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.