Cultural Capital in The Halfway House

In The Halfway House, those living in the home struggle to find their personal identities, often lost in a world which abuses their rights as individuals.  One way in which some of the characters do succeed in differentiating themselves is through cultural capital. At first the halfway house appears to be at the very bottom of the “cultural capital” ladder. However, one of the things that this book so aptly brings to light is the hidden culture, and use of “cultural capital,” which exists within the confines of the house.

Cultural capital becomes an extremely important tool for to those who know how to use it. While other means of capital are withheld from the members of the house, particularly financial capital, cultural capital is something that some of the characters are able to use to their benefit. The clearest example of this is William’s use of cultural capital. His literacy and interest in books clearly separates him from the other “insane” members of the house. Arsenio, the manager of the house, acknowledges this at one point:

He looks at the books I [William] have in my hand… “you’re not crazy,” he [Aresnio] says (45).

William is very conscious of the cultural capital that he maintains and he uses that capital to his benefit. The books and his literary knowledge of them put him a step above the rest, his intellect allowing him to “pass,” to some extent, into the world of the “sane.” When, at the end of the book, William needs the help of Dr. Paredes, he again uses cultural capital for personal gain. By talking about Hemingway with the doctor, William is respected in the world of the “sane” and uses that for his own good.

The use of cultural capital in The Halfway House made me think about how we define notions of “sane” and “insane.” If cultural capital can be used as a way to define oneself as “sane,” or at least more sane, is our notion of sanity to some extent a measured by our ability and/or willingness to use capital – cultural, financial or otherwise – to adjust ourselves socially? In other words, does access to capital give you access to the mainstream world of the “sane?”  This seems highly problematic to me, particularly because we tend to think of sanity as something that is rooted in the interior (perhaps problematic in itself). In this book, however, sanity tends to be greatly defined by one’s means to capital.

Williams uses cultural capital to bring himself into the world of the sane. Mr. Curbelo, the owner of the house, uses financial capital to maintain his authority as the “sane” one, even though his sadistic practices affecting the housemates seem as disturbed as some of the “insane” house members’ deranged practices. Arsenio uses his position of power as a form of capital, even though William often appears saner than Arsenio. It is important to differentiate between these different types of capital, since clearly financial capital is different than cultural capital. But it does seem troublesome to me that access to these forms of capital can define someone as sane, when many who are labeled as “insane” and living in the halfway house may have simply been denied access to these forms of capital.

How, then, is sanity really being defined? Is the relationship of sanity to capital a uniquely American, “capitalistic” notion? Is Rosales’ critique of capitalism and consumer culture also, in this light, a critique of the way in which we define sanity/insanity? I think its important to look at how we as the reader and how the book in the context of American society labels certain individuals as sane/insane. We tend to think of insanity as an interior quality of the individual, when in reality it may be defined by that individual’s access to exterior means.

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