Tag: domestic violence

Chekhov, “Le Tragédien” (1883)

A high functionary’s daughter loves the theater. She has her father invite the troupe home. She runs off with the “tragédien.” They marry. He loses interest. She becomes a girl Friday. He beats her. She begs her father to send money. It is Chekhov distilled to Chekhov’s essence.

 

Les éclats, 1883

Maupassant, “Histoire d’une fille de ferme” (1881)

ƒhistoire d'une fille de ferme maupassantMaupassant likes his stories spiked with brutality. The domestic violence of “Le Noyé” gets gratuitous. So it does in “Histoire d’une fille de ferme,” which culminates with the farmer brutalizing Rose, the farmhand, because she won’t get pregnant. (“All boys are thus,” London writes in the Priestly Prerogative.”) That’s after he invites himself to her bed and essentially rapes her to take possession of her. Six years before Rose had a fling with another farmhand and got pregnant. She went away to be with her dying mother at the convenient time when she gave birth far from her village, so she could leave her son with others to raise and return to the farm, where she becomes very skilled at making money for her farmer in hopes of getting a raise. She doesn’t get a raise, but a marriage proposal from the farmer, which she rebuffs, because of her unspoken son, until he takes her. It goes well at first, then sours. He beats her up. She finally tells him why she’s not having another child, since she has one already (it’s a flaw in the story: what would keep her from getting pregnant again, since she’s obviously fertile?) The farmer becomes all soft and happy to adopt her son. And so it’s a happy ending.

As always in Maupassant stories, there are genial asides, like this: “Au milieu d’elles, le coq, superbe, se dressait. À chaque instant il en choisissait une et tournait autour avec un petit gloussement d’appel. La poule se levait nonchalamment et le recevait d’un air tranquille, pliant les pattes et le supportant sur ses ailes ; puis elle secouait ses plumes d’où sortait de la poussière et s’étendait de nouveau sur le fumier, tandis que lui chantait, comptant ses triomphes ; et dans toutes les cours tous les coqs lui répondaient, comme si, d’une ferme à l’autre, ils se fussent envoyé des défis amoureux.”

But there are also awfully prejudiced lines that accent Maupassant’s limitations: “Elle ne consentait pas, pour sûr, mais elle résistaitnonchalamment, luttant elle-même contre l’instinct toujours plus puissant chez les natures simples, et mal protégée par la volonté indécise de ces races inertes et molles.” The story’s shallow presumptions about Rose frame its soft-porn paternalism, the paternalism only amplified by the happy ending, which does not resolve the hell Rose had to go through, hiding, pretending, denying, and submitting to such denigration and violence before the farmer’s epiphany–not for Rose’s sake, but because he finally could have a son he could adopt and call his own. Rose remains a vessel, abused and stepped on, to the end.

La revue politique et litteraire, 26 mars 1881

Maupassant, “Le Noyé” (1888)

maupassant le noye

(Charles Patrick Ewing)

Désirée is the pretty daughter of a tavern-keeper in a seaside town, her looks easing patrons’ drinking, including that of Patin, who becomes obsessed with her and marries her. She is poor. He is a brute, his brutality announcing itself days after the marriage is consumed. She is used to paternal violence. She submits to her husband’s, a degree of violence that takes on spectacular proportions to the point of becoming a spectacle in ton. It’s not clear why Désirée’s father never intervenes, unless his habits would have made Patin’s more of a kin than a foe. One night Patin’s boat wrecks in a storm. He disappears. She is soon convinced to buy a parrot. The next day she hears Patin’s familiar insults, taunts, denigrations. It takes her a while to figure out that he’s not returned from the dead, at least not as himself. She believes he’s reincarnated in the parrot. “”Elle sentit, elle comprit que c’était bien lui, le mort, qui revenait, qui s’était caché dans les plumes de cette bête pour recommencer à la tourmenter, qu’il allait jurer, comme autrefois, tout le jour, et la mordre, et crier des injures pour ameuter les voisins et les faire rire.” So she kills the parrot by crushing it of her own weight, then dumps it in the sea. She returns to the cage and prays to god, believing she’d just committed a murder, though one cheered by every reader.

Le Gaulois du 16 aout 1888

Carver, “Nobody Said Anything” (1973)

nobody said anything carver

Zoetnet/Flicker

A young boy hears his parents arguing angrily for the nth time. It’s a poor family: he sleeps with his brother. He elbows him, looking for sympathy. His brother “is an asshole.” He pretends to be sick in the morning. When everyone leaves, he goes fishing. He’s horny. A pretty woman gives him a lift. He fantasizes about her. He fishes. He meets another boy who was also fishing. They compete for a steelhead they catch, eventually slicing it in half. He’s very proud. When he gets home, his father orders him to throw it in the trash. The parents are still arguing violently.

Seneca Review, May 1973

Pritchett, “The White Rabbit” (1930)

Fatal Attraction, Pritchett style.

Fatal Attraction, Pritchett style.

