A "hermaphrodite sort of deity": sexuality, gender, and gender blending in Thomas Pynchon's 'V.'
Despite Hanjo Berressem's intriguing reading of the fetish in V. through insights derived from Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis,(4) Pynchon's analysis of sex and gender directly owes little to sexology or psychoanalysis. After a pseudo-explanation of V.'s lesbianism in Paris toys with Freud's early (1911) concept of homosexuality as narcissism, Stencil summarily distances himself from this explanation by concluding, "her preferences merely lay outside the usual, exogamous-heterosexual pattern which prevailed in 1913," the insertion of "merely" suggesting, I think, his impatient disdain.(5) Such disdain reflects a 1950s discourse on gender and sexuality. For example, as late as 1976, David and Brannon in their major review of the sociological literature on gender differentiation found that they could locate no book then in print that specifically treated the male sex role.(6) Looking back on his Cornell days, Pynchon himself commented that "1958 . . . was another planet. You have to appreciate the extent of sexual repression on that campus at the time."(7) Because he seems to have little or no formal underpinning for his v dews on sex role identity, we might find Pynchon's attitudes at times naive. uninformed, or even crude after the impact of feminism, of the male and gay liberation movements, and of Political Correctness, but in the context of the late 50s and early 60s they are both enlightened and radical. If he privileges phallocentricity, he ridicules the assumption and arrogance of male domination; if he privileges male homosocial at the expense of heterosocial bonding, and thus frequently seems to denigrate the feminine, he avoids the sorts of homophobia classically defined by Gregory Lehne as a "characteristic of individuals who are generally rigid and sexist"(8) or by Stephen Morin and Ellen Garfinkle as the sort of fear that heterosexual men may have of "their own sexual impulses toward men."(9) Despite Catherine Stimpson's early feminist confusion of homosexuality and sadism, a reading of V. by way of Norman Mailer,(10) his almost silent use of male homosexuality is shocking-even, I suggest, loud-when we place it against his structural use of the gay bar in Lot 49 and anal sodomy in Gravity's Rainbow.
Eve Sedgwick demarcates biological "sex" as "chromosomal sex" and the meaning of "gender" as "culturally mutable and variable, highly relational, . . . and inextricable from a history of power differential between gender."(11) In her textbook definition, Susan Basow simplifies that "Sex is a biological term; people are termed either male or female depending on their sex organs and genes. In contrast, gender is a psychological and cultural term, referring to one's subjective feelings of maleness or femaleness (gender identity)."(12) At no point in V. do we question V.'s biological sex, though in "V. in Love" and in her role as The Bad Priest, Stencil and Fausto identify her with masculine gender or sex role identity. Likewise, Pynchon never allows us to doubt Profane's biological maleness, though he constructs Profane's behavior to contrast the socially and psychoanalytically defined male gender identity of the 1950s.
Thus if we assume a constructionist view of gender and read Benny in the context of the 1950s, we can more closely focus on the attempts of the narrator(s) and Stencil to construct gender behavior opposed to, or deviating from, what Joseph Pleck calls "sex role stereotypes" and "sex role norms," culturally shared beliefs about what the sexes descriptively are and prescriptively believe they should be.(13) The obviously male and masculine Stencil sets V.'s struggle to reject phallocentricity against a political discourse that, in turn, shaped twentieth-century sexuality; thus I agree with Alice Jardine's ahistorical reading of V. as "the space of slippage, the spaces of nonresemblance, within the sign, among the signifier, signified, and referent,"(14) though I will also argue that we must refer this space to the specifically masculine voice that has constructed his narration within historical boundaries that we are not allowed to forget or ignore (e.g., Egypt in 1898, Florence in 1899, Paris in 1913, or South-West Africa in 1922-all conceived from Stencil's vantage of 1956). Set in the sexual confusion of the 1950s(15) and thus preceding Feminism's attempts to (re)define gender, the main narrator feminizes Benny when we measure him by either David and Brannon's "four basic themes which pervade and ultimately define the male sex role"--"No Sissy Stuff," "The Big Wheel," "The Sturdy Oak," and "Give 'Em Hell"(16)--or Pleck's identification and analysis of a male sex role identity paradigm.(17) In other words, V., as constructed by Stencil, and Profane, as constructed by the main narrator, are "people [who] indisputably belong to one sex and identify themselves as belonging to the corresponding gender while exhibiting a complex mixture of characteristics from each of the two standard gender roles"(18); without undue distortion, we can read them in the 1990s as "gender blenders."
Early in the novel we are told that Herbert has no facts on the disappearance of his mother because her "vanishing [was] painful enough to keep Sidney from ever referring to it" (p. 52). Despite Allen's assumption that "perhaps the dignified Mr. Stencil was not as faithful to Herbert's mother as the young man had always believed,"(19) the text clearly indicates that Herbert's mother, not his father, deserted him. Moreover, Sidney's pain seems to be explained in the epilogue when, thinking of Carla's suspicion that Maijstral is committing adultery, he wonders if such adultery only "complete[d] a circle begun in England eighteen years ago, a beginning kept forcibly from his thoughts for the same period of time," an idea immediately followed by his thinking of the eighteen-year-old Herbert (p. 489). Contrary to Patteson,(20) I read the Maltese relation between Victoria/Veronica and Sidney as renewing an earlier Florentine affair. At the end of the Florentine episode, we--and Herbert--know nothing of a liaison between Victoria and Sidney, but the epilogue implies that Sidney and Victoria remained together at least long enough for her to conceive a child that was born some twenty months later after the riots in Florence. Either Herbert knows nothing specific of his parents' sexuality, or he cannot accept them as fully sexed beings. In other words, if V. is, indeed, Herbert's mother, his reply to Margravine that V. is not his mother (p.54) is as a classical denial in which the adult son rejects his mother as a result of his mother's "rejection" of him as a child. If he fears Malta, it is because he knows that there his father mysteriously died and fears that maybe his mother was involved in that death, a bizarre working out of the oedipal crisis that has left him without an identity of his own.
