The Earnshaw Neighborhood and Patriarchal Morality

 

Erskine CaldwellErskine Caldwell the earnshaw neighborhood is never going to be confused with William Faulkner, though it might be fair to call him the populist incarnation of Faulkner, or better yet, the white-trash version of William Faulkner.  His novels, though not as beautifully written, often deal with the same subjects and share a similar setting, often even expressing political views that are akin to Faulkner.  For this, Caldwell deserves some credit as he often used his sensational and accessible narratives to advance and raise awareness of certain social issues, most especially those related to perceived race.  This, however, could not be said of his novel The Earnshaw Neighborhood.  Capitalizing on the notoriety of God’s Little Acre and Tabaco Road, Caldwell released The Earnshaw Neighborhood seemingly with the intent to sell readers on the notion that the book would offer more of the same titillating and controversial content.  Whilst novels with similar appeal, such as This Very Earth and Place Called Estherville, share a comparable approach, they at least each deal progressively with issues related to gender and perceived race.  Neither can be said of The Earnshaw Neighborhood.  Though novel’s greatest sin may be its flat cartoonish characters and lack of engaging plot, if does effectively describes the way in which the sexuality of women is unjustly policed by society.  However, it ultimately reads like an instruction manual for a men’s rights forum like The Red Pill, not a piece of social commentary.

 

FEMINISM

 

The cover of one of Erskine's hyper-sexual novels.

The cover of one of Caldwell’s hyper-sexual novels.

One of the ways in which the novel works is in its account of the way in which society polices the sexuality of women.  When the novel’s protagonist, Medora, is widowed in middle age, she remarries inside two months.  This sexual autonomy serves as a point of contention for her community, and her fellow women are her harshest critics.  One neighbour, for instances, states that such “flagarant disregard of decency was to be expected of a neurotic witch” (7), suggesting that asserting one’s sexual autonomy in a way that is contrary to patriarchal norms is a manifestation of neurosis, not an expression of autonomy.  This is linked specifically with Medora’s gender as one of her fellow women suggests that she is “having a retarded change of life” (11).  The antagonists not only attribute Medora’s behaviour to an element of her femininity by linking her behaviour with menopause, but also use an ableist slur, ‘retarded’, to further mock her.  The women even organize a petition to have Medora evicted from her own home (16), harkening back to a popular form of self-expression for women used prior to the suffrage movement.  Women commonly organized petitions to spearhead movements like the abolitionist movement and the prohibition movement at a time when they did not have a vote.  Here, however, the petition is being used to restrict women’s rights, not empower them, demonstrating how the women in Medora’s neighbourhood have internalized patriarchal morality and police each other.

 

 

An alternate cover for Georgia Boy.

An alternate cover for Georgia Boy.

The novel likewise demonstrates how men prove condescending when it comes to the autonomy of women.  On the surface, Dr. Higgins, the town physician, suggests an empathetic approach when it comes to Medora’s behaviour, stating that “Allowances should be made for her” because “she’s past the age of easy conquest of a man” (7).  Though Higgins promotes a kind of ‘understanding’, he couches this ‘empathy’ in a condescending and patriarchal tone.  He suggests that her behaviour is not based on her own desires or reason, but her need for a man coupled with the fact that at her age, she does not possess the youth required to secure a man’s interest.  This presupposes not only that a woman’s happiness is dependent on the presence of a man, but that men ought not to value a woman for anything other than youthful beauty.  While Higgins is subtle when offering his patriarchal bias, the police are far more overt.  When Medora’s property is invaded by onlookers who seek to publicly shame her whilst she is watering her lawn, the police suggest that “if [she] went in the house and stayed out of their sight completely they’d leave and go elsewhere” (130).  This argument works in concert with the kind of victim blaming that is inherent in rape culture.  Rather than address the perpetrator of the crime, the police suggest that the victim should modify her behaviour, placing the blame on the victim rather than the perpetrator.  Caldwell’s framing of these constructs seems to suggest the inherent flaws of such patriarchal perspectives, but become problematic in the context of the novel’s ending.

 

Erskine's most infamous novel was God's Little Acre.

Caldwell’s most infamous novel was God’s Little Acre.

