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Week 8b: The Many Interpretations of Prodigal Summer

Anne Dalke's picture

This weekend you'll be writing a paper interpreting Barbara Kingsolver's novel Prodigal Summer through one of the many lenses provided by the critics we've read so far this semester. If these critics were writing an analysis of the novel, what would they say about how it works, what's going on, what's important? (i.e.: what might Lewis Hyde's coyote have to do w/ the coyotes in the novel? what might Paula Gunn Allen say about the way it structures foreground and background? what would Barry Schwartz's take be on the presentation of choice? or Michael Pollan's on the treatment of the food chain?)

Before Thursday's class, please post your initial thoughts about this: think of it as a kind of "story starter"...tell us what the seed of your essay it: the image or idea, knotty problem or unanswered question from which it begins. Then start to think out loud here what your critic might do w/ that idea.

ygao's picture

Initial thoughts

As I was reading the book, I have been amused at how Deanna fell for Eddie Bondo that fast. I feel as if she is doing it because she was lonely, not because she really loved him. I started thinking about the choice she made, and what Schwartz, the author of Paradox of Choice would think. I think Schwarts would comment that her seemingly irrational action proves that choice expresses and enables people to get what they really need and want in life. I thought she was constantly being surprised by her feelings. Evidently, fall in love with this supposed enemy would make her feel that her needs are met. As the choice expresses what she really needs in life, so her need for his companionship has overturned her rational and protective barriers of values. The two can be satisfying their animal urges while arguing their personal passion about saving and hunting wildlife, and ignoring their age difference as long as they fit each other physically. Needless to say, as important as the instrumental value of choice may be, such as Deanna’s values in what she does for a living, choice reflects another value that might be even more important, in this case, her primitive need for a man.

ED's picture

Predatory Necessity vs. Western Culture's "Villain"

 I think I'd like to explore the conflicting view on predators, and whether to embrace/accept them or fear and hunt them in Prodigal Summer. This seems to connect very well to the critique we read in class from the Native American perspective about how Western stories must always have a villain and a hero-- whereas Native stories strike more of a balancing act, and also how, in Hyde's view, the trickster is not a negative character or a villain, but a necessary carnivore. I think this idea will work, but I need to scour both Hyde and Gunn's analyses again so I can better construct an opinion from one of their points of view.

Calála's picture

the role of the trickster

When I started thinking about this paper, I felt really confused about how the readings all related. But I decided that I am going to write my paper about Hyde's "Trickster" and how this archetype manifests itself in the relationship between Eddie and Deanna.  In Hyde's definition of the character of the trickster, it is a boundary crosser that breaks many physical and societal lines. In my opinion, both Eddie and Deanna fill this description. Eddie creates a bridge between Deanna's life in the mountains and the life of a hunter and Deanna bridges the gap between human civilation and raw wilderness. Since, Hyde uses the coyote as an example of a trickster I also want to think about whether the coyote could be a symbol in the novel, used as a hint that these characters fit into the trickster mold. Another part of Hyde's trickster is the hunger and desire that drives him/her. I think that the metaphorical hungers of both Eddie and Deanna drive them to try to cross the boundaries.

jtm715's picture

The Foreground and Background

 After seeing the relationship the characters in Prodigal Summer had with their environment, I want to look at that distinction between the foreground of the story and the background. It seemed as thought the environment was almost a fourth protagonist in the novel, because each character's surroundings provided much of their emotional and physical stories. From Deanna's experience living in the woods with little human interactions to Lusa's new responsibility to the farm to Garnett's battles over his neighbor's farm. 

kgrassle's picture

The Balance Between the Background and Foreground

 Paula Gunn Allen describes how “westerners have for a long time discounted the importance of background.  The earth herself, which is our most inclusive background, is dealt with summarily as a source of food, metals, water, and profit, while the fact that she is the fundamental agent of all planetary life is blithely ignored” (243).  I believe that Prodigal Summer approaches background and foreground in a way that is similar to the Native Americans in which there is a mutual relationship between the foreground and the background.  Rather than writing about a central character, Kingsolver weaves together the stories of several lives.  These lives are constantly dictated by the forces of nature, and the author is constantly stresses the impact of nature on their lives.  Nature is not just the background, but it dictates the story by influences the character’s choices and behavior.  Something that I found interesting was the constant use of cycles.  Life and death, the moon, the growing seasons, the cycle of food in nature—these cycles stressed how everything impacts each other, and that ultimately a choice made by a human will come back impact him/her in the future.  The beginning and the end of the book also stressed the importance of cycles.  There is a parralel between Deanna and the female cayote at the beginning and the end of the book.  This demonstrates the similarities between humans and nature, and that in the end we are all at the mercy of mother nature, no matter how much we attempt to control our lives.    

avietgirl's picture


I think this book contain a feminist view. Throughout the book, there is this focus on the female characters. In Predator, there is Deanna. In Moth Love, there is Lusa. In Old Chestnut, there is Nannie Rawley. Deanna lived a life of solitude until Eddie shows up. She like her contact with Eddie but was okay even when he left her. Deanna was quite content even when she became pregnant and moved away from her solitude life without a man by her side. This goes for Lusa as well. Without a husband, Lusa was happy with adopting her sister-in-law’s kids. However, this story also has emphasis on nature. There is the balance of nature and its cycle. So I think I will take on Allen point of view because I think that while there is the feminist point to the story, there are also other underlying messages of the story. 

