By Joyce Carol Oates

Originally commissioned by the Conference on Changing Perspectives on Intimacy, Sexuality, and Commitment, at the University of Hartford, June 7–18, 1982, and published in The Georgia Review, Spring 1983. This version is from The Profane Art: Essays and Reviews.

O may she live like some green laurel
Rooted in one dear perpetual place.
“A Prayer for My Daughter”

A man’s quarrel with Woman is his quarrel with himself—with those “despised” and muted elements in his personality which he cannot freely acknowledge because they challenge his sense of masculine supremacy and control. Modernist literature, despite its extraordinary sophistication in technical literary terms—its openness to radical re-visionings of the act of “storytelling,” its delight in linguistic and structural experimentation—exhibits nonetheless most of the received and unexamined values of popular mass culture, so far as images of Woman are concerned; it is not an exaggeration to argue that Modernist fiction carries over deep-rooted nineteenth-century prejudices of a distinctly bourgeois sort. Morality is examined in the light of new and radical interpretations of what the world “is,” but these interpretations are as fixed in masculinity as ever. From Yeats’s sacred ideal of femininity (famously expressed in “A Prayer for My Daughter”) to Lawrence’s phallic mysticism; from the misogynous bias of Eliot and Conrad to Faulkner’s crude portraits of mammalian beauties or castrating “neuters” who deserve death, the most celebrated of twentieth-century writers have presented Woman through the distorting lens of sexist imagination—sometimes with courtly subtlety, sometimes with a ferocious indignation that erupts in violence. The paradox with which the feminist critic or sympathizer must contend is this: that revolutionary advances in literature often fail to transcend deeply conservative and stereotypical images of women, as if, in a sense, the nineteenth century were eerily superimposed upon even the most defiantly inventive literary “visions” of the twentieth century.

“Modernism” and (Despised) “Popular Culture”

The Profane ArtBy Modernism we mean a heterogeneous and not easily characterized movement in literature that involved extraordinary innovations in style, ebullient new uses of language, and a radical redefining of what is meant by “Art”; what is meant by the “individual,” the “artist,” “society,” and “reality” itself. We think immediately of the bold Symbolist affirmation of the soul in its dreaming and frequently hallucinatory states: the private Soul, that is, in contrast to the public Self. We think of Oscar Wilde’s declaration that Art is not only superior to Life and to Nature, but unrelated to both. Art is “the telling of beautiful untrue things” and is synonymous with lying: it is expected to exhibit not sincerity but skill. At the core of the Modernist sensibility is the ecstatic monomaniacal devotion of Flaubert to his craft—Flaubert, who loved the difficult and addictive act of writing to the degree to which, it seems, he loathed life. “We must love one another in Art, as the mystics love one another in God”: a statement of such appeal for any writer that I am always willing to extirpate it from its pragmatic context.1

Modernism is justly seen as revolutionary in its insistence upon the subjective, the unique, the elevation of the Artist as the priest of a new dispensation, and its militant hero as well. The Artist-Hero is one who, in Yeats’s persuasive words, descends into the terrifying and uncharted depths of the soul as other heroes have, by tradition, entered physical combat. Yeats argues: “Because an emotion does not exist, or does not become perceptible and active among us, till it has found its expression, in color or in form or in sound . . . and because these modulations . . . evoke the same emotion, poets and painters and writers . . . are continually making and un-making mankind2—a remarkable statement, no less iconoclastic for its being so moderately phrased. (And who is to say, if we add to Yeats’s brief list the purveyors of popular culture in a democratic society, that he isn’t correct?) The Artist-Priest of James Joyce’s aesthetic is the more reasonably empowered with “sacred” faculties, in that the object of his life’s vocation is not a fantastical spirit-world of wistful and childlike yearnings (that is, traditional religion as handed down by a priesthood or blessed clergy), but this world—the very world in which we live physically and emotionally, rendered in all its detail, with no more revulsion for the contradictory, the obscene, the vulgar, the unspeakable, than any anthropologist or chemist might feel confronted with his or her primary material.

This is a revolutionary attitude that strikes us in the waning decades of the twentieth century as so inevitable, so obvious, that it scarcely needs to be reiterated, like many of the defiant pronouncements of Modernism. (To which we might add the pronouncements of the Symbolists, the Surrealists, and even the Dadaists, whose battles have all been—perhaps Pyrrhically—won.) The fundamental supposition is that the Artist’s mind does not passively experience the world; it energetically constructs (or reconstructs) it. Vision translates into style; personality translates into voice; all art is or should be experimental if it is to be judged worthy of our attention. (As Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus somewhat dogmatically states, the evolution of a highly self-conscious art brings with it a paradoxical transcendence of the personal or autobiographical, yet, as it is imbued with the distinctive voice of genius, it becomes the highest possible expression of personality—if style and personality are identical.)

The prejudices of the bourgeois culture are to be overthrown,rejected, ignored, transcended: for the tiresome pieties of the Victorians, like those of the Augustans, having to do with the morality of art, and the duties of the artist, and the servile role of literature in society, are judged as not simply contemptible but mistaken. ” . . . I might be expected to speak of the social, that is to say sociological or political, obligation of the poet,” says Wallace Stevens. “He has none.”

In its aesthetics as well as in its actual products Modernism constituted something radically new in literary history.

By contrast, what we know as “popular” or “mass” culture has always conformed to the most insipid prejudices, and the least subtle formulations, of society. Its wares are soiled with frequent handling; its styles are so hackneyed, trite, and homogeneous, they constitute a single style; it is as incapable of artistic experimentation as of moral and intellectual experimentation. “The greatest appeal to the greatest number” is the standard, and no idiosyncratic vision is recommended. Mass culture, particularly in our time, is not so much created as produced, like tissue paper or soft drinks; and this ephemeral quality is actually desirable since, in a consumer-oriented society, the healthy market is one in which products are not viable for very long. One buys, one uses, one discards, one again buys: a ceaseless present tense, an ideal amnesia.

Where Modernism held the uniqueness of the work of art to be sacrosanct, and a life’s devotion to the perfection of craft a life well spent, popular culture is an expression of the faith in interchangeable parts and ceaseless production—for the assembly line should never be shut down. The “vision” of the redoubtable American prophet Henry Ford might well be translated into a cogent if abbreviated philosophical system, its central thesis having to do with perpetual motion (factories never shut down, conveyor belts never halted, raw materials never exhausted, power never depleted, consumers never fully satisfied—for the ideal is a civilization of self-consuming “products,” a whirligig of sheer energy).

