Are We All Fools?

A few weekends ago, my family had a movie night, and we decided to watch the thriller, “Primal Fear.” The movie follows a suspect in a murder trial. Everyone believes that this man is guilty, as he is seen running in blood from the crime scene. One lawyer who is taking a leave from his profession sees this chase on TV and immediately sees innocence in this man. The lawyer decides to come back to work to defend the suspect for free. 

Throughout the movie, we see memory loss and an overly apologetic tone in the suspect. Then the suspect, when angered, turns into another hostile personality. By the end of the trial, the lawyer is able to prove the suspect innocent because of his apparent multiple personality disorder. The lawyer believed that it was not the suspect’s fault and that this disorder does not define who he really is. However, after the trial successfully ended, the suspect turns to the lawyer and explains, “You are so stupid,” and “Did you really think I was that cute innocent boy?” This plot twist reminded me of the ending of “Good Country People.” 

Towards the end of Hulga’s date with the salesman, the true character of the salesman is revealed. When Hulga begs for her leg back, and the salesman refuses, we find that he was fooling her the entire time. He collects rare items such as that prosthetic leg or a woman’s glass eye. Once Hulga asks why he would do this because he is a Christian, the salesman exclaims, “I hope you don’t think,…that I believe in that crap!”(9). This exact line reminded me of “Primal Fear” because both the salesman and the suspect were able to play such innocent characters so well. The salesman, who once admired Hulga for everything about her and how brave she is, tells Hulga, “you ain’t so smart…”(9). I think it is significant to note that Hulga was the one who was proved a fool, though she has never been interested in anything ever. The one person who sees the “real” and the non sugar coated version of life, unlike her mother, is the one who is lied to. This twisted end makes you wonder: are we all fools?

Like Mother Like Daughter

In Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People,” Hulga strives for independence from her mother. Mrs. Hopewell still sees her 32 year old daughter, Joy, as a child. “She thought of her still as a child because it tore her heart to think instead of the poor stout girl in her thirties who had never danced a step or had any normal good times. (2) Hulga recognizes this and begins to attempt to distance herself from her mother. Hulga changes her given name, Joy, to Hulga as a first step. She’s proud of this victory with her thought being, “One of her major triumphs was that her mother had not been able to turn her dust into Joy, but the greater one was that she had been able to turn it herself into Hulga.” (2) Mrs. Hopewell wishes to improve her daughter, ” If she would only keep herself up a little, she wouldn’t be so bad looking.” (3) Hulga recognizes her mother’s wish for her to better herself, and instead she decides to present herself poorly against her mother’s wish. For example, she decides to dress in, “a six-year-old skirt and a yellow sweat shirt with a faded cowboy on a horse embossed on it.” (3) Hulga decides to act this particular way due to her condition not allowing her to be physical independent from her mother. “if it had not been for this condition, she would be far from these red hills and good country people.” (3)

Contrasting Ideas Within “Good Country People”

In Flannery O’Connor’s story “Good Country People”, O’Connor uses many contrasting ideas, such as beauty, joy, faith, and their opposites. These contrasts cause the main conflicts throughout the story.

One of the main characters is named Joy Hopewell, however she is ironically characterized as neither joyful nor hopeful. Her “remarks were usually so ugly and her face so glum” (2) and she would generally treat her mother and Mrs. Freeman with disrespect and contempt. This attitude most likely resulted from her losing her leg at ten years old, leading to a disconnect with the name “Joy.” This inner conflict was then shown through Joy changing her name to “Hulga.”

Through the name Hulga, O’Connor also shows a contrast between beauty and ugliness. Ms. Hopewell thought her daughter’s new name was ugly, and was mad that “she had gone and had the beautiful name, Joy, changed” (2). Ms. Hopewell puts a lot of emphasis on beauty, despite seeing it in a less conventional way. She believed that “people who looked on the bright side of things would be beautiful even if they were not” (3). Ms. Hopewell values beauty and positivity, whereas Hulga values the opposite. This contrast motivates their actions throughout the story, and is the root of their differences. Similar to Hulga’s internal conflict, this contrast caused conflict between her and her mom.

