Introduction, Transition, and Textual Analysis
Echoing the words of psychologist Nicholas Humphrey, Michelle Sugiyama writes in “Reverse-Engineering Narrative” that “the storyteller models human behavior.” But what happens when human behavior is modeled to reflect natural animal behavior, mirroring the origins of man rather than the socialized creature he has become? In her fifth novel, Prodigal Summer (2000), Barbara Kingsolver uses her own background in ecology and evolutionary biology to inform the natural order of a fictionalized Appalachia. She argues for a Darwinian view of the necessity of human relationships and the passing on of knowledge via progeny: humans must reproduce and raise offspring communally in order to ensure the propagation of both their species and their ideas. By demolishing the presumed autonomy that Deanna has assumed, that Garnett has adopted after the death of his wife, that Lusa believes she has been forced into as an outsider to the Widener family, Kingsolver builds community where it is least expected.
Community begins first with propagation, the building of relationships that become sexual, reproductive. Deanna Woolfe, the first of three perspective-sharing protagonists, interprets the title phrase as “the season of extravagant procreation” (Kingsolver 51). The action of the novel begins on May 8th and the story continues through August. The setting is essential to the novel’s plot. “Setting is not passive,” Sugiyama writes. “It is a distinctive environment upon which characters act and to which they react. On this view, setting is a representation of the potential sources of conflict in a given set of circumstances.” Given the ecological slant of the novel, Kingsolver leans on the temporal setting as a launching point for the action. Because of the focus on sex and procreation not just with humans but throughout the natural world, the events could not happen if the novel was set in mid-winter, for example.
“Here and now,” Kingsolver writes, “spring heaved in its randy moment. Everywhere you looked, something was fighting for time, for light, the kiss of pollen, a connection of sperm and egg, and another chance” (9). May is “usually considered the last month of spring and the harbinger of summer. From the late 16th century, May in poetic use also denotes one's bloom or prime.” It is the time when planting commences, as we see literally with the Wideners buying up tobacco plants, and figuratively, with Cole “turning her (Lusa) like fresh earth toward the glory of new growth” (37) during their courtship the spring before. Etymologically, “May” is derived from “Maia,” an Italic goddess who also figures into other mythologies as being associated with the growth of living things. Symbolically, the temporal setting is also indicative of Beltane, a Celtic feast day traditionally held on the first of the month (May Day) by the Gregorian calendar or the fifteenth in Scotland. It marks the end of the “dark half of the year.” The bonfires lit during the day were thought to have protective qualities. Cattle were driven between two fires to protect them before they were turned out into summer pastures. The elderly prayed over the flames, men about to take long journeys leapt through them thrice, “the girls tripped across it to procure good husbands; women great with child might be seen stepping through it to ensure a happy delivery, and children were also carried across the smoldering ashes.” Other rites accompanied the bonfires; in some places, there was a scapegoat, “which may always have been symbolic or may embody a memory of actual human sacrifice.” Kingsolver embeds the idea of the scapegoat into Prodigal Summer:
In Palestine, where my people came from, about a million years ago, they had this tradition of sacrificing goats. To God, theoretically, but I think probably they ate them after the ceremony…So, here’s the thing. They’d always let one goat escape and run off into the desert. The scapegoat. It was supposed to be carrying off all their sins and mistakes from that year. (413)
This story derives from Lusa’s half-Muslim heritage, and while Beltane may not have been Kingsolver’s source of reference, many traditions with religious and mythological roots have foundational similarities from race to race, region to region, religion to religion.
Beltane and May Day also offer up more elicit recreational activities. When the moon had risen and families retired, young men and women would lie together, often anonymously, by the Beltane fires in a celebration of sexuality and fertility. May Day, as Hutton recounts in his History, also had a reputation for such tawdry affairs. The day also has a centuries-long history of songs and carols, and it was traditional to wake the May Queen with song. Here, there is an incredible correlation with Prodigal Summer. As the protagonists step onto Kingsolver’s stage, they remark upon the incredible eruption of birdsong that greets their arrival. Garnett nicknames the morning chorus, “in full form now, this far into spring,” the ‘prothalamion,’ “a song raised up to connubial union” (50). Deanna observes that in “in the high season of courtship and mating, this music was like the earth itself opening its mouth to sing” (52). Everything is about sex, “even the air smelled like sexual ecstasy” (183). Deep into spring looking forward to summer, all of earth’s creatures are single-mindedly searching for a mate. Deanna, Lusa, and Garnett are no different, though it is their bodies that put out the call rather than their minds.
