Unraveling Misogyny and Forging the New Self: Mother, Lover, and Storyteller in 'The Chaneysville Incident.'

By Egan, Philip J. | Papers on Language & Literature, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

Unraveling Misogyny and Forging the New Self: Mother, Lover, and Storyteller in 'The Chaneysville Incident.'


Egan, Philip J., Papers on Language & Literature


When David Bradley's The Chaneysville Incident appeared in 1981, it received mostly favorable reviews, became a Book-of-the-month Club selection, and won its author a Faulkner/ PEN award. While many critics focus on the novel's treatment of history, only a few analyze one of its most important moral issues: misogyny. The prominence particularly of Old Jack Crawley, the protagonist's misogynous (but otherwise attractive) mentor, has earned Chaneysville the condemnation of one feminist critic (Washington), while the rehabilitation of the narrator has brought praise from another (Brigham 304-13). Neither these nor other commentators, however, have taken the full measure of misogyny in this novel. Chaneysville, properly understood, does indeed dramatize one man's tortuous journey out of misogyny. But the tempting view that misogyny finds its source in Old Jack and its redeemer in Judith is only a partial truth; it does justice neither to the complexity of John's misogyny nor to the means he uses to transcend it.

It helps first of all to establish Chaneysville's literary pedigree. Katherine Rogers in her survey of misogyny in literature, claims that male authors of this century, while continuing earlier attacks on domineering wives, old maids, and career women, introduce a new misogynous theme: "fear of Mom" (234-63). Drawing upon Freud's insights about the Oedipus complex, Lawrence, Hemingway, Faulkner, and a host of other figures dramatize both attachment to the mother and resentment of her; furthermore, the mother's influence often proves so enduring that it haunts the son's adult attachments to women.(1) In Chaneysville the prominence of both mother and lover (respectively Yvette Washington and Judith Powell) firmly anchors the novel in this tradition. Here and in other novels of this class, the son in some sort becomes a misogynist--i.e., acquires a deep and abiding distrust of women--from the experience of mother; the question implicitly posed is whether he can outgrow his misogyny later. Any complete treatment of misogyny in this type of work must engage Oedipal issues. Feminist commentary on Chaneysville, drawn to the lightning rod of Old Jack's obvious misogyny, tends to overlook the role Yvette Washington plays.

By introducing Old Jack as well as mother and lover, Bradley gives John's attitudes toward women three important sources; but, as important as Yvette, Judith, and Jack are, they remain separate. Apart from the brief sojourn of Old Jack's corpse in Yvette's parlor, they share no scenes with each other in the "present" of the novel. Still, these characters coexist and interact with each other as forces in John's own mind; and, as the novel progresses, they create oppositions and alignments that trace out John's progress against misogyny. Two of these three characters (Yvette and Old Jack) play an important role in the formation of John's misogyny; and two likewise (Judith and again Old Jack) play a role in his transcendence of it. The dual role of Old Jack particularly will surprise some critics; but, while Old Jack the misogynist is clearly a large part of John's problem, a careful reading of John's final tale reveals Old Jack the storyteller and spiritual visionary as a resource John uses for transcendence.

The "present" of Chaneysville constitutes only eight days, during which John offers us memories of his own life and stories of times well before that John, who has raped a white woman in the past but now lives with one, has clearly left behind the worst of his misogyny before the novel begins, and there seems little danger that he will return to it. Still, Chaneysville suggests that outgrowing misogyny involves more than merely ceasing to do evil to women; one must see women differently. The "present" of the novel dramatizes the end of this process--the recovery of a psychic chic wholeness which allows him to see women as cosufferers of life's oppressions and coactors in liberation. …

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