“Life, about change”: symbolism and money in Ali Smith’s Hotel World’

People go past. They don’t see Else, or decide not to.
Ali Smith, Hotel World, p. 39.

From ‘[t]wo ten pence pieces’ and ‘a handful of coppers’ to ‘the five pound note’, Ali Smith’s Hotel World (2001) is a novel that is strewn with money; indeed, the language of ‘capital, transaction, and accumulation’ that pervades every interaction between her characters reflects the contemporary status of capitalism as the dominant world order.[i] It is a world order that was anticipated by Francis Fukuyama who, after witnessing the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, proclaimed that the ‘end of history’ was at hand:

‘the [twentieth] century that began full of self-confidence in the ultimate triumph of Western liberal democracy seems at its close to be returning full circle to where it started: not to an “end of ideology” or a convergence between capitalism and socialism, as earlier predicted, but to an unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism’.[ii]

Unlike Fukuyama, who revels in the ‘ultimate triumph of Western liberal democracy’, Smith rejects capitalism as an inherently oppressive system that repeatedly disenfranchises the poor. Her criticism echoes Jacques Derrida’s own disavowal of contemporary capitalism in Specters of Marx (1994):

‘it must be cried out, at a time when some have the audacity to neo-evangelize in the name of the ideal of a liberal democracy […] never have violence, inequality, exclusion, famine, and thus economic oppression affected as many human beings in the history of the earth and of humanity’.[iii]

Specters presents a theory of ethics that demands a ‘certain responsibility and answerability’ from society in response to the injustices of capitalism; in Hotel World, Smith repeats this demand.[iv] Indeed, the novel begins with a testimony from the ghost of Sara Wilby, who returns from beyond the grave with an urgent ‘message for you’ (‘[y]ou. Yes, you. It’s you I’m talking to’), insisting that the reader pay attention and ‘[l]isten’ (pp. 30-31). As Smith exposes the violence of a system that is built on the exploitation of labour, the reader, in turn, is asked to bear witness to the harsh reality of these injustices.

Yet if, as Esther Peeren argues, the ‘ghostly system of capitalist production […] renders labor and its value invisible’ by ‘mak[ing] workers converge with their labor’, then how can it be possible to bear witness to the ‘invisible’ iniquity and oppression of a ‘ghostly’ system?[v] For example, the current alarming rise in homelessness is a result of the inequalities inherent within capitalism, a connection that Smith makes explicit in the novel through the headlines on the newspaper pages that Else, a homeless girl, wraps around her feet for extra insulation; the headlines read, ‘BRITAIN MASSIVELY MORE UNEQUAL THAN 20 YEARS AGO. ONE IN FIVE PEOPLE LIVES BELOW BREADLINE’ (p. 45). As Peeren identifies, however, the victims of these social injustices often ‘resemble dispossessed ghosts in that they are ignored and considered expendable’; indeed, passers-by ignore Else on the street, not seeing her, or ‘decid[ing] not to’, as she is made invisible by the dispossessing system of capitalism that marginalises her suffering (p. 39).[vi] How, then, does one act ethically and bear witness to the spectral?

Using Derrida’s concept of conjuration as a theoretical framework, I argue that Smith finds the answer to this paradox of bearing witness to the spectral through money; she commodifies the body and pathologizes money through the abject in order to conjure the exploitation of labour under capitalism. Thus, Smith ultimately causes the ‘magical spell’ of capitalism ‘to be undone and the reality of exploitation to be revealed’.[vii]

In Hotel World, Smith converges the human working body with the corporate ‘body’ of the Global Hotel. Whilst remembering the events surrounding her death, Sara’s ghost states that she had been working as a maid on the top floor of the hotel, which:

‘used to be the servants’ quarters two hundred years ago when the house had servants in it, and after that the house was a brothel and up there was where the cheap girls […] were put to sell their wares (p. 6).

Through the history of the corporate hotel, Smith creates a continuity of human labour that demonstrates how the worker’s body has been commodified under capitalism. It is from this top floor of the hotel that Sara then falls to her death in the dumb waiter. The reoccurring image of the long, vertical shaft of the dumb waiter is repeatedly associated with the human body: Penny, a guest, is ‘appalled’ by the dark ‘nothing’ of the shaft that ‘[runs] the length’ of the hotel ‘like a spine’ (p. 145) ; Else imagines a wall ‘made of phlegm’ inside her that ‘goes from her abdomen to her throat’ and mirrors the ‘hotel wall’ against which she rests her back (p. 40); Lise, the receptionist who worked at the Global Hotel before her illness, describes her bodily illness as a fall, ‘as if she had been upended over the wall of a well’ and ‘had been falling in the same monotonous nothing way for weeks’ (p. 84). By conflating the corporate ‘body’ of the hotel with the human body, Smith then pathologizes capitalism, specifically through money.

