An expenditure saved is an expenditure earned: fanny fern's humoring of the capitalist ethos.
As ambassadors of acquisition and conservation, old Mrs. Hall and her fellow economizers are finally laughed off once Ruth learns how to negotiate the financial world herself. Ruth Hall's heroine-turned-capitalist negotiates a comfortable position for herself and her daughters. Even as the novel resolves economic injustices thematically, its techniques of humor express the cultural pressures that these now-marginalized characters represent--namely, the pressure to save time and energy. (1) Drawing on Sigmund Freud's The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious, I trace how Ruth Hall's comical stereotypes and wordplay enable readers to save the exertion required to understand new characters or ideas, to pursue a chain of reasoning, or to feel a certain way. However, rather than helping the reader accrue and conserve capital--the motivation for saving that the elder Halls and the novel's plot resolution ultimately endorse--the savings of the comical are expended in laughter. Through this process, Fern renders the comic a space of resistance by way of its overt, nonproductive consumption of energy. This technique aligns the novel's comical episodes with its sentimental passages: Both modes of writing solicit audience expenditures, one in the form of laughter and the other in the form of affect.
Paving the way for the techniques of the comic, Ruth Hall's preface justifies formal choices through a socioeconomic concern for efficiency. Fern writes: "I have compressed into one volume what I might have expanded into two or three. I have avoided long introductions and descriptions, and have entered unceremoniously and unannounced, into people's houses, without stopping to ring the bell" (iii). Thus, even before introducing characters who enforce thriftiness, Fern reveals that saving time and space motivates the narrative. With chapters that are often the length of newspaper sketches--the form through which the heroine will build her own capital--the narrative frequently lets the information exchanged in conversation drive the plot forward without reiteration or explanation. These conversations often occur between unfamiliar, marginal characters--characters to whom we are, as promised, not introduced. (At times these characters are stereotypes of their professions and ethnicities; at other times, the only information readers are given about them pertains to their interest in the central characters.) (2) Even the phrase "without stopping to ring the bell" evokes a hurried pace that is borne out by characters in the novel, usually servants, who enter houses or rooms without knocking. Fern's statement that the novel is "compressed"--that it might be three times its length were it not for this style--speaks to the post-industrial concern for concision and efficiency. While Fern calls her compression "primitive," narrative clues suggest it has much more to do with the "present time" to which the subtitle refers (iii).
Like the chapters and pacing of the novel as a whole, individual forms of humor rely on compression and brevity, as Freud explains in The Joke. Extending the theory he expounded in The Interpretation of Dreams of all unconscious that manufactures dreams as unacknowledged wishes (often disguised through jokes and wordplay), Freud argues that jokes and humor, like dreams, provide access to the unconscious of the person to whom they occur; they also rely on similar processes, namely, condensation and displacement. (3) In Freud's study of dreams, he refers only briefly to an "economy of energy" that occurs during the dream state to give the dreamer relief from the energy his or her waking inhibition requires, and he dismisses "relations of energy into which we have no insight" (Interpretation of Dreams 456). However, in his study of jokes he undertakes an analysis of those complex relations of energy--namely, the processes of "saving" and dispelling excess psychic energy that occur through humor. Economy is central to his theory of the joke, as he insists that each type of the comic--such as the joke, the comical figure, and the pun--relies on the pleasure of saving. He classifies humor based on the kind of expenditure saved: "Pleasure in the joke seemed to come from savings in expenditure on inhibition, comic pleasure from savings in the imagining of ideas (when charged with energy), and humorous pleasure from savings in expenditure on feeling" (The Joke 226). (4) Throughout his discussion of the technique of joking, Freud employs economic terms as he compares the different frugalities required for kinds of psychic functioning to the stages of business development (The Joke 150).
Freud's explanation of saving relies on an economic model that presupposes a common understanding of the source of wealth and status: production and conservation. However, in "The Notion of Expenditure," Georges Bataille offers an economic model focused on a society's nonproductive expenditures or losses, rather than its production and useful consumption. This helps to theorize a subversive role for the comic as non-productive expenditure that in this case challenges the order and accepted values of productive society. Despite the popular assumption that valid individual efforts can be limited to production, reproduction, and conservation of goods and human life, Bataille insists on human societies' "interest in considerable losses" (117). Losses that have "no end beyond themselves" Bataille calls expenditures, and he explains that the "loss ... must be as great as possible in order for that activity to take on its true meaning" (118). As opposed to kinds of consumption that contribute to production and reproduction of labor, the consumption of expenditure is non-productive. (5) As a fundamental characteristic of humanity, the pleasure that humor affords fits Bataille's definition of expenditure: It is the consumption of a store of energy with no end other than itself. The greater the savings of the joke, the greater the expenditure of laughter. While Freud emphasizes the economizing techniques that the joke employs, for Bataille the goal of the comic is ultimately sumptuous consumption rather than sayings, since saving facilitates "useless" pleasure (119).
