In “The Essay as a Form,” Theodor Adorno stresses the importance of the essayist’s ability to reconsider our traditional idea of truth and deconstruct definitions as we have come to know them. He notes that, unlike methodical, organized dissertation, the essay remains skeptical of fundamental definitions, and recognizes that “the longing for strict definitions has long offered to eliminate the irritating and dangerous elements of things that live within concepts.” In “Red Shoes,” Susan Griffin examines several preconceived notions about the color red, the boundaries of fiction, and matters reserved for “private life.” Throughout the essay, she transitions from her intellectual examination of these concepts into italicized font that describes her adolescent experiences, and the two “aspects of (her) argument interweave as in a carpet.” This unconventional structure gives the reader the impression of reading two essays at once, and thus exemplifies her assertion that “the form of the essay circumscribes imagination. At its edges, many other imagined possibilities are hovering,” Though she never explicitly connects the portions written in italicized font with the ones written in straight font, memories of her grandmother and her mother “hover over” her thoughtful examination of gender roles in today’s society. Not only do they physically frame her intellectual discussion, they add perspective and experience that further enhances her theories. These snippets from her past illustrate the “private life” that she refers to, and she keeps them separate from the rest of the essay to highlight the mainstream understanding and distinction of private and public matters. As Griffin notes in her essay, “what goes on in the private body, in the inner quarters of the mind, cannot fully be redeemed, or even understood, without public acknowledgment.” The reader gets the sense that as she writes this essay, she is trying to bring to light observations from her past to further understand the public’s perception of “the private sphere of life, which is also the sphere of life given over to women.” She is revisiting her adolescent view of things like red lipstick, the difference between her grandmother and her grandfather’s dresser, and the significance of a hidden black robe in order to deconstruct our own definitions of larger issues at stake.
A central theme of this essay, as signified in the title, is the color red. Griffin discusses the color red in several contexts, and uses it to provide a concrete reference point for her more abstract discussion about gender roles. Adorno notes that “the way in which the essay appropriates concepts is most easily comparable to the behavior of a man who is obliged, in a foreign country, to speak that country’s language instead of patching it together from its elements, as he did in school. He will read without a dictionary. If he has looked at the same word thirty times, in constantly changing contexts, he has a clearer grasp of it than he would if he looked up all the world’s meanings; meanings that are generally too narrow, considering they change depending on the context, and too vague in view of the nuances that the contexts established in every individual case.” Griffin examines the color red in several contexts, including shoes, lipstick, hair dye, and an overheard remark on the color of roses. She also refers to the color white and black and uses this color association to subtly suggest to the reader that we can deconstruct ideologies the same way we can deconstruct color implications. The reader can almost visualize her, staring at her outgrown, scuffed up red shoes, wondering why they appealed to her so much when she was younger. Maybe she started asking herself questions, like what made the color red so appealing, despite its “impracticality?” and instead of reducing her affection for the shoes to a physical, juvenile attraction sparked by the vibrant color, she began to understand what the color represents to her. This is just speculation on my part, but the unusual composition of the essay combined with its inquisitive manner and the use of “free association artistically controlled,” helps her accomplishes what Aldous Huxley considers to be the most satisfying type of essay. Griffin is able to blend “generalization with the anecdote, the homily with the autobiographical reminiscence,” and “makes use of the concrete particular to express some universal truth,” and presents it in a way that suggests she is coming to these insights at the same time as the reader.