In contrast to Herbert's fear of acquiring knowledge of the Maltese episode (reified earlier by his reading, not "Stencilizing," Fausto's confessions), the reader has the epilogue with its clear gender blending. This enigmatic addendum suggests a resolution of the sexual binaries that underpin chapters 1 through 16, but it is not an epilogue insofar as an epilogue traditionally either comments on or summarizes the earlier action of a drama. Because all the chapters dealing with V. except 11 are related by Herbert Stencil, we may rashly assume that Stencil is the speaker here, but the text contains the "secret" that Herbert feared--the death of his father(21)--and Herbert, who developed each of the earlier "improvisations" for a specific audience, has already disappeared from the third-person narrative to search for V. in Scandinavia and thus has no audience to whom to relate his story. On the other hand, the epilogue narrator may be the same as the one who writes the 1955-1956 chapters, but, if so, he has shifted roles with Herbert Stencil, a change that marks an important, and probably indefensible, shift in that earlier narrator's voice. If we read an epilogue as the final speech in a drama spoken by an actor, we are left here with an addendum but without a speaker who can help us relate the speech to the rest of the text. In other words, the epilogue, which chronologically occurs after V.'s love affair in Paris (1913) and before her appearance with the sexually ambiguous Weissmann in South-West Africa (1922), comes at the end of the novel to give information to the reader, not to the 1955-1956 characters.
In the epilogue, it is winter, but Sidney Stencil thinks of June; the xebec "whose figurehead was Astarte, goddess of sexual love" rushes "toward the city as if it were male and asleep and she, inanimate figurehead, a succubus preparing to ravish," but Mehemet says that "She's an inconstant city" and the two men watch a phallic "pillar of cloud" that threatens to crush the city (pp. 456-57). Later, Mehemet describes the power of the mythical Mara (Maltese for "woman") as reaching out "from Valletta, a city named after a man, but of feminine gender, a peninsula shaped like the mons Veneris" (p. 465). But in the epilogue this resolution of binaries extends to more than gender: Sidney recognizes that Armistice is both end and beginning, that war and peace are too interrelated to distinguish apart, that reality and dream, medieval and modern, death and birth, youth and age, the feminine Church and the masculine Caesar, the wife who bears the children and the husband who is breadwinner, all have become inseparable-in each case the one taking its identity from the other.
In Mehemet's story, Mara tells the Sultan that she has taught his "wives to love their own bodies, . . . [and has] restored potency to [the] eunuchs so that they may enjoy one another as well as the three hundred perfumed, female beasts of [his] harem" (p. 463), and later escapes back to Malta "disguised as a cabin boy" (p. 465). "Perversion" to the Sultan (p. 463), because she jeopardizes his masculine superiority, she is a "hermaphrodite son of deity" (p. 462), a force that combines and negates masculine and feminine. Though not responding immediately to Mehemet's story, Sidney comes to see that the twentieth century demands an "intolerable double vision. Right and Left; the hothouse and the street. The Right can only live and work hermetically, in the hothouse of the past, while outside the Left prosecute their affairs in the streets by manipulated mob violence" (p. 468). Here opposition extends into power politics in which past and present, nostalgia and melancholy, render the Situation meaningless: "The street and the hothouse; in V. were resolved, by some magic, the two extremes" (p. 487). According to Sidney's meditations, Veronica shares with Mara the hermaphroditic quality that blends gender as well as the binaries that grow from male domination. If Malta, like the Zone in Gravity's Rainbow, is a place "where all history seemed simultaneously present" (p. 481), it is also the place where the Situation with its fragmenting definitions and the obscure directives from the Foreign Office dissolve into Nothing and Sidney can break from his self-assumed role to join with Veronica as if he were again a young man in Florence and to warn Maijstral that he must stay away from both sides of the political struggle, thus choosing both his own life and the lives of his wife and unborn child, Paola's father.
That the epilogue contrasts the chiastic structure of chapters I and 16 points both to its standing outside the narrative structure of the 1955-1956 narration and to the impossibility of resolving conflict in the 1950s. If Right and Left, hothouse and street, masculine and feminine are supposed to blend and thus negate each other, the binaries should be equal; otherwise, the combination is merely a restructuring of existing powers. But the hermaphrodite is one in which male and female are so inextricably united that s/he is neither male nor female; the hermaphrodite is a third gender or intermediate sex. When speaking of the hermaphrodite, we find ourselves in a linguistic space where we slip from "female" to "male" or from "male" to "female," unable to resolve that which completely blends and hence negates difference; thus, unlike Stimpson in her perceptive clarification of the difference between the androgyne and the homosexual,(22) I want to differentiate the physical (and also the mental, psychological, or philosophical) hermaphrodite from the androgyne by seeing androgyny as a condition in which we become keenly aware of sexual and gender slippage, and hermaphroditism as one in which sexual and gender polarity simply dissolves. Put in another way, androgyny, like Jung's anima and animus, recognizes sexual and gender difference, but hermaphroditism denies male/female, masculine/feminine, animus/anima differentiation. Rather than project androgyny, the epilogue narrator suggests that there is a zero point where binaries are not dialectical but where, as Mondaugen discovers in Gravity's Rainbow, "The act is undivided. You are both aggressor and victim, rocket and parabolic path and . . ." (p. 403; ellipsis his). When we examine the main narrator's portrayals of men and women in terms of their gender identity, we find that, for the most part, the 1950s have evolved into Sidney's worst nightmare in which men and women identify themselves through their differences and their positions of sexual power. What seems like a mythic or Romantic unity in the epilogue of 1919, the hope of a hermaphroditic solution, has become hopelessly muddled amid the greater polarity and divisiveness of the mid-twentieth century.
