Summer, a novel by ecofeminist Barbara
Kingsolver, is unique insofar as its successful inversion of patriarchy and
heteronormative modes of domination. Kingsolver “refutes dualistic thinking
in general—thinking that divides the world into hierarchical dichotomies with
one aspect regarded as superior and the ‘other’ regarded inferior” (Mack-Canty
158). That which is “othered” or deemed inferior finds a special niche in Prodigal Summer. Female characters gain
power through nature both the patriarchal system deems inferior to the male
agenda. Lusa, who is a genuine outsider, finds comfort by embracing her farm. Prodigal Summer allows female characters
to thrive in an environment that gives women allies and choices. The novel presents
readers with female characters who disrupt patriarchal and heterotypical norms
by empowering women within the confines of “natural” setting and by inverting
conventional modes of masculine power to a different standard where women
choose their position in the dynamic of domination and submission.

            The origins of the passive vs.
dominant binary stem from early childhood. For young boys, mothers are the
attention givers. Boys separate their identities from their mothers by cleaving
this relationship and identifying themselves by saying, “I am nothing like she
who serves and cares for me! I am the recognized and nurtured one, not the
recognizer and nurturer” (Benjamin 147). There is a disconnection between the
boy and his mother and one must assume a passive position and an active
position. Here, when the boy identifies himself as the active recipient of
nurture and affection that places him in the dominant position, while his
mother is the passive submissive giver of affection. Since this split is an
initial moment of independence and self-identification for a young boy, the
mind ingrains the notion of power in behavioral nuance. While this heavy
psychological theory may not be readily apparent in Prodigal Summer, it provides a foundation for the male character’s
behaviors. This idea as males as the understood dominator is exactly what
Kingsolver is arguing against. Kingsolver pushes against ideals and behaviors
ingrained from early child hood, and she does this by simply reversing the
roles. This reversal allows the women to choose their role, and this simple
choice creates empowerment and equality within their relationships.

show the previously mentioned inversion, Kingsolver juxtaposes her empowered
female characters with male characters heavily embedded with patriarchal
stereotypes. For instance, Deanna repeatedly describes Eddie Bondo’s
musculature and handsomeness. Even at five foot six, his presence fills
Deanna’s rural cabin (Kingsolver 27). While Eddie is not physically imposing,
he still carries himself as if that was not the case. He also is a sheep
rancher from Wyoming. He checks the boxes for the quintessential American man tending
his land in the West, raising his own food, taming the wild, and hunting for
sport. Little Rickie and Cole Widener also fit the stereotypical hot-blooded
American male mold. Their physical appearances aside, they are also farmers.
They are salt-of-the-earth people who make their living through hard work and a
little luck. Kingsolver’s younger male characters fit into stereotypical and hyper-masculine

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            Even the male character who is not
so young represents mens domination over nature. Garnett Walker attempts to be
nature saavy. GHe tries to grow American chestnut trees and maintains his
garden. Nevertheless, he always seems onestep behind blight and bugs. Nature
continuously thwarts all of Garnett’s efforts. He admires Nannie Rawley’s
luscious garden full of broccoli, eggplants, corn and he wonders how she
manages to have such a nice garden without the use of pesticides; his garden is
food for flea beetles, corn earworms, and loop worms (Kingsolver 371). Garnett
is a staunch believer in pesticides, but he does not understand how detrimental
they are. He sees the natural world around him, but he does not recognize the
perfection of nature and the intricate balance of predators and prey. He, in
typical patriarchal fashion, wants to dominate and preside over the earth. He
represents the idea that “southern masculinity developed through notions of
mastery and honor” (Fine 126). This idea shows how his heritage as a southern
male influences his views towards the chain of power. Kingsolver uses him to
show how this domineering way of thought is damaging. Readers know Nannie
Rawley’s garden is large and beautiful because she uses salamanders and other
natural predators to kill the unwanted insects. Nannie contrasts Garnett
insofar as she represents accuracy, balance, and equality when she is aligned
through the natural world.

