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The Mystery of American Escapism in ‘Nancy Drew’

By Nour L. Khachemoune, Contributing Opinion Writer
Nour L. Khachemoune ’22-’23 is a joint concentrator in Chemistry and Anthropology in Dunster House. Her column “Nostalgia: What’s it Hiding?” appears on alternate Thursdays.

You don’t need to be a sleuth to figure out that the details included in a mystery novel are everything. The color of a briefly mentioned shirt may reappear 60 pages later, incriminating a suspect after slipping under the reader’s radar. What, then, does it mean when a series focuses on certain details at the expense of others, having them pop out of otherwise spartan exposition?

The Nancy Drew series, with its formulaic plotlines and iconic yellow covers, is a staple of the genre, captivating young girls for decades. The series was created when the publisher of the Hardy Boys series noticed that girls were taking an interest in the mysteries as well, and Nancy’s influence has been cited as inspirational by countless female public figures.

While the presence of a relatively independent female heroine is surprisingly advanced for the year 1930, the creators of the series make sure to reveal their conceptions of women through their writing. Every character is introduced by their physical characteristics, even Nancy’s sidekicks “the pretty, slightly plump blonde” Bess Marvin and George Fayne, “an attractive tomboyish girl with short dark hair.” Villains are also noted to be physically unattractive in humorous contrast, with money-hungry Ada being “very thin and sallow” in spite of the expensive clothes she wears. Nancy’s outfits are also noted with every switch, often multiple times a day, to appeal to young female readers. Of course, Nancy’s independence as a woman must also be explained through the death of her mother at a young age, leaving her free to explore instead of tending to the house or searching for a husband.

Through the constant reference to physical appearances and clothing, the stereotypical interests of young girls are incessantly targeted.

Other details are elaborated ad nauseam as well, revealing more about the author’s desires as opposed to the reader’s. Every day Nancy spends on a case is broken up with references to her meals, while her surroundings and other details are not developed. Sometimes, the effect is frankly jarring. Her housekeeper Hannah discusses a case with her, saying “Nancy, you’ve really made a big discovery,” but says no more as the text immediately continues with “she went into the kitchen but returned in a moment with a plate of crisp, golden waffles.” On another occasion, Hannah and Nancy prepare an ‘impromptu’ midnight snack of “a chicken sandwich, some cocoa, and Hannah cut a large slice of cinnamon cake over which she poured hot applesauce”

In contrast, surroundings and emotions are not elaborated in such detail, with the locales Nancy visits often listed without much explanation. The mystery takes on a formulaic, clue-oriented tone through its lack of character development — an intentional effect potentially included to allow the reader to focus on the details of the case. But the food-related details that are present without fail in every installment create an atmosphere of yearning.

The 1930s-backdrop of the Great Depression does not sharply influence the plot, as there are no references to general hard times. But the focus on lavish meals and the structuring of Nancy’s day around them suggests a subconscious fixation on the parts of the authors. As the series is ghostwritten by multiple people under the pen name Carolyn Keene, one might expect the style to differ from story to story, but the references to Nancy’s luxurious meals, always capped by dessert, suggest an underlying desire for a similar lifestyle. The series is an escapist avenue for the authors and readers. Nancy exhibits no concerns with the state of affairs at the time, and never misses a meal or cuts corners.

During the Great Depression, the American Dream became regular, comfortable meals and fashionable clothing to be changed multiple times a day. Nancy has few responsibilities, instead adventuring of her own accord in the blue convertible her dad bought her and solving cases to satisfy her own hunches. Of course, Nancy’s fortunes did not materialize from thin air, and the series also takes the opportunity to stress how her father, a well-known lawyer, frequently works until the early hours of the morning, has many stressful meetings, and even requires Nancy’s help delivering urgent documents.

Regretfully, the hidden desire is not a simple life where one is free to explore their passions without a constant pressure to work.

The capitalism of American society idealizes a difficult working life in exchange for its fixation on the simple pleasures of meals and clothing. The minimalist descriptions of Nancy Drew create a caricature of what people wished life could be in the 1930s. What more is there to desire in life besides meals, clothing, and the arduous work it apparently takes to make them possible? I can think of a few things, but perhaps the children reading the Nancy Drew series 90 years later will begin to believe that’s all life is about.

Nour L. Khachemoune ’22-’23 is a joint concentrator in Chemistry and Anthropology in Dunster House. Her column “Nostalgia: What’s it Hiding?” appears on alternate Thursdays.

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