The material body of money, as Derrida asserts, provides the means through which to reify the abstract system of capitalism; it conjures the specter. Derrida defines the act of conjuration as that which ‘makes come’ what ‘is not there at the present moment of the appeal’.[viii] To conjure, then, is to make visible that which was previously there but invisible. Money, described by Derrida as the ‘[a]pparition of the bodiless body’ of capitalism, can therefore be understood as fulfilling this role of conjuration; its material form provides a ‘body’ for the otherwise ‘bodiless body’ of capitalism to manifest itself. Thus, money in its material form reifies the specter of capitalism, conjuring what was abstract and invisible into a real and visible form.

In Hotel World, Smith pathologizes capitalism by constructing money as waste. She continuously divests coins of their monetary value: a copper coin ‘tastes like meat gone off’ (p. 38); a homeless woman’s coins are ‘piled like a mistake, like rubbish’ by her side (p. 67); and the hotel receptionist carries a ‘wastepaper basket full of small change’ (p. 113). More specifically, money is routinely compared to bodily waste. After putting some coins into her mouth and spitting them back out, Else describes them as looking like ‘shining sick’; similarly, the taste of the catarrh that she frequently coughs up also reminds her of the ‘taste of money’, ‘always lurking at the back of her throat’ (pp. 37-38). As forms of bodily waste (‘sick’, ‘catarrh’), money is abjected, cast off and purged by the human body. In her essay, Powers of Horror (1980), Julia Kristeva discusses the abject, and the state of abjection. She describes the ‘spasms and vomiting’, the ‘repugnance’ and ‘the retching’ that turn her away from ‘body fluids’, ‘defilement’, and ‘shit’, all of which she categorises as the abject; it is ‘not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection’, Kristeva states, ‘but what disturbs identity, system, order’.[ix] By constructing money as bodily waste to be purged and rejected by the human body, Smith pathologizes capitalism through the abject. She suggests that capitalism is not an abstract or spectral economic system, but something violent and threatening that ‘disturbs’ by dispossessing the poor and the vulnerable through systemic oppression.

The language of money that structures every aspect of the novel reflects the contemporary culture of consumerism and commodification. As Catherine Belsey identifies, however, there is one aspect of the human experience that resists commodification:

‘[t]o the degree that [the] postmodern condition implies an unbridled consumerism, the cultural logic of late capitalism, pleasure for cash and a product to gratify every possible impulse – if not, indeed, to construct the impulse in the first place – love is a value that remains beyond the market.[x]

For Smith, the human emotion of love serves as an antidote to the violence of capitalism. Indeed, when Sara’s ghost proclaims that ‘[l]ife’ is ‘about change’, change refers to money, but also recognises the potential for a transformation that, for Smith, is motivated by human love that ‘cannot be bought’.[xi] Whilst sat begging for money outside the Global Hotel, Else remembers putting a coin into her mouth with a past boyfriend, musing that:

the taste was metal. After that when Ade had kissed her he tasted of metal too. He passed a ten pence piece into her mouth, in past her teeth and off his tongue, flat on to her tongue like a communion wafer (p. 37).

For Else, the taste of the coin now reminds her of the man she once loved, who had ‘kissed her’ and ‘tasted of metal too’. Smith reinscribes the coin with a symbolic value that is not monetary, as suggested by its comparison to a ‘communion wafer’. A similar reinscription of the value of money also occurs when Clare, Sara’s sister, meets Duncan, the only person who witnessed Sara’s death in the Global Hotel. While recounting Sara’s death, Duncan tells Clare that Sara had ‘bet him a fiver she could get into the lift’; now unable to pay his debt to Sara, Duncan gives Clare the fiver instead (p. 204). Clare accepts the money and addresses Sara in her interior monologue, stating, ‘I put the five pounds in the cabinet too I won’t ever spend it it is yours […] I will keep it for you it is worth more than anything’ (pp. 215-216). By keeping the five-pound note ‘flattened […] out between two books’ in her cabinet, Clare removes the note from being circulated again, and imbues it with non-monetary value as a memorial for her dead sister (p. 216). Smith suggests that love, purer than the capitalist desire for consumerism and commodification, is a transformative agent that reinscribes monetary value with a symbolic value that is far deeper, more intimate and, ultimately, more human.