More textual analysis using literary theory…
As we see, Kingsolver creates a distinct parallel between the lives and behavior of her human characters and that of Nature, but instead of supplying Nature with the characteristics of humans, she brings humans down to the level of nature, showing that man is not so far removed from Nature as he may like to think. But for what purpose? “When nonhuman characters are used but not anthropomorphized,” Sugiyama writes, “the focus of the story tends to be the impact of this nonhuman ‘character’ on human lives or affairs.” Kingsolver effectively envisions Nature as a force. It is the amalgamation of biological urges and necessities for the proliferation of human life and legacies. If, as Sugiyama suggests, “the function of the character…is to illuminate the minds of our fellow beings,” then Kingsolver is able to use Nature to make a statement. By applying language typically reserved for sexual relations between animals to her human characters, she forces readers to think of humans as animals. Eddie’s olfactory attraction to Deanna is described in the same terms as Lusa’s meat goat breeding operation. “I sniffed you out, girl,” Eddie says. “You’re a sweet, easy trail for a man to follow” (92). This is, in fact, the same way that moths are attracted to each other—so attracted, Lusa has read, that Darwin observed several dozen crawling down his chimney to find a caged female (30). It’s also the same way Lusa managed to get her fifty-eight goats to simultaneously come into season, by introducing them for the first time to the scent of a billy goat. As Garnett tells her, “Some people think it helps to rub down the buck with a rag and then walk around waving it in the she-goats’ noses. But I never thought that was really necessary” (211). Further, Eddie describes Deanna’s fertile status as “in heat” (93). Deanna, in turn, also thinks of him not as her lover, her boyfriend, or with some other human relationship descriptor, but as “her mate, at least for a season” (193). What is more, she has resigned herself to this mirroring of animal behavior: “He was plenty cocky, as self-sufficient as any creature she’d met. Her match, she supposed, in that regard. She only wishes she felt less like a prairie chicken stalking dazed across the lekking ground toward the grand display” (198).
That Prodigal Summer ends not with a closing chapter from the perspective of Deanna, Lusa, or Garnett, but from a coyote traversing the farmland, emphasizes Kingsolver’s back-to-nature argument in favor of a highly biological view of sex as a means of reproduction and a catalyst for the building of community. This is on par with Joseph Carroll’s argument in Evolution and Literary Theory: “innate biological characteristics provide the basis for all individual identity and social organization.” He writes that “literary works reflect and articulate the vital motives and interests of human beings as living organisms.” In Kingsolver’s case, Prodigal Summer implies an interest in blurring the line between human beings and all other living organisms. She creates a vivid, sexualized view of nature, recreating it as a character to show how essential environment is to the action of humans that too frequently take advantage of it. By comparing humans and their behaviors to those of “lower” animals and plants, she redefines humans as animals, giving her the opportunity to establish a biological, evolutionary argument for sex as a means of procreation, procreation as a means of species proliferation, and proliferation on the basis of building community to foster essential knowledge sharing.
Notes & Commentary
Introduction of main theory text.
Brittany does not merely "drop in" a starting quotation but places it immediately in service of the paper's governing claim.
The author's thesis, broken into two sections:
1) The author's main argument
2) How she plans to break the argument down and organize the essay. Brittany's thesis is compelling because it reaches beyond section 1 (where many writers would stop) to provide a "roadmap" of how the paper will address the governing claim.
The author now lays the framework for the essay with key words that you'll find throughout the essay: community, relationships, sex, and reproduction
It's smart to start small, with a simple topic such as the book's setting. You'll give readers a chance to refresh their memories before diving into your analysis.
Use theory to support your argument, and textual evidence to support your use of your chosen theory text.
Look outside the text and what you know to find support for your argument. Don't force it; you can't create connections where none exist. But a quick search on Google Books or Oxford English Reference might turn up something you hadn't considered.
Brittany never leaves a quotation to stand alone. She introduces it and moves out of it to her own analysis.
The author says she got lucky with this reference; she happened to stumble across it while searching for the origin of "scapegoat."
If you want an essay filled with strong textual connections across a 200- or 300-plus-page book, you need to take good notes. The author reread Prodigal Summer piece by piece, pen in hand, and took copious notes after she decided on the basic framework of her essay. It took a while— probably twice as long as her original reading of the novel—but it was worth it.
Tip: pick a pronoun and be consistent. Using plurals (they, them, their) instead of singular pronouns is a wise choice, but sometimes a sentence or example just doesn't allow for that solution.
Your use of theory should also be consistent. While some texts can weave in and out of your argument when called for, you should have one overarching theory that serves as a framework for your essay. Sugiyama is this author's.
Tip: Faculty like students to vary their vocabulary while using larger words well. Thus Brittany's "amalgamation" and "olfactory" provide variety without making the prose dense and unclear.
From the author: By the time I reached my conclusion, I was so tired of this essay and writing in general that I wanted to chuck my laptop out the window. But you have to dig in and finish your work, and if you're going to bother with finishing, why not finish strong?
Use action verbs and don't waffle over stating your argument. Get rid of "I think and the like, and say it like you mean it.
Restate your argument, but be sure to use the proof you've illustrated throughout your essay.
The essay closes with a "so what" moment: we know the significance of Kingsolver's novel beyond its immediate effect on a reader. This type of "extrapolation" can work in many humanities papers, where the writer presents the consequences of the subject beyond its own closed world.