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America used to be known as the land of opportunity. That was before the wars and the advent of technology. For post-modern authors, modernity and prosperity has turned America into a disappointment. Barthelme’s Snow White and Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 share similar ideas about the condition of American society. These two books discuss the problems of America in characteristically post-modern terms. Through their female protagonists, these authors employ allusions to fairytales and examinations of American society in similar ways.
Barthelme’s Snow White borrows a theme from fairytales but adds a post-modern perspective. The title of the book makes an obvious statement about the nature of Barthelme’s narrative. It is a post-modern re-telling of the Snow White story. It abandons the traditional narrative form and instead aims to satire American culture. In the traditional Snow White story, the female protagonist flees a jealous stepmother and takes refuge with seven dwarfs until her Prince Charming rescues her. They ride off into the sunset together and live “happily ever after.” In Barthelme’s book Snow White is the hapless pseudo-wife of the seven dwarfs. She is overcome with boredom and is frustrated with her situation. She does not enjoy having sex with the seven men or doing their housework. Barthelme’s use of fairytales to describe his protagonist’s situation is uniquely post-modern because it employs intertextuality. It blatantly refers to a previous text and borrows heavily from it in order to comment on the text and create a new understanding of the previous text.
Awareness of the fairytale texts is demonstrated when Snow White lets her hair out the window in a Rapunzel-like gesture to woo her prince into saving her. When she lets her hair down she comments “This motif, the long hair streaming from the high window, is a very ancient one I believe, found in many cultures, in various forms.”(86) She is aware of the implications of this action. She realizes that she is not the first character in literature to let her hair down. This “motif” has been done before and is an “ancient one…found in many cultures.” Barthelme is alluding to the post-modern idea that all experiences have textual basis. Authentic experience is no longer possible because one is always aware of what has already been done in the past. Snow White lets her hair down because it is what she thinks will attract her prince. However, she is aware that she is simply a player in the text of human experience. The Snow White allusion is Barthelme’s contribution to the post-modern assessment of human experience.
Barthelme uses the fairytales to contribute to the post-modern literary dialogue and to comment on the current situation of women. By alluding to the fairytale character of Snow White and giving her a modern context, Snow White becomes emblematic of the emotions that Barthelme ascribes to women in post-war America. Barthelme combines the Snow White and the Rapunzel fairytales to describe the life of a woman living with seven men in the Sixties. By giving the archaic fairytale character this modern context, the female protagonist then becomes a post-modern “damsel in distress.” She lets her hair down in an effort to draw out her prince to save her. On a page entitled “Vacillations and Confusions of Snow White” Barthelme writes, ” ‘But who am I to love?’ Snow White asked hesitating, because she already loved us, in a way, but it wasn’t enough. Still, she was ashamed.”(18) He gives complexity and depth to the otherwise two-dimensional fairytale character of Snow White. Here she is emotionally confused and upset with her situation. She loves the dwarfs “in a way,” yet yearns for more. She yearns for something other than what she has with the dwarfs because “it wasn’t enough.” She is different from the traditional Snow White of bedtime stories. She is vocal and active about her unhappiness.
Snow White experiences what Barthelme sees as the plight of most housewives at the time. Barthelme’s “horsewife” and her many problems describe the modern American housewife languishing in the stagnation of housework and lack of romance. He gives this human condition an absurd treatment, as illustrated in Edward’s diatribe on the horsewife: “The horsewife! The very basebone of the American plethora! The horsewife! Without whom the entire structure of civilian life would crumble!”(105) By exaggerating the term and its significance, Barthelme is simultaneously ridiculing the iconography of the housewife and empathizing with her plight. He is criticizing the idea that the woman is the “basebone” and upholder of the “structure of civilian life.” It is the idea that the success of a civilized society rests solely on the housewife in post-war America. No one person or social institution could possibly live up to that standard. However, that was the idealization of the housewife at the time. Barthelme is demonstrating the absurdity of those that viewed women with such exaggerated expectations.
The idealization of the housewife causes her to separate two aspects of her personality – that of the housewife and that of a sexual being. She can not reconcile these two roles. Edward concludes his speech on the horsewife by describing what she feels like after taking a bath and toweling off:
What an endearing spectacle! The naked wonder of it… Do we have here a being that regards itself with the proper amount of self-love? No. No we do not…We have here rather a being which regards itself, qua horsewife, with something dangerously akin to self-hatred. (106)
Here is the assessment of Snow White’s and, as representative of the female condition, women’s plight in the age of prosperity and modernity. She is not filled with “the proper amount of self-love” but regards herself with “self-hatred.” This is because she has been so idealized and iconolized that she is no longer perceived as a sexual being. She does not appreciate her “naked wonder” because sex is not an exciting aspect of her life. There is a dearth of romance in her life. In order to revive her romantic and sexual life, she decides to let her hair down and wait for her prince. When she lets her hair down she declares,
“Now I recapitulate it, for the astonishment of the vulgar and the refreshment of my venereal life.” (86) Snow White chooses to “recapitulate” the Rapunzel image by letting her hair down for “the astonishment of the vulgar.” She chooses to take action by waiting for her prince. She desires “refreshment of venereal life” much like the women of post-war suburbia.
Not only does Barthelme empathize with Snow White’s situation; he also evaluates her critically. In a passage entitled “The Psychology of Snow White” Barthelme writes
What does she hope for? ‘Someday my prince will come.’ By this Snow White means that she lives her own being as incomplete, pending the arrival of one who will ‘complete’ her. That is, she lives her own being as ‘not-with’ even though she is in some sense ‘with’ seven men. (76)
Snow White is every girl who has ever defined herself in terms of what or who she does not have. She is what Barthelme perceives to be the problem with women at the time. They do not feel “complete” unless they have their prince. Women are bound to this archaic notion of romance and chivalry and it leads to frustration and desperation.