In Ruth Hall and in general, sentimental passages rely on an expense of feeling and time with their lavish descriptions, which exemplify aesthetics that are "based on excess" and "allow an alternative and potentially anarchic expression in opposition to the economy of the realist vision" (Hoeller 36). (6) While sentimental passages formally consume space and time in their representations of loss, they also demand a loss from readers--an expenditure of feeling--akin to the demands of humor. Within the novel, old Mrs. Hall tries to put an end to the symbolic expense of emotion, in addition to financial waste, when she condemns the reading of poetry and berates Ruth for lavishing her husband and daughter with affection. Directly after she offers to post a wall hanging of the saying "Waste not, want not" in Ruth's living space to remind her to save household scraps, Mrs. Hall connects this frugality to an intellectual/moral frugality. Hoping that Ruth avoids "novels and such trash," she offers her own "select" library of "rational reading," "consisting of a treatise on 'The Complaints of Women,' an excellent sermon on Predestination ... and Seven Reasons why John Rogers, the martyr, must have had ten children instead of nine (as is generally supposed)" (31). This passage's irony allows the reader to appreciate the frivolousness of Mrs. Hall's "rational" concerns. In an economy in which rags hold value, novels are considered the real "trash"--a waste of time and mental energy, according to Mrs. Hall. When she sees some of Ruth's poems, written in the margins of a volume of poetry, she is especially repulsed: "[P]oetry, I declare! the most frivolous of all reading" (55). In the masculine world Mrs. Hall represents, theology and the dictionary seem to be the only acceptable reading materials: She and those of her ilk pit the supposed rationality of these materials against the wasteful emotionality of so-called women's reading. (7) For this reason, Ruth is elated when she can move away from her in-laws and into her own home in the country, a place where "she could kiss little Daisy, without being called 'silly% ... and, better than all, she could fly into her husband's arms, when he came home, and kiss him, without feeling that she had broken any penal statute" (48-49). The novel passes Ruth's freedom to emote onto its reader, who is asked feel the elation of Ruth's family life and then, soon after, the sorrow of losing a child and spouse. Thus, Mrs. Hall becomes the foil against which Fern establishes a community that values emotions like grief and other nonproductive expenditures.
Ruth Hall alternates between the excesses of sentimentality and the concision of humor in chapters that, by turns, demand reader participation and expense. As the novel's sentimentality resists Mrs. Hall's penal statute by encouraging the reader to feel for Ruth in trying times, so, too, does humor resist this economy. While Freud defines humor by its interruption of feeling and thus its savings of expenditure, this interruption is only a deferral whose end is, in fact, expenditure, Especially in a narrative that ultimately promotes the acquisition of capital, laughter as a flagrant expenditure allows for moments of social suspension and resistance. (8) In applying the forms of sentimentality and the comic together, the genre of "woman's fiction," as Nina Baym terms it, gets the last laugh because it was criticized from its inception in the United States for facilitating waste--of time, but also of the morality of malleable young lady readers, a critique that old Mrs. Hall voices within Ruth Hall. Even though the novel ultimately espouses capitalism in its plot resolution, I assert that it formally facilitates a wastefulness, which, rather than disengaging with public demands, challenges the system that creates the pressure to save.
THE SAVINGS OF STEREOTYPES
Much of the comedy of Ruth Hall derives from the predictability of certain characters like old Mrs. Hall. The narrator implies that readers already know these types or can predict what they will say or do in response to a given situation. Whether it is the cruel patriarchal husband, the meddlesome mother-in-law, or the wooden accountant, Fern continually writes against or comically represents character types at whom readers are encouraged to laugh. (9) These stereotypical characters project their flattened view of the world onto the singular natural world that Fern celebrates, providing additional fodder for humor. Old Mrs. Hall, for instance, renders nature nearly unrecognizable in her homemade wall hanging, which offers the forms of sentimentality without its most important ingredient, affect. (10) After the narrator describes Dr. and Mrs. Hall's sitting room in detail, her gaze moves slowly up to a piece of needlework ironically called the "chef-d'oeuvre." The narrator's perusal of the piece makes plain its comically trite style:
On one side of the room hangs a piece of framed needle-work, by the virgin fingers of the old lady, representing an unhappy female, weeping over a very high and very perpendicular tombstone, which is hieroglyphiced over with untranslateable characters in red worsted, while a few herbs, not mentioned by botanists, are struggling for existence at its base. A friendly willow-tree, of a most extraordinary shade of blue green, droops in sympathy over the afflicted female, while a nondescript looking bird, resembling a dropsical bull-frog, suspends his song and one leg, in the foreground. (246)
Fern's use of the word "female" to describe old Mrs. Hall's mourner, understood through Lauren Berlant's analysis, marks "a woman who trivializes herself or competitively extends this self-negation to other women" (437). (11) In this case, Mrs. Hall projects her own triviality onto the subject of her artwork; the vaguely "unhappy" condition of that so-called female reveals that Mrs. Hall cannot recognize individual emotions and unique people because of her generic worldview. Further, the narrator highlights Mrs. Hall's distortion of nature through references to the "extraordinary" color of the tree, the generalized bird that resembles a swollen frog, and the herbs "not mentioned by botanists." The artist's subject matter is not nature so much as popular depictions of nature, and she offers the stereotypes of sentimentality without registering actual emotional content. With her cliched sayings and approach to housework and family, Mrs. Hall cannot see past dominant cultural forms to appreciate nature and emotion--or, for that matter, daughters-in-law--in their particularity. In response to this satirized portrayal of Mrs. Hall and her stereotypical behavior throughout the novel, the audience redirects the freed-up energy, reserved for understanding something new or emoting, toward laughter.
