The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.
P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
10.4 (Fall 2007)
Realist Fiction and the Femina Immolata: Comparative Literature on Trial
John R. Harris
I. Comparative Literature’s Identity Crisis
Literary criticism (as any bibliophile survivor graduate school well knows) has been degraded far too readily since about 1980 to the application of one or more political litmus tests to a work’s superficial content. The text must deal with the right matter in the right way: it must commiserate with the right victims and revile the right oppressors. Chinua Achebe has virtually chased Joseph Conrad from college anthologies on the basis of such Procrustean sizing-up; and the contemporary sensibility has air-brushed some of the greatest stylists of twentieth-century French literature (such as Jules Romains and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry) from the record. Not that secret police are flexing their muscle behind the scenes—sometimes. but not usually. Rather, the ideological purging of the canon (which no one who has seen it close-up can mistake for anti-canonical liberalism) owes most of its triumphs to sheer lack of erudition. A culture of scant reading inevitably nurtures a culture of shallow reading—or is it the other way around? When you are only scanning lines for orthodoxy, you naturally skip thousands of texts “known” to be outrightly infidel.
However this ivory colonnade of indefinite regression was engineered, it is a practical sure thing that the final column needed to close a circle has been laid. Young assistant professors required to teach two or three freshman comp sections per semester while publishing at survival rate must deeply appreciate the reduction of the reading list by seven-eighths. Wide reading takes time: an article-length gender critique can be hammered out in a few weeks.
As a result, the postmodern feminist critic, in particular, has an “over-specialized” look. He or she has often not read enough honest-to-goodness literature to test those ideological strictures which are themselves posed as tests of literature.1 The late Jean-Pierre Barricelli, inaugurating a “round table” discussion in a special issue of The Comparatist, dared to protest the tendency to narrow-minded dogmatism in current comparative literature programs. “The true breadth of Comparative Literature,” he summarized, “consists primarily in developing its literary and linguistic base, with judicious [i.e. severely limited] use of translations, and secondarily in applying this base to interdisciplinary inquiry with a proper application of cultural and critical Theory” (16). The volume’s subsequent essayists, however, uniformly disparaged this suggestion that comparatists exert themselves to learn foreign languages. And so forests continue to be missed because of trees—or because we are allowed to look only at a modest stand of one species.
I wish to offer the following observations in the humble spirit of one who knows a forest when he sees it, though perhaps not all the flora therein. I am trained primarily neither as a feminist critic nor as an expert on nineteenth-century realism. As a comparatist of the old school, however (i.e., one whose mentors thought that “comparatism” should mean polyglot bibliophilia in search of an aesthetic), I find the mainline feminist response to this literature alarmingly naive and reductive. If the word “alarm” seems needlessly dramatic, I insist upon it because the correctness at stake is not, after all, merely political or even aesthetic, but also moral. For feminist critics have this much right (though few of them would ever admit to it in these terms): art and morality have a necessary and indissoluble interface. The plot of a story implies a life lived in consequence of certain choices; and the open-endedness of metaphor implies the informulable, ineffable character of ultimate human value which those who live only by the letter of the law must betray. To understand that goodness possesses the same paradoxical, complementary binarism as literary art—that it is form ever struggling to emerge from chaos and greater intensity ever struggling to emerge from the shackles of form—is to learn much about our duty and destiny as human beings.
Now, feminist critique tends not to interest itself in this dynamic—this aesthetic—interplay as it pursues its moralistic ends in literature. On the contrary, typical feminist procedure involves giving a thumbs-up or thumbs-down to the degree of victimhood lavished upon female characters in such works as those produced by nineteenth-century realists. The critic thus not only turns a blind eye to aesthetics, but also closes the other to genuine ethical concerns (as opposed to behaviorist triage). The text’s implications for a “life well lived” are likely to be skewed toward an extra-textual, quite possibly anachronistic paradigm. The enigmatic fact is that attending to things aesthetic is an indispensable means of measuring a literary work’s moral value. Precisely because one wants to gauge the relevance of an Ibsen female’s example to one’s own life, one must go well beyond highlighting two or three speeches full of battlecries and prophecies (as the Norton anthologies do, for instance, with Medea’s “we women are the most miserable of all creatures” oration). One must consider the speech’s context, the speaker’s motivation, the presence or absence of similar sentiment elsewhere in the text—the “ripple effect”, in short, which each component has upon the literary whole, and which the whole’s sum of other components has upon each isolated moment. This is more than a hearkening back to the old New Criticism, and to Kant and Aristotle: it is a basic awareness of the moral reality that everything each of us does influences, in some infinitesimal way, what we will do hereafter, and even what everyone else will ever do.
Nevertheless, my method of rebuttal in the remarks that follow will seldom involve “close reading”. I believe that feminist assumptions about the realist female character are generally mistaken at a level which does not even demand a high power of magnification (and hence will not demand of me a degree of expertise in this literary period which I do not possess). This level is, in a primitive sense, the most human one of literature: the archetypal. I am convinced that the clues missed by feminist critics about their favorite fictive women are indeed in the text, but not merely in subtle intra-textual echoes. They are in the skeletal sequence concerning the female. They are in the resonance which that sequence creates in most sane, reflective human beings; and—to reverse the perspective from the artist as individual creator to the artist as obedient registrant of cultural phenomena—they are in the “high tide” consequence which the work of art expresses as it reaches impressionable sand from culture’s vast sea.
So rather than making a point specifically about Ibsen or Flaubert or Zola, I am more occupied with the tendencies of this entire literary epoch, widely credited with a keener sympathy for the woman’s plight than preceding centuries. Naturally, the archetype is not indifferent to aesthetics. Authors may integrate it more or less well into their broader narrative, and may represent its crude sequence more or less powerfully. The work of art is, indeed, its conveyance in a literate culture which no longer assembles the community for mass rituals. Yet the same work is also a cultural artifact, even in the hands of the most individual stylist. The comparatist’s reason for being is supposed to be a special dedication to this obscure interface between art and culture; yet too many comparatists (most of whom are now feminists) would have us believe that the exercise involves nothing more than excavating sentiments (or sediments, as they like to say) with a sudden currency and declaring, preposterously, that they were hidden in the past. Whenever the past has not trumpeted the present’s preferred themes, we are called to bear witness to a cover-up.
Clearly, the comparatist should be inserting mild corrections in the natural tendency of any reader to mangle the text by cutting away and carrying off one or two parts suggestive of his or her personal experience. There is such a thing as common humanity, to be sure, though this bright pedestal is anathematic to contemporary critical theory’s gods. The truth is that student readers often feel sorry for the women depicted by realism and proceed naively to ally themselves with feminism (if they are graduate students) because their laudable compassion seems to have found an outlet therein. I shall argue, however, that the pathos of these suffering women is so presented, both by its crude archetypal structure and by the subtler clues of most specific texts, that a cool, even icy remove is essential to the observation. A warm embrace of one’s toiling sisters should be made of less stern stuff.
II. The Gender Split in Realist Pathologies
From the orientation which I have cursorily described above, I am convinced that many feminist treatments of European realism are not just missing the point in how such texts represent women, but creating major misconceptions. Emma Bovary is constantly portrayed as the victim of a patriarchal society, driven to escape her “enforced domesticity” (Gerrard 11) through unwholesome romances, extramarital affairs, and ultimately suicide. Michael Danahy even transforms Emma’s doting, invertebrate husband Charles into a tyrant (e.g., 134). The critical wisdom has it that Nora Helmer is similarly afflicted but triumphantly breaks the lock of her doll’s house. Hedda Gabler and Anna Karenina are more typical in following Emma’s path to a half-crazed suicide.
Well, that all seems tenable, if not exactly fair. We know that Ibsen, at least, felt particularly compelled to introduce straight-laced audiences to the plight of women, as he saw it. According to Gail Finney, the “vexed question” in Ibsen studies is whether his dramas are “narrowly feminist” or “politically but broadly human” (89-90). One assumes, given the current climate in academe, that the former would be cheered far more resonantly, though the latter seems far more probable historically.
Yet more probable still, it seems to me, is that Flaubert, Ibsen, and their contemporaries, while censorious of unfair social and political distinctions based on gender, nevertheless considered women radically unequal to men. Of course, nervous breakdowns are not gender-specific in realist fiction, as the critics above seem to imply. The difference lies not in breaking down, but in how one breaks down. Of the male protagonists whose psyche famously disintegrates during this period, one might mention Raskolnikov, the hard-drinking Golovlyovs, the title character of Il Marchese di Roccaverdina, and the haunted narrators of Maupassant’s final short stories (as the author himself battled insanity).
Now consider the causes of breakdown in male and female cases. Males lose their grip upon reality because the prosaic forces of social conditioning (realism proper) or the horrid, sometimes lurid forces of physical environment and heredity (naturalism) grind them down. Female characters have little exposure to coal mines, shipyards, or even urban backstreets (those who go insane, that is: streetwalkers always seem to cling to the driftwood). Though Zola’s women may drown in a flood or drink themselves to death, only the tightly laced bourgeoise imprisoned behind quiet window panes actually loses her mind in this period’s literary landscape. While male breakdowns also occur primarily indoors, they ensue upon the collapse of “the good life”, often under financial strains. Women go mad in the “triumph” of polite, secure comfort.