Mr. and Mrs Gough hire a nanny, Miss Spencer. Mr. Gough likes her. Mrs. Gough does not. It’s a tense household. “Only at night, when the household was horizontal and unconscious, did the skirmishing cease.” And: “The bang” was the most joyous sound in the house. It was the noise of father slamming the door as he left. There was no peace in the morning until it had sounded.” Spencer is caught between the two. On child, Geoffrey, calls the house cat “Spencer.” The other child threatens to tell. Then Spencer sees the cat poised to attack the children’s white rabbit, which had gotten away from his cage. The rabbit and the cat are proxies of the war in the house. Pritchett explains, once he gets past a clumsy simile: “A feint, thought Miss Spencer. Then her heart fluttered in wild, unreasonable panic like a pigeon startled out of the top of a tree. Was the cat going to kill the rabbit? Ought she to open the window and hiss the cat away? Whose side was she on? Mrs. Gough’s and the rabbit’s; or Mr. Gough’s and the cat’s? That is what it means, her heart said. She was startled by her avid desire to see what happened and she did nothing. I must be impartial: life must print itself …” The cat kills the rabbit. “Mummy! Mummy! Spencer’s killed the rabbit. Spencer’s killed the rabbit,” he yelled.

Chekhov, “The Classical Student,” “Où mènent les humanités” (1883)

chekhov

From Chekhov’s early gems. Vanya, a pious high school student, prepares for an exam in Greek, giving alms on the way in hops of getting a good mark. He doesn’t. He gets a 2. He remembers his mistakes. He’d put in white night after white night. Didn’t matter. When it came time to answer, he flubbed. His mother is incensed, mostly with herself for not having beaten him enough and not having the strength now to beat him some more. She implores a boarder to beat up her son for her. The boarder does. The child is then enrolled in a trade school for commerce. The story is a litany of invective as the reader is reduced to watching the demolition of promise, brutality’s misdirection of intellect by a mother too blinded by self-preservation to know patience or love. The boarder’s brutality is familiar to Chekhov, whose father was a brute.

Les éclats, 7 Mai 1883, Fell, 1915

Maupassant, “L’inutile beauté” (1890)

La comtesse de Mascaret, hautaine, dédaigneuse de son jaloux mari, qui s’impose pour l’accompagner au bois.

I like this description: “Ils montaient maintenant les Champs-Élysées, vers l’Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile. L’immense monument, au bout de la longue avenue, ouvrait dans un ciel rouge son arche colossale. Le soleil semblait descendre sur lui en semant par l’horizon une poussière de feu. Et le fleuve des voitures, éclaboussées de reflets sur les cuivres, sur les argentures et les cristaux des harnais et des lanternes, laissait couler un double courant vers le bois et vers la ville.”

He is a brute. She was forced to marry him by her parents, for his money. She’s never liked him, let alone loved him. “Vous m’avez donc achetee.” She tells him she’ll confess her feelings. Her name is Gabrielle. She is three months out from her last child. Her seventh. Three boys, four girls, the oldest is 10. He wants yet another. She is married 11 years, she’s 30. She, like a Wharton heroine, “ne veux plus être la victime de l’odieux supplice de maternité que vous m’imposez depuis onze ans ! je veux vivre enfin en femme du monde, comme j’en ai le droit, comme toutes les femmes en ont le droit.” Because as soon as she began to be devoted to him, to play the part of the loving wife, “vous êtes devenu jaloux, vous, comme aucun homme ne l’a jamais été, d’une jalousie d’espion, basse, ignoble, dégradante pour vous, insultante pour moi.” Impregnating her was his way of keeping her from other men. She didn’t realize it at first, “puis j’ai deviné. Vous vous en êtes vanté même à votre sœur, qui me l’a dit, car elle m’aime et elle a été révoltée de votre grossièreté de rustre.” [How repulsive: she’s right to rebel.]

And this devastating passage: “Ah ! rappelez-vous nos luttes, les portes brisées, les serrures forcées ! À quelle existence vous m’avez condamnée depuis onze ans, une existence de jument poulinière enfermée dans un haras. Puis, dès que j’étais grosse, vous vous dégoûtiez aussi de moi, vous, et je ne vous voyais plus durant des mois. On m’envoyait à la campagne, dans le château de la famille, au vert, au pré, faire mon petit. Et quand je reparaissais, fraîche et belle, indestructible, toujours séduisante et toujours entourée d’hommages, espérant enfin que j’allais vivre un peu comme une jeune femme riche qui appartient au monde, la jalousie vous reprenait, et vous recommenciez à me poursuivre de l’infâme et haineux désir dont vous souffrez en ce moment, à mon côté. Et ce n’est pas le désir de me posséder – je ne me serais jamais refusée à vous – c’est le désir de me déformer.”

He reasserts himself physically as the carriage takes them to the park, forcibly, telling her he’s the master and the law is on his side. It’s domestic violence, pure and simple: “Vous voyez bien que je suis le maître, dit-il, et le plus fort.”