Despite her ridiculous worldview and illogical advice, old Mrs. Hall maintains power over Ruth for most of the narrative, threatening not only her livelihood but also her guardianship of her children. Coupled with her stereo-typicality, the older woman's power makes her a constant candidate for satire. Freud helps us understand how "persons and things with a claim on authority and respect, ... [who are] in some sense 'sublime" offer a savings when they are made low (The Joke 193). He explains how tendentious jokes target people or representations of authority who normally require inhibitions from their audiences. Thus, concentration on the sublime requires an extra expenditure:
[W]hen I am speaking of what is sublime, I innervate my voice in a different way and try to bring my body-language into harmony as it were with the dignity of what I am imagining. ... Now if the methods we have just discussed of degrading the sublime let me imagine it as something everyday where I do not have to stand to attention, and in whose imagined presence I can put myself "at ease," as the military formula has it, then it saves me expending extra effort on solemn constraint. (193-94)
The pleasure of dethroning a powerful character expresses the delight of saving because the joke saves the subordinate person the energy required to revere the authority figure.'2 Because these powerful figures require readers' external and internal inhibitions, which can be saved through mockery, authority figures become the primary target of satire: Humor directed at them frees up greater amounts of inhibition for expenditure than humor directed at non-authority figures. We can recognize this common character trait of authority in the targets of stereotypes in Ruth Hall: authorities of industrial capitalism, the legal system, patriarchy, and domestic ideology. jokes directed at the administrators of these institutions allow readers--particularly disempowered, female readers--to put themselves "at ease" and release through laughter the energy they have stored up in "solemn constraint."
Freud's choice of military language to characterize the sublime applies perfectly to the situation of Ruth Hall, whose authority figures are often militaristic and mechanical. Both the characters who enforce the laws of business and nation and the machines that dictate the labor of the working poor are automatons. The narrator's satirical treatment of the school board Ruth encounters while searching for employment demonstrates the comic's purpose of putting the reader at ease in the company of the sublime. Of the men who control Ruth's fate the narrator reports: "[T]he four owners of the four pair of inquisitorial spectacles marched, in procession, into the room in waiting, and wheeling `face about: with military precision, thumped on the table, and ejaculated: 'Attention!" (196). Because they sit "correct and methodical as a revised dictionary" and determine who the next schoolteachers will be, they wield power over language, as other men in the novel have power over the law (194). Even if readers "put on a solemn constraint" for this jarring, authoritative entrance, the narrator quickly finds occasion to humble these men and trigger a release of that psychic energy. These "very respectable" gentlemen prove to be ridiculous indeed because they represent not people, complex and difficult to understand, but the most conservative educational values and practices of their time (194). (13) Further, they are indistinguishable from each other with their matching glasses and marching orders. As their spectacles denote, these characters suffer from a collective case of nearsightedness: They are preoccupied with minutiae, whether trivial details or the sound (rather than the meaning) of words.
Ruth Hall aligns characters in authority not only with the patriarchal domains of the "dictionary and the nation" (Berlant 440), as they are the overseers of language and legalities, but also with unyielding financial economy. The combination of this motif with the technique of the comic creates a layer of irony: While it mocks characters' stinginess, it creates a savings that readers can expend sumptuously and thereby resist the ethos these characters represent. For example, Tom Develin's cliched life motto puts him in the company of the other comical figures who pinch pennies (due in part to the narrator's hint that he is already a member of many school boards): "'A penny saved, is a penny gained,' said this eminent financier and stationer, as he used half a wafer to seal his business letters" (144). (14) We hear the narrator's incredulity and sense of humor in the emphasis on "half a wafer." Develin's frugality is evident in other office habits as well: For instance, he retains half sheets of paper "rescued economically from business letters, to save too prodigal consumption of foolscap" (142). Rather than presenting this character as an exception, the narrator immediately associates him with "the rule"--and, more particularly, the masculine rule: "Counting houses, like all other spots beyond the pale of female jurisdiction, are comfortless looking places. The counting-room of Mr. Tom Develin was no exception to the above rule" (142). In claiming masculine jurisdiction, he conspires to deprive Ruth of her juridical rights. He, after all, controls the distribution of Ruth's only inheritance, her husband's clothes, and even puts himself above the patriarchal law to do so. As he saves wafers by the halves, Develin saves himself the energy required to express original ideas and put together unique sentences. His conversational style is marked by his repeating--and thus illicitly appropriating--what other people have said, "always, of course, omitting quotation marks" (143-44). The narrator adds, "It is not surprising, therefore, that his tete-a-tetes should be on the mosaic order" (144). (15) Even in his speech Mr. Develin does not show human distinctiveness; the narrator contrasts the intimacy of the face-to-face, private conversation with his plagiarism to reveal the extent of his unoriginality. And like all of the novel's sublime, Develin's savings come from depriving others of their due remuneration; his "gains" are never the result of his own exertions or expenditures.
The stereotypical characters' clunky, methodical movements point to industrialization and mechanization as the source of their urgency to save. Juxtaposed with Ruth, who is most comfortable in her country home, harvesting everything she needs from nature, the novel's stereotypical characters are at home in the city, where they might best enforce the demands of industrial capitalism. The narrator's description of Mr. Develin characterizes him as both a machine and a soldier, "perpendicular as a ram-rod, moving over terra firma as if fearful his joints would unhinge, or his spinal column slip into his boots; carrying his arms with military precision; supporting his ears with a collar" (142). Develin stands out as an exceptionally mechanical character, one seemingly on the verge of collapsing into a pile of hardware at any moment with his supposed fears of "unhinging" and his resemblance to a ramrod. Even his "plastered wind-proof locks" are stiff and rigid, just the sort of hair Mrs. Hall would appreciate for its avoidance of frivolity. He shows no curiosity about the world around him because he "[turns] neither to the right nor the left" (143); his desire to look only in a single direction connects his mental rigidity to the rigidity in his deportment. The narrator's comment that it is "unnecessary to add that Mr. Tom Develin [isl a bachelor" implies that the reader already knows his type, which is why we can laugh at him: He is one of those perpetual bachelors who is too inflexible to be anything but a bachelor, yet too arrogant to realize he is anything but "dangerous to the female heart" (142, 143). Although he stands "in holy horror of the whistle, whiz-rush and steam of modern publishing houses," he lacks the self-awareness to realize he embodies the machines of the process he abhors (144).
