Seduction and Betrayal
Seduction may be baneful, even tragic, but the seducer at his work is essentially comic. It is a question whether there is such a thing as seduction when the affections play a part; and yet this is a murky matter because of the way affections, even those of tenderness and concern, have a tendency to diminish and augment, to transform themselves under the influence of experience, satisfaction, or disappointment. The seducer as a type, or as an archetype, hardly touches upon any of our deep feelings unless there is some exaggeration in him, something complicated and tangled and mysteriously compelling about a nature that has come to define itself through the mere fact of sex. For the most part the word "seduction" indicates effort of a persevering, thoughtful sort. When it is successful we naturally look about for a lack of resolution and resistance in the object; guile and insistence are clever at uncovering pockets of complicity. A seduction is the very opposite of the abrupt, which is, of course, rape.
The most interesting seducers are actually rapists; for instance, Don Giovanni and Lovelace. Their whole character is trapped in the moil of domination and they drudge on, never satisfied, never resting, mythically hungry. The fact that the two characters mentioned are gentlemen gives a stinging complication to their obsessions. Ritual comes naturally to them and birth bestows rights and blurs cruelties. What we may feel is a misplaced elaboration of desire in a gentleman would be in a man of less imagination and of inferior social and personal decoration simply coarse or criminal. In the common man, excessive demand for sex is repulsive. Gentlemen merely run the risk of being ridiculous. To have in Ispagna alone, mille e tre, is a most exhausting dedication, and also quite funny.
The danger of ridicule must, in literature, be circumvented if the man is to retain force, magnetism, spirit. (Dignity is scarcely at stake, since it is the mark of a gentleman to look upon dignity as a quality given and once given the last to crumble.) When the Don in Mozart's opera is found in the first scene dragging Donna Anna about, rushing into her bedroom like a burglar, we know that he is a complete fool. ("How can I believe a nobleman guilty of such a crime?" Don Ottavio, another fool, asks.) It is only when the Don murders Donna Anna's father, the Commendatore, that he is redeemed as a character, a creation. He who was a fool has suddenly become sinister, evil, damned; the attention immediately shifts from the victim, the assaulted, sobbing woman, back to the great violator himself. The Don still does not have motive and we cannot understand his raging pursuits, yet we see how complete is his will, his defiance, how devastating his empty energy. The Don will ultimately have, in the opera, a cruel, useless courage in living out his nature to its very end.
In the waste of sensuality, boredom, compulsion, the Don never shows love or pity for the women. That we soon accept, aesthetically, as the frame of the plot of his existence; we are then free to go the next step with him. We accept that he is saved from being a fop by his equal lack of pity for himself. There is nothing self-protective in the Don. If he had called upon the favors of some higher nobility to intercede for him, he would be contemptible in every part of his nature. As it is, he is awful, trapped in his own being. His "extensive sentiments" and his "tutte quante" are a malignant growth which he, either by the charms of his character or the weakness of women, wishes to present as a caprice, a temperament, a disposition perfected by a fantast.
Donna Elvira's fascination with the Don makes her a more interesting person than Donna Anna, who is, after the murder and perhaps before, only interested in her father, a totemic figure well-dressed in stone. We do not know whether to call Donna Elvira's attraction under the name of love; perhaps, yes. She herself gives hints of some liking for exorbitance, and her love is scarcely put to the test of endurance because the Don gives her such a short tenure as his betrothed--three days in Burgos.
It is a lack in the Don that he doesn't understand the way Donna Elvira's passion for him makes him a more seductive and profound lover because she is interesting and complicated herself. It does not occur to him that she is an ornament his tawdry soul can well use. Instead he runs around in the shadows of her infatuation, inanely whispering, "poverina, poverina." But nothing indeed prepares us for his inexplicably ferocious jest in falsely reawakening Elvira's love only to pass his cloak to his lowly servant, Leporello, and command him to make love to her. The Don sinks here into the depths of coarse, personal dramaturgy. His invention has run out, his labors have exhausted his plotting imagination--and his own delight in the unworthy caper almost destroys him as a character. He would have returned to his condition of fool, if it were not that he is saved again by the indestructible romantic concentration of Donna Elvira. She is soon again pitying him, and by this eternal flaming of hers the Don is rescued from inane buffoonery and restored once more to his interestingly sinister shape.
