Tag: hypocrisy

Wharton, “Autre Temps” (1911)

edith wharton autre temps

Ferry In New York Harbor, 1890s. (NYPL)

The hyper-sensitive Mrs. Lidcote is returning from Florence to New York to see her daughter, whom she fears is repeating her own error. We never know quite what Mrs. Lidcote’s error was. She scandalized Old New York and had to go into exile for 18 years in more tolerant Florence, probably with another man. Her daughter Leila appears to be going down the same path, but a friend of Mrs. Lidcote she meets on board ship, the seemingly good and kind Franklin Ide, tells her not to worry: New York has changed. Leila will be fine, whatever her choices. They’re in new York Harbor by now. Franklin is making subtle advances. Mrs. Lidcote doesn’t reject them.

“There’s no old New York left, it seems,” she realizes. As she does her diminishing place in the world: “Yes, yes; I’m happy. But I’m lonely, too—lonelier than ever. I didn’t take up much room in the world before; but now—where is there a corner for me?” And : “Where indeed in this crowded, topsy-turvey world, with its headlong changes and helter-skelter readjustments, its new tolerances and indifferences and accommodations, was there room for a character fashioned by slower sterner processes and a life broken under their inexorable pressure?” Franklin makes his proposal more explicit, but we don’t know if it’s a proposal of marriage or merely of an affair. But it reawakens in Mrs. Lidcote the urge, the verve and impulse that had caused her to elope in her younger years, this time seemingly at no cost to her reputation:

If the old processes were changed, her case was changed with them; she, too, was a part of the general readjustment, a tiny fragment of the new pattern worked out in bolder freer harmonies. Since her daughter had no penalty to pay, was not she herself released by the same stroke? The rich arrears of youth and joy were gone; but was there not time enough left to accumulate new stores of happiness? That, of course, was what Franklin Ide had felt and had meant her to feel. He had seen at once what the change in her daughter’s situation would make in her view of her own. It was almost—wondrously enough!—as if Leila’s folly had been the means of vindicating hers.

And:

She had had what she wanted, but she had had to pay too much for it. She had had to pay the last bitterest price of learning that love has a price: that it is worth so much and no more. She had known the anguish of watching the man she loved discover this first, and of reading the discovery in his eyes. It was a part of her history that she had not trusted herself to think of for a long time past: she always took a big turn about that haunted corner. But now, at the sight of the young man downstairs, so openly and jovially Leila’s, she was overwhelmed at the senseless waste of her own adventure, and wrung with the irony of perceiving that the success or failure of the deepest human experiences may hang on a matter of chronology.

Her daughter is suspiciously over-solicitous, patronizing, almost dismissive of her mother, and ultimately segregating: Leila sends the insufferable Susy Suffren to keep Mrs. Lidcote company and serve her tea, but really to keep her from coming downstairs among Leila’s friends. Suffren infantilizes Mrs. Lidcote as if she were old enough for Donald Hall: “When a woman writes to the newspaper, approving of something I have done,” he wrote in Essays After Eighty, “she calls me “a nice old gentleman.” She intends to praise me, with “nice” and “gentleman.” “Old” is true enough, and she lets us know that I am not a grumpy old fart, but “nice” and “gentleman” put me in a box where she can rub my head and hear me purr. Or maybe she would prefer me to wag my tail, lick her hand, and make ingratiating dog noises. At a family dinner, my children and grandchildren pay fond attention to me; I may be peripheral, but I am not invisible. A grandchild’s college roommate, encountered for the first time, pulls a chair to sit with her back directly in front of me, cutting me off from the family circle: I don’t exist.”

That’s pretty much how Suffren treats Mrs. Lidcote. But Wharton’s superb descriptions of the dynamic between the two women, of Lidcote’s forceful, nearly unspoken rejoinders and rejections of Suffren’s imprisonment, restore Lidcote’s dignity, to the reader’s cheers–only for Leila to resume the assault, and win, her mother feeling too indulgent toward her daughter to deny her the triumph: one of the guests after all was the fearsome Mrs. Boulger, and the purpose of the evening was to secure Leila’s husband an appointment to Rome. Lidcote’s presence would have complicated matters. “Leila was in an agony lest I should come down to dinner the first night. And it was for me she was afraid, not for herself. Leila is never afraid for herself,” her mother reasons, not entirely correctly but lovingly, which has precedence in this heart of hers (as it does not in Ide’s). She decides to return to Florence, “which held her past in every fold of its curtains and between every page of its books, seemed now to her the one spot where that past would be endurable to look upon.” And Ide? He turns out to be as much of a cad as the rest of them.

