In his definitive essay, “Naturalism on the Stage,” Émile Zola advocates the application of the clinical method of empirical science to all of life. According to his naturalistic philosophy, heredity and environment influence and determine human motivation and behavior. Thus, if a writer wishes to depict life as it really is, he must be rigorously deterministic in the representation of his characters’ thoughts and actions in order to show forth the causal factors that have made the characters inevitably what they are. Substituting the scientific idea of determinism for the classical notion of fate, Zola argues for a literature of observation rather than one of fabrication.
Although not all of the early naturalistic works are harsh, a great many of them portray the experiences of impoverished and uneducated people, imprisoned perforce in a milieu of filth, squalor, and corruption. As a result, naturalism is often equated with the depressingly dreary slice-of-life documentation of unredeemable and brutal realities. Blow Your House Down, like Barker’s much-praised first novel, Union Street (1982), justifies such an equation; it is designed expressly to shock the bourgeois sensibility and achieves a level of obscenity that allows it to do so, the term obscenity being used descriptively rather than judgmentally.
The novel documents the lives and times of a group of prostitutes who are being terrorized by a psychopathic killer. Written from the third-person point of view, the first section focuses on the life of Brenda, a young woman abandoned by her abusive husband and left on her own to support three children. In the economically depressed British industrial town in which she lives, the only viable sources of employment for an uneducated working-class woman such as herself are in manual labor or prostitution. Brenda, as the narrative present of the novel describes, has opted for the latter. The causal factors that determined her decision are revealed retrospectively as the story progresses. The naturalistic substratum is kept in view.
An account of Brenda’s life reads like a case history compiled by a social worker. Having no family of her own, Brenda was shuttled from one foster family to another. Pregnant at age sixteen, she married Brian, who, like most of the men in this novel, is physically violent and financially irresponsible. Brian “thought nothing of belting her if she didn’t have his shirts ironed.” The forces of heredity and environment have taken their grim toll on both of them. as soon as he had a few pints inside him he was moaning on to anybody who’d listen: “My life ended when I was nineteen.” “You’re bloody lucky,” she used to say. “I was only sixteen when mine ended.” They both meant it too. So it was no surprise when he went. The only surprise was where he found the guts.
Brenda’s recourse at this point is to secure employment at the chicken factory, the foul smell of which is a ubiquitous presence in the novel, a persistent reminder of the physical and spiritual pollution that chokes the lives of the characters. For Brenda the job is akin to a life sentence.It wouldn’t’ve been so bad if she could’ve seen an end to it, but she couldn’t. It was going to be like this till the kids grew up and by that time she’d be old and useless and nobody’d want her anyway. She cried till her chest ached.
The babysitter whom she has hired to look after her children proves to be a child abuser, so, in the end, prostitution looks somewhat inviting—at least she can dictate her own hours and enjoy some measure of independence—but prostitution as well is a no-win situation. As Brenda reflects, “There was no winning at this game: if they were nasty you hated them; if they were nice you hated yourself. She’d rather hate them.”
The first nine chapters of the novel deftly shift back and forth between time present and time past so that the reader can get a clear picture of Brenda’s current situation and past history—the former being entirely a product of the latter. In the tenth chapter, the reader is vaulted back into time present, the narrative fixing its attention on the gruesome murder of Kath—a prostitute who was formerly Brenda’s mentor and who is now a wretched alcoholic. Her death is rendered in copious and...
(The entire section is 1780 words.)