Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Pleasure and Peril: Dynamic Forces of Power and Desire in Siri Hustvedt's the Blindfold

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Pleasure and Peril: Dynamic Forces of Power and Desire in Siri Hustvedt's the Blindfold

Article excerpt

Nearly 20 years after its publication in 1992, Siri Hustvedt's richly complex debut novel, The Blindfold, continues to be fertile, yet neglected, ground for scholars to plow. As Kristiaan Versluys has noted, Hustvedt's debut novel "has sunk into oblivion" (99) after its predominantly positive reception. (1) The Blindfold explores, among other themes, the dynamic quality of power and the significant and disturbing role it plays in sexual relationships. This essay analyzes Hustvedt's depiction of a world that thrives on such precarious forces, arguing that Hustvedt represents power as strongly connected to desire and both forces as having a transforming influence on one's sense of self. In four separate, non-chronologically recounted yet thematically connected, mini-narratives Iris reflects back on her confrontation with power, madness and desire while a graduate student at Columbia University. In part one she is employed as a research assistant by the enigmatic Mr. Morning, who sets bizarre tasks whose point seems to be his gaining control over her. Part two sketches the emergence of a triadic relationship between Iris, her distant boyfriend, Stephen, and their manipulative photographer friend, George, whose portrait of Iris increases the tensions between all three, eventually leading to the implosion of the relationship. Part three sees Iris admitted to the hospital for an incapacitating migraine, where she experiences increasing fear and paranoia toward a demented roommate. In the final narrative her work assisting Professor Rose with his translation of a German novella leads Iris to bring the novella's protagonist to life when she obsessively engages in cross-dressing on the New York streets. She is rescued from this addiction by the professor, only to begin a clandestine sexual relationship with him that ends in disaster. Parts two and four of the novel form the central pillars of my argument, garlanded as they are with textual references that illustrate the ambiguity of power and its relation to notions of speech/silence and seeing/ blindness.

The Blindfold's power dynamic has not been adequately considered by critics who have written on the work. Tracy Johnson looks at Iris's construction and subversion of female identity within social power structures, but one-sidedly concludes that she "remains a victim" (58). Regarding the control that men exert over Iris, Versluys more insightfully argues "submission is something she invites and simultaneously abhors" (100). I will argue that the multifaceted nature of power causes the protagonist to experience nothing less than a self-shattering, a dangerous destabilization of any sense of personal identity. If it is impossible to ascertain whether one is in control of a situation, then it also becomes impossible to consider oneself a unified subject, centered around a solid core. The forces of power raise a critical challenge in that they elude a strict classification. The subtle movements between states of mastery and seeming powerlessness that Iris experiences, and her ambivalence toward her submission, indicate that Hustvedt's work does not express a definitive stance on power relations.

The oscillation Hustvedt depicts between being in possession of power and being in a powerless position suggests that power and its effects should not be regarded as static forces. "Power" Jeffrey Weeks argues, "no longer appears as a homogeneous force which can be straightforwardly expressed or captured. Power ... can be seen as mobile, heterogeneous, insistent and malleable, giving rise to various forms of domination, of which the sexual is one, and producing constant forms of challenge and resistance" (9). The multiple forms of power showcased in Hustvedt's novel, which Carole Morin describes as "a book of successful ambiguities" (6), question such binaries as control/loss of control, self/other, and active/passive. Power relations are revealed to be much more complex than the polarization of power and powerlessness seems to suggest. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.