‘Blue Angel’ by Francine Prose (2001)

28Jun05

Despite Swenson’s claims that his and Angela’s relationship was about “love,” I have to agree with Sherrie that his attraction to Angela had very much to do with his daughter and their estranged relationship. I’ve seen and read stories of pubescent teens developing attractions to older people when one of their parents is absent or distant, trying to replace parental attention with romantic attention. However, this story is the first I’ve read in which the roles have been reversed.

Usually an older character with an absent child forms an unromantic relationship with a surrogate child, but during their unfortunate and unsuccessful sexual encounter Swenson makes an observation that again reverses the usual roles:

Her nipples brush against his face. He takes one in his mouth, from which she gently extricates it with a gesture so instinctive, so sure, that Swenson thinks—God help him—of how Sherrie used to reclaim her breast after Ruby fell asleep nursing.

While Swenson really does seem to care about his wife and child, he seems frustrated with the monotony and little irritations of daily life with the same people. He likes the familiarity that he shares with his wife but interactions have become too complicated for him to handle. His relationship with Angela seems much less difficult — his trip with her to Computer City goes smoothly while his trip with Ruby involves many hassles. In fact, in their trip to Computer City Swenson notes that Ruby dresses and acts as if she is trying to be invisible. Indeed, Swenson notices this tendency in Angela when he first starts becoming aware of her.

Even though I found this novel enjoyable, it did not seem very woman-friendly while I was reading it. The two feminist characters in this novel do not come off very well, and Prose characterizes women who are concerned with sexual harassment as some kind of brainless cult. Really I think that Prose intends to criticize overly fervent women who want to interpret every person with a penis and a Y-chromosome as a misogynist and possible rapist. However, she presents the hyper-feminist “villains” very clearly and does not provide positive portrayals of feminists with more moderated viewpoints. After evidence of Swenson’s affair with Angela is revealed, Sherrie and Magda, the likable female characters, join the side of the feminist antagonists.

I also am toying with the idea that casting the women in this light was intended to create the greatest role reversal of the novel. Most rape cases are structured around proving that the woman “asked” for what happened to her — because women are expected to control their sexuality as well as men’s, they must be proven innocent rather than their attackers be proven guilty. In this sexual harassment “trial,” Swenson’s character is attacked while Angela’s is never examined. With her mercurial swings in behaviour toward Swenson, the reader suspects that Angela did intend to seduce him. And while the reader may not forgive Swenson for cheating on his wife and violating the college’s rule prohibiting sexual relationships between faculty and students, the reader does recognize that the presentation of Swenson’s character at the trial is unfair. Swenson does feel misrepresented at the trial, but he repeats several times that he prefers their inaccurate portrayal of him as an inappropriate pursuer of this young woman rather than the reality of his being a spineless simp who fell for her machinations. Something that most victimized women would find degrading — being portrayed as promiscuous or sexually assertive — is an empowering experience for Swenson.

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