Academic journal article The Journal of Men's Studies

Anxious Representations of Uncertain Masculinity: The Failed Journey to Self-Understanding in Ambrose Bierce's "The Death of Halpin Frayser"

Academic journal article The Journal of Men's Studies

Anxious Representations of Uncertain Masculinity: The Failed Journey to Self-Understanding in Ambrose Bierce's "The Death of Halpin Frayser"

Article excerpt

In his gothic tales, as Rubens (1978) observes, Ambrose Bierce uses dreams "to create another world where some manifestation of man's inner terrors and desires can be accorded objective reality" (p. 29). Of all of his short stories, "The Death of Halpin Frayser" (1891) best demonstrates Bierce's use of the gothic to probe the borders of consciousness in a deliberate attempt to appeal to his readers' absorption with themes of identity crisis. (1) The immense popularity of gothic tales like this one suggests that anxiety associated with gender identity may be fundamental to the human condition. In exploring the possibilities that such a hypothesis creates, Bierce presents the crisis of masculine identity through familial tropes of gothic otherness that he connects to specific historical and cultural contexts. As a result, he shows that the psychic dimensions of the impasse he depicts are not just individually but also socially constructed.

Surprisingly, although "The Death of Halpin Frayser" is typically considered one of Bierce's best stories, only four concerted attempts have been made to interpret it. The first such study, which posited a Freudian interpretation, was by Grenander (1971) in her literary biography Ambrose Bierce (pp. 106-114). Subsequent interpretations have all acknowledged the Freudian dimensions to the story (Davidson, 1984; McLean, 1974; Stein, 1972). To date, McLean stands alone in insisting that a rational explanation for the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of Halpin Frayser is possible. It is beyond the scope of this study to explain all of the mysteries of life and death that lie at the core of this tale. The focus rather will be on how the story works to expose the instability of masculine identity through its representation of the Oedipal crisis and its gendered repercussions. While the sexual nature of this crisis, as originally formulated by Freud, has been argued previously in interpreting "The Death of Halpin Frayser," post-Freudian theories, and especially Lacan's (1977) reformulation of the complex as the child's entry into language, also have applications for the tale that have not been considered. By emphasizing the Lacanian perspective here, as well as Kristeva's (1982, 1984) elaboration on Lacan's theories, an attempt will be made to complicate and deepen the psychoanalytical implications of the story, connecting it in more meaningful ways to the biographical, historical, and cultural contexts from which it sprang.

The backing for a strictly Freudian interpretation of this confusing narrative leans heavily on the Oedipal dynamics of the Frayser family that Bierce describes in the second section of the tale. Halpin Frayser, as "the youngest and not over robust" child of a "well-to-do" Southern family, "had the double disadvantage of a mother's assiduity and a father's neglect" (HF, p. 398). Described as "dreamy, indolent, and rather romantic," he shares with his mother "the most perfect sympathy" as well as a guilty love of poetry and admiration for a maternal ancestor, the obscure Colonial poet Myron Bayne (HF, p. 399). As he matures, the relationship "between him and his beautiful mother--whom from early childhood he had called Katy--became yearly stronger and more tender. In these two romantic natures was manifest in a signal way that neglected phenomenon, the dominance of the sexual element in all the relations of life.... The two were nearly inseparable, and by strangers observing their manner were not infrequently mistaken for lovers" (HF, pp. 399-400).

It would have been difficult for Bierce to have anticipated Freud with a more obvious description of the Oedipus complex. That the sexual attachment has become at least unconsciously troubling to the 26-year-old son can be surmised by his desire to separate himself temporarily from his mother by traveling to California on business. Further, although the mother resists this separation, her underlying uneasiness is also suggested by the dream that she has had just prior to learning of his trip, a dream that she shares separately with both father and son. …

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