A rather modern story published in 2012 in the New York Times, the conception for “The Semplica-Girl Diaries” came to George Saunders in a dream. The semplica girls or “SGs,” coming from different countries around the world, are strung up in some alternate universe by a microline through the head and used as lawn ornaments by affluent families. Voluntarily entering into this subordinate position in order to provide for their families back home, the SGs can be translated into immigrant workers, sweatshop laborers, or any other form of subjugated persons in today’s society. While the narrator’s first entry on September 3rd describes his intentions in keeping a diary, to provide information “for posterity” of his alternate universe, he speaks of things that are current in America today: “Will future people know, for example, about sound of airplanes going over at night, since airplanes by that time passé?” It’s almost as if “The Semplica-Girls Diaries” is actually offering political commentary on our world rather than this alternative universe, but Saunders ingeniously conceals this attempt in the same way that the woes of capitalism are concealed today. However, can it be said that Saunders’ story is simply a warning to the future about our present capitalist system? If so, why write in the context of literature or a diary instead of offering some political opinion, and what does he propose for our future?
While the narrator’s entry on September 3rd discussed subjects relevant to our present such as airplanes, demons, and windows, the first hint at Saunders’ political commentary is not discovered until his second entry on September 5th: “Who cares about stupid bumper, we’re going to get a new car soon anyway, when rich, right?” In this quote, the eldest daughter, Lilly, reveals to the reader the status of the narrator’s family. It’s true that they could just have a beat up car, but the use of the word rich here shows that his family is somewhere between poor and middle class. Similarly, on September 6th, the narrator discusses Lilly’s friend Leslie Torrini and her family’s riches after Leslie held a birthday at her family home: “House is mansion where Lafayette once stayed. Torrinis showed us Lafayette’s room: now their “Fun Den.” Plasma TV, pinball game, foot massager. Thirty acres, six garages (they call them “outbuildings”): one for Ferraris (three), one for Porsches (two, plus one he is rebuilding)…” It is made very clear the difference between the narrator’s wealth and that of the Torrinis. It’s almost mocking of the narrator in the fact that Leslie’s father has enough leisure time to rebuild a car, an operation that one could rightfully picture the patriarch of a rich family performing in a movie. As it is so focused on materialism, this passage depicts the undercurrent of class envy within Saunders’ story. Lilly is envious when she exaggerates the size of the Torrinis’ tree house. The narrator signals to his own class envy also on September 6th in saying “Do not really like rich people, as they make us poor people feel dopey and inadequate. Not that we are poor. I would say we are middle. We are very, very lucky. I know that. But still…” However, the tables turn on the 22nd when he finally has means to buy SGs and a pond. Leslie, the rich girl, calls her mother to complain about why she does not also have a pond. The narrator attempts to but does not deny that this role reversal of his daughter and Leslie makes him happy, which Farmer Rich of September 25th would probably label a “showoffy move.” On the 14th of September, the narrator’s explanation of his credit cards and deferment of payment in order to provide his kids with a sense of generosity instead depicts his materialism. “If not now, when?” Yet, the real reason for credit cards is not this developing sense of generosity, but security, a security that his kids will not be spat out by the world. It’s ironic that something so insecure and not a means of real money but rather of debt, comes to be a form of security to the narrator. Yet, all his credit cards are near the maximum limit in the story. This class envy and literal materialism (credit cards are made of plastic), in becoming worrisome to both the characters of the story and the reader, is the first warning of a capitalist future.
