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The Paradox of Choice: Prodigal or Not?

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Jessica Hye Jin Lee
Professor Anne Dalke
Food For Thought
November 6th, 2009
Project #9
The Paradox of Choice: Prodigal or Not?
            In Schwartz’s definition, “maximizers need to be assured that every decision was the best that could be made. Satisficers settle for something that is good enough and not worry about the possibility that there might be something better” (Schwartz 78). Every moment, we choose different paths of decision. With the novel Prodigal Summer, Barbara Kingsolver beautifully lays out the challenges in making choices by intertwining three distinct but common-themed stories. In “Predator,” “Moth Love,” and “Chestnut,” the main characters reflect upon their values through the challenges they face. These entirely different individuals serve as focused, personalized examples of the paradox of choice. In Schartz’s point of view, each character begins as maximizers and becomes satisficers through the challenges in their relationships with people around them. They learn to reconcile with the world in their hardships and become more satisfied with their lives and surroundings.
            Deanna becomes a satisficer from a maximizer through her relationship with Eddie Bondo. After her first marriage that failed to acknowledge her identity as an independent woman, she decides to hide herself by isolating herself from men in order to have absolute control over her emotions. She may initially seem independent and strong, but isolation is a compromise in disguise. By isolating herself, she rejects her identity as a woman in entirety and avoids dealing with men, instead of challenging herself to become truly independent. She is not any less vulnerable after she spends time in solitude. She initially seems to be free “to follow [her] own rules [with] a long-legged gait too fast for companionship” (Kingsolver 2). However, shortly after 28-year-old attractive man Eddie Bondo shows up, she lets him “clobber her thoughts” (Kingsolver 19). Her reaction to his presence reflects that she had been forcing herself to solitude in her attempt to have an absolute control over the number of choices she can choose. She forcibly tries to control her behaviors because she has “very high standards that [she] expects to meet” as a maximizer (Schwartz 91). When she meets her lover, she is faced with a long, confusing train of thoughts. This reflects how much Deanna had avoided dealing with her problem by isolating herself. When she finally decides to accept that she has fallen love with Eddie Bondo, she learns to be a satisficer. However, she is not settling by choosing to reconcile with her emotions. Instead, she is realizing that “when all the costs in time, money, and anguish…are factored in, satisficing is the maximizing strategy” (Schwartz 79). Surprisingly, ceasing to control all the variables in her life gives her the most satisfaction. In the end, she feels much more honest and therefore comfortable with herself as a satisficer.
            Lusa reflects the change from maximizer to satisficer in a similar way. Lusa initially differentiates herself as a former postdoctoral assistant from the rest of country people. She ridicules her country life: “the former National Science Foundation scholar with the most coveted post graduate fellowship in her department [is] now wielding her influence on the world through acts of vengeful cooking” (Kingsolver 44). With her desperate effort to view her life from a scholar’s point of view, which she considers to be the best, she only drives out satisfaction in her life.  As a result, she fails to notice that she would actually be maximizing her happiness if she had learned to appreciate unique joys in country life. It is only when Cole is killed in an accident that she becomes willing to actively observe the country life that has had an enormous influence on her husband’s life. When she finally farms herself, she realizes that she should perceive country life in the context of Zebulon Country, rather than that of academia. In doing so, she recognizes the joys in farming and living with nature. By perceiving the world as a satisficer, Lusa expands her parochial view that had been focused solely on academics. Deanna and Lusa’s stories taken together demonstrate the advantages of becoming a satisficer.
            Challenges Garnett faces explain why the goal of maximizing is unfeasible in the first place. The conservative and stoic man is a maximizer who also has very high expectations for himself to meet all of his ethical standards based on the Bible. In his effort to lead a supposedly correct religion life, he forces to make all his actions according to the Bible verses. Contrary to his beliefs, he ends up judging Nannie based on his limited interpretation of the Bible. But as he learns more about Nannie in person, he recognizes that there are different aspects from which to view ethics. He realizes that he had falsely imagined Nannie to have been “put on this earth to try his soul and tempt his faith into doubt” (Kingsolver 83). In fact, when he is willing to accept a different point of view, he learns to comprehend and adore Nannie to the degree that he falls in love with her. The change in Garnett’s attitude shows that “the goal of maximizing is a source of great dissatisfaction. It can make people miserable,” by holding out the false hope for a perfect solution (Schwartz 78-79). With the countless choices the world provides, maximizing is an overwhelming task that can never be completed.
            As shown from the three main characters, satisficing brings much more happiness to them from Schwartz’s point of view. However, Kingsolver seems to have intended otherwise. Schwartz’s argument is limited in that it highlights individual characters rather than recognizing the greater theme of the novel that revolves around Zebulon County. It does not take account of the intertwining structure of the novel that was mainly designed to reflect the interactions between Zebulon County and its residents. Kingsolver is actually advocating maximizing, arguing that we need to pay attention to details in our ecological system. When the characters are maximizers, they are conscious individuals who are able to take account of the world outside their cultural boundaries. By applying maximization to ecology, Kingsolver takes this dilemma between satisficing and maximizing to a greater level and recognizes the complexity in nature. Unlike Schwartz, she portrays characters to be happier as maximizers, who are responsible and concerned for maintaining ecological system.
