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A Studio of Ones Own:

Fictional Women Painters


and the Art of Fiction

Roberta White

Fairleigh Dickinson University Press

A Studio of Ones Own

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A Studio of Ones Own


Fictional Women Painters
and the Art of Fiction

Roberta White

Madison Teaneck
Fairleigh Dickinson University Press

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 2005 by Rosemont Publishing & Printing Corp.


All rights reserved. Authorization to photocopy items for internal or personal use,
or the internal or personal use of specific clients, is granted by the copyright owner,
provided that a base fee of $10.00, plus eight cents per page, per copy is paid directly to the Copyright Clearance Center, 222 Rosewood Drive, Danvers, Massachusetts 01923. [0-8386-4072-9/05 $10.00  8 pp, pc.]

Associated University Presses


2010 Eastpark Boulevard
Cranbury, NJ 08512

The paper used in this publication meets the requirements of the American
National Standard for Permanence of Paper for Printed Library Materials
Z39.48-1984.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data


White, Roberta, 1938
A studio of ones own : fictional women painters and the art of fiction /
Roberta White.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references (p. ) and index.
ISBN 0-8386-4072-9 (alk. paper)
1. English fiction20th centuryHistory and criticism. 2. Art and
literatureEnglish-speaking countries. 3. English fiction19th
centuryHistory and criticism. 4. Women and literatureEnglish-speaking
countries. 5. American fictionHistory and criticism. 6. Canadian
fictionHistory and criticism. 7. Women artists in literature. 8. Painters in
literature. 9. Painting in literature. I. Title.
PR888.A74W48 2005
823.809357dc22
2004029577

printed in the united states of america

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For Bruce

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Contents
Acknowledgments

Introduction: Unfinished Work: The Dialogue of the


Novelist and the Painter
1. Opening the Portfolio: Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte ,
Anne Bronte , and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps
2. The Painterly Eye: Kate Chopins The Awakening
3. Journey to the Silent Kingdom: Virginia Woolf s To the
Lighthouse
4. Figure and Ground: The Portrait Painter in Iris Murdoch
and Anna Banti
5. Painters of the Irish Coast: Jennifer Johnston and Deirdre
Madden
6. Northern Light: Margaret Atwoods Cats Eye
7. Drawn from Life: Jill Paton Walshs The Serpentine Cave
8. Space, Time, and a Muse: Mary Gordons Spending
9. Servants, Housewives, Artists: A. S. Byatt, Tracy Chevalier,
Carol Shields, and Kyoko Mori

213

Notes
Bibliography
Index

242
250
255

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85
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195

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Acknowledgments
FOR THEIR ENCOURAGEMENT AND HELP, I WISH TO THANK CAROL BASTIAN,
Denise Marshall, Mickey Pearlman, Jami Powell, John Ward, and
Richard Bruce White.
*
*
*
Reprinted with permission of Scribner, an imprint of Simon &
Schuster Adult Publishing Group, excerpts from SPENDING by
Mary Gordon. Copyright  1998 by Mary Gordon.
Excerpts from The Serpentine Cave by Jill Paton Walsh.
Copyright  1997 by Jill Paton Walsh
Reprinted by permission of St. Martins Press, LLC
Excerpts from TO THE LIGHTHOUSE by Virginia Woolf, copyright
1927 by Harcourt, Inc. and renewed 1954 by Leonard Woolf, reprinted by permission of the publisher.
Parts of Chapter 6 appeared in different form in Margaret Atwood:
Reflections in a Convex Mirror in CANADIAN WOMEN WRITING, edited by Mickey Pearlman. Copyright  1993 by the University Press of Mississippi. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

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A Studio of Ones Own

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Introduction
Unfinished Work: The Dialogue of the
Novelist and the Painter
Stupid girl, I imagined these men [Picasso, Matisse] saying to
me. . . . You can be one or the other, a woman who desires and
is desired or a painter. Choose.
Mary Gordon, Spending

WHEN A WOMAN NOVELIST PORTRAYS A WOMAN ARTIST PAINTING IN HER


studio, the reader is invited to reflect upon womens creativity and
their struggles to attain a space in which to create. A ku nstlerroman,
by definition, tells the story of an artists intellectual and emotional
growth; usually it describes an inward journey leading to a discovery
of the artists vocation. A critical examination of many such novels,
considered chronologically, tells the larger story of womens long
journey into the world of professional art. Although much has been
written about portraits of artists in novels by women, most of these
critical studies interpret the term artist broadly, to include writers
and musicians as well as painters. A narrower definition of the ku nstlerroman, one that restricts it to works about visual artists, allows for
a sharper focus on the many and varied transactions between the
sister arts of painting and fiction. In order to portray a visual artist,
the novelist is obliged to conjure out of words, literally black print
on a white page, the colors of the artists imaginative vision and her
work. When she creates a visual artist as, perhaps, a rather mysterious sister, the novelist begins an implicit or explicit dialogue between herself as a writer and the fictional painter.
Novels portraying women artists and their art invariably dramatize
the risks women experience when they begin to work seriously as
painters. When Lily Briscoe begins to paint in Virginia Woolf s To the
Lighthouse, she thinks of herself as venturing down a dark corridor,
swimming in high seas, or walking on a narrow plank above water.
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The contrast between Woolf s hard-won confidence as a novelist and


Lilys timidity as a painter reflects the historical fact that in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries it was more difficult for women
to be accepted as painters or composers than as writers. Women
couldnot without many struggles, of courseenter into the mainstream of novel writing because its tradition and conventions were
less firmly established than those of the fine arts. In A Room of Ones
Own, Woolf points out that the novel was a pliable and inviting medium for Jane Austen as well as other pioneering women writers; the
novel, Woolf says, was young enough to be soft in her hands.1 In
contrast, painting, like music and poetry, was more fully steeped in
an inveterate tradition that remained the province of male artists. In
her history of real-life American artists in the nineteenth century,
Laura R. Prieto notes that it is not a womans feminine nature that
hinders her, but rather the cultural prescriptions of femininity that
make it difficult for her to see and be seen as an artist.2 It is not a
womans gender but rather gender ideology that will not permit
her to reconcile her separate identities as woman and artist.3
All creative work is risky, but in novels about women painters the
risk becomes an integral part of the work itself. In late nineteenthand twentieth-century novels, the risk usually drives the plot; the old
marriage plot is supplanted by a dramatic account of the artists
struggle to create. Thus, these novelists dramatize the difficulties
confronted by creative women such as themselves, broadening the
scope of the issue by juxtaposing the sister arts of painting and
fiction.
Fictional portraits of artists are different from the recorded lives
of real painters because they are a projection of the authors idea of
art and of womens claim to a place in the world of art. Unlike a
flesh and blood painter, the fictional artist exists in a realm of idea
and imagination, a product as well as a creator of art. When the fictional artist is a woman she inevitably embodies the authors political stance. The word political is used here to refer to the novelists
presentation of the feminist aspects of the artists journey into art,
the authors particular understanding of womens struggle for autonomy and self-expression. It refers to the external conditions that
facilitate or impede the woman painters aspirations, especially social expectations having to do with courtship and marriage. The fictional artists inner emotional life is also colored by political
considerations, especially if she has internalized socially condoned
biases against her whole enterprise, like Lily Briscoe in To the Light-

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house, who keeps hearing the voice of Mr. Tansley telling her that
women cant paint, or Monica Szabo in Mary Gordons Spending,
who inwardly questions the propriety of painting her spent lover
in the nude.
To view the fictional woman artist solely from a political perspective, however, is to minimize or ignore that she is also the projection
of a creative mind postulating the working out of an aesthetic
enterprise within the contingencies of a fictional setting. The term
aesthetic as used here broadly embraces the creative process, the
painting itself, the meaning or affect of the painting, and whatever
underlying ideas about art the novelist may present. The political
and aesthetic aspects of novels about women artists cannot be separated because they constitute a single story. They cannot be separated because the politicalthe social conditions under which the
woman artist works and against which she strugglespredictably will
have an effect upon the creative process, the thing made, its meaning or affect, and its reception. Conversely, aesthetic considerations
enter into the political aspects of the novel, since the artist is typically driven by a need to overcome obstacles particular to her gender in order to discover her vocation, give form to an inner vision,
and express herself through art. To confront and solve whatever
painterly problems may haunt and intrigue her, the woman artist
must find and claim a space in which to work, and that staking out
of a space is, however remotely, a political act. In fiction as in history,
woman artists working spaces enlarge through timeby uneven
stepsfrom a portfolio in a cupboard to a studio or atelier where
work may be completed and prepared for sale or exhibition. This
working space is the measure of the claim that she makes upon
the world.
This study traces the development of women artist figures in nineteenth- and twentieth-century novels in English, including British,
American, Irish, and Canadian writers. The single exception is the
Italian writer Anna Banti, whose Artemisia is available in an excellent
English translation by Shirley DArdia Caracciolo. The purpose of
this study is, first, to interpret the implied dialogue of the writers
with the artist figures they create so as to understand the writers
view of creativity in both its aesthetic and political dimensions and,
second, to explore certain remarkable continuities in the imagery
depicting women artists in the novels. Most notably, recurrent images present the artist as liminal and her work as unfinished. One
must hasten to add that these are not negative terms.The artists li-

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minality means that she is in a state of transition or emergence, and


the unfinished nature of her work represents this state of becoming.
It is easy to see how an aesthetic of the unfinished accommodates
itself to political considerations: a woman artists sense of her emerging presence in the world is very likely to be felt in terms of an unfinished story, but one that bespeaks potentialities and possibilities.
In addition to the implicit dialogue of novelists with the artist figures they create, a dialogue also can occur between what Rachel DuPlessis calls the embedded art work with its implied aesthetic and
the aesthetic of the novel as a whole.4 The implied aesthetic of the
artist and art within the novel may ironically be at odds with that of
the novelist, as in Jane Austens Emma, or fully consistent with it, as
in To the Lighthouse. Virtually every novel depicting an artist presents
a challenge to the novelist to exercise her visual imagination. In
Kate Chopins The Awakening, for example, the shortcomings of the
painter Edna Pointellier are compensated for by the vivid pictorialism of the novelist. In general, the challenge of portraying a visual
artist inspires these novelists to write works that are rich in color imagery and visual description. In novels such as The Awakening, Artemisia, To the Lighthouse, and The Railway Station Man, the political or
ideological point of view of the novelist is intensified for the reader
through the appealing beauty and vibrancy of the prose.
Political considerations come into play immediately when one
looks at nineteenth-century novels in which women protagonists attempt to paint with any degree of seriousness. The reader is led to
question what causes these women characters literally to lose their
grip upon the paintbrush, and the answer is, not surprisingly, that
the obstacles they encounter are multifarious. The demands of
womens lives from adolescence through maturity are directly at
odds with the demands of art. Even if the painter is able to obtain
studio space, a rarity, the needs of children and the duties of domestic life interrupt her work, as Elizabeth Stuart Phelps vividly dramatizes in The Story of Avis.
Particularly damaging is the notion prevalent in the eighteenth
and nineteenth centuries and persisting even into the twentieth century that it is perfectly acceptable for women to paint so long as that
activity is regarded as an accomplishment, a parlor skill suitable
to whiling away ones leisure hours. This routine trivializing of the
activity of painting, and, by implication, of womens creativity, undermines any serious ambition to paint that a woman might harbor.
Thus, Jane Austens Emma Woodhouse refuses to hold herself or

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her sketches to a very high artistic standard, even though she knows
better; her art can only be viewed as comical in the context of
Emma. Jane Eyre instinctively tries to break out of the mold of the
parlor painter and on occasion produces original work, although in
the end her art gets lost in the novels bizarre marriage plot. Courtship is presented as inimical to art, and vice versa, as though art and
ardor could not coexist. Frequently in these nineteenth-century novels commodification of the female image in the service of the marriage market subverts womens art: the woman at her easel attracts
the male gaze and in that moment is transformed from observer to
observed, from subject to object. That shift of attention occurs in
comic fashion in Emma when Mr. Elton adoringly watches Emma
paint Harriet Smith. It is not surprising, therefore, that in novels up
until To the Lighthouse, the art in the novel is inferior to the art of the
novel. Woolf s novel is pivotal in the genre, and she deeply influences the writers who follow her. In later works the artist struggles
earnestly to keep her grip on the paintbrush and her eye upon the
subject. In Margaret Atwoods Cats Eye and in The Serpentine Cave by
Jill Paton Walsh, the artist must learn to turn her gaze without shock
upon a vulnerably nude female model and not look away. Monica
Szabo in Mary Gordons Spending learns to gaze for hours with a
painterly eye upon the nude male body of B, her lover and model,
in full knowledge that she is breaking a taboo.
In instances where the artists space must be shared with the sort
of character Virginia Woolf calls the Angel in the House, a dialogue
occurs or is implied between the artist and the Angel, a virtuous,
selfless servant of her family, who represents a socially acceptable
idea of womanhood, as originally described in the poem by Coventry
Patmore. This dialogue is a subtext of nearly every work under consideration here, and often, although not always, it is a bitter one: the
two women, Angel and artist, cannot live in the same house, cannot
occupy the same space. In her essay Professions for Women,
Woolf describes the Angel as an enemy to her creativity: whenever
I felt the shadow of her wing or the radiance of her halo upon my
page, I took up the inkpot and flung it at her.5 She eventually seizes
the Angel by the throat and strangles her. In To the Lighthouse, however, Woolf moderates the relationship of the artist and the Angel.
The artist Lily Briscoe works on her painting as a houseguest of Mrs.
Ramsay, the domestic Angel, and she cannot complete her painting
successfully until after the Angel dies. At the same time, Lily loves
Mrs. Ramsay, mourns her deeply, and needs her spirit to help her

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finish the painting. Woolf also celebrates the genuine creativity of


Mrs. Ramsay in the way that she circles her family and friends about
her and makes something beautiful of domestic life. The Angel in
the House, Woolf implies, could possibly have been a domestic artist
all along. In general, a lively array of characters shows up as avatars
of the Angel in these novels. In The Story of Avis, the Angel, a homemaking aunt, harbors a secret desire to have been a scientist. In The
Serpentine Cave, the Angel is totally transformed: she becomes by the
end of the novel the very figure she has resented and misunderstood, a painter.
In some recent novels, the Angel joins the religious right in protesting and attempting to obstruct womens creativity. In Cats Eye
the Angel embodies Canadian Protestant hypocrisy in the dreaded
figure of Mrs. Smeath: Elaine the painter gets even with her childhood enemy by portraying her in humiliating situations. In Spending,
the Angel appears in the figure of Alice Marie Cusalito, a member of
the Catholic Defense League, who leads a protest outside the gallery
where Monicas provocatively nude Christ figures are exhibited.
Interestingly, the Angel in the House is usually not the painters
mother, for the simple reason that most of the protagonists are
motherless; perhaps novelists find it more plausible to launch a
character as an artist if she has not been distracted by a mother likely
to have pushed her into domesticity. As is frequently the case in novels by women, these motherless characters are left to pursue their
own destinies, inventing themselves in the process.
Finally, the Angel in the House becomes the central character in
several stories and novels that openly challenge the supposedly uncrossable barriers between domesticity and high art as well as
those between art, crafts, and domestic work. In these various works
of fiction, discussed in the last chapter of this study, housewives and
their humbler counterparts, servants, are presented as true artists in
either a real or metaphorical sense.
Virginia Woolf reminds her readers that after killing the Angel in
the House a second obstacle that must be overcome by women writers is the difficulty of telling the truth about ones own experiences
as a body in ones fiction.6 For the painter, that truth-telling might
assume the form, not so much of self-portraiture, as of taking on
subjects or points of view considered indecorous or even indecent
for women to handle. The pressure upon women to be polite, modest, and nice has been persistent. In all of the novels under consideration here, angernot necessarily against the Angel in the

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house, but rather against a patriarchy that forces women into that
decorous roleis an obstacle which the artist deals with one way or
another: by evading or sublimating it, concealing it, transcending it,
or perhaps turning it to aesthetic purposes, as in Bantis Artemisia,
where Artemisias painting of the heroic and bloody figure of Judith
slaying Holofernes arrests, shocks, and amuses the viewer, releasing
anger in the form of dark comedy.
In addition to interpreting the implied dialogue of the writer and
the fictional painter, this study traces some remarkably consistent
patterns of recurring imagery in the depiction of women artists and
their work. This imagery consists of variations on a theme that can
be called the liminal, the suspended, and the unfinished. In a series of
lectures published as Womens Lives: The View from the Threshold , Carolyn Heilbrun, focusing in particular on women writers of memoirs,
speaks of womens lives at the present time as characterized by a condition of liminality. Heilbrun defines this condition:
The word limin means threshold, and to be in a state of liminality
is to be poised upon uncertain ground, to be leaving one condition or
country or self and entering upon another. But the most salient sign of
liminality is its unsteadiness, its lack of clarity about exactly where one
belongs and what one should be doing, or wants to be doing.7

One might argue that Heilbruns definition of liminality is so broad


as to apply to the psychological state of almost anyone, and that it is
much too vague to serve as a critical tool in a study of women novelists. A catch-all term can be useful, however, when one is describing
a large category of similar things, since it allows for variations and
hence comparisons within that category. Still, one might well reject
the term liminality out of hand were it not the case that this general
term is given local habitation and specificity by the persistence of
imagery of seashore and sea throughout the novels discussed here,
from Charlotte Bronte to Mary Gordon. In Phelps, Chopin, Woolf,
Murdoch, Madden, Johnston, Walsh, and Gordon, the fictional
woman painter lives or works at the edge of a sea. The seashore is
the place where the painters work, not necessarily what they paint,
and as such it can symbolize their social status. The literal seashore,
as a line of demarcation between two separate realms, frequently
symbolizes the liminality of the life of the woman artist. The seashore also serves as a nexus from which one can examine the connection (or the opposition) of the aesthetic and the political.

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Images of the seashore relate to the marginality of women in societythe possibility of exclusion from or unwillingness to participate
in the body politic, with the city and the coast as opposite poles. Although Heilbrun does not say so, liminality can also be seen, however, as one step beyond marginality, in that a woman crossing a
threshold may be said to venture out of the margins and begin to
enter into the mainstream of culture and art.
Imagery of seashore and sea can also symbolize other things than
the liminality of the creative woman in Heilbruns sense of the word.
The image of the artist as poised between two realms may suggest
broader symbolic possibilities of the sea as liberating the creative self
or, conversely, offering submersion in history and time, or even annihilation. One cannot generalize very broadly because the seashore
imagery takes on different metaphorical properties in individual
novels. In The Awakening, for example, Edna Pointellier, who drowns
in the Gulf of Mexico at the end of the novella, is surely a failed
liminal woman artist in Heilbruns sense of the liminal. But in To the
Lighthouse the sea takes on symbolism of time and impending chaos
(that fluidity out there), forces that are inimical to both the
painter and the domestic artist. Jennifer Johnston and Deirdre Madden invoke a special and very rich history of sea symbolism in Irish
literature and life; the sea is, among other things, the pathway of
invaders and colonists and yet also the mother of imagination and
myth. In The Serpentine Cave, Jill Paton Walsh bathes her entire novel
in images of the rugged coast and sea around Cornwall, like an embryonic fluid carrying the figure of a woman who emerges as a newborn painter on almost the last page. A defining event in Walshs
novel is a real, historical sea disaster in which an entire lifeboat crew
is wiped out, and the risks endured by the lifeguards are symbolically
paralleled to the risks that the protagonist Marian will take as an artist. The settings described by Phelps, Woolf, Madden, and Walsh also
contain conspicuous lighthouses, but the symbolic implications are
various. While sweeping generalizations must be avoided, the seashore imagery in these works is continually suggestive; it suggests,
among other things, a vital connection between womens art and the
natural world.
In addition to the term liminal, describing the condition of the
artists depicted, two other terms, suspended and unfinished, prove useful in analyzing novels about women artists. Suspension can refer to
both the emotional state of the artisther affective response to
being on the edge or the margin, her sense of the risk of artand

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to the works of art that she creates. Embarked on a journey toward


artistic achievement, the artist may find herself in a euphoric yet
dangerous state, like Lily Briscoe walking the plank over deep waters. In Margaret Atwoods Cats Eye, a bridge over a ravine, the scene
of Elaines worst childhood traumas, becomes a central emblem in
Elaines last painting, a symbol fraught with emotions of fear, hatred, and eventually triumph. In many instances, the sense of being
suspended embraces the artists aesthetic aspirations and her social
status.
It is also the case that an embedded work of visual art in a novel
remains suspended in a way that has nothing to do with the gender of
the writer or the fictional artist. The writer invites us to envision with
the minds eye an aesthetic visual arrangement attributed not to the
writer but to the painter, herself a construct of words. The writer
invites the reader to participate in the creative act, to supply, as it
were, the color as well as envision the shape, size, and composition
of the fictional work of art. And yet this secondary image remains
perpetually suspended and unfinished. Even insofar as the reader
supplies imagined details to fill out the picture, following from the
authors suggestions, the mind in its economy supplies only what the
narrative requires, and the picture remains rather spectral and occluded, reminding us of its own incompleteness. Thus, the rendering of paintings in novels makes us aware of the tentativeness of all
art, of all takes on the world: to be suspended in space and time
is the nature of art.
The particular, and somewhat peculiar, status of the embedded
work of art in a novel also raises questions about its relationship to
the rest of the verbal narrative: can the embedded work be said to
exist at all as an aesthetic object and, if so, to what degree does it
exercise authority over the text? The status of the embedded work
can be interpreted by making use of the rhetorical term ekphrasis,
which refers to language that describes a work of art within a literary
work, in this case the embedded paintings. In earlier uses, ekphrasis
applied exclusively to such descriptions within poetry, where the language already bears special aesthetic qualities and tends to be laden
with visual imagery. But W. J. T. Mitchell, in his book Picture Theory,
offers a broader definition that may be applied here: ekphrasis is a
verbal representation of a visual representation.8 Mitchell repeats
the obvious but important point that a verbal representation cannot representthat is, make presentits object in the same way a
visual representation can. It may refer to an object, describe it, in-

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voke it, but it can never bring its visual presence before us in the way
pictures do.9 David Lodge goes so far as to state as a general rule
that where one kind of aesthetic presentation is embedded in another, the reality of the embedded form is weaker than that of the
framing form.10 It should not be inferred from Lodges statement,
however, that ekphrastic passages in a novel necessarily constitute a
less immediate form of discourse than the narrative portions of the
work. It is not the case that a more elusive or fugitive aesthetic object
is necessarily weaker in terms of its tidal pull upon the rest of the
novel. In my view, the province of an ekphrastic discourse in fiction
cannot be determined theoretically; its degree of dominance depends upon the individual literary work. In one instance an ekphrastic passage might seem vague and inconsequential, a mere illusion
of an illusion; in another instance it might powerfully create the impression of an arrested moment of visual perception.
Passages of ekphrasis are central to the study of novels about visual artists because the reader needs to believe in, if not see, the
painting within the novel. In instances where the ekphrastic passage
provides something more than a mere filling in of visual detail to
satisfy the demands of the narrative, the reader will experience an
abrupt shift in the flow of the novels discourse. If the ekphrastic
passage is presented as privileged, revelatory, or climactic within the
narrative, the shift from one sort of language to another will signal
an evocation of a silent, purely visual world of art.
In Margaret Atwoods Cats Eye, for example, or A. S. Byatts story
Art Work, ekphrasis illuminates the imagination of the artist and
justifies the claims made for her creative powers by carrying the
reader from the world the artist lives in to the one that she makes.
This crossing of the border from narrative to ekphrasis and back
again, simulating a shift from fiction to painting, can be a crucial
transition that lies at the heart of many works of fiction about artists.
The artist is affirmed as authentic if the writer can authenticate her
work by means of descriptions that break away from the time-bound
sequences of narrative into a replication of the seeming timelessness
of visual art. In earlier novels, the ekphrasis often seems perfunctory
or uninventive; the painters status is also tentative. Later, as fictional
artists gain more independence, ekphrasis assumes a larger role in
the novels, at once authenticating and completing the portrait of
the artist. These are instances where purely aesthetic considerations
parallel and reflect the artists degree of autonomy; aesthetic and
political considerations are united.

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Several different ways can be observed in which an ekphrastic passage acts upon the whole text of the novel. It might simply ornament
or supplement the narrative; it might symbolize the events of the
novel; it might complement those events; or it might even appear to
deconstruct them. An example of a work of fiction where the ekphrastic passages merely supplement the narrative is The Awakening,
where Edna Pointelliers described paintings seem ordinary and
rather stiff in comparison to the vital and vividly pictorial narrative
surrounding them; the embedded paintings help make the point
that Ednas heart is not really in her art. Jennifer Johnstons The Railway Station Man is an example of a novel where ekphrastic passages
epitomize the events of the novel in a symbolic way: Helens serial
paintings of a young man gradually disappearing on a beach recapitulate the plot of the novel, which has to do with the fatal violence
suffered by men in Irelands political clashes. In Margaret Atwoods
Cats Eye, the descriptions of Elaines autobiographical paintings
complement her telling of her life story in that they fill in the silences: the ekphrastic passages say things that Elaine cannot say
so well in the rest of her narrative, and thus they threaten at times
to take dominion over the rest of the novel. This literary effect is not
new; W. J. T. Mitchell points out instances in poetry where ekphrasis
becomes dominant, as in Wallace Stevenss Anecdote of the Jar
orthe example that theorists of ekphrastic representation always
come back tothe description of the shield of Achilles in Homers
Iliad. Mitchell believes that the shield, in representing Homers universe and depicting workaday events, signifies an even larger world
than that of the story in The Iliad.
A more radical relation of the embedded work of art to the novel
as a whole occurs when the work of art threatens to unravel, or deconstruct, the work of the narrative. Mitchell points out that there
are moments when the ekphrastic image becomes like a sort of unapproachable and unpresentable black hole in the verbal structure, entirely absent from it, but shaping and affecting it in
fundamental ways.11 Presumably this effect will occur when the ekphrastic image calls attention to its own mysteriousness, its alien existence as a totally imaginary visual phenomenon within a world of
words. Such is the case in To the Lighthouse, where the progress of
Lilys painting, which the reader never gets to see, becomes the
focus of the final section of the novel and threatens to overtake it in
the sense that the unseen painting contains and consumes all of the
aesthetic interest and creative force that the novelists narrative

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voice can muster. The pangs of giving birth to the painting threaten
to obliterate the world for Lily and for the narrative itself. Thus, it is
possible for an embedded work of art and the ekphrastic discourse
that describes it to be occluded but at the same time dominant in
the text. The very inaccessibility of the work may contribute to its
dominance, as in To the Lighthouse, which exemplifies the black hole
effect. There is a similar effect in Carol Shieldss Happenstance. Although all embedded paintings are mysterious or obscure to some
extent, the author may or may not choose to exploit that fact to create moments in the novel in which the reader is invited to ponder
the mystery of words construed as pictures. Authors who choose to
do so include Virginia Woolf, Jennifer Johnston, Margaret Atwood,
A. S. Byatt, and Carol Shields.
Although the embedded works of the fictional painters are unseen, they exhibit some remarkably similar traits that can be represented by a hypothesis: the unseen paintings of these fictional
painters present a consistent set of aesthetic choices and interests.
These choices and interests can be grouped under a general principle that that which is shown as fragmented, unfinished, or suspended in
space or time is truer to the experience of creative women than that which is
shown as whole, finished, or firmly anchored. The idea of the unfinished
pervades these works in so many instances and in such a variety of
ways as to suggest a principle of mimesis. A great many of the works
of art depicted in these novels are themselves unfinished or else they
imply incompleteness in some way. The idea of the unfinished work
is represented by numerous images of suspension, fragmentation,
or seriality in the work of the painters and by resistance to distinct
closure on the part of the novelists, constituting a kind of aesthetic
of the unfinished. In earlier novels, such as Jane Eyre, this sort of aesthetic choice is a perhaps simply a reflection of the painters sense
of incompletion as an artist. In novels written in the twentieth century, this aesthetic of the unfinished is a conscious choice made by
both male and female writers. There is nothing particularly gendered about an emphasis on the unfinished nature of the work, but
such images occur with great frequency in the fictional women artists and perhaps in actual women artists as well. For example, Linda
Nochlin, in her chapter Some Women Realists in Women, Art, and
Power, identifies the diffident cut-off views as synecdoches pointing
to a larger whole as characteristic of a variety of contemporary
women painters.12
This notion of art as tentative, suspended, or incompletea char-

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acteristically modern viewis enthusiastically embraced by most of


the writers in their visual descriptions of the artist or her art: images
abound of the artist or her subject as suspended on a bridge over
water, floating in the air, or presented as unfinished or in synecdochic body parts or in serial form as emerging into existence or
disappearing. In Violet Clay, a novel by Gail Godwin, the artist Violet
paints a portrait of a woman floating in light. She explains to a gallery owner that the painting hasnt got a name. But I think of her
as a suspended woman. Shes suspended in this light, shes suspended in. . .well, her own possibilities, what she might do.13 The
gallery owner Charlotte is so taken with this idea that she adopts Violets painting as the poster picture for a traveling exhibit of womens
art entitled Suspended Women.
Serial painting, after the pattern of Monet, also occurs in several
of the novels discussed in this study. Serial painting is in a sense an
extension of the idea of suspension, since the practice implies that
the work of art is incomplete in itself, contingent on other works or
part of a work in progress, suspended in time. Lily Briscoes attempts
at two paintings of the same subject separated by ten years in To the
Lighthouse present an extreme example of a series, reminding us that
serial painting allows reflection on time and the changing self in the
changing world, an unending process to which completeness and
closure can only be arbitrary. Lilys first, unfinished painting lingers
in her mind for a decade as an unrealized concept until she begins
the second painting; the unfinished work serves as a bridge between
her past and her present experiences.
To suggest an aesthetic principle of the unfinished is not, however,
to claim to establish a general feminist aesthetic theory. Many attempts to establish a feminist aesthetic or poetics have been made
over the years, especially in the 1970s and 1980s and, although many
of those theories have proven to be enlightening or useful, it is not
surprising that no single theory has emerged as dominant, and the
enterprise has been somewhat discredited. Whitney Chadwick notes
that by the middle of the 1990s American cultural historian Janet
Woolf could emphatically state that there is no correct feminist aesthetic.14 Instead, feminist critics have applied multifaceted approaches to literary works examined individually within the contexts
in which they were produced. Rather than presenting a theory,
then, this study observes patterns, images, and variations on themes
too various to cohere into a theory but insistently present in the
works examined. These patterns chiefly reflect the inner life

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emotional and intellectualof the women painters portrayed in


their various times and places. The method is empirical; it consists
of attempting to discover the aesthetic ideas implied or expressed in
individual works rather than to impose a preconceived feminist theory on them.
Turning from the embedded works of art to the novels themselves, one finds another kind of resistance to closure in several of
the modern works. Virginia Woolf s To the Lighthouse implicitly addresses a paradox that Woolf sees as inherent in the arts in the twentieth century, the necessity of creating something whole in a world
where fragmentation is inevitable. Although Woolf s novel may, at
first reading, seem like a whole and complete vision, there is a kind
of principle of uncertainty woven into the very fabric of the novel,
so that it can be said to be both finished and not finished at once.
Similarly, Anna Bantis Artemisia offers the reader several passages
that seem like endings, some open-ended and some more closed, so
that the effect is of a novel that both is and is not finished. Iris Murdoch argues as a principle of aesthetics that a work of art is necessarily open to the world and contingent upon it, hence, in a way, always
incomplete. For Murdoch, the novel in particular is necessarily an
open form in the sense that it embraces both the accidents of experience and images of the disordered self. The idea of uncertainty is,
of course, not the exclusive province of women writers; many, perhaps most, serious writers of the modern and postmodern periods
express the idea of uncertainty or incompleteness in one way or another. It is simply the case that women writers have entered enthusiastically into that particular modernist tradition.
Modern and postmodern novelists whose works present or suggest
various but overlapping theoretical ideas about art include Iris Murdoch, Jennifer Johnston, Deirdre Madden, Margaret Atwood, Jill
Paton Walsh, Mary Gordon, and Carol Shields. Several of these writers, and others, allude to Virginia Woolf or her work either directly
or indirectly, paying subtle or overt tribute to her ideas about art.
Her influence upon her literary daughters is very great. For one
thing, bits and pieces of her language and imagery are dispersed,
assimilated, and often transformed in the works of later writers, like
scattered pieces of a mosaic. More significantly, Woolf s depiction
of painting as a silent kingdom, a separate realm arduously created
out of love and through a process of committing oneself fully on all
levels of the self, including ones memories and griefs, has its echoes
in Murdoch, Madden, Atwood, Paton Walsh, and Shields. Thus, al-

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though Woolf was radically to alter some of her own aesthetic notions after To the Lighthouse and The Waves, the aesthetic ideas she
embraced in the 1920s prove to be widely influential well after the
modernist period. Although the influence of Virginia Woolf is not
the focus of this study, that influence is a strand woven inextricably
into the subject.
In order to lay claim to certain common features of the female kunstlerroman and to argue for the uniqueness of that subgenre, it is useful to survey some representative novels about visual artists written
by male writers to see if they have any of the same characteristics
as those written by women. For example, one may well ask whether
portrayal of the artist as liminal in Heilbruns sense of the word carries over to male writers. In fact, a sampling of some twentieth-century British novels reveals that male writers, too, show art as risky
and incompatible with anything like traditional family life, and they
portray the artist as radically isolated and living on the edge or borders of civilization. A difference, however, is that the fictional male
artist commits a more violent wrenching away from a society of
which he is, by birthright, a part. The woman artists isolation is different in that, in most cases, she does not choose it, having been
excluded by her gender from the centers of power and authority.
These novels by men tend to perpetuate the nineteenth-century
idea of the artist as a passionate and rebellious Romantic figure, and
in most instances the artists work is closely bound up with his virility. A distinct type of male artist figure emerges that could be called
the artist as Rogue Satyr, an ostensibly heroic character not to be
found in novels by women. This figure of the isolated, Dionysian artist who breaks the civilized rules of human behavior raises moral
questions about the relative importance of ends and means in art as
well as aesthetic questions about the nature of the artistic enterprise.
In W. Somerset Maughams The Moon and Sixpence, the artist David
Charles Strickland, whose life is based on that of Gauguin, lives
down and out in Paris and then works his way on shipboard to Tahiti, where he eventually dies a blind leper after completing several
masterpieces. In Joyce Carys highly comic The Horses Mouth and the
other novels of his trilogy, sixty-eight-year-old Gulley Jimson, a derelict and totally antisocial jailbird, paints in a ruined boatshed on the
banks of the Thames until he loses even that space to squatters. In
John Fowless novella The Ebony Tower, the aging modernist Henry
Breasley lives with two art students, his mistresses, in a woodland re-

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treat in Brittany behind a padlocked gate with a sign warning visitors


not to enter. All of these artists are portrayed as solitary men of genius who find it necessary to withdraw from society in order to produce their unappreciated masterpieces. All of them are abusive to
women. Although the novelists do not necessarily condone such
abuse, they seem to regard hostility, even violence, against women
as an essential ingredient of an artistic temperament, as though
women were an external projection of some demonic presence that
must be beaten and subdued in order to create. These ideas seem
dated, and indeed the novels by Maugham, Carey, and Fowles all
invite skepticism about the myth of the Romantic isolated artist at
the same time that they perpetuate that myth.
Maughams Strickland is a misanthrope, a cruel, uncivil, violent
man with no redeeming qualities. Driven by a passion to paint, he
abandons his wife and children without a thought, causes another
mans wife to kill herself, and finally takes a Tahitian mistress who
remains totally devoted despite his beating her from time to time.
Maughams first-person narrator, a novelist like Maugham himself,
enters into dialogue with Strickland, probing his remorseless cruelty. Maugham raises the question of whether the end justifies the
means: do great works of art redeem a mans heartlessness? Because
Maughams tone is ironic, it is difficult to determine his precise answer to that question, but his very choice of subject suggests that
Maugham accepts the myth of the isolated artist as Romantic genius.
Both David Strickland and Carys Gulley Jimson paint murals of
Creation or Eden before the Fall, reinforcing the analogy dating
back at least to Thomas Aquinas, that the artists creativity is analogous to Gods. Stricklands last work is a vision of Eden that he paints
on the interior walls of his native hut; the work is burned down after
his death in compliance with his orders. Jimsons last work is the
Creation he paints on an interior wall of an abandoned church, only
to see it demolished, half finished, by the wrecking balls of the Burrough Council, an event that causes Gulley to die of a stroke.
The portrayal of the painter as Rogue Satyr is more complex in
the case of Gulley Jimson because his darkly comic and witty first
person narrative in The Horses Mouth turns everything on its head,
including the myth of the isolated genius. Derelict Gulleys sardonic
humor turns against himself as well as against society. Like Fowless
Henry Breasley, he coins irreverent puns that emphasize his contempt for institutions: the middle class consists of Boorjaws, and
society is always trying to analyze him with its pischology. Gulleys

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anarchist tendencies go hand in hand with his notions about art,


ideas which in themselves seem authentic and appealing. For example, he explains to an amateur woman artist the difference between
mere dabbling and serious art which expresses ideas. Admitting that
his own work may appear technically inept, he insists:
Only difference is that its about somethingits an experience, and all
this amateur stuff is like farting Annie Laurie through a keyhole. It may
be clever but is it worth the trouble. . . . Do some thinking. Sit down and
ask yourself whats it all about.15

Gulleys plan for his painting of the Fall shows that his imagination,
inspired by William Blake, can envision art that is grand, bold, humanistic, and yet primordial:
Adam like a rock walking, and Eve like a mountain bringing forth, with
sweat like fiery lava, and the trees shall stand like souls pent up in metal;
cut bronze and silver and gold. With leaves like emerald and jade, cut
and engraved with everlasting patterns sharp as jewels, as crystals, and
the sun like a fall of solid fire, turned on a lathe.16

A. S Byatt writes that Jimsons narrative is full of colour-painterly


descriptions of skies and flesh, brilliant writing about the act of
painting, a wonderful bravura display of the perceptual recomposition of the visual world into artwork.17 Carys visual imagination
echoes that of Virginia Woolf in his striking similes and descriptions
of jewel-like colors. Still, Gulley beats his mistresses and wives:
Sara was an empress. It was a glory to have that woman, and to beat her.
Alexander never felt bigger than me when I thumped that majestic meat
upon the nose. Rozzie was a Leah, a concubine. . . . She was a pillow for
your head and a footstool for your rheumatism. But of course pillows
and mattresses are not the sort of baggage a man wants to carry with him
on a long journey.18

This sort of testosterone-driven bluster about a woman as meat, mattress, and baggage reads like a parody, especially coming from the
toothless mouth of a frail little old man half the size of either
woman. And Cary gives Sara Mondays point of view in Herself Surprised, where she admits that she lost some of her self-respect after
going back to a man who beat her. Yet the reader must wonder why

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violence against women has to enter into the myth of the artistic genius at all.
This question and its various implications are debated in D. H.
Lawrences Women in Love. Toward the end of the novel Lawrence
introduces a repulsive character, the gnomelike sculptor Herr
Loerke, who enters into an argument with the artist Gudrun and her
sister Ursula about a statuette he made of a girl on a horse. The
horse is rigid and powerful, the girl very young and vulnerable, and
Loerke readily admits that he beat the seventeen-year-old art student
who posed for the piece harder than I have ever beat anything in
my life. I had to, I had to. It was the only way I got the work done.19
To justify his indifference to the suffering he inflicted upon the girl,
Loerke invokes the principle of art for arts sake and insists that his
work exists not in the relative world of human actions but the absolute world of art.20 Although Gudrun admires the power of the
statue and has a morbid fascination with the corruption she sees in
Loerke, Lawrences implied concept of art is unambiguously humanistic. Lawrence believes that works of art do not exist apart from
life but rather are the deepest expressions of life, appealing directly
to the unconscious and helping the viewer to attain full selfhood.
Because the fine arts have this kind of psychological value, the artist
is not acquitted of responsibility for his or her own psychological
and moral integrity.
A somewhat similar debate drives the plot of John Fowless The
Ebony Tower. Seventy-eight-year-old artist Henry Breasley, a smirking
old satyr in carpet slippers, has long ago attained critical acclaim
for his representational modernist works, grand paintings that express powerful human emotions and contain echoes of the great
masters.21 Nightly drunk, Henry still fights the old battles with the
abstractionists, whom he calls names like Pick-arsehole and Jackson Bollock. Henry is verbally abusive to his young mistresses, but
otherwise treats them rather generously, especially Diana, who is his
pupil, assistant, muse, nurse, and caretaker. Like Lawrence, Fowles
offers sympathetic portraits of the young women artists. David Williams, a young modestly successful Op artist, comes to interview
Henry, an adventure he regards as a knightly ordeal, since Henry is
bound to taunt him for his abstract work. When David, who is conventionally married, fails to rise (or fall) to the temptation to fall in
love with Diana and, incidentally, rescue her from the burdens of
caring for Henry, he ultimately sees his failure of will as also a failure
of imagination and emotional power within himself and his art. His

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life and career will go on as a matter of pale abstraction. Fowless


point is clear: for all of Henrys outrageous flaws and his antiquated
Dionysian style of life, his art possesses a vital force that Davids does
not, and that force derives from its rootedness in human experience
and feeling.
This brief sampling of male writers demonstrates that the Romantic myth of the artistic genius as an amoral rogue has been quite
persistent; within the last few years, however, male writers such as
John Updike and Don DeLillo have themselves offered sympathetic
portraits of women artists. This sampling also shows that in their
novels male writers have debated the issue of whether or not art can
be separated from the moral and emotional life of the artist,
whether it exists in some sacrosanct and separate realm.
Women writers usually do not debate this issue. At least since Virginia Woolf, who introduced the self-conscious theorizing woman
artist, novels about women artists show the painter as seeking aesthetic solutions to aesthetic problems; this problem-solving is a link
among the works. But the aesthetic problems are never divorced
from, or seen outside the context of, the human problems confronting the artist, particularly the ideological problems implied in the
portrayal of marriages and the demands of husbands, lovers, and especially children. These novels debate various issues about art, implicitly or explicitly, but they do not debate this particular issue;
women writers take it for granted that art cannot be isolated from
the messiness of life. In writers after Virginia Woolf, aesthetic and
political considerationsart and lifeare also intimately intertwined in that the painter usually sees herself as embarked upon a
journey toward independence and self-knowledge that can only be
carried out by her daring to risk a life of art. Feminist goals are to be
achieved by aesthetic means. The painter protagonists, again following the example of Woolf, also find it necessary to explore their own
memories, especially memories of childhood, in order to carry out
the creative enterprise. They attempt to see their lives whole, but
that is an unending task.
The idea of the unfinished is the thread that ties together the argument of this book. The dialogue of the woman artist with her society;
the writers dialogue with the painter (vividly dramatized in Anna
Bantis Artemisia) and, more broadly, fictions dialogue with painting
are unfinished stories, no matter what sort of closure the novelist
may attempt to put upon them. And in the embedded art of the
novel, the presentation of fragmented images, synecdochic body

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parts, persons suspended in air and on bridges, and serial works or


unfinished paintings suggest an aesthetic consistent with those unfinished dialogues. These novelists emphasize the process of painting more than the final product, and in most cases, the product is
not really finished: the embedded works of art tend to represent a
state of becoming rather than a state of being. The white silences of
the unwritten page and the unpainted canvas loom large as challenges to the creative woman.

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1
Opening the Portfolio: Jane Austen,
Charlotte Bronte , Anne Bronte , and
Elizabeth Stuart Phelps
I never saw a man so terribly excited. He precipitated himself
towards me. I snatched up my palette-knife and held it against
him. This startled him: he stood and gazed at me in astonishment; I dare say I looked as fierce and resolute as he.
Anne Bronte , The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

RARELY, IF EVER, IN THE NINETEENTH-CENTURY NOVEL IS THE CONFLICT


between womens art and mens ardor represented so graphically as
in the brief stand-off between Walter Hargrave and Helen Huntingdon in Anne Bronte s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Although a paletteknife is not a very prepossessing weapon, the cowardly Walter gets
the point and backs off, leaving Helen at her easel and free from his
unwanted advances for the moment.
In a less literal way, Bronte s novel and other nineteenth-century
novels show how the demands of courtship and marriage undermine womens attempts at art, not only by distracting them from
their easels but also, more insidiously, by infringing on the process
of painting itself. Generally low expectations for womens achievements play a part, of course, but in particular, painting and drawing
by women are repeatedly shown to be compromised by the protocols
of courtship in a social world where minor accomplishments in
the fine arts, if not pursued too seriously, add to a womans value on
the marriage market. It is not just that romance and serious art are
opposed to one another; rather, the rituals of courtship invade and
corrupt the creative process of womens art, so that what might conceivably have been genuine artistic expression to be judged on its
own merit instead becomes an occasion for gestures and exchanges
that must be understood in erotic rather than in aesthetic terms.
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The protagonists forays into the world of art are curbed by the
stringent literary as well as social dictum that women are destined
for marriage. The ambivalence about this dictum felt by women writersartistically gifted themselves but beholden to the literary conventions of the timemanifests itself in recurrent themes of
doubleness, duplicity, riddles, mysteries, and misunderstandings.
This doubleness is inherent in the culture, as Rachel Blau DuPlessis
writes: [u]sing the female artist as a literary motif dramatizes and
heightens the already-present contradiction in bourgeois ideology
between the ideals of striving, improvement, and visible public
works, and the feminine version of that formula: passivity, accomplishments, and invisible private acts.1 In a culture in which becoming an artist is perceived as incompatible with a narrowly
construed and pervasive idea of femininity, womens art would seem
like an inherent contradiction.
Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte both depict protagonists who
are amateur painters. The triumph of Eros over art is treated with
high comedy in the first volume of Austens Emma, in the episodes
involving Emmas attempt to paint a likeness of Harriet Smith. Jane
Eyre, in contrast, offers a somber glimpse into Janes inner self by
means of her watercolors, which she shows to Rochester in a quietly
intense moment when his potential to become her lover, rather than
her master, is subtly suggested. Two lesser novels, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Elizabeth Stuart Phelpss The Story of Avis, are of interest
because the protagonists attempt to establish themselves as professional painters, at least for a time, yet in both of these novels, courtship and marriagein particular, the demands of meneventually
overwhelm artistic inspiration and put an end to the painters career.
In real life, many women succeeded in launching careers as professional artists during the nineteenth century. Laura R. Prieto notes
that by the end of the century women had become the majority of
art students in America and a large percentage of exhibitors.2
Whitney Chadwick points out that even as the number of women
art students increased, the demand that women artists restrict their
activities to what was perceived as naturally feminine intensified during the second half of the century.3 For example, women were
urged to restrict their painting to pastels, portraits, and pictures of
flowers. By writing about failed careers, Anne Bronte and Phelps
dramatize the obstacles that all such women artists faced.
All of the novels discussed in this chapter depict protagonists who

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are motherless. In the case of Emma and Jane Eyre the absence of a
mother primarily helps to drive the plot and shape character: Emma
and Jane are obliged to pursue their own destinies as best they can
without maternal guidance, inventing themselves in the face of social situations they do not fully understand. In Phelpss The Story of
Avis, the absence of a mother in Aviss life leaves a void but also
allows a certain latitude and freedom in which the embryonic artist
can dream of a career while at the same time remaining extraordinarily naive about the stresses that marriage will bring into her life.
The embedded works of art in these novels seldom offer much stimulus to the readers imagination; only the paintings in Jane Eyre are
of genuine interest. Thus, a discussion of fictional women painters
in nineteenth-century novels necessarily emphasizes political considerations over aesthetic values, for the fictional woman artist is
portrayed tentatively. Hedged in as she is by ambivalence and misunderstanding, her art is embryonic, unfinished in several senses of the
word. Of greater interest is what the novelists reveal about their own
understanding of womens creativity when they present scenes of
painters painting or showing their work to others. In these nineteenth-century novels, the story of the fictional women painter is
one of many tentative awakenings to the possibilities of art.
Although they are novelists of vividly contrasting, nearly opposite literary sensibilities and aesthetic commitments, Jane Austen and
Charlotte Bronte depict womens art in similar ways. Both use embedded amateur artwork to shed light on their characters and
themes. Especially illuminating are the parallel moments in Emma
and Jane Eyre when the protagonists open their portfolios and, in revealing their art, reveal themselves as well: Emma Woodhouse shows
her portfolio to Mr. Elton and Harriet Smith; Jane Eyre shows hers
to Rochester. Both Austen and Bronte also implicitly criticize the superficial values of the marriage market by means of what can be
called the portrait of the false rival: Emma paints a portrait of
Harriet Smith, and Jane paints a portrait of two false rivals,
Blanche Ingram and Rosamond Oliver. As Anne Higonnet notes in
Secluded Vision: Images of Feminine Experience in NineteenthCentury Europe, this sort of womens art was ephemeral: most of
these pictures that survive now molder in drawers, attics, or flea
markets.4
The sort of artistic activity encouraged by nineteenth-century etiquette books, while allowing women some outlet for their creative

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aspirations, was essentially a dead end rather than a first step toward
serious artistic development. Linda Nochlin points out that it is exactly the insistence upon a modest, proficient, self-demeaning level
of amateurism as a suitable accomplishment for the well-broughtup young woman, who would naturally want to direct her major attention to the welfare of othersfamily and husbandthat militated, and still militates, against any real accomplishment on the
part of women.5 The lack of prestige granted to such amateur art
made it difficult for a woman to cross over into the ranks of professionals. In her study of women artists in nineteenth-century literature, Deborah Barker even argues that the female amateur artist
. . . functioned in the art world to limit womens recognition as artists, regardless of their ability, because their work was associated with
private, domestic activities.6 In the nineteenth century and even
later, Barker stresses, the prevailing belief was that genius and
high art were Romantic and masculine.
Both Austen and Bronte take the amateur art works seriously
enough, however, to use them as markers of their protagonists
growth toward adulthood. In the hands of literary artists as highly
accomplished as Austen and Bronte , the embedded work of amateur art bears an ironic relationship to the art of their novels. In the
case of Austen, the irony is comic; in the case of Bronte it borders
on tragic, for Jane Eyre does show promise of genuine but thwarted
artistic aspiration. Whereas many of Emmas paintings are unfinished, Janes are finished but they reveal fragmentation of body and
mind.
As protagonists, Emma Woodhouse and Jane Eyre begin their stories in almost diametrically opposite circumstances, and the novels
proceed from opposite premises. As Austens first sentence famously
declares, Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a
comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of
the best blessings of existence.7 Jane Eyre describes herself as
poor, obscure, plain, and little; she has nothing to lose, no real
home, and only a rebel disposition to sustain her.8 Jane learns to
sketch at Lowood Institution; Emma has been taught by the former
Miss Taylor, who has the same social standing as Jane Eyre, although
out of affection the family politely refers to Miss Taylor as a friend
rather than a governess. Emma begins with everything and Jane with
nothing.
Both novels portray a young woman on the brink of adulthood,
struggling for autonomy: Emma is twenty years old, and the most

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crucial events of Jane Eyre occur when Jane is nineteen and twenty.
In both novels the viewing of the protagonists portfolio serves as a
measure of the protagonists mind. The scene of Emmas portfolio is
described with Austens characteristic wit; the art in Janes portfolio
reveals Bronte s gothic imagination and her fragile but intense feminist aspirations.
Emmas work is humorously amateurish. Her paintings of landscapes and flowers hang at Hartfield, and some figure-pieces are
on display in Mrs. Westons drawing room, but her work is framed
and hung only because her friends and family all dote upon her
(27). Similarly, Mr. Eltons framing of Emmas painting of Harriet
Smith constitutes an amatory, not an aesthetic, statement. Austens
ironies are thickly layered at the moment when Emma displays her
portfolio to Mr. Elton and Harriet Smith: Her many beginnings
were displayed. Miniatures, half-lengths, whole-lengths, pencil,
crayon, and water-colours had all been tried in turn (28). Her best
paintings are unfinished because of her laziness and dilettantism, as
she is well aware. She makes plausible excuses for the unfinished
work: exact likenesses are difficult to do, and the five little nieces
and nephews will not sit still for their portraits. But the truth is that
Emma lacks industry and patience, as Mr. Knightley frequently
points out. Emma is also quite willing, however, to have others of
lesser taste think of her as a better painter than she is, although she
sees the dishonesty of the pleasure she takes in their praise. An additional irony is that her work is better than many might have done
with so little labor as she would ever submit to (28). Emma secretly
acknowledges the gap in standards between serious artistic endeavor
and drawing-room amateurism, and she is willing to take advantage
of the lower standard while being aware of the higher one and of
her own shortcomings. The reader observes Emmas conscious duplicity as the author probes Emmas mind with the searchlight of
her own wit. The perfection of Austens prose styleits finish and
polishcontrasts to the imperfection of Emmas work. This perfection is witnessed in the very sentences with which Austen describes
Emmas art, particularly in a passage elegantly contrasting Emmas
friends approbation with Austens own sober appraisal of what
Emma has genuinely achieved through her slapdash methods:
There was merit in every drawingin the least finished, perhaps the
most; her style was spirited; but had there been much less, or had there
been ten times more, the delight and admiration of her two companions
would have been the same. They were both in extasies. (28)

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Sober appraisal leads to satiric fun as author and reader alike enjoy
the silliness and poor judgment of Harriet and Mr. Elton. But the
author and reader can also see a modicum of talent in Emmas
least finished work and understand that Emmas creativity suffers
from not being held to a higher standard.
Emmas amateur artwork plays a role only in the first volume of
the novel, the section dealing with her matchmaking scheme involving Harriet and Elton; in the novel as a whole, music is a more frequent motif than painting. But the scenes in which Emma first
brings out her portfolio and then paints Harriets portrait are important because they introduce and reinforce the epistemological,
aesthetic, and social issues of the novel. Gilbert and Gubar attempt
to make a connection between Emma as the artist in the novel
and Austen as the artist of the novel, claiming that as a player of
word games, a painter of portraits and a spinner of tales, Emma is
clearly an avatar of Austen the artist.9 And they argue that Austen,
in her ambivalence toward womens self-expression, punishes Emma
for her exercise of imagination. But a connection between Emma
and Austen as artists makes sense only if we consider Emma as a parodic avatar of Austen, a spinner of false tales and a far less than
meticulous artist. Susan Morgan writes, Emma creates from love of
power and love of self, but also because she believes that without her
imagination acting upon it, the world would be a bore. But it is Austen, and not Emma Woodhouse, who imagines this world and gives
life to other characters besides Emma.10 Like her drawings,
Emmas scenarios for other people are unfinished; she makes haphazard sketches of reality.
Emma has a mind delighted with its own ideas (14). Until her
reformation at the end of the novel, Emma spins out fictions that
are false because of her lack of understanding of human nature and
her lack of awareness that people have minds and wills of their own;
in contrast, Austen creates fictions that are true because of her
splendid insights into human nature. Austens famous description
sent to her nephew of the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on
which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after so
much labour is a satiric response to the reviewers misunderstanding of her work, but it shows that she considered herself a meticulous portraitist, though not really a miniaturist.11 In contrast, Emma
Woodhouse cannot be an accurate portraitist because she cannot
see people as they are. Her painting is therefore comical, and Austen punishes her not so much for having too much imagination as

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for having an imagination that fails to be guided by accurate observation and common sense. Although arguments have been made for
reading Emma as a Romantic novel, one that, for example, expresses
Wordsworthian ideas about the growth of the mind, Austens treatment of Emmas runaway imagination and faulty judgment implicitly conveys Enlightenment values of reason, sanity, and balance,
values which are reinforced by the comedy of the novel. Emmas
blunders and wrong-headedness make for the comedy throughout
the novel, but the picture she paints of Harriet Smith is the very embodiment of her misapprehensions and misguided fancy.
Emmas painting of Harriet reveals her perceptual errors: her distortion of Harriets image, her misreading of Mr. Eltons intentions,
and her misunderstanding of her own position as a young woman
coming of age in a society that offers her a paucity of alternative
occupations and a choice only of marriage or spinsterhood. Aesthetic values at Hartfield are compromised by other, nonaesthetic
considerations. As Emma thumbs through her portfolio, we are told
that she sketched her family many times over but gave up drawing
for a long time because her sister did not consider her brother-inlaws portrait to be flattering enough. No such problem arises when
she paints Harriet, for Emma increases her height, adds elegance to
her figure, and glamorizes her eyelashes. As Emma begins the portrait, she is pleased that her matchmaking scheme appears to be
going forth, and gratified with Mr. Elton for stationing himself
where he might gaze and gaze again without offence (30). Emma
is, of course, unaware that Elton is gazing at her, a misunderstanding
that makes the situation funny but also potentially dangerous.
Emma as the painter is being transformed into Emma as subject at
the very moment when she is feeling some satisfaction in her scheming and some superiority to Mr. Eltons lack of taste: She could not
respect his eye, but his love and his complaisance were unexceptionable (30). As the painter who attempts to represent Harriet as a
marriageable commodity, Emma momentarily tries to evade the role
of commodity herself by becoming the controlling wielder of pencil
and brush. In assuming the role and stance of the artist, Emma steps
outside, so she thinks, of the dyadic relationship of gazing male
lover and female love object. The semblance of artistry and control
Emma gains is false because she never escapes Eltons gaze; he
adores the painting for his own wrong reason, because it is Emmas
handiwork, and not for Emmas wrong reason, because it is Harriets
painted image.

