When looking into history, it appears that both women and the non-human world have one thing in common; they have been suppressed, oppressed, and badly mistreated. More often than not, man is running the show and claiming to have dominion over animals, the surrounding environment, and even women. It is through this commonality of oppression within a patriarchal society, however, that makes women more in tune with and ultimately closer to the non-human world. In Prodigal Summer, Barbara Kingsolver utilizes strong female characters that have strong attachments to their surrounding environment and a void of men in their lives to show the connection that women have to the non-human world.
Although there are three distinct narratives within the book, the novel is largely written with a female voice. There is, however, one narrative, Garnett’s, in which a man is the primary speaker. Despite this, it is easy to see that the majority of protagonists are females and thus diminishes any type of patriarchal structures within the novel. Even within Garnett’s narrative, there is a constant appearance of Nannie Rawley, who often seems to be pitted against Garnett. So, even within the male narrative, a female is the dominant figure, completely opposite of patriarchal structures that have been in play in society for many years. Nannie Rawley, in fact, has no problem telling Garnett when he is wrong and when she is right. Throughout the entire novel, they are constantly arguing over the use of insecticide and other chemicals that can be used to keep pests out and help foster growth of their respective crops. At one point, Rawley goes right to Garnett and calls him a “death angel” for the chemicals he has been using, even stating that he believes his chestnut trees are more important than her apples because “[he’s] a man and [she’s] a woman” (273). Within this little exchange, one can see that Garnett is acting as a patriarchal type of figure, but he is often foiled by Nannie Rawley’s actions and statements.
This subversion of the patriarchal figure also reveals how polar opposite men and women can be in regards to the non-human world. Garnett, when thinking about Nannie Rawley, often compares the way animals think to the way Rawley speaks; “Birds and oak trees have minds like hers” (269). Moreover, Garnett is often unable to comprehend Nannie Rawley’s logic when it comes to the preservation of land without the use of pesticides, even resulting in just calling her a “bra-burning” (219) type of person. She, of course, wants to have a completely organic garden while Garnett thinks it is impossible to really thrive without the use of chemicals. Through Garnett’s narrative, one can see that women tend to be more in tune with the non-human world, seeking to preserve it and protect it, while men just want to use it for their own gain. Such a parallel between men’s mistreatment of the environment with that of women is truly startling, revealing that women tend to empathize with the animals and plants because of the suppression that they have faced themselves under the powerful hands of men.
Despite Garnett’s narrative showing how women can be closer to nature through the war between Nannie Rawley and himself, the other two narratives reveal this closeness by asserting the feminine and minimizing the masculine. Although Deanna meets Eddie Bondo and constantly has him around, she is mainly alone and without a man in her life. At the end of the novel, she even leaves Eddie Bondo behind without much of a problem. This, of course, goes against the patriarchal norm which states that women need men, because their identity is inextricably linked to men. However, with the character of Deanna, one can see the entire binary of masculine/feminine turned on its head. She lives on the mountain alone, upkeeps the trails, and provides for herself, all of which would normally be seen as ‘masculine’ activities. The fact that Deanna lives on the mountain amongst the animals and plants, in fact, showcases her own closeness to the non-human world. In essence, she is choosing to live with them instead of other people; choosing wildlife instead of civilization.
Furthermore, the relationship that Deanna has with Eddie Bondo is very telling when it comes to seeing how women and men differ in their treatment of the non-human world. Early on, Deanna notes that Eddie seems to be a “sheep rancher” (28) and only in the area to hunt down and kill Coyote’s. Of course, Deanna is very much against this and seeks to change Eddie’s attitude throughout the novel. At one point he tells Eddie that “people act so hateful to every kind but their own,” (175) hinting at the fact that he is one of those people. Deanna, being a woman, is definitely qualified to make such a statement since her gender has a history of being oppressed by men, simply because they are men and she is a woman. The dichotomy between Eddie and Deanna in regards to the non-human world is emphasized in a scene where Eddie tries to rid the cabin of a moth, by “batting both hands at [the] frightened” (168) creature. Upon seeing this, Deanna exclaims “Hey, hey, careful!” and “don’t do it like that” (168-169), revealing that she knows how to treat the moth better than he does. In fact, she even claims that the frightened moth “never saw such a display of manhood in all her days” (169). What, exactly, does she mean by this display of manhood? Well, Eddie is stomping around the cabin and batting his hands around in order to forcefully exile the moth from what he believes is his domain. In other words, he is using his force to get rid of a creature he does not see as valuable, just like the farmers and other sheep ranchers throughout the book, and just like many men throughout the world. Whereas Deanna knows how to treat the moth as valuable, making sure it can leave the cabin without injury, Eddie only knows how to communicate with the creature through his force.
In a similar fashion as Deanna’s narrative, Lusa’s is one in which the feminine is emphasized and the masculine is downplayed as well. For starters, Lusa ends up taking over the farm upon her husband’s death. When one conjures up an image of a farmer, a woman usually isn’t something that will pop into anyone’s mind. But, Lusa takes over the role nonetheless subverting the normative masculine/feminine traits. Despite taking on these ‘masculine’ activities, she is still very much in tune with the non-human world. Her connection is so strong that when “she [feels] her cycle coming back” it is when the “whole moon [was] rising above the roof of the barn” (230). She is “cycling with the moon” (244), which only a woman is able to do. Additionally, when beginning to mow the lawn, she claims that “she had found her way to the mind-set of an insect” (285) by “floating through a universe of vibratory sensation” (285). When her husband mowed the lawn, Lusa described his actions as “breaking off” (32) and “disturb[ing] (31) branches, but when she mows the lawn it’s with the mindset of an insect being in tune with the non-human world, not disturbing it at all. Whereas men, as patriarchal figures, are disturbing the environment, women are in tune with it completely.It would appear, then, that women can understand and empathize with nature in such a way that a man cannot, simply because they know what it is like to be crushed under the heel of patriarchal societies. They know what it is like to be the defenseless minority amongst what seems like a juggernaut of oppression by the hands of men. They have been excluded and marginalized, just like the environment. In Prodigal Summer, Barbara Kingsolver makes reveals this connection in her beautifully interwoven narratives that come together to showcase the same theme, that women are closer to the non-human world than men. In Kingsolver’s novel, the representative women are Deanna Wolfe, Nannie Land Rawley, and Lusa Landowski; there very names show the connection between woman and the environment that Kingsolver is trying to get across.