The Relationship Between Smell and Class in Eileen
In Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel Eileen, the first person point of view creates a duality between the narrator, Lena, and the younger version of herself, who is the protagonist of the story. This duality allows Lena to pass judgment on her younger self, and to identify moments where Eileen is in denial of her own fears and anxieties. She alludes to her discomfort with her working-class position through a discussion of body odor; Eileen compares her own smell—which is a result of her inability to shower, use expensive perfumes, or buy new clothing—with that of middle class women, who are afforded those privileges. She subverts the stereotypes of class by attributing negative characteristics to fragrance—a sign of wealth and outward vanity—while creating a positive image of herself and her denial of beauty conventions. By not explicitly referring to her class, she emphasizes its importance, as such passages do not align with her candid and brutally honest narration style.
The way in which Eileen aligns herself against members of a higher class shows her desire to escape feelings of isolation and otherness, which are heavily related to her class position. As a single woman living in a poor neighborhood and taking care of an alcoholic father, Eileen is unable to participate in the conventions of womanhood in the same way as others—such as her sister Joanie, her own mother, the mothers at the prison, or Rebecca. Her development is stagnated and she attempts to reject womanhood, often showing a disgust for femininity. One example of her attempt to reconcile her discomfort with her class and womanhood in relation to others is when she is discussing body odor:These highly scented people are not to be trusted. They are predators. They are like the dogs who roll around in one another’s feces. It’s very disturbing. Although I was generally paranoid about how I smelled—if my sweat stank, if my breath was as bad as my mouth tasted—I never wore perfume, and I always preferred the scentless soaps and lotions. Nothing calls more attention to one’s odor than a fragrance meant to mask it. (Moshfegh 29)It can be implied that the “highly scented” people who Eileen is referring to are of a higher class than her, as they are able to afford perfumes and fragrances that allow them to hide the natural smell of body odor. While body odor is typically connoted with the natural and the animalistic, Eileen reverses these expectations in her description of the “highly scented” when she compares them to “predators” and “dogs who roll around in one another’s feces.” The use of the word “predators” gives a sense of danger, while also creating the implication that when there is a predator, there must be prey—in this case, Eileen fulfills the role of prey. This description, when juxtaposed with the simile of “dogs […] in one another’s feces,” creates an unsettling and dirty image of people otherwise viewed as clean. The diction of her critique conveys the idea that her sense of her own cleanliness is threatened by the presence of fragrance, especially since she is unable to take regular showers or routinely clean her laundry. This threat of destabilization is emphasized by her description of fragranced people as “disturbing.” One definition that the Oxford English Dictionary provides for the verb “to disturb” is: “to break up the quiet, tranquillity, or rest of a person” (“disturb”). When Eileen comes in contact with a woman who uses perfume, the narrative she creates for her identity is threatened and, as a result, is broken up because her womanhood is directly called into question. Eileen is not disturbed because she actually believes these people to be perverse, physically dangerous (as in, predatory,) or animal-like, but because they remind her of a lifestyle that is unavailable to women in her position. Furthermore, the use of the word “paranoid” refers to an “unnecessary or extreme fear; characterized by unreasonable or excessive suspicion of others” (“Paranoia”). Not only is Eileen concerned with her own smell, she is especially fearful (perhaps unnecessarily so) of her smell in relation to others—to the “highly scented people.” Rather than acknowledge her own inability to perform femininity in a conventional sense due to her working class position, Eileen chooses to criticize women who are financially able. However, the cognitive dissonance that affects her character is exposed by her use of diction, as it reveals her discomfort with her own narrative.
She casts those of a higher class—who subscribe to certain norms, such as using perfume—in a negative light by aligning the use of fragrance with inauthenticity, while describing herself and Randy—who do not use fragrance or cologne—as genuine and trustworthy. This description alludes to the trope of the romanticization of the working class struggle, which influences the perception of Eileen as a character. It is notable that Eileen attempts to separate herself from those who present themselves to be of a higher class by creating an essentialist and unfavorable description of them, while placing her own value in her complexity and authenticity. The structure of this passage can be divided into sections, based on the syntax: the first section devoted to describing the people who use perfume is exclusively short and simple sentences; the second section, a description of Eileen herself, is a long and complex sentence; the third section, a blanket statement about all people, returns to the simple sentence format. In this way, Eileen creates a distinction between herself, an individual, and the rest of women, whom she likens to a dog pack. The binary that she introduces of simplicity and complexity is another example of how she attempts to criticize women of a higher class, while securing her own identity as a complex, rational, and autonomous being. However, her attempt reads more similarly to an overcompensation than a genuine belief, especially when contextualized in her pervasive self-consciousness.
This idea of Eileen, a working class individual, as interesting and worthy of a narration underscores the aforementioned trope, while bringing class conflict to the forefront of analysis. Her reactions to the people she fears or detests are not only telling of her specific relationship to class, but also present an opportunity to discuss how rigid class structure affects one’s identity-creation. Despite the fact that, within the diegesis of the story, decades have passed since Eileen had this interaction with the “highly scented people,” Lena’s narration remains focused on the justification of Eileen’s body odor. Eileen’s fear of the people belonging to a higher class is inescapable, as shown by Lena’s aphorism: “Nothing calls more attention to one’s odor than a fragrance meant to mask it.” She passes off this class-based insecurity, which has affected her for the majority of her life, as a piece of wisdom that always holds true. While Lena often disagrees with the insecurities or behaviors of Eileen, which she claims to have grown out of, she remains self-conscious about the implications of using fragrance in order to “mask” one’s odor. The importance of maintaining this mindset about smell to the character’s psyche is further evidenced by the fact that Lena often passes judgment on Eileen’s own “death mask.” Eileen’s insecurities about her femininity and class have been sublimated into a detestation of fragrance—one that prevails even in her old age, when she has a more comfortable life with extended privileges.
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