Caldwell also demonstrates the power of the naming process in the novel, and notes how patriarchal authority asserts itself on women by usurping their identity.  When disparaging Medora behind her back, the women in her neighbourhood note that “she’s Mrs. Leffaway now” (14), the name of her new husband, and argue that despite the fact that Medora chooses to be called Mrs. Earnshaw, “she’ll always have to use her new married name to make anything legal and binding” (14).  In choosing her name, Medora asserts her autonomy by choosing her identity, but her female peers call upon the legal application of one’s name to challenge the notion that a woman can choose her own identity, suggesting instead that women be defined by the man whom they are married to.  This is reinforced by Beejay, Medora’s second husband.   After getting a few beers in him, he announces that he’ll “tell Mrs. Leffaway who the hell she is so she won’t forget it” (59), asserting that he will force his name on her and usurp her identity.  This use of names runs throughout the novel as Medora instructs her daughter, who it is noted dressed privatively, to call Beejay ‘Daddy’, and she asserts herself by calling him Mr. Leffaway.  Likewise, Zerena insists on being called Mrs. White by her employer, rather than the informal Zerena and also insists on calling Medora Mrs. Leffaway.  In each instance, the characters try to assert their authority onto others by defining the identity of others through the process of naming, but what is most clear is that in a patriarchal context, this is process is often one that subordinates women to men.

 

PATRIARCHY

 

PLace Called Esterherville, one of Caldwell's better works.

Place Called Estherville, one of Caldwell’s better works.

Where the conversation on gender goes awry is in the novel’s closing scene.  After being swindled by a conman, Beejay and Medora are about to leave a building where a growing number of people are upset with them.  Medora seems reluctant to leave, but Beejay asserts himself and gives Medora a series or orders in an aggressive fashion.  She complies, and afterwards tells Beejay that she is “glad [he] spoke up like [he] did… and took charge of [her] and told [her] what [she] had to do” (173).  This antiquated view suggests that women want a man to dominate them, a sentiment that is reinforced by Medora earlier in the novel when she says that she wants a man “To take charge of things” and “be really bossy like a man ought to be” (107).  Prior to this, she and Beejay did not have a healthy relationship, and Beejay was unable to perform the sex act due to some form of erectile dysfunction that was blamed on his passivity in his relationship.  In asserting himself, though, he is at once able to perform the sex act, suggesting that merely asserting one’s self on a woman can act as a holistic version of Viagra (side effects to the Red Pill may include being single and lonely).  Given that this is the final sequence in the novel, is serves frame the rest of the novel and suggests the purpose of the narrative was to resolve the issues of female autonomy.  The lesson, then, is ‘Men should assert their authority over women if the wish to be respected by women’.  This chauvinistic life lesson taints the rest of the work, soiling any potentially progressive conversation on gender relations that took place leading up to the novel’s ‘climax’, though some might argue this is meant as farce.

 

 

An alternate cover for God's Little Acre.

An alternate cover for God’s Little Acre.

This androcentric perspective is strewn throughout the novel.  When several women are talking amongst themselves, for instance, one blurts out a self-deprecating comment about women: “God pity us if we didn’t have our female excuses for every occasion!” (11) By suggesting that women would require pity were they not able to make excuses for situations related to their sex, the character suggests women are somehow inadequate and unable to deal with daily life without making excuses.  She follows this up with a comment that is similar in spirit:  “What some men will put up with!  How glad I am that I’m not a man” (12).  This comment suggests that women are a burden to men and that women are in a position of privilege in a patriarchal context, and whilst it might be true that there are elements of patriarchal custom that privilege women in some respects, that does not imply that there is any semblance of equality in the system.  This portrayal of women is extremely condescending, and is especially problematic as Caldwell frames it as coming from the feminine realm, not from a flawed chauvinist character.

 

An alternate cover for Place Called Estherville.

An alternate cover for Place Called Estherville.