As instructive as these warring visions of the Unique and the Interchangeable are the contrasting attitudes toward money. Modernism turns its back on commercial success, taking pride in the small and sometimes near-nonexistent audiences its most difficult products have drawn; Popular Culture is really concerned with nothing else. Money may be a kind of poetry, as Wallace Stevens enigmatically said, but is poetry a kind of money?—surely not. Indeed, if one becomes even modestly popular this is a symptom, in the eyes of Modernist and Postmodernist sensibilities, of the necessarily inferior nature of one’s art. Though liberal and even radical politically, the Modernist temperament is defiantly elitist otherwise, for it is a truism that the “mass mind” is incapable of valuing or even recognizing excellence; hence it follows that whatever pleases the greatest numbers must be despicable. And surely there is a plethora of painful examples to buttress this argument. For instance, Melville enjoyed early commercial success with his fast-paced and guileless “adventure” tales, the exotic Typee and Omoo, and, as his art increased in ambition, complexity, and darkness of vision (in Moby Dick, Pierre, The Confidence-Man, among others), he drifted into absolute obscurity—he simply ceased to exist as a force in American letters. Henry James had to endure the humiliation of declining sales throughout his long and industrious career, and though it is hardly surprising that The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, and The Golden Bowl should sell painfully less than Daisy Miller, it is scarcely encouraging to fellow writers.

Opposed as Modernism and Popular Culture are in these and many other respects, it is always something of a shock to see in which ways their tacit prejudices overlap. The fundamental assumption, for instance, of what being female involves—and how social roles are so imbued with a mystique of biological determinism that they are not perceived as “roles” at all.

“Women are to be protected, respected, supported, and petted”—this is the jocular advice given, presumably to gentlemen, in The American Book of Manners (1880), one of countless best-selling books of its kind published in the post-Civil War years. Hundreds of thousands of such manuals were sold in the United States in the second half of the nineteenth century, as the division between social classes—between the well-to-do and the great army of the poor—became more pronounced. Genteel anxiety evidently focused upon the problem of what constitutes a lady. The Christian duties and obligations of wife and mother; how to comport oneself in society; how to be a helpmeet (if female) to one’s spouse; even how to be patriotic in the most feminine, which is to say the least effective, way—

In our own sphere, the hearth beside,
The patriot’s heart to cheer;—
The young, unfolding mind to guide,—
The future sage to rear;
Where sleeps the cradled infant fair,
To watch with love, and kneel in prayer—
Bless each sad soul with pity’s smile,
And frown on every latent wile
That threats the pure, domestic shade,
Sister—so best our life shall aid
The land we love.3

Women assiduously studied such popular books as The Young Woman’s Guide, The Young Mother, and The Young Wife, all by a gentleman by the name of Dr. William Alcott; The American Lady by Charles Butler was also consulted, dealing, as it did, with “the importance of the female character” and “considerations antecedent to marriage.” The Lady’s Vase, Letters to Young Ladies, The Gentle Art of Pleasing, The Christian Home, The Young Lady’s Friend, The Young Lady’s Companion, The Lady’s Guide to Perfect Gentility . . . Marriage was endlessly discussed, but always in terms of duties and responsibilities: Woman’s natural role was one of unquestioning subservience, docility, and sacrifice. One of the most famous of “marriage manuals” was Dr. George N. Naphey’s The Physical Life of Woman: Advice to the Maiden, Wife, and Mother (1869, at the time of its first edition), a document that says very little about the physical life as we know it but is rich in vaporous pseudoreligious rhetoric. When a popular English periodical called Chamber’s Journal ran a series of articles on the subject “A Woman’s Thoughts About Women” in1857, the (anonymous) thoughts were of this sort:

Dependence is in itself an easy and pleasant thing: dependence upon one we love perhaps the very sweetest thing in the world. To resign oneself totally and contentedly into the hand of another; to have no longer any need of asserting one’s rights or one’s personality, knowing that both are as precious to that other as they were to ourselves; to cease taking thought about oneself at all, and rest safe, at ease, assured that in great things and small we shall be guided and cherished, guarded and helped—in fact thoroughly “taken care of—how delicious this all is. . . .4

The generally unquestioned attitude toward women was succinctly expressed by Robert Bell in The Ladder of Gold (1850): “Stern and obdurate strength is not the finest characteristic of women; they are most strong and most lovable in their weakness. . . . Even their errors and failures add a grace to our devotion by leaving something for our magnanimity to forgive.”5

Another observer asserts that while “a thinking man is his own legislator and confessor, and obtains his own absolution, the woman, let alone the girl, does not have the measure of ethics in herself. She can only act if she keeps within the limits of morality, following what society has established as fitting”—a judgment we should dismiss as smug bigotry, did we not know that it was made by Freud.6 If “superior” women were granted existence—superior in terms of their virtue, that is—they were likely to be figures from comfortably distant epochs, like the Middle Ages, that mythological bastion of faith and absolute stability.7

The cherished double standard, by which women are measured against ethereal expectations, and men granted their “manliness,” never seems to be acknowledged in popular nonfiction or fiction of the nineteenth century: the contemporary critic searches in vain, and resorts in the end to the expedient of calling much of the work duplicitous.8 Romances and melodramas written with a female audience in mind, nearly always by female writers, selling in the hundreds of thousands of copies in the second half of the nineteenth century, presented a veritable army of stereotypical heroines, heroes, and villains, in various combinations and permutations of plot, not unlike those of standard soap opera. Of all writers no one, not even pornographers, is held more in contempt than the female novelists of the “popular-sentimental” school, that gaggle of “scribbling women”condemned by Hawthorne, who naively imagined that he was losing his audience to them. (In fact Hawthorne, along with Thoreau, Emerson, and Melville, had never one-tenth of this enormous middle-class audience.) Duplicitous, hypocritical, or utterly sincere in their service of resigning women to a patriarchal fate?—one can’t be altogether certain in examining these writers, who in any case soon begin to blur into one another. There are Mrs. E. D. E. N. Southworth, who wrote more than sixty novels; Mary Jane Holmes, of whose forty novels two million copies were sold; Mrs. Augusta Jane Evans, whose best seller was St. Elmo (1866); Mrs. Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Ward, the prodigiously successful author of The Gates Ajar (1868); and many another, usually equipped with three or four names and the imprimatur “Mrs.”