Why the disparity? Why can men be driven insane by greed (“Little Judas” Golovlyov) or by lust and guilt (Capuana’s Marchese of Roccaverdina) but women only by the Respectable Male’s Gilded Cages? In the best-known works of realism’s most representative authors, characters like Emma and Hedda seem to lack sufficient volition to contribute something to their own demise. Instead, they are more than dimly reminiscent of delicate, pitiful creatures—canaries, perhaps—incapable of understanding that their doom is sealed in a narrowly controlled laboratory experiment. Call this a sympathy with the plight of women if you wish… but the poignancy of the expiring, uncomprehending “test subject” should itself suffice to suggest something quite different, as well: something of that appallingly pleasant on account of whose accurate portrayal Baudelaire was once convicted of obscenity.2
But first things first: let us work closer toward this dark, inadmissible pleasure by continuing to remark what the realist female character is not. By no means would I suggest that a man like Ibsen was not sincerely distressed by the tedium in which middle-class women around him languished. As a matter of fact, Ibsen seems to me to write into his women infinitely more moral courage than Flaubert puts into Emma; and the more of a will one finds in realist women, the more intricately their ordeal is tied to the men who seek to govern them. Nora’s predicament is very much a result of her husband’s domination—an abuse of authority at which she herself has connived. Emma, in contrast, rather bullies her milquetoast of a man: the contagion which eats her to death is far more inexorable than her malignant marriage.
It is difficult (I may as well say impossible, for anyone possessed of common sense) to read these varying instances of feminine anguish as a monolithic social phenomenon. In fact, the causes of the middle-class female’s psychic malaise in realist fiction are quite diverse. Nora finally admits herself to be victimized by her own pusillanimity; Anna Karenina is caught in a tragic trap which is not gender-specific in Tolstoy (cf. the arduous spiritual growth of Kitty and Levin, a kind of off-setting also visible in the downward-spiraling Prince Andrei and the resilient Natasha and Pierre—sensitive spirits all). Emma Bovary, frankly, is just a bloody-minded petite bourgeoise whom Nina Auerbach is pleased to style “fastidiously spiritual” (106) in a surge of misplaced sympathy.
To the extent that there is something sui generic in these representations of the female, it surely involves the superficial artistic datum—the powerful image of an appealing but tormented young woman—rather than the resonant broadcast of a certain social or political doctrine. The postmodern professional woman has apparently read into literary portraits of her great grandmothers a kind of tension which is prominent in her own life. (“Kate Chopin’s The Awakening,” wrote Jean Kennard thirty years ago with unconscious irony, “[is] now enjoying a revival of popularity precisely because it is so like a novel of the nineteen seventies” .) Yet the nineteenth-century female protagonist, even in Ibsen, is anything but a self-actualizing dynamo. In most realist authors besides Ibsen, she does not yet dream of becoming such a being. She scarcely dreams at all; and when she does, her fantasies are more often the afterglow of some quotidian drudgery pitifully gilded, like a mule’s memories of clover, than the epiphany of a lofty ambition. The women of these fictions are indeed sometimes paralleled overtly to starved, scrofulous beasts of burden destined to die in the traces. Gabriele D’Annunzio’s “Vergine Anna” actually forms a series of fanciful “friendships” with such dull animals as an ass and a turtle.
We cannot avoid noticing that male protagonists register the pressures of a ruthless environment rather differently from their female counterparts in these works. I have stressed that those who ultimately crack under such pressure seem to be victims of hard times when male and of “good times”—relative comfort and prosperity—when female. If the implication here is that men in realist fiction are somehow more firmly braced against harsh necessity than women—that, in Darwinian terms, they largely perish in fierce competition, whereas women mysteriously wither in relative peace like ineffectual mutations—then the stifling hypocrisy of bourgeois existence may not be the real culprit behind the feminine “die-off”. Just maybe, the realist female is (in a phrase of novelist Antonio Fogazzaro’s) inetta a vivere—unsuited to life in the world as it must be.3
To be sure, men and women can be equally sensitive to life’s vagaries in the humane Tolstoy’s works and fall prey equally to psychic degeneration. I am inclined to disqualify Tolstoy from consideration here, since neither his style nor his moral assumptions are remotely those of the realist. So for Balzac, Dickens, and Manzoni: while their productive years somewhat overlapped the textbook termini for realism, their novels transparently do not belong within such brackets. Frankly, I have no idea why such writers are ever included in discussion of realism but for a rather obtuse coincidence in chronology and the occasional character whom today’s highly politicized criticism wishes to cull as rhetorical ammunition.
I think, rather, of the sort of contrast exquisitely seen in Gorky’s short story, “Twenty-Six Men and a Girl”. The convicts doing forced labor in a bakery have stunningly romantic illusions about the strength of Tanya’s virtue—but they turn into a vile crew of cynics when the baker succeeds in seducing her. They are neither as high nor as low as Tanya. They are physically abused, but not physically soiled: morally corrupted, but not morally out-maneuvered. Neither polarity of the whore/martyr applies to them. Their debasement is thorough, but it has the quality of a fine steel edge beaten into a blunt rod rather than that of fine china shattered into a million pieces.
Giuseppe Verga’s cutthroat, nihilist bandit Gramigna (in the short story “L’Amante di Gramigna”) ends up shot full of holes and rotting away in prison; but the dumbly besotted Peppa, who left a respectable life after conceiving a passion for the desperado’s airy legend, finishes as a volunteer drudge for the soldiers garrisoned outside the prison, having born a child to a scoundrel who routinely beat her black and blue.
The eponymous courtesan of Maupassant’s “Boule-de-Suif”, having extricated her fellow wayfarers from danger by giving sex to a Prussian officer, is repaid for her sacrifice by being branded, not just the lowest sort of whore, but a traitor to her country. Morally superior to the “respectable” people who had eventually finessed her into the Prussian’s bed, she is nevertheless destroyed in a manner which no male in Maupassant ever endures. A man might sweat his way slimily through a duel at ten paces or succumb to an wildly insane persecution complex (though there is no such male victim here). His anguish, however, would be comparatively Promethean—his moral squalor would remain concealed rather than leave him writhing in full view of hypocritical passers-by.
III . The Male’s Dark Shadow
To restate this disparity between male and female victims of literary realism’s pressure-cooker, we might supplement the Darwinian survivor/crippled mutant contrast thus. The man has a rigidly distinct outer life and inner life: the woman does not. Capuana’s Marchese of Roccaverdina often meditates upon his family’s device: frangor non flector—“I break but do not bend.” Just so: the realist portrayal of maleness gives us a rather unsavory but very resourceful being capable of combating an immensely hypocritical world on its own terms. The wounds of betrayed trust and the guilt of a trust betrayed are alike repressed. The paradoxically servile courage needed to repeat daily motions which one loathes for people whom one detests and the abject devotion to a respectable façade are alike mastered. The male who would make his way during the nineteenth century’s notorious Rise of the Middle Class is braced for his task by a necessary, if contemptible, ability to sever his feelings from his doings. The realist female does not share this facility for absorbing the shock of a self-contradictory existence. When her psyche splits, the fissure is both ruinous to her soul’s peace and fully visible to an “outraged” society. The woman’s constitution (and, once again, we are speaking here of the bourgeoise, not a two-fisted strumpet: even Boule-de-Suif is the cream of pricey concubinage) is unfitted to the contests of this primal savanna whose fauna are thinly disguised in frock coats, beaver hats, corsets, and high-laced boots.
In further evidence whereof, consider that the voluminous literary presence of the Doppelgänger throughout the nineteenth century offers not a ghost’s footprint of any female intrusion. All the sinister pairings of this period are male, properly speaking (with a few examples of males beset by female opposites). Not one of these Jekyll-and-Hyde dyads occurs in what may be called a mainstream realist or naturalist work, although the phenomenon both precedes and survives the realist period. I shall later suggest why I find the failure of the Doppelgänger to intersect realism a highly significant case of mutual repulsion. I will anticipate that moment by observing now that I believe the “immolated female” to be realism’s answer to the schizoid male.
Of course, the Man-and-his-Shadow archetype is profoundly romantic. It patently rejects a rationalist notion of the soul, and also indicts “civilization” for suffocating the Noble Savage within a tight shroud of decorum. An awareness of such distasteful duplicity’s lubricating the operation of daily human affairs is perceptible long before the days of Queen Victoria. One can find it during the floruit of neoclassicism—in Prévost’s Manon Lescaut, for instance, and Diderot’s Neveu de Rameau. (It is easy to forget that Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality was penned a mere twenty years after Manon’s publication.) The ensuing decades elevated to literary immortality the opposition of Faust to Mephistopheles and of Dr. Frankenstein to his monster. Sir Walter Scott’s novels abound in “doubling”, with a noble-savage Highlander like Rob Roy usually contrasting with some superficially cultured villain like Rashleigh Osbaldistone (and a Waverly-like narrator caught in between). Pushkin explored a very similar kind of dualism with Pugachov, the wicked Shvabrin, and the bemused young narrator of The Captain’s Daughter.