The illicit, as R. P. Blackmur writes in his extraordinary essay on Madame Bovary, and its identification with the romantic, the beautiful, and the interesting, lies at the very center of the dramatic action in the novel form. "The more lawful the society, as we say the more bourgeois the society, the more universal is the temptation to the illicit per se, and the stronger the impulse to identify it if not with life itself at least with the beauty of life." For us now, the illicit has become a psychological rather than a moral drama. We ask ourselves how the delinquent ones feel about their seductions, adulteries, betrayals, and it is by the quality of their feelings that our moral judgments are formed. If they suffer and grieve and regret, they can be forgiven and even supported. If they boast or fall into an inner carelessness, what they are doing or have done can seem to be wrong. Love, even of the briefest span, is a powerful detergent, but "destructiveness" is a moral stain. In novelistic relations, where the pain inflicted is only upon the feelings of another person, everything is blurred. It is hard to know when rights have been exceeded or when obligations are adamantine.
In The Scarlet Letter, has Hester Prynne been betrayed by the Reverend Dimmesdale? If the matter lies only inside her own feelings, perhaps we would have to say that she is beyond betrayal. Betrayal is not what she herself feels, not the way her experience shapes itself in her mind and feelings. Love, the birth of Pearl, her illegitimate child, her prison term for adultery, her sentence to wear the letter A on her breast, the insufficient courage of her lover, Dimmesdale--what provocation, what abandonment. And yet these visitations, these
punishments, are embraced by Hester like fate. They are the revelations out of which prophecy is made, and so they come to her, not
as depressing clouds of consequence, but as opportunities for self-knowledge, for a strange and striking stardom.
Dimmesdale, on the other hand, is stunned by the illicit. It corrupts the air around him; he cannot breathe because of his sin. Thinness, pallor, trembling, wasting, heartsickness: such are the words that define his state. He feels his transgression more vividly than anything else in his life. He takes society's attitude toward his adultery with Hester and, thus outcast in his own being, he becomes the betrayed person, almost the betrayed woman. D. H. Lawrence's idea that the "greatest triumph an American woman can have is the triumph of seducing a man, especially if he is pure" is a Lawrence paradox arising out of his suspicious dislike of Hester Prynne. It is not true that she seduced Dimmesdale, but it is true in some deep sense that the sexes are reversed in the peculiar terms of his suffering, his sinking under it, the atmosphere around him of guilt, desperation, self-torture, and lonely remorse. The weak and the strong are clearly not where we would expect them to be. Moral courage is the dominating force in Hester Prynne, just as fearfulness, neurasthenic self-abasement are the fate of Dimmesdale.
Still, it would be outside history and a psychological falsification for us to look contemptuously upon poor Dimmesdale. He is occupied with God, truly; he has his mission on earth as a clergyman. His pastorate is serious, his integration in Puritan society is passionate. He is a man in time, living under the dispensation of his moment and his region, Boston, 1642. We cannot condemn his religious scruples, his Puritan dogmatism. We can understand his not wishing to remove himself, by the confession of adultery, from the possibility of bringing light and goodness to his world. It is actually Hester Prynne who is outside history. Her indifference to adultery, her staying on in Boston with her illegitimate daughter, Pearl, her defiance, the striking skepticism of her mind, the moral distance she sets between herself and the hysterias of the time--these qualities are the cause for wonder.