Pynchon’s female protagonist also experiences alienation and boredom with her fate as a housewife. Oedipa Maas is Pynchon’s post-modern version of Odysseus. Like the character in the Greek epic, she sets out on a journey of discovery and knowledge. Similar to Barthelme’s Snow White, Oedipa is representative of the female situation in post-war America. Pynchon makes this association very clear in the beginning of the book when he introduces Oedipa as coming home “From a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue.”(9) The immediate connotations of “Tupperware party” and “fondue” are unmistakable staples of the suburban housewife’s world. Pynchon associates Oedipa with that lifestyle to show that she is representative of all the women who were a part of that world but that she is capable of more.
Like Barthleme, Pynchon also associates his main character with the Rapunzel fairytale. When Oedipa reflects on her past with Pierce, Pynchon writes how she had
Conned herself into the curious, Rapunzel-like role of a pensive girl somehow, magically, prisoner among the pines and salt fogs of Kinneret, looking for somebody to say hey, let down your hair. When it turned out to be Pierce she’d happily pulled out the pins and curlers. (20)
Oedipa and Snow White both connect with the Rapunzel motif because they both are “pensive” and bored with their lives. They look to the prince figure for redemption from “being prisoner among the pines and salt fogs.” Pynchon gives the Rapunzel allusion a deeper meaning than Barthelme does because he continues this passage with Oedipa realizing that:
All that had gone on between them had really never escaped the confinement of that tower…Pierce had taken her away from nothing, there’d been no escape…If the tower is everywhere and the knight of deliverance no proof against its magic, what else? (21-22)
Oedipa realizes that despite the fact that Pierce was her “prince” he did not save her from anything. She realizes that there is “no escape” because the real demons that both Oedipa and Snow White must deal with are not external forces but are instead their own internalized perceptions of their world. In the world Pynchon describes, the tower “is everywhere” and the prince is “no proof against its magic.” Part of Oedipa’s journey and what Snow White realizes is that one can not assume the role of a Rapunzel because there is no place to escape to and there is no prince. The “tower” is their world, America, and there is no escape from the disappointment that America has become.
Pynchon’s Oedipa does not choose to wait for her prince like Snow White does but instead takes an active role in exploring her fate. She sets out for California “With no idea that she was moving toward anything new.”(23) Unlike Snow White, Oedipa is unaware of her character’s connection to a literary past. Oedipa possesses a fresh perspective as opposed to the self-aware skepticism of Snow White.
Oedipa’s reason for going to California is to execute the will of a former lover but it soon turns into a search for the Truth. She is looking for the truth about the Trystero, a mysterious underground mail system, but also for universal truth. At certain points along this journey to knowledge she becomes doubtful about the possibility of finding any answers. This doubt is expressed when “Oedipa wondered whether, at the end of this, she too might be left with only compiled memories of clues, announcements, intimations, but never the central truth itself, which must somehow each time be too bright for her memory to hold.”(95) Her purpose is to find the “central truth itself” because without achieving that, her journey is in vain. She feels that if she can uncover the truth of the Trystero it will lead to a better understanding of America and the world in which one is forever stuck in a Rapunzel-like tower. But her fear is that she will be left with only “clues and intimations” and never an answer to what it all means. Oedipa experiences the post-modern quest for knowledge, but ultimately realizes that the “central truth itself” will always be too “bright for her memory to hold.” According to Pynchon, the “central truth” is always just beyond grasp, “too bright” to comprehend.
Pynchon ends the book with Oedipa’s somewhat bleak and inconclusive assessment of the knowledge she has gained on her journey. She has traveled throughout California and met a plethora of diverse character spanning the underground of society, yet she still can not decide what it means. She thinks, “There either was some Tristero beyond the appearance of the legacy America, or there was just America and if there was just America then it seemed the only way she could continue…was as an alien, unfurrowed, assumed full circle into some paranoia.”(182) The knowledge that Oedipa has gained on her quest has left more confused and unsure than when she started. She has encountered America or at least, Pynchon’s presentation of “the legacy of America” and after all that she has seen the only way to comprehend it is to become an outsider, an “alien.” She can accept this view of America only is she accepts the paranoia. For Pynchon, America has become a confusing web of paranoid outsiders.
Barthelme conclusion is also a bleak commentary on what America has become. When Snow White decides that she has waited long enough with no sign of a prince and decides to take her hair in, she remarks:
No one has come to climb up. That says it all. This time is the wrong time for me. I am in the wrong time. There is something wrong…with all those who did not and at least try to climb up. To fill the role. And with the very world itself, for not being able to supply a prince. For not being able to at least be civilized enough to supply the correct ending to the story. (137-138)
Barthelme blames both the women who persist in the illusion of a prince and in the world that Snow White is in. According to Barthelme, it is “the wrong time” for chivalry and princes. Modern America can not supply Snow White with a prince; the world is not “civilized enough” to provide happy endings. The problem lies in her expectations of the world and in the pathetic reality of post-war America.
Post-modern literature is a very aware art form. The authors are aware of their historical context. The characters are aware of their position in the literary tradition. This awareness causes many fears. There is the fear that authentic experience is no longer possible. There is the fear that one can never achieve Truth. And there is the fear that there is no escape and there is no savior prince. However upsetting this understanding of the world seems, it is an ultimately redemptive understanding redemptive understanding. Their redemption lies in the knowledge and awareness of reality. For Pynchon, this knowledge is the goal of human experience. Barthelme does not offer a clear answer to the problems and fears of post-modernism. He focuses on illuminating the problems so that his reader gains awareness and knowledge.
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