The men in the novel are no better and likewise promote women as ideally being in a subordinate role.  One husband boasts that his wife has been happy ever “since the time [he] sweet-talked her [into quitting] teaching school and” marrying him (21).  This reinforces the notion that the woman is supposed to give up her identity and personal goals to be subordinate to her husband and his ambitions.  This woman, for instance, had a job as an educator, one of the noblest professions, and gave it up to be a live-in maid who didn’t get paid to appease her husband.  This makes her economically subordinate, which is especially problematic given that some men in the novel don’t think a woman is entitled to any of her husband’s money, even upon death.  One of the peripheral men in the novel bemoans that Medora was willed her husband’s estates, claiming that “there ought to be a law against a woman getting rich like she did without working for all the money herself” (34).  This is problematic for several reasons.  One, it implies that a man inheriting such a fortune is not an issue, making a case for a return to the laws of progeniture, whereby the oldest male relative receives inheritance over any elder female relatives.  What is equally problematic is the fact that this logic doesn’t recognize the contributions made by women in the domestic sphere.  While Medora’s first husband may have earned a great deal of money through farming, his wife allowed him the time required to focus on his professional goals by taking care of the domestic duties, a role she was not paid for.  This free labour made a significant contribution to her husband’s success, a contribution which Caldwell’s patriarchs do not recognize.  Aside from these duties, however, Medora also designed the image that was featured on the jars her husband sold his peanut butter in, and it was this image that was appealing to so many customers and made the peanut butter a big seller.  The sentiment expressed by Caldwell’s male figures also fails to recognize the value of this contribution.  Caldwell’s novel, then, seems to position women as economically dependent on men, and though these figures can be viewed as flawed, the narrative seems to suggest a validation of these perspectives.

 

PERCEIVED RACE

 

Trouble In July was oneo of Caldwell's novels that centered on issues regarding perceived race.

Trouble In July was one of Caldwell’s novels that centered on issues regarding perceived race.

Though the novel does not delve into race to the same extent as some of Caldwell’s others works, it is a theme that arises and is presented in a far more progressive tone than some of his gender constructs.  For one, Caldwell notes the overt sexualisation of young women of colour.  Zerena’s daughter, Suze, is frequently the object of leering white eyes, and in one scene he held against her will and has her buttocks paddled by Beejay without her consent.  This suggests that young women of colour are seen as commodities whose consent is not a concern, though one could read this through a feminist lens that views her provocative attire (she wears tight miniskirts) as an invitation for sexual harassment.  Though the sexualisation of young women of colour is an issue, Caldwell also addresses the broader issue of discrimination.  While the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 made it illegal to discriminate based on one’s perceived race, it did not prevent one from discriminating based on a person’s economic standing, and Caldwell notes how whites employed classist discrimination to exclude people of colour people, as one person concedes that though “They can’t mention race or color in the restriction the way it used to be”, they can assert financial restrictions (19).  Because people of colour were disproportionality represented in the working class due to discriminatory practices leading up to the 1970’s, these economic restrictions then serves as a place holder for policies that discriminated based on perceived race, which were no longer legal.  Caldwell goes onto challenge the notion that such segregation is natural through a character who suggests that if society were to “leave all the youngsters of both colors alone these days… they may quarrel some… but in the end they’ll naturally find a way to play together with none of this hateful fussing and fighting that the older people… keep on egging on the youngsters to do” (26).  Through this passage, Caldwell observes that segregation is no natural, but rather learned, and that the culture of prejudice based on perceived race is one that is learned in opposition to nature.

 

OBLIGATORY CONCLUSION

 

Erskine Caldwell

Erskine Caldwell

There are elements of the novel that work.  Caldwell has some interesting commentary on issues regarding perceived race, and his most compelling characters, Zerena, is a woman of colour, but this seems to be a subsidiary element in an albuscentric narrative that focuses on Caucasian people.  There are likewise some telling descriptions of gender issues, but rather than a descriptive approach that merely documents issues, Caldwell seems to be prescribing a red pill to readers, not promoting a thoughtful examination of gender roles.  The biggest problem, however, is that the narrative simply falls flat in terms of providing and interesting story and likewise fails to offer any interesting or redeemable characters other than Zerena.  For a patriarch in training who seeks affirmation of traditional gender roles, this work is ideal.  For those who have higher expectation, this work may not serve as idyllic reading.  That said, because of humourous overtones, it is more than possible that Caldwell meant this to be farcical and is mocking traditional gender roles, but the narrative seems to relish the juvenile approach to gender too much for it to come across as a lampoon.

 

If you enjoyed this review and would like updates on my latest ramblings, be sure to follow me on Twitter @LiteraryRambler, and if would like to read about Erskine Caldwell’s more successful efforts, check out my reviews of This Very Earth and Place Called Estherville.

 

Works Cited:

Caldwell, Erskine.  The Earnshaw Neighborhood.  New York: Signet.  1971.  Print.

 

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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