Yet to say that the romantic pairing of Aspiring Young Man and Outlaw—or even of Frankenstein and his Monster—opposes social respectability to spiritual honesty would be anachronistic. Furthermore, the young man often wanders indecisively between the forbidden but attractive outlaw and a severe social system whose worst elements are crystallized in a thoroughly hypocritical rival. The dyad verges on becoming a triad—or it is a dyad perched, perhaps, on either shoulder of a callow, vacillating seeker. Women may sometimes represent the polarities in such a scenario, as in Coleridge’s Christabel. The “either/or” choice here seems to be between a happiness which declines to plumb dark truths and a satisfied thirst for knowledge which carries a curse.
Only in the mid-nineteenth century, then, do we see the Doppelgänger grow indissolubly attached to the socially fluent male’s soul—not a bad angel facing a good angel at either ear of some ingénue, but a sordid shadow riveted to a “responsible” adult’s well-cobbled heels. The self-righteous middle class which brought both Baudelaire and Flaubert to trial for obscenity and patronizingly Christianized its empires while quietly pocketing immense profits (‘I am amazed at my own restraint,” had sputtered Lord Clive before India was surrendered to civil servants) carried the art of hypocrisy to new depths. Baudelaire actually dedicated one of his Petits Poèmes en Prose to one bounder who kept a pocketful of counterfeit coins because he so enjoyed the warm feeling of bestowing them upon beggars!
As a result of such chasmically divided values, some of the most famous split-personalities in literary history populate the pages of these days—beginning on romanticism’s doorstep with Stevenson’s version of the nobly savage Rob Roy. Kidnapped’s Ian Breck, though more complex than Rob, remains heroically simple-hearted against the legalistic machinations of Edinburgh bureaucrats. A genuine shift to something palpably post- romantic occurs, however, in The Master of Ballantrae. Here the swaggering Highland ruffian (one-half owner of the title’s ambiguous honor) is far less sympathetic than the brother against whom he is murderously pitted. The work actually postdates Stevenson’s infinitely better known (but less artful) Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, wherein basic human nature has clearly become the more evil of the two halves. The hypocrisy of common decency has now grown entirely defensible as a firewall between a functional society and the ravenous, intractable animal within us all.
Sigmund Freud, of course, must be stirred into the troubled brew as the twentieth century ominously looms. The Id represented by the Doppelgänger in European fiction is perhaps less sexual than Freud proposed of his case studies, though sexual taboos were no doubt both the most rigid of nineteenth-century bourgeois society and the most commonly broken in secret (rendering them the preferred hunting ground of The Beast). Friedrich Nietzsche may have been still closer to the mark in identifying the core of resistance to social conditioning as the will to power—and not to just any sort of power, but to power over convention, precisely: the power to annihilate all preconceived boundaries, renewed day after day. Nietzsche envisioned something rather like the psychic equivalent of nuclear fission.
And indeed, a society populated by Dorian Grays—or leavened with one Dorian, perhaps, per hundred drones and drudges—would become a medium very hostile to domestic tranquility. Everybody has seen and laughed heartily at Wilde’s Importance of Being Earnest. All the more shocking, then, that so few seem to notice how narrowly the expressions of the demonic Lord Henry resonate with those of the merry nihilist Algernon Moncrieff. Algie’s senses have the upper hand over his will in virtually all circumstances. Otherwise, we should have been treated to a graphic demonstration—perhaps sublime, certainly not comic—of the difference between a merely animal lust for fine food and beautiful women and a serious nihilist’s contempt for fatuous or pusillanimous restrictions.
Conrad’s Kurtz is that nihilist. As his name implies in German, he has cut to the quick in Africa, lopping off Europe’s inhibitive layers of propriety. At the far end of realism’s rather brief life-cycle is the age’s most honest pronouncement upon the human soul (whose utterance required a subjectivity of style denied to realist grammar): the horror. Yet Conrad has not just broken with the technique of holding subjects at arm’s length. The Doppelgänger has also lost its seamless attachment to the flesh it shadows, such that the writhing efforts of the suited homme d’affaires to catch a glimpse produce the spectacle of a dog chasing its tail. The unflappable Marlow, friend of socially proper lies, is far from being Kurtz’s alter ego, since he already knows himself—and everyone else—to be a hypocrite. With whom, then, should we pair Kurtz? With his former self, the missionary idealist? But the whole drama of the Jekyll-and-Hyde phenomenon lies exactly in the coexistence of two radically incompatible halves. The tension has been relaxed. The alarmingly innocent observer fashioned by the romantics in Waverly has been replaced by a care-worn, worldly-wise Marlow. Tawdry compromises have lost their grand camouflage, but have also been conceded a certain necessity in all their loathsome squalor. Modernity is born.
Somewhere in between, it appears that the occasional realist occasionally dabbled in dramatic oppositions à la Jekyll-and-Hyde. We should most certainly note that when this happens, the author at issue is surprised in his least realist moment. For some reason which must have to do purely with style, the French have always offered Gustav Flaubert’s extraordinary historical novel Salammbô as evidence that one of their literary giants was not without romantic tendencies. Perhaps the contrast of the barbarically courageous Mathô with the bloodthirsty yet “civilized” Hamilcar (and, of course, with the deviously servile Greek’s guiles) is indeed a faintly warmed-over serving of Rousseau. Yet Mathô lacks the innocence and idealism of Frankenstein’s monster: if he is not the pure Id we find in Mr. Hyde, it is because his crude fantasies, like Emma’s, create in him the illusion of idealism.
So let it be stipulated that Salammbô is a half-hearted salute to romanticism. Another commonplace in French literary criticism holds that Flaubert punishes romanticism in the unfortunate person of Emma Bovary. This insight, which has much to recommend it, takes us back into the gravity of the Immolated Female. And the question about this disturbing sequence’s provenance in the creative mind of the nineteenth century can now be posed more finely: in what sense was the femina immolata an alternative—a competing expression of deeply felt truth—to the strictly male sequence of a respected citizen haunted by his Doppelgänger?
An answer to this question is not to be found in the common suggestion that male oppositions in nineteenth-century literature are in fact presided over by females. It turns out that such feminist attempts to appropriate the Doppelgänger motif are usually of the “third-party observer” genre, with the third party being a female and the warring pair having become two suitors who represent opposite qualities. Of course, the stakes and tensions of such an arrangement are entirely different from what I have been describing. The males are not yoked together except in the female who considers their implicit alternatives: either man may be wholly unaware of the other’s existence. The lady’s criteria for distinguishing between her beaux, furthermore, have far less to do with embracing either decorous prosperity or libidinous primitivism than with calculating a complex interaction, perhaps even a contrapuntal one. By no means does the woman truly fuse with the man, though she may anticipate doing so. The frustration of such an ambition, indeed, is often part of her torment. She doesn’t begin to have the information necessary to arbitrate between Dr. Jekyll and his evil twin.
It is simply absurd, therefore, to contend that the female character anchors the doubling phenomenon found in nineteenth-century fiction. Contrast the penitent last moments of Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich with the embittered exit of Kate Chopin’s Granny Weatherall: extreme anguish in both cases—but the female remains consumed by the sheer emotional pain of a socially exacted Hobson’s choice, whereas the male has finally taken the full measure of human society and his complicity in its imposture. Kennard is well within reasonable bounds, writing mostly of female authors, when she asserts, “the great Victorian novels are… illustrations of a convention based on the binary opposition of two suitors” (11). To Chopin might be added (or placed atop the list which includes her) Jane Austen and the Bronté sisters. Yes, male opposites do most certainly show up in realist novels and short stories—distantly—as crystallizations of a young female’s bemusement. They have nothing of that harrowing dynamism which they enjoy outside of realist representation, however, and the deeper meaning of their polarities is seldom divined beneath the woman’s own dilemma. This is part of why the femina immolata supplants the Doppelgänger in realism, I suppose—part, but not so much as half of the whole reason; for the woman surely assumes center-stage, not just because of a shift in perspective, but primarily because her anguish has a unique fascination.
Barbara Rigney, building upon the work of critics like Otto Rank and Robert Rogers who have discussed the male Doppelgänger, fumbles in the vicinity of this profound fascination, but ultimately cannot close her hand upon it. Rigney prizes the female character’s madness (from the title page onward) as expressive of victimization: so far, so good. But Rigney does not grasp the distinctive panic of this madness, misidentifying it with the male schizoid’s psychic incoherence. Of the female characters created by authors like Woolf and Lessing (but also Charlotte Bronté), she advances the following observations.