The main narrator constructs characters according to popular 1950s sexual binaries-the dominant male and the female whom he seeks to subvert and control. Allen argued that "Men now project a kind of horrible blankness of the age onto the image of women, an idea epitomized in Pynchon's V.,"(23) but Kaufman's conclusion about the balance of male-ness and female-ness in Gravity's Rainbow may more accurately account for the imbalance in chapters 1-16 of V., where the main narrator makes no effort to construct "an extraordinary web of links among characters and actions, doubles, role-playing and role-reversing,"(24) a web that I suggest only appears in the epilogue According to the main narrator's view of gender identity, men seek the sustenance of a mother but see women as mindless, subservient, and weak sexual partners whom they seduce or protect though they have no understanding why they protect the women or even why the women might need their protection (especially since they play the ambivalent role of representing the very threat from which they must save the women). Ironically, women entrapped by this male hegemony do not realize that they actually control the men: they do not see that men remain adolescent, themselves entrapped by an illusory power that they have inherited from their "fathers." Against this gender polarity the main narrator constructs Benny Profane, a male who by assuming feminine traits glides toward femininity and indirectly toward freedom.(25)
The novel opens on Christmas Eve with Benny Profane's searching for and soon entering the Sailor's Grave. Christmas Eve commemorates a birth in which we have a physical mother but an absent father, the Virgin Birth both affirming the Church's erotophobia and ironically suggesting a then-current etiology that homosexuality results from a strong mother and absent father. In other words, the novel opens with the polar opposition to Herbert Stencil's condition of knowing his father's identity but not his mother, another case of the denial of, or inability to accept, parental sexuality. Benny's entering the bar comes at what seems the symbolic end of a quest that has taken him from the U.S.S. Scaffold, the name signifying an instrument of death,(26) to the bar known as the Sailor's Grave, the singular possessive indicating that the bar is the grave of a particular sailor, not of sailors in general. Christmas Eve, therefore, seems to refer not to a birth of hope but to the reaffirmation of death or sterility as reflected in the old man's song, "Every night is Christmas Eve on old East Main" (p. 9). When Benny Profane, whose name signifies "secular" as well as "vulgar" or "common," enters the bar, he enters a sanctuary that celebrates a denial of sexuality.
The owner of the Sailor's Grave is Mrs. Beatrice Buffo, the three words of her name re-enforcing my interpretation of her establishment as such a sanctuary. Her title refers to marriage, bet the only marriage mentioned in the episode is that of Paola and Pappy, a marriage conspicuous by separation and by Paola's return to a single life as a barmaid. "Buffo," derivation of Latin "bufo," is a masculine noun meaning "toad," a word from which "buffoon" ultimately derived As a toad or buffoon, Mrs. Buffo squats over her establishment, a bizarre parody of the celebrant Finally, she insists that all her barmaids adopt her own name--Beatrice. Not only was Beatrice Dante's beloved guide through Paradise, the girl whom he loved sexlessly and at a distance, but also in his allegory Beatrice becomes the Mother Church that rejects unproductive sexuality. Mrs. Buffo, a female bar owner with a masculinizing name, operating a bar catering to men, acts like a drug (from Bufo alvarius) to confuse the roles implied in her name. As celebrant, she offers intoxicating beer (instead of spiritual bread or wine); as pseudo-lover, she offers aplethora of "virginal" barmaid search carrying her name; as mother, she has perverted beer-taps to form breasts. In short, the narrator suggests that she is toadish (the toad being a medieval emblem of sexual corruption).
When she begins the performance of "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," we are not sure whether the "it" refers to the song of the angels (already confused by Ploy, who identifies Philly's voice with angels), to the birth of Christ, orgasm, or Suck Hour (Pig's interpretation)--or all merged into one. That Pig and Ploy usurp her eucharistic celebration wrenches power from her, leaving her weeping and helpless, a woman unable to control her own establishment without the intervention of the male SP. As the scene becomes riotous, Benny sits at one end of the bar, Paola holding him by the leg while he pats her head to calm her. Just as she had wondered when Benny entered the bar, "Why can't man live in peace with his fellow man" (p. 10), she now sighs, "Peace. . . Isn't it what we all want, Benny?" (p. 16). This disruption, a reassertion of male prerogative into the comedic inversion of the Church and of Mrs. Buffo's assumption of a male role, rather than ending Benny's quest, sets it in motion by joining Benny and Paola, both of whom retreat from the false or heretical melee at the beer-taps and then from the bar itself.
As a distorted and distorting mirror, chapter 16 chiastically closes the events that started in Mrs. Buffo's bar, though it does not resolve, or attempt to resolve, gender opposition. Halloween replaces Christmas Eve, carrying with it a double sense of completion (life is over and must be accounted in another world) and of revelry and childish pranks. Here the main narrator directly links the closure with the opening by hints such as again calling our attention to Dahoud's saving Ploy from jumping ship when he got his new dentures (pp. 12, 436) and by describing Benny as "crouching like a toad" during his final argument with Paola (p. 448). Moreover, the action of the opening section of chapter 16 directly reflects that of the opening of chapter 1 with referents to the U.S.S. Scaffold, to the riots that men enjoy and that express their bonding, and to song as a transition from peace to melee. Unlike the singing of "It Came upon a Midnight Clear," Dahoud's singing of "I Only Have Eyes for You" marks his refusal to fall into the racist role suggested by the British Commandos, who want him to perform as a black; his later refusal to perform "I Apologize," a song that Eckstine had revived in a widely
acclaimed recording in 1951, leads immediately to his taking a commanding role and abruptly ending the possibly of riot, the white men falling into rank as they can march off eventually to face their own deaths--presumably in the Suez Crisis. The sailors from the Scaffold, primarily Pappy and Clyde, who has taken on himself the role of watching over his grieving friend, wander from the Four Aces to the Union lack and finally to the Metro, where Pappy had met and fallen in love with Paola Contrasting Benny's initial movement to the Sailor's Grave, this journey is of a return to the source of love and, through the Greek root of the bar's name (Metropole, usually shorted to Metro from meter = mother), to the genuine mother. If Mrs. Buffo in the Norfolk bar had parodied the mother, Paola in the Maltese bar fulfills a stereotypical role of wife, becoming the patient Penelope, who tells her husband that she "will sit home in Norfolk, faithful, and spin. Spin a yarn for your coming-home present" (p. 443). Paola, whom the narrator introduced as a Beatrice, thus takes on a final role as the wife who by her absence will guide her husband home. Since "Spin a yarn" can be taken in the sense of "create a story" as well as literally "weave a clothe," the narrator problematizes closure--it may be that Paola will construct a narration, the tale that Pappy might want to bear, to explain what she has done while he was at sea, and thus enable Beatrice/ Penelope to Usurp Dante/Ulysses as the maker of meaning. Thematically, the chapter concludes with Benny's having joined with another girl and admitting that he hasn't "learned a goddamn thing" from his experience (p. 454); in other words, the promise of chapter 1--that maybe there is meaning underlying the emptiness of Christmas Eve on Main Street--is debunked under the glittering of the surface, Benny, like Hugh Godolphin, has discovered no depth; surfaces remain surfaces.
