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Gendered vision(s) in the short fiction of Harriet Prescott Spofford.

In Techniques of the Observer, Jonathan Crary describes important changes invisual technology and visual culture that predate both the advent of impressionism and Wharton's or James's obsession with observers and beautiful objects. Crary has located a break with the hitherto dominant perspectivalist scopic regime in the early nineteenth century. I will argue that this break is reflected in the fiction of Harriet Prescott Spofford (1835-1921), a central but as yet underestimated writer in the American literary tradition, especially with regard to issues of vision. My general thesis is that a strong interest in questions of vision goes further back than the rise of impressionism and that there is a tradition in American women's writing that is concerned with vision and visual structures from the middle of the nineteenth century to the present. Spofford's concern with vision places her in this tradition and renders her a significant example of the inextricable links between vision and gender.

In the following, I will investigate Spofford's interest in vision in three areas: visual technological innovations, questions of artistic representation in the fine arts, and the implications of social regimes of vision with regard to gender. I will argue that Spofford's depiction of visual practices and her ambivalence about the changes she describes indicate a crisis in seeing that is closely linked to her examination of gender relations. But before I concentrate on Spofford, I briefly want to come back to the break Crary has described, to explain why and how questions of "looking" had already become increasingly important during the early and mid-nineteenth century.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the camera obscura, relying on the principles of Cartesian perspectivalism, had served as an example for both the functioning of perception and epistemological insight for at least two hundred years. According to this model, vision is primarily in the service of a nonsensory faculty of understanding, knowledge is founded on a supposedly objective view of the world. The light falling through the hole in the camera obscura corresponds to the light of reason in the inner space of the mind that alone facilitates knowledge of the world. The camera obscura decorporealizes vision and performs a process of individuation. It relies on the assumption of a profound distinction between interior observer and exterior world, and it presupposes a quasi-immaterial and monocular observer.

Physical research, physiological discoveries, and philosophical inquiries into the possibilities of human understanding from the early 1800s onward undermine the camera obscura model of vision in various ways and render the relation between observer and world more ambivalent. New scientific findings emphasize the binocularity of human sight, acknowledge its temporality, locate vision in the materiality of the body, and thus endow the observer with "a new perceptual autonomy and productivity" (Crary, "Modernizing" 35). Vision is considered subjective, temporal, and nonveridical. On the other hand, the merging of the domain of optics with new knowledge about the functioning of the body in the human sciences is part of the reorganization of knowledge and the increasing interest in controlling and utilizing the capacities of the human body as described by Foucault. The looking subject is positioned at this watershed between old and new understandings of vision, between notions of objective truth and subjective insight as well as between autonomy, standardization, and regulation. The boom in the invention of optical devices in the middle decades of the nineteenth century brought publicity to new knowledge about human sight and ruptured the assumptions about human vision of a broad public.

In Spofford's stories, references to optical devices, physical phenomena, and the visual arts give evidence of her knowledge of how such elements reflect changes in understanding the world, their consequences, and, possibly, their epistemological implications. Even though she does not focus on issues of vision exclusively, they form a continuous sublayer and often have a considerable influence on plot and/or characters.

In the detective story "Mr. Furbush," for example, a murderess is hunted down by means of photographic evidence and the relatively new possibility of the almost infinite enlargement of a print. In Spofford's description of this process of revelation, the camera, in conjunction with the sunlight falling through its shutter, functions as a technology of truth: "[T]he sun had made a revelation of that room's interior upon this sheet of sensitized paper, his Ithuriel's spear had touched this shapeless darkness and turned it into form and truth" (624). Milton's angel Ithuriel, whose spear's touch exposes the devil's disguise and makes him appear in his true form, is used as a metaphor for the epistemological possibilities of a new visual technology. Moreover, the camera functions as a means for observation and control. The countless windows of the hotel where the murder has been committed, and the camera eye, accidentally focusing on the window where the deed took place, are reminiscent of Bentham's Panopticon where observation is most effective when the inmate is under the constant threat of surveillance. In "Mr. Furbush," photography renders the possibilities for observation and surveillance both more consistent and more unpredictable.

