Abandoned Being: The Aesthetic of Inhabiting in Meridel Le Sueur's The Girl.

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Author: Clare Callahan
Date: Sept. 2021
From: Twentieth Century Literature(Vol. 67, Issue 3)
Publisher: Hofstra University
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 10,868 words
Lexile Measure: 1580L

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Midway through Meridel Le Sueur's Depression Era novel The Girl, the nameless, titular protagonist finds herself pregnant. Her lover Butch, a young and ambitious but out-of-work man who sees her pregnancy as an impediment to upward mobility, urges her to have an abortion. In direct internal dialogue, the Girl responds, "I don't know what there is to do. I don't want success like Butch. I want to be ... I love to be ..." (G 100). For Butch, success means being upwardly mobile by trampling others; he wants "to beat everyone down" to achieve "victory" (34). In contrast, the Girl thinks about why she wants to continue with her pregnancy in the undefined terms of "being," a vagueness expressing a desire for something both less and more than the success toward which Butch strives. In thinking "I don't want success like Butch," the Girl expresses a disinclination toward participating in a labor market founded on exploitation and impoverishment--a resistance to pursuing economic and social upward mobility that situates The Girl among those proletarian texts seeking to dismantle what Laura Hapke (2001: 224) calls "the tyranny of the success ethic on working people."

But the Girl's thinking "I want to be" also signifies something more than the success Butch wants. While he urges her to terminate her pregnancy because he is unable to support a family, her desire for "being" refuses the logic of scarcity inherent in Butch's vision, where one's success necessarily involves dispossessing or injuring others. Articulating being in relation to her pregnancy, the Girl begins to imagine what lies beyond mere subsistence, in terms both of access to resources and of an economic logic that, unlike Butch's, is radically affirmative. Being, in this sense, signifies an existence that exceeds bare life. But as the Girl returns to this nebulous desire "to be" at multiple points throughout the novel, her tentative capacity to be emerges as something about which she is profoundly anxious: while "being" evokes an economy in which one's capacity to thrive isn't dependent on the privation of others, still, in the face of her own privation, the Girl struggles to experience being throughout most of the novel. Her potential to be, that is, is constrained by her poverty--a poverty produced by a patriarchal and masculinist economy that pits "being" against "beating," the very economy to which Butch ascribes.

However ill-defined and seemingly vacuous, the Girl's remark does call out the ontological dispossession underlying her economic and political abandonment. In doing this it implicitly rejects, as offering a way out of poverty, the sentimental rhetoric of uplift and uplifted subjectivity that circulates within and across several markets in the novel. These include the middle-class women's magazines that animate the Girl's and her friends' aspirations to "get up in the world" (G 11). And it also includes the provisions of state relief, which stipulate clients pursue vague and inaccessible "educational interests" (156) and abstain from "immorality" with men, that is, from forms of intimacy offering the novel's women...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A678425548