Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Gothic Interiority and Servants in Wharton's A Backward Glance and "The Lady's Maid's Bell"

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Gothic Interiority and Servants in Wharton's A Backward Glance and "The Lady's Maid's Bell"

Article excerpt

In the "Autobiographical Postscript" to a collection of her ghost stories, Edith Wharton recounts an inscrutable terror that plagued her for seven years as a child, when she was recovering from an almost fatal case of typhoid, an illness she describes as marking "the dividing line between my little childhood and the next stage" (301). (1)

Associating the uncanny with the conflated experiences of female adolescence and life-threatening disease, Wharton recalls the literary tradition of the Female Gothic, a genre defined first by Ellen Moers, who argues in Literary Women (1976) that female authors deploy gothic tropes as a covert means of critiquing patriarchal domesticity. On her sickbed, Wharton is drawn to ghost stories, initially with delight, but then becoming so afraid that she is unable to sleep alone due to "formless terrors":

  It was like some dark undefinable menace, forever dogging
  my steps, lurking, and threatening; I was conscious of it
  wherever I went by day, and at night it made sleep
  impossible, unless a light and a nurse-maid were in the
  room. But, whatever it was, it was most formidable and
  pressing when I was returning from my daily walk (which
  I always took with a maid or governess, or with my
  father). (302)

The "undefinable" nature of Wharton's terror reminds us of Freud's definition of the uncanny, invading and defamiliarizing the familiar space, relations, and routines of the home. After associating the uncanny with fears of death, castration, and ego-disturbing doubles, Freud ultimately relates the ambivalence of the uncanny to female genitalia, or the womb--the earliest "home," repudiated and rendered foreign in the achievement of a self-sustaining ego ("The Uncanny"). As a potent source of subversive meaning, the incompletely repressed maternal has often been privileged in psychoanalytic feminist readings of gothic texts. However, while the Female Gothic often associates notions of the uncanny with the maternal, in Wharton's anecdote her mother, as a comfort or an object of desire, fear, or loathing, is replaced by servants. Her most primal psychic dramas, that is, were determined not by fixed positions of "Mother," "Father," and "Daughter," but by contingent practices of domestic labor and sociality.

As would have been the case for most wealthy children in the latter half of the nineteenth century, Wharton's material and affective needs as primary caregivers were met by governesses and nursemaids. Wharton writes in A Backward Glance: "The child. of the well-to-do, hedged in by nurses and governesses, seldom knows much of its parents' activities" (57). Attending to the historical reality of American domestic service in the industrial era prompts us to reconsider how we interpret servants as both players in social history and characters in literature. Far from remaining merely ancillary to the primordial family drama, literary servants fracture myths of a hermetically-sealed nuclear family, becoming implicated in the primal web of desire, fear, and identification in the Female Gothic. In this essay, I historicize Wharton's autobiography, A Backward Glance, and her ghost story "The Lady's Maid's Bell" in terms of Progressive-era reforms in order to articulate how servants supplement representations of modern female interiority and relationality. Rather than privileging a psychoanalytic framework, I explore how psychosocial configurations in Wharton's texts both invoke and contain the feminized labor conflicts of domestic service. Through my readings, I underscore how servants prompt us to recuperate the political from material that is. ostensibly only psychological, reduced in Fredric Jameson's term, to an "individual-fantasy experience" (22). In short, this essay reads Wharton's texts in order to demonstrate how a specifically feminized psychic landscape uneasily relies on the repression of abject wage labor.

My materialist feminist approach to Wharton's work builds upon Marxist literary scholarship theorizing how servants haunt the psychoanalytic scripts that often underlie critical interpretations of the Gothic. …

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