The world of the popular-sentimental novel is not so alien as contemporary feminist readers might wish to think. If there are passages of genuine literary merit in the interstices of the ludicrous steamroller plots, buried here and there amid interminable moralizing speeches, they are likely to be descriptive: sudden, illuminating, and altogether fascinating pictures of domestic female life, private life, sequestered from male eyes. (Mrs. Southworth is particularly valuable in allowing us to overhear the exchanges between women and their servants, in some cases their slaves.) In general, however, even the most patient reader is likely to be numbed by the relentless moral tone, the sermonizing on Christian virtues of wifely submissionin the face of infidelity, drunkenness, and occasional violence. (Are men violent? If so, it is their nature. Should they be forgiven? Of course. One marries “for better and for worse, in sickness and in health.” These are serious vows. Permanent vows. At least so far as the woman is concerned.)

Certainly these are cautionary tales, exempla, striking more closely to the bone (my metaphor is deliberate) than the chill, fastidiously controlled, the ultimately merely allegorical fictions by Hawthorne. Or is The Scarlet Letter, with its patina of guilt, remorse, and redemption, yet another cautionary tale, couched in discreetly”unreal” language? And is the fate of the luxuriantly beautiful Zenobia of The Blithedale Romance meant to be instructive? Woman’splace is in man’s world.

In a representative novel by Mrs. Southworth, The Discarded Daughter; or, The Children of the Isle, a woman who is physically abused by her tyrannical husband disguises her injuries and passes them off as her own fault. (“No, Milly; no, my arm is not hurt, Milly,” the long-suffering Mrs. Garnet declares, “I—I fell, Milly, andstruck my head, I think. General Garnet had the presence of mind to bleed me—and perhaps that saved my life”) The brute returns to”bleed” her a second time, but Mrs. Garnet’s Christian love is such that she not only forgives him for his cruelty but assures him that it isn’t cruelty, the injury is her own fault, what seems to have occurredbetween them never occurred at all. The husband’s reply: “It is dangerous, Alice, dangerous, to rebel either by stratagem or force against just authority.”9 Mrs. Southworth’s heroine is clearly meant to be a model for her female readers not only in her acquiescence to her husband’s brutality but in her steadfast denial—even to concerned friends—that anything is wrong. Naturally at her death she will be proclaimed a saint.

Yet the popular-sentimental novels do tend to blur, to grow hazy, to acquire in the memory a single style, not the voices of individual women so much as the overwrought hectoring of the victim giving “advice” and consolation to fellow victims. One cannot really fault the contempt of the “serious” male writer for these vaporous female concoctions, in which potentially tragic conflict is routinely resolved by embarrassing plot-turns: rightful heirs appearon schedule; the illegitimate child is revealed as—legitimate after all; a villain dies, hoisted on his own petard; a long-lost love miraculously returns; the glorious wedding takes place amid suitable festivity. The only admirable female is a lady, though tomboys of a sort are treated fondly, so long as they remain children. Bodies scarcely exist but clothes are everywhere in evidence, indefatigably described. Here is a world of shameless insipid romance in which platitudes are uttered on every page. (“Love can redeem any soul; it was LOVE that gave itself for all souls! Love is religion—for ‘God is Love.’ “10) Here is a world of female delusion in which individuality is dissolved into types, and the eye’s reading of the face is never to be corrected. Consider Elsie in the “bloom of her young womanhood”—

In form, she was rather above the medium height, of small frame, delicate, but not thin, for the round and small bones were well covered with soft, elastic flesh, that rounded and tapered off in the true line of beauty to the slender wrists and ankles. Her neck and bosom were beautiful beyond all poetic dreams of beauty, suggesting sweet thoughts of love, truth, and repose. Her hair was rich and abundant, falling in a mass of warm-hued, golden, auburn ringlets. Her eyes were dark blue, large and languishing. Her complexion was very fair, but warming in the cheek and lips into a faint but beautiful flush; the prevailing tone of her countenance was half-devotional, half-voluptuous; indeed, the nature of every ardent temperament is luxurious or saintly, as moral and mental tone gives it a bias; in hers, both were blended and the general character of her whole face and form, air and manner, was—HARMONY. There was no warring, no discord, not one dissonant element in that pure, that spiritualized, yet proud nature. She seemed . . . even when talking and hearing others talk, to be only half-given to the world; to be wrapped in the vision of some delicious, some blissful secret; to possess some hidden spring of joy; to have some secret, divine truth shrined in the temple of her heart, that elevated her expression to an exalted spirituality.11

Elsie also possesses a “tiny, snow-white hand” and an arm that is “pure and fresh.”

Yet another ideal feminine type—

It must not be supposed that Mrs. Gould’s mind was masculine. A woman with a masculine mind is not a being of superior efficiency; she is simply a phenomenon of imperfect differentiation—interestingly barren and without importance. [Mrs. Gould’s] intelligence being feminine led her to achieve the conquest of Sulaco, simply by lighting the way for her unselfishness and sympathy. She could converse charmingly but was not talkative.The wisdom of the heart having no concern with the erection or demolition of theories any more than with the defence of prejudices, has no random words at its command. The words it pronounces have the value of acts of integrity, tolerance, and compassion. A woman’s true tenderness, like the true virility of man, is expressed in action of a conquering kind.12

Interesting to note, too, that in this passage, Conrad’s language is not discernibly superior to that of the despised Mrs. Southworth. And there are many such passages in Conrad.

One of the most highly regarded of Modernist poems is Yeats’s “A Prayer for My Daughter,” written in 1919. If we examine it closely we see that it carries both a blessing and a curse, though it is the blessing critics always recall:

I have walked and prayed for this young child an hour
And heard the sea-wind scream upon the tower,
And under the arches of the bridge, and scream
In the elms above the flooded stream;
Imagining in excited reverie
That the future years had come,
Dancing to a frenzied drum,
Out of the murderous innocence of the sea.

May she be granted beauty and yet not
Beauty to make a stranger’s eye distraught,
Or hers before a looking-glass, for such,
Being made beautiful overmuch,
Consider beauty a sufficient end,
Lose natural kindness and maybe
The heart-revealing intimacy
That chooses right, and never find a friend.

It is rarely remarked that Yeats’s first concern for his daughter is her physical appearance. He prays that she will be beautiful—but not too beautiful—for such beauty might arouse in her a sense of her own autonomy: her existence in a “looking-glass” rather than in a man’s eyes. Yeats goes on to hope, like many another anxious father, that his daughter will be spared passion and sensuality, for “It’s certain that fine women eat/A crazy salad with their meat/Whereby the Horn of Plenty is undone.” (The Horn of Plenty being, one must assume, an unintentional pun.)