Finally, O’Connor shows the contrast between those who don’t think they believe in anything, and those who actually don’t. Hulga says she’s “one of those people who sees through to nothing” (8). She thinks this makes her different from Pointer because he supposedly believes in god. However, she ultimately shows that she isn’t actually indifferent towards everything when she gets incredibly protective over her wooden leg. When Pointer notices that this means she does have beliefs and values, he gets angry, revealing that he’s been lying to her. He says that he doesn’t actually “believe in that crap!” (9) when she asks him about his supposed Christianity. Despite what both of them said, they were only putting on a front. Once they exposed their true selves, their contrasting values and beliefs caused conflict between them.

Intellectual Superiority as a Power Structure

In Flannery O’Connor’s Good Country People, one element of the complicated storyline focuses on the conjunction between Hulga’s non belief in “everything” (though her human feelings of privacy and connectedness to her identity are highlighted) and the impact it has on her perceived dominance. It at first appears that she is the definition of negative: she was dealt a bad lot in life and, to cope, made herself into a miserable person with no belief in the world. She thinks of herself as inherently enlightened for realizing that nothing matters and that, as she puts it, “We are all damned” (70). It also appears at first that the Bible salesman is her complete opposite: he has a similar condition, but instead of wallowing devotes himself to positivity and God. Hulga prides herself too much, however, in her power as a superior person because of her education. In the binary she sees herself as “educated” and him as a “country boy” with no real substance. She allows this view, which is only what she wants to see, to cloud her judgement; it opens the door to him to scam and take advantage of her. However, by parading as a foolish Country Boy, the boy takes her position of power and leaves her helpless, furthering the power cycle.

Escape From Emotion

George Saunders, “Escape from Spiderhead” approaches the idea of artificial emotions. With this in mind, as our world has evolved, emotions have become more standardized. There are feelings we are supposed to feel in different situations, rather it be the mourning at a funeral opposed to a celebration of life among other examples.

Our minds are programmed to feel emotions that are reasonable in a situation. The real issues come when ones emotions are unable to correspond with the present situation.

Saunders continues his artificial experimentation with emotion by displaying a human weakness regarding emotion. The inability to afflict pain on an innocent being. In the story this trait has to be deciphered from affection in order to test the effectiveness of the drug, but still with the deactivation of the drug, human compassion remains intact.

All Kinds to Make the World Go ‘Round…

In the short story “Good Country People” by Flannery O’Connor, Mrs. Hopewell repeats a phrase throughout the story: “It takes all kinds to make the world go ’round” (4). Mrs. Hopewell typically sees the best in people. Her daughter, Hulga, on the other hand, is the complete opposite. Hulga keeps to herself, hates talking to others, and never misses a chance to be rude.

The two have a very interesting mother-daughter relationship. Although Mrs. Hopewell makes it clear she dislikes the way Hulga acts, she fails to see that it is going against her own saying that it takes different people to make the world go ’round. She also preaches that nothing is perfect, but wishes Hulga was. Although Mrs. Hopewell might live by the sayings she often says, she does not apply them to her own daughter. The story reads, “Whenever she looked at Joy this way, she could not help but feel that it would have been better if the child had not taken the Ph.D…Here she went about all day in a six-year-old skirt and a yellow sweat shirt with a faded cowboy on a horse embossed on it. She thought it was funny; Mrs. Hopewell thought it was idiotic and showed simply that she was still a child” (3). Mrs. Hopewell is obviously conflicted about her daughter’s life choices. Hulga has even gotten her Ph.D. and her mother is still dissatisfied. Mrs. Hopewell believes it takes different people to make the world go ’round but that Hulga should be just like her.