The money quote:

It’s simply that society is much too busy to revise its own judgments. Probably no one in the house with me stopped to consider that my case and Leila’s were identical. They only remembered that I’d done something which, at the time I did it, was condemned by society. My case has been passed on and classified: I’m the woman who has been cut for nearly twenty years. The older people have half forgotten why, and the younger ones have never really known: it’s simply become a tradition to cut me. And traditions that have lost their meaning are the hardest of all to destroy.”

Century Magazine, July 1911 (as “Other Times, Other Manners”), “Xingu,” 1916.

Maupassant, “La maison Tellier” (1881)

“L’on allait là, chaque soir, vers onze heures, comme au café, simplement.“ a house of prostitution, unremarquable, beloved, in the country. Five women and Madame, the widow and her “intarissable bonne humeur.” The house is busy. Madam runs it like Cheers: everyone knows your name with complete discretion, so the bourgeois can keep coming. One night the house is shuttered. Man after man encounter each other, wander about town, their numbers and disappointment increasing proportionately. They bicker, just as a bunch of equally disappointed sailors make noise. French and British sailors brawl. The six bourgeois eventually split. “Seul, un homme errait toujours, M. Tournevau, le saleur, désolé d’attendre au prochain samedi ; et il espérait on ne sait quel hasard, ne comprenant pas, s’exaspérant que la police laissât fermer ainsi un établissement d’utilité publique qu’elle surveille et tient sous sa garde.” The ostensible cause of the closure? A first communion.

No joke. Madame takes her entire brood to her brother’s place for her 12-year-old niece’s the ceremony. In the train, it’s a whole ménage with a  jarretières salesman. Joy. He wants them to try them on. One by one they do, letting him up their legs. (Maupassant was up on his porn-acteress names even then: Flora Balançoire). Others on the train are incensed, blaming “ce satané Paris.’” At Oissel Joseph Rivet the carpenter picks up the jarretièred brood in a carriage.at The Rivets’, it’s a feast: whores or not, everyone is family. Or so it seems. When they all take a stroll through the village of ten homesteads, “chacun suivait longtemps du regard toutes les belles dames de la ville qui étaient venues de si loin pour la première communion de la petite à Joseph Rivet.” no one knows they’re whores. A superb detail: “Lorsque rentra la petite fille, ce fut sur elle une pluie de baisers ; toutes les femmes la voulaient caresser, avec ce besoin d’expansion tendre, cette habitude professionnelle de chatteries…” they pet the girl with abandon.

Then the quiet of the country night: “Les filles, accoutumées aux soirées tumultueuses du logis public, se sentaient émues par ce muet repos de la campagne endormie. Elles avaient des frissons sur la peau, non de froid, mais des frissons de solitude venus du cœur inquiet et troublé.” And a daring detail: Rosa is alone. She can’t sleep. She’s not used to sleeping alone. She hears Constance, the girl also unused to sleeping out of her room, crying. She takes her in her bed: a substitute trick. “Et jusqu’au jour la communiante reposa son front sur le sein nu de la prostituée.”

The next day, the great ceremony, the carpenter’s pride, the girl’s entourage on its way to the “house of God,” all of them beautiful Magdalens not quite yet washing Christ’s feet. The train of ironies. The village is breathless at the sight of the beauties surrounding the little girl. In church, Rosa cries, remembering her own first communion. (Isn’t it always so?) it’s contagious. Louise and Flora turn into Florida storms. Then Madame. Then the entire church. The comic of the scene is moving. “ Hommes, femmes, vieillards, jeunes gars en blouse neuve, tous bientôt sanglotèrent, et sur leur tête semblait planer quelque chose de surhumain, une âme épandue, le souffle prodigieux d’un être invisible et tout-puissant.” The sacrament is delirium. The priest turns to the congregation, calls it a miracle: “le Saint-Esprit, l’oiseau céleste, le souffle de Dieu, s’est abattu sur vous, s’est emparé de vous, vous a saisis, courbés comme des roseaux sous la brise.” No doubt. The power of women: he thanks his “sisters” (the whores), “qui êtes venues de si loin, et dont la présence parmi nous, dont la foi visible, dont la piété si vive ont été pour tous un salutaire exemple. Vous êtes l’édification de ma paroisse;” (my underline of course.)

The brood must return to work. Madame atelier and her sister have a conversation about a Constance, but nothing is settled. Were they negotiating the girlks graduation to whoredom? And really, in repressive, sexist late 19th century France, what other emancipating business was there for women?