Yeats had been in love, as all the world knows, with the beautiful and passionate Maud Gonne for many years; and had been so aroused by her revolutionary political views that, for a time, he had belonged to a secret extremist revolutionary group called the Irish Republican Brotherhood—in a remarkable defiance, in fact, of his own deeply introspective nature. Yet his prayer for his daughter is that she be chiefly learned in courtesy. And:

May she become a flourishing hidden tree
That all her thoughts may like the linnet be,
And have no business but dispensing round
Their magnanimities of sound,
Nor but in merriment begin a chase,
Nor but in merriment a quarrel.
O may she live like some green laurel
Rooted in one dear perpetual place.

This celebrated poet would have his daughter an object in nature for others’—which is to say male—delectation. She is not even an animal or a bird in his imagination but a vegetable: immobile, untninking, placid, “hidden.” The activity of her brain is analogous to the linnet’s song—no distracting evidence of mental powers, only a”magnanimity” of sound, a kind of background music. The linnet with its modest brown plumage is surely not an accidental choice; a nightingale might have been summoned, too—except that the nightingale has been used too frequently in English poetry and is, in any case, a nocturnal creature. The poet’s lifework is the creation of a distinct voice in which sound and sense are harmoniously wedded: the poet’s daughter is to be brainless and voiceless, rooted.

So crushingly conventional is Yeats’s imagination—and he is writing several decades after the despised Victorian women novelists—that he cannot conclude his prayer with this wish for his infant daughter; he must look into the future and anticipate her marriage.Though the ideal woman is childlike, in fact vegetative, with no passion, sensuality, or intelligence, it is the case that she must be given in marriage to a man: she will be incomplete unless she is joined “in custom and ceremony” to a husband.

And may her bridegroom bring her to a house
Where all’s accustomed, ceremonious;
For arrogance and hatred are the wares
Peddled in the thoroughfares.
How but in custom and in ceremony
Are innocence and beauty born?
Ceremony’s a name for the rich horn,
And custom for the spreading laurel tree.

This is the sentiment, not undercut but confirmed by the pat rhyming, of many a sentimental, “inspirational” poem of the nineteenth century. And the ideals of innocence and beauty, docility, spiritual muteness—altogether familiar to any student of popular literature.

This famous poem is not, however, solely a father’s prayer, agesture of sanctification: it is also a curse: an instrument of revenge.Though Yeats had written numberless poems celebrating Maud Gonne, primarily for her beauty (“Pallas Athene in that straight back and arrogant head”), he now says, in a stanza that strikes the ear as arbitrary:

As intellectual hatred is the worst,
So let her think opinions are accursed.
Have I not seen the loveliest woman born
Out of the mouth of Plenty’s horn,
Because of her opinionated mind
Barter that horn and every good
By quiet natures understood
For an old bellows full of angry wind?

(One notes again the horn, and now the betrayal of the horn—the independent woman’s most unspeakable act. But Yeats’s imagery is for once not at his conscious command.)

The feminine soul must be “self-delighting, self-appeasing, self-affrighting”—affecting a kind of autism of the spirit “though every face should scowl/And every windy quarter howl/Or every bellows burst. . . .”

Yeats’s feminine ideal is of course not exclusively his: it is the feminine ideal of centuries, the mythic being (or function) of which another poet, Robert Graves, so confidently speaks in declaring: “A woman is a Muse, or she is nothing.” What is most unsettling about this sentimental vision is the anger that any “betrayal” arouses in the male. The female is not to concern herself with history, with action; it is her role to simply exist; even her beauty must not be too extreme, so that men will not be disturbed. When Woman fails to conform to this stereotype she is bitterly and savagely denounced: she is “an old bellows full of angry wind.” Constance Markiewicz also draws forth the poet’s disapproval, in “Easter 1916,” for, like Maud Gonne, she has violated masculine expectations:

That woman’s days were spent
In ignorant good-will
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers
When, young and beautiful,
She rode to harriers?

This crude division between good girl and shrill (hysterical?) woman differs very little from the stereotyping associated with popular or mass culture. But so skillful is Yeats’s employment of language that the self-mesmerizing function of his poetry disguises the simplicity of his thought.

Perhaps, too, the poet assumes a masculine privilege by way of his role as a poet, a manipulator of language. For it seems to be a deep-seated prejudice that written language belongs to men, and that any woman who attempts it is violating a natural law. As Thoreau argues with evident reasonableness in the chapter “Reading,” in Walden:

Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written. It is not enough even to be able to speak the language of that nation by which they were written, for there is a memorable interval between the spoken and the written language, the language heard and the language read. The one is commonly transitory, a sound, a tongue, a dialect merely, almost brutish, and we learn it unconsciously, like the brutes, of our mothers. The other is the maturity and experience of that; if that is our mother tongue, this is our father tongue, a reserved and select expression, too significant to be heard by the ear, which we must be born again in order to speak.

If either of our “languages”—spoken or written—is a language of brutes, naturally it will be imagined a Mother Tongue; for the Father Tongue, that “reserved and select expression,” necessitates a religious initiation. One must be born again—which is to say, born male.

Cautionary Tales: Women Who Ride Away

In contrast to Yeats and to what might be called the “genteel” tradition even within Modernism, D. H. Lawrence not only allows women their physical beings but insists upon an immersion in physicality as a redemption from the sterility of the solitary ego. The old, dead, contemptible images of “femininity” are to be destroyed: not for Lawrence the restrictive noble niceness implied by such a title as The Portrait of a Lady. Woman’s passionate nature is to be celebrated—at least so far as Woman’s relationship with Man is concerned.

One of the most compelling aspects of Lawrence’s revolutionary art is his attempt, by way of language, to render states of mind—ineffable subtleties of sensual experience and “consciousness”—of a sort that previous writers, with few exceptions, did not approach. Lawrence’s contemporary Virginia Woolf argued in a now-famous essay that it is the task of the novelist not to imitate objective life by means of a plot, but to present the “luminous halo” or “semitransparent envelope” of consciousness as it is experienced inwardly; for Woolf, in the practice of her highly instinctive art, events become no more than small islands in a constantly shifting mental sea. Lawrence, however, clearly wanted to wed the traditional novel with the new: he saw his task as even more challenging, in acknowledging the multifarious influences and impressions that shape the individual from the abstract (“England,” religion, tradition) down to the concrete. Lawrence’s mental sea is rather more akin to a swift-running river; it rarely turns back upon itself and chokes with an excess of static observations into a sort of prose-poem swamp, as Woolf’s writing sometimes does.

