Claire Jarvis. Exquisite Masochism: Marriage, Sex, and the Novel Form.
How can novelistic form express desire? To answer, Claire Jarvis considers how novels conventionally present sex. While marriage provides a screen for sex, metaphors of blooms, waves of feeling, or illumination allow readers to experience what Jarvis terms "sex's capacity to dislocate personal experience." The scenes Jarvis presents dispense with metaphors to offer passages of intense feeling, often mingled with intense description, as code for desire. Featuring characters outside typical marriage plots--the engaged, adulterers, widows, and widowers--these scenes "render the frisson of sexual desire without the attendant plot risks" (illegitimacy, disease, etc.). Typically, a sexually powerful woman appears; description of a refined ("exquisite") object creates a static moment. Jarvis reads the dense description that delays the progression of the plot as opening a space for affect. Typically, this affect appears as a painful yet pleasurable delay in which a woman holds a man in suspense. "Sex and desire make the experience of anticipation pleasurable, even if it's uncomfortable," Jarvis writes. In Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff's longing for Cathy, his "exquisite pain and pleasure in equal extremes," exemplifies such suspension of gratification. Jarvis connects this masochism with aesthetically knowledgeable, dominant women in a sophisticated feminist take on several Victorian and modern novels: Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now in contrast to Can You Forgive Her? (and others by Trollope), Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure, and Lawrence's Women in Love and The Rainbow (mentioning St. Mawr and Lady Chatterley's Lover). Her argument is subtle but compelling.
Reading "exquisitely," Jarvis sees pauses in plot as conveying a character's sexual power. Departing from Freud's and Gilles Deleuze's, her masochism hinges on delays and characters' negotiation of sexual connections. In a larger sense, her argument tilts literary criticism toward aesthetic appreciation. She says, "by blending pleasure with pain, sex makes waiting fun." Reading exquisitely reveals that un-negotiated connections, e.g., marriage, that appear to offer sexual security may destroy such fun.
Since the eighteenth century (e.g., Samuel Richardson's Pamela and Clarissa), British novels have represented sexual desire and experience predominantly in terms of the marriage plot, taking a female protagonist from singleness to romance and marriage (or death; in Writing Beyond the Ending) 1985), Rachel Blau DuPlessis says the two can seem the same). Exquisite Masochism explores ways that several novels depict strong women outside this plot enjoying the process of suspending sexual pleasure in a new convention for representing sexual experience. Instead of having marriage and legitimate children signal a sexual life condoned by society and using metaphors to signal erotic climax, these novels use innovations in form: description creates delay and suspense, expressing sexual tension. A dominant woman, sexual refusal, and intense description create an exquisitely masochistic scene characterized by frozenness and negotiation to reveal shortcomings of patriarchal structures.
Jarvis uses Wuthering Heights to distinguish her masochism from Deleuze's. In his, coldness hides sensuality instead of eroticizing frozenness. In Bronte, masochism robs people of blood, freezing their bodies, and imagining sexual connection after death. Wuthering Heights presents generalized violence (e.g., beatings, animal carcasses) and a sadistic model of marriage that contrast with the masochism Jarvis explores. She views the frozen, masochistic couple of Catherine and Heathcliff as the novel's ideal and structuring system. She cites their deep bond (Cathy calls Heathcliff "more myself than I am"), sensually frozen status, Cathy's stiffening in illness after childbirth, Heathcliff's yearning for union with her, and his fatal illness as examples of frozen waiting. Even after death, the lovers remain bound in an illicit, intensely erotic romance that contrasts with the unhappy, reproductive marriages of Catherine the Elder to Edgar Linton and Heathcliff to Isabella Linton. Jarvis says the core couple alters the example of institutionalized, sadistic marriage fixed by law and lacking negotiation to a less cruel one for the second generation. The novel's ending secures some middle-class value in Catherine the Younger and Hareton Eamshaw's marriage, with limited negotiation within a conventional patriarchal couple. The novel registers loss regarding the masochistic couple's dynamic of mutual consent and frozen sensual anticipation when they die: their idealized erotic grasp is unattainable in life, invisible beyond.
In Trollope, exquisite masochism sabotages plots that valorize gentlemanly characters. Contrasting The Way We Live Now (1874) with Can You Forgive Her? (1864), Jarvis sees the latter as more invested in exquisite masochism, in particular with women during (or between) engagements. For example, widowed Mrs. Greenow prolongs choosing between suitors, enjoying the suspense (and entertainments funded by a wealthy would-be fiance). Similarly, Lady Glencora Palliser, tempted by infidelity, surrounds herself with aesthetic display, which Jarvis sees as rerouting perverse sexual desires into perverse sociability. Jarvis attributes this novel's unpopularity to its narrative delay instead of plot-driven action, paralleling the masochistic suspension its heroines employ.