Despite the demonstration of class envy, the scene where the bumper falls of the narrator’s car and Leslie’s idea that her family will someday be rich is also the epitome of the American Dream. The narrator shares his American Dream when on September 22nd he calls his desire to move up the social ladder a “presentiment of special destiny” and a “feeling [he] would someday do something great.” Yet, there is a reason why it is called a dream. When the narrator wins money by chance from a Scratch-Off and hires an entire arrangement of SG’s for his youngest daughter, Eva’s birthday party, he develops the false hope that his destiny is finally coming into place. But the reader later discovers that this is not so. So long as one works hard, he or she will have the opportunity to succeed. This is what most citizens are commonly taught to believe growing up in America. However, America is not classless and social mobility, or the upward movement from a state of poverty to some degree of affluence, has been greatly misconstrued (Loewen 317-326). With this information readily available, why is no one willing to recognize that the American Dream is a myth? It seems both a question of acknowledgement and belief. No one wants to believe a person could be so disadvantaged as to be simply stuck in utter poverty, especially where social immobility is said to be impossible. Hence, everyone in our capitalist society ignores or refuses to acknowledge subjugation and oppression. The personal statements the narrator reads of the SGs he hired on September 21st are the perfect example of social immobility and poverty that cannot be overcome: “Laotian (Tami) applied due to two sisters already in brothels. Moldovan (Gwen) has cousin who thought she was becoming window-washer in Germany, but no: sex slave in Kuwait (!). Somali (Lisa) watched father + little sister die of AIDS, same tiny thatch hut, same year. Flipina (Betty) has little brother “very skilled for computer,” parents cannot afford high school…” The narrator and his wife believe that they are giving these women an opportunity to work that they would not have had in their homelands, and as their choices were voluntary, the SG system is justifiable. This mirrors in exactitude the justification of capitalism: because he or she made the choice to become an immigrant worker, a sweatshop laborer, a prostitute, all work is acceptable and legitimate. Thus, the mistreatment of those oppressed persons and the SGs is easily ignored because of our belief system.
In the same way that the narrator justifies both his class envy and the subjugation of the SGs without truly acknowledging the occurrence of either, Saunders purposely covers up much of the plot of “The Semplica-Girl Diaries.” The SGs are first mentioned in the narrator’s diary entry on September 6th, but their role as lawn ornaments is not explained to the reader in the context of the microline until September 23rd. The reason that the narrator blocks feeling any sympathy for the SGs is possibly because they remind him too much of himself and his own poverty. Going along with this theme of cover-ups, the abbreviation SGs is a cover-up of the name semplica girls. While at first this seems trivial, the cover-up of ordinary language has a more significant implication. It is often the case that those with any sort of political power are able to cover up what they choose because of the power that they hold. The Torrinis’ who have power through affluence, call the paper doll set the narrator’s family gives to Leslie “kitsch,” meaning of poor taste by ironically appreciated in some way. However, the narrator didn’t conceive of the gift as “kitsch” until the Torrinis said it was so. Similarly, coercive wage offers where the immigrant worker, the sweatshop laborer, or the prostitute is given the choice between working and starving are not defined as coercion because capitalists say these wage offers are voluntary. But is it actually reasonable to say that one is not forced to work, when he can choose to starve? (Cohen 280-281). Capitalists have come to define the word coercion overtime in a way that absolves them of any and all guilt. For example, a man named Karl tends the vegetable garden of the Torrinis, but the narrator states later on September 6th that the tender of the Torrinis’ flower garden is “weirdly also named Karl.” While hilarious, it is more plausible that the Torrinis simply choose to call both their (immigrant) workers by the name Karl rather than that being the name of both persons. Thus, the Torrinis are blocking the possible coercion of Karl and Karl through not using their true names or distinguishing one from the other and not calling coercion, coercion. This situation is repeated when the Torrinis’ patriarch asks about the narrator’s work: “He said, Well, huh, amazing the strange, arcane things our culture requires some of us to do, degrading things…” The narrator’s job is never revealed to the reader, but it is supposedly degrading. Therefore, the cover-up of the woes of capitalism resembles Saunders’ other cover-ups, but the theme continues even further with Saunders’ incredible sense of satiric humor.