The protagonist inevitably finds, whether in an actual mother or in an image of her own split psyche, a doppelganger who is a manifestation of her schizophrenia…. In these novels, then, the doppelganger serves an essentially positive function and is therefore a departure from the figure of the demonic double traditional in the psychological works of fiction by male writers like Dostoevsky and Poe. (122)
As with trying to dramatize the female dilemma by having recourse to her two suitors, this stylization of the Doppelgänger has no bite. One might as well argue that any sympathetic female minor character at all—take your pick—doubles the female protagonist. Such pairs are “essentially positive” because they are not involved in taut psychological opposition. That the sequestered Lady Rochester, for instance, should be considered Jane Eyre’s shadow rather than, say, Lord Rochester’s (it is his attic she occupies like Dorian Gray’s sinister picture) is grossly tendentious. At most, the two are paired as alternatives confronting Rochester’s ego, not as intimately opposed halves of one personality. The absence of tension between Rigney’s other female pairs similarly deprives her examples of the Doppelgänger’s basic psychological value and ignores the literary work’s refusal to exploit that value.
In her introduction, Rigney had volunteered that each of these women is also a scapegoat “questing for some form of truth” and “somehow justified in her hatred and violence” (12). Now, neither of the functions named—questing or venting ecstatic rage—has anything to do with the psycho-cultural phenomenon of scapegoating. The archetype of the scapegoat, however, is well worth holding in reserve, though Rigney seems almost to have blundered upon it. Perhaps an acute critical instinct has taken her through a morass of positions assumed à parti pris with a view to advancing current political claims rather than comprehending literature… but this particular patch of ground, however she reached it, is solid.4 Let us try to grope our own way there by reviewing and comparing the evidence gathered so far.
IV. The Sacrificed Female’s Archetypal Function
A single body cannot contain a man’s warring halves, it seems. “This fragmentation of divine/demonic man into two distinct faces [in contrast to the woman’s single face] represents a radical fragmentation of his spiritual power,” observes Nina Auerbach—both finely and, I fear, a bit archly. For Auerbach has noticed, as few critics of her period and ideology, that no nineteenth-century author would have endorsed a simplistic notion of male and female equality. Yet she attributes this reluctance to the century’s having recognized Woman’s spiritual superiority over Man—a notion from which she does little to distance herself as a critic. In fact, there can be no doubt that the Victorian male viewed his pedestal-fitted wife as a little household goddess suitable for worship (if not for consultation on worldly affairs: a competence in such matters, of course, would have desecrated her irrevocably). The exquisitely posed saint, however, is the very being whose marble flesh the realist author will proceed to torture. For some reason, the next step after bringing Galatea to life is to chain her like Andromeda to her domestic plinth as an Awful Horror licks her delicate limbs.
I see no evidence that even so canny an observer as Auerbach has noted how this gift of spiritual superiority is something of a “set-up”, at least in the fiction of the time. The bourgeoise is a pretty young thing, modest and virtuous, a dutiful spouse, a loving mother, successfully protected from the social and moral pollution beyond her doorstep—and she must die. Her death must be slow, its agency largely or entirely a torturer seen only in her imagination. With superiority like this, who needs malevolence?
I have conceded already—indeed, stressed—that the males of realist literature suffer their share of agony, as well. It is an agony of the “front line”, however—not the unwholesome fantasy of a non-combatant. Capuana’s Marchese is torn apart by a nervous degeneration culminating in a stroke for very material causes. He has committed murder undetected, and the wrong man has died in jail for the crime. His guilt is magnified by the unresolved passion which led him to the act: in violent opposition to the aristocratic breeding of which he is so inordinately proud, he yet longs to pass his life with the peasant woman Agrippina whom he had once “married off” to his foreman and eventual victim. Nobody ever knows the precise identity of the Marchese’s demons (except for a priest who carries the secret to his grave); but a spurt of feverish activity, including a costly updating of farm equipment, a remodeling of the palazzo, and a “correct” marriage to the irreproachable Zósima—offers the community a credible reason for the stroke which reduces the Marchese to an imbecile until his soon-ensuing death.
Such a portrayal of the schizoid psyche fully satisfies the demands of realism (or verismo, as Capuana’s friend Verga christened Italian naturalism). The lurid morality play (in which one of science-fiction’s first roots fed) of a man fighting his secret devil every hour of the day has been translated into the dismal tones of prosaic existence (much as Saltykov-Shchedrin had done in The Golovlyov Family). The resultant battle produced real corpses, if not fully valid motives for public consumption. The Marchese, finally, does not commit suicide. He never considers it, even though, in his final days of functional intelligence, he believes himself to be visited at night by his victim’s ghost.
The realist female never dies in this sort of fray. She is always, at worst, a “flibbertigibbet” (as that bourgeois par excellence, Soames Forsyte, would have called her)—a lost but harmless spirit who has flown like a sparrow into a labyrinth of rooms without open windows. She is not even, in realist hands, one half of a romantic “Christabel/Geraldine” polarity. That is to say, when a male character vacillates between two women in choosing a wife or mistress (for the “conflicted arbiter” is just as likely to be a male as a female, feminist criticism notwithstanding), he invariably sees his options as alternative self-indulgences—not as forking spiritual paths. Despite the Marchese’s seeking to bury his passion for a peasant by marrying a woman of his class, he is not remotely as preoccupied by either female as much as by his murderous deed and the remorse which he cannot imperiously overrule. There is no mystery in the realist pairs of females who beckon the central male in opposing directions. Most often, they seem to represent sexual fulfillment, on the one hand, and widening social vistas, on the other. Such is the choice contemplated by Stendhal’s Julien Sorel (Le Rouge et le Noir) and Maupassant’s Duroy (Bel Ami). D’Annunzio’s narcissistic protagonist Andrea in Il Piacere does not even enter a dowry into his calculations, for both the women upon whom he sets his sights belong to another man. The ravishing Elena marries for money, though the decision does little to degrade her sexual availability. If the virtuous Maria’s virtuous seems briefly more desirable, it is precisely her committed monogamy represents to Andrea an added attraction (after the fashion of Les Liaisons Dangéreuses). In what may be the century’s greatest (and surely its least publicized) literary anticlimax, Andrea begins placidly to redecorate his room immediately after Maria, at long last seduced but called Elena in the final instant of love-making, has departed stunned and speechless.
In an entirely different novel, Maria might indeed have been transformed from a titillation on the surface of a male ego’s muddy pond to another immolated female. She might have thrown herself beneath the wheels of a bypassing coach, or have drunk poison. We have no idea what actually becomes of her—but the fact of her having been sexually soiled in the terms of the day would dictate her fate as much as the fact of her being morally innocent. There is a kind of rape in the sad destiny of such figures, often involving sexual seduction à la lettre, but not always. (The protagonist of D’Annunzio’s Vergine Orsola is quite literally raped, and later bleeds to death staggering through the village in search of help.) The “sin” of these female characters seems to be precisely that they have not measured, or cannot measure, the sin which rages in the world beyond their threshold; and the “rapist”, in a more profound sense than whatever man abuses or betrays them, is that very world. Reality. The delicate goddess carefully cloistered beside the male’s hearth would be devoured like a lamb by wolves if she were to stray from the hearth alone.
This much, I believe, is essential to understanding the nineteenth-century bourgeois female’s domestic deification. She was provisionally uncorrupt, and maintaining her in such a state of purity—a largely illusory state, in that it could only be preserved apart from reality—was a duty richly cherished by the male. In proof whereof, the literature of the time ritually represents, in anguishing yet perversely delightful detail, what happens to lambs who stray from the fold.
I alluded earlier to Baudelaire’s condemned poem, “À celle qui est trop gaie”. The poet imagines himself entering, by night and undetected, the bedroom of a young woman whom he has often observed publicly laughing and exuding health. “The gloomy passer-by you brush / Is dazzled by your wholesomeness / Which bursts forth like a beam of light / From your plump arms and rounded shoulders.”5 The poet is oddly troubled by these displays (“I love and hate you in equal shares”). He nurses the fantasy of a nocturnal visit, therefore, “to chastise your joyous flesh” and “to make in your astonished side / a wound both gaping and profound”. That Baudelaire’s bourgeois censors found this composition intolerable may well be taken as a sign of its symbolic power (for lunatics only offend other lunatics). He had described a rape, yes—or perhaps a murder: a rape-murder. But he had devoted most of his description to the healthy, beaming, vivacious girl who was to be raped and murdered—and he had made no secret of his motive. Not lust, but an insufferable insult—the same kind of insult, he explains, which has sometimes “humiliated my heart so much / That I have punished on a flower / The insolence of springtime’s beauty.”
The ideal should know better than to forget its pedestal and go strutting down the sidewalk. Man needs ideals—but he needs them to stay put, creating an alternate reality for him (or an “artificial paradise”, as Baudelaire might say) rather than stupidly straying into a hell of a world. The ideal should remember its—should remember her—humility.
V. Further Explanation of the Archetype
I can well imagine a couple of immediate and obvious objections to the proposition that the femina immolata in realist fiction is a sublimated punishment of rash idealism—of a vulnerable ideal, to be exact (and all ideals are so at this historical moment), which doesn’t keep itself under cover. The first objection would surely be that realist authors were no friends of the bourgeoisie, and hence would have no interest, subliminal or otherwise, in nursing along hypocrisy. The second might well be that such a thing as a female realist-author is not unheard-of, and that a Kate Chopin could hardly be supposed to desire the torture of her sisters at any level for their daring to confront harsh realities. To this might be added numerous further protests tailored to individual authors known, for one reason or another, to violate the profile of Baudelaire’s rapist-murderer.
