Humourless Marxist Reviews: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Worker's Spatula


In collaboration with the comrades at Jacobin, who recently published a piece shattering the widespread misconception that the Star Wars trilogy is a progressive work elucidating the tenants of the Maoist concept of “People’s War”, we at Worker’s Spatula wish to contribute our own critique of Star Wars, a series which unfortunately serves as the primary inspiration for thousands of communist revolutionaries around the world, misleading them in the process.

With the long-awaited third and final instalment of the Star Wars trilogy, we at Worker’s Spatula finally feel confident in assessing George Lucas’s contributions to the proletarian ideology and revolutionary science. We regret to say that despite what may have initially been an earnest effort at promoting communism, his films reveal a mind which is scarcely more revolutionary than George Orwell’s.

Not once in the entire Star Wars trilogy does any character make reference to Marxism-Leninism or dialectical materialism. When…

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What Droids Teach Us About Politics

Luke and R2

Here’s a question that I think is key to understanding Star Wars: Why does C-3PO get dismantled and reassembled on two separate and unrelated occasions? In The Empire Strikes Back, he stumbles upon Vader and Boba Fett’s plot to sabotage Han and Leia at Cloud City. Stormtroopers blast him and send him down to be junked and repurposed. In Attack of the Clones, he gets caught on the assembly line in a battle droid factory, where his head is attached to a battle droid body and his body attached to a battle droid head. He is both apologetic and horrified when he finds himself shooting Jedi with the other battle droids, but he also finds himself involuntarily growling, “Die, Jedi scum!”

C-3PO is the most anxious character in all six films by far, and in these scenes he lives one of his biggest nightmares (he literally claims to have been dreaming in the latter scene): being taken apart and not put back together again the right way. C-3PO has consistent, completely essentialized, conception of himself. He desires to be wholly himself in body and mind, consistent on the inside and whole on the outside, just like the liberal humanist concept of what it means to be a real person.

In this way, 3PO is something of a droid-double of Anakin, who happens to be 3PO’s maker. In the same scene in Attack of the Clones Anakin’s right arm gets caught in the assembly line, foreshadowing the threat to Anakin’s own internal and external consistency, losing a hand in to Count Dooku then pretty much his whole body to Obi-Wan. Like 3PO, these body parts are replaced with foreign machine parts, and, like 3PO, he growls venomous invective and attacks Jedi. He loses his inner humanity by turning to the Dark Side and his outer humanity by becoming mostly machine.  

The fact that the film elicits so much relief when these characters are made internally and externally consistent falls right in line with the universal humanist Star Wars dogma, which suggest that there’s a natural freedom in internal consistency; by living according to a devotion to your true self, you are living according to nature. But there’s something of a contradiction here. If, for Anakin, becoming less human means becoming more droid, then why are there at least two droids jaunting around like fully developed human beings?

The answer is a political one. Star Wars only lets us understand humanity by its contrast with the totalitarian empire. You are either a fully consistent and naturally free human who resists being controlled by the empire, or you are an inhuman and unnatural machine, and the emperor manipulates you by bringing out your worst emotions. This opposition between human and droid, freedom and control, natural and unnatural is not just universal humanism; it’s liberal humanism, and Lucas’s concept of freedom comes directly from the twentieth-century liberal obsession with totalitarianism.

Totalitarianism means nothing to liberals if it doesn’t signify the complete and total mechanization of society all the way down to the individual citizen. In totalitarianism “people are treated as raw material to be transformed into a New Men.” (Zizek, Totalitarianism, 139) The liberal-democratic state stays in its lane, facilitating freedom by keeping its nose out of markets, media, and the home. By contrast, the totalitarian state manipulates the political, economic, domestic, and even psychological spheres of society, asserting control over every aspect of life, rendering people robotic slaves to the state. 

It’s only within this opposition between liberalism and totalitarianism that Star Wars allows viewers to understand the human. And even though apparently only Siths think in absolutes, it’s the Jedi and Republic apologists, indeed the film itself, that cast their enemies as inhuman. You can’t be pro-centralized imperial control without being not just inhuman, but fully unintelligible to the good guys. In other words, you can’t understand the human unless you have your politics straight.

