Summary and Analysis: At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers by Salman Rushdie
The action takes place in a saleroom, where magic ruby slippers are auctioned. The narrator says that nowadays people rarely venture out of their bunkers. In the saleroom, there are cuspidors and psychiatrists in confessionals booths in case people get physically sick or need solace. The Auctioneers don’t allow any priests in.
Nowadays, most people are sick. Obstetricians and straitjackets are close at hand in case of unexpected deaths, births, or bouts of madness.
The ruby slippers are behind bullet-proof glass. There are movie stars in the saleroom. Each of them has an aura, which has been engineered by masters of Applied Psychics. The auras reflect the roles that the actors specialise in.
The saleroom is full of ‘memorabilia junkies’. One of them kisses the cage with the ruby slippers and gets an electric shock. The partner of the first victim follows in her footstep.
In the saleroom, there is a fancy dress party with Wizards, Lions, Scarecrows, and Totos. Not many Tin Men showed up, because the costume is particularly uncomfortable. Some Totos are copulating, and the janitor has to intervene.
The narrator observes that nowadays the public is easily offended and that it is easy to claim the high moral ground.
Pools of saliva are forming around the ruby slippers. The Latino janitor cleans up after drooling people.
Behaviourist philosophers and quantum scientists have come to take advantage of this rare opportunity to experience the truly miraculous.
All kinds of people gather around the ruby slippers: exiles, displaced people, the homeless. People have to brave the danger and violence of the outside world for a glimpse of the miraculous shoes.
SWAT teams are summoned to deal with the homeless, who enjoy the food. The homeless are beaten and eventually they are going to be driven out of the city:
They will be deposited some distance beyond the city limits, out there in that smoking no-man’s-land surrounded by giant advertising hoardings into which we venture no more.
Political refugees, conspirators, deposed monarchs, defeated factions, poets, and bandit chieftains are at the auction. Women wear luscious attire depicting great works of art, which, however, fails to eclipse the ruby slippers. Groups of antagonistic political refugees attack each other.
People in the saleroom worship the ruby slippers, because they believe that the shoes can protect them from the witches.
Some religious fundamentalists criticise the worship of the ruby slippers. They want to buy the ruby slippers to destroy them. The liberal faction of the Auctioneers would allow this, as they only care about the money.
Orphans arrive, because they hope that the ruby slippers can reunite them with their dead parents. The saleroom is populated with social outcasts.
The narrator observes that the concept of home has become problematic. The narrator starts doubting that the ruby slippers could restore an uncomplicated meaning of home.
There are imaginary beings in the saleroom: children from nineteenth-century Australian paintings, literary characters, aliens. The narrator expresses his views on immigration in the following way:
This permeation of the real world by the fictional is a symptom of the moral decay of our post-millennial culture. Heroes step down off cinema screens and marry members of the audience. Will there be no end to it? Should there be more rigorous controls?
According to him, most people are against the free migration of fictional characters, because they are a strain on already scarce resources in the real world.
The narrator then talks about his cousin Gale, whom he considers the love of his life. She used to moan loudly during love making, which would arouse the narrator, especially when she shouted:
“Home, boy! Home, baby, yes – you’ve come home!”
One day, the narrator found out that Gale was having an affair with an escapee from a caveman film. The narrator has been bitter ever since and has been spreading gossip about Gale. The narrator never stopped reminiscing about Gale, which led him to create a fictional version of her.
One time, the narrator saw Gale in a bar. Gale was watching a TV programme about an astronaut who was hopelessly stranded on Mars. The astronaut was singing popular songs, including some from The Wizard of Oz. Gale started crying.
When the narrator heard about the auction of the ruby slippers, he decided to buy them for Gale at any cost. She could use them to bring the astronaut back home if she so desired.
The narrator enlists some of the things that have been auctioned in the Grand Saleroom: the Taj Mahal, the Statue of Liberty, the Alps, the Sphinx, wives, husbands, state secrets, human souls.
The bidding of the slippers begins. Shortly, the bids skyrocket.
The narrator reminisces about a time when he acted as a proxy for a rich widower, who had instructed him to acquire a pair of edible rice-paper panties at all costs. The bids went so high that the narrator bailed out. When he told the widower about it, the latter was only interested in the final price, a five-figure sum.
The bids for the ruby slippers keep going higher and higher. People don’t pay attention to explosions and screams in the street, as they are used to violence. The narrator is the only person left bidding against heads on screens and voices on phones.
The price rises so high that:
There is a loss of gravity, a reduction in weight, a floating in the capsule of the struggle. The ultimate goal crosses a delirious frontier. Its achievement and our own survival become – yes! – fictions.
The narrator cautions that in the grip of fiction, people do insane things such as sell their children.
In the end, the narrator lets go of the ruby slippers and Gale.
Next week, there is another auction, this time of lineages and family trees.
Religion and Primitivism
The story depicts the Western contemporary world in a dystopian light. Although the West presents itself as the cradle of civilisation, Rushdie proves that the culture is based on primitive and irrational values, such as the cult of money and celebrities.