To all such resistance and indignation, I would say very simply that I have in mind a complex of images endowed with an archetypal kind of power—not a conscious, rational capsulization of specific historical grievances in a specific literary symbol. There are a great many theories, drawing upon various degrees of prehistoric/ritual conditioning or genetic/biological programming, to explain how an archetypal compulsion comes to work its magic.6 I do not particularly care for any of them (since I believe that the “irrational” in art has its own logic of associations needing no apologies from extrinsic sources); but, in any case, the archetype whose existence I am presently alleging bears sufficient resemblance to “scapegoating” that it does not require the dubious justification of a theory. “Taking it out” on a relative innocent is a universal human behavior (and among the least attractive of such behaviors). In Western civilization, the crucified Christ is the preeminent example of such vented frustration. I would venture so far as to say, in fact, that the Schadenfreude of the Crucifixion—the “piteous joy” of contemplating the noble innocent voluntarily murdered in our place—often dominates the emotional life of professed Christians far more than a passionate attachment to self-sacrificing nobility of conduct.
This is as much as to say that a woman could indeed find catharsis at some level in the suffering of another woman, and a philanthropic activist like Ibsen in the slow anguish of a victim. As for the argument that attendance upon this literary rite would somehow amount to an approval of the bourgeois “split reality”—jungle beyond the threshold, idyll within it—the exponent of such opposition cannot have pondered the archetype’s nature for very long. By foregrounding the immolation of the “foolish virgin”, the sequence actually reveals the bourgeois outlook’s self-contradiction in ways which could make no respectable barrister or churchman or petty inspector of railroads very happy. The myth of the femina immolata is not a cautionary tale told to young girls at bedtime by their papa: it is the forcible unveiling, rather, of a goddess whose powers are illusory, imaginary. It is the dramatic assertion that the bourgeois’s penates are mere marble figurines.
The following perspective may soothe the skeptic’s furrowed brow, for human beings are always enticed by an apprehended truth which allows them to have their cake and eat it, too. The rite of the femina immolata defines just such a “win/win” moral terrain for its celebrants. For idealists, the young woman who strays into torture and ruin is not without sin (which, of course, disqualifies her as a Christ-figure). Her insistent attempt to intercept brutal reality has cost her everything—but the ideal can still exist in a parallel reality free of intersections with terrestrial life. So it was for Baudelaire: the land of his dreams was n’importe où hors du monde—“anywhere beyond this world”. The l’art pour l’art generation (which he repudiated, by the way) was quite capable of existing on pure aestheticism, a hope in sensuous awakening which bore no practical consequences.
On the other hand, the grim realist could satisfy himself that insolently assertive expressions of beauty in an ugly world had been duly punished, much as Baudelaire’s splenetic poet might have lopped off a rose with his walking stick. The tortured female character affirms a jaundiced, “beguile me no more” disdain of daydreaming romanticism. If Flaubert did indeed, consciously or otherwise, find a kind of revenge upon romantic naiveté in his emotional dismemberment of Emma Bovary, he would not have been chastising spirituality, but punishing pretensions to the spiritual, rather, made in a crude and unmalleable medium.
That something of the archetypal is going on behind the pathos of the female realist character is implied by history itself—by the absence of historical “sufficient cause”, I mean, for such agony. Quite frankly, middle-class Western European women had never enjoyed as many opportunities as they did in the dynamic nineteenth century. Increasingly admitted to higher education and on the verge of political enfranchisement, females seem strange candidates for a knife at the altar if the sacrifice is intended to represent the vector of their social progress. As cipher for the exorcising of some subconscious but intense torment, however, their gruesome “punishment” can scarcely be called excessive—for it is the essential nature of mythic/ritual sequences to be grotesquely excessive by rational standards. That, one presumes, is what accomplishes the cathartic exorcism.
Auerbach seems to me to remark (unwittingly) one aspect of the scapegoat sacrifice when she stresses the chilling oddity of Freud’s distance from his subjects. “Freud as narrator/healer/magus/master is always in control” in his case studies, she writes, “as if to galvanize in anticipation the feeble magic of Svengali and Little Billee, Dracula and Van Helsing” (Auerbach 27). The participants who observe the scapegoat’s exile and ruin are, naturally, withdrawn from the struggle though deeply implicated in it: for its purpose is precisely to leave them unfettered. I would also draw attention to Auerbach’s mention of Dracula, a work with which I am largely unfamiliar and which, in any case, has few realist qualities, yet which certainly underscores the immolation of helpless young females during the very years at issue here.
Auerbach pursues this alarming dispassion of the nineteenth-century literate class’s ethos by noting R. L. Stevenson’s overt frustration with it. “I divined… the existence of a certain impotence in many minds to-day,” wrote Stevenson ruefully, “which prevents them from living in a book or a character, and keeps them standing afar off, spectators of a puppet show” (quoted in Auerbach 219). Stevenson, to be sure, is alert to the ritual quality of this aloofness no more than Auerbach. Yet one could find a much worse image to translate the scapegoat into a more domestic idiom than a puppet on a string—and women in realist narratives are puppets par excellence in their obscenely delectable contortions.
VI. Specific Cases of “Immolation”
Now that I have tipped my own theoretical hand, such as it is, let me return to specific cases so as to highlight certain points relevant to the theory. That the immolated female of realist fiction is indeed a species of scapegoat explains the whiff of sadism surrounding her representation in many texts.6 I do not for an instant argue that Ibsen, Tolstoy, and their ilk (or even Flaubert and Baudelaire) were secret votaries of the Marquis de Sade. I suggest, however, that there is a subtly traitorous quality in their method of dwelling upon the subject’s pain. One can sometimes divine a sigh from between the text’s lines whispering, “Poor, innocent creature! How prettily she writhes!” This is not the sort feeling imparted, for instance, by the adventures of rebellious females in the Renaissance mock-epics of Ariosto and Cervantes—both of whom choose the urbane road of parodic comedy over the grim descent into anguishing sacrifice.
The contrast, I believe, is highly instructive. Even though the psychological novel was not yet born in the sixteenth century (or perhaps was being midwived by these two wry chroniclers of aberrant knights-errant), the distinctly feminine miseries of forced dependency, forced marriage, forced cloistering, and so on might easily have been portrayed in great pathos. Marie de France had found a way to do so more than four centuries earlier. Instead, the Orlando Furioso‘s Bradamante and Marfisa succeed in willing themselves—thanks to a physically outrageous allegory—to a level of full moral equality with men, the allegorical thrust being emphasized by their retention of a charming feminine physique; while the eternal victim Angelica is never actually anyone’s victim, except perhaps her own for “letting herself become identified with the lowest common denominator of her femininity—a sexual organ” (Wiggins 173). Angelica manages to give herself at last to the man of her choice after leaving murderous havoc everywhere she goes. As for Cervantes’s Marcela, she combines the seductive beauty of an Angelica with the assertive good sense of a Bradamante. Perhaps no one along Don Quixote’s mad meander better avoids pathological self-absorption, on the one side, and unprincipled cynicism, on the other. Marcela might easily have been pulled limb from limb during the riot at the end of her idyll… but Cervantes has a ringing moral condemnation flow from her enchanting lips which silences all foolish males on the spot and leaves The Knight of the Sorrowful Figure, for a change, looking relatively compos mentis.
For whatever reason, when young women in realist fiction seem in no particular danger from anyone—when they seem, indeed, to be almost suffocated by their highly protective environment—they nonetheless manage to be raped or driven mad. The very shelter of their conjugal bonds becomes an instrument of torture. (In his short story “Les Amants de Tolède”, Villiers de L’Isle Adam had stitched up two idealized young lovers alive in a shroud for three days, not killing them but curing forever their ardor.) Several nineteenth-century authors, in fact, are guilty of what one might well call excessively long close-up views of such improbable anguish: scrutiny of the torment seems little less than the essential narrative of their fictions.
Gustav Flaubert’s novel leaps to mind. Prosecuted unsuccessfully for obscenity (shortly before the legal assault on Baudelaire met with a “better” fate), Flaubert managed to outrage bourgeois sensibility in Madame Bovary—and it isn’t hard to see how. Emma’s unraveling is traced in what could accurately be styled (considering Flaubert’s other talents) surgical detail. Here I shall only stress that she very nearly dies at the end of Part Two, when Rodolphe abandons her, and that her ultimate end is drug-induced, excruciating, and quite drawn out. That is to say, her agony is as sustained, narrowly observed, artificially engineered, and ill-comprehended by its “subject” as would be so of a butterfly spread-eagled with pins beneath a scientist’s magnifying glass. “Madame Bovary, c’est moi!” remarked Flaubert famously after the work’s publication—a claim as revealing in its falsity as in its candor. For the statement is and is not true: the participant in the scapegoat sacrifice is both intimately involved and mystically detached (as was stressed at the end of the previous section). Emma Bovary very probably represented for Flaubert an nexus of inclinations or sympathies which he wished to pull by the roots from his own soul—and an integral part of the “purification” was to watch the roots wither and die.
