Meaningless Matters: The Form of Musical Lyrics

Noah Cowit

For a while I hated 80’s pop. Or at least I thought I did. I thought I hated about “Call Me” and “Come on Eileen”, “Tainted Love” and “I Ran.” I thought I hated big synthesizers, repetitive melodies, and articulated lyrics. At the very least I saw these things as empty, a useless joke. Something to scoff at, not to listen to.

I was certainly not the only one.

80’s pop, and pop music in general, may be one of the most critically disregarded genres of music. There is none other so routinely criticized in popular intellectualism. Of course there is the occasional contrarian fluff piece, like the Huffington Post’s so called “Defense of Pop Music”[i], which boldly states that “Pop music is nowhere near as bad as people make it out to be.” Despite, or perhaps because of, these feeble defenses, I would’ve been content to hate 80’s pop forever. Except for one thing. It’s structure, it’s lyrics, were fantastic. It was form without truth, a glorious superficiality.

Maybe for this reason, it grew on me. 80’s pop began to become a guilty pleasure. It slowly ate through my playlists, becoming 10, then 20, then 30% of what I listened to. Trying to justify 80’s pop to myself, I searched for some significance in the lyrics. I can tell you that it becomes pretty obvious, pretty quickly, that looking for hidden truths in “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” is an exercise in futility. A friend of mine perhaps put it best when they said, “Music should have meaning, even if it is just about love and relationships; the music you listen to is about nothing.”

But that does not settle the matter. It should not settle the matter. It cannot just be accepted without a fight that meaning is all that matters, that form and style have no value. 80’s pop is hardly unique in this. People like meaningless lyrics. People like meaningless language. Yet they are bothered by a lack of meaning, and not by a lack of form.

So, this leaves us with one option. To develop a defense for meaninglessness, or find that it is impossible to listen to 80’s pop, or read detective novels, or the comics in a newspaper, without creeping feelings of guilt and insecurity. This is a defense of 80’s pop, and not only that, it is a defense of all language, all art, that does not carry an inherent meaning; that which is primarily form.

Interestingly enough, the route to doing this is through the song “Tom’s Diner”, by Suzanne Vega.[ii]

This may seem an odd choice at first. Although made in the 80’s, “Tom’s Diner” is not a pop song. For one, it is sung A Capella. No drums, no synthesizers, not even an acoustic guitar. It does not blast into being like most pop music, it smoothly flows. There is no repetitive chorus. In fact, there is no line repetition whatsoever. The events it describes are simple, the setting ordinary. And most importantly, “Tom’s Diner” arguably has hidden meanings, hidden “truths”. But this, of course, is absolutely necessary. You cannot elevate form unless it can be shown that it has some potential to outdo meaning. It cannot be done in a song with none.

Perhaps the best way of interpreting what meaning and form contribute to “Tom’s Diner” is by comparing what can be gained from both. We can try to separate the two, describing the song with meaning at the expense of form, and then form at the expense of meaning. Then we may be able to tell how they each contribute differently to our understanding of the song. We will start with meaning.

Tom’s Diner is a song about a lonely person in a diner. Some evidence that they’re lonely is because they look away when two of the characters in the diner show a level of familiarity with each other, kissing in greeting. This could also be attributed to social awkwardness or perhaps a general problem with intimacy. However, later contextual evidence points to the idea of loneliness over these later two premises. Additionally, the character feels isolated from the world, and from other people in general. Examples of this include when the character doesn’t know of the person they read about in an obituary. There is a level of blocked intimacy when the character finds themselves unable to make eye contact with a woman outside, because the glare from the glass blocks her view of the inside. So the woman outside can also be considered to be isolated. Also, there is a level of sexual tension, as the character outside is moving her skirt up on her leg, to straighten her underclothes, but despite her efforts the rain is making her hair damp. This could also be considered commentary on idealized perfection. Finally, there seems to be a romantic aspect to the loneliness the character may be experiencing, as another person in mentioned who seems to have a level of familiarity with the person at the diner.

Hopefully that didn’t completely ruin the song for you.

It could be questioned at this point why that read like the essay of a middle schooler. The answer is simple. If meaning is all that matters, everything of value in Tom’s Diner should be able to be gained from the paragraph above. Creative form shouldn’t be needed to supplement meaning, so long as the knowledge given is correct and clear. But there is something obviously wrong with this argument. Or if not wrong, at least not right. If it hadn’t explicitly said it, a person could honestly wonder if what is being described is a song, or just some weird passage about a person in a diner. Clearly something is missing.