When Lilly asks her father, the narrator, wouldn’t he love to live in a house like the Torrinis’, he begins to laugh while his wife, Pam asks him what Lilly is saying wrong. His opinion goes without saying; it is wrong that Lilly is not covering up her class envy. The narrator instead laughs off his misfortune, for example on September 15th with “Ha-ha! Must keep spirits up. Laughter best medicine, etc., etc.” On September 20th, he discusses his previous sadness before the Scratch-Off card winnings “due to worry vis-à-vis limitations.” Through what parallels the sentiments of a mid-life crisis, the narrator covers up and laughs off his loneliness, constant dissatisfaction, embarrassment, frustration, and disappointment simultaneously. While it is necessary to read the whole story to get the full effect of Saunders’ hilarious shorthand, equals signs, etc., his satire or dark humor are best depicted in this quote on September 22nd: “Note to self: Try to extend positive feelings associated with Scratch-Off win into all areas of life. Be bigger presence at work. Race up ladder (joyfully, w/ smile on face), get raise. Get in best shape of life, start dressing nicer. Learn guitar? Make point of noticing beauty of world?…” that extends all the way to a scene in the Alps where his kids sit with a crippled girl who later receives surgery which his family paid for and lands herself in the newspaper. Saunders parodies what happens when humans are inspired or happy and the entirety of our New Years’ resolutions all at one time. Because of the narrator’s bitter laughter and this dark humor, it becomes easy to ignore—again—the dark history and horrifying imagery of the SGs that lies beneath the satire.
However, despite Saunders’ hidden commentary on class envy, materialism, the capitalist system in general, and oppression, “The Semplica-Girl Diaries” is not simply a warning to the future about the current state of political America. Oddly, his political commentary is not so much about politics as it is about exposure to the problems of politics and moral complexity. Near the end of the story, Eva chooses to let the SGs down from their posts because of her innate moral compass, but because of her actions, she jeopardizes her family’s future. But the cost of the lost SGs is not the only resulting detriment; without money, food, water, or an ability to acquire jobs as illegal fugitives, the SGs while free of subjugation but still connected to the microline, will probably die off shortly. Eva’s impulsivity, in effect, represents the goodness of intentions in sending money or food to poor people overseas in impoverished countries, which more often than not ends up getting lost to the control of local warlords or false distributors. While this final dissolution in Saunders’ story could suggest his proposal to dismantle our current capitalist system, the narrator’s reaction to his daughter’s choice makes any notion of Saunders’ political direction or views unclear. September 26th: “Felt like waking Eva, giving Eva hug, telling Eva that, though we do not approve of what she did, she will always be our girl…” In that the narrator is both prideful and disapproving of Eva, the reader realizes that every character in the story believes they are making ethical decisions in the time that they make them despite where those decisions lead. No one is deliberately evil or knowingly coercive in Saunders’ story and in addition to definitions misconstrued by the powerful, that is the reason for which the narrator questions why the SGs were so desperate to run away after choosing that line of work. Therefore, Saunders wants us to sympathize with Eva and her choice. Despite his engaging dark humor, Saunders is deeply empathetic of the whole of humanity.
While Eva’s solution to the oppression of the semplica girls was not really a solution at all, Saunders also does not develop a political solution for capitalism. He writes diary entries because they are personal reflections rather than proposals for what we can fix about society. He offers critiques without need of proposing solutions unlike Marxian claims against historical materialism and the need to free ourselves of delusion in order to see where our true interests lie. Even if America’s citizens eventually acknowledge that social mobility of subjugated persons isn’t always conceivable, most do not see a viable way to fix the problem. Art and literature offer a context where the exploration of ethics and moral ambiguity do not require this reduction to empirical study or resolution, where Saunders does not have to argue morally debatable issues from a nonmoral point of view. Thus, literature can break rules and expose imperfection in a way that politics cannot, and Saunders’ exposure to political problems does precisely that, but not only that. The story of the semplica girls is originally covered up, for if the reader were cognizant the whole time, the story would be but a political proposal to rid of capitalism or oppression. Yet through the process of deciphering the plot, the reader discovers Saunders’ empathy and faith in humanity in spite of his dark humor and dark subject material.
Note: With a question for the thesis to be uncovered in the conclusion, this paper was written to emulate, decipher, and admire Saunders’ method of modern literature. I apologize for not using page numbers as Saunders’ story does not include them, but I used as many diary dates as possible for purposes of location.
Cohen, Gerald Allan. Self-ownership, Freedom, and Equality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 34-37, 53-61. Retrieved from FAPA.
Loewen, James W. “The Land of Opportunity,” in L. J. McIntyre, The Practical Skeptic: Readings in Sociology (5th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill, 2009.
Saunders, George. “The Semplica-Girl Diaries.” New York: The New Yorker, 2012.