Anakin gets this Thanksgiving table treatment, not just from those closest to him, but from the film itself. When he tells Obi-Wan that his politics have changed, Obi-Wan says, “Well, then you really are lost!” The film itself condemns bad politics when it implies that the logical next step of turning one’s back on the Republic is to perform inhuman acts on Jedi kids. But it takes more than the murder of women and children for Padmè to give up Anakin. When Padmè says, “I don’t know you anymore,” it’s not the killing Jedi kids that make him unintelligible as a human being, it’s his revelation that he’s been involved in totalitarian politics. 

It’s the old ghostly Obi-Wan who shows the liberal pessimism about totalitarianism. When old Obi-Wan tells Luke that Darth Vader is “more machine now than human,” he’s not only expressing a lack of faith in his human redemption, he’s expressing the idea that there’s no turning back from totalitarian manipulation. He believes that the totalitarianism of the empire has infiltrated Darth Vader to the core, just as liberalism believes that totalitarianism exerts an irredeemable psychological control over its citizens. You can’t be a totalitarian human being. If you’re totalitarian, you might as well be a mechanical, servile droid. 


However, if we can wrestle ourselves out from the peremptory dichotomy of liberal vs. totalitarian, we can get a glimpse of the post-human, or a conception of the human that doesn’t have to be so haunted by the threat of mechanization.

These glimpses are brief, and even though they do offer a suggestion of a way beyond the dualism, the film closes off those paths immediately. But it’s the fact that they are closed off that suggests we should look to them for a way out.

For example, Anakin is willing to buck the Jedi order and go with his feelings against the politically calculating Jedi. But when Anakin rightly criticizes the Jedi Order’s hypocrisy and their willingness to break with the rule of law, and their own close minded dualism, the movie turns him into an evil Sith instead of reasoning dissenter.

Similarly, Luke bucks the instructions that Obi-Wan and Yoda give him to kill Darth Vader and is able to bring out the good in Vader. But instead of opening up an opportunity to reveal the limits of Jedi humanism, Luke just reaffirms that everybody can change, or rather, anybody can convert to liberal humanism.

By offering us Vader’s death, the film also closes off the path to an alternative. By killing Darth Vader after his redemption, the series robs us of the potential for a post-Vader Anakin, a figure who has seen the benefits and flaws of both the Republic and the Empire and who could have proved a visionary figure instead of the guy who just throws the emperor over a balcony. Anakin’s experience with becoming-droid might have opened up opportunities to think outside of the lame duality that the film espouses. But there’s not room in the film for a half-man, half-machine hero because it would render the liberalism it champions meaningless.  

These limitations don’t just go for the bad guys. I am arguing that the liberal humanism that programs the film limits the heroes too. All of their ideals fall under the liberal humanist rubric. From Padmè and Leia’s single-minded republicanism, the Jedi light dark binary, and the implicit free-market agitation of the smugglers, none of the heroes express what it means to be human; they only express what it means to be liberal and what it means to be not-droid.

C-3PO Battle Droid

However, the film makes room for not one but two fully humanized droids in the film, and these droids’ very droid-ness allows them an emancipation that the human characters are denied. 

First of all, R2-D2 and C3PO for all practical purposes are indistinguishable from the human characters. R2-D2 displays the same level of heroism as Leia, Han, Chewy, and Luke. Like 3PO, we would be feel as if R2 had lost his humanity if he were reprogrammed out of his very individualistic personality. C-3PO’s own human anxiety is meant to reflect the emotional tension that the human audience is supposed to be experiencing as well as the desire for internal and external consistency mentioned at the outset. And it bears mentioning that he is the first to utter the expression: “I have a bad feeling about this.”

Of course, you wouldn’t know this by the way they’re treated at bars. Any time a bartender refuses to serve their kind, it seems like the segue into a punchline. The droid discrimination no doubt has to do with the fact that even lowly bartenders hold an anxious anti-droid humanism, fully aware that acknowledging the humanity of a droid by serving them would threaten their own sense of humanity. But there can be no joke because their is no offense. The droids always comply, never asserting a desire for that inclusive liberal humanism. Their desires do not fall along the liberal/totalitarian framework that characters like Anakin, Luke, and Tatooinian bartenders do.