However, even though the camera figures as a means to reinstate truth and order, its epistemic power is not unreservedly embraced in the story. Significantly, it is the detective, himself a figure of enlightenment, justice, and order, whose qualms suggest a profound ambivalence about the possibilities and consequences of new visual technology that lie at the heart of the story. Several factors emphasize this ambivalence. The camera, even though it plays a pivotal role in convicting the murderess by recording her deed, can only render a superficial truth without accounting for the "whys" and "hows" of the murder. Finding the murderess and understanding her motives are presented as matters of chance and human intuition and thus question the unlimited power of technological innovations. Furthermore, by occasioning a revelation of the woman's innermost being, the camera helps to bring things to light that might be better left in the dark. Mr. Furbush's unease about his discovery, his sympathetic perceptions of the murderess, and his feeling of guilt after she drops dead in the shock of discovery leave the preying/prying on human beings and the human soul afforded by the camera morally questionable. The end of the story emphasizes Furbush's conflicting impulses: he refrains from using the knowledge provided by the camera and quits his job because he has "sickened of the business" (626), but he yields to his fascination with the possibilities of photography by opening up a photo studio. Finally, the narrative voice also accentuates undecidability and ambivalency by rendering the end of the story in an enigmatic and roundabout way that leaves the reader unsure about how to interpret story-line and Mr. Furbush's principles. Thus, while the possibilities of new visual technologies are in a way celebrated in Spofford's story, she also presents a profound cautioning of its possible consequences and effects on human beings and leaves detective and reader in a state of ambiguity.

On a second level, Spofford's interest in nineteenth-century debates on vision and optics is reflected in her concern with color, light, and perception, issues she focuses on in relation to questions of artistic representation in texts such as "The Amber Gods" and "Desert Sands." Both stories allude to changes in the fine arts that took place during the first half of the century and that were aligned with the break Crary describes. From at least the 1830s onward, painters like Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) and Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863) had begun to express "the impact of ... scientific, technological, and economic developments" in painting (Jay 153). Both artists employed color in an increasingly liberal way, and Turner's rediscovery of Leonardo's sfumato challenged "the geometricalized optics of the perspectivalist tradition" (Jay 153-54). Spofford's depiction of art registers these changes and recalls both Delacroix and Turner as well as the Orientalist fashion in painting of her time. Sydney's career as an artist in "Desert Sands" evokes Delacroix's biography and Turner's colors, while the artist Vaughan Rose in "The Amber Gods" reflects the general trend toward a liberation of color embodied by both artists. (1)

Sydney's journey to Africa, initiated by his fascination for the exotic Vespasia, is an attempt to invigorate his art with new impressions. His working process and the impact on his art of new visual experiences recall Delacroix's journey to North Africa in 1832. Like Delacroix, Sydney unremittingly fills his sketchbooks with sketches and scenes that he transforms into paintings after his return home. Furthermore, the African experience triggers his use of increasingly strong and brilliant colors. Africa is a "feast of lustre" and a "debauch of light" that makes him realize that chiaro-oscuro is a technique of the past (212, 203). After his return home, Sydney describes the world in colors reminiscent of Turner's great paintings: "[G]old has reddened and deepened and vanished in purple,... the air is interfused with a soft voluptuous sense that I feel as I might feel a new tint, be it mauve or fuchsine" (175). He tries the strength of his palette to the utmost and creates his masterpieces (213). However, Sydney's achievement involved both the exploitation of the exotic and the familiar, represented by the two women characters, and is reminiscent of nineteenth-century imperialist practice. (2) Sydney's onsetting blindness at the height of his vision suggests that, metaphorically speaking, his artistic development is a process of darkness rather than enlightenment.

