Re-Visions of Diana in Edith Wharton
My reading of Edith Wharton's poem "Artemis to Actaeon" and her short story "Kerfol" will situate these works in the broader context of what has been called Wharton's "lurking feminism," which refigures the myth of Diana as protector of those under her care and punisher of those who would violate her sacred charges. Edith Wharton's "Artemis to Actaeon" serves as an introduction to the short story "Kerfol," even though no direct narrative link exists between the two pieces. The poem shows that Wharton knew quite well the myth of Diana and Actaeon, and a more covert inscription of that myth can be found in the chilling story "Kerfol," where ghostly dogs wreak a Dianesque revenge upon a jealous and possessive husband who ends up dead with unexplainable canine bites all over his corpse. Nonetheless, his wife, Anne de Cornault, ultimately pays the price for her husband's mysterious "murder": in this tale of thwarted domesticity, she is driven mad by inexpressible grief-rendered even more poignant in the context of the cold and contemptuous treatment of her during her court trial-and a domestic space becomes her prison.
As the story begins, we read of Anne's repeated attempts to create a domestic space where she can live peacefully and joyously in the company of a small dog, a longing rendered impossible by her cruel husband. A "polymorphous domesticity" remains elusive, existing only in the trace form of a desire to enjoy the affection and loyalty of a dog in a world dominated by patriarchal power and privilege. In this revision of Dianic myth, ghostly dogs kill Yves de Cornault for his transgressions against both his wife and her dogs. Here Wharton plays the role of Diana herself, punishing a vicious man for harming those whom Diana would protect.
All of Wharton's ghost stories explore the status of women and men, their prescribed gender roles in society, and the fate that their sexual desires or their gender brings down upon them. As Jennifer Dyman has shown, it is within the ghost stories that a critique of social norms emerges as a corrective to patriarchy. Dyman uses the term lurking to describe how Wharton's feminist inclinations seem to be expressed covertly and indirectly in the spectral figures that haunt her work. Indeed, Wharton never described herself as a feminist and was leery of feminism. She came from an upper-class background and consciously took its rules of behavior seriously. When she was in her fifties she underwent a bitter divorce at a time when women had little standing and few options outside marriage. But her husband had not shared her passion for literature or creativity, nor had he been in any way sympathetic to her needs and desires, so the divorce did free her finally from marital domestic obligations. The lion's share of Wharton's work is concerned with gender issues and the oppression and loneliness of women (and men) under patriarchy. Wharton's personal unhappiness was intensified by the political upheaval of an impending World War I and the lack of any stable future. Like many of the avant-garde literati of the day, Wharton found refuge in Paris, where she took up residence. "Kerfol" and her other ghost stories are a testament to her struggles to rethink the traditional social structures of a patriarchal world that would keep women as mere objects to be possessed, neglected, and dispensed of willy-nilly, like any other domestic creature, human or nonhuman, that inhabits the patriarch's domestic enclosure and may become an inconvenience.
Wharton felt closely connected with animals, particularly dogs. They inhabited not only her poems and fiction but also her life: she was companion to several Pekingese, stylish small lapdogs very similar in type to the fashionable dogs of the Renaissance. Dogs were a source of love that fostered in her a need to understand the ties she felt with them as well as the human-animal bond in general. It is not surprising, then, that the myth of Diana would appeal to her.
Yet on one occasion Wharton expressed an ambivalence about her relation to the world of animals, and especially to the world of dogs. In her diary, at age sixty-two, she wrote: "I am secretly afraid of animals-all animals except dogs, and even some dogs. I think it is because of the Usness in their eyes, with the underlying Not-Usness which belies it, and it is so tragic a reminder of the lost age when we human beings branched off and left them to eternal inarticulateness and slavery." What she reads in their eyes both reflects and deflects human beings, signals both a connection between us and them, self and other, and the individual differences that exist between all sentient beings. Perhaps the cause of fear that she suggests has to do with a tragic awareness that animals have been relegated to the status of a meaningless "other," so that the "Usness" and the "Not-Usness" in their eyes express a trauma created by "we human beings [who] branched off and left them to eternal inarticulateness"; there is a grievance in the eyes of the dogs, who in this way silently but paradoxically speak to humanity's lack of any accountability for their abjected status. Given the prominence of Cartesian thought in Wharton's day, in which animals were held to be mere automata, we can especially sympathize with her fear at seeing both the us and the not-us in their eyes. The gulf that separates us from them is written there by Western narratives of human supremacy over nature. Wharton shares with later thinkers, namely Emmanuel Levinas, Jacques Derrida, and J. M. Coetzee, the experience of seeing the "look" of the animal (Levinas) as an irrefutable call (Derrida) and as a "conversion experience" (Coetzee) that we remain dutifully bound to act upon, either though writing (literature, philosophy, critical studies) or through activism, since that look demands a long-awaited corrective against any further negation or indifference to their beings. Wharton experiences the fear or dread that such a recognition drives into the soul of a human being, who then must ask him- or herself: What does it say about us as a species that we define ourselves as intrinsically separate from the "natural" world, to which animals seem to belong though we apparently do not? At the heart of this recognition lies a trauma for human beings as well, which Wharton understands, brought on by the violent separation between human and nonhuman that has characterized Western thought and culture, and from this trauma arises, for some individuals, the felt need to defend and protect animals against a perceived gross injustice. For Wharton, this intuitive understanding of animals' position in the human order intersects with the unacknowledged feminist leanings we find throughout her work.
A second passage from Wharton shows a modern Diana-like sensibility expressed, not only as a drive to protect animals from harm and injustice, but as a drive to undo the binarism of human/animal and instead connect the self to animals in a shared creaturely status. This "polymorphous" register would imply another kind of being, "an intermediare creature" between human and animal:
I always had a deep, instinctive understanding of animals, a yearning to hold them in my arms, a fierce desire to protect them against pain and cruelty. The feeling seemed to have its source in a curious sense of being, somehow, myself, an intermediare creature between human beings and animals, and nearer, on the whole, to the furry tribes than to homo sapiens. I felt I knew things about them-their sensations, desires and sensibilities-that other bipeds could not guess; and this seemed to lay on me the obligation to defend them against human oppressors. The feeling grew in intensity until it became a morbid preoccupation.