Sharing many traits with Mr. Develin, Mr. Millet, an accountant, is perpetually counting. He counts not only pennies but also units of time, numbers of motions, and sometimes even numbers of words. For instance, when Ruth enters his counting room, "Do?' [says] he concisely, by way of salutation" (191). Apparently the complete greeting "How do you do?" would take too much of his energy and time to utter. For the remainder of their predictably brief encounter, Mr. Millet responds in only one-and two-word phrases to Ruth's inquiries and thus, presumably, saves time and money. His frugal manner of speech carries over from his office setting to personal encounters with his wife. For instance, he has a curiously specific routine that is set in motion when his wife asks him when they will get a letter from their son: "Mr. Millet wiped his mouth on his napkin, stroked his chin, pushed back his cup two degrees, crossed his knife and fork transversely over his plate, moved back his chair two feet and a half, hemmed six consecutive times, and was then safely delivered of the following remark: 'My--over-coat" The narrator focuses on Millet so readers can hear the constant mental tally he keeps, a habit that characterizes his financial approach as well. The remark that, after this ritual, Mr. Millet "safely delivered" his two words ridicules his comfort in these compulsive, accounted behaviors. Instead of explaining that the letter is in his coat pocket, he simply says "over-coat," a declaration that saves him the energy of saying the whole phrase while also saving him the energy of actually getting the coat himself; it lets his wife know she is to fetch his coat. Fern heightens the comedy of these domestic scenes by juxtaposing his speech patterns with his wife's; fulfilling a female stereotype, she talks incessantly between his single-word utterances and thus compensates for her husband's verbal stinginess.
In serious as well as comical descriptions in the novel, Ruth Hall illustrates how one group's increasing savings translates into greater or unremunerated expenditures of others. Complementing comical treatments of industrialization, Fern offers sympathetic glimpses into working-class hardships in scenes in which Ruth and other characters labor for little money at great cost to their bodies. For example, the narrator spots "a young girl, from dawn till dark, scarcely lifting that pallid face and weary eyes--stitching and thinking, thinking and stitching. God help her!" (172). Fern captures the repetitive nature of the girl's work in the word repetition as well as the depiction of bodily signifiers of toil. Describing Ruth's neighborhood in the city, the narrator notes "clerks, market-boys, apprentices, and sewing-girls, [who] bolt their meals with railroad velocity" (139). The comparison of their necessarily fast manner of eating with the movements of the railroad firmly situates this demanding time schedule within an industrial economy. These characters, unlike their bosses, have no one to whom to pass the deprivation of saving, and the narrative solicits the expense of sympathy for their labor.
While male characters predominantly represent the sublime in the novel, female characters stand for a less obvious strand of industrial capitalist exploitation of the mid-nineteenth century: systematizing household labor. In fact, Fern directs some of her most cutting satire at enforcers of domestic ideology, female characters who occupy positions above other women. While men like Mr. Millet accrue savings outside the home, these women monitor waste within it. Fern's satiric treatments of these household regulators resist domestic prescriptions for women to operate their homes with the efficiency and frugality of a factory worker. (16) The main representative of domestic ideology, Mrs. Hall accounts not only for her own household expenditures but for Ruth's as well. She is so fixated on her role as guardian of her family economy that she forgets she has any other relation to her son, or that wives might have any relation to their husbands except as housekeepers. For instance, she wonders why her son need marry at all; "I always mended his socks. He has sixteen bran new shirts, eight linen and eight cotton. I made them myself out of the Hamilton long cloth. ... Can anybody tell what he got married for? I don't know" (25). Her ability to recite the exact number of shirts she has made for her son demonstrates how precisely she runs her household. Further, her confusion exposes her assumption that wives are unpaid, home-based laborers with no other relationship to their husbands. This assumption becomes more evident in her judgment of Ruth. She says: "Had he married a practical woman I would n't have cared--somebody who looked as if God made her for something" (26). (17) We can assume here that by "something" Mrs. Hall does not mean affection, because in her economy love is a useless expenditure: Usefulness refers only to material projection. It becomes apparent why Mrs. Hall does not factor in emotional relation when, instead of grieving for their son, she and her husband set about collecting the wine and grapes their son was in the process of consuming when he died so that "those lazy waiters" do not get them (n5). Like kisses and poetry, grieving is a frivolous expenditure within this rigid economy. (18)
Ruth's boardinghouse owner, Mrs. Walters, stands as another rigid representative of domestic ideology. She is "barber-pole-ish and ram-rod-y, and her taste in dress running mostly to stringy fabrics, [assists] the bolster-y impression she [creates]" (216). If there were any doubt of Mrs. Walters's position as a type, the narrator reports that she is "one of that description of females, whose vision is bounded by a mop, scrubbing-brush, and dust-pan; who repudiate rainy washing days; whose hearth, Jowler, on the stormiest night, would never venture near without a special permit; and whose husband and children speak under their breath on baking and cleaning days" (215). The phrase "one of that description of females" presupposes that the reader is familiar with her kind of woman, the "female" kind. Indeed, Mrs. Hall has already primed us to understand this new, yet very familiar, character. In the parallel syntax of subordinate clauses--the "female who/se" list--we can hear the narrator giving us permission to laugh away the psychic energy that would be required to understand less typical characters.
