In Prep, American class relations are primarily critiqued through the lens of privilege and inequality. At home, Lee's family has everything they need to live happily and comfortably: a house, food, work, and meaningful relationships in their community. Lee only feels poor when she is at school and realizes that the things her classmates feel entitled to are unheard of for her, or at least require an enormous amount of work for her to obtain. These things are not basic necessities—they include dinners at fine restaurants, private education, and ski vacations. In many cases, Lee's wealthy classmates desire these things only in part because they are inherently enjoyable. They also want them because purchases like expensive vacations signal wealth to peers. In this way, wealth is more complicated than the mere possession of material objects. It is a set of social codes and a way of showing one's worth to others. For this reason, Lee's family finds her desire to fit in at Ault somewhat mystifying and even insulting, since they feel that she has been given more than enough to live a satisfying life. For Lee, though, the urgent wish to gain wealth has much more to do with showing that she belongs among her Ault classmates.
Ault's students and faculty pride themselves on the school's lack of racism, but in most cases this simply means that racism is a taboo topic, making it impossible to overcome racism and inequality. Admittedly, Ault students are not overtly racist and rarely engage in offensive speech or direct exclusion of their minority peers. Racism appears in more insidious ways instead. At times, it emerges through tokenization and exotification. Lee notes, for instance, that Darden Pittard's popularity stems in part from his charisma and partly from others' self-congratulatory excitement at having a friend who is black and from the Bronx. At other times, racism at Ault manifests through a general assumption that minority students do not want or need the same things that others do. Lee engages in this kind of racism, for instance, when she reacts with disbelief to Sin-Jun's suicide attempt, having previously convinced herself that Sin-Jun's emotions and social needs were less complex and acute than her own. Finally, racism often intertwines with classism and wealth inequality. Since Ault's tuition is so high, its student body is homogenous and largely white, and for this reason, the school's curriculum, student life, and social atmosphere is generally constructed with the assumption that all students come from a wealthy white background.
Lee feels at best ambivalent about her Ault experience in retrospect, but in one area she is unequivocally grateful for the school: she feels strongly that she has received an excellent education, one far better than the one she would have gotten at her Indiana public school. In this regard, though, the theme of education intertwines with that of class. Lee, one of the best students at her middle school, is only able to get the benefit of an Ault education because of her extraordinary effort and the scholarship she wins. Her peers at Ault are mostly intelligent and have all been accepted to the school partly on the basis of academic achievement, but the fact remains that families who can afford the Ault tuition have a far higher chance of giving their children an Ault education than families like Lee's. Once she gets to Ault, Lee's experiences with a few teachers raise subtler questions about how children should be educated. The overly-earnest Ms. Moray, for instance, relies on grand gestures to teach students, and though Lee sympathizes with her in retrospect, she also notes the failure of this approach. Ms. Prosek, her math teacher, declines to advocate for Lee when she is at risk of expulsion for failing math, raising the question of how far teachers should go to help hardworking but struggling students.
Much as racism at Ault lies beneath a carefully regulated surface of equality, sexism and misogyny at are rarely talked about but influence much of what happens at the school. An early inkling of this occurs when Lee introduces Gates Medkowski, a senior prefect. She explains that the school now enforces a policy in which a girl and a boy are each elected to the role, since in previous years, only boys were ever elected. This is the type of inequality that characterizes Lee's schooldays: while in theory equality exists, girls are rarely treated with as much respect and reverence as boys, and gain respect only through official policies and rules. Because this sexism is subtle, it is hard to fight or even to identify, leaving Lee to turn her anger inward and blame herself for it. She notices, for instance, that boys at Ault seem to feel more confident and are subject to less judgment from others, but finds it hard to pinpoint a reason for this trend. Her rage finally emerges when she finds an undeniable instance of ill-intentioned misogyny: boys at Ault have kept a list categorizing the girls they have sex with as either "fish" or "cheese" based on what they smell and taste like, which Lee finds so insulting that it becomes an almost helpful target for her resentment.
Relationship Between Fantasy and Reality
Before coming to Ault, Lee projects a great deal of emotion onto images of the school. She looks at pictures of it in promotional materials and begins to feel an intense attachment to the students, campus locations, and traditions she sees. In the context of her life in Indiana, Lee feels that these photographs are uniquely hers, and this feeling of ownership lends her a sense of control. Once she arrives at Ault, though, her feelings become more complicated. At times she is thrilled by the sense of living out her fantasy, but more often she is alarmed by how much her fantasy differs from reality. This is only partially because of Ault's very real problems and Lee's loneliness there. It is equally due to the simple fact that Lee's fantasy cannot easily fuse with her reality: she has lost her feeling of ownership and control, since the students she once looked at through the lens of fantasy have become conscious people with their own will and choices.
Once she loses the ability to fantasize about Ault itself, Lee chooses new objects of affection—all of them distant enough from her everyday life to prevent the possibility that she will find them ruined by reality. At first, she projects her longings onto Gates Medkowski, and then onto Cross Sugarman. However, in the case of Cross, her fantasy is realized when he begins to pursue her. The reality both exceeds her fantasy and fails to live up to it, since Cross does not feel as strongly for her as she feels for him—in part, he implies, because she has defended herself against the possibility of disappointment by distancing herself from him.
Lee's experience with Cross Sugarman, her first sexual partner, is mixed. She enjoys spending time with him and looks back on him fondly, but often feels used by him, and they part on unsatisfying terms. However, it is the emotional component of their relationship that feels the most fraught. For the most part, Lee feels positively about her new sexual experiences. Sex allows her to feel less inhibited than she usually does at school, even while she is deeply insecure about the way she looks with her clothes off: the relief and excitement she feels when having sex is not entirely free of the gender inequality that haunts Ault, meaning that Lee is far more self-conscious than Cross. Still, the generally positive experiences Lee has in her early sex life are a notable departure from many coming-of-age novels, in which having sex is treated as a loss of purity or dignity for a teenage girl.
In spite of the joy Lee takes in sex, Sittenfeld establishes that sex, and the power dynamics that sometimes accompany it, result in upsetting or traumatizing memories for many Ault students. The best example of this is the boys' game of categorizing their sexual partners as either "fish" or cheese," thus taking advantage of their peers' trust and using sex as a means of reestablishing power over those peers.
Aging and Memory
The events described in Prep take place almost entirely during the four-year stretch in which Lee is a high-school student. However, the memories are filtered through the perspective of an adult Lee, remembering her schooldays at a distance. This creates additional tension in the text, since it allows for foreshadowing and dramatic irony, but this perspective plays a thematic role as well. Through the intervention of the older Lee, readers are able to see how her relationship to her youth evolves throughout her life. She continues to feel attached to these memories and feels strong emotion when she thinks about them, but her age has granted her perspective and the ability to articulate the sources of her rage and alienation during high school. This ability to name and articulate gives her a feeling of power and a sense of protective distance. She also is able to empathize more deeply with figures for whom she once felt complete antagonism, like Ms. Moray. In some ways, looking back from a distance makes Lee feel protected against threats that once felt immediate. In other ways, her perspective makes things more difficult: situations which once seemed clear-cut appear endlessly complicated.
Prep Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Prep is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.