Nothing more clearly demonstrates the protective and transformative role Wharton felt with regard to animals than the above passage. Some critics have read her love for dogs as a substitute for love of children. I, like Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, would caution against such a reductive reading. Diana was the goddess who looked after women, the young, and animals, all of them, not as entities who could substitute for each other but as a plurality of individual beings living together. A reading that would reduce the desire for the company of animals to a mere a stand-in for the desire to have a child is dismantled in Wharton's own words. She clearly understands her "curious sense of being ... an intermediare creature," closer in affect and being to the "furry tribes" than to "homo sapiens," as transformative of her human nature.
Wharton's "Artemis to Actaeon" (1909) is, as the title indicates, a long prosopopoeia where the goddess both declares her love and explains her divine point of view to an apparently uncomprehending Actaeon. Encouraging and justifying his action by way of an erotics of transgression, or rather an extreme form of carpe diem where one brief moment of ecstasy outweighs a life that is long and secure but deathly monotonous, Artemis explicates the beauty of Actaeon's awful end, in which he is mauled to death by his own hounds upon having beheld her in her bath. The gods' drab, unending immortality is actually a kind of death in which "they pale, for lack of warmth they wane, / Freeze to the marble of their images." For "...immortality is not to range / Unlimited through vast Olympian days, / Or sit in dull dominion over time." When a "rash votary" like Actaeon fatally glimpses forbidden divinity, his act "renews" the gods; their "incarnation," and thus continuing life, depends upon the impassioned desire of a human being to come close to them, while their oblivion is sealed by human apathy.
The position of the gods, then, is the erotic one of passivity, a sense of being alive only when one becomes the love object of some worthy other. This is the position traditionally ascribed by Freud to femininity. By redefining it as that of the gods, "who are but what you [mortals] make us," Wharton not only dignifies what psychoanalysis views as an inferior position but more importantly places the emphasis most strenuously on the worthiness of the human lover. The gods are not interested in just any worshipper. In fact, the reverential and respectful ones who duly leave their prescribed sacrificial offerings are most certainly not the ones who awaken the gods out of their doldrums. Neither are those immature ones who break into the most sacred loci of their being but then, unappreciatively, "to their incurious loves return." In a passage reminiscent of Giordano Bruno's Neo-Platonic revision of the Actaeon myth, only a select few, whose glimpse of godliness means they can never return to their previous existences, are worthy of having their love reciprocated by the gods, whose act of love is also an act of death:
Not so with thee; for some indeed there are
Who would behold the truth and then return
To pine among the semblances-but I
Divined in thee the questing foot that never
Revisits the cold hearth of yesterday
Or calls achievement home. I from afar
Beheld thee fashioned for one hour's high use,
Nor meant to slake oblivion drop by drop.
Long, long hadst thou inhabited my dreams,
Surprising me as harts surprise a pool,
Stealing to drink at midnight; I divined
Thee rash to reach the heart of life, and lie
Bosom to bosom in occasion's arms,
And said: Because I love thee thou shalt die! [emphasis in text]
Only the Actaeons are worthy of love by the gods, whose dreams they already "inhabit" in their transformed essences as "harts" who "surprise a pool." Only they whom the gods perceive as "rash to reach the heart of life" are worthy of that fatal embrace that allows them to achieve true immortality, which is "to drink fate's utmost at a draught" rather than "feel the wine grow stale upon the lip." By losing himself in her, Actaeon "relives" in the "renewal" of Artemis, thus binding their fates forever. He is, then, a most worthy lover of the deity, and the only question that remains-a terribly important one and the one that in fact generates the poem-is whether Actaeon understands all this or not. The whole text thus rests on a conundrum whereby the erotic power of transgression so extolled by the poem may not be known by the one whose consequent apotheosis is being celebrated. Eros may preclude its own cognition. Actaeon may never know that Artemis indeed wanted him to startle her in the privacy of her bath, to undergo his beastly and fatal transformation as the true path to immortality and closeness to god.
Very different from this positive framing of Actaeon's death from the vantage point of Artemis is the fantastic tale of "Kerfol," where death by dogs is hardly the attainment of a blissful union. Originally published in 1916 at the height of the First World War while Wharton was living in France, "Kerfol" describes strange events that purportedly took place at a Breton castle in the seventeenth century. Those events are presented within a frame narration set in modern times and told in the first person. The narrator, who confesses to having "always had secret yearnings for domesticity" despite an "unsociable exterior," has been encouraged by a friend to buy an old estate in Brittany: "just the place for a solitary-minded devil like you." "Buyer beware" is of course the immediate connotation of this situation, even if the warning were not already phonetically evident from the story's title and name of the castle: Kerfol or careful! Suspicions are heightened when the narrator's attempt to visit the castle is thwarted by the absence of the guardian and the strange presence of a motley group of dogs, a "cloud of witnesses" (213) who observe the narrator attentively and silently while maintaining their distance. The silence and lack of commotion are, of course, signs that things are not as they seem: "as though the silence of the place had gradually benumbed their busy inquisitive natures. And this strange passivity, this almost human lassitude, seemed to me sadder than the misery of starved and beaten animals" (214). Curiously, the pathos of the animals is a function of their apparent "humanness." At the same time, though, the narrator describes a tremendous feeling of "remoteness" from them, which ultimately leads to the thought that they have "in common one memory so deep and dark that nothing that had happened since was worth either a growl or a wag" (214)-some alien, incommunicable secret or trauma such that the gap between the narrator and these creatures, who appear to be the sole residents of the manor, appears radically unbridgeable. The narrator concludes-and loudly announces to the assembly of dogs-that they look as if they had seen a ghost and wonders aloud if there might not be some ghost haunting Kerfol. The reader is even led to wonder if the existence of such a ghost is what is prompting the eagerness of its owners to sell the property "for a song."