Rivet is drunk. He tries to have his way with Rosa, who laughs him off as Raphaële and Fernande hold him back. “Salope, tu ne veux pas ?” Évidemment, nonm you don’t ask a doctor at a party to treat your bunions, nor do you ask a whore to tend to your repressed desires. Madame is incensed. They throw him out. He cools off with water, and the whole brood trundles back out to the train in joyous song, Rivet at the reins, “cette carriole enragée et hurlante emportée dans la poussière.” They make it home, home to the whorehouse that Madame Tellier missed, “et la petite lanterne allumée, la petite lanterne de madone, indiquait aux passants que dans la bergerie le troupeau était revenu.“ It’s another delirium in town. A judge, a former mayor, many others are horny for the women. Tourneveau can’t wait. It’s a debauch of a feast: whores and clients had missed each other like old and passionate lovers.

Contrasts, memories, ironies. Superb. And that unforgettable line:  Fermé pour cause de première communion.”

Flannery O’Connor, “The River” (1953)

flannery o'connor

One of her startling stories, combining the breezy, the humorous, the sinister and the horrible as “Bevel,” the little boy at the center of the story, moves toward a drowning. His parents party, his mom is a drunk. They hire a sitter, Mrs. Connin, to take care of Harry for the day. She claims him and tells the couple they’ll be going down to the river to see Rev. Bevel Summers, an itinerant preacher. Harry, who is 4 or 5, decides to call himself Bevel, because it’s funny, because Mrs. Connin doesn’t know his name, because he’s looking for himself, because he likes trying new worlds, the impulse that will doom him. They spend a little time at Mrs. Connin’s house, an interlude with three other boys and a girl, there to set up the final scene: the boys play a trick on Bevel and frighten him by having him startle a pig that runs out from its pen and scares him. Pigs are not the cute characters of children’s books after all, and he was not birthed by a doctor but by Jesus Christ, as Mrs. Connin tells him. At the river, Mrs. Connin tells the preacher that he shares the same name as the boy’s, and the boy makes fun of the name as the preacher talks to him, and dunks him in the water to baptize him, and becomes angry when Harry-Bevel tells him his mom is hung over after Mrs. Connin tells the preacher to pray for her for being ill. Around the river, ”this was no joke. Where he lived everything was a joke.“ Mrs. Connin brings him home. The couple make fun of her, or at least of the preacher, and laugh when they discover Harry has been calling himself Bevel. Mrs. Connin refuses the money. After he goes to bed, and the next day, while everyone is sleeping off their booze, Bevel (O’Connor still calls him that) walks out with money he takes from his mom’s purse and goes all the way back to the river because he wants to find Christianity in its waters, dunking himself.

Mr. Paradise had been at the revival. He has cancer. He’s never been healed. He made fun of the preacher and laughed when the child tells him his name. He saw Harry walk by unaccompanied, and took a stick of red and white peppermint and followed, apparently to look after him (or to seduce him, to molest him: who knows). The boy gets in the river, dunks himself, can;t feel it, keeps dunking himself, Mr. paradise comes abounding, waving the red and white stick and shouting, Bevel thinks it’s a pig coming after him just like at Mrs. Connin’s house and dunks down, but this time the current carries him off and he drowns, despite Mr. Paradise’s efforts to find him.

Is O’Connor judging the parents on various levels—for their drinking, their intention, their making fun of Ms. Connin and the preacher? Is this O’Connor’s way of taking revenge? On the boy? Seriously? The bitch once wrote that Harry “comes to a good end. He’s saved from those nutty parents, a fate worse than death. He’s been baptized and so he goes to his Maker; this is a good end.” Fuck you, O’Connor. You’re the nutty one.

From Wikipedia: “While Bevel’s drowning in the river that promised him baptism and eternal life, that promised him that he would ‘count’ for something, is a grotesquely humorous irony, typical of O’Connor’s stories, it might be pointed out that Bevel does indeed seem to experience an ‘epiphany’ of sorts as he is swept away to his death; ‘for an instant he was overcome with surprise; then, since he was moving quickly and knew that he was getting somewhere, all his fury and his fear left him.’ Baptism in christian theology has long been associated with death and christian detachment; in baptism a christian enters into the death of Christ, undergoing a ‘dying to sin’ and a ‘dying to self.’ It is perhaps this dying to self that Bevel is experiencing as ‘his fury and fear leave him’ and why ‘he knew he was getting somewhere.’”

Sewanee Review, Spring 1953