Here’s how it opens: “This is the story of a man who did not appreciate his wife; also, of a woman who did him too great an honor when she gave herself to him. Incidentally, it concerns a Jesuit priest who had never been known to lie. He was an appurtenance, and a very necessary one, to the Yukon country; but the presence of the other two was merely accidental. They were specimens of the many strange waifs which ride the breast of a gold rush or come tailing along behind.”
The couple is Edwin Bentham and Grace Bentham. Edwin is a loser. Grace is a noble soul who makes her husband shine, though he doesn’t deserve it. Grace falls for a man called Wharton. They prepare to elope. The Jesuit priest who cannot lie warns her not to, evoking the prospect of her giving birth to a bastard son. She changes her mind. Just then her husband shows up at Wharton’s door. The priest lies to protect her hiding place. She goes back to him. It’s a strange story, the focus being more on the lie of the priest allegedly to protect her than on the lies he makes up to claim that she’d ruin her life if she runs off. Or are we meant to see both lies? Either way, the priest is all about oppressing women. He’d be an Eye in The Handmaid’s Tale.
ƒMaupassant 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.
The Lexington Candy Shop on the corner of 83rd Street and Lexington Avenue, opened in 1925. (Untapped Cities)
Tommy is one of Malamud’s Sisyphean characters, married to the sort of woman who goes so far as to change his name. He was once Tony. He did not stop her from changing it to Tommy. That was his first mistake. He runs a candy store with her, working from eight in the morning to midnight six days a week, going to the movies by himself on the seventh day. “No matter how hard you tried you made mistakes and couldn’t get past them. You could never see the sky outside or the ocean because you were in a prison, except nobody called it a prison, and if you did they didn’t know what you were talking about, or they said they didn’t.”
A 10-year-old girl is in the habit of buying two rolls of colored tissue paper every Monday, and, as Tommy discovers after his wife installed a surveillance mirror (she trusts no one), stealing two candy bars. The story is a study in the psychology of discipline: Tommy’s own as he tries to control himself before confronting the girl, and the notion of disciplining a 10-year-old thief: how do you do it? How far do you take it? Tommy ponders. He doesn’t want to frighten her. His compassion gets the better of him. Week after week his plans to confront her fail him. He finally decides to put an anonymous note in one of the bars. But she doesn’t appear the Monday he wanted to try the note. Somehow he ends up at home upstairs for a nap and when he goes back down, his wife has caught the girl and is thrashing her, as is the girl’s mother. The girl runs off, and “at the door she managed to turn her white face and thrust out at him her red tongue.”
“You could never see the sky outside or the ocean because you were in a prison, except nobody called it a prison.”
Commentary, September 1950, “The Magic Barrel,” 1958
Toulouse-Lautrec, “L’inspection medicale” (1894). Lautrec grew up at 24 Rue des Moulins in Paris, a whorehouse, at a time when 34,000 prostitutes were licensed in Paris. See this interesting paper.
The whorehouse the maid describes in her Creolish patois to her aristocratically white and prissy employer Madame Blanchard–note the frosting on the name–is no Maison Tellier. As if to entertain a Blanchard who could be no less of a madame than the brutish one the maid is describing, she tells the story of Ninette, a prostitute whose wages are garnished and accused of stealing, and who is routinely beaten. Ninette saves up enough to flee. Her madam doesn’t object until her customers, all white and rich enough to be, in a different generation, sending money to adopt poor children as far away from their clipped lawns as possible, demand that she return. It takes magic to pull that off. The madam’s cook, clearly feeling no solidarity toward the whore–cooks considered themselves superior in the hierarchy–provides the recipe. “And then they did it just as the cook said. They took the chamber pot of this girl from under her bed, and in it they mixed with water and milk all the relics of her they found there: the hair from her brush, and the face powder from the puff, and even little bits of her nails they found about the edges of the carpet where she sat by habit to cut her finger and toe-nails; and they dipped the sheets with her blood into the water, and all the time the cook said something over it in a low voice; I could not hear all, but at last she said to the madam, Now spit in it: and the madam spat, and the cook said, When she comes back she will be dirt under your feet. Madame Blanchard closed her perfume bottle with a thin click.”
