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The Prodigal Trickster

Shayna S's picture


Shayna Schwartz
November 7, 2009
Paper # 7
Barbara Kingsolver’s novel Prodigal Summer features a variety of stories in the setting of a modern Appalachian town. Each story focuses on a different character and his/her thoughts and experiences. Lewis Hyde’s book Trickster Makes This World focuses on characters throughout different culture’s mythologies that embody the characteristics of a trickster, and in doing so, affect themselves and the world around them. The books The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz and Nudge by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein target choice; how it is influenced and how an abundance of it influences human beings. The entire theme in Prodigal Summer takes on the features of a trickster. More specifically, the character Lusa displays features of Hyde’s tricksters in the first half of her story, transitioning to a different role in the second half by the choices she has available to her, and the choices she actually makes.
Hyde describes the trickster’s ability to change skins and exploit and frustrate opportunities. The ability to change skins might be taken as a metaphor for changing roles, as Hyde demonstrates in her reference to the hero of Herman Melville’s novel The Confidence-Man. He is never one person, but always a different one, taking on a new appearance as well as a new role. Hyde might interpret this in Prodigal Summer to mean that all the main characters in their different stories with their different backgrounds may only be different appearances and roles of the “Prodigal Summer”. The trickster in this sense would be the overarching theme. It is never one personality or role, but a series of personalities and roles that create this invisible character. It constantly changes skins, but as a trickster, its drives remain the same. All the characters in the separate stories have an appetite for something (not limited to): love, social acceptance, and moral superiority. Deanna (albeit at first reluctantly) yearns to love and have Eddie, Lusa strives to be accepted by Cole’s family, and Garnett desperately tries to hold his values as superior to those of Nannie’s despite contradicting circumstances. As each character faces new choices, each faces an opportunity that he/she can exploit. Lusa chose not to grow tobacco and took advantage of the fact that nobody in town thought she knew what she was doing to establish her goat farm in secret. Also, by refusing to let the husbands of Cole’s sisters to set her field, Lusa thwarted the sisters’ subtle attempt at control. In facing choices such as these, the characters exhibit the general characteristics of Hyde’s trickster. In this way, Prodigal Summer can be said to have created or at least nudged the world of Prodigal Summer by leading the characters it embodies to influence their surroundings. Thus, in role changing and opportunity maneuver, the overall theme may embody the features of a trickster.
Hyde remarks upon trickster’s relation to the appetite. The Appalachian people in Lusa’s story are described as being trapped in their tobacco farming. Perhaps at one time the Appalachian people were the tricksters. Appetite drove them to find some means to survive when they were forced into modern society. The Appalachian people chose to adapt their land for tobacco. To Thaler and Sunstein, appetite might be seen as a natural nudge. Instinct is a latent control of behavior to aid in survival. The feeling of hunger or thirst, for instance, guides a person towards the acquisition of food or drink. Hyde remarks upon Hermes’s resistance to appetite for food in order to obtain the higher goal of godliness. If being human (or in Hermes’s case, godlike) means being above animal instinct, then for humans, appetite is only a very strong nudge because it does not have to dictate choice.
Unfortunately, like Coyote, the farmers are trapped in their own cunning. They make a stable income off of tobacco that allows them to live in modern society, but they cannot move out of the niche they have created for themselves. As Lusa confirms to Jewel, “…every soul in this end of three states grows tobacco. Knowing full well the bottom’s going to drop out any day now…They’re trapped.” (Kingsolver, 122) The state of being trapped can be considered the state of being restricted by design. The Appalachian farmers in Lusa’s story are surrounded by friends and family that serve to enforce the rules of their culture through gossip, ostracizing, and even simple presence. Thaler and Sunstein would view the families as examples of systems of choice architectures. Through various means (gossiping, for example, could be seen as “framing”), the families influence choices made by their members to fit within their culture.