The heroine whose fate is defined by adulterous love is a central and enduring theme in fiction. Love and power are the landscape in which imagined destiny is lived. Power as a consequence of conventional love is suitable for comedies and for the intense dramas of the well-to-do classes and their daughters. Love destroys power in the great tragic heroines, in Greek drama, in Anna Karenina, in Cleopatra. It is infinitely more complicated and mixed in the bourgeois novel. What is asked of the heroine is not always a grand passion, but a sense of reality, a curious sort of independence and honor, an acceptance of consequence that puts courage to the most searing test.
In the novel, when the heroine's history turns about a sexual betrayal, it matters whether she is the central figure in the plot or a somewhat less powerfully and less fully considered "victim" on the periphery. If she is the central figure, psychological structure seems to demand a sort of purity and innocence. Not physical innocence, but a lack of mean calculations, of vindictiveness, of self-abasing weakness. Sexual transgression loses its overwhelming character as a wrong or as a mistake when the persons have virtues of a compelling sort, or spiritual goodness, or the grandeur of endurance. The inner life of the woman matters, what she feels and has felt, the degree of her understanding of the brutal cycles of life.
The problem of creating sympathy for the woman whose destiny must run the narrow road laid out after a disastrous surrender or seduction loomed larger in the minds of authors than it needed to loom. Fiction and drama have always been drawn magnetically to this plot, to this beginning of fated complication, and the situation inevitably partakes of the universal. The experience is common--richly, painfully known, easily imagined and felt. Lust--and then, for the women, stoicism. This is the highest choice. Yet, to be a heroine, to occupy the center of the stage as a sort of incarnation of love or sexual consequence, definite enrichments, heights, intricate particularities must set the woman apart. Her fall or her fate can only be truly serious if a natural or circumstantial refinement exists.
Again Hester Prynne is odd and we wonder how Hawthorne actually looked upon her indifference to society, her radical challenge, her sexual--what to call it?--valor. Of course, Hester is not very greatly under the spell of sensuality. Instead, she is an ideologue, making by way of her adulterous isolation a stand against Puritanism. In many respects, the characters in The Scarlet Letter are not characters at all, but large, fantastically painted playing cards. Symbolic action is Hester's role.
Prison, where the novel starts, is a natural school for radicals, especially for those of a theatrical disposition. And Hester Prynne is very much of that sort, a dramatic, theatrical radical. Another radical moralist of the time, Anne Hutchinson, is mentioned early in the book--a woman, banished, rejected, defiant. The two are united in their public characters: Anne Hutchinson begins where Hester ends, working on the minds of troubled women, nursing the sick. And indeed what is Hester's strength except a "covenant of Grace," and a "peculiar indwelling of the Holy Ghost" of the kind Anne Hutchinson laid claim to: both make the claim of personal experience above the social or doctrinal. "What we did had a consecration of its own," Hester says.
Hester is beautiful, dark-haired, dignified, a morally complicated woman who gradually takes on a "marble coldness." She seems dramatically uninterested in religion, just as she is strikingly free in her mind about adultery. "She assumed a freedom of speculation, then common enough on the other side of the Atlantic, but which our forefathers had they known it would have held a deadlier crime than that stigmatized by the scarlet letter." The essential decision of Hester's is "I will not speak," she will not implicate Dimmesdale. She refuses any of the self-saving possibilities--but why? Her "open ignominy" has a life of its own, growing out of the peculiar strength of the heroine as a general literary conception. Hester, actually, is in the classical mode: she has a fate rather than a character.
Henry James: "In spite of the relation between Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale no story of love was surely ever less of a 'love-story.' To Hawthorne's imagination the fact that these two persons had loved each other too well was of an interest comparatively vulgar; what appealed to him was the idea of their moral situation in the long years that were to follow." The Scarlet Letter is a drama of sin rather than of love. To Hester the idea that adultery is a crime is scarcely considered; she does not seem prepared to make a stand for "love" or for the purity of her feelings. She is not an apostle for sex. She is a "wild Indian" and, as Hawthorne says, with no reverence left for clerics, judges, gallows, fireside, or the church. It is not against her punishment that she flings herself--"the tendency of her fate and her fortune had been to set her free." She is a natural outcast of the superior sort: serious, somewhat vain of her dignified, sly endurance, attached to the symbolic and emblematic in the usual way of a radical wanting to signify ideas in an outward, concentrated way as he walks among the mass. It is true, as Lawrence says in fury, that she wears her damned A like a duchess's coronet. Everything about her is marvelously dramatic and challenging.
