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Confused Conscious: Decision-Making in The Prodigal Summer

Maiya Zwerling's picture

 Maiya Zwerling

Peter Brodfuehrer

Food for Thought: The Omnivore’s Dilemma

November 6, 2009

Confused Conscious: Decision-Making in The Prodigal Summer

            Barbra Kingsolver’s novel, Prodigal Summer, narrates the lives of three females, drawing connections between love, human nature, and nature itself. She introduces Deanna, a woman who lives in isolation in the wilderness to protect the plants and animals. After two years of isolation, she meets Eddie Bondo, a younger man who she quickly starts an affair with. Deanna struggles with accepting their relationship and emotionally depending on another, which forces her to make decisions that will shape her future. The theme of choice, which develops throughout the novel, relates to Barry Schwartz’s discussion of decision-making in, The Paradox of Choice. Due to Deanna’s confidence and strong will it may seem that she is a satisficer throughout, however, once Eddie Bondo enters her life, Deanna can no longer clearly navigate her emotions and, due to her inability to understand Eddie’s indeterminate character, she develops maximizer tendencies.

            Barry Schwartz introduces the terms maximizers and satisficers to help categorize the various styles of decision-making. He characterizes the inherent differences between these two types as, “the goal of choosing the absolute best [maximizer] and the goal of choosing something that is good enough [satisficer]” (Schwartz 78). Maximizers typically focus extreme amounts of energy on one decision despite the importance of that decision and will typically compare the various options for this decision until that person finds assurance that their choice outshines all others. Satisficers, on the other hand, will decide on something that fits their criteria and accept it without worrying about the possibility of finding a superior option. Maximizers and satisficers tendencies apply to both a string of decision or to individual decisions. The following essay will look at a more specific scope of decision-making. Deanna’s individual decisions and attention to the existence of such details place her in the category of a maximizer. 

            Deanna first introduces her certainty of choice through her independent desire to embrace the natural world. Although Deanna does not disclose her decisions to come to the forest in the first part of the novel, Deanna does, throughout the novel, point out her love for the natural world. From the start of the book, she demonstrates her happiness in the wilderness: “if she’d troubled to inspect her own mind on this humid, sunlit morning, she would have declared herself happy” (Kingsolver 1). Deanna feels completely satisfied while in the forest and has become very attached to the outdoors: “She touched her fingers to her upper lip, breathing that earthy smell, and tasting the wood with her tongue. She had loved this old log fiercely” (100). She has no regrets in her living situation. As the novel continues, she demonstrates her ability to listen to her desires. When in conversation even after just meeting Eddie Bondo, Deanna decides: “She would be quiet now, she decided, and she felt the familiar satisfaction of that choice” (15). Continually, Deanna reacts according to what makes her feel good, even if she risks creating an uncomfortable situation with a stranger. Schwartz would comment about her actions as “settl[ing] for something that is good enough and not worry[ing] about the possibility that there might be something better” (Schwartz 78). She determines what makes her most comfortable and accepts it without questioning it. By this point in the book, she does not consider other options because she has found comfort in her current location and situation. She reacts as a satisficer.

            When confronted with the choice of food, Deanna demonstrates her full capacity as a satisficer and listens to her gut. Once she realizes that she wants cornbread with “an ache in the thigh, a need in the gut” (Kingsolver 64), Deanna becomes completely satisfied with her decision. In fact, she fixates on this food, salivating when she thinks about it. Unlike maximizers who “generally feel less positive about their purchasing decisions” (Schwartz 83), Deanna remains so sure in her decisions that she becomes enraged when cornbread is no longer an option: “tears sprang to her eyes as she stared…[at] the cornbread…peppered with poop” (Kingsolver 65). Although Deanna compromises by eating something else because she is hungry, she curses her own desires – “to hell with body’s cravings” (65). Her over attachment to her decision could be construed as the reactions of a maximizer but, because she does not look to see if something else could satisfy her, she demonstrates complete commitment - an important characteristic of a satisficer.

            In her interactions with Eddie Bondo, Deanna begins to react different when confronted with decisions. The forest has comforted Deanna to such a great extent that she has disregarded any other options for choices including her sexual and emotional needs. Her uncertainty rises to the surface after she meets Eddie Bondo: “How had she come to this, a body that had lost all memory of human touch – was that what she’d wanted” (19). In this rare occasion, she second-guesses her desire to live the outdoor lifestyle. She continues to doubt herself and begins to doubt her own intensions. After she invites Eddie to spend the night in her home, she worries, “Was that really all she had meant? She was not sure she could bear all the hours of an evening and a night spent close to him in her tiny cabin, wanting, not touching” (21). Even from the beginning, her interactions with Eddie convert her into a maximizer by encouraging her to question her decisions. Finally, once their relationship has progressed, and after making love in the forest, she wakes up in panic and forces him off of her. Deanna physically removes her from his grasp and admits that she hates herself for “wanting [Eddie] to come back” (99). Although she communicates that she does not want him to leave, Deanna questions her desire for independence and attachment to another because she feels it demeans her. While in the forest, Deanna does not find temptation from the metropolitan lifestyle. Although she strongly enjoys his company, Deanna questions her isolation when confronted with Eddie’s presence, converting her into a maximizer.