This narrator consistently assumes that the male-dominated culture is itself too adolescent to be taken seriously even while it dominates through brute strength. Though overtly hostile to changing views of masculinity, Patricia Sexton's 1969 study The Feminized Male drew a sharp picture of mid-century male sex stereotyping: "Male norms stress values such as courage, inner direction, certain forms of aggression, autonomy, mastery, technological skill, group solidarity, adventure, and a considerable amount of toughness in mind and body."(27) In the 1950s, constructs describing sexuality were in radical transition following a period during which "ideologists and citizens were obsessed with the relation of eroticism, `femininity,' and `masculinity.'"(28) Pynchon's treatment of male domination seems to originate in the most extreme stereotypes; although he satirizes such stereotypes, his satire itself is grounded in phallocentric attitudes, such as Stencil's describing V.'s lesbianism at length even though the main narrator barely touches on Schoenmaker's unrequited love for Godolphin as the cause that has shaped his life and possibly underlies his desire to turn Esther into a surgical reflection of his image of an ideal woman (p. 98).
According to the main narrator, men bond through common work (such as the alligator team or the crews of the different ships), common experiences (such as sea-stories that they can share and in which their models become mythologized), common boozing and its resultant non-threatening brawls (such as Suck Hour at the Sailor's Grave or liberty at the Four Aces and the Union Jack), and common rebellion from the code of the father (such as the rebellion of musicians from sound, artists from reality, or technicians from ethical responsibility). They share a common desire to fill social roles imposed by the combination of their own sexuality and the demands on their behavior that they perceive as coming from other men, as Schwenger formulated in his equation that "the male gauges his own masculinity not by women but by other men."(29) That is, the men in the 1950s chapters bond to prove or assert their difference from women to themselves and to other men.
But this narrator, like the opening narrator in Gravity's Rainbow,(30) describes this range of bonding without the "radical disruption" between heterosexuality and homosexuality that Sedgwick finds in most contemporary male homosocial bonding.(31) "V. in Love," for example, flows seamlessly from a homosexual's resistance to police entrapment in Central Park overheard by Benny and Stencil while they are hiding after stealing Eigenvalue's false teeth (p. 392). Conscious that we risk reading this text either anachronistically or teleologically, we can locate this same sort of sexual treatment in Oedipa's seamlessly journey toward self-awareness as she moves from Nefastis's attempted seduction (heterosexual) through The Greek Way (homosexual) to the linguistic slippage and suggested bisexuality of AC-DC(32) and possibly in interplay of the "male narratees and ultimately [the] male reader/voyeurs" of Gravity's Rainbow that Duyfhuizen characterizes as a "reader-trap" and that he finds analogous to pornographic representation.(33) In V., especially, this blurred distinction with its lack of overt homophobia may well be indicative of the novel's tentative re-examination of patriarchy and its "obligatory heterosexuality."
In his introduction to Slow Learner Pynchon indicated that "It is no secret nowadays, particularly to women, that many American males . . . are, in fact, incredible as it sounds, still small boys inside."(34) The men in the main narrator's portions of V. well illustrate this observation, though the men in Stencil's performances assume more mature roles. That the past embodies maturity lacking in the present helps to set the different narratives apart those in the 1950s are more parodic and humorous while those in the past are more serious. The father, in other words, takes himself seriously and threatens the child who, in turn, views himself as unable to compete though trying to rival him. We can locate this treatment in the masculine identity confusion of the 1950s when the two essential masculine roles of sexual partner and breadwinner were being "domesticated" and, at the same time, emasculated by popular media.(35) Still, the immaturity of the male characters in the 1950s portions of the novel parody their very attempts at male bonding and their failure to develop into the father-figures they rival.
For the most part the Whole Sick Crew remains what the sexual pun implies--a "hole" sick crew; actually, few Second Wave Feminists drew a picture so demeaning of men in general. None of the men have reached maturity; they are adolescents playing out wild, but sometimes deadly fantasies. Roony, for example, only superficially goes along with his wife theory of "Heroic Love": upholding a double standard in which he justifies his own but not his wife's sexual activity, he grows increasing jealous of Mafia's seeming to privilege Pig and in a burst of male domination "forgets" to use a condom to assert his "rights" over his wife's body. Later, unable to speak directly to Paola, he turns to Rachel, who becomes his "father confessor," and after his release from Bellevue reverts to childhood while she nurtures him. Like adolescents, the Whole Sick Crew plays at masculinity. The sublimation of Schoenmaker's homosexual adoration of Evan into the remaking of women--Esther and Irving--to fit his own image is more sinister, the plastic surgeon finally being unwilling to take responsibility for Esther's pregnancy and hence denying his own fatherhood, a failure foreshadowed by Trench's voyeurism while Schoenmaker plays at raping her, obviously excited by her pretending to refuse his advances.
Pig wants to star in pornographic movies; he finds a wide audience in Task Force 60 when he broadcasts stories, late-night voyeurism that crowded "most radio shacks . . . to capacity" (pp. 218-19). He wants both directly to mirror the desires of others (heterosexually) and vicariously to arouse men, those most likely to view the movies (homosexually). Though Stimpson,(36) Newman,(37) and Fahy(38) find allusions to lung and/or Campbell in Pynchon's choice of Pig's name, Pig consistently dehumanizes heterosexuality: in "Low-Lands" he prevented the consummation of the Flange's marriage by carrying the husband off on a two-week drinking binge, and then he acted as the immediate cause for Flange's separation by showing up at their house seven years later. In V. he follows Paola without being able to inaugurate sex except through attempted rape partly because the image of Pappy Hod gets in his way; although he may talk a good story to Mafia, his affair with her seems more in Roony's imagination than in actuality.
Unable to fulfill socially constructed and mandated masculine gender roles, the sailors fantasize through pornography and assert their manhood through brawling when on leave. Likewise, the Hispanics in New York have a clearly defined Code in which women are sisters, wives, or whores, but this dehumanizes the cono they pick up, their own sisters whom they cannot accept as sexed women, and themselves when sexually aroused. Benny may blame the victim by believing that Fina instigated the gang-rape by failing to perceive an unavoidable consequence of masculine stereotyping, but the sexually maturing gang members cannot distinguish between the extreme roles into which they have cast her. When whore and saint slip into one another, the boys reduce the sexual act to a power struggle symbolized by rape. All these carriers of the dominant penis maintain the Code but remain themselves unable to confront their fathers as worthy rivals whether the father image is the accepted artistic world of New York, the morality of the Hispanic community, or, in the case of the brawling sailors, the code of military behavior or the original drawing of Kilroy. In all cases, men play at being men but remain boys like Kock, who is an actual boy and thus seems more natural than his adult models.
In contrast, each of the women--Esther, Fina, and Mafia--has a moment when she tries to break from the roles imposed on her by men, though in each case she is accused of causing her own fall. Esther, the pawn of Schoenmaker (and a host of other men who took advantage of her by stereotyping her as sexual object), finally reacts to being recreated in the doctor's image. Unable to build self-confidence, she lets men shape her (the decision to get an abortion comes from a man, though she, like Rachel, opposes it) and believes that she is merely a tool for men's sexual gratification. Fulfilling the male image of the sexually desirable woman, she lets herself be trapped by her own body. Unable to penetrate beyond its surface, she does not evolve and thus remains a fetish that lacks the ability to develop into full adulthood. A woman who seeks to control the men (or, at least, the boys) around her, Fina is trapped by a masculine code that demands rigid behavior. Although she freely offers herself to Benny, her inability to cope with the Code leads to the gang-rape and her brother's beating her as if she were at fault. Afterwards, she becomes fully subservient to that brother, leaving New York at his command; that she spits at Benny at the airport is only a futile effort to break free, an action belied by her leaving the city. Mafia seems to be sexually liberated, but her notion of Heroic Love and her tendency to turn reality into the stuff for her romances makes her a pornographer like Pig. She perverts words and has gained fame--or notoriety--from her words, but her words keep her from becoming the very icon that she worships. She is caught up in the illusion of freedom, but her freedom is delusory because it remains merely a phallocentric image of the sexually liberated woman.
In contrast, Rachel wants to escape victimization. In an inanimate world, a world of objects like her M.G. and (in pan) like Benny, she adopts a masculine gender role so that she can control without bending to the whims of the men around her. She even works in an employment agency where she gives jobs to men. But though she tries to be a manipulator who holds her microcosm intact, she, too, is unsuccessful. Trying to protect Esther, she still pays Schoenmaker, and when she discovers that Esther is pregnant, she retreats helplessly into a bathroom because the male world has seemingly blocked her possibilities for action. When she tries to protect Paola, she fails because she has herself become the tool for the male repression that she seeks to escape: even her finding a job for Benny with Anthroresearch and her love of the M.G. put her into the hands of men who see her more as an inexhaustible source of material (money) than as a person deserving of attention in her own right.
In contrast to this narrator's gender differentiation, Stencil constructs a series of historical scenes signifying "imperialist conquest or violence . . . [and] a steady current of racism."(39) Here the comedic polarity of the writer's construct of sexual politics is internalized into the speaker's search for identity through his attempt to (re)discover his parents. Unlike the cases of Lot 49 and Vineland, where narrative transmission is relatively uncomplicated because the narrator is overtly uninvolved (although his/her tone and mood so color the narrations that we can read only through our consciousness of the peculiar narrative voice), Pynchon here problematizes the narration by suggesting level within level of transmission.(40) For example, "Mondaugen's Story" is told by Kunt Mondaugen himself "in one of the secluded side rooms of the Rusty Spoon," but we do not hear that version. Instead, what we find as chapter 9 is Stencil's retelling of the story after "the yarn had undergone considerable change; had become, as Eigenvalue put it, Stencilized" (p. 228). But as readers we have no way to determine the differences between the two versions. Likewise, within the chapter, Mondaugen/Stencil takes considerable effort to account for how Mondaugen happened to overhear strategic bits of conversation by repeatedly asserting that he was a voyeur, who perched on rooftops to arrange his antennas but from which vantage he could see into different rooms of the house, or who pretended to sleep when others were within hearing or sight. This tension between Mondaugen/Stencil's effort to account for the narration and the main narrator's carelessness in telling us how the story has been "Stencilized" results in "silencing" the text so that immediate or intimate knowledge of homosexuality, sadism, and transvestitism--all of which play prominent roles in this chapter--cannot be directly attributed to either Mondaugen or Stencil.
Still, because Stencil embellishes his story, we can read or (over)hear his version of V. as a reflection of his behavior, in other words, the "Stencilized" performance reflects the character of the speaker. To follow V.'s increased masculinity (which occurs as the story is related, not in the chronological sequence of the events in V.'s life) is to trace a pattern in Stencil's growing awareness of himself as he has projected that awareness, whether consciously or unconsciously (as in a patient-analyst transference), into the character he describes for a particular audience (Bongo-Shaftesbury, Eigenvalue, Benny). Because "Confessions of Fausto Maijstral" are given to the reader as Stencil reads them, we can also evaluate them in terms of Stencil's awareness. We do not have the account of V.'s 1913 lesbianism until after Stencil has internalized Fausto's account of her death in 1943 as the masculinized Bad Priest, even though her sexual ambiguity is implicit in the Mondaugen's story of her 1922 experience with Weissmann. Stencil has so totally shaped his experience into the history of V. that he has no identity apart from his V-structures; hence he is simplified as "He Who Looks for V." (p 226). But, at the same time, he is "He Who Does Not Look for V." He does not believe what he discovers and ends by running after another lead, one that promises to be as elusive as the ones that he has already "Stencilized." Thus he forces his silence onto the reader, making the reader give voice to that silence and, in turn, reify both V and V.'s sexuality.(41)
His "ambivalence," a psychoanalytic term used by Eigenvalue (p 249). further suggests that Stencil has constructed a performance that cannot be deconstructed outside the Ich, that is, outside the full network of textual signifiers that makes Stencil a speaking subject. Just as a psychoanalyst focuses on the "gap between what was experienced and what is recounted."(42) the reader of V. must focus on what Stencil says (his impersonations), whom he speaks to, and what he fails to say. Stencil shapes language to make V. palatable, but he fails to accept her (thus he distances her so that she does not immediately threaten him). Afraid to go to Malta (where he might find a truth that he cannot reconcile to his network), he wants to continue his search (thus not having to accept any truth). He is thus a flawed speaker whom we can neither trust nor disregard. When Eigenvalue interrupts the story of Mondaugen to question its veracity, Stencil becomes defensive, unwilling to speak for a few minutes, but later when talking to Benny, he justifies his own fears by saying, "Disguise is one of her attributes" (p. 388), little realizing that he (as merely projected into V. what he had earlier called the "forcible dislocation of personality" (p. 62). When he reverses this symbolic masquerade by confusing Foppl's and the Whole Sick Crew's parties (p. 296), he almost confronts the interpenetration of inner and outer worlds. By accepting his creation as a substitute for his own identity, he mirrors but does not articulate what he discovers. He projects the character of his own ego, losing himself in a search for what he cannot accept; thus when he confronts Paola, he refuses to accept that she is part of the answer toward which he gropes and from which he flees. As Allen pointed out, V.--Victoria, Veronica, Vera--is not a woman; specifically, she is a particular man's creation of a woman, a construct that Herbert consciously shapes from the feminine within and which he inevitably masculines.
By reducing V. to spoken language, Stencil defines and limits her, unlike Oedipa, who acts as Reader, Stencil acts as storyteller. Psychologically, he is trying, at once, to rival his father and to justify an oedipal love for his mother. The reader suspects that Sidney not only knew V. but in Florence was seduced by her (p. 488), but Herbert either knows nothing about this sexual union (or the one in Malta in 1919) or has chosen unconsciously to repress his knowledge. Either way, he can only vocalize her, turning her into the non-threatening women of his Stencilized portraits. That he has tried unsuccessfully to rival his father is most apparent in his inability to confront crucial parts of V.'s story--her falling in love in Paris (which he finally relates out of chronological sequence when he is drunk and in which he cannot bring himself to name V.) and her death in Malta (the chapter written by Fausto Maijstral and forced on him by Paola). In these sections, Herbert Stencil's phallocentric language prevents his grasping the full significance of what he says of V. s progress. If V. has, indeed, taken control of her life in the manner that Stencil associates only with masculinity, he cannot cope with the notion that V. not Sidney, who, like Porpentine (both here and in "Under the Rose"). tried to uphold a patriarchal culture and failed, has truly mastered the twentieth century. What Stencil cannot face is that V. is the masculine force in his life, a realization that may unman him and render him powerless to face the truths that he can discover if he stops searching for evidence of her dismemberment and comes to comprehend what he has already discovered about himself.
Further separating masculine and feminine gender identities as significant polar binaries is a clustering of curvilinear and rectilinear imagery that makes the contrast between genders both thematic and structural. Curvilinear imagery--circles, arcs, and labyrinths that turn upon themselves--is often directly applied to Profane. His yo-yoing, the tug of Rachel's umbilical (?) cord, his love of the twists and turns of the sewers all are reflected in his thoughts and actions: before Profane makes up his mind, he meanders back and forth in indecision. In contrast, the rectilinear--the letter V, the streets of the city, the harsh lines of machines are most often applied to V., and thus indirectly to Stencil. Curvilinear/rectilinear polarity further relates to polarities between soft/hard, vulva/penis, mother/father. Profane has a soft body (though his hard penis can direct his action); V. seeks to exchange her soft body for hardness, using the hard (such as her mechanical eye in chapter 9) to attract attention. Profane's tumescence is consistently thwarted, leaving him in a state of unfulfilled but other-directed desire; V.'s desire turns toward voyeurism and the fetish, seeking the hard outside herself. Profane's erection helps him toward the manliness of becoming a breadwinner, but he is emasculated by Rachel, who runs the employment agency; Melanie is killed when impaled by a hard pole because she failed to wear a chastity belt, "the Sacrifice of the Virgin" being her penetration by a phallic spear. Profane, the male, often takes the role of "mother," nourishing and protecting Paola; V., the female, acts as "Father," who advocates abortion. This polarity contrasts the epilogue's union of binary opposition: the death of Sidney (which marks the beginning of adult life for Herbert, whose search began on his reading his father's journals) combines the circle that locates the xebec and the V-shaped waterspout that penetrates it, a symbolic sexual act, lasting fifteen minutes, that in its aftermath "showed nothing at all of what came to lie beneath" (p. 492).
But while Stencil constructs V. by projecting his masculinity into his creation of her, the narrator constructs Benny as what Patricia Sexton had called a "feminized male." Although Benny finds that, despite his intentions. he attracts dependents; he wants freedom from responsibility, escape from violence, and liberation from rivalry--all qualities that Stencil's V had shunned. While describing changes in the definition of masculinity in the 1980s, Clyde W. Franklin, II could easily be describing the Benny of 1955-56(43): in place of a masculinity with its emphasis on strength, emotional control, competition, aggressiveness, and ambition, we have a masculinity that accepts weakness, openly displays emotion, and avoids all shows of competition, aggression, or ambition. Far removed from the 1950s male gender identity that characterized the ideal man's role as "successful in his career" and "helpful at home,"(44) Benny is content to let women support him and, in general, "mother" him; that is, Benny seeks a preverbal stage of unity with the mother. But in this un-Freudian pre-oedipal stage, he remains heterosexual--the images of women and thoughts of Rachel sexually arouse him--and refuses to enter into the usual responsibility, violence, or rivalry that should, according to Freud, (re)define his sexuality. He becomes a hanger-on of the Whole Sick Crew and even mouths the cliches of the Rusty Spoon, but he remains detached, alienated from phallocentric culture. Self-identified as "schlemihl," he distrusts words as protective counters. Rather words, like the man-made objects that surround him, actualize his separateness; in this, words are as hostile as objects. They limit and seek to control what he wants to find on a preverbal level where he cannot and does not distinguish between rational categories as does V. (or Stencil) but, instead, becomes a voyeur who, like Mondaugen, watches but does not act.
Early in the novel, the main narrator writes of him, "Still a great amoebalike boy, soft and fat, hair cropped close and growing in patches, eyes small like a pig's and set too far apart" (p. (p.36)--a description of an infant. Much later, objecting to his self-identification as a schlemihl while she uses it to manipulate him through sexual intercourse, Rachel concludes, "You have to grow up" before she tucks him in for the night (pp. 370-71). In fact, as long as he can pretend to be a boy by engaging in boyish activities such as going Under the Street to hunt for alligators, he can avoid adult masculinization. A representative of the Beat Generation, he rejects the traditional responsibilities placed on young men--get a job, settle down, get married, make something of yourself--and excuses himself by wanting to remain a boy. Discussing Brenda's poem, he cannot be critical because he has learned nothing; he cannot learn because he chooses to remain in a pre-oedipal stage free from limitations and responsibilities. Always a boy, he wants a mother without facing the terror of encountering the castrating father, but without that terror he cannot complete the Freudian journey to mature male heterosexuality.
His sexual activity also marks this rejection of, or loss of, masculinity. Though Rachel tells him that "Anywhere you go there'll always be a woman for Benny" (p. 384), he is usually frustrated. When he first tries to have sex with Paola in Newport News, Teflon interrupts "just before the Big Moment" (p. 20); when he finally catches Lucille and "unzipped his fly and started to climb up on the pool table," a rumble interrupts him (p. 144). Other times, however horny he might be, he turns down women who want him. He sends Fina from his bathtub because he fears marriage and knows that her brother will not accept her having a relation with anyone outside marriage (p. 145). Mafia, who seems available to any man, is infuriated by his rejection and snarls, "What are you, . . . a latent homosexual?" (p. 288). Later, much to Paola's confusion, he does not want sex with her after he prevents Pig's raping her (pp. 378-79). He refuses Mafia's advances because she is married, despite her advocacy of Heroic Love, a concept he rejects; although Paola attracts him, his role with her is protector, a role that precludes sex; Fina might offer her virginity, but his Code forbids his violating friendship. In each case, either he pictures himself as unappealing to any woman, or he senses a responsibility that overrides his sexual desire.
He has sex with Rachel only after the relation is free from responsibility, but his affair with her is confused, first, by the dominant image of her as mother, jerking the umbilical cord to get him to return, and, second, by her masculine association with inanimate objects, stemming from his seeing her with her MG. As a mother substitute, she is unattainable; as a lover of objects, she threatens to reduce him to an object (which she does whenever he is referred to as a "yo-yo"). Both Rachel and later Brenda believe, however falsely, that boys have experiences more exciting or significant than women: Rachel wants to experience the "boy's road" forbidden to her "with its Diesels and dust, roadhouses, crossroads saloons" (p. 27), and Brenda, after reading her Whitmanian "phony college-girl poem," says that Benny has had "fabulous experiences" denied to her because she is a girl (p. 454). But both women, however much they might depreciate their own experiences, have turned to the wrong man. After he has accepted his kinship to SHROUD and consequently his alienation from the paternal Code, sex with Rachel is only a "game": "After a day of yo-yoing he came up to the street at nightfall, sat in a neighborhood bar and got juiced. Rachel met him at home (home?) smiling and playing the game" (p. 371). Rachel's game demands more than he will give: "`What do you want? How much are you out to get? Isn't this--' he waved at her an inanimate schmuck--`enough?'" (p. 384). As Rachel, like V., identifies herself with the inanimate world of man-made, masculine objects, so also does she assume language in which words like "love" and "sex" become objects with their own reality, separated from the action or behavior that they signify.
Through the contrast of Stencil's description of the fathers' complex but unified world and the narrator's portrayal of the sons' simplistically divided world, Pynchon constructs an empowered woman. That Paola was one of the children affected by the Bad Priest (though, of course, Elena opted against abortion) makes her ironically a granddaughter of V., just as Fausto and Herbert are symbolically brothers (p. 444). Thus that she solidifies her relation to Pappy by giving him V.'s ivory comb with five crucified soldiers marks a continuity that unites the two women, a sisterhood or mother-daughter relation that defies individuation and history. Though both Robert Newman and Joseph Fahy read this continuity in the light of Grave's White Goddess, the symbolic association of the two women develops on the concrete level of gender role identification, making Stencil's V. and the narrator's Paola interdependent portraits of empowered women, one created by a masculine interpreter whose prejudices and phobias have affected his portrait and the other presented by a supposedly "objective," non-individualized (though presumably masculine) narrator. Like V., Paola uses men to find freedom from men, but the men in her life are caricatures of the men against whom V. reacted.
In Norfolk, under Benny's protection, she decides to take control of her own body; in New York, she takes further control by living with Rachel but not letting Rachel control her. When Pig shows up at the Rusty Spoon, she takes upon herself to separate herself from any place where Pig might appear, thus setting the contrast between Pig's crudely pornographic sexuality and her own search for identity. She deceives McClintic, a domination like that of V. over Evan Godolphin in Florence. When she reads her father's confession and decides to return to Malta, she not only acts decisively but also forces Stencil to face the impasse that he has feared. In facing Pappy at the Metro but refusing to left him kiss or touch her until they have both returned to Norfolk she retains control. The passing of the ivory comb signifies that she has learned to combine the freedom of V. with the ability to play the wife.
The narrator constructs Paola through a network of signifiers that sets her in contrast to the gender differentiation in the 1950s chapters. Not only does she begin as Beatrice and end as Penelope, but she also clearly develops as whore and faithful wife, another dichotomy that focusses on her role as Penelope. She is a Nausicaa (p. 461), who, like Joyce's Gerty, is both Virgin and seductress. While apart from her Odysseus (Pappy, whose name signifies his paternal role although he has fathered no children), she lives in Matilda Winthrop's whorehouse under the name Ruby. She is divine guide (Beatrice), whore (Ruby), and faithful wife spinning a yarn (tale) for her husband's return (Penelope). Yet what is remarkable in her role-playing is that the reader does not feel that any one of the roles necessarily obscures the others; rather, like the sexes of the hermaphrodite, they coexist on a level that the narrator simply will not or cannot investigate. Thus she is a black woman to McClintic and a white woman to Benny and Roony with only the thinnest explanation to explain her race-crossing (p. 350). She makes herself a dependent on Benny, who wants no dependents, and thus forces him into a fatherly role "with all manner of healing and sympathetic talents he didn't really possess" (p. 18), but she becomes independent from Rachel, who wants to mother her and sees her as "a very sick girl" (p. 128) precisely because she cannot reduce her to the simplistic formulae that govern her own life. In the Sailor's Grave she wants peace--"Nobody jumping out and biting you on the ass" (p. 16)--but she brings dissension and strife to the men around her, Pig and Roony knowing that they fight over her, not over Mafia as others believe (p. 287) Finally, her name may signify that she is, perhaps, a reversal of St. Paul, a world-traveler who, after experiencing shipwreck and despair, founded the misogynistic religion parodied in the Sailor's Grave; in this sense, her "message" seeks to ease the tension between sexual binaries, a hermaphroditic blending that brings the peace that she has long sought.