Of course, Hester cannot take the wickedness of adultery seriously because it has brought her little Pearl. Pearl is serious, living is serious, and from the natural pessimism of women with their "imprisonment" in consequence she draws a natural reprieve from the kind of moral lingering in the past that afflicts Dimmesdale. Pearl, her future, the far-flung, unknown life stretching out ahead of the sin: these mean nothing to Dimmesdale. He lingers back, preoccupied with the dead action, the fascination of transgression, the fearful power of it. He is truly in a state of lunacy, as Hester sees when they meet in the forest among the Indians.
Little Pearl, with her "hard, metallic lustre," is a true child of the Puritan inclination to worry the wound. She has no morals at all. She has very early leaped onto another level of possibility and will live it through without remorse or fearfulness. She becomes the glowing American girl abroad, sending home letters "with armorial seals upon them, though of bearings unknown to English heraldry." Out of this tale of repression and sorrow, of social isolation, spiritual torment, and historical hypocrisy, Hawthorne created two women with fanatical
stamina, with an independence of mind and action that went beyond anything the world could rightly have asked of them in their time--or later. Mrs. Hawthorne said, when the book was read aloud to her, that she liked it but it gave her a headache.
Where does the strength come from? First of all it comes from the minds (the observations?) of men, since the novels were written by men and those by women draw largely upon the weight of these powerful conceptions and balance of relations. Women, wronged in one way or another, are given the overwhelming beauty of endurance, the capacity for high or lowly suffering, for violent feeling absorbed, finally tranquilized, for the radiance of humility, for silence, secrecy, impressive acceptance. Heroines are, then, heroic; but the heroism may turn into an accusation and is in some way feared as the strength of the weak.
The Wife of Bath, coarse, brilliant, greedy, and lecherous as any man, tells a tale of infinite psychological resonance. A young knight who is to be banished from the court for rape is saved by the intervention of the queen and her ladies. He is to regain his place in life by setting out upon a perilous journey to find the answer to the question: What is it women most desire? After the usual torments and trials, the winning answer is discovered: Women desire to have mastery over their husbands.
Novelists are often rather hard on those seduced and betrayed girls who are bereft of heroic quality. Without a transcendent purity of some degree to free them from rebuke and condescension, the girls choke in a tangle of weakness, sensuality, vanity, illusion, irresolution. Hetty Sorrel, in Adam Bede, is beautiful, ignorant, fond of clothes; she prefers handsome romantic men to good, kind ones. She dreams in the most provincial way of alliances far beyond her possibility as a poor farmer's niece. George Eliot lays the hand of doom on Hetty for her obtuse hope, her trembling eyelashes, her rushing surrender. She hasn't the quality to be tragic. Instead she is something smaller and lesser--she is miserable. But miserable in the most extreme way, because she is profoundly betrayed by her beauty, by the shallow and easy conscience of her lover, Arthur Donnithorne. Hetty becomes pregnant and sets out across the fields and roads to look for her absent lover; everything about her condition is marked by pain, confusion, helplessness. Love and abandonment have made her as deeply, hideously suffering as some starving, wounded animal. Her child is born and she kills it and is tried for murder.
One of the most brilliant moments in this book comes when we are allowed to enter the seducer's thoughts at just the moment when Hetty--far away--is being doomed. Arthur Donnithorne is daydreaming in his light-hearted, pleasantly self-loving way. He misses Hetty somewhat and yet he feels quite happy imagining that this girl, who has in life just been sentenced to death, must be what his will has ordained for her--agreeably settling down into her proper sphere with her appropriate husband, Adam Bede. Thank heaven it had turned out so well! he thinks.