In "The Amber Gods," the male artist Vaughan Rose goes through a similar development toward more color to strengthen his art. He learns "the sacredness of color" through the female narrator, Yone, the story's "Africa" in the sense of the culturally other and provider of the colorful (72). However, once the artist has exploited her attractions and has sufficiently appropriated color, he detaches himself from her and employs his skills to subjugate Yone--i.e., the "other"--in painting. (3) In both stories, changes in the artist characters' understanding of art reflect that common ways of seeing and of rendering visual experience were in the process of being undermined. However, in both cases the negative implications of the gaze as a form of power and appropriation check any too enthusiastic espousal of the achievements so ruthlessly obtained.

With my third point, I want to show that Spofford's interest in issues of vision informs a more thoroughgoing concern with the gender implications of visual practices and the gaze. Her ambivalence toward new visual technologies and toward changes in perceiving the world in the fine arts, both indicative of a "crisis in seeing," inform her sense of what could be described as a "crisis" in gender relations, rendered specifically in terms of the visual relations between the sexes. It is particularly through the gaze that the characters in some of Spofford's best stories negotiate power and gender relations and that typical gender roles are subverted.

The power and gender implications of looking and being looked at are at the center of Spofford's story "The Amber Gods." Like her namesake the Renaissance painter Giorgione, Yone Willoughby, the posthumous female narrator of the story, pays homage to the female body unreservedly and unashamedly dwells in her own beauty. If Giorgione's Venus was revolutionary because he made a female body without supplementary surroundings or attributes the sole topic for a large canvas painting, Spofford repeats this revolutionary gesture by making a throughly self-absorbed and unconventional heroine the visual and narratorial focus of her story.

Yone's ambivalent and unconventional role in scopic relations suggests that traditional gender roles have become unstable. She assumes a double status as both subject and object of looks that rejects binary classifications. As befits her role as narrator, Yone asserts her point of view and her right to look by observing and interpreting the other fictional characters. Specifically, it is the artist Vaughan Rose who becomes an object of her desirous gaze. He fills a traditionally female role in scopic relations, while Yone takes on the supposedly male part of the observer. Yone's descriptions of Rose in feminized terms further emphasize their role reversal. Even when Yone deliberately fashions herself as a beautiful sight for Rose or the reader, she does not turn into a passive object of the gaze. She controls and guides the reader's mental eye onto her body by way of her self-approving gaze into the mirror and, in a comparable way, she actively creates visual experiences for Rose. In contrast, the artist remains passive even in the process of perception. Yone's visual presence takes on the form of a dangerous invasion that is beyond Rose's control: she can "fill his gaze without any action from him" (48). Thus, it becomes clear that even when Yone bestows on him the role of the observer, Rose is not the "owner of the gaze" nor is he, per se, in a position of power.

While the first section of "The Amber Gods" strongly suggests a role reversal based on the visual relations between the sexes, the second part of the story is more ambivalent about the possibilities of changes in scopic regimes. It becomes clear that even though Yone has appropriated a look of her own, her gaze is of limited power unless she develops a technique or medium to render it in material form. Throughout the story, Yone asserts her subjectivity and rejects the attempts of male characters to impose their perspective--to speak for or about her--but she cannot voice her point of view without reverting to "other folks' words" (51), that is without referring to a male cultural tradition that has provided no specific outlet for female self-expression. This absence turns out to be crucial in the second part of the story and changes both scopic relations and relations of power between the two characters. Whereas before the wedding Rose tries in vain to enforce his vision and to capture Yone on canvas, after the marriage his attempts to subsume Yone as an object of his gaze finally succeed. He fixes her into a formula, hangs her up, "revealed and bare" beside her ancestors, and leaves the real Yone an "empty husk" (80). And yet, despite the fact that Yone's death at the end of the story seems to privilege Rose's vision of her as an object of the past, she contests his point of view even from beyond the grave. In telling her own story in a "posthumous reverie" (St. Armand 99), Yone demonstrates that she will not be silenced and will not let her gaze be ursurped. Yone's tale, the "posthumous reverie," can be interpreted as her discovery of a form of self-expression and self-assertion. Despite the fact that within the narrative this self-expression is ambivalent as it takes on the immaterial form of a ghost speaking, Spofford's story, rendered in the material and public form of printed pages in one of the most prestigious nineteenth-century magazines, demonstrates a woman's succesful appropriation of a voice of her own.

