The Imbalance of the Balance
November 4, 2009
The Imbalance of the Balance
In her work, The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions, Paula Gunn Allen gives two feminist perspectives of a Keres’ tale: the modern feminist interpretation and the tribal feminist interpretation. The modern feminist emphasizes the “importance of men and the use of a passive female figure as a pawn in their bid for power” (Allen, 234). This interpretation suggests how power takes a huge role in society. The tribal feminist, however, believes in the balance and transfer of two powers. Instead of the man weighing down the woman, the women are seen more as a complementary as opposed to a rival. In contrast to the modern feminist, the tribal feminist emphasizes the “harmonious transfer of primacy” (Allen, 238).
Paula Gunn Allen’s two distinct feminist interpretations tie into Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer. This novel tells the stories from the perspectives of two women and one man living in Appalachia. The two central females, Deanna Wolfe and Lusa Landowski are both determined, autonomous women. Lusa is the city-girl-turned-farmer and Deanna is the highly opinionated mountaineer. The man telling his own story, however, Garnett Walker, is depicted as foolish and forgetful. In comparison to his neighbor, Nannie Rawley, Garnett is seen as the weaker link. While Nannie is clearly stronger in character, Garnett tells his story, “Old Chestnuts,” from his point of view. What was Kingsolver’s purpose in handing Garnett the reins in telling the story?
The women in this novel, Nannie, Deanna and Lusa, were all faced with a certain challenge. Deanna, the independent soul, sought no love or company from any man. She spent her days in the company of nature and its gifts. Once Eddie Bondo, a younger male hunter, came into the picture, Deanna’s former independence shriveled down to feelings of neediness and dependence towards Eddie Bondo.
The modern feminist interpretation of Paula Gunn Allen’s Keres tale suggests that in the presence of a man, a woman is “so lacking in spirit and independence, that she doesn’t seize her chance to escape a bad situation.” Similarly, Deanna Wolfe in the presence of Eddie Bondo is no longer independent, but has instead become dependent. Deanna now acts “like any passive, dependent woman who is exploited by [a man]” (Allen, 237).
The death of Lusa’s husband, Cole, brought upon her challenge. Lusa was left alone with her indifferent in-laws and the tobacco farm her husband left behind. She was faced with the challenge in taking charge of the farm. The men from Cole’s side of the family often doubted the success of the farm in Lusa’s hands. Little did they know that her irrational idea to raise goats in place of growing tobacco would be a total success.
“Old Chestnuts” is a portion of Prodigal Summer that tells the story of a woman through the eyes of a man. Garnett is quite old-fashioned compared to Nannie. She is rather modern, being one of the few organic apple farmers around and a supporter of Darwinism. Garnett is presented as silly and in a way, Kingsolver does this in order to poke fun at him. Garnett always felt the need to care for Nannie, although the two were like water and oil. They were opposites, yet Garnett found something striking about Nannie. Garnett would occasionally snoop around making sure that Nannie was around. In any suspicious situations, Garnett would “[duck] behind his Rose of Sharon and [peer] around [Nannie’s] house” (Kingsolver, 136). Garnett was interested in Nannie’s whereabouts as well as in her beliefs in Darwinism, although he was a strong believer of Creationism.
Paula Gunn Allen’s Keres tale, told from a modern feminist’s point of view, clearly demonstrates that Miochin, the Spirit of Summer, has the characteristics of a woman. At the time of his encounter with Kochinnenako, he was wearing a yellow top, green leggings and “[h]is moccasins were beautifully embroidered with flowers and butterflies” (Allen, 228). His choice of apparel reveals the image of an ear of corn, which is in Keres’ belief to be highly associated with women. The Spirit of Winter, however, is described as macho, cold and aggressive. In the great battle between the ”winter” and “summer”, the Spirit of Winter pulls back after realizing he would never prevail over his opponent. Since the Spirit of Summer seems to be more of a woman figure, the woman clearly prevails over the man.
Nannie and Garnett constantly bickered about Creationism and Darwinism. Garnett being the more traditional, old-fashioned man was the Creationist. Nannie always seemed to be the dominant individual in their arguments on the two topics. In one instance, in a letter, Nannie fearlessly questioned Garnett, saying, “I’m partial to the passage from Genesis you quoted, but I wonder if you really understand it” (Kingsolver, 217). After having read Nannie’s letter, Garnett was left awestruck, mentioning that “[i]t was a lot to take in at once” (218). In a sense, Garnett felt intimidated by Nannie’s opinions and his response was relatively short compared to the lengthy letter that Nannie wrote to him. In the same sense, applying to Allen’s Keres tale, the Spirit of Winter pulled back in the battle with the Spirit of Summer the same way Garnett repeatedly pulled back from the small “battles” with Nannie, knowing the there was no winning in store for him.
Paula Gunn Allen’s tribal feminist interpretation suggests the exchange of power between two forces. Kingsolver purposely selected Garnett to tell “Old Chestnuts” to create this balance and transfer of power from the woman to the man. Moreover, he is used to portray the balance of gender and ecology that Kingsolver describes in her novel. Although Garnett is portrayed a kitten compared to these tigers of women, he is set to create the balance that Paula Gunn Allen describes between “summer” and “winter.”
Towards the end of Allen’s Keres tale, the Spirit of Winter and the Spirit of Summer come to an agreement. The two seasons agree to share the year, making their appearances at different instances so that one would not disturb the other. If “Old Chestnuts” was told from Nannie’s point of view, Prodigal Summer would be dominated by women, not recognizing the male perspective. Garnett directly shares his opinions towards Nannie, while the opinions of Eddie Bondo and Ricky are told from the women’s perspectives. The opinions of the males made by the women would be biased unless the story was told from the perspective of another man. It is Garnett’s story, “Old Chestnuts,” that shows the strength of the woman from his perspective, making the interlock of the three stories more effective.
Although Kingsolver attempts the idea of balance between the characters, the structure of this novel seems to contradict it. The purpose of Garnett and the other male characters in the novel is to balance out the strength of these female characters. However, the women and men are at completely different levels. The men are by no means as important as the women in Prodigal Summer. In addition, the men are portrayed as foolish for either being too young or too old.Therefore, the idea of balance that Allen depicts in her tribal feminist interpretation that Kingsolver attempts in her novel is never truly accomplished.
The form and structure of the novel is used to highlight the ecology of balance. The presence of balance in ecology is quite significant. Ecology involves the abundance and distribution of biodiversity. There is a concern for the “network of relations among organisms at different scales of organization”. In other words, predators and their prey are distributed evenly in the environment. There are never more predators than prey. Balance is a key component.
Kingsolver’s attempt of a balance shows an obvious imbalance of strength; the female and male dominance is not distributed evenly. Paula Gunn Allen’s tribal feminist interpretation emphasizes the importance of the exchange and balance of power. Kingsolver presented Garnett as the only male figure to tell the story from his point of view. As a result, both Eddie Bondo and Ricky were pushed aside in the presence of the women. The internal thoughts of both of these men were never entirely explicit. Their thoughts were clearly overthrown by the thoughts and challenges these women were faced with.
The balance of powers that Kingsolver attempts is something difficult to obtain. While balance was sought here in Prodigal Summer, it was not achieved. What appears balanced to the naked eye, like the supposed balance Garnett establishes, is not truly balanced once put under the microscope. Therefore, how is balance ever obtained? Is it possible to ever reach a true balance in today’s society?
Kingsolver, Barbara. Prodigal Summer. New York, New York: HarperCollins, 2000. Print.
Gunn Allen, Paula. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 1986. Print.
Ecology. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 5 Nov. 2009.