Only upon returning to the friend's home, with the feeling of "having escaped from the loneliest place in the world, and of not liking loneliness," does the narrator learn that the dogs seen there earlier are themselves the ghosts of Kerfol, rumored to congregate and appear there on a certain day during the year. With ratiocinative impulses aroused as any property-buying desires have receded, the narrator eventually finds an "explanation" for the ghost dogs in the story that provides the embedded narrative by way of the court record of a seventeenth-century murder trial. In accordance with the early modern tradition of the found manuscript, the record is said to have been edited into "a simpler form," the narrator claiming, of course, that "nowhere have I added anything of my own" (216). The embedded narrative relates the dolorous tale of one Anne de Cornault, accused of having murdered her husband, Yves de Cornault, lord of Kerfol, with the help of an accomplice/lover, Hervé de Lanrivain (a distant ancestor of the narrator's friend who uncannily bears the exact same name). The setting, period, and outline of the plot are highly reminiscent of the Renaissance novella, and except for the fantastic conclusion the story could easily pass for a tale by Marguerite de Navarre: an unhappy, aristocratic marriage between a jealous husband and lonely wife in a deserted location ("the loneliest place in the world") leads the wife to take a local lover until the husband's discovery of the affair, which brings about a gruesome denouement that leaves the principals dead or mad. Between fits of lunacy, Anne herself is put on trial for the murder-until finally the judges have no choice but to commit her back to the care of her husband's family, who lock her in the keep at Kerfol till her dying day. Yet the physical evidence surrounding Yves's death is inconclusive and puzzling: "He had been dreadfully scratched and gashed about the face and throat, as if with curious pointed weapons; and one of his legs had a deep tear in it which had cut an artery, and probably caused his death" (219).
Vigorously protesting her innocence, Anne takes the stand in her own defense with a tale so unbelievable that her own lawyer tries unsuccessfully to dissuade her from recounting it. Here is where the mysterious dogs enter the picture and also where Wharton's story radically departs from its early modern models. According to Anne's testimony, her husband turns out to be nothing less than a canocidal Bluebeard whose ultimate demise is as implausible as it is poetically just. A fiercely jealous man, often away on business trips, Yves refuses to let his wife leave the castle grounds or even walk about in them unattended. Mindful that this is "the loneliest place in the world," we are not surprised to learn of Anne's terrible unhappiness, only partially palliated by the exotic and expensive gifts her husband brings back with him from his travels, including an especially prized bracelet or "necklet" of emerald, pearls, and rubies.
Yves does, however, bring back something even more endearing for his wife, something capable of making her forget all about her loneliness, "something even odder and prettier than the bracelet" (218)-a little brown dog identified elsewhere in the narrative as a rare Chinese breed known as a "Sleevedog" (212):
"Oh, it looks like a bird or a butterfly!" she cried as she picked it up; and the dog put its paws on her shoulders and looked at her with eyes "like a Christian's." After that she would never have it out of her sight, and petted and talked to it as if it had been a child-as indeed it was the nearest thing to a child she was to know. Yves de Cornault was much pleased with his purchase. The dog had been brought to him by a sailor from an East India merchantman, and the sailor had bought it of a pilgrim in a bazaar at Jaffa, who had stolen it from a nobleman's wife in China: a perfectly permissible thing to do, since the pilgrim was a Christian and the nobleman a heathen doomed to hell-fire. Yves de Cornault had paid a long price for the dog, for they were beginning to be in demand at the French court, and the sailor knew he had got hold of a good thing; but Anne's pleasure was so great that, to see her laugh and play with the little animal, her husband would doubtless have given twice the sum. (218-19; emphasis added)
What is striking and foreboding about this passage, despite the mitigating final clause, is the absolute difference of affect between husband and wife, marvelously highlighted by Wharton's skillful use of both direct and free indirect style. Yves sees the dog primarily from a commodity standpoint, as a more lively and exotic version of the bejeweled bracelet. The purchase of the dog, despite its price, is a "good deal," since such dogs are "in demand" at court and probably could be sold for even more than he paid the sailor, who had bought it from a pilgrim in Jaffa, who had in turn stolen it from a Chinese aristocrat's wife. The forcible expropriation of exotic merchandise is legitimated by the non-Christian status of the Chinese nobleman, as if the dog's value to that nobleman's wife were immaterial. In fact, the patriarchal disequilibrium between husband and wife, where it is possible to steal only from the husband because he legally owns all of the property, including hers, mirrors the disequilibrium of affect between their Breton counterparts. For commodity value is the farthest thing from Anne's mind as she jubilantly greets her puppy "as if it had been a child." For Anne, the dog is literally priceless since that creature is really a fellow member of her domestic abode, a part of the family, like a child. One imagines that the Chinese nobleman's wife at the opposite end of the globe felt the same way.
The difference of views between Yves and Anne concerning the little brown dog is so extreme there is no possibility of communication between them. Only the evocation of death raises the conflict to a conscious level:
One day she had fallen asleep in her room, with the dog at her feet, as his habit was. Her feet were bare and resting on his back. Suddenly she was waked by her husband: he stood beside her, smiling not unkindly.
"You look like my great-grandmother, Julianne de Cornault, lying in the chapel with her feet on a little dog," he said.
The analogy sent a chill through her, but she laughed and answered: "Well, when I am dead you must put me beside her, carved in marble, with my dog at my feet."
"Oho-we'll wait and see," he said, laughing also, but with his black brows close together. "The dog is the emblem of fidelity."
"And do you doubt my right to lie with mine at my feet?"
"When I'm in doubt I find out," he answered. "I am an old man," he added, "and people say I make you lead a lonely life. But I swear you shall have your monument if you earn it."
