George Saunders’ piece, “Escape from Spiderhead,” conveys an essential message that appears at the end of the reading as Jeff, our narrator, reflects on his past and lets go of his struggles.
“Escape from Spiderhead” takes place in a futuristic prison clinical that test new drugs on criminals instead of having the criminals put into an ordinary jail. The reading follows along with Jeff’s perspective and his thoughts about the events he endures. Jeff experiences a particular experiment, which tests his morals, and he learns more about himself and other than every before.
The specific drug tested, in the time we are with Jeff, is a drug that makes two random strangers fall entirely in love without having been interested before. Furthermore, the drug can turn off the passion, drug-influenced or not. In the beginning, there is no resistance and maybe even some enjoyment, but it starts to make Jeff question many things. He doubts the reality of love and reflects the emotions felt, were they even real? Matters are made more difficult for Jeff as the scientists force him into furthering the experiment to prove the drug to be successful.
Through the experiment, Jeff reflects on his feelings towards others as human beings, compassionate, sympathetic, and understanding. He sees them as his equal even after discovering the horrifying crime they had committed. Jeff’s recognition toward them grew more present over time. It isn’t until the experiment is taking too far that Jeff realizes the truth he has been missing.
During the time of the trial and his “fateful night,” Jeff’s mother had always been there for him, protecting him and trying to put him in a better place. Even after Jeff was convicted, his mom still saw him as a human similarly to how Jeff saw the others during the experiment.
Overall, some may assume mutual recognition is seen when Jeff connects with his fellow mates. But it is not until the end when Jeff decides his fate and thinks of his mother and himself as not a criminal anymore. It is the relationship between mother and son that has evidence of seeing each other as equals and human beings that makes mutual recognition visible.
“Victory Lap” was one of my favorite short stories we read this unit, and part of why I liked it so much was its unique voice–particularly during the first section, which is told from Alison’s point of view. However, as I continued reading, I became confused. The part of the story that had drawn me in, Alison’s unique voice and perspective, seemed to have little bearing on the larger story overall. As the story went on, it become focused on Kyle–his heroism, his taking action to claim his own power and subjectivity, his breaking free from the control of his parents in order to do what he saw as right and save the day. Alison, fascinating, quirky Alison, whose inner life Saunders had devoted several pages to at the outset of the story, seemed suddenly reduced to the cliche of a “damsel in distress”–a young woman who finds herself in a dangerous situation and cannot get out of it by herself, needing instead to be saved by a man. Why would Saunders write such an interesting character and spend so much time developing her fully, only to suddenly shove her to the margins of the story for the sake of the character development of the male protagonist? I could tell from Sanders’ unique and intriguing writing style that he is a thoughtful, talented writer. Too thoughtful and talented to fall back on a tired, sexist trope. This made me wonder–why did he make the choices he did with Alison’s character? Why did he develop her so fully, then push her to the side so abruptly? Was it possible that Alison’s character was meant to be a satire of sorts, to play with and challenge the concept of the “damsel in distress”?
The first few pages, written from Alison’s perspective, provide a wealth of tongue-in-cheek humor, compelling evidence that Saunders meant to be satirical with her. First, Alison is stereotypically “girly” to the point of being comical. She prances around her house via ballet steps, speaking to herself in French and daydreaming about meeting her Prince Charming. She also daydreams about talking to a baby deer in the woods whose mother has been shot by a hunter:
Are you afraid? she asked it. Are you hungry? Do you want me to hold you?
Okay, the baby deer said.
