According to Osborn, the key benefit of such a move is that it opens up for feminist consciousness the tragic tropes in the novels she reads. In two of the novels, women must die in order to preserve cultural norms and values. But these novels also problematize those deaths, which enables Osborn to examine whether they also provide spaces for cultivating resistance to violence. For example, Osborn finds that the narrator of The Virgin Suicides is aware that the Lisbon sisters are placed in the role of scapegoats; however, because they remain “Other,” the larger system of sacrifice in which they are caught is not broken open. Even so, to the extent that the novel demonstrates self-conscious awareness of sacrifice, it moves into the realm of anti-tragedy.
In The Ice Storm, contagion and destruction increase resulting in “an excess of tragic signifiers” (22). In this way, The Ice Storm is beset by a kind of tragic overreach that also invites critical distance. As a consequence, Moody’s novel both challenges the sacrificial imperative and dismantles it when no promised restoration of peace in a tragic catharsis occurs.
With Revolutionary Road, the subversive potential of the suburban novel is realized. As a kind of “performance” of a novel, the narrative of Revolutionary Road stands apart from myth and “invites readers to share the interiority of those who have rejected” (23) sacrificial catharsis. Collectively, the three novels imagine the American Dream as tragic, caught in moments of sacrificial crisis, even as they also undermine the readers’ belief in the guilt of the scapegoat and its powers.
Osborn frames her discussion in light of Girard’s observation that, as she puts it, “modern democracy promotes competitive individualism, while simultaneously thwarting individual progress by instituting a permanent mass of rivals” (21). As these rivalries are manifest in the three novels, the American Dream is shown to be a catalyst for mimetic crisis. This observation results in the most intriguing feature of Osborn’s book: reflections on Jim Cullen’s The American Dream and Andrew Delbanco’s The Real American Dream. According to Osborn, these scholars describe in macrocosm an American Dream which, at the microcosmic level, is visible in the novels she examines (25). In doing so, Cullen and Delbanco strike Osborn as savvy interpreters of that Dream as tragedy. After all, scholars of ancient tragedy regularly insist that the narratives are not “timeless” stage-pieces divorced from history. To the contrary, they are, as Hugh Grady argues when describing ancient tragedy, “‘aesthetic incarnations of moments of history.’” Or, as Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood suggests, the narratives of Greek tragedy are “‘produced and understood through the deployment of perceptual filters shaped by the cultural assumptions of fifth-century Athens’” (25).
As fifth-century Athens goes, so goes twentieth-century America. Overlaying the filter of twentieth-century suburban life with the filter of mimetic theory and viewing the three novels in the wake of that deployment, Osborn identifies “keeping up with the Joneses” as a primary tragic mechanism driving the American Dream. Fueled by high levels of internal mediation supported by the cultural ideal of “equality,” the American Dream is manifest in acquisitive rivalries that portend mimetic crises. Citing Girard’s commentary on de Tocqueville in Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, Osborn points out that reductions in the class stratification enable greater investments in the dream of upward social mobility through which anyone can believe themselves capable of coming into full possession of the objects of their acquisitive desire (26-28). As products of this cultural milieu, the twentieth-century novels Osborn examines are subsequently shown in the book to be, of necessity, deeply invested in the Dream.
How essential is the American Dream to how sacrifice became endemic to the nation? For Osborn, Cullen’s and Delbanco’s scholarship confirm its necessity. Cullen’s study of the Puritans traces the American cultural DNA to a founding generation whose mania for self-improvement, overseen by God, is matched in intensity by the Puritans’ violent attacks on marginal members of their community (36). Delbanco traces the pattern forward as a new civic religion comes into existence and reaches full form in the tragedy of the American Civil War. During the war, in a classic ritual of cleansing, the nation “expelled the taint of slavery, symbolized in the quasi-divine figure of Abraham Lincoln” (39). Indeed, as Osborn highlights Delbanco’s claims, she shows that he sees Lincoln as the “high priest of cathartic ritual” who also became a martyr around whose body the locus of the American Dream was definitively transferred from the private and religious (hospitals and churches) to the state (40). The Prosperity Gospel is a key outcome of this transition when, in the post-Civil War era and subsequently in the twentieth century, the acquisition of wealth becomes the primary sign of and means to salvation. In the novels Osborn examines, individuals who conform in ways described by Delbanco establish preconditions for crisis. Frantic in their quest to consume and increasingly undifferentiated from each other in pursuit of happiness, they become fodder for tragedy. But, as already noted, Osborn also is at pains to prove in her book that anti-tragic motifs in the novels point to alternatives to sacrifice.