The narrator's assumption that readers already know a character's type suggests an additional savings of stereotypes. While the target of humor helps to save the reader certain exertions by mocking the sublime, Freud argues that much--or, in the case of innocuous jokes, all--of the savings from the joke comes from its technique and not its intention. Even as readers save expenditures in not having to constrain themselves for authority figures, they also economize by bypassing mental exertion when sounds, words, or characters recur in proximity. While Freud does not deal specifically with the comedy of stereotyping in The Joke and while he explicates the joke with more confidence than he does the comic, he examines imitation and parody in a way that illuminates the technique of stereotyping as well. Freud anticipates Henri Bergson's conclusion in Laughter that the comic evokes the process of mechanical production, showing life to be imitative: "Analyse the impression you get from two faces that are too much alike, and you will find that you are thinking of two copies cast in the same mould, or two impressions of the same seal, or two reproductions of the same negative,--in a word, of some manufacturing process or other. This deflection of life towards the mechanical is here the real cause of laughter" (34). (19) We expect all people to-be unique; types suggest that people are produced on an assembly line. In laughing at the "mechanical encrusted on the living," we express our belief in unique human identities (37). Bergson's theory of the comic holds true for stereotypical characters, who seem to be mass-produced even as they represent overseers on that assembly line. The seeming mechanical reproduction of stereotypical characters brings us back to Freud's focus on savings, as readers prepare themselves to encounter individuals rather than copies. When we encounter imitations or likenesses, "we are disappointed in the sense of relieved, and the effort we spent on expectation--now become superfluous--is released in laughter" (The Joke 202). It seems reasonable that readers expect characters to be models of people, so they still build up that expectation of energy required to understand a new character. As a result, many stereotypes in Ruth Hall create a continual "disappoint[ment]" for the reader in that they display recurring mannerisms and speak in cliches that provoke no new analysis or thought. This savings affords the reader the expenditure of laughter.
TWO (WORDS) FOR THE PRICE OF ONE, AND OTHER WORDPLAY
Within descriptions of stereotypical characters, Fern uses a joke technique that creates an additional savings of psychic capital: She represents the speech of sublime characters with short dashes to alter how it is read, such as "A-t-t-en-t-i-o-n!" (196). Dashed words mark a patriarchal (ab)use of language, comparable to what the committee calls for when they ask Ruth to read a passage of poetry "without a previous opportunity to gather up the author's connecting thread." Ruth, in response, "[goes] through the motions": Like the school board, she speaks automatically, without mental engagement or human inflection (195). The voice of the mechanical sublime, Mr. Millet's speech is represented as dashed, as in "Apply" and "C-i-t-y--H-a-l-l" (191). 'When Mrs. Millet gives her husband an address for an artist's "study," she provokes this response: "'S-t-u-d-i-o; said Mr. Millet (slowly and oracularly, who, being on several school committees, thought it his duty to make an extra exertion, when the king's English was misapplied)" (165). Mr. Millet's "extra exertion" rewards the reader with an opportunity to expend. Mrs. Skiddy's speech aligns her with the novel's sublime, as well. Refusing her deserting husband's request for money, she hisses, "like ten thousand serpents, the word 'N-e-v-e-r!" (208). In this comical moment, the dashes short-circuit the word's meaning, letting us focus only on the hissing sound of her refusal. Mrs. Skiddy is afforded the power of patriarchal speech as she denies her husband access to her money. Readers have saved the psychic expenditure in short-circuiting the meaning of her utterance--the gist of which we can assume--and Mrs. Skiddy has saved the money she would have had to spend to retrieve her husband. Freud helps us theorize this technique as wordplay that creates a savings by bypassing the meaning of the word for its sound-image (The Joke 115). The dashes of Fern's representation of sublime speech highlight the signifier instead of its referent. Because these characters speak in short, predictable bursts, readers are rewarded for bypassing the content of their words, just as readers are rewarded for gliding over their cliches without stopping to translate them into meaning.
Once Ruth learns how to negotiate a fair price for her writing and to distance herself from the many faces of economy, representatives of frugality like Mr. Millet and old Mrs. Hall fade from the narrative, as do the savings of their dashed speech. When Fern closes one outlet of economic tension, however, she allows curious bursts of punning to surface; this exposes the continued presence of economic pressures, even as the plot moves toward a happy resolution. These examples of wordplay show a concern for economy through formal condensation (Freud, The Joke 12), a local technique that can be seen as part of the global "compress[ion]" Fern refers to in her preface (iii). Freud gives the example of "alcoholidays" to show two words being made into a new composite word, with both meanings retained and acting together (14); it is not the idea being expressed in this merging, he explains, but the technique of merging that makes it humorous. Although Freud locates the pleasure of these wordplays in their condensation, of course not all pithy sayings are funny (20). The comment that holidays are full of alcohol might be true in a different form, but the trace of the condensation or word substitution--rather than the message itself--provokes the laughter. Fern offers a slightly modified wordplay technique in her neologisms for stereotypical characters, all emphasizing their rigidity: They are "barber-pole-ish" and "ram-rod-y" (216). The technique used to form these words allows the narrator to compress an entire simile into one word with the dashes marking the substitution.