George Eliot says about Hetty, "Hers was a luxurious and vain nature, not a passionate one." Hetty is susceptible and somewhat shallow. In fiction it is susceptibility that prompts the greatest anguish of betrayal. Women of a more complex character cannot be destroyed in the manner of Hetty Sorrel. Her beseeching glances are the key to an intolerable vulnerability, a lack of spiritual depth. Hetty is soon, as a consequence of seduction, utterly, pitifully desperate. There is everything moving in her bewildered flight to look for her lover, but it is moving in the way of a trapped creature. She has not learned much about herself or human nature; she knows only that she is desperate, miserable.
The author is ambivalent. She doesn't quite respect Hetty, and sympathy is mixed with the thread of exasperation. Hetty has been betrayed, and yet how hard it is to keep from blaming her just a little for her own hell. Sensuality is a burden and sometimes it is touching, but it is not grand, not heroic. Those who suffer from a mere consequence of love, pregnancy, are implicated in their own fall. The consequence is mechanical, universal, repetitive; it will not alone make a tragic heroine or a heroine of any kind. Secret sympathy for the man is everywhere in literature when the mere fact of this sexual cause and effect is the origin of the woman's appalling suffering. If she can be betrayed she is betrayable; we would not expect otherwise of him, the seducer. To accept consequence would ruin his life, be outside his plan, class, history--whatever his own plot may be.
Is it really expected that Arthur Donnithorne, a well-born young man of the gentry class, would marry Hetty, a penniless, beautiful, ignorant young farm girl? No. A reader coming forth with that simple solution would be drastically outside the spirit of the period and of the novel as it was written. Nothing appeared to be less simple than these matters of class in marriage. Fear of misalliances, complications of inheritance, played a grotesque role in the lives of the young, causing respectable girls to live under the shadow of chaperones whose dark ignorance and conventionality were like a withdrawing of the sun. The most elaborate manners, problems of introductions, of walks, of meetings, of parental tyranny, forced marriages, interrupted romances, make of the novels of Jane Austen a sort of social hieroglyph.
No, we accept Arthur Donnithorne's drifting away as we assume a harvest at the end of the summer. He himself comes to a pause in his love, a "natural" one that tells him romance is not static and fixed, but moving and changing in a fearful way. He would like to stop before misery falls, as if he were running from a thunderstorm. His way is a tenderly cruel letter, no doubt sharply and truly expressing his feelings as he understands them.
I have spoken truly when I have said that I loved you and I shall never forget our love. . . . I cannot bear to think of my little Hetty shedding tears when I am not there to kiss them away. . . . And I feel it would be a great evil for you if your affections continued to be so fixed on me that you could think of no other man who might be able to make you happier by his love than I ever can. . . . And since I cannot marry you, we must part--we must try not to feel like lovers any more. . . .
For Hetty the letter was "a horrible sensation" and her dull misery sets in. It is too late, for her; she is stabbed by the letter and stabbed by the consequence of "love"--her pregnancy, which Arthur does not know about. Yet she is not great enough for a transfiguration. George Eliot says that the letter "afflicted her pleasure-craving nature with an overpowering pain." In the use of "pleasure-craving" a judgment is made. We are directed to remember Hetty's thoughtless susceptibility, her lack of a proper cynicism, on the one hand, or a saving resignation, a revelation or premonition of danger on the other. But neither a moral nature nor a bright social intelligence instructs Hetty in the practical possibilities of her romance with Arthur Donnithorne.
She is a victim, of what? Her beauty and her love of trinkets, her insufficient analytical powers, her refusal of intuition, her sensuality, her coquetry, her social class and her lover's higher class. She is a victim of errors, impressions, imperfections. She is merely romantic in an ordinary way, an ordinary romance and longing are not "serious" attitudes for one in her position. Her expectations trivialize her feelings and later her pain, loneliness, and panic devastate her judgment so greatly that she covers her baby with leaves and abandons it in the woods. Hetty is pathetic, her fate is awful, we weep for her--but she is not a heroine. She is an instance, an example, a prisoner of cause and effect: flirtation, surrender, pregnancy, misery. This is the plot of existence.
