Taboo Production in a Cat and Mouse Game

Karynn Ikeda, English 118, Creative Nonfiction in Electronic Environments, Brown University, 2007, Brown University

[Home —> Authors —> Discussion Questions about Tom Wolfe's The Pumphouse Gang]

Leading the reader along in a narrative striptease, Tom Wolfe slowly pulls back the layers of Carol Doda in “The Put-Together Girl.”  In the opening paragraphs, Wolfe holds back any description of Carol herself, so that the reader may hone in on her most prominent factor: her breasts.  What follows is not a literal description of their magnificence but a few vignettes of reactions to them.  From these reactions, the reader can infer her breasts’ extraordinary quality.  However, Wolfe does not merely settle on innuendo.  He forces the reader to engage the taboo of the naked breast head-on and describes her breasts with great attention:

Carol Doda’s breast are up there the way one imagines Electra’s should have been, two incredible mammiform protrusions, no mere pliable mass of feminine tissues and fats there but living arterial sculpture—viscera spigot—great blown-up aureate morning-glories. (75)

This depiction dwarfs description of any other body part—the eyes, lips, and arms mashed into a single sentence.  Wolfe boldly exposes what society shuns behind layers of clothing. 

However, unlike his characters who are voyeuristic, Wolfe does not sexualize Carol’s breasts; he gives them an aesthetic quality, calling them a “living arterial structure.”  He mocks the spectacle of exhibitionism and its reception through voyeurism, describing the interaction of the two as an “animated cartoon” (75).  Although society may be inclined to place the horror of the topless girl exclusively on the stripper herself, Wolfe shows that much of the horror is also contingent upon those who watch and how they reflect the image through their actions.  The interaction of the voyeur and the exhibitionist create the taboo together.  Wolfe captures their joint participation in the production of cultural taboo in a final scene:

She walks about the stage, then winds her way through the tables, then back to the stage, where she strikes a cheesecake pose, lying down with her legs curled up and her breasts pointing straight up, like vanilla sundaes, not mushing off to the side the way most girls’ would, but sitting straight up, and then another topless girl comes out and takes a picture of her with a Polaroid camera—flash!—the flash catches all the craning Hard Worsted faces in an instant, the 6 a.m. Russian Hill specters sitting here, anointed, goggled. [79]

Then scene begins with the exhibitionist and ends with the voyeurs.  In doing so, Wolfe does not allow these watchers to fade into the background, forgotten in the wake of the exhibitionist.  Instead he turns the camera on them, caught guilty in the act, and frames their role for all to see.

Victorian Web Overview Tom Wolfe

Last modified 8 March 2006