Blow Your House Down | Critical Essay by Ann Ardis

This literature criticism consists of approximately 16 pages of analysis & critique of Blow Your House Down.
This section contains 4,560 words
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Critical Essay by Ann Ardis

SOURCE: "Political Attentiveness vs. Political Correctness: Teaching Pat Barker's Blow Your House Down," in College Literature, Vol. 18, No. 3, October, 1991, pp. 44-54.

Ardis is an American critic and educator. In the following essay, she discusses the effect of Barker's Blow Your House Down on her college literature classes and examines the ways in which the novel addresses various feminist themes.

The author blurb on the inside back cover of the Ballantine paperback edition of Pat Barker's novel Blow Your House Down (1984) reads as follows: "Pat Barker was born in Thornaby-on-Tees in 1943. She was educated at the local grammar school and at the London School of Economics, where she studied economics, politics, and history. She is married to the Professor of Zoology at the University of Durham, and she has two children." Why, my students ask, did Barker write this book about working-class prostitutes trying to protect themselves from a serial killer? On what authority does an academic's wife, a mother of two, and a graduate of the London School of Economics describe the experience of working-class women in a decaying inner-city neighborhood who have only two means of employment open to them: walking the streets and working on the assembly line in a chicken slaughterhouse? On what authority, in other words, does Barker write about women who choose to be chickens (the English slang for prostitutes) rather than "sho[ve the birds'] legs up their arses"? And whom does she write this book for?

These are important questions, questions sustained by a tradition of Marxist criticism that values the authenticity of working-class writing—and that often, as Cora Kaplan has noted, alleviates the tension between the literary and the political in the Marxist critical project by advocating essentialism [Cora Kaplan, "Pandora's Box: Subjectivity, Class and Sexuality in Socialist Feminist Criticism," Sea Changes: Essays on Culture and Feminism, 1986]. Because I believe that questioning the authenticity of Blow Your House Down as working-class writing can be a defensive distraction on a reader's part, a means of avoiding Barker's very disturbing insights into the way "social divisions and ideologies [are] worked through psychic structures … [and] worked into sexual and social identity," I ask my students to bracket such questions temporarily in order to focus first on how this novel challenges us to confront the "powerful symbolic force of class and gender in ordering our social and political imagination" (Kaplan).

This essay is about what happens in the classroom when I teach Blow Your House Down. It is about teaching feminist theory and literature together: teaching literature as theory, teaching literary and theoretical texts that highlight the politics of the classroom. The charge of "political correctness" (read "academic fascism") is being levied more and more frequently against feminists, multiculturalists, and other advocates of curricular reform these days; particularly as this charge begins filtering down into the popular press, it serves to contain and curtail the debate on the curriculum by caricaturing one side of the argument. In other words, it is the latest and most effective excuse for not listening to feminists and multiculturalists. Through a discussion of classroom conversations about Barker's novel, I would like to suggest that there is an important distinction to be made between political correctness and political attentiveness. Blow Your House Down does invite students to reflect on how cultural categories such as class and gender reciprocally constitute each other—which might be termed a politically correct insight. But Barker's work also points up the radical instability of such categories. Hence it does not exemplify class-based paradigms of analysis. Nor does it fit neatly into feminist arguments about male violence against women. As I hope to show, it is too disturbing to be politically correct ("PC"). I teach it because it challenges my theoretical paradigms. I teach it because it teaches me as well as my students to be attentive to the ways we negotiate difference in the classroom and in the world at large.

Teaching Class and Gender

American culture does not have a highly developed discourse about class. Moreover, the discourse we do have is misleading, insofar as most Americans claim to be middle-class even though their incomes actually give them either a higher or a lower class standing. Which is all the more reason to ask students to read Barker's novel about a culture and a set of controversies that seem foreign to them. More than any other piece of literature I have taught, Barker's novel requires students to position themselves. It challenges them to acknowledge their own class allegiances as they try to talk about this text; it calls attention to all the differences in students' class background, economic status, and life experience that usually remain politely beyond the scope of classroom discussion, thanks to common assumptions about the classroom as an apolitical space and the educational process as a simple transmission of nonideological "Truths." Not more than five minutes into the first day's discussion of this novel in an "Introduction to the Novel" class last year, for example, one of my students stopped herself in mid-sentence when she realized that she was taking her own experience to be universal. She was assuming that this subject was equally exotic to all of her classmates, that this was everyone's first up-close-and-personal view of prostitution. Even as she was speaking, something someone else had just said finally registered with her, and when she realized that some of her classmates lived in neighborhoods where prostitutes hang out on street corners, she had to go back and qualify what she had just asserted about "normal" households and "normal" occupations.