Though both droids exhibit an affectionate loyalty to their rebel companions, they are not bound by any codes of loyalty. Neither droid is considered a traitor or ever held accountable even though both find themselves on the other side of the fight in multiple situations. Neither do the droids accuse anyone of enslaving them since they have no strict Enlightenment codes of slavery and liberation. These droids occupy a place of identity that falls outside of the strict liberal/totalitarian political loyalties and categorization.

Most importantly, neither R2 or 3PO have to fear becoming droid. They already are droid, and yet not infiltrated to the core of their selves by some hypnotic totalitarian control.

This is not to say that we should emulate droids. But it is to say that we should always be on the lookout for characters whose eccentricities offer us a way out of our confined political categories. We should look to the disruptive or the contradictory figures who give us a different position from which to perceive the political environment, especially in the U.S. where a two party system disciplines Democratic and Republican voters, making every election cycle a re-cycle of the exact same categorizations of political good and evil.

We should avoid a politics that draws such clear and exclusive lines. It’s the same as the logic of the heroic-adventure genre that venerates a character whose every action fulfills the qualities of a type and who exhibits no contradiction. These heroes are more droid than droids. They only act according to their programming and we should avoid them. They are the anti-gun liberal droid; the anti-tax conservative droid; the Tea Party-bashing progressive droid, and the anti-union, working-class Republican droid. These are not the droids you’re looking for.

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Interview: Alex Gourevitch on Thomas Paine

Until I create a new blog that focuses on my academic interests, this blog will have to serve as both a Freudian-leftist parenting blog about ideology in Pixar and Dreamworks movies, and a grad student blog about property, radical democracy, and literature in early America.

Here is a post from a remarkable blog of Early Americanists called “The Junto” on Thomas Paine’s prescient, if somewhat underdeveloped, conceptions of property and wealth distribution. You might see a little bit of Rousseau in here where Paine attributes inequality to property ownership.

The Junto

Alex Gourevitch is an assistant professor of political science at Brown University. At this summer’s SHEAR conference in Philadelphia, he presented (without reading! It’s still a novelty to us historians!) a paper called “Paine and Property: Radicalism and Anti-Radicalism in Property-Owning Democracy”. In today’s interview, he returns to those themes for The Junto.

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Capitalism and Slavery

See Gandin talk about the ways capitalism traverses psychology!

Corey Robin

I’ve mentioned Greg Grandin’s book Empire of Necessity on this blog before. It’s basically the true story—and more!—behind Melville’s Benito Cereno, which if you haven’t read, you should read right away. And then read Greg’s book. In any event, Alex Gourevitch has a wonderful interview with Greg up today at Jacobin. It’s got all sorts of gems in it, but I thought readers here would be especially interested in this:

Scholars have long examined the ways in which slavery underwrites capitalism. I thought this story, though, allowed attention to slavery’s role in shaping not so much the social or financial dimensions of capitalism but its psychic and imaginative ones.

Capitalism is, among other things, a massive process of ego formation, the creation of modern selves, the illusion of individual autonomy, the cultivation of distinction and preference, the idea that individuals had their own moral conscience, based on individual…

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Freud and Kanye West haunt the Sunday Review

An article in the New York Times Sunday Review hails an enlightening discovery about why we are so attached to our phones, or more broadly why we try to keep ourselves busy. It’s because we don’t like to be alone with our own thoughts; we’re not good at facing the bad stuff in our lives. 

One of the the central claims of this blog is that Freudian psychoanalysis is so pervasive in our Western culture that we are not even conscious of it. Sometimes it shows up it less obvious ways than in it would in, say, a Hitchcock film. But sometimes in a New York Times piece about a forthcoming article in Science, you get something like this: 

“Suppressing negative feelings only gives them more power, she said, leading to intrusive thoughts, which makes people get even busier to keep them at bay. The constant cognitive strain of evading emotions underlies a range of psychological troubles such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, depression and panic attacks, not to mention a range of addictions.”

You don’t have to read all the Case Histories to recognize that this is a paraphrase of one of psychoanalysis’s central tenets. It is true that Psychology as a discipline has moved beyond the psychoanalytic treatment, and Neuroscience is ascendent when it comes to looking for the origins of psychological problems, but the question of just how fundamentally removed we are from the discoveries of Sigmund Freud is a question worth exploring, especially considering just how much scientific communities dismiss him. 