Maybe it’s that the paragraph doesn’t take into account how seamlessly the words line up in “Toms Diner”, how even a slight syncopation grabs the attention like a vice. Maybe it’s that it doesn’t have quotes to show us how the language is so simple, and yet so effective. Maybe it’s that it doesn’t tell us that song is written in first person, that is “I am sitting-in the morning-at the diner-on the corner” and how the result is intensely visceral and personal. Maybe it’s that it doesn’t mention despite this first person narration, when the women is “outside looking in”, it is not “I think she sees her own reflection”, but “cause she sees-her own reflection” and how it isn’t “no she does not see me” but “no she does not-really see me”. Or maybe it’s all of these things. Maybe it’s that the story of “Tom’s Diner” is one that could be described in a million different ways, but that for some reason, this way, with this particular arrangement of words, is one that works.

Wasn’t that better? Doesn’t it seem that by concentrating on form instead of meaning-by focusing on the language-not the knowledge-we can gain a better sense of what “Tom’s Diner” really is? This may be because form alone has the potential to affect the reader, or the watcher, or the listener, in a way that meaning simply can’t. It is all about effect. If form is effective, if it makes the audience feel something, then it works. Form can exist in a palatable form without meaning, but meaning cannot do the same without form. This may be because form alone has the potential to create feeling, while meaning alone just has the potential to create more meaning. It is about emotion and subjectivity, about the potential of words to shape us.

More than that, it is about the potential of words to shape how we view the world.

The study of words is central to the understanding of form. Words are often incorrectly considered perfect descriptors. That is, the word “chair” is not just a representation of the thing we call the chair, the word chair is the chair. Or at least the thought connected to the word is the chair. But is it really? Are the word and the thing truly one and the same? In “Tom’s Diner”, would there really be no difference if the word wet was replaced with moist? Or better yet, saturated. The words all refer to the same thing, why couldn’t they just be swapped? Possibly it’s because words aren’t just descriptions, at least not in the traditional sense of the word. Words are packages of connotations, “actively shaping the things they purport to describe.”[iii] Wet, moist, and saturated all bring different feelings into the mind, feelings that are shaped by our prior experiences with language. We need to study form, or risk being thoughtlessly swept up in these connotations. Words matter, especially if we think they don’t. Meaning cannot exist on its own in language; form will always create meaning of its own. It is then necessary to study form to fully understand a piece of writing.[iv]

Now, “Tom’s Diner” uses particularly broad and vague language. Words like “counter”, “man”, “coffee”, and “window” make up the majority of the song. The connotations these words are general and impersonal. They give the song a sense of transparency and clarity that could be mistaken for a lack of form. But this is simply untrue. Choosing to be broad with language creates an effect on the listener, just as the use of specific ornamentation does. In this case, it creates a sense of emptiness, leaving a vacuum where “horoscope”, “stockings”, and “cathedral” can take on a greater prominence. It is an active choice to use general language, not an unbiased default. Form is truly present everywhere.[v]

Yet even this does not do form justice. Sure, it shows why form is valuable to study, but it doesn’t give validation to our innate desire for it. It does nothing to show us why we enjoy form on its own. Meaning professes to tell us what are deepest desires are, how we think, how best to live a life. Its goal is to show us who we truly are as human beings. It makes sense that we would be drawn to meaning. Form can tell us a lot about a text, but what can it tell us about ourselves?

Perhaps the answer to this question can be found in “Toms Diner”.  Again, “Tom’s Diner” is about a person in the diner. But it’s about more than that. Ironically, it’s about a person who has a problem with form. The narrator, who is “turning to the horoscope and looking for the funnies”, but with an air of detached triviality. Who doesn’t talk to anyone for the entire period of the song, and in fact seems to avoid doing so. It’s about the instance with the women outside who looks and “does not-really see…cause she sees-her own reflection” Overall, there is a sense that the narrator in the diner can no longer appreciate form. And what is the result of this? The narrator seems profoundly isolated and deeply lonely. They seem unable to make basic connections, for want of deeper ones. They are stuck in a prison of import, where meaning is the only thing that matters.

