Last Updated on January 28, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 878
Materialism and Moral Corruption
The unnamed narrator frequently professes his disdain for the trappings of materialism. He claims not to like wealthy people and their displays of ostentation. At other times, however, he reveals his envy for such possessions and wistfully expresses his desire to compete more effectively in the endless one-upmanship. The dislike stems from his feelings of inadequacy, for which he blames the rich. His ambivalence largely evaporates when he wins the lottery: “Note to future generations: Happiness possible.” He quickly gives in to greed and commits to spending huge amounts on a lavish tableau vivant lawn display, which he rationalizes as a gift for his daughter. He imagines he has achieved some measure of success: “you feel different about self, as if at last you are in step with peers.”
While the money influences his moral decline, the reader can infer that the idea of luck fueled his ambition. Earnings from legitimate hard work should not be thrown away on frivolity. The serendipity of the lottery winnings arriving just as he is planning his daughter’s party, however, seems to justify his wasteful and unscrupulous behavior.
The narrator initially expresses no qualms about the negative effects of any element of the young women’s treatment. By objectifying them and concerning himself with the outward appearance of the display, he tries to distance himself from them. The neutralization of shared humanity required for anyone to endorse this type of treatment seems not to trouble him, although in the end he questions the values behind the Semplica Girls’ treatment, which might suggest he had retained but suppressed some moral qualms. The reader doubts his sincerity, however, because these statements are made only after they escape, aided by his own daughter. He seems to blame the women for his emotions, as he wonders why they would “ruin” things by leaving what he wants to believe was a good situation.
Sacrifice versus Exploitation
The author raises a number of challenging questions about people’s mistreatment of those they label as “Other.” The young women who participate in the living displays have apparently agreed to do so of their own free will, according to the diarist. One of the story’s prominent ideas is that humans voluntarily make temporary sacrifices that will lead to future benefits for themselves, or to help their families, other loved ones, or larger communities. But we are left to wonder if the Semplica Girls are actually doing this. After they leave, an investigating policeman laughs that the narrator would wonder why: “First cop: Smelling that American dream, baby.”
The story’s structure prevents the reader from hearing directly from the women themselves. The narrator describes the Semplica Girls as “smiling” and wants to reassure his daughter Eva that “they are not sad but actually happy, given what their prior conditions were like.” As he imagines the women’s reasons for traveling to a distant, foreign country, the narrator wonders if they would ever return to their “home + family.” He also imputes materialistic motives similar to his own, commenting that they had desired a “big bag of gifts” to bestow on their relatives.
The other type of interpretation is an emphasis on exploitation and coercion. This seems part of a larger critique of capitalism as an ostensibly open market, where anything is for sale. The story contains clear analogies to several US historical issues, including slavery, the display of humans, and medical experimentation, as well as to modern-day human trafficking. The Semplica method, named for the doctor who invented it, puts a “microline” through the brain but is reputedly painless and does not harm the brain. The Semplica Girls apparently are not the victims of sex trafficking, although their bodies have been commoditized. The narrator invokes the image of escaped slaves by referring to a “chain gang” for the microline that penetrates their brains and connects them.
Gendered Difference and Solidarity
Although the comparisons to slavery are clear, the fact that the people on display are female raises gender issues. Pam, the narrator’s wife, agrees to spend the money on the display, but the idea and the lottery winnings are his. Patriarchal attitudes are revealed throughout the story, as he mentions his paternal responsibilities. The objectification of women is combined with their denigration in being termed “girls.” Furthermore, they are identified as a group by the name of the male physician who developed the dehumanizing process.
Gender is also a component of the female solidarity that leads to their release. When the Semplica Girls escape, the police who arrive to investigate inform the family that there are numerous groups dedicated to helping them. Among them is “Women4Women.”
The narrator’s youngest daughter, Eva, is the only character who shows clear solidarity with the Semplica Girls. Her parents contracted the display in conjunction with her sister Lilly’s birthday, not hers. Her father dismisses Eva’s concerns as reflecting her typical over-sensitivity. Both in talking with her parents and in pictures she draws, she raises questions about pain, sadness, and empathy. At one point, she flatly tells her father, ‘I don’t even get it how they’re not dead.” One of her drawings of a Semplica Girl has the caption, “What if I am your daughter.”