In her foreword to Ali Smith: Contemporary Critical Perspectives (2013), Marina Warner states that Smith’s fiction ‘quests’ to ‘reinvigorate the important things that matter to life, grappling with the meaning of love and loss without shying away’.[xii] In Hotel World, Smith criticises the contemporary culture of capitalism and commodification, under which the vulnerable are regularly disenfranchised. By amplifying these marginalised voices, Smith asks the reader to bear witness to the systemic injustices of capitalism; indeed, she asks the reader to hope for better by prioritising the ‘important things that matter to life’, such as love and compassion. When Sara’s ghost returns from beyond the grave, she returns with a message for everyone, from ‘the people in the cinema queue’ to the ‘check-out girls’ at the supermarket, and to the reader:

‘[h]ere’s the story.
Remember you must live.
Remember you most love.
Remainder you mist leaf.’

Cover Image:
Front Cover of Penguin’s 2002 edition of the novel. See Ali Smith, Hotel World (London: Penguin, 2002).

[i] Ali Smith, Hotel World (London: Penguin Books, 2002). All further references to this novel are to this edition, and page numbers are given in parentheses in the body of the post.

[ii] Francis Fukuyama, ‘The End of History?’, The National Interest, 16 (1989), 3-18 (p. 1).

[iii] Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International, trans. Peggy Kamuf (London: Routledge, 1994), p. 85. From this point onwards, I will give the title in shorthand, thus referring to Specters of Marx as merely Specters.

[iv] María del Pilar Blanco and Esther Peeren, ‘The Spectral Turn/Introduction’, in The Spectralities Reader: Ghosts and Haunting in Contemporary Cultural Theory, eds. by María del Pilar Blanco and Esther Peeren (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), pp. 31-36 (p. 33).

[v] Esther Peeren, The Spectral Metaphor: Living Ghosts and the Agency of Invisibility (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), p. 21.

[vi] Ibid, p. 14.

[vii] Ibid, p. 21.

[viii] Derrida, Specters, p. 41, emphasis in original.

[ix] Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. by Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), pp. 2-3.

[x] Catherine Belsey, Desire: Love Stories in Western Culture (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), p. 72.

[xi] Ibid, p. 72.

[xii] Marina Warner, ‘Foreword’, in Ali Smith: Contemporary Critical Perspectives, ed. by Monica Germana, and Emily Horton (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), pp. viii-ix (p. ix).

Written by Akancha Gurung.
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.


The Relationship between Clothing and identity in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

‘Everything except the wings around my face is red: the colour of blood, which defines us.’
-Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale, p.18.

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) demonstrates how clothing can be used to enforce rigid, fixed identities as the government of Gilead attempts to control the population in the dystopian novel. It establishes the limitations of clothing and how it can be used as a method of containment and repression. The protagonist Offred, along with other women in the text, are required to wear certain clothes that reflect their role and status in society.

The colour of clothing is used to differentiate between women and signify their role in society. Offred wears ‘red shoes, flat-heeled to save the spine’ and ‘red gloves’ (Handmaid’s, p. 18). She also mentions how ‘everything except the wings around my face is red: the colour of blood, which defines us’ (Handmaid’s, p. 18). Offred’s role in society is to provide children for the Commanders and their Wives; by dressing the Handmaids in red it defines them by their specific roles. Red, the colour of blood, is associated with menstruation and so their internal use is being reflected by the clothing. Red can also signify passion and lust, which is ironic due to these feelings being taken away from the Handmaids. The colour can be associated with an over-powering force, and here it also links to both life and death. There is also a focus on practicality, and not pleasure, as the shoes are designed to protect the spine which is important for child birth. The wings are significant as they are the only item of clothing that is white. White is a neutral colour which represents how their faces are separated from the body, suggesting they are not important unlike their bodies. They also provide a limited vision thus showing how their clothes are used as a restraint and to gain control. Offred describes herself as ‘a distorted shadow’ (Handmaid’s, p. 19) which demonstrates how her identity has been distorted and manipulated to fit the new regime. Offred’s walking partner, Ofglen, is described as ‘a shape, red with white wings around the face, a shape like mine, a nondescript woman […] looking down the white tunnels of cloth that enclose us’ (Handmaid’s pp. 28-29). Here, Offred feels that they have been reduced to shapes, rather than people, which demonstrates the degrading powers of clothing. Cynthia G. Kuhn suggests that ‘the coding of gender is an ongoing concern in Atwood’s writing, especially as it results in the marginalization of women, and dress plays a significant role in illuminating such displacement.’ (2) Colour reduces women’s status in Gilead, which links to Kuhn’s discussion. They are specifically segregated from the higher positions of men. Therefore, clothing and colour can be used to maintain control over the women in Gilead.