In her exploration of a nineteenth-century discourse on seeing, Spofford is concerned with various aspects of visual practices, whether connected to visual technology, the fine arts, or gender relations. Her ambivalence about the possibilities and consequences of new developments in scopic relations indicates a "crisis in seeing," a rupture between "old" and "new" ways of seeing that Spofford also perceived at the heart of changes in gender relations. She conveys the instability of traditional gender roles as the instability of scopic relations between the sexes and shows the importance of the gaze in determining gender relations. The fact that woman's role in gender relations and her social position are repeatedly negotiated visually in Spofford's stories expresses her sense that the far-reaching consequences of the "crisis in seeing" would not leave gender relations untouched.


I am grateful to the participants of the American Studies colloquium at Goethe University, Frankfurt am Main, for their stimulating comments on an earlier version of this paper.

1. Turner's paintings The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons (1834) and Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Thyphon Coming On) (1840) seem to be fitting examples that demonstrate the dissolving of form resulting from Turner's sfumato technique, his fascination with light, and his liberation of color. Delacroix's painting Lowenjagd (Lion Chase) (c. 1860), on view in the Kunsthalle, Bremen, Germany, clearly participates in the Orientalist fashion of the time in terms of subject matter. Furthermore, the scene--depicted mostly in yellow, white, and light shades of red and blue--is so intensely infused with light that the forms and outlines of the objects in the painting begin to dissolve.

2. Turner's Slave Ship combines the liberation of color described by Spofford with her critique of the implications and consequences of imperialist practice. Schueller has provided a more detailed analysis of Spofford's critique of imperialist appropriation and the concomitant subordination of women. Fast has emphasized the interdependence of racial and sexual stereotypes in "Desert Sands."

3. In contrast to Bendixen, I do not read Yone as a representation of sensuous experience that needs to be overcome by the artist. My reading of this aspect of the relationship between the two characters agrees with that of Logan, who sees the story as a critique of Rose's colonization, appropriation, and destruction of Yone's body.


Bendixen, Alfred. Introduction. "The Amber Gods" and Other Stories. By Harriet Prescott Spofford. Ed. Alfred Bendixen. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1989. ix-xxxiv.

Crary, Jonathan. Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge: MIT P, 1990.

______. "Modernizing Vision." Vison and Visuality. Ed. Hal Foster. New York: New, 1988, 29-44.

Fast, Robin Riley. "Killing the Angel in Spofford's 'Desert Sands' and 'The South Breaker.'" Legacy 11 (1994): 37-54.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. 1976. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Pantheon, 1979.

Jay, Martin. Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought, Berkeley: U of California P, 1993.

Logan, Lisa M. "Race, Romanticism, and the Politics of Feminist Literary Study: Harriet Prescott Spofford's 'The Amber Gods.'" Legacy 18 (2001): 35-51.

Schueller, Malini Johar. U.S. Orientalisms: Race, Nation, and Gender in Literature, 1790-1890. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1998.

Spofford, Harriet Prescott. "The Amber Gods." "The Amber Gods" and Other Stories, Ed. Alfred Bendixen. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1989. 37-83.

______. "Desert Sands." The Amber Gods and Other Stories. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1863. 175-215.

______. "Mr. Furbush." Harper's New Monthly Magazine 30 (1865): 623-26.

St. Armand, Barton Levi. "'I Must Have Died at Ten Minutes Past One': Posthumous Reverie in Harriet Prescott Spofford's 'The Amber Gods.'" The Haunted Dusk: American Supernatural Fiction, 1820-1920. Ed. Howard Kerr, John W. Crowley, and Charles L. Crow. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1983. 99-119.


Goethe University

Winner of the Award for Best Graduate Student Essay Presented at the 2003 SSAWW Conference
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Author:Spengler, Birgit
Publication:Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers
Article Type:Critical Essay
Date:Jan 1, 2004
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