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When Harriets portrait is completed, Mr. Elton vigorously defends it against all criticism:
Miss Woodhouse has given her friend the only beauty she wanted
observed Mrs. Weston to himnot in the least suspecting that she was
addressing a loverthe expression of the eye is most correct, but Miss
Smith has not those eye-brows and eye-lashes. It is the fault of her face
that she has them not.
Do you think so? replied he. I cannot agree with you. It appears
to me a most perfect resemblance in every feature. I never saw such a
likeness in my life. We must allow for the effect of shade, you know.
You have made her too tall, Emma, said Mr. Knightley.
Emma knew that she had, but would not own it. . . . (3031)

Mrs. Weston, usually a sensible person, sees the deception in


Emmas cosmetic enhancement of Harriets beauty, but because she
loves Emma and always defers to her, she loyally transforms Emmas
deception into Harriets defect, implying that Emma has indeed improved upon the original, painting Harriet as she ought to be. Even
more comically absurd are Mr. Eltons raptures about the wonders
of the portrait, whereas Mr. Knightley, the voice of reason, speaks
bluntly and truthfully. Emma will not own up to having increased
Harriets stature, but this small deception seems minor in comparison to her large self-deception in supposing that Eltons ardor is directed toward Harriet. Here is a case where, in the context of
Austens comedy of cross-purposes, the larger issues of the marriage
market enter into and distort the amateur work of portraiture.
In the novel as a whole, as Christine Roulston writes, Emma uses
her authority for the singular purpose of organizing the narratives
of other female figures, which in turn enables her to become a master narrator and to avoid engaging with the questions of her own
gendered subjectivity.12 Such an illusion of control, either as an artist or as a spinner of fantasies, is only temporary, for Emmas fate is
far more predetermined than she realizes. Although she is not destined to marry Mr. Elton, she cannot escape from the marriage plot
because of social necessity and becausethis is Austens compromise with that necessityshe does not know her own heart. And
even though Emma is misguided, self-deluded, and dilettantish, we
can sympathize with her desire for mastery and excitement when she
sets out to make Harriet her creative project. Emma spins romances
because she is bored by the the daily crotchets of her father and sis-

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ter and the small talk of Highbury: every day remarks, dull repetitions, old news, and heavy jokes (168).
As a writer portraying an amateur artist, Austen reveals the debasement of art in a world where womens creativity is preempted
by the rituals of courtship. Art is compromised in the world of Highbury when the picture of Harriet is overestimated and also esteemed
for the wrong, nonaesthetic reasons. To Mr. Elton the portrait is
something extremely precious, capitalized as the Picture, elegantly
framed (46); it signifies his and Emmas hyperbolic fantasizing and
thus represents the opposite of Austens true aesthetic of realism
and verisimilitude. It is invested with amorous rather than aesthetic
value, producing comedy based on the incongruity of aesthetic
value and erotic appeal.
Later, after the episode of the painting, Emma declares to Harriet
once more that she has no intention of getting married herself. She
insists that when she grows old as a spinster, Womens usual occupations of eye and hand and mind will be as open to me then, as
they are now. . . . If I draw less, I shall read more; if I give up music,
I shall take to carpet-work (58). This declaration is exceedingly
funny in its context, and not simply because the reader knows that
Emma will never be a spinster. Emmas equating of drawing, reading, and music with carpet-work has a deflating effect, but the deflation of art to the level of drawing-room busywork is so commonly
accepted in Austens world that it is hardly to be seen as comical.
What is comical is to imagine that the restless Emma would ever find
satisfactory diversion in confining herself to such handicrafts, that
carpet-work could hold her interest for long.
On this point one is compelled to recall Austens own methods of
composition. Wearing a cap and a work-smock and without a
room of her own but protected by her sister and mother from unwanted interruption, Austen habitually wrote in the family drawing
room, upon small sheets of paper, which could easily be put away,
or covered with a piece of blotting paper.13 She composed her novels on folded sheets of paper, which she then stitched together into
small booklets, so that she had a sense of her novel coming physically into being; and the tidy home-stitching of folded pages seems
to have been her very early practice.14 That a novel as great as
Emmaso seamless, rich, and radiantcould be produced by such
humble means adds another dimension to Emmas comment about
carpet-work. The miracle is that Austen could stitch together such

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highly serious art in the very midst of a domestic world whose arts
she satirizes in Emma.
As an occasion for satire, Emmas undisciplined painting makes
manifest her habitual solipsism and meddlesomeness. The question
remains as to why, on the one hand, the reader can see Emma as a
comic figure in a world that so severely limits the occupations of her
mind and imagination and why, on the other hand, one can sympathize with her at all, given her snobbery, pride, and self-delusion.
The answer lies, I believe, in Emmas irrepressible energy, which
challenges the limitations of her life in Highbury and transcends the
unattractive qualities of her own character, the snobbery and selfcenteredness.
In his theory of comedy, Henri Bergson describes a repeated jackin-the-box effect as a rather childish source of comic delight but one
that is capable of sophisticated refinements.15 There is such an effect
in the way that Emma immediately bounces back from every perceptual error about the feelings of other people: Mr. Elton, Frank
Churchill, Jane Fairfax, Harriet Smith, and Mr. Knightley. The energy that keeps her coming back for more imaginings and more mistakes is the life force of the novel. Thus, it is absurd to think of
Emma as settling herself down to carpet-work and, as she proposes,
repressing imagination all the rest of her life (96). She has the
spirit playfully to insist to Mr. Knightley at the end of the novel, Oh!
I always deserve the best treatment, because I never put up with any
other . . . (327). Being handsome, clever, and rich are great advantages that allow Emma to lay claims upon life and she goes as far
as she can in staking her claims. Emma is no artist, but through her
attempts at amateur art Austen shows us Emmas lively imagination
and the forces that keep trying to rein it in. Some of these restraints
offer salutary intellectual correction: Emma has to learn to exercise
judgment and self-control in order to grow up. Also limiting her
scope, however, are some stringent social conventions that continually force Emma into her comfortable box (her woodhouse); the
marriage plot prevails in the end. And yet, as Austen says of Emmas
portfolio, her style was spirited.
Virginia Woolf contrasts the literary imaginations of Jane Austen and
Charlotte Bronte in A Room of Ones Own. Championing Austen,
Woolf praises her for having a mind that, like Shakespeares, consumed all impediments and, conceding that Bronte possibly had
more genius in her than Jane Austen, Woolf goes on to criticize

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Bronte for allowing her indignation to cause awkward intrusions in


the narrative flow of Jane Eyre.16 While more recent studies of
Bronte s novel have revealed its artfulness and structural sophistication, Woolf has a point: in comparison to Jane Austens novels, Jane
Eyres wider and wilder emotional range and its curious fusion of realism and Gothicism, of fairy tale and moral fable, make for an uneven if exhilarating narrative. Charlotte Bronte s criticism of Austen,
that the Passions are perfectly unknown to her, though untrue,
also helps to define the difference in the emotional temperatures of
the two novels.17 Bronte s Romantic evoking of the passions is supported by her use of irrational materials such as dreams, presentiments, and signs. This difference of sensibility is reflected in the art
of the two protagonists. Emma Woodhouses painting of Harriet
seeks to heighten the literal in order to flatter her subject, whereas
Austens art brilliantly satirizes her subjects. In contrast, the best of
Jane Eyres art is phantasmagoric, departing from the literal; thus it
appears to represent an extreme version of Bronte s own aesthetic.
Carol Christ points out the parallel between the dynamic of Bronte s
aesthetic and that of Janes psychological experience: Janes psychological struggle between the containment and expression of passion parallels Bronte s aesthetic conflict between the claims of
imagination and the claims of realism.18 Bronte uses Jane Eyres art
to depict in graphic form that struggle between containment and
expression of passion.
There is ample evidence that Charlotte Bronte s literary imagination was essentially visual. In a letter to George Lewes she writes,
Imagination is a strong, restless faculty, which claims to be heard
and exercised. . . . When she shows us bright pictures, are we never
to look at them, and try to reproduce them?19 She was occupied
with the visual arts from an early age, drawing and painting under
the tutelage of several art teachers whom her father employed for
the children, and even writing critiques of engravings and paintings
before she reached her teens. And it is well known that she executed
many illustrations for the vivid and detailed juvenilia she wrote
along with her siblings. Her amateur work in the visual arts was
closely aligned to her creative process as an emerging writer. The
habit of close observation, writes Christine Alexander, was fostered by her early lessons in drawing and lies as the basis of her later
mastery of character and scene.20 Alexander adds that all of Charlottes experience appears to have arranged itself in pictorial
form.21 This point is borne out by the descriptions of interiors in

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Jane Eyre, such as the dining room and saloon at Thornfield, which
have a painterly quality in their careful delineation of color, light,
and angle of observation.
The embedded works of art in Jane Eyre are of two kinds. What
might be called Janes parlor art, her portraits of other people,
shows her relationships to others and is associated with Bronte s extensive use of physiognomy in the novel. Her surreal art, consisting
of the watercolors that Rochester selects from her portfolio, is more
deeply tied to her psyche, hinting at her fate in a riddling way and
expressing her inner self through imagery. Such imagery proves useful because in Jane Eyre the concept of the self is presented as more
problematic, tension-filled, and conflicted than in most earlier novels, and so too, relationshipsespecially those between Jane and
Rochester and Jane and St. John Riversinvolve near-Lawrentian
struggles for domination and control between powerful but somewhat amorphous egos.
The Gothic elements within the novel, as they impinge upon
Janes consciousness, evoke and resonate with primitive, chthonic
tendencies within her own psyche. For example, in the moment
when Jane sits up all night with the severely wounded Richard
Mason and listens to the movements of the wild beast or the fiend
in the next room, unaware as yet that the fiend is Bertha Mason
Rochester, she inwardly asks, What crime was this, that lives incarnate in this sequestered mansion, and could neither be expelled nor
subdued by the owner?What mystery, that broke out, now in fire
and now in blood, at the deadliest hours of night? (138). This passage, like many, goes beyond mere Gothic titillation in its hints that
Bertha the fiend may be linked to some barely controllable Dionysian aspect of the psyche, even Janes own psyche, which could erupt
in fire and blood despite attempts to subdue it. The works of art in
the novel are closely aligned with such psychological struggles.
In the opening scene of the novel, excluded from the family circle
of the Reeds and bullied by her cousin John, Jane as a child hides
behind a curtain and takes refuge in Bewicks book on birds.
Each picture told a story, and those that most appeal to her imagination in a oddly soothing way are Romantic scenes of shipwrecks,
solitary churchyards, and especially the bleak shores of Lapland,
Siberia, Sptizbergan, Nova Zembla, Iceland, Greenland and other
forlorn regions of dreary space (2). This imagery of remote seashores and icy regions, repeated later in her own watercolors, carries
her away momentarily from the anger she constantly feels toward

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the abusive Reeds, but it also helps to define what might be called
the frigid pole of her life, the side of herself that wants to be driven
by duty, moral propriety, and restraint, as opposed to the fire of
anger that allows her boldly to assail Mrs. Reed and the fire of passion which Rochester arouses. Much later, when St. John Rivers, described as cold as an iceberg (296), offers her a loveless marriage
coupled with a sacrificial life as a missionary, Jane is momentarily
tempted by the grandeur of his evangelical rhetoric. But when he
presses her to marry him, revealing that he wants nothing less than
total control over her, Jane asks, Reader, do you know, as I do, what
terror those cold people can put into the ice of their questions? How
much of the fall of the avalanche is in their anger? of the breaking
up of the frozen sea in their displeasure? (274). Although she
comes to realize that in order to accept St. John she would have to
stifle half of her nature, the other half of her nature is drawn to the
icy St. John.
Images of oceans and ice reappear in the portfolio of drawings
that Jane shows to Rochester at his request shortly after she meets
him at Thornfield. Some of Janes art deals with conventional Victorian classical or sentimental subjectsa naiads head, an elf in a
hedge-sparrows nestbut the sequence of three watercolors that
Rochester singles out comes purely from her imagination and includes surreal scenes of a sort not usually found in womens amateur
paintings of the period. Prominent in the paintings are parts of bodies. The first one depicts a swollen sea and a half-submerged
mast on which there sits a cormorant holding in its beak a gold
bracelet, set with gems (82). Sinking below is a dimly seen drowned
corpse whose fair arm was the only limb clearly visible, whence the
bracelet had been washed or torn (82). The second painting portrays the bust of a woman against an evening sky, its dim forehead
. . . crowned with a star (82). The third painting shows an iceberg
and, resting against it, a colossal head, bloodless and pale, which
Jane connects with Miltons figure of Death. This series of pictures
reveals obsessive morbidity but also flashing hints of ecstasy. They
seem produced directly from Janes unconscious, and as such, they
contribute to Bronte s larger deployment of nonrational materials
such as nightmares, hallucinations, and gothic spectacle to engage
the reader on an intuitive, emotional level. The paintings reveal
Janes troubled psyche but also her secret aspirations to moments of
rapture, symbolized by stars, jewels, and white flames.
Critics have interpreted Janes paintings in various ways. L. E.

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Moser, for example, identifies the cormorant as Jane and the


drowned corpse as Helen Burns or possibly Bertha Mason Rochester.22 Enid Duthie reads the elements of that same painting more
symbolically, as representing the subconscious dread of being engulfed in unfathomable depths, in the vague hope that something
of value might yet be saved from the wreck.23 There are also hints
that the scenes function as obscure prophesies of Janes own future.
The shipwreck scene with the bird and the bracelet relates to the
episodes with Rochester subsequent to his first proposal. As their
wedding day approaches, Jane bitterly resists Rochesters possessive
efforts to make her over as a fine bejeweled lady, denying her real
self; it sounds almost like a threat when he insists, I will clasp the
bracelets on these fine wrists, and load these fairy-like fingers with
rings (171). Later, when Jane learns of the existence of Bertha on
what was to have been her own wedding day, she feels shipwrecked:
the torrent poured over me. . . . The whole consciousness of my
life lorn, my love lost, my hope quenched, my faith death-struck,
swayed full and mighty over me in one sullen mass. And she quotes
from the Bible, I came into deep waters; the floods overflowed me
(197). The figure of the deathlike head against the iceberg continues the polar imagery and more obviously foreshadows her episodes
with St. John Rivers, whose abode she approaches in a near-death
state as a poor, emaciated, pallid wanderer (225). The middle picture, showing a womans figure in a state of glory in darkness,
crowned with a star, suggests Janes search for fulfillment, her attempts to understand and reach her own potential best self in a
world that presents numerous obstacles to that goal.
Although Janes use of suggestive archetypal imagery entices the
reader to attempt to interpret the paintings in light of the novel as
a whole, there is obviously no correct interpretation of them.
Bronte does not supply the reader with enough clues to read them
allegorically with any degree of confidence. The reader is therefore
invited to interact with the hints and signs, trying out various interpretations of them, while their actual meaning remains indeterminate. If works of art embedded in novels always present a particular
challenge to the readers imagination as visual constructs existing
only in words, then Jane Eyres paintings issue an additional challenge: the reader is invited to interpret art works which are not only
imaginary but also surreal and mysterious. The ekphrastic passages
seem to bear a symbolic relationship to Janes narrative, but only in
a tenuous and elusive way; they embody an aesthetic of the suspended.

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Looking at Janes portfolio, Rochester perceives that, despite her


status as an amateur artist or, at best, a quasiprofessional
governesses are expected to teach drawingJane Eyre is deeply serious about her art. Whereas Emma Woodhouse is too dilettantish to
spend much time regretting what she has not achieved in art, the
nineteen-year-old Jane feels deep regret that her work comes nowhere near embodying her inner vision. Jane describes her frustrations:
The subjects had, indeed, risen vividly on my mind. As I saw them with
the spiritual eye, before I attempted to embody them, they were striking:
but my hand would not second my fancy, and in each case it had
wrought out but a pale portrait of the thing I had conceived. (81)

And yet, to paint these pictures, she confides to Rochester, was to


enjoy one of the keenest pleasures I have ever known (82). Janes
striving for the unattainable ideal, the image seen with the spiritual
eye, parallels Bronte s attempts in the novel to suggest the hidden,
unconscious life of her characters.
Unlike Mr. Elton, Rochester has a genuine eye for art. As he scrutinizes Janes portfolio, it seems at first that he is simply investigating
his employees accomplishments as a governess; his cool, impersonal tone is consistent with his harsh demeanor. Yet he interrogates
her as to her methods of work and her feelings about it as if she were
a serious artist, conceding that the drawings are, for a school girl,
peculiar (82). He seems to warm to the works as he gazes at them,
commenting on the unusual light in the eyes of the evening star
figure and asking in an exclamatory way, who taught you to paint
wind? (82). One could argue that Rochesters love for Jane dates
from this moment, when he discovers in her a kindred spirit. Unlike
Mr. Elton, he is really looking at the art rather than the artist.
Gilbert and Gubar distinguish between Janes dreamlike drawings of the portfolio, where we see her unconscious impulses
emerging prophetically, and her portrait of Blanche Ingram,
which they call a form of image magic.24 Janes ivory miniature of
Blanche Ingram, the first of two portraits of false rivals, is executed
before Jane has laid eyes on Blanche and is based upon Mrs. Fairfaxs flattering description of her. In an act of hyperbolic self-abnegation, Jane gives herself the assignment of creating comparative
portraits of herself and Blanche: place the glass before you, she
instructs herself, and draw in chalk your own picture, faithfully;

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without softening one defect: omit no harsh line, smooth away no


displeasing irregularity; write under it, Portrait of a Governess, disconnected, poor and plain (105). Afterwards, she tells herself,
take a piece of smooth ivory . . . , mix your freshest, finest, clearest
tints . . . ; delineate the loveliest face you can imagine . . . , remember
the raven ringlets, the Oriental eye (105). Jane carries out the selfimposed task: An hour or two sufficed to sketch my own portrait in
crayons; and in less than a fortnight I had completed an ivory miniature of an imaginary Blanche Ingram (105). Janes assertion of her
own poverty, orphanhood, and low social standing in the caption of
her portrait is a clear indication that the two portraits represent
Janes perception of the relative marriageability of the two women.
What is shocking to the reader is that Janes self-esteem could sink
so low that she would allow these extraneous values to enter into the
quality of her artistry, allotting two hours of work in chalk for herself
and two weeks of meticulous labor on ivory for Blanche, as though
marriageability could and should be measured out and rendered up
in careful brushstrokes. In contrast to Janes freely self-expressive watercolors, her portrait of Blanche is a corruption of art because it
depicts a woman as a commodity. As Jane well knows, she has
painted an imaginary Blanche, a projection of what she expects her
rival to be. Even as Rochester uses Blanche as a ruse to tease Jane,
arouse her jealousy, and trick her into revealing her love, Jane cooperates by creating an imagined Blanche who no more exists than
does Emmas glamorized version of Harriet Smith. In this case, however, it is in the realm of inner character, not outer beauty, that
Blanche falls short. When Jane finally observes Blanche for herself
at the party at Thornfield, she sees that although Blanche resembles
the idealized portrait in general outlinesshe is molded like a
Dian and the noble bust, the sloping shoulders, the graceful neck,
the dark eyes and black ringlets were all thereher face reveals
undesirable characteristics, haughtiness and selfish pride, which
Jane can discern through her knowledge of physiognomy (112). Although she still fears that Blanche may be her rival, she no longer
sees her as a worthy one, and the only question remaining about
Blanche is whether Rochester is equally as discerning as Jane, as indeed he is. The image magic works, though not by any supernatural means.
Janes second painting of a false rival is the miniature of Rosamond Oliver, the woman who infatuates St. John Rivers. Although
Rosamond is pleasant, generous, and stunningly beautiful, Jane is

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not much pained by this rivalry because she does not really love
St. John, although she is tempted briefly by the missionary life which
he offers and impressed by his singleness of purpose. Casting off in
his own mind his infatuation with Rosamond, The Rose of the
World, in favor of Jane, whom he sees as unworldly and spiritually
strong enough to sacrifice herself for his cause, St. John creates a
false opposition between the two women. He does not perceive the
passionate, sensuous side of Jane that will call her back to Rochester.
Janes painting of Rosamond also provides the plot twist which will
allow Jane to become independently wealthy even as Rochester becomes helpless, the reversal which makes possible the unusual terms
of their marriage, with Jane as the dominant partner of the blind
and crippled Rochester. When St. John lifts from the surface of the
painting a scrap of paper on which she has been resting her hand as
she paints, this scrap reveals her true name and allows him to discover her identity as his cousin and the sole heiress of her uncles
estate. Thus, in a roundabout and gratuitous fashion, Jane becomes
rich through someones looking at her art. Jane has also grown beyond her self-abasing obsession with beauty in other women. Prior
to painting Rosamonds portrait, Jane constructs a judicious reading of her face:
[She was] ingenuous, sufficiently intelligent; gay, lively, and unthinking:
she was very charming, in short, even to a cool observer of her own sex
like me; but she was not profoundly interesting or thoroughly impressive. (245)

In a few short months and after many hardships, Jane has learned to
see marketable beauty and wealth in other women as less threatening to herself and less relevant to her own life. Janes art is never
mentioned again once she marries Rochester and begins to function
as his eyes, but in taking that step toward becoming a cool observer who can exercise creativity and control through her art, Jane
Eyre makes genuine progress in the fictional narrative of womens
journey toward becoming artists.
A curiosity of Jane Eyre is that the book does not close with the
account of Janes ten years of marriage to Rochester but rather with
the apocalyptic ranting of the dying St. John, conveyed to Jane in a
letter from India. Sally Shuttleworth interprets this final passage as
an indication of Janes hidden savage discontent: [j]ust as the
eruptions of Bertha had earlier disrupted the surface meaning of

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Janes text, so this final vision of St. John, internally torn and violently hewing down external opposition, undercuts Janes claims to
have achieved harmonious union.25 Shuttleworth adds that Janes
celebration of the fact of young Adeles having become a docile
young woman contradicts Janes own youthful spirit of rebellion.
Such statements of happy conformity, she notes, sit awkwardly
in a text whose power and motivating force lies in its clamour against
injustice, its desire to break bonds whether of social prescriptions
for femininity or the generic conventions of the realist text.26 One
might add that both the fire-setting animalistic savagery of Bertha
and the icy spiritual savagery of St. John are only temporarily subdued within the novel, and they find an echo in the spirit of Jane,
who in different circumstances might have fused this fire and ice
into forms of artistic expression. In any case, Charlotte Bronte represents painting as one aspect of Janes unrealized potential.
Two lesser nineteenth-century novels, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
(1848) by Charlotte Bronte s sister Anne and The Story of Avis (1877)
by American novelist Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, feature protagonists
who make the attempt to become professional painters; they both
have studios and sell some of their work. In both novels the main
characters, infatuated with the beauty of the men they will marry,
paint portraits of them; in both cases the husbands turn out to be
morally and physically weak, and they die in the course of the novels.
The artist figures differ in that Avis Dobell in Phelpss novel has a
genuine vocation and several years of professional training in art,
whereas Bronte s character Helen Huntingdon turns from amateur
art to professional painting only briefly as a means of trying to cobble together a livelihood. In both cases, however, their artistic careers are aborted when marriage and art prove to be incompatible.
Anne Bronte and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps both depict women painters who are continually distracted from their work by the demands
of courtship and marriage.
In Bronte s novel the institution of marriage is never held up to
scrutiny; her protagonist simply has very bad luck in her choice of
her first husband. As Rachel Blau DuPlessis writes, Most of the
nineteenth-century works with female artists as heroes observe the
pieties, putting their final emphasis on the woman, not the genius;
the narratives are lacerated with conflicts between femininity and
ambition.27 Phelps also presents that conflict, but her novel, unlike
Bronte s, contains a bitter indictment of marriage and domestic life.

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That these authors perceive an incompatibility between traditional


and innovative notions of womanhooda dissonance beneath the
surface and unarticulated in Anne Bronte but explicit in Phelpsis
evidenced by the pervasive instances of ambiguity and doubleness in
these novels.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall has a double plot, allowing Bronte to
have it both ways. Helen Huntingdons first marriage is depicted as
destructive of her spirit, with a professional painting as her means
of escape; her second marriage, which ends the novel, is meant to
be redemptive, making her painting seem unnecessary. The Story of
Avis has a more straightforward plot in which Phelps tests the premise that marriage and a life of art might be compatible. That premise
proves false: when Avis falls in love she loses her singleness of purpose as an artist, and subsequently she loses her artistic inspiration
entirely under the burdens of marriage and motherhood. Although
the narrator of The Story of Avis is ardently feminist, ambiguity arises
from the confused feelings that both Avis and her husband Philip
have about gender roles in a marriage where the woman is an artist.
Launching into marriage, Avis naively believes Philips solemn
promises of moral support for her career, although Philip has not
really thought about the matter at all.
A corollary to the ambivalence about womens artistic careers in
the work of Anne Bronte and Phelps is the riddling or two-sided nature of several of the embedded works of art. Paintings often have a
double meaning or a hidden side in these two novels, reflecting the
fact that the journey toward womens imaginative expression is not
a straightforward quest but one with hidden pitfalls. In fact, all four
of the novels discussed in this chapter make use of riddles or mysteries having to do with the protagonists destiny. The parlor games
conundrums and charadesplayed in Emma and Jane Eyre relate to
courtship and marriage. In Emma, Mr. Elton offers a verse charade
on the word courtship for Harriets album, a puzzle that Emma
readily guesses while Harriet remains literally clueless. Yet Emma
herself does not guess the answer to the larger riddle, that the verse
is meant for her and that her painting of Harriet will be interpreted
contrary to her intentions for it. In Jane Eyre, Rochester sets up a
game of charades at Thornfield in which he acts out a wedding
scene with Blanche to illustrate the word Bridewell, his purpose
being to mislead Jane and draw out her jealousy. But Janes true nature, her worth, and her potential are likewise a riddle to Rochester,
with her paintings offered as suggestive clues. These riddles were

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contrived by men as part of a game of courtship. But in The Tenant of


Wildfell Hall and The Story of Avis works of art painted by the women
protagonists contain puzzles, hidden images, or hidden meanings
that suggest not only the artists inner conflicts but also the tendency
of others to misread her work.
In the courtship scenes in Anne Bronte and Phelps, art is compromised just as it was in Emma, by being coopted for erotic uses, an
occasion for flirtation rather than aesthetic contemplation. But the
misuse of their art is more grievous in the case of women characters
who intend to paint professionally, since the work of art itself is
made to be the instrument of its own defeat by acting as an erotic
attraction to the suitor. And in instances where the woman paints
the man who courts her, her own sense of aesthetic distance is lost
as she becomes amorously engaged with the beauty of her subject.
Not just the disapproval of society but also the artists own desire for
love compromises her art.
Anne Bronte breaks ground in depicting a woman artist with a
studio of her own. The reader is surprised along with the narrator
Gilbert Markham when he accompanies his sister to call upon the
elegant young widow Helen Graham, the mysterious tenant of
Wildfell Hall:
To our surprise we were ushered into a room where the first object that
met the eye was a painters easel, with a table beside it covered with rolls
of canvas, bottles of oil and varnish, palette, brushes, paints, etc. Leaning
against the wall were several sketches in various stages of progression,
and a few finished paintingsmostly of landscapes and figures.28

What is surprising is not that Helen is an artist, for Anne Bronte was
herself a painter like her sister, but that Helen appears to have established herself as a professional. I cannot afford to paint for my own
amusement, she tells Gilbert, and her little son Arthur adds,
Mamma sends all her pictures to London . . . and somebody sells
them for her there, and sends us the money (69). Since the events
of the novel are set in the late 1820s, this is quite an early portrayal
of a professional woman artist. Helens career turns out to be a flashin-the-pan, however.
Although Anne Bronte , unlike Charlotte, writes in a style almost
devoid of symbolism, she does invite a symbolic reading of the artists space. Helen is living with her little son and her servant Rachel
in the one heated suite of rooms in Wildfell Hall, a superannuated

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mansion of the Elizabethan era, built of dark grey stone . . . cold and
gloomy to inhabit, with its thick stone mullions and little latticed
panes, its time-eaten airholes, and its too lonely, too unsheltered
situation . . . (45). Within the near-ruins of this old Tudor mansion
Helen has established a bright, clean studio, and within the studio
she paints various pictures of the old mansion to sell in London. A
woman artist symbolically claims a well-lighted space within a ruin of
the past and draws upon that same past as subject for her art, a
promising situation but one that is highly unstable, for neither
Bronte s plot nor even Helens own secret desires will allow her to
remain an artist for long.
A feminist strain in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is revealed not only
in the scenes of Helens victimization in marriage and her attempt
to escape by means of her art but also in the ideas she subsequently
develops about equality of education for men and women. Nevertheless, Bronte s compromise with the marriage plot prevents any genuine liberation for Helen. The part of the novel narrated by Gilbert
Markham in epistolary form presents a traditional love story in
which the honorable Gilbert wins the woman of his dreams, the
beautiful Helen, after enduring various trials. The part of the novel
narrated by Helen, in the form of diary entries from the past, presents the harrowing story of her marriage to her first husband, Arthur, from whom she eventually escapes. The two parts of the novel
are like trains running on opposite tracks: narrated by a woman, the
diary tells the story of Helens escape from an abusive marriage into
a life of art; narrated by a man, the letters tell a story that runs
counter to it, in which the abused, self-sacrificing woman finds in
him, Gilbert, her own true love. The epistolary narration surrounds
that of the diary, privileging romance in the novel and revealing
Anne Bronte s ambivalence about Helens artistic career. Despite its
implausible plot and clumsy narrative techniques, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is of interest because of its stark presentation of the conflict
between Eros and art, especially in scenes where the process of
sketching or painting is intruded upon by a lover.
After visiting Helens studio and seeing a mysterious painting of
a handsome young man turned face to the wall, Gilbert Markham
gradually falls in love with her. Although Helen appears to be serious about her art, admitting enjoyment in what she does and lamenting, like Jane Eyre, that she can never exactly produce the
various brilliant and delightful touches of nature (104), her art is
invaded at every turn by the distractions of courtship. When Gilbert

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finds Helen sketching the branches of winter trees by a brook, he


turns his gaze upon her:
I stood and watched the progress of her pencil; it was a pleasure to behold it so dexterously guided those fair and graceful fingers. But erelong
their dexterity became impaired, they began to hesitate, to tremble
slightly, and make false strokes, and then suddenly came to a pause,
while their owner laughingly raised her face to mine and told me that
her sketch did not profit by my superintendence. (7475)

Neither the besmitten narrator nor the author appears to regard it


as anything other than charming that Gilberts Elton-like gaze
causes the artists hand to tremble and make false strokes. Later,
when Helen is sketching on a rock by the sea, Gilbert keeps stealing
glances at the elegant white hand that held the pencil and insists
on carrying her stool and sketch book, although she points out that
she can manage them well enough by herself (88). Minor as these
moments may be, the deflection of the admirers gaze from the art
to the artist indicates the authors deference to the marriage plot.
When Gilbert fully declares his love to the mysterious Helen, she rejects his proposal and hands him her diary, and the narration shifts
to the story of her past.
Although Helens diary lacks the immediacy one might expect of
the form, just as Gilberts letters to his brother-in-law, implausibly
written years after the event, also lack immediacy, Bronte s shift in
point of view allows for the kind of double vision noted earlier.
While Helens art is merely compromised in the Gilbert plot, it is
demeaned and debased in the story of her first marriage. As a beautiful orphan of eighteen with a considerable fortune, Helen makes
a very bad marriage choice. Infatuated by the male beauty and superficial charm of Arthur Huntingdon, Helen sketches his face on
the back of several of her paintings, later erasing all but one of the
secret sketches. At a house party, Arthur discovers the hidden art,
which flatters his vanity: I looked up, curious to see what it was,
and, to my horror, beheld him complacently gazing at the back of
the pictureIt was his own face that I had sketched there and forgotten to rub out! Arthur grabs the painting and, thrusting it
under his coat, buttoned his coat upon it with a delighted chuckle
(171). Thus, hidden on the back side of Helens art is a graphic illustration of the force that undermines her art, Helens love for the
worthless, selfish Arthur. In this instance, the author and the narra-

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tor, in retrospect, both regard the situation as bitterly humiliating,


but only because Arthur turns out to be a brute, not because Helens
art is compromised.
In another scene, Arthur comes upon Helen in the library working on what appears to be a particularly mawkish painting of a
young girl . . . kneeling on the daisy-spangled turf . . . her hands
clasped, lips parted, and eyes intently gazing upward in pleased, yet
earnest contemplation of a pair of amorous turtle doves (175).
Dreadful as this painting seems to the modern reader, it is capable
of corruption, and Arthur corrupts it, declaring in saccharine tones,
Upon my worda very Hebe! I should fall in love with her, if I hadnt
the artist before me. Sweet innocent! shes thinking there will come a
time when she will be wooed and won like that pretty hen-dove, by as
fond and fervent a lover; and shes thinking how pleasant it will be, and
how tender and faithful he will find her. (175)

Helens art has been reduced to an erotic stimulus for Arthur, who
seems ready to devour her subject like a tender roast dove. In the
ensuing scene, Arthur violates the privacy of Helens portfolio by examining her unfinished sketches against her will. When he seizes
upon a miniature picture of himself, Helen throws it in the fire. Yet
despite his violations of her privacy and her art, Helen marries Arthur, who promptly reveals himself to be a shallow, childish wastrel
who neglects his wife for months at a time. He has affairs under
Helens nose, even bringing a mistress into the household as a governess. Walter Hargrave attempts to rescue Helen into an adulterous affair with him, but she holds him off with her palette knife.
When Arthur and his carousing friends begin to corrupt her small
son Arthur, teaching him curses and plying him with alcohol, Helen
resolves to escape with the child, using her art as a means of support.
Working from dawn to dusk in the library, she builds up a new portfolio of works to sell, only to have Arthur discover the plan and burn
all of her work. Although he also seizes her money and jewels, Helen
manages finally to escape to Wildfell Hall, helped by her brother
and a loyal servant, and there she goes into hiding and sets up her
studio, keeping Arthurs portrait turned to the wall so that her son
might someday compare his face to that of his corrupt father.
Reading Helens diary, Gilbert realizes that she is not free to love
him so long as Arthur is alive; shortly thereafter, Arthur falls off a
horse and Helen returns to him, sacrificially nursing him until his

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death. Rewarded in fairy-tale style, like Jane Eyre, by inheriting all of


Arthurs land as well as her uncles, Helen ends up extremely
wealthy, no longer a tenant, and free to marry Gilbert, which she
does graciously despite the disparity of wealth and class between
them. Gilbert, the good lover is faithful but impulsive, with the
usual violent streak of the Bronte an hero; he horsewhips Helens
brother almost to death, having mistaken him for a rival lover. In
the light of these events, Helens art appears to be forgotten, although for a time she does send her work off to London under a set
of false initials, rather like Acton and Currer Bell. The secrets and
ambiguities of The Tenant of Wildfell HallHelens anonymity as an
artist, the mystery surrounding her character until her story is revealed in her diary, the doubleness of the plotsuggest Anne
Bronte s own anxiety and ambivalence about the real possibility of
an artistic career for a woman in the middle of the nineteenth century.
While Helen temporarily arranges her studio space in a ruined mansion, Avis Dobell in The Story of Avis, by American writer Elizabeth
Stuart Phelps, has a building of her own, situated in her fathers
garden:
It was pleasant in the garden studio. The square little building with the
Gothic door and porch, and long, low windows, stood within call of the
house, yet was quite isolated by the budding trees, an island in a sea of
leaves. It gave a sense of solitude to the fancy, which was rather heightened than lessened by the close presence of unseen life.29

With its symmetry and its Gothic ornamentation, Aviss studio seems
like a Romantic symbol of the ideal life of art. Inviting, templelike,
surrounded by birds and trees, her studio provides a private space
where the fancy can be indulged in peace and solitude. Aviss plans
to establish herself as a serious professional artist are thwarted, however, when she makes the fatal mistake of trying to combine that career with marriage.
Phelpss novel expresses feminist ideas that were implicit or latent
in earlier novels. Writing at a time when the feminist movement
showed signs of flourishing in the postCivil War era, Phelps sets out
to illustrate the point that marriage is not yet compatible with an
artistic career, although she remains optimistic that future generations of women will find a way. Before Avis decides to marry him,

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she explains to her suitor Philip Ostrander her reason for resisting
his proposal:
Successfor a womanmeans absolute surrender, in whatever direction. Whether she paints a picture, or loves a man, there is no division
of labor possible in her economy. To the attainment of any end worth
living for, a symmetrical sacrifice of her nature is compulsory upon her.
I do not say that this was meant to be so. . . . God may have been in a
just mood, but he was not in a merciful one, when, knowing they were
to be in the same world with men, he made women. (6970)

Nothing in the novel contradicts this absolutist point of view, although Phelps adds psychological subtlety and texture to the novel
by creating in Avis and Ostrander characters who are themselves
conflicted about the roles of men and women and lacking full understanding of their own hearts.
Avis starts out with a single-minded intention; she is the only character discussed in this chapter who has professional training as well
as a burning desire to be an artist. The intellectually bracing milieu
of the New England university town where Avis grows up, with its
book clubs and poetry societies, is surely more conducive to womens artistic aspirations than, for example, Edna Pontelliers uppermiddle-class New Orleans would be. Louisa May Alcotts sister had
even published a book on how to study art on a budget in Europe,
and many young women were doing so. Thus, although artistic careers for women were still rare, it is plausible enough that as the
novel opens, Avis has just returned from six years of study with the
best art masters of Italy and France. It is less plausible, at least to
readers of Henry James, that Avis has remained extraordinarily innocent while abroad. A flashback reveals that Avis made the decision
to become an artist in an epiphanic moment at age sixteen while
sitting in an apple tree reading Elizabeth Barrett Brownings Aurora
Leigh. When young Avis runs to her father Hegel Dobell with her
newfound aspiration, she expresses herself unequivocally: I have
decided this morning that I want to be an artist. I want to be educated as an artist and paint pictures all my life (33). Her fathers
response is typical of the times but uncharacteristically harsh for
him: Nonsense, nonsense! repeated Professor Dobell. I cant
have you filling your head with any of these womanish apings of a
mans affairs, like a monkey playing tunes on a hand-organ (33).
In this instance the familiar comparison of a talented woman to a

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performing animal only serves to mask Hegel Dobells buried guilt


about his dead wifes thwarted ambitions: she gave up dreams of a
career as an actress in order to marry him. When Avis persists in her
aspirations, her father reluctantly agrees to send her to Florence
and Paris.
Returning from her studies abroad at age twenty-six, Avis encounters Ostrander, an attractive young college tutor, at the poetry society. She recollects having seen him once before with a group of
tourists in a French cathedral, having been struck by his Nordic
beauty. Avis agrees to paint his portrait, their intimacy grows, and
when she completes the painting, he blurts out his love for her. Avis
vehemently resists her own attraction to him, but history intervenes:
stung by her refusal, Ostrander runs off to join the Union Army and
is severely injured at the Battle of Bull Run. Nursed back to life, not
by Avis but by her rival Barbara Allen, Ostrander literally flings himself at Aviss feet once he begins to convalesce. Her attraction to him
now enhanced by pity and guilt, Avis agrees to marry him, although
not without an intense inward struggle. In this part of the novel, as
Carol Farley Kessler points out, Avis experiences an inner civil war
between her two naturesthe woman socialized to sacrifice, the
human being expecting to grow and to achieve.30 Ostrander cheerfully promises to encourage Aviss career after marriage, but her
Aunt Chloe, who has selflessly borne the burden of domestic chores
in the Dobell family, warns Avis that her artwork will be impossible
after marriage. At the same time, even Aunt Chloe, the Angel in the
House, admits to her own thwarted secret desire of becoming a botanist or florist. Critic Linda Huf reports an anecdote in which Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, when still a schoolgirl, startled a friend by
holding out a thimble and a paintbrush and proclaiming dramatically that a woman must choose between them. Huf adds that
where Avis Dobell Ostrander goes wrong is that she does not
choose the paintbrush.31
Misery after predictable misery ensues. Although she sets up a
makeshift studio in the attic of their house, Avis soon bears two children, and the overwhelming domestic burdens keep her from painting. The turning point comes one morning when Ostrander nastily
complains about the breakfast after Avis has been up all night nursing their fretful child. She mildly chides him, remember you didnt
marry me to be your housekeeper, Philip! to which he coldly replies, I remember. I dont know what we were either of us thinking
of! (153). An old girlfriend whom Philip abandoned shows up, and

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worse, Avis learns that Philip has deliberately neglected his feeble,
dying mother. He loses his job as a college teacher because of inattention to duties and becomes like a third child to Avis, who, though
the stronger of the two of them, nearly dies of diphtheria herself.
After she learns that Ostrander has been seen in public making advances to Barbara Allen during Aviss illness, she agrees to send the
ailing Ostrander off to the south of France for the winter, at huge
financial sacrifice. Before leaving, he tells her frankly that he no
longer loves her as he once did.
Avis is now driven to paint in earnest in order to pay off Ostranders long-standing college debts, but work proves impossible. Phelps
presents dramatic moments in which the children literally pound
and scratch upon the locked studio door, demanding her attention.
After her son Van Dyck dies of pneumonia and Ostrander returns
from Europe in an advanced state of consumption, Avis sells photographs of one of her paintings in order to finance their trip to Florida for his health, an early instance of a woman making a profit on
the photographic reproduction of her work. Ostrander dies pathetically in a Florida swamp, and, despite his many selfish actions, Phelps softens his character at the end. Narrating the denouement
partly from his point of view, Phelps depicts him as a confused victim
of his own weakness and conventionality rather than as a brute like
Arthur Huntingdon. Ostrander sadly declares, I cannot seem to
make up my mind to bear it . . . that my wife should not respect me
enough to love me (230), and after that confused admission, he
and Avis experience at least some degree of reconciliation before
his death.
The gloomy end of the novel places it in the tradition of American
literary naturalism; Aviss fate seems totally determined by circumstances. Emotionally exhausted, Avis is not able to return to her
painting after Ostranders death. Her only remaining wish is that
her daughter, named Wait, or perhaps her daughters daughter, will
be able to achieve what she could not. It is not entirely clear why
Avis, still a young woman, should have no hope of transcending the
hardships she has endured and of finding renewed sources of passion and strength in order to paint, but Phelps obviously means her
premise in the novel to have the force of an axiom. In answer to the
question, is it possible to avoid the stern either/or choice of art or
marriage? is it possible to have both/and? Phelps replies, in effect,
not yet; wait.
As various readers have observed, Phelpss tone is uneven and her

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style self-consciously literary. The Story of Avis should not be regarded as the work of an inferior sensibility, however. On the contrary, the novel reveals an imaginative writer struggling to express
radical ideas; the formal lapses imply a dialogue in the writers own
mind between her anger and her desire to please. As editor Carol
Farley Kessler points out, her style documents Phelpss effort to
force her voice from hedged-in silence.32 Phelps freely makes use
of allusion and leitmotifs to add emotional resonance and a larger
frame of reference to her story, her efforts foreshadowing some of
the techniques of modernist writers. Her recurrent metaphors of
bird, lighthouse, and sea anticipate the metaphors of Virginia
Woolf, although Phelpss handling of these tropes is clumsy in comparison to Woolf s delicate artistry. Birdlike Avis finds freedom at
the seashore, but she is also given to trying to rescue dying birds that
fling themselves upon the local lighthouse and then, when she
agrees to marry Ostrander, she throws herself upon him like the
bird to the light-house (110). These images are an attempt to embellish the story and help convey its emotional content in a pictorial
way. Phelps foreshadows the works of Kate Chopin and Virginia
Woolf in her effort to imbue the novel itself with an artistic sensibilityan acute visual sense and an appreciation for color, symbol, and
natural formssimilar to the sensibility of the artist in the novel. Or
rather, Phelps attempts this kind of artistic writing in the early parts
of the novel, which show the growth of the artist, before the domestic drama takes over and stifles art. Aviss epiphanies are sometimes
sentimental, but Phelps does seriously attempt to express the rapture of a young womans artistic awakening: The whole world had
leaped into bloom to yield her the secrets of beauty. She spread the
spring showers upon her palette, and dipped her brushes in the
rainbow (54).
The embedded works of art in The Story of Avis do not particularly
evoke an aesthetic response in the reader; they function more in a
literary way, as thematic texts to be decoded. Phelps makes use of
literary allusions in conjunction with the paintings to offer the
reader riddles and hints about Aviss destiny. Her references to the
Arthurian cycle and events in The Faerie Queene also lend an aura of
spirituality and knightly heroism to womens quest for artistic fulfillment.
Spenserian allusions provide the reader with the means of interpreting the first of the embedded works, a sketch of Una, and discovering its hidden truth. Aviss charcoal sketch of Una and the lion

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is presented at the Harmouth Poetry Club just as Avis is introduced


to Ostrander after his lecture on Spenser. The drawing illustrates a
passage in Spenser where Una has just spied what appears to be her
true love, the Red Cross Knight: by his like-seeming shield her
knight by name / Shee weend it was, and towards him gan ride (9).
The young people in the Spenser study group evidently have not
been attentive to their readings, for everyone viewing the painting
seems to think that Una has indeed spied her true love, whereas
even a cursory look at book 1, canto 3 of The Faerie Queene reveals
what seeming and weend suggest: that Una spies not her true
love but the duplicitous magician Archimago, disguised as the Red
Cross Knight. The point is that Aviss singleness of purpose, like
Unas, will be deflected by the false knight in shining armor to
whom she is introduced at that moment, Ostrander. There is a brief
debate about whether Una in the drawing is hastening toward the
knight or is poised to run away from him. Ostrander thinks the latter, thus anticipating the difficulty he will have in winning Avis over.
He then turns the drawing over and discovers an additional verse
from Spenser painted on the back in a crimson water-color, lines
that speak of how true love does not have the power to look back to
the past, his eie be fixt before (10). These lines subtly suggest that
Avis will be trapped into an irreversible fate. Avis adds somewhat
cryptically, I put the lion in, so people shouldnt make a mistake.
It is better to be dumb than to be misunderstood. The reference
to dumbness anticipates Aviss later painting of a sphinx (10). The
iconography of the lion in Phelpss text appears to be different than
in Spenser, where it represents justice and perhaps Christ. Phelps
associates the figure of the lion with womens unfulfilled aspirations,
as for example in her authorial comment on the scene where Aviss
father patronizes her earliest artistic aspirations: We pat the sleeping lion at our feet, as if it were a spaniel, offering milk and sugar to
the creature that would feed on flesh and blood (34). Later Phelps
merges the lion with the figure of the sphinx to symbolize the silence of women and their latent power.
In The Tenant of Wildfell Hall the artists hand hesitates and trembles, losing its grip on the brush when she is distracted by her suitor.
Phelps makes more elaborate use of hand imagery and combines it
with the image of the sphinx to create leitmotifs that underscore the
story of Aviss lost opportunities as an artist. During the weeks when
the wounded Ostrander is courting Avis and she finally yields to him,
she cannot paint because she has injured her hand in a rowing acci-

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dent on a heavy sea. When she agrees to marry him, she passed the
length of the silent room, and put both hands, the palms pressed
together as if they had been manacled, into his (110). After their
engagement takes place, she resumed with stiff, strange fingers,
her work in the studio, where her principal painting is that of the
sphinx. At that moment, experiencing deep regrets, Avis casts off
her engagement ring, flings her arms around the painting and,
rather amusingly, presses her cheek upon the cold cheek of the
sphinx, whispering, I will be true (120). At the end of the novel,
when she can no longer paint successfully, Avis works as if I had a
rheumatic hand. . . . the stiffness runs deeper than the fingers
(244). The motif of the artists hand emphasizes both her vulnerability and her skill.
A similar double meaning is embodied in the motif of the sphinx,
which represents womens power and their silence. The meaning of
Phelpss sphinx is explicated in an essay in the Independent written
some years earlier (1871) and entitled The True Woman. The
True Woman is essentially the New Woman, the liberated woman of
the future who at present is like the sphinx, silent but filled with
latent and unknown strength. The last sentence of the essay prophesies the coming of the True Woman in language of near-Yeatsian intensity:
Fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners
will be the face which, out of the desert of her long watch and patience,
she will turn upon the world.33

According to Phelps, the answer to the riddle of the sphinx is not


man but woman, and her awakening will have an apocalyptic
force. Although Jane Eyres paintings are evocative and symbolic
and Aviss are, in keeping with the formulaic purpose of Phelpss
novel, more flatly allegorical, both authors use the embedded works
of art in a riddling way to hint at the ideal aspirations and actual
destinies of their artist-protagonists. Both authors may well foresee
a time when women painters will attain the freedom and autonomy
that women novelists have already begun to enjoy, but until such a
time it remains difficult if not impossible for writers like Phelps and
Bronte to create a meaningful dialogue between the novelist and the
painter concerning their various aesthetic interests. The sheer struggle to be seen as an artist tends to overshadow other considerations

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such as the styles and forms of womens painting or the relationship


between the image and the word.
The portfolio has been opened, however. And although the works
of art described in these major and minor nineteenth-century novels
constitute, at best, a rather motley exhibition, the authors have variously dramatized the conflict between art and Eros that, along with
existing cultural restraints on women, impeded the progress of their
art.

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2
The Painterly Eye: Kate Chopins
The Awakening
One of these days, she said, Im going to pull myself together
for a while and thinktry to determine what character of a
woman I am; for, candidly, I dont know. By all the codes which
I am acquainted with, I am a devilishly wicked specimen of the
sex. But some way I cant convince myself that I am. I must think
about it.
Kate Chopin, The Awakening

IN EDNA PONTELLIER, KATE CHOPIN PRESENTS A PORTRAIT OF A WOMAN


whose brief career as an artist affords her little satisfaction. In the
end, her art cannot save her. Why Edna cannot go abroad and paint
the Parisian studies commissioned by her dealer rather than drowning herself in the Gulf of Mexico is one of many questions raised by
the ending of The Awakening. Ednas career as a painter, though it
may appear only a passing occupation of her restless, drifting mind,
is a pivotal aspect of the novel because it seems to the reader that art
could have saved her. Painting is, after all, the only activity in Ednas
life that offers freedom and creativity, could she but choose to pursue it. Moreover, art is intricately woven into the texture of the novel.
In contrast to Ednas paintings, which leave little impression upon
the reader, Chopins vibrant descriptions of Ednas world reveal her
painterly eye; through her use of color imagery, visual composition,
and the framing of an arrested moment, Chopin presents the literary equivalent of painted portraits and landscapes.
The arts, especially painting and music, are also a prominent subject of the novel, which explores as a subtext the ways in which art
can transform life or fail to do so and the ways in which art can be
debased. Ednas painting, Mlle. Reiszs musical performances, and
Chopins literary descriptions present contrasting perspectives on
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the psychological and moral as well as aesthetic dimensions of the


arts. In particular, Chopins literary art serves as a corrective for the
shortcomings of Ednas visual art.
Chopins novel bears a few similarities to The Story of Avis: both
protagonists are married with children; both have insensitive husbands and in a moment of rebellion, throw off their rings; both sell
their paintings. But unlike Phelps, Chopin succeeds in suffusing her
narrative with an ambient aesthetic sensibility, and she distinctively
evokes a particular milieu: turn of the century Grand Isle with its
seashore and sea, and New Orleans with its rich houses and unique
Creole culture. Since its rediscovery in the middle of the twentieth
century, The Awakening (1899) has been subjected to many kinds of
theoretical scrutiny: formalist, feminist, psychoanalytic, new historical, mythic, and others. Despite its elegance, brevity, and the feeling
of inevitability conveyed by Chopins artistry, this is a puzzling novel.
Its fablelike plot and its ambiguity make it amenable to various types
of criticism, and no one interpretation has emerged as dominant.
Most critical studies of the novel, whatever their method, take a feminist approach, analyzing the complexities of Ednas psyche or the
social strictures which stifle her. It is impossible to ignore the feminist implications of Ednas dramatic stripping away of all of the restrictive aspects of her life: marriage, Victorian social rules, religion,
and finally even clothing. Yet, returning to the text of the novel itself, one experiences with equal force the beauty of the sensuous
world Chopin creates. By exploring the role of art in Chopins novel,
I hope to redress the imbalance between political and aesthetic considerations that has existed in the criticism, not by arguing against
the political interpretations, but rather by demonstrating that the
political and aesthetic aspects of The Awakening are inseparable.
Chopins aesthetic as a novelist is embodied, in part, in her narrative technique, which anticipates innovations of the modernists, especially Virginia Woolf. Chopins use of numbered sections, most of
them short scenes, invites concentration on the momentits sensations, moods, and colorationsas much as on the advancement of
the story. Within scenes, Chopins sentences are crisp and discrete;
dialogue carries much of the story. The spaces between the scenes
invite the reader to reflect upon them. This method of narration
calls attention to the authors selectivity and frames the individual
moments. Chopins highlighting of the sensuous beauty of selected
moments both underscores Ednas awakeningshe awakens to sensuous possibilityand serves as a counterpoint to it, since ultimately

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she chooses to leave the world. By framing blocks of time rather


than writing in conventional chapters, Chopin draws our attention
to time itself, creating pauses even as the story moves on fatefully to
its denouement. This method of narration is suited to tracing the
moods and fluctuations of Ednas unstable but sensitive ego. Although Chopin does not invent or even anticipate stream of consciousness writing, her selected, framed, luminous scenes resemble
the workings of memory, and the discontinuities of her narration
pattern themselves upon the vagaries of conscious experience.
Chopins techniques are innovative, if not entirely original; she
strips away much of the traditional rhetoric and shapes the aesthetic
aspects of the novel, as the modernists also did, to bring the experience of reading close to the conscious life of her characters.
A close look at the opening scene reveals that pictorial and political considerations are in tension with one another from the beginning of the novel. The reader is plunged into a world of leisurely
resort life and tropical beauty. While young people play croquet
under the trees, Mr. Pontellier gazes at the distant gulf melting hazily into the blue of the horizon, which he glimpses between the
gaunt trunks of water oaks and across the stretch of yellow camomile, a long view suggesting a landscape painting (4). Edna Pontellier and her escort Robert Lebrun slowly advance under a pink-lined
sunshade, sit down on the steps of the cottage, and lean against the
supporting posts of the porch, sharing a private joke. The authors
point of view floats between the husband and the wife, not fully associated with either. The description is picturesque, celebrating the
languid beauty of the present moment.
Other elements in the scene cause unease, however. The sardonic, persistent voice of the multilingual green and yellow parrot,
issuing rude utterances, and the mockingbird who copies him, act
as an intrusive chorus in the background. More disturbing is Mr.
Pontelliers proprietary treatment of his wife when he scolds her for
getting sunburned, especially his looking at her as one looks at a
valuable piece of personal property which has suffered some damage (4). His gesture of dropping her rings into her hand as she
returns from her swim reaffirms his ownership of her. This behavior
hints at the injustice and inequality of traditional bourgeois marriage. Indeed, Pontellier soon leaves for an evening of billiards at a
hotel, awakening Edna rudely when he returns late and probably
inebriated. His cheerful indifference to her feelings is as shocking
as his ownership of her. Even the presence of the octaroon who

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cares for Ednas children is a disturbing element in the scene. Elizabeth Ammons comments on the presence of anonymous black servants in the novel: the very liberation about which the book
fantasizes is purchased on the backs of black women.1 Chopin is
intuitive enough as an artist, however, to imbue even these marginalized characters with hints of a life of their own. Here, she describes
the octaroon as following the Pontellier children about with a faraway, meditative air, a phrase that suggests her dignity and alienation. Thus, the elements that comprise the first scene are of two
sorts: the picturesque aspects of the scene invite the reader to dwell
upon the present moment, while the political aspects propel the
story forward and give it complex thematic impetus. The texture of
the novel is woven of the warp and woof of these two elements: the
social-political and the pictorial components that together constitute Chopins vision of experience, her larger aesthetic pattern.
The visually arresting moments of framed beauty that pass before
the reader, not only in the scenes on Grand Isle but also in New
Orleans, tell their own story, counterpointing Ednas story. Chopins
vignettes seem to declare that life is beautiful, evanescent, and to be
savored, not to be thrown away. That Ednas suicide feels tragic
rather than merely senseless or gratuitous is due in part to the readers awareness of all that she loses out on, the lost perceptions and
experiences of beauty, as well as the fruits of her newfound desire
for freedom and her awakening to her sensuous self. The question
of why art cannot save Edna is a corollary to the larger question of
why Edna must die at age twenty-nine. In order to understand the
role of Ednas art in the novel it is necessary, therefore, to explore
the reasons for her suicide.
The riddle of Edna Pontelliers suicide does not have a simple answer. Manifold factors converge upon her on a sleepless night when
she finds that her situation offers no other exit than death by drowning. From the beginning of the novel, Ednas story is a series of attempted departures and voyages out. Her first brave swim, the idyllic
trip to the Che nie`re with Robert, her quests to consult Mlle. Reisz,
her moving out of her husbands house into the pigeon house,
her romantic affair with Robert and purely sexual one with Arobin,
and then her final swimall of these adventures carry her away from
domestic life and her role as wife and mother. She is unable, however, to find a satisfactory destiny or destination toward which to
make her way.
Edna has a potentially grand spirit; she desires freedom, self-pos-

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session, and passionate life. Her spirit fails her for a variety of reasons. As Chopin once wrote, truth rests upon a shifting basis and is
apt to be kaleidoscopic.2 Strangely enough, Edna chooses death in
part because of her children; she knows that she cannot abandon
her two little sons, but she refuses to sacrifice herself for them. The
bedrock truth of their biological dependency upon her is brought
home when she attends Madame Ratignolle in childbirth the evening before Edna drowns herself. The bursting of the bubble of her
romantic attachment to Robert Lebrun, which coincides with the
eight or nine months of the novels time span, is another factor. Ultimately, Robert offers her the same sort of conventional life she has
with her husband. Shortly before Robert leaves her, she understands
that the aura of romance she has woven around him is an empty
dream, no more lofty than her casual sexual encounters with Arobin. Edna is ultimately alone, without a true mentor or a friend who
understands her.
In addition, Edna dies because of an all-too-human frailty in her
own nature. She makes forays into various forms of liberation, but
she lacks the singleness of purpose to choose one form. Her inability
to find a path in life results from her longing for the infinite and
her dissatisfaction with all the finite paths of life. Psychoanalytic critics such as Cynthia Griffin Wolff have noted and explored the regressive nature of Ednas personality which drives her to unite
herself at last with the all-embracing sea as a simulacrum for the
nourishing mother who, ironically enough, abandoned her by
dying. Wolff writes that Edna experiences the haunting memory of
this evanescent state [of early infancy] which Freud defines as Oceanic feeling, the longing to recapture that sense of oneness and suffused sensuous pleasureeven, perhaps, the desire to be
reincorporated into the safety of preexistence, an urge that may
explain Ednas frequent lapses into lethargy.3
Chopins expanding, multipurpose symbol of the sea prepares the
reader for the tragic conclusion. The sea at first promises adventure,
romance, freedom and solitude, but finally offers only oblivion and
self-extinction. Chopins description of the voice of the sea early in
the novel, just as Edna is beginning to discover herself, is itself Oceanic:
The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring,
murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude;
to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation.

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The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace. (14)

The s-sounds and other onomatopoeic devices create a rather


Joycean sibilance, so that Chopins language becomes the seductive
voice of the sea with its ambiguous appeal to body and soul, its offer
of a paradoxical embrace of solitude. Chopin attempts to convey directly the allure of Ednas urges through the voice of the sea. Chopins imagery also contributes to the readers sense of the justness and
inevitability of the novels outcome as she intuitively draws upon an
ancient association of tragedy with the sea, that eternal note of sadness that, Matthew Arnold writes in Dover Beach, Sophocles
long ago / Heard . . . on the Aegean. To the traditional association
of suffering and the sea Chopin adds the hints of sensuality and maternal embracement which make the image psychologically suggestive in a modern way, hinting at Ednas unfulfilled needs of body
and mind. Her suicide seems fated by the language and structure of
the novel, but at the same time it is an act of will brought about
by complex motives, including her unhappiness with the restrictions
placed on a wife and mother of her social class.
Burdened with these social and psychological dilemmas, Edna
certainly cannot sail off to Paris and pursue a new life as a painter.
Yet in the short span of the novel she does make the transition from
a dabbling amateur to a professional artist with an atelier and a
dealer. That this career fails to offer her satisfaction is due to the
inchoate nature of her longings, her unarticulated desire to merge
herself with the infinite. Ednas inability to express her desire contrasts starkly with the music of Chopin, which, as played by Mlle.
Reisz, arouses passions of hope, desire, and despair in Ednas soul,
illustrating that ones oceanic longings may indeed be articulated in
serious art. In its critique of bourgeois marriage and its dramatization of her confused attempts to escape, Ednas story certainly has a
political dimension. But her tragedy is also, in a sense, a failure of
her art. She finds no suitable language in her life or in her art to
give shape to her desires, which remain inchoate, endless, without
bound. She achieves no mastery of her souls promptings. Like her
namesake the composer, Kate Chopin as author does give voice and
shape to Ednas longing for the infinite. But Chopin the author does
something else that counterpoints Ednas story and serves as a stay
against the headlong rush to oblivion. Through her pictorial descriptions, Chopin shows the satisfactions of the finite, the things of

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this world, capturing the luminous beauty of the arrested moment.


The art of the novel is superior to the art in the novel.
Ednas art is at first shown in scenes that resemble moments in
Emma and Jane Eyre: the sketching of a portrait and the opening of a
portfolio. Edna sketches a portrait of a Madame Ratignolle as she
sits sewing on a summer afternoon with Robert Lebrun looking
ona threesome of artist, subject, and lover. The scene is one in
which ardor disrupts art, as in several of the earlier novels, and
Chopin emphasizes that Ednas art at this point is strictly of the nineteenth-century ladys accomplishment variety:
Mrs. Pontellier has brought her sketching materials, which she sometimes dabbled with in a unprofessional way. She liked the dabbling. She
felt in it a satisfaction of a kind which no other employment afforded
her. (12)

Edna is attracted to Madame Ratignolle, who is soon to become a


closer friend and confidante, although the two women are very different. Madame Ratignolle relishes her role of the Angel in the
House, or as Chopin calls her, a mother-woman, whereas Edna
cannot be called a mother-woman despite her two children. Pregnant again, Madame Ratignolle appears in Ednas eyes as a sensuous Madonna, with the gleam of the fading day enriching her
splendid color (12). At this point Edna is just beginning, as Chopin
says, to realize her position in the universe as a human being (14).
Her relationship with Robert is also changing. Up until now Robert
has just been playing his usual summer flirtation game of devoted
attendant of some fair dame or damsel, but now he is beginning to
fall in love with her, as he will show when he abruptly leaves for Mexico to avoid dishonoring her (11). Robert seats himself close to
Edna to watch her work, giving forth little ejaculatory expressions
of appreciation in French, a language which Edna does not understand. Twice he rests his hand upon Ednas arm, disrupting her
painting, and twice she quietly repulses him, indicating that such
pesky gallantries will not work with her. The gesture is prophetic in
a small way, however, for later, when Edna does begin to develop an
artistic career, her work is constantly disrupted by her ever-growing
romantic fantasies about the absent Robert. Ironically, the sketch itself is a failure, it does not look like Madame Ratignolle at all, and
Edna crumples it up in dissatisfaction, showing, like Emma Woodhouse, more taste than talent in this instance.

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Later, in New Orleans, growing restless and dissatisfied, Edna


gathers up a roll of her sketches and takes them to Madame Ratignolle, seeking the same kind of false praise the Edna Woodhouse
enjoyed receiving from her friends and family:
She knew that Madame Ratignolles opinion in such a matter would be
next to valueless . . . but she sought the words of praise and encouragement that would help her to put heart into her venture. (53)

The reader sympathizes with Ednas plan to start over and paint as a
professional rather than as a parlor painter, but certain aspects of
this scene bode ill for her venture. For one thing, the sketches seem
static and irrelevant to her life. One sketch that Madame Ratignolle
admires is of a basket of apples and another is of a Bavarian peasantin the midst of New Orleans where so many splendid subjects
must have presented themselves! Ednas fatal flaw as an artist is that
she does not observe the world around her, thanks to her obsessive
infatuation with Robert. On the same day that she shows her friend
the portfolio she goes walking through the streets:
Edna looked straight before her with a self-absorbed expression upon
her face. She felt no interest in anything about her. The street, the children, the fruit vender, the flowers growing there under her eyes, were
all part and parcel of an alien world which had suddenly become antagonistic. (51)

Here is where the author and her character part company, for
Chopin is sharply observant of the life of the street and carefully records the local, as her earlier reputation as a local colorist suggests,
but Edna does not even look at the flowers growing under her eyes,
caught up as she is in a cloud of shapeless romantic longing.
Edna continues to paint, however; she is next seen seriously at
work in her bright atelier, using the children and servants as models.
This work seems more immediate and promising, although it may
seem troubling that she orders the quadroon and the housemaid to
pose for her. Edna really does observe the housemaid, however; she
perceived that the young womans back and shoulders were molded on classic lines, and that her hair, loosened from its confining
cap, became an inspiration (55). But even as she begins to paint,
the sensuous beauty of the young woman sets up a series of associations in Ednas mind in which she recollects scenes of her romantic
encounters with Robert the previous summerthe sound of the sea,

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the moon on the bay, the gusts of the wind from the south. Ednas
own romantic ardor disrupts her art: A subtle current of desire
passed through her body, weakening her hold upon the brushes and
making her eyes burn (5556). When she loses her grip on the
paintbrushes, the creative process has been short circuited; Ednas
awakened sensuality and passion do not enter into her work but
rather distract her from it.
Although her work does not express her emotional life, Edna
does succeed in an external way as a painter. At the time when she
is making plans to leave her husbands lavish house and move into
a small house of her own, she reports that she is working with new
confidence and ease and that her paintings are selling well. She finances her new household with income from her art as well as a
small inheritance and her winnings at the racetrack, and this outward success continues right up until the time of her suicide. Edna
fully makes the transition from amateur to professional artist, establishing her studio on her own, a transition that coincides with her
awakening. As Joyce Dyer writes, we might wonder why these new
strengths, the strengths of the artist, do not give her courage to turn
toward shore and all the canvases yet unpainted.4 Dyer convincingly argues that it is the issue of motherhood that most pulls Edna
out to sea, but one must also note that her failure to connect art and
life, her failure even to try to create an artistic expression of her own
awakening, means that her art is not enough to lure her back to life.
Ednas career is the ultimate example of womens art as unfinished.
Mlle. Reisz, the pianist who seems to serve as Ednas artistic mentor, also plays a part in the failure of Ednas art. She counsels Edna
on more than one occasion that genuine art demands courage,
words that Edna internalizes. The older woman seems to exemplify
sacrifice and singleness of purpose in her devotion to music. Her
duplicitous actions contradict her counsel, however. Next to Edna,
Mlle. Reisz is the most interesting and complex figure in the novel,
and she is extremely difficult to read. The reader can only guess
at her motives because her thoughts are not revealed, and the motives themselves seem mixed and contradictory. When she first appears, playing Chopin for a musicale at Madame Lebruns resort,
Mlle. Reisz is described as a shuffling, aging woman, shabby and
tasteless in dress, and self-excluded from the fellowship of the other
summer visitors due to her imperious and quarrelsome nature. Her
playing is much admired, but she agrees to play only in order to
please Edna, telling her, You are the only one worth playing for.