ellenv's picture


When I think of the opinions that people form, I first think of the choices that they have to make to form those opinions. People must choose what pieces of evidence they use to form their opinions, how to structure their opinions based on which pieces of information they find important, and finally how they present their opinions to the world. What I found odd in the novel was the fact that someone as opinionated as Deanna would isolate themselves from the rest of the world and then almost judge from atop her mountain about how other people live their lives. In the end, I think that the choices that Deanna makes about her opinions have faults, not because they dont have logic behind them, but because she fails to look at all points of view when considering her opinions. At the same time, her choice in the way to have her opinions presented is also odd. Her main opinions are presented in her thesis that is rarely read by anyone and isnt even located in a place that Deanna travels to often. She sees her work as being important, but she doesnt attempt to make that known. This trouble with choices goes back Barry Schwartz's ideas on choice. While Deanna might seem to be happy in some regards about her lack of choices for her place of living and her choice of clothing/materials/transportations etc., her choices she about the thing she holds most dear (the coyotes) are more complex, and therefore she is less happy with the result.   

Jessica's picture

Barry Schwartz..

In the novel, it seems like Deanna, Lusa, and Garnett are trying to be in absolute control of themselves (and frequently others also) by laying down logical reasoning when different values challenge them. They are reluctant to accept the values of others (Eddie, Cole, Nannie) because they are caught up with reasoning everything. Only when they are struck by a hardship, do they step a little back to see their beliefs in a larger picture (but even then, they try to self-justify). This was kind of frustrating because they all were trying to have everything in their way when their views were so limited.

However, in the end, they seem to reconcile with the world and find happiness in accepting things around them. Only when they are willing to step back and not try to base everything in their past decisions, do they find the knowledge they really needed (the value of learning from others' perspectives) instead of struggling with their endless, confusing thoughts.  This reminded me of Barry Schwartz's maximizer and satisficer scale. I think I want to analyze how being maximizer caused the main characters to be less happy than when they became satisficers.

But I am a bit confused because I don't think becoming satisfied with their surroundings was necessarily all good-- I think it took away their ability to think critically. It seems like they are no longer unique, distinctive individuals because they now have compromised with their surroundings...

thatcaliforniagirl13's picture

Let's see...

 As I was reading the part of Prodigal Summer when Deanna and Eddie were preparing this freshly-killed turkey, I saw this connection between something that Pollan mentioned in the Omnivore's Dilemma. Deanna talked about the food chain, not only in the context of the food they were about to eat and the way that it was obtained, but also the idea of the predator and the prey. The killing of the turkey reminded me of Pollan making his dinner from what he had personally hunted and gathered. The fact that Deanna was a sort of animal activist yet also didn't mind that Eddie had killed the turkey was what struck me the most. The reason why Eddie caught the turkey in the first place was to give Deanna a meal, something she hadn't had in a while. She was used to eating her "birdfood" and her eating the turkey represented her way back into the norm. Pollan argued in making the dinner from scratch, helps one to reconnect to not only the origins of a food, but also of a human being.

kdlz's picture

 Hmmmm, it took me forever to

 Hmmmm, it took me forever to try to see the connection with our readings and prodigal summer! But i think i'm going to take the view of Lewis Hyde. I like his idea of the "trickster", especially the one about the prince who becomes the raven (that eats everything). I'm going to try to relate this story of the trickster and maybee parallel it with Deanna / Eddie?! Eddie being the 'trickster'.  I also kind of like the idea of predator prey relationships in the book (and that Hyde talks about -- with the predator always being one step ahead of the prey), but i'm not sure if i could make an essay that encorporates both ideas.

Avocado's picture


 I'll go with knotty problem.  This entire novel vexed me incredibly~ it took a full two hours of Jane Austen therapy to stop me just being annoyed. I don't dislike the book entirely~ if Deanna and Eddie had died.... or had just not been written about I would have liked the book much better.  That entire section of the novel was ridiculous.  When they weren't frolicking about the bed sheets (or tree trunks) they were wandering the wilderness.... the author has obviously never gone mountaineering before.... *disdaining huff* but whatever.  I'm amazed how up in arms I became over this...  Anyway, I will dwell on Garnett and Nannie Rawley, I think, because their back-and-forth is a conversation that goes on constantly in my hometown Williamsburg, VA (except that, in most cases, the argument is whether science should 'exist' at all, rather than who has claim to the title).  The self-importance of Garnett... and of Nannie, for that matter, is really interesting to me.  I don't think their conversation was ever as intellectual as it could have been, and I'd like to take their talking points and attempt to go one deeper.  More than the implications of being part of a food chain~ what motivation does a human have to distance him/herself, transcend the food chain, or remain firmly in it?  Why kill out of suspicion?  What qualities/reactions tend towards happiness, as far as embracing ecological situations?  Why strive or try to define happiness when the most basic of natural principles, prey and predation, is a conscious reality? fra la... fra la... and schma....

Maiya Zwerling's picture


 Through class discussion and my own analysis, I have come to the conclusion that Prodigal Summer is a book meant to demonstrate the possibilities that come with choice. Deanna specifically, a character who, when entering to book has already made harsh choices that have isolated her in the middle of a forest (to her liking), continues to make choices until the end of the book - like we all have to in life. However, these choices become more and more difficult for her to make as the book goes on, because she no longer knows exactly what is happening or what her choices are. Her confusion begins with the emergence of Eddie Bondo. I will consider how Eddie Bondo influences Deanna to doubt her desires as a result of his mysterious personality. Deanna's story is one of choice and I feel that it is important to analyze how she makes her decisions and categorize her in terms of Barry Schwartz's The Paradox of Choice.