"This Dark Thing, This Other Self": Character and Self-Distantiation in Cornell Woolrich's 'I Married a Dead Man' (1948)

Article excerpt

Among the most recent signs of a growing interest in Cornell Woolrich's noir fiction have been the inclusion of his I Married a Dead Man in the new Library of America two-volume collection of crime novels, and the reissue of his Waltz Into Darkness in the Penguin Crime Fiction series. There seems to be critical agreement on the influential place held by Woolrich in the development of American In his Hardboiled America:Lurid Paperbacks and the Masters of Noir, Geoffrey O'Brien describes Woolrich's best books (between 1940 and 1948) as recording "a great change [that] came over the American consciousness" which would be reflected in "the postwar film noir" (100). Woody Haut sees Woolrich's fiction as symptomatic of postwar paranoia, and lists no fewer than twelve noir movies (ten of them made during the 1940s) which were adaptations of Woolrich novels. Indeed, some classic noir themes find regular expression in Woolrich's novels--self-doubt and fallibility, malign Fate, paranoid fear, the femme fatale and the deadly cost of love, destabilized masculinity, shifting gender roles, and more. In this essay, I examine I Married a Dead Man (1948) as an example of one of Woolrich's related preoccupations--the idea of crossing from one social and psychic world to another, the unfixing or rejection of the authentic self, the taking up of assumed persona, and the crisis of self-distantiation in which the protagonist is consequently involved. More than any other Woolrich novel, I Married a Dead Man hinges on a favorite noir subtext--the idea that identity itself remains something fluid and fabricated.

In I Married a Dead Man, Woolrich allocates very little narrative space to the "real" world which the protagonist, Helen Georgesson, attempts to escape; yet, this abandoned "reality" is actually ever-present, as- it impinges remorselessly on the through-the-looking-glass world of small-town bourgeois affluence that she miraculously enters. All we are told of Helen's earlier life is that her father (whose name she has difficulty in recalling) had been "a looming longshoreman, killed in a drunken brawl on the Embarcadero when she was ten" (83). The rest is left unstated, but there is enough to form the outlines of an image--of a working-class childhood, with violence and drunkenness quite possibly in the air, and with insecurity probably never far away. When we first meet Helen, she is a "dreary, hopeless nineteen, not a bright, shiny one" (17). Eight months pregnant, penniless, and just abandoned by her lover, Helen's world has collapsed into insecurity and chaos. Woolrich refers to her, twice, as "dead"; when she learns that her lover's telephone has been disconnected, "her hand dropped off her shoulder, carrying the receiver with it, and fell into her lap, dead. As if to match something else within her that was dead, by the way it fell and stirred no more" (19). For the Woolrich protagonist, death is a haunting and insistent reality, either because he or she is a possible victim or, on the contrary, is the agent of destruction. Helen will "die" or experience deathlike states at moments of crisis, despair, or extreme anxiety, and by the close of the novel she will also be cast as potentially a murderess.

Helen's "return" to life comes as a form of miraculous rebirth (she will, figuratively, be caesarian-sectioned out of the mangled wreckage of a crashed train), and is a clear case of fantasy--fulfillment. She already expresses the subconscious desire not to be herself when she says, "`It must be an awful lot of fun to be you'" (34), to the young newlyweds, Hugh and Patrice Hazzard (the surname is surely no accident), who befriend her on the train from New York. A few minutes later, as the result of the train wreck in which the Hazzards are killed, Helen's daydream is realized. The physical circumstances of the crash signal the dislocation of personality that Helen is about to undergo: "the whole alcove seemed to upend, shift on a crazy axis, so that what had been the wall before her until now, had shifted to become the ceiling over her; so that what had been the floor she was standing on until now, had shifted to become the wall upright before her" (45). …