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More literary streetwalkers!

Posted by Joshua Glenn  April 10, 2008 08:00 AM

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This is the third installment in a series of posts on literary novels concerned with prostitution -- or other examples of the nexus of sex, power, and money.

1. Sister Carrie and the Emperor's Club | 2. Hooker Booker redux 3. More literary streetwalkers!

Here are a few more examples of this phenomenon. Phew!


OLIVER TWIST (1838), by Charles Dickens. Dickens poses the question: Does a bad environment irrevocably warp a person's character? Nancy, whose "free and agreeable... manners" indicate that she's a prostitute (Dickens confirms it in his preface to the 1841 edition), participates in some of Fagin's, Sikes's, and Monks's evil schemes; indeed, it's her devotion to Sikes which leads her to criminal acts. However, she finally makes a decision to do what is morally right, and stands up to Fagin and Sikes on Oliver's behalf. SPOILER: Doing so costs Nancy her life.

THE HANDMAID'S TALE (1985), by Margaret Atwood. The novel is set in a dystopian future Cambridge, Mass., in a theocratic and patriarchal society that divides women into virgin and whore types. In one scene, the titular handmaid, Offred, is taken to a men's club, Jezebel's, where the powerful men who preach sexual morality spend their evenings dallying with prostitutes -- some dressed like Playboy bunnies.


MADAME BOVARY (1857), by Gustave Flaubert. Emma Bovary is a country girl educated in a convent who lapses into fits of boredom and depression when her life fails to provide the sensual delights she reads about in sentimental novels. Her desire for passion leads her into an affair with Rodolphe, a wealthy neighbor; she runs up debts buying him gifts. In Emma's world, a woman's only power over a man is sexual; men hold all of the financial power. Near the end of the book, men start to treat her like a prostitute, though she doesn't see herself that way -- even when she tries to go back to Rodolphe, essentially willing to sell herself. Her romantic fantasy world trumps financial reality. SPOILER: Forced, at last, to face the actual consequences of her actions, Emma kills herself.


CRIME AND PUNISHMENT (1866), by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Sofya Semyonovna Marmeladov ("Sonya," "Sonechka"), daughter of a public official whose alcoholism is ruining his family, and a consumptive mother who boasts constantly of her family's aristocratic background, is forced to prostitute herself to support herself and her parents. She is meek and easily embarrassed, but unwavering in her religious faith. Another character is stalking her; and another character falsely accuses her of theft. The novel's protagonist, Raskolnikov, a proud and alienated former student who kills and robs a pawnbroker and her sister, more or less for ideological reasons, confesses to Sonya. She convinces him to turn himself into the police, and he is sent to prison in Siberia. SPOILER: Sonya follows him to Siberia, and Raskolnikov realizes that he loves her, which leads him to express remorse for his crime.

THE HOUSE OF THE SPIRITS (1982), by Isabel Allende. Semi-autobiographical. Esteban Trueba, determined to become rich and then powerful, succeeds in making a fortune with his family property, thanks to his exploitation of the peasants there. He also exploits the young daughters of the peasants for his sexual satisfaction, and visits prostitutes, including one named Transito Soto. They become friends, and Esteban loans money to Transito, who uses it to move to the city and establish a brothel there. Years later, he visits the brothel, where Transito explains that she has set it up as an idyllic cooperative of prostitutes and homosexuals. Transito and Esteban make love, after which Esteban is able to mourn his wife's death. SPOILER: When Esteban's granddaughter is kidnapped by the leader of a military coup, Transito rescues her.

ANNA KARENINA (1873-77), by Leo Tolstoy. Semi-autobiographical. The freethinking minor character Nikolai Dmitrich Levin represents liberal social thought among certain Russian intellectuals of the period; his reformed-prostitute girlfriend, Marya Nikolaevna, is living proof of his radically democratic viewpoint. NB: The redeemed prostitute was a regular symbol in 19th century sentimental novels; the realists rejected the very idea. Tolstoy, who is ambivalent about the democratic politics represented by Nikolai, might also be ambivalent about the possibility of redeeming a prostitute. SPOILER: Nikolai dies.

ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST (1962), by Ken Kesey. The mental hospital in which McMurphy finds himself is the author's metaphor for the oppressive society of the late 1950s; McMurphy rebels against the castratrix, Nurse Ratched, by seeking to rehabilitate his fellow patients. The expression of sexuality is praised as the ultimate goal; Candy Starr, the beautiful, carefree prostitute from Portland who accompanies McMurphy and the other patients on a fishing trip, then comes to the ward for a late-night party, is a kind of fallen angel. SPOILER: When Nurse Ratched finds Billy with Candy, she threatens to tell Billy's mother. Billy becomes hysterical and commits suicide by cutting his throat.

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1 comments so far...
  1. Hey! I've been calling myself a "Literary Streetwalker With a Heart of Gold" for a long time (www.mchristian.com) -- not that there's not room on the sidewalk for lots of hooking writers --

    Posted by M.Christian April 10, 08 02:32 PM
About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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