That process itself—the process of putting quotation marks around such words as "normal," of destandardizing, de-naturalizing bourgeois experience—is something Barker's narrative demands of its readers from its opening pages. Consider the first scene of the novel:

There were two beds and a wardrobe in the room. To get between them you had to stand sideways and shuffle your way along.

Brenda was in a hurry to get out and grumbled as she bent down to tuck a blanket in. "I don't know, when I was your age I was making me own bed."

Her daughters, getting ready for bed in the corner, turned and looked at her. Lindsey, the elder by two years, said, "I don't see why I have to go to bed the same time as our Sharon."

"Because if I let you stop down you'd only have a carry-on and wake everybugger up. Besides, you'd start picking on your Uncle Norman, you know you would."

"It's him picks on me."

Brenda pulled back the sheets on the other bed and a powerful smell of urine filled the room. "Sharon, I wish you'd tell me when you're wet. I could've had this changed this morning if you'd told me."

"God, what a stink," said Lindsey.

Brenda rounded on her. "Shut your face, you. You want to think on, she's been ill."

As students are quick to note, this scene impresses us with its normality. Even if this bedroom is much smaller than those my middle-class and upper-middle-class students remember from their own childhoods, and even if the dialect takes some getting used to, the rituals are nonetheless familiar: an older child complains about having the same bedtime as her younger sister; a mother expresses her exasperation with her children's rivalry, but her rough scolding is well laced with affection.

In "Women on the Market," Luce Irigaray identifies three symbolic positions that women can occupy in a capitalist patriarchy: virgin, mother, and prostitute [see This Sex Which Is Not One, translated by Catherine Porter, 1977]. Without necessarily requiring them to read Irigaray, I talk with my students about the way Barker collapses these three categories as she introduces her characters. The "respectable" lower-middle-class folks who live on the margins of this decaying inner-city neighborhood continue to assume that the categories are noncontiguous; they employ these classifications to construct reassuringly rigid distinctions between themselves and those who differ from them in various ways. In contrast, Barker's prostitutes are painfully aware of the contradictions fueling this ideological system.

As the entire first section of the novel—not just its opening paragraphs—stresses, Brenda is both a mother and a prostitute. Like Kath and Audrey, in fact, she is a prostitute because she is a mother. After her husband disappears, leaving her with the children and a sheaf of unpaid bills stashed under the seat cushions of the sofa, Brenda tries to make it on her own by applying for child support and then working full-time at the chicken factory. She quickly realizes several things. First, after she goes to the corner store for a pint of milk one evening and is accosted by a man looking for someone to give him a blow job, she is made to understand that in her neighborhood, a woman walking alone at night is assumed to be a prostitute whether she is one or not. In the symbolic economy of the bourgeois patriarchy, "working-class" equals "prostitute": a working-class woman, any working-class woman, is assumed to be sexually available to the middle-class man. As Kaplan writes, "Class discourse is gendered discourse"; again, "class is powerfully defined through sexual difference, and vice versa."

But if Brenda is upset by this encounter and others like it, she is even more upset by her social workers' visit, which starkly reveals to her the economic base subtending the bourgeois patriarchy's valorization of marriage:

After they'd gone Brenda sat down and pressed her hands together to stop them shaking. What got her was the hypocrisy of it all. They went on about being married, but when you got right down to it, past the white weddings and the romance and all that, what they really thought was: if you're getting on your back for a fella, he ought to pay. That was what they really thought. And where did that leave you? You might just as well be standing on a street corner in bloody Northgate—at least it'd be honest.

In fact, that is exactly what Brenda does once she realizes that hooking will give her both more time and more money for her children than will the chicken factory.

If Brenda is alienated from her own body when she puts it on the market; if sexual desire is not a factor in the exchanges she makes with her customers; if, moreover, she cannot control the process of "switching off" (tuning out emotionally with her johns and "switching on" again when she is with her children), she recognizes nonetheless that a "respectable" life would be no different. For the women she worked with on the factory line are equally alienated from the products of their labor; they too switch off to get through the day. Moreover, while Edith, Brenda's mother-in-law, certainly claims both the respectability and the class status she refuses to grant Brenda, she is as alienated from her sexuality as are the prostitutes. As indicated by her single act of intimacy with her husband—dusting him off before he leaves the house for the day—desire simply is not part of the heterosexual economy of the patriarchy. Watching this strange daily ritual, Brenda notes that "it was just like scrubbing the front door step. It didn't matter what you thought about the bloke, it was just something you had to do."