The fact that Hetty Sorrel is only seventeen will not alter the plot or her downward spiral or our withholding from her, in the terms of the novel, the more deeply felt identifications. She suffers, yes, but we knew that was coming. Nothing surprises us about Hetty's misery. Her lack of foreknowledge is a pity, but it is not redeeming. This is the obdurate cycle. Hetty simply hasn't the right sort of nature, none of the heroine's patience or endurance of the conditions of life, none of those crafty, observant hesitations we would wish from the life of realistic country people. Everything is an illusion except her misery. Nor can she turn inward, for there is just a deadness there. She is like Emma Bovary at last trying to pray for relief from pain. Emma calls out to the Lord in the same words she had used for her lover. "It was to make faith come; but no delights descended from the heavens, and she arose with tired limbs and with a vague feeling of gigantic dupery."
Roberta, in Dreiser's An American Tragedy, is condemned to death for her ordinariness, her whining hopelessness, combined, of course, with pregnancy. Clyde Griffiths is scarcely more propitiously organized and endowed for life than Roberta and yet, in him, the vain, pleasure-loving sensuality that unhinges the fortunes of Hetty Sorrel has the character of social movement, economic hope. We can see that he and Roberta might have come together in loneliness and isolation, but we can also see that Clyde suddenly glimpsing the cars, "the gowns," the parties of Lycurgus will almost immediately find Roberta downward, depressing, beseeching, threatening, and therefore intolerable.
Clyde has the susceptibility of his ignorance. He too is in many ways a trusting, yearning girl; he wants to put his fate in the hands of women he feels are superior to him, who own things, who live--as he sees it--with assurance and glitter and possibility. Earlier he is "seduced" by the Green-Davidson Hotel in Kansas City. It is like Hetty with her trinkets. "The wraps, furs, and other belongings in which they appeared, or which were often carried by these other boys and himself across the great lobby and into the cars or the dining rooms or the several elevators. And they were always of such gorgeous textures, as Clyde saw them. Such grandeur."
And when Roberta is desperate, when she is most desolating to Clyde's wishes, it is just then that his shallow and passionate need for glamour, his hope for an easy sliding into prosperity, appear as a true possibility, a swooping stroke of luck. Of course, the reader knows more about Clyde than he can know; he is like Hetty--utterly, foolishly without reservations, without a saving reality. A more serious and thoughtful and genuine young man would have acknowledged the rebuffs, the petty snobbishness and corruption of the life he longed for. All Clyde can see in his pitifully longing dreams is that life seems to beckon, when it truly does not--and that Roberta is death, which she truly is. "For, as he now recalled, and with an enormous sense of depression, Roberta was thinking and at this very time, that soon now, and in the face of all Lycurgus had to offer him--Sondra--the coming spring and summer--the love and romance, gaiety, position, power--he was going to give all that up and go away with and marry her. Sneak away to some out-of-the-way place! Oh, how horrible! And with a child at his age!" Later in his reverie, he cries out, "The loss! The loss!"
The whole drive of the novel is to make us feel Clyde's loss, even though we know him born to be a loser. Still, Roberta is a heavy burden. He is young and his dream, if he is allowed to share in his uncle's prosperity, is to attain a corrupt, foolish, vain, and empty life. And yet the injustice is that he has no preparation even for that, no stamina or hardness; he has nothing except his own idle need for indulgence, fantasy, the trinkets of existence. What he needs he does not have: money, support of family, aggression, will. Nevertheless, Clyde is the center of feeling in the novel. We pity him and we pity Roberta and always we pity him more. By her death, Roberta is caught in the ultimate consequence of sex; but the electric chair for Clyde seems more horrible, a doom of many causes, the end of all the false promises of life. The deaths are not for love, but for sex--the annihilation at the end of the road when things go wrong and responsibility takes its toll.