Seven nights later Ninete returns. There may be a touch of Isaac Singer’s supernatural here but not really, not if the madam had “began to ask the police to bring her again,” not if Jim Crow worked as intended on the oppressed, whatever their pigment or uses. Whores have always been aristocracy’s fetish.
John and the narrator have rented a colonial mansion, “a hereditary estate, I would say a haunted house,” where the narrator can rest from an illness her physician husband John, who “scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be left and seen and put down in figures,” does not believe she has, though he is treating her and manages her hourly prescriptions. “He is very careful and loving, and hardly lets me stir without special direction.” He is also controlling and patronizing. He doesn’t let her have the room she wished they’d taken on the first floor. “He hates to have me write a word.” All activities are discouraged. But she writes, from a room with atrocious yellow wall paper that commits “every artistic sin,” and “when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide.” The narrator has just had a baby but was separated from it because of her illness. It’s post-partum depression to our eyes, but to her husband and the rest of her family, it’s an invention, a conceit, an indulgence, an ironic twist on the blame: it’s all in your head.
Actually, it’s all in the wall-paper, which gradually becomes the narrator’s doors of perception. Gilman’s device is simple and ingenuous. The paper is a mirror to the narrator’s slow degradation as she slowly unmoors herself from John, with the occasional snide aside (“I suppose John was never nervous in his life”) while the patterns in the paper take on life, little by little as if sucking the life out of her: “There is a recurrent spot where the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside-down.” At first the wallpaper oppresses her with its ugliness but then becomes her. The story’s obvious limitation is the coherent narration throughout: a woman losing grasp of life as she knew it would not know to write sop lucidly. That suspension of disbelief is the accepted deal with Gilman. It can’t be resolved. Although we also don;t know whether this is memoir or testament. The patterns in the wallpaper become her testament: “On a pattern like this, by daylight, there is a lack of sequence, a defiance of law, that is a constant irritant to a normal mind.” She supposedly improves, at least according to how she reports John reacting, but she is only degrading further, talking about burning the house, “creeping” about the room, demolishing the paper as if to free the souls within, and herself. The paper had been a reflection of her prison, her prison a reflection of her society, starting with her husband.
Who hasn’t endured the absurdity, the cringing humiliations, the claustrophobia, the hilarity and despair of cubicled office work where the work performed is as deplorable as the relationships forced to develop between the workers (employees is too good a term, associates an insult out of Kafka’s encyclopedia of the damned) corralled in an environment no more and no less glamorous than that of a mouse on a treadmill in a science lab?
This is a two-page story. Like Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl,” it’s a small world onto itself, the workplace prison orientation for a new convict who’s told the do’s and don’ts, what will get him fired, who’s infatuated with whom and who’s repulsed by whom, the lines interspersed with the mechanics of the job, what would get him fired (such as asking too many questions), and the intrusion of soulful touches, as with Barry Hacker, “who sits over there, steals food from the refrigerator. His petty theft is an outlet for his grief. Last New Year’s Eve while kissing his wife, a blood vessel burst in her brain.” So the narrator conducting the orientation, as dry and morbid and shallow as an 11 by 8.5 sheet of 93-bright copy paper as he can be, tells the newby to make sure that “if you bring a lunch, pout a little something extra in it for Barry hacker.”
It’s the fictional distillation of a world summed up in a Yahoo Finance story from 2014:
For 60% of Americans, the average workday consists of sitting in a cramped cubicle lit by overhead fluorescent lights, wedged between two coworkers whose phone conversations and keyboard strokes can be heard every minute of the day. In fact, you’re probably sitting in one now, wondering about the weather outside. But walking to your office windows would mean traversing across a sea of other drab cubicles, identical in shape and size. It’s no wonder that 93% of workers despise cubicles. The cubicle “connotes dread, hatred, the terrible white collar life,” says Nikil Saval, author of the new book “Cubed.”
A telling irony in “Orientation”: it disorients you, between humor, horror and asphyxiation to come (this is the newby’s first day), evoking Poe’s mixture of those themes in his day of different cubes, or Melville’s Bartelby, though in Bartelby the claustrophobia becomes self-inflicted. In “Orientation,” it’s the way of the modern office, creating the illusion of personal space in a space essentially smaller than most jail; cells, with the significant difference that you can get up and move around, and you do leave the office at the end of the day, though you are sentenced to terms generally longer than prison terms, and you turn yourself in, day after day, for more.
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.”