Many techniques of the comic converge in the seemingly digressive subplot of Mr. and Mrs. Skiddy. The Skiddy narrative features the stereotypical efficient housekeeper who rules her home, her husband, and the boarders they accommodate. If her presence is not enough to speak to her household savings, her absence certainly is: Mrs. Skiddy temporarily leaves her husband to teach him a lesson about daydreaming of California, during which time he realizes how much their daily expenditures cost. Like grieving and poetry reading, daydreaming is a useless expenditure that must be quelled in this economy. When Mrs. Skiddy returns to relieve her husband of household labor, she immediately begins "counting up spoons, forks, towels, and baby's pinafores, to see if they had sustained loss or damage during her absence" (205). Trying to cash in on his daydream and escape his domestic responsibilities, Mr. Skiddy boards a ship for California, in the act of which Mrs. Skiddy catches him and puts him under house arrest. In response to this turn of events, the narrator offers a wordplay savings: "As to Skiddy, he continued at intervals to shed crocodile tears over his past shortcomings, or rather his short-goings!" (206). "Short-goings" concisely expresses two ideas: Mr. Skiddy's attempted escape and his failure to be a useful husband. Most curious about this joke is the fact that the narrator, and not a character, offers it. Mrs. Skiddy is mocked for her rigid household accounting, and the narrative passes the pleasure of expending along to the reader. Just a few lines later, the punning shifts from the narrator to Mrs. Skiddy, who says her husband should explain his recent absence from work to take care of his children as "an attack of room-a-tism," a thrifty reference to both a physical condition and domestic imprisonment (207).
The elder Halls also participate in a verbal economy that keeps alive the novel's resistance to the industrial capitalist ethos. In chapter 57, Mrs. Hall interrupts her husband's reading because "there [he has] sat these three hours, without stirring ... and [hed tongue actually aches keeping still." As always, she is monitoring time. Engrossed in a book about Captain Smith's discoveries, Dr. Hall responds to his wife's interruption with a slow, distracted speaking style: "It--is es-ti-ma-ted by Captain Smith--that--there--are--up'ards--of--ten--hund red--human--critters--in--the--Nor-West--sett-le-ment" (224). His slow speech defies his wife's concern for time evident in her accounting for the number of hours he has been reading, and the dashes between words encourage the reader to bypass the content of his statement. When he puts down his book, he delivers one of his favorite cliches to his wife: "[W]hat's to pay now? what do you want of me?" (224). (20) In his fixed saying, which already saves energy, Dr. Hall asks what his wife wants of him through the metaphor of money: He, like she, is working within an economy. He responds to his wife's concern for saving with the savings of wordplay. When Mrs. Hall says, "I wish that book was in the Red Sea," Dr. Hall replies: "I thought you did n't want it read" (225). Playing on the homophones red/read, his joke skips over the meaning of the words and thus saves the expenditure of comprehending their meanings. His personal savings derives from his not focusing on what his wife says, but instead hearing only the sounds of her words. The disconnection between meanings of these two words maximizes our pleasure, according to Freud: It "affords us unmistakable enjoyment in a joke when the use of the same or a similar word takes us from one sphere of ideas to another, remote, one. ... Our pleasure in a joke afforded by a 'short-circuit' of this kind also seems to be the greater the more alien the two spheres of ideas that are brought into connection by the same word are to each other" (The Joke n6). Always the economizer, Mrs. Hall responds to her husband's joke: "Now I suppose you call that funny. ... I call it simply ridiculous for a man of your years to play on words in such a frivolous manner" (225). Her use of the word "frivolous," the same word she applies to Ruth's curly hair and poetry, implies that Dr. Hall has disregarded her strict sense of economy by joking. Instead, he has established his own economy and offered a new savings for himself and readers at the expense of his wife. His savings compares to the savings of the novel, where the "play" of the comic is offered to resist the pressure to hurry and
The novel's verbal play extends to unlikely characters, revealing that this quality is more than a mere character trait. Having made money off of her own published wordplay, Ruth can afford to reclaim her daughter Katy with a full purse. They are staying at an upscale hotel, where Ruth's friend Mr. Walter dines with them. Playfully tugging on one of Nettie's curls, he asks her if she would like some soup. "'Ask my mother,' replied the child, with a quizzical look; 'she's the soup-erintendene" (354). It is important that Mr. Walter draws attention to her curls before this pun occurs because the curls denote, to the reader, that Ruth's family has once and for all escaped Mrs. Hall and her pressure to eradicate everything "frivolous." his is a world of poetry, curly hair, fine hotels, and Plenty of money. Yet even as the narrative sends this signal, Nettie's punning expresses the joy of condensation. And right before Mr. Walter hands over Ruth's stock certificate, the narrative offers one last pun. Ruth observes that it looks like the rain will "persevere," to which Nettie responds, "Yes, and pour-severe too" (394, 395). Unlike other narrative trends such as rigidity and frugality, wordplay manifests through a diverse range of characters--and not just characters. Because the narrator, too, plays with words, the technique gestures to a political unconscious of the novel that structurally resists the pressures of industrial capitalism.
Having recognized how the forms of Fern's humor resist capitalist pressures, readers are faced with a tension between a resisting economy of humor and a plot resolution in Ruth Hall that embraces industrial capitalism. (21) Ruth ends up with a purse full of money and a bank stock certificate, which frees her from the novel's cast of mechanical characters. She can even afford to reclaim her youngest daughter from her in-laws and sever ties with them. At that moment of reconciliation with her daughter, she joyfully tosses her full purse into her daughter's lap, dispelling any doubt about what enabled this reunion. Instead of the disappointing family and marriage structure, capitalism becomes the new solution offered to save her--or, rather, to help her to save herself. Joyce W. Warren celebrates Ruth's reentry into the marketplace for the independence it affords the protagonist, an independence rarely offered to women in nineteenth-century novels by women: "Ruth leaves a domestic paradise--which proves to be a fool's paradise--enters the competitive male world, and prevails in it" (133). Her independent business success at the end of the novel emphasizes the importance of material independence for women--a recognition that, as Kristie Hamilton argues, crosses class boundaries. Hamilton asserts that Ruth Hall is "positioned between middle-class ideologies of domestic individualism and the rhetorics of collective agitation found in factory reform fiction" (96). Recognizing the politics of Fern's techniques of humor allows us to appreciate further the novel's alignment with a working-class critique of industrial capitalism.