Here came the hunter now, dragging the deer’s mother by the antlers. Her guts were completely splayed. Jeez, that was nice! She covered the baby’s eyes, and was like, Don’t you have anything better to do, dank hunter, than kill this baby’s mom? You seem like a nice enough guy. (5-6)
The scene in which Alison daydreams about talking to the deer with the dead mother invokes classic Disney films such as Bambi and Snow White, as well as the common trope of the maiden able to communicate with and protect woodland creatures. However, the phrase “Her guts were completely splayed” brings fresh humor to the otherwise familiar scene by injecting it with crude realism and making it read more like a parody of one of those Disney stories than the original. In fact, Alison’s entire character reminds me of a parody of a Disney princess. For instance, another way in which Saunders satirizes a familiar female character trope is through Alison’s unrelenting optimism. In her ethics class, she confidently spouts views on life that could be easily plucked from a children’s television program, even as her jaded teacher clearly thinks they are ridiculous:
In their straw poll she have voted for people being good and life being fun, with Mrs. Dees giving her a pitying glance as she stated her views: To do good, you just have to decide to do good. You have to be brave. You have to stand up for what’s right. At that last, Mrs. Dees had made this kind of groan. (10)
Positivity and pure-heartedness are staples of a female heroine of the “Disney princess” variety, and Saunders shows how Alison lives with these ideals in a real world full of real people such as Mrs. Dees who couldn’t agree with them less. The result is quite humorous.
However, the first section of the story also provides small, yet powerful details that humanize Alison and show that she is not merely a caricature. Saunders hints at the fact that Alison sometimes has to deal with issues much more serious than fit with her rosy worldview. For example, she describes a borderline dangerous encounter with a local boy, Matt Drey:
Kissing him last night at the pep rally had been like kissing an underpass. Scary! Kissing Matt was like suddenly this cow in a sweater is bearing down on you, who will not take no for an answer, and his huge cow head is being flooded by chemicals that are drowning out what little powers of reason Matt actually did have.
What she liked was being in charge of her. Her body, her mind, Her thoughts, her career, her future. (7)
In this quote, it is clear that Alison was in a situation with Matt Drey in which he coerced her into doing something she did not want to do and she was scared. Saunders states outright that it is important to Alison that she has agency. This quote makes it obvious that just because Alison is extremely girly, cheerful, and a touch naive, it does not mean that she is okay with being treated by boys or men however they want to treat her. She is still her own person who does not deserve to be violated. What is interesting to me about the line, “What she liked was being in charge of her. Her body, her mind, Her thoughts, her career, her future,” is that not only does it stand in a paragraph of its own, but it seems incredibly different in tone from the rest of Alison’s section of the story. This line seems a lot more straightforward and serious than the rest of the story. It doesn’t use any of Alison’s quirky slang, and it mentions very mature, adult things like “career” and “future” that Alison has not mentioned before. This shift in tone made this sentence stand out to me a lot. I believe Saunders included it to make it clear that no matter how girly, cheerful, naive, absentminded, or ridiculous a person, particularly a woman, is, it does not mean that she does not deserve subjectivity and to be in control of herself.
After focusing in on Kyle’s actions for several pages, Saunders returns to Alison at the end of the story. At the end, Alison prevents Kyle from killing the near-rapist by shouting at him to stop. She fulfills the traditional feminine role of preventing violence and showing mercy even to the scum of the earth. Her parents praise her for this, her father telling her that she “Did beautiful” (27). To me, her father’s word choice seems particularly meaningful. Beautiful is a word often used to describe women, especially those who are follow traditional gender norms. It almost seems as though Alison is being praised for being the “right” kind of girl, one who embraces gentleness rather than vengeance. However, being this “right” kind of girl has not given Alison peace of mind. She is still haunted by her traumatic experience, having nightmares about Kyle actually going through with the murder. Saunders makes it clear that just because Alison is the “perfect girl”, princess-like in her innocence and happiness, she is still fully human and still suffers psychological consequences after undergoing something traumatic, just as anyone else would.
Altogether, I believe Saunders subverts the “damsel in distress” trope in two ways: by making fun of it and its associated traits (communicating with woodland creatures, relentless cheerfulness), and by humanizing his “damsel” by showing her feeling both the innate human desire for subjectivity and the realistic effects of trauma.
For many years, we used the Blogger platform for the AP Lit blog. Since it is owned by Google, it integrates pretty seamlessly with your Google accounts — which made it easy to use, in some respects — but it is a very limited and bug-ridden platform. So this year, we have decided to construct a new class blog from scratch using the most more powerful and stable WordPress platform.
If you are interested, though, in seeing what past AP Lit students have been thinking and writing about, feel free to wander over to the old blog.