We might also consider that Freud regarded his discoveries as nothing fundamentally new. He once credited the discovery of the unconscious to the poets. Art does have a way of anticipating scientific discoveries, and the ideas in the Times article have also been beat to the punch by none other than rap music’s own resident neurotic, Kanye West.

New York Times:

‘“Idle mental processing encourages creativity and solutions because imagining your problem when you aren’t in it is not the same as reality,” said Jonathan Smallwood, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of York, in England. “Using your imagination means you are in fact rethinking the problem in a novel way.”’

Kanye West fr. “Power”

“I just needed time alone, with my own thoughts

Got treasures in my mind but couldn’t open up my own vault

My child-like creativity, purity and honesty is honestly being crowded by these grown thoughts”

To my mind, Yeezy is nothing short of a prophet in his understanding of culture and society, but he might have a hard time with the treatment these researchers prescribe:

“To get rid of the emotional static, experts advise not using first-person pronouns when thinking about troubling events in your life.” 

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The Family-Friendly Gay Agenda in “Frozen”


If you’ve ever been to a neighborhood-wide July 4th celebration, like I did this summer, and seen a group of rambunctious six year old boys stop rough-housing on top of a pile of sand and sing “Let It Go” in unison as it blares on the loudspeaker, you might be able to get the beginnings of a glimpse into how powerfully Disney’s Frozen subverts gender norms. Another way you might gauge this effect is by reading the frozen-hearted fundamentalists who claim that the movie is just propaganda for the gay-agenda. As hateful as these critiques are, perhaps we should learn to be slow to dismiss them. For starters, we can think of it as a certain progress that the religious right has moved on from attacking “sorcery” like they did in Harry Potter. Sorcery is just a trope; identifying a gay agenda in a film requires analysis. We can work with that!

It would be a shame if liberals denied the movies queer themes. We should not revert to the “oh, it’s just a movie; there’s no political agenda here” rallying cry to respond to hateful critics. When we do that, we may think that we are advocating a politics-free viewing of the film, but that position itself is a political one. We can’t deny that Frozen sends a clear message by rejecting Disney’s conservative, oftentimes medieval, representation of female characters, but it’s more than that. Frozen blurs the lines of gender norms more than any other Disney movie, something we should embrace because it teaches our girls and boys how to love more purely.

Gay in Frozen
Let’s face facts: there is a lot of gay in this movie. The starkest example is also the most hidden, but if you look closely when the store owner, who gives Kristoff a lesson in supply and demand, points to his family in the sauna, we get a quick glimpse of four kids and… a husband. There is no indication that this is a closeted homosexuality despite the family’s appearance behind the closed door of a sauna. And the fact that his business seems to thrive suggests that no one has opened up a pro-family rights general store for the bigoted customers. There is not a movie being a just a movie. This is a kids movie that has actual gay people in it.

And take Olaf, the effeminate, show tunes singing, martini-on-the-beach-sipping snowman. You don’t have to be a squirmy ol’ conservative to realize that Olaf is virtually gay. And we should not offer a moderate-liberal apology that Olaf is just a harmless, asexual, charming snowman, or worse that he serves no purpose in the film. Just because Olaf doesn’t have a zucchini for a penis doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have desire, and how we direct our desire is how we either fit or do not fit into gender norms.

A normalized male in Western society directs his desire toward a female. The things that a male does to express these desires are normalized too. Sports, suits and ties, weightlifting, big trucks are all choices meant to signal to others that men are directing their desire toward women in a way that society sanctions. However, when a male wears dresses, listens to disco, likes pink, or, say, sings songs from a princess movie, the normalized parents often worry that their son may be signaling that he is pointing his desire askew. There is nothing unnatural about boys liking princess movies, or men liking show tunes, but our social conditioning ensures that these behaviors are categorized as unnatural, perverse (literally, “facing the wrong way”) because they imply that a male may be directing sexual desire to another male (“facing the wrong way”).

Olaf’s love of summer strikes us a desire that is totally unnatural to a snowman; his desires are askew; his inner wiring is off. But what Olaf’s storyline eventually shows us is that his desire only seems unnatural because society hasn’t created a space to let him be who he wants to be. When Elsa whips up his own little snowcloud, she provides a place for him to be himself and express his desires. This isn’t just Elsa or Disney trying to avoid Frosty the Snowman’s bleak fate; by providing a place for him, Elsa has extended the continuum of socially acceptable desires, broadened the space for him to direct his desires acceptably.

Elsa’s kingdom – and the film’s unapologetic message – is taken up with this kind of progress, or rather moving on from the past. All of the songs that Anna and Elsa sing are about leaving the past behind (“Say goodbye to the pain of the past.” “I’m never going back; the past is in the past”). Anna’s conflict signals Disney’s self-conscious rejection of past Disney princess movies that idealize instantaneous, romantic, heterosexual love that can only end up in marriage. The fact that this princess movie doesn’t end in a hetero marriage is probably scandalous enough to the medieval sentiments of religious fanatics, but this film wants to dissolve a limited past and extend the narrow bounds of what a Disney-style love story can be.

Anna’s act of true love, in which she sacrifices herself to save her sister’s life, might tempt us to think that there is a conservative-friendly family-values message. The act certainly affirms a family values but not in the way that pleases both liberals and conservatives. Anna’s act expresses a courageous love that embraces difference in the face of those who would vilify it. True it’s her sister, but the love she expresses goes far beyond the love their parents expressed. True love is the kind that accepts what was formerly shamed.

The death of Anna and Elsa’s parents signifies another past that the film leaves behind – a past that forced the parents to psychologically abuse their children. By closing off contact between these two sisters, the parents leave Anna starved for affection and vulnerable to a man like Hans with his vulpine ability to detect weakness. Yet, as much damage as the parents inflict, the fact remains that they inflict this damage out of a misguided love. They separate Anna in order to protect her from Elsa’s difference.

We should note that Elsa’s snow-powers represent a difference, or in a very general sense queerness. In the same way that the X-Men stories use the characters’ extraordinary powers to allegorize difference (and a number of other Disney movies), we should not take her powers as a talent in itself but the object of fear. The characters in the film deal with her iciness like various people deal with homophobia. Hans and Weselton fear her powers and direct murderous rage toward her. Her parents closer her off from her sister, fearing not just that she will hurt Anna, but that she might even infect her. This queer-phobia even acts on Elsa internally. Her parents teacher her to “conceal, don’t feel,” in such a way that Elsa directs fear and shame inwardly toward an element of her person that she knows is part of the core of her identity. This external repression creates a storm both literally and figuratively inside Elsa, so that Elsa’s experiences resemble those who identify as queer feel. Her relationship with her parents is one that resembles our society’s own past in which parents of queer children felt pressure to mix love with shame.

It’s the cathartic release of this repression and final acceptance of her queer self that make the song “Let It Go” so powerful:

Conceal, don’t feel; don’t let them know.
Well, now they know
Let it go, let it go
Can’t hold it back anymore
Let it go, let it go
Turn away and slam the door.

There is no indication that Elsa is or is not specifically a lesbian, but the door she slams behind her is the closet door behind which she has learned to fear and loathe herself. Anna’s song “Love is an Open Door” uses the door as a metaphor as a way to plead that society stop forcing people into the repression of the closet because she wants to love someone even if they’re different. While their parents see the norm-construction that forces her daughter into the closet as an act of love, the film sees it as a distortion of true love. This shame-laden love is the real perversion.

As cathartic as it is, Elsa still rejects herself by keeping herself ice-olated in her ice castle. The film’s message isn’t complete until Elsa can integrate back into society. Anna is enacting a certain Freudian logic by trying to persuade Elsa to balance the impulses to repress and unleash the storm inside so that she can integrate and function in society. And though she’s learned to sublimate her repressed desire to be herself into beautiful art and architecture, her development isn’t complete until she allows society to accept her, ice-powers and all.

Her initial fear about going back lies in the fact that she expects society to continue to reject her even as she’s learned to accept herself. And when self-interested wolves like Hans and Weselton, who aim profit off of vilifying her difference, are in charge, she is. There is something important here. This film’s denouement relies on the assumption that society will accept difference if the ones in charge will let them. The public doesn’t seem as scandalized by Elsa as those in power do, and in a sense, they are just waiting for those in charge to legalize queerness. But it assumes that the social norm is an acceptance of difference. In a way, this film goes beyond Freud, who considered homosexuality a diversion from normal sexuality. But in another way, the film shows that the change happens at the top, a fact that ultimately makes this movie very liberal, but very un-radical.