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Those others? Bah! (26). At this point Mlle. Reisz appears to be a


representative of pure art, and Edna responds to her playing as she
has never responded to music before, not by imagining pictures but
feeling the pure passions of solitude, of hope, of longing . . . of
despair in a somatic way. The passions of the music shake her spinal column and lash her soul as the waves daily beat upon her
splendid body (26).
The sisterhood of Romantic sensibility established between them
on the night of the musicale grows more fragile, however, in their
next encounter, which occurs after Robert has left for Mexico. Mlle.
Reisz seems malevolent when, creeping up behind Edna on a walk
to the beach, she appears to read Ednas mind, asking her if she is
missing Robert. She gratuitously imparts to Edna the information
that Robert and his brother Victor had once fought over the Spanish
girl Mariequita. Edna regards these words as venomous, but the
thought of a rival probably intensifies her feelings for Robert, the
effect that Mlle. Reisz evidently intends. At the same time, she
raved much over Ednas appearance in her bathing suit (47).
Even given the modesty of bathing attire at the time, this is curious
behavior in an aging woman who cares nothing for fashion herself.
All of Mlle. Reiszs ensuing encounters with Edna hint at hidden,
perhaps unconscious, motives underlying her attempts to control
Ednas emotional life. While a hasty reading of the novel might suggest that Mlle. Reisz represents a challenge to live a life of pure art
and sacrifice, a challenge that Edna fails to meet, a closer reading
shows the pianist as all too human in her emotional needs and frailties. She invites Edna into the life of art with one hand while enticing her away from it with the other.
When Edna seeks out Mlle. Reisz in her dingy little garret in New
Orleans, it is obvious that she has been waiting and hoping for Edna
to come, despite her remarks to the contrary. Edna tells her about
her attempts to become an artist:
Ah! an artist! You have pretensions, Madame.
Why pretensions? Do you think I could not become an artist?
I do not know you well enough to say. I do not know your talent or
your temperament. To be an artist includes much; one must possess
many giftsabsolute giftswhich have not been acquired by ones own
effort. And, moreover, to succeed, the artist must possess the courageous
soul.
What do you mean by the courageous soul?

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Courageous, ma foi! The brave soul. The soul that dares and defies.
(61)

Playing the role of Ednas artistic mentor, Mlle. Reisz represents art
as a matter of character, requiring a pure and brave soul, but her
actions direct Edna away from that expressed ideal.
Mlle. Reisz proceeds to play Edna like a fish on a line, mentioning
a letter from Robert and telling her that it is all about Edna herself,
then teasing her by refusing to hand over the letter and offering to
play a Chopin impromptu instead. Calling herself a foolish old
woman whom you have captivated, she finally agrees to gratify
Edna with both the letter and the music, which romantically reinforce one another and reduce Edna to helpless sobbing (61). Elaine
Showalter suggests that there is something more intense than
friendship between the two women: whereas Ednas relationship
with Madame Ratignolle is depicted as maternal and womanly, Mademoiselle Reiszs attraction to Edna suggests something more perverse. While Madame Ratignolle seems like a surrogate mother for
Edna, Showalter says, Mlle. Reisz seems like a surrogate lover.5
Surrogate lover may be too explicit and and narrowly defined a
term to describe how Mlle. Reisz sees herself in relation to Edna,
and Showalter does not go on to explore what specifically leads to
Mlle. Reiszs subrogation of the role of lover. But the point is well
taken, for Mlle. Reiszs hidden motives seem to include an erotic
element, as suggested by the phrase a foolish old woman. In that
case, the perversity arises, not from her attraction to Edna, but from
her devious means of expressing it. She offers up her enthralling
music and the letter together to create an irresistible romantic atmosphere so that Edna will come back for more. Evidently she wants
Ednas presence as an auditor of her music but also enjoys the pleasure of manipulating her emotions, seducing her feelings by proxy.
In addition to these subtleties, there is the obvious point that the
letter compromises the music. Mlle. Reisz uses her art to arouse
Ednas ardor, and by abetting Ednas fantasies about Robert, she
contributes to Ednas tragedy. Her brief segue into Isoldes Liebestod
from Wagners opera in the middle of playing the Chopin piece suggests an uncanny foreknowledge of Ednas fate.
Ednas next visit with Mlle. Reisz, a similar encounter, is even
more rife with inherent contradictions, and again Ednas attention
swerves from her art to her passion for Robert, abetted by Mlle.
Reisz. Coming from a conversation with Arobin which upsets her by

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his appealing to the animalism that stirred impatiently with her,


Edna goes to Mlle. Reisz so that the spiritual power of the music
might soothe away her aroused erotic passions:
There was nothing which so quieted the turmoil of Ednas senses as a
visit to Mademoiselle Reisz. It was then, in the presence of that personality which was offensive to her, that the woman, by her divine art, seemed
to reach Ednas spirit and set it free. (75)

Again Edna reports on her painting: I am beginning to sell my


sketches. Laidpore is more and more pleased with my work; he says
it grows in force and individuality (76). She also tells Mlle. Reisz
about her plans to move into a house of her ownI know I shall
like it, like the feeling of freedom and independenceand,
Chopin writes, she had resolved never again to belong to another
than herself (76). Soon, however, Mlle. Reisz forces Edna to admit
her love for Robert, after which Mlle. Reisz suggests, perhaps in secret mockery, that Robert is not a grand enough spirit to be worthy
of such a passion, yet she seems amused and pleased enough at this
turn of events.
Ednas new declaration of independence is further contradicted
when Mademoiselle hands over another letter from Robert and begins to play on the piano:
Edna did not at once read the letter. She sat holding it in her hand,
while the music penetrated her whole being like an effulgence, warming
and brightening the dark places of her soul. It prepared her for joy and
exultation. (77)

Her joy and exultation become immediate when Edna reads in the
letter that Robert will return to New Orleans. She does not see the
incompatibility between her recent resolution to be free and her enthrallment in the romance of Robert, her delirious emotions having
been prepared for and fostered, virtually stage managed, by Mlle.
Reisz.
By presenting two very similar scenes between Edna and Mlle.
Reisz, Chopin is repeating a pattern of events and emotions for the
same reason that composers repeat their themes: the second occurrence intensifies the effect of the first one and ensures that the audience will not forget the themein this case, one of betrayal. Mlle.
Reisz leads Edna away from art rather than toward it; she plays her
music upon Ednas spine and upon her emotions, causing her to

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swerve off the path to freedom and enticing her back to the conventionality of a banal and illusory romance. She is much more blameworthy than Robert, who is an honorable and earnest young man
but not the fairy tale lover Edna imagines him to be. The elderly
pianist willfully contributes to Ednas tragedy.
Mlle. Reisz is rather like some of Henry Jamess sinister and manipulative women characters, and her motives remain mysterious.
She may be impelled by a range of feelings: among them, her attraction to a passionate and beautiful young woman, her enjoyment of
the brightness and beauty of Ednas presence, a vicarious gratification in prying into her love affairs, and a malicious pleasure in manipulating others. Perhaps she is also jealous. Mlle. Reiszs musical
art is genuine, but, for whatever reasons, she uses it to seduce Edna
and foster her delusions, fomenting the tragedy. She uses her art to
add to the romantic longings that distract Edna from her own art,
affecting Ednas ability to look at the world in a steady fashion. Although she plays beautifully, her devious use of her music contrasts
to the purity of Fre de ric Chopins expressive Romantic voice.
Despite the novels brevity, the treatment of art in The Awakening
is multifaceted. Edna exemplifies the psychological breakdown of an
artist; Mlle. Reisz, a duplicitous misuse of art. Kate Chopins own literary art invites the reader to contemplate the value of aesthetic perception. Through her descriptions of landscapes and interiors in the
novel, Chopin presents the world of Grand Isle and New Orleans in
luminous art that Edna cannot achieve because, caught up in yearning for an absent and dreamlike lover, she cannot focus on and
paint the present things of her world. Chopins descriptive passages
are analogs of painting, composed visual impressions that do more
than provide a setting; they arrest moments in time and offer a perceptual point of view separate from Ednas and more vibrant. Michael T. Gilmore comments that the lush, sensuous ambiance of
Chopins novel is notably similar to that of the world portrayed in
Impressionist paintings of two or three decades earlier. The resemblance extends both to subject matter and to technique. Mentioning Manet and Seurat, he adds, Chopin also suggests the
Impressionists in her interest in creating atmosphere through sensory imagery, particularly color and light.6 Although Gilmore attributes an impressionist sensibility to both Edna and the author,
overlooking the difference in how they perceive the world, his analogy to the work of the impressionists helps to explain the aesthetic
appeal of Chopins novel. Ednas impulse to throw away life itself is

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counterbalanced by Chopins preservation of the most vibrant


scenes of Ednas life through these pictorial effects. Several of these
scenesa walk to the beach, Ednas birthday dinner party, a meeting with Robert in a garden cafeemulate visual art. These scenes
complement and, in a sense, counterpoint Ednas aspirations as a
painter: the novelists art is superior to that of the painter she creates.
The literary use of such painterly effects is called pictorialism,
a term coined and defined by Jean H. Hagstrum. According to Hagstrum, pictorialism consists of a literary description which is capable
of translation into painting or some other visual art.7 Visual details
must be ordered in a picturable way.8 Moreover, he notes, pictorialism necessarily involves the reduction of motion to stasis or something suggesting such a reduction. It need not eliminate motion
entirely, but the motion . . . must be viewed against the basic motionlessness of the arrangement.9 Hagstrum adds that the meaning of
the scene must come through the visual elements present in it
rather than through authorial commentary.
Certain scenes in The Awakening fit Hagstrums definition exactly,
attesting to the presence of a painterly eye. Chopins pictorialism
can be seen in the description of Ednas walk to the beach with Madame Ratignolle early in the novel, a composed view that seems serene on the surface but gives hints at underlying conflicts:
The walk to the beach was no inconsiderable one, consisting as it did of
a long, sandy path, upon which a sporadic and tangled growth that bordered it on either side made frequent and unexpected inroads. There
were acres of yellow camomile reaching out on either hand. Further
away still, vegetable gardens abounded, with frequent small plantations
of orange or lemon trees intervening. The dark green clusters glistened
from afar in the sun. (15)

Chopins appealing presentation of color and light; her attention to


foreground, middle ground, and background, creating a feeling of
depth; and her careful composition of the scene, stressing the harmonious interplay of gardens and wild natureall of these things
show her painterly eye. But the scene is not merely decorative, for
the inviting long path that lies before Edna leads to the sea and suggests the allure of freedom she finds there, just as the lushness of
the landscape seems to echo her own awakening sensuality.
In the same scene Chopin goes on to describe the figures of the

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two womenEdnas more slender and Madame Ratignolles more


matronlyand the clothing they wear as they make their way to the
beach:
She [Edna] wore a cool muslin that morningwhite, with a waving vertical line of brown running through it; also a white linen collar and the
big straw hat which she had taken from the peg outside the door. The
hat rested any way on her yellow-brown hair, that waved a little, was
heavy, and clung close to her head.
Madame Ratignole, more careful of her complexion, had twined a
gauze veil about her head. She wore dogskin gloves, with gauntlets that
protected her wrists. She was dressed in pure white, with a fluffiness of
ruffles that became her. The draperies and fluttering things which she
wore suited her rich, luxuriant beauty as a greater severity of line could
not have done. (15)

Chopin conveys the textures of the fabrics, their appealing whiteness, and even the way they flutter in the breeze with an attention to
detail that, again, suggests a painterly eye. One is reminded of several paintings of women by the impressionist Mary Cassatt, whose
work was known to Chopin; Chopin is reported to have viewed her
mural Modern Woman at the Colombian Exposition in Chicago in
1893.10 The figures of the two women are linked by the sensuous
appeal of their beauty; indeed, a prominent subtext of The Awakening is a celebration of the sensuousness and beauty of women of all
social classes. When the two women arrive at the beach, Edna feels
their friendship deepen and is moved to confide in Madame Ratignolle about the growing dissatisfactions of her life. At the same time,
the difference between the two women is also revealed by Chopins
physical description of them. Madame Ratignolles veiled and
swathed appearance, her care for her complexion in contrast to
Ednas sunburn, shows her more conventional femininity; her pure
white dress may suggest her singleness of purpose as a motherwoman; and her entire appearance emphasizes matronly beauty.
Edna appears more casually dressed, and the waves in her gown and
her hair connect her to the sea. The touches of color in her costumeher hat, her heavy hair, and the pattern in her dress
suggest, perhaps, greater complexity and a different kind of
sensuality from that of the fertile, motherly Madame Ratignolle. The
two women are framed in arrested motion, a sense of the moments
pastness adding poignancy to their portrait. To reveal character and
enhance thematic ideas through visual description is, of course, a

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tried and true technique of fiction. But Chopin trusts the visual to
speak for itself, free of explanatory rhetoric, more than fiction traditionally had done; her reliance on the visual gives the entire novel a
painterly feel.
The scene of the dinner party that Edna gives on her twenty-ninth
birthday, meant to be a grand event and a gesture of beauty, celebrating her leaving of her husbands house, includes frequent references to the fine arts and can be read as a critique of the state of the
arts in Ednas world. Chopins sense of color is again in evidence
when she describes the dining room setting in intense hues of red
and yellow and the gleam of precious gems: the yellow satin tablecloth and matching silk candle shades, the yellow and red roses, the
table heaped with crystal and silver and gold, Ednas matching gold
satin and lace gown and the showy diamond ornament in her hair,
the gift of her absent husband. Such lavish materialism and display
of wealth seem a curious way to celebrate her plan to liberate herself
from her husbands house and become independent.
Other incongruities run through the scene, compromising the
beauty and pleasure of the event. Chopin writes, a feeling of good
fellowship passed around the circle like a mystic cord, holding and
binding these people together with jest and laughter (85). Chopins mystic cord is nothing like the secret bonds that tie the characters together in Virginia Woolf s dinner party scenes in To the
Lighthouse and The Waves; here, the good fellowship is merely the effect of food and wine, and the evening ends in decadence and disorder rather than communal sharing. Chopins dinner party bears a
more distinct, if remote, resemblance to the one in James Joyces
The Dead with its air of fin de sie`cle weariness, especially as regards
the arts, which appear deflated and debased.
Chopin describes Edna as outwardly regal but inwardly distraught:
The golden shimmer of Ednas satin gown spread in rich folds on either
side of her. There was a soft fall of lace encircling her shoulders. It was
the color of her skin, without the glow, the myriad living tints that one
may sometimes discover in vibrant flesh. There was something in her
attitude . . . which suggested the regal woman, the one who rules, who
looks on, who stands alone. (84)

In this description of Edna, the phrase myriad living tints signals


an instance of pictorialism. Here, however, the outward appearance
of harmony and control is belied by Ednas inward feelings of the

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old ennui, the hopelessness, a chill breath that seemed to issue


from some vast cavern wherein discords wailed, and an acute
longing for the unattainable (8485). The careless self-indulgence of the party and its contrast to Ednas inner emptiness create
an air of unease; the reader begins to anticipate some sort of psychological breakdown. After the dinner Edna will take Arobin as her
lover for the first time, an action that is solely a consequence of her
sexual awakening and not because of any particular liking or respect
for this playboy who can, in his own words, assume the virtue of an
occupation if he has it not (84).
Running through the scene are references to failed art or false art
as Chopin mildly satirizes the shallowness of some of the party
guests. Miss Mayblunt is thought to be an intellectual and it is
suspected that she writes novels under a pen name, but her observations of the world seem specious: she looked at the world
through lorgnettes and with the keenest interest (82). At the very
least, Miss Mayblunt is undiscriminating in her aesthetic judgments:
when they drink a garnet-colored cocktail composed by Ednas
father, Miss Mayblunt pronounced the Colonel an artist and stuck
to it (83). Mlle. Reisz, when asked, had only disagreeable things
to say of the symphony concerts, and insulting remarks to make of
all the musicians of New Orleans (84). Meanwhile, mandolins are
playing in the street, perhaps the only harmonious art on the scene,
but they are remote like the voice of Bartell DArcy in Joyces The
Dead.
The party lapses into decadence when Mrs. Highcamp (a prophetic name) places a garland of hectic-colored red and yellow roses
on the head of the lascivious Victor Lebrun, transforming him into
a vision of Oriental beauty with cheeks the color of crushed
grapes as he holds a glass of champagne to the light, upon which
Miss Mayblunt exclaims, Oh! to be able to paint in color rather
than in words! (85). Victor as Bacchus does resemble a painting
works like Caravaggios Bacchus readily come to mindbut another
guest, Gouvernail, places the spectacle of Victor in a more recent
aesthetic milieu by murmuring lines from a sonnet by Swinburne:
There was a graven image of Desire / Painted with red blood on a
ground of gold (85). Margo Culley points out that the allusion to
the rather brutal Swinburne poem about the insatiety of fleshly desire and the final victory of time and death over passion, foretells the
impossibility of . . . deliverance for Edna.11 When Victor insists on
singing a song that reminds Edna of her romantic idyll with Robert

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the past summer, she shatters a glass of wine and yanks the garland
from his head. As the party ends, the mandolin players have left the
street and the voices of the departing guests jarred like a discordant note upon the quiet harmony of the night (87).
Here, the Romanticism of Chopins music which so often speaks
to Ednas spirit is counterpointed by the decadent aestheticism of
Swinburne, bespeaking the weariness that comes from overindulgence of fleshly desire. Ednas mind is disordered at this time because she has experienced a rending apart of the spiritual and the
sensual sides of herself, represented by Robert and Arobin. At the
end of the novel, her longings of both flesh and spirit will collapse
into one and seem futile as she moves toward oblivion. Meanwhile,
music and the other arts are deflated in the vacuous little society of
people surrounding Edna at the dinner, for they too lack spirit. Only
Mlle. Reisz has genuine artistic talent, but she is alienated and embittered and has misused her art. The dinner party makes it more
evident why Edna cannot feel artistically inspired in such an environment and suggests the emptiness of an aesthetic far more nihilistic
than Kate Chopins, who, in other scenes, celebrates the bright possibilities of sensuous life rather than the despair that comes with satiety. Chopin implicitly rejects an aesthetic that would perceive
material richness as art.
In contrast to the dissipation of Ednas dinner party, the scene of
her second accidental meeting with Robert after he gets back from
Mexico seems to promise a return to innocence and another chance
for Ednas spiritual love. Robert appears as Edna is eating a quiet
dinner in a garden cafe while reading a book and stroking a cat, a
scene of contentment and repose, although the reader is well aware
that Edna is fatally self-divided; she has been carrying on an affair
with Arobin while dreaming of Robert. Nonetheless, Chopin describes the setting as idyllic, very much like an impressionist painting
of a garden cafe:
There was a garden out in the suburbs, a small, leafy corner, with a few
green tables under the orange trees. An old cat slept all day on the stone
step in the sun, and an old mulatresse slept her idle hours away in her
chair at the open window, till some one happened to knock on one of
the green tables. She had milk and cream cheese to sell, and bread and
butter. There was no one who could make such excellent coffee or fry a
chicken so golden brown as she.
The place was too modest to attract the attention of people of fashion,

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and so quiet as to have escaped the notice of those in search of pleasure


and dissipation. Edna had discovered it accidentally one day when the
high board gate stood ajar. She caught sight of a little green table,
blotched with the checkered sunlight that filtered through the quivering
leaves overhead. Within she had found the slumbering mulatresse, the
drowsy cat, and a glass of milk which reminded her of the milk she had
tasted in Iberville. (99)

This description forms a complete picture in which each item is distinctthe tables, the trees, the cat on the step, the old woman in the
windowbut part of a harmonious whole, a little suburban world of
repose and innocent gratification. The secondary colors of green,
orange, and gold make the scene attractive, and the blotches of sunlight cast upon the table through the quivering leaves suggest an impressionists attention to the play of light upon objects. Chopins
carefully controlled pictorialism invites the reader to paint the
scene in the minds eye. Although the mulatresse is defined by her
racial identity, she does have a name, Catiche, and she seems very
much the master of her quiet little world. This description invites
the reader into a secluded and self-contained garden space as a
painting can do; it offers an interval of poise and repose before
Ednas tragedy unfolds. Robert appears, Edna asks him to come
home with her, and for the first time she offers him a passionate kiss.
It is then she learns that he hopes to marry her someday if her husband will set her free, to which she responds in horror and anger
that she belongs to no one. When she goes off to attend to Madame
Ratignolle in childbirth, she begs Robert to wait for her, but he
abandons her out of a sense of honor. The end comes because
Ednas dreams are not compatible with commonplace reality, including the reality represented by childbirth, and her powerful impulses of flesh and spirit begin to cancel one another out.
The end of the novel is like a picture breaking up. Visually composed scenes give way to synesthesia in Ednas last moments; she experiences a confused collage of sensations as she sinks down to
death. A hasty reading of the last scene might suggest that Edna
heedlessly swims out too far and, in fatigue and despair, makes the
decision on the spur of the moment not to turn back to shore. A
close reading reveals that Edna makes the decision the night before
and comes to Grand Isle for the purpose of committing suicide; her
ordering of dinner and towels is simply a ruse so that Mariequita
and Victor will not grow suspicious and stop her. She moves me-

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chanically without dwelling upon any particular train of thought


because she has already done her thinking during her long sleepless
night on the couch (108). The thoughts that drift through her mind
are but a recapitulation of those of the night before: her lovers ultimately would not suffice her, her husband does not matter, her children appear as antagonists who would drag her soul down. The last
coherent voices that she replays in her mind are those of Robert and
Mlle. Reisz, her lover saying goodbye and her mentor sneering
about her lack of courage as an artist, representing the two ways in
which she sought and failed to find satisfaction, love and art. She
exultantly strips naked and swims out too far to return. Her final
sensations are of incoherent sounds, resolving finally into a hallucinated scent:
She looked into the distance, and the old terror flamed up for an instant, then sank again. Edna heard her fathers voice and her sister Margarets. She heard the barking of an old dog that was chained to the
sycamore tree. The spurs of the cavalry officer clanged as he walked
across the porch. There was the hum of bees, and the musky odor of
pinks filled the air. (109)

Her sensations, recollected from her early days in Kentucky, seem to


swirl down to a vortex. These sensations are the incoherent memories of a drowning person as she goes under, and yet they fit together
like pieces of a collage. The voices of her father and the sister who
was like a mother to her represent the authority figures of Ednas
childhood. The chained dog suggests restraint and her desire to be
free. The officers spurs allude to her adolescent infatuation with an
engaged man: an illusory love for an unattainable lover. The final
images are softer, less harsh, evoking nature and fertilitythe bees
and the odor of flowers. And yet the musky flowers seem funereal,
made morbid as the last sensation of a dying person. It is appropriate that the story of a woman who has experienced an awakening
to sensuous life but ultimately cannot live in her world should conclude with a dissolution of the sensorium. Coherent thoughts give
way to incoherent soundsmere rags of experiencevoices, a hum,
and finally an odor, the most ephemeral of sensations.
Written on the threshold of the twentieth century, Chopins novel
speaks to the future more than to her own time. Her bold depiction
of a womans awakening sexuality and desire for freedom, almost
unanimously condemned by the contemporary reviewers, was ahead

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of its time. Chopins novelistic technique is also modern, particularly in her willingness to trust her images to carry the political and
psychological weight of the novel. Thus she achieves a work suffused
with an aesthetic sensibility, the vision of a painterly eyenot that
of Edna the painter but that of Chopin the author. Like Elizabeth
Stuart Phelps, Chopin shows societys inability to understand or accept a woman of strong imagination, but she also shows Ednas
tragic failure to find a creative way to focus her longings and shape
them. Edna is resourceful enough to attain a studio of her own, but
the existence of her atelier is brief. The readers sense of Edna as a
genuinely inspired artist is limited to that evanescent moment when
she perceives the beauty of her housemaids elegant figure and begins to paint, that moment before she lapses into infatuated dreaming and loses her grip on the brush. Edna never creates an authentic
portrait of a woman; Chopin, however, succeeds where Edna fails.

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3
Journey to the Silent Kingdom:
Virginia Woolf s To the Lighthouse
After the first shock and chill those used to deal in words seek
out the pictures with the least of language about themcanvases
taciturn and congealed like emerald or aquamarinelandscapes
hollowed from transparent stone, green hillsides, skies in which
the clouds are eternally at rest. Let us wash the roofs of our eyes
in colour; let us dive till the deep seas close above our heads.
Virginia Woolf, Pictures and Portraits

FASCINATED BY THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN FICTION AND PAINTING, VIRginia Woolf carried on a lifelong dialogue with the painters and aestheticians whom she knew intimately in her family and among her
Bloomsbury friends. Although she frequently attended exhibits and
wrote essays and reviews on the visual arts, Woolf never felt entirely
at ease in the world of painting, which she describes as alien and
mysterious to those such as herself who inhabit a world of words. It
was with some trepidation, therefore, that she developed the character of Lily Briscoe in To the Lighthouse (1927). Woolf worried
needlessly, as it turns outabout the reaction of her sister Vanessa
Bell to a novel that not only portrayed their parents in thinly disguised form but also presumed to reveal the consciousness of a
painter at work. Reading over the completed manuscript, Woolf records in her diary on 21 March 1927, that most of the book seems
to her pliable and deep with never a word wrong for a page
at a time, but she adds, not Lily on the lawn. That I do not much
like.1 Despite Woolf s trepidations, she creates in Lily Briscoe one
of modernisms major artist figures. Although she is a middle-aged
woman, older than D. H. Lawrences Paul Morel or James Joyces
Stephen Dedalus, Lily struggles, like them, toward an artistic vision
that will free her from the heavy weight of the past. Working in ob85

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scurity, she assumes the burdens of creativity and strives valiantly to


achieve a painting that is true to her vision. In the process, Lily
makes the transition, at least in her own mind, from parlor painter
to serious artist.
Lily appears to be the first self-conscious, theorizing fictional
woman painter. The progress of Lilys painting allows Woolf to explore numerous aesthetic and psychological issues that carry some
urgency for Woolf herself as a writer. Woolf shows the precariousness of Lilys task through her recurrent metaphors: Lily thinks of
herself as venturing down a dark corridor into the unknown, swimming between the waves of a high sea, or walking a narrow plank
above the water. Lilys work involves risk partly because she is a
woman; she hears the internalized voice of Mr. Tansley, who epitomizes the patriarchal opposition, telling her that women cannot
paint or write. (Never willing to perpetuate a stereotype, however,
Woolf also allows some sympathy for the philosopher Tansley because of his own acute feelings of class inferiority.) In addition to
antifeminism, the demands of modernismor, to use Roger Frys
term, postimpressonismalso add to Lilys challenge. Although she
is an untaught amateur, Lily feels compelled, like the modernists,
not merely to paint what she sees, but also to rethink the basis for
representing reality and to ponder the relation of art to life.
The reader is served thin slices of Lilys life. The constraints of
Woolf s experiments with time and her stream of multiple consciousnesses allow only intermittent views of Lily at age thirty-three
in the novels first section, The Window. In the third section,
The Lighthouse, Lily at age forty-four occupies a more prominent
position, as her painting is balanced against Mr. Ramsays journey to
the Lighthouse, but again the time span is only a few hours. In spite
of these constraints, the readers experience of Lily is extraordinarily intimate. Outwardly timid, awkward, and unprepossessing,
Lily carefully guards the secret of how much her art means to her.
Although overshadowed by the powerful presence of Mrs. Ramsay
in The Window, Lilys spirit emerges from its chrysalis in The
Lighthouse. Through metaphors involving sea journeys and other
arduous physical feats, Woolf imbues Lilys struggle to paint, like Mr.
Ramsays unfinished efforts to reach the letter R, with epic qualities. Lilys epic struggle, like Mr. Ramsays, is an inward one that tests
her intellect and spirit; it involves violent and lacerating encounters
with grief and a feeling of inner mutilation. Lilys painting also requires that she face up to baffling paradoxes that seem to inhere in

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twentieth-century art and life, an echo perhaps of the riddles and


mysteries surrounding womens struggles to paint in nineteenthcentury novels.
To highlight Lily and her art is, of course, to neglect the delicate
balance of characters and images that constitutes the structure of
Woolf s novel. Disproportionate attention to Lilys art entails a certain disregard of the novels own artistry, in particular Woolf s elegant intertwining of the thoughts of her three main characters and
her brilliant treatment of the dynamics of the Ramsay family. But
given the lavish amount of critical attention that To the Lighthouse has
received over the decades, one may tease out the strands of Lilys
story without running the risk of misrepresenting the novel. Highlighting Lilys story reveals that the journey of the novel is also
Woolf s journey toward, though not quite into, the silent world of
painting, of landscapes taciturn and congealed like emerald or
aquamarine.
To the Lighthouse can be read as a culminating expression of
Woolf s ongoing engagement with postimpressionism and the formalist aesthetics that accompanied it. Cheryl Mares points out that
various questions about relationships between painting and literature captivated, stimulated, and tormented Virginia Woolf for more
than twenty years.2 Territorial termsboundaries, margins,
borders, raids, . . . are scattered throughout Woolf s comments
on relationships between literature and painting, Mares adds,
suggesting that she tended to conceive of them as, in some respects, power struggles.3 In her own realm of fiction Woolf was influenced by the aesthetic principles derived from modernist
painting, but her views of those principles change over the years.
Notably, in later works, such as Between the Acts, she rejects altogether
the view that a work of art can or should exist in a hermetic world of
its own, exclusive of political realities. To the Lighthouse, however, was
written at the time of Woolf s closest liaison with Bloomsbury aesthetics and the principles of formalism.
Christopher Reed notes that the rejection of mimesis and concentration on the play of abstract form: these were the fundamental
tenets of Bloomsbury aesthetic theory.4 A totally nonmimetic and
abstract novel would be an impossibility, of course. By the 1920s,
however, Roger Fry, Woolf s friend and proponent of Bloomsbury
aesthetics, is not at all dogmatic on the issue of whether or not art
should be representational. Fry characterizes the postimpressionist
movement as the reestablishment of purely aesthetic criteria in

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place of the criterion of conformity to appearancethe rediscovery


of the principles of structural design and harmonya goal that is
consistent with both Woolf s scheme for the To the Lighthouse and
Lilys vision of her painting.5 Fry famously defends the underlying
principles of the postimpressionists art: They do not seek to imitate form, but to create form; not to imitate life, but to find an equivalent for life.6 This statement is also consistent with Woolf s
program for fiction as set forth in her 1919 essay Modern Fiction,
in which she derides Edwardian writers for their prolix descriptions
and claims the freedom to invent new forms for the novel.
Roger Frys influence on To the Lighthouse has been noted by many
critics. Of particular relevance is the way in which Fry defines the
artists vision, a term that occurs with some frequency in Lilys
consciousness and gains prominence as the last word of the novel:
I have had my vision.7 In his essay The Artists Vision, Fry distinguishes between ordinary optical vision and what he calls creative
vision, which carries the artist away from the meanings and implications of appearances.8 Fry goes on to define how this form of vision sets in motion the creative process:
Almost any turn of the kaleidoscope of nature may set up in the artist
this detached and impassioned vision, and, as he contemplates the particular field of vision, the (aesthetically) chaotic and accidental conjunction of forms and colours begins to crystallise into a harmony; and as
this harmony becomes clear to the artist, his actual vision becomes distorted by the emphasis of the rhythm, which has been set up within him.9

Frys description can be compared with the fourth sentence of To the


Lighthouse, in which Woolf describes the sensibility of James Ramsay:
Since he belonged, even at the age of six, to that great clan which cannot
keep this feeling separate from that, but must let future prospects, with
their joys and sorrows, cloud what is actually at hand, since to such people even in earliest childhood any turn in the wheel of sensation has the
power to crystallise and transfix the moment upon which its gloom or
radiance rests, James Ramsay, sitting on the floor cutting out pictures
from the illustrated catalogue of the Army and Navy Stores, endowed the
picture of a refrigerator, as his mother spoke, with heavenly bliss. (3)

Fry speaks of a turn in the kaleidoscope of nature; Woolf alludes


to the sensorium as a turning wheel. He speaks of aesthetic impressions as crystallizing into harmony; she refers to a moment of bliss

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crystallizing in memory. Nonetheless, the verbal echoes cannot be


ignored. Although James is a six-year-old cutting out paper dolls, he
evidently possesses an artistic sensibility, and Woolf uses him to set
forth some of the premises of her novel: that the senses are like a
bright turning wheel with life streaming into them willy-nilly, that
time is inward and pliable, that the future clouds and colors the
present, and that time may nonetheless seem to be transfixed, made
crystalline. These premises are the basis for Woolf s experimental
techniques. Her echo of Frys description of the creative process appropriately introduces a novel in which Lilys own creative vision is
represented as a positive force against the forces of death, dissolution, and entropy, what Woolf calls that fluidity out there (97).
Like Fry in his essay, Woolf explores the process of painting, not the
finished work; at the moment when Lily completes her painting the
novel goes silent.
If it seems puzzling that Virginia Woolf, surrounded by the professional painters and aestheticians of Bloomsbury, should have chosen
to portray Lily as an untrained amateur who stands awkwardly at the
easel and hides her work from those around her, the answer may be
that Woolf intends to show the cultural moment when a woman
breaks through from the amateurism of the nineteenth-century parlor painters to the achievement of serious art. By the end of the
novel, although Lily is still convinced that her painting would be
hung in attics like the drawings of Victorian ladies, she has come
to regard it as her work.
Another likely reason why Woolf portrays Lily as an amateur is
that Lily could not be mistaken for a portrait of Vanessa Bell, which
might have seemed presumptuous. The loving but jealous rivalry of
the sister artists, which has been the subject of several full-length
studies, involved a lifelong dialogue about their work.10 Diane Gillespie points out that in their early years the sisters recognized the differences between a medium that is essentially static and one that can
embody the actual creative process that results in the finished work
of art.11 To the Lighthouse, of course, embodies that novelistic process,
and Woolf furthers the dialogue with Vanessa by making Lily a
painter rather than a writer. Gillespie adds that the sisters observed
too that the writer is more interested in the consciousness of color
and other visual stimuli than in colors or forms themselves; the
writer subordinates the purely visual to human concerns.12 The distinction between consciousness of color and color itself is a subtle
one. That distinction, however, marks an impassable border for the

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writer, who can bring colors to mind only by means of ekphrasis.


Still, when moved to compliment one anothers work, the two sisters
both suggest the possibility of crossing over into one anothers
realm. Commenting on the fictional portrayal of their parents in To
the Lighthouse, Vanessa writes to Virginia, So you see as far as portrait painting goes, you seem to me to be a supreme artist and it is
so shattering to find oneself face to face with those two again that I
can hardly consider anything else.13 In turn, Virginia writes about
Vanessas painting The Conversation, I think you are a most remarkable painter. But I maintain you are into the bargain, a satirist, a
conveyor of impressions about human life: a short story writer of
great wit and able to bring off a situation in a way that rouses my
envy.14 The Conversation (Courtaud Gallery), a disturbing work in its
deliberately unharmonious colorsorange sky, flat blue-green grass
and harsh white, yellow, and red flowers outside the windowand
the ominous dark bulks of the three conversing women, would presumably arouse Woolf s envy because of its compression of a story
into a single visual statement. As a narrative painting implying a conversation more serious and alarming than mere gossip, Vanessas
work would seem to arrest a moment in time.
In her longest essay on painting, Walter Sickert: A Conversation,
Woolfchoosing a representational and more obviously literary
painter whose style was remote from Vanessasexpresses a yearning to cross over the border into a world of pure painterly expression. The essay, written in the form of a dialogue in which several
anonymous dinner guests share their views on aesthetic issues raised
by a recent Sickert exhibit, presents various opinions that Woolf debates within her own mind. The essay proposes three ways of looking
at art: first, by reacting to color, an immediate and primal stimulus;
second, by seeing the painting in a literary way and attempting to
express its meaning in words; and third, by trying to experience the
painting as artists do in their own wordless realm. Woolf compares
this realm to a silent place and also a forest into which literary people cannot venture; elsewhere she amusingly writes that painters
must weave their spells like mackerel behind the glass at the aquarium, mutely, mysteriously.15 Woolf s playful metaphors mask her
serious longing to enter the painters realm, but she adds that literary people must recognize the limitations which Nature has put
upon us, and so turn back to the sunny margin where the arts flirt
and joke and pay each other compliments.16 In a sense, Lily Briscoe
exists on that sunny margin. By tracing Lilys stream of conscious-

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ness, Woolf attempts to cross over that margin into the inner life of
a painter. Still, Woolf portrays the process of Lilys painting in a novelistic way: it entails risk, involves a variety of emotions, and has a
beginning, middle, and an end, unlike Lilys completed painting,
which is silent and unliterary.
Another relevant aspect of Woolf s essay on Sickert is her startling
hypersensitivity to color in art. One of the speakers describes reacting to the colors of the exhibit:
I flew from colour to colour, from red to blue, from yellow to green.
Colours went spirally through my body lighting a flare as if a rocket fell
through the night. . . . Colour warmed, thrilled, chafed, burnt, soothed,
fed, and finally exhausted me. For though the life of colour is a glorious
life it is a short one. Soon the eye can hold no more. . . .17

This description of a physical, virtually orgasmic, response to color


in an art exhibit reflects Woolf s opinion that writers need paintings
as a stimulus because, as she writes elsewhere, we are so starved . . .
on our diet of thin black print.18 Woolf seems to associate color
with self-expression; she drenches To the Lighthouse in color imagery
as if to enrich the thin diet of print. Although the painter works with
color and the writer with the black and white of the printed page,
the two artistic processes have one thing in common: the writer and
the painter both must confront a blank white surface, a sheet of
paper or a canvas, in order to begin. Woolf laments in her diary
while working on a later novel, I doubt if I can fill this white monster.19 So too Lily looked blankly at the canvas with its uncompromising white stare; she regards it as a glaring, hideously difficult
white space (157, 159).
In The Window Lily is never shown actually painting, only
thinking about her work; the act of putting away her brushes for the
day is described several times, as one marker of Woolf s time
loops that keep bringing the narrative back to the present moment
after a digression into memory or another consciousness. In this section Lily is seen more as a potential artist, and Woolf emphasizes
instead the beautiful but fragile domestic order that Mrs. Ramsay
creates for her family in the prewar world. Woolf, like Phelps and
Chopin, contrasts the artist to an Angel in the House who exudes
domestic virtue and misunderstands womans artistic aspirations.
Transcending the stereotype, however, Mrs. Ramsay is sensitive, loving, deep in wisdom, and possessed of a mystical, intuitive kinship

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with the world and its beauty. That she is also a manipulative, prying
matchmaker seems scarcely to matter. Based on Julia Stephen,
whose death when Woolf was thirteen was arguably the most grievous of many tragedies in her life, Mrs. Ramsay seems forged out of
Woolf s deepest emotions. In Professions for Women Woolf confesses that in order to survive as a writer she had to kill the Angel in
the House within her own psyche, but in To the Lighthouse her attitude is conciliatory rather than violent. Woolf bridges the gap between her mothers generation and her own, between the Victorian
domestic woman and the modern artist, by softening the sharp distinction between the artist and the Angel in the House. Mrs. Ramsay
is presented as an artist of domestic life, sustaining her family and
ordering their world through constant application of her creative
powers and strength of will.
Woolf epitomizes Mrs. Ramsays artistlike sensibility in a rare instance of pictorialismrare because To the Lighthouse does not have
the moments of stasis found in The Awakening; time rarely stands still
except in memory or art. Exactly at the turning point, or center, of
the dinner party scene, the moment when the candles are lit and
disgruntlement turns to celebration, Mrs. Ramsay looks at the centerpiece arranged by her daughter Rose, a yellow and purple dish
of fruit. In her direct and unmediated way of looking at things,
Mrs. Ramsay sees the bowl of fruit as a still life. It is a microcosm, a
feast for the eyes, an epitome of all that Mrs. Ramsays own art
providessustenance, abundance, a sense of community:
What had she done with it, Mrs. Ramsay wondered, for Roses arrangement of the grapes and pears, of the horny pink-lined shell, of the bananas, made her think of a trophy fetched from the bottom of the sea,
of Neptunes banquet, of the bunch that hangs with vine leaves over the
shoulder of Bacchus (in some picture), among the leopard skins and the
torches lolloping red and gold. . . . Thus brought up suddenly into the
light it seemed possessed of great size and depth, was like a world in
which one could take ones staff and climb hills, she thought, and go
down into valleys, and to her pleasure (for it brought them into sympathy momentarily) she saw that Augustus too feasted his eyes on the same
plate of fruit, plunged in, broke off a bloom there, a tassel here, and
returned, after feasting, to his hive. That was his way of looking, different
from hers. But looking together united them. (97)

While the poet Augustus Carmichael views the arrangement selectively, picking out details here and there, Mrs. Ramsay sees it more

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wholly. Her response to the arrangement roughly follows the three


ways of looking at art that Woolf describes in the Sickert essay. She
responds to the color, the yellow and purple, then reads the arrangement through its associations with myth and literary paintingsBacchus (in some picture)and finally imagines entering
fully into its kingdom, like an Alpinist exploring its topography. The
presence of the spirit of Bacchus is far more innocent here than in
Chopins dinner party scene, for the entire party is under Mrs. Ramsays maternal care and control. Edna Pontelliers dinner party gradually disintegrates into decadence and disorder; Mrs. Ramsays
dinner party progresses from a cheerless mood to one of communal
celebration. In supervising the dinner party, Mrs. Ramsay is called
upon moment by moment to create order out of disparate and conflicting people and things.
Mrs. Ramsays aesthetic way of looking at and arranging her world
is not the same as Lilys artistic vision, and Lily must in fact distance herself from the seductive attractions of Mrs. Ramsay and her
family in order to paint. In earlier novels the demands of courtship
disrupted womens art and even at times corrupted it; the interplay
of art and Eros is more subtle and complex in Woolf s novel. On the
one hand, Lily is both fascinated and disturbed by the irrational
force of erotic love; when Paul and Minta become engaged, she feels
scorched by its horror, its cruelty, its unscrupulosity (102). On
the other hand, Woolf, in her search for a unified vision of life,
avoids establishing a false dichotomy between art and Eros: how
could art avoid sterility without the ardor that traditionally impels
it? Although she enjoys the companionship of William Bankes and
shyly allows him to look at her painting-in-progress, Lily prefers
friendship to romantic love. She often keeps her eyes turned down
because of the excitement of that unreal but penetrating and exciting universe which is the world seen through the eye of love (46
47). Excluded, partly by choice, from the worlds endless romantic
pairings, Lily, thinking about the Ramsays marriage, apprehends a
broader, more diffuse kind of love:
It was love, she thought, pretending to move her canvas, distilled and
filtered; love that never attempted to clutch its object; but, like the love
which mathematicians bear their symbols, or poets their phrases, was
meant to be spread over the world and become part of the human gain.
(47)

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This form of love, distilled and filtered, somewhat resembles Iris


Murdochs Platonic idea of a Higher Eros that motivates the best
of human endeavors. Lilys broader view of love is distinct from
erotic love but encompasses it as it also encompasses her own creative efforts.
Lilys understanding of love gives her courage to contemplate the
appalling gap between her vision and the reality of what she has
so far accomplished on the canvas. Lily forms her artistic vision of
her subject much in the way that Roger Fry describes: the jacmanna was bright violet; the wall staring white. She would not have
considered it honest to tamper with the bright violet and the staring
white, since she saw them like that (18). Woolf makes it clear that
Lily does have a fresh and original vision by amusingly contrasting it
to the soft, easy, secondhand impressionism that has prevailed
among the painters on the island since Mr. Paunceforte visited three
years ago: all the pictures were . . . green and grey, with lemoncoloured sailing-boats, and pink women on the beach (13). Lily envisages her painting in striking metaphors: She saw the colour
burning on a framework of steel; the light of a butterflys wing lying
upon the arches of a cathedral (48). Lilys visionary painting possesses a taut, harmonic tension of surface and structure. Like Kate
Chopin, Woolf repeats a theme in order to reinforce it when, in the
third part of the novel, Lily is again painting in earnest and again
she thinks of that harmony:
Beautiful and bright it should be on the surface, feathery and evanescent, one colour melting into another like the colours on a butterflys
wing; but beneath the fabric must be clamped together with bolts of
iron. It was to be a thing you could ruffle with your breath; and a thing
you could not dislodge with a team of horses. (171)

Woolf distinguishes between Lilys artistic vision of the painting and


her actual work in progress. It is also possible to distinguish between
Lilys vision and the more general aesthetic principle it suggests.
The principle is one of a finely achieved tensile force between overall composition and surface detail, a force that Woof describes
through contrastive metaphors.
Woolf s thought processes are typically and often extravagantly
metaphorical, as her diaries, essays, and letters all reveal. Rejecting
the metonymies of Edwardian fiction, she evolves in the 1920s a style
that depends heavily upon the advantages of metaphor, its appeal to

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the visual sense and its ability to leap across boundaries or categories. In this instance, the metaphor of butterfly wing and cathedral
arch violently yokes together disparate aspects of the work of art
rather like a metaphysical conceit, suggesting the effort required to
attain such a balance. These metaphors also provide a means of
bridging the gap between the domains of painting and fiction. The
vehicles of the metaphor, butterfly, and arch, are purely visual, but
the tenor, the idea of a tensile force, is an underlying principle of
the novel itself. Thus Woolf suggests a ratio: as the butterfly wing
is to the arch, the color or surface rendering of a painting is to its
composition or treatment of space and the flowing style of Woolf s
novel is to its solid three-part structure. Lily is not a self-portrait of
Woolf, but her thoughts embody Woolf s own aesthetic principles
expressed in nontechnical terms, and through Lily, Woolf conveys
her own aesthetic commitments and her desire to bridge the arts.
As The Window draws to a close, the reader begins to realize
how much Lilys art means to her. She tosses off a little insincerity
when she tells Mr. Bankes that she would always go on painting,
because it interested her (72), but three times during the dinner
party sceneonce when Tansley offends her, once when she decides
to abandon her experiment not to be nice to him, and once when
she is disturbed by the presence of the engaged coupleLilys
thoughts turn to her art as a means of emotional survival.
Although Lily barely appears in Time Passesthe section begins with her falling asleep and ends with her awakeningthis
densely poetic section ushers in, among many other things, a new
cultural context in which her art must be begun again and remade.
At the end of the first section, much has been broken off and left
unfinished in both the artistic and the domestic realms. Lily never
completes the first version of her painting, and Mrs. Ramsay, who
privately celebrates wholeness, whether it be in a bowl of fruit or a
Shakespearean sonnet, accurately predicts of the stocking that she is
knitting for the Lighthouse keepers boy, I shant finish it (123).
Although Mrs. Ramsays death is announced only in brackets, its effect upon the reader is profound when Woolf describes her decaying house, her fading clothes in the wardrobe, and her empty
mirror. Woolf brilliantly portrays an emptiness that expands to include an entire culture, one which must be filled with new human
arrangements and new forms of art in the postwar world. A hypothetical insomniac walking on the beach and having just seen an
ashen-coloured ship drop a depth charge that stains the sea pur-

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ple, raises abstract questions: Did Nature supplement what man advanced? Did she complete what he began? (13334). The answer
is negative; the Great War has changed everything. The old Romantic faith in a liaison between humanity and nature has been reduced
to mere solipsism:
With equal complacence she [Nature] saw his misery, his meanness, and
his torture. That dream, of sharing, completing, of finding in solitude
on the beach an answer, was then but a reflection in a mirror, and the
mirror itself was but the surface glassiness which forms in quiescence
when the nobler powers sleep beneath? Impatient, despairing yet loth to
go (for beauty offers her lures, has her consolations), to pace the beach
was impossible; contemplation was unendurable; the mirror was broken.
(134)

The sleep of the nobler powers implies the sleep of reason in the
midst of wars barbarism. The broken mirror, which could be the
same mirror that stood empty after Mrs. Ramsays death, suggests
the shattering of a culture and of old ideas of selfhood. The broken
mirror also brings to mind the Renaissance notion of art as the mirror up to nature, art as mimetic representation dependent upon accepted notions of reality. As the characters emerge from the dark
corridor of years in Time Passes, they enter the light of a postwar
world that seems dazzlingly alien and unreal. Thus, the third part of
the novel, The Lighthouse, begins with much unfinished business. Along with Mr. Ramsays journey to the Lighthousea sentimental journey sternly undertakenthere is a need for a new order
and reconciliation in the family, and the reestablishment of art as a
source of wholeness and harmony in a the midst of so much disorder. Although Mrs. Ramsay can never be replaced, it seems that
Lilys painting, or the process of the painting, partially fills the vacuum that she leaves behind. In short, Lilys painting, her need for
self-expression, becomes more urgent in the postwar cultural context. It should be added that although the third section of the novel
takes the characters into new and uncharted territory, it also subtly
recapitulates various events of the first part of the novel, as many
readers have noticed. E. M. Forster seems to have been the first to
observe that To the Lighthouse follows the sonata form.
At the opening of The Lighthouse Lily feels numb, chaotic, at
loose ends. She is still feigning gestures to hide herself from the gaze
of others: sipping coffee, turning her back. Her thoughts remain

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fragmented and scattered until she remembers her painting of


eleven years earlier: She had never finished that picture. She would
paint that picture now (147). Desperate to get started on the painting again, Lily is distracted by the demanding presence of Mr. Ramsay, groaning for sympathy and causing the brush to tremble in her
hand:
there issued from him such a groan that any other woman in the whole
world would have done something, said somethingall except myself,
thought Lily, girding at herself bitterly, who am not a woman, but a peevish, ill-tempered, dried-up old maid, presumably. (151)

Lily appears bitterly to accept societys brutal, age-old assumption


that an independent, unmarried, nonsubservient woman like herself is not a woman at all but rather a desiccated and useless subspecies, an old maid. Yet the addition of the word presumably
in Lilys thoughts gives her leeway to reject and cast off the social
expectations that are prompting her to give herself over, like an
Angel in the House, in sympathy to Mr. Ramsay. Lilys mature sense
of humor enables her to distance herself from the impasse and resolve it. Unwilling to give in to Mr. Ramsay as she had given in to
Tansley under Mrs. Ramsays silent promptings in the dinner party
scene, Lily humorously caricatures herself in her own mind as a stubborn, mincing spinster in distress: His immense self-pity, his demand for sympathy poured and spread itself in pools at her feet, and
all she did, miserable sinner that she was, was to draw her skirts a
little closer round her ankles, lest she should get wet (152). At this
point Lily is torn between her desire to paint and the demands of a
male ego: In complete silence she stood there, grasping her paint
brush (153). Holding her ground, Lily hits upon a happy compromise. The ensuing boot scene, in which Lily refuses to pour out
sympathy for Mr. Ramsay but distracts and pleases him by praising
his well-made boots, shows how much Lily has grown in strength
over the passing years. By complimenting Mr. Ramsay in an indirect
and comradely fashion, Lily is able to offer him some attention without giving in to his demands. As a consequencealmost, it seems,
as a reward for standing firmher own small gesture evokes in her
a genuine sympathy for him, a feeling based on common humanity
rather than gender roles. She suddenly apprehends his loneliness:
There was no helping Mr. Ramsay on the journey he was going
(154). This scene is crucial, for, unlike the protagonists in earlier

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novels who give in to male demand for attention and put down their
paintbrushes, Lily draws upon her own wits to come upon a suitable
compromise and get on with her work.
After the boot scene, the narrative divides as Cam, James, and
their father sail to the Lighthouse and Lily begins to paint, and the
process of the painting and the narrative processes of the novel
begin to intertwine to form a counterpoint. Lilys first step in the
process of painting is to confront once more the white monster
of empty space. As Lily looked blankly at the canvas, with its uncompromising white stare she again faces the most immediate
question that an artistor a writermust ask: Where to begin
that was the question at what point to made the first mark? One line
placed on the canvas committed her to innumerable risks, to frequent and irrevocable decisions (157). In Woolf s diary she too anguished over compositional questions of space as well as time when
she came to write this section of the novel; moving her characters
apart in space, she wanted to maintain an illusion of simultaneity,
so that one had the sense of reading . . . two things at the same
time.20
Woolf s solution to this problem of creating simultaneity in a linear narrative consists of a carefully planned system of structural arrangements. In keeping with the idea that the formality of art fills a
great need for order in the period after the Great War, the third
section of the novel has a more insistently formal rhythm and structure than the first part. On the island Lily moves forward in time,
learning how to master space on her canvas. The Ramsays in their
boat sail along coordinates of time and space to their goal, the Lighthouse. Bearings are taken and distances are measured as though in
solemn ritual. There is very little dialogue. Linear distance creates
silences between the boat and the island; psychic distance creates
silences between the children and their father. Up until the simultaneous completion of the painting and arrival at the Lighthouse, the
major blocks of consciousness alternate between the moving boat
and the shore in this order: Lily, Cam, Lily, James, Lily, Cam, Lily,
Jameslike the voices of a fugue. By the end of the journey, Woolf
has taken the reader to the vanishing points of her characters opposite visual perspectives, achieving a sense of elasticity stretched almost to the breaking point, as though a team of horses had tried
to pull it apart. When the Ramsays reach the Lighthouse, the island
appears to Mr. Ramsay, Cam supposes, as the frail blue shape which
seemed like the vapour of something that had burnt itself away

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(207) whereas for Lily the Lighthouse had become almost invisible, had melted away into a blue haze (208). These formal temporal and visual patterns induce in the reader an awareness that time
and space can be malleable elements within a narrative; if the effect
is not exactly that of simultaneity, it certainly evokes the idea of simultaneous events. Woolf s stretching of the two parts of her narrative almost, but not quite, to the breaking point illustrates not only
an aesthetic principle but also a psychological one: so much depends, Lily thinks, upon distance: whether people are near us or
far from us; for her feeling for Mr. Ramsay changed as he sailed further and further across the bay. It seemed to be elongated, stretched
out; he seemed to become more and more remote (191). Distance
tests the elasticity of human relations; the Ramsays and Lily drift
apart in time and space, but they are bound together by their shared
experiences in the past.
Woolf s experiment with simultaneity has another effect as well.
The double ending of the novel allows Woolf to embrace a paradox.
Mr. Ramsays leap into space gives the novel a feeling of open-endedness, an illusion of life racing on beyond the limits of the story. At
the same moment, Lilys solemn proclamation that It is finished
as she draws the final line on the painting seems to give the novel a
strong closure. The simultaneous events of the last pages imply, at
the least, that life is always making endings and always going on.
The ending of To the Lighthouse has been the subject of lively critical discussion about Woolf s aesthetics, with many critics, Lucio P.
Ruotolo and Geoffrey Hartman among them, interpreting Lilys It
is finished as deeply ironic.21 Lily herself recognizes that her
painting is destined to be utterly ignored, tossed in an attic. More
importantly, the aesthetic of wholeness and significant form that
the early parts of the novel seem to embrace and embody begins to
break down when the reader encounters Time Passes: there is no
patching together what personal loss and the Great War have torn
asundera new aesthetic is called for. Marianne Hirsch convincingly argues that the double plot does not merge and oppositions
remain.22 Hirsch points out that Woolf s refusal to describe the line
that Lily places at the center of the painting as anything other than
a line leaves unanswered the question of whether the masses of
the composition have been balanced and whether Lily has attained
anything like connection and wholeness in a world of loss. The ambiguity of the line, Hirsch argues, illustrates the aesthetic of both/
and: there is no writing without loss, and writing cannot quite con-

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stitute recovery.23 Here Woolf again creates an effect of stretching


things to their limits. The ambiguity of the line requires the reader
to hold contradictory ideas in mind at once: the painting and the
novel both are and are not finished. The painting itself is silent,
and although the final brush stroke may seem conclusive, nothing
can fill the gaping hole of Time Passes.
In the process of her painting, Lily confronts several other paradoxes. Painting, as Woolf conceives it, is by nature paradoxical or at
least hedged round by powerful contrasts, and she implies that the
only way to achieve even a semblance of integrity and completion in
a work of art is by embracing, rather than evading, these paradoxes.
In addition to the strong tensions within the work of art, symbolized
by the butterfly and the cathedral arch, the aspirations of the arts
are also fraught with paradox, she suggests. In temporal terms, art
aspires to make something permanent in a world where nothing is
permanent; in spatial terms, art is an attempt to create something
whole in a world where fragmentation is inevitable. As Lily begins to
paint in earnest, another paradox emerges having to do with art and
life: it appears that art is wholly separate from ordinary life and at
the same time inextricably bound up with it. These paradoxes pertain to both painting and fiction.
The most compelling aspect of Lilys story, however, is not these
intellectual conundrums but rather Lilys emotions as she confronts
them. While ruminating on the nature of art and also attempting to
solve the technical problems posed by her paintingcolor, mass,
and suchLily feels the sweep of extraordinarily powerful emotions
ranging from grief and despair to ecstasy. She becomes painfully
aware of the presence of the past and its absence. Woolf thus shows
the process of art to be a holistic one, involving intellect, technique,
deep emotions, and the distillation of all ones prior experiences. As
Hermione Lee observes, Lilys painting does not set up a romantic
dichotomy between aesthetic consolation and mortal suffering. The
artistic act involves suffering; it sums up the extreme difficulty of giving some moral coherence to the chaotic forms of reality.24 Entering into Lilys art, too, is that broadly defined love which she
apprehended in The Window, love that radiates from the personal to the communal and embraces all serious creative enterprises.
The creative gesture of making the first mark upon the canvas is
risky, like crossing a threshold into a different kind of space. To

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move from the vision to the rendering of the actual painting is to


plunge into a confusing sea of possibilities:
All that in idea seemed simple became in practice immediately complex;
as the waves shape themselves symmetrically from the cliff top, but to the
swimmer among them are divided by steep gulfs and foaming crests. Still
the risk must be run; the mark made. (157)

As Lily tackles this formidable ancient enemy of hers, the empty


space of the canvasMrs. Ramsays enemy, the reader recalls, was
timeshe feels drawn out and haled away, almost reluctant to be
driven to the endless risks of art. Poised on the brink of creativity
before she exchanged the fluidity of life for the concentration of
painting she had a few moments of nakedness when she seemed like
a unborn soul, a soul reft of body . . . (158). This feeling of exposure is not necessarily due to the fact that Lily is a woman artist. The
souls being born in moments of artistic discovery is a prominent
idea in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and other works of modernism.The emphasis on nakedness, however, suggests that exposure of ones soul or inner self in this fashion is particularly difficult
for women; there are more layers of social expectation and encrusted prejudice to be cast off. Unlike Edna Pontellier, however,
Lily is able to survive both the nakedness and the engulfing sea. In
the same passage, Lily is still hearing the voice of Mr. Tansley. In
her diary Woolf very frequently records similar apprehensions about
revealing herself through her work, and her feminist essays explore
the historical forces which make creative women feel vulnerable.
Later, having gotten further along with the painting, Lily still feels
herself to be walking on a narrow plank, perfectly alone, over the
sea (172). The idea of the woman artist in the early twentieth century as someone suspended in space, like a tightrope walker without
props, emphasizes the danger, exposure, and solitariness of Lilys
undertaking. It is a sad feature of Lilys situation that she has no one
(except the reader) with whom to share her fears and her achievements, no sister artist, no salon, no Bloomsbury group. By making
Lily so isolated within herself, Woolf emphasizes the ultimate isolation of every writer or painterthe real struggle must be carried on
alonebut she also epitomizes and highlights what certainly had
been until recently the isolation of most creative women.
As Lily moves more confidently into her painting, another threshold appears in her imagination: Lily, painting steadily, felt as if a

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door had opened, and one went in and stood gazing silently about
in a high cathedral-like place, very dark, very solemn (171). In pursuing her vision, Lily crosses over a clear demarcation between ordinary experience, a day in summer in the Hebrides, and what she sees
as a sacred space, the cathedral-like palace of art. One of the most
striking paradoxes of Lilys work is that on the one hand her art is
sealed off entirely in a separate world of its own, hermetic and isolated, even protected, from the rest of her life, and on the other
hand her art is inextricably bound up with and dependent upon her
deepest life experiences, her memories and her grief. Although this
paradox may not be resolved, it is broadly inherent in the modernism of the 1920s; one thinks of how deeply personal and at the same
time impersonal The Waste Land and Ulysses are.
Vanessa Bells career as an artist also exhibits a paradoxical blending of the personal and impersonal. Quentin Bell notes that his
mother painted pictures replete with psychological interest while
at the same time firmly denying that the story of a picture has any
importance whatsoever.25 Vanessas career shows a vacillation between abstraction and representation as well as between flat decorative design and the illusion of perspective and depth, with both
modes often appearing in the same painting. Purely abstract art did
not provide the sensuous relationship with the everyday world
that Vanessa needed, but at the same time she wished her art to be
separate from concepts of use, value, from sentimental associations
and other non-visual content.26 This compromise with representation is evident in paintings like The Tub (Tate Gallery), in which a
stylized female nude, viewed frontally with eyes demurely cast down,
stands next to a very large round copper bathing tub. The tub is
viewed from above, so that the woman and the tub seem disturbingly
to occupy incompatible spaces even though they are juxtaposed.
The Tub conveys to the viewer a sense of inexorable isolation, a
disquiet that, Frances Spalding notes, is expressed through the formal relationships of the figures.27 Spalding suggests that the
strained relationship between the tub and the standing figure in this
large painting is an unconscious expression of [Vanessas] own
sense of incompleteness at the time, in 1918.28 Thus, a painting
that appears to be governed mainly by a sense of design and to eschew any effect of narrative is at the same time suggestive of deeply
personal emotions.
Lily educates Mr. Bankes on postimpressionist principles when
she tells him that a mother and child, perhaps the most tender sub-