Yet as thoroughly as Flaubert had cauterized every romantic opening in his heart that he could locate, the novel remains intensely focused upon one person. Such was not Émile Zola’s technique. The naturalist model of the female crafted by Zola is less simpatica, less profound, more obscured by a cast of surrounding characters, and generally more like the naturalist male: an animate carcass driven by instinct, hunger, and social conditioning. The rapacious courtesan Nana (Boule-de-Suif entirely purged of idealism) leaves as much male wreckage in her wake as Lord Nelson’s flagship, though quite without any intelligent plan in mind (e.g., the desire for vengeance upon men). She stupidly surrenders herself for destruction to the most indigent and dissolute man of her acquaintance, who predictably batters her and steals from her. She recovers most of her meretricious plunder, however, in time to die like a fatted beast amid a mysterious, agonizing epidemic. All in all, there is a susceptibility, an incomprehension—an objectified otherness—to her undoing which one does not quite find in Zola’s males.
An earlier, more sympathetic incarnation of Nana, her lame, long-suffering mother Gervaise of L’Assommoir, having also been abused by a shiftless mate, dies less dramatically than he. Yet Coupeau’s alcohol-induced dementia, which consumes him in a supernova of raving, may be said to have “infected” Gervaise in a more degenerative and no less fatal form. The man’s squalor is paradoxically sublime, almost a prophetic possession: the woman’s is vile, utterly annihilating her soul. This is Nana’s fate, though she perishes in the lap of luxury rather than in the gutter. Both women have no insight, no “horrible” Kurtz-like ecstasy. If we may style Zola a great pathologist of the human condition, then his men may be said to die like improperly sanitized technicians whom the virus of modernity has invaded, his women like lab rats under close observation.
Even in Zola, then, the female’s demise is distinguished a) by the victim’s incomprehension, and b) by a quasi-clinical distance enforced between victim and audience. These are essential elements of the scapegoat ritual. I have already mentioned Giovanni Verga’s Peppa in “L’Amante di Gramigna”. Verga fashioned verismo after French naturalism, yet Peppa is far less equivocal as a “lovingly tortured” sacrifice than Zola’s women. Once a “good girl” destined to marry a “good man”, Peppa conceives an insatiable passion for the notorious outlaw Gramigna without even the benefit of having seen him. Despite the priest’s exorcisms and her mother’s tears and talismans, she slips away from home at night and joins the scoundrel amid a hail of bullets, to be left abandoned and disgraced weeks later when he is finally captured and carted off to prison. She is reduced to scrubbing floors and polishing boots for the garrison which sent her man away. In his closing words, Verga tells us that whenever her tormentors march off on some desperate mission, the guns and the danger make her remember Gramigna, and she fears for all their lives.
Peppa, to be sure, is not slain: she is reduced, instead, to a contemptible and (again) uncomprehending servility, like a beast raised to toil. Luigi Capuana somewhat anticipated this short story with his Profili di Donne, though he never matched his friend Verga’s sense of dry, dispassionate remove. The author expressed his fascination with one subject of these profiles in the following terms: “My sympathies were not at all with the housewife, the old-fashioned woman, but with my nervous, agitated, utterly tormented Fasma” (quoted in Cappello 138). Embellishing this citation, Cappello adds,
This is the nineteenth-century stereotype of the feminine as seen by science and culture. The female is constitutionally “fragile” and thus easy prey for hysteria—the more so in that female sensibility is, as it were, physiologically connected to a design of the “nervous mechanism” more intricate than the male’s and covered by a more delicate skin. (138)
Exactly. The science of the day had joined literature in banishing romantic sentimentality and irrationality to the female organism, by and large. To purge one’s heart of toxically sentimental inclinations, therefore—and, at the same time, to lament the loss of something exquisitely gentle—one had only to find an especially feminine female, release her into the “real world” (as a scientist might lift a door in the rat’s labyrinth), and note the successive stages of the pale creature’s anguishing decline. Objectivity by one name… blood rite by another.
Besides the rather theatrical exploitation of the macabre which one finds in authors like Auguste Philippe Villiers de l’Isle Adam (author of Contes Cruels), the most pitiless immolation of the female scapegoat—much the most among genuinely realist writers—appears in the works of Gabriele D’Annunzio. I mentioned the tortured character Orsola above (in La Vergine Orsola) very briefly above. The longest novella in Novelle della Pescara, this disturbing work minutely traces a devout young woman’s recovery from typhoid fever and concurrent awakening to her long-repressed sensuality. Though her life remains tightly cloistered, Orsola finds occasion to draw the lascivious stare of a dashing officer—but it is not he who will deflower her. Rather, the squalid knave who serves as their go-between takes advantage of a quiet afternoon and Orsola’s state of semi-dress to rape her. When she later realizes that she is pregnant in consequence of this single unwilling sexual experience, she weighs both suicide and the abortion-inducing drugs of a local medicine man. She opts for the latter. Unfortunately, the herbalist’s wife ministers to Orsola in the man’s absence, and apparently misjudges the dose. The virgin who had received extreme unction only months before and been snatched from death’s grasp now staggers back into town through the impure hands of rude laborers (who assume her to be drunk) to die of excessive bleeding on the first threshold she reaches. A blind old peasant, “believing that the butcher’s mastiff had gotten in, extended his cane to chase it out, and he poked the expiring woman over and over” (101).
The two encounters with death and the extreme agony of the final one may well have been D’Annunzio’s homage to Madame Bovary, for he consciously emulated Flaubert and other French realists (see n. 7 below). Benedetto Croce compared the author’s descriptions of Orsola’s physical state to a medical diagnosis (quoted in Sabbadini 25). These similarities between the French and Italian narratives are much more than a case of literary admiration, I believe. The archetype of the cruelly sacrificed young virgin has clearly traveled across national, linguistic, and to some extent even chronological boundaries (Flaubert’s peak of productivity having anticipated D’Annunzio’s by several decades). A root cause in upbringing or local culture thus seems highly improbable. We see something much more basic here—something about the way European males, particularly, are facing up to the new pressures of modernity.
VII . The Archetype in Other Times and Places
It would be a mistake to seek a full explanation of the femina immolata phenomenon in too narrow a context. I would expect, for instance, that it might be viewed in some quarters as representing a religious crisis. Certainly that dimension has relevance. Cappello, in commenting upon Capuana’s Marchese di Roccaverdina, stresses that the Marchese is haunted by a large crucifix stored away in his cellar, and his torment generally has a spiritual quality which foreshadows the twentieth century’s crisis of faith (127). Otherwise, biblical symbolism is almost universally eschewed in the classics of realism, naturalism, and verismo. D’Annunzio deliberately devalues the Virgin Mary’s associations by naming his protagonist the “Virgin Orsola”; and he repeats the innuendo in La Vergine Anna, whose protagonist dies in the same imbecilic doting of pseudo-religious ecstasy as Flaubert’s Félicité in Un Coeur Simple.7 The qualities implicit in Christianity’s “holy maid”—tenderness, mercy, and hopeful suffering—are indeed consistently disparaged by Flaubert, Ibsen, and all the major authors of the time. Is the femina immolata, then, a crucifixion of the Virgin Mary in compact rejection both of Christ’s divinity and of Christian virtue?
I think not: I think such conclusions are reached entirely too haphazardly in contemporary criticism on the basis of a superficial resonance or two. The real contrast operative in the literature of this time, as we have seen, is not between a male and a female scapegoat (cf. Christ and Mary), but between realist scapegoating and the more fantastical sequence of the Doppelgänger. That the former function is allotted almost always to female characters (and my “almost” does not defer to any specific example within my knowledge, only to its possibility) is simply a measure of the function’s parameters in the nineteenth century. The victim was required to be comely (so as to represent life’s beleaguered aesthetic side), wanting in comprehension (so as to explain how “reality” had failed to corrupt her for the time being), and childishly naïve (so as to account for her foolish straying into a death zone). Reigning assumptions about female nature accommodated these requirements far better than assumptions about male nature.
On the other hand, the male had exclusive run of the schizoid’s province: as the sex expected to wrestle hand-to-hand with quotidian existence, the man would come face-to-face with the incoherence of being—the impossibility of balancing truth and necessity or social success and fulfillment of desire. Having observed earlier that both Ariosto and Cervantes wrote females into very tight spots without ever submitting them to torturous anguish, we should also note the obvious: that the title heroes of their great works are driven mad—are not Jekyll-and-Hyde, yet wander much closer to that dismal border than do Bradamante and Marcela into Emma Bovary’s proximity. In the Europe of realism (if not in Western culture generally), males go mad or “go monster”: females blunder into a suicidal descent mistaking it, every step of the way, for a possible exit.
