The Girl

by Meridel Le Sueur

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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...

(This entire section contains 692 words.)

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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 by the women attending her.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 297

The Girl holds a unique place in women’s literature for several reasons, one being because it is a text rich in the application of matters of literary theory, for those at home in the French school and for those at home in the British and American school. Whether one is interested in “writing the body,” in the psychoanalytical approach to women’s literature, in a historical class analysis, or in a revision of class and gender in women’s revolutionary texts of the 1930’s (as critic Paula Rabinowitz has written), The Girl is a gold mine.

In both form and content, the novel remains one of the most interesting works for feminist and historical scholars and for general readers, both women and men. Although the novel is set in the 1930’s during the Great Depression, there is a community of women survivors who celebrate renewal and the human spirit. Among many contemporary women writers, except for some notable African American authors, one misses this perspective. In a time in which “the feminization of poverty” has become an issue, The Girl is contemporary in its perspective. Its view that women are exploited through economic systems is balanced by its view that they are, by the fact of being women, survivors. Le Sueur’s language is a vital exploration of women’s and men’s sensibilities; she juxtaposes the elegiac and the profane, weaving both in prose closer to poetry than to exposition.

A revised edition by Le Sueur, edited by John F. Crawford, was published in 1990. This edition, with Le Sueur’s afterword and afterwords by her daughter, Rachel, and friends Dr. Neala Schuleuning, a university professor, and Irene Paull, a Communist comrade from the 1930’s, serves as a palimpsest of women’s stories, issues, and lives.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 276

Barrett, Eileen, and Mary Cullinan, eds. American Women Writers: Diverse Voices in Prose Since 1845. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. The editors have included a concise biography of Le Sueur as a preface to her short story “Women Are Hungry.”

Gelfant, Blanche H. Women Writing in America: Voices in Collage. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1984. In a chapter entitled “Meridel Le Sueur’s ‘Indian’ Poetry and the Quest/ion of Feminine Form,” Gelfant explores the Hopi Indian influences on Le Sueur’s language and structure. Although Gelfant is dealing primarily with poetry, her work also sheds light on Le Sueur’s prose in general, emphasizing its cyclical, repetitive, rhythmic, and lyrical qualities, as well as its patterns of “continual return.”

Le Sueur, Meridel. The Girl. Edited by John F. Crawford. Albuquerque, N.M.: West End Press, 1990. Included in this edition is an essay by Crawford, “The Book’s Progress: The Making of The Girl,” in which he notes the changes made by Le Sueur since the novel was first published in 1978, with explanations as to why they were made.

Le Sueur, Meridel. Ripening: Selected Work, 1927-1980. Edited by Elaine Hedges. Old Westbury, N.Y.: Feminist Press, 1982. In an extensive introduction, Hedges encapsulates Le Sueur’s published writing, both descriptively and analytically. She traces the genesis of The Girl, noting previous publications of its segments or chapters.

Rabinowitz, Paula. Labor and Desire: Women’s Revolutionary Fiction in Depression America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991. Rabinowitz places The Girl in a radical, historical, and feminist context. Le Sueur emphasizes feminine desire and maternity becoming historical narrative and identifies “the masses with the maternal.”


Critical Essays