Tag: prejudice

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

Cheever, “The Summer Farmer” (1948)

Maya Lin's "Storm King Wavefield-" (2008).

Maya Lin’s “Storm King Wavefield-” (2008).

In part a Cold War story of assumptions, rivalry, xenophobia, envy, and a false accusation.

Paul Hollis takes the train from Grand Central to his family’s summer home Upstate. Like all Cheever characters he drinks a lot. He’s harried, in half a daze from drink and “signs of obsolete ness.” He has a kind wife and several children. He loves the time away from the city. He likes to farm. He agrees with his wife to get the children a couple of rabbits for the summer, training wheels before they may get a dog in the city. The family’s hourly laborer on the farm is an unreformed communist who raises at capitalism and “those who drank martinis.” Paul almost asks him why he doesn’t go back where he came from, in that veiled way of wasps buzzing passively around the aggressive questions never asked. Kasiak, the laborer, explains how his violent treatment as a child, as if he were a convict, even at his father’s hand, led him to the United States, where he awaits the revolution he is certain will come. The two agree to do a certain chore Sunday morning, as if one upping each other with resolve. “The puerile race of virtue and industry had begun.” Throughout, Cheever paints his bucolic canvas with the summer haze and warmth of his children’s sounds, their father’s sternness, their mother’s affection, the mother’s sister hauled up with the family to dry out, the landscape a narcotic on Paul’s anxieties. Later Sunday, the children scream. The rabbits are dead. Paul immediately accused Kasiak. He even sees poison crystals near the cage. He threatens to kill Kasiak if he were to ever harm the children, as the poison could have done. But Kasiak had not put the poison there. Paul’s wife had, the previous summer, and forgotten it there. Paul and his “loss of principle” take the train back to New York.

The New Yorker, August 7, 1948, The Enormous Radio.

Isaac Bashevis Singer, “Two” (1976)

isaac bashevis singer transgender gay two story

(Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. )

A transgender boy, Zissel, wants to be a girl, acts like a girl, dresses like a girl when he can, “spent most of his time with girls and enjoyed their ways and their games.” Singer details the agonies of the transgender soul: Zissel “suffered anxiety and all kinds of doubts. He already was convinced that to be a male was unworthy and that the signs of manhood were a disgrace.” His family finds him a bride. Meanwhile he falls in love with a boy, Ezriel, who is also headed for marriage. Both marriages fail: Zissel writes Ezriel that his marriage “caused him heartache and shame.” Finally Ezriel steals his wife’s dowry and jewels, dresses as a woman, and flees from town to meet Ezriel at a hotel, where they spend a night before moving and setting up house in Lublin, where they lived several years. When the money ran out Ezriel set up shop but got no customers. Zissel became a bath successful attendant, and the household’s only support. Ezriel gets fat and depressed, again an aspect of the life of a repressed gay man but not fully explored here. Singer’s focus is on Zissel, who develops affection for a 17-year-old virgin about to be married, a woman, and eventually falls in love with her, to her consternation. Zissel and Ezriel fight, come to blows. One night when Zissel and Reizl, the girl, who by then is married, are alone at the bathhouse, he rapes her. They drown. The secret is out. When townsmen find out, they rush Ezriel’s home and bludgeon him to death: just like a stoning by the Taliban.

Zissel’s desire for a woman is never explained and seems more like a device than a natural development though nothing says a transgender person can’t be bisexual: the story is about the fluidity of sex, not its dogmas–and the dogmas triggered as a consequence of the fluidity of sex, when uncovered. The title of the story is perfectly revealing: two boys, two natures, two love stories, two fates, and so on. (He wrote another story called “Two” later in his career.) This was written before transgender was a common word. The word is never used, nor are transsexual, gay, homosexual: part of the purity and truth of of the story is its avoidance of these trap-words that ultimately mean as little as racial or ethnic denominators.

The ending is moving, a hope:

isaac bashevis singer transgender gay two story

The New Yorker, December 20, 1976