Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

"Mimic Sorrows": Masochism and the Gendering of Pain in Victorian Melodrama

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

"Mimic Sorrows": Masochism and the Gendering of Pain in Victorian Melodrama

Article excerpt

Melodrama, Sally Mitchell says, is "a world of suffering" (45). Its intensified emotions and apparently simple moral scheme of vice and virtue seem to highlight, with special clarity, the pathos of the victim. And yet, melodramatic suffering is anything but simple. Often taken for passivity, it can be a potent, if encoded, form of agency; while popularly identified with women, it can serve the interests of masculinity as well. A complex psychic and cultural phenomenon, masochism provides a way of negotiating the constraints imposed by gender ideology and of evading some of the consequences of transgressing them. I analyze the union of melodrama and masochism as it functions in two popular Victorian melodramas: Ellen Wood's East Lynne (1861), and Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret (1862); because, above all, these stories tell us that pain is gendered, not in and of itself but in its meanings and aims through the distinctive demands that ideology places on men and women. I explore these stories as sites of masochistic pleasure, not to pathologize them, but to discover the ways in which they produce and complicate gender identities.

I. Melodrama and Masochism

Before I proceed any further, I want to specify my use of "melodrama" and "masochism," since both have taken on multiple connotations. Peter Brooks formulated the classic definition based on popular eighteenth-century French plays: offering a Manichean moral vision, melodrama pits absolute innocence against absolute evil and resolves this conflict by vindicating the persecuted heroine in "a remarkable, public, spectacular homage to virtue" (25). Melodrama's function is to posit and make visible a moral order obscured by unequal social relations. It does so through intense displays of emotion that clarify the human stakes of ethical conflict and that apportion the audience's sympathies in unambiguous terms. Schematic morality and emotional intensity are the two defining, interrelated characteristics of Brooks's melodrama. Because of these two qualities, Brooks calls melodrama "a victory over repression": nothing is complicated, ambiguous, or held back (41).

As subsequent critics have built on Brooks's analysis, it has become clear that melodrama has mutated into forms that diverge from his initial definition. The form that interests me here is what has been called "domestic melodrama," which focuses on tensions within the Victorian middle-class home rather than conflicts between virtuous working-class women and their aristocratic tormentors, as do Brooks' examples. (1) The texts I examine here are not plays, although they were immediately understood as being drama-like and were repeatedly adapted for the stage. The theatricality of melodrama, "dramatic" in the colloquial sense, defined these stories even as they unfolded within the genre of fiction. Moreover, the novels do not employ a simple moral scheme. Far from being "simplistic Victorian personifications of Good and Evil," the roles of villain and heroine are replaced by characterizations that are complex, ambiguous, and sometimes internally contradictory (Gledhill 32). In the 1860s--a time of gender stress marked by controversies over divorce, female redundancy, and prostitution--these novels provided settings in which conflicting possibilities could be released and explored, though not necessarily resolved in any definitive or satisfying way. The Manichean scheme of eighteenth-century stage melodrama gives way to the psychological detail that has come to characterize the Victorian novel. What remains are melodrama's intense emotions, pre-eminently suffering. (2) These novels abound in the display of heightened affective states, especially pain--fulsome, exaggerated, often described by the term "excess" (although it would be fair to add that melodrama specializes in extreme exigencies, such as adultery, bigamy, attempted murder, or the death of a child, that produce such unbridled feeling). …

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