Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 692
The Girl is a novel built around the stories of women and men living under the shadow of the Great Depression of the 1930’s in St. Paul, Minnesota. Meridel Le Sueur herself took down these stories from that time, when she was a member of the Workers Alliance and living in a warehouse with others. Although Le Sueur was unable to get her novel published in 1939—it was too radical, too pessimistic, too unconventional—by 1978 it was resurrected and acclaimed by feminist, literary, and historical scholars, as well as by the reading public.
In choosing an unnamed narrator, Le Sueur substantiates a basic tenet of her writing: to get rid of the “I,” the egotistical, alienated, destructive hero-protagonist who must win or die at all costs. Instead, she seeks to verify the “communal I,” the voices of the collective over the voice of the individual, the voices of cooperation over the voice of the competitor. In The Girl, a chorus of voices participate in the narrative. Gathering at the German Village, a bar and speakeasy, they tell their stories and write their lives. It is indicative of Le Sueur’s emphasis on the collective voice that those who are outside the collective fail. For example, Butch, who insists that he wants to “beat out the other guy,” that he always “must win,” is killed.
The story begins with the arrival of the Girl from a village up the river in Minnesota. The daughter of a large, poor family, she is shy, sensitive, inexperienced, yet hardworking, and she soon wins a place among the others in the bar. The Girl is not only running away from being a burden on her family but also running toward a new life, new experiences, and new hopes. She finds work as a waitress at the bar and immediately falls in love with a young, lean man, Butch. Encouraged by Clara and Belle, women who suffer at the hands of men yet “can’t live without them,” the Girl and Butch take up with each other. The story takes place over four seasons, from fall through the next summer.
Poverty looms over the characters’ lives, and they make desperate choices: Clara walks the streets; Butch’s brother, Bill, is killed “scabbing” during a workers’ strike; the Girl, lured by Ganz’s offer of twenty-five dollars so that she can help Butch buy his gas station, is raped by Ganz and his lawyer, Hone; and Hoinck and Butch join Ganz in a plot to rob a bank and consequently are killed.
The women cooperate with one another in sustaining the men as well as themselves. Belle’s rich stew, “booya,” which she serves Saturday nights in the bar, symbolizes the unrequited nurturing and care that she and the other women disburse throughout the novel. It is they who clean wounds, prepare food, find money for warm rooms, and assist at death and at birth.
They also love men. Belle and Hoinck have been married more than thirty years, and they still quarrel and make love with passion. The Girl loves Butch, with his face as lean as a fox and his graceful body; he is the first man to make love with her. Even when he hits her, she is not deterred in loving him. His immaturity and bravado are endearing. Clara “loves” many men, for half an hour at a time, but religiously she holds onto the promise of the ideal man, whom she will one day marry and with whom she will live happily ever after.
The first half of the novel focuses on women and men, but after the bank robbery, which occurs midway through the novel, the men disappear for the most part. The women band together, first in a tenement and then in a warehouse, struggling to survive the loss of their men and to ward off the relief workers who advocate sterilization and electric shock treatments for the Girl and Clara. The novel ends with the death of Clara in the same hour as the birth of the Girl’s baby, who is given the name Clara...
(The entire section contains 1265 words.)
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