Reader, forgive me: I read only Can You Forgive Her? (At 800+ pages, it has been nicknamed Can You Finish It? and Can You Stand It?) CYFH? indeed exemplifies Jarvis' thesis: female characters enjoy making men wait. Alice Vavasor oscillates between fiances, threatening to or removing herself from uncomfortable spaces, literal and figurative. Jarvis argues that masochistic plots in the periphery of The Way We Live Now frame the marriages at its end while masochism informs CYFH? If Glencora's marriage seems to remove her from the peripheral status of masochistic women, she remains attracted to a former fiance without assuming fully married status by bearing an heir. Jarvis borrows Henry James's contrast in an 1865 review of this novel between incidents (episodic scenes that pause action) and events (more final actions, e.g., birth, death, marriage) to claim that the incidents in CYFH? give Glencora her centrality in later novels. As Jarvis notes, Trollope's women lack full choice (options are limited), often "refuse to fully choose," but enjoy suspension.
Jarvis's discussion of Jude the Obscure hinges on two claims: Sue Bridehead is sexually responsive, and the book's last quarter does not depart from earlier "sexual logics." Instead, in the last section, Sue tries but fails to reclaim sexual tension. Jude exemplifies Jarvis's idea that masochistic relationships reject written contracts in favor of unwritten ones. She identifies the real problem: no relational security exists, so relationship must be continuously negotiated. Jarvis uses Jude as evidence that social interaction damages the sexual connection, saying Jude's failure to meet Sue's terms means he abandons masochistic dynamics and his refusal evidences the impossibility of such a dyad. Jude critiques conventional marriage through Sue's power in the couple and Jude's rejections of conventional masculinity, including marital power. Jarvis reads Sue's vow never to see Jude again as recommitting to suspended sexuality versus reproductive family life; family lacks the primary value of the couple. The "refusal of an entirely genital sexuality" pits the bourgeois family against the isolated romantic couple, showing the latter as unsustainable.
Turning to Lawrence, Jarvis considers him a realist emphasizing the "real" of desiring bodies. Jarvis notes his explicit representations of sexual life although his "meditative, circular prose tips out of ... realistic representation." She credits him with reworking Victorian strategies of representing sex and marriage, moving from romance plots that favor economics to grant women the sexual knowledge to consider sexual compatibility. Lawrence changes the way that British novels represent sexual life, replacing metaphors with connections between women's growing political power and representations of sexual power.
Hermione Roddice in Women in Love represents key points for Lawrence and Jarvis. For Lawrence, Hermione exemplifies "sex in the head," as Linda Williams discusses in her eponymously titled book; Hermione's desire for domination opposes Ursula's and Birkin's openness to experience. For Jarvis, Hermione attempts exquisite masochism but experiences sex as an exertion of power instead of a negotiation: when Birkin refuses the masochistic scene she attempts, she crashes the lapis lazuli on his head. This attack produces "unutterable consciousness" and her "convulsion of pure bliss" instead of stasis. Realizing faults in her sexual knowledge, Jarvis argues, makes Hermione short-circuit into violence: masochism becomes active, and stasis becomes violent. As exchange of power fails and dynamism stalls, violence erupts. For Lawrence, marriage depends on sexual compatibility, requires negotiation, and escapes patriarchal control.
In The Rainbow, Ursula and Anton Skrebensky's initial contact, holding hands in the carriage, exemplifies Lawrentian sexual tension: a union in which lovers remain separate. Jarvis uses Ursula's run-in with horses to claim that Lawrence links the episode with Ursula's miscarriage without identifying it as a cause, an example of a body's responding to externals. Citing another horse, St. Mawr, Jarvis emphasizes reverie as a characteristic, vitality-producing moment that delays action. Noting similarities between the sex in "Excurse" and between Gerald and Gudrun, Jarvis calls Lawrence's scenes "portable," pitting characters who experience vitalistic, oscillating energy against those imposing themselves. She argues that Gerald's inability to love a woman does not equal latent homosexuality and that Birkin wants ideal love, not sex. Like Lawrence's other novels in emphasizing interaction, Lady Chatterley names organs and actions but not sex acts. This study valorizes vitalistic characters, prose, and revision over dead, "gem-like" aestheticism, reading description as code for sexual tension and emphasizing the negotiated dynamism of sexual connections. The brief for flexibility and dialogue appeals; DHL might approve.
Elizabeth M. Fox
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
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|Author:||Fox, Elizabeth M.|
|Publication:||D.H. Lawrence Review|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2017|
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