(1) See, e.g., Jonathan Ned Katz, The Invention of Heterosexuality (New York: Dutton, 1995), pp. 106-121 or Jeffrey Weeks, Sex, Politics and Society: The Regulation of Sexuality since 1800 (London: Longman, 1981), pp. 249-68.
(2) Mary Allen, The Necessary Blankness: Women in Major American Fiction of the Sixties (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1976), p.43.
(3) Alice A. Jardine, Gynesis: Configurations of Woman and Modernity (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1985), p. 250
(4) Hanjo Berressem, "V. in Love: from the `Other Scene' to the `New Scene,'" Pynchon Notes 18-19 (1986): 5-28.
(5) Thomas Pynchon, V. (New York: Harper and Row, 1986), p. 407; emphasis mine All page references in text are to this edition.
(6) Deborah S. David and Robert Brannon, "The Male Sex Role: Our Culture's Blueprint of Manhood, and What It's Done for us Lately," The Forty-Nine Percent Majority: the Male Sex Role, ed. Deborah S. David and Robert Brannon (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1976), p. 1.
(7) Thomas Pynchon, "Introduction," Been Dawn So Long, It Looks Like Up to Me, by Richard Farina (1966; New York: Penguin Books, 1983), p vi.
(8) Gregory K. Lehne, "Homophobia Among Men," The Forty-Nine Percent Majority: The Male Sex Role, ed. Deborah S. David and Robert Brannon (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1976), p. 67.
(9) Stephen F. Morin and Ellen M. Garfinkle, "Male Homophobia," Journal of Social Issues 34.1 (1978): 34-35
(10) Catherine R. Stimpson, "Pre-Apocalyptic Atavism: Thomas Pynchon's Early Fiction," Mindful Pleasures: Essays on Thomas Pynchon ed. George Levine and David Leverenz (Boston: Little, Brown and Co, 1976), p. 32.
(11) Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1990), pp. 27-28.
(12) Susan A. Basow, Gender Stereotypes and Roles, 3rd ed. (Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing Co., 1992), p. 2.
(13) Joseph H. Pleck, The Myth of Masculinity (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981), p. 11.
(14) Jardine, p. 248.
(15) See Peter Gabriel Filene, Him/Herself/Self York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975), pp. 194-204.
(16) David and Brannon, p. 12.
(17) Pleck, pp. 15-27.
(18) Holly Devor, Gender Blending: Confronting the Limits of Duality (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1989), p. vii.
(19) Allen, p. 42.
(20) Richard F. Patteson, "What Stencil Knew: Structure and Certitude in Pynchon's V.," Critique 16.2 (1974): 44, fn. 14.
(21) Richard Pearce, "Pynchon's Endings," Novel 18.2 (1985): 145. For a clear delineation of the types of narration, also see Melvyn New's excellent article, "Profaned and Stenciled Texts: in Search of Pynchon's V.," Georgia Review 33 (1979): 395-412.
(22) Catharine R. Stimpson, "The Androgyne and the Homosexual (1974)," Where the Meanings Are (New York: Methuen, 1988), pp. 54-55.
(23) Allen, p. 7.
(24) Marjorie Kaufman, "Brunnhilde and the Chemists: Women in Gravity's Rainbow," Mindful Pleasures: Essays on Thomas Pynchon, ed. George Levine and David Leverenz (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1976), p. 210.
(25) On this change in the sociological definition of masculinity, see Tim Carrigan, Bob Connell, and John Lee, "Toward a New Sociology of Masculinity," The Making of Masculinities: The New Men's Studies, ed. Harry Brod (Boston: Allen & Unwin, 1987), pp. 63-100.
(26) Kelsie B. Harder, "Names in Pynchno's V.," Literary Onomastics Studies 5 (1978): 71-72.
(27) Patricia Cayo Sexton, The Feminized Male: Classrooms, White Collars, and the Decline of Manliness (New York Random House, 1969), p. 15.
(28) Jonathan Ned Katz, Gay/Lesbian Almanac: A New Documentary (New York: Harper and Row, 1983), p. 16.
(29) Peter Schwenger, "The Masculine Mode," Critical Inquiry 5 (1979): 631.
(30) See, e.g., Pirate's banana breakfast in Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow (New York: Viking Press, 1973), pp. 7-16.
(31) Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1985), pp. 1-3.
(32) Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49 (1966: New York: Harper and Row, 1990), chap. 5.
(33) Bernard Duyfhuizen, "` A Suspension Forever at the Hinge of Doubt': Reader-Trap of Bianca in Gravity's Rainbow," Postmodern Culture 2.1 (Sept. 1991): para. 3, 11.
(34) Thomas Pynchon, Introduction, Slow Learner (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1984), p. 10.
(35) Filene, p. 198.
(36) Stimpson, "Atavism," p. 33.
(37) Robert D. Newman, "The White Goddess Restored: Affirmation in Pynchon's V.," University of Mississippi Studies in English 4 (1983): 178-86.
(38) Joseph Fahy, "Thomas Pynchon's V. and Mythology," Critique 18.3 (1977): 5-18.
(39) Robert Holton, "In the Rathouse of History with Thomas Pynchon: Rereading V.," Textual Practice 2.3 (1988): 333.
(40) See Bernard Duyfhuizen's summation of such problems in his Narratives of Transmission (Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson Univ. Press, 1992), pp. 16-33.
(41) For an anologous reading see Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's "Privilege of Unknowing: Diderot's The Nun," Tendencies (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 1993), pp. 23-51.
(42) Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychology, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1981), p. 35.
(43) Clyde W. Franklin, II, The Changing Definition of Masculinity (New York: Plenum Press, 1984), passim.
(44) Filene, p. 204.
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|Author:||Hawthorne, Mark D.|
|Publication:||Studies in the Novel|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1997|
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