Prodigal Summer Essays

Here's one of my papers about Kingsolver's "Prodigal Summer" through the lense of Thaler & Sunstein's "Nudge".


Kathy De La Hoz
Paper 9, ESem

November 6, 2009

To Nudge or Not to Nudge?

The word “prodigal”, as defined by Merriam Webster Online Dictionary, means to yield abundantly and to be characterized by profuse or wasteful expenditure. Such a word is fitting for Barbara Kingsolver’s novel Prodigal Summer, which takes place during a fruitful and excessively abundant summer. Prodigal Summer largely focuses on the ecological balance of the natural world and the processes of birth and death. Kingsolver uses the relationship between both Deanna and Eddie and Lusa and Rickie to demonstrate our primal nature. The choices that Deanna and Lusa make can be accounted for by the biological cues their bodies are unconsciously picking up – nudging their attraction, as Thaler & Sunstein would say, toward their male counterparts. However, while attraction is unconscious, the choice on whether to act on the attraction is an entirely conscious choice .

Deanna and Lusa, the novels central characters, are much older than their male counterparts. Deanna is much older than Eddie while Lusa is much older than Rickie. Deanna a “long brown bolt [of braid] threaded with silver” (Kingsolver 5)“a wife past forty to an older husband that was facing his own age badly” (Kingsolver 19). Through details such as this, Kingsolver Deanna’s age Eddie, who is “very much younger than she [with] dark green eyes and a deeply muscular build” (Kingsolver 4). Similarly, Lusa, widowed at twenty-eight, is a than her “seventeen year old boy” (Kingsolver 159) nephew, Rickie. This type of relationship is unconventional in our society, where the majority of couples are older men with younger women.

Although not humanly conventional, both Deanna’s relationship with Eddie and Lusa’s relationship with Rickie the types of relationships often seen in nature For most living creatures, especially insects, hormones called pheromones are “scent cues animals use to find and identify [potential] mates” (Kingsolver 37). Females can release pheromones that indicate when they are ready to breed and males can release pheromones that convey information about their species and genotype (Pheromone). Males that are the most biologically fit will release pheromones that indicate their superior genotypic ‘fitness’ and so be able to attract the most females because their genes are the most favorable.  

Kingsolver uses pheromones to explain Deanna and Eddie’s relationship. In the beginning, Deanna questions how she could possibly be attracted to Eddie: the reasonable thing to do is to “stand up and walk away from him but when he bent his face sideways toward hers she couldn’t stop herself from laying a hand on his jaw” (Kingsolver 22).  omen are attracted to biological fitness; they are to men who release pheromones that indicate that they have genes. Thus, Deanna – an older woman – is attracted to Eddie – a younger man – because he exudes health and fitness. Deanna is being nudged by her unconscious to be attracted to Eddie; she may not be aware of it, but her body is picking up all the necessary biological cues.

Likewise, pheromones can be used to explain Lusa and Eddie’s relationship. Lusa is struck by fantasies of Rickie’s “bare chest and arms, and putting her head there and being held by him” (Kingsolver 158).  She becomes acutely aware of “every nerve ending in her breasts and her lips” (Kingsolver 414) when Rickie lightly touches her neck. She is almost immediately mortified by these fantasies, questioning she is ‘losing her mind’ (Kingsolver 158) for having such thoughts about her nephew. er attraction to Rickie can be explained by pheromones: Lusa is health and fitness.

Thaler and Sunstein explain in their book on decision-making, Nudge, our brains can make decisions using either our automatic system or our reflective system. The automatic system, or our ‘rational’ system, is “rapid, feels instinctive, and does not involve what we usually associate with the world thinking” (Thaler & Sunstein 19). Decisions made with this system are generally effortless, fast, and unconscious. The reflective system, or our ‘rational’ system, is “more deliberate and self-conscious” (Thaler & Sunstein 19).

While both are nudged by their unconscious to be attracted to their younger male counterparts, both are consciously aware of this unconscious nudge. Lusa knows all about pheromonesrealizing that “men were fluttering around her like moths [because] she was fertile and [she must be trailing pheromones]” (230).  Similarly, Deanna knows that simply walking “down the street [in the middle day of her cycle could] turn men’s heads. [The men] didn’t know why, [they] only knew that they wanted her [because] that was how pheromones seemed to work” (Kingsolver 92). Because both women are aware of these unconscious nudges, they do not have to be subject to their primordial desires – they can choose whether they act on it or not. Herein lies difference between Deanna and Lusa: while both women are nudged by pheromones to be attracted to younger men, they do not both act on their desires.

