Consuming Women

[Spoilers for The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood]

“I realized Peter was trying to destroy me.”

Marian starts the novel passive: she is in a relationship with Peter, it seems, simply because she doesn’t have anything better to do.  The relationship itself seems fragile.  Marian references how to talk, what to talk about, how to let Peter feel a sense of control over her, because he’s volatile: he could get upset, he could dump her at any minute.  Yet one gets the sense that she wouldn’t be worse for the wear should the relationship break apart.  It’s a passive relationship in all ways: Marian seems to not really care about the dull and/or comfortingly conventional Peter, and Peter in the end proposes to her after his last single friend gets married, seemingly assimilating to married life once his single life becomes empty.

After the engagement, Marian starts to have problems with food, escalating until she can’t eat anything.  Peter hosts a party, she runs away from it to be with Duncan, a self-absorbed grad student who treats her with alternating affection and cruelty, and ultimately uses her as he needs, thinking never of her needs.  But he isn’t dull, and he isn’t conventional.  Contrasting with the many scenes of Peter devouring meals, meats in particular, Duncan is deathly thin, and his sickly physique and young appearance are referenced frequently.  But although he’s not seen eating steaks with pleasure, he does eat constantly, in an almost birdlike manner.  He eats chocolate bars and seeds, saying he uses them to stop smoking.  After the night he spends with Marian, he devours voraciously his eggs and ham.  And one of his roommates cooks well, taking care of him.  If Peter wants to consume Marian, Duncan wants to be healed by her.  He states he doesn’t want to be “rescued” by her, but in her mind she thinks of herself as nurse-like with him.  He is controlling in a different way than Peter.  Peter is controlling like your stereotypical 1950s husband who expects you to serve him and be an ornament for him.  Duncan is controlling like a sick baby who needs your attention, draining your energy.

By the end of the book, Marian bakes a cake shaped like a woman, and serves it to Peter, expecting him to consume her: this is her cake substitute that he can eat instead of consuming the real Marian.  But Peter is shocked and leaves quickly.  Marian eats the cake herself.  Detached from Peter she is able to eat again and consumes her own self, becoming herself once again rather than the detached figure of Peter’s fiancée or Peter’s wife.  She is Marian’s Marian.

After Peter leaves, Duncan calls Marian, distraught.  One of his two roommates (whom he considers as parents who take care of him) has married Marian’s roommate and left.  Duncan is now in a “broken home” as though his parents have divorced.  He needs Marian.  She invites him over, and displays the same indifference to his problems as he showed for her problems earlier, something that disturbs him.  She tries to care, but is disinterested, thinking of other things and people.  She then offers him the remainder of the cake, which he accepts and eats.

Peter, who was trying to assimilate Marian into himself and his conventional life, attempting to consume her, refused to consume her cake-self and left.  Her protest of his consuming her, and actualization of it, is too shocking for him and he cannot accept it.  Duncan, however, eats the cake.  Without any noticeable pleasure, quickly and concentratedly; in other words, his eating the cake is self-contained, perhaps even self-absorbed: there is no performative aspect to show Marian that he enjoys her cake or the labour that went into making it, it is pure consumption for his own needs.  Though Duncan, to Marian, was an escape from Peter, he is essentially no different.  He also wants to consume her.  But where Peter balked at the accusation, Duncan doesn’t notice or care: he knows he is consuming her in his way (being a manchild who doesn’t care for her but demands her to be at his beck and call), and he doesn’t care who else knows this.  He is completely content with his consumption of her.  And so Duncan represents simply a different kind of man in the world of heterosexual relations.  Peter is more well know: the conventional husband who demands an obedient wife.  Duncan, the grad student, the English major, the museum-goer, quirky and interesting, especially in Marian’s dull, conventional life, seems miles away from Peter.  But really, they’re all men, consuming women in one way or another.