"And I swear to be faithful," she returned, "if only for the sake of having my little dog at my feet." (221-22)
The difference could not be more extreme. Yves's view of his wife sleeping with the little dog at her feet brings him to aestheticize her not, as he very well might, by analogy with Titian's Venus of Urbino, in which a voluptuous bella reclines on a bed with a dog at her feet, but as the sculpture on his great-grandmother's tomb. Not as life, but as death! No wonder Anne feels a "chill through her." To her nonetheless lighthearted attempt to respond by requesting to be entombed similarly, next to his ancestor but with her own little dog, he equivocates before spouting the banality about the dog as "the emblem of fidelity." Dire equivocation ensues as it becomes unclear who is supposed to be faithful to whom. If the dog is the emblem of fidelity to its master, then assuredly it deserves its place in their common tomb. If the dog is an emblem of a wife's fidelity to her spouse, then the reward for her fidelity is the funerary architecture of the tomb. If the dog is an emblem of fidelity, is that not because it is by nature faithful and therefore deserving of its master's loyalty to it? The differend here concerns whether fidelity is something to be earned (Yves's point of view) or something to be given (Anne's view). Further complicating the issue is that for Yves fidelity is what someone else owes you, while for Anne it is something you give to someone else. Yves never swears fidelity to Anne but expects that she should do so for him. Anne swears fidelity to Yves in response to his threat/incentive, but only because of an even deeper fundamental loyalty to her dog: "And I swear to be faithful, ... if only for the sake of having my little dog at my feet." But if swearing fidelity to Yves is only a way to express and protect a more fundamental loyalty to her dog, then is she not in swearing fidelity to Yves being already unfaithful to him? And finally, in sleeping at Anne's feet, is not the dog already expressing a boundless fidelity, even as we shall see, beyond the grave? Would not Yves have every right to be jealous, then, of the dog's unquestioning loyalty (as opposed to his own relentless suspiciousness)? Or jealous, too, of his wife's greater faithfulness to her dog than to him?
All is in place for the terrible events that follow. Anne finally meets a potential lover in the shape of Hervé de Lanrivain. After a few fleeting encounters, he asks for a keepsake, as he is about to leave on a long journey. All she has to give him is the expensive bracelet, which has in the meantime been used as her dog's collar. Yves's jealous suspicions are aroused when he remarks upon the bracelet missing from the dog's neck. He says nothing to Anne, but after mysteriously recovering the bracelet he strangles the dog with it and leaves both on his wife's bed pillow. The same day Yves "had a peasant hanged for stealing a faggot in the park, and the next day he nearly beat to death a young horse he was breaking" (223). A sequence of dogs then come into Anne's life, only for each to be mysteriously strangled and deposited on the bed pillow after the slightest affection she shows them. Eventually, Anne comes to fear for her own life, as her sanity is threatened by this systematic assault on her attempts to break out of her loneliness in even the most minimal way.
One night, returning from his long absence, Hervé wishes to see Anne. Fearing for his life as well as hers, Anne goes down to the castle door to urge him away. Just then, she hears her "husband's voice calling out [her] name and cursing [her]" at the top of the stairs, followed by "a terrible scream and fall," and the sound of "dogs snarling and panting" (226). She hears Yves cry out, moan, and fall silent, then something else: "a sound like the noise of a pack when the wolf is thrown to them-gulping and lapping" (227). Pressed by the judge regarding where these dogs could have come from, since none had been sighted on the premises at Kerfol for months, she admits that she recognized them by their barking to be her "dead dogs." Though the medical evidence bears out the claim that the cuts on the victim's corpse were indeed bite marks, Anne's final response leaves the courtroom in an uproar. Charges of witchcraft are leveled at her before she is finally determined to be just "a harmless madwoman" (228). Meanwhile, the exact circumstances of Yves's demise remain unclear, and Wharton maintains the fantastical quality of the tale by not providing a scientific or rational alternative to the conclusion that the master of Kerfol was killed by the ghostly pack of dogs.
What is clear is the transitory status of the human lover, Hervé, since it is his momentous if momentary intrusion into the life at Kerfol that reorients the potential objects of Yves's jealous rage from potential human suitors to canine rivals for his wife's affections. Rather than the pet serving as an ambiguous mediator/obstacle between lover and beloved, or the concomitant possibility of desire sliding from human object to animal, we here have violence directed against the pet in the place of the human rival. The link between the two is that most prized of commodities, the bracelet, which evinces a remarkable capacity to change hands in this story: from Chinese nobleman and his wife to pilgrim to sailor to Yves to Anne to her dog to Hervé somehow back to Yves, maliciously back to the dog, and then back to Anne, who takes it and hides it in her bosom. It then somehow resurfaces as an exhibit at her trial, where it "appears to have struck the Judges and the public as a curious and valuable jewel" (218). In giving away the bracelet (or "necklet"), Anne patently demonstrates her greater love for the dog than for the expensive gift of jewelry, putting it back into exchange and willing to give away to someone else the gift that means the most to its giver. The gift, moreover, whether we understand it as bracelet or necklet, is also a mark of the recipient's possession by the giver, that is, of Anne herself as Yves's "treasure" (221) and most prized possession, the crown jewel of his domain of Kerfol. For him, the sign of her apparent infidelity means the death of "the emblem of fidelity," the dog who would have found his likeness at the stone feet of his mistress's tomb. Now that Anne has failed to "earn" her death monument for her lack of fidelity in Yves's commercialized concept of it, her dog, and indeed any dog that comes into her space, must also die, since it is not just her dog but "the dog" that "is the emblem of fidelity." Hence, the symbolic act of reversing the funerary arrangement by depositing the strangled dogs on the pillow or headrest of Anne's bed rather than at its foot.
But this would mean Yves falls into an obsessive and impossible attempt to kill a symbol: not the flesh and blood dog but what it represents. The trouble is, all he can do is to kill the material representation, the body of the pet but not what it stands for. Ironically, his death comes about by the uncanny return of the dogs in the immaterial form of ghosts. By this return, they most aggressively reassert the validity of their emblematic association, representing fidelity itself as they return from beyond the grave to protect and avenge their mistress in her moment of greatest need. That is, they return when Yves is preparing to kill not an emblem but the person of his wife. This in turn allows the dogs to return as the "emblem of fidelity," protecting their mistress by killing her tormentor, gnawing and tearing him to bits. It will probably be obvious to the reader by now that the name Anne is also a derivative of Di-anne, but in this version of the story the dogs belong not to Actaeon but to the goddess whose intimacy he would violate. Or, perhaps, to revise the myth, they were Diana's hounds all along and never did belong to Actaeon except in his presumption of ownership. Slaying him, they were not so much disloyal to him as ever faithful to their divine mistress.
Having literalized the emblem of fidelity, then, the dogs of Kerfol keep returning faithfully to haunt the castle once a year, ghostly guardians as they silently gaze. Hence, too, they uncannily appear to the narrator on her visit as both strange and familiar, as both "almost human" and incomprehensibly "remote." Unheimlich they certainly are in Freud's sense, being both of the home and not of the home: the ghost dogs guard an empty home that has no masters. But if they "seemed to have the place to themselves" (215), giving rise to the feeling of the uncanny, it is because the home they haunt has ceased to be a "homey" place. More exactly, their current presence in the home is the uncanny sign of their violently enforced absence from it: their murderous eviction from the domus by a vengeful pater familias. Never fully allowed into the domestic space of the home, they paradoxically can never seem to leave it. Perhaps this is why the domestic animal gone wild is so compelling as a marker of the unheimlich, whether stray dog, or black cat, or excessively proximate bird of prey. As the emblem of fidelity, the ghost dogs of Kerfol remain the ineffaceable sign of a troubled domesticity. As such, these creatures-properly belonging neither inside nor outside the home-can attain no more than the ghostly existence of a semblance: the semblance of children to Anne, the semblance of rival lovers to Yves, the semblance of owners to the narrator. The sign of something they are not, they are also by this negativity the constant reminder of the home that is not.
Such is, of course, the familiar if tragic world of Wharton's major fiction: the unrealized dream of Actaeon in all its erotic transcendence countermanded by the harsh reality of the patriarchal household inhabited only by the ghost of that dream. Is there any reason for surprise that it is not in her realist fiction but in her ghost stories that we find the strongest assertions of Wharton's "lurking feminism"? As Gilbert and Gubar note, the supernatural tale epitomized by "Kerfol" provided a literary alternative to "the bleak skepticism that kept her from fantasizing ... about changes in sex roles and social rules," namely a way of "simultaneously saying the unsayable and enacting its unsayability" with regard to the oppressiveness of the patriarchal order. Gilbert and Gubar argue that the ghost story "consistently made possible just the transgressive protest against 'reality' that she secretly longed to mount": on the one hand "the unleashing of female rage as well as the release of female desire" and on the other hand "the expression of female pain at the repression of rage and the killing of desire." Any of those "secret yearnings for domesticity" fleetingly evoked in "Kerfol" would appear, then, to be realized only in negative form, emblematized once more by the very muteness of the ghost dogs, saying what cannot be said.
As for Wharton herself, she neither suffered in silence nor waited for a supernatural revenge but resolutely and courageously broke the mold in the practice of her life (far more than most of her critics have given her credit for). She divorced her only husband at age fifty-one after moving to France, where she lived by herself, keeping a literary salon and Pekingese dogs, until her death in 1937.
Beastly Becomings in Djuna Barnes's Nightwood
The year of Edith Wharton's death, 1937, saw the publication by another American expatriate of a strange novel whose wild alternative to the traditional domestic order also references the beast in general and the dog in particular: Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes. If Edith Wharton characterizes her position with regard to the world of animals as an intermediary place between the human and the nonhuman and admits feeling closer to the "furry tribes," Djuna Barnes crafts a relation to the inhuman in Nightwood, through the figure of Robin, that can also be described as a tertiary position, a polyvalent space that undoes binary distinctions, symbolized in my readings as the quest for a polymorphous domesticity. Indeed, the underlying "wildness" found both in Wharton's short story "Kerfol" and in Barnes's Nightwood leads us to what Teresa de Lauretis has called "a psychic space haunted by the muted phantasms of a past both individual and collective." In other words, these phantasms, whether they emerge as avenging dogs (Kerfol) or as both beast and dog (Nightwood), are figures summoned by an "excess of affect" that cannot (will not!) be tamed by normative domestic enclosures.
In her meticulous reading of Freud's notion of drive, especially with regard to Djuna Barnes's Nightwood, de Lauretis argues for affect as a pure drive that "straddles the divide between animal and human, and partaking of both, ... inhabits a borderland between the somatic and the mental capacity for representation, a 'borderland' that is the psyche itself." More than the mediator of desire, the beast in Nightwood is a powerful transformer of social, sexual, and psychical identity. And if any character in this tale of transvestite doctors, incestuous grandmothers, and neurasthenic aristocrats incarnates the transience of identity, it is Robin Vote. Robin is that beast, figured as what de Lauretis describes as "an excess of affect or unbound psychic energy ... a figure of sexuality as an undomesticated, unsymbolizable force" (emphasis mine).
A character in constant flight like the bird signaled by her first name, Robin pulls the plot along with her as she hops from home to home and relationship to relationship: from Felix to Nora to Jenny and back to Nora. Unheimlich to the core, as it were, she is both obsessively "haunted" by the "wish for a home" and completely incapable of staying there when she finds one. Inhabited by a "tragic longing to be kept, knowing herself astray" (74), Robin nonetheless cannot be kept. She comes and goes as she pleases, eventually leaving her lovers in complete despair. "I don't want to be here," she says symptomatically upon first meeting Nora (70), foreshadowing the stormy vicissitudes of their relationship. Robin's wanderlust is also at the same time what defines her as everyone's elusive object of desire, much like Ariosto's beloved Angelica.
