Male fears and fantasies in Harriet Prescott Spofford's "The Black Bess".
"The Black Bess" is related by a nameless male narrator, a railroad engineer whose plans for marriage are deferred when he begins imagining that he sees his fiancee Margaret lying on the tracks before him. He is treated by a doctor, who tells him he can be cured only by driving his train over the image. When he does finally overcome his affliction, he is able to enter into a societally condoned relationship that brings him the added benefit of material success.
The sexual dimension of this story is astonishingly explicit. The train is an obvious phallic symbol that the narrator variously refers to as a "thoroughbred" (131), an "iron steed" (131) and a "red-hot iron" (144). The act of running over Margaret's image denotes violent and aggressive sex, while the narrator's inability to perform the act, his repeated stopping of the train, represents what he and the doctor regard as sexual dysfunction. When he finally does run his train over Margaret's image, the act is described unmistakably as a rape and a murder:
I was crashing down on the best-beloved thing of the world with all the mighty revolutions of my ponderous, red-hot iron, with dropping coals and the blasting breath of steam. with all the murderous purpose of this jumping, plunging fiend that I alone controlled, with a shrouding. deafening fury that to the waiting victim drowned the universe in its roar. (144-145)
Spofford's story, then, at least in its broadest outline, presents a most familiar image in American fiction, and one most prominently put forward by her acquaintance Nathaniel Hawthorne in stories and novels ranging from "The Birthmark" and "Rappaccini's Daughter" to The Blithedale Romance: that of woman as the mortal victim of the male quest for power. (2) What Spofford adds to the equation is an unflinching view of the sexual source of the male drive and of its socio-economic manifestations.
Without question, the narrator of the story is driven by a fear of sex with Margaret. Before the onset of his hallucinations, he plans a marriage; his description of his sublime happiness during the period of his engagement, however, contains a dark subtext: "[L]ife seemed so good, love was so sure; Margaret was constantly beside me, the Black Bess was ready for me, and Christmas Day, when it should come wrapped in its soft snows, was to give me my wife forever" (132). The narrator places great importance on the "sure"ness of love; yet their love is sure during this period only because it is sexless, for despite the fact that Margaret is constantly beside the narrator, his Black Bess remains idle. Most significant is the Christmas wedding date, which indicates the narrator's view of Margaret as an ever-virgin mother. The real Margaret is on the contrary anything but sexless, offering him "dear embraces" and "warm, full kisses" (144), repeatedly coming to meet him at his train, and once even stumbling and fall ing across the tracks (135).
Despite her protest against his turning her into a will-O'-the-wisp (136), however, the narrator persists in ignoring her physicality. Particularly is this true in his references to her face. This he insistently envisions as "pure" (135) and "pale" (138) and "piteous" (137, 139), despite an initial description suffused with sensuality:
To say that she was beautiful would fail to give even a pencilling of her presence; and just as impossible would it be for me to set down any categorical description of her loveliness; of thc large, fair, pale face; the eyes, so gray and dark that they grew on you as you gazed, like thc shades of evening from which the stars look out; of the features, which would have been sculptured had they been less instinct with pulsing and dilating life; of the tresses of finest, darkest hair, sweeping down the temples in countless curves; of the unspeakable sweetness of the smile--that smile which seemed to fill your heart and soul with sunshine and warmth. Never was there such another woman made as Margaret. (129-130)
The pulsing and dilating of the features, along with the countless curves, mark the face as decidedly sexual, in this regard, the close resemblance between this passage and Poe's description of Ligeia is illuminating. "In beauty of face," Poe's narrator says of her as Spofford's says of Margaret, "no maiden ever equalled her" (311). (3) He then goes on to extol "the gentle prominence of the regions above the temples; and then the raven-black, the glossy, the luxuriant and naturally-curling tresses" (ibid.). Margaret's sweet smile of sunshine and warmth and her eyes like stars likewise find their counterparts in Ligeia's "sweet" and "radiant" smile (312) and eyes like "twin stars of Leda" (313). Most significant is the sexual nature of Ligeia's face, well described by Daniel Hoffman:
[M]outh and eye resemble each other. Each is an orifice in the body, surrounded by lips or lids which seem to open and close by a wilt of their own. Each is lubricated with a fluid of its own origin, and each leads inward--toward . . . the mysterious interior of the living creature. (4)
Poe's influence on Spofford has been noted by Arthur Hobson Quinn, Elizabeth Halbeisen (91-94), and Fred Lewis Pattee, though none of these critics mentions the connection between "Ligeia" and "The Black Bess." (5) "Ligeia" is the story of a woman, described by her husband much as Margaret is described, as an "airy and spirit-lifting vision" (311) and whose death causes the husband/narrator to relinquish his hold on sanity. In both stories we find the theme of violent sex. Rowena's bridal chamber is a coffin-shaped death chamber, containing a "giant sarcophagus of black granite" in each of its five corners and a bed of "solid ebony, with a pall-like canopy above" (322). The sexual violence is also to be seen in Ligeia's poem, "The Conqueror Worm," whispered at her dying hour:
But see, amid the mimic rout.