I might add that the penchant of realist females to commit suicide is really anything but realistic. In contemporary Western society, males tend to succeed at killing themselves (as opposed to “botching” a suicide) about five times as often as females. If we reckon that two major causes of suicide are emotional isolation and financial hardship, and that females of a century ago (at least in the middle class) were screened from both of these pressures far better than they are today, the prominence of female self-destruction in realist fiction is indeed remarkable for its improbability. The explanation, once again, lies clearly in the power of the archetypal sacrifice—the catharsis with which writers are always primarily concerned, no matter how often and loudly they protest their devotion to clinical fact.
I would go so far as to write in these concluding comments that the most fundamental difference between the femina immolata and the Doppelgänger sequences rests not in the former’s being more plausible or objectively presentable, but in the opposing types of catharsis which the two offer to the same anxiety. The consumer of both archetypes is oppressed by the sense that life as it should be lived (honoring truth and beauty) and life as it must be lived (resisting the disastrous high imperatives of the heart) cannot be reconciled. Such racking tension can only be relieved by accepting the coexistence of contradictions—the Janus having one face for public display and another for private spaces—or “killing” fine sentiments when they trespass upon the one real existence. The latter option seems to be favored by the “manly” energies of a culture struggling through such a crisis. (It is no accident, I would argue, that D’Annunzio would end his days lending his prestige to Mussolini’s growing movement.) The more reflective and more bemused, perhaps, prefer the insoluble Riddle of the Two Faces—for merely having formulated the enigma is something in the nature of a solution. Reason is at least given an irrational image in place of a tempestuous chaos.
I will further venture that the truly Christian approach to this tragic incoherence really has no special affinity with the scapegoat, so that examining certain cases of scapegoating with intent to declare them either the Crucifixion or its parody is pure pedantry. At a deeper level, Christianity is fully, painfully aware of the split running through human nature. The witnessing of a sacrifice cannot license a person of faith to dismiss finer feelings as cumbersome, ineffectual, or materially ruinous (or the ignoring of those feelings as “forgiven”, in the parlance). On the contrary, the believer’s rightful place is on the Cross as a comprehending sacrifice: in no other way can Day draw its sinister twin, Night, into daylight. Christianity, in short, combines, modifies, and turns topsy-turvy these ageless archetypes in ways which few among the falsely pious bourgeoisie of the nineteenth century ever imagined, and which realist authors simply did not explore. The stakes of realist literature are not without spirituality, but they interpret the spirit persistently in the positivist terms of an empirical age. Frankly, there is very little intersection between their species of imaginative representation and mature metaphysical belief. A large cross may be collecting dust in the unhappy Marchese’s cellar, but the Cross’s meaning cannot be expressed in the polarities of this age’s map.8
If realism’s tormented females should not be further agonized on a Procrustean bed of quasi-religious criticism, neither should they be narrowly imprisoned within the period of realism—or within Europe itself. I hearkened to the Renaissance for an example of literature wherein female characters toiled under immense social pressure yet without lasting harmful side-effects. One could easily find still other moments in Western history, however, where a very similar immolation of women is often represented by authors—not a literal sacrifice, such as Iphigeneia’s, but an allegorical one, such as Queen Dido’s. Virgil offers us an oddly erotic picture of Dido writhing on her marriage bed cum funeral pyre until Juno gives her a special dispensation to die before her time (Aeneid 4.663-705). The valiant Camilla has an only slightly less protracted end after being pierced by a spear just under her breast (11.801-831). The enigmatic Amata ends up hanging herself after several appallingly irrational transports which leave us wondering if her dedication to making Turnus her son-in-law is an altogether licit fondness; and her daughter Lavinia, at least in metaphor, joins Dido in catching fire from passion.9
Ovid also delighted in fine studies of agonized women, from Daphne to Philomela to Scylla. In fact, there has perhaps never been a more thorough manual of uncomprehendingly tormented female victims, all young, lovely, and relatively guiltless, than what we find in the Metamorphoses.
Ovid’s stock had risen high enough by the early fourteenth century that Dante confidently enrolled him among the great pagan poets passing eternity in Limbo. Rarely is there observable among Ovid’s medieval enthusiasts an appreciation—or even an inkling—of his ironic distance from his sympathetic agonisées. These tortured figures were serious business to the allegory-saturated Quattrocento. About a century earlier, a Norman adaptor of the Aeneid had similarly found such fascination in Dido’s highly suggestive suicide that he decided to “sharpen up” the Virgilian innuendo. The wretched queen is reported—in considerable detail—to burn alive in the pyre’s flames, the sword of Eneas having failed to dispatch her.10 Boccaccio’s Decameron is certainly not devoid of immolated females, either. The Eight Story of the Fifth Day relates how Nastagio degli Onesto witnessed a phantom hunting down his cruel mistress and feeding her entrails to his hounds—a gruesome scene which (the ghost assures Nastagio) is repeated regularly.
The early days of the Roman Empire, the concluding centuries of the Middle Ages… dare I reach so far as post-colonial Africa for yet more examples? They are there, in abundance. To chronicle such cases would be the work both of another essay and of an investigator more knowledgeable than I; but the curious reader might begin with “The Black Girl” (Sembene Ousmane) and “Minutes of Glory” (Ngugi wa Thiong’o). These short stories are in some respects more realist in style than European realism—and one can scarcely charge their authors with sycophantically imitating the art of the oppressor. Few writers of this period in sub-Saharan Africa more vocally denounced the influence of Europe upon their homeland.
IX. The Dubious Future of Comparative Studies
All of this is not to say that nineteenth-century European realism should not be treated as a distinct phenomenon, separated even from American naturalism (about which I have written virtually nothing, owing—once again—to the limits of my expertise). What I intended to argue in the previous section, and no doubt argued hyperbolically in places, is that European realism should not necessarily be considered as hermetically self-contained, either. Quite honestly, I have no very well-developed idea of what Augustan Rome and late-medieval Florence or Normandy might have in common with Victorian England or the new Italian republic—or if the Renaissance of Ariosto and Cervantes might revealingly lack this critical common denominator. My purpose is merely to indicate that such vastly framed questions should be possible for a specialist in the field of Comparative Literature to pursue—possible, and thoroughly enticing. For the crucial first data which hint at the presence of a question here are literary: historical and psychological and even spiritual theories may come after, collaborating or competing to explain the data plausibly—but the original symptom of this exotic species of contagion in the body politic is lengthy literary depiction of anguished young females.
Of course, Comparative Literature as practiced throughout its brief and disappointing history has undertaken no such projects of study. As Hippocrates once exhorted his disciples, “First do no harm,” so the unwritten Comparatist Oath begins, “Resist and deplore universalism in all its forms.” The merciless coinage of this particular –ism was aimed wildly at the vicinity of classical aesthetics, wherein certain qualities (pattern within complexity, subtle shading between bright polarities, the intricate balance of opposite forces, and so forth) were seen as bestowing a beauty appreciable to any developed human intelligence. That a field whose essential purpose was to have been comparing things should clarion, militantly and from the start, the impossibility of an inherently human ground of comparison reveals what inane powers immediately seized control of the designing board. Clearly, human reason—or at least a shared variety of human sentiment based upon the fundamental nature of human perception—had to be ruled out, banished, excommunicated. The sole acceptable (politically acceptable) cause of recurrent phenomena in world literature had to be—by default—certain cultural forces which are not—by definition—fundamental to human nature. Common literary denominators had to indict a conspiracy.
For literary theory in Comparative Literature is always a species of conspiracy theory, for two reasons. The first is that the often very alienated young people who devote themselves exclusively to literary studies in our grossly utilitarian culture take immense solace in reading their lives as the microcosm of an epochal struggle. The second is that conspiracies are circumstantial, and circumstances can always be altered, and the alteration of history to create a utopia never before seen by sublunary eyes is a delightful prospect to the cultural exile. Comparative studies, that is, unmask the past’s villainy and unveil the future’s glory to the unending excitement of people at odds with the present.
To be sure, such academic therapy probably keeps a certain number of Molotov cocktails from flying through the windows of corporate headquarters around the nation. It does not, however, advance our understanding either of the past or of literature. I have sought to demonstrate in the present essay a specific instance of this failure. Nineteenth-century realism is really not bursting with compassion for women at all: it is far more interested in them as central figures in a ritualistic allegory, wherein their part is in fact an anguishing one viewed from a coolly distant remove. We might be happy, I suppose, that some of today’s scholarly women enjoy overlooking the ritual’s masks and paint and discovering in it, rather, an excuse to break into a dance. Maybe the games we play in academe are themselves a necessary—or at least a salutary—ritual which renders our collective existence a little less annoying.