An appreciation of the study of form is necessary to break out of this prison, by acknowledging that human beings are inherently social animals. We do not always talk about substantial matters. In fact, most of the time we talk about nothing. Yet we always talk with form. If a person who speaks with only form is shallow and superficial, then the person who speaks with only meaning is incomprehensible and insane. Yet for some reason, we act as if we are completely serious whenever we write, or we read, or we listen to music. We ignore the lighter social aspect of our nature, half of what makes us human.[vi] We ignore the part of us that is the not logical, but emotional, that is not knowledgeable, but creative. On some level we know that meaning isn’t everything. That is why we like form; that is why it is so important to music, cinema, and literature. We are naturally drawn to things that bleed form, the subjective and the superficial, because that is part of who we are. Through fantastic form a song, a movie, or any piece of writing can become greater than the sum of its parts. It can become something truly human. It can become art.

Both form and meaning have a purpose. Meaning can make us feel complete. It is part of our sense of being, the way we interpret the world. But sometimes looking at a piece of art for its form can tell us something more revealing than looking at it for its meaning. It can tell us that words matter for their own sake, that they change the way we look at the world. By imparting in us that form is naturally a part of who we are, it can make us feel more in touch with all aspects of our own humanity.

Form can make us feel free. Free from the stifling pressure that everything has to mean something, free from the idea that meaning is all that we are. We should embrace form. We should revere it. And at the very least, the next time you watch a superhero movie, or read a romance novel, or listen to a fantastic 80’s pop song, remember the unnamed women from “Toms Diner” and do as she did.

Look, and see your own reflection.



[i] Harris, Austin S. “In Defense of Pop Music.” The Huffington Post. Accessed October 14, 2016.

[ii] Full Lyrics Sheet can be found at:

[iii] Thorne, Christian. “Lecture: Theories of Language and Literature” September 2016

[iv] Nietzsche, Friedrich. On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense. S.l.: Aristeus Books, 2012. Nietzsche establishes in the idea that there is a separation between the word and the object described. This is the idea that words are metaphors themselves, and that they carry innate cultural connotations that are not vested in reality.

[v] Lanham, Richard A. The Motives of Eloquence: Literary Rhetoric in the Renaissance. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976. Lanham established the idea that form is most evident where it seems like there is none; that seeming transparency is sometimes the craftiest use of form.

[vi] In Motives, Lanham established the idea of the rhetorical (social) man as “half of man”. He compares the style of literature to social life, and the meaning of literature to meaningful life. Lanham considers the balance between meaning and meaninglessness the fundamental dichotomy of humankind, and tasks literature to be a projection of this balance.



The Third Person


Mi Yu

There is a famous anecdote about the Theory of Relativity. After Albert Einstein’s paper had been published, rumor has it that Sir Arthur Eddington, one of the propagators of the theory, was one of the only three persons in the world to understand it. When asked about the rumor during a casual conversation, Eddington allegedly paused for a moment, then replied: “I’m trying to think who the third person is.” Continue reading

“Show Him What A Man Can Do:” Language of Gender and Attempted Re-masculinization in The Old Man and the Sea


Leonard Bopp

In the American literary imagination, the figure of Ernest Hemingway carries a certain machismo mythos. Hemingway himself projected a quintessentially masculine image: he liked bullfighting and fly fishing, was a soldier in the First World War, and had an unbeatable tolerance for cocktails and whiskey. This aura of masculinity tended to cross over into his writing. Hemingway’s novels had no patience for the glossy romanticism of Fitzgerald or the philosophical inclinations of Steinbeck; his were stories of war, of sexy Spanish macho-men squaring off with the bulls, and his crisp, matter-of-fact writing, though sometimes sentimental, leaves little time for overt emotion.

The Old Man and the Sea, one of Hemingway’s most beloved novels, is no exception. This is the tale of an aging fisherman named Santiago who, after a long unlucky streak without catching anything, finds himself locked in a three-day-long battle with a massive marlin. On the surface, it’s a story about strength and will, an epic battle between man and nature. But things are more complicated than that, for as I shall show, this narrative is caught up in the language of traditional gender orthodoxy, the one-size-fits-all, he-she binary that language predicates.