What is so disturbing about Lawrence’s fiction and poetry, no less than his hectoring essays, is the precision with which his language conveys these shifting, kaleidoscopic states of mind in the service of a dominating (though often unstated) idea. In a sense Lawrence is always preaching; even while rendering dissolution he is always in control. His aim is modest—merely to save our lives, to allow us a second birth. For both men and women, however, this redemption is only possible by way of a baptism in the flesh, in phallic love: the old ego (which is to say, the autonomous personality) must be destroyed. Ursula Brangwen, the defiant heroine of The Rainbow, survives a miscarriage and a period of delirium to come to the realization that she should never have a man according to her desire: “It was not for her to create, but to recognize a man created by God. The man should come from the Infinite and she should hail him.” When, in the succeeding Women in Love, Ursula falls in love with Birkin, her first experience is one of the terror of dissolution rather than the euphoria of a more conventional romance:

As the day wore on, the life-blood seemed to ebb away from Ursula, and in the emptiness a heavy despair gathered. Her passion seemed to bleed to death, and there was nothing. She sat suspended in a state of complete nullity, harder to bear than death.”Unless something happens,” she said to herself, in the perfect lucidity of final suffering, “I shall die. I am at the end of my line of life.” She sat crushed and obliterated in a darkness that was the border of death. . . .13

Lawrence meticulously renders the ego’s panic at the prospect of its own disintegration. Ursula is not really dying but she is “dying into another” and being expelled from the world of routine and mechanical activity which engages, in Lawrence’s view, most people. Passionate erotic love is not altogether human for, as we have seen, it hails from the Infinite: Birkin is both a son of man and a son of God—the bearer, in short, of extraordinary powers. When he next sees Ursula she is in a kind of trance. “He looked at her and wondered at the luminous delicacy of her beauty, and the wide shining of her eyes. He watched from a distance, with wonder in his heart; she seemed transfigured with light.” Male and female are eventually bound together by a sensual and sexual love they cannot control; Ursula and Birkin marry. In their primary natures—in Ursula’s femaleness, Birkin’s maleness—they are fulfilled, however mercurial and combative they continue to be in more superficial respects.

Ursula’s younger sister Gudrun is by far the more interesting of the sisters. Like Ursula she is high-spirited, independent, and unafraid of passion; but she is an artist as well—a serious artist. So few and so generally unsatisfactory are portraits of women as serious artists (for one cannot grant Virginia Woolf’s anemic Lily Briscoe the respect Woolf seems to expect), that Lawrence’s complex presentationof Gudrun is all the more valuable. Gudrun’s character is certainly based on Katherine Mansfield, with whom Lawrence was closely acquainted; though it is probably more accurate to say that it is based upon Lawrence’s highly subjective and prejudiced vision of Mansfield, in which much of himself—his aggression, his egoism, his consumptive ill-health—was projected. (Biographers of both Lawrence and Mansfield take note of an alleged letter Lawrence wrote to Mansfield in 1920, breaking off his friendship with her and John Middleton Murry after Murry had rejected a story of his for the Athenaeum. Lawrence evidently told Mansfield that he loathed her and hoped she would die, “stewing in [her] consumption.” The letter was destroyed by Murry but a number of persons seem to have read it.)14

While Ursula comes dangerously close, as a fictitious character, to an assemblage of fluid states of mind, glorying in her physicality, Gudrun is all control: “Life doesn’t really matter,” she says. “It is one’s art which is central.” Gudrun resists “blood-consciousness” because it terrifies and disgusts her; she feels only repugnance for marriage and the possibility of having children. Named for a mythical Germanic heroine who killed her second husband, Gudrun is the apotheosis of the castrating female, and it is clear that Lawrence is fascinated by her as well as revulsed. She is the autonomous, self-determined, unsentimental female—and a serious and talented artist as well. Gudrun must be represented by Lawrence as unnatural because in his cosmology (as in the cosmology of many men) she is a force beyond “nature.” And a competing artist as well.

Gudrun is allowed her angry denunciation of the past, and of middle-class English life in particular, because this is Lawrence’s position as well; both he and Gudrun are savagely witty at the expense of the Victorian “religion” of home and family. But Gudrun has no wish to fulfill herself in erotic love. She strikes Gerald precisely because he attracts her so powerfully, and she detests weakness in herself; after he has become her lover she feels herself “destroyed” into consciousness. (“And of what was she conscious?” Gudrun asks herself bitterly. Only the ache of nausea for herself and for her lover, who sleeps unknowing beside her, with a “warm, expressionless beauty”) Where Ursula’s ego is broken by way of passionate erotic love, Gudrun’s is curiously strengthened, hardened, isolated. She feels herself a monster of consciousness, exulting in what Lawrence has elsewhere called a “rottenness” of the will.

Gudrun, the artist, wants to refashion all the world in the shape of her desire. She sees people as characters in books or marionettes in a theater. She dissects them to reduce them to their elements, “to place them in their true light.” Her work is miniatures, perfect, exquisite, finished; she would like to see the world “through the wrong end of the opera glasses”; unsurprisingly, she would like to have been born a man. It is Gudrun, and not Hermione, or any other woman in Women in Love, who suggests the mythical figure of Aphrodite of whom Birkin speaks: Aphrodite, the flowering mystery of the “death-process,” the blood of “destructive creation.”

Gudrun’s seductiveness is all the more perverse in that it promises no surrender, no fulfillment. She sees a woman’s lover as her enemy, to be embraced with her body until she has him “all in her hands, . . . strained into her knowledge.” Lawrence’s portrait of the female-as-artist is the more powerful because one senses how much of himself he has written into Gudrun: where Lawrence hates, there one is likely to find him: “she wished she were God, to use [Gerald] as a tool.” Elsewhere, in his poetry in particular, Lawrence has written of the terrifying near-madness of solipsism, the claustrophobia of the artist who must get the world into his head. That Gudrun is both an artist and a woman is finally intolerable. She must be made to loathe herself, as Lawrence’s demonic double. “How I hate life, how I hate it!” this talented young woman is made to exclaim.

There she was, placed before the clock-face of life. And if she turned . . . still she could see, with her very spine, she could see the clock, always the great white clock-face. She knew she was not really reading. She was not really working. She was watching the fingers twitch across the eternal, mechanical, monotonous clock-face of time. She never really lived, she only watched. Indeed, she was like a little, twelve-hour clock, vis-a-vis with the enormous clock of eternity.15

—an image of such potent hellishness, one feels Lawrence is transcribing his own nightmare visions, at white heat.

