by Marie Shelton, University of Notre Dame
The summer before I started college, I quit my job and boarded a Greyhound from San Diego to Boston. The journey took two and a half days. I stopped in LA, Vegas, Denver, Kansas City, St. Louis, Indianapolis, Columbus, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and New York to refuel. When I finally arrived in Boston, I felt I had been hit by a bus, instead of having taken a ride on one.
Stops were often in the middle of the night. I would unfold myself out of the seat like a bent paperclip, wake up my limbs, and do laps around the station, only to discover that those stations were often in the armpits of town – unkept and seedy. And in the wee hours, I wanted nothing more than to get back to my seat on the Greyhound.
I often think back and wonder, what was the most pleasurable part of that trip? Getting off the bus, or getting back on it?
Cheaper than the cost of driving or flying, taking a Greyhound bus feels as ubiquitous to the American experience as eating apple pie, but unlike apple pie, the Greyhound is, at best, an unconventional indulgence. On the one hand, boarding a Greyhound allows one to economically mobilize, to see the country, or to just get out – and to derive aesthetic pleasure from being transported by an icon across the American landscape. For a moment, one may even feel a flicker of something like freedom. On the other hand, the practical particulars of that journey, including loss of personal space, of time, or energy, very quickly conduce to feelings of exhaustion, and of the loss of the self. Just as the bus casually crosses state lines, onboard the bus, there is no escaping the challenge to one’s personal boundaries, at least not without looking like a total snob.
The Greyhound continues to be the site of many individual odysseys that, for a brief moment in time, merge. The Greyhound bus, from its 1914 nascence to now, has and continues to imbue the American cultural landscape with a distinctly literary set of questions. We might think of the Greyhound as the site of unique social transactions that help to shape a developing, democratic self. Characters who have the privilege of developing, as it were, do so in direct relation to their social restraints. This curious phenomenon is at least as ancient as Homer’s Odyssey (in relation to Odysseus), and appears as well in Frank Capra’s 1934 pre-code film, It Happened One Night, in relation to Ellie Andrews.
Book XII of the Odyssey features the dualistic impasses of pleasure and compulsion and of freedom and imprisonment when Odysseus and his crew face the alluring song of the sirens – a song that otherwise compels men to steer their ships into ruin. It is a test, and Odysseus passes it only by filling his crew’s ears with wax. He then has them tie him to the ship’s mast, as they row the ship to safety. This scene has been written on extensively by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno in Dialectics of Enlightenment as a moment that “mediates between self-preservation and self-annihilation.” Early in their work, they point to this moment in The Odyssey to allegorize what they mean by “dialectic of enlightenment,” which posits an age-old inquiry about the awakening and representation of the individual subject in relation to their social setting. Odysseus’s humanity in this scene is ironically represented by a continuum of restrictions to one’s personhood. Odysseus must violently deny the primal, pleasure-seeking self by having his body strapped to the ship’s mast in order to survive. But Horkheimer and Adorno are also quick to note that, in these actions, Odysseus is also individuating himself from his hoi polloi crew. Unlike the crew, who cannot listen because Odysseus has oppressively rendered them both senseless and practical (by filling their ears with wax), Odysseus allows himself to listen. In a setting of universal constraint (or death), Odysseus insists on exacting pleasure from the art of the Sirens’ song, even as he is bound to the ship’s mast, and this humanizes him.
We can read this configuration of a ‘privileged place’ within a social predicament alongside Ellie Andrew’s Odyssey-like journey on a Greyhound bus – a journey that allows her to make distinctions between merely illusory pleasure and the real thing. Ellie, played by Claudette Colbert, leaves her rich father, who insists on an annulment from her shotty marriage, by jumping off his boat. She so desires to be with a man that she hardly knows that desire absurdly compels her overboard. She washes up in Florida, hoping to get to New York to have a proper wedding, unencumbered by her father’s garrulous disapproval. With little money in her pocket, she boards a Greyhound and finds a strange bedfellow in Peter, played by Clark Gable. He is a tramp of a journalist, and she will, of course, fall in love with him instead.
The film’s exposition alone can be read alongside Book XII to suggest that Ellie appears to damn herself from the start. The siren’s song of the illusion of a pleasurable marriage to a wealthy New Yorker quite literally draws Ellie off a ship – not exactly into ruin, but certainly onto a Greyhound and beyond. On a meta-narrative level, her entire story is predicated upon falling into a pleasure trap. Part of the pleasure of the film, furthermore, arises from Ellie’s protracted realization that that which compelled her to jump ship – the rich husband she hardly knows– is actually only an illusion of pleasure. The delusional ephemerality of her condition is further indicated by the suggestion that her marriage remains unconsummated. In the opening scene, her father wants her to get an annulment, as opposed to a divorce. There is a heavy narrative suggestion here that she has not had sex with her husband yet.
Her intimacy with Peter on the Greyhound, on the other hand, alongside Peter’s loyal assistance in getting Ellie to her destination, runs counter to this background charade. Even if she and Peter do not have sex, it is still deeply ironic that she is so frequently depicted sleeping with Peter on her way to the husband whom she has not slept with.