Frozen does not present anything new to our political conscious. It is rather a reflection of a progress that has already happened. The broad population consists of a majority of people who either support gay marriage and general queerness or at least remain indifferent enough to not consider it harmful. On the other hand our stagnant politics still privileges and magnifies the minority voices that vilify queerness. It’s in this way that we should not hesitate to highlight the political conscious of these Disney films, if for no other reason than the politics are just not that threatening.
Part II: Reactionary Political Economy in Frozen

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The Savagery of Jerry Cruncher

In Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, a working-class fellow by the name of Jerry Cruncher is able to save the day through the knowledge he gains during his seedy side job as a “resurrection man.” Robbing graves is something of an unseemly and disreputable business, looked down upon by society, even if you do it to feed your family, as Jerry does.

But if Jerry loves his family enough to take such risks, you wouldn’t know it by the way he treats his wife, constantly accusing her of interceding on behalf of his failure:

“‘Now, I tell you where it is!’ said Mr. Cruncher to his wife, on entering. ‘If, as a honest tradesman, my wenturs goes wrong to-night, I shall make sure that you’ve been praying agin me, and I shall work you for it the same as if I seen you do it.’”


“‘Well, then; don’t meditate nothing. You might as well flop as meditate. You may as well go agin me one way as another. Drop it altogether.’”


“He devoted himself during the remainder of the evening to keeping a most vigilant watch on Mrs. Cruncher, and sullenly holding her in conversation that she might be prevented from meditating any petitions to his disadvantage.With this view, he urged his son to hold her in conversation also, and led the unfortunate woman a hard life by dwelling on any causes of complaint he could bring against her, rather than he would leave her for a moment to her own reflections.”

When he returns home empty handed, as he bangs her head against the headboard he says,

“‘I told you I would,’ said Mr. Cruncher, ‘and I did.’

‘Jerry, Jerry, Jerry!’ his wife implored.

‘You oppose yourself to the profit of the business,’ said Jerry, ‘and me and my partners suffer. You was to honour and obey; why the devil don’t you?’

‘I try to be a good wife, Jerry,’ the poor woman protested, with tears.

‘Is it being a good wife to oppose your husband’s business? Is it honouring your husband to dishonour his business? Is it obeying your husband to disobey him on the wital subject of his business?’”
It’s not hard to conclude that Jerry’s lack of education and sophistication are responsible for confusing faith and superstition. But, as usual, Freud might have something to say about it. In his Totem and Taboo, Freud comments on the superstitions of tribal groups, and one characteristic reminds us of Jerry and the distrust he places in his wife when he is out “fishing.”

“When the men of a savage tribe have gone out to hunt, to catch fish, to wage war, to collect precious plant materials, their wives at home remain subjected to numerous oppressive restrictions, to which the savages themselves attribute a sympathetic effect on the success of the expedition, and one that even remains effective over long distances.” p99

It is unlikely that Jerry practices some old misogynist superstition carried over from tribal days. If we follow Freud a little more we might see that this superstition hides its origin; it’s like a symptom that masks the real disease. Again Freud:

“But one does not have to be terribly astute to guess that the factor which remains effective over long distances is nothing but thinking about home, a longing for the absent men, and that behind those disguises there lurks the sound psychological insight that the men will only do their best if they are entirely at ease concerning the whereabouts of their unsupervised wives.” p100

Jerry Cruncher is certainly distrustful of his unsupervised wife, and if we wanted to jump to a misogynist interpretation, we might interpret Jerry’s suspicion as proof that his wife has cheated on him in the past. However, an extend account of Jerry’s circumstances might produce a more holistic view. Jerry lives in poverty, has no stable job, and likely goes for stretches during which he has no legitimate income. He lives insecurely. Add to that the fact that his illegitimate side job magnifies this insecurity, threatening his entire livelihood and his family.

The fact that he feels insecure when he leaves the house to rob graves shouldn’t make us jump to the conclusion that he suspects his wife of “praying agin” him, or cheating on him. That he projects this insecurity on his poor wife should be treated as a symptom of a larger ailment. In a life of such insecurity, the one secure thing he can have is the luxury of being dominant over his wife, however savagely.


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