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ject of traditional art, can be represented by a purple triangle without disrespect. Vanessa Bell sometimes painted her friends and even
Virginia with blank featureless faces. Lilys finished painting will very
likely appear impersonal in the sense that no recognizable human
figures will be visible in it. At the same time Lilys own emotions affect the very gestures she makes with her brush. Woolf makes it explicit that Lilys art contains the residue of her life. Fiction is
different from painting in this regard; fiction cannot take leave of
the personal so readily as painting can. Woolf is, after all, drawing
upon her own experiences including her grief for her parents, but
at the same time she believes, along with her fellow modernist writers of the period, that fiction should be impersonal and detached
from the ego of the artist. She addresses this paradox in various essays, most notably Modern Fiction and Mr. Bennett and Mrs.
Brown. In rejecting the unexamined mimesis of earlier fictionan
approach that assumed an easy, natural affinity between descriptive
fiction and lifeWoolf proposes a newly invented and more distilled form of mimesis in which life is represented through the
atoms of consciousness rather than external description, resulting in greater verisimilitude in portraying human experience. To the
Lighthouse exhibits this kind of selectivity and abstraction, becoming,
in a way somewhat different from Lilys painting, both personal and
impersonal at once.
Once Lily gets into the rhythm of her painting, she feels the leisure to contemplate an enormous question posed so baldly as to
seem almost comical: What is the meaning of life? (161). The
process of painting provokes her to question lifes meaning even as
it hales her away from her everyday reality. Lilys answerthat
there is never to be a great revelation but only the little daily
miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark
brings her back to her motivation as an artist, for the small illuminations of life include her attempts at art (161). The metaphor of
illuminations is similar to the luminous halo of consciousness
described in Modern Fiction and to the moments of being in
A Sketch of the Past. The metaphor of illuminations is a spatial
one, giving the image of a dark space lighted, although Woolf also
stresses its brevity, like a match flame. Lily thinks of art in temporal
terms as making of the moment something permanent as in her
own way Mrs. Ramsay did: In the midst of chaos there was shape;
this eternal passing and flowing (she looked at the clouds going and
the leaves shaking) was struck into stability (161). (Note that

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Woolf s sentence itself embodies a contradiction: it declares the possibility of permanence even as the parenthetical statement, which
for Woolf usually contains the more insistent truth, proclaims the
mutability of all things.) In Lilys revelation there is nothing particularly mystical: just as Mrs. Ramsay has created an illusion of permanence by the force of her personality, living on in memories of
selected moments, so too Lily as an artist can seem to make clouds
and leaves, emblems of ephemerality, stand still in her painting.
Having made a connection between herself and Mrs. Ramsay and
between art and life, Lily experiences a moment of harmony: the
thought of Mrs. Ramsay seemed in consonance with this quiet
house; this smoke; this fine early morning air (161). The word
consonance echoes Stephen Dedaluss Thomistic term consonantia, which he translates as harmony, one of the elements required
in order for beauty to be apprehended. Roger Fry also speaks of
rhythm and harmony as essential elements of the artistic vision.
Woolf hints at similar aesthetic principles, but she emphasizes the
internal tensions of a work of art more than Joyce and Fry do. And
she implies that the internal tensions of the painting represent the
distillation of the artists psychological struggles as she works to
achieve her vision. Woolf allows Lily to experience a temporary
sense of consonancewith herself, her art, and her worldbefore
she goes on to do battle with the most menacing obstacles she must
confront before completing the painting: death, loss, and grief.
Grief, the nexus of the presence and absence of the past, overwhelms Lily while she is painting, almost as though grief were a necessary part of the artistic process. Lilys work, like the novel itself,
has an elegiac pattern: in order to complete the painting she has to
descend to the nadir of grief, of longing and emptinessto want
and want and not to haveand temporarily surmount it (202). At
the moment when Lilys grief reaches a climax and she cries out
Mrs. Ramsays name and bursts into tears, Woolf produces a horrifying objective correlative: in the boat Macalisters boy cuts a square
of flesh from the side of a fish and throws the live, mutilated fish
back into the sea. So too, Woolf suggests, life treats all who have suffered loss. Her feeling of psychological mutilation drives Lily back
to her painting. It seems that Woolf s keen sense of human suffering
serves to strengthen, even motivate, her commitment to art. In A
Sketch of the Past she writes that by putting the shock and pain of
life into words she gives reality and wholeness to the real thing behind appearances and this wholeness means that it has lost its

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power to hurt me.29 Lily, feeling that a part of her has been torn
out, works on her painting as she simultaneously reconstructs moments of the life of her friend until she finally sees Mrs. Ramsay
beyond the window pane, knitting and casting a shadow on the step,
not as an apparition but as a real person, a part of ordinary experience living on in memory (202). Mrs. Ramsay and the past are both
present and absent at the same time.
The completion of the painting means for Lily, so she hopes, the
creation of something whole compounded out of artistry and vision
and motivated by love: painters, she thinks, are among the larger
category of lovers whose gift it was to choose out the elements of
things and place them together and so, giving them a wholeness not
theirs in life, make of some scene, or meeting of people (all now
gone and separate), one of those globed compacted things over
which thought lingers, and love plays (192). The creative process
here, involving selectivity, vision and wholeness, seems straight out
of Roger Frys essay, but Woolf expands the category of creative people to include Mrs. Ramsay. By making Mrs. Ramsay integral to Lilys
creative process, Woolf acknowledges the creativity of women of earlier generations who never dreamed of becoming artists. Psychologically, Lilys painting represents a triumph over the voice of Mr.
Tansley, and it contains the experience of her grief. Even the formalists never denied the emotional content of a work of art: the drawn
line, writes Roger Fry, is the record of a gesture, and that gesture
is modified by the artists feeling which is thus communicated to us
directly.30 And yet Lilys painting also has a separate existence,
apart from the life that inspired it, and it represents an attempt to
embody an ideal form. It may be useful here to distinguish between
the idea of wholeness and the achievement of it. Up until the moment when Lily completes her painting, she sees it as ephemeral,
destined at best to be hung in attics, and yet somehow solid and permanent, like the arch of a cathedral. This paradox is reinforced by
Mr. Carmichaels imagined elegiac gesture of blessing the scene by
bestrewing violets and asphodels, flowers representing the
ephemeral and the eternal. Lilys painting, Woolf implies, is both
ephemeral and permanent.
Although Lily finally sees her completed painting, the reader does
not. From various hints it can be surmised that the painting depicts
a part of the house, including a white wall, the window, steps, a
hedge, and trees. The main colors are greens and blues, with
touches of violet, brown, and red. The colors are the most vibrantly

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present aspect of the painting. In a close reading of the novel too


long and intricate to reproduce here, Jane Goldman intriguingly argues that Lily attains colour-based enlightenment emerging from
the chiaroscuro of the Ramsays. Goldman calls Lilys new-found
aesthetic principle feminist prismatics: instead of a world of art
dominated by the masculine sun and its shadows, Goldman
writes, Lily finds a colourist illumination of the feminine umbra
behind the masculine solar subject.31 The composition of the painting is more obscure than the color. Lilys last words in the novel suggest that from her point of view the composition is harmonious, with
the final brushstroke providing balance. But the reader cannot see
the composition even in the minds eye; it is left entirely to the readers imagination, like an ekphrastic black hole. And even if Lilys
painting is presumed to be complete, the version which she started
eleven years earlier remains incomplete and even more spectral.
That Lilys painting both is and is not complete is consistent with
the idea that fragmentation, incompletion, and suspension can be
positive values in the paintings of women artists, representing in
some sense the truth of their psychological life. Lilys painting expresses both her feeling of mutilation and her desire for wholeness.
Woolf has taken the reader to the threshold of the wordless world
of art. Although the reader does not see Lilys painting, it seems
more vivid and meaningful than many other embedded works of art
because every aspect of it has been negotiated and hard won,
wrested by effort from the chaos of experience, and because every
shape and color in it is saturated with Lilys emotions, her private
griefs and triumphs. Lilys painting has a radiance, parallel perhaps
to Woolf s luminous halo of consciousness, because the reader
experiences not so much the work in progress as Lilys vision of it.
Throughout the novel it is the visionary painting that matters. Lily
has no studio, only her portable paint box and easel, and she is unlikely ever to receive much recognition for her art, but nevertheless
she is one of the great protagonists of modernist writing because her
globed consciousness contains so muchvision and reality, sensibility and wisdomand because her efforts to paint bring coherence and order to her world. By creating that consciousness Woolf
comes as close as she can to the silent kingdom of painting. In the
Sickert essay she writes, though they must part in the end, painting
and writing have much in common. . . . The novelist is always saying
to himself how can I bring the sun on to my page?32
In novels written prior to To the Lighthouse the portrayal of women

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artists was usually tentative, their aesthetic goals often vague or unarticulated and their achievements spotty at best. Writing in the 1920s,
when opportunities for women in the arts were opening up
although painting still lagged far behind fiction in that regard
Woolf captures a woman painter at moments of breakthrough, not
into professionalism, but into serious exploration of the emotional
and intellectual possibilities of her art. At this time in her career
Woolf found it possible to synthesize her aesthetic and political views
into a single narrative; that is, to espouse the notion of high art as
consistent with a feminist viewpoint. Later in her career her growing
anger at the worlds injustice and brutality would cause her to alter
the forms and genres of her writing and she would come to reject
the idea that art can validly occupy some high plateau above the fray.
But in To the Lighthouse Woolf s inclusive view of creativity proves to
be consistent with a rather moderate feminist stance. Her broad category of all of those who possess creative or artistic sensibilities and
love their work, that great clan, includes not only modern thinkers, writers, and painters but also women of an earlier generation
who exercised creativity and love within the constraints of the domestic realm. Woolf discovers an affinity and continuity between the
household manager and the artist, between Mrs. Ramsay and Lily,
implying that women always have had creative powers. As Christopher Reed and others have pointed out, modernism was congenial
to feminism and to womens art because the principles of modernism encouraged a certain detachment and inventiveness which
tended to preclude older patriarchal conventions.
Unlike earlier fictional painters, Lily Briscoe does not allow men
to distract her for long; she hangs on to her paintbrush. Lily forms
an enduring friendship with Mr. Bankes, resisting Mrs. Ramsays silent scheme of matchmaking for the two of them. She internalizes
the hectoring voice of Mr. Tansley but eventually triumphs over that
voice by proving it wrong. And she successfully fends off Mr. Ramsays demands for attention by means of an intelligent compromise:
she will give him something, but not her full attention. Choosing to
paint, Lily abandons all thought of romantic love, although To the
Lighthouse is not so insistent on the incompatibility of love and art as
The Story of Avis is. In setting and symbol, The Awakening more nearly
anticipates To the Lighthouse, but Edna Pontellier, with her romantic
distractions and inattentiveness to the world, seems practically the
opposite of Lily Briscoe, with her seriousness of purpose and keen
observations of life. Jane Eyre, oddly enough, is the fictional woman

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painter who most foreshadows Lily, albeit in an embryonic way. Both


painters show some daring and courage in resisting tradition and in
attempting to paint from within themselves and remain true to their
artistic visions. Both painters experiment with forms: Janes best
paintings are surreal and self-expressive; Lily reinvents forms in a
modernist context. Janes unrealized artistic potential seems like a
pent up force in Jane Eyre, a compounding of fire and ice in her soul
which never achieves full expression. In her painting, Lily is more
fully able to yoke together opposing forcessurface and structure,
grief and loveguided by a vision that is steadier and more precise.

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4
Figure and Ground: The Portrait Painter in
Iris Murdoch and Anna Banti
The work of art may seem to be a limited whole enclosed in a
circle, but because of contingency and the muddled nature of
the world and the imperfections of language the circle is always
broken.
Iris Murdoch, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals
Her weapons were to paint with ever increasing boldness and ferocity, with heavy shadows, stormy light, brush strokes like the
blows of a sword.
Anna Banti, Artemisia

HISTORICALLY, PORTRAITS WERE COMMISSIONED TO DISPLAY ACHIEVEment or rank and to bestow fame rather than to reveal the psyche.
Portraits especially engage the viewers interest, though, when they
illuminate human character and arouse curiosity about the individuality of the sitter. The portrait painter is the type of painter whose
task most closely resembles that of the novelist, the representation
of human character. A novelist who portrays a portrait painter creates an alter ego, a fictional sister artist who will, in turn, portray the
character of her subject.
Anna Bantis Artemisia (1953, trans. Shirley DArdia Caracciolo)
and Iris Murdochs The Sandcastle (1957) both depict professional
women portrait painters who succeed in their work but who, like the
painters in earlier fiction, find that their artistic careers are incompatible with love and marriage. Bantis novel relates to the history of
art; Murdochs, to the philosophy of art. Banti creates a fictional version of the real-life Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi, stressing
her struggles for recognition, the arduous journeys she undertakes,
and the sacrifices she makes for her art. Banti impressionistically
evokes the colors and textures of seventeenth-century Europe through
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her painterly use of color, light, motion, and scenes of daily life.
Although almost all of Gentileschis surviving works depict biblical
or mythological subjects, painted from models, Banti chooses to represent her mainly as a portrait painter, so that, with certain exceptions, the embedded paintings in the novel are imagined ones.
Rain Carter, the painter in The Sandcastle, works throughout the
novel on a commissioned portrait of a retired headmaster; as in To
the Lighthouse the painting and the novel unfold simultaneously. A
comic novel with a somber ending, The Sandcastle is narrated mainly
from the point of view of Bill Mor, a discontented middle-aged British schoolmaster, married with teenage children, who falls in love
with the young painter. Mor and Rain tentatively plan to run away
together, but human frailty and a family crisis combine to thwart
their romance. Rain Carter ends up, like Artemisia and Lily Briscoe,
a solitary figure. As in many of Murdochs novels, the eventful plot
raises philosophical issues, in this instance issues having to do with
duty, honor, desire, and the nature and value of art. Although she is
seen mainly through Mors eyes, Rain the artist is the most dynamic
and spontaneous character in the novel and the one who embodies
Murdochs own aesthetic ideas.
What these two novels significantly have in common, despite their
obvious differences, is that both of the women artists have been professionally trained and deeply influenced by their fathers. The
father provides the wayin the case of Artemisia, the only possible
wayfor the woman painter to enter into the male-dominated
mainstream of art. By conversing inwardly with their absent fathers,
the real Orazio Gentileschi and the fictional Sidney Carter, the
painters enter into dialogue with inherited artistic tradition. Like
every other fictional artist discussed so far in this study, both characters are motherless. This conspicuous absence of a mother may have
something to do with the development of the artist: the half-orphaned
girl feels an urge toward self-creation through art, or perhaps she
simply escapes strong indoctrination in traditional female roles and
therefore can seize an opportunity to make her way in her fathers
world. The paternal tutor provides both an entrance into an artistic
vocation and the technical expertise upon which the artist can begin
to base her own style.
Artemisia, both the real artist and the character, assumes the
point of view, rules of perspective, and typical subject matter of the
male artists who precede her, but she alters the presentation of that

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subject matterfrequently the female bodyso as to present a


shockingly new and even feminist vision. Although Artemisia, real
and fictional, dominates her subjects as male painters traditionally
do, by means of a single commanding point of view, Banti the novelist adamantly resists dominating Artemisia as her subject, instead
crafting a novel that seems prematurely postmodern in its reflections upon its own deliberate tentativeness and lack of closure. Similarly, Murdoch in her philosophical writings and in The Sandcastle
embraces a concept of art as open to the world and necessarily tentative or subject to revision, a variation of the principle of the unfinished. Murdoch characterizes art as a struggle to produce at best a
broken circle, but she implies that brokenness may be a saving
grace. As mid-twentieth-century novelists, Banti implicitly and Murdoch explicitly reject the notion that art should try to dominate or
improve upon reality. Instead, art enters into dialogue with the
world.
Because Banti in her novel carries on a dialogue with her elusive
character, half summoning her spirit and half inventing her, it is useful to compare the historical record of Artemisia Gentileschi to Bantis recreation of her. No longer an underrated painter, as she was
even in Bantis time, Artemisia is admired today for seizing upon
artistic tradition and making it serve her own purposes. That tradition was overwhelmingly masculine. Art historian Svetlana Alpers
points out that since the Renaissance the dominant tradition in art
and art history has typically been the Italian one. In the Albertian
tradition of Italy, a picture is defined, Alpers reminds us, as a
framed surface or pane situated at a certain distance from a viewer
who looks through it at a second or substitute world.1 Such a mode
of painting assumes the predominance of a single (prior) viewer and
makes use of linear perspective to direct the viewers gaze and create
the illusion of a secondary world. In its ordering of the world and
in its possession of meaning, Alpers says, such an art, like the analysis art historians have devoted to it, asserts that the power of art
over life is real.2 Alpers significantly adds that the attitude toward
women in this arttoward the central image of the female nude in
particularis part and parcel of a commanding attitude taken
toward the possession of the world.3 Although Artemisia Gentileschis work follows this Albertian tradition, her heroic female figures
of Judith and others resist the possessive gaze of the onlooker because they are anything but passive. Beginning to paint just at the
time when Caravaggio was creating a stylistic revolution, Artemisia

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became the only noted Caravaggista. Her father knew Caravaggio in


Rome, and, as R. Ward Bissell notes, between 1609 and 1613 Orazio transmitted to Artemisia his understanding of Caravaggios genius and the more distinguished features of his own art. Artemisia,
artistically gifted and vital of spirit, approached his teaching deliberately, and by the age of twenty had become an individual creative
personality.4 Artemisias work was more deeply affected by Caravaggio than her fathers was. In his works, Caravaggio, as Bissell observes, frequently set up lines of force which if extended would
transcend the limits of the frame and thereby involve the reader in
the action.5 Caravaggios Baroque style, radically wrenching the
viewers perspective away from the perpendicular and creating new
and strenuous angles of sight, was well suited to Artemisias heroic
presentation of her female figures. As in Caravaggios works, her
shallow backgrounds and dramatic use of chiaroscuro make the
figures loom large.
Prior to Artemisia there had been a great many paintings of
femmes forte, figures such as Judith, Minerva, and Cleopatra, but Artemisia created large and startling new versions of these women. Art
historian Mary Garrard notes that unlike the femmes forte framed
for moralizing verses and immobilized by their emblematic format,
Artemisias Judiths are armed with swords that cut, weapons they do
not hesitate to use. And unlike the beautiful Susannas, Lucretias,
and Cleopatras of mens art, who wriggle seductively even in extremis,
Artemisias nude heroines convincingly experience pain and emotional anguish.6 Garrard also observes that Artemisia inverts the female stereotypes; her supposedly evil characters become heroic
and even her saintly characters exude a meaty vitality.7
In her novel Banti takes liberties with the historical Artemisia
while following the major events of her life: the early rape trial in
which Artemisia, the fourteen-year-old victim, not Agostino Tasso
the rapist, was made to appear the guilty party; the arranged marriage to Antonio Stiatessi and later separation from him; and the
many years of painting and travel. In the novel, Banti makes Artemisia seem a more isolated figure by changing her artist husband into
a peddler and reducing her two artist daughters to one daughter
who detests art. It should also be noted that Banti had access to
fewer of Artemisias paintings than are known today; several important works, some of which might have been useful or inspiring to
Banti, have been attributed to Artemisia Gentileschi since the novel
was written. Mainly emphasizing Artemisias emotional life, Banti

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does not dwell on the professional difficulties that the patronage system presented for all artists, particularly the rare woman artist. The
historical Artemisias surviving letters to her patrons, probably dictated to a scribe, show her to be proud, forceful, and businesslike.
She complains that male painters are treated better, and she demands a fair price for her work.
Banti departs from the historical record in order to achieve her
own artistic and thematic purposes. Drawing on the facts of Artemisias life, the novel presents her as an artist hero, but it also raises
the question of how artistic achievements can be measured against
the sacrifices they require and the losses that life inevitably brings.
Artemisia suffers many losses, especially of her husband and father,
as she struggles to create her art. Bantis novel describes her own
struggles as a writer as well as Artemisias as an artist. The opening
third of the novel dramatizes the difficulty of crafting a portrait of
a historical artist in fiction, using the known materialshistorical
records and the extant worksplus imagination to create the figure
of a believable artistic personality. Anna Banti (the pen name of
Lucia Lopresti) appears as a first-person voice in the novel, speaking
to Artemisia and cajoling her to come to life. As the novel opens, the
authoror rather, her first-person, unnamed personais seated in
the Boboli gardens surrounded by refugees after the battle for the
liberation of Florence in 1944. Anna, as she may be called, is
grieving over the loss of a manuscript buried in the rubble of the
battle, her unfinished first version of the book, which contained
my companion from three centuries ago who lay breathing gently
on the hundred pages I had written (4). As Shirley DArdia Caracciolo points out in her afterword to the novel, the intense dialogue
between the author and the artist is thus further complicated by the
intrusion of this character from the first version, her own lost Artemisia (217). In the first part of the novel, Anna tries to recapture both her lost fictional Artemisia and the more remote historical
artist. The authors relationship to the painter is extraordinarily intimate, but at the same time Artemisia remains elusive and difficult to
conjure up; I carry Artemisia around with me in fragments,
Anna says (40). Anna sees herself as Artemisias storyteller, her
spokesperson, and her witness for the defense. The dialogue between the artist and the painter, implicit in the novels of Kate
Chopin and Virginia Woolf, here becomes explicit, yet it is frustrating because the painter remains silent. Artemisia belongs to a world
almost too remote to speak to Anna, but she is also silent in the

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sense that she lives most fully in the visual realm of art; she thinks
of painting as the language that she speaks. After a difficult search,
Anna finally conjures up Artemisia as a child in early seventeethcentury Rome. Having endured the horror of the rape trial, Artemisia begins to paint still lifes while living in virtual seclusion in her
fathers house at the age of seventeen. (As a victim of rape she would
be considered damaged goods, whereas the rapist seems to have gotten off with nothing more than the embarrassment of a trial.) Banti
traces Artemisias move to Florence and her struggles to survive and
to paint on her own.
Although most of the embedded paintings in the novel are imaginary portraits, Banti makes notable use of two of the most famous
of Artemisias actual paintings, her Judith and Holofernes described
early in the novel and her self-portrait, described at the end. Although five autograph paintings of Judith by Artemisia have survived, the one Banti obviously has in mind is Judith Slaying Holofernes
(c.1620) in the Ufizzi Gallery, the well-known painting in which a
muscular, middle-aged, resolute Judith, assisted by her maidservant,
strenuously decapitates a foreshortened Holofernes, blood spurting
on her dress and seeming to drizzle out of the picture plane. The
powerful Judith, the apocryphal Hebrew heroine who slays the Assyrian general to protect the Israelites, was very likely not a real person
at all; no historical record exists of her or of Holofernes. Often
taken as an allegorical figure for Israel, Judith had been painted
many times, but Artemisias version was unprecedented. In her Judith, Garrard writes, we witness an existential killing, with no heroes and no villains, a murder in the realm outside the law.8 The
painting shocks, not only because of its violence but also because of
the reversal of gender stereotypes in the remorseless, androgynous
figure of Judith.
Banti imaginatively recreates the scene where Artemisia works on
this painting. In her version, the fictional Artemisia paints the beheading as an act of symbolic vengeance upon her rapist, but her
motives are more complex than that. In the process of painting she
attains a sense of control and perfected technique; this achievement
allows her to speak the language of her fathers art and also to
redeem the young Artemisia desperate to be justified, to be
avenged, to be in command (46). Banti has Artemisia look into the
mirror for the face of Judith, a plausible surmise. As she labors in
her studio, five well-dressed women sit around gossiping and watching her finish the painting. Inventing the figure of Anastasio the

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Greek giant to serve as a model for Holofernes, Banti gives the scene
a surprising twist when Artemisia glimpses the flash of a knife blade
out of the corner of her eye. Inspired by the completed painting,
the five visiting gossips are on the verge of attacking Anastasio with
the knife. Artemisia screams at the model to put his clothes on and
run for his life. This scene is grotesquely comical because of the
break with decorum and the total lack of conscious motivation on
the part of the women so ready to castrate or murder the gigantic
male. This vignette allows Banti to show the subversiveness of the
painting and its shock value. Because she cannot reproduce the
painting in the novel, Banti provides a moment of black comedy to
indicate how radical a work of art it is, nearly inspiring an act of
mayhem.
While the major struggle of Artemisias life is to gain recognition
as a painter and praise from her father, who continually distances
himself from her, she, like earlier fictional painters, experiences a
conflict between art and love. In Bantis version, the marriage to Antonio is a mere formality to save Artemisias reputation, but some
time later she returns to him in Rome and spends a couple of years
with him and his colorful extended family of pimps, thieves, and
fake beggars. The brief interval with Antonio provides Artemisia
some short-lived happiness. But unlike most of the works discussed
earlier, Bantis novel shows the conflict between art and Eros to be
almost entirely an inward one, a struggle in Artemisias own tormented psyche between her restless ambition and her need for love.
Antonio, a gentle, innocent fellow who makes his living as a peddler
and trader, does not interfere with Artemisias work. She lives with
him in a hovel, feeling delighted pleasure in belonging at last to
someone. He brings her gifts from his trade. But then she receives
the offer of a commission for several portraits which carries with it
the use of a lavish apartment with a salon, a carriage, and a footman.
As Artemisia packs up her portable easel and other belongings, she
feels oddly victimized, as though she herself were the subject of injustice. She longs to reach out to Antonio with gestures of affection,
but it was like hearing heartrending music and not being able to
follow it (78). Although Antonio accompanies her to the new
home, his sweet nature changes; he is unable to adapt to the lavish
surroundings, becoming obtuse and sleeping apart from her. The
victim of uncontrollable emotions of anger and spite that she does
not understand, Artemisia drives him away with her bitter words, all
the time hating herself for doing so.

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Artemisias painfully self-contradictory behavior may result from


a deep-seated need to protect her artistic career from distractions,
including the distraction of her love for Antonio. But also she behaves irrationally and feels oddly victimized in a situation where she
has the upper hand because, as a woman artist of the seventeenth
century, she cannot entirely comprehend the choices that she is
making. For one thing, having learned to seize fortune as it comes,
riding up and down with the good times and the bad as professional
artists must do, she has little understanding of how totally the class
system controls people like Antonio. The seemingly unambitious
Antonio cannot rise out of his humble origins to play the role of
Artemisias consort among the people of rank in her salon. More
importantly, Artemisia also has no way of understanding the enormity of the feminist struggle that lies far in the future. Her need to
command her own life makes her crazy and causes her to drive her
husband away even though she loves him. The major incompatibilities between Artemisias artistic gift and the world she inhabits induce this craziness.
Pregnant and alone at the age of thirty-three, Artemisia moves to
Naples, where she paints portraits and teaches painting to women.
When her daughter is born, Artemisia treats her much as she did
her husband: inwardly storming with tormented maternal love, she
remains outwardly cold to Porziella, who soon comes to prefer the
convent school to her mothers studio. (The cold mother-daughter
relationship makes sense in terms of the character Banti has created,
but the reader wonders what Banti might have done with the two
real-life daughters, who were painters.) Not allowing her child to distract her and not allowing her love to show, Artemisia works to perfect her art, lamenting that she has no female mentor to follow: In
Naples there is no patron saint for a woman who is mistress of her
art (99). Her art expresses the anger and the half-conscious feminist ideas that she cannot express in words. Her style grows bolder;
the men she paints are all armed in iron and steel, and she portrays
women in glistening black, all of them rushing towards the light as
though to say, Hey there, blockheads (101). Despite the aggressive
nature of her art, Artemisia also possesses, like Lily Briscoe, a sensitivity to her surroundings, and she cleanses her vision by observing
elements of the world of nature, so blessedly outside herself, to feel
them invade and instantly renew her, just as a beach is made clean
and smooth again after the pounding of the waves (103).
When she is in her forties it comes as a blow to Artemisia to learn

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of the final loss of Antonio; ironically, he has made a lot of money,


taken up with a new woman, and now asks to be released from the
marriage. Although there is much that she fails to understand about
her own emotional life, Artemisia does fully realize why she has been
clinging to a dream of a reconciliation with Antonio. She thinks of
the situation in painterly terms: she never had been and never
would be free of her lost husband, just as a figure can never escape
from the landscape that surrounds it, relying on it . . . for air and
sustenance (143). The love she has sacrificed is to her artistic career as the ground is to the figure; it sustains her even in its absence.
With nothing to hold her in Naples, Artemisia marries off her
daughter and undertakes a long and adventurous journey to England, where her father has been painting for some years in the
court of Charles I. The journey toward her father is fraught with anxious expectation and love; he has always been the person she has
most longed for. Their reunion bitterly disappoints Artemisia; he is
as remote from her as ever, and for reasons that she should understand. Deeply dedicated to his work even in old age, Orazio does not
have time for love or the pain it can bringlike daughter, like
father. And yet Artemisia finds vindication and even happiness in
the moment when her father looks at her portfolio of mature paintings. As she holds them up one by one for his evident approval, it
becomes a joy to her to realize that she and her father speak the
same language: one noble and secret language was spoken in an
exchange of glances, a language that embraced the whole of the visible world over a long span of time, beyond the confines of human
life, in an eternal fellowship of artists of which Orazio bore the mark
and the wisdom (183). In this moment Artemisia and Orazio share
a mutual understanding that transcends all the contingencies of
age, sex and family ties (183). Soon after, Orazio dies, and the story
of Artemisias life trails off, as does the historical record. It is not
known how or exactly when the historical Artemisia died, although
she did return to Naples and painted much more before her death.
But in the moment when Orazio and Artemisia gaze at her work,
Banti has shown the juncture at which a woman successfully enters
into a heroic fellowship of art. To speak of the language of art is, of
course, metaphoric; for Artemisia its language is one in which the
world is translated into earths and glazes (209). Like Woolf, Banti
shows the world of art as a silent kingdom, one to be shared beyond
contingent emotions and beyond words.
Banti could not have known about the work which the historic

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Artemisia and her father collaborated on in the court of Charles I,


an ornate ceiling in Inigo Joness Queens House at Greenwich entitled An Allegory of Peace and the Arts under the English Crown (163638),
an ironic title given what was to happen to the crowned head in the
next decade. Although their styles were by then quite different, Artemisia and her seventy-five-year-old father painted figures of the
various Muses, working side by side.This work, Orazios last, was subsumed under his name, and the figures painted by Artemisia were
not firmly attributed to her until after Banti wrote her novel. Had
she known about the collaboration on the ceiling, Banti might well
have used the incident as another instance of silent communication.
Bantis novel both does and does not possess a definitive ending;
as in To the Lighthouse a both/and situation is presented in which
some events offer closure while other events deny it. Artemisias
journey as an artist seems complete in the moment she shares with
her father, but then the story trails off. In her preface Banti refers to
her unfinished story in a context that ambiguously could refer either to the lost manuscript or the present one. Banti denies closure
and attempts to open up the end of the novel in a rather puzzling
way. She ends with descriptions of Artemisias great work known as
Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (1630). Banti shows Artemisia
painting the piece and then, once more stepping out of the frame
of the fiction, Anna goes to England to view the painting at Kensington Palace.
In the actual painting Artemisia portrays herself from a very
oblique angle, almost in profile, a position that would have required
the use of two mirrors. She is caught in the moment of beginning to
paint on a blank canvas that has been primed in red. Her arms form
a great arc, the brush poised in her right hand and palette in the
left; it is a silent moment of intense drama and concentration. Mary
Garrard demonstrates that although Artemisia is very much present
in the painting she is also depicting herself as Pittura, the allegorical representation of painting, following a long and popular tradition of personifying the liberal arts as women.9 Garrard notes that
Artemisias accouterments iconographically specify elements of the
allegory: her gold chain with a mask pendant signifies imitation, her
tousled hair symbolizes the divine frenzy of the artistic temperament and the shifting colors of her dress refer to the artists techniques.10 As a woman artist Artemisia was in a unique position in that
she could combine a self-portrait with the allegorical representation
of her art as female. Garrard also convincingly interprets the paint-

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ing as a unification of the material and intellectual aspects of art.


Thus the painting ingeniously brings together in one image an example of the artists virtuosity, a realistic and dramatic depiction of
herself in the process of conceiving and executing the work, and a
representation of the idea (and ideal) of art itself.
Bantis treatment of this painting is puzzling. She interprets it, not
as a self-portrait, but as the portrait of the young rival artist Annella
de Rosa, whom Artemisia paints from memory as if from life; she
begins to sketch and the form takes shape and becomes recognizable under her brush. In identifying the figure as the fictional Annella, Banti strengthens her feminist theme. Artemisia pays tribute
to an artist whose career was all too brief: Annella was stabbed to
death by a raging husband, her art stifled, a fate not unlike that of
Shakespeares imaginary sister in Virginia Woolf s A Room of Ones
Own. It is true that this painting was not quite so firmly established
as a self-portrait in Bantis time as it is today: various other images of
Artemisia, similar in features, have subsequently come to light. But
Banti wants it to be a portrait of a fellow artist mainly for thematic
reasons: she wants Artemisias art to give heart to all creative women,
including the author and presumably the reader. When Anna
sees the portrait in England, however, she becomes more ambivalent
about whether or not the subject is Annella:
Whether it is a self-portrait or not, a woman who paints in sixteen hundred and forty is very courageous, and this counts for Annella and for at
least a hundred others, right up to the present. It counts for you too,
she concludes, by the light of a candle, in this room rendered gloomy by
war, a short, sharp sound. A book has been closed, suddenly. (199)

Subsequent to this passage, which is ambivalent about the painting


but appears to provide closure to Bantis quest for the elusive artist,
the novel ends: Orazio dies and Artemisia is left contemplating her
own death.
In making the picture a portrait of a fellow artist, Banti enhances
her theme of female solidarity, but she loses plausibility. Artists in
the seventeenth century did not usually work by drawing from memory or imagination; they used sitters or live models for any sort of
figure painting. The real-life Artemisia complains in her letters
about the cost of models. Moreover, in suggesting that the picture
portrays another artist, Banti minimizes Artemisias grand achievement in the Self-Portrait. It stands as a proof of her virtuosity, showing

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mastery of the Caravaggesque style in a work of great realism, concentration, and focus. It displays a fusion of artist and art (done with
hidden mirrors) and of the ideal and the real. The face she paints
as the personification of the art of painting is not Annellas or Everywomans; it is her own face. A bid for fame and glory is what inspired
most self-portraits in the Renaissance. Volker Manuth points out
that the revival of the notion of individual glory gradually carried
over into the world of artists, and in particular the evolution of the
self-portrait has to do with the artists desire for improved professional standing.11 The historical Artemisia masterfully portrays herself as a master artist. Banti, in trying to universalize her feminist
theme, negates the face and hand of the artist depicted in the embedded work. If Artemisia is so readily identified with Judith the destroyer, a somewhat more tenuous connection, why does Banti not
connect her with the allegorical artist as well? That Banti doubts Artemisias presentation of herself seems particularly ironic in the light
of Bantis own self-portrayal; Anna has a strong presence in the
novel as a writer deeply engaged in the project of finding and sustaining a vision of Artemisia.
The novel ends with Artemisia in bed experiencing a visceral
struggle between her new-found strength and the bodily pains and
thoughts of death that suddenly arise in her: She closed the curtains round the bed, extinguished the lamp. It was a while before
she fell asleep: she had a bad night (214). This ending is ambiguous: it is unclear whether Artemisia is simply experiencing loneliness
and grief or whether she is undergoing the first twinges of a fatal
disease. Banti is evidently deeply committed to a modernist aesthetic
that insists upon indeterminacy and multifacetedness. She has in effect given the reader several alternative endings from which to
choose: Artemisias reunion with her father (a strong completion of
her emotional and artistic quest), the painting of the portrait supposedly of Annella (an opening out of the novel to aspiring
women), the visit of Anna to the painting in England and the closing of a book (a definitive conclusion of the search for Artemisia),
or the scene of Artemisia falling asleep (an ambiguous fade-out).
These final events imply an underlying aesthetic principle of the unfinished in Bantis novel.
Iris Murdoch embraces the idea of the openness of a work of art in
a somewhat different way. Like Virginia Woolf, she carried on a lifelong dialogue with the visual arts. Works of art figure prominently

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in many of her novels, although The Sandcastle is the only one of her
twenty-six novels to feature a woman painter. Murdoch also explores
aspects of aesthetics in her philosophical writings, but she does not
write about aesthetics separately from metaphysics and morals because, as a Platonist of sorts, she sees them as intertwined aspects of
ones journey through life. Murdoch believes that a work of art is
necessarily and almost by definition open to the world. In Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, she writes that the art object is a kind of
illusion, a false unity, the product of a mortal man who cannot entirely dominate his subject matter and remove or transform contingent rubble and unclarified personal emotions and attitudes.12
Good art also relates to the psychology of the self, illuminating the
lack of perfect wholeness in both the artist and the observer. Murdoch writes:
We seek in art of all kinds for the comforting sense of a unified self, with
organized emotions and fearless world-dominating intelligence, a complete experience in a limited whole. Yet good art mirrors not only the
(illusory) unity of the self but its real disunity.13

Although Murdoch sees any object of art as necessarily imperfect in


this way, she identifies the genre of the novel as the most obviously
open art form. The novel form, she writes,frankly admits, indeed embraces, the instability of art and the invincible variety, contingency and scarcely communicable frightfulness of life.14
Rather like Virginia Woolf, Murdoch sees the arts and sciences
and even everyday activities as ideally driven by love. But Murdoch
describes that ideal universal love in Platonic terms, identifying it
with Platos Eros, which she sometimes calls the Higher Eros, and
which she defines as an orientation to the Good. In her version of
the ideal ascent toward the universal Good, one is never to lose sight
of the particular: We do not lose the particular, it teaches us love,
we understand it, we see it, as Platos carpenter sees the table, or Ce zanne sees Mont Ste Victoire or the girl in the bed-sitter sees her
potted plant or her cat.15 This special kind of seeing requires that
one attend to the presence of the otherboth terms are important
to Murdochs thoughtand such attention has as much to do with
morality as with aesthetics. Obviously, to attend to the presence of
the other would not be consistent with attempts to dominate.
Murdochs view of the function of art is quite similar to the general aesthetic goals of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century paint-

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ers of Northern Europe, as described by art historian Svetlana


Alpers. Alpers points out that, with some exceptions, in Northern
art the world, not the viewer, has priority. A painting, she argues, is
not like a window, as in the Italian tradition, but more like a mirror
or a map.16 Alpers offers Vermeer as the prime example. His paintings give multiple points of view through reflective surfaces while at
the same time preserving the mystery of the subject. Alpers quotes
Lawrence Gowing on Vermeer: Vermeers work tells us that however an artist love the world, however seize on it, in truth he can
never make it his own.17 Alpers adds that Vermeer celebrates presences rather than grasping meanings.18 In her philosophical writings, then, Murdochs view of the nature and purpose of art is closer
to the Northern than to the Italian tradition: since art cannot take
command of the world, it should celebrate the mysterious presences
of things. Because it is always open to the world in this fashion, any
work of art is by its nature unfinished. The borderline separating art
from reality is arbitrary and subject to seepage.
Before examining the ways in which the embedded works of art
in The Sandcastle embody this idea of the openness of art, it should
be noted that the plot of the novel serves the same purpose as the
paintings. Murdochs plot, as in all of her twenty-six novels, acts as a
mechanism to reveal character. Since Rain Carters paintings are all
portraits of characters in the novel, they offer us a second point of
view on those characters. Murdoch also tells love stories in all of her
novels, not only because of the broad appeal of such stories but because she sees love as a great irrational and irresistible catalyst, a disrupter of the status quo. Love produces powerful, psychologically
interesting emotions and often confronts the lover with the necessity of making a moral choice when that person is not in the best
state of mind to choose wisely. In Murdochs novels, love usually
leads to complicated tests of character. In The Sandcastle, when the
married schoolmaster Bill Mor falls in love with Rain Carter, he faces
an anguished choice between love and duty; Rain faces an equally
anguished choice between art and love.
Rain and Mors affair begins in a comic way as events slide out
of control. Mor lives in a row of identical semidetached houses in
conjugal boredom with his wife Nan, a demonic version of the
Angel in the House. A 1950s homemaker with few friends and no
occupation but housework, Nan, a woman of iron will, devotes herself to the total domination of her husband. She heaps scorn upon
Mors dream of leaving his teaching post and running for a seat in

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Parliament. When Mor meets the painter Rain, who arrives to paint
the retired headmaster Demoyte, he is intrigued by her youth, her
childlike smallness, her fierce dedication to her profession, and her
wild spontaneity. In a very funny scene, Mor goes on what seems like
an innocent spin with Rain in her auto, they turn toward a river on
a dirt road, manage to mire the car on the riverbank, and then,
thanks to their efforts to free it, the car plunges into the river and
overturns. Afterward, Mor writes a letter to Rain explaining why he
does not intend to reveal this event to his wife. Mors childrens discovery of this letter leads them to believe that he is engaged in an
illicit affair before it actually happens, and the children work in secret to keep their family intact.
Rain comes to represent to Mor all that is absent from his life: art,
spontaneity, nature, and the allure of the warm southshe has lived
most of her life on the coast of southern France. His passion for her
develops almost unconsciously at first, but he becomes painfully
conscious of it when he sees her on top of a ladder dressed in flowing sea-green silk posing for a drawing class at the school. Rain at
once intuits his feelings, and she calls his name softly before running off. It is ironic that the acknowledgment of their love occurs at
a moment when Rain has surrendered her role as painter to become
instead a subject of art, with all gazes upon her, a moment reminiscent of the similar reversal in Emma. For her part, Rain had earlier
fallen in love with Mor as, like Avis, she sat sketching him. It is evident that this new-found passion for Mor does her art no good, for
she draws him as younger and more handsome than he is. Although
both Rain and Mor struggle against their feelings, they end up
spending a rather innocent romantic night together at Mors house,
only to have Nan discover them when she unexpectedly returns
from the seashore in the morning.
Although the attraction between Rain and Mor seems genuine
she opens a new world to him, and he offers her her first real
lovea variety of forces conspire against them, and the events that
follow raise issues having to do with the uses of power and with
moral choice. Nan is the most willful of the characters in the novel,
and in the face of a threat to her marriage and family, she becomes
the Avenging Angel in the House. Nan wreaks vengeance upon Rain
and upon the incipient affair by means of an after-dinner speech,
delivered on the occasion of the dedication of the portrait. In the
speech Nan unexpectedly announces that Mor will be running for
Parliament in the fall, a possibility that he never mentioned to Rain.

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Rain is crushed that Mor could have made any plans that did not
include both of them, and she virtually gives up on Mor at that
point. Although Nans fierce desire to hold her family together may
seem to put her morally in the right, Murdochs moral philosophy,
like her aesthetics, views such attempts to dominate the other as misguided; the end does not justify the means.
The Sandcastle offers variations on the uses of power. Whereas Nan
achieves dominance over her husband by sheer determination and
force of will, losing it for a time but regaining it at the end of the
novel, her children, especially her daughter Felicity, try to control
events through magic. In an attempt to exorcise Rain from their
family, Felicity performs an elaborate ritual involving herbs, Tarot
cards, and a kind of voodoo. Felicity evidently unleashes a real force,
for their fathers affair does end after the crisis of his sons nearly
falling from the schools tower, an event that pulls Mor back into
the family circle. Felicity resembles her enemy Rain: she is highly
imaginative, creative, and spontaneous. But her magic, though
thrillingly dangerous, constitutes a lower form of creativity than art.
Magic seeks to dominate: it wants to affect the future and order
events rather than to attend to the presences in the world, but it is
just the attention to and celebration of presences that, according to
Murdoch, is the true power of art.
The most important forces opposing the romance of Mor and
Rain, however, are internal psychological factors, and it is here that
the incompatibility of art and romance becomes evident. The eccentric art master Bledyard tries to warn Mor to stay away from Rain,
citing the damage to his family but also adding, A painter can only
paint what he is. You will prevent her from being a great painter.19
Mor is wildly enraged by these words, probably because he sees some
truth in them. At the dinner where Nan makes her startling announcement that Mor plans to run for Parliament as a Labour candidate, Mor misses his one opportunity to go to Rain and explain
himself: A lifetime of conformity was too much for him. He stayed
where he was (294). Although Mors lack of action at this moment
may seem morally right with regard to his family, it feels like a defeat. If Mor is finally so rooted in conformity as not to seize the love
offered, he probably would have been a detriment to Rains art.
Also, he is haunted by the question of whether Rain might be looking for a father substitute. This is a plausible suspicion, since Rain,
an only child whose mother died when she was very young, is grieving for her father, who has recently died and to whom she was ex-

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traordinarily close. Rain says that she cannot remember a time when
she was not painting with her father, an acclaimed artist, standing at
her side. Although Rain is a sophisticated professional painter, she
has remained emotionally and romantically inexperienced; her jealous father kept all suitors at bay. Although her feelings for Mor appear genuine and powerful, she is also lonely, vulnerable, and
bereaved. Given the intensity of her relationship to the late Spencer
Carter, it seems likely that she unconsciously sees Mor as a father
figure.
Like Artemisia, Rain is attached to her father through her art; her
style is so similar to his that Mor cannot tell them apart at an exhibition. Her father has imparted to her both his theory and techniques
of portrait painting. When she begins to work on the portrait of Demoyte, she hears her fathers voice speaking to her saying, Dont
forget that a portrait must have depth, mass, and decorative qualities. Dont be so fascinated by the head, or by the space, that you
forget that a canvas is also a flat surface with edges which touch the
frame. Part of your task is to cover that surface with a pattern (103).
Her fathers recollected advice on the handling of figure and
ground helps her to get started. The tension that she is aware of
between pattern and representationor, to put it differently, between the paintings decorative and representational qualitiesis
somewhat similar to Lilys Briscoes tension of butterfly and cathedral arch. Rain needs to discover a motif that, when repeated, will
create a pattern in the portrait. She finds her motif in a certain recurrent curve in the old mans wrinkled face, and this curve, very
small and frequently repeated in his lips, nose, and forehead, serves
to reveal his character, the point where the amusement was
merged into tolerance and the sarcasm into sadness (103). Early
on in the process, then, Rain discovers a way to fuse representation
and pattern.
Rain must also find a way to unite figure and ground. For part of
the background she will paint the Gothic tower of the school beyond
the window, but another part of the background consists of a rich
golden hanging rug in Demoytes collection of valuable rugs. The
rug repeats the curve motif from the face and also shows Demoytes
aesthetic sensibility, his passion for the ornate patterns of his collection. Like Matisse and other modernists as well as many recent
women painters, Rain incorporates decorative art into her painting,
blurring the supposed distinction between decorative art and
high art. She worries that the motif she has chosen may seem too

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sweet but relies upon the strength and mass of the old mans head
to counteract that sweetness. Thus, as with Lily Briscoes painting,
the work of art that begins to emerge is the result of much questioning, and the tensions that have tugged at the painter will be evident
in the finished work: representation versus pattern, figure versus
ground, strength versus sweetness.
Even though Rains father has provided entree into the world of
art, and she has already achieved recognition, including an exhibit
in London, she has to make extra efforts to establish her credentials
because she is a woman. Even Demoyte, referring to her diminutive
size, repeats the stale joke about a performing animal, though not
in her presence: Shes rather like a clown or a performing dogin
fact, very like a performing dog, with a pretty jacket on and a bow
on its tail, so anxious to please (199). One recalls that Aviss father
called her a monkey playing tunes on a hand organ but then sent
her to Europe to study art. The crusty old Demoyte, seeing and secretly approving Mors attraction to Rain, is only teasing. Demoyte
is, in fact, a closet feminist who even offers to pay Mors daughters
college tuition so that she can have an education equal to her
brothers.
Rain also takes pains to establish her credentials with Mor. Alone
with him in the art room of the school, she suddenly twirls on her
heels, picks up a brush full of red paint, and in the blink of an eye
draws a nearly perfect circle on a sheet of white paper. She then
mentions to Mor the story of Giottos having painted a perfect circle.
The story to which Rain alludes, in Vasaris Lives of the Artists, describes how a courtier came to Giotto from the Pope asking for a
sample of his work so that he could compete for important commissions in Rome. Taking a sheet of paper and a brush dipped in red,
Giotto supposedly drew an absolutely perfect circle with a swift twist
of the hand. Although other artists sent drawings to the Pope, Giotto
got the commission for paintings in St. Peters on the basis of his
circle, according to Vasari.20 Rain says that the story impressed her
as a child, and I used to practice it, as if it were a guarantee of success (50). Perhaps even as a child Rain intuited that she would
need a trick or two to establish her right to practice her art; what
could be better than a show of virtuosity that also alludes to the great
Renaissance tradition that, in a sense, began with Giotto? It may
seem surprising that Murdoch represents art here as a closed circle,
since the broken circle is her figure for the true nature of art, its
openness. But Murdoch never denies that a work of art creates the

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illusion of wholeness and closure, and Rains circle is, after all, not
quite perfect.
The discussions about art in The Sandcastle emphasize the unique
qualities of portrait painting as a genre and also underscore the idea
of the openness of art. Even before she begins the painting Rain
stresses that a portrait is a result of the artists vision and not a simple
reproduction of what the artist sees:
Where the human face is concerned, we interpret what we see more immediately and more profoundly than any other object. A person looks
different when we know himhe may even look different as soon as we
know one particular thing about him. (45)

Rain believes that in order to create an authentic portrait of Demoyte she must come to understand his inner nature. She engages
in a debate with the art master Bledyard, who, evidently more of a
theorist than a painter, presents a radical and self-parodying version
of Murdochs own idea of presences. Bledyard says, when we are in
the presence of another human being, we are not confronted by an
object . . . We are confronted by God (76). A religious man, Bledyard insists that in order to paint a portrait one should be a saint,
and saints do not have time to paint. Bledyard is a kind of holy fool.
His annual lecture to the school is regarded as a joke because of
his tautologies and his stammer, and yet during the lecture Bledyard
endearingly falls into silent bewilderment when he stands before a
slide of a Rembrandt self-portrait, probably the famous Self Portrait
with Two Circles at Kenwood House. He simply acknowledges the
paintings presence and greatness with his silence. And despite Bledyards intellectual eccentricities, he will later provide the most telling and useful criticism of Rains portrait.
Rain and Bledyard agree that every portrait is a self-portrait.
Rain says, In portraying you I portray myself (106). Rain is, of
course, not the first to assert such a hypothesis. An Italian adage
going back to the fifteenth century says, Ogni pittore dipinge se
(every painter paints himself ).21 Rain argues that there is a somatic
basis for this hypothesis: we feel our own face, as the three-dimensional mass, from withinand when we try in a painting to realize
what another persons face is, we come back to the experience of
our own (107). If the artists rendering of the subjects face inevitably contains some element of self-portraiture, as Rain insists, then
that is another way in which the work of art is open to the external

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world, not self-contained. As Wallace Stevens writes about an imaginary portrait in his poem So-and-so Reclining on her Couch,
She is half who made her.22
When Rain displays the nearly finished portrait of Demoyte, Mor
finds it extraordinarily good. He feels that he is really seeing the
man for the first time, seeing him as he looks when he is alone, his
massive head emerging forcefully from the decorative background.
Bledyard insists, however, that although the painting is good, it is
too beautiful. It reveals Demoytes character but not his mortality,
and the head is not seen as a conjunction of masses (169). Rain
readily agrees with these criticisms. There is no better evidence of
Mors deleterious effect upon her work than the fact that she is
tempted to leave the painting as it is when she becomes involved
with Mor. It is only after the dedication dinner and their subsequent
break-up that Mor finds her seated on a ladder in her flowing, paintspattered evening gown, tearfully reworking the painting. This scene
echoes and reverses the one in which he revealed his love to her as
she posed on a ladder as a model; here, the love is defeated but she
is back in control of the artistic process. She tells him that she realizes that she can paint wherever she goes, but that wandering would
be no life for him. She admits that the death of her father may have
driven her into the romance, and she sends Mor away so that she
can work. Mor does not see the finished painting until after Rain has
departed in the night, leaving it as her final statement. Demoytes
head is now shown as more solid, uglier, with the expression emerging from within the depths of the face rather than from the surface
details.
The other embedded paintings in the novel are Rains French
works, which she and Mor view along with works by her father in a
London gallery at a time when their love seems possible. These
paintings show the openness of her art, but they also exclude Mor
by depicting her private world, a world that he could never inhabit:
Almost all were either pictures of the house, or of the landscape near it,
or self-portraits, or portraits of each other, by the father and daughter.
. . . Mor looked with bewilderment and a kind of deeply pleasurable distress upon this vivid southern world, where the sun scattered the sea at
noon-day with jagged and dazzling patches of light, or drew it upward
limpidly light blue into the sky at morning, where the white house with
the patchy plaster walls was stunned and dry at noon, or shimmering
with life in the granulous air of the evening, as it looked one way into

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the sea, and the other way across the dusty flowers and into the mountains. (240)

The serial paintings of the house from different sides and at different times of day provide a variety of angles and points of view upon
the world of Rain and her father, suggesting an aesthetic of the unfinished. Rains house stands on the edge of land and sea: her position is liminal like that of other artists. To Mor, who had not even
realized that Rain had inherited a house, the paintings come as a
revelation. He sees her true home, which is also both her subject
matter and her studio, as mysterious and multifaceted. The dazzling,
shimmering light of the sun, reflected off the sea and the white plaster walls of the house, illuminates her world, making her vision of it
seem numinous. One is reminded of the radiance of Lilys painting
and of Virginia Woolf s rhetorical question, How can I bring the
sun on to my page? When Mor asks Rain if there is a path to the
house, she replies, No, you have to push your way through (239).
Rains house excludes Mor, not because it belongs to the sunny
world of France, but because it belongs to the silent kingdom of art,
where he has no place. The paintings reveal what means most to her,
and in doing so they foreshadow the end of their romance.
The exhibit also includes a self-portrait Rain painted when she
was nineteen, showing her leaning over the keyboard of a piano:
out of a haze of colour her presence emerged with great vividness,
bathed in the light and atmosphere of a southern room (238). The
self-portrait highlights Rains presence, but it also, like Artemisias,
establishes her credentials as an artist. Another portrait, which Rain
did of her father, shows him also surrounded by light, or haloed
from behind, as he stands in a doorway wearing a casual white suit,
his face in shadow, the brilliant expanse of the sea behind him. He
seems mysterious and godlike, the man who occupied the threshold
of her world.
The last of Rains pictures that Mor looks at is complicated and
revealing. It is a large canvas, depicting Rains father sitting behind
a table covered with books and papers. Next to him on the table is a
big, gilt-framed mirror that reflects Rain at work on the painting and
a foreshortened version of the painting itself. The use of a mirror in
a painting reflecting the artist or some aspect of the real world is, of
course, an old device, famously employed by Jan Van Eyck in Marriage of Giovanni Arnolfini and Giovanna Cenami (1434) and by other
artists over the centuries. The artist in Margaret Atwoods Cats Eye

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frequently paints such mirror images. Whatever else the use of the
mirror does in a painting, it opens the painting to the world beyond
itself. In this case the world of the painting opens into the illusory
real world of the novel, defying the border between the arts. The
painting also reveals extreme intimacy between the father and
daughter, since her reflected face is very close to his as they gaze
intently and silently upon each other. At the same time, the mystery
of the subject is preserved. The painting is technically open to the
world, via the mirror, but emotionally closed to Mor or anyone else,
as the viewer observes the totally private world of father and daughter artist. The circle is both broken and unbroken.
In both Artemisia and The Sandcastle there exists a conundrum, virtually a paradox, in that although the father and daughter share a
secret world of arthermetic, exclusivetheir art is also open to
the world in the ways that have been illustrated. Lily Briscoes work
also exhibited this mysteriousness. Perhaps all representational art
shares some of this double nature, offering a glimpse of the artists
seemingly exclusive private vision, which, as Murdoch says, due to
contingency and the muddled nature of the world can never be
wholly self-contained. Portrait painting and figure painting in particular look both inward and outward, revealing the artists version of a
human presence that, although it contains something of the artists
presence, is by its nature mysterious and not her own.
Both novels also embody a story of near-mythic proportions in
which the father provides an entrance, gives birth, to the daughter artist, leading her into the mainstream of artistic traditiona tradition that he represents. Absurdly counterfactual as the notion of
a father giving birth is, that story line has considerable currency in
Western civilization via the myth in Genesis as well as the birth of
Athena. The daughter later discovers that her newly launched career as an artist is not compatible with romantic love. Then the
father artist dies. In Bantis versionalthough not historically
Artemisia seems defeated by his death and ready to die herself. Artemisias defeat in Bantis novel may be a reflection of Annas
distress at the defeated and war-torn world around her. Banti does,
however, express hope and encouragement for women artists who
will come in the future. Rain Carter, on the other hand, seeks a
father-substitute in her lover, only to realize sadly but wisely that she
must continue on her own. The novel does not end with a Joycean
epiphanyin fact it ends with Felicity sobbing helplessly about all
that has occurredbut Rain exits the novel and is released into the

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world as a solitary figure: young, independent, talented, rooted in


her home but free to wander and to paint.
To have a studio of ones own but also to be free to roam, to be
both rooted and errant, may be the ideal condition for an artist, but
it is difficult for a woman to achieve. To attain that freedom both
Artemisia and Rain pay the price of their isolation in a world dominated by male artists, whether it be in the seventeenth or the twentieth century. In creating a fictional portrait of a portrait painter, the
novelist inevitably reflects herself in the subject, as does the painter.
What Banti portrays in Artemisia is a hero, a femme forte, like the
women she paints, but one who is tormented inwardly and who stifles love for the sake of her art. Art is the silent language in which
she expresses herself and also enters into dialogue with other artists
through the ages. Rain is a deeply serious artist, one who is attentive,
like all good artists, to particulars like the rug in the background but
also intent upon searching for the deeper meaning of character, the
presence of the human figure. And like Lily Briscoe, Rain takes risks
with her art; even when her work seems finished she bravely alters it
in order to accommodate a finer truth.
Paintings were deeply inspiring to Murdoch when she wrote her
novels, but her immediate response to a great painting was silence
like Bledyards silence. In Elegy for Iris, John Bayley records that on
their honeymoon she was greatly impressed by seeing Piero della
Francescas fresco Resurrection with its powerful expressionless Christ
striding from the tomb. Bayley writes, I knew the real impression it
had made on her lay below the level of speech, like the iceberg below
the water. The god whose own physical strength and dark force of
being seemed to be impelling him out of the tomb would inspire in
the future many visions and creations of her own.23 On that occasion Bayley complimented Murdoch on the way she brought the
world of art into her novels, and she rather hyperbolically replied,
Youre right. Theyre all just pictures really.24 Great paintings
seemed to keep Murdoch mindful of the deep power of visual art to
penetrate the consciousness directly, beyond words. To be mute
about pictures, Bayley writes, was her way of paying them homage.25 Like Rain and Artemisia, Murdoch found her own way of entering into the great mainstream of art. From the master painter
Piero and his seemingly self-resurrected god, Murdoch tapped into
a source of power helping her to create fictions of her own. By embedding real and fictional paintings in her novels, she carried her
fiction, like Woolf s, close to that sunny margin between fiction
and the silent kingdom of art, with its direct illuminations.