The Meaning Behind the Sailboat

In the short story, “The Lesson” by Toni Cade Bambara, Miss Moore takes a group of children into the city to go window shopping. While none of the kids understand what the point of it was, Miss Moore had her intentions. They stumble upon a toy store and see a sailboat in the window, “Hand-crafted sailboat of fiberglass at one thousand one hundred twenty-five dollars,” (112). These kids come from poor families and the idea of a toy costing that much in unimaginable to them. Sylvia, the narrator, says, “I read it again for myself just in case the group recitation put me in a trance. Same thing. For some reason this pisses me off.” (112). Miss Moore’s secret lesson is that some people have a worry free life, where others don’t. How the money spent on a thousand dollar toy sail boat could help a struggling family of six or seven. Sugar, one of the kids, starts to understand it. “that this is not much of a democracy if you ask me. Equal chance to pursue happiness means an equal crack as the dough, don’t it?” (115). Unfortunately, some people have to worry about how they will afford dinner and rent, where others don’t even have to think twice if there will be food when they get home. Life is unfair sometimes is what I believe Miss Moore was teaching.

The Lives On Fifth Avenue

In Toni Cade Bambara’s The Lesson, the students being taught by Miss Moore come to realize some of the differences between their lives and the lives of the people who shop on 5th avenue. When Miss Moore is talking about the kids, she describes Sylvia and her friends as “all poor and live in the slums” (110). When the group arrives at Fifth Avenue, they are enthralled with the objects they see in the windows and how much they cost. They find a paperweight that costs $480 and are confused at first, curious as to why a paperweight is even needed. The students talk about if they have paper on their desk at school or at home that would need a paperweight and say, ‘”I don’t even have a desk,’ say Junebug. ‘Do we?’ ‘No. And I don’t even get homework neither,’ says Big Butt. ‘And I don’t even have a home,’ say Flyboy” (112). The kids start realize that their lives are very different, and are surprised that people would spend that much money. They continuously say, “White folks crazy” (114), emphasizing that they feel different and out of place from the people that they are encountering.

Each item they see, they check the price and are surprised every time. Sylvia saw a $35 toy clown and thought about what that money could buy for her and her family. “Thirty-five dollars could buy new bunk beds for Junior and Gretchen’s boy. Thirty-five dollars and the whole household could go visit Granddaddy Nelson in the country. Thirty-five dollars would pay for the rent and the piano bill too” (114). This contrast between what people spend their money on was really an eye-opener for Sylvia. She could not understand why people would pay so much for one thing when in her community and house, that money could be better used somewhere else. The author gave this insight into Sylvia’s mind in order to show that she recognizes Fifth Avenue and her home as two very different entities and realizes the very evident differences between the two.

The Symbol of Bread

When reading “The Conversation About Bread”, I was struck by an arguably minor detail of the story: Brian’s story that Eldwin was trying to tell. But I wasn’t struck by it in the way you may think. Obviously it’s a very profound aspect of the story that Eldwin realizes he can’t write Brian’s story because it is not his experience, but I thought the writing about the bread specifically in Eldwin’s writing was very interesting. In the story he’s attempting to write he states “We were all like, what’s up with the yellow bread? For it was surely some white folk stuff” (173). I thought it was really interesting how something as simple as bread can reflect someone’s socioeconomic status and how all these boys were in awe at a type of bread. This is similar to “The Lesson”, in the sense that they see a toy at the store, a clown on a bar, and are all baffled by the fact that someone would pay $35 for it. Sylvia states “Thirty-five dollars could buy new bunk beds for Junior and Gretchen’s boy. Thirty-five dollars and the whole household could go visit Grandaddy Nelson in the country” (114). Something that seems so inexpensive and insignificant to one person could mean something so much more to another person who is less financially stable, similar to how something (the bread) could seem like no big deal to one person but can actually reflect their socioeconomic status.

Sylvia Vs. Miss Moore

In “The Lesson” by Toni Cade Bambara, Sylvia and Miss Moore have an odd relationship. Miss Moore seems to fully recognize Sylvia and the kids as individuals but Sylvia does not. In the story, Miss Moore calls the kids by their first names rather than their nicknames (111 & 114). Calling someone by their own name is special and defines their identity. She treats them as human beings rather than as delinquents or trouble makers as others might. Even though Miss Moore is anything but rude to the kids, they still treat her awfully, especially Sylvia.