Let me explain. From the novel’s first sentence, it emphasizes the old man’s feelings of alienation. “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff on the Gulf Stream,” it reads, accentuating the man’s isolation out on the water. If he had one companion, it was Manolin, the young boy who fished with him. Their relationship is special – the narrator writes that “the old man had taught the boy to fish and the boy loved him.” As we learn in the next few sentences, though, the old man has been so unlucky lately that the boy’s parents have made him fish with another boat, leaving the old man completely alone. But the old man is not merely alienated from the rest of the world; rather, the novel indicates that Santiago experiences a sense of alienation from his own body. The narration calls his body “old” and “strange,” for instance, and later, when he develops a cramp in his hand while battling the fish, the old man actually engages in a dialogue with his hand, treating his body as if it were an external being. “Be patient, hand,” he says; “let the cord go, hand, until you stop this nonsense.”  The old man treats his body, it seems, as an independent object, separate from himself.

This sense of alienation from his body seems related to an anxiety over the diminishing strength that comes with old age. While he’s dealing with this cramp, the old man tells himself an anecdote from his past about the time he beat “the great negro from Cienfugos,” who was the “strongest man on the docks,” in an arm wrestling match, earning him the nickname El Campeón, the champion. Santiago is also acutely focused on the ability to maintain one’s strength despite pain – he constantly idolizes Joe DiMaggio, the famous Yankees baseball player, saying “I must be worthy of the great DiMaggio who does all things perfectly even with the pain of the bone spur in his heel,” and he tells himself he must continue to fight the fish despite the cramping in his hand. But the old man laments that he is no longer as strong as he once was, or as strong as he imagines himself to be. “I may not be as strong as I think,” he admits, indicating that the state of his body no longer aligns with his perception of himself. Indeed, the diminished strength that comes with age has made the old man’s body feel strange and foreign to him, like a suit that doesn’t quite fit.

But the novel goes on to equate this concern about strength and old age with a concern about masculinity. It must be noted that many of the traditional indicators of manliness – strength and perseverance through pain, for example – tend to diminish as one progresses into old age. The title itself demonstrates this – Santiago is not just a man on the sea, after all, but an old man, with the adjective “old” acting as a qualifier on his masculinity. Santiago’s battle with the fish, then, becomes an attempt to prove his enduring strength and reclaim his masculine identity. “I’ll kill him,” he says of the marlin, “in all his greatness and his glory. I will show him what a man can do and what a man endures.” When the novel equates old age with a loss of masculinity, the whole thing boils down to an attempted re-masculinization narrative. After all, if the old man is so concerned with proving his continued manliness in his old age, it makes sense that he constantly compares himself Joe DiMaggio – in his time, DiMaggio was seen as the the ideal American man: incredibly athletic, strong, a World War Two veteran, and dating beautiful women (he and Marilyn Monroe, famously, were seen as one of the great celebrity romances of the 1950’s.) This might also explain the old man’s feeling feelings of kinship with the young boy, since boyhood, similar to old age, presents a certain qualification of masculinity – young boys have higher voices than grown men, for example, and are not yet as built and muscular, giving them fewer distinguishing characteristics than their female counterparts. The difference, of course, is that the boy still has the prospect of traditional masculinity before him; Santiago, however, fears that his days as a real man are behind him.

Let’s get back, however, to the battle with the marlin. The characterization of the marlin itself is revealing about the nature of gender in this novel. Throughout the book, the marlin is uniformly assigned male pronouns. Describing the fish, Santiago states that he could picture the fish “swimming in the water with his purple pectoral fins set wide as wings,” and asks “I wonder how much he sees at that depth.” He says he “will show him what a man can do,” and will “kill him in all his strength and glory.” There must be something curious about this, of course, because the old man, having not actually seen and inspected the fish, cannot actually know its biological sex. Seemingly unconsciously, the language of masculinity is projected onto a character whose actual sex is unknown. It must be that the novel designates the fish as masculine based only on the threat its strength presents to the old man’s masculinity. But the old man not only characterizes the fish as masculine – moreover, he aligns himself with the fish, he calls it his brother. Indeed, there is a sense in which the old man identifies with the fish for its masculine qualities – the fish becomes a manifestation of the masculinity the old man hopes to obtain.

Similarly, the other prominent character in the novel, the sea, is, like the marlin, characterized in gendered language, as we see in the following passage:

He always thought of the sea as la mar which is what people call her in Spanish when they love her. Sometimes those who love her say bad things of her but they are always said as though she were a woman. Some of the younger fishermen, those who used buoys as floats for their lines and had motorboats, bought when the shark livers had brought much money, spoke of her as el mar which is masculine. They spoke of her as a contestant or a place or even as an enemy. But the old man always thought of her as feminine as as something that gave or withheld great favours, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them. The moon affects her as it does a woman, he thought.

