Thursday, July 9, 2009

A Woman's Restaurant, from T.C. Boyle's "Descent of Man"

"Comrades! Come quickly! The wall at Berlin has fallen! We must act now to preserve our ideology. But we need not create new doctrine to spread the values given to us by our brother Marx, for you will find all that he has taught us in literature, both past and present".

Read these words closely and what will you find? The seeds of socio-economic change? A line from an awful screenplay, perhaps? Whatever you take this monologue as, if you look closely you will find that these are not the words of a Marxist critic. Marxist criticism is not the cornerstone of some underground revolutionary movement, but a method of analyzing any work of literature. In a most basal interpretation, the Marxist critic is essentially a careful reader; who bears in mind ideas of class, economy, and power when digesting any work. To motivate this definition, we look at T. Coraghessan Boyle's short story "A Woman's Restaurant" through the lens of Marxist criticism.

"[It's] A woman's restaurant. What goes on there, precisely, no man knows. I am a man. I am burning to find out."

A Woman's Restaurant chronicles the exploits of an unnamed male narrator as he tries to permeate the closed off world of a private restaurant/bar, run by Rubie and Grace, whose only patrons are women. The plot is ripe with the fruit of Karl Marx, with several connotations and allusions abound throughout the text. The premise which the woman's restaurant (which is also unnamed) is founded on, resonates with communist ideals. Primarily, as the narrator recounts; "I have watched women of all stripes pass through those curtained front doors: washerwomen, schoolmarms, gymnasts, waitresses,..." we see immediately that this diverse group of women is homogenized into a singular entity. They're social statuses and fields of employment dissolve when they enter the restaurant. Marx and Engels conveyed on the basis of communism, "..... strips them of their natural character and subjugates them to the power of the individuals united". From this vantage we can view the woman's restaurant as a microcosm for the communist state. By relinquishing the identities given to them by the larger more dominant society in which they live, the patrons empower the restaurant with a degree of authority none of them could express on their own. Dissension from the community is not tolerated. When a male companion convinces Rubie to allow him access to the secret chambers of the women's restaurant, they are caught by Grace and Rubie is punished. The price for her penance - her hair. Her long flowing main is reduced to bald stub. She can not escape the authoritative grasp of the commune she helped create. When we read "[The] subsuming of individuals under definite classes cannot be abolished until a class has taken shape, which no longer has any particular class interest to assert against the ruling class" from Marx and Engels we see why the punishment fits the crime. The identity given to her by society at large is circumvented in order to preserve the structure of the restaurant.

While there are many more ways to dissect the text of "A Woman's Restaurant", from the point of view of a Marxist critic, we choose these two elementary examples to establish the method. The brevity of each case is not to be taken lightly. The values and ideals put forth by Marx and Engels shine brightly through this narrative. The women of the women's restaurant restructured their roles originally given to them by society and in so doing completely turned the tables on it. They created a place where each aspect of individuality relinquished by each member compounded to form a single community, with a single message - the revolution will be televised!

1 comment:

  1. Excellent--well written, even funny. I haven't thought about this story much in these terms, but it might work well for the final project in the class, where we take one work and analyze it from more than one critical point of view--wouldn't be hard to 'read' this same piece from a Feminist angle. Also, think about audience: while readers from this class would follow you when you write 'The values and ideals put forth by Marx and Engels shine brightly through this narrative,' is there enough explication of those values for a less familiar reader to follow in this piece? Would a longer version demand more?