Kaplan argues that "without the class and race perspectives that socialist feminist critics bring to the analysis both of literary texts and of their conditions of production, liberal feminist criticism, with its emphasis on the unified female subject, will unintentionally reproduce the ideological values of mass-market romance" because it "tends to represent sexual difference as natural and fixed—a constant, transhistorical femininity in libidinized struggle with an equally 'given' universal masculinity." She goes on to suggest that "a feminist literary criticism that privileges gender in isolation from other forms of social determination offers us a … partial reading of the role played by sexual difference in literary discourse, a reading bled dry of its most troubling and contradictory meaning." Thus it is striking that Blow Your House Down does not let readers isolate gender from other forms of social determination. You cannot bleed sexual difference dry of its "most troubling and contradictory meanings" in this narrative. Furthermore, there are no unified female subjects in this novel. For every encounter, every "speaking-to another person," in this novel is "fraught with the history of … sex and class," to borrow Minnie Bruce Pratt's phrasing [in "Identity: Skin Blood Heart," in Yours in Struggle: Three Feminist Perspectives on Anti-Semitism and Racism, edited by Elly Bulkin, Pratt, and Barbara Smith, 1984]. Every character experiences the kind of "vertigo" or "homelessness" that Pratt associates in "Identity: Skin Blood Heart" with an expanding consciousness of oppression.

Teaching the "zero Degree of Social Conceptualization"

"I'll never think about these ladies in quite the same way again." "I used to think that prostitutes were bad … that they were just sluts, dirty from the waist down or something like that. But they are mothers too and stuff." Such comments (the first from a senior in a feminist theory proseminar, the second from a freshman in an "Introduction to the Novel" class) suggest that the experience of reading Barker's novel "enlightens" students, introduces them to a world and a way of life that would otherwise remain foreign to them—and that therefore is the target of the negative stereotyping epitomized by the "dirty from the waist down" remark. But if this novel shows them how class and gender reciprocally constitute each other, I nonetheless consider responses like the above only the point of departure in class discussions.

Virginia Woolf writes in Three Guineas: "The number of books written by the educated about the working class would seem to show that the glamour of the working class and the emotional relief afforded by adopting its cause, are today as irresistable to the middle class as the glamour of the aristocracy was twenty years ago." I teach Barker's novel regularly because it challenges students to deal with issues of class; more importantly, however, I teach it because it does not afford my middle-class students the kind of "emotional relief" Woolf discusses in Three Guineas. Blow Your House Down does not let us commend ourselves for the correctness of our politics. Instead it calls attention to the voyeurism involved in any reading experience, particularly when reading demands identification across lines of social classification. As her title might suggest, Barker refuses to let us sustain the self-congratulatory attitude reflected in my student's comment, "I'll never think about these ladies in quite the same way again." She refuses to let us construct either "the prostitute" or "the serial killer" as other to ourselves. (This is where students' reactions to the author blurb and the quotations from reviews featured on the back cover of the paperback edition become relevant again, as they can serve to introduce a discussion of the commodification of working-class experience for the "benefit" and pleasure of middle-class readers.)

Besides the title, several other aspects of the novel work to destabilize class and gender categorization by highlighting the psychological construction of otherness: the use of a first-person narrative in the third section of the novel; the final section's tangential relationship to the preceding three sections; and the narrator's direct addresses to the reader throughout. I want now to focus on students' reactions to these particular narrative strategies. What interests me here is students' resistance to the idea that they are implicated in the psychological dynamics Barker describes.

As I noted previously, Blow Your House Down has four chapters. The first focuses on Brenda, on her socialization as a prostitute, and on her relationship with Kath, an older woman who will be one of the serial killer's victims. The second chapter introduces us to the whole community of women who meet for drinks at a local pub before going out on their "beats." The third is about Jean, the only woman in the group who hooks because, as she herself notes, she likes the life—she enjoys the risk associated with the job. And the fourth deals with Maggie, a "respectable" chicken factory worker whom Brenda rescues after Maggie is knocked unconscious by an unidentified assailant on her way home from work one night.