Deanna chooses to act on these primal feelingswhile Lusa chooses not to. The environment each woman explain the differences in their choices. Deanna is much more in touch with nature, choosing to live a solitary life as a wildlife monitor in Zebulon forest.  The way her body ‘moves with the frankness that comes from solitary habits’ (Kingsolver 1) indicates the amount of time she’s spent by herself. Deanna has spent enough time alone to acquire ‘a blind person’s indifference to her own face” (Kingsolver 2). Because Deanna has lived so long with such little human contact, she is more in tune with the natural world than with the human . Without the eye of society on her, she freely follow the wants and needs of her body – and thus gives into her attraction to Eddie.

Lusanot to act on her primal attraction to Rickie. When Rickie confesses his feelings to her, she realizes how “easy [it would be] to invite him into the house, upstairs, to the huge soft bed. How comforting it would be to be taken away from her solitary self and held against his solid, lovely body” (Kingsolver 414). She even acknowledges that it would be fun, maybe even more than fun(Kingsolver 416). Because she under the eye of society, she what other people will think of her. She knows that Rickie is a minor; what she wants with him is impossible and “a crime [that his] mother and aunts would probably see that [she] got the chair” for (Kingsolver 416). Lusa does not have the same luxury that Deanna has to let her romance play out naturally without judging stares and whispers. Even Deanna admits that under any other circumstance, her relationship with Eddie would be different. Deanna can’t imagine “[walking] down the street together in Knoxville [because] people would gawk, [especially because she’s] half a foot taller [than Eddie and] nineteen years older” (Kingsolver 256). people’s scrutiny plays a big role in determining


Works Cited

Kingsolver, Barbara. Prodigal Summer. New York: HarperCollins, 2000. Print.

"Pheromone." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Web. 30 Oct. 2009. <>.

Thaler, Richard H., and Cass R. Sunstein. Nudge, Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. New York: Penguin Group, 2008. Print.


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Prodigal Summer

Barbara Kingsolver, Author HarperCollins Publishers $26 (464p) ISBN 978-0-06-019965-4
HA beguiling departure for Kingsolver, who generally tackles social themes with trenchantly serious messages, this sentimental but honest novel exhibits a talent for fiction lighter in mood and tone than The Poisonwood Bible and her previous works. There is also a new emphasis on the natural world, described in sensuous language and precise detail. But Kingsolver continues to take on timely issues, here focusing on the ecological damage caused by herbicides, ethical questions about raising tobacco, and the endangered condition of subsistence farming. A corner of southern Appalachia serves as the setting for the stories of three intertwined lives, and alternating chapters with recurring names signal which of the three protagonists is taking center stage. Each character suffers because his or her way of looking at the world seems incompatible with that of loved ones. In the chapters called ""Predator,"" forest ranger Deanna Wolfe is a 40-plus wildlife biologist and staunch defender of coyotes, which have recently extended their range into Appalachia. Wyoming rancher Eddie Bondo also invades her territory, on a bounty hunt to kill the same nest of coyotes that Deanna is protecting. Their passionate but seemingly ill-fated affair takes place in summertime and mirrors ""the eroticism of fecund woods"" and ""the season of extravagant procreation."" Meanwhile, in the chapters called ""Moth Love,"" newly married entomologist Lusa Maluf Landowski is left a widow on her husband's farm with five envious sisters-in-law, crushing debtsDand a desperate and brilliant idea. Crusty old farmer Garnett Walker (""Old Chestnuts"") learns to respect his archenemy, who crusades for organic farming and opposes Garnett's use of pesticides. If Kingsolver is sometimes too blatant in creating diametrically opposed characters and paradoxical inconsistencies, readers will be seduced by her effortless prose, her subtle use of Appalachian patois. They'll also respond to the sympathy with which she reflects the difficult lives of people struggling on the hard edge of poverty while tied intimately to the natural world and engaged an elemental search for dignity and human connection. (Nov.)
Reviewed on: 10/30/2000
Release date: 10/01/2000
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