He agrees to her proposition to go to a church. They turn around. And then she tells him: one of the seven children is not his. It was her “unique vengeance” against him, “contre votre abominable tyrannie de mâle, contre ces travaux forcés de l’engendrement auxquels vous m’avez condamnée. Qui fut mon amant ? Vous ne le saurez jamais ! Vous soupçonnerez tout le monde. Vous ne le découvrirez point. Je me suis donnée à lui sans amour et sans plaisir, uniquement pour vous tromper. Et il m’a rendue mère aussi, lui. Qui est son enfant ? Vous ne le saurez jamais. J’en ai sept, cherchez ! Cela, je comptais vous le dire plus tard, bien plus tard, car on ne s’est vengé d’un homme, en le trompant, que lorsqu’il le sait. Vous m’avez forcée à vous le confesser aujourd’hui, j’ai fini.”

He spares her the beating she expected. Dinner. He examines his children “avec des yeux incertains qui allaient d’une tête à l’autre, troublés d’angoisses.” She swears the truth of what she said. In bed later, knowing he’s coming, she hides a gun. “Elle attendait, énergique et nerveuse, sans peur de lui maintenant, prête à tout et presque triomphante, car elle avait trouvé pour lui un supplice de tous les instants et de toute la vie.” But he doesn’t show. He tells her by letter he’s going on a long trip.

Suddenly, we get part III.

I love it. But it breaks the dramatic flow of the story entirely. It’s a socio-philosophical disquisition between two men. (Men, of course: the irony.) It’s a great exchange, but does it belong in such a raw form?

At the opera, a few years later (actually, six) two men gossip about the couple, seeing her radiant, having seen Mascaret worried, getting old. The men are Bernard Grandin and Salinas. But one of the men, Salins, has a social conscience, pitying woman. Why? “Pourquoi ? Ah ! mon cher, songe donc ! Onze ans de grossesses pour une femme comme ça ! quel enfer ! C’est toute la jeunesse, toute la beauté, toute l’espérance de succès, tout l’idéal poétique de vie brillante, qu’un sacrifice à cette abominable loi de la reproduction qui fait de la femme normale une simple machine à pondre des êtres.” The other guy says it’s “la nature.” But the conscious one persist: “Oui, mais je dis que la nature est notre ennemie, qu’il faut toujours lutter contre la nature, car elle nous ramène sans cesse à l’animal.” It’s a humanist speech, rejecting god and honoring mankind.

Back to the couple, as they return home from the opera (just as in all TV shows: the conversation in the car), but there’s nothing humanistic about Mascaret’s begging of his wife to reveal who the odd child is. He says he’s been going crazy all these years trying to figure it out. “Est-ce que j’aurais accepté, sans cela, l’horreur de vivre à votre côté, et l’horreur, plus grande encore, de sentir, de savoir parmi eux qu’il y en a un, que je ne puis connaître, et qui m’empêche d’aimer les autres.” But isn’t that cruel? How is the fact that he’s not the biological father stopping him from being a father? The limits of enlightened thinking, even by Maupassant.

Even worse: he tells her he didn’t kill her six years before not because it’s morally wrong, because it would orphan the children, but because he would have never found out who his non-biological child is. This is awful. So is this: “J’ai attendu, mais j’ai souffert plus que vous ne sauriez croire, car je n’ose plus les aimer, sauf les deux aînés peut-être ; je n’ose plus les regarder, les appeler, les embrasser, je ne peux plus en prendre un sur mes genoux sans me demander : « N’est-ce pas celui-là ? »”

Then she doubles down with their awfulness, telling him she never lied, she never cheated on him, they’re all his. And he triples down: how is he going to trust her at all, from now on? How can he not continue to doubt? She tells him had she not lied she’d have continued to make babies, but, she says, triumphantly, “Je suis, nous sommes des femmes du monde civilisé, monsieur. Nous ne sommes plus et nous refusons d’être de simples femelles qui repeuplent la terre.” [This is a fantastic story for Alabama legislators]

Then Maupassant gives Mascaret this epiphany, as he finally believes his wife: “Alors, il sentit soudain, il sentit par une sorte d’intuition que cet être-là n’était plus seulement une femme destinée à perpétuer sa race, mais le produit bizarre et mystérieux de tous nos désirs compliqués, amassés en nous par les siècles, détournés de leur but primitif et divin, errant vers une beauté mystique, entrevue et insaisissable. Elles sont ainsi quelques-unes qui fleurissent uniquement pour nos rêves, parées de tout ce que la civilisation a mis de poésie, de luxe idéal, de coquetterie et de charme esthétique autour de la femme, cette statue de chair qui avive, autant que les fièvres sensuelles, d’immatériels appétits.
L’époux demeurait debout devant elle, stupéfait de cette tardive et obscure découverte, touchant confusément la cause de jalousie ancienne, et comprenant mal tout cela.”

See full story: http://athena.unige.ch/athena/selva/maupassant/textes/beaute.html