Only Jean's story is narrated in the first person. It opens with the following observation: "You do a lot of walking in this job. More than you might think. In fact, when I get to the end of a busy Saturday night, it's me feet that ache. There, that surprised you, didn't it?" Interestingly enough, students are very uncomfortable with Jean's assumption of intimacy with her readers. "I can identify with Brenda, but I don't want to see the world from Jean's perspective," one of my students wrote last year; "I don't like the way she draws me into conversation." The victim of a client's violence, Jean too is capable of violence. And when she kills the man she thinks is one of her murdered lover's "regulars," when she perpetuates the cycle of violence rather than stopping it by solving the murder mystery, she violates two things: the reader's desire for narrative closure, for resolution of the central conflict in the novel; and the reader's assumption that he or she observes these characters without being observed by them—that reading is organized around a one-way mirror.

For very similar reasons, as Bauer notes [in Dale Bauer, "The Other 'F' Word: The Feminist in the Classroom," College English, Vol. 52, No. 4 (1990)], students are troubled by the fourth section. They want to dissociate Maggie's story from the rest of the novel. For example, even though Brenda is recognizable in this section (her name is not used, but her clothing and speech are familiar), students often do not identify her as the woman who calls the police and the ambulance after Maggie is attacked. "There's no connection between Maggie's story and the rest of the novel," they claim. "She's not a prostitute; why did she get attacked?"

If such misreadings are symptomatic, still more telling are students' responses to Barker's use of direct address in key scenes such as the murder of Kath. I quote at length from this scene in order to give you a sense of its impact. First, the murder itself, from the point at which her client's interaction with Kath escalates into violence:

His cock felt small and worm-like inside her stretched arse. He pulled it out and examined it carefully. At first it looked much the same as usual, purple and glistening in the torchlight. But then a drop of gingery fluid gathered on the knob and dripped down onto her bum. He smelled the thin, sour smell of shit. And looked. Her cleft was full of it. He lashed out at her then, but she wriggled away from him and tried to stand up. She got as far as her knees.

"There's no need for that," she said. "Look, you can have your money back."

Those were the last words she spoke. He hit her again, full on the jaw, and she crumpled up on the floor and lay still. He dragged her back onto the mattress. Then reached into his pocket for the knife.

It was almost soundless. There were only slight grunts of effort and the shadow of an upraised arm coming and going on the wall.

At some point, unnoticed by him, Kath died.

After a few minutes he was able to stop and look down. It wasn't enough that she was dead, he needed more. He gathered handfuls of feathers together and started shoving them inside her cunt. It wasn't easy: as fast as he pushed them inside they turned red. He had to practically stuff her with them, like stuffing a chicken, before he could get the effect he wanted: a ridiculous little white frill between her legs.

Five short paragraphs (less than a page of text) describing the murderer's rituals of self-distancing after he has finished follow the above. The last two paragraphs of the chapter, quoted below, are then set off from the preceding with a line of asterisks:

The sleeping and the dead. Any resemblance between them is a contrivance of undertakers: they do not look alike. Kath's body seems to have shrunk inside its clothes. If you approached the mattress casually you would see nothing but a heap of old rags. You would tread on her before you realized a woman's body lay there.

The window is boarded up, the room dark, except for five thin lines of moonlight that lie across the mattress like bars. One of them has just reached her eyes. They look so alive you wonder she can bear the light shining directly into them. Any moment now, you feel, her eyes will close.

Barker's use of the present tense and the second person in these last two paragraphs is as shocking as the detailed description that precedes them. My students often suggest that the graphic nature of Barker's descriptions makes this novel inappropriate for classroom discussion. (This point in itself constitutes an opportunity to talk about the institutionalization of literary study—both in terms of an English department's curricular commitments to a canon of high art and in terms of students' own expectations about the ways in which the texts they study should differ from the fiction they read on their own time, the language they hear in their own conversation, and the cultural forms they either produce or consume on Saturday nights.) They also note, rightly I think, that Kath's murder is pornographic, in the sense that Barker shows the murderer's association of sex and violence without reassuring us that we are being offered a critique of this behavior.

What they are much more reluctant to talk about, however, is the way Barker catches us peeping: turns the one-way mirror into a window, and then in effect breaks the glass and draws us into the scene of this horrific crime as she switches from past to present tense and describes our approach to Kath's body. As I noted earlier, this crime is never solved; there is no gratifying resolution to the whodunit plot. Instead the violence keeps spiraling outward, implicating not only this particular serial killer, not only Jean (who murders someone she thinks is the killer), but us as well.