A Personal Post of Coincidences to Mark My 10th Day Out of the Hospital

And just now I pick up the blessed diary of Virginia Woolf which I bought with a battery of her novels saturday with Ted.  And she works off her depression over rejections from Harper’s (no less! —an I hardly can believe that the Big Ones get rejected, too!) by cleaning out the kitchen.  And cooks haddock & sausage.  Bless her.  I feel my life linked to her, somehow.  I love her — from reading Mrs. Dalloway for Mr. Crockett — and I can still hear Elizabeth Drew’s voice sending a shiver down my back in the huge Smith class-room, reading from To The Lighthouse.  But her suicide, I felt, I was reduplicating in that black summer of 1953.  Only I couldn’t drown.  I suppose I’ll always be over-vulnerable, slightly paranoid.  But I’m also so damn healthy & resilient.

Sylvia Plath is one of my favourite authors.  She’s the one who probably appears most on this blog.  And now I’m tackling the near-900 page book of her unabridged journals.

Today is the 10th day I’ve been out of the hospital for depression.  In the hospital, one of the books I read was Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse — in fact, it was the best thing I read while there.  This past Monday, I went to the Gibraltar Point Lighthouse; the plan was to go to the beach and when I found out the beach had a lighthouse I had to go, because of Virginia Woolf.  And that morning it rained.  It stormed and thundered and poured down at 5 am, and by 10 it was grey and spitting: all I could think of was the beginning of the novel, with the question of, ‘Will we be able to make it to the lighthouse?’  By noon it was sunny and 30˙ and the beach was beautiful and hot, and I did make it to the lighthouse where Mrs. Ramsay did not.

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Before I was admitted to the hospital, I was too depressed to clean.  No energy, no motivation, no point.  So I left the hospital and returned home to clutter and mess and trash.  I am beginning to feel better, and I am beginning to live better.  In depression you lose your vitality.  Now I go out, I talk to people, I try to eat properly.  I read and watch movies, sometimes I paint.  And I clean.  To clean is a marker of change, and I want to change the way I lived (I’m out of the hospital, I can live like a normal person).  So I’m making progress in the cleaning of my apartment as I continue attempting to recover from depression.

And I read The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath.

This morning I got to the passage above.  Everything cycles.  She reads Woolf’s journals about being depressed and cleaning and I read her journals about reading Woolf’s journals while depressed and cleaning while I am depressed and cleaning.  I read To The Lighthouse and go to the lighthouse then read about her reminiscing about To the Lighthouse.  ‘Bless her.  I feel my life linked to her, somehow.  I love her,’ she says about Woolf which I could have said about her.  The trajectory of Woolf, depressed and cleaning, consumed by Plath, depressed and cleaning, consumed by me, depressed and cleaning; the trajectory of me consuming Woolf and being struck by the lighthouse then consuming Plath who consumes Woolf and thinking back to The The Lighthouse — circles and repetitions of history by coincidence.  But the most important thing to remember is:

I suppose I’ll always be over-vulnerable, slightly paranoid.  But I’m also so damn healthy & resilient.

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Picnics

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At the Hanging Rock, William Ford, 1875

From Picnic at Hanging Rock:

  •  milk and lemonade kept cool in a zinc-lined basket, biscuits; “To Saint Valentine!”
  • “Lunch had been set out on large white tablecloths close by, shaded from the heat of the sun by two or three spreading gums.  In addition to the chicken pie, angel cake, jellies and the tepid bananas inseparable from an Australian picnic, Cook had provided a handsome iced cake in the shape of a heart, for which Tom had obligingly cut a mould from a piece of tin.  Mr Hussey had boiled up two immense billycans of tea on a fire of bark and leaves and was now enjoying a pipe in the shadow of the drag where he could keep a watchful eye on his horses tethered in the shade.” with cream, which Edith helps herself to “lavishly”

From The Secret Garden

  • hot tea, buttered toast, crumpets
  • milk with a cottage loaf or currant buns, heather honey, and clotted cream (sent to the children by Mrs. Sowerby)
  • roast eggs and potatoes with salt and butter

From To The Lighthouse:

  • bread and cheese, sandwiches, yellow cheese, hard boiled eggs, gingerbread nuts
  • “Mr. Ramsay opened the parcel and shared out the sandwiches among them.  Now he was happy eating bread and cheese with the fishermen.”