            Since Kingsolver provides readers
with such blatantly manly men, when one compares her male characters to her
female characters, stark contrasts between their behaviors, attitudes, and most
importantly, their interactions with the surrounding world become visible.
Kingsolver uses this contrast between characters to show the absurdity of
characters who fit into the stiff stereotypical molds. For example, readers
know Eddie Bondo is in Zebulon County for a coyote hunt, which killing coyotes
is an act farmers and ranchers deem necessary because coyotes kill sheep and
other livestock (Kingsolver 28). Nevertheless, Deanna explains the importance of
predators to their surrounding ecosystem and she asserts that “not one rancher
in the whole American West who’s gone under because of coyote predation”
(Kingsolver 180). Automatically, Deanna’s claim has more influence. This is
because Kingsolver spins her male characters to seem out of step with the
natural world. They are intruders in a space that does not belong to them no
matter how hard they try to reclaim it. The female characters, on the other
hand, are especially inclined to understand the nuances and intricacies of the
natural world around them. Therefore, they assume a position of authority.

previously mentioned, the female characters gain authority and power insofar as
their alignment with the natural world. Kingsolver ensures her female characters
reclaim the dominant rather than passive position by affiliating the characters
in this way. All of the female characters, save Cole Widener’s sisters, are
especially in tune with nature and their surroundings. Deanna understands the
intricacies of the food chain and invasive species. Lusa was an entomologist
who is fascinated with moths. Even Nannie Rawley fully grasps the detrimental
effects of pesticides, and she grows an impressive garden without chemicals.
These female characters are authorities on the complexities of nature.

 In a novel that does such a wonderful job with
flipping patriarchal stereotypes, aligning women with nature seems to buy into
that age-old trope. However, Deanna, Lusa, and Nannie get their power from
their intelligence and wisdom about the functions of nature. Kingsolver
proposes that when women are actively involved with nature and conservation the
act correlates to conservation of their own selves. This idea stems from
ecofeminism. Colleen Mack-Canty, a political science and women’s studies
scholar, offers a relevant definition that states “ecofeminism, in its use of
ecology as a model for human behavior, suggests that we act out of a
recognition of our interdependency with others, all others: human and nonhuman”
(169). In other words, through recognition of connections to different
“othered” groups creates a sense of collective power. The idea of power through
connections is interesting when one considers the connecting webs Kingsolver
weaves into Prodigal Summer. For Nannie,
Lusa, and Deanna, their love and respect for nature is not the only thing that
connects them; the “othered” coyote also links them.

from linking and empowering her characters through the natural world,
Kingsolver also gives her female characters the power to choose their own
position in the patriarchal dominant/passive binary. Allowing the choice and
opportunity for a woman to assume the position of a dominant or a submissive figure is important in
all types of encounters such as regular conversation, visual encounters, and
even sexual encounters. Deanna often becomes the dominant figure in her
relationship with Eddie Bondo. She is authoritative in her conversations with
him inside and outside of the bedroom. In one of the many sexual encounters in
the novel, she “rolled him over and pinned him like a wrestler…. He shuddered
at her touch” (Kingsolver 24). Deanna initiates and engages with Eddie. She
is a giver of a pleasure, but she is in complete control. Traditionally, men
assumed such dominant roles and it is important that Kingsolver’s characters invert
this patriarchal hierarchy. Nevertheless, Deanna’s ability to choose to be
passive or dominant really makes Prodigal Summer distinctive. When Deanna
showed Eddie her ancient, hollowed, chestnut tree he “took the nape of her neck
in his teeth like a lion on a lioness in heat: a gentle, sure bite, by mutual
agreement impossible to escape” (Kingsolver 97) during intercourse. Deanna allows
herself to be the submissive party in this encounter. It is important to note the
narrator’s specific words: “mutual agreement.” The phrasing suggests that both
participants have a role in their encounter. She is not a fully passive
character. Without the acknowledgment of agreement from both partners, this
scene would have strayed into the realm of sexual assault.