It is not surprising that a novel that regularly registers the monetary, psychic, and corporeal cost of services and goods does not ultimately escape the material pressure to sell with an ending that offers, if not marital bliss, economic success for the protagonist. Nonetheless, the comical stereotypes and playful puns of Ruth Hall participate in a counter-discourse that creates a space of resistance for the narrative and the reader. To some extent, all authors' practices reveal contradictory impulses absorbed from their economic and cultural milieu, and Fanny Fern is no exception. While on one hand she seems to work to satisfy the commercial expectations of a contemporary readership, albeit in a slightly altered form (with a plot resolution of financial security replacing marital security), on another level--the level of the affective and the comical--Fern's novel recognizes that industrial capitalism exacerbates rather than resolves social inequalities. Relating the literary text to Freud's concept of the mind, whose "[c]onscious thought ... must be seen as the (overdetermined' manifestation of a multiplicity of structures that intersect," Torii Moi concludes "that the search for a unified individual self, or gender identity or indeed 'textual identity' in the literary work must be seen as drastically reductive" (10). Rather than reading Ruth Hall as conservative or radical, capitulating or resistant, readers can better appreciate its multiplicity by attending to its comical dimensions.
I would like to thank Linda A. Morris and Elizabeth Freeman for their help with an earlier version of this essay.
(1.) In addition to drawing similarities between the techniques of humor and sentimentality, this approach to Ruth Hall helps us to appreciate discursive threads shared by the sentimental economies of popular women writers of the nineteenth century and the alternative literary economies of American Renaissance writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. For work on sentimental economies, see Brown 507-8, Bell in, and HoeIler 1-37. On the literary economics of the American Renaissance, see Birch and Metting, and Grusin.
(2.) Walker compares the "brevity," as well as the style, of Ruth Hall's ninety short chapters to Fern's newspaper writings (47)
(3.) Jokes are more complicated than dreams: As jokes often circulate within a culture and target cultural authority figures, they express more than the individual unconscious. While Freud does not explore the cultural dimension of humor in The Joke, in this essay I assert that jokes and humor give us access to a collective, political unconscious of the industrializing nation. Freud's choice of largely anti-Semitic and misogynist jokes in his analysis illuminates not only his individual drives and anxieties but also his cultural and political milieu. For feminist responses to Freud, see Mitchell, Mitchell and Rose, Kofman, and Flieger.
(4.) Freud is mostly interested in the form of the joke, although he does discuss the comic and humor briefly. He differentiates the joke from the comic based on the fact that "[t]he comic turns out first of all to be something unintended we find in human social relations" while the joke is made up (182). However, his distinction between the two is at times ambiguous--and difficult to apply directly to discussions of literature, through which the reader unintentionally discovers the comic that the author, presumably, has made up.
(5.) As examples of expenditure, Bataille cites "luxury, mourning, war, cults, the construction of sumptuary monuments, games, spectacles, arts, [and] perverse sexual activity" (118).
(6.) One of the longest, most uncompressed sentences of Ruth Hall describes a scene at the Glen, the country property that enables Ruth and her husband to escape from Dr. and Mrs. Hall's constant nagging about frugality. The syntactical extravagance seems to reflect sentimental aesthetics. In this sentence, the narrator delves into the particulars of the natural world, offering the following preamble: "Wherever a flower opened its blue eye in the rock cleft; wherever the little stream ran, babbling and sparkling, through the emerald meadow; where the golden moss piled up its velvet cushion in the cool woods; where the pretty clematis threw the graceful arms of youth round the gnarled trunk of decay ..." (50). And that is only the beginning of a sentence that comprises half of a short chapter.
(7.) On one level we can understand Mrs. Hall's objection to poetry as something that wastes the time a homemaker could use to produce or conserve for her household. In his discussion of art and literature, for example, Bataille describes poetry as a symbolic expenditure. This helps us understand another level on which verse might appall Mrs. Hall: "The term poetry ... can be considered synonymous with expenditure; it in fact signifies, in the most precise way, creation by means of loss. Its meaning is therefore close to that of sacrifice" (120). Unlike reference materials with a defined utility, poetry offers "symbolic representations of tragic loss (degradation or death)" (120), which are not valid in Mrs. Hall's highly controlled household system of production and conservation.
(8.) Berlant finds that Fern's writing ministers to a sense of alienation and monotony brought about by industrialization as well as by "a new capitalist ethos of personal instrumentalization, where the woman bore the burden of seeing that there would be no affective, no intellectual, no moral, and of course no economic waste" (431).
(9.) This sense of humor about typical people extends throughout Fern's oeuvre.
(10.) Sara Parton's choice of "Fanny Fern" as a penname reflects this comical theme of the natural world made trite.
(11.) Citing Sarah Josepha Hale, Noah Webster, and John Walker, Berlant connects this trivializing to the idea that "female" connotes an animal species and a sex (rather than a gender), a being following only her animal instincts rather than her more elevated, conscious drives (437).
