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Prodigal Summer: To Nudge or Not to Nudge?

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 Kathy De La Hoz


Paper 9, ESem

November 6, 2009


To Nudge or Not to Nudge?


The word “prodigal”, as defined by Merriam Webster Online Dictionary, means “to yield abundantly” and “to be characterized by profuse or wasteful expenditure.” Such a word is a fitting part of the title for Barbara Kingsolver’s novelProdigal Summer, which takes place during a fruitful and excessively abundant summer. Prodigal Summer largely focuses on the ecological balance of the natural world and the processes of birth and death. Kingsolver uses the relationshipsbetween both Deanna and Eddie and Lusa and Rickie to demonstrate our primal nature. The choices that Deanna and Lusa make can be accounted for by the biological cues their bodies are unconsciously picking up – “nudging” their attraction, as Thaler & Sunstein would say, toward their male counterparts. However, while the attraction that both women exert is unconscious, the choice on whether to act on the attraction is an entirely conscious choice made by each of them.

Strikingly, both Deanna and Lusa, the novel’s two central female characters, are much older than their male counterparts. Deanna is much older than Eddie while Lusa is much older than Rickie. Deanna has a “long brown bolt [of braid] threaded with silver” (Kingsolver 5); she was “a wife past forty to an older husband that was facing his own age badly” (Kingsolver 19). Through details such as this, Kingsolvercompares Deanna’s age  to that of Eddie, who is “very much younger than she [with] dark green eyes and a deeply muscular build” (Kingsolver 4). Similarly, Lusa, widowed at twenty-eight, is a decade older than her “seventeen year old boy” (Kingsolver 159) nephew, Rickie. This type of sexual relationship is unconventional in our society, where the majority of couples are older men with younger women.

Although not humanly conventional, both Deanna’s relationship with Eddie and Lusa’s relationship with Rickie exemplifies the types of relationships often seen in nature. For most living creatures, especially insects, hormones called pheromones are “scent cues animals use to find and identify [potential] mates” (Kingsolver 37). Females can release pheromones that indicate when they are ready to breed and males can release pheromones that convey information about their species and genotype (Pheromone). Males that are the most biologically fit will release pheromones that indicate their superior genotypic ‘fitness’ and so be able to attract the most females because their genes are the most favorable.  

Kingsolver uses pheromones to explain Deanna and Eddie’s relationship. In the beginning, Deanna questions how she could possibly be attracted to Eddie: the reasonable thing to do is to “stand up and walk away from him but when he bent his face sideways toward hers she couldn’t stop herself from laying a hand on his jaw” (Kingsolver 22).  But in the context of this ecologically-minded novel, women, like all creatures, are attracted to biological fitness; they are drawn to men who release pheromones that indicate that they have favorable genes. Thus, Deanna – an older woman – is attracted to Eddie – a younger man – because he exudes health and fitness. Deanna is being nudged by her unconscious to be attracted to Eddie; she may not be aware of it, but her body is picking up all the necessary biological cues.

Likewise, pheromones can be used to explain Lusa and Eddie’s relationship. Lusa is struck by fantasies of Rickie’s “bare chest and arms, and putting her head there and being held by him” (Kingsolver 158).  She becomes acutely aware of “every nerve ending in her breasts and her lips” (Kingsolver 414) when Rickie lightly touches her neck. She is almost immediately mortified by these fantasies, questioning if she is ‘losing her mind’ (Kingsolver 158) for having such thoughts about her nephew. But her attraction to Rickie, like Deanna’s to Eddie, can be explained by pheromones: Lusa is drawn to his health and fitness. Both Lusa and Deanna’s decisions to be with younger men are heavily influenced by factors they are unaware of, made by their automatic system, in part due to unconscious decisions made for them by cues their bodies are picking up. Kingsolver especially alludes to this in Deanna and Eddie’s relationship by describing their love making in very stark, animalistic terms. In one such instance, Kingsolver compares their love making to that of “a lion on a lioness in heat: a gentle, sure bite, by mutual agreement impossible to escape” (Kingsolver 97). Using such language emphasizes the raw, primordial like desire of Deanna and Eddie for each other.

But, as Thaler and Sunstein explain in their book on decision-making,Nudge, our brains can make decisions using either our automatic system or our reflective system. The automatic system, or our ‘rational’ system, is “rapid, feels instinctive, and does not involve what we usually associate with the world thinking” (Thaler & Sunstein 19). Decisions made with this system are generally effortless, fast, and unconscious. The reflective system, or our ‘rational’ system, is “more deliberate and self-conscious” (Thaler & Sunstein 19).

While both Deanna and Lusa are nudged by their unconscious to be attracted to their younger male counterparts, both are consciously aware of this unconscious nudge. Lusa knows all about pheromones, realizing that “men were fluttering around her like moths [because] she was fertile and [she must be trailing pheromones]” (230).  Similarly, Deanna knows that simply walking “down the street [in the middle day of her cycle could] turn men’s heads. [The men] didn’t know why, [they] only knew that they wanted her [because] that was how pheromones seemed to work” (Kingsolver 92). Because both women are aware of these unconscious nudges, they do not have to be subject to their primordial desires – they can choose whether they act on it or not. Herein lies what Thaler and Sunstein would identify as the most important difference between Deanna and Lusa: while both women are nudged by pheromones to be attracted to younger men, they do not both act on their desires.

Deanna chooses to act on these primal feelings, and has sex with a younger man,  while Lusa chooses not to. The environment of each woman explains the differences in their choices. Deanna is much more in touch with nature, choosing to live a solitary life as a wildlife monitor in Zebulon forest.  The way her body ‘moves with the frankness that comes from solitary habits’ (Kingsolver 1) indicates the amount of time she’s spent by herself. Deanna has spent enough time alone to acquire ‘a blind person’s indifference to her own face” (Kingsolver 2). Because Deanna has lived so long with such little human contact, she is more in tune with the natural world than with the human one. Without the eye of society on her, she canfreely follow the wants and needs of her body – and thus gives into her attraction to Eddie.

Her decision is in stark contrast to Lusa’s choice not to act on her primal attraction to Rickie. When Rickie confesses his feelings to her, she realizes how “easy [it would be] to invite him into the house, upstairs, to the huge soft bed. How comforting it would be to be taken away from her solitary self and held against his solid, lovely body” (Kingsolver 414). She even acknowledges that “it would be fun, maybe even more than fun”(Kingsolver 416). But because she, unlike Deanna, operates under the eye of society, she takes into account what other people will think of her. She knows that Rickie is a minor; what she wants with him is impossible and “a crime [that his] mother and aunts would probably see that [she] got the chair” for (Kingsolver 416). 
          Because she is situated within a social situation, Lusa does not have the same luxury that Deanna has to let her romance play out naturally without judging stares and whispers. Even Deanna admits that under any other circumstance, her relationship with Eddie would be different. Deanna can’t imagine “[walking] down the street together in Knoxville [because] people would gawk, [especially because she’s] half a foot taller [than Eddie and] nineteen years older” (Kingsolver 256).Other people’s scrutiny plays a big role in determining how free we feel to consciously follow our unconscious urges.



Works Cited


Kingsolver, Barbara. Prodigal Summer. New York: HarperCollins, 2000. Print.


"Pheromone." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Web. 30 Oct. 2009. <>.


Thaler, Richard H., and Cass R. Sunstein. Nudge, Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. New York: Penguin Group, 2008. Print.