As Thaler, Sunstein, and Barry Schwartz (author of The Paradox of Choice) seem to agree upon, the average human being does not make very good choices on their own. The availability of livelihood choices of the farmers is limited to mainly the tobacco crop and industrial jobs. The choices of what work to do in order to make a livable income are somewhat restricted. According to Schwartz, the relatively few choices available to the Appalachian people serve to ease their lives choice-wise. Time and energy that would be devoted looking for a job can instead be devoted to the job.
In Lusa’s present time, the people are no longer tricksters. They are like Kingfisher; they only know their way, refusing to mimic another’s. As Hyde writes, this gives them a certain intellectual superiority. The farmers are experts in the growing and selling of tobacco. It also poses the threatening possibility that if the world changes in such a way as to exclude tobacco as a profitable crop, the farmers are trapped. They have no other crops that could possibly replace the profitability of their tobacco. When Lusa was married to Cole, she supported (though not adamantly) the tobacco crop because it allowed them to survive. After Cole died, Lusa proposed to switch her tobacco fields into pastures for meat goats. She used her knowledge of her family’s traditions to take over a new form of farming. She has no tobacco culture “instinct”, being a city-girl, so she must copy from her surroundings in order to fit into the social environment.
Furthermore, Hyde’s trickster knows how to lie and when he/she is being lied to. Lusa is very aware of the words not being said to her when one of Cole’s family talks to her. She is able to discern the true meaning when the husbands of Cole’s sisters politely try to take control of the farm. When speculating about goat farming with Rickie, Lusa specifically states that no one is to know of her true intentions. She pretends that the goats are not part of the regular commodities of the farm. Thus, coming into a niche tobacco culture initially founded on appetite, conforming to the culture, and then innovating upon it, Lusa fits Hyde’s qualities of a trickster.
Consequently, in being a trickster, Lusa is faced with many more choices than the Appalachian farmers. While she is driven by natural nudges, such as the pheromones that almost cause her to make Rickie her lover, she is not restricted by the area’s culture and tobacco “traps”. Yet, according to Schwartz, more choices also mean more stress and unhappiness. For most of Lusa’s story after Cole’s death, the large number of possibilities that Lusa could take advantage of overwhelmed her, often causing her to feel confused and depressed. Should she move back to the city and continue her research, or should she stay with Cole’s farm and have to deal socially and mentally with his family? The questions plagued her and, for awhile, led her to nearly isolate herself from Cole’s family. Schwartz writes “We would be better off if we embraced certain voluntary constraints on our freedom of choice, instead of rebelling against them.” (Schwartz, 5) This statement does not describe Lusa’s actions for the first half of her story. To Schwartz, because Lusa initially turns against the family culture and refuses its subsequent restraints, she invites unnecessary stress upon herself.
On the other hand, in the second half of Lusa’s story in Prodigal Summer, Lusa confines herself to being a goat farmer and mother of Jewel’s children. In raising the meat goats, she creates for herself a new niche. By adopting Crystal and Lowell, Lusa herself is adopted into the family culture. Thus, Lusa accepts restrictions on her future choices. The goat farming fills Lusa’s appetite for survival as well. In relation to Cole’s family, she no longer feels the need to lie and feels she is no longer lied to. Because Lusa obtained a niche, is driven by an appetite that will be fulfilled, and feels no need to hide her intentions from Cole’s family, she progresses away from Hyde’s definition of a trickster. Though Lusa exhibited the qualities of a trickster in the beginning of the novel, her character development led her to establish a different lifestyle, just as the Appalachian people before her transitioned from tricksters to Kingfishers.
The role of the trickster in Prodigal Summer is not limited to a single character. The overall theme arguably represents Hyde’s characteristics of a trickster. More specifically, Lusa demonstrated the ability of choice to be a factor in defining her as a trickster. The choices the people had to face and the nudges that influenced them sculpted their changing roles as tricksters to Kingfishers. Appetite, trapping and being trapped, lying, changing roles, and the exploitation and frustration of opportunities are all themes of Prodigal Summer that tie into the larger theme of a prodigal summer in an Appalachian town. The choices and their nudges, it would seem, are the defining factors in the roles a person represents.