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To haunt your own house

There are two things that I really like about We Have Always Lived in the Castle.  The first is the aesthetic and sensation it gives, mainly surrounding food.  This is a novel you can taste and smell.  It is breakfasts of tea, toast, jams, pancakes and eggs; dinners of roast meats, vegetable soups and fresh salads; desserts of pies, cakes, cookies.  The food is wholesome and substantial.  And despite the place of sugar-as-murder-instrument, it doesn’t taste too sweet.  It’s like a full meal encompassing protein, vegetables, and dessert, rather than something made of pure sugar and with no nutritional value.  It is in many ways a synesthetic experience to read this novel.

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Secondly, I like the construction of characters.  Merricat and Constance could be monsters, but we are on their side.  To look at them from the village’s perspective, you can see why they’re feared.  Obviously you have the supposed cold-hearted murderer and the girl devoted to her.  More conceptually they are monstrous.  They are presented as witches: the strange rituals and spells performed by Merricat, like burying objects, nailing books to trees, or practicing protective incantations; living off the land like near-animals (which Constance attempts to correct during Charles’ stay), with great knowledge of plants and poisons; Constance obsessing over preserves like potions and Jonas acting as familiar to Merricat, who seems to communicate with him in an unnatural way.  There’s Merricat’s insistence that she comes from the moon, making her alien, as well as Uncle Julien’s comment that she’s dead, making her a ghost.  And there is fear of  mental illness in the form of Constance’s agoraphobia.  The two of them are interpretably monstrous, in terms of reality, the supernatural, and stigma.

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So to me it’s significant to have two women outcasts as protagonists, where it never goes to romance seriously.  They aren’t fixed by a man or find love, instead they regress further into isolation because the outside world is a hostile, terrible place.  And that’s really empowering.  It’s empowering to hear “Yes, those people are as bad as you think, yes, you’ll feel better alone, yes, hiding from life is the best choice.”  In another book, Merricat would have the boyfriend that Constance suggests a girl her age should have, and Constance would have ended up with Charles, while both of them would return to society to be happy in the company of others.  But they don’t and that’s beautiful.

 

Fetishizing Mentally Ill Women

Amour 9

Beauty sometime, in all her glory crowned,
Passing by that cleere fountain of thine eye,
Her sun-shine face there chaunsing to espy,
Forgot herselfe, and thought she had been drowned.
And thus, whiles Beautie on her beauty gazed,
Who then, yet liuing, deemd she had been dying,
And yet in death some hope for life espying,
At her owne rare perfections so amazed;
Twixt ioy and griefe, yet with a smyling frowning,
The glorious sun-beames of her eyes bright shining,
And shee, in her owne destiny diuining,
Threw herselfe, to saue herselfe by drowning;
The Well of Nectar, pau’d with pearle and gold,
Where she remaines for all eyes to behold.

Michael Drayton’s poem from 1594 describes with love the allure of the suicide of the beautiful woman.  We love to see beautiful women who are sad and fetishize their deaths, which often occur at their own hands, and this poem is a great example.  Another example is the persisting image of Ophelia, who is the perfect suicide: she is beautiful, and her beauty enhanced by her death (think of her hair flowing in the water, wet dress seeming to cling to her despite the original play describing a ballooning effect in the river, flowers adorning her as the most beautiful marker of madness, eyes glistening with tears); though her madness was, briefly, loud and strange (as mental illness often is), in the water and in death she is silent and becomes a quiet submissive beauty rather than a raving lunatic (her death prevents the irritation that comes when women are allowed to talk).  And this is how she is so often immortalized in art: the image we recall of Ophelia is one of beauty, silence, flowers, and the glorious moments before death — we don’t not think of her triggered by cruelty, or loudly condemning men.