Colonialism tends to construct non-Western societies as primitive and irrational to justify the civilising mission and establish colonial domination. Rushdie’s story undermines these colonial relations of power.
Rushdie invests Western liberal symbols with religious meaning:
psychiatrists of varying disciplines have been installed in strategically located neo-Gothic confessional booths to counsel the sick at heart.
Here, psychiatrists replace priests. The implication is that Western psychiatry serves the same function as religion. Science is just a facade that conceals the West’s irrationality.
The mindless cult of commodities and celebrities is also irrational at hear:
When one of us collides with a star’s priceless (and fragile) aura, he or she is instantly knocked to the floor by a security team and hustled out to the waiting paddy-wagons.
The tone of this passage is ironic. It ridicules the arbitrary way in which we put some people on a pedestal. The cult of celebrities prevents any notion of a rational, equal society.
Attitudes towards the ruby slippers verge on religious fanaticism and idolatry. The ruby slippers seem to possess god-like qualities:
The memorabilia junkies are out in predictable force, and now with a ducking movement of the head one of them applies her desperate lips to the slippers’ transparent cage, setting off the state-of-the-art defence system whose programmers have neglected to teach it about the relative harmlessness of such a gesture of adoration.
The narrator passes over the woman’s fate in a light-hearted, joking way:
The system pumps a hundred thousand volts of electricity into the collagen-implanted lips of the glass-kisser, terminating her interest in the proceedings.
In this society, commodities are valued higher than human life.
In this dystopian, neoliberal world, everything is up for sale. Moreover, this neoliberal space is based on violence and chaos.
They have emerged from their subterranean hollows and braved the bazookas, the Uzi-armed gangs high on crack or smack or ice, the smugglers, the emptiers of houses.
Neoliberalism depends on unrestricted and often immoral exchanges of goods and money. In the Grand Saleroom, everything is up for sale: state secrets, slaves, and lineages. The Auctioneers even put a price on human lives:
It is to the Auctioneers we go to establish the values of our pasts, of our futures, of our lives.
Rushdie illustrates the dangers of an extreme neoliberal economy in which money trumps humanity.
The Wizard of Oz
‘At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers’ extensively uses intertextuality.
Making reference or allusions to other texts, films, or works of art.
The story was inspired by a real auction of the ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz. In the film, the magic ruby slippers take Dorothy back home. Rushdie’s story features other characters from the film, such as Witches, Tin Men, Toto, Lions, and Scarecrows.
Gale is Dorothy’s surname. Gale in Rushdie’s story represents nostalgia for a long-lost home, ‘invaded’ by fictional migrants, and the desire to go back to the status quo. Gale has an affair with a fictional migrant, which plays into popular fears of overly sexual immigrants.
Migration and Multicultural Society
The saleroom is full of people from different realities (works of fiction) and displaced people. Virtually everyone shares in the migrant condition, even if only metaphorically.
This multicultural space isn’t peaceful. Different groups of refugees attack one another:
Incandescent as they are in their suits of light, the female political refugees fail to eclipse the ruby slippers, and huddle with their male comrades in small hissing bunches, periodically hurling imprecations, ink-pellets, spitballs and paper darts across the salon at rival clusters of émigrés.
Rushdie addresses the issue of immigration in a way that is familiar to us. We recognise the argument about the scarcity of resources or implementing stricter controls. Rushdie casts this familiar political debate in terms of migration from the fictional to the real world.
In Rushdie’s story, everyone’s identity proves to be fictional. Lineages are up for sale, which allows to invent one’s past. Nationalistic claims to ancestries, which validate belonging in a country, are fictions. Moreover, the narrator fictionalises Gale, the epitome of home and reality in his memory:
I am aware that, after all these years of separation and non-communication, the Gale I adore is not entirely a real person. The real Gale has become with my re-imagining of her, with my private elaboration of our continuing life together in a alternative universe devoid of ape-men.
Rushdie blurs the boundary between the real and the fictional. Opposition to fictional migrants becomes groundless, as there is no difference between ‘real’ and ‘imaginary’ characters.
Home and Belonging
The ruby slippers represent a yearning for an uncomplicated home. The feeling of belonging is commercialised.
Although at first everyone is unconditionally devoted to the ruby slippers, the narrator soon starts doubting as to whether the ruby slippers can restore an uncomplicated meaning of home. He voices his scepticism in a series of rhetorical questions:
How hard can we expect even a pair of magic shoes to work? They promised to take us home, but are metaphors of homeliness comprehensible to them, are abstractions permissible? Are they literalists, or will they permit us to redefine the blessed word?
Here the narrator recognises that home must be redefined. In multicultural society, home is no longer one’s nation.
Nations and the purity of blood are revealed to be fiction; lineages can be bought at auctions. Nationalism is no longer enough to foster a feeling of belonging.
However, no workable definition of home is offered. The ending is open; the narrator lets go of the old, narrow concept of home (represented by Gale) but doesn’t come up with any alternative, which could accommodate every displaced person.