One can tell from the beginning that Sylvia has lots of contempt for Miss Moore when she thinks, “I’m really hating this nappy-head bitch and her goddamn college degree” (110). This disrespect is expressed again when Sylvia thinks, “… though I never talk to her, I wouldn’t give the bitch that satisfaction” (113). Sylvia probably does not have much power in her life, being a poor, black girl, so she acts rude and bossy trying to maintain any sort of power/control she can get. However, Miss Moore constantly attempts to break down this power struggle by treating Sylvia properly and not putting her down. Miss Moore strives for mutual recognition while Sylvia wants to remain in control.

Stealing Hearts

For me, the most fascinating aspect of the short story “Escape from Spiderhead” is the idea of being able to control another person’s emotion with an administered drug, along with the consequenses of doing so. An individual’s emotions and how he/she expresses them is a defining quality that makes us unique and human. Love, is a very deep and personal feeling that is extremely hard to simply create out of thin air. However, in the story, Abnesti is able to minipulate love in his subjects with the simple flick of a switch. He claims, if proven to work, this advancement could change world for the better (end national disputes, stop soldiers from fighting, etc). But, a moral dilema is raised as a result. At what point do we start to lose our individuality/uniqueness?

If we were able to control other individuals’ emotions, we would all essentially become “robots”. Everybody would lose their authenticity and nobody would ever know when another peroson is being genuine. This would create a “distant” feeling between each person, and everyone would eventually lose their feelings of happiness. In “Escape from Spiderhead”, Jeff thinks to himself, “Why sad? Was I not a dude?… Still, honestly, I felt sadder than sad. I guess I was sad that love was not real? Or not all that real anyway? I guess I was sad that love could feel so real and the next minute be gone, and all because of something Abnesti was doing”(26). Even though Jeff was able to experience true love, he was not content with himself because as quickly as he was able to gain (the mutual) feelings, he had them taken away. The feeling of Love is desireble because it has to be earned, and when it is, it should be hard to lose. The instantaneous gain and loss of feelings for/of Jeff, made such a personal connection feel like a business transaction. Especially since it was a result of Abnesti’s decisions. Controlling emotions and feelings has always been sought after by humans, but reading this story has made me realize that, in doing so, we would lose our humanity and individuality.

Abnesti’s Prison

Abnesti’s interactions with the patients provided another layer of complexity in Escape from Spider Head. Throughout the story when speaking with his patients Abnesti highlights his acts of kindness, especially when he is committing an act that seems inhumane and heartless. It can be concluded that for Jeff, Spiderhead represents his mental prison of guilt. For Abnesti, I think that Spiderhead represents his mental prison which stems from his inability to sympathize with others. On page 72, in regards to Heather’s death, Abnesti says, “I hated it. I’m a person. I have feelings.” Then later on page 73, he contradicts this statement with an emotionless and factual response to Jeff when Jeff asks if Rachel could die. Abnesti says, “Is it possible that the Darkenfloxx will kill Rachel? Sure. We have the Heather precedent.” This juxtaposition is used often in the story, and it emphasizes Abnesti’s use of manipulation to cover up his emotional downfalls. He is trapped in his commitment to “the mandates of science”(74). Abnesti cannot see the prisoners as people because of his own mental prison within Spider Head.