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5
Painters of the Irish Coast:
Jennifer Johnston and Deirdre Madden
This image of a critically positioned figure, a figure who is neither here nor there, at some notional interface, may be traced
back . . . to some deep-seated sense of liminality that was, and is,
central to the Irish psyche.
Paul Muldoon, To Ireland, I

AT THE BEGINNING OF JENNIFER JOHNSTONS NOVEL THE RAILWAY STATION


Man (1984) the painter Helen Cuffe is staring at a word in the Oxford
English Dictionary:
Isolation
Such a grandiose word.
Insulation
There was the connection in the dictionary staring me in the eye.
[To] place alone or apart; to cause to stand alone; separate, detached,
or unconnected with other things or persons; to insulate.1

The first thing the reader learns about Helen is that she is isolated: her studio is a shed with a wall of windows facing the Atlantic
Ocean, a situation that offers a view of the sea and invites her to turn
her back upon the land. Like Artemisia Gentileschi and Rain Carter,
Helen has learned that isolation is the price she must pay for her
art; ironically, however, this isolation affords her no insulation from
the violence of Irish political life. Perhaps it is merely a coincidence
that Jennifer Johnstons novel and Deirdre Maddens Nothing is Black
(1994) both have as their central characters single women artists of
very modest means living alone in isolated cottages and painting on
the seacoast in Donegal. Both artists are aspiring professionals preparing for exhibitions, and both find inspiration in the bleakly beautiful seashore setting. Helen lives near a broad bay between a bare
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stony headland and a sandy spit, a vista of dunes, rocks, and sparse
bushes. Maddens protagonist Claire (no surname) lives in a small
rented stone house that stands on a headland at the end of a road,
with hills rising steeply behind it. Claire thinks that to appreciate the
bleak magnificence of the Donegal coast requires a special way of
seeing. Because of the Atlantic winds, the landscape is always in motion, and she liked the colours, not bright, but often vivid, with the
contrasts of the low, soft plants against stone.2
These fictional painters subsist liminally in a literal sense, living
on the periphery of a nation, and in a metaphoric sense, as in Carolyn Heilbruns description of creative women existing in a liminal
state psychologically and culturally. Helen explains to her lover
Roger, I like to live on the edge of things (113). The two artists
sense of living on the edge and their intense awareness of place are
not entirely a result of their gender, however; these feelings are
echoed everywhere in Irish poetry and fiction.
The seashore is a prominent setting in Irish literature: the seas
that surround Ireland are drenched in symbolism and historical association.The sea is a path of conquerors and oppressors; a means
of escape or forced exile, especially during the famine and Diaspora;
and a dwelling place of fairies and Celtic gods. Yeats, Singe, Joyce,
and other writers have built in Irish literature an edifice of metaphors describing the sea as the birth mother of thought and speech,
the dwelling place of the supernatural, the setting of fervent meditation, and the pathway to death. Johnston and Madden subtly allude
to this history of sea symbolism. The artists they portray both collect
bits and pieces of things washed up by the sea or found on the
beach. Helen draws in her sketchbook stones, sand, wings, claws,
beaks, sea, an arm, a leg, movement, stillness, which she will later
piece together, she hopes, in her paintings (106). Claire collects
shards and other sea wrack, and she takes comfort in contemplating
the sea with its ancient waves crashing over the detritus of centuries: broken ships, coins, bones, weapons (113). In both novels, the
sea serves as an implicit trope for the long, tragic history of Ireland
and for the fragmentation and disintegration of things brought
about by violence or by times wasting. To piece together the fragments is a daunting challenge for the Irish artist.
This pervasive sense of fragmentation is a major theme in the history of a nation brutally conquered, long oppressed, riddled with
fractious warring parties, and partitioned into two separate and unequal realms, with the North further divided in brutal and senseless

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violence. Much of Irelands astonishingly rich literary achievement


is driven by this awareness of endless strife and division, along with
an aching hunger for wholeness and healing. Johnston and Madden
both portray this fragmentation in the nation and in the heart. The
Railway Station Man depicts art as an enterprise that has the good
intention of restoring or renewing Irelands broken people and
places, a result that it can achieve only as a symbolic gesture, since
painting has no effect upon the violence. Nothing is Black depicts art
as an arduous process of connecting and of reconciling the world to
the hearts affections, a procedure that Madden represents as synecdochic. The artist Claire paints fragments and tries to make them
point toward a whole; most notably, her paintings of anatomical systems are meant to suggest the possibility of a whole body. Both series
of works, Claires anatomical paintings and Helens paintings of a
man gradually disappearing on the beach, speak silently of something beyond themselves. Claires paintings of bones and muscles
suggest a process of integration, whereas Helens disappearing man
quietly shows the historical destructionthe disappearing and disappeared men of Ireland. Almost, it seems, out of historical necessity, the embedded paintings in both novels express the idea of the
unfinished.
Johnston and Maddens fictional painters also have in common a
clear-eyed realism, verging on cynicism, which is a familiar trait in
works by Irish women writers, induced, most likely, by the difficulties
of Irish life for women. Although images of powerful women
abound in Irish literature, folklore, and legend, these figures may
well be, if anything, a hindrance to contemporary Irish woman writers, suffused as they are with a long history of political symbolism.
At the beginning of her memoir Mother Ireland, Edna OBrien sardonically describes this literary heritage:
Countries are either mothers or fathers, and engender the emotional
bristle secretly reserved for either sire. Ireland has always been a woman,
a womb, a cave, a cow, a Rosaleen, a sow, a bride, a harlot, and, of course,
the gaunt Hag of Beare.3

A serious writer like OBrien might well feel rueful at having inherited such a burden of female symbolism, much of it expressed in
demeaning terms that derive from Irelands long subservient status.
In a country that has until recent times discriminated against
women as much as any nation in Europe, it would be difficult for a

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woman writer to take such images seriously or to want to perpetuate


them. Instead, Irish women writers have attempted boldly to lay
claim to Irish literary traditions by giving them a feminist twist. Johnston and Madden portray their protagonists as strong individuals,
resistant to any effort to see them as symbols.
When she begins to paint, Johnstons character Helen Cuffe is
about fifty years old and fiercely independent. Her husband, a
teacher, was shot by accident in Derry when IRA assassins mistook
him for a member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Ironically, this
event liberates Helen: no longer having to serve as a good housekeeper, she revives her earlier interest in art. Like Woolf, Atwood,
and others, Johnston depicts an artist who is middle-aged, a time of
life when women are more likely to be free to explore their creativity
and also likely to have interesting memories which the novelist can
draw upon.
Helen Cuffe is a witness to not one but two gruesome events. Having earlier lost her husband to the senseless violence, she loses her
son and her lover in the same way in the course of the novel, left at
the end with nothing but her art and a gentle young friend Damien,
who serves as her handyman and model. The Railway Station Man is
a tragic novel that takes its shape from an all too familiar pattern of
Irish life: the characters go about their day-to-day activitiesfalling
in love, pursuing creative projects in an illusion of normalcyonly
to have their lives interrupted by a deadly explosion that blows their
world to pieces. Johnston has achieved mastery of the genre of the
short tragic novel in works like How Many Miles to Babylon? (1974),
set during World War I, and Shadows on Our Skin (1978), set in Derry
during the Troubles, both of which foreshadow the themes of violence and betrayal in The Railway Station Man.
The plot of the The Railway Station Man parallels Helens series of
paintings Man on the Beach, showing a young man gradually disappearing. This series becomes part of her first exhibit in Dublin,
which occurs before the books prologue but after the main action
of the novel, encircling the events. Helens new-found British lover
Roger Hawthorne, a wreck of a man shot all to pieces in World War
II, is an eccentric who restores rural railway stations to working
order in places where they will never be used again. Ironically, this
man of missing parts, who lost both an arm and an eye in the war,
tries to restore now-useless segments of a nonfunctioning system of
transportation. Johnstons novel is, in part, about a dysfunctional nation filled with broken connections: the telephone for example,

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hardly ever works when Helens son calls from Dublin. Rogers
mad reconstructions parallel Helens paintings as actions opposing the disintegration caused by war and politics. Despite their compatible temperaments, however, Helen refuses Rogers offer of
marriage because of her need for her own space to live and paint
in. Helens son Jack, an aimless and misguided university student,
becomes involved in a secret paramilitary splinter group. During an
attempt to hide munitions in an empty shed at Rogers railway station, Jack causes an auto crash and a subsequent explosion that kills
Jack, Roger, and two lorry drivers who were transporting the bombs.
The immediate cause of this senseless tragedy is Jacks overreaction
to seeing his mother naked with Roger on a couch. In the end Helen
is left only with young Damien, the simple craftsman who becomes
a kind of substitute son, the other men in her life having disappeared like the man in her serial paintings.
The plot of The Railway Station Man is a variation on a persistent
thematic pattern that Elizabeth Butler Cunningford has discovered
in Irish drama and film, stretching from nineteenth-century plays to
several films such as Ryans Daughter and The Crying Game. In this pattern, a decent British military type comes to Ireland, usually with
goodwill toward the Irish, and a love triangle develops among the
Briton, an Irish woman, and an Irish man of strongly patriotic if not
radical political leanings. Notable plays that follow this pattern include George Bernard Shaws John Bulls Other Island, Brendan Behans The Hostage, Brian Friels Translations, and others. Invariably
the British soldier comes to grief; usually he is killed. The Stage
Englishman, Cullingford writes, is doomed as well as beloved.
Blown up on the beach, disappeared in the borderlands, suffocated in a cupboard, or squashed by a Saracen, the British soldier in
Ireland no longer heads for a happy ending.4 This pattern offers a
potent mixture of political and erotic possibilities. As in Brian Friels
Translations, the love affair between the Englishman and the Irish
woman, dangerous as it may be, initially suggests the idea of a rapprochement between the two nations. The violent death of the Englishman, however, dramatizes Irish resentment and resistance. The
Railway Station Man offers a variation on the pattern: the radical patriot who is a rival for Helens attentions is her son rather than a rival
lover, but Jacks Oedipal horror at his mothers affair confirms the
pattern. Johnstons treatment of the intertwined themes of politics
and love, then, follows a well-established motif. In this instance the

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outcome seems fated though senseless: any attempt to love the warscarred, mad Englishman is doomed by Irelands secret violence.
Although the The Railway Station Man deals with the incompatibility of love and politics, its most prominent subject is the opposition
of politics and arta Yeatsean theme, one that creates the tensions
in many of his greatest poems. Yeats was continually torn between
the life of creativity, art, and contemplation on the one hand and
the life of action and politics on the other. Jennifer Johnston uses
intertextual references to Yeats to develop her theme of art versus
politics. As Jack Cuffe and his coconspirator Manus, a far more radical revolutionary and a socialist, pass the Drumcliff churchyard in a
stealthy caravan with their truckload of bombs, Jack begins to recite
Yeatss poem Under Ben Bulben, remembered from his school
days. Manus responds contemptuously, and a telling dialogue ensues:
To hell with Yeats.
Cast a cold eye. . . .
All poets.
On life, on death. Horseman. . . .
The Russians have it right.
. . . pass by.
Prison is the place for poets. (122)

It is ironic that in casting a cold eye on poetry even as he passes by


Yeatss grave site, Manus the revolutionary is in a sense doing what
Yeatss epitaph bids him to do. A horsemanthat is, a man of actionhe bypasses the arts. Jack has a slightly greater respect for
Yeatss poetyat least he repeats the poem by heartbut his true
lack of sympathy for the arts becomes evident when he rudely says
of his mothers painting, I presume this is some sort of menopausal
madness (127).
Helen thinks of Yeatss poignant lyric The Song of Wandering
Aengus just as she is beginning to fall in love with Roger, but the
Yeats poem that most sheds light upon the role of art in Johnstons
novel is not directly alluded to in the text. That poem is Lapis Lazuli, Yeatss eloquent defense of the fine arts in response to the
challenge of activist women who insist that in the face of the threat
of war in 1938 all must turn away from art and take action. Referring
to all of the artsdrama, sculpture, musicand combining the arts
in the single defining image of the ancient Chinese carving in lapis

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lazuli, Yeats concedes that works of art, like everything, are ephemeral. Mentioning the exquisite sculptures of Callimachus that lasted
only briefly, Yeats nonetheless insists that it is better to be among the
party of artists and builders than among those who aid in bringing
civilizations to rack. All things fall to ruin and must be rebuilt, but it
is the builders who experience joy.
Johnstons implied view of art is similar to Yeatss: art serves as a
counterbalance to the present terrors as well as to the nightmare of
history. When Jack accuses his mother of refusing to assert political
opinions and trying to avoid the subject of politics altogether, she
becomes evasive:
Well . . . politics perhaps . . . Id rather not . . . be forced to make
judgments. Jack laughed sharply.
One day, mother, your ivory tower will fall down. Then where will
you be? Then youll have to ask questions . . . answer questions . . . draw
conclusions.
If my ivory tower, as you call it, falls down, Ill build another one.
(135)

Although Johnston presents both sides of the debate, she clearly favors Helen, who sees herself as belonging to the party of builders as
opposed to those who, like Jack, cause things to fall to ruin. In the
novels prologue, Helen describes the restoration and fall of Rogers
railway station:
Brambles and scutch had grown up on the permanent way and the platforms were covered with thick grass and weeds. That was until the Englishman bought it about three years ago and he and Damien restored
and refurbished it until you would never have known that it had suffered
nearly forty years neglect. It is now derelict again and the weeds are beginning to take over once more. The engine shed by the level crossing
was almost demolished when the explosion happened. . . . No one has
bothered to rebuild, or even shift the rubble, nor I suppose, will they
ever. . . . The buildings stand there, and will presumably continue to
stand there until they fall down, as a derelict memorial to the deaths of
four men. (3)

The slow ruination, the painstaking rebuilding, and the violent demolition of Rogers railway station exemplify the process of building
and falling that Yeats illustrates in Lapis Lazuli.
As an artist, Helen is one of the builders. In the course of the

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novel she makes a gradual transition from the housewife that she
was to the serious painter that she is to become; the slow flowering
of her creativity counterbalances the violent, destructive path that
Jack and Manus pursue. Helens art is at first rather tentative, her
ambitions modest. She paints some pastoral landscapes in watercolor which she offers for sale at a local jumble sale along with various cast-off items donated by housewives of the village. Roger, whom
she has just met, admires the paintings and buys them, providing
her with encouragement to value her own work more highly; she
begins to feel driven to paint in a more serious way. The next stage
in her development as an artist occurs in a series of epiphanic events
halfway through the novel. Finding a spot on an isolated part of the
beach, Helen draws assiduously in her sketchbook, filling page after
page with observed fragments of things: weeds on a broken shell, a
birds beak probing for food, the curve of the birds leg, a moment
of bursting sea spray. These sketches of fragments of the seashore
mark a turning point in her view of herself as an artist. Helen thinks
of the careful studies in the notebooks of Leonardo; clearly she has
become a much more meticulous student of the world than she was
when she painted her earlier landscapes.
Having worn herself out with this work, Helen undresses and runs
naked into the sea, swimming straight out, heedless of how far out
she has gone as she enjoys the sensuous motions of swimming. Suddenly she panics, gasps, and almost goes under when she realizes
how far from the shore her courage has taken her, but she soon relaxes, floats, and lets the tide carry her back to the strand. This experience can easily be read as a baptism into her new life as an artist
but also as a test of nerve, a trial by water; unlike Edna Pointellier,
Helen has the fortitude to swim out and to return. It is in a metaphoric sense that Lily Briscoe swims in high seas and feels herself to
be naked and exposed as she embarks seriously into the process of
painting; with these metaphors Woolf emphasized Lilys heroism in
her setting out to become a woman artist. Helen literally swims out
naked, but the effect is much the same; she is finding her element,
making strides into a new life.
When Helen returns to the shore, she finds Damien Sweeney
there, holding her towel. Bemused, young Damien takes off his
clothes and goes skipping into the shallows, twirling and kicking up
spray in joyous exuberance. After he gets dressed he discovers that
Helen has been sketching him dancing in the water. Thus begins
Helens first major series of paintings Man on the Beach. Her work

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habits are idiosyncratic: even after she can afford to buy an easel,
she paints crouching over a canvas on the floor in her dressing
gown, chain smoking, hurrying to make best use of the light. As
Helen labors on her first painting in the series, she humorously recalls an argument from her life as a housewife with her late husband
Dan. Discontented Helen is anything but an Angel in the House.
She complains to Dan that the really dreadful, debilitating thing
about housework, domesticity, whatever you like to call it, is that
over and over again youre doing the same bloody thing (108). Ignoring what she is saying, Dan vehemently objects to her use of the
word bloody. Defiantly she continues to use the word to describe
her tasks, until Dan finally tells her that she is a slut:
No, she said sharply. I wish I were. If I were a slut I wouldnt care.
Im just a boring woman with a boring sense of duty. I feel my whole life
is rushing down that bloody sink with the Fairy Liquid bubbles. (109)

This memory is rich in irony, for as Helen has exchanged the boring, repetitive labor of cleaning house for the creative, fruitful labor
of painting, she has indeed become a slut in the old (and Irish)
sense of the word, that is, a careless housekeeper, and she no longer
cares.
Virginia Woolf expresses her aesthetic principles, and Lilys artistic efforts, in terms of tensile forces, a stretching of ones vision to
its utmost limit. Johnstons metaphors are similar, if simpler. She describes Helens painting as a natural force, like magnetism or a
strong plant thrusting through the earth. As Helen works on her
first major painting, her art seems to be drawn out of her, as though
by an external agent, but that, of course, is the power of her newly
awakened imagination at work. The canvas is like a magnet drawing out of her head an implacable coherence that she had never felt
before (109). As she works on the figure of the young man, his
bones became a great stalk growing up through the centre of the
canvas, from its own black shadow on the sand (109). This implacable coherence of her artistic vision and its powerful organic expression provide a counterbalance in the novel to the explosive
destruction brought about by the partisans. As she paints, Helen
struggles, like Lily, to hold on to her vision, the fear always in her
mind that if she faltered, looked back even for a moment over her
shoulder, Orpheus-like, she would lose it (109).
Helens model Damien, her only remaining friend at the end of

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the novel, is also one of the builders in Yeatss sense of those who
choose to create rather than destroy. Damien defects from the secret
military organization to which Jack and Manus belong and devotes
himself to carpentry, restoration, and work on Helens studio. Roger
calls him an artist. At the end of the novel, Helen mourns the needless dead, but she is not totally bereft because in many ways her
painting connects her back to the world: On canvas, I belong to
the world. I record for those who wish to look, the pain and joy and
loneliness and fear that I see with my inward and my outward eye
(186).
Helens confident blending of inward with outward vision shows
that she has successfully imbued her paintings not just with external
views of the world but also with internal values. She conveys an understanding of the world through her work; her serial paintings tell
an Irish story, and they do so silently. Jennifer Johnston focuses on
the opposition of art and political violence, portraying art as a positive force working against all that is bitter and destructive in Ireland.
Johnstons novel and the paintings embedded in it attempt to embrace that opposition and transform the bitterness.
In Deidre Maddens Nothing is Black, the discipline of art provides
freedom, self-expression, and a rich introspective life for Claire, as
it does for Helen. But given Claires fatalism and her extreme skepticism, she has to invent for herself the terms on which Irish art seems
possible, and these terms are severe. Maddens novel and Claires
life and art are, in several senses of the word, economical, an art
suited to the life of a woman living on the western edge of an island
and on the periphery of European affluence. Claire lives by choice
on the economic margin as well as the edge of the sea, painting in
her austere stone cottage as she prepares for an exhibition in Dublin. Her rented house has sanded wooden floors, and her studio is
spartan, with pale white light streaming in the window from the Atlantic onto the bare white walls. The simplicity of Claires surroundings heightens her awareness of how light strikes the world and
controls its colors: Where she lived provided ample proof of how
colour depended on light (27). The austerity of Claires life
cleanses her vision, giving her, as her name suggests, a certain clarity. Her strong sense of place seems to be the most crucial factor
enabling her to work. She has chosen her cottage in part because it
is located on a piece of land that, she believes, has never been the
scene of an atrocity, although how can one ever know in Ireland that

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blood has not been shed on a particular spot? Another reason why
Claire prefers this spartan life is that she considers owning property
an encumbrance, an attitude that serves her well since she has little
money anyway. There is also a certain philosophical motive for
choosing poverty: since life is short, as she is acutely aware, possessions give one a false sense of permanence. She asks herself, Why
pretend life is anything other than transitory? Why pretend you are
anything other than utterly alone in your existence? (109). It is best
to travel light through life. Whereas Johnstons novel is about the
opposition of art and political violence, Maddens novel, more introspective and philosophical, focuses on the meaning and value of art
in the context of ordinary life. The two novels share the view of the
woman artist as liminal and the aesthetic principle of the unfinished.
Maddens aesthetic values in the novel and those of Claire as a
painter are all of a piece, clear and consistent. Maddens style is lyrical but at the same time spare and metonymic, and the plot is incremental, depending upon small crises and minor but important
changes rather than large, dramatic ones. These features are consistent with Claires economies of life and thought as well as the simplicity of her artistic aims: Claire believes that things of the world
have beauty in their own light, and there is no need of fantasy to
enhance them. According to David Lodges structuralist binary system of classifying works of literature as either primarily metaphoric
(based on similarities) or primarily metonymic (based on contiguities), Nothing is Black clearly falls under the heading of metonymy.5
In Maddens novel even the meaning of the seashore is seen in literal terms: it is an appropriate place to live and paint, and the bits
of bone and shards that wash up from the sea are, in fact, fragments
of history rather than metaphors.
Nothing is Black deals, in part, with problems that many women
face: misunderstandings with relatives, strained or overdependent
mother-daughter relations, the difficulty of learning to live as an autonomous, grown-up woman, and the choice between motherhood
and a career. The characters all confront some of these problems in
their own lives with modest degrees of success. Through the artist
Claire, Madden deals with the aesthetic choices that an artist must
make and the relationship of art to the rest of life, especially its relation to ones morality, ones sense of the drastic challenge of being
fully human, and ones compassion for other human beings. Paradoxically, Claire feels that she must live in isolation and solitude in
order to create works of art that are themselves intended to reveal,

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wordlessly, a sense of her connectedness to the world and compassion for its inhabitants. Claire is an agnostic whose aesthetic values
are deeply infused with moral values. Art, for her and presumably
for Madden, is an expression of love for the world in the face of
universal loneliness, knowledge of annihilation, and the force of necessity.
Although Madden does not write about Irish politics in Nothing is
Black, she has frequently and passionately addressed political issues
in several of her other novels. Born in 1960 in Belfast, Madden confronts what it means to be Northern Irish, an artist, and a woman
coming of age in the late twentieth century. In her novels Hidden
Symptoms, Birds of the Innocent Wood, Remembering Light and Stone, and
One by One in the Darkness, the protagonists typically experience a
keen sense of the fatal divisions in Ireland and in themselves. These
novels explore, in succession, issues of the artists engagement in
politics; the separateness and silence of women; the task of understanding and accepting ones Irish identity; and brutal rifts within
families wrought by clashes in Belfast. In Nothing is Black, her fourth
novel, Madden risks an affirmation: her portrait of Claire offers an
extremely cautious, almost grudging endorsement of the life of art,
while insisting, as noted above, that severe economies of body and
spirit are required of the Irish woman artist.
The plot of Maddens novel parallels the economy of Claires life.
Maddens plot is incremental in that the three main women charactersNuala, Anna, and Claireeach take small, believable steps
toward achieving a life of freedom and sympathy. Claire broods over
the solitary life she has created for herself as she prepares for her
exhibition in the city. Her married cousin Nuala, a successful restaurateur in Dublin but a deeply unhappy woman, is sent for a rest cure
with Claire when her husband finds out about her kleptomania.
Nuala, a daughter who has lost a mother, befriends the third
woman, Anna, a mother who has lost a daughter. A Dutch interior
decorator summering in Ireland, Anna anguishes over her estrangement from her daughter Lili, whom she has not seen for years because of a misunderstanding arising from Annas divorce. The two
unhappy women, Nuala and Anna, help one another in small ways,
Anna becoming a mother figure for Nuala, and Nuala teaching
Anna that her daughter needs to receive forgiveness rather than to
offer it. Although they have some unusual twists, the dilemmas that
Nuala and Anna face are common to many women: a midlife crisis,
a family breakup, strained relationships between mother and daugh-

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ter. Claire also confronts ordinary problems having to do with how


to live, but her character is made more complex than the others by
the fact that she lives as an artist and confronts issues having to do
with art and life. This triad of unfulfilled daughter, unfulfilled
mother, and self-sufficient artist in itself constitutes a modest endorsement of the pursuit of art, since Claire has a richer inner life
than the other women do.
In another triad, Claire carries on interior dialogues with her former lover Markus and her deceased friend Alice, who represent
sides of herself as an artist. Markus is a serious sculptor who compromises himself for financial gain; Alice, a gifted painter of absolute
honesty with a nihilistic outlook. Claires remembered conversations
with Markus and Alice, along with her present thoughts about them,
help Claire to explore and solidify her own understanding of the
relationship of art and life and of the values that for her constitute
the good life. Claire recalls her conversations with Markus when
she visited him in Germany. Markus tells her that on a recent trip
he took to Poland he refused to spend the night in lodgings that
once had been a Nazi headquarters and interrogation center; he
shares Claires sensitivity to places and the atrocities that may have
occurred there. And yet Markus becomes conflicted and seems morally to have lost his way when he accepts a lucrative commission for
a sculpture for a bank. He sees himself as having sold out to the philistines, something he would not have done when younger, while at
the same time he is happy enough to have the money. What is worse,
Markus contrives a cynical theory about modern art to justify his
course of action:
People in Europe now arent interested in art because it has to do with
death. It teaches you how to die, and people dont want to know about
that. In that way art is religious. There was always, until this century, a
distinction between things which were true art, connected with religion,
and things which had a social function, where were decorative or for entertainment. Now we have only two divisions: money and entertainment.
What matters is making money, and then you rest from that by being
entertained with what people like to think of as art. (9)

Claire does not dissent from this view; indeed, she herself is deeply
interested in the relationship between art and death, in learning
how to die. But the state of art in the modern world does not interest
her very much; she simply wants to get on with the work. Moreover,

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she hears the hypocrisy in Markuss theorizing; he sounds, she


thinks, like an adulterer who goes on and on praising his wife. Markuss more cynical, worldly, and continental view of art provides a
challenge to Claires idealism. In another recollected exchange,
Markus accuses her of being a slave to her emotions when Claire
simply makes the point that looking at a work of art should cause
you to feel something. Claire persists in the face of his scoffing: You
must respond to art with your nerves and your heart. . . . When you
look at a painting, you should feel something. If not, theres something amiss (60). Markuss views act as a foil and a challenge to
Claires own more humanistic ideas, helping her to shape them
more accurately.
Claires late friend Alice is in many ways Markuss opposite, and
she appeals to Claires idealistic side, causing Claire to refine her
own views of art and to stiffen her resolve to pursue high artistic
goals. Alice is a person of relentless integrity whose views on life
and art are all fully worked out: her aesthetics and morality, her
political and religious views were all carefully thought through and
were not open to compromise (61). Because of her ruthless candor, Alice was not popular among the students in art school, and
even Claire feels some resentment and jealousy toward her friend
because she knows Alice to be a better artist. Alices integrity and
singleness of purpose help Claire to find her own path as an artist
and strengthen her resolve to paint. Having gone to convent school
like Claire, Alice rebels totally against religion, and when she is told
by doctors that she is going to die, Alice holds firmly to her skepticism in the face of annihilation. Claire learns of Alices death while
hiking in the mountains in Germany with Markus. Moved by the horror of having to leave life, Claire realizes that life is made beautiful
by the knowledge of death even as the dusk makes the green of the
trees and grass more beautiful in the valley at the foot of the mountains. This moment when she learns of Alices death keeps coming
back to Claire in memory; from then on, everything that she looks
at is charged with fragility and tenderness (110). Claire also finds
that her own aesthetic commitments have been strengthened by her
acceptance of the finality of death; she realizes that she has been
evading both the full horror of oblivion and the full beauty of life.
It is the knowledge of death that most accounts for Claires ability to
see the world lovingly and with pity, and to paint it. Claires tough,
austere life and her solitude paradoxically allow her to express her
love for the world and the faces of strangers in the street (110).

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Her poverty also relates to her keen awareness of death: following


the example of the sculptor Giacometti, Claire believes that material
possessions are merely transitory, and anything but poverty and solitude is a pretense. To Claire the life of aesthetic monasticism, living
in spartan rented rooms, always strapped for cash, can be called a
good life (112). Claires philosophical sense of the good, her way
of life, and her understanding of the role of her art are all suffused
with humane values; that is, she sees art as a integral part of the
moral and emotional life of human beings, not as an activity existing
in its own realm for its own sake.
Claires artwork is crucial to her understanding of the good life,
and it celebrates humanity and the body, although in a tentative way.
The paintings embedded in Maddens novel are of two kinds:
Claires warm-up exercises, which are quick sketches, and her real
work prepared for the exhibit. Early in the novel Claires daily
warm-up exercise is a quick watercolor of the view from her studio
window (19). On successive days she paints a red and white lighthouse, which sometimes dominates the scene, bright against the
grey sky and the sea and at other times is obscured by the heavy
rains and mist that came in off the Atlantic (20). Claire is never
bored by painting the same scene over and over because the view is
always changing; her exercise in concentration requires her to look
at the scene each day as though she were seeing it for the first time.
Although Claire has little interest in landscape painting per se, her
successive views of the lighthouse are instructive as a measure of perceptual shifts through time. By doing these exercises, Claire learns
the technical lesson that color depends upon light and the perceptual lesson that not just the appearance of things but what one
could actually see was dependent on the weatherdependent, in
a larger sense, on Ireland and her place in it (19). Her practice of
serial painting alludes to the impressionists, especially to Monet, as
in, for example, Monets successive paintings of the same sites in
Venice at the same time every day, showing changes in the air and
in his own vision of the city. Claires successive views of the Irish
coast allow her to mingle her own vision with the land and sea, ultimately making Ireland seem more like her proper home. The process of reconciling herself to her home is ongoing and unfinished,
like her serial paintings.
The seashore setting, the presence of the lighthouse, and the mingling of artistic effort with feelings of grief for a lost friend constitute, not just a nod, but a tribute to Virginia Woolf. There is even a

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moment recollected near the end of the novel when Alices ghost
seems to return, as Mrs. Ramsays ghost did, to haunt and perhaps
inspire Claire as a painter. Such echoes of Woolf are not infrequent
in women writers. In The Serpentine Cave, for example, Jill Paton
Walsh weaves into her novel several such references to Woolf, to the
extent that they constitute a kind of teasing code for the reader to
break. In Maddens novel, the indirect allusions to Woolf, though
less explicit than the allusions to Frida Kahlo that will be discussed
below, suggest that Madden is building on what Woolf has done,
finding her way in her own Irish setting to make use of similar materials and similar aesthetic goals. Madden is showing, for one thing,
that a metaphoric style and stream of consciousness technique are
not essential to exploring the mind of a creative woman; metonymy
and direct description can also serve. It should be noted that allusions to Woolf in later novels by women seem never to show any anxiety of influence, to borrow Harold Blooms phrase. Rather, they
suggest mutual sympathy and continuity in the effort to depict
women struggling for artistic autonomy.
Later in the summer Claire switches to the daily exercise of painting the same apple every day until it decays. These serial still lifes
reveal the inevitability of death and decay in living things and, although Madden does not make the connection explicit, the reader
is reminded of Claires earlier admiration of Ce zannes paintings of
fruit: they expressed knowledge of other thingsmortality, tenderness, beautyin a way that was only possible without words (60).
Nonhuman nature is thus intimately approached through wordless
expression, language being what most divides humans from it.
Claire, and presumably Madden, values arts extralinguistic expressive power to make a connection to the world.
What Claire calls her real work, her exhibition paintings, depict
the human body. Claire has learned something in the process of
moving from her preliminary studies to the finished paintings. In
the earlier versions she was trying to counteract the emotionalism of
her work by striving for pure form, seeing a spine, for example,
isolated as an extraordinarily complex and beautiful structure
(138). That is, she attempted, by a process of abstraction, to depict
fragments of the human frame as if they were complete in themselves: the muscle as muscle, the bone as bone. But now she
painted bones and muscles as though they were not just beautiful
abstractions, but also parts of a strong and vulnerable body (138).
Although the body parts remain fragmented and have no gender,

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they now are shown as fragments of a whole, and they convey something of the artists own strength and her vulnerability. All of the
embedded paintings in the novel point toward a holistic understanding of a common frailty and beauty in nature and humanity,
but they do so only by suggestion.
Maddens title Nothing is Black alludes to notes on color in the
diary of Frida Kahlo, the Mexican painter, who is quoted again in
the epigraph and in the body of the novel. Kahlo celebrates colors
for their private emotional associations: e.g., Yellow: madness, sickness, fear. Part of the sun and of joy. . . . Black: nothing is black,
really nothing (211). This phrase equivocates on the word nothing, appearing both to affirm and to deny the supremacy of nothingness or annihilation in life, as Maddens novel does as well.
Maddens fictional painter is not, however, based on Kahlo, nor do
her paintings resemble Kahlos. Kahlo is, if anything, an antithetical
figure: an artist whose emotional high-wire acts of self-exhibition
and contortion, of turning oneself inside out for the sake of art, contrast sharply to Maddens rather muted, understated fiction and
Claires subtle, delicate paintings. Rather, the allusions to Kahlo are
an instance of interdisciplinary intertextuality that prompts the
reader to think about certain personal and cultural themes in the
two artists. Maddens allusions to the Mexican painter invite the
reader to think of the artist in terms of place and the accidents of
cultural context: specifically, how can the post colonial woman artist
attain a sense of cultural identity? Susan Lowe writes that Kahlo had
to come to understand herself as inscribed in overlapping cultures,6 As Lowe says, The experience of colonialization, the struggle for independence, and the articulation of an artistic identity free
from cultural imperialism were always at the center of Kahlos art.
Her unwillingness to be labeled forced her to confront and reclaim
her heritage, to search for political, cultural, and personal identity
that is the core of her life and art.7 These same themes are also at
the core of Maddens work, if one looks at all of her novels taken
together. Despite the vast differences in the two cultures of Ireland
and Mexico, the experiences of postcolonial women artists trying to
establish a sense of identity within their respective cultures are similar.
A more specific parallel is that Kahlo in real life and the fictional
painter Claire both suffer miscarriages. Disabled for life by an early
streetcar accident that impaled and crushed her body, Kahlo translated the pain of her multiple miscarriages into art in a painting

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called Henry Ford Hospital (1932), stunning the art world with her explicit subject matter. After her first miscarriage, in Detroit, Kahlo
began to paint more seriously, eventually making the same bargain
with life that Maddens character Claire makes. After enduring a
miscarriage in art school, Claire learns that society extracts a hidden contract. You could have your painting and an austere life, or
you could have children. You werent allowed to have both (52
53). When young Claire tells her mother about the miscarriage,
Claires mother is deeply sympathetic, having suffered an even worse
experience herself. At the age of fifteen she got pregnant, and her
father beat her until the baby miscarried; he then threatened to beat
her again if she told anyone what had happened. The repressiveness
from which Irish society is only beginning to emerge makes Claire
feel, like Phelpss character Avis, that the rules do not allow both
children and artistic freedom. Frida Kahlos radical, disturbing images make explicit and iconic that which is implicit in Maddens writing: the artists need to create and assert herself and to mend the
losses where possible.
As women, Madden and Kahlo share a sense of internal exile, and
are aware of cultural layering as a source of identity. In Nothing is
Black, Anna and Nuala visit an ancient pagan dolmen and a ring of
standing stones, and Anna observes that Irish women live in a society
where just below this crust of Catholicism is pure paganism
(127). Anna says that the priests tell the women to be like Mary
and some of them are pretending, and some of them just dont
give a damn because they are in touch with their own reality (127).
In Kahlos society, a deep pagan source of female strength also underlies the Catholic culture. In The Two Fridas (1939), a life-size oil
painting, Frida presents herself as twins and literally bares her heart.
The pagan Frida, dressed in the Tehuana costume of her mother,
gives a blood transfusion to the European Frida who, dressed in the
Victorian costume of her German Jewish fathers homeland and of
the imperial Spanish culture, daintily spills blood from her hemostat. Although Kahlos vibrant Mexican palette is radically different
from the soft Irish greens and greys in Nothing is Black, color and
light are for both Kahlo and Maddens fictional painter the means
of expressing without words the identities they have discovered
within the different worlds they inhabit.
Claire chooses the bare stone house which is her heritage and also
the emblem of her art. The subtle light and worn stone of the Irish
countryside have a complexity and radiance of their own that coun-

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teract the blackness. From her vantage point on the western coast,
Claire can contemplate the oceanic sweep of Irish history, with all
its sad detritus, and at the same time inhabit a landscape rich in consonances:
she preferred the complexity of the sort of light she found in Ireland. It
allowed the land, the sky, and the ocean to each have their own place.
She would never live far from the sea again, its vastness a comfort, its
anonymous ancient waves crashing over the detritus of centuries: broken
ships, coins, bones, weapons. She would never have believed that it
would be possible to feel so much at home. (113)

To feel at home in Ireland is not presented as an easy task in either


Johnstons novel or Maddens. Both authors express a kind of fatalism, a sense, especially in Johnston, that events in Ireland are driven
by necessity and are quite beyond the ability of anyone to control
them. Johnston sees this driving force of fate in political terms,
whereas Madden sees it more philosophically, as a condition of life:
Sometimes it was easy to forget that life was driven by necessity. The
world today conspired to induce such forgetfulness. What was worth
knowing in life? The limits, the severe limits of ones understanding and
abilities, the power of love and forgiveness; and that life is nothing if not
mysterious. (151)

These are sentiments that Virginia Woolf would very likely agree
with, since she dramatizes the force of fate and necessitythat fluidity out therein To the Lighthouse and she continually emphasizes
the mysteriousness of personality and consciousness. The events of
Maddens novel emphasize approximately the same things. Nuala
makes some small progress toward healing; at least she begins to understand some aspects of her illness, although she is still stealing
pepper pots from restaurants. Anna makes some progress toward
reconciliation with her daughter; she will reach out to Lili in a less
defensive manner. And Claire successfully completes a series of
paintings in which the parts suggest a whole person.
In both The Railway Station Man and Nothing is Black art is offered
as a positive counterforce to the operations of fate and necessity. In
Johnston, to paint is to build something, metaphorically to restore
some broken part of the world, if only a small one. In Madden, to
paint is to make a connection with the world and silently to express
love. Both writers readily acknowledge the obvious, that art cannot

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really mend things, but they also see that art has a power beyond its
material existence. Madden uses the voice of Claires friend Alice to
express the paradox of painting, that it consists of so little and can
be so much:
I like the paradox of it. Strength and frailty, dont you see? People confuse immortality with the indestructible, but its not the same thing at
all. Take, say, Vermeers Portrait of a Young Woman in a Turban. What the
painting means is beyond words, beyond time. And yet, in purely material terms, its a layer of paint a couple of millimetres thick on a piece of
canvas. (139)

Alice adds that the magic of art is the only magic she can believe
in: To take things and make something charged with that sort of
knowledge and energy. Its worth devoting your life to that (140).
Markus may have been right that art no longer has religious meaning for the people of Europe, but Claire, through her memories of
Alice, insists that a work of art, defined as a material object charged
with . . . knowledge and energy, can still speak to the mind and
spirit.

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6
Northern Light: Margaret Atwoods Cats Eye
The page waits, pretending to be blank. Is that its appeal, its
blankness? What else is this smooth and white, this terrifyingly
innocent? A snowfall, a glacier? Its a desert, totally arid, without
life. But people venture into such places.Why? To see how much
they can endure, how much dry light?
Margaret Atwood, The Page
The only thing between us is this black line: a thread thrown
onto the empty page, into the empty air.
Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin

FOR MARGARET ATWOOD, THE ARTS ARE A STRATEGY FOR SURVIVAL; WRITing is both necessary and dangerous. She sees her words as a slender
lifeline thrown into the void in hopes that a reader will catch it. Like
Virginia Woolf, Atwood is familiar with the terror of venturing into
those desert places, the blank page or the empty canvas. The imagery of snowfall and glacier with which she describes the blank page
no doubt comes naturally to a Canadian writer, especially one who
spent much of her childhood in the bush of the far north. In Survival (1972), her handbook to Canadian literature, Atwood postulates that, just as the frontier is the central theme of American
literature, survival is central to the literature of Canada, and she describes the survival theme as grim and bare.1 She then urges
her fellow writers to break free of a Canadian literary heritage that
usually presents the national sensibility in a negative and somber
light. She characterizes earlier Canadian literature as a dreary
record of struggle and victimizationdeath by avalanche, attacking
grizzly bears, or lost expeditionswhose true and only season is
winter.2 Seeing herself as working against a literary tradition as dismal as a continent of snow, Atwood, beginning with her first novel,
The Edible Woman, writes novels that are filled with color, wit, delight152

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fully sardonic narrative voices, and vivid transformations. She writes


in many different genres including satire, the ghost story, the historical novel, and future fiction. And yet, to quote Wallace Stevens,
The natives of rain are rainy men.
Although they paint effulgent, azure lakes,
And April hillsides wooded white and pink,
Their azure has a cloudy edge. . . .3

Perhaps more subtly than the novels of the Irish writers Johnston
and Madden, Atwoods work is inevitably shaped by its place of origin. Various as they are, Atwoods novels tend to follow the native
Canadian tradition as she describes it; she adheres to the theme of
survival against difficult odds. Her novels are mostly about womens
struggles and stratagems to survive, sometimes in extremely harsh
circumstances, as in Bodily Harm or The Handmaids Tale. In Survival
Atwood remarks humorously that the Canadian authors two favorite natural methods for dispatching his victims are drowning and
freezing, drowning being preferred by poets . . . and freezing by
prose writers.4 Atwood herself makes use of that same imagery; near
drowning is a favorite motif in her novels and stories. In Cats Eye,
for example, Elaine Risley nearly freezes and drowns in a childhood
episode of abuse that profoundly shapes her life and art. Near
drowning often symbolizes the way that life can overwhelm women
in the modern world. Atwoods main characters exist in a liminal
state in the sense that they see themselves as living on the brink
not of some transformative experience, as described by Carolyn
Heilbrunbut rather on the brink of disaster.
Atwoods protagonists view their own lives in drastic terms, as a
struggle for survival, and their narrative voices tend to assume a
wary, ironic tone. Atwood prefaces The Edible Woman with an epigraph taken from instructions for making puff pastry: The surface
on which you work (preferably marble) . . . should be chilled
throughout the operations.5 From her first novel on, Atwoods narrators speak in voices purged of sentiment. For the sake of survival,
sentiment must be jettisoned, along with all romantic dreams, including the dream of love. Male-female relations, mother-daughter
relations, and friendships between women are all portrayed as problematic at best, tyrannous at worst. Atwoods narrators are nearly always isolated figures, distanced from others by their most admirable
assets: their honesty, desire for autonomy, and need for self-expres-

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sion. It is not surprising, therefore, that in her portrayal of visual


artists Atwood focuses, more than other writers, on the psychological struggles of the artist to rise above the surface of life, to avoid
permanent submersion and a kind of psychic oblivion. Although Atwood does not suggest that art must have a neurotic source, she assumes that the troubled aspects of the psyche are inevitably involved
in the process and will leave their mark. In Atwoods fiction, women
artists have a more difficult struggle than men to achieve autonomy;
a career in art requires self-knowledge and, as in other novelists, a
radical isolation from what might be called normal life.
Atwoods earlier artist protagonists, those before Cats Eye, do not
overcome these psychological obstacles, and their art suffers as a
consequence. The nameless narrator of Surfacing (1972), sometimes
referred to as the Surfacer, lacks self-knowledge; in fact, through
much of the book she suffers from a self-imposed state of amnesia
in which she has suppressed the facts of her own life story. Yvonne,
the painter in the story The Sunrise, in Bluebeards Egg and other
Stories (1983), suffers from such radical isolation from everyone as
to be virtually strangled in solitude. Only Elaine Risley in Cats Eye
(1989) attains the imaginative power which, drawing upon memory,
self-knowledge, and necessary isolation, can transform life into art.
A victim of circumstances and of a monstrously callous married
lover, the narrator of Surfacing has too meager a grasp of reality to
achieve much as an artist. She is a commercial artist and book illustrator, having been goaded onto that path by her first lover, who was
also her art teacher: For a while I was going to be a real artist; he
thought that was cute but misguided, he said I should study something Id be able to use because there has [sic] never been any important women artists.6 When she embarks on her heavily
allegorical journey into the wilderness of Quebec in search of her
lost father, the narrator takes along her watercolors and acrylics in
order to illustrate a book of fairy tales, but her fingers soon grow
stiff and feel arthritic. She cannot perform the sort of imitative, insincere art that is expected of herimages of women as idealized
princesses. Moreover, the publisher does not allow her to use hot or
bright colors, even for a tale of the Golden Phoenix; fire must somehow be painted with a cool tone. It is not surprising that the narrators hopes for a career in art are aborted: forced into commercial
art because of gender stereotypes, she discovers that the commercial
field promotes those same stereotypes. The narrators present lover,
the inarticulate Joe, is, like the punk artist in Sunrise and the ex-

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husband Jon in Cats Eye, a creator of ugly art. Joe does violence to
his clay pots, mutilating them in seeming contempt for his own craft.
Several details of Surfacing anticipate Cats Eye, written seventeen
years later: the background of the narrators family, her childhood
in the wilderness, the disastrous affair with her art teacher, and the
book illustrations. But Surfacing is not about the narrators art; it is
about submersion and self-discovery. Atwood calls it a ghost story.
The narrators denial of her own historythe fact that her lover has
forced her to have an abortionleads her to create in her own mind
a false history in which she is married and has abandoned her child.
The narrators best moments of sanity and control seem to occur
when she is floating alone or with her companions in a canoe on the
lake searching for her father: Its like moving on air, nothing beneath holding us up; suspended, we drift home.7 She navigates well
in the wilderness and feels most at home suspended in its beauty.
Although it seems for a time that her increasingly intense mistrust
of words and language will lead her more fully into a world of visual
expressionmaps, drawings, photographsthe narrator eventually
burns all of her own and her familys records, including her artwork,
paints and tools, along with her childhood drawings and scrapbooks
in order to clear a space in which she can descend for a time into,
literally, an animal existence, devoid of language or civility. These
events occur after she mystically sees the ghosts of both her parents. Although several of the elements of this story can be found in
other novels about women artiststhe sensation of suspension
above water, the longing to enter into the mysteries of purely visual
experience, and even the return of the ghostsit is obvious that this
narrators art is a dead end.
Atwoods short story The Sunrise provides a sketch, rather than
a full-length portrait, of Yvonne, a professional painter of undetermined age, somewhere between thirty and fifty. In this story Atwoods relentlessly cold, laconic style keeps Yvonne at a distance
from the reader, even as Yvonne keeps the world at a distance. Outwardly affecting a jaunty manner, Yvonne has acquaintances but
confides in no one. She has developed mechanisms for coping with
her own self-conscious fears when in the society of others: she
clutches the tablecloth under the table and tells jokes she collects on
index cards. Yvonne is the most isolated of the women artist figures
encountered in this study. Although isolation is Yvonnes most obvious problem, Atwood also dramatizes in this story several other difficulties confronted by a woman artist at the end of the twentieth

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century: stereotypes of what a painter should be, the familiar issue


of art and Eros, and the destructive, antihumanistic nature of certain trends and fads in contemporary art.
In The Sunrise Atwood attacks issues of art and gender headon. Yvonne, who has a studio of her own, likes to follow men in the
streets of Toronto, not to seduce them but to draw them. The men
are flattered. Although she is compulsively hungry to capture mens
souls through her art, her drawings of them seem rather tender. She
likes to draw men who look a bit battered and worn out by life.
Yvonnes compulsion to gaze upon strangers and try to capture their
essence in her drawings is, of course, a reversal of the traditional
gender roles of artist and model. Indeed, earlier in her career
Yvonne attained considerable notoriety by painting and exhibiting
a series of male nudes with erect penises; amusingly, she became
known as the penis lady.8 Her outrageous boldness anticipates
that of the painter Monica Szabo in Mary Gordons Spending, although Monica paints only spent men. Yvonne finds that her art
and her temperament are incompatible with love; she has occasionally fallen in love with one of her models only to discover that her
feelings for him drain away her creative energy. More significantly,
when Yvonne falls in love with a man he becomes a blur of concentrated light to her; she loses sight of line and contour. Rather than
merely making the artists hand shake, love in this instance interferes directly with the artists ability to see.
Images of water, ice, and sharp bladesimagery anticipating that
of Cats Eyecharacterize Yvonnes psychological states, stressing
her liminality. Yvonne sees herself as living at the edge, barely hanging on. She periodically suffers from hallucinatory episodes in which
a tsunami, a towering wall of black water, comes rushing over her.
The water seems very real, and Yvonne has to take to her bed, closing her eyes and ears and mouth and holding on tightly until the
wave recedes. On a miniature scale, Atwoods story reminds the
reader of Virginia Woolf s powerful metaphor of crashing waves to
describe episodes of psychological submersion in The Waves. In addition to her apprehension of the tidal wave at her back, Yvonne is
also keenly aware of the fragile, fugitive nature of the present moment, which she thinks of as skating on ice:
The blade of the skate floats, she knows, on a thin film of water, which
it melts by pressure and which freezes behind it. This is the freedom of
the present tense, this sliding edge.9

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Atwood emphasizes the knife-blade precariousness of the present


moment by narrating her story in present tense. Yvonne also keeps
a sharp razor blade on the edge of her bathtub, not for shaving but
for suicide: the razor blade is there all the time, underneath everything.10 Yvonne takes curious comfort in the idea that she can control her death, if not her life.
Constant awareness of death and of the terrifying knife-edge existence of the present moment are psychic stumbling blocks that
make art difficult. A different kind of obstacle is personified in the
young punk artist whom Yvonne takes on as her model and temporary lover. With his half-shaven head of orange hair and aggressively
unhealthy appearance, the punk artist looks like a welding shop
accident.11 He is totally sullen and belligerent in demeanor. His
motto is Art sucks, and his art consists of collages in which he has
pasted mutilated photographs of womens bodies on top of landscapes and further abused the images of women by adding smears
of red nail polish. Like Joe in Surfacing and Jon in Cats Eye, he practices a faddish anti-art of mutilation. Yvonnes decision to take the
punk artist as a lover, albeit a somnambulant one, and then to
paint him, brings about a crisis in the story. The predicament is a
serious one for Yvonne, because she asks herself, if art sucks and
everything is only art, what has she done with her life?12 By making
love to the punk artist is she also embracing his anti-art attitude, or
is it the casewhich seems more likelythat in painting him she is
mastering anti-art by transforming it into her own art? She plans her
first real painting in years, a very large canvas portraying the punk
artist sprawled on a wine-colored velvet chair wearing nothing but a
pink shirt and holding a red poppy. Although the envisioned painting, like her hold on life itself, remains ambiguous, it would seem to
have genuine satiric, even comic, potential while offering a vibrant
composition of clashing colors. The painting would not say Art
doesnt suck, but rather This anti-art attitude sucks, and I have
made art of it.
Another hopeful note in this grim story is that when Yvonne rises
every morning to witness the sunrise she renews herself daily with
light. The story ends with her breathing in the morning light, which
revivifies her and which is also an essential element in her art.
Yvonnes life is precarious, like tightrope walking, and her art seems
to be the only thing that stabilizes her at all.
Elaine Risley in Cats Eye is better able than Atwoods earlier protagonists to find the means to shape her most painful memories into

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works of art. She achieves what Atwood, in Survival, calls creative


non-victimhood, but she too pays the price of isolation. Cats Eye is
Atwoods most autobiographical novel to date, and she endows
Elaine with many of her own memories, particularly memories of a
childhood spent partly in the bush with her mother, brother, and
entomologist father. The novel beautifully evokes the games, toys,
rituals, rhymes, and the cruelties of children in the 1940s as seen
through the eye of Elaines memory as she prepares for her retrospective exhibit in Toronto sometime in the 1980s. Atwood gradually fills in Elaines middle years, so that the portrait of the artist is
fairly complete, at least in its chronology.
It is not surprising that Atwood should choose as her subject a
visual artist. Atwood has all her life practiced various visual arts, including illustrations and cover designs, collages, cartoons and comic
strips, as well as watercolors and drawings.13 As in other novels about
artists, there are interesting consonances and resonances between
Atwoods verbal art and Elaines visual art, although one cannot say
with any certainty that Atwoods writing is animated as much by resentment and grief as Elaines art is. Mature, sounding tougher and
more sardonic than her true nature warrants, Elaine confides in the
reader with such candor and forthcoming specificity that no lacunae
seem to exist in her re-creation of her memories. Yet her paintings
reveal the existence of gaps and silences in her narrative by alluding
to what has been left unspoken, most notably the affective side of
her psyche. Her art reveals what she cannot otherwise say, and
Elaine refuses to theorize about her work or proclaim its redemptive
value. The ekphrastic passages describing Elaines paintings at the
exhibition stand out from the rest of the text almost like a retrospective commentary on it. Atwood leaves it to the reader to piece together Elaines words and her pictures to arrive at an understanding
of her artistic motives and her true nature.
As the novel begins, Elaine sees herself in the middle of lifes journey, like Dante on his pilgrimage, a position she imagines as the
middle of a river, the middle of a bridge.14 The bridge is a literal
one; it crosses a river over a ravine in Toronto, the scene of Elaines
most extreme duress, where she was systematically bullied by three
other girls, her so-called friends, as a child. Returning from Vancouver to Toronto, the city of her youth, to attend the retrospective of
her work, Elaine also holds an inner retrospective in which she recalls long sequences of her life in Toronto from early childhood
through art school, a disastrous affair with her drawing teacher, and

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her failed first marriage. The middle of life brings to Elaine the
usual complaints of middle age: dimming eyesight, a less vigorous
body, and an awareness of a large communication gap between herself and the next generation of women, represented by the young
reporter who interviews her about her exhibit. As Elaine reflects
upon her life, she comes to understand that past time cannot be
thought of as a line, a linear record of events. Rather, the extraordinarily complex and reticulated connections among the events of
ones life begin to form a dimension or substance, something that
can be dipped into, even though its exact structure cannot fully be
described:
But I began then to think of time as having a shape, something you
could see, like a series of liquid transparencies, one laid on top of another. You dont look back along time but down through it, like water.
(3)

Seeing time as like water and memories as like layered transparencies gives a tactile and visual quality to the act of remembering, a
first step, it would seem, toward transforming memories into visual
art. As Elaine looks back upon her life, her recollections down to
the present moment culminate in the exhibition; it is not that the
paintings document her life but rather that they prove she has something to show for having lived. Her paintings are, as she says,
drenched in time (161). Elaines narration of events in various
alternating time sequences is in keeping with her view of time as layered transparencies. As at the end of To the Lighthouse, the artistic
effort of the novelist converges with that of the artist in the novel, so
that both may rightly say, I have had my vision. Only in this case,
Elaines words are, I have said, Look. I have said, I see (427). Elaine
cannot work her way progressively through grief and loss to artistic
accomplishment in the conscious, internally articulate manner of
Lily Briscoe, but her art bears witness to those aspects of her life.
Whereas Lily struggles to achieve and inwardly articulate a vision
as well as a painting, Elaines thoughts about art remain in the realm
of the purely visual, even though her artistic process and goals are
subtle and complex. To the extent that there is a theory of the
creative process embedded in Cats Eye, it has to be read between the
lines by looking at Elaines total development as an artist.
The scenes of a painful childhood are the most vivid part of Cats
Eye. The novel has been justly praised for its faithful re-creation of

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the sights, sounds, smells, and tactile sensations of life in Toronto in


the 1940s and 1950s and for its dramatic portrayal of the schoolyard
victimization of young Elaine. But critics like Judith Thurman, who
thinks that Cats Eye should have ended on page 206, at the moment when Elaine turns her back on her chief tormenter, Cordelia,
and walks away, disregard the fact that Elaines seemingly selfcontained narrative of her early triumph over victimization bears a
causal relationship to the larger confessional narrative that ratifies
her career as an artist.15 There is a direct line of cause and effect
between Elaines experience of cruelty at the hands of Cordelia and
her career as an artist who is driven to arrest, transfix, and freeze the
people and scenes of her life that have given the most pain.
Atwood offers a comprehensive view of the process by which art
can arise from the artists particular experiences, in this case childhood trauma. An innocent child, reared mainly in the wilderness, is
suddenly introduced to the society of other children, with all their
entrenched rituals and cruelties. The abuse she suffers causes her
to withdraw and become passive and silent. During this period of
withdrawal she acquires mechanisms for survival and ways of seeing
the world that will later determine the nature of her artistic expression when she finally gives herself back to the world through her
paintings. Again, Atwood is not suggesting that art necessarily arises
from suffering. Rather, as she wrote in a letter to a friend early in her
career, everyone has some sort of neurosis; artists are simply more
fortunate than others in having art as a medium in which to work
out their neuroses. She suggests that the artist is likely to be better
adjusted (to his own neuroses) than someone with an equivalent intensity of neurosis who isnt an artist. Atwood adds that her theory
is probably a lot of crap, but she prefers it to the notion that creativity requires the artist to suffer.16 In Elaines case, the childhood
abuse, her first experience of purely gratuitous evil, leads to an early
withdrawal into a self-imposed state of impersonality in order to
evade an intolerable situation. She achieves the partial displacement
of her feeling and perceiving self onto the radiance of the blue cats
eye marble, which she treasures as a talisman.
The transformations of the marble from childs toy, to talisman,
to symbol of radiant art parallel Elaines own transformations as she
grows up and learns gradually to avoid victimization. A transparent
crystal with a flowerlike shape of opaque blue inside, the luminous
marble hints at possibilities of vision, energy, and beautyan instrument to capture the light. Later, it merges with the picture of a con-

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vex mirror as a symbol of a world caught and transformed in the


mind and reflected in art. Finally, its blue globular shape suggests a
reconciling of macrocosm and microcosm: the eye, the world, and
the stars.
Learning to see the world as the marble sees, Elaines visual
imagination is shaped so that, in adulthood, she will develop a cool,
impersonal, hard-edged style of painting, although it is also a style
that celebrates light and sources of light. Elaines art is thus a retrieval and a giving back of herself and her feelings, but in encrypted
forms that offer a degree of self-protection. It is not surprising that
Elaines art feels drastic, given that it is based on backward-looking
emotions, resentment and grief. One could contrast her paintings
to those of Claire in Nothing is Black, where grief becomes the catalyst
for love, the true motive of her art. It should also be noted that
Elaine paints impressions of memories, compositions inspired by
memories, and not pictures from the past like snapshots, which
would be quite a different thing.
The three stages of Elaines development as an artistwithdrawal,
the acquisition of a particular way of seeing and a style, and the giving back of her visions to the worldmay be paralleled with the
three ordeals that she undergoes, the ordeal of childhood abuse,
the ordeal in young adulthood of learning to cope with self-centered
men as she tries to become an artist, and the ordeal of the retrospective exhibit, which causes her to examine her life. The abuse of
Elaine as a child adds a different dimension to Atwoods ongoing
exploration of abuses of power, which begins with her first novel,
The Edible Woman. Atwood frequently suggests that power over others
always lends itself to abuse. She offers no real remedies except to
imply that any chance of freedom from oppression is worth the
struggle. In the two novels preceding Cats Eye, Bodily Harm and A
Handmaids Tale, Atwood addresses the issue of abusive repression,
by totalitarian governments and a patriarchal ruling class, in the
larger social arena. By vividly portraying the meanness, tyranny, and
physical abuse of which children are capablegirls cruelty to a
girlCats Eye dramatizes the problem of evil on a more primitive
and basic level. The techniques that Cordelia and the two other girls
use to bully Elaine are the same as those employed by repressive governments: intimidation, isolation, instilling self-doubt by forcing
paradoxical questions or imposing impossible tasks, continuous sarcasm, invective, and brainwashing, as well as direct physical threats
and torments. Atwood shows that even seemingly innocent children

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are capable of such jack-booted sadism, dramatizing an innate


human perversity that her Calvinist forebears would have called
original sin. Social evil as depicted in Atwoods novels frequently assumes up-to-date forms, however. A Handmaids Tale, for example,
anticipates the revelations about the mistreatment of women under
present-day theocratic regimes; Cats Eye seems to predict the current preoccupation with the psychological causes of childrens violence. Cats Eye also differs from Atwoods earlier novels in that it
raises the question of whether there can be a connection between
abuse and art.
Having lived in the wilderness, like Atwood herself, while her
father did field research on insects, Elaine is innocent even for an
eight year old when her family moves to the city. Since she has spent
many years playing only with her brother, she has no inkling of the
world of girls, with their role playing as housewives or figures of fashion and their different rules of behavior. Elaine has trouble understanding her own femininity, and that factor, along with her
innocence, makes her an easy target. She is unprepared when games
of jump rope, ball, and marbles yield to a far crueler game of psychological sadism in which Cordelia and the two other girls systematically dominate and brutalize her over a period of about two years.
Although Carol and Grace are happy to follow along, it is Cordelia
who, with a twist on a motif in King Lear, tells Elaine that she is
nothing; her voice will echo in Elaines head for the rest of her
life, like the voice of Mr. Tansley undermining the confidence of Lily
Briscoe. It is Cordelia who convinces Elaine that the river under the
bridge over the ravine carries the souls of dead people, washed
down from the cemetery, and Cordelia who digs the deep hole in
which Elaine is buried alive. Under such duress, Elaine begins to
mutilate her own body, tearing the skin from her feet.
Elaine keeps as a talisman the cats eye marble, so like and unlike
an eye in its crystalline transparency, because it seems beautiful and
mysteriously alien, perhaps the first object she has ever looked at
aesthetically. The marbles purity and its gelid look suggest to her
the power of disembodiment, of resisting torment by seeing without
feeling, a way of freezing out those who have frozen her out. Later,
in the respite of an unconfined summer camping out with her parents, Elaine dreams of the marble as a sun or planet falling from
the sky into her sleeping body and making her cold, a dream which
suggests that unconsciously she is maturing, acquiring new strength.
In the next school year, as the torment increases, she holds on to

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the marble as though it were a magic third eye with an impartial


gaze that allows her to retreat back into my eyes (166). As an
objective correlative for her own eye and her ego (her I), the marble enables her to hold on to a core of herself and to cast a cold eye
on her tormentors. Through the magic of the marble, she imagines that she can perceive the people around her without feeling
anything:
Sometimes when I have it with me I can see the way it sees. I can see
people moving like bright animated dolls, their mouths opening and
closing but no real words coming out. . . . I am alive in my eyes only.
(151)

In this state of extreme emotional withdrawal, the only one of her


senses that Elaine retains and clings to is the visual, her awareness
of the shapes and colors of things. It would seem that visual perception is the least threatening and most empowering means of experiencing the world under duress, an early hint of the sources of
inspiration for Elaines art. But also at this time she learns to faint
away altogether, passing out almost at will during some of the most
painful moments.
The climax of the abuse is an ordeal like a little death in which
Elaine is exposed all at once to the horrors of freezing water, deep
snow, ice, and fear of dying. On a winter evening Cordelia and the
others force her to enter the ravine down the slippery hillside under
the bridge, and they abandon her there, lying to her mother about
where she is. She slips into the creek, waist deep in freezing water
amid big slabs of ice, her feet immobile. Gradually regaining the
strength to climb from the water, she lies numb and soaked by the
edge of the stream, in immediate danger of dying from exposure,
and surrounded, so she imagines, by the spirits and whispers of the
dead floating down from the cemetery. The hallucinatory vision of
the Black Virgin floating over the bridge with her glowing red heart
awakens Elaine from her torpor and gives her the strength to survive. After this ordeal and her subsequent illness, Elaine suddenly
gains the courage, at age ten, to turn her back on her tormentors,
recognizing that they have no real power over her and never should
have had any. She is freed from their tyranny by an unexpected perception: I can see the greed in their eyes. Its as if I can see right
into them. Why was I unable to do this before? (208). Elaine has by
now fully absorbed the cold, indifferent eye of the marble: theres