I first read Carly Osborn’s book shortly after it was published. Rereading it now, I am taken aback by how my reaction to it has changed in the wake of fifteen months of a pandemic as well as by the events of January 6, 2021. That the twentieth-century novels about which Osborn writes are “aesthetic incarnations of moments of history’” I do not deny. But that they also feature anti-tragic motifs capable of undermining readers’ belief in the guilt of the scapegoat and its cathartic powers in a way that might actually galvanize transformation within that same culture in the twenty-first century seems more doubtful than I thought possible a year ago. The sacrificial DNA that Cullen and Delbanco detect in the American Dream seems even stronger than it was in the twentieth-century suburbia on which Osborn focuses. Indeed, it was seen in more robust form on January 6 than at any time since the Civil War. Christian nationalism was on prominent display that day. Crosses adorned clothing, posters, and flags. Signs proclaimed “Jesus Saves,” “God, Guns, and Trump,” and “Faith, Family, Freedom.” Men who breached the Senate Chamber offered prayers thanking God for “allowing the USA to be reborn.” Fifty-two percent of Americans, predominantly in the Midwest and South, identify with Christian nationalism, and its influence is gaining. Scholars of American religion see a trend persisting and even growing in influence that Delbanco thought ended with the Civil War: the alignment of sacrificial religion with the state. This religion is not deployed in civic form, as Delbanco has described; rather, as before the Civil War and now clearly visible again in the insurrection, this religion appears with a full complement of Christian symbolism and ritual. And it is summoned, as it was in Lincoln’s day, to justify white supremacy as a divine mandate.
The virulent intersections of race, class, and gender in Christian nationalism, on full display January 6, emphasize the need for analyses of race, class, and gender that Osborn leaves to other scholars of the American Dream (2). What is in the American DNA, thanks to the construct of that Dream, melds in fiercely sacrificial form all three. A key example that calls for analyses informed by mimetic theory is the effort in multiple states to ban the teaching of “critical race theory.” Is that move an effort to hide from view the persistence of a sacrificial DNA at the heart of the American Dream? Scholars who study the legacy of white supremacy after Federal troops left the South in 1877 track a trajectory of violence through lynchings (to which sexual depravity and gendered dynamics of race are central), the Black Codes that replaced slavery with forced labor and expanded under Jim Crow, and the criminal justice system of the twentieth century which disproportionately incarcerates poor people of color and reserves death row almost exclusively for people of color (see resources from the National Memorial for Peace and Justice). When public school teachers label that trajectory “systemic racism,” the outcry against them, exemplified by legislation promoted by critics of critical race theory, aims to silence teachers by making them fear for their livelihoods if they discuss race in the classroom. Mimetic theory can and should be brought to bear on that threat, illuminating its depths. When teachers’ voices are sacrificed, the American Dream as a sacrificial construct also is rendered invisible, leaving it to range functionally intact and unchecked across America.
Even though Osborn’s analysis needs to be supplemented by analyses that hold together multiple currents of sacrifice, gender-sensitive analyses are ever more critical to understanding how these currents run through the American Dream. The past year has exacted a particularly high cost from women. The man who killed Asian women working at massage parlors in Atlanta, blaming them for his “sex addiction,” combined the toxic features of evangelical Christianity with anti-Asia bigotry. He had learned in church that women are responsible for his lust, and his hostility to Asians had been stoked by a COVID-exacerbated white supremacist ideology. The differential impact of COVID on women has, by every economic marker available, set women’s advancement in the workplace back by at least a decade and left thousands of children, who depend primarily on mothers for care and economic support, falling behind their peers in education as well as in their mental and physical health. The breakdown of the childcare system during COVID has strengthened sacrificial currents of life everywhere, including the suburbs.
Focusing on “the suburban tragic” in three 20th-century American novels, Osborn demonstrates that “keeping up with the Joneses” is a catalyst for catastrophe. Arguing further that these novels’ self-conscious engagement with tragic tropes works to anti-tragic effect, Osborne raises disturbing questions about the numbing conformity of suburbia even as she places female scapegoats at the heart of the suburbs’ sacrificial ethos. That they also play a role in the potential subversion of that ethos seems a less compelling claim today than it did even a year ago when I first read Osborn’s book. Perhaps because of that gap between hope and reality, Osborn’s bold and provocative reading, exposing troubling paradoxes in the American Dream, actually has become an even more urgent read in 2021.
An excellent book provokes reflection from its readers that takes them from its pages into their own lives and times, there to reconsider their circumstances, and not just for a moment. Having elicited my sustained engagement with its claims, with admiration and appreciation, I conclude: Tragic Novels, René Girard, and the American Dream is an excellent book.