A crawling shapc intrude!
A blood-red thing that writhes from out
Thc scenic solitude!
It writhes!--it writhes!--with mortal pangs
The mimes become its food.
And the seraphs sob at vermin fangs
In human gore imbued. (319)
Besides the obvious analogy to William Blake's "The Sick Rose" with its theme of sexual violation and destruction, Ligeia's poem can be read as a "condensation" of her story (Hoffman 248), in which she is killed by the dominant impulses of her husband.
"Ligeia" and "The Black Bess" are similar not only in their themes of the destructive nature of sex, but also in the sexual maladies of their narrators. The sexual inadequacy of the narrator of "Ligeia" has been noted by Basler, (6) while the specific problem of impotence has been named by Hoffman (247) and Bonaparte. (7) In "The Black Bess," the narrator's fear of sex is manifest, as we have seen, in his attempt to etherealize Margaret. His impotence is unsubtly represented by his repeated involuntary stopping of his train when he sees the image of Margaret's face. Moreover, the effect of this debility, an effect subconsciously desired by the narrator, is to postpone the marriage he dreads.
To overcome his impotence demands violence, for the only solution, Dr. Blanchard assures him, is to run over the face, "boldly and without a remonstrance--remorselessly" if possible (140). In order to perpetrate such an act, however, the narrator must first transform Margaret from the angel he has invented to someone worthy of such a hideous fate. We can see clearly in the descriptions of his hallucinations the process by which this transformation is accomplished. Initially, intimidated by Margaret's sexuality, he has turned her into the Virgin Mary; her face is "pure and perfect" (135), and she herself is "an angel of mercy" (137). By contrast his own sexuality, as represented by the Black Bess, is described as evil. The train resembles, he says, a participant in "some diabolical race" (133), running "as if the fires of hell were blazing beneath her boilers" (135). Such a viewpoint, with the guilt it naturally engenders, prevents him from consummating what he regards as a brutal act, and so he establishes a new set of images. When Margaret tells him that he must leave the railroad, and describes each time he steps on the platform as "a sin" (138), he rebels. In rejecting her advice he begins to reverse the roles of saint and sinner, asking himself, "Was it a devil driving me on to stay? or was it my natural manliness refusing to yield to a devil . . . ?" (138-39). His desire to dominate her, born of his sexual fear, is no longer perceived as evil, but as natural manliness. She who would thwart it must then be the evil one. Margaret's image now becomes a "tormentor" (139), and by the time he is ready to destroy the face by stabbing her with the toy knife, he has completed her transformation, referring to her as "lovely fiend" and "fair devil" (146). Margaret has herself sadly predicted just such a transformation. On learning of the narrator's hallucinations, she begs him not to "connect her personality with such diabolical things" as St. Elmo's fire (136). Apparently she sees all too plainly the inevitable progre ssion of his image of her from ice maiden to bitch-emasculator.
The narrator's fears closely resemble castration anxiety as defined by Freud in the twentieth century. Spofford, of course, does not explain the phenomenon in terms of the Oedipus complex; instead, as we shall see, she links it to a more general male anxiety, which includes a loss of masculinity associated with economic displacement. What is striking is how precisely Spofford has identified the behavioral manifestations that modern psychoanalysis has come to associate with castration anxiety. These include phobias and compulsions (including compulsive atoning behavior caused by guilt feelings, a behavior very much in evidence in the narrator's closing remarks), and in particular the hysterical paralysis of the hand. (8) Spofford's narrator suffers from just such paralysis. He tells us on one occasion that he "could no more help [his] hands lifting than [his] heart's beating" (136); on another that he "could not have lifted [his] hand to [his] face to wipe off the beads of cold sweat there" (138); and later st ill that his hand "hung nerveless by [his] side" (145).