There are a few important things to note about this passage. First, we must state the obvious: to the old man, the sea is decidedly feminine; he thinks of the sea as la mar for her feminine qualities – lovely, sensuous, susceptible to patterns of the moon. The other important thing to note, however, is that the old man aligns himself with the sea in much the same way he aligned himself with the marlin. Those younger fishermen, after all, are the ones who think of the sea as a “contestant” or an “enemy” – but the old man is decidedly not like those young men. By juxtaposing the male characterization of the sea by the younger fishermen with Santiago’s female characterization of the sea, the novel shows that Santiago must think of the sea not as a contestant or enemy, like the younger fishermen, but as a partner or a friend. He admits as much in the next paragraph when he writes that he was “drifting with the current” and “letting the current do a third of the work” – as if he were one with the la mar, the feminine sea.

Indeed, if the novel casts the marlin as the manifestation of the man’s desire for masculinity, then the sea is a manifestation of his feminine leanings. This, it seems, is the central conflict of the novel’s gender narrative – that Santiago, the old man who feels alienated from his body, aligns himself with both the feminine sea and the masculine marlin. In presenting this conflict, the novel solidifies the old man as gender-queer, neither fully male nor fully female, stuck somewhere in between. The funny thing about re-masculinization narratives, after all, is that they must inherently admit that the gender of the de-masculinized character isn’t all that settled to begin with.

The other vital thing to notice about this passage, though, is that the novel becomes self-conscious of the problem of gender construction – it acknowledges a degree of Nietzschean anti-essentialism when it comes to gender, letting different people assign opposite genders to the same object, an object that has no biological sex itself. It admits that gender is unsettled and ambiguous, constructed by forces external to the object itself. Nietzsche tells us that this is bound to create some level of anxiety, for “only by forgetting this primitive world of metaphor can one live with any repose, security, and consistency” (Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense,” 1873). Anti-essentialism, however, wants us to transcend this anxiety – it wants us to learn to embrace this ambiguity. Having become aware the anxiety of ambiguity, then, its up to the novel, in its resolution of this conflict in the gender narrative, to say whether or not it thinks the transcendence of gender is possible.

The climax of this conflict comes at the end of the old man’s battle with the marlin. Here’s the passage:

The old man dropped the line and put his foot on it and lifted the harpoon as high as he could and drove it down with all his strength, and more strength he had just summoned, into the fish’s side just behind the great chest fin that rose high in the air to the altitude of the man’s chest. He felt the iron go in and he leaned on it and drove it further and then pushed all his weight after it.

Maybe you already see where this is going: the narrative of gender takes an erotic twist, with the language of sexuality tacking itself onto the image of the harpoon stabbing the fish. The old man lifted the harpoon and “drove it down with all his strength,” “felt the iron go in” and “drove it further,” pushing all his weight against it. The phallic image of the harpoon stabbing the marlin transforms the killing of the fish into a homoerotic act, since the marlin had already been constructed as the old man’s masculine counterpart. But if the iron rod of the harpoon becomes a manifestation of the old man’s masculinity, then a gender reversal occurs: the marlin, as the recipient of male penetration, is feminized.

In feminizing the marlin in the moment of the man’s victory over it, the novel temporarily allows the old man to reclaim his masculine identity – he even says “I think the great DiMaggio would be proud of me today.” Those of you who know the novel, though, know that the man’s victory is doesn’t last. As the old man heads back to the shore, his fresh kill in tow, the marlin is continually attacked by sharks, who eat away the flesh from its bones. At first glance, this seems to be yet another threat to the man’s masculinity by another masculine figure – sharks, after all, are strong, scary, seemingly unbeatable creatures who, at least in the traditional cultural imagination, are able to kill almost anything in their path (especially humans, in the style of Jaws.) But careful attention to the language here reveals the sharks not as masculine in their own right, but as products of the feminine sea. “The shark was not an accident,” the novel reads; “he had come up from deep down in the water,” creating an image of the sharks emerging from the sea’s hidden depths. In a way, the sharks are cast more as a cruel trick of the sea than as an enemy in and of themselves. But add to this the defining feature of sharks, which is, of course, their teeth – as the novel describes it, the “clicking chop” of their “thrusting, all-swallowing jaws.” When the novel portrays these toothy creatures as being products of the feminine sea, it seems to be conjuring up an image of the vagina dentata – the vagina with teeth. The result, of course, is female penetration, which masculinizes the feminine figure. Almost instantaneously, then, the novel experiences another gender reversal, the feminine sea becoming masculine. Furthermore, the image of the vagina dentata connotes a fear of male castration, which constitutes a de-masculinization of the male figure – which, in this case, is the old man, whose masculinity is once again under threat. After all, having been feminized by male penetration, the dead fish had became a symbol of the man’s masculinity; but when the sharks begin attacking the marlin, the novel states that, to Santiago, “when the fish had been hit it was as though he himself were hit.”