(12.) Berlant asserts that Ruth Hall offers stereotypes to mock and depose patriarchy. She argues that the recurrence of types in Fern's writing provides "the therapeutic pleasure of demystifying patriarchy--usually depicted as 'men' in the flesh, as male-identified women, or as impersonal capitalist institutions like banks and businesses whose operations were manifestly patriarchal" (433-34). The "therapeutic pleasure" of "demystifying" in the process of stereotyping involves the target or intent of a stereotype--in this case, those characters aligned with patriarchal power and values. The word "therapeutic" denotes Berlant's conclusion that this demystification satisfies only a personal and not a political aim. She attributes the limited effect of these anti-patriarchal portrayals to the form in which they are given, "the complaint," which concedes patriarchal dominance and the centrality of domesticity even as the author complains about inequality and hardship. She concludes that sentimental discourse "shuttles between profiting by deconstructing dominant stereotypes of 'woman' and passing off generic female self-identity as itself a commodity, a thing to be bought and shared" Berlant does not analyze stereotyping alongside other forms of joking and comedy in Fern's writing; collectively, these techniques undermine the "domestic axes of patriarchal culture" that she argues are dominant in the complaint (434).
(13.) For more discussion of this issue, see Walker 58-59.
(14.) I am uncertain why Fern changes Develin's version of Franklin's "A penny saved is a penny earned." Perhaps she does so to comment on his failure to earn any of his exploitative gains or, perhaps, to reveal his shortcomings as a custodian of language.
(15.) Develin's plagiarism likely alludes to the issue of literary theft during this period, a problem Ruth faces once one newspaper begins publishing her work. For discussion of this topic, see Homestead.
(16.) Representing this pressure, Lydia Maria Child opens The American Frugal Housewife with a call for household conservation: "The true economy of housekeeping is simply the art of gathering up all the fragments, so that nothing be lost. I mean fragments of time, as well as materials" (3). Similarly, in their domestic manual, The American Woman's Home, Catharine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe project the concerns of industrializing America onto households of the past, urging contemporary women to model their homes after factories and themselves after machines: "Every step required in a process was counted, every movement calculated; and she who took ten steps, when one would do, lost her reputation for 'faculty' (312). Beecher and Stowe insist that saving one step's worth of energy in the household system matters--and they suggest that someone is counting. They recommend the household in which "children [are] trained to habits of industry and mechanical adroitness from the cradle, and every household process fis] reduced to the very minimum of labor ... The competent housewife knows] to a minute the time when each article must go into and be withdrawn from her oven; and if she could only lie in her chamber and direct, she could guide an intelligent child through the processes with mathematical certainty" (312-13). This passage positions children as the unskilled laborers who might be employed to maximize household efficiency, with the women overseeing household tasks and monitoring expenditures without pay. The insistence that women account for all scraps of time, materials, and energy is the pressure at which Fanny Fern directs her satire.
(17.) Incidentally, the narrative later confirms Mrs. Hall's belief that Ruth isn't "made for something" when the phrenologist tells Ruth, "Your muscular system is rather defective; there not being enough to furnish real strength and stamina of constitution" (319). Interestingly, women who seem to be "made" for housework in the novel are often the lower-class women, a trend Sanchez observes: "Throughout Ruth Hall, while Ruth reacts stoically but gently to hardships, robust and stereotyped black, Irish, or drunken maids supply her place. ... Their place as servile manual laborers remains naturalized throughout the text, and that naturalization of servitude aids and abets the naturalization of the middle class" (43).
(18.) In Arranging Grief, Luciano asserts that affective time measured in the body of the mourner lags beyond the modern, standardized time of the nineteenth century: "[T]he enticements associated with what nineteenth-century mourning manuals referred to as the 'luxury of grief' in this period offered, if not a way of stopping time, a means of altering the shape and textures of its flow. Grief's pain, then, appeared as tolerable, even as desirable, in the face of a new order of time frequently described as mechanical and impersonal, precisely because the time of grief--the slow time of deep feeling--could be experienced (and thus embraced) as personal, human, intimate" (2). Luciano's argument about mourning time illuminates old Mrs. Hall's relationship to grief. As Mr. Develin avoids sincere tete-a-tete encounters, the elder Halls turn down the "luxury of grief" for the utility and mechanical efficiency of industrial capitalism.
(19.) According to the OED, the origins of the word stereotype date back to 1798 and describe a method of printing "in which a solid plate or type-metal, cast from a papier-mache or plaster mould taken from the surface of a forme of type, is used for printing from instead of the forme itself." So the word itself stems from a process of reproduction similar to the process Bergson describes being evoked in an imitation.
(20.) Dr. Hall uses the saying "What's to pay?" at another comical moment in the novel to denote a marital economy of power. When Ruth comes to reclaim her child, Mrs. Hall wants her husband to stop Ruth because she herself cannot. Mrs. Hall demands of her husband, "[Aire you master in this house or not?" to which he responds: "Yes--when you are out of it ... what's to pay now?" (350). Another of Dr. Hall's trademark sayings positions all expenditures within the Halls' rigid budget: He summarizes his opinions with the phrase "the amount of it is" (86).
(21.) Hartnett notes the novel's contradictions by describing it as both "an expose and a celebration of the cheerful brutality of capitalism" and observing, "Hall's novel-ending economic and political victory via the capitalist culture industry stands in ironic tension with her prefatory note, which clearly laments the emotional costs of the onslaught of modern capitalism" (1, 12).
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|Publication:||Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2012|
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