At other times, his references to his hand suggest autoeroticism. He says that his train "answered to [his] hand like a live creature," and this "quivering carrier, starting well in hand, soon warmed to her work" (133). In his very next sentence, the narrator reflects, with some sense of longing, on this autoerotic period of his life: "I have often thought, since those days, that there can be nothing like that man's sense of mastery whose hand it is which gives the first motion to some long train crowded with bustling life and tumult" (133). In contrast to the impotence he later experiences, during this period he finds himself a "potentate" (ibid.). Indeed he appears to prefer masturbation to intercourse, and Dr. Blanchard's behavior is quite clearly an attempt to break the narrator of his autoeroticism. With Blanchard riding on the train, the narrator says,
I had stretched out my hand to pull up, when I caught a sidelong glimpse of him, brandishing an iron bar above my head. "Touch that handle," he cried, "and I will knock you down!" And then he interposed himself between my hand and it. (143)
When this tactic fails, Blanchard exhorts the narrator, saying, "You have only to fold your hands behind you .... Be a man now" (144).
Another behavior associated with castration anxiety is homosexuality (Goldenson 1: 187), references to which abound in the story. There is, for example, clear gender confusion in the narrator's references to his train. While clearly phallic, it nonetheless bears a woman's name, and the narrator persistently refers to it as "she" or "her," saying for instance, that "with all steam on, her wheels made their revolutions and she stood still; and to get her along the slippery side of an upgrade, both fireman and myself, jumping off, had to walk by her panting side and sprinkle the wet rails with sand to toll her on" (130). Moreover, the incident that triggers the narrator's hallucinations, the collision with the teamster, strongly invites interpretation as a homosexual encounter. There is nothing ambiguous about the male sexual imagery linked to this man, who lies on a "pillowy" mass of "hay" that is lead by "four great steaming oxen," which in turn appear like a vision "rising" from the darkness with "wild eyes a nd interlocked horns" (131). Guilt, or fear, stemming from this illicit encounter, impels the narrator to replace the face of the man with Margaret's, both at the time of the collision and during his subsequent convalescence (131-32); thereafter it is her face he keeps seeing before him on the track. In a pattern that mirrors his movement away from masturbation, the narrator is seeking to transfer his sexual desires to Margaret. The transference is ineffective, however, for whereas he did run over the man's wagon, something keeps him, despite his conscious will, from penetrating Margaret. It may well be that his impotence derives from a lack of heterosexual attraction. That would explain his returning her passionate gaze with merely "the protestations of passion" (144). He would not feel the need to protest his passion, if he actually felt any.
Still another pattern associated with castration anxiety and very much in evidence in the narrator's behavior is scopophila. (9) In her famous essay, Laura Mulvey describes the positive and negative polarities of the male urge to look: the pleasure derives from the control or possession that looking implies, while the woman's lack of a penis raises the fear in the viewer that his own may be taken away (63-64). The male has two methods of escape from this fear: to ascribe guilt to the woman and punish her, or to turn the threatening figure into a fetish, so that it becomes reassuring rather than dangerous (64). The narrator of "The Black Bess" employs both strategies. First he turns Margaret's face into a fetish, then he demonizes and finally punishes her: involuntarily with his train, willfully with the toy knife.
Equally interesting is the power of the gaze to control or possess. The narrator seeks constantly to gaze at Margaret, and yet in a disorder that reflects his sexual impotence, he finds his vision impaired. He feels "sharp pains" and "blinding pain" in his eyes (132), admits early on to "slightly impaired" eyesight (133), and later is "forced to acknowledge" that his vision may be "ruined" (139). In particular the very attempt to gaze at Margaret harms his eyes: "Straining [his] gaze" to look at the vision, he finds his "horror-stricken eyes blinded" at the sight (134).
Before long he is describing his encounters with the vision as battles between his gaze and Margaret's.
I stared at it with a fascinated gaze. Thc beautiful face!--its great gray eyes gleaming so softly up as the belching monster pounded down to dazzle them blind with its fierce and blazing head-light, to crush them from their sockets with its remorseless wheels. (136)
He fails on this occasion, however, and again later, when he contemplates shutting his eyes and driving over the face without looking at it. That, he says, would be cowardly, nor would it effect his objective. "Therefore," he continues, "I gazed," but Margaret's "sweet, wide-open eyes" take the strength out of him (140).