Although Gilead uses clothing to control, it can also signify small glimpses of a subverted freedom. An example is when the Commander takes Offred to Jezebels. Here, the women appear to have freedom over their clothes. They are bright, colourful and a clear contrast to the dresses of the Handmaids and Marthas. Yet, it represents an inverted freedom as all the clothes cover a limited amount of skin and are a mismatch of lingerie and costumes worn for male pleasure. Offred comments on her friend Moira’s outfit: ‘What is the significance of it here, why are rabbits supposed to be sexually attractive to men? How can this bedraggled costume appeal?’ (Handmaid’s, p. 251). Without anybody telling her, Offred assumes that the women dress to be sexually attractive to men. The repetition of questions implies Offred struggles to understand why it is necessary for them to be sexually appealing. Clothing still has limitations as it is worn for a specific purpose of appealing to men. Offred cannot decide if the women at Jezebels are happy:

‘At first glance there’s a cheerfulness to this scene. It’s like a masquerade party; they         are like oversized children, dressed up in togs they’ve rummaged from trunks. Is there      joy in this? There could be, but have they chosen it? You can’t tell by looking.’
(The Handmaid’s Tale, p. 247)

‘Masquerade party’ has associations with mystery and disguising identity. By describing them as children it suggests an innocence and child-like behaviour and that they are trying to be grown up or be people that they are not. These images of disguise and acting further supports how clothing is used to limit freedom in the text. Madonne Miner suggests ‘the “past” called up by the Commander, the past that brings delight into his voice, is one in which women are on display for men, and are dependent upon men.’ (3) This observation links to the subverted view of freedom present at Jezebels. The women are on display for the wealthier men of Gilead, and they rely on their lust and reluctance to let go of the past. The women at Jezebels may have more freedom than the Handmaids and Marthas, yet they are still required to follow the rules created by men. Clothing is used to control women and put them in specific roles, even when they have a small amount of freedom.

To conclude, in The Handmaid’s Tale, clothing is used to segregate and undermine women, forcing them into roles. New identities are created for the women and the clothes reinforce them, whilst stripping away their true identities as a method to gain control.

Featured image: https://www.bustle.com/p/is-the-handmaids-tale-season-2-based-on-the-book-the-show-has-used-up-most-of-its-source-material-8876101

(1)   Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (London: Vintage Classics, 2010)

(2)   Cynthia G. Kuhn, Self-fashioning in Margaret Atwood’s Fiction: Dress, Culture, and Identity (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2005), p. 22.

(3)   Madonne Miner, ‘”Trust Me”: Reading the Romance Plot in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale’, Twentieth Century Literature, 37.2 (1991), 148-168.

Written By Sophie Shepherd.
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.

Persecuting the Foreign ‘Other’ in Agatha Christie’s N or M?

‘Had he been blind up to now? That jovial florid face- the face of a “hearty Englishman”- was only a mask. Why had he not seen it all along for what it was- the face of a bad-tempered overbearing Prussian officer.’
-Agatha Christie, N or M?, p. 144.

Throughout Agatha Christie’s novel N or M?, characters that are demonstrated as belonging to different nationalities to Britain are clearly demarcated as figures of ‘Otherness’. Shown to be distinct from English nationality, these characters are treated with suspicion and distrust, alienated from society and treated as possible threats to British safety simply due to their position as foreign nationals. In doing so, Christie deploys racial tropes to create clear distinctions between the inherent goodness of the English in the face of opposing threatening nationalities during the Second World War.