Moral Struggles in Escape from Spiderhead

In “Escape from Spiderhead,” Jeff, the protagonist, faces internal struggles throughout the story. They ultimately drive him to commit suicide at the end. On page 67, the text states, “‘I don’t want you to Darkenfloxx Heather. . . I don’t want you to Darkenfloxx anybody. . . ” Abnesti asks Jeff to choose Darkenfloxx for either Heather or Rachel. Jeff isn’t in love with either of them but he respects them as humans and doesn’t want them to suffer. This is an example of mutual recognition, something that Abnesti doesn’t understand. Further on in the story, the text states, “Heather. . . dissasemble the chair while continuing to drive her head into the wall. . .” She is given the Darkenfloxx and feels the full affects of the lethal drug. As a result, Jeff is crying because he doesn’t want to see her suffer. And on page 80, Jeff lays his struggles to rest when he commits suicide. Internally, he says, “No, I thought, no thanks, I’ve had enough.” This is very tragic yet such an important moment. The whole story, Jeff had to do what Abnesti told him and this is his final act to go against the system. We don’t know if Rachel will be given Darkenfloxx but Jeff is freed from the oppression.

Jeff’s Priorities

“Do you want me to say that your Fridays are at risk?”(71).

When Jeff refuses to “Acknowledge” the Darkenfloxx drip and cause Heather to suffer, Abnesti threatens his skype sessions with his mother. His initial failed compliance is overturned after this threat because his time with his mom is highly treasured.

After Heather is given the Darkenfloxx drip and dies, Jeff shifts his priorities. He values Rachel’s life and does not want what happened to Heather to happen to Rachel. He decides to give himself the Darkenfloxx drip so that his actions are not responsible for Rachel’s death. He prioritizes her life over his.

Jeff’s Stockholm Syndrome

In “Escape from Spiderhead” by George Saunders there seems to be a sort of Stockholm Syndrome scenario between Jeff and Abnesti. Instead of going to “real Jail”, Jeff’s mother paid for Jeff to go to Spiderhead. However, this might not have been the best choice because Spiderhead is deceivingly an evil institution. Jeff seems to adopt a friendship with Abnesti and have a pleasant time at Spiderhead. Jeff knows that he is a prisoner, but he is manipulated by Abnesti without knowing. This can be seen when Abnesti tells Jeff, “You know me … how many kids do I have … what are their names” (68). At that moment Abnesti tries to persuade Jeff into hurting Heather by bringing up their “friendly” relationship. Abnesti attempts to build a connection so Jeff remains complicit. Another reasong Jeff falls for Abnesti’s tricks is because Abnesti creates a false sense of security by leaving the door to Spiderhead unlocked, remembering birthdays, and giving medicinal creams to Jeff. Abnesti tries to seem like a friend to Jeff but he sees Jeff as a criminal, like all of the other “participants”, and could never truly be friends with Jeff. Abnesti believes he is the outstanding citizen while Jeff is just another low life criminal.

Towards the end, Jeff starts to realize that Spiderhead and Abnesti are corrupt. When Verlaine mentions that he refreshed Jeff’s MobiPak, “While he was sleeping”, Jeff starts to understand that he his a prisoner and tries to break out of Abnesti’s hold (66). Jeff tries to be a good person but Abnesti refuses to let him. Abnesti manipulates Jeff into giving Heather Darkenfloxx but the results push Jeff to his limit. Jeff finally escapes from Abnesti’s evilness, when he kills himself on Darkenfloxx, not wanting to kill again.

Power vs Free-will

In Escape from Spiderhead, there is an inherent power dynamic in which the scientists have power over the inmates however, I found it interesting how the inmates always had some degree of free will and how the scientists tried to manipulate that. Whenever Abnesti performed an experiment he had to request permission to administer the drugs and the inmates had to say acknowledge to allow the scientist to administer the drugs.

Abnesti works hard to gain the inmates trust so they think of him as a good person and listen to him. Abnesti uses the goodwill he has garnered to try and persuade Jeff to allow him to administer the new round of drugs when Jeff originally refused to do so, by saying “do I remember birthdays around here? When a certain individual got athlete’s foot on his groin on a Sunday, did a certain other individual drive over to Recall and pick up the cream, paying for it with his own personal money?”(68). This shows us that the scientists aren’t all-powerful in the Spiderhead and Abnesti knows this so he manipulates the inmates including Jeff into thinking that he is good and the inmates are bad. Abnesti realizes that Jeff wants to be better so he uses the fact that he is supposedly “good” to his advantage when trying to manipulate Jeff.