Margaret is the one with the powerful gaze, the counterpart of her robust sexuality. The narrator observes her standing "so securely" by the tracks, "gazing and smiling" at him (135). She looks at him another time with "fixed gray eyes" (146). The security of her gaze contrasts with his own insecurity until he comes to hate her for it. When finally she hands him the toy knife, he still fails to act, until once more he sees her looking up at him with her "beautiful, fearless eyes" (146). More than anything else it is the fearlessness of her gaze that drives him to violence.
Ultimately the narrator seeks to overcome his sexual dysfunction by adopting the adult male role as represented by Dr. Blanchard. Its adoption, with all that entails, provides the story with its social dimension, for the male role involves such social signifiers as wealth, position, and personal power. This identification of wealth and status with manhood is the focus of David Leverenz's valuable study, Manhood and the American Renaissance. (10) Though he does not mention Spofford in his work, his analysis fits "The Black Bess" closely, and his discussion helps illuminate the story's depiction of male roles in the nineteenth century.
Leverenz's study centers on the social and economic changes wrought by the rise of industrialism: the loss of economic security among the agrarian class; the bifurcation of society into male-dominated workplace and female-centered home; and the increasing identification of masculinity with success in the rough competition of the marketplace. The individualism, competitiveness, and acquisitiveness that characterize modern American society emerged, he says, during this period, when the primary battleground for proving one's manhood shifted to the business world (72). The traditional ideals of manliness--independence, industriousness, and pride in one's labor--gave way to an ethic that valued acquisition and emphasized risk. The great paradox of capitalism, Leverenz points out, is that its success depends on maximizing as a means of motivation the individual's fear of failure (85). By linking men's sexual self-images to success in the risky, unforgiving marketplace, the system transforms fears of vulnerability a nd inadequacy into a desire for dominance. Leverenz discusses this process with specific reference to Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables, Melville's "Benito Cereno," Thoreau's essay on John Brown, and Whitman's "There Was a Child Went Forth" (90). I see this dynamic very much in evidence in "The Black Bess."
Here the socio-economic conditions Leverenz enumerates are prominently displayed. The narrator as a train engineer (whose train has destroyed the agrarian life represented by the wagon of hay) is a member of the new industrial class, dissatisfied with his position. Society is divided into two opposite worlds: the world of women, represented by Margaret's mother's home, "where everything was ordered to the music of peace and quietness" (138), and the world of men, represented by the terrors of the railroad, where all is "darkness" and a "thousand tremors" (130).
The narrator, recuperating from his collision with the wagon of hay, gets up "too quickly" (132) in order, significantly, to earn the money he feels his marriage depends on. The narrator's equating of manliness with commercial success is, indeed, a prominent theme of the story. He prides himself on having become a "man of wealth...having speculated largely and daringly" (130). More specifically, he makes it clear that he sees his sexual attractiveness as dependent on his financial success, for he wonders what Margaret could have seen in him when he was only a railroad engineer, "earning [his] living by the sweat of [his] brow, in soot and grime and smoke" (130). At the end of the story, having prospered, he has no such doubts, assuring his readers that, as he puts it, "my house, my retinue, my equipage are worthy of my wife" (147). Importantly, the narrator's desire is not limited to wealth for the sake of wealth, but is coupled with a lust for destruction and mastery over others. Early on he makes a point of his having "climbed easily by others' help" (130), and at the end he declares that to give Margaret the material comforts, "the earth shall be ransacked" (146). The narrator identifies, then, wealth with masculinity and both with violence.
The link between violence, sexuality, and social standing has been identified by Carrol Smith-Rosenberg as the "Davy Crockett Myth." (11) Based on the character's portrayal in a series of Davy Crockett almanacs popular among young men in the 1840s and 1850s, she sees Crockett as representing the nineteenth-century male dislocated and marginalized by the social upheaval of the age (90). This Crockett projects an image far different from that of the sanitized Disney creation of the placid 1950s. He is a rebel against the bourgeois society from which he has been excluded; his targets are the mores of bourgeois respectability and in particular its sexual taboos. On the Crockett frontier, Smith-Rosenberg declares, "male sexuality was violent, nonreproductive, usually nongenital, and frequently homosexual" (106). Describing a fight with a wildcat, for example, Crockett says that the cat, a male, attacked
while I patted the pusses top knot and grinned all sorts of tantalization at him. At me he came; and into him I went; and the way we hugged and gouged, made the old tree smoke and shake again;...I grabbed him by thc neck like any other puss, and squeezed it into dislocation.... (Qtd. in Smith-Rosenberg 106)
Crockett's autoeroticism, homosexuality, and sexual violence are, of course, the same behaviors we have observed in the narrator of "The Black Bess." Moreover, the narrator's rebellion against bourgeois standards begins, like Crockett's, in the fear and powerlessness of exclusion from the middle class. Spofford, however, does not leave the narrator in exclusion, but follows his progress into the dominant class. With this stroke she broadens the scope of her material into a more profound critique of the subjugation of women that lies at the heart of the prevailing culture.