At the same time, Robin's fidgety relation to the domestic-her wild side, so to speak-interfaces with her evident transsexuality (she is "a tall girl with the body of a boy" , wearing "boy's trousers" ) and apparent animality. We first see her at the Hôtel Récamier, lying in a swoon witnessed by the chasseur of the hotel, the doctor who has been summoned to aid her, and the doctor's friend Baron Felix. She is a highly aestheticized beast:
Like a painting by the douanier Rousseau, [Robin] seemed to lie in a jungle trapped in a drawing room. ... The woman who presents herself to the spectator as a "picture" forever arranged is, for the contemplative mind, the chiefest danger. Sometimes one meets a woman who is beast turning human. Such a person's every movement will reduce to an image of a forgotten experience; a mirage of an eternal wedding cast on the racial memory; as insupportable a joy as would be the vision of an eland coming down an aisle of trees, chapleted with orange blossoms and bridal veil, a hoof raised in the economy of fear, stepping in the trepidation of flesh that will become myth; as the unicorn is neither man nor beast deprived, but human hunger pressing its breast to its prey.
Such a woman is the infected carrier of the past: before her the structure of our head and jaws ache-we feel that we could eat her, she who is eaten death returning, for only then do we put our face close to the blood on the lips of our forefathers. (44-47; emphasis added)
Faced with this dangerously perfect "picture" of woman as beast, the hapless Felix falls in love with Robin, marries her, and has a child by her, only to have her leave him. The bearer of some immemorial past, infecting "us" with some unspeakable, carnivorous desire that is also the repressed truth of "our forefathers," Robin confronts us with the beasts we once were and, somewhere deep down within us, still are. It would thus seem that she is less "beast turning human," or even a beast turned toward the human, than the human turning (or returning to being) beast. Felix's error is to try ineffectually to tame her, to domesticate her within the bounds of the home and according to the traditions of his old aristocratic heritage and pedigree. But Robin as a principle is precisely what resists domestication of any kind, as undomesticatable as the wild eland or mythical unicorn. Though Felix's first sight of her raises visions of a creature walking down the aisle in bridal finery, and though she does indeed become his wife, she irrepressibly returns to that long-lost home that is our animal ancestry, "carr[ying] the quality of the 'way back' as animals do" (51-52).
When next we see her, she is at a circus, where she attracts the attention of the woman who will become her next lover, Nora Flood, by the strange reaction of the circus animals to Robin's presence. These animals, horses, "tiny" dogs "trying to look like horses," elephants, and lions, "going around and around the ring, all but climbed over at that point" where they encountered the former baroness: "Then as one powerful lioness came to the turn of the bars, exactly opposite the girl, she turned her furious great head with its yellow eyes afire and went down, her paws thrust through the bars and, as she regarded the girl, as if a river were falling behind impassible heat, her eyes flowed in tears that never reached the surface" (69-70). Confronted by this conspicuous display of the animals' desire, as if she were infecting them with the same longings that the human beings who saw her in the Paris hotel experienced, Robin asks Nora to help her leave, so beginning their love affair. Nora represents a highly unconventional domesticity, living alone with her hound on the edge of civilization yet running "the strangest 'salon' in America":
Her house was couched in the centre of a mass of tangled grass and weeds. Before it fell into Nora's hands the property had been in the same family two hundred years. It had its own burial ground, and a decaying chapel in which stood in tens and tens mouldering psalm books, laid down some fifty years gone in a flurry of forgiveness and absolution.
It was the "paupers" salon for poets, radicals, beggars, artists, and people in love; for Catholics, Protestants, Brahmins, dabblers in black magic and medicine; all these could be seen sitting about her oak table before the huge fire, Nora listening, her hand on her hound, the firelight throwing her shadow and his high against the wall. Of all that ranting, roaring crew, she alone stood out. (64)
Like a New World Diana in her sylvan abode, Nora installs herself in the zone between nature and culture, animal and human, sacred and profane, eroticism and death: "She was one of those deviations by which man thinks to reconstruct himself" (68). Her main fault is her generosity by which she "robbed herself for everyone ... continually turning about to find herself diminished" (66). For a "wild thing caught in a woman's skin" (182) like Robin, Nora is the closest thing to home and the one she ultimately returns to after her unrestrained wanderings, including the long detour of her affair with Jenny. Perhaps this is because, unlike everyone else who desires Robin as an object to hold and to possess, Nora is the only one whose love for Robin is motivated out of generosity: she is the one who saves her from the circus of others' carnivorous desires, be they human or animal!
Jenny Petherbridge is Nora Flood's opposite and beastly in ways only a human could be: a wealthy, middle-aged widow who "had been like a squirrel racing a wheel day and night in an endeavor to make [each of four now dead husbands] historical; they could not survive it" (83). Named "the squatter," this emotional pack-rat of a woman lives an utterly borrowed existence, desperately living off the words, deeds, and emotions of others, a hollow individual in a mad search for some kind of authenticity that produces only inauthenticity: "She defiled the very meaning of personality in her passion to be a person; somewhere about her was the tension of the accident that made the beast the human endeavor. ... She wanted to be the reason for everything and so was the cause of nothing" (86). As opposed to the human beast that is Robin, Jenny is a beastly human, rapacious in her appropriation of Nora's love for Robin (since theirs was "the most passionate love that she knew" ), a love she seals or steals by the bloody beating she gives Robin in her carriage, after which they leave together for America.
Ironically, it is such "beastly" behavior that makes Jenny the least able to understand the beast in Robin. As she complains to a commiserating Felix, "She always lets her pets die. She is so fond of them, and then she neglects them, the way that animals neglect themselves" (144). In other words, Robin neither can be domesticated nor can responsibly undertake the domestication of others. She can neither keep pets nor be a pet, especially not for Ms. Pet-her-bridge. Her only hope, it would seem, if she can face up to it, is some utterly unspeakable and primordial communion with the beasts. The final chapter of Nightwood, "The Possessed," dramatizes just such an encounter.