For all Clyde's weakness and vanity, his impossible ignorance and unworthy folly, we agree that somehow Roberta is exacting too great a price. She asks his whole life, paltry and trashy as the life he wants may be. For her, what would have made it possible for us to accept her totally, not merely to pity her? Where does redemption for Roberta lie? In fortitude, austerity, silence, endurance. These acceptances for lowly girls are the only paths to moral dignity. The novel--deterministic, bourgeois in spirit for all of its questioning of the hard terms of life--always understands that the men must get on. Dimmesdale must preach and save souls; Clyde must get a job with his uncle and go with the crowd he ignobly admires; Arthur Donnithorne must take over his estates. To ask differently of them would violate the laws of social survival, would impose standards of revolutionary skepticism about the nature of all of society's arrangements.
The idea of sexual responsibility for the passions of youth cannot be understood as an ethical one. Clyde is twenty-one when he goes to the death chamber. Even allowing for the convention of outlandish youthfulness in the principal characters in literature we still cannot wish to decide fates because of fornication. Of course, it is not natural passion he is to pay for, but murder. Still, he was trapped by needs of the most ordinary sort, universal needs, universally satisfied without punishment.
Biology is destiny only for girls. Were everyone in the drama of biology more prudent and watchful of the social and financial outlines of his alliances these matters could be arranged, manipulated. But just as the illicit is the trembling attraction of the novel, so is the illicit between persons of different rank, different natures, a variation that stirs our sense of the dramatic instabilities and violations of love. We know that we are near our own time when a novel can concern itself, as An American Tragedy does, with two people, Clyde and Roberta, both deprived, stunted, pitiable. In spite of the equity of deprivation, it is Clyde's lack of resignation to a future darkened by Roberta's pregnancy that moves us, keeps our sense of the intolerable blackness of consequence alive. The mind protests for both of them. It is only that Roberta, trapped, miserable, imagines existence would be possible if only Clyde would take care of her, settle in for life. We cannot quite forgive her the simplicity.
The betrayed heroine, unlike the merely betrayed woman, is never under the illusion that love or sex confers rights upon human beings. She may, of course, begin with the hope, and romance would scarcely be possible otherwise; however, the truth hits her sharply, like vision or revelation when the time comes. Affections are not things and persons never can become possessions, matters of ownership. The desolate soul knows this immediately, and only the trivial pretend that it can be otherwise. When love goes wrong the survival of the spirit appears to stand upon endurance, independence, tolerance, solitary grief. These are tremendously moving qualities, and when they are called upon it is usual for the heroine to overshadow the man who is the origin of her torment. She is under the command of necessity, consequence, natural order, and a bending to these commands is the mark of a superior being. Or so it seems in the novel, a form not entirely commensurate with the heedlessness and rages of life.
The men do not really believe in consequence for themselves. Consequence proposes to them a worldly loss and diminishment they will not suffer. They will not marry the barmaid or the farm girl or the unvirginal. They will not confess to adultery when their success or their comfort hangs in the balance. They will not live with the mistakes of youth, or of any other period, if it is not practical to do so. Sex is a completed action, not a strange, fleeting coming together that mortgages the future. For this reason perhaps, the heroic woman had to be created in fiction. "Ah, she will not speak!" Dimmesdale cries out. When they take Tess away to be hanged and to bury her body under a black flag, she has nothing she can say except, "I am ready." Maslova, at the end of her story, turns to Prince Nekhlyudov and says, "For-
Sex is a universal temptation and activity and a great amnesty will naturally have to attend it throughout life. Scarcely anyone would wish it to define, enclose, imprison a man's being. Society has other things for him to do, being a soldier for instance--a group notoriously indifferent to sexual consequence. Obligation is so often improvident, against thrift. Still, the break with human love remains somewhere inside, and at times, under rain clouds, it aches like an amputation. