Tag: women

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Yellow Wall-Paper” (1892)

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.

The prison is still full of guards and inmates.

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.”

Henry James, “A Landscape Painter” (1866)

Jasper Francis Cropsey

Jasper Francis Cropsey, ‘The Valley of Wyoming.’ This large studio work was commissioned in 1864 by Milton Courtright (1810 – 1883). Courtright was born and raised on his family’s farm in the heart of the Wyoming Valley. In his account book, Cropsey recorded a payment of $125 from Courtright on August 4, 1864, and three additional payments in January, March, and May 1865, totaling $3, 500. On August 8, Cropsey made at least two preparatory drawings of the site (now in Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). One of these served as the basis for the oil sketch for this painting (see 25.110.63). This final version of the picture was shown at the National Academy of Design in New York in 1865. It retains an original frame and plaque with a poem written in 1809 by the Scottish poet Thomas Campbell. (From the Met.)

Locksley is a wealthy, or particularly good-looking” man who was engaged to a “most mercenary” miss Leary who wanted him for his money, broke that engagement, and died at 35. The story is his journal, in the possession of a woman who frames the story in her introduction. Locksley seeks a place to isolate himself and paint. He meets Captain Richard Blunt, former seafarer and inveterate liar, and sets up in his idyllic house and retreat. He wants to stand on his own merit. If that fails, “I shall fall back upon my millions.” Blunt has a 27 year old daughter who provides for the household by teaching kids piano. Esther is “honest, simple, and ignorant,” of course, because this is Henry James. Still, it’s an idyll. The captain lies, but so does he: “Which is the worse, wilfully to tell, or wilfully to believe, a pretty little falsehood which will not hurt any one? I suppose you can’t believe wilfully; you only pretend to believe. My part of the game, therefore, is certainly as bad as the Captain’s. Perhaps I take kindly to his beautiful perversions of fact, because I am myself engaged in one, because I am sailing under false colors of the deepest dye.” He and Esther exchange insults, tiresomely, much like da Tanka and Mileson in the William Trevor story. She was engaged previously but didn’t want to get married until her beau got rich. He went and got rich in China, without her. That may explain what Locksley sees as her sourness. Now she’s been friends with a Mr. Johnson, but turns his marriage proposal down flat, even though she’d told Locksley that she’d marry the first who asks even if he’s “poor, ugly, and stupid.” Eventually she agrees to marry Locksley. When he tells her to read his diary, she tells him she’s already read it. She knows he’s rich. “You deceived me, I deceived you. Now that your deception ceases, mine ceases,” she tells him. “It was all make-believe virtue before.” He calls her a false woman. “No–simply a woman,” she tells him, bringing out James’s misogyny again. “Come, you be a man.”

The Atlantic Monthly, February 1866.

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