The chapter begins by evoking the familiar return of Robin's wanderlust, her never-ending quest for a home but absolute intolerance for staying at home, however loosely it may be defined:
When Robin, accompanied by Jenny Petherbridge, arrived in New York, she seemed distracted. She would not listen to Jenny's suggestion that they should make their home in the country. She said a hotel was "good enough." Jenny could do nothing with her; it was as if the motive power which had directed Robin's life, her day as well as her night, had been crippled. For the first week or two, she would not go out, then, thinking herself alone, she began to haunt the terminals, taking trains into different parts of the country, wandering without design, going into many out-of-the-way churches, sitting in the darkest corner or standing against the wall. (207)
As her quest reveals a sacred dimension, she oddly assumes the persona of the domesticity that her wandering rejects, "moving like a housewife come to set straight disorder in an unknown house" (208). This paradoxical housewife in a strange house reveals once again her closeness to the animal: "Robin walked the open country in the same manner, pulling at the flowers, speaking in a low voice to the animals. Those that came near, she grasped, straining their fur back until their eyes were narrowed and their teeth bare, her own teeth showing as if her hand were upon her own neck" (208). Baring their teeth as she bares her own-a physiological display of animal aggression that is also the repressed origin of the human smile-Robin reveals her identification with and identity as a beast. At home only with the beasts, she renders the uncomprehending Jenny "hysterical," causing her to accuse Robin of a "sensuous communion with unclean spirits": "She did not understand anything Robin felt or did, which was more unendurable than her absence" (208). For Jenny, Robin's intolerably incomprehensible behavior (wandering in the countryside, visiting abandoned chapels, and engaging in dialogue with animals) can be explained only in the canonical Western terms of demon possession, witchcraft, wildness, and unspeakable perversities. No longer in Jenny's possession, Robin appears "possessed," as the chapter title indicates, whereas in fact she has stepped back out of the familiar domesticity championed in their different ways by both Jenny and Felix and into that other, counterdomestic world linked to the realm of Diana.
Robin is accordingly led back to the Dianesque figure Nora and into a landscape that resembles the ponds and bowers associated with the goddess: "Robin now headed up into Nora's part of the country. She circled closer and closer. Sometimes she slept in the woods; the silence that she had caused by her coming was broken again by insect and bird flowing back over her intrusion, which was forgotten in her fixed stillness, obliterating her as a drop of water is made anonymous by the pond into which it has fallen" (209). Unlike Actaeon, who brazenly intrudes into the world of the woods, Robin finds herself absorbed in it, disappearing into it and losing herself there like a drop of water fallen into a pool. Coming so close as to sleep in the old, run-down chapel behind Nora's house, she is awoken one night by the sound of Nora's dog barking. At this point, the narrative point of view switches to that of Nora, who becomes the privileged observer of all that subsequently happens and who reacts presciently to her dog's odd behavior, the sole cause of which can only be the proximity of Robin: "The dog was running about the house; she heard him first on one side, then the other; he whined as he ran; barking and whining she heard him farther and farther away. Nora bent forward, listening; she began to shiver" (209).
Following her dog into the pitch darkness, up the hill and through thick briars, Nora finally bursts through the chapel door to come upon her prodigal lover: "On a contrived altar, before a Madonna, two candles were burning. Their light fell across the floor and the dusty benches. Before the image lay flowers and toys. Standing before them in her boy's trousers was Robin" (210). Displayed in her transgendered (male/female), transgenerational (adult/child), and trans-species (human/beast) being, Robin is caught in an intimate act of adulation before an image of the Virgin Mother, perhaps an avatar of ancient Diana herself, but for certain a repeated figure of Robin's love for Nora, both in her affection for Nora and in the need to keep distance. As Doctor Matthew earlier explains to Nora, Robin "put you cleverly away by making you the Madonna" (183). Only later, while frantically searching for Robin in Naples, does Nora realize the import of these words. There she comes upon the sight of a girl that presages the nocturnal discovery of Robin in her chapel:
In open door-ways night-lights were burning all day before gaudy prints of the Virgin. In one room that lay open to the alley, before a bed covered with a cheap heavy satin comforter, in the semi-darkness, a young girl sat on a chair, leaning over its back, one arm across it, the other hanging at her side, as if half of her slept, and half of her suffered. When she saw me she laughed, as children do, in embarrassment. Looking from her to the Madonna behind the candles, I knew that the image, to her, was what I had been to Robin, not a saint at all, but a fixed dismay, the space between the human and the holy head, the arena of the "indecent" eternal. At that moment I stood in the centre of eroticism and death, ... , and I knew in that bed Robin should have put me down. (196)
What does it mean to be someone else's "Madonna"? Not simply to be honored with a proper churchgoing reverence for the holy saints but to become an alluring but terrifying figure of transition to the beyond, where the human and the sacred, the virginal and the maternal, the erotic and the morbid are all dramatically drawn together, hence the startled beholder's reaction of "fixed dismay." The imago of the female deity, Mary or Diana, is a source of fascination and fear, of joy and suffering, of ecstasy and transgression, that recalls both a "primitive innocence" and the "'indecent' eternal." Such is the understanding Nora finally reaches about the nature of her relationship with Robin: "It was me made her hair stand on end because I loved her. She turned bitter because I made her fate colossal.... So the lover must go against nature to find love" (194; emphasis in text). A primary figure of this antinatural love is that of incest, and it is incarnated by Nora's beloved: "For Robin is incest too; that is one of her powers.... Yet not being [of] the family she is more present than the family. A relative is in the foreground only when it is born, when it suffers and when it dies, unless it becomes one's lover, then it must be everything, as Robin was" (195). The transgressiveness foregrounded here is highly reminiscent of Georges Bataille's famous theories about the relation between death and eroticism, which were circulating in the 1930s Paris inhabited by Djuna Barnes. Yet Robin's attraction to the eroticism of transgression is ambiguous, since in her case the "indecent eternal" must cohabit with a primitive sense of innocence. Only Nora, as Felix acknowledges, can supply Robin with this apparently contradictory need: "[Robin] always seemed to be looking for someone to tell her that she was innocent... always searching in the wrong direction until she met Nora Flood.... There are some people ... who must get permission to live, and if the Baronin [Robin] finds no one to give her that permission, she will make an innocence for herself; a fearful sort of primitive innocence. It may be considered 'depraved' by our generation, but our generation does not know everything" (147). Holding Nora in a kind of "fixed dismay," Robin both desires and flees her until she ultimately comes "home" to her at the end of the novel, a home to which Nora has returned after her revelation in Naples.