This idea is reinforced in the final chapter through one of Maggie's most powerful meditations on evil. On one of her first forays back out into the world after being attacked, Maggie meets a neighbor in the grocery store. As she parries this woman's insinuations about her husband's having been her assailant, Maggie comes to the following realization:

You thought evil was simple. No, more than that, you made it simple, you froze it into a single shape, the shape of a man waiting in the shadows. But it wasn't simple. This woman, this wheezy middle-aged woman, with her corrugated-iron hair and her glasses that flashed when she looked sideways to see how you were taking it, she knew what she was doing. And she was enjoying it. You couldn't put evil into a single, recognizable shape.

Passages like this one in Barker's novel, together with the other narrative strategies discussed above, challenge our attempts to classify human experience on the basis of binary oppositions. Neat, clean, simple distinctions of whatever sort—between "us" and "them," good and evil, middle and working class, male and female—are misleading, as Maggie acknowledges here. In this respect, Blow Your House Down invites us to confront what Hortense Spillers terms the "zero degree of social conceptualization" [see "Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammar Book," Diacritics, Vol. 17, No. 2 (1987)].

In "Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe," Spillers criticizes recent research in African American history for its reification of gender as a category of analysis—and for the erasure of certain chapters in American history that follows from this reification. Central to her argument is a distinction between "the body" and "the flesh." The "body" is gendered, marked by a "grammar" and an iconography of sexual difference; in contrast, "flesh" is the "zero degree of social conceptualization," "the primary narrative." Given this distinction, Spillers goes on to note what has been left out of revisionary "herstories" of American culture: female slaves were not only raped; they were beaten, lynched, and mutilated as well. That is to say, the violence against them wasn't gender-specific: their physical beings were not always treated as female. Instead they were treated as "flesh," flesh that could be "lacerated, wounded, torn, scarred [or] ruptured" by anyone who reduced a human being to a thing and denied that being subjectivity. What feminist revisionary historians have either wanted to forget or have failed to realize, according to Spillers, is that the African female subject has been "the topic of specifically externalized acts of torture and prostration that we imagine as the peculiar province of male brutality and torture inflicted by other males." Images of female bodies "strung from a tree limb, or bleeding from the breast on any given day of field work because the 'overseer,' standing the length of the whip [away], has popped her flesh open, ad[d a new] dimension to the narratives of women in culture and society," a "materialized scene of unprotected female flesh—of female flesh 'ungendered.'"

Perhaps I risk distracting you by this reference to Spillers's research, shocking you with visions of mutilated black bodies that now compete with Barker's description of Kath's murder for your attention. Certainly, as I write this, I feel anxious about being accused of appropriating a point that Spillers makes about black women's experience in order to focus exclusively once again on white women. The criticisms of white feminist theory that women of color voice in This Bridge Called My Back and elsewhere cannot be ignored. But perhaps Spillers also offers us a way to explore the relationships among systems of oppression, their interconnectedness—without, however, assuming that one system of oppression is exactly analogous to or subsumed within another. Spillers's distinction between body and flesh makes it possible, I think, to read the "grammar" of Kath's violated form.

As she lies on that pallet in an abandoned row house with her eyes still open, refusing to look like a sleeping body, Kath is "flesh." The crime that her murderer has committed is not merely an act of male violence against a woman. It is a crime against something more primary than a gendered body. For this reason, Barker's narrative does not fit neatly into feminist arguments about male violence against women. Nor does it exemplify class-based paradigms of analysis. As the safe spaces we usually construct to protect ourselves from otherness are blown down in this novel, as our modes of social analysis are exposed as secondary constructs (and inadequate ones at that), a primary narrative of domination becomes painfully, searingly visible in this text. This narrative is not always or necessarily played out along (race,) gender and class lines. Like the bodies of the black slave women who were lynched in nineteenth-century America, Kath's dead form and her still staring eyes can haunt us into awareness of our capacity to turn subjectivities into property, bodies into flesh. For this reason, I am not satisfied when my students offer politically correct pronouncements on class and gender oppression when we have finished discussing this novel. I want them to say, "This novel upset me." "This novel disturbed me." And, what is even harder, "This novel implicated me."

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