It annoys me, however, that we cannot study art in its own right even as a game devised to placate the strange few who wish to see to the bottom of things. I would stress, by the way (as I did in my introduction), that I do not consider “archetypal criticism” to lie at the bottom of things artistic. My study in this space had veered from artistic data into a speculation about cultural pressures in the early modern Western world. At no point have I equated (or would I equate) the forceful expression of the “immolated female” archetype with the accomplishment of fine art. Eighth-graders in chemistry lab who gather to watch a fly blunder into a tube of poison gas (all of them boys, most likely) are perhaps exorcising that sentimentality which terrifies them in much the same way that Flaubert was slaughtering his inner romantic through Madame Bovary. In terms of vision and humanity, I’m afraid I don’t see Flaubert as having graduated from adolescence—which is a moral judgment, but in being so (as I also opened this paper by pleading) closely akin to aesthetic judgment. The art of realism is simply not Europe’s greatest art. Flaubert, of course, was one of French literature’s finest stylists. Fortunately, there are different criteria involved in satisfying the love of beauty than in passing Chemistry class.
Finally, I hope against hope that some day literary scholars and critics may again divest themselves of their bombastic quasi-scientific posturing. I would infinitely prefer to read an essay replete with literary examples than one saturated in “scholarly references”, for I join Professor Barricelli in believing literary texts to be the atomic particles of our research—not critical theories inter-refracted up and down a dizzying hall of mirrors. In literary studies, the latest theory may prove nothing at all beyond preceding theories: literary judgment does not “build upon” previous literary judgments as empirical research builds upon the latest experiments. Judgments, of course, can go awry. There is an irreducibly subjective element in them. The best corrective to such vulnerability is further exposure to more texts, and still more texts—not a thinning out of relevant texts so as to preserve a favorite theory’s absurdities from daylight. There are gaping deficiencies in my own knowledge of nineteenth-century realism, which is assuredly not my area of special preparation. All the more dismaying, then, when someone like me observes that specialists in this period have neither the slightest inkling of what the Italians (for instance) were doing at the time nor the least interest in finding out.
Far too often, the tail is wagging the dog in comparative work. I will surrender my own theory about the female victim’s true meaning in realist fiction when I see a case presented which overwhelms me with literary evidence rather than theoretical jargon. Not before.
Auerbach, Nina. Woman and the Demon: The Life of a Victorian Myth. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1982.
Barricelli, Jean-Pierre. “A View From Balcony: Perspectives on Comparative Literature in 1995.” The Comparatist 20 (1996): 6-20.
Cappello, Angelo Piero. Invito alla Lettura diLuigi Capuana, Milan: Mursia, 1995.
Danahy, Michael. The Feminization of the Novel. Gainesville: U of Florida P, 1991.
D’Annunzio, Gabriele. Le Novele della Pescara. Milano: Mondadori, 1980.
Gerrard, Lisa. “Romantic Heroines in the Nineteenth-Century Novel: A Feminist View.” International Journal of Women’s Studies 7.1 (1984): 10-16.
Finney, Gail. “Ibsen and Feminism.” The Cambridge Companion to Ibsen. Ed. James McFarlane. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994: 89-105.
Kennard, Jean E. Victims of Convention. Hamden, CT: Archon, 1978.
Rigney, Barbara Hill. Madness and Sexual Politics in the Feminist Novel. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1978.
Sabbadini, Silvano. “Antologia Critica.” Gabriele D’Annunzio: Le Novelle della Pescara. Milan: Mondadori, 1980: 23-31.
Wiggins, Peter DeSa. Figures in Ariosto’sTapestry: Character and Design in the Orlando Furioso. Johns Hopkins UP, 1986.
A Partial Chronology of Primary Texts
1733 Manon Lescaut (Abbé Prévost)
1753 Discours sur l’Origine de l’Inégalité (Rousseau)
1762 Le Neveu de Rameau (Diderot)
1797 Christabel (Coleridge)
1818 Frankenstein (Shelley)
1831 Le Rouge et le Noir (Stendhal)
1857 Madame Bovary (Flaubert)
Several of Baudelaire’s poems condemned
1869 War and Peace (Tolstoy)
1877 Anna Karenina (Tolstoy)
Profili di Donne (Capuana)
1879 A Doll’s House (Ibsen)
1880 Boule-de-Suif (Maupassant)
“L’Amante de Gramigna” (Verga)
1881 Malombra (Fogazzaro)
1883 Also Sprach Zarathustra (Nietzsche)
1884 La Vergine Anna (D’Annunzio)
The Importance of Being Earnest (Wilde)
1885 Bel Ami (Maupassant)
1886 The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Stevenson)
1888 Les Amants de Tolède” (Villiers de l’Isle Adam)
1889 Il Piacere (D’Annunzio)
The Master of Ballantrae (Stevenson)
1890 Hedda Gabler (Ibsen)
1891 The Picture of Dorian Gray (Wilde)
1897 Dracula (Bram Stoker)
1899 The Awakening (Chopin)
Heart of Darkness (Conrad)
“Twenty-Six Men and a Girl (Gorky)
1901 Il Marchese di Roccaverdina (Caouana)
1904 “Dora” (Freud)
1 If I might offer a couple of anecdotal illustrations… in one case, the “rising star” of an elite private college’s English Department composed a program for distribution at a theater production wherein Goethe was said to have been influenced in writing The Sorrows of Young Werther by Schopenhauer—a claim which poses a new obstacle to abortionists, since it requires the human being to exist before the fetus. In another private college of my acquaintance, the English Department’s chair once paraded before the faculty the opus of an “A” student from her senior seminar—wherein was revealed the significant influence exerted upon Kafka’s writings by Nazi concentration camps. This link, of course, though no less metaphysical than that between Goethe and Schopenhauer, would require that Kafka survive his moldering mortal ruins by about two decades and then return to write up his ghostly testimony.
2 In 1857, six poems of Les Fleurs du Mal were legally suppressed and their author stiffly fined. Here I am alluding especially to the work among the six entitled “À celle qui est trop gaie”, in which he fantasizes about surprising a vivacious young coquette in her room one night. I shall write further about this poem later.
3 The phrase is actually employed in the masculine, of the male protagonist in Fogazzaro’s Malombra, Corrado Silla. Since Fogazzaro, despite his chronology, is no realist by any stretch of the imagination, and since Silla is eventually murdered by a crazed incarnation of the romantic heroine, the work is a fascinating commentary-by-contrast on the subject in hand.
4 When I write “political” in this context, I mean that popularity is certainly to be won by affirming of a certain group (in this case, women) that it a) has passively suffered extreme persecution and b) enjoys the natural right of employing self-defensive violence. Yet the terms of such an affirmation are self-contradictory, and hence of no use to analyzing a behavior objectively. A tragos would be incapable of self-defense, by definition—and a martyr would refuse the ability if it were offered. A victim unwillingly deprived of a chance to strike back is not a scapegoat, but a spoil of war.
5 My translation of the second stanza. All of the French and Italian authors from whose works I cite passages hereafter have likewise been subjected to my personal translating, which may sometimes elevate adherence to the text over elegance.
6 Those interested in pursuing the subject could do worse than to look among the works of Walter Burkert, Mircea Eliade, Eric Gans, and René Girard.
6 If sadism seems to strong a word, I will reprise Schadenfreude. In any case, having acquired a certain experience of the practice of Christianity in Appalachia, I can attest that the Crucifixion is usually represented there with emphasis upon the whip, the thorns, the nails, the blood—and that the faithful often register a kind of tearful exhilaration when treated to such gruesome depictions. So a “joyous grief”, I should say, is an integral part of witnessing the scapegoat’s sacrifice.
7 Le Novelle della Pescara, published in 1902, postdates Flaubert’s Trois Contes (1877) by 25 years. It is difficult to imagine that Anna is not patterned after Félicité, particularly in her death scene. Félicité had expired mistaking the play of sunlight in a window for the descending Holy Spirit; Anna dies in the same brutishly ignorant bliss, sent into rapture by the glinting metal work of an approaching nag’s saddle. D’Annunzio “was thoroughly familiar with French literature, especially with Flaubert whom he admired and cited almost constantly” (Giovanni Gullace, Gabriele D’Annunzio in France: A Study in Cultural Relations [Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1966], 10). Hence the debt is a virtual certainty—and it reflects a deliberate choice, I would stress, to replicate one of the most acidly derisive portraits of religious faith in literature. If the ultimate torture is to tantalize the victim with relief that turns out to be illusory, these arm’s-length studies of cretinous ecstasy on the ash heap may fairly be judged to represent victims just beneath the intelligence-threshold required for sadistic exploitation.
8 I am compelled to note, reluctantly, that the foregoing discussion is of how the Christian faith ought to be practiced. I do not deny that certain denominations or pockets of culture favor a heavy emphasis of the Crucifixion as the ultimate-but-ageless Scapegoat. The intent of Christian ritual was historically both to appropriate archetypal forms of worship and to channel them toward higher rather than lower human nature—to end their sway, that is, as well as to assume their old robes. Yet sometimes old wine skins are preferred to new ones.
9 Cui plurimus ignem / subiecit rubor et calefacta per ora cucurrit (Aen. 12.65-66).
10 Cf. ll. 2119-2124: “The flame had drawn so close to her / Her arm was severed from her body, / Her fair skin both lovely and tender / Could not defend itself from fire; / She flames and smolders and turns black. / In little time she melts away.”