It is there, at the end, in Nora's chapel, before her makeshift altar to the Madonna, that Robin is free to indulge in a final, cathartic act of primitive innocence/indecency in beastly communion with Nora's dog and under the watchful eye of the virgin mother, Nora/Diana. Here, then, is the final scene of Nightwood, a scene of demonstrably "wild" domesticity that Nora observes without being a participant after she bursts through the chapel door:
Robin began going down. Sliding down she went; her hair swinging, her arms held out, and the dog stood there rearing back, his forelegs slanting; his paws trembling under the trembling of his rump, his hackle about his neck standing out stiff and beautiful, his mouth open, the tongue slung sideways over his sharp bright teeth; whining and waiting. And down she went, until her head swung against his; on all fours now, dragging her knees. The veins stood out in her neck, under her ears, swelled in her arms, and wide and throbbing rose up on her fingers as she moved forward.
The dog, quivering in every muscle, sprang back, his lips drawn, his tongue a stiff curving terror in his mouth; moved backward, back, as she came on, whimpering too now, coming forward, her head turned completely sideways, grinning and whimpering. Backed now into the farthest corner, the dog reared as if to avoid something that troubled him to such agony that he seemed to be rising from the floor; then he stopped, clawing sideways at the wall, his forepaws lifted and sliding, looking at her, striking against the wall, like a little horse; like something imploring a bird. Then as she, now head down, dragging her forelocks in the dust, struck against his side, he let loose one howl of misery and bit at her, dashing about her, barking, and as he sprang on either side of her he always kept his head toward her, dashing his rump now this side, now that, of the wall.
Then she began to bark also, crawling after him-barking in a fit of laughter, obscene and touching. The dog began to cry then, running with her, head-on with her head, as if slowly and surely to circumvent her; soft and slow his feet went padding. He ran this way and that, low down in his throat crying, and she grinning and crying with him; crying in shorter and shorter spaces, moving head to head, until she gave up, lying out, her hands beside her, her face turned and weeping; and the dog too gave up then, and lay down, his eyes bloodshot, his head flat along her knees. (210-11)
Falling to her hands and knees in the wake of Nora's intrusion, Robin interacts with her four-legged companion, on an equal footing with him, so to speak, brought down to his level of beastliness-or, alternatively, finally allowed to be the self that others (both human and animal) have recognized her to be, namely that of "a beast turning human," by in turn becoming a human turning beast. Dog and girl interact in an escalating spiral of mimicry and reciprocal motion, whose physicality, emotional intensity, and tempo leave no doubt as to the text's erotic import, brought home by Barnes's rhythmic use of present participles until the final cataclysmic or orgasmic crescendo when both human and beast collapse, laying down together in the final sentence of the text. As with Ackerley, the false question, the question that likewise tempts Barnes's critics, is whether we should read this, the book's closing scene, as a sexual encounter. The easy psychoanalytic answer, of course, is to construe the passage as a displaced scene of lesbian sexuality, with Nora's dog as the metaphor of his mistress. While such an interpretation lets us imagine a Barnes cleverly able to end her text with an act whose "realist" description could only have inflamed the potential charge of obscenity and risk of censorship, it also offers us, via the detour of metaphor, something that is nonetheless more comforting, less disturbing, and still less perverse than what the text presents on its literal level: that of a trans-species mating dance as unspeakable in its possible outcome as in its implications, which have been repeatedly foreshadowed in the text since Nora's first encounter with Robin at the circus. If the epitome of obscenity is reached in this scene of mock-aggressive, mock-erotic exchange where Robin mimes Nora's dog and starts "to bark also, crawling after him-barking in a fit of laughter, obscene and touching," is this because the beast is the hidden symbol of lesbian sexuality or because the essence of woman is recaptured in the beast? In Jane Marcus's words, "When the woman acts the beast and the beast turns human in the last scene, do we laugh or weep?" Either possibility, revisionist or traditionally misogynist, presupposes an eminently human appreciation of what animality is, as if the nonhuman species exists in this view only as the repressed of the human species, which since Freud, we have understood to be sexuality itself. "Animals find their way about largely by the keenness of their nose," states at one point Doctor O'Connor in an apparent allusion to Freud's similar remarks in Civilization and Its Discontents, concluding likewise that "we have lost ours in order not to be one of them" (149). A humanism that would define humanity in antithesis to the beasts had better be careful not to exclude some vital part of human life, or it risks seeing the excluded, and therefore "animalistic," part return as the very truth of the human being. The beast then becomes the key to understanding the (human) self. Far from being the radical other of a distinct species difference, the animal becomes but a degraded human. Where we expected to find something else, we find only ourselves. The beast becomes stricto sensu anthropomorphized, in a way of seeing whose doleful consequences have long been visited not only on the world of animals but also on human beings of different races, genders, and classes: animals are reduced to being lesser humans, and subjected humans are treated as animals.
Another possible way to read the end of Nightwood is mythological rather than metaphorical, with Robin a lesbian counter-Actaeon to Nora's Diana/Madonna; here Diana's discovery of the intruder turns Actaeon not into a prey object but into another one of her hounds. Far from taking flight at the prospect of her beastly metamorphosis, Robin turns toward the dog in a paroxysm of play and aggression, cavorting with him, responding to his bark and bite with that "obscene and touching" bark of her own. To become one of Diana's minions, indifferently dog or nymph, is perhaps to recapture that "primitive innocence" Robin so desperately seeks. That innocence requires someone's permission, and Nora is to all intents and purposes the sole character capable of giving such a permission "to live." From Nora's point of view, of course, this is not a satisfactory closure, since there is no question of "possessing" Robin in either an erotic or a domestic sense. Present, she is only the legitimating observer; absent, the authorizing imago like the Madonna on the wall. What she does in either case is to allow her dependent creatures, female or beastly, to be themselves and not merely the negative poles of patriarchal repression. In this sense, she is truly affirmed as Diana, protectress of women and animals. What would then appear to be the book's ambiguous ending is really only the beginning of the Virgin deity's charge, which Nora assumes with full lucidity.
Members receive 20-40% discounts on book purchases. Find out more