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something hard in me, crystalline, a kernel of glass (208). After


physically surviving the ordeal of near drowning and near freezing
(Canadian deaths), Elaine psychologically overcomes the abuse and
walks away because she has finally learned to see through the eyes of
the other girls into their now obvious motives. She has learned that
survival depends upon perception.
The first half of Cats Eye builds suspensefully to that moment
when Elaine turns her back on Cordelia. The struggle against the
Cordelia within, a voice that urges both cruelties and self-doubts,
takes Elaine a very long time, however; she is still wrestling with that
dark angel at the end of the novel. Her bitter experience with Cordelia also prepares the adult Elaine to cope with the main ordeal of
her young adulthoodthe familiar dilemma of art versus love
while at the same time trying to find her way as an artist. The pattern
of Elaines life in the 1960s and 1970s shows the growth of an artist
in the social contexts of those times. Her life takes several wrong
turns, and she has to learn to cast off destructive relationships while
working by uncertain steps toward an understanding of what her art
should be.
Elaines first lover Josef Hrbik and her first husband Jon, both artists, both self-centered, weak, and undependable, deflect her from
the path of her artistic career. When Elaine shows her portfolio to
Josef, he sees more promise in her biological drawings than in her
paintings, but he tells her that her work lacks passion and advises
her to try for more passion. Josef s definition of passion includes her
having an affair with him, which Elaine does, accepting for a time
Josef s presentation of himself as a romantic lover. He wants to turn
her into a Pre-Raphaelite woman (not a Pre-Raphaelite painter),
and yet something within her urges a resistance to becoming his fair
object:
Would you do anything for me? he says, gazing into my eyes. I sway
toward him, far away from the earth. Yes would be so easy.
No, I say. This is a surprise to me. I dont know where it has come
from, this unexpected and stubborn truthfulness. It sounds rude. (325)

Where this truth comes from, of course, is Elaines experience with


Cordelia; like Lily Briscoe with Mr. Ramsay, she finds that something
within her can resist falling under the sway of the emotional needs
of another. Elaines instincts are proven correct when Josef virtually
self-destructs before her eyes. Josef responds in a totally inappropri-

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ate way when his former lover, Suzy, nearly dies of a self-inflicted
abortion: he expects Elaine to pity him and console him for the pain
of it all.
Elaines marriage to fellow art student Jon more seriously interrupts her progress in art. Even as Jon drifts from one trendy art fad
to another, Elaine has no time to paint at all in the first year after
their daughter is born. Still constrained by old notions about a womans place, Elaine feels that she ought not to win in their marital
battles, which are mostly about Jons infidelities: If I were to win
them, the order of the world would be changed, and I am not ready
for that (361). The world order is changing, of course, and a little
more than a year later Elaine becomes so fully exasperated that she
finally utters the words that Avis Dobell could not have uttered a
century earlier:
Jon sits in the living room, having a beer with one of the painters. I am
in the kitchen, slamming around the pots.
Whats with her? says the painter.
Shes mad because shes a woman, Jon says. This is something I
havent heard for years, not since high school. . . .
I go to the living room doorway. Im not mad because Im a woman,
I say. Im mad because youre an asshole. (366)

Elaines frustration with her marriage leads her to cut her wrist theatrically with a tool of the trade, an Exacto knife, but later she regains control of her life and moves west with her daughter. With her
second husband Ben, whom she eventually meets in Vancouver,
Elaine enjoys the only relationship of her adult life not tainted by a
victor-victim struggle of wills. Significantly, Ben, the most dependable, attractive male in any of Atwoods novels, stays off on business
in Mexico and never appears in the novel at all; he phones in his
lines. With Ben, Atwood makes the point that decent, supportive
men may occasionally be found, but she also keeps him out of sight
so as not to dilute the novels pervasive cynicism about men.
During the time that Elaine makes these missteps with men she
also moves with unsteady progress toward becoming an artist, first
by discovering her vocation, then achieving a degree of technical
expertiseprecision of line, naturalistically rendered surfaces, and
so onand ultimately developing a style, the unique character of
her work which will empower it and make it expressive. Elaines
progress follows a familiar pattern that dates back at least to The Story

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of Avis: a dazzling revelation of her destiny as an artist is followed by


a series of little epiphanies in which she confronts the numerous
obstacles faced by women in pursuing that goal. The initial revelation comes during a botany examination when Elaine, having mastered scientific drawing under her fathers influence, realizes like
a sudden epileptic fit that she wants to be a painter, not a biologist
(274). One obstacle soon presents itself in her life drawing class,
when she is expected to draw a nude female model:
. . . this woman frightens me. There is a lot of flesh to her, especially
below the waist; there are folds across her stomach, her breasts are saggy
and have enormous dark nipples. The harsh fluorescent light, falling
straight down on her, turns her eye sockets to caverns, emphasizes the
descending lines from nose to chin; but the massiveness of her body
makes her head look like an afterthought. She is not beautiful, and I am
afraid of turning into that. (288)

At this point Elaine has not yet acquired the impersonal gaze that
will serve her well as an artist. Although she observes in passing certain painterly features such as mass and line, her attention is captured by the womans alarmingly unglamorous fleshy presence, so
that the model becomes a kind of bogey of aging.
Another problem that Elaine encounters is the ambiguous and
belittling way that women artists are defined and labeled. When
young men in the Life Drawing class make fun of housewives in the
class, calling them lady painters, Elaine raises the question:
If theyre lady painters, what does that make me? I say.
A girl painter, Jon says, joking.
Colin, who has manners of a sort, explains: If youre bad, youre a
lady painter. Otherwise youre just a painter. (297)

Although Colin may have manners of a sort he evidently takes


pleasure in what he sees as the male prerogative to assign labels.
Elaines degree in art history and her studies in commercial art
serve her well when she begins to arrive at her own style, since her
paintings allude glancingly to the past and also have some of the
properties of commercial art, hard edges and shiny surfaces. In contrast to the career of Jon, who slavishly follows every movement from
abstract expressionism to op art and pop art, and who ends up doing
special effects for chain-saw-massacre films, Elaine follows the more
difficult path of painstakingly crafting her own style. First, she be-

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comes fascinated with painting reflective surfaces, pearls, crystals,


mirrors and such domestic items as ginger-ale bottles, ice cubes,
and frying pans (347). Oddly enough, and contrary to usual artistic
practice, she begins to paint objects from memory rather than from
life, although the images are clear and sharp, not fuzzy-edged. She
paints kitchen appliances from her childhood, and these objects,
she says are suffused with anxiety, but she insists, its not my own
anxiety. The anxiety is in the things themselves (357). Perhaps
Elaine has learned to project her own anxiety about domesticity so
fully upon the painted images that she can claim that she no longer
possesses that anxiety. She also rejects the use of impasto, presumably because impasto can record the fervent touch of the artist in a
way that a flat surface does not. Turning away from even the use of
textured brushstrokes in favor of seemingly pure color and reflectivity, Elaine teaches herself the ancient art of mixing tempera, colors
suspended in a water and egg emulsion. It is evident that the vision
of the cats eye marble, the kernel of glass, has been absorbed into
a painterly eye which leads her to depict objects that breathe out
light (346). Thus, the first stage of Elaines artistic growth is the
rejection of textured, self-expressive art in favor of an optically precise art of painting the light as it strikes the surfaces of things. The
next and more difficult task is to bring the vision of a world of radiance to bear upon her own emotions and memories. Her rejection
of impasto and of brushstrokes that betray the artists hand leads to
a cool, dispassionate presentation of subject matter, but the subjects
themselves are drenched in passion, her own most memorable moments of being.
Elaine becomes fascinated with Van Eycks The Arnolfini Marriage
not so much for its pellucid rendering of the wedding couple as for
the framed convex mirror in the background, which reflects the
figures of two people who exist in a different world outside the picture. This round mirror, she thinks, is like an eye, a single eye
that sees more than anyone else looking (347). The surrogate eye
intrigues her because it shows the outside of the paintings inside,
peeling back its reality and revealing the presence of the artist. By
trickery, the artist is both concealed and revealed. For Elaine, I believe, that mirror, which, art historians tell us, symbolizes the spotlessness of the virgin, externalizes the artists vision, the eye and the
ego, cleansed and made spotless by the will of the artist.
Elaines cool style in the visual medium is complemented by the
literary style of her first-person narrative. Elaines is the voice of one

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who talks back to life, witty, epigrammatical, ironic to the point of


sarcasm. Her sentences do not flow into one another but rather
stand out sharply, like pieces of glass in a mosaic. Her tone is the
opposite of romantic; she frequently dismisses sentimental or romantic notions as lies. The seeming objectivity of her paintings and
the irony of her narrative tone go hand in hand, and the impersonality seems as much a survival technique, a refuge, as an aesthetic
choice. Elaine protects herself from falling prey to sentiment and,
more importantly, to abuse such as she suffered as a child. Elaines
skeptical, impersonal tone is also consistent with her early training
in science and the scientific points of view of her astrophysicist
brother and biologist father. To the extent that the intellectual
grounding of her art may be inferred from the novel, her art is
evidently more rooted in a scientific than a religious perspective. Although she visits church with the Smeaths for a time, religion
except for her vision of the Virginhas a short-lived effect upon
her. Stargazing with her brother as a child, Elaine thinks, His stars
are different from the ones in the Bible; theyre wordless, they flame
in an obliterating silence (110). The fiery, wordless light of the
stars seen from a modern, scientific perspective influences the images of radiance and light in her paintings more than religious illumination does. The novel ends with a reference to the stars as
echoes of an old light shining out of nothingness. In a review of The
Blind Assassin, John Updike aptly sums up the worldview that can be
inferred from Atwoods novels: the cosmos above us and underneath our feet is void; in our poor neediness we are as carnivorous
and blind as the gods.17 Although Elaine is a persona quite distinct
from Atwood, the painter in the novel and the author of the novel
evidently share this attitude of stoic, not quite hopeless, cynicism.
At the retrospective exhibit Elaine speaks of time as bending back
upon itself, like an ocean wave. The fact that sections of the novel
are named for paintings in the exhibit also gives the final section
of the book a backward-looking perspective. The exhibit, occupying
three walls of the gallery, is like a palace of memory; it is a reflection
on her life though not a mirror of it. As Elaine describes the paintings on each of the walls, the reader witnesses the stages of her life:
early anxieties, the hatred that once liberated her creativity, her affections, the loss and grief that come with the middle years, and finally her attempt to offer a comprehensive map of her inner world.
The east wall displays her early works, the paintings of appliances;
the end wall contains works from her middle period, including the

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series of paintings of Mrs. Smeath; and the west wall shows her five
most recent works. Whereas the viewers in the novel have only the
speculative gallery notes of Charna, the gallery manager, to rely on,
Elaine gives the reader a guided tour of the show, moving around
the fictional gallery from east to west. Atwood provides far more extensive passages of ekphrasis than other novelists in this study do.
Elaines descriptions of her own work are cool, straightforward, detailed, and uncluttered by personal comment. In describing each
painting she moves systematically from right to left or from top to
bottom, inviting the readers eye to take in the elements of the
composition. The lack of emotion in her tone is all the more telling
in that the paintings depict the most grievous and moving moments
of her life. The effect of the exhibit is vivid, providing a fitting climax to the novel, and the paintings take on a presence of their own,
even a dominance in the narrative. Elaines ekphrastic passages attempt to translate the events of the novel into a visual form, and they
become separately memorable from the rest of the text. The reader
is invited to puzzle out the meaning of the events depicted and, on
a more abstract level, to ponder the mysteriousness of words construed as pictures.
Displayed on the end wall is the series of paintings of Mrs.
Smeath, some of which are narrative sequences, and all of which depict her in fantastic and humiliating situations. Although she has
painted Mrs. Smeath more than any other subject, Elaine claims
more than once that she does not know why she hates her so much,
even though the paintings make it evident that the hatred has liberated and inspired Elaines creativity. The reader must therefore try
to piece together the reasons for Elaines hatred of this obviously
symbolic woman, and not surprisingly those reasons are complicated; Mrs. Smeath carries a good deal of cultural and moral significance as well as personal meaning for Elaine. The fact that Graces
mother countenances the other girls torment of heathen Elaine
and lets Elaine know that she countenances it is one of Elaines bitterest memories, filling her with hatred and shame. It is in that moment that Elaine first learns that adults can also be evil and that evil
can mask itself under the guise of holiness. The pleasure that Mrs.
Smeath displays in feeling spiritually superior to Elaine offers a
glimpse into her meanness of spirit. Her bourgeois life is unredeemed by imagination, beauty, or vitality. Moreover, Mrs. Smeaths
appropriation of God unto herself robs Elaine of any hopes she
might temporarily entertain of embracing Christianity. As a child

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Elaine sees the potential for exclusiveness, smugness, and, by extension, violence in Canadian Protestant culture. Ironically, she is told
that Mrs. Smeath has a bad heart. In the paintings Elaine satirically represents the moral ugliness of religious hypocrisy as physical
ugliness and lack of grace. Culturally, then, Mrs. Smeath represents
the part of Canadian society that is dull, narrow-minded, middle
class, and smugly Protestant. Mrs. Smeath, her name a portmanteau
of Smith and Death, represents the forces of anti-art, though
in quite a different way than the punk artist in The Sunrise does.
When a woman dashes into the gallery and throws ink on one of the
Smeath pictures, Elaine momentarily mistakes her for Grace
Smeath. In a sense the misapprehension is correct: the persons who
violently oppose indecency in art are all children or clones of Mrs.
Smeath.
Mrs. Smeath is also a particularly repulsive version of the Angel in
the House; Elaine portrays her over and over in serial paintings in
order to kill the Angel. The combination of religious hypocrisy and
ferocious, discontented domesticity is depicted in a painting called
AN EYE FOR AN EYE, in which Mrs. Smeath is shown violently peeling a potato with a mean-looking paring knife. Elaine also paints her
posing as an odalisque in her Sunday hat with her rubber plant, symbol of stodgy domesticity. And, since the Mrs. Smeaths of this world
lay claim to decency, Elaine makes her indecent through various humiliating poses, nude or in her underwear, or copulating with her
husband in the posture of flying insects. In the painting that is defaced by the ink, White Gift, there are four panels showing Mrs.
Smeath being unwrapped from tissue paper and stripped down to
her underpants, with one big breast cut open to reveal a reptilian
heart. These images reveal a savagely satiric purpose that is seen nowhere else in Elaines work but that seems to add animationand
animusto her more gentle, later visions. Elaine ruthlessly exposes,
reveals, then dissects and sections her victim, drawing upon her former expertise in laboratory illustration. Surely, no other writer has
pilloried the Angel in the House with such bitterness and glee as
Atwood has done. In its distaste for the supposedly corrupt flesh of
her subject, Elaines satiric art seems neoclassical in spirit, at least
remotely reminiscent of the practice of Swift and Hogarth, and,
again, she presents a world where no pity or sentiment may enter.
Sentiment does threaten to seep in at the edges of the five paintings on the west wall of the gallery, Elaines most recent work, in that
the paintings are themselves individually retrospective and also highly

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personal; they tell her life visually. But Elaine keeps sentiment at
bay by assiduously sticking to her impersonal style. The paintings
themselves are too reticent to arouse any easy or automatic responses.
The five paintings are Picoseconds, which depicts her now-dead parents
as small figures in a landscape; Three Muses, in which three friends
who were kind to her when young now offer a ritual gift of spruce
budworm eggs; One Wing, a symbolic tribute to her brother, who was
killed by terrorists; Cats Eye, showing herself with her childhood enemies; and Unified Field Theory, which attempts to map Elaines emotional and aesthetic world. In contrast to Elaines verbal narrative,
these paintings are cryptic and surreal; they contain elements of displacement and deliberate rearrangement in order covertly to express
an emotion or judgment. These paintings do not preserve moments
in time; rather, they combine elements that could not have been present in the same moment. Like the artist in Spending, Elaine also draws
upon materials and ideas from past ages of art, such as a virgin, a
triptych, a convex mirror, and the use of tempera, the old monks
medium, tying her private visions to a public tradition or historical
and religiously significant art. Like Atwood herself, Elaine rejects the
label of postmodern because it makes her work sound belated and
derivative, but the reworking of bits of historic art in a boldly innovative style certainly gives her work a contemporary feel.
In Picoseconds Elaine paints a landscape depicting her parents picnicking in the bush above an iconic band of old gas pump logosa
red rose, a maple leaf, a shellsigns of their traveling days transformed into mysterious images. The parents are tiny and painted in
the position of Bruegels disappearing Icarus. They are painted in a
different light than the landscape, as if belonging to another dimension, and, as Elaine points out, the logos call into question the reality of landscape and figures alike (428). These are the parents who
have twice abandoned her, most obviously by dyingshe cannot
bring them back for a trillionth of a secondand less obviously by
her fathers obliviousness and her mothers mute bafflement in the
face of Elaines torment at the hands of her supposed friends in
childhood. The positioning of the small figures of the parents so as
to remind the viewer of Icarus, if only subliminally, suggests that
they too have vanished from sight to the utter indifference of a busy,
self-absorbed world.
One Wing, Elaines tribute to her brother, who was randomly killed
by terrorists in an airplane hijacking, shows a man falling from the
sky brandishing a childs sword. In the triptych the suspended, fall-

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ing man is flanked by representations of his hobbies and interests, a


World War II airplane in the style of a cigarette card and a lunar
moth. Although these metonymic emblems presumably have deep
and grievous personal meaning for Elaine, there is no way that a visitor to the gallery could read the painting as a tribute to a brother
murdered by terrorists without knowing Elaines family history. The
same is true of the gas pump logos, the marble, and the image of
the virgin in the other paintings; the reader is privy to the private
code, but the viewer is not. Thus, Elaine has it both ways: the combination of her narrative and her paintings both reveals and conceals
her private feelings at the same time.
The last two paintings described, Cats Eye and Unified Field Theory,
allude to their own making and contain the artists presence
through images of the mirror and the cats eye marble. Again, the
artists presence makes itself known in encoded form. Both paintings refer to the crisis at the ravine, and both represent objects suspended against the sky without visible support, suggesting a
precariousness, an uneasy balance; suspended objects are central to
Elaines art. Cats Eye depicts not the marble but the convex mirror,
ornately framed and hung against a blue field. Facing forward in
front of the mirror is the upper half of Elaines middle-aged face,
while the convex mirror shows the back of her head at a younger
age and, beyond it, the reflection of her three childhood tormentors
advancing through the snow. This painting is highly ambiguous. It
may be read as witnessing a triumph: since Elaines back is turned
to the image of the girls, she may be said to have put the childhood
crisis behind her by capturing it in her art. On the other hand, the
mirror reflection in the painting indicates that the tormentors are
actually in front of her, a forever-approaching reminder of their
false friendship and her lonely pain.
Unified Field Theory is ironically titled. Elaine is well aware that she
is far from possessing a unified, comprehensive theory of space and
time as she has experienced them. Rather, this long vertical painting
is like a map of Elaines psychological and aesthetic world, holding
in delicate balance several of the emotionally significant elements of
her life and bracketing them in a single vision. The background of
the painting shows the sky and stars blended together with the earth
and roots in Escher-like fashion. This interpenetration of galaxies
and stones is a poetic conceit suggesting the unity of existence and,
perhaps, the fragility of the ecosystem. Stretching laterally across the
painting is the familiar bridge over the ravine, under which runs the

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stream that flows from the cemetery, the world of the dead. Since
the beginning of the novel, the bridge has represented Elaines life
span, the structure that holds her up above the icy river. The sky and
the bridge thus create space-time coordinates, the field of life and a
symbolic representation of her lifes journey. Floating over the
bridge is the Black Virgin, Elaines self-generated hallucination that
saved her from freezing. The Black Virgin, who in Mexican folklore
restores lost things, levitates over the bridge bearing in her hands an
oversize cats eye marble. In part, she is a figure for memory, proffering the marble of luminous vision, now enlarged to suggest a globe.
The levitating Virgin seems to be the opposite of the dreaded Mrs.
Smeath, and indeed Unified Field Theory is the most hopeful and comprehensive of Elaines paintings, despite its references to fear and
suffering. This painting also exhibits, more fully than any other embedded painting discussed in this study, the imagery of the liminal,
the suspended, and the unfinished.
What Unified Field Theory might imply about Atwoods own art of
the novel is problematic. It suggests the necessity of transforming
those events that are most wounding, to turn them to some account
in works of art. But Atwoods own opinions and feelings are only
hinted at in the novel: the device of a narrator who addresses the
reader in brisk staccato rhythms, usually assuming an ironic stance,
effectively removes the brush strokes that betray the artists hand.
Unified Field Theory also conveys the precariousness of one womans
modern existence as a fragile bridge across the void, unsustained
by institutions or external props. The Black Virgin, detached from
Christianity, is projected from Elaines own heart and mind like a
photographic negative, back-lit against the sky, not only a symbol of
memory but also a dark portrait of the artist.
Cats Eye ends with a stronger sense of closure than some of the
other novels in this study. Elaine forgives Jon and at least partially
lays to rest the ghosts of her parents and her brother, although she
never can rid herself of the haunting voice of Cordelia. She attends
the retrospective in which her life work is brought together and displayed. But the paintings themselves illustrate the aesthetic of the
unfinished found in other novels. They include serial works, prominent depiction of suspended or floating figures, displaced and stylized objects, and fragments of her life presented ambiguously. In
the paintings, old grievances are brought back and made to hang
literally suspended on the walls. And, although the last painting in
the gallery, Unified Field Theory, is tinged with light and hope of deliverance, it also reconstructs an old, cold time of suffering.

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7
Drawn from Life: Jill Paton Walshs
The Serpentine Cave
The nature of the task was to discern the exact position of the
intersection between a physical object and the light, and draw a
line round it.
Jill Paton Walsh, The Serpentine Cave

LIKE MARGARET ATWOOD, BRITISH WRITER JILL PATON WALSH PONDERS


questions about the artists way of seeing, about the interactions of
eye, hand, and light, and about the presence of the artist in her
work. How can these artistic phenomena best be understood and
described? Like Atwood, Paton Walsh also makes use of her main
characters memories to draw a causal connection between stressful
events in childhood and the practice of art. Marian Easton, the
middle-aged protagonist of The Serpentine Cave (1997), searches, like
Elaine Risley, for a pattern in her experiences. The Serpentine Cave
also has in common with Cats Eye and To the Lighthouse the quality of
being a highly organized literary work with reticulated systems of visual imagery. Images of a cave, the sea, a lighthouse, and a lifeboat
serve as clues in Marians search to learn the identity of her father,
the better to understand her own identity. She discovers that the secret of her origins is connected to a lifeboat disaster that occurred
off the Cornish coast in 1939, the year she was conceived. In that
actual historical event, a lifeboat capsized three times in a heavy sea,
drowning all but one of the men aboard. Following the clues, Marian becomes totally preoccupied with solving the mystery of her past,
but at the same time she is, unbeknownst to herself, moving into her
own future as an artist, an occupation that she never imagined for
herself. Marians self-discovery in middle age occurs as a result of
her search for her father and for a better understanding of her
mother, who has just died. Although Marians mother Stella Har174

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naker was a painter, Marian has always desired to lead an ordinary


life and steer clear of the arts. Separated from her husband, who has
gone off to America with a younger woman more willing to cater to
his need to be the center of attention, Marian makes her living as
a dispensing chemist and relies upon her two grown children for
emotional support, never dreaming that she can be drawn away
from her old life into a life of art. Marian is inexorably pulled toward
the rugged seashore of Cornwall, the place where she was conceived,
to be reborn as an artist in the second half of her life.
Although Marians mother always refuses to identify the lover who
fathered her, Marian has a vague memory from early childhood of a
man who rescued her and saved her life when she was trapped by
the tide in the serpentine cave at some unknown seashore. These
mysteries occupy the readers attention as well as Marians, so that
for a long time it is not evident that the real subject of The Serpentine
Cave is the birth of an artist in middle age. The novel ends, and
its true subject becomes clear, when Marian applies her first brushstroke to a canvas on the last page. Paton Walsh implies that the facts
of ones identityones origins, perceptions of the world, and most
deeply held ethical valuesare a part of art. She shares with Virginia
Woolf, Iris Murdoch, and Deirdre Madden, among others, the idea
that art cannot be separated from other aspects of life, existing in a
lofty realm of its own. By the very structure of her novelthe
birth of an artist resulting from her middle-aged search into
things pastPaton Walsh insists upon the relationship of art to
ones deepest self. For Marian, to retrieve the distant past from the
deep layers of time is to reconstruct herself as a freer, more creative
being.
A mystery writer as well as an acclaimed mainstream novelist,
Paton Walsh makes use in The Serpentine Cave of many of the classical
elements of a detective story: suspense, tantalizing clues, surprising
revelations, and recognition scenes. At the opening of the novel,
Marians discovery of her mother lying unconscious from a stroke
on the path to her studio at her home near Cambridge leads to Marians tragic realization that it is too late to establish communication
with her mother and to ask her about the past. Since Stella never
regains the power of speech, Marian, who has not been close to her
mother in her adult life, is left with only unanswered questions. Her
memories of the terrifying events at the cave, somehow linked to her
father, are revived by two paintings of beaches among those left to
her by Stella in her studio, a renovated barn. Clues to Marians past

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are also provided by Leo Vincy [sic], a sculptor and painter who
comes to collect a large sum of money for a sculpture Stella commissioned from him. As Stellas former pupil, Leo is able to identify the
beach paintings as a setting near St. Ives, and he identifies the subject of a portrait as Tommy Tremorvah, Marians putative father, a
man disgraced in St. Ives because he missed the lifeboat the night of
the disaster. Journeying to St. Ives with her son Toby, Marian is suddenly flooded with memories of early childhood. She finds a house
for lease with a grand view of the sea, and immediately she realizes
that she and Stella once lived there for a while. Discovering her
mothers spilled paint still unfaded on the floor of the upstairs studio, Marian rents the house on the spot and almost immediately begins to think of it as her true home. The sudden move to St. Ives is
the first stage of Marians transformation. After revisiting the cave
and investigating the events surrounding the long-ago lifeboat disaster, Marian eventually locates her aging father Tommy, a retired sea
captain, although at first he is reluctant to acknowledge her at all
because of the disgrace of having spent the night with Stella rather
than responding to the rocket signal that led his mates to their watery death. Beyond the literal mystery of her parentage lies the mystery of Marians selfhood, for she does not truly know herself until
after her mothers death and the events at St. Ives. The completion
of Marians search for her father gives closure at the end of the
novel, but the end is also a beginning as Marian discovers a new self
and attacks a blank canvas. Paton Walsh uses this plot as the framework for a novel of psychological depth and richness.
Paton Walsh implies that failure to understand, or even to know,
a parent can seriously retard ones attainment of self-knowledge and
creativity. The novel seemingly centers around Marians quest to locate and identify her father in order to fill a gapor, as she sees it, a
gaping holein her own sense of who she is, her fathers daughter.
There he is, she thinks, running in my bloodstream and in my
childrens bloodstream, and we dont know a thing (48). But in
reality Marians understanding of herself hinges much more dramatically and complexly upon the mystery of her mother. Stellas
death is the crisis that sets the novel in motion, hitting Marian like a
great weight crushing upon her: all the upheaval, the appalling
sight of une femme peintre laid low like a fallen tree, weighed her
down (37). Her mothers death instigates a retrospective examination of Marians own life, especially of the unstable dynamics of her
interactions with her mother in her early years. Marians lifetime of

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exasperating relations with her mother, a story familiar enough in


its general outlines, provides the psychological background for her
belated emergence as a painter in middle age. Because Stellas deepest passions are invested in her art, and because she protects that
investment by erecting impenetrable barriers around herself, thick
walls that say Keep out, Marian grows up with very little understanding of what goes on in her mothers mind. She sees art as a
rival for her mothers attention, a rival against which she has no recourse or weapon except her own determination to express her resentment by constructing herself as her mothers opposite, a
nonartist. Marian comes to realize that the great danger in trying to
define oneself as the opposite of a parent is the distortion of ones
own true nature. In reaction to what she perceives as her mothers
indifference, Marian represses her own creativity, choosing to become a pharmacist, a career that demands scientific exactitude but
that presumably allows for little self-expression. Moreover, because
of Stellas seeming indifference to Marian during much of her childhood, Marian has little understanding of who Stella really is. A better grasp of Stellas inner being might have allowed Marian to carry
out openly the mother-daughter struggle that is natural to girls as
they grow into adulthood. Stellas constant preoccupation with
painting offers Marian nothing to do battle with as an object of resentment except the act of painting itself. It should be noted that
these events are narrated exclusively from Marians point of view.
Stellas art certainly does bring a degree of neglect and disorder into
her daughters life, but later in the novel Marian is afforded a
glimpse of her mothers true love for her, the question of her mothers love having been the one looming uncertainty in her life that
drives all of the others. She also learns that her mother has left her
a much richer legacy than she has imagined.
Marians inner life takes the form of a sort of dialectic. The thesis,
or the given, in her childhood is Stellas art; the antithesis is Marians own definition of herself as she grows up as an anti-Stella, the
daughter who dislikes art. The crisis of Stellas death and subsequent
period of self-examination leads to the hope of a synthesis at the end
of the novel, as Marian takes up art. When Marian is a schoolgirl,
she understandably resents the nomadic life she lives with Stella,
traveling from one city or country to another and, just as Marian has
settled into a new language and school, moving on to find a different set of landscapes for Stella to paint. The messiness of Stellas
painting and her utter lack of interest in the domestic arts offend

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Marians innate sense of order, a trait that appears to be inherited


from her father. Stella occasionally sells a painting, but her lack of
financial responsibility means a hand-to-mouth existence at best.
Marian also hates the sense of isolation and eccentricity that their
life brings about. When she asks Stella, wailing, why she cannot be
like other mothers, Stella replies, You find something to live for . . .
and it takes priority. It must. Painting, for me. Only that (27). Stellas dedication to painting rather than to her home and her daughter irritates Marian to the point that she determines, above all else,
that she wants to be ordinary herselfif not exactly the Angel of the
House at least a woman dedicated to children and family. She thinks
of her mother as une femme peintre, as if somehow the embarrassment
of her career will be more bearable in French than in plain English.
During Marians adolescent years and young adulthood, when
moods and opinions tend to change frequently, the situation becomes more complicated. Marians attitude toward her mother
takes unexpected turns. Pride replaces shame when the students in
Marians art class at school express admiration for Stella and her way
of life. Shame returns when a boyfriend whom Marian brings home
from college expresses pity for Marian because she has to live with
such atrocious paintings. Marian decides that she can tolerate her
mothers art if indeed it is good, but that their life together is intolerable if so much has been sacrificed for mere dabbling, work that
constitutes no more than an obsessive hobby. In assuming that Stellas work has to be either good art or mere dabbling, Marian naively
bases her judgment of her motherand even of herselfon the unreliable criterion of artistic reputation. The ultimate embarrassment
comes on the occasion of Marians wedding, when Stella wanders off
to work on a painting. Although it is typical of adolescents and
young people that they tend to take their cues from others and to
be easily embarrassed in social situations, the young Marian goes so
far as to define herself and her opinions in terms of how Stella appears in the eyes of the world.
The crisis brought about by Stellas death leads Marian suddenly
to realize, almost with a guilty sense of a neglected duty, that she has
failed to shape her own character and to understand her own mind
because she has defined herself entirely in terms of her mother, as
an anti-Stella and anti-artist. Perhaps because she has no father with
whom to triangulate, and to negotiate a sense of identity, Marion
has always seen herself as a photographic negative of her mother.
Stellas death leads to a lengthy self-examination:

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To be the shadow of every light in her mothers life, the light to every
shadow. To be practical, to be tidy, to be dutiful, to be attentive and kind,
to choose a place and live in it, to stay put lifelong, to have no interest
in art, no opinions on anything intellectualit was loving her mother
that had laid these heavy shackles on her, as though she could by being
at the opposite pole in some way pay her mothers unpaid debts, make
up her mothers shortfall, pay her mothers unpaid tribute to convention, to normal conduct, to uncontroversial judgement about how to
live. (51)

Marian suddenly recognizes that she has taken on a false burden,


and further, she has the poignant realization that she has done these
mistaken things out of love for her mother, as though there were
debts to be paid for her mothers eccentric life. Marian then remembers with a jolt that Stella once reminded her that an unexamined
life is not worth living, and that moment sets in motion a long process of self-examination.
A part of the disaster of Stellas short illness before her death is
that her stroke renders her unable to speak. Marian finds her in a
grotesque condition on the path to the studio, the slumped body,
alive and making awful noisesa monologue of groans and garbled
ramblings (10). Stellas wretched state as she lies in the hospital
means that Marian is denied any opportunity for some sort of deathbed sharing of affection or even information. When Stella soon falls
utterly silent, Marian comes to realize that the situation is like a parody of their lives together. Her mother was always silent, at least
about some matters, and now Marian feels her own words to be hemorrhaging into the silence. When she confesses to the mute Stella,
with guilt and horror, that she will have to invade Stellas privacy,
read her papers, and sell her house, Marian invokes the novels principal metaphors of sea and shipwreck: Im so at sea in your life,
Im going to make horrible mistakes (49). It is ironic at this point,
practically at the moment of her mothers death, that Marian imagines herself at sea in Stellas life rather than in her own.
With Stella gone, Marian attempts, with Leos help, to sort out the
pictures in the barn studio that are her legacy and a clue to her identity. Stellas art represents the aesthetic of the unfinished in two ways.
Some of the paintings act as intriguing, almost teasing clues to Marians past and her incomplete knowledge of herself. She has to try to
scrutinize them and supply further information from her own memory in order to know her past. But also, many of the embedded

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paintings themselves appear to be unfinished as a deliberate aesthetic choice. Stella has scrawled For Marian on the back of the
portrait of Tommy Tremorvah, the man who turns out to be Stellas
father. Tommy is portrayed sitting nude on a wooden chair with his
back to a window and facing into a room so that he is both aureoled
and cast in shadow; this is the same position in which Marian will
unconsciously pose herself when she comes to paint her first selfportrait at the end of the novel. The positioning of his hands over
his genitals at the center of the painting actually calls attention to
his sexuality; it is easy to assume that he was Stellas lover. His eyes
are unreadable, watchful, dark, but there are hints of his profession in his rough hands, wiry frame, and the sketched-in stylized
boat in the background: the portrait both conceals and reveals.
Other paintings containing clues to Marians past are a series of
three seascapes depicting the forgotten beaches that Marian wants
to rediscover. Leo helps her identify the setting near St. Ives, and
she is able to connect the paintings to her memory of having been
trapped in the cave of serpentine marble, caught by the tide, and
rescued by a man, presumably her father, who protected her all
night from the cold Atlantic on an islanded rock until they could be
rescued. When Marian arrives at St. Ives and meets her mothers old
friend Violet, Violet shows her photographs that offer additional
clues. A picture of Violet in a flowered dress that Marian remembers
provides her the information that it was Violet who once made love
on the beach with Tommy during the war and thus Violet, not Stella,
who neglected Marian as a toddler and irresponsibly allowed her to
be trapped by the tide. Violet shows Marian another photograph in
which Stella is obviously exhibiting her love for her young daughter.
These images help reconcile Marian to her dead mother. Clues to
the painters inner life were present in Jane Eyres surreal paintings,
Aviss sphinx, and Elaine Risleys mysterious logos and icons. In Marians case, her mothers paintings offer clues to the mystery of her
past, her paternity, and her childhood trauma. Here, ekphrastic passages play an essential role in unfolding the narrative rather than
arresting its flow.
The remainder of Stellas paintings in the studio are mysterious
in other ways. At one end of the barn are quite a few raw-colored,
semiabstract paintings that appear to express rage against the world;
they seem to Marian like acts of existential anger. Although Marian
and Leo agree that these paintings are not sellable, they express a
hidden side of Stella, perhaps her private vision of darkness or a

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godless universe. Although these works are not deemed appropriate


for living room walls, the reader wonders if they might not appeal to
connoisseurs of the avant garde. Their dark anger seems to balance
the brightness of Stellas beach paintings. At the other end of the
barn is a smaller group of paintingsseascapes, boats, and harbor
scenesthat radiate calm and the persistence of memory. These
paintings, the sellable ones, all appear to be half finished. They
are described as cool, with gray lines against a white ground. The
colors are only partly filled in, and many of the formsboats, lighthouses, and so onrun out of the picture plane or are rendered
only with an outline. Several of these embedded paintings are
framed by a window casement, which offers a broken and irregular
frame to a view of part things (71). Paton Walsh leaves it to the
reader to interpret this rich array of works depicting partial or
oblique views of things. Certainly they show Stella to be a modernist,
but beyond that they may suggest Stellas sense of the partial life
that her art forced her to live or perhaps her sense that all views are
partial and all lives unfinished. On some unconscious level Marian
may sense that her mothers life and work remain an unfinished
story that she must pick up and continue on her own. Here, the ekphrastic passages offer an early hint of Marians legacy of a career in
art.
It is ironic that throughout the course of Marians story she is becoming the very thing that she has despised and misunderstood, a
painter. Her progress is rather like a pilgrimage, with stages of discovery along the way, but the journey is in part an unconscious one.
Paton Walsh creates dramatic irony by giving the reader clues to
Marians destiny before Marian herself is aware of it. One such moment occurs when Marian, as a teenager, accompanies her mother
on a painting expedition in the South Downs. Having brought along
an extra easel and sized board, Stella proffers her daughter a paintbrush and a palette, inviting her to try painting for once. Marian
refuses to take the brush in hand, but before she does so she casts
her eyes over the panorama before her:
Marian had looked at the huge prospect, the stilled movement of the
crests and troughs of land, the heat haze just faintly now beginning to
soften outlines, the light silken movement of wind running on the bowing grass under a sky like translucent bright shadows . . . She remembered the hours of labour, the misery, the striving, the painting over, the
abandoned canvases, the subjects tackled again and again which characterized her mothers life. (2930)

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The huge prospect of the scene takes on a symbolic quality for


Marian: she regards the sacrifices of a painters life as too great a
price to pay. Although she does not admit it to herself, she is also
afraid of the enormous challenge. The oxymoronic terms in which
she thinks about the vista as she gazes at it, however, seem to hint
that, despite herself, Marian has an unusually sensitive and artistic
way of perceiving the natural world. She sees the contours of the
land as a stilled movement, which could be a movement in geological time that only appears to be arrested. Or perhaps she is
thinking of the movement of the eye as it passes over the ups and
downs of the still landscape; in that case, it would not be much of a
leap to go from the movements of the eye to the rhythmic movements of a paintbrush. Another oxymoron is present in the translucent bright shadows of the sky. Marian is not looking at the scene
in a conventional way; rather, she perceives the contrary forces that
make this moment in nature unique. She apprehends the inscape of
the natural scene, to use Hopkinss term. Even at the moment when
she refuses to accept the paintbrush, thinking that she and her
mother are cast away helplessly on the flood of the beauty of the
world, Marian reveals to the reader, if not to herself, that she possesses a painterly eye (30). The metaphor of being cast away on a
flood ties the scene to the pervasive boat wreck imagery of the novel,
and it also suggests that Marian herself will be cast away until she
realizes that it is possible for her to tame the flood of beauty by arresting it in art. Paton Walshs choice of words consistently provides
clues to the deeper or broader meaning of the events described.
Marian instinctively looks at the world in an aesthetic way when
she is not preoccupied with other concerns. In these moments she
composes a scene in her mind as if it were a painting. Her eye is not
photographic, but rather artistic. That is, she does not merely frame
a scene in her field of vision but she also thinks in terms of arrested
movement, takes note of contours and colors, observes perspective,
and even performs a process of abstraction whereby some details are
eradicated in order to create a more readable and pleasing composition. This painterly eye evidently does not come from her mothers
direct influence, since Marian as a child continually deflects her eyes
from her mothers work.
When Marian arrives at St. Ives with Toby she walks about the
town and seashore, viewing the scene from different perspectives,
and each of these views reveals her aesthetic sensibility. First she
looks out of her hotel room to the lighthouse:

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There were the headlands, the near one green, the further one lilac.
And the sea that began beneath her a modest green like the glass of a
white wine bottle, deepening to turquoise in the middle distance, had
gathered at the horizon a concentration of bright blue fierce enough
fully to deserve the name ultramarine. (80)

Marians sensitivity to color, her observation of atmospheric perspective, and her use of painterly terms such as middle distance
and ultramarine reveal her painterly way of seeing. Windows
frame the world for her, a first step toward art. Later, when she walks
on the beach and turns her back to the sea, observing the panorama
of the town, the town seems to consist of a geometry of roofscapes
and windows floating above the bay. Her eye automatically analyzes
what it sees and performs the kind of reduction to angles and planes
that a painter would do. She is unconsciously composing a view of
the town rather than simply taking in the scenery. Marian thinks, I
have come too far, referring to her walk on the beach, but in fact
she is well on her way in her journey toward art. Later still she climbs
to a hilltop, the place where she is about to rediscover her home in
St. Ives, and again looks out to sea:
Remembering, dreaming, and experiencing had become fused. She did
not know what she was doing. From here she could see the sea above
and behind the houses round the harbour, and was looking down at and
beyond it all. The vista had the wildness of landscape and the open, dangerous seas as well as the nested safety and friendliness of human habitation. (82)

Although Marian does not know what she is doing, it will eventually
become evident that she has found the perfect place to begin the
vocation that she unconsciously desires, a home with two stories of
triple windows overlooking a grand vista of the sea. Like other fictional women artists, she finds her ideal locus on the margin of the
seashore and the sea, the nexus of civilization and wild nature.
The importance of St. Ives in the novel cannot be exaggerated;
the term setting, with its suggestion of stagecraft, does not apply.
Here, and in her other novels, Paton Walsh evokes a sense of place
and weaves it into the heart of her techniques in a way reminiscent
of the techniques of Virginia Woolf or Eudora Welty. Welty describes
this special sense of place:

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Place in fiction is the named, identified, concrete, exact and exacting,


and therefore credible, gathering spot of all that has been felt, is about
to be experienced, in the novels progress.1

In The Serpentine Cave the gathering place of St. Ives ties together the
past and the present because Marian is seeing everything double,
both as it presently appears and as she saw it as a child. She can even
be said to see everything threefold, since many scenes of the locale
also appear in Stellas paintings. Although the town is not always picturesquein some ways it has gone downhill like other English
coastal resortsSt. Ives represents layers of time and experience in
one place much as Margaret Atwoods Toronto and Deirdre Maddens Donegal do.
At the same time that she develops the story of Marians selfdiscovery, Paton Walsh also shows Marians single adult children, Toby
and Alice, making discoveries of their own in St. Ives which echo
and complement Marians story. Toby, a stockbroker in trouble and
adrift in his life, willingly accompanies his mother to St. Ives in order
to escape from London, where he has been living under the shadow
of suspicion of insider trading. Desperately needing renewal and a
new path to follow in life, Toby, like his mother, receives clues to his
true identity from the ambience of St. Ives and the vista of the seashore and the sea. He discovers a cousin who is a near twin in St.
Ives, along with a whole family of Cornish relatives. Eventually he
will decide to abandon his life in the City and use his money to buy
a boat in order to revive his cousins fishing operation. Like his mysterious grandfather, Toby will become a man of the sea; like Marian,
he will find that St. Ives has given him both his past and his future.
Alices life is even more confused than her brothers, but her artistic temperament links her more deeply to her grandmother Stella
and, eventually, to her mother. A professional violist and member of
a string quartet in London, Alice lives entirely for her music. She is
dismissed from the ensemble by her on-and-off lover Max when she
misses too many rehearsals because of her grandmothers death and
funeral. Moody and disconsolate, Alice spends her days in St. Ives
endlessly practicing; the sound is a groaning and mournful sound,
not simply because Alice has lost both her job and her lover but also
because the viola seldom gets to carry the melody. Alices music is
always partial and dependent on the consort. One night Marian discovers Alice playing in the darkness at the very edge of the cliff
above the sea, risking her life. Although she is invited back to the

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quartet, Alice finally realizes that her affair with Max will go nowhere. Music is what really matters to her, and like her grandmother
Stella she chooses the life of art over love and domesticity, but she
will always be sad because of the choice she has had to make.
Whereas Alices discovery is that she must reaffirm and live with
the commitment she has made to music above all else, Toby learns
that his life must take an entirely new turning. Both of these realizations echo Marians story, which will culminate in a pursuit of art,
but first she must learn to look and to see, to renew her vision, and
this is the process that blossoms when she comes to St. Ives. She begins to learn what serious art is and to establish a sense of her own
tastes and preferences. When she looks at bad art in the shops of St.
Ives, her reaction is emphatic:
Unpaintings. They wouldnt clean your eyeballs, and sharpen up your
view of the world, they would clutter them, with a double whammy of
awfulness. First with a sort of stupid prettification, an intent to show even
this spectacular place in the light of any old beauty spot, and then with
technical incompetence, so that the intended selective realism was
botched and only half achieved. (91)

Marian implies that good art cleanses the vision and clarifies the
world rather than attempting to prettify. It requires intelligence and
technical mastery. As opposed to bad art, the unpaintings, Violet
Garthens engravings and lithographs are merely ordinary in Marians eyes: her street scenes, sea scenes, and moored boats are literal
and unchallenging, restful to have on the wall. Although they reveal
a technical expertise beyond that of the bad art in the shops, they
do not arrest the mind or cleanse the eye. Violets role as an artist is
similar to that of Mr. Paunceforte in To the Lighthouse, to serve as a
foil to the serious artist who labors, sometimes hopelessly, to give
expression to a unique vision. While taking a critical view of Violets
work, Marian chastens herself by thinking that she has no right to
criticize, since she herself possesses neither mastery nor technique;
previously she had shown no particular desire for such talents.
On that same day Marian, while gazing at the harbor, feels a sudden urge to draw the surf with pastels and she begins to speculate
about color, wondering if there exist pieces of chalk bright enough
to capture the silver and the lilac of the branching rivulets of the
tide receding across the sand in the sunlight. Later, returning to
Stellas studio to arrange for the sale of the paintings, Marian res-

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cues Stellas paint box, just as an afterthought, and brings it back to


St. Ives. She discovers inside the box ten thousand pounds that Stella
left to pay for the sculpture she commissioned from Leo for Tommys grave, a bronze showing a small castaway man engulfed by a
huge wave. (Stella mistakenly thought that Tommy had drowned in
the North Sea during World War II.) Rushing to give Leo his money,
Marian stumbles into his life drawing class and, finding it easier to
stay and draw than rudely to make an exit, she begins the final phase
of her journey toward art. Specifically, Marian feels compelled to
draw because of the presence of the nude model in the studio:
It was not that Marian had never seen a naked woman before; it was that
she never hadhow could one have, except alone with a lover?
permission to stare. And that permission, of course, was conditional on
an intention to draw. To have walked off the street to stare, to see a
naked stranger like a sideshow would have been intolerably squalid. And
the woman was posed exactly between Marian and the door. To leave
publicly would have been intolerably insulting. (157)

Humorously rationalizing that the rules of good manners require


her to remain in the studio rather than give offense by walking past
the model and leaving, Marian launches herself into the difficult
task of drawing. Like the young Elaine Risley, she must learn quickly
to be the woman who gazes rather than the one gazed upon; unlike
Elaine, she botches her first drawing, not because she is repelled by
the reality of the flesh of a very real and unremarkable woman, but
because she is dazzled by its mortal beauty. As Marian continues with
the life drawing classes along with other women students, Paton
Walsh uses metaphors of the sea to describe the arduous nature of
the task: they were islanded, each marooned on the difficult shores
of art and she struggled to keep her feet in waves of misplaced
emotion . . . before arriving at something cool and hard: simple attention (18182). Viewing her own portfolio of drawings, Marian
realizes that she has gradually learned to cast a cold eye upon her
subject, to focus entirely on the business of seeing, like Elaine with
her cats eye: Marian had stared with an ice-cold vision. An almost
cruel accuracy of view (180). She can never decide whether the
seeing or the actual rendering is the more difficult task.
Whereas Cats Eye ends with a rich and varied gallery display of
Elaines life work, The Serpentine Cave ends with Marians applying
the first brushstroke to begin her first oil painting. Even so, Marians

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painting, like Elaines, is complex and symbolic. The novels final


scene, in which she attempts the painting, presents a crescendo of
the novels imagery and themes. Marian goes to her second-floor
studio and sets up a heavy full-length mirror facing the three-part
window with its grand view of the bay. She then poses herself with
her back to the window, so that the painting will include the mirrored reflection of the scene below, in a triptych, and a silhouetted
dark version of herself against the bright ground. The painting will
thus be both a bright, mirrored seascape and a dark self-portrait,
appropriate for one who is only beginning to know herself. Modern
writers and painters often do not think of art in the straightforward
way of Hamlets mirror up to nature but rather in terms of some
sort of deflecting or distorting device whereby the artists mirror on
the world gives expression to the artists subjective vision. Elaines
mirrors speak of memory or alternate realities; Marians mirror
tilted so that it provides its own deflected angle on the exterior sceneryreflects a vision of the dark unknown self juxtaposed upon a
quirky and partial view of the St. Ives seashore.The cut-off view echoes her mothers paintings in expressing the aesthetic principle of
the unfinished.
Marians painting will contain a moral as well as a psychological
dimension, since it includes the lighthouse and the lifeboat, which
have come in the course of the novel to symbolize altruism and caritas. The moral dimension of art is reinforced by Marians memory
of a line from Siegfried Sassoon in a poem about a Bach fugue: I
gaze at my life in a mirror, desirous of good . . . (221). Marian repeats the line to herself, internalizing it: For she was desirous of
good; she desired it now more than she feared chaos or failure
(222). The desiring of the good and Marians thought of the task
before her as a steep ascent are reminiscent of Iris Murdochs brand
of Platonism, Murdochs idea of the arts as ideally assisting the souls
journey to the Good, or the Higher Eros, and her admonition that
attentiveness to the presence of the other is required for both the
moral life and the life of art. Marian, who has learned just such attentiveness in her life drawing classes, now attempts something even
more arduous in oils: she wanted to see . . . truth naked, like the
rocks in the tide (221). She thinks of her body as an echoing cave
filled with memories, having made the connection of the flesh with
a cave at the serpentine cave, whose reddish marble horribly reminded her of dead bodies she had seen as a child during the Blitz.
The notion of the body as a cave also gives an underlying hint of

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Platonism in Marians view of the process of painting. For Paton


Walsh, then, art is inextricably tied to experience, memory, and the
moral life, a vehicle for discovering oneself.
Despite the idealism and lofty humanism of Marians view of art,
her actual attempt is tentative and fraught with anxiety. Never has a
fictional woman artist better illustrated the idea of the artist as liminal, Heilbruns betwixt and between. Marian is standing at a window, between the indoors and the outdoors, between the land and
the sea, and also she is standing between the mirror and the light,
cast into shadow so that she could discern herself only dimly (221).
And then she realizes at once that she herself has been the missing
element in her own life: it was neither her fathers absence, nor
her mothers abstraction that had hollowed out that cavernous
voidit was she herself who had gone missing (221). Marian applies a single vertical line on the canvas, and the novel ends with the
sentence And if she could bring her picture to any sort of completion, this first mark would represent a vision of the distant lighthouse (222).
The echo of To the Lighthouse is obvious: Marian Easton makes her
first brushstroke, as Lily Briscoe makes her last brushstroke, on the
final page of the novel. And both novels end with a sentence emphasizing the primacy of the artists vision. This unmistakable allusion is more than a casual tribute to Woolf as author of the premier
woman artists novel of the twentieth century. Paton Walsh imaginatively weaves in elements of Woolf s life and work, even more than
Madden does, so that the spirit of Woolf is present on nearly every
page of The Serpentine Cave. Although some of the allusions to Woolf
are obvious, such as Marians brushstroke and a trip to the lighthouse as a recurrent motif, others are subtle and encoded. The references to To the Lighthouse enlarge the compass of The Serpentine
Cave, adding to its range of meaning. In particular, the intertextuality enriches Paton Walshs theme of the gradual gestation and
birth of a visual artist by allowing her to embrace several Woolfian
ideas. One idea shared with Woolf is that small sensations, especially
those embedded in memories of earliest childhood, are the building
blocks of an artists sensibility. Another is the idea that the artist
must achieve a double vision, grounded in both imagination and reality, symbolized in both novels by the lighthouse as an object of perception and desire. A third Woolfian idea is that the mature artist
must work in full awareness of time passing, ephemerality, and loss,
which is symbolized in both novels by a journey to the lighthouse

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with an aging father. Finally, Paton Walsh arrives at a mutual understanding with Woolf that the purpose of art is, above all, a cleansing
of the eye and mind, and in this purpose visual art and the art of
fiction are conjoined. Unlike Michael Cunningham, who deeply explores Woolf s sensibility and extends her world forward in time in
The Hours, Paton Walsh does not try to become Woolf; she does
not write in stream of consciousness nor attempt to record the
atoms as they fall upon the mind. Rather, she offers variations on
themes by Woolf, and she appears to draw upon her as a kind of
power source as so many creative women have done since Woolf exhorted them in A Room of Ones Own to pay heed to the growing
power of their creativity: Women have sat indoors all these millions
of years, so that by this time the very walls are permeated by their
creative force, which has, indeed, so overcharged the capacity of
bricks and mortar that it must needs harness itself to pens and
brushes.2 In Paton Walshs novel the dialogue of the writer with the
painter is enriched by this secondary dialogue with Virginia Woolf
and her character Lily, a dialogue that indirectly alludes to the pent
up force of womens creativity.
In The Serpentine Cave the encoded references to Woolf s life are
subtle. It dawns upon the reader at some point that Paton Walsh
has named several of her main characters after people whom Woolf
particularly lovedStella, Violet, Leonard, and Tobyand while
these characters bear no particular resemblance to the real-life
counterparts, this naming has the effect of making them seem more
familiar. More deeply encrypted are the references to Woolf s early
memories as she describes them in A Sketch of the Past. One of
Marians early memories, vague but persistent, is that of a woman in
a dress printed with bright blotchy flowers who carries her down
a cliff face at St. Ives. Although this turns out to be a false memory
of her mother (it was Violet who wore the pansy-flowered dress that
day at the serpentine cave) it nonetheless echoes Virginia Woolf s
very first memory, that of her mothers flowered dress as she sat on
her mothers lap on the train to Talland House in St. Ives, the setting
that gets transported to the Hebrides in To the Lighthouse. This echo
might seem coincidental, and in any case trivial, were it not followed
by another incident in which Marian, rediscovering one of her
mothers paintings of the seashore at St. Ives, begins vividly to reexperience auditory sensations from early childhood:
She knew that behind her was homethe windows and doors standing
wide, and the blind billowing stiffly in the breeze, like a salt-encrusted

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sail. She could hear the tapping of the little acorn-shaped head on the
dangling drawcord on the blind, as it flew in and out across the sill. The
knowledge filled her with joy . . .

Although Paton Walsh may have imbued Marian with a memory of


her own, since the authors grandmother had a home at St. Ives, the
memory is also, unmistakably, an echo of Woolf, with the little
acorn, the wind, and the blind as connecting links. Woolf s memory
from childhood is of hearing the blind draw its little acorn across
the floor as the wind blew the blind out and this moment provides
her with the purest ecstasy I can conceive.3 These events and the
intertextuality that occurs cannot be viewed as trivial or slight, since
Woolf theorizes that her entire sensibility, her essential self, grows
from these earliest moments of being; they are foundational
memories. This reaching into earliest memories is for both writers
an attempt to know the world without words, not unlike venturing
into the silent kingdom of art. Moreover, these small sensations such
as the wind in the blind and the acorn tapping have serious aesthetic
significance: Woolf and Paton Walsh are profoundly aware that little
sensations reflected through the eye of memory are the building
blocks of larger artistic visions and constructs. These allusions to
Woolf thus help to shape and intensify one of the aesthetic implications of Paton Walshs novel, the idea she shares with Woolf that art
finds its source in the simplest and earliest of sensations. That these
sensations can impart the purest joy, or ecstasy, shows both writers
deep appreciation for the world of sensation, Woolf s luminous
halo of consciousness, and their desire to give that joy back to the
world through their art.
With the many echoes of To the Lighthouse, Paton Walsh offers the
reader moments that, because they have a history in the earlier text,
cause the reader to pause and to ponder. The most obvious of these
involve the lighthouse. When Marian expresses a desire one day to
go to the lighthouse, her son Toby takes on the role of Mr. Ramsay:
Id like to go there, Marian said softly.
Where? asked Alice.
To the lighthouse. To land there.
Oh, I asked about that, the other day, said Toby, looking up from
his book. No such trip. They gave me two reasons. No demand, and
dangerous water. . . . Thats a half-tide reef; thats what the lighthouse
warns of. So it probably is dangerous.
I expect altruism usually is, said Marian. (100)

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For Marian as for the six-year-old James Ramsay, the lighthouse becomes the focal point of an ardent desire for adventure and discovery, a desire that is squelched by the voice of practicality. The
lighthouse steadfastly stands as a symbol of altruism in Paton Walshs
novel, whereas the symbolism of the lighthouse is far more complex
in Woolf, connected as it is with the luminous halo of consciousness and with the deep hidden radiance of Mrs. Ramsays innermost
being, the sweeping light that brings her moments of ecstasy.
When sixteen-year-old James Ramsay approaches the lighthouse
in the boat with his father, he comes to see the lighthouse in two
opposite ways: through the eye of memory and imagination and
through the eye of realism. Marians views of the lighthouse are so
similar that, again, the interweaving of the two texts cannot be ignored. When Marian first arrives in St. Ives she finds herself looking past the harbour quay, and out over bright blue water to the
lighthouse, both suddenly seen and suddenly remembered, mistily
white in a hazy morning distance (80). Mistily is the word that
ties Marians perception to Woolf s text: when James Ramsay approaches close to the lighthouse in the boat with his father, he remembers the way it had appeared across the harbor long ago when
his mother was alive: a silvery, misty-looking tower with a yellow
eye.4 In both instances, the lighthouse invokes memories from
childhood and a world of imagination; its mistiness imbues it with
dreaminess and desirability. In Marians case, the lighthouse is associated with sexual desire and her need for a life of deeper and more
satisfying sensations. Although she scoffs, Oh rubbish, son, when
Toby suggests that she loves lighthouses because they are phallicas
Woolf, too, invites such an interpretation with one hand while seeming to dismiss it with the otherMarian thinks about the sounds of
the surf in explicitly sexual similes (97). The sounds that invite her
to open the curtain and view the lighthouse are the clamorous
shouted whispers, sighing and slushing with a rhythm of thrusting
and withdrawing like sexual play . . . each soft climax an audible
ejaculation half a mile wide (80). Her bemused but seemingly prodigious sexual longing is thus projected upon the sea and the lighthouse and dispersed throughout the scene before her, imbuing it
with desire, and finding within it an irresistible ecstasy that will be a
powerful drawing point for the artist she is to become.
As Marian draws nearer to meeting her father, who lives nearby,
she finds the lighthouse imposing but devoid of allure when viewed
more closely:

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Godrevy lighthouse, standing up stark and near, stripped of the charms


of distance. The white tower was octagonal, the round garden at its foot
was dark green with clumps of gorse, it stood grimly admonitory on a
rough pyramid of black jagged rock fretted over by breaking water.
(165)

Stark is the linking word that ties Marians view to James Ramsays:
He could see the white-washed rocks; the tower, stark and straight; he
could see that it was barred with black and white; he could see windows
in it; he could even see washing spread on the rocks to dry. So that was
the Lighthouse, was it?5

Jamess close-up vision of the lighthouse is linked to his fathers


stern fatalism and unrelenting insistence upon literal truth; Marians close-up view of the lighthouse is soon to be linked to her
fathers cynicism and lonely sense of exile, brought about by a single
act of cowardice. James immediately recognizes, however, that both
lighthouses are equally valid, the grimly true one associated with his
fathers way of seeing, and the soft, imaginative one associated with
childhood and his dead mother. Both Marian and James have this
ability to see doubly, indicating that they both possess a balanced
sensibility.
The fathers also provide connections between the two novels.
Like Cam and James, Marian is finally taken to the lighthouse by her
aging father, in this case on foot as they cross the exposed reef at
low tide. Her father Tommy looks back across the bay to the town of
St. Ives, from which he is forever self-exiled, pointing out the various
features of the place. Having arrived at the lighthouse, Mr. Ramsay
also looks back toward the island, which now is almost totally indistinct in the distance, and although his children cannot tell what he
might be thinking, he appears to be looking to the past and assessing his losses. One further intertextual link is the image of a castaway
as a memento mori and a reminder of human solitariness in each of
the novels. Mr. Ramsay recites over and over the line We perished,
each alone from William Cowpers tragic poem The Castaway.
In The Serpentine Cave the castaway appears as a work of art, Leos
large bronze sculpture of a wave bearing a small figure of a man
overwhelmed by the sea, a piece commissioned for Tommys grave.
An additional link occurs when the reader remembers the final lines
of Cowpers poem, which Mr. Ramsay also recites: But I beneath a
rougher sea, / And whelmed in deeper gulfs than he. In Cowpers

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poem, the survivor, who looks on helplessly as his shipmate is drawn


away from the ship and under the sea, suffers a worse fate than the
drowned man in that he must live engulfed in the memory of that
horror. The line applies more precisely to Paton Walshs novel than
to Woolf s. True, Mr. Ramsay has to live on after the overwhelming
disaster of his wifes death, but Tommy Tremorvah has to live with
the knowledge that another man literally drowned in his place in
the lifeboat disaster.
The reworking of these details in an encoded way causes the
reader to undergo an act of remembering, of fetching up from
memory a prior reading, and thus the reader experiences something like Marians sense of doubleness when she feels the presence
of the past and present at once in St. Ives. Even the house where
Marian begins to paint resembles Talland House, the setting of
Woolf s childhood memories at St. Ives. Paton Walshs intertextual
references invite the reader to revisit Woolf s expanding symbols of
the house, the lighthouse, the journey, and the sea in a new context.
As. T. S. Eliot asserted, a new literary work can alter literary tradition
by adding to it, and by means of that alteration the present can influence the past as well as vice versa. The art dealer who assesses
Stellas work for Marian wisely says that there is a tendency to call
artists derivative when they influence each other, and yet the influences can produce wonderful things. Cross-fertilization would be a
better word, I think (147). Paton Walshs borrowing from Woolf s
creative fertility enriches her novel.
Paton Walsh implicitly agrees with Woolf s idea that the process
of art is a comprehensive one, involving intellect, fine technique,
deep emotions, and the distillation of ones prior life. And she
shares Woolf s desire to capture the brevity and the beauty of the
present moment. In Paton Walshs novella Unleaving (1976), the
companion volume to Goldengrove (1972), a grandmother watches
her grandchildren spontaneously dancing naked in the rain at a
beach house in St. Ives:
And in her mind the rain is an element of eternity, showing in its brilliant light-catching instant of fall the eternal aspect of the momentary
now. Just let it catch the light in such a way, and the whole world shows
this double aspect, an immortal brevity, an infinite particularity.6

Paton Walshs allusions to Spring and Fall: to a young child in her


titles emphasize the brevity of innocent youth and the subsequent

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long, sad knowledge of human mortality. Like Woolf, she is moved


and inspired by the sadness of time passing, and she incorporates
that awareness into her aesthetics. She expresses her aesthetic idea
in oxymoronic terms: she seeks to arrest and capture that which is
infinitely particular, like Hopkinss inscapes, the exact nature of the
mortal moment in its immortal brevity. Both Paton Walsh the novelist and her painter-protagonist believe that, like the rain, a work of
art should have a cleansing effect upon the eyes, upon the vision,
revealing the radiance of the world. The reader is reminded of Virginia Woolf describing how it is that reading great books affects her:
one sees more intensely afterwards; the world seems bared of its
covering and given an intenser life.7

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8
Space, Time, and a Muse:
Mary Gordons Spending
Certainly I believed that if a woman painter was going to be serious, not an embarrassment, not a painter of chocolate box or
calendar art or her own menstrual or menopausal nightmares,
she had to be distant. That, because she was a woman, she had
to work extra hard to prevent the hot fluid of desire from steaming up her glasses.
Mary Gordon, Spending

MONICA SZABO, THE FIFTY-YEAR-OLD PAINTER IN MARY GORDONS SPENDing, is in fact totally unable to assume an objective stance for long or
to prevent herself from steaming up in the presence of her male
model, patron, and lover, known as B. The question of aesthetic
distance takes a comic turn in this novel, along with other issues
faced by women artists. Through the narrator Monica, Gordon assumes a breezy, ironic approach to recurring aesthetic problems
such as how to manifest ones vision, achieve clarity, and attain a
distinctive style. She humorously dramatizes familiar problems of
the woman artist such as the struggle to find her place within the
mainstream of art, the difficulty of attaining recognition, and, above
all, the need to claim a space in which to paint. In A Room of Ones
Own Virginia Woolf asks what conditions are necessary in order to
be a writer, and she answers: a room, a quiet place, and an adequate
supply of the material necessities of life. Spending offers a scenario
of what could happen, hypothetically, if an artist were provided
these things in great abundance. Freed by the fanciful premise of
her novel from the strictures of social realism, though not from
those of internal plausibility, Gordon creates a comic portrait of an
artist who is allowed to indulge in the many and various gratifications of wish fulfillment.
195

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While giving a slide lecture on her work in Provincetown, Monica


Szabo raises what she supposes to be a rhetorical question:
Where, I ask you, lovers of the arts, where are the male Muses?
And he stood up, just there, in front of everyone, and said, Right
here. (16)

The stranger, B, a wealthy commodities trader who has been collecting Monicas paintings, takes her out for an evening of dining, dancing, and lovemaking, followed by an offer to become her patron,
supplying her with all of the space and money she needs, including
a salary so that she can quit her teaching job. He invites her to paint
on the deck of his modern glass house by the ocean, and he finds
her an apartment in Manhattan with excellent light and a view of
the river. He tells her that this largess is an experiment to see what
she can achieve given more than adequate space and time. Soon this
ideal patron becomes her model as well.
Gordon interweaves issues of gender, desire, and art in unprecedented ways. The title of Spending is a pun on sex and money: not
only is B willing to spend great amounts of cash on Monica and her
work but also she soon begins a series of paintings to be called Spent
Men, in which contemporary figures of post-orgasmic men are presented in the postures of various deposed Christs in paintings by Italian Renaissance artists. Commenting on a figure of Christ by
Carpaccio in the Metropolitan Museum, Monica remarks, he
doesnt look dead. Hes just had it for now (58). She adds that
Northern European Christs, unlike those of Italy, always appear convincingly dead to her. To paint the spent men in the pose of Christ
figures is more an act of profanation than of blasphemy; as a witty
but serious contemporary painter, Monica reduces the sacred to the
worldly. Moreover, although she was raised as a good Catholic girl
with medals to prove her devotion, her painterly eye trumps all else,
including the possibility of blasphemy. Her profession demands
that, like Robert Brownings Fra Lippo Lippi, she must always see
and paint flesh as flesh, even if it may be the body of God.
The novels subtitle, A Utopian Divertimento, is playfully misleading,
for Monicas utopian dream of having the perfect male muse lasts
less than twenty-four hours, only until the moment when she begins
to think of herself as a whore. This moral ambivalence continues to
trouble her through much of the novel, for although Monica inhabits a comical world, she is deeply serious about the moral and aes-

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thetic issues facing her. The idea of a divertimento, a light, festive


composition containing marches, dances, allegros, and such, is also
misleading in that it suggests a looseness contrary to the actual structure of the novel. Gordons novel is a traditional sort of comedy designed along age-old comedic lines. In accordance with classic
definitions of comedy, Spending is mirthful and it has a happy ending. Reminding the reader of the Commedia, Gordon makes use of
the number three with an almost Dantean obsession befitting the
grounding in Christian art that underlies Monicas, and Gordons,
contemporary work. Three major crises occur in three years in the
three parts of the novel, each ushering in a reversal of fortune. The
crisis of the first section is the appearance of the male muse with
proffers of money. The crisis of the second section is that B loses his
entire fortune in unlucky commodity trading even as Monica
achieves critical success and public acclaim. In the third section a
new patron, Peggy Riordan, magically appears, commissions a painting, and gives Monica two million dollars, which Monica in turn invests in Bs business, allowing him to recover his fortune. Meanwhile,
Monica completes a series of nine paintings of spent men, the last
of which is a triptych. The three years of her love affair are celebrated with a communal feast at the conclusion, a traditional ending
for a festive comedy in which holiday, license, and luxury are the
norm.
The comic mode, writes Robert Polhemus, is historically, psychologically, and metaphorically grounded in the physical experiences of laughter, sex, and eating, all of which are regenerative.1 In
keeping with the comic spirit, Spending includes scenes of sexual excess, descriptions of gourmet meals, and violation of taboos bordering on blasphemy. Although Monica is entirely serious about her art,
Gordons comedy grants the reader license to laugh at the serious
problems that plague the artist. Monicas first-person narrative, irreverent and confessional, establishes the comic tone. She addresses
the reader conversationally, providing shocking and intimate details
of her many nights and afternoons in bed with B. Flesh triumphs
over spirit, and laughter dispels pretension, ill-spirits, and taboos. In
the later parts of the novel when Monica exhibits her controversial
work in a New York gallery, satire deflates the forces of repression
and censorship. Comedy therefore serves the cause of freedom of
expression for both the fictional painter and the novelist. An honest,
wry, free-spirited narrator, Monica becomes an unpretentious
spokesperson for creative women.