QUEEN GERTRUDE

There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream;
There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them:
There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke;
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide;
And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up:
Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes;
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element: but long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.

emphasis mine

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Alexandre Cabanel, 1883

By no means is  Ophelia made ugly in the play, but her death is different from its popular depiction: her clothes bloat around her like an inflatable raft rather than body-hugging wet fabric; she is out of touch with reality and sings gleefully rather than the image of her mournful expression we see in paintings; when she finally drowns, her death is muddy — characterized by filth, dirt; it is not the beautiful floral bath of her popular depictions.  The mentally ill woman is made from the already fetishized psychotic suicide to be even more fetishized: more palatably psychotic (that is to say: less vocal, more silent) and more beautifully dying.  We don’t see her die in the play but one can imagine the effect of her death on her body: bloated from drowning, hair tangled from the water, swampy from the river mud — not likely: flowing waves of hair, glowing pale skin with flushed cheeks, flowers neatly arranged about her clean dress and face.

Alexandre Cabanel, 1872 & 1883

Death, and suicide, are ugly.  The corpse is an ugly thing, the act of dying lacks beauty, and there is nothing attractive about decay.  But women have one value, and that is their beauty.  Even in death and sickness, they are only valued for their beauty — mental illness or suicide only serve to make a beauty more exciting.  So in the case of Ophelia, the problem of ugliness is avoided by depicting her pre-suicide, or depicting her death as a fantasy with little bearing on reality.  And it is disgusting that we would want to, and almost always do, turn a tragedy and illness into a fantasy.

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John Everett Millais, 1852

When we think of mental illness and suicide in women, we have images of youth, thinness, pale skin, cleanliness, and above all, natural beauty.  We love women who die by suicide, especially young ones.  Their youth and beauty is  forever preserved and they will never grow old.  They are made different from other girls because of their sadness: a depth that is there only for appeal, rather than discussion, introspection, examination; of course, you can’t go into the effects of mental illness when the person who is ill is now dead.  We love when self-destruction is fun and seems to damage no one but the girl who self-destructs: for everyone else, her life is just a sexy party; for her, she’s slowly dying and will end in a death that silences her before her self-destruction becomes less than fun and before age can claim her beauty.

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John William Waterhouse, 1894

We reduce mentally ill women to flat extremes, where they become nothing but sexy and sad.  We forget they had problems and lives outside their illnesses.  We love Marilyn Monroe but don’t talk about how troubled she was and how much help she really needed.  We love Jean Seberg but think of her as the French-chic pixie with a sad end rather than a supporter of the Black Panthers who struggled with her acting career.  Vivien Leigh is a beautiful, young glamour icon, not someone whose illness destroyed her marriage and aged her prematurely.  Edie Sedgwick is a wide-eyed party girl who’s a bit deeper than your regular party girl because she was sad; we don’t think about histories of trauma or drug addiction.  We love Sylvia Plath but broadly her work isn’t taken as seriously as men poets, and we love to remember her blonde, all-American good looks while diminishing her writing talent.

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Arthur Hughes, 1863

Plath is a good example of the most willful ignorance that surrounds mentally ill and suicidal women.  The Bell Jar is reduced to school-girl nonsense that only naive, uneducated girls seem to enjoy because they are not smart enough to read something with more depth or value.  It is seen as self-indulgent.  It is seen as shallow.  It is seen as simply not as good (complete the sentence: as the work of men).  A gross double standard: we rarely discuss the self-indulgence of, for instance, Hemingway, nor do we discuss his beauty or looks when talking about his suicide.  Yet we love to look at Plath, images of her in a bikini, in a cute dress, in a sweater looking straight at the camera, bangs curled, hair loose or up, smiling or smouldering.  We can fetishize this.  We can take her and give her a certain value.  We can consume her and her death in a way that doesn’t apply to someone like Anne Sexton, who is rarely fetishized or consumed, or Virginia Woolf, who is often mocked for her ugliness — both writers who have perhaps gained more respect for their work and talent than Plath, but who are not quite so strangely beloved.  They are loved for their skills, Plath is loved for her tragedy.  Because she fits into our model of the perfect suicide, and when we can diminish women we will.  This is not to say that she was oppressed by her good looks or that Woolf and Sexton being taken seriously rather than being thought of as primarily beautiful is a bad thing.  This is to say that the way we love to consume the deaths of beautiful women, the way we reduce women to their beauty, is disgusting.

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Marcus Stone, 1887

An issue is that there is no shying away from the reality of women’s mental illness — it’s not like the grotesqueness of it all is hidden.  The Bell Jar describe how the protagonist becomes so ugly after her suicide attempt that she is not permitted a mirror.  We have descriptions of weight gain and loss, bruised skin, bad haircuts; deaths in dirty basement crawlspaces, deaths of characters described as looking like horses.  For another example, Anne Sexton describes suicide as:

I have rested, drooling at the mouth-hole.

I did not think of my body at needle point.
Even the cornea and the leftover urine were gone.
Suicides have already betrayed the body.

Opehlia
Jules Joseph Lefebvre, 1890

But we never think of how mental illness betrays the body.  We do not think of illness preventing someone from caring for themselves and descending into filth and clutter and stench.  We do not think of the scars of self harm.  We do not think of weight gain or loss from disordered eating, nor the effect on the body that substance abuse can have.  We do not think of how lack of sleep can impact appearance.  We do not consider how all of these things, going on for years, can age you prematurely, and how unsexy that really is.  Nor do we think about deaths.  Bodies bloated from drownings, faces bruised and filled with blood from hangings.  The woman covered in her own vomit after an overdose.  The exploded head from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.  None of this matters when women’s mental illness and suicide is a fantasy: in that fantasy, everything is clean, no one ages, no one talks about their illness, and death is a preservation of beauty and a confirmation of an emotional depth that you never have to deal with because you don’t have to deal with problems that are dead.

The grotesque and painful reality of mental illness is unacceptable.  Sickness is unacceptable.  Women will never meet up to the standards of the fantasy, especially when things are bad.  We will never be Ophelias, and we will never be understood.  We will only be shamed more and more for not being fantasies in real life.

Precious Bane, Mary Webb

And all the blue bird’s eye in the hedge banks went into a mist of tears as I ran, and looked no more like flowers, but like a blue tide of sorrow to down me.

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Overall, Precious Bane was not great, too melodramatic without angst, and the phonetic language I found difficult to follow.  I wish it had explored Prue’s sadness more, and without such a gloriously happy ending.

But I loved the magic of it.  The magic was great.

Flowers, herbs, and seeds

I haven’t been reading as much as I should this month, so I’ve been thinking back on other books.  My Cousin Rachel seems like something nice for this time of year, when we’ve got rain and all the plants are blooming.

I’ve only read two books by Daphne du Maurier, and I definitely preferred Rebecca to Rachel.  Mostly because of the protagonists. Rachel‘s protagonist is a man who goes from the ages of 24 and 25, and he is abhorrent.  The author perfectly captures the entitlement and foundless confidence of young men, which is admirable, but I often found myself a bit too repulsed by him, even if that was perhaps the point.  The second Mrs. de Winter, by contrast, was always a delight to read about.

But anyway, I read My Cousin Rachel a while ago and don’t have the clearest memory of it.  But I do have a clear memory of the aesthetic:

  • Spring rain
  • Black lace
  • Stormy weather
  • Herbal teas
  • Seeds and dried herbs
  • Planting flowers and the smell of soil
  • Priceless gems
  • Cold, wet, windy days and nights

The mud makes me want to drink sweet tisanes and experiment with spices, thanks to Daphne du Maurier.

It rained yesterday and I bought thyme, cardamom, barley, split peas, two sapphires, and peaches.  Then jasmine, chamomile, lemon, and mint teas.

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