Before examining the implications of the story's conclusion, we must address the matter of its integrity. In an unpublished letter to the editor of the Galaxy, in which the story was first published, Spofford complained of his "ruinous mutilation" of the concluding portion of her text (unpublished letter, 25 Apr. 1868, NYPL). (12) Without seeing the original, it is impossible to determine with certainty the extent of the revisions. On the one hand, the narrator's account of the period during which he was institutionalized does appear choppy, as if, as Spofford's letter complains, passages were omitted. On the other hand the departure in tone of these passages may just as well have been intended, as reflecting the narrator's derangement. Certainly the ending of the story, with its references to the narrator's wealth and essentially sexless marriage, fits perfectly the design of Spofford's narrative.
Her complaint about the editing may well be overstated, for in fact this is only the second of two complaints in the letter, the first being the rate of pay she had received for a previous story the Galaxy had published. I believe her professed anger over the editing was in considerable measure intended as leverage in extracting a higher rate of pay for "The Black Bess." In this endeavor she was successful, as a subsequent letter shows. In it, after acknowledging receipt of the payment, with which she is apparently satisfied, she effusively apologizes for her previous comments: "It was really an affair of no consequence," she writes, "and I don't know what made me care at all about it. Begging you not to believe me the shrew which my last letter made me appear, I am Always Truly, Harriet Prescott Spofford" (unpublished letter 25 May 1868, NYPL).
As it stands, the conclusion of the story presents a compelling picture of what passes for an acceptable, and in the narrator's mind wholly appropriate, relationship between the sexes. It is a relationship built upon the narrator's violent subjugation of Margaret, which he finally achieves by stabbing at her with the toy knife. This effects his "cure"; he has finally become, on Dr. Blanchard's reckoning, a man. With this breakthrough come material success, social position, and the sexual security of knowing that his material possessions make him worthy of his wife.
What he has lost forever, on the other hand, is Margaret's face, "the best-beloved thing of the world" (144). Following the stabbing, Margaret disappears, not only as a sexual being, but as any sort of individual; he describes her now solely as the mother of his children (147). What he and his fellow bourgeois, the good Dr. Blanchard, have wrought is the internalization of the Crockett myth. No longer one of the disenfranchised, the narrator has become a success story; his sexual violence is now the sanitized violence of the prevailing society--the violence of sexual repression that confines sexuality to procreation; hides men's fears behind a sanctioned facade of domineering, rapacious materialism; and reduces laughing, longing, and sometimes lusting flesh-and-blood women to their prescribed roles as dutiful wives and mothers.
(1.) In Amber Gods and Other Stories. ed. Alfred Bendixen New Brunswick: Rutgers UP. 1989) 129-47.
(2.) Elizabeth K. Halbeisen, Harriet Prescott Spofford: A Romantic Survival (Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1935) 66.
(3.) Edgar Allan Poe, "Ligeia," Collected Works, ed. Thomas Ollive Mabbolt (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1978)310-30.
(4.) Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe (New York: Doubleday, 1972) 234-35.
(5.) Quinn, American Fiction: An Historical and Critical Survey (New York: Appleton, 1936) 298; Pattee, The Development of the American Short Story (New York: Harper, 1923) 161.
(6.) Roy P. Basler. "The Interpretation of Ligeia.'" Poe: A Collection of Critical Essays. ed. Robert Regan (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall. 19--) 51-63; see esp. 54.
(7.) Marie Bonaparte, The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe: A Psyho-Analytic Interpretation (London: Imago. 1949) 230.
(8.) Robert M. Goldensen. The Encyclopedia of Human Behavior: Psychology, Psychiatry, and Mental Health (New York: Doubleday, 1970) 2: 897.
(9.) Laura Mulvey. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," Feminism and Film Theory, ed. Constance Penley (New York, BFI. 1988) 59.
(10.) Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1989.
(11.) "Disorderly Conduct (New York: Knopf. 1985).
(12.) William Conant Church. Unpublished Letters. William Conant Church Papers. New York Public Library, New York.
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|Publication:||West Virginia University Philological Papers|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2001|
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