics the women in his life have in common with the yellow woman story.  

stephkim's picture


The Prodigal Summer emphasizes balance and i want to discuss that using Allen's perspective on balance in the Keres Indian tale. The tale seems to be fitting for one of the stories in Prodigal Summer (winter vs summer seasons and love vs coyotes, organic vs. green, etc).

stephkim's picture

after rereading allen's

after rereading allen's paper and organizing my thoughts, i think im going to write about how allen would view the main character (Deanna Wolf) and her interactions with Eddie from the first story in prodigal summer (predators)

I recognized that 'balance' was too broad and wanted to narrow it down, but seemed like i was stating the obvious so-_- HAHA


Anne Dalke's picture


Kingsolver's novel is very "ecological," in the old sense of the term, as one of balance. But much contemporary ecological work focuses on the multiple imbalances, the dynamics, of the natural world. And eolecki's note, below, regarding the centrality of women in the book makes me think how correspondingly peripheral the men are: Garnett can't function without one as "anchor," Cole gets killed off early, Eddie drops his seed and moves on. What kind of gender imbalance is being portrayed here? And why/to what end?
Anne Dalke's picture

Ballot Measures

Two NYTimes articles of relevance this week: one about Your Brain's Secret Ballot (or, those still-undecided voters): decision-making is thought to involve two parts, gathering evidence and committing to a choice...Inherent to this process is a trade-off between speed and accuracy. Commit early and you can get on with your life. Take more time and you might make a wiser or more accurate decision....

and one about A California Ballot Measure Offering Rights for Farm Animals: Proposition 2 would require that animals be provided room to turn around, lie down, stand up and fully extend their limbs: "a well-intended initiative for animals with some very negative unintended consequences for people,” the ballot measure is being pushed by “wealthy, narrow-minded elitists” who "do not understand its real-world consequences."

SaraO's picture

Prodigal Summer

The Prodigal Summer provided a very neat connection amongst three complex stories. Instead of leaving a bit of mystery and intrigue for the reader, we are flatly given the link, leaving nothing to the imagination. This book in effect does not fit in with the rest of our course which emphasizes the importance of personal interpretation and choice. 

I will be defending this position as Paul Groebstein. 

Anne Dalke's picture

desire for ambiguity?

I'm amused to imagine that the critical voice you'll be "ventriloquizing" this week will not be one of the writers we read--Hyde, Gunn Allen, Pollan or Schwartz--but rather one of the professors who visited our class in person. Paul's insistence that "incoming information is always ambiguous, and subject to multiple interpretations," that in a world in constant flux, our brains "locate and give meaning to randomness" forms a striking framework for judging the usefulness--because ambiguousness--of the texts we're using in this course. I look forward to your critique of Kingsolver's explicit "linking."
ihe's picture

I'm going to do my paper

I'm going to do my paper by interpreting Lusa's dream about making love to her husband, a moth.  In the paper I'm going to try and interpret from anthropologist’s point of view. To step out of my opinions, but use other facts to prove if she would or would not make the choice of sleeping with a moth if she was conscious, and that it was not a drea.

Anne Dalke's picture

the law of appetite

Remembering Paul's query about "which part of us makes choices," I'm thinking it might be even more interesting to think about what Lusa's unconscious is telling her (and us: about her) in this dream...why does it "work" for her to dream about her husband as a moth? I'm thinking also about Lewis Hyde's description of how we each "color ourselves" to fit our surroundings (so: who/what is the true self)? Does that quandry describe Lusa? Am thinking also of Hyde's idea that the "law of appetite" drives us all, that "suffering from unrestrained appetites leads us to consciousness regarding them....": also descriptive of Lusa?