This viewing of the foreign ‘Other’ with distrust and suspicion is clearly highlighted through the actions of Tommy and Tuppence Beresford in the narrative. When asked to investigate suspected foreign activity in the fictional town of Leahampton, the pair immediately begin to isolate and alienate suspects through a discourse fraught with ‘Othering’. Throughout the novel, the married couple repeatedly isolate people of suspicion due to their foreign nationalities; this is highlighted through their suspicions surrounding the Irish Mrs. Perenna. As Tuppence informs Tommy:

‘Yes. She’s Irish- as spotted by Mrs O’Rourke- won’t admit the fact. Has done a good deal of coming and going on the Continent. Changed her name to Perenna, came here and started this boarding- house. A splendid bit of camouflage, full of innocuous bores’.1

Through her character description of Mrs. Perenna, Tuppence clearly isolates her suspect with a motive; she becomes a figure of ‘Otherness’, colluded with the ‘continent’ and entirely removed from any notion of British identity. Mrs Perenna’s ability to ‘camouflage’ (p.57), which bears clear connotations of concealment and deceit, is coupled with her supposed reluctance to be labelled as Irish. In the process of changing of her name, as well as her subsequent disassociation from her Irish roots, Mrs Perenna becomes a potential suspect in the narrative purely due to her foreignness. This, in turn, comes to highlight the unease felt amongst the British people towards those of different nationalities during the Second World War.

Suspicions surrounding foreign activity are not, however, only confined to Mrs Perenna; rather, speculation throughout the text is also placed on Carl Von Deinim, a man believed to be a ‘refugee from Nazi persecution, given asylum and shelter by England’ (p.28). However, this presumed identity as a refugee immediately displaces Deinim as an outsider, forced out of his country and placed on the fringes of national identity by Nazi Germany due to his Jewish faith. Despite having been the victim of anti-Semitism and persecuted by his home nations government, Deinim still finds himself colluded in England with Germany. As Tuppence remarks, ‘This country’s at war. You’re a German…You can’t expect the mere man in the street – literally the man in the street – to distinguish between bad Germans and good Germans’ (p.30). Regardless of the clear differences between Deinim and the supporters of the Nazi regime, it becomes apparent that he will continue to be associated with the enemy purely due to his nationality. As a result of this, Deinim is treated with distrust by those around him; until the conflict stops, it is made clear to him that he will remain a suspicious ‘other’ within British society.

Even in attempts to conceal foreignness in the text, is becomes apparent that the ‘otherness’ of different nationalities cannot be successfully hidden from Tommy and Tuppence. This is demonstrated through the revealing of Commander Haydock as a ‘Prussian officer’ (p.144). Although successfully disguising himself for a short time, it is soon made apparent to the investigating duo that Haydock is a member of the Fifth Column who plan to invade Britain. As Tommy muses, ‘had he been blind up to now? That jovial florid face – the face of a “hearty Englishman” – was only a mask. Why had he not seen it all along for what it was – the face of a bad-tempered overbearing Prussian officer’ (p. 144). In comparing a ‘hearty Englishman’ to a ‘bad-tempered Prussian officer’ (p.144), Christie asserts a clearly biased difference in mentality and appearance between the two nationalities. Whilst the ‘hearty’ Englishman is presented as ‘wholesome’, ‘substantial’, ‘loudly vigorous and cheerful’2, the Prussian officer finds himself ‘characterised by anger’.3 In this way, Christie appears to suggest that the aggressive true nature of the Commander could never have stayed concealed for long; his true nature as enemy to the wholesome nature of the England that Tuppence and Tommy are keen to protect would inevitably have been revealed. In this way, racial tropes are clearly deployed by Christie to highlight the alienating nature of the enemy in contrast with the automatic goodness and prestige associated with belonging to the British race.

It is through such deployment of racial tropes that characters belonging to different nationalities are alienated and placed on the fringes of ‘otherness’. Regardless of their nationalities, personal histories and allegiances to the British cause, it becomes apparent that British paranoia of external threats in N or M results in the viewing of all foreign figures in the narrative as distrustful and ultimately deceitful.

Featured Image- 
Cover Image taken from William Morrow Paperbacks 2012 edition of Agatha Christie’s novel N or M? A Tommy & Tuppence Mystery.

Agatha Christie, N or M? (Glasgow: William Collins Son & Co. Ltd, 1941), p.57. All further references to Christie’s text are to this edition and will be given parenthetically.

Oxford Dictionary Online. Available at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/bad-tempered [Accessed 31/07/2018]

Oxford Dictionary Online. Available at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/hearty [Accessed 31/07/2018]

Written by Imogen Barker.
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.