            Due to the novel’s focus on both Deanna’s perspective and the lack of details divulged about his past, Eddie Bondo comes off as a mysterious character unwilling to fully share neither his personality nor his full self with others. Because the novel so carefully masks his decision-making, Eddie Bondo’s status as a saticficer or a maximizer can only be determined through inference of his character through the eyes of Deanna. Two important characteristics of his life – his background of sheep farming that lead to his distaste for coyotes, and his tendencies to continuously wander - each demonstrate clues that lead to his categorization as a maximizers and saticficers. This mysterious way confuses Deanna and forces her to fixate on all of his intentions.  The combination of this causes great confusion and stress in Deanna’s life.

            Deanna knows one big detail about Eddie Bondo’s past: he comes from a sheep farming family in Wyoming. Sheep farmers tend to despise coyotes because they steal and eat sheep from their farm. Because his hatred toward coyotes began at such a young age, he will never cease hating them nor killing them. He makes this clear when fighting with Deanna over protecting coyotes. She makes the striking point that, “They’re the most despised species in America. Even the US government is in the business of killing them, to the tune of maybe a hundred thousand animals a year” (Kinsolover 324)”. But he never considers altering his opinion: “you won’t change my mind. I’m a ranching boy from the West, and hating coyotes is my religion. Blood of the lamb, so to speak. Don’t try to convert me, and I won’t try to convert you” (Kingsolover 323). Eddie Bondo has “merely excellent” (Schwartz 78) standards when it comes to coyotes as he has embraced his hatred toward them and does not consider another path. He will not relent his strong opinions about coyotes just as predators can never stop hunting for food. Eddie Bondo does, however, respect Deanna’s forest. Although he has the choice to kill coyotes as he leaves, he instead parts with these words: “it’s hard for a man to admit that he has met his match” (432). Deanna interprets this to mean not that Eddie Bondo has conceded the point - his hatred for coyotes has not diminished - but rather to show his respect by acquiescing to Deanna ‘s view that coyotes were the protected property of the mountain.  He would continue his hunt for coyotes elsewhere. As a result of his long ingrained thought process, Eddie Bondo demonstrates characteristics of a saticficer.

            Eddie can otherwise be construed as a maximizer because of his consisted journey from Wyoming to continue his hunt for coyotes. He does not need to reach a maximum but feels it his duty to continue killing them, never reaching satisfaction. When in the hunting mode, he “forget[s] about everything else in the world besides [him] and [his] enemy” (320). Eddie maintains clear focus. He does not forget his goal and continues traveling without will to stop. Such desires if determination and complete focus categorize him as a maximizer. 

            Eddie Bondo’s propensity to wander defines him as both a satisficer and a maximizer. Living the summer coming in and out of Deanna’s life, Eddie can continue his business and maintain their relationship. When he does return to her cabin, she remarks, “when he was here he was here” (189). In Deanna’s presence, he does not talk about alternative locations, does not allude to feeling trapped in her cabin, and remains in the general area for approximately a summer. According to her observation, he seems satisfied while in her presence and does not actively strive to leave, his comfort demonstrating saticficer tendencies.

            This status does not, however, undermine the fact that he chooses his location through maximization, wandering from place to place to seek out coyotes. By the end, Eddie Bondo chooses to leave without giving her notice: “His pack, his hate, his gun, everything gone this time, she knew in an instant. He’d touched nothing of hers, had left the cabin exactly as it has been three months ago” (432). Having left on his own accord, Eddie Bondo felt the seasonal change was the time to move on. His wandering nature reveal both maximizer and satisficer characteristics in that he can find complete happiness in location but eventually he will look for alternative happiness or satisfaction elsewhere.

            Because he falls in the category of both a maximizer and a satisficer, Eddie Bondo has an indeterminate personality that Deanna finds hard to dissect. As a result, she leans toward maximizer tendencies because she obsesses over diagnosing his thought process and determining his true intentions. In a way, she loses control over herself because, although she remains strong willed and independent, she cannot restrain her overactive mind. Deanna acquires general doubt for his intentions and, eventually, her own. Deanna’s ongoing struggle with balancing this strain confuses her self-assurance.

            Even though she lives most of her life in the novel as a satisficer, Deanna begins to question her life choices as a result of Eddie Bondo’s indeterminate status. Her gradual shift into maximizer tendencies causes her great grief. Only once she abandons nature for other focuses does she feel conflicted. In a sense, neither Deanna nor Eddie Bondo demonstrates a mix of these categories because choice causes stress and confusion in anyone. This novel, instead, attempts to relay the message that although ones life is saturated by difficult choices, we must appreciate the beauty in the ability to decide and look past these strains. Choices overwhelm many and add complications but the natural world allows for a place of comfort.


Work Cited

1.     Kingsolver, Barbara. Prodigal Summer A Novel. New York: Harper Perennial, 2001.

2.     Schwartz, Barry. The Paradox of Choice Why More Is Less. New York: Harper Perennial, 2005.