The novel’s resolution of the old man’s conflicting gender identities, then, is two-fold. First, in instantaneously reversing the genders of both the fish and sea, the novel admits that there is nothing concrete about gender, as the gender characterizations of the sea and the marlin are fluid, able to change. If the sea and the marlin can be either male or female, then it must be that they are at once both and neither. The novel allows them qualities of both masculinity and femininity without fully committing to either identity. This results in the dissolution of gender entirely, as the novel, having blurred its gender characterizations of the fish and the sea, affirms that gender identity is not intrinsic to an object itself. The secondary result, then, is that the old man, now unable to identify with either the gender-less fish and sea, is unable to reclaim his masculinity. The re-masculinization narrative is left nullified, unfulfilled. By the time the old man returns to the shore, after all, the marlin, which had been the symbol of his masculinity, has been completely eaten by the sharks, reduced to merely its skeletal remains, no longer identifiable as male or female.

While the novel does succeed in the dissolution of gender, it does so not triumphantly, but tragically. It laments the defeat of the old man’s masculinity. As he rows back to shore, trying to fend off the sharks, the old man seems to lose his motivation to fight – “I hope so much I do not have to fight again,” he thinks, his surrendering to the sharks indicating that he has finally surrendered his masculinity. Indeed, the novel portrays the old man as having been defeated; “they beat me,” he says to Manolin, telling him that he is “not lucky anymore.” Ultimately, the novel is unable to transcend the insecurity that comes with anti-essentialism, opting instead to portray the dissolution of gender as the end of life, the end of personhood, leaving the old man in a state of non-existence and non-identity – for as the man pulls back to the shore, re-entering the world after his battle at sea, the novel states that “he felt that perhaps he was already dead.” In the end, the novel grants the man no security in his non-masculinity; instead, he goes back to his bed and sleeps for days, “dreaming about the lions” – popularly thought of as the “king of the jungle,” a symbol of masculine domination over nature. Although the old man now knows he cannot be masculine, it seems the novel does not let him accept it.

But although the novel does not celebrate the deconstruction of gender, providing no vision of transcendence, it does reveal itself to be highly critical of gender essentialism. The novel systematically projects the language of gender and sexuality onto its inhuman objects, and designates its main character as the non-binary center of gender conflict; and in the end, it resolves this conflict not in a triumphant affirmation of traditional gender orthodoxy nor in the celebration of its transcendence, but deems the conflict tragically irreconcilable, leaving main character trapped in non-identity. Indeed, it turns out that one of American literature’s favorite wise-old-men turns out to be not so comfortable with his gender identity – and the novel’s claim seems to be that if he cannot conform to the gender binary, then he cannot continue to exist. But perhaps the narrative’s saving grace might be that it doesn’t treat its non-binary object as an outcast to be ridiculed, as many popular narratives tend to do – you’d need, say, Silence of the Lambs for that. No, this narrative treats it’s non-binary figure as a tragic protagonist, a victim of external forces whose downfall is no fault of its own. Indeed, one of the reasons the old man is such a beloved character is that readers tend to be sympathetic towards the old man in his struggle and ultimate plight – they feel sorry for him, maybe even empathetic. Given the novel’s gender narrative that we’ve just uncovered, though, in which the plight of the old man is the result of his status as non-binary, I don’t think its much of a stretch to suggest that if your average American reader feels sympathy for the old man, it must mean that your average American reader, whether or not they recognize it, doesn’t actually believe in, or maybe is even opposed to, the very construct of the gender binary.