No Country for Young Prostitutes
When reading Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Jenny, the reader is faced with a dilemma that has plagued humanity for a very long time. How do we implement change in a meaningful way that helps us solve many of the social problems that are still prevalent in society today? Prostitution commonly referred to as the oldest profession in the world and with good reason; has been around as far back as some of our oldest stories, yet nothing has been resolved. Through comparison of the Coen Brothers movie No Country for Old Men released in 2007 perhaps we can learn from the similar themes within and apply them to Rossetti’s work.
Before we begin, I would quickly like to discuss the dichotomies of both works and how they are relevant to each other. In Jenny, we see countless descriptions of day and night as well as moral concepts like wrong and right. It is not being used in the traditional sense of human duality as we might see in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde but if we seek to understand how it functions within Rossetti’s poem making a connection to the film will be much easier. In the motion picture that dichotomy represents chance and probability in an existential universe symbolized by the two sides of a coin. Rossetti also uses this description in Jenny when he suggests “ In daily largesse of earth’s boon, Counted for life-coins to one tune, And if, as blindfold fates are toss’s, through some one man this life be lost, Shall soul not somehow pay for soul?” which closely resembles one of the most iconic moments in film history. So both works are closely examining concepts like fate and what factors might be out of our control. However in Rossetti’s work it almost seems like a contradiction because he places the blame solely on humanity while at the same time implying that God has dominion over man. However, if you remove religion from the equation as the Coen brothers did in their film it seems much more plausible that the universe uses probability and statistics to determine what we interpret as fate.
The character of Anton Chigurh played by Javier Bardem lives his life by the toss of a coin to determine who lives and dies. One scene specifically where he enters a gas station owned by an elderly gentleman who engages him in small talk, not realizing whom the man is things quickly escalate as the man is forced to call the coin toss. Now little does he know that he is playing for his life, and reluctantly says he cannot call it without knowing what is at stake. Before the man calls it Anton says to him ” You have been putting it up your whole life you just didn’t know it, the date on this coin is 1958, and it has been travelling 22 years just to get here and now it’s here and you need to call it” which is symbolic of Jenny in a way. This wealthy gentleman who is much older and privileged than her has solicited this beautiful young woman for sex, each of them representing a different aspect of society in which they were born into. As she is sleeping, he is even reminded of his cousin as he gazes upon her; the only difference is that Jenny was not fortunate enough to be born into an upper-class family, just as the man who watches her has no agency to determine what roles in society they have been dealt. Much like the old man working at the rural gas station Jenny cannot see the perspective of those who criticize her regardless if it is the narrator or the reader.
For a woman forced into a profession of such worldly ways she still possesses innocence that she is completely unaware of while the older more experienced man is having this moment of reflection which the reader shares. We are once again forced to examine a different set of dichotomies between the past and present both contextually and in the poem itself. There’s a moment in which the police officer played by Tommy Lee Jones pays a visit to his mentor after deciding to retire because he feels outmatched. Ellis, who is in a wheelchair as a result of a shootout while carrying out his duties as an officer of the law, is able to share his wisdom with him. As the times change so grows our desperation and hopelessness like a game of blackjack in which you know the dealer is long overdue for a good hand. Ellis looks at him and says, ” What you got ain’t nothing new this country is hard on people, you can’t stop what’s coming, it ain’t all waiting on you, that is vanity” that resembles the narcissism we feel when this man watches her sleep. He sits there dissecting her as if she was nothing more than a toy for his personal amusement. Now although he may not be as bad as the regulars that visit Jenny regarding behavior, he does nothing to help her or to solve the problem. He knows full well that the evening he spends with her is only temporary and that in time other men will come and do horrible things to her, possibly even killing her. However, the responsibility does not lie on him solely; it is a burden that is out of his control regardless of his status, and so Jenny’s fate is much like a coin toss in which one day she will lose.
Unlike Rossetti’s poem the film has a much darker take on the random events in life that determine who dies and why. For example when officer Ed Bell talks about why he is retiring he says to us ” I always figured when I got older God would come into my life, and he did not” just like poor Jenny’s fate is sealed. Ultimately one must be willing to face the reality of the world we live in and accept that chance and probability are all we will ever have. If we happen to be on the winning side of that coin toss, then you have a responsibility to use that privilege in a manner that brings about positive change. We may not have a say in the outcome, but we do have a say in the choices that we make. Today human trafficking of women for the sex industry is at an all time high. Rossetti asks of us how do we fix the problem and all these years later we still don’t have an answer. Perhaps we should just flip a coin and call heads or tales because that is as much agency as we will ever have.
Rossetti, Dante Gabriel. “Jenny.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature. Ed. David Damrosch and Kevin J.H. Dettmar. 4th ed. Vol. 2B. Longman, 2010. 1623-1632. Print.
Bentley, D. M. R. “‘Ah, Poor Jenny’s Case’: Rossetti And The Fallen Woman/Flower.” University Of Toronto Quarterly: A Canadian Journal Of The Humanities 50.(1980): 177-198. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 7 Dec. 2015.