Later in the story Jeff doesn’t acknowledge again only this time Abnesti asks Verlaine for the obedience drug, which oddly enough, needs permission for use. This reinforces the idea that even though the scientists have power over the inmates the inmates still have some degree of control and free will.

Escape From “Acknowledge”

In the short story, “Escape From Spiderhead” George Saunders creates a different point of view in punishment. While the prisoners are being experimented on with different drugs by Abnesti, the prisoners are supposed to give consent for the drug to be administered. Every time that a different drug was administered, Abnesti would ask “Drip on?” and the prisoner would need to give consent by responding with “Acknowledge”.

The word “Acknowledge” should be seen as the prisoners only power or freedom, because they must consent to the experiments being done. However, as the story goes on we see that the word “Acknowledge” is being much more forced and controlled by Abnesti than by the prisoners. When Rachel was about to receive the Darkenfloxx, Jeff “did not say “Acknowledge” ….. Abnesti said. “Verlaine, what’s the name of that one? The one where I give him an order and he obeys it?”(75). Since Abnesti is taking away the one piece of power that Jeff had during his punishment, this experiment is more of torture and cruelty. So Abnesti is not a kind person being forced to punish and experiment through the system, he is using the system as justification for torture.

Autonomy and Power in “Escape from Spiderhead”

Spiderhead, as an establishment, is inherently about power. Abnesti tries to make himself seem like a hero, like he is working towards a greater public good. When he explains to Jeff the new drug they are developing, he talks about the ability to stop wars, help people find love, etc. But it is clear that it is not these results that he necessarily cares about, but rather the control that this gives him. He tells Jeff, “‘No longer, in terms of emotional controllability, are we ships adrift. No one is. We see a ship adrift, we climb aboard, install a rudder'”(58).

In this way, he admits that it is power, rather than conflict resolution, that they are actually after. This is reinforced in the way that Spiderhead functions – with Abnesti and Verlaine in control of all of the prisoners at Spiderhead. This power dynamic is recognized by the prisoners trapped in Spiderhead. The use of the word “acknowledge” implies that there is no real choice for these prisoners. When Jeff begins resisting the commands of Abnesti and Verlaine, they have systems in place to ensure his compliance. The prisoners at Spiderhead lose autonomy as a punishment for their crimes. Upon first read, Spiderhead seems very different from any prison we, as readers, are familiar with. But one has to wonder: is that really the case? Or is the power struggle and lack of autonomy as described here a part of our prison systems?

The Binary in “Escape From Spiderhead”

Within the Spiderhead, there’s an established binary between the criminals and the “humane.” Absenti makes sure to enforce this by reminding the criminals that they are lesser than. He’s “always reminding [Jeff] about [his] fateful night” (58) because he wants to remind Jeff that he’s a murderer. He does a similar thing later in the story by telling Jeff about all the crimes that Rachel has committed, painting her in an extremely negative light. By establishing this binary, he makes it seem like they deserve the torture they’re going through.

Then, in contrast to the criminals, he establishes himself as being a good person. He’s constantly trying to prove this to Jeff, saying things like “Am I a monster?” (68) and “I’m a person. I have feelings” (72). However, despite his attempt to categorize himself as the better of the two options in the binary he’s created, his actions prove that he’s just as bad as the other murderers in the Spiderhead. He’s fine with killing Rachel and Heather, whereas Jeff “had not killed, and never would” (81).

Jeff’s realization

Jeff starts to be put into situations which are exposing him to what is really going on at the spiderhead and what experiment is occurring at the facility. When Jeff realizes that their are two other men also going through this process he begins to think. He even makes a chart to realize who had sex with who. On page 63 Jeff explains, “Back in my Domain, I constructed a who-had-fucked- whom chart…”. Jeff also builds his realization when he talks to Rogan and Keith in the workrooms when the woman are deciding who should be Darkenfloxx, asking them if they had the same experience as he did.