Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Prodigal Summer: Particularly Philosophical

This novel, as all of Kingsolver's works, includes ideas that have the potential to be personally relevant to many people. This ability to connect with the audience is an aspect that is essential for a quality novel to have. This novel contains words of advice, trains of thought, and philosophical ideas that would broaden every one's creative thinking horizons.

The striking thing about this novel is that it features three distinct stories. While the themes of the stories are all related, they each have a distinct movement of plot in terms of their relationships with people. Garnett is Kingsolver's interesting portrayal of the cliché elderly man who has a crush on his long-time rival and neighbor. Lusa is a recent widow of a farmer, and while struggling with his death, she also has his family to struggle with; her deceased husband held sole ownership over their family farm, and Lusa has no idea how to run one without him. And finally, Deanna, our heroine of the mountaintop, encounters a coyote hunter, who claims he stays with her for more than the fact that he wants to hunt. She develops a relationship with him, even though they have clashing views and lifestyles. Each relationship offers lessons for the characters to learn, which we can use in our own lives when dealing with similar relationships.

However, Kingsolver goes deeper than this. To get to the root of her thinking, she deepens the ideas from the relationships she has created into moral philosophies applicable in everyday life.

To start, Lusa has to learn to handle her husband's death. She says that "when nobody's [there,] sometimes [she has] to lie down on the floor and just try to keep breathing" (Summer 116) . Lusa definitely loved her husband, Cole, and is depressed by his death. She encounters trials of attempting to move past his death and continue living her life, but Cole's sisters hold her back. For one thing, Lusa knows that she "shouldn't get married again, because [the farm would] pass on to his children. ... It won't be the Widener place" (Summer 307). In the end, Lusa learns to value family, even her unfriendly in-laws, over convenience. She could have easily sold the farm, in spite of her in-laws, and gotten the profit, but her compassion and empathy refrained her from doing so. This is the message that Kingsolver is sending through Lusa's section; we can endure through anything as long as family is our cane for support. The natural way of things puts family first, and that is why Kingsolver wrote about this. Her themes are usually nature-related, so its interesting to see the connection between a widow and nature. Kingsolver's way of creating this connection is genius, and the philosophy we have built off of this aspect is very real. If everything was taken away from you, with even the clothes ripped off your back, you would still belong with your family.
Deanna is a character, however, who has chosen to live her life isolated, with everything modern no longer a part of her life. She and Eddie Bono, a hunter she finds, who grows to be more than her companion, share a series of "one-liners" that are sometimes sarcastic, yet have proved to induce critical thinking. I think that any sentence or idea that sparks people's minds into action is one worth noting.
The first of these thoughts is actually that of Jerry, a friend of Deanna's who is her only connection to the modern world; he brings her food and other necessities every so often. He asks her, "If the President got shot this afternoon, what would you do tomorrow that'd be any different from what you'd do if he hadn't?" (Summer 249). I am afraid to think of my answer to this question. The answers to it are infinite, and I don't exactly know where mine would fall. Answering this question can cross so many lines that I don't even want to think about going down that path. However, I find Kingsolver very philosophical to have tied this line into her novel. Another one-liner is said by Deanna to Eddie. In a discussion about nature, Deanna states that she understands that "there's no such thing as alone" (Summer 320). This philosophical idea is that of a major theme of this book: the insignificance of humans as seen from a large view. This idea is the inverse of an idea brought up by W.S. Merwin in his essay, "Unchopping a tree." In the essay, he writes a list of directions that one would follow to literally unchop a tree. On a deeper level, I find the novel to be an outreach against the way humans constantly put ourselves before nature. Merwin's essay follows the idea that we humans think we are the most evolved beings, and in a way Merwin agrees with it, however saying we should use this advantage for the benefit of everything else in nature. Kingsolver, however, wants to portray the idea that we are on the same plane of life as everything else in
nature. We live among beetles, particles in the wind, and plants that we crunch on with every step. Life is all around us, so we can never be truly alone. However, Kingsolver's point lies on the fact that we must be aware of the life around us. She goes on to state that "living takes life" (Summer 323). After understanding her position on the topic, that nature is never wrong and the cycles of life are the way they should be, this quote makes complete sense. Nature does include food pyramids, with some of the minute organisms being on the bottom, and large carnivores on the top. Humans, perhaps, would be on the tip top. Kingsolver is implying that we think that we are the "living," and that we think we can take whatever life we want, as long as it's for our benefit. However, are we going over our limit? Even as the "most living," are we causing too much damage to the pyramid levels below us? If the base of a pyramid fails, so shall the top. Therefore, if humans continue to live the way we do, all of the "life" will be gone by the time we leave this world.

The philosophical thinking sparked by Kingsolver's novel is something that you would be wise to read, for thoughts are meant to be shared, and I know that Kingsolver worked hare on these philosophical one-liners.

~Father Nature, Editor

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