By contrast we have Connie Chatterly, the “ruddy, country-looking girl with the soft brown hair and sturdy body, and slow movements, full of unusual energy.” Though corrupted for a while by the malevolent, overly mental spirit of the times, Connie is a man’s woman, a woman only by way of a man: the trajectory of her love affair and her redemption through Mellors, her husband’s gamekeeper, is too well-known to necessitate analysis. Lady Chatterly has no pretensions of being an artist of any kind. (Compare Lord Chatterly, who dabbles in fiction—satirical, superficial, trifling short pieces.) She surrenders to Mellors and to her own sense of destiny; she is pregnant at the novel’s end, united in a mystic marriage with her lover.

It is always something of a surprise to discover how puritanical Lawrence is, beyond the revolutionary rhetoric of certain of his pronouncements; how unexamined are his assumptions that Woman exists for Man and for his ceaseless appraisal. Through Mellors Lawrence appears to be taking revenge on women of his acquaintance who have disappointed him. How various the women Mellors has “loved,” and how astonishing the ways in which they have failed him:

—There are women who want a man but who don’t want sex, only endure it: the Victorian ideal

—There are women who pretend to enjoy sex, and to be passionate: but it’s all theatrical

—There are women who are “unnatural” in various ways, requiring lovemaking of unconventional, unspecified sorts

—There are women like Mellors’s former wife who are “active”—too active—and seem to have usurped the natural role of the male

—There are frigid women: ” . . . the sort that’s just dead inside: but dead: and they know it”

Astonishing, says Mellors, how Lesbian women are, “consciously or unconsciously.” And it seems to him that most women are Lesbian, in fact. (“Do you mind?” Connie asks, rather disingenuously. Mellors replies: “I could kill them. When I’m with a woman who’s really Lesbian, I fairly howl in my soul, wanting to kill her.”)16

Lawrence’s gospel of salvation by way of erotic love, liberating in theory, may in fact constitute one more confinement, the more alarming for its being so popularly confused with freedom. His portraits of women who fail to conform to the “natural” ideal espoused by Mellors are instructive: in the novella The Fox two young women who live together companionably are soon divided by a young man, who “accidentally” kills the more masculine of the two; in the particularly sadistic “None of That,” a woman who is aggressively attracted to a Spanish bullfighter is given by him to his friends, to be gang-raped; the Lesbian Miss Inger of The Rainbow is seen as a “poisonous, corrupt woman” who gives off a “marshy, bittersweet corruption . . . sick and unwholesome,” though nothing she does in the novel is in the slightest way reprehensible.

The most chilling of Lawrence’s cautionary portraits of women is that of the “assured” American woman of The Woman Who Rode Away. Though this sacrificial female has not violated nature by aspiring to art, or by imagining herself an intellectual, she seems to have aroused Lawrence’s loathing because she is a representative of the white race, the “effete white civilization.” Like a crudely sketched Emma Bovary, she imagines it is her destiny to leave her husband and children “to wander into the secret haunts of the timeless, mysterious, marvelous Indians” of the Mexican Sierra Madres. She is a patly symbolic thirty-three when she rides alone to the Chilchui Indians, with the message that she is tired of the white god, and wants to “bring her heart” to the Indian god: a sacrifice that turns out to be literally true.

The Woman Who Rode Away is a curiosity in Lawrence’s oeuvre, written in such evident haste, with such uncontrolled fury and loathing, that, like numerous passages in Kangaroo and St. Mawr, itseems to expose the author in the very act of composition. “Talent is a cosmetic,” Nietzsche has wittily observed. “What someone is, begins to be revealed when his talent abates, when he stops showing what he can do.” Primitive in execution, this novella of 1924 comes very near the brink of unintentional comedy, as a stereotyped “white woman” reiterates her desire to “bring her heart” to dark gods, in the form of stereotyped noble savages who see her not as a woman at all, but as “some giant female white ant.” Her bloody sacrifice at the hands of their priest symbolizes the waning of one phase of civilization, or so Lawrence argues.

Her kind of womanhood, intensely personal and individual, was to be obliterated again, and the great primeval symbols were to tower once more over the fallen individual independence of woman. The sharpness and the quivering nervous consciousness of the highly-bred white woman was to be destroyed again, womanhood was to be cast once more into the great stream of impersonal sex and impersonal passion.17

Could any parable more bluntly yield its meaning, and its murderous prophecy? And this, from the man who called himself a “priest of love.” Like Freud, Lawrence is one of those “liberators” of the twentieth century whose gospel, as applied to and experienced by women, may in fact constitute a more insidious—precisely because iconoclastic—imprisonment. Women who ride away ride away not simply to their deaths at the hands of men, but to their just and necessary deaths. It is their fate, their punishment for being “unnatural” in men’s eyes.

Faulkner’s Johanna Burden: The Spinster as Nymphomaniac

In American literature of the nineteenth century masculine energies could be discharged in romantically primitive ways: one could “light out for the territory,” like Huck; one could retreat a mile or two into the woods to experiment with “life driven into a corner,” like the hero of Thoreau’s Walden; one could thwart the “damp, drizzly November of the soul” by going to sea, like Ishmael (“This is my substitute for pistol and ball”). It is no accident that much of classic American literature is womanless, since Woman implies a personal and social bond, society, civilization—precisely what Man in his romantic discontent with himself wants to escape. Whales of every species are lyrically celebrated in Moby Dick while the vague, sketchy “flashbacks” to women have an air of the contrived and the perfunctory. And who among us is not wholeheartedly on Huck’s side in his anxiety to escape Aunt Sally and “civilization”? We have all, in Huck’s words, been there before.

Twentieth-century fiction written by men often discharges these primitive energies against women. Faulkner’s Light in August, Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), and Norman Mailer’s An American Dream (1965) center on murders of women by frustrated and romantically “primitive” heroes whose actions are ambiguous rather than clearly reprehensible. The women victims are provocative and, within the worlds evoked by the novelists, would seem to deserve their brutal fates: one feels that the “great primeval symbols,” in Lawrence’s words, tower once more over the “individual independence”of women. In Native Son the psychopathic black Bigger Thomas murders a white girl of “liberal” tendencies who has behaved recklessly with him; in An American Dream Mailer’s self-conscious hero Rojack murders his wealthy wife and causes the death of another woman with whom he is sexually involved, in a somewhat confused mystical sequence that celebrates the triumph of instinct—a purely masculine instinct. The murders of women who overstep the boundaries of a fairly conventional decency are felt by the reader as sacrificial and instructive: they are not “crimes” in the ordinary sense. A curious puritanism is at work, passing savage judgment on women who attempt to usurp the freedoms traditionally reserved for men.

