Academic journal article Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature : JASAL

Hurts So Good: Masochism in Christina Stead's the Man Who Loved Children

Academic journal article Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature : JASAL

Hurts So Good: Masochism in Christina Stead's the Man Who Loved Children

Article excerpt

This essay will examine aspects of the complex family Stead creates in The Man Who Loved Children (hereafter TMWLC) by drawing on the work of Sigmund Freud, notably his 'A Child is Being Beaten' (SE 19) and 'The Economic Problem of Masochism' (SE 21). Novelist and essayist Jonathan Franzen calls TMWLC 'the best novel ever written about a nuclear family, and as ferocious and damning an assault on the patriarchy as can be found anywhere in world literature [...] Stead's masterpiece [...] isn't small enough or one-sided enough to be useful to theorists. The Pollits are too human to fit into a syllabus' (1). Franzen's perception that this 'too human' novel defies theoretical approach makes it a challenging and stimulating subject of study. Ann Whitehead too described TMWLC as 'the most powerful evocation of what it's like to live in a family that I've ever read' (Selected 224). The Man Who Loved Children2 is the semi-autobiographical narrative of Christina Stead's severely dysfunctional family. Stead's alter-ego, Louie Pollit, is the only child of Sam Pollit's first wife, who died six months after Louie's birth. Sam grew up in poverty, leaving school at twelve. He eventually married Henny Collyer, spoilt daughter of wealthy fish merchant David Collyer. Through self-education and Collyer's influence, Sam became head of the Bureau of Fisheries. Despite this success, Sam's eccentric egotism causes his family great financial and emotional hardship. His complex personality is the focus of the present discussion.

Why Freud?

Although readings by Susan Sheridan and Joseph Boone focus on the psychological development of Louie, the artist as a young woman, not many psychoanalytic readings of this text have been performed, perhaps reflecting Stead's aversion to Freud's theories (Selected 251). Boone writes:

Stead models the progress of Louie's individuation on a step-by-step inversion of the constitutive elements of the Oedipus story, creating too precise a reversal, I suspect, to be unintentional. In Sophocles' version of the myth, Oedipus's patricide leads to union with the mother, a violation of the incest taboo for which he is punished with blindness; the question of Louie's matricide, in contrast, leads to her severance from the father, an escape from incest for which she is rewarded with quite literal sight ("How different everything looked"). As matricide is substituted for patricide in the daughter's story, so severance from the father replaces union with the mother, and sight replaces blindness. Moreover, if Oedipus's blinding brings about his insight into the truth that his end lies in his origin [...] the difference in outer perspective granted to Louie by her new vision removes her from Sam's narratological economy of predetermined origins and endings-and, by analogy, from the economy of Oedipal theories of narrative. (537)

In my reading, I propose that in this novel, Stead, invokes Freud's ideas only to gainsay them. Stead's apparent inversion of the Oedipal story confirms the need for Freudian theory to enable recognition of its exorcism, and raises questions about the relationship of the rest of her text to Freud's thought. A Freudian reading of a work believed to be anti-Freudian seems equally appropriate, since the theory against which I believe Stead writes is key to understanding this aspect of her work. Dufresne claims that 'we most certainly do not need Freud to help us describe the world-inner or outer,' yet argues that Freud's work must still be used in 'the urgent task of picking up the remaining pieces and making sense of it all,' since the 'all' that exists (especially in the literary world) is partly the result of Freud's theory (ix).

As noted above, Joseph Boone reads Sam as a narcissistic sadist, and of Sam's narcissism there is no doubt: he talks 'of his own beautiful soul and sympathetic life story. He would reform the state, even the world, because through love he knew more than all the politicians' (371). …

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