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Monica announces on the first page that the three subjects of her
story are money, sex, and art, a heady triad that causes most of the
tensions in the novel. Mary Gordon invites the reader to ponder
their interrelations. By combining money and sex, Bs patronage
causes Monica to worry about compromising herself in a way that,
she realizes, only a woman would have cause to regret. On the other
hand, money, art, and sex all provide spectacular gratifications that
would seem to dispel these misgivings. Bs money affords her luxuries and travel; Monicas art eventually brings her fame and copious
cash of her own; and her affair with B gives pleasure. Not only does
Monicas Catholic upbringing make her chronically mistrustful of
such excesses, but also the mingling of money and art, though necessary to her career, makes her queasy:
When I thought about money, I could see my brain turn from a healthy
white, a cauliflower, something steady and stable, to a writhing mess of
eels, blood red, or the color of intestines, the color of disease. Poussin
to Francis Bacon, in one quick leap. (238)

Perhaps it is because so few women artists have attained wealth


through their art that Monica, much as she wants to sell her work,
experiences discomfort when contemplating the idea of money in
connection with her artistic vision. She wants her vision to remain
earnest and uncompromised despite her quirky subject matter.
Although the tension between art and money makes Monica uneasy, Eros turns out to be surprisingly compatible with her art, perhaps because they both can aim, in different ways, at ecstasy and
celebration of the body. Unlike earlier novels in which the painters
marriage or other involvement with men was directly at odds with
her career as an artist, Spending proposes a more positive, if complicated, relation between sex and art. Although Monica neglects her
lover and everything else when she is in the throes of her work, she
always returns to him and his lovemaking as an acknowledged
source of inspiration and renewal, a confirmation not only of her
desirability but also of her vitality. Monicas nights with B are voluptuous, involving baths, showers, fine soaps, wine, and melons; she
draws a connection between erotic love and the act of painting,
which she also sees as voluptuous. As male artists have done in the
past, Monica lays claim to a connection between aesthetic expression and the libido, in that desire animates and enlivens, in both life
and art. There is no incompatibility between Monicas art and their

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affair because Monica has no intention of marrying B. Divorced,


with twin daughters finishing college, Monica has no use for a husband; her last one was useless. B makes few demands upon her; their
affair is designed from the beginning to suit her needs, and for most
of the novel it is a matter of sex and mutual enjoyment. The word
love is not mentioned until the final scene of the novel, at Monicas party, when B. surprises her with a toast to the love that has
gradually grown between them. In that scene she also reveals to the
reader his true name, Bernie. In the course of the novel Bernie gradually emerges as a real person rather than a figure of fantasy: he
injures his back and suffers pathetically for days, and he falls into
despair after losing a fortune on the market. By gradually revealing
Bernie as a three-dimensional character, Gordon implies that such
generous men as Monicas muse actually can exist in the real world
and that art and lasting love are compatible, if only under special
circumstances.
The descriptions of sexual acts throughout the novel amusingly
counterpoint the descriptions of painting and passages of ekphrasis;
the reader is invited to compare and contrast the two kinds of activity as well as the limitations of language in describing them. The sexual acts seem wholesomely lascivious; they are described in explicit
detail but without kinks, winks, or nudges to the reader. Just as censoriousness is deplored in the world of art, guilt is ruled out in the
sexual affair, since Monica and B are consenting adults. But the pleasures of the text in the erotic passages are different from the pleasures of the text in the ekphrastic passages in that the former are
kinetic and the latter static. That is, as Stephen Dedalus proposes in
A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man, contemplation of an aesthetic
object produces in the onlooker a fine stasis, whereas contemplation
of the pornographic produces a kinetic effect. The erotic passages
in this novel add to the comedy because tales of the flesh are, for
the most part, comic, just as tales of the spirit tend to be tragic or at
least serious. More specifically, the erotic writing is funny because of
the inadequacy of language to capture the somatic feelings of lovemaking; it is seemingly easier to describe a work of art than an erotic
act.
As Monica relives in memory her first night of lovemaking with B,
she humorously struggles with language to recapture the event. She
begins with visual descriptionsthe white tiles of Bs elegant bathroom, the admirable triangle of his backbut the visual naturally
gives way to accelerating tactile sensations that are much more diffi-

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cult to capture in language. Monica haplessly reaches for descriptive


words (thrum) and hackneyed allusions (The Song of Solomon).
Such erotic writing is comical, or tends to be, because it is doomed
to repetition. In the sexual act, repetition leads to a climax, but in
language it leads to anticlimax, or at least an inadequate representation of the event. Monicas narration circles round and repeats with
increasing pace, and then orgasm is represented by a full stop:
Then suddenly youre there (31). The orgasmic event has no adequate verbal equivalent. The reader has to laugh at the full stop, that
pitiful period. Bliss is its own silent kingdom, unlike the silent kingdom of art, and any connection between pleasure of the flesh and
pleasure of the text has to be metaphoric, a leap from one category
of experience to another.
Later, after the lovemaking has gone on and on, Monica, intolerably overheated, runs to the kitchen and pours a pitcher of ice water
over her head, the lemon slices clinging to her hair. It is a part of
the comic scheme of the novel that Monica and her lover are never
spent for long; whatever reversals of fortune they experience, their
ardor always returns. The regenerative and comic nature of the insistent presence of the erotic in the novel contrasts to the condition of
the spent men in Monicas paintings. Although the spent men as
figures depicted in art exist in a perpetual stasis of detumescence,
their little death suggests the possibility of resurrection. This profanation of a spiritual concept seems consistent with the worldliness
and material pleasures of the lovers life together. Gordons novel is,
in part, about luxury. Monica, touched by the lingering lessons of
her Catholic upbringing, worries about the excesses of their life together: the expensive lingerie, a trip to Milan to look at one painting, a weekend in Rome on a whim. And yet Gordon hints that
pleasures of the flesh and ecstatic sensations can be building blocks
in the process of attaining an artistic vision.
The extravagant array of food that Monica serves to all of the characters in the final party scene in the novel expresses an appreciation
of community and the good life, as in traditional festive comedy.
Monica is celebrating that I was a painter who had done the thing
she meant to do, but also I was creating a celebration in praise of
prosperity (296, 294). Monica thinks of the lavish foods she sets out
as a landscape she is creating. Her panicked doubts as the dinner
party begins: I thought to myself what I always think at such moments: why have I done this, no one likes parties, no one needs
them. (298) are reminiscent of Mrs. Ramsays doubts at the begin-

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ning of the dinner party in To the Lighthouse : There was no beauty


anywhere. . . . Nothing seemed to have merged. . . . And the whole
of the effort of merging and flowing and creating rested on her.2
Monica resembles both Mrs. Ramsay and Lily Briscoe in that she can
paint and also organize a successful party, and Gordon implies, as
Woolf does, that womens mastery of domestic life can itself be
noble and artistic. The elements of fantasy and wish fulfillment in
Spending allow Gordon to provide a hopeful, definitive conclusion to
the novel without making the ending seem pat. The festive celebration is an appropriate culmination of the comic pattern of the novel.
Gordons novel as a whole implies that art is best nourished when it
is grounded in a life of hearty enjoyment of the worlds sensuous
pleasures. Moreover, comedy is not at odds with the serious task of
the artist portrayed in the novel, since comedy celebrates the same
categories of things that art makes notable: the plenitude, fruitfulness, and fleshiness of things. Robert Polhemus writes that growing
out of a transitory pleasure, comedy does not disparage or devalue
the passing joys and victories of the world.3
Within the comic context, Gordon describes the process of Monicas art as arduous and mysterious, to be captured only by means of
metaphor. The events of the novel parallel those of Atwoods Cats
Eye: Monica completes a series of paintings and has a successful
show, yet, like Elaine Risley, she is misunderstood by interviewers
and picketed by would-be censors. In its descriptions of the creative
process, however, Spending is closer to To the Lighthouse, especially in
its metaphors of swimming, digging, and other forms of strenuous
activity. As Lily Briscoe feels herself being haled away or entering
into a domed space, Monica also feels herself drawn across the
threshold into an entirely different, nonlinguistic world when she
begins to paint: You enter a universe entirely absorptive, or centrifugal, pulling everything it needs into itself. Im not saying this right
because words dont serve; this isnt about language (152). Monica
feels terror when she starts putting the first marks on the canvas,
even when she is working on the cartoon of a big painting which
could easily be changed; it is the commitment to the work which
frightens her:
I was at the terrifying point of putting the first marks down, the marks
that I knew werent final, werent irrevocable, but which implied so
much. It was like diving into a very cold lake; you could get out, you
didnt have to stay there until your blood froze or your heart stopped

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beating. On the other hand, it might be exhilarating. You had to dive in


to find out. You had to make those first marks. (152)

Monicas words echo Lily Briscoe:


Where to begin?that was the question at what point to make the first
mark? One line placed on the canvas committed her to innumerable
risks, to frequent and irrevocable decisions.4

The verbal echoes, first mark and irrevocable, suggest that Gordon had Woolf in mind when writing this passage. Lily, a landscape
painter and presumably a modernist, and Monica, a postmodernist
who devises ambiguous figure paintings, share exactly the same trepidations when it comes to the business of getting started on their
work. Making a mark on the canvas means laying a claim to the
space it represents and asserting ones right to do so. The metaphors
of swimming and diving employed by both authors also emphasize
the risks that the artist takes.
In the very early stages of her work on Spent Men, Monica spends
hours at the Metropolitan Museum arduously copying triangles
from a painting of Christ by Carpaccio. In contrast to the idea of
art as a difficult upward ascent, as represented in the novels of Iris
Murdoch and Jill Paton Walsh, Monica thinks of this kind of work as
a descent down into the cellar of her imagination to get at the genuine item, the ding an sich:
When I work the way Id been working at the museum, I feel like Ive
been in a filthy cellar with little puddles where God knows what might
be breeding, hidey holes thick in sooty dust. I have to go rooting in; I
have to come on all kinds of things. Bottles half filled with unrecognizable liquids, potatoes going soft, the carcass of a bird or rodent, then at
the bottom, I see the thing I was looking for. The thing itself. (61)

Monica adds that although the process makes her feel dirty, she also
feels incandescent. Amusingly hyperbolic, Monicas catalog of
rotten and distasteful items provides a psychologically accurate metaphor for the creative process. She is describing a feeling of disgust,
after exhausting and repetitive labor, at all the failed attempts, but
also a feeling of triumph like a bodily illumination when she discovers the thing she seeks, the genuine item. To go rooting in is
to delve into the creative self, for even the humble act of copying
triangles requires imagination. It is also a search for the roots of

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things, that is, their most elemental and rudimentary components.


The reduction of Christs image to a body and of the body to a series
of triangles is a natural and necessary process for the painter; as Lily
Briscoe explained to Mr. Bankes, a subject as sacred as a mother and
child may be represented by a triangle. As a fundamental building
block of traditional painting, the triangle carries its own symbolism
in religious art and in Gordons novel, with its many playful uses of
the number three.
Monica obsessively draws the triangles over and over because her
style relies heavily upon careful drawing and perfection of the line.
She remarks that her lines are clear and definite because using line
to describe the world was my first love (111). Even as a child Monica preferred to draw trees in the winter rather than the summer
because of the greater visibility of the lines of their branches. Lines
are like a language that speaks for her, a language that describes the
individuality and uniqueness of each observed thing, its inscape:
I like my line to make a kind of clear sentence. So that, for instance, if
Im painting a tulip, instead of saying, Beautiful tulip, its saying
Apricot parrot that budded three days ago and is now half open with
the light hitting it at two oclock on an April afternoon. I like that complete clarity. Clarity, not precision. Precision implies painstakingness,
but thats not what I mean. (111)

This passage reveals and exemplifies Monicas aesthetic goals.


Through Monicas description, the hypothetical painting of the
tulip takes on a clarity of its own in the readers imagination. Monicas careful attention to lines leads to clarity of expression, and the
imagined painting comes to possess a kind of radiance, or claritas.
To achieve this refined, heightened, and luminous effect in whatever object she paints, the artist must hold herself to a pleasurable
but strict discipline of looking at the world, in effect drinking it in
and allowing it to permeate her.
Drawing the perfect line is a skill that depends upon repeated
practice, but Monicas sense of color derives from her intuitive assimilation of color from the world of nature. Like Claire in Nothing
is Black and Marian in The Serpentine Cave, each on their separate
shores, Monica stands on Bs deck on the shore of the Atlantic taking in its sublime prospect; her position is liminal. In a process resembling meditation, she tries to empty out her mind of everything
but the color of the ocean: Sometimes it actually happened; lan-

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guage stopped and I would lose myself in pure color, pure expanse.
The silence itself took on color . . . (127). Like Marian Easton,
Monica trains herself in the art of looking. She is afraid of not looking at the world enough, afraid of not paying sufficient homage to
the things of the world and of allowing her attention to falter so that
she would fail to learn all that she should by looking. She is also
afraid of looking too much, of allowing herself to be so totally absorbed in the visual experience that she might lose consciousness of
everything else and neglect her art. If line is like a language that can
be spoken, color is a mysterious and silent kingdom to be entered.
While making marks on the canvasdrawing lines and sketching
in the compositionis a matter of some trepidation and anxiety,
applying color is for Monica more primitive and more playful:
When I give myself over to color, Im back in a time before words, a time
of childish delight. Who understands green better than a baby crawling
through grass, surrounded by green grass but without the words for either green or grass. When Im working with color, I become that child
without words. Everything is more alive; everything seems saturated with
and by color, and Im saturated. (133)

Like Virginia Woolf, Mary Gordon understands that color is the aspect of art most remote from language, that the word green cannot
invoke anything akin to the primitive, unmediated experience of the
color itself. Color enlivens the world and the onlooker. When Monica is working with paint she is most fully carried away into a silent
world of color that her narrative cannot truly describe; color saturates her imagination. Whereas the drawn line is amenable to metaphoric description in terms of the sentence, visual and literary
experiences become alien to one another when it comes to color.
Color separates the artist from the novelist. Monica adds that she
understands Rothko and is drawn to his work, although she could
never be an abstract expressionist herself because she is too interested in drawing figures and in the relation between subject and
form.
For Monica, as for Claire in Nothing is Black, Vermeer is the consummate artists artist who inspires her to discover what she wishes
to achieve in her own art. Through the influence of B, Monica is
invited to a private viewing of the 1996 Vermeer exhibit, and she
comes away feeling, not that she wants to imitate Vermeers techniqueshis use of perspective or his opalescences, for example

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but that she can learn from him about the representation of space
and about the presence or absence of the painter in the painting.
The uncluttered quality of Vermeers rooms appeals to her, along
with his representation of emptiness as volume. But what she especially derives from Vermeer is a desire to create paintings that somehow, seemingly magically, provide a space for the onlooker in which
to view the work, as if the artists hand, once having completed the
many gestures of the painting, were withdrawn forever without a
trace:
What I wanted was more an example of something I would have to call
moral; that sense of his getting out of the way of his own vision, of not
coming between the spectator and what the spectator wanted to see, the
graciousness of a withdrawal so complete that there was space between
the viewer and the image that made room for the whole world. I was
thinking about how to bring silence into my paintings. (162)

Thus, Monica describes two kinds of silence, the silence of color and
Vermeers achievement of silence. Vermeers silence sounds like a
visual equivalent of Keatss negative capability, a self-imposed absenting of the artist in deference to the subject. That Monica sees
this lesson learned from Vermeer as a kind of moral knowledge and
the artists act of withdrawal as a moral gesture implies that she
means essentially the same thing as Iris Murdoch does when she
speaks of the artists moral obligation to honor the presence of the
subject. Vermeer honors his subjects most fully by representing
them in works that seem untainted by the artists ego. Although
Monica shares Elaine Risleys desire for clarity, her aesthetic goals
are different from those in Cats Eye. Unlike Elaine, she wants her
paintings to be complete in the sense that the artists hand, eye, or
reflection cannot be detected in the work. In this sense her paintings do not represent the aesthetic of the unfinished, but they do possess a kind of doubleness and a unique suspended quality that is
consistent with the aesthetics of other fictional women painters.
Not only in the creative process but also in the presentation of the
subject, Monica encounters aesthetic problems and arrives at solutions similar to those of other fictional women painters. Like Yvonne
in Margaret Atwoods story The Sunrise, she is preoccupied, almost obsessed, with the challenge of painting male bodies. As she
begins to work on Spent Men, Monica observes that her subject was
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namic, postdynamic male (78). She wants to present men, not disrespectfully but at their most vulnerable, impassive, and lonely
moments. She wishes to cast a cold eye on the male body, rather like
Atwoods cats eye, although that task becomes difficult when she
takes her lover as her model. In the particulars of representation as
well as in the novel as a whole, Mary Gordon raises the question of
whether love and artistic expression are compatible or mutually exclusive, and she implies that they can be made to coexist, although,
again, the task is difficult. Monica questions the aesthetic position,
stated by Rilke among others, that art should somehow get past love,
into some further vision of the subject. Why, she wonders, should
there be anything beyond love?
In choosing to base her paintings of spent men on selected Renaissance paintings of deposed Christs, Monica runs two kinds of serious risks: the risk of being misunderstood and even reviled for
blasphemy and the risk of openly revealing her postmodern belatedness, as though she were reduced to playing tricks with images from
the great art of the past. Unlike Elaine Risley, Monica accepts the
term postmodern as applied to her work and acknowledges that
being postmodern means that you have to deal with the temptation
to be apologetic (80). On the one hand, she does not feel able or
inclined to try to invent genuinely new forms for art, and on the
other hand, she does not wish to resort to jokes or parody. The only
remedy for this dilemma is to focus on the process of art and to pursue her own visions without so much regard for the status of contemporary art. In another sense, though, Monica feels a deep kinship
with the great and nearly great artists of the past. Traveling to Milan
with B to examine a painting by Mantegna, a radically foreshortened
Christ, she begins to reassess the issue of postmodern belatedness:
And I was with them. I wasnt measuring myself against them. What they
did before me buoyed me up in the ocean of shared labor in which we,
separated by hundreds of years, yet breast to breast, dove, were overwhelmed, clung to the sides of a boat and had our hands beaten by oarsmen, and then, sometimes, occasionally, confidently, swam. (87)

The feeling that she is swimming in an ocean of shared labor with


the artists of the past shows that Monica, rather than standing in paralyzed awe before those artists, honors them by understanding and
sharing the enormity of their labors. The metaphor of the artists
hands beaten by oarsmen, humorously hyperbolic in this context,

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ruefully acknowledges the artists common struggle for survival and


recognition. They are all cast overboard from the same boat and
forced to sink or swim. The trope of the artist as a swimmer and a
castaway is prominently featured in both To the Lighthouse and The
Serpentine Cave, but Gordon expresses it in more communal terms
through Monicas notion that all artists struggles are, in a general
way, the same.
In Spent Men Monicas solution to the problem of addressing the
burden of tradition is a unique one. She paints her spent men in
postures and settings similar to those of the Renaissance masters,
but with less regard for balanced composition and in her own modern style. Then, overlaying the modern figure but skewed at a different angle, she draws in white paint an outline of the classical figure,
the deposed Christ. The white outlined figures, which look like etchings on the surface of the painting, seem suspended above the contemporary figures, like hovering ghosts of the past. This technique
gives the paintings a doubleness of master and modern, sacred and
profane. The paintings also have two subjects: the male body and
the artists conception of her relation to the art of the past. They
cause the viewer to do a double take. The playfulness of the paintings is consistent with Gordons comedy in the novel: as comedy reduces spirit to flesh, Monica reduces Christ to his eroticized body.
But she also includes the image of the ghostly spirit lingering over
the figure of the spent modern man. Here, the aesthetic principle
of the suspended provides a solution to the problem of postmodern
belatedness.
Monica is well aware that these paintings invite controversy. Once
she mounts her show and her work enters the public arena, Spent
Men achieves instant notoriety. Predictably enough, the show provokes two opposing kinds of reactions. Her work meets with excited
approval by critics and connoisseurs, and the show sells out. At the
same time, an angry group from The Catholic Defense League turns
up to picket the gallery with signs reading God is not mocked and
similar sentiments. In this part of the novel, Gordon, like Atwood,
satirizes the various inhabitants of the art worldthe critics, selfappointed censors, interviewers, and journalistswho have their
distinct opinions about Monicas work without necessarily understanding it at all. Dazzled and confused by all the attention, Monica
manages to steer her way through these events, momentarily tormented by residual Catholic guilt but staunchly defending her artistic vision.

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Like many of the events in this novel, Monicas greatest public triumph, a glowing four-column review of her show in the New York
Times, turns out to be double-edged. On the one hand, it is a coup
for Monica that such an influential figure in the art world as the
Times reviewer actually understands and describes her work more accurately than anyone else has done. On the other hand, Gordon
cannot resist satirizing what seems to be the inevitable pomposity of
the eminent journalists who write critiques of the gallery shows. The
review reads like a subtle parody:
In a time of postmodern emptiness, this painter dares to combine wit
and feeling, a line that takes it clarity from the Renaissance Masters, and
its intelligence from the best feminist revelations of the seventies. (178)

The reviewer gets its right: the yoking together of wit and feeling is
the aesthetic goal of Monicas paintings as it is of Gordons novel.
Still, the reviewers rhetorical flourishes, kind as they are to Monica,
give away the fact that he is in love with his own words yet careless in
his use of them. The slight but ludicrous hint of personification in
a line that takes its clarity from . . . seems pompous, even though
the reviewer has astutely discerned that clarity of line is exactly what
Monica is trying to achieve. More egregiously, the phrase best feminist revelations of the seventies is almost entirely devoid of meaning, since the reviewer does not specify what those revelations might
be or why they are best, nor does he explain how Monicas line
derives its intelligence from such revelations. Again, the parody is
humorous and double-edged: the reviewers allusion to feminism is
appropriate, since the underlying assumptions of Monicas work are,
in fact, profoundly feminist, especially in her claim of the right to
represent men in any way that pleases her. But the reviewer is obviously just tossing off a gesture in the direction of political correctness, and he muddies his sentence in the process. He is not
necessarily to be blamed for his shallow rhetoric, however; Gordon
implies that such language is the coin of the realm in the world of
art criticism.
The satire continues as the raggle-taggle group of picketers from
the Catholic right wing blocks the sidewalk in front of the gallery
and accuses Monica of blasphemy. Ironically, the protesters can do
Monicas show no real harm, since it is an axiom in the world of
contemporary art that any kind of publicity is good publicity, and a
public outcry of immorality is the best kind of all. Yet the appear-

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ance of the picketers forces Monica to defend herself and to reexamine her own conscience. A charge of blasphemy is no laughing
matter even to a lapsed Catholic. Monicas short-lived guilt turns to
indignation when she recognizes the leader of the group as Alice
Marie Cusalito, her old archenemy from parochial school who was
known as a self-righteous, mean little tattletale. Now a former nun
and foolish busybody, Alice Marie bears a physical resemblance to
Atwoods Mrs. Smeath. She has frizzy gray hair, dowdy clothes, and
a face that looks like a failed pineapple upside-down cake. She
carries a poster that says, Stand up to visual blasphemy. Jesus is not
a joke (181). The physical unattractiveness of Alice Marie and Mrs.
Smeath is meant to represent moral repugnance in keeping with a
satiric tradition that goes at least as far back as Chaucer. Whereas
Elaine Risley derides the Canadian Protestant middle class with her
ludicrous metamorphoses of Mrs. Smeath, Monica shocks the New
York right-wing Catholics with her images of Christ. Although Monicas subject matter is riskier than Elaines, it is not the purpose of
her art to give offense. She also believes that Jesus is no joke, but she
cannot give in to a view of art that is narrowly intolerant of playfulness and innovation. In fact, what Monica does with the divine image
is far less provocative to the religious right than many other works
that have appeared in the real world of art in recent years. Her quarrel is with the protesters smug self-righteousness and gloomy aura
of martyrdom.
When the sidewalk controversy escalates to a debate on a popular
television talk show, the Defense League wisely pulls Alice Marie off
the case and replaces her with the much more photogenic Regina
McArdle, whose attractive appearanceperfect hair and skin, size
five figure, preppie clothes, and good mannersdisguises the pettiness of a person who makes it her business to deprive others of pleasure. The mother of seven children, all of them wanted, Regina is
a late avatar of the Angel of the House. Monicas task is to appear
equally as attractive, feminine, and charming in her own way on the
television show while standing up to this formidable opponent. All
these years after Virginia Woolf s Professions for Women, creative
women are still having to do battle against the Angel and, if possible,
kill her. The debate appears to be a standoff between Reginas simple dogmatism and Monicas more complex but frustrated attempts
to explain and defend her art. Monica finally wins the day when the
host of the program, Charlie Rose, suggests that his viewers go down
to the gallery on Fifty-seventh Street and make up their own minds

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about the paintings, advocating an open-minded approach that is


exactly what Monica has been asking for.
Like Elaine Risley, Monica also has difficulty explaining her work
to a very young woman journalist, in this case one from The Village
Voice, who comes armed with theory and preconceived ideas. Again
Gordons satire is double-edged: she mocks the reporters humorless earnestness and lack of aesthetic understanding, but at the same
time Monica makes a fool of herself when, frustrated and impatient,
she responds to the reporters questions with facetious jokes and
trivial remarks. The reporter registers nothing when Monica states
that what she really is painting is vision, a way of looking at her subjects. To explain, Monica adds that her works make a comment
about women looking at men in a way that has not been represented
very much in the history of art. The reporter naively responds by
asking Monica if she thinks that men and women are different. The
miscommunication occurs because Monicas point of view is aesthetic, the reporters shallowly political. When the reporter brings
up Lacan and asks Monica about the female gaze, Monica pretends that she is talking about lesbianism (194). And when the reporter goes on to ask a question about a new phallic center,
Monica giddily imagines a gymnasium for penises. Monicas feeble
jokes are meant to inoculate her against the jargon of academia and
trendy journalism. She concedes to the reader that on the whole she
agrees with the reporters feminist views. It is the language of the
Voice reporter, like that of the Times reviewer, that invites parody. As
a figure painter, Monica speaks in the language of flesh; abstraction
and, to a large degree, theory, are inimical or at least irrelevant to
her art. She thinks in bodily terms and uses her wit to ward off any
invitation to think in abstractions. At the same time, however, Monicas sarcastic responses to the interviewer are more than a bit hypocritical. All along she has been preoccupied with that very thing,
the female gaze, brooding and fretting about how best to lay
claim to her right to gaze at will at the male body and represent it
naturalistically in her work without losing her aesthetic distance.
And she has in fact put the phallus literally at the center of her art.
After the Spent Men show, Monica takes her new friend and patron, eighty-year-old Peggy, to the womens Russian baths. Seeing
dignity in Peggys nakedness and in the assorted women around her,
Monica is suddenly reminded of Ingress well-known painting The
Turkish Bath and she decides to paint her own version, to be called
After Ingres: The Russian Baths. In shifting her subject from the male

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body to a group of female nudes, Monica will continue her agenda


of re-envisioning the human form: having shown men through the
eyes of female desire, as they were seldom shown in the past, she
now intends to depict womens bodies as they appear to her, not
filtered through the lens of male desire. Her choice of Ingres as her
new source of inspiration makes sense in that Ingres is known for
his careful drawing and clear lines, skills that she shares. It seems
highly unlikely, however, that she would share his view of the female
form.
Since they are based on real paintings, Gordons ekphrastic passages readily evoke images in the minds eye of the reader. The
reader can view the real painting or a reproduction of it and then
imagine the fictional one. Ingress harem scene certainly portrays
womens bodies as the objects of male desire; one critic calls it a
fleshscape.5 Although Ingres borrows several faces of real women
selected from his earlier portraits, the eighteen or so figures seen
frontally in The Turkish Bath exhibit an unnerving sameness in their
languorous poses, perfectly round breasts and bellies, oval faces, and
almond eyes. With the exception of the lute player in the foreground and the dancer in the middle ground, they appear impassive, distant, and melancholic. Art historian Norman Bryson goes so
far as to say that although the painting is about male desire it also
shows the replacement of desire by inertia; he interprets the work
in Freudian terms as representing the death instinct in the guise of
the mask of nirvana.6 If the painting represents male erotic desire, then, it does so in a rather perverse way, given the passivity and
drugged appearance of the female figures.
When she borrows from the Renaissance masters, Monica reduces
the spiritual to the erotic, but in the case of Ingres, she wishes to
revise a male idea of the female form, replacing it with images of
real women as she sees them. She will surely reanimate the women
in the process. She will include ghostly suspended white outlines of
Ingress composition, but even as her work continues to be influenced, even shaped by an artist of the past, she wishes to resee the
women as individuals, various and exposed in their own persons,
apart from the desires of men and playing their own parts in the
human comedy. The nude women she sees in the Russian baths are
much more distinctly individuated than the replicating bodies of Ingres. Some look like courtesans, to be sure, but some resemble abbesses, generals, or even various animals such as cats and birds.
Monica wants to paint them as unselfconscious and relaxed but pre-

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sumably not torpid. She wants to paint women, she says, as a


painter who was one of them (277). She even considers painting
herself into the painting as Ingress lute player in the turban whose
back is turned to the viewer, the one figure who seems to possess
primacy, mystery, and the full flush of life. To paint herself into the
painting would be a violation of her own code of hands-off anonymity, although her face would be averted. To paint herself as the lutenist would be to proclaim the presence of the artist in the art in a
covert, encoded fashion.
Like Monicas paintings, Gordons novel yokes together wit and
feeling. She is comical and serious at once about the rather fantastical adventures of a woman artist in midlife and at the peak of her
creative energy. Gordon writes humorously about sex and about the
ironic reversals in Monicas life, but she is serious about art and she
expresses optimism about the possibilities for innovation in art even
in the latter days of postmodernism. Exuberant, funny, and bold,
Monica serves as a realistic exemplar of a woman artist making her
way in the world. Through Monicas conversational narrative, Gordon achieves, within the genre of the comic novel, something akin
to Vermeers silence. She does not come between the narrator and
the reader. At the same time, the unfolding narration of Spending is
based on a clear and significant conceptual premise: Gordon poses
the question, what if the woman artist were to receive everything
that she needs? And she provides some plausible if startling answers.
By no means does possession of a studio of her own and an abundance of material necessities protect Monica against lifes vicissitudes or the twists and turns of fate. But having her material needs
met provides a foundation for giving shape to her creative vision, as
Virginia Woolf said it would. When the woman artist gets what she
wantstime, space, and even a male museit seems like a true luxury, a richness long sought by women artists and well worth
spending.

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9
Servants, Housewives, Artists: A. S. Byatt, Tracy
Chevalier, Carol Shields, and Kyoko Mori
Well, it all just comes to me in a kind of coloured rush, I just like
putting things together, theres so much in the world, isnt there,
and making things is a natural enough way of showing your excitement.
A. S Byatt, Art Work

THE TITLE OF A. S. BYATTS STORY ART WORK IS A PUN OF SORTS, SINCE


the main character in the story transforms herself from a cleaning
lady into an artist by using the materials and skills she has acquired
in her work of sewing and cleaning. Byatts is one of several stories
and novels in which traditional domestic work of womencooking,
cleaning, spinning, weaving, and sewingunexpectedly opens a
door to the world of art in one way or another. A. S. Byatts stories
Christ in the House of Martha and Mary and Art Work, Tracy
Chevaliers Girl with a Pearl Earring, Carol Shieldss Happenstance,
and Kyoko Moris Stone Field, True Arrow portray women who appear
to be mere Marthas, performers of domestic chores, but who turn
out to be artists in some potential or metaphorical, if not literal,
sense. In both Byatts story Christ in the House of Martha and
Mary and Chevaliers novel a servant girl meets a great seventeenth-century artist and experiences an awakening of her creative
sensibility, although she does not become a painter. In Art Work,
a pivotal story for this chapter, all hierarchies are overturned and
the servant becomes the artist. In Shieldss Happenstance and Moris
Stone Field, True Arrow, women who work with textiles, quilting, and
weaving, gradually come to understand the artistic value of what
they do. Moris protagonist Maya first thinks that having chosen to
be a weaver was to be like Martha, who chose busywork over truth;
but after attempting to exorcise the ghost of her father, a painter,
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she realizes that serious aesthetic principles underlie her own work.1
All of these protagonists are to a greater or lesser degree transformed by discovering art. In recurrent tropes, all of these characters move from dark spaces into the light and they come to see with
renewed vision. These stories and novels carry forward Virginia
Woolf s suggestion, illustrated in Mrs. Ramsay, that there is not a
strict dividing line between the domestic arts and serious art; they
challenge the supposedly uncrossable barriers between traditional
domestic activities and high art, adding another chapter to the
story of women artists in fiction.
By coincidence, two works of fiction published within a year of
one another feature a real-life master painter of the seventeenth
century who befriends a servant girl possessing unusual skills and an
eye for aesthetic arrangements. In both A. S. Byatts short story
Christ in the House of Martha and Mary in her collection Elementals (1998) and Tracy Chevaliers novel Girl with a Pearl Earring
(1999), the girl who serves the painter becomes a model for a figure
in a well-known Baroque painting. In both works, the girl learns to
see the world with new eyes as a result of knowing the artist.
Byatts story, which she refers to in her acknowledgments as an
ekphrastic tale, weaves a short narrative around the creation of
Vela zquezs painting of 1618, Kitchen Scene with Christ in the House of
Martha and Mary, which depicts an old woman and a cook in the
foreground and a vignette of Jesuss visit to Mary and Martha in a
rectangle in the upper right rear wall. In Byatts story, the painter
befriends Dolores, a surly young cook, and uses her as a model for
the cook in his painting. As a result of the painters recognition of
her, Dolores undergoes a small but significant change, a shift in
status that brings her out of the margins of her worldliterally the
dark corners of the kitchenand closer to the center of creativity
and light.
Doloress anger at the beginning of the story is not, as the older
servant Concepcion believes, the stereotypical irascibility of cooks,
nor is it envy of the well-to-do family for whom she works. Rather,
Dolores is angry that God has made her overweight, unbeautiful,
and a servant. She thinks of herself as a heavy space of unregarded
darkness, a weight of miserable shadow in the corners of the room
that Vela zquez is painting.I want to live, she insists. I want time
to think. Not to be pushed around.2 In terms of class, gender, and
her station in life, Dolores is virtually the painters opposite, and yet
he takes notice of her, first by showing appreciation for her artistry

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as a cook and then by painting her as a figure of power and dignity.


Doloress life is not materially changed by these events, but at least
the painter, by granting her such recognition, offers a challenge to
the hierarchic thinking that keeps her at the bottom on the scale of
human esteem both in the world she inhabits and in her own mind.
He treats her as a colleague who works toward mastery of her own
craft as a cook, and he immortalizes her presence and her anger in
his painting.
Illiterate, Dolores is unfamiliar with the story from Luke represented within the painting until Vela zquez tells it to her, whereupon
Dolores scoffs at Mary and identifies with Martha, the sister cumbered about with much serving. Surprisingly, the painter agrees
with her unorthodox interpretation of the biblical narrative, and he
goes on to assert that both he as a painter and Dolores as a cook are
concerned with loaves and fishes. His remark is ambiguous, since
loaves and fishes are both material objects and the instruments of a
biblical miracle. He seems to suggest that both cookery and painting
are sacred arts or at least that the sacred is present in the material
world where these arts are practiced. Just as the painter rejects the
superiority of Mary to Martha, he also collapses, or at least disregards, the hierarchy of social classes by offering a new, aesthetic hierarchy. As he tells Dolores,
the divide is not between the servants and the served, between the leisured and the workers, but between those who are interested in the world
and its multiplicity of forms and forces, and those who merely subsist,
worrying or yawning.3

Vela zquez invites Dolores to think of herself as among the group of


the interested; evidently he sees her as an individual, not a typical servant, since he paints her that way. He sees her anger, her goddesslike
physical strength, and he reveals her as a presence.4 Byatt admires
Iris Murdoch, having written a short study of her work. It therefore
seems safe to assume that Byatt shares Murdochs belief that both
art and morality require us to attend to the presence of others. Observing the painters attention to the presences of small things, such
as the eggs and fish in the foreground of the painting, Dolores
learns an aesthetic lesson. She learns that painting can make the
eggs and fish seem more real than they appear in life and that their
enhanced reality comes about because the painter reveals beauty
and light in these objects that were not seen until he painted them.

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The gist of the aesthetic ideas in the story, then, is that there is a
broad distinction to be made between those who take a lively interest in the world and those who do not, and that creative people who
belong to the group of the interested, like Virginia Woolf s great
clan of sensibility, are naturally attentive to the presences of things
and their multiplicity. In the story, Vela zquez tends to play down the
symbolic or hieratic aspects of his work, laying emphasis instead
upon the immediacy of the task at hand. He tells Dolores that the
objects he paints are not sacred to him because the eggs represent
the Resurrection and the fish represent Christ, but rather because
they are full of life and light.5 The painter works with the visual
but, as he reminds Dolores, she works with several other senses as
well: taste, smell, and touch. Although she is tempted to accept the
idea that her work as a cook is in some sense akin to that of the
painter, Dolores makes the objection that the results of her work disappear in a flash, at which point the painter reminds her of the
ephemerality of all life. Just as the cooks work disappears quickly,
so Byatts story is very shortit flashes by in a mere twelve pages.
The conclusion of the story is festive and communal, like a comic
ending. Viewing the finished painting in the artists studio, Dolores,
her friend, and the painter share tortillas and salad, wine, and laughter, a little celebration of life, art, and culinary art as well.
Byatts story is about the rootedness of art in the real world, its
people and objects, an idea consistent with the practice of much Baroque art. But it is also about a transformation, albeit a small one.
By meeting the artist, having him appreciate her cookery, and sitting
for him, Dolores is inwardly changed when her strength and her
skill are recognized. The story is artfully contrived. The narrative
within the story, the passages of ekphrasis, and the painting to which
they allude are interwoven, so that the verbal discourse and visual
images complement one another. The result is a story that is complex enough to preclude a restrictive, orthodox reading of the painting, a reading that would consign the cook to the inferior role of a
Martha.
Byatts fictional narrative interprets the painting in an effort to
explore its implications. The New Testament narrative of Mary and
Martha inspires the painting that inspires Byatts story, but the situation is made more complex in the story when, in the process of working on the painting, the painter tells Dolores the biblical story,
reinterpreting it, and then makes her the central figure in the painting. While Byatts story insists on a rather unorthodox reading of

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the painting, making its meanings multivalent, aspects of the actual


painting likewise invite deconstruction of its ostensible didactic purpose. As a narrative work in its own right, Vela zquezs painting can
be read as a portrayal of the passage from Luke illustrating two theological points: one, that the contemplative life of Mary is superior to
the active life of Martha, although both are ways of serving God, and
two, that a Martha should heed that lesson, cheerfully carrying on
her own tasks while knowing that she hath not the better part since
the active life is transitory and therefore of less ultimate value. The
placement of objects and figures in the painting and the manner of
their portrayal make such an orthodox reading difficult, however, so
that Byatt appears to have picked up on the paintings own evident
ambiguities.
For one thing, there is in the painting, as art historian Jonathan
Brown points out, a certain lack of narrative clarity despite the
great care given to color and textures in the work.6 In the past, observers had difficulty determining whether the scene of Christ with
the two sisters is a window, a mirror, or a picture on the wall. Subsequently, art historians have determined with some certainly that it is
indeed a window or hatch in the wall opening onto an adjacent
room. The visual effect remains puzzling to the eye, however, and
other ambiguities appear as well. Despite the fact that the painting
is influenced by earlier works with similar subjects, it defies a simple
reading, blending together as it does the biblical and the contemporary, the sacred and the profane. By their sheer size and presence,
the solid, three-dimensional bodies of the old woman and the cook
far outweigh the biblical story depicted in its boxed position in the
upper right. The two women are vivid and individualized, the cooks
resentful eyes turned toward the viewer and not toward Christ. The
old womans hand points didactically toward the sacred vignette and
echoes the admonitory gesture of Christ as he points to Martha, but
the position of her arm also rhythmically echoes the muscular arm
of the cook working with her mortar and pestle. The cooks face is
flushed, sensuous, introspective, and dignified. It is difficult to see
her, as some art historians have, as a figure for the bad servant,
since her face is so alive and expressive of mixed emotions.
Under the window and prominently bathed in light are the four
silver fish, two eggs, garlic, and a dried red pepper. The onlooker
cannot help but ask, are these sacred objects or are they simply
prominent metonymic representations of the world of the cook?
Thus, Vela zquez presents three pictures in one: the background bib-

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lical narrative, the two foregrounded female figures, and the still
life. The triangulation of the individual women servants, the theological vignette, and the beautiful culinary ingredients creates a tension between the sacred and the profane and foregrounds the
frustrations and the beauties of the cooks work.
Byatts entire story is ekphrastic, since it translates the painting
into a fiction joining together the artist, the models, and the finished work; the author extends her creative imagination into the
painting and retrieves a plausible, animated narrative. The story emphasizes the elements within the painting that lead the eye and
mind away from the biblical vignette and cause one to ponder the
portrait of the cook. These interpretive issues are significant because
the story brings out the beauty, rebelliousness, and challenge to hierarchic values that were incipient in the painting itself. The reallife painter has made the cook heroic, and the painter in the story
has named her an artist.
In Girl with a Pearl Earring, Tracy Chevalier recreates the milieu of
Johannes Vermeer through the first-person narration of a teen-aged
girl, Griet, who becomes a servant in the Vermeer household and,
eventually, a secret apprentice to the painter. The daughter of Jan,
a tile painter who has been blinded in an accident, Griet is sent into
service because of her familys extreme poverty. When Vermeer and
his wife first visit her home to engage her services, the painter observes that Griet has laid out vegetables for soup in the order of a
color wheel. As their servant, Griet enters an environment where
her status is anomalous: although she remains the lowliest person
in the household, suffering like Jane Eyre numerous humiliations
because of her low rank and poverty, Griet is secretly drawn into the
painters studio, becoming first his helper and then his model. Certain gestures and attitudes suggest that he is attracted to Griet, as
she is to him, but in the end his dedication to his work is stronger
and, in effect, he sacrifices her to his art. Although the plot follows
a familiar pattern in which Griets romantic attraction to the painter
overcomes, or is fatally blended with, the force of her awakening aesthetic sensibilities, she is above all a victim of circumstances as well
as of her own precociousness. Her native intelligence and unusual
aesthetic understanding set her apart from the rest of the household
and ally her for a time with the great painter.
Griet feels estranged in the large Catholic family whose house is
filled with sacred paintings, and she senses the hostility of Vermeers

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wife Catharina, an ill-tempered Angel in the House whose only satisfaction consists in having children; she eventually has eleven. Griets
duties include cleaning Vermeers studio, where no one else is allowed, not even Catharina. Griet shows her ingenuity by taking precise measurements before she moves objects, so as not to disturb the
artists still life arrangements by her cleaning. She becomes intrigued by the mysterious and distant painter who works so silently
and slowly, and she is dazzled by his work. Vermeers patron van Ruijven, a fictional character, begins to show an erotic interest in Griet
and eventually sexually harasses her in secret; this interest causes the
painter to become more distant with her, as if angry.
In the second year, Vermeer orders Griet to assist him, first by
fetching colors from the apothecary and later by grinding the colors
for him. She sleeps in the attic in order to have access to the studio,
and for a time her work as an apprentice is kept strictly secret from
the rest of the family, although eventually they get wind of it. Only
Vermeers mother-in-law, the real-life figure Maria Thins, is savvy
enough to see the possible usefulness of Griet, that she could speed
up the meticulous painters work and thus indirectly help with the
familys debts. The closest Griet comes to having an effect upon Vermeers work is when she rearranges a cloth on a table in order to
bring an element of disharmony into a painting that is otherwise
highly ordered; Vermeer accepts the rearrangement, expressing
wonderment that he could learn something from a maid.
A radical reversal takes place in the second year, when Vermeer
requires her to sit for his famous painting. Although she is flattered
to have his gaze upon her, Griet loses somethinga slim chance, at
least, to have become an artistwhen she becomes his model.
There were, after all, a few successful women artists in the seventeenth century, such as Artemisia Gentileschi and Judith Leyster,
and Griet has revealed a sharp eye for aesthetic arrangements as well
as a fascinated interest in the work. The painters strong will and the
force of erotic attraction quickly overshadow those interests, however. Griet feels exposed when the painter accidentally sees her hair,
which is usually hidden under a cap, and she feels violated, if excitingly so, when he forces her to pierce her ears and wear his wifes
earring. Vermeers friend, the optician van Leewenhoek, warns her
that Vermeer will sacrifice anything for his art, dramatically adding,
The women in his paintingshe traps them in his world. You can
get lost there.7 Although she poses for a great work of art, that
event leads to her downfall, as she knows it will. Once Griet becomes

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the face in the painting, her world is irredeemably changed. As she


poses, Griet is thrilled by the erotic tension of their mutual gaze, but
that gaze destroys the secret apprenticeship. The completion of the
painting instigates the climactic scene of the novel. Seeing Griet
painted wearing her earring, Catharina falls into a rage and attempts
to mutilate the painting with a knife, giving birth the same day to a
child who does not survive. Catharinas rage, ostensibly about the
earring, really has to do with the fact that Vermeer has admitted
Griet to his private world, which Catharina is not allowed to enter.
The novel is not tragic, but the end is sadly ironic. Griet has the potential to experience the world through new eyes, but the world defeats her and she ends up as a butchers wife, with animal blood, not
paint, upon her apron.
Class and gender are important considerations in this novel as
they are in Byatts story. As a servant, Griet has no rights, not even
to an opinion, but like Dolores she is proud, bold, and dignified.
She refuses to pose dressed as a fine lady in silks, but she also does
not want to be shown holding a mop. Vermeer invites her to create
the unique blue and yellow headpiece, signifying no particular rank.
The classlessness suggested by the headpiece is consistent with
Griets anomalous position in the novel. The painting Girl with a
Pearl Earring also differs from most of Vermeers other paintings of
women because there is no interior scene, just a black background
surrounding her face and shoulder. Thus, the girl in the painting,
sometimes called the Dutch Mona Lisa, has no context as she
gazes in sensuous innocence at the viewer and the painter. Her
seeming classlessness and lack of social milieu invite the viewer to
see her as a singular individual, like Dolores, a radiant presence, and
not a representative type.
Although Vermeers studio is a dangerous place for Griet, what
she learns there about art draws her for a time into his world. Here,
as in the novels by Deirdre Madden and Mary Gordon, Vermeer is
the consummate artists artist. In Nothing is Black, Claire recalls her
artist friend Alices marveling that Vermeer could create something
transcendent, beyond space and time, using nothing but minutely
thin layers of paint. For both Claire and Alice, the sheer magic of his
paintings represents the aesthetic ideal. Monica Szabo in Spending
also reveres Vermeer; she believes that he knew how to withdraw his
ego from the work, allowing space for the viewer to enter in, and
that he could bring silence into a painting. Chevalier attributes to
Vermeer these same qualities of silence and transcendence. Ver-

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meers interior scenes with figures of solitary women take the viewer
into a space that is different from ordinary reality, a place of harmony, order, and mystery, reminiscent of Woolf s silent kingdom.
Chevalier picks up on that effect by describing Vermeers studio as
a similarly special space, as though it were part of some other house
than the one it occupies. Going in and out of the studio is almost,
for Griet, the equivalent of entering a painting, and, in fact, her firstperson ekphrastic passages show her engagement with and understanding of Vermeers art.
The ekphrastic passages, direct and unembellished, link the novel
to Vermeers works, without naming titles, and they show the advancement of Griets aesthetic understanding. The first painting
that she sees is Woman with a Pearl Necklace, in which a woman
dressed in a yellow satin jacket trimmed with ermine gazes at herself
in a small mirror as she ties on a string of pearls. Familiar with the
objects on the table in the painting, items which she has been dusting, Griet is transfixed by the painting and sharply observant of it.
She sees not just what is painted, as an inattentive viewer might, but
also how the subject is represented in terms of composition and
light. For example, she sees the light falling across her face and
tracing the delicate curve of her forehead and nose.8 This kind of
observation is simple enough to be plausible, but it shows that
Griets untrained eye is learning to look, a skill seemingly elicited
by the painting itself. Contemplating this painting within the setting
where it was painted, Griet observes, Everything seemed to be exactly the same, except cleaner and purer. It made a mockery of my
own cleaning.9 Griet would not understand the Neoplatonic idea
of transcendent harmony and order that art historians have
glimpsed in Vermeers work, but she intuitively grasps the pure intensity and radiance of the painting. The rueful reference to her
own work of cleaning in connection with the painters cleansing of
the worldor, more accurately, of the observers eyecreates a
haunting though ironic metaphor in which acts of earnest work are
momentarily brought together in a single thought. The metaphor
connecting art and cleaning as two kinds of work recalls Byatts
more whimsical metaphor connecting painting and cooking.
The seventeenth-century fascination with eyesight and optics is reflected in the novel with repeated references to eyes, beams of light,
bright jewels, the camera obscura, and above all, Griets learning to
see as an artist might see. On Sundays at home, Griet describes Vermeers paintings to her blind father. In the work called Young Woman

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with a Water Pitcher, which she knows only as the painting of the
bakers daughter, Griet remembers primarily the light, the girls posture, and the colors of her clothing. She tells her father that the
white in the girls cap is actually a composite of other colors, including blue, yellow, and violet, a fact that she has learned first from Vermeer himself and then simply by looking. The tile painter, who
always worked with flat colors, does not understand, nor does it
make sense to him that Vermeers paintings do not tell stories. It is
evident that Griet has a keen visual memory. But her greatest
involvement with a painting comes when she deliberately disarranges the cloth on the table that appears in A Lady Writing, thus
indirectly having a hand in the composition of the work. As she explains to Vermeer, such an orderly work should contain some disorder, and, indeed, the arrangement of the tablecloth provides one
of the few diagonal lines in the painting. Through this gesture of
disarrangement, Chevalier cleverly creates a nexus between her
novel and the painters work, at the same time allowing Griet to
enter Vermeers world in a more radical, if minor, way. Chevaliers
novel constitutes a tribute to a great artist while at the same time
offering a feminine perspective on his world. The ingenuity of the
novel is evident in Chevaliers own carefully researched view of
Delft, her blending of fact and fiction, her invention of stories and
imagined moments to go with individual paintings, and, above all,
her creating the life and words of the girl with the pearl earring.
Although the servant girls in Christ in the House of Martha and
Mary and Girl with a Pearl Earring are touched by the genius of the
artists whom they encounter, both of them end up as models, not
artists, beautiful and dignified as their images may be. In sharp contrast, the image of a servant cleaning and dusting in the artists studio undergoes a surprising and comical transformation in A. S.
Byatts Art Work, in which a cleaning lady becomes a highly acclaimed artist in the trendy London art scene, creating a spectacular
installation by using her talents for sewing and working with textiles.
The story is darkly comic, but not because the idea of a cleaning lady
succeeding as an artist is funny; Byatt does not condescend to her
character. Rather, the story is comical because of the sudden reversal
of fortune and because of Mrs. Browns flamboyance and largerthan-life appeal.
Having been their cleaning lady for ten years, Mrs. Brown virtually
holds together the London household of Robin and Debbie Den-

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nison and their two children, self-described as an artistic family.


Robin, a fussy painter of impersonal still lifes, resents the presence
of Mrs. Brown in his studio, while Debbie depends on her desperately to make order possible in their daily life. Debbie, the breadwinner in the family, works full time as design editor for a magazine slyly
named A Womans Place, although she would prefer to spend her
time making woodcuts. A woman from Callisto Gallery comes to
view Robins paintings for a possible exhibit but leaves unimpressed.
Mrs. Brown makes contact with the gallery woman, however, and the
comic climax of the story comes when Debbie goes to cover the show
for her magazine, little suspecting who the artist is. Mrs. Browns art
expressively conveys her anger as a woman and a domestic servant,
but it does so lightly, inventively, and with wit. Her art unites a feminist point of view with an unconventional but authentic aesthetic
purpose. Having achieved a new life for herself, Mrs. Brown goes on
to provide a replacement cleaning lady for Debbie.
The story raises feminist issues, since both of the women characters are resourceful and intelligent, and in different ways they are
both misused by men. Debbie, like many modern women, has to juggle her family and career, relying desperately on Mrs. Browns help
and fearful of losing her. Married to a childlike, demanding husband who indulges in full-time painting in his spacious studio, Debbie sacrifices her own art out of family necessity. Mrs. Brown has
been physically abused by the estranged father of her children,
named Hooker, who beats her numerous times and even causes a
concussion. Forced by necessity to keep house for others, she turns
her anger in a positive direction through her satiric art. At her place
of employment Mrs. Brown is known only by her surname, although
it is revealed in the art show publicity that her first name is Sheba.
The name Mrs. Brown alludes to Virginia Woolf s well-known essay
of 1924 in defense of modernism, Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown.
Woolf s Mrs. Brown is a threadbare old lady encountered briefly on
a train, but she represents the mystery of human nature, the real
humans whom the popular Edwardian novelists like Arnold Bennett
fail to represent in their work. Woolf insists that novelists should be
faithful to Mrs. Brown and never abandon her. Woolf says, she is capable of appearing in any place, wearing any dress; saying anything
and doing heaven knows what. She is also, Woolf adds, the spirit
we live by, life itself.10 When Mrs. Brown shows up in Byatts story
as a secret artist wearing parti-color clothes, Woolf s Everywoman is
transformed into a postcolonial, multicultural woman. It is revealed

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in the review of her show that Sheba Brown, in her forties, is of


mixed Guyanese and Irish ancestry and lives in a council flat; thus,
as a product of two former British colonies, she represents the ethnic diversity of modern-day England. Her face, with amber-colored
skin, a crown of twisted scarves, and a carved look11 contrasts vividly with Robins very English face, long and fine and pink and
white, like a worried colt (48). Robin and Mrs. Brown represent
the old England and the new one, a land of immigrants.
These two characters are antagonists in the story: her presence,
when she cleans his studio, is a constant irritation to Robin, and he
childishly whines to Debbie about her trivial rearrangement of objects. Robins antagonism to Mrs. Brown is, in part, an automatic expression of his inherited contempt for people supposedly beneath
him in rank and gender: His father . . . behaved in much the same
way, particularly with regard to his distinction between his own untouchable things and other peoples, especially the cleaning-ladys
filth (56). Despite his dislike of Mrs. Brown, which, Byatt suggests,
may also be rooted in a displaced resentment against his wife because of his dependency on her, Robin does take the time to teach
Mrs. Brown something about art when she shows curiosity. The rivalry between them ultimately goes deeper than differences of gender and ethnicity: she becomes a rival artist, one who is superior in
the eyes of the world, and the two of them represent opposite ways
of doing art and thinking about art.
Their works of art and their theoretical ideas about art, especially
about color, provide contrast and tension between the artists in the
story. Robin teaches Mrs. Brown some standard things about color:
how colors are subject to rules, how complementary colors work,
and so on. In his studio he keeps his fetishes, a bowl, a candlestick, a pincushion, and other small objects of various sorts, each
representing a pure color, small icons of a cult of colour (60).
Cleaning the studio, Mrs. Brown arranges the fetishes in a rainbow
spectrum, like Griets vegetable color wheel, showing that she has
absorbed the lesson in color theory. She has her own ideas about
color, however, which consist in knowing the rules and breaking
them for her own purposes:
They always told us, didnt they, the teachers and grans, orange and
pink, they make you blink, blue and green should not be seen, mauve
and red cannot be wed, but I say, theyre all there, the colours, God
made em all, and mixes em all in His creatures, what exists goes together somehow or other, dont you think? (58)

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Mrs. Browns art is motivated by a desire to express an appreciation


for the variety and plenitude of things in the world; like Dolores, she
is one of the interested.
The contest between the two ways of doing art constitutes a subplot of the story, as Byatts extended ekphrastic passages make clear.
Although Robin is an irritating, close-minded character, his art
should not be dismissed as pointless or simply as a foil to Mrs.
Browns art; it has a legitimate purpose. Robin is a serial painter,
trying over and over to solve problems of color and light that present themselves to him. He lays out neutral-colored surfaces, resembling metal, wood, or plaster, and on each of these surfaces he paints
one small luminous object, such as a glass ball or a paperweight as a
focal point for the eye. Debbie, who articulates Robins purposes
better than Robin does, thinks his paintings show nostalgic emptiness containing verisimilitude (51). Robins is therefore an art of
reduction and vacancy, whereas Mrs. Browns is an art of expansion
and plenitude. Robins art is not entirely cerebral, however. For one
thing, his passion for pure color induces in him a kind of terror and
ecstasy: his paintings are about the infinite terror of the brilliance
of color, of which he could almost die, a feeling reminiscent of Virginia Woolf s desire to dive into paintings and drown oneself in
color (70). Robin, like Lily Briscoe, secretly desires to create the illusion of time standing still in his paintings. Robin is amazed that Debbie perceives this quality in some of his serial paintings when she
says they are like those times when time seems to stop, and you just
look at something, and see it, out of time, and you feel surprised that
you can see at all, you are so surprised, and the seeing going on and
on, and gets better and better (51). Therefore, although the gallery owner suggests that Robin is stuck in a rut and needs to move
on, Byatt attributes to his work certain qualities of luminosity and
power over the viewers eye that have an affinity with the work of
greater artists.
The description of Mrs. Browns gallery installation is the climactic revelation of the story. The entire interior of the gallery is covered with her work, as though it were a fantastical house or, as Byatt
calls it, an Aladdins Cave. The walls are hung with tapestries, described as elegant and sinister, which show rivers of color with
strange, demonic faces peering out (74). The ceilings are draped
with crocheted cobwebs bearing numerous insects, a literal expression of the idea of the suspended. The furniture, some of which is
knitted, seems organic and alive; it includes chests of drawers and

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treasure chests laden with wild collections of miscellaneous things.