One of the few distinctive women in Faulkner’s many novels is the spinster Johanna Burden, who is murdered by her lover Joe Christmas at the culmination of their sadomasochistic affair. As her name suggests, Johanna is not completely or satisfactorily female; she has the “strength and fortitude of a man,” and “maintained muscles and . . . mantrained habit of thinking.” Like Joe she is an outsider in Mississippi: her people were originally Abolitionists from New Hampshire who were willing to give their lives in the antislavery cause. (As Johanna gives her life, in a sense, to the cause of the “nigger” Christmas.) With a grim, unswerving zeal Johanna has taken on the “burden” of helping blacks better themselves by way of education, though the task can only seem hopeless in the context of the South at this time. (” . . . Escape it you cannot. The curse of the black race is God’s curse. But the curse of the white race is the black man who will be forever God’s chosen own because He once cursed Him.”18)

The solitary, childless descendant of New Englanders, Johanna still speaks with a Northern accent at the age of forty-one, and is despised by her white neighbors as an unwanted and singularly graceless advocate of Negro causes. Even her black neighbors are condescending: “Colored folks around here look after her,” a boy says. Her irrevocable—and fatal—mistake with Joe Christmas is to”see” him as black, though many of Joe’s energies have gone into asserting what Faulkner calls his black blood. Implicit throughout this long, lurid, splendidly tangled tale is the contrast between the doomed Johanna Burden and the survivor Lena Grove, who gives birth to a son at the novel’s melodramatic conclusion. As her name suggests Lena is passive, bovine, and completely female; she possesses those mammalian charms Faulkner has elsewhere celebrated; she may even be of below average intelligence. (Lena anticipates the more maddening and more voluptuous Eula Varner of The Hamlet, she whose “entire appearance suggested some symbology out of the old Dionysic times—honey in sunlight and bursting grapes, the writhen bleeding of the crushed fecundated vine beneath the hard rapacious trampling goat-hoof.” Eula is outsized, outrageous, a mythical tall-tale heroine whose very presence drives men to distraction:”She might as well still have been a foetus. It was as if only half of her had been born, that mentality and body had somehow become either completely separated or hopelessly involved.” As a child of eight Eula gives off an aphrodisiac odor, to the special despair of her brother Jody who imagines he must guard her virginity.19

Johanna, by contrast, is not really a woman. Her consciousness is too active, her identity is confused rather than simplified by biology, she is a sister to those problematic women despised by Yeats and Lawrence. The futile ambition of her work in Negro causes, in a region utterly imbued with the fantasy-belief of white supremacy; the recklessness of her involvement with a man whom she does not know; the violation of her long-preserved virginity; the accelerating wildness of her behavior—these factors condemn Johanna to death. Joe Christmas is alarmed and rather comically shocked by what Faulkner characterizes as the “throes of nymphomania” in Johanna. He begins to fear actual corruption, though it is not clear to what, or from what previous state of purity, he might be corrupted. In the “sewer” of their relationship Joe begins to see himself “as from a distance, like a man being sucked down into a bottomless morass.” Joe and Johanna are not, despite the twinness suggested by their names, natural mates.

Johanna Burden is one of the most ambiguous characters in Faulkner’s fiction. Like Gail Hightower she is clearly meant to function allegorically; like Hightower, she is never convincing as an integrated personality. We view her through Joe Christmas’s eyes, we are meant to judge her in terms of Joe’s eerily puritanical standards, yet the distinction between male protagonist and male author is often negligible. Both Joe Christmas and Faulkner are bemused, disgusted, fascinated, and finally outraged by this extraordinary woman who is not one but, perhaps, two people: “the one whom [Joe] saw now and then by day and looked at while they spoke to one another with speech that told nothing at all since it didn’t try to and didn’t intend to; the other with whom he lay at night and didn’t see, speak to, at all.” Johanna’s daytime personality, her very identity, is insignificant; it is her night-self, the corrupted flesh, that exerts a deathly fascination. Faulkner’s portrait of the spinster as despised nymphomaniac is awkward and crude, yet instructive: for what is “Johanna Burden” but a male projection of particular savagery, the nightmare double that must be acknowledged in the (corrupted) flesh, and must then be exorcized, with violence if necessary? It cannot be accidental that Joe nearly saws off Johanna’s head after murdering her.

After Joe Christmas has been Johanna Burden’s lover for a year he still enters her house, and climbs the stairs to her bedroom, like a thief, to despoil her “virginity” each time anew. Their initial mating is blunt, unsentimental, and presumably without emotion, for Johanna has the “unselfpitying” temperament of a man: “There was no feminine vacillation, no coyness of obvious desire and intention to succumb at last. It was as if he struggled physically with another man for an object of no value to either, and for which they struggled on principle alone.” But what is the principle? And why is the mating so repulsive? Poor Joe muses:

“My God . . . it was like I was the woman and she was the man. “But that was not right, either. Because she had resisted to the very last. But it was not woman resistance, that resistance which, if really meant, cannot be overcome by any man for the reason that the woman observes no rules of physical combat. But she had resisted fair, by the rules that decreed that upon a certain crisis one was defeated, whether the end of resistance had come or not.”20

This incidental dismissal of the very possibility of rape in male-female relations goes unremarked. Interesting, too, is the Faulknerian sentiment that in resisting men, women observe no “rules” of physical combat, and that Johanna, by “resisting fair” her attacker, abdicates claims to normal femininity. Raping her a second time Joe Christmas thinks, enraged: “At least I have made a woman of her at last. . . .Now she hates me. I have taught her that, at least.”

But Johanna hasn’t been taught; Johanna hasn’t, evidently, been made a woman. Like her sister-nymphomaniac, Temple Drake of Sanctuary,21 Johanna seems to maintain an unnatural virginity even after repeated assaults. She insults her lover’s precarious sense of his own sexuality by keeping intact her inward autonomy. These are vicious and even demented sentiments which, if followed to a logical conclusion, would indict the victim for having been the “cause” of the crime. (“I shall never, never forgive the old pawnbroker, “Raskolnikov cries, long after he has smashed the old woman’s head with the blunt edge of an ax.)

