dont judge a book by its cover

In Natasha Tretheway’s Belloq’s Ophelia, a prostitute from New Orleans’s red light district writes letters and diary entries about her life.  While most assume that prostitutes are unintelligent and uneducated, Ophelia’s writing style is sophisticated and poised. In class today, I found it very interesting when Natasha Tretheway said “people aren’t always the sum of their circumstances”. This comment struck me as important because Ophelia’s thoughts and behavior in the poems contradict common stereotypes that many people have about prostitutes.

For example, Ophelia is very interested in educating herself and learning about the world. In a letter Ophelia exclaims, “Do you remember that I kept/your copy of American Highways/and Byways for months, reading it,/Imagine, then, my surprise at finding/that the Countess keeps a library here,/ in the brothel!” (Tretheway 32). Ophelia appears to be an avid reader and is very excited by the prospect of having a library in the brothel. While most people assume that a prostitute would have no interest in reading, Ophelia enjoys learning and realizes the importance of educating herself.  Tretheway portrays Ophelia as having a thirst for learning in order to show that one cannot judge another’s character based solely on his or her circumstance.

Ophelila’s typical behavior is also very different from that of the stereotypical prostitute. In another letter, Ophelia explains that since the other girls in the house walk around in their underwear, “They tease me, but gently,/for my proper clothes and the quiet way I take my tea.” (Tretheway 17). Ophelia is different from the other girls in the brothel as she dresses modestly and keeps to herself. While the other girls exhibit the stereotype that prostitutes behave and dress inappropriately during the day, Ophelia make an effort to display proper etiquette.  Again, Tretheway uses Ophelia’s behavior to show that Ophelia is not defined by her line of work or living situation.

Ophelia is a clear example of someone who is “not the sum of her circumstance”. We cannot pass judgments about her just because she is a prostitute that lives in a brothel, as her character certainly does not reflect her unfortunate situation. Through these poems, Tretheway urges us to realize that people are not always what they seem from the outside looking in.

4 comments
  1. I definitely agree with you, Jamie. I too was struck by “people aren’t always the sum of their circumstances”. When Dr.Tretheway said this, I paused and took it in, because it is true, and in many cases the person that judges is the one looking bad. After the talk with Dr.Tretheway I also learned alot about Ophelia and her depth of character.

  2. I agree, Jaime, that Ophelia is able to overcome the stereotypes that usually come along with being a prostitute. Through her character development as her story goes along, Ophelia proves to be a strong woman who, even though had the best chance of survival through prostitution, strives to learn and make something from her life. Perhaps Tretheway does indeed “urge” us as readers not to judge a book by its cover.

  3. I’m glad that you drew on yesterday’s conversation in this post, Jaime. But I want to put in brackets the statement that “We cannot pass judgments about her just because she is a prostitute that lives in a brothel” (emphasis added). I think some of what is going on in Trethewey’s book is for us to be forced to rethink this “just.” To realize that Ophelia is not necessarily all that different from the other sex workers in this situation. It’s not just Ophelia who shouldn’t be judged by her situation, in other words, but all of the women…and perhaps even the men, taken as a whole, who have been put into situations by their society’s.

    What do you think?

  4. Jaime, I completely agree with your statement that Ophelia does not appear to be the ‘typical’ prostitute as one might expect. After the conversation with Natasha Trethewey, I actually went back and read over some of the poems she had made reference to in regards to Ophelia’s uncommon non-prostitute qualities. Jaime, you mentioned Ophelia being educated and being an avid reader, constantly having thirst for knowledge. I think this is also where photography comes in. Maybe Ophelia takes such an interest in photography because it is another tool for knowledge. With the use of camera, one can capture history, art, culture, etc.

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