example of the female characters’ choices emanates from Laura Mulvey’s idea of
the male gaze. The male gaze represents a divide between the active male and
the passive female where a man “projects its phantasy onto the female figure” (Mulvey
837). This projection includes an erotic component as well as one of dominance
and submission. It also reiterates Jessica Benjamin’s argument of early male
independence insofar as the male is the active party who receives pleasure. The
male gaze isolates and sexualizes the woman (Mulvey 840). In other words, by
emphasizing a woman’s sexuality through sight alone objectifies and dehumanizes
her. She becomes a form of visual pleasure for a male audience. Kingsolver
combats this issue with the male gaze by allowing her female characters the
same pleasure. Both Deanna and Lusa take pleasure in the physical appearance of
a male character. Deanna “tries to keep her eyes away from the glossy animal
movement of Eddie’s dark hair and the shape of the muscles in the seat of his
jeans. But the man was just one long muscle, anywhere you looked on him”
(Kingsolver 15). Even from this early encounter, Deanna is completely absorbed
in Eddie Bondo’s muscular appearance. In this observation, Deanna is inverting
Mulvey’s gaze. She gives the audience a sexualized visual representation of the
man’s body that leads to objectification. The inversion of the gaze gives Deanna
power over Eddie. Readers know Deanna accepts her own femininity and sexuality,
but she harnesses her desire for Eddie, which gives her power or more equality
in this encounter.

            Lusa, another confident female
character in Prodigal Summer, also
reverses the male gaze in her exchanges with her late husband Cole Widener, and
her nephew and potential future lover, Little Rickie. Lusa describes Cole as
“astonishingly large, His shoulders, his hands, the plane of his broad, flat
stomach and chest—all of him made her feel tiny and delicate” (Kingsolver 38).
Lusa revels in Cole’s physical power. She enjoys the way he makes her feel
small and protected. This scene could go in a similar direction as the one with
Deanna and Eddie in the tree. Lusa feels this way because she has a mutual
standing with Cole. He does not dominate over her in a manner she does not
desire. Her own autonomy allows her to find comfort in him.

Lusa thinks of Little Rickie, she imagines resting her head on his broad, bare
chest while his sinewy arms hold her (Kingsolver 158). While Lusa’s imaginings
are only that, she still gives readers a clear picture of her desires akin to a
picture on a cinematic screen. She places emphasis on his physical appearance,
and her mind lingers on his body. The inversion of the gaze also gives Lusa
more power and places her in a dominant position, just as it does for Deanna.  Little Rickie is not the submissive in this
dynamic insofar as he is also gazing at Lusa. In the traditional dynamic of the
male gaze, the “image of the women is (passive) raw material for the (active)
gaze of man” (Mulvey 843). Again, this dynamic creates a clear binary of who
dominates and who submits. Lusa and Little Rickie’s dual gazes, however, combat
this. They become equal within their mutual desire for each other. Ultimately,
when given the opportunity to choice or decide their role, mutual benefit is
created within a relationship. This applies to all types of relationships; some
of the previously mentioned ones include sexual relationships, friendly
relationships, and even relationships with the external world and the natural

Summer by Barbara Kingsolver is an ecofeminist novel that pushes against
patriarchal oppression through empowering female characters by inverting traditional
modes of patriarchal oppression and by placing emphasis on the balance and
equality within nature. Understanding how men separate themselves from women at
an early age helps one understand how the patriarchal vs the “other” binary comes
to fruition. Prodigal Summer suggests
that like in nature, harmony between the sexes grows from mutual respect. In
this novel, respect takes the form of choosing to be a dominant or submissive
party, but always and active participant. The novel also leaves readers with a
sense of hope that one-day patriarchal oppression is resolved and the balanced is
restored. Like the resilient American chestnut trees or the roaming coyotes, women
can restore the balance.


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