            Through Deanna, Kingsolver emphasizes the significance of recognizing the complexity of ecosystem and maximizing our knowledge in order to preserve the ecological variation. In the novel, Deanna determines the importance of different species by how much impact its survival or death would have on the ecosystem as a whole. She mentions that animals are “to do something important in [their] time—eat a lot of things, or to be eaten. There’s all these connected things…they can’t all be [one’s] enemy, because one of those connected things is [oneself]” (Kingsolver 320). Through this, Kingsolver argues that it is essential to maximize and recognize the sophisticated connections between species, rather than failing to consider the consequences of our actions. When Deanna argues with Eddie about killing coyotes, she argues that ranchers need to recognize the complexity in survival of coyotes because “after a hundred years of systematic killing, there are more coyotes now than there have ever been, in more places than they ever lived before… [since] they are real used to being hunted” (Kingsolver 325). This reflects that satisficing could often be unbeneficial. Hunting coyotes, solely motivated by the eaten sheep in ranches, surprisingly does not result in a decrease in coyote population. With this, Kingsolver acknowledges that maximizing can be challenging. But at the same time, she claims that it is not beneficial to resort to avoid the challenges in maximizing our perspectives.
            The importance of maximizing is also presented through the delicateness of ecosystem Lusa comprehends. When her cousin Rickie volunteers to kill the coyote, Lusa tells him that she “can’t see killing a thing that beautiful just on suspicion” and that she “could lose a goat through [her] own stupidity and [she is] not about to kill [herself]” (Kingsolver 413). Rather than only thinking about the possibility of losing her goats, she understands the potential consequences of coyote’s death. Perceiving herself to be part of the same ecosystem to which coyote belongs, she also believes that it is natural for a coyote to kill a goat for its survival. Her understanding differs from that of Eddie, who travels from Wyoming solely to hunt coyotes. Kingsolver utilizes this contrast to present Lusa’s tendency to maximize as righteous and superior. She delivers the message that Eddie’s satisficing personality drives him to become an individual with a parochial view, unaware of the greater consequences of his decisions.
            Throughout the novel, the emphasis on maximizing and recognizing the complexity of the ecosystem is prevalent due to Kingsolver’s argument for preserving ecological variation. In her point of view, “there’s nothing more important as having variety [because] that’s how life can still go on when the world changes…It’s the greatest invention life ever made” (Kingsolver 390). However, it is ironical that the plot of the novel contradicts this idea. She designs the plot so that the main characters learn to reconcile with the world throughout their hardships. By the end of the novel, the characters may be satisfied with their lives, but they lose their unique personalities. The ecological variation in those characters is gone. This is paradoxical since the main focus of the novel is on preserving ecological variation. Although Kingsolver initially recognizes that humans are part of the ecosystem, stating that animals “can’t be [our] enemy because one of those connected things is [ourselves],” she contradicts herself by taking out distinctive individual qualities out of main characters as the novel progresses (Kingsolver 320).
            In the beginning of the novel, Deanna is a free individual who has “a blind person’s indifference to the look on her own face” (Kingsolver 2). She isolates herself desires to be independent of the society and has a passion for preserving nature. However, when she meets Eddie Bondo and becomes pregnant, she is forced to compromise with the world and join the society in order to take care of her baby. She loses her passion for maintaining the ecosystem and accepts that “it didn’t matter what she chose [because] the world was what it was, a place with its own rules of hunger and satisfaction” (Kingsolver 365). Throughout the novel, Garnett also loses his distinct personality. He begins as an opinionated, bold man who does not hesitate to reason out the wrongdoings of Nannie according to his interpretation of the Bible, writing her to “advice [that] it is a sin that does not rest lightly on any soul” (Kingsolver 185). However, he no longer thinks critically or questions the philosophy behind Nannie’s actions once he falls in love with her. Kingsolver fails to preserve the qualities that made these characters stand out, even though the essence of the novel is in preserving ecological variation.
            The paradox of choice is reflected through the changes that are made in characters and their response to human responsibilities in preserving the nature. Kingsolver addresses various human behaviors and thinking process by showing how characters come to make decisions. Although she tends to take a stance on some of the questions presented throughout the novel, she delivers mixed messages by providing alternative stances. In the novel, characters as individuals are happier as satisficers, while characters as a part of ecosystem are better off as maximizers. Such contradicting messages may seem ambivalent. However, with those, the novel successfully acknowledges the limitations in our perception of the world. It represents the nature of humans’ decisions—no single choice can take account of the world as a whole because humans are limited to think in the context of the society and culture they are familiar with. The claims on human nature and responsibility are to be seen contradictory to each other, making the novel a genuine presentation of humans’ paradoxical tendency in making decisions.
Works Cited
Kingsolver, Barbara. Prodigal Summer A Novel. New York: Harper Perennial, 2001. Print.
Schwartz, Barry. The Paradox of Choice Why More Is Less. New York: Harper Perennial, 2005.