American Religion, American Literature

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The Church and the Whorehouse: Prostitution and Redemption in Selected Works of American Literature

"The church and the whorehouse arrived in the Far West simultaneously. And each would have been horrified to think it was a different facet of the same thing." --John Steinbeck, East of Eden, Chapter 19.


As the framing quote from another prominent 20th century novelist suggests, the institutions of Christianity and prostitution share a long and intertwined history in both American religion and American literature. It is an uneasy relationship, yet also a symbiotic one, with each dependent on the other, and where lines of distinction between the two become blurred as functions overlap. Both institutions find voice in several of our texts for this course, and the literary medium in which these voices unfold often allows for insight into and dialogue between them that is rare outside the world of literature.

Wise Blood, Flannery O'Connor

In the first chapter of Wise Blood, we find the Christian worldview of O'Connor's protagonist, Hazel Motes, challenged when his fellow soldiers invite him to a brothel. While he rebuffs the invitation and their suggestion that he "didn't have any soul," we are told that he "took a long time to believe them because he wanted to believe them" (18). In this sense, the brothel can be seen as a pivotal catalyst for Motes' rejection of the inherited faith of his grandfather in favor of a more genuine and personal pursuit of spiritual truth.

The sprawling, Southern town of Taulkinham in Wise Blood perhaps allows for more geographic separation of church and brothel, but it should be noted Motes is able to find a prostitute immediately upon his arrival in town, on the semi-public forum of a public restroom.

Go Tell It On the Mountain, James Baldwin

Baldwin introduces the motif of prostitution just four paragraphs into his narrative, as John and Roy "watched a man and woman in the basement of a condemned house. They did it standing up. The woman had wanted fifty cents, and the man had flashed a razor. John had never watched again; he had been afraid. But Roy had watched them many times, and he told John he had done it with some girls down the block" (4). While this act of prostitution may not be a catalyst for future action, the brothers' reactions to it are at least representative of the spiritual path each will take, and serve to frame the rest of the story.

Further, in the opening pages of Go Tell It on the Mountain, we see that, like most things in the city, denizens of store-front church and "cat house" are pressed together in close proximity, passing one another in opposite directions on Sunday mornings (4). From his bedroom, John can hear the sounds of his parents' church-sanctioned sexual activity as well as the "music and cursing from the harlot's house downstairs" (5).

The Shawl, Cynthia Ozick

Rosa Lublin denies that she was forced into a German brothel as steadfastly as she denies that her daughter, Magda, has died. The reader is left with the clear impression, however, that both are true. Rosa's enforced prostitution might better be termed "rape" but this is, of course, true of much that we consider prostitution. Nevertheless, what Rosa treasures most in the world began in a brothel, and her strenuous efforts to recreate or "redeem" the story of Magda's conception and death by sheer force of imagination and pen--the creative word--seems to have strong biblical parallels.

The Autobiography of Malcom X

Other Works

Wise Blood

  • pp. 26 -- "Mrs. Leora Watts! 60 Buckley Road. The friendliest bed in town! Brother."
  • pp. 28-30 -- (first encounter with Leora Watts)
  • pp. 30 -- "Momma don't mind if you ain't a preacher."
  • pp. 56 -- (concerning Leora Watts) "It was plain that she was so well-adjusted that she didn't have to think any more."
  • pp. 56-58 (episode where young Haze pays 15 cents to see a naked woman in a carnival)
  • pp. 72 -- "There's no person a whoremonger, who wasn't something worse first," Haze said. "That's not the sin, nor blasphemy. The sin came before them."
  • pp. 76 -- (concerning Enoch) He visited a whore when he felt like it but he was always being shocked by the looseness he saw in the open."
  • pp. 117 -- "Dear Mary, What I really want to know is should I go the whole hog or not? That's my real problem. I'm adjusted okay to the modern world."
  • pp. 146 -- (Hawks to Sabbath after she fails to seduce Haze) "I'm leaving out of here in a couple of days," Hawks said, "you better make it work if you want to eat after I'm gone.""

Go Tell It on the Mountain

  • pp. 33 -- (movie watched by John) "The woman was most evil . . . She had a great many boyfriends, and she smoked cigarettes and drank. When she met the young man . . . she took his money and she went out with other men."
  • pp.68 -- (concerning Deborah)"Since she could not be considered a woman, she could only be looked on as a harlot, a source of delight more bestial and mysteries more shaking than any proper woman could provide."
  • pp.78 -- (Florence, considering Frank's mistress) "And she wondered again what Frank had seen in this woman, who, though she was younger than Florence, had never been so pretty, and who drank all the time, and who was seen with many men."
  • pp. 90 -- (concerning Gabriel) "He would escape into the starry night and walk until he came to a tavern, or to a house that he had marked already in the long daytime of his lust."
  • pp. 91 -- "Thus when he came to the harlot, he came to her in rage, and he left her in vain sorrow--feeling himself to have been, once more, most foully robbed, having spent his holy seed in a forbidden darkness where it could only die."
  • pp. 127 -- "It was in the womb of Esther, who was no better than a harlot, that the seed of the prophet would be nourished."
  • pp. 130 -- "How you going to be ruined? When you been walking through this town just like a harlot, and a-kicking up your heels all over the pasture?"
  • pp. 131 -- "I reckon you don't want no whore like Esther for your wife."
  • pp. 132 -- "I guess it takes a holy man to make a girl a real whore."
  • pp. 136 -- "There seemed no door, anywhere, behind which blood did not call out, unceasingly for blood; no woman . . . who had not seen her sister become part of the white man's great whorehouse, who had not, all too narrowly, escaped that house herself.
  • pp. 147 -- (Gabriel) "But I didn't want no harlot's son"
  • pp. 147 -- (Deborah) "Esther weren't no harlot."
  • pp. 155 -- "For her father ran what her aunt called a "house" -- not the house where they lived, but another house, to which, as Elizabeth gathered, wicked people often came.

The Shawl

  • What a curiosity it was to hold a pen . . . To retrieve, to reprieve! To lie."