One of the most heartbreaking ways that loyalty is depicted in the Odyssey happens to be through a greyhound dog: Odysseus’s faithful friend, “Argos.” Greyhound Lines Inc. adopted the image of a greyhound dog in 1929, just five years before the premiere of It Happened One Night, citing that the buses looked like “those dogs streaking by.” But even if the Greyhound bus company does not explicitly allude to Homer’s canine, the film is certainly conflating Peter with the bus he rides on, and in so doing, they make him Homeric. He is a wandering tramp of a journalist onboard of a Greyhound, loyally assisting a woman on her journey of self-discovery.
Argos features most pointedly in Book XVII, when Odysseus is disguised and cannot acknowledge him. Odysseus has not seen him since before the Trojan War, and Argos falls into neglect.
… a hound that lay there raised his head and pricked up his ears, Argos, the hound of Odysseus, of the steadfast heart, whom of old he had himself bred, but had no joy of him, for ere that he went to sacred Ilios. In days past the young men were wont to take the hound to hunt the wild goats, and deer, and hares; but now he lay neglected, his master gone, in the deep dung of mules and cattle, which lay in heaps before the doors, till the slaves of Odysseus should take it away to dung his wide lands. There lay the hound Argos, full of vermin; yet even now, when he marked Odysseus standing near, he wagged his tail and dropped both his ears, but nearer to his master he had no longer strength to move. Then Odysseus looked aside and wiped away a tear.
–Homer, Odyssey, Book 17, 290-327
Argos was that loyal friend Odysseus felt compelled to leave, seeking some other pleasure. Now, that friend is neglected: mangey and slow. This too appears to be the sad stakes for narratives of pleasure and compulsion. Those who get left behind suffer in direct proportion to those who orient their ships toward the siren’s rocks. What both greyhounds suggest in relation to one another are narratives that are concerned not only with adducing new and threatening forms of pleasure, but the loss of pleasures past.
It Happened One Night inverts this heuristic: in contrast to Argos’s tragic ending, our heroine’s journey begins with a light-hearted lurch: tight shots of the bus’s interior set the stage for some sort of disruptive action jarring the mundane flow of the Greyhound. When Ellie appears, the suspense is giggle-worthy: where other passengers pass through the crowded aisle with great dexterity, Ellie, in her naïve, snobbish care not to not touch other people, enters the scene looking clumsy and vulnerable. Intimacy is all but willed into hilarious being through the space and social dynamics of the Greyhound.
True to form, as the journey kicks into gear, the tottering Ellie falls backwards into Peter’s lap. Their faces slowly come together, as if for a kiss, before she scrambles to her feet. Peter recognizes Ellie as that ‘famous heiress’ in the papers he helps to write and he clearly knows that, socially, she in unfamiliar with scenes of accidental intimacy that prevail onboard the Greyhound. No one is going to strap her to ship’s mast so she can enjoy being tantalized from afar, and her embarrassment is a tell of her privilege. Peter cheekily grins and famously remarks,
“Next time you drop in, remember to bring your folks!”
Like the tilting of Argos’s head toward Odysseus, the lurch of the Greyhound bus is all that it takes for Ellie to recognize true, concrete pleasure – even if just for a moment. And Ellie’s social stumble invites our vicarious enjoyment. She immediately performs her embarrassment and musters a show of anger at her predicament, but we know better. She has just looked pleasure in the face, and any driving compulsion to get to her husband, as it were, peters down.
It is worth mentioning that these implicitly erotic moments onboard the Greyhound – quiet and humorous mediations of self-preservation and self-denial, from falling asleep next to a stranger to falling into their lap– become explicit as the narrative progresses. Thanks in part to its pre-code lack of censorship, Capra’s film rebelliously shows how Peter and Ellie’s sexual relationship develops in direct contradiction to the stagnant social mores of high society. Their relationship begins on a moving Greyhound, where it is more socially acceptable to be more intimate with one’s neighbor and then transitions to a scene in a single Depression-era hotel room. It is here that Peter famously constructs the “Walls of Jericho,” a makeshift privacy partition, between their two twin beds. In the film’s closing shot, the intimacy that bloomed between them on the Greyhound is symbolically consummated in an image of those sheets tumbling down.
By pairing The Odyssey and It Happened One Night, we can appreciate how the Greyhound bus, like its more canonical seagoing counterpart, functions as a site of intimacy and varying power relations. And we can see how faithful, greyhound-like characters (like Peter) act as key mediators for an individual’s development. Ellie’s narrative arc is attached not to the pursuit of pleasure alone (like Odysseus with the song of the sirens), but to her burgeoning ability to differentiate between illusory pleasure and the genuine article. Ellie achieves with loyal Peter a fruitful humility that Odysseus never really achieves, and she chooses a less privileged life when she decides to marry him. When the “Walls of Jericho” fall, she remains, as it were, buoyed on by the freedom of her greyhound.