The centerpiece of the installation consists of a very large knitted
dragon, resembling both a millipede and a Hoover, and beside it a
woman with a wrenched, broken body chained to a rock by various
underclothes and other items of twisted laundry. This Andromeda
figure has five breasts, but her face is incomplete, representing the
aesthetic of the unfinished: her embroidered face is half-done, a
Botticelli Venus with a chalk outline, a few blonde tresses, cut-out
eyeholes, stitched round with spiky black lashes (77). The incompleteness of the figure and her empty eyes suggest that she is a victim
of abuse. Nearby are two very small, scarcely noticeable Perseus figures, a toy soldier with a broken sword and a tiny plastic knight. This
centerpiece is formidable, comic, and satirically feminist, but the
rest of the installation surrounds the satiric centerpiece with a world
of magical invention and color. The article in Debbies magazine
points out that Mrs. Brown gets her materials by scrounging and that
her work, though full of feminist comments is absurd and surprisingly beautiful with an excess of inventive wit (80).
Even though Byatt lightly satirizes trends in postmodernism in
both Robins art and Mrs. Browns, she treats their opposing motives
seriously. His art is neorealist; hers is fantastic and mythical. He
paints to solve problems; she makes her art out of an exuberant
need to create and express herself. His focus is on the singularity of
the individual object; hers expresses appreciation for the multiplicity of things. Mrs. Brown wins the day, since she gets the gallery show
that Robin had dimly hoped for. Mrs. Browns emergence as an artist has an influence on both Robin and Debbie. Debbie is inspired
to return to her woodcuts, illustrating fairy tales, and Robin, amusingly, produces a savagely colorful geometric painting with a central
figure of Kali the destroyer, who resembles Mrs. Brown. Mrs.
Browns total command of the space of the gallery also constitutes
an ironic reversal, since of the three artists she has had the least
space of her own in which to work. Robin has a whole floor of the
house for his studio. Debbie works in a tiny home office so cramped
that she cannot write and do art work at the same time. Mrs. Brown,
however, has been delighted by her recent good fortune in obtaining a lockup room in the basement of the flats as a place to store
her larger pieces. She cheerfully comments, Once I had the room,
I could make boxlike things as well as squashy ones (80). With a
lockbox of her own, this weaver of bright webs emerges from obscurity into the light (86).

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Writing in an energetic, hyperbolic style, Byatt uses ekphrasis and


onomatopoeia to convey the vibrancy of Mrs. Browns art, appealing
to the readers visual and auditory imagination. She opens the story
with a brief description of a late painting by Matisse of a domestic
interior, noting that the painting is reproduced in Lawrence Gowings Matisse only as a small grayish black and white image. Byatt invites the reader to color the painting: one may imagine it flaming,
in carmine or vermilion, or swaying in indigo darkness, or perhaps
. . . gold and green (32). Byatt, like Woolf, is attempting to bring
color onto the black and white print of her page. In a sense she is
rehearsing or preparing the reader for the acts of visual imagining,
especially of colors, which her ekphrastic passages will demand. Matisse, like Vermeer, is brought in as an earlier master against whom
contemporary artists, even fictional ones, can be measured. Since
color is so much a subject of Art Work, it is appropriate that Byatt
chooses Matisse, whose work depends so substantially on color.
Color images abound in the story even before the description of the
exhibit, notably in the striking colors of Mrs. Browns homemade
clothing such as a magenta and vermilion overall over salmon
pantaloons or bird-of-paradise upholstery trousers and a patchwork shirt in rainbow colours, stitched together with red featherstitching (57, 68). Mrs. Brown sews similarly eccentric clothes for
the Dennison children. The clothing foreshadows the revelation of
her rainbow art.
After the reference to Matisse, Byatt introduces the Dennison
household by describing at length the sounds of domestic appliances, the washing machine, clothes dryer, television, and vacuum
cleaner. Using rhetorical tools such as repetition, alliteration, and
onomatopoeia, Byatt attributes to domestic life a noisy, repetitive violence; there is a menace in the machines that foreshadows the
darker, satiric side of Mrs. Browns art. The washing machine is
tossing its wet mass one way, resting and simmering, tossing it the
other (32). Inside the dryer the mass of cloth . . . flails, flops with
a crash, rises, flails, flops with a crash. An attentive ear could hear
the difference in the texture and mass of the flop and the sleeves
and stockings are bound into sausages and balls by the fine straps of
petticoats and bras (33). The sounds of the laundry are significant
because these same items wind up in Mrs. Browns art, where the
Andromeda figure is bound to her rock with twisted bras and demented petticoats. Mrs. Brown is then introduced by means of the
Hoover that she is operating on the stairs:

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Up and down the stairs, joining all three floors, surges a roaring and
wheezing noise, a rhythmic and complex and swelling crescendo, snorting, sucking, with a high-pitched drone planing over a kind of grinding
sound, interrupted every now and then by a frenetic rattle, accompanied
by a new, menacing whine. (38)

The onomatopoeia and personification make the Hoover seem like


a wrathful, mad creature, and, of course, it will be comically metamorphosed into the grotesque dragon in Mrs. Browns exhibit. The
agitated wrath of the Hoover represents the transferred anger of
Mrs. Brown, who keeps her anger hidden until she expresses it in
her art. Her art work comments sardonically on the horrors of physical abuse, and it transforms the violently repetitive tedium of domestic work into something rich and rare. In Art Work Byatt creates
a character large and vibrant enough to carry off a comic plot with
serious overtones, both feminist and aesthetic.
Brenda Bowman, the quilt maker in Carol Shieldss novel Happenstance, has aesthetic interests similar to those of Mrs. Brown: an
affinity for vivid, startling color; a desire to express the rich multiplicity of things, and a willingness to incorporate the idea of the unfinished into her art. Like Mrs. Brown, she draws on her feminist
anger as a positive impetus to creativity. Advertised as two novels in
one about a marriage in transition, Happenstance is a witty domestic
situation comedy in sixty chapters, half narrated from Jack Bowmans point of view and half from Brendas. The two stories are
printed back to back and upside down to one another so that neither one takes precedence.
Published in 1980 and set in 1978, the novel covers five wintry
days in January when Brenda exhibits quilts at her first national
crafts convention in Philadelphia while Jack stays at home with their
teenage children in suburban Chicago. Jacks story is darker than
Brendas because his career as a historian is foundering while her
career as a professional quilt maker is beginning brilliantly to take
off. Jack, a bumbling, self-conscious person, undergoes a series of
minor criseshe wanders miles in a snowstorm, his friend attempts
suicide, and he almost abandons a book he has worked on for years.
In the end, Jack will survive and so will the Bowman marriage, but
he never understands that his wife has become an artist. He initially
encouraged her quilting as a kind of occupational therapy when she
was depressed after the death of her mother. Secretly astonished at

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her success in selling her first work, he is grateful that she does not
call her workroom a studio or, worse, an atelier. He inwardly manufactures preposterous reasons to feel condescending about her art,
claiming that she is hopelessly materialistic, since she makes things
while he deals with ideas. Jack will not listen to Brendas friend Hap
when she describes to him the Van Gogh-like qualities of Brendas
prize-winning quilt. Jack refuses to acknowledge that the battle has
already been won and that by 1978 traditional womens crafts, especially quilting, have come to be considered serious art. A turning
point came in 1971, when the Whitney Museum of American Art
launched a dramatic exhibition of quilts hung on walls like paintings, emphasizing their graphic rather than functional qualities. But
Brenda herself is just coming to the revelation that she is an artist.
Brenda has a buoyant, cheerful spirit, appropriate to a modern
Angel in the House, but underneath there lies a streak of cynicism
and unrealized passion. Her story has a series of events in common
with Cats Eye, Spending, and Art Work: the preparation, the show,
unexpected success, and an interview with the media. Shields even
includes some light satire on academic quilt theory, especially of the
Freudian variety. Happenstance also tells a rather gentle love story in
which through a series of comic circumstances Brenda is thrown together with Barry Ollershaw, a metallurgist attending a conference
in the same hotel. Shut out of her room because her roommate, the
famous quilter Verna of Virginia, is entertaining a lover in bed,
Brenda ends up spending a romantic interlude with Ollie. Because
Verna has taken Brendas coat, she must walk through the street to
an interview wearing only her prize quilt. She gets very drunk at the
interview, but in the end she remains faithful to Jack, returning to
her normal life more confident and with her work honorably mentioned.
The title Happenstance links together the political and aesthetic
implications of Brendas story. Happenstance, in the sense of accident, is the machinery that drives the plot of the situation comedy,
and in this way Brenda is tested and tempted in a variety of trying
and embarrassing circumstances while away from the shelter of her
home. Happenstance, in the sense of historical circumstance, also
does much to determine the nature of Brendas experience. As a
forty-year-old housewife in the late 1970s, she is aware of having
missed out on the social upheavals that took place during her youth,
but recent changes in the status of women make it possible for her
to be taken seriously as an artist. Happenstance is also an element

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in her aesthetic. Brenda makes the point that her art is unpremeditated, relying upon elements of chance and sudden inspiration. Her
stitching seems to spring from her hands rather than from her head.
Brendas transformation from a seemingly ordinary suburban
housewife, an Angel in the House, into an artist takes place gradually and, ironically enough, before Brenda herself is fully aware of it.
Like Helen Cuffe and Marian Easton, she undergoes stages of transformation. Brendas Polish mother, poor and unwed, taught her to
sew out of necessity, though always emphasizing fashion and quality.
Brenda studies to be a typist and, a child of the 1950s, she gets married because she longs for a pink kitchen. In the 1970s she begins,
like many women, to feel unfulfilled with a new sense of growing,
unspecified anger; at this time she turns from the domestic craft of
sewing to the art of quilting. She converts the guest bedroom into
her studio and decorates its walls in the colors of Van Goghs bedroom. Later, at the crafts convention, Brenda learns that many other
serious quilters have undergone a similar transformation, and they
pay appropriate tribute to Virginia Woolf:
I finally laid down the law and got myself a studio. What about you,
Brenda?
Well
A room of ones own. Good old Virginia. She had her head screwed
on right.12

The comical but dramatic climax of Brendas recognition of herself


as an artist comes at the moment in Philadelphia when, left without
a coat, she has to rush through the wintry streets of Philadelphia
wearing her quilt The Second Coming. She strides along in the snowy
streets as if floating, feeling a new rush of confidence, power, and
purpose. She thinks of herself as having been creeping along for
forty years, years that were a waste, she feels, but also a preparation
for her new self: There was something epic in her wide step, a matriarchal zest, impossibly old. She was reminded suddenly of The
Winged Victory of Samothrace (123). Literally cloaked in her art,
she sees herself as a heroic figure, connected to the oldest tradition
in Western culture.
As Brenda grows into the role of an artist, her work also evolves.
Her quilts are like paintings, and yet, unlike painting, quilting has a
rich historical tradition among women, and women may readily
enter the stream of that tradition if they have the inclination and

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ability. Brendas earliest work makes use of representational folk


motifs but soon evolves into more inventive pieces as she discovers
an inner reservoir of inspiration. Like Woolf, Shields uses water imagery to describe the creative process: an inner pool of colour and
pattern which was oddly accessible and easily drawn upon. It
pumped naturally and steadily (17). In the second phase of her
work Brenda takes inspiration from the natural world, producing
quilts like Spruce Forest and Rock Splinter. In her third phase she turns
to abstract inventions. Her work becomes more radically unconventional and seemingly metaphysical, though deeply sensuous as well.
Disregarding old rules, she breaks through borders and even creates
irregular edges. The Second Coming, the quilt that wins honorable
mention at the exhibition, is mostly done in yellows and greens, with
a feel of intense heat rising from one corner and stainlike purple
shapes around the edges, resembling mouths. It is risky but not a
total departure from traditional design.
The fourth phase of Brendas art is represented by The Unfinished
Quilt, which she cannot take to the exhibition. This piece, which
arises out of a growing feeling of restless anger, is a cauldron of
colour in yellows (44). Composed of hundreds of pieces, some of
them minute, it violates the orderliness of traditional quilt making
as well as the orderly calm of her own earlier work. Brenda thinks of
it as a pulse of life traveling atop a torrent of private energy (45).
Brendas aesthetic of the unfinished causes her to reach toward the
outer boundaries of her own creative potential:
She had felt a wish to trap this torrent in stitches but had put off the
moment of completion. The quilting frame seemed altogether too rigid
to contain what she wanted. . . . She was, in fact, uncertain about how to
finish it, and feared that the weight of her hand might be overly heavy.
She wanted a pattern that was severe but lyrical; she would have to be
careful or she might rush it toward something finite and explanatory,
when all the while she wanted more. Perhaps . . . she wanted more than
mere cloth and stitching could accomplish. Nevertheless, more was suddenly what she wanted. What she spent her time thinking about. More.
(45)

Brenda fears giving finite completion to the work because it might


fall short of what her avid imagination desires: More. Critic Sarah
Gamble notes that Shields frequently uses a technique of blank
spots within her narratives to point to objects or experiences that
are resistant to description in language; The Unfinished Quilt is one

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such blank spot. Gamble writes, this quilt remains a piece forever in suspension between language and form: it will either remain
unfinished, in which case it will not really be a quilt, or it will be
finished, and thus exceed the linguistic parameters set by its designation.13 If the name of the quilt causes it to be perpetually suspended between the word and the form, then Shieldss description
of this particular work of art stands out as an example of the kind of
ekphrasis that creates a black hole effect in the narrative, as in To
the Lighthouse.
Brendas aesthetic of the unfinished is shared in a different way by
a very elderly Eastern Kentucky quilter at the conference, Dorothea
Thomas, who makes narrative quilts, an old and distinctly American
art form. Dorothea has come to realize that there are at least four
endings to every story, the real one, the one hoped for, the one
dreaded, and the counterfactual might-have-been. Having arrived at
an aesthetic of the unfinished, she regrets having given a single ending to so many of her earlier story quilts. Shieldss use of the back-toback alternate narratives in her novel would appear to add further
endorsement to this aesthetic principle.
In a more tentative and problematic way, Kyoko Moris novel also
portrays a craftspersons gradual recognition of herself as an artist.
Stone Field, True Arrow is about a weaver who is deeply dedicated to
her creative work but feels herself unworthy to be a pure artist
like her father, a painter, and sees herself as a humble artisan, a Martha. Moris semiautobiographical novel is the story of Ishida Mayumi, called Maya, a Japanese-born American living in Milwaukee
whose occupation is spinning, dyeing, and weaving cloths for the
garments that she makes. In Japanese, the pictorial figures that spell
out Mayas name have the meanings of stone, field, true, arrow, suggesting the hardships she suffers all of her life and the possibility of
a new direction for her life at the end of the novel. At the beginning
of the novel, Maya at age thirty-five is trapped in a dismal, burnt out
marriage with an English teacher, Jeff. The nearly total lack of communication between the couple is at least half Mayas fault, for she
has always been an extremely solitary, silent, inward person and she
sometimes retreats to her studio for days. Like the Lady of Shallott,
Maya does her weaving in a state of loneliness and isolation manifested by her physical surroundings:
Mayas weaving studio is upstairs from the boutique where she works
during the day. The building is a remodeled barn twenty minutes north

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of the city, in countryside thats as quiet at night as it must have been a


century ago. Alone at the loom by the window overlooking the gravel
parking lot and the cornfields beyond it, she will think of her father and
wonder how she ended up so far from him, in a landscape he never
saw.14

Alienated from her husband, Maya confides only in her lifelong


woman friend Yuko.
The novel becomes increasingly lyrical and psychologically complex as Maya meets and falls in love with Eric, a painter, extricates
herself from her marriage to Jeff when he shows signs of returning
to his first wife, and moves into her weaving loft. That Maya keeps
her relationship with Eric totally secret constitutes a betrayal of
Yuko, whom Maya comes close to losing as a friend. Maya very nearly
betrays Eric as well when, convinced that she is destined to be alone,
she stubbornly rejects the happiness he offers her and urges him to
leave her and take a job in New England, which he reluctantly agrees
to do. She tells him, I need to start being alone. Its what Im going
to do for the rest of my life (214). Only at the novels end does she
send Eric a signal of her love for him, in the form of a collage.
Mayas loneliness, which she sees as an essential part of her nature, stems from her troubled childhood. Mayas life, emotionally
and artistically, is saturated with her obsession with her silent father
who sent her away from Osaka to America at age thirteen to live with
her mother, subsequently returning all of her letters unopened. Her
learning of his death sets in motion all of the events of the novel.
Mayas Americanized mother Kay, who abused her as a teenager, remains a problematic and hostile figure in Mayas life but not a
haunting presence like her father. So obsessed is Maya with this absent father, Ishida Minoru (stone, field, harvest), that every significant
event in her life, even making love to Eric, carries with it thoughts
of the father whom she has idealized. As the novel moves forward, it
circles back again and again to what Maya sees as the defining moment of her emotional life, the moment when she was compelled to
enter the tunnel of the jetway to be carried away from her father, as
though he had delivered her out of his world. Upon his death Minoru leaves her a drawing of that same moment, with the father protecting the daughter from demons and hellfire as she enters the
tunnel to leave him.
The warm, rather delicate love story at the end of the novel is not
sufficient to counterbalance the emptiness, solitude, and terrible

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separateness of people and things that Mori dramatizes throughout


the novel. Mayas consciousness, like the novel itself, is filled with a
bleak, sad beauty expressed in natural images of flying birds, stone
fields, and such. Emotionally fragile yet very strong willed, Maya
faces the difficult task of weaving together the extreme opposites of
her life. Always, she has seen herself as caught between her brutally
abusive mother and her absent, revered father: her father with his
long silence and her mother with her bitter wordsboth of them
consumed by one kind of despair or another (257). And caught
between two countries and two cultures, representing her past and
her present, she always feels like an outsider. Although Maya
achieves a great deal of self-understanding, she is slow to come to
the realization that she is an artist in her own right, with her own
aesthetic ideals, and that weaving is not only an art she has mastered
but also a metaphor for her emotional life.
In looking at the connection between Mayas emotional life and
her art, it is useful to refer to Kyoko Moris memoir The Dream of
Water (1995), which anticipates the autobiographical elements in
the novel and provides a surprising perspective upon Moris portrait
of the artist. Possessing all of the emotional complexity and descriptive beauty of the novel, the memoir describes a highly intense sabbatical tour in which Mori returns to Japan to encounter the places
she left behind and to try to reconcile herself to her painful childhood, if possible. It is remarkable to see how Mori has transformed
the most important people and events of her life, so that her real
life relates to the novel as a negative does to a photograph. If nothing else, A Dream of Water reveals how deep-seated and intimate to
the author are the tragic family dynamics depicted in the novel.
Stone Field, True Arrow is a kind of reverse biography. In real life, it
was Moris mother, not her father, who took her to art exhibits and
encouraged her love of beauty. Her mother embroidered landscapes on cloth wall hangings and decorated her daughters blouses
with flowers and butterflies. The suicide of her mother when Mori
was twelve years old was the greatest loss of her life. Even more surprisingly, in real life her father is not an artist but a cruel, hateful
businessman whom she cannot forgive, along with her mean-spirited
stepmother, for the extreme physical and psychological abuse she
endured as a child. Her father frequently threatened to kill her with
a butcher knife for even appearing to be sullen or disobedient. Mori
had to leave Japan in order to escape him. Upon her return visit to
Japan, she finds her father as cruel and uncommunicative as ever.

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She gradually comes to realize that his neglect and unfaithfulness


also caused her mothers deep unhappiness and suicide. She has to
go on living with the knowledge that her father never loved her and
that she cannot forgive him but must always carry the burden of
hateful resentment inside herself. It was a bold act of redemption of
life by art for Mori to turn this monster into the loving father in the
novel who steeps his daughter in art, imparting to her the delights
of fairy tales and myths, and then mysteriously sacrifices her. The
lost mother is transformed into the fictional father, and yet it is to
her mother that Mori attributes her lifelong practice of the arts,
weaving as well as writing:
Knitting or weaving, I like to feel my fingers making something that is
more than useful . . . Everything I do is a passion . . . I dont do things
halfway. Choosing to be a writer, weaver, spinner, I want to take what
could only be an afternoons entertainment for my mother and make a
life out of it. I want to be immersed in what she could not have enough
of.15

In the story of Moris life, as in Carol Shieldss novel, the handicrafts


and skills of the dead mother are passed on to the daughter, who
consciously turns them to art. Although Mori sees a continuity between her own work with textiles and her writing, as though these
activities existed on a single spectrum, she portrays the weaver Maya
as doubting the value of her work. Mori emphasizes the ambiguous
nature of Mayas craftexisting somewhere between the aesthetic
and the utilitarianif only to dramatize Mayas dawning, tentative
realization that she is after all an artist.
Like other artists, Maya displays her work in a show, but in this
instance the venue of the show reveals the ambiguous nature of her
work. On the one hand, her dresses, shawls, vests, and scarves are
displayed as items for sale in an upscale Evanston boutique, not an
arts space. On the other hand, the show has a formal opening with
a poster and invited guests, and Mori refers to the shop as a gallery. There is even some brief theoretical discussion at the show
when a specialist in Japanese textiles from the Art Institute asks Maya
whether she has considered experimenting with traditional Japanese combinations of color. He is surprised when she replies that
her influences are not Japanese weavers but major Western artists
such as the impressionists, Rothko, Pollock, and others. Even
though she is denying at this point that she is an artist, she repro-

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duces in her garments the colors of the European landscape paintings that she viewed with her father in the museums of Kyoto.
In part, Maya is deeply troubled because she holds contradictory
ideas in her mind: the idea that she is unworthy to be an artist like
her father and her emerging sense that she is worthy. In art school,
her senior show, consisting of small oil paintings of bare fields and
rocks, was awarded second prize; nonetheless she used the prize
money to buy a loom and a sewing machine so as to pay tribute to
her father by engaging in more humble work than he. Later she
thinks that it was cowardly of her to choose not to paint, that she has
chosen a comfortable craft rather than doing the work which would
allow her to return to the moment of departure from her father and
meet him again on some level. She also imagines that the products
of her work are somehow less truthful than the art of her father: the
garments she makes cover up the sadness he laid bare in his drawings and paintings (96).
At the same time that she supposes her work to be less worthy,
Maya acknowledges that her father taught her to see as an artist sees,
he taught her the language of colors and light, of shapes and lines
and angles (205). That legacy remains with her: she never looked
at any landscape without noticing the fields of color, the shapes of
light, the alignment of the world (205). Since Mayas father sent
her away while she was still a child and never communicated with
her thereafter, except to leave her one drawing, the reader may feel
justified in wondering whether Mayas obsession with this silent artist is a projection of her own needsa need to be loved and to look
up to a master as well as some deep-seated, shameful need to feel
herself unworthy. Minoru seems like an emotional cipher. To the
reader of Moris memoir he is a figment of the imagination, yet
these mysteries add to the psychological richness of the novel.
When Maya concentrates on her weaving, her thoughts about her
work and about the creative process reveal her sophisticated sensibility as an artist. On her loom she weaves wool for a jacket in colors
that will move in subtle transitions from blue to purple to pink. The
jacket she plans to make reminds her of a Japanese fairy tale, told by
her father, in which a magical garment gives a female spirit the
power to fly home to heaven, leaving her earthly lover behind as she
dances her farewell to him in the air:
The colors move in fine increments, each bar the width of a piano key.
If the shades could make music as they moved toward pink, they would

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sound like the waves of the sea. The notes would glide across the blue
silence, one wave overlapping the next until they reached the shore and
found the pale pink of seashells. . . . the jacket is already flying in her
mind. In time, her fingers will set it free into the sky over the sea. (26)

Mayas synesthetic ekphrasis reveals her unified sensibility. Infused


with literary meaning, related to the art of music, and displaying a
transformative process in the strips of analogous colors that echo
the shades of the sea and seashore, the cloth, and the jacket it will
become, are not mere utilitarian things but a unified expression of
creative ideas drawn from nature and art.
Mayas understanding of the desired effect of a work of art echoes,
somewhat more simply, Virginia Woolf s ideas about composition
and stylistic rendering. Mori writes,
The trick in drawing and painting is first to get the foundations right
all the major horizontal and vertical lines of the overall composition
but that is not an end in itself. Laying out the foundation allows the
painter the freedom to move, to capture the shifting light that flickers
across the strict gridwork of the world. Even in her weaving, Maya hasnt
forsaken that principle. (275)

Whereas Woolf used the metaphors of bolts of iron and butterfly


wings to represent her desire to achieve solid structure while capturing the worlds evanescence, Mori speaks of strict gridwork and
shifting light to refer to solid composition and surface rendering.
The collage that Maya sends to Eric at the end of the novel is,
except for a few sketches, the only nontextile art she produces in the
novel, and as such it suggests that she will now feel liberated to work
in other media. The collage begins with a tracing of a map of the
Wisconsin countryside where Eric grew up on a farm. Maya adds
drawings of various landmarks in colored pencils, and then she
draws pictures of the many species of birds that she spotted on a
solitary bird-watching trip to the land of Erics childhood. She pastes
this semitransparent map over the letter from Japan announcing
her fathers death. She also glues on a piece of fabric from the jacket
she wore on the fatal day when her father sent her away. She sends
this collage to Eric as a coded message that she cannot give him up;
the collage is a blending of the two lovers cultures and of their
deepest private memories. Pieces of Erics life enter into Mayas art
almost as if the two had collaborated. Maya also thinks of the collage
as having hidden meanings:

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Like the song of a bird she recognizes before dawn or when the bird
is hidden in thick summer foliage, the combined images announce the
presence of something she cannot see or fully understand. Familiar and
yet mysterious, the shapes from their separate pasts intertwine. . . . (273)

Rather like the painting Unified Field Theory, described at the end of
Margaret Atwoods Cats Eye, the collage includes symbolic fragments of Mayas life story: a map, drawings, birds, a letter in Japanese, and a piece of cloth. The ekphrasis is clear enough, but even
so, the reader has difficulty seeing exactly what this complicated,
multilayered piece looks like, as in Mayas metaphor of the song of
a hidden bird. It is a personal and intimate message rather than a
work to be viewed by strangers. Along with the pictorial letter to
Eric, Maya also puts into the envelope extra, unattached pieces of
paper and cloth that did not fit into the collage, suggesting an aesthetic of the unfinished, but also hinting at the hope that pieces of
the past may somehow be retrieved and made to fuse.
While gazing at the night sky, Maya remembers the story of the
weaver star. In a Japanese folk tale told to her by her father, Vega, a
weaver, and Altair, a farm worker, neglect their work because they
are too much in love. As punishment they are placed as stars on opposite sides of the River of Heaven (the Milky Way) and they are
allowed to meet only once a year by crossing the river on the wings
of a swan; on this occasion they have the power to grant human
wishes for happiness. The story reflects the emotional tensions of
Mayas life. When she thinks of the figure of Vega, Maya emphasizes
Vegas loneliness along with her heavenly artistry: Separated from
her lover for an eternity, the weaver is still at her celestial loom.
Maya imagines her weaving a silver cloth of starlight, an indigo garment of the night (218). Yet the starry lovers are granted their annual meetings after all. Maya, although she will always remain a
lonely soul, is left at the end of the novel on the threshold of a surer
art and a deeper love. In this bleakly beautiful novel, in which loneliness seems so much like a natural condition of humans, especially
artists, Kyoko Mori is, like Virginia Woolf, Mary Gordon, and others,
holding out the possibility that art and love are compatible in the
end.
A domestic artist is apotheosized in Moris tale of the weaver who
becomes the star Vega. In fact, all of these stories and novels about
housewives and servants feature striking and vibrant images of
women: Byatts powerful cook; the servant Griet arrayed in her tur-

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ban and earring; Mrs. Brown in her bird-of-paradise trousers and


rainbow shirt; Brenda striding through the streets of Philadelphia
like a Winged Victory, cloaked in her quilt. These heroic images emphasize the radical transformation of characters who have become
artists or have begun to see themselves as artists. Their artistry is also
a transformative process by which ordinary materials from the domestic world are made into works of art that seem luxurious, beautiful,
or luminous: Mrs. Browns knitted dragon in its cave of treasures,
Brendas Unfinished Quilt like a torrent of energy, Mayas woven
woolen jacket with colors that sound like the waves of the sea. Simple materials are transformed into what Deirdre Madden calls objects charged with . . . knowledge and energy. The creative
expression of these workers in cloth is as authentic as that of any
other artist; it constitutes a transference of the self into the world by
creating objects infused with human thought and vitality.

Epilogue
The ku nstlerroman is especially well suited to women writers and
their feminist concerns because, as a record of someones efforts to
become an artist, the genre necessarily involves moments of transformation and growth. Where the protagonist is a visual artist rather
than a writer, the interactions of the two art formsthe implied dialogue of the writer with the painterenrich the theme of creativity
in the novel. The novels and stories in this study dramatize an ongoing struggle against obstacles and a gradual throwing off of constraints. Historically, these obstacles included the interruption of
the creative process by suitors, the trivializing of womens art, and
the difficulty of combining a professional career with womens domestic duties. Acquiring a studio of their own is a serious practical
matter as well as a symbolic attainment, signifying artistic autonomy.
Recent novels and stories have shown women artists still confronting
the Angel in the House and still occupying a liminal position vis-a`-vis
their society. Liminality itself can offer a kind of freedom, however,
when the artist experiences a sense of openness and possibility.
Chopin, Woolf, Johnston, Madden, Paton Walsh, and Gordon all
portray artists painting at the seashore. Perhaps writers choose to
describe painters facing the panoramic vastness of an ocean because
it implies a continuing expansion and enlargement of vision; the
seashore setting can suggest liberation as well as liminality. Carolyn

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Heilbrun defines liminality, in part, as a condition of leaving one self


and entering another; the artist at the edge of the sea is frequently
depicted as on the threshold of new self-discovery. So, too, a writer
crosses a threshold into another kind of reality when she explores
the mind of an artist. Even when serving as the narrator or central
consciousness of a novel, the artist figure retains a certain otherness
because she works in a medium beyond words.
A writer ventures into the world of visual art by creating the character and the inner life of a painter but also, more directly, through
ekphrasis. Passages of ekphrasis are the places where the dialogue
of the writer with the painter most intimately occurs. Most of the
embedded works of art in the novels considered here are described
by means of what John Hollander calls notional ekphrasis, that is,
the works of art are imagined by the writer, although there are a
few instances of actual ekphrasis in the novels of Banti, Byatt, and
Chevalier.16 In instances of notional ekphrasis the writer assumes
total control over the embedded work of art, inventing and describing it. Despite this controlling authorial imagination, there exists in
ekphrasis a power struggle of sorts between literary and visual art.
James A. W. Heffernan writes that ekphrasis stages a contest between rival modes of representation: between the driving force of
the narrating word and the stubborn resistance of the fixed
image.17 Ekphrasis manifests the dialogue between the writer and
the painter and embodies the tension between them. The reader
apprehends that tension in passages of ekphrasis as an abrupt crossing of borders back and forth between a literary experience and an
imagined visual one. These writers deliberately create such disjunctions in their narrative in order to expand their medium, to stretch
the fabric of fiction to make it include extralingual experience.The
authors want their fiction to provide something akin to the aesthetic
responses only obtainable in another medium, to cross what Woolf
called the sunny margin between the arts. It is evident that the
dynamics of ekphrasis are essential to the genre of the female ku nstlerroman.
When women novelists describe the artists work, a remarkable
continuity manifests itself in their aesthetic choices. These choices
embody the general principle that that which is shown as fragmented,
unfinished, or suspended in space or time is truer to the experience of creative
women than that which is shown as whole, finished, or firmly anchored. As
expressed in the embedded works of art, these elements elicit tension and anticipation in the viewer. Works conveying an image of

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suspension, such as Elaines Black Virgin ascended in the air above


the middle of a bridge or Monicas ghostly suspended Christs hovering above her male nudes, create a feeling of tension, as if one were
watching a high-wire act. Works which are fragmented or otherwise
unfinished, such as Claires body parts, Helens disappearing man,
or Stellas cut-off seascapes create a feeling of anticipation; they ask
the reader mentally to assemble the pieces or to imagine a completion. The author invites the readers interaction with the embedded
painting in two stages, first as an act of imagining the painting and
then as an act of anticipating what comes next or of mentally completing it. In requiring such exercises of the imagination, the novelist draws the reader more deeply into the painters world and into
the novel.
When it comes to the question of imagining color, the writer depends even more fully upon the reader, for here the writer is under
the most severe constraints. Color exists in its own silent kingdom
which the writer can only suggest, relying primarily upon the readers imagination to assist in bringing color to the black and white
page. When the author succeeds in these various descriptive feats,
the fictional artist is authenticated, and the novelist has provided
her with a fictive space in which her work can be exhibited, a studio
of her own.

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Notes
Introduction
Epigraph. Mary Gordon, Spending (New York: Scribner, 1998), 80.
1. Virginia Woolf, A Room of Ones Own (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,
1929), 80
2. Laura R Prieto, At Home in the Studio: The Professionalization of Women Artists in
America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), 5.
3. Ibid.
4. Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Writing Beyond the Ending (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985).
5. Virginia Woolf, Professions for Women, in The Norton Anthology of English
Literature, ed. M. H. Abrams et. al., 7th ed, vol. 2 (New York: W. W. Norton, 2000),
2216.
6. Ibid., 2217.
7. Carolyn G.Heilbrun, Womens Lives: The View from the Threshold (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 1999), 3.
8. W. J. T. Mitchell, Picture Theory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 152.
9. Ibid.
10. David Lodge, The Modes of Modern Writing: Metaphor, Metonomy, and the Typology of Modern Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977), 37.
11. Mitchell, Picture Theory, 158.
12. Linda Nochlin, Women, Art, and Power; and other Essays (New York; Harper and
Row, 1988), 98.
13. Gail Godwin, Violet Clay (New York: Ballantine, 1978), 33738.
14. Whitney Chadwick, Women, Art, and Society, 3rd ed. (London: Thames and
Hudson, 2002), 379.
15. Joyce Cary, The Horses Mouth (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1944),
15556.
16. Ibid., 179.
17. A. S. Byatt, Portraits in Fiction (London: Chatto and Windus, 2001), 70.
18. Cary, The Horses Mouth, 26263.
19. D. H. Lawrence, Women in Love (New York: Viking, 1920), 424.
20. Ibid., 421.
21. John Fowles, The Ebony Tower (New York: New American Library, 1974), 50.

Chapter 1. Opening the Portfolio


Epigraph. Ann Bronte , The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, 1848. (New York: Penguin, 1979),
363. Further page references are cited in the text.

242

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NOTES

1. Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Writing Beyond the Ending (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985), 84.
2. Laura R. Prieto, At Home in the Studio: The Professionalization of Women Artists
in America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), 4.
3. Whitney Chadwick, Women, Art, and Society, 3rd ed. (London: Thames and
Hudson, 2002), 41.
4. Anne Higgonet, Secluded Vision: Images of Feminine Experience in Nineteenth-Century Europe, in The Expanding Discourse: Feminism and Art History (New
York: Icon Editions, 1992), 171.
5. Linda Nochlin, Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? in Women,
Creativity, and the Arts, ed. Diane Apostolos-Cappadona and Lucinda Ebersole (New
York: Continuum, 1995), 58.
6. Deborah Barker, Aesthetics and Gender in American Literature: Portraits of the
Woman Artist (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2000), 17.
7. Jane Austen, Emma, 1816 Norton Critical Edition (New York: W. W. Norton,
1972), 1. Further page references are cited in the text.
8. Charlotte Bronte , Jane Eyre, 1847 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1993), 162. Further page references are cited in the text.
9. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman
Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale University
Press, 1979), 158.
10. Susan Morgan, Emma and the Charms of Imagination, in Jane Austens
Emma, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea, 1987), 71.
11. Park Honan, Jane Austen: Her Life (New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1987), 354.
12. Christine Roulston, Discourse, Gender, and Gossip: Some Reflections on
Bakhtin and Emma, in Ambiguous Discourse: Feminist Narratology and British Women
Writers, ed. Kathy Mezei (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), 45.
13. Honan, Jane Austen, 352.
14. Ibid.
15. Henri Bergson, Laughter, in Comedy, ed. Wylie Sypher (Baltimore: Johns
Hopkins University Press, 1956), 105.
16. Virginia Woolf, A Room of Ones Own (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,
1929), 7172.
17. Morgan, Emma and the Charms of Imagination, 69.
18. Carol T. Christ, Imaginative Constraint, Feminine Duty, and The Form of
Charlotte Bronte s Fiction, in Critical Essays on Charlotte Bronte, ed. Barbara Timm
Gates (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990), 65.
19. Elizabeth C. Gaskell. The Life of Charlotte Bronte (London: Oxford University
Press, 1951), 275.
20. Christine Alexander, The Early Writings of Charlotte Bronte (Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1983), 234.
21. Ibid, 237.
22. L. E. Moser, From Portrait to Person: A Note on the Surrealistic in Jane
Eyre, Nineteenth-Century Fiction 20 (Dec. 1965): 279.
23. Enid L. Duthie, The Brontes and Nature (New York: St. Martins, 1986), 138.
24. Gilbert and Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic, 433.
25. Sally Shuttleworth, Charlotte Bronte and Victorian Psychology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 181.

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26. Ibid., 18182.


27. DuPlessis, Writing Beyond the Ending, 87.
28. Ann Bronte , The Tenant, 68.
29. Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, The Story of Avis, 1877, ed. Carol Farley Kessler (New
Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers University Press, 1985), 56. Further page references are
cited in the text.
30. Phelps, Avis, 259n.
31. Huf, Linda. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman: The Writer as Heroine in
American Literature (New York: Frederick Unger, 1983), 46.
32. Phelps, Avis, xxiii.
33. Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, The True Woman, Independent 23, no. 1193 (12
Oct. 1871), in The Story of Avis,1877, ed. Carol Farley Kessler (New Brunswick, N.J.:
Rutgers University Press, 1985), 272.

Chapter 2. The Painterly Eye


Epigraph. Kate Chopin, The Awakening, Norton Critical Edition, ed. Margo Culley,
2nd ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1994), 79. Further references are cited in the
text.
1. Elizabeth Ammons, Women of Color in The Awakening, in The Awakening,
Norton Critical Edition, ed. Margo Culley, 2nd ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1994),
310.
2. Cristina Giorcelli, Ednas Wisdom: A Transitional and Numinous Merging, in New Essays on The Awakening, ed. Wendy Martin (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1988), 126.
3. Cynthia Griffin Wolff, Thanatos and Eros: Kate Chopins The Awakening, in
The Awakening, Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism, ed. Nancy Walker (Boston:
Bedford-St. Martins, 1993), 25556.
4. Joyce Dyer, The Awakening: A Novel of Beginnings (New York: Twayne, 1993),
99.
5. Elaine Showalter, Tradition and the Female Talent: The Awakening as a Solitary Book, in New Essays on The Awakening, ed. Wendy Martin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 46.
6. Michael T. Gilmore, Revolt Against Nature: The Problematic Modernism of
The Awakening, in New Essays on The Awakening, ed. Wendy Martin (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1988), 64.
7. Jean H. Hagstrom, The Sister Arts: The Tradition of English Pictorialism from Dryden to Gray (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), xxixxii.
8. Ibid., xxii.
9. Ibid.
10. Emily Toth, Kate Chopin (New York: William Morrow, 1990), 221.
11. Margo Culley, Edna Pontellier: A Solitary Soul in The Awakening, Norton
Critical Edition, ed. Margo Culley, 2nd ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1994), 251.

Chapter 3. Journey to the Silent Kingdom


Epigraph. Virginia Woolf, Pictures and Portraits, quoted in Diane Filby Gillespie,
The Sisters Arts: The Writing and Painting of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell (Syracuse:
Syracuse University Press, 1988), 76.

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1. Virginia Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, ed. Anne Olivier Bell, vol. 3 (1925
1930) (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980), 132.
2. Cheryl Mares, Reading Proust: Woolf and the Painters Perspective, in The
Multiple Muses of Virginia Woolf, ed. Diane F. Gillespie (Columbia: Missouri University Press, 1993), 58.
3. Ibid., 61.
4. Christopher Reed, Through Formalism: Feminism and Virginia Woolf s Relation to Bloomsbury Aesthetics, in The Multiple Muses of Virginia Woolf, ed. Diane
F. Gillespie (Columbia: Missouri University Press, 1993), 11.
5. Roger Fry, Vision and Design (Cleveland: Meridian Books, 1965), 12.
6. Ibid., 239.
7. Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse, 1927 (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981), 209. Further page references are cited in the text.
8. Fry, Vision and Design, 51.
9. Ibid.
10. Studies of the sister artists include Jane Dunn, A Very Close Conspiracy: Vanessa
Bell and Virginia Woolf (Boston: Little Brown, 1990); Diane Filby Gillespie, The Sisters
Arts: The Writing and Painting of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell (Syracuse: Syracuse
University Press,1988); and Panthea Reid, Art and Affection: A Life of Virginia Woolf
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996). A useful study of Woolf s aesthetic influences is David Dowling, Bloomsbury Aesthetics and the Novels of Forster and Woolf (New
York: St. Martins, 1985).
11. Gillespie, The Sisters Arts, 8.
12. Ibid.
13. Letter cited in Lisa Tickner, Vanessa Bell: Studland Beach, Domesticity, and
Significant Form, Representations 65 (Winter 1999): 75.
14. Virginia Woolf, The Question of Things Happening: The Letters of Virginia Woolf,
vol. 2, 19121922, ed. Nigel Nicolson (London: Hogarth, 1976), 400.
15. Virginia Woolf, Pictures, in The Moment and Other Essays, (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1948), 176.
16. Virginia Woolf, Walter Sickert: A Conversation, 1934, limited ed. (Letchworth,
Eng: Richard West, 1979), 26.
17. Ibid., 9.
18. Gillespie, The Sisters Arts, 89.
19. Virginia Woolf, Diary, 3:287.
20. Ibid., 106.
21. Geoffrey Hartman, Virginias Web, in Virginia Woolf: A Collection of Critical
Essays, ed. Margaret Homans (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1993), 37.
22. Marianne Hirsh, The Darkest Plots: Narration and Compulsory Heterosexality, in Virginia Woolf: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Margaret Homans (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1993), 208.
23. Ibid.
24. Hermione Lee, The Novels of Virginia Woolf (New York: Holmes and Meier,
1977), 136.
25. Quoted in Tickner, Vanessa Bell, 65.
26. Frances Spalding, Vanessa Bell (New Haven: Ticknor and Fields, 1983), 126.
27. Ibid., 171.
28. Ibid.

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29. Virginia Woolf, A Sketch of the Past, in Moments of Being: Unpublished Autobiographical Writings, ed. Jeanne Schulkind (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,
1976), 72.
30. Fry, Vision and Design, 33.
31. Jane Goldman, The Feminist Aesthetics of Virginia Woolf: Modernism, Post-Impressionism and the Politics of the Visual (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998),
185.
32. Virginia Woolf, Walter Sickert, 22.

Chapter 4. Figure and Ground


Epigraphs. Iris Murdoch, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (New York: Penguin, 1992),
88; Anna Banti, Artemisia,1953, trans. Shirley DArdia Caracciolo (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1988), 101. Further page references are cited in the text.
1. Svetlana Alpers, The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1983), xix.
2. Svetlana Alpers, Art History and its Exclusions: The Example of Dutch Art,
in Feminism and Art History, ed. N. Broude and M. Garrard (New York: Harper and
Row, 1982), 187.
3. Ibid.
4. R. Ward Bissell, Orazio Gentileschi and the Poetic Tradition in Caravaggesque
Painting (College Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1981), 64.
5. Ibid., 14.
6. Mary D. Garrard, Artemisia Gentileschi: The Image of the Female Hero in Italian
Baroque Art (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989), 171.
7. Ibid.
8. Garrard, Artemisia, 321.
9. Garrard, Artemisia, 337.
10. Garrard, Artemisia, 33738.
11. Volker Manuth, Rembrandt and the Artists Self-Portrait: Tradition and Reception, in Rembrandt by Himself, ed. C. White and Q. Buvelot (London: National
Gallery Publications, and The Hague: Royal Cabinet of Paintings Mauritshuis,
1999), 41.
12. Murdoch, Metaphysics, 87.
13. Ibid., 88.
14. Ibid., 96.
15. Ibid., 497.
16. Alpers, The Art of Describing, 188.
17. Ibid., 197.
18. Ibid., 198.
19. Iris Murdoch, The Sandcastle (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1957),
214. Further page references are cited in the text.
20. Giorgio Vasari, Artists of the Renaissance, a selection from Lives of the Artists,
trans. George Bull (New York: Viking, 1978), 3536.
21. Manuth, Rembrandt, 40.
22. Wallace Stevens, So-and-so Reclining on her Couch, in The Collected Poems
of Wallace Stevens (New York: Knopf, 1972), 295.

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247

NOTES

23. John Bayley, Elegy for Iris (New York: St. Martins, 1999), 120.
24. Ibid., 120.
25. Ibid., 122.

Chapter 5. Painters of the Irish Coast


Epigraph. Paul Muldoon, To Ireland, I (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 8.
1. Jennifer Johnston, The Railway Station Man (New York: Penguin, 1984), 1.
Further page references are cited in the text.
2. Deirdre Madden, Nothing is Black (London: Faber and Faber, 1994), 3. Further page references will be cited in the text.
3. Edna OBrien, Mother Ireland (New York: Penguin, 1976), 1.
4. Elizabeth Butler Cullingford, Gender, Sexuality, and Englishness in Modern Irish Drama and Film, in Gender and Sexuality in Modern Ireland, ed. A. Bradley
and M. G. Valiulis (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997), 176.
5. See David Lodge, The Modes of Modern Writing: Metaphor, Metonymy, and the
Typology of Modern Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977).
6. Susan M. Lowe, Frida Kahlo (New York: Universe Publishing, 1991), 50.
7. Ibid.

Chapter 6. Northern Light


Epigraphs. Margaret Atwood, The Page, in Murder in the Dark: Short Fictions and
Prose Poems (Toronto: Coach House Press, 1983), 44; Margaret Atwood, The Blind
Assassin (New York: Doubleday, 2000), 473.
1. Margaret Atwood, Survival (Toronto: Anansi, 1972), 54.
2. Ibid., 49.
3. Wallace Stevens, The Comedian as the Letter C, in The Collected Poems of
Wallace Stevens (New York: Knopf, 1972), 37.
4. Margaret Atwood, Survival, 55.
5. Margaret Atwood, The Edible Woman (New York: Fawcett, 1969), epigraph.
6. Margaret Atwood, Surfacing (New York: Bantam, 1972), 49.
7. Ibid., 64.
8. Margaret Atwood, The Sunrise, in Bluebeards Egg and Other Stories (New
York: Fawcett Crest, 1983), 280.
9. Ibid., 293.
10. Ibid., 298.
11. Ibid., 294.
12. Ibid., 296.
13. Nathalie Cooke, Margaret Atwood: A Biography (Toronto: ECW Press, 1998),
168.
14. Margaret Atwood, Cats Eye (New York: Bantam, 1989), 14. Further page references are cited in the text.
15. Judith Thurman, When You Wish upon a Star, New Yorker, 29 May 1989:
110.

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248

NOTES

16. Cooke, Margaret Atwood, 17.


17. John Updike, Love and Loss on Zyrcron, New Yorker, 18 September 2000:
145.

Chapter 7. Drawn from Life


Epigraph. Jill Paton Walsh, The Serpentine Cave (New York: St Martins, 1997), 181.
Further page references are cited in the text.
1. Eudora Welty, Place in Fiction in The Eye of the Story: Selected Essays and Reviews (New York: Vintage, 1990), 122.
2. Virginia Woolf, A Room of Ones Own (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,
1929), 91.
3. Virginia Woolf, A Sketch of the Past in Moments of Being; Unpublished Autobiographical Writings (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976), 6465.
4. Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,
1927), 186.
5. Ibid.
6. Jill Paton Walsh, Unleaving (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976), 70.
7. Virginia Woolf, A Room of Ones Own (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,
1929), 114.

Chapter 8. Space, Time, and a Muse


Epigraph. Mary Gordon, Spending (New York: Scribner, 1998), 80. Further page references are cited in the text.
1. Robert M. Polhemus, Comic Faith: The Great Tradition from Austen to Joyce (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 9.
2. Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,
1927), 83.
3. Robert M. Polhemus, Comic Faith, 2223.
4. Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse, 157.
5. William Fleming, Arts and Ideas, 9th ed. (Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace, 1995),
536.
6. Norman Bryson, Tradition and Desire: From David to Delacroix (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1984), 157.

Chapter 9. Servants, Housewives, Artists


Epigraph. A. S. Byatt, Art Work, in The Matisse Stories (New York: Vintage, 1993),
82.
1. Kyoko Mori, Stone Field, True Arrow (New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1995), 95.
Further page references are cited in the text.
2. A. S. Byatt, Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, in Elementals (New
York: Vintage, 1998), 220.

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249

NOTES

3. Ibid., 226
4. Ibid., 228.
5. Ibid., 226.
6. Jonathan Brown, Vela zquez, Painter and Courtier (New Haven: Yale University
Press, 1986), 16.
7. Tracy Chevalier, Girl with a Pearl Earring (New York: Penguin, 1999), 186.
8. Ibid., 36.
9. Ibid., 36.
10. Virginia Woolf, Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown, 1924, in The English Modernist
Reader, 19101930, ed. Peter Faulkner (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1986),
128.
11. A. S. Byatt, Art Work, in The Matisse Stories (New York: Vintage, 1993), 78.
Further page references are cited in the text.
12. Carol Shields, Happenstance (New York: Penguin, 1980), 80. Further page references are cited in the text.
13. Sarah Gamble, Filling the Creative Void: Narrative Dilemmas in Small Ceremonies, the Happenstance Novels, and Swann, in Carol Shields, Narrative Hunger, and
the Possibilities of Fiction, ed. Edward Eden and Dee Goertz (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 2003), 51.
14. Kyoko Mori, Stone Field, True Arrow (New York: Henry Holt, 2000), 13. Further
page references are cited in the text.
15. Kyoko Mori, The Dream of Water: A Memoir (New York: Fawcett Columbine,
1995), 99.
16. John Hollander, A Circle of Representations, in The Eye of the Poet: Studies
in the Reciprocity of the Visual and Literary Arts from the Renaissance to the Present, ed.
Amy Golahny (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1996), 224.
17. James A. W. Heffernan, Museum of Words: The Poetics of Ekphrasis from Homer to
Ashbery (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 6.

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PAGE 249

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Index
Alpers, Svetlana, 111, 122
Angel in the House, 1718, 239; in Atwood, 170; in Chevalier, 219; in
Chopin, 70; in Gordon, 209; in Johnston, 140; in Murdoch, 12223; in
Shields, 22930; in Woolf, 9192, 97,
239
Arnold, Matthew, 69
art and Eros, 17; in Anne Bronte ,
5255; in Atwood, 16465; in Banti,
115; in Chopin, 7072; in Gordon,
198200; in Murdoch, 124; in Woolf,
93
Artemisia (Banti), 15, 19, 26, 10920
Art Work (Byatt), 213, 22228, 239
Atwood, Margaret, 15273; Bodily Harm,
153, 161; Cats Eye, 15354, 15773;
echo of Woolf in, 159; Surfacing,
15455; Survival, 15253; The Blind
Assassin, 168; The Edible Woman, 152
53, 161; The Handmaids Tale, 153,
16162; The Sunrise, 15457
Austen, Jane: Emma, 16, 3542
Awakening, The (Chopin), 6484, 107
Banti, Anna (Lucia Lopresti): Artemisia,
15, 19, 26, 10920
Barker, Deborah, 36
Bayley, John, 131
Bell, Quentin, 102
Bell, Vanessa, 85, 8990, 1023; The
Conversation, 90; The Tub, 102
Bergson, Henri, 42
Bissell, R. Ward, 112
Bloomsbury group, 89
Bronte , Anne: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall,
3334, 5056
Bronte , Charlotte: Jane Eyre, 34, 3637,
4350, 1078

Brown, Jonathan, 217


Bruegel, Pieter, 171
Bryson, Norman, 211
Byatt, A. S.: Art Work, 213, 22228,
239; Christ in the House of Martha
and Mary, 21318, 238; influence of
Woolf on, 223
Caracciolo, Shirley DArdia, 15, 109,
113
Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi), 80,
11112
Carpaccio, Vittore, 196, 202
Cary, Joyce: The Horses Mouth, 2730
Cassatt, Mary, 78
Cats Eye (Atwood), 15354, 15773
Ce zanne, Paul, 147
Chadwick, Whitney, 25, 34
Chevalier, Tracy: Girl with a Pearl Earring, 21314, 21822, 23839
Chopin, Fre de ric, 69, 72, 74, 81
Chopin, Kate: The Awakening, 6484,
107
Christ, Carol, 43
Christ in the House of Martha and
Mary (Byatt), 21318, 238
Cowper, William, 19293
Cunningham, Michael, 189
Cunningford, Elizabeth Butler, 136
DuPlessis, Rachel Blau, 16, 50
Duthie, Enid, 46
Dyer, Joyce, 72
Ebony Tower, The (Fowles), 27, 3031
ekphrasis: definition of, 2122, 240; in
Atwood, 2223, 158, 169; in Byatt, 22
23, 216, 218, 225, 227; in Charlotte
Bronte , 4547; in Chevalier, 221; in

255

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PAGE 255

256

INDEX

Chopin, 23; in contrast to narrative,


2324, 240; in Johnston, 23; in Mori,
23738, in Paton Walsh, 180; in
Shields, 24, 232; in Woolf, 2324, 106
Emma (Austen), 3642
Forster, E. M., 96
Fowles, John: The Ebony Tower, 27, 3031
Fry, Roger, 86, 94; The Artists Vision,
8789, 1045
Gamble, Sarah, 23132
Garard, Mary, 112, 114, 11819
Gentileschi, Artemisia, 109; Judith Slaying Holofernes,114; Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, 11820. See also
Banti, Anna
Gentileschi, Orazio, 110, 11718. See
also Banti, Anna
Gilbert, Sandra M., 38, 47
Gillespie, Diane, 89
Gilmore, Michael T., 76
Giotto, 126
Girl with a Pearl Earring (Chevalier),
21314, 21822, 23839
Godwin, Gail, 25
Gordon, Mary: influence of Woolf on,
2012; Spending, 1415, 17, 156, 195
212, 220
Gowing, Lawrence, 122, 227
Great War, the (World War I), 9596, 99
Gubar, Susan, 38, 47
Hagstrum, Jean H., 77
Happenstance (Shields), 213, 22832
Heffernan, James A. W., 240
Heilbrun, Carolyn, 19, 153, 23940
Higonnet, Anne, 35
Hirsh, Marianne, 99
Hollander, John, 240
Hopkins, Gerard Manley, 182, 19394,
203
Horses Mouth, The (Cary), 2730
Huf, Linda, 58
Ingres, Jean-Auguste-Dominique,
21012
Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte ), 34, 3637,
4350, 1078

................. 11160$

INDX

Johnston, Jennifer: How Many Miles to


Babylon?, 135; Shadows on Our Skin,
135; The Railway Station Man, 13241
Joyce, James: A Portrait of the Artist as a
Young Man, 85, 101, 104, 199; The
Dead, 7980
Kahlo, Frida, 147, 14849; Henry Ford
Hospital, 14849; The Two Fridas, 149
Kessler, Carol Farley, 58, 60
ku nstlerroman: definition of, 13; male
writers of, 2731; women writers of,
23940
Lawrence, D. H., 85; Women in Love, 30
Lee, Hermione, 100
liminality, 15, 23940; definition of,
1920; in Atwood, 153156, 173; in
Chopin, 20, in Gordon, 203; in Johnston, 133; in Madden, 133, 142; in
Paton Walsh, 188
Lodge, David, 22, 142
Lowe, Susan, 148
Madden, Deidre: Birds of the Innocent
Wood, 143; Hidden Symptoms, 143; influence of Woolf on, 14647, 150;
Nothing is Black, 13234, 14151, 220,
239; One by One in the Darkness, 143;
Remembering Light and Stone, 143
Manuth, Volker, 120
Mares, Cheryl, 87
Matisse, Henri, 227
Maugham, W. Somerset: The Moon and
Sixpence, 2728
Mitchell, W. J. T., 21, 23
Monet, Claude, 25, 146
Moon and Sixpence, The (Maugham),
2728
Morgan, Susan, 38
Mori, Kyoko: echo of Woolf in, 237;
Stone Field, True Arrow, 21314,
23239; The Dream of Water, 23435
Moser, L.E., 4546
Murdoch, Iris: aesthetic theory of, 26,
94, 187, 215, 12022; Metaphysics as a
Guide to Morals, 12022; The Sandcastle, 10910, 12231

04-01-05 07:53:54

PS

PAGE 256

257

INDEX

Nochlin, Linda, 24, 36


Nothing is Black (Madden), 13234, 141
51, 220, 239

24041; in Atwood, 17273; in Byatt,


225; in Charlotte Bronte , 24, 46; in
Gordon, 207; in Woolf, 101, 106
Swinburne, Algernon Charles, 8081

OBrien, Edna, 134


Paton Walsh, Jill: Goldengrove, 19394;
influence of Woolf on, 188194; The
Serpentine Cave, 17494; Unleaving,
19394
Phelps, Elizabeth Stuart: The Story of
Avis, 16, 3435, 5052, 5662
pictorialism, 16, 7782, 92
Piero della Francesca, 131
Polhemus, Robert, 197, 201
political aspects of art, 1415, 6467
Prieto, Laura R., 14, 34
Railway Station Man, The (Johnston),
13241
Reed, Christopher, 87, 107
Rembrandt van Rijn, 127
Roulston, Christine, 40
Sandcastle, The (Murdoch), 10910,
12231
Sassoon, Siegfried, 187
sea symbolism, 1920, 133
serial painting, 25, 135, 139, 146,
16970
Serpentine Cave, The (Paton Walsh),
17494
Shields, Carol: echo of Woolf in, 230;
Happenstance, 213, 22832, 239
Showalter, Elaine, 74
Shuttleworth, Sally, 4950
Spalding, Frances, 102
Spending (Gordon), 1415, 17, 156,
195212, 220
Spenser, Edmund, 6061
Stevens, Wallace, 128, 153
Stone Field, True Arrow (Mori), 21314,
23239
Story of Avis, The (Phelps), 16, 3435,
5052, 5662
Sunrise, The (Atwood), 15457
Surfacing (Atwood), 15455
suspension in womens art, 2021, 2425,

................. 11160$

Tenant of Wildfell Hall, The (Anne


Bronte ), 3334, 5056
Thurman, Judith, 160
To the Lighthouse (Woolf ), 1315, 17,
2324, 2627, 85108, 18894
unfinished, aesthetic principle of the,
1516, 2425, 3132, 35, 24041; in
Atwood, 173; in Austen, 37; in Banti,
26, 120; in Byatt, 226; in Johnston,
134; in Madden, 134, 142; in Mori,
238; in Murdoch, 111, 129; in Paton
Walsh, 17981, 187; in Shields, 228,
23132
Updike, John, 168
Van Eyck, Jan, 129, 167
Vela zquez, Diego: Kitchen Scene with
Christ in the House of Martha and Mary,
21418
Vermeer, Jan, 122, 151, 2045, 21822;
Girl with a Pearl Earring, 220; Woman
with a Pearl Necklace, 221; Young
Woman with a Water Pitcher, 22122
Welty, Eudora, 18384
Wolff, Cynthia Griffin, 68
Women in Love (Lawrence), 30
Woolf, Virginia: A Room of Ones Own,
14, 42189, 19495; A Sketch of the
Past, 1035, 18990; Between the Acts,
87; Diary, 85, 98; influence of, 2627,
31, 14647, 150, 18894, 2012, 223,
230, 237; Modern Fiction, 88, 103;
Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown, 103,
223; Professions for Women,
1718; To the Lighthouse, 1315, 17,
2324, 2627, 85108, 18894; Walter
Sickert: A Conversation, 9091,93, 106.
See also Angel in the House
Yeats, William Butler, 13738

INDX

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PS

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