Faulkner’s mesmerized repugnance for Johanna Burden springs primarily from his sense of masculine outrage at the woman’s forthright and “unfeminine” sexual desire. The portrait of this fictitious spinster-as-nymphomaniac, frankly preposterous in its particulars, clearly answers to a deep-buried terror in the author’s psyche, which the amoral and promiscuous Joe Christmas is obliged to express. It is Faulkner, after all, and not the semiliterate Joe, who accuses Johanna of succumbing to such an extreme of nymphomania that she tears her clothing to ribbons awaiting him, “her body gleaming in the slow shifting from one to another of such formally erotic attitudes and gestures as a Beardsley of the time of Petronius might have drawn.” This comically grotesque woman has eyes that glow in the dark “like the eyes of cats”; when she reaches for her affrighted lover, each strand of her wild hair “would seem to come alive like octopus tentacles.” The degree of her corruption is signaled by her panting cry: “Negro! Negro! Negro!”

In the daytime, the New England spinster wears plain cotton dresses and clean, starched, proper bonnets; only her lover knows that beneath this fraudulent feminine costume lies the “rotten richness ready to flow into putrefaction at a touch, like something growing in a swamp.” At the same time Joe is frustrated by the thought that, under her clothes, Johanna “can’t even be made so that it could have happened”—by which he means, so that he is himself the male, the aggressor. The bottomless morass he fears is perhaps the male terror of “sinking” into the female, and losing the identity of maleness which is his only claim to an ontological being. If he is not male—if the female does not acknowledge it—does he exist?

If male-female relations in Faulkner constitute an unarticulated struggle in which the defeat of the female is necessary to ensure the male’s sense of his very existence, the degree of savagery unleashed against the “unfeminine” Johanna Burden, by both male protagonist and male author, is less surprising. Faulkner so manipulates his characters that Johanna provokes Joe Christmas into murdering her in what might be seen as self-defense, since his concern is to provide his hero with an appropriate catalyst, a guilty cause, for the act of murder. (An act that brings with it an extraordinary punishment—Joe’s castration by the fanatic Percy Grimm at the novel’s end.) The reader is meant to share Faulkner’s irony in the demonstration of popular, indeed traditional, Southern prejudice against blacks, by way of Grimm’s remark to the dying Joe Christmas (“Now you’ll let white women alone, even in hell”); but the female reader is sensitive to an even more pointed irony—the dead woman at the center of the novel is judged as rightly dead, and her murderer is “innocently” guilty, in the service of a complex of passions that dramatize the tragic relations between white and black men. Much in Light in August is rushed, overblown, clotted, confused; but the central parable is unmistakably clear, for this, too, is a cautionary tale. Johanna Burden is murdered, Lena Grove gives birth to a son she calls “Joey.” It might be said of both women by the novel’s end: “At least I have made a woman of her.”


  1. Flaubert’s strategy in many of his letters to his reproachful mistress Louise Colet was to keep the dissatisfied woman at a distance, in Paris. “You speak of your discouragements,” he says in a letter of 1852. “If you could see mine! Sometimes I don’t understand why my arms don’t drop from my body with fatigue, why my brains don’t melt away. I am leading a stern existence, stripped of all external pleasure. . . .”
  2. Yeats develops this Shelleyesque sentiment at length in “The Symbolism of Poetry,” from Essays and Introductions (New York: Macmillan, 1961). Originally published in 1900.
  3. This representative hymn to “Woman’s patriotism” was written by a popular lady poet, Mrs. L. H. Sigourney, in 1846. Quoted in the magazine The Ladies’ Wreath: Devoted to Literature, Industry, and Religion (New York, 1847), p. 25.
  4. Jennie Calder, Women and Marriage in Victorian Fiction (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), p. 59.
  5. John R. Reed, Victorian Conventions (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1975), p. 52.
  6. Ronald W. Clark, Freud: The Man and the Cause (New York: Random House, 1980), p. 45.
  7. Reed, p. 57.
  8. Beverly Voloshin, “A Historical Note on Women’s Fiction: A Reply to Annette Kolodny,” in Critical Inquiry, Summer 1976, p. 820.
  9. Mrs. E. D. E. N. Southworth, The Discarded Daughter; or The Children of the Isle (New York, 1876), p. 183.
  10. Ibid., p. 26.
  11. Ibid., p. 163.
  12. Joseph Conrad, Nostromo (New York: Modern Library, 1951), pp. 73— 74. Originally published in 1904.
  13. D. H. Lawrence, Women in Love (New York: Modern Library, 1950), p. 217.
  14. Anthony Alpers, The Life of Katherine Mansfield (New York: Viking Press, 1980), pp. 310-311.
  15. Women in Love, p. 530.
  16. D. H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterly’s Lover (New York: New American Library, 1962), pp. 189-191. Originally published in 1928.
  17. D. H. Lawrence, The Complete Stories, vol. 2 (New York: Viking Press, 1964), p. 569.
  18. William Faulkner, Light in August (New York: Modern Library, 1959), p. 222. Originally published 1932. This famous passage is often cited as an expression of Faulkner’s sense of determinism, his fatalism, regarding white-black relations. One can, however, substitute women for Negroes in Faulkner’s closed cosmology, in representative passages:

    I had seen and known Negroes since I could remember [says Johanna Burden]. I just looked at them as I did at rain, or furniture, or food. . . But after that I seemed to see them for the first time not as people, but as a thing, a shadow in which I lived, we lived, all white people, all other people. I thought of all the children coming forever and ever into the world, white, with the black shadow already falling upon them before they drew breath. And I seemed to see the black shadow in the shape of a cross. And it seemed like the white babies were struggling, even before they drew breath, to escape from the shadow that was not only upon them but beneath them too, flung out like their arms were flung out, as if they were nailed to the cross, (p. 221)

  19. Faulkner’s tall tale shades into forthright Surrealism—or “magic real
    ism,” as critical jargon would have it—in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s portrait of the irresistible Remedios the Beauty, a Eula-inspired female who eventually ascends to heaven in One Hundred Years of Solitude (New York: Harper & Row, 1970).
  20. Light in August, p. 206.
  21. Temple Drake, the judge’s daughter, is seventeen years old at the time of her abduction by Popeye, neither a child nor a woman yet readily corrupted: despite her ill-treatment by men she soon becomes a nymphomaniac:

    “She felt long shuddering waves of physical desire going over her, draining the color from her mouth, drawing her eyeballs back into her skull in a shuddering swoon. . . . When he touched her she sprang like a bow, hurling herself upon him, her mouth gaped and ugly like that of a dying fish as she writhed her loins against him.”

    Temple Drake is still “virginal,” however; indeed, impenetrable. Sanctuary makes the explicit statement that chaste Southern womanhood and besotted nymphomania, verging on outright madness, are very nearly identical. (Sanctuary was published in 1932.)

Image: Blooming English Laurel by Kirill Ignatyev

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