Josna Rege

238. The Diabolical Idea of the Sale

In 1970s, Books, clothing, Family, history, Politics, reading, Stories, United States, Words & phrases, Work on December 27, 2013 at 1:17 pm
illustration by John Tenniel

illustration by John Tenniel

There’s a scene in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass (1871) in which Alice finds herself in a dark shop presided over by an inscrutable sheep who asks her what she wants to buy. When Alice, who hadn’t wanted to buy anything, replies timidly that she would like to buy an egg and asks how the sheep sells them, it answers:

Fivepence farthing for one — Twopence for two.

Alice is surprised:

Then two are cheaper than one?

Yes, but it seems that the Sheep has a condition:

Only you must eat them both, if you buy two.’ 

Now the sale price doesn’t seem to be such a good deal, so Alice decides to buy just the one egg she had wanted in the first place, “thinking that they might not be very nice.” Although the Sheep readily takes her money, it refuses to put the egg in her hand, setting it perversely on a shelf where Alice finds it getting farther away the more she walks towards it. She never does manage to get hold of her egg.

Lenny de Rooy traces the origins of this scene to Lewis Carroll’s student days at Oxford:

Undergraduates at Christ Church, in Carroll’s day, insisted that if you ordered one boiled egg for breakfast you usually received two, one good and one bad (source: The Diaries of Lewis Carroll, Vol.1, p.176).

That may well be, but it seems to me to be beside the point. What strikes me the most powerfully about the scene is its satirization of the whole idea of the Sale. First, there is the counter-intuitive idea that two eggs would cost considerably less than one. Second, there is a catch: if you buy two in order to save money, you have to eat them both, so that you are obliged to double your consumption beyond your original need or desire; and third, you get neither what you want nor what you pay for.

In the 1970s, when Ralph Nader and Nader’s Raiders were lobbying for consumer safety and against corporate deception, I remember objecting to the practice of calling people “consumers” because it described them in terms of what they bought, and refused to call myself one even as I supported Nader’s campaigns against the corporations.

boxing

When did we start being seen as consumers rather than producers? Perhaps in the mid-nineteenth century, around the same time that modern marketing began. To me, the very idea of the Sale is fraudulent. Why would a merchant offer two eggs for dramatically less than the price of one, unless it were for a loss leader, designed to stimulate sales and increase the buyer’s consumption and the scope of the consumer’s desires? Perhaps the Sale was the first media event, long before the term was coined, in the early days of the first department stores. After all, the Sale, which, literally, refers only to something being sold, stages the proposed transaction as a pseudo-event. It’s probably no accident that the publication of The Communist Manifesto and the opening of the first department store were only a year apart, in 1848 and 1849 respectively. In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels discuss the concept of value, what it is based upon, and how capitalism distorts it, enriching the owner of the means of production and alienating the worker from the product of his or her labor, thereby reducing both the worker’s creation and the worker him- or herself to just another commodity.

how-the-grinch-stole-christmas-dr-seuss-screenshot-5

I hope it’s not just that I’m stingy, but I have a Grinch-y aversion to Christmas shopping. I’ve always loved Boxing Day, because after the frenzy of buying and doing, people can simply enjoy time with each other, visiting and making merry. In Britain Boxing Day is a national holiday, so the shops are closed as they are on Christmas Day itself. I’ll never forget one Boxing Day in Brookline in the early 1970s when I made the mistake of venturing out to the shops instead of staying at home and eating leftovers. Going into Touraine’s (then the only clothing store in Coolidge Corner), which had carried the corduroy maxi-skirt I had asked for, and received, for Christmas, I was furious to find that the very item that my parents had purchased for nearly twenty dollars of their hard-earned money was now on the sale racks for half that price. Not only had they robbed my parents, but they had also robbed me of a good deal of my pleasure in the present. What a swindle!

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  1. Great piece Josna… I loved the way you weaved your story through Alice right through to Marx and the sales… beautifully done. Agree with every word…
    There’s a tiny narrow building squeezed in between the others just opposite Christchurch College, Oxford where Lewis Carroll went, and this tiny pub is supposed to be where the sheep and Alice had their encounter!

    • Thank you, Valerie. I guess all that was on my mind at Christmastime and somehow snaked itself into a piece. Delightful to think that one can still visit the actual place that inspired that dark, claustrophobic setting. Happy New Year!

  2. I’m afraid, Josna, Boxing Day in Britain has changed into a “consumer” day with all sorts of sales being offered. Quite sad. I must agree with you; I also find the description, “consumer” rather disturbing. Reminds me of a kind of gulping pacman. Great post Josna, as always.

    • Oh, Don. Of course, you’re there, in the thick of it. I might have known that Boxing Day has gone the way of the world. Next to carol-singing, it has always been my favorite part of Christmas. Formerly—as I recall, anyway—the sales didn’t start until after New Year. But I haven’t been in England over Christmas for ages.
      Love your image of the consumer as a “gulping pacman”! Cheers, J

  3. I hate Christmas shopping and crowds too. Of course I pretty much hate shopping in big stores with crowds all year long. Interesting mix of characters here, Alice, Marx, Nader.

    • Same here, Kristin. As soon as I enter one of those stores, and especially, a mall, my mind going completely blank, my shopping list flies right out of my head, and I get into a state that renders me utterly incapable of focusing or making a decision. The loud muzak contributes to it, and so does that distinctive mall smell and the fact that there are no clocks anywhere in sight. And yet put me in a second-hand bookshop or a thrift store, and I’m as happy as can be. Happy New Year! J

  4. I see I commented last year but reading it again, I thought of a farmer my husband buys tomatoes from during that season. The farmer always says “75 cents apiece and 4 for $3.00!” As thought you get a bargain if you buy more. And other customers ponder that.

    • Sorry Kristin, I shouldn’t re-share a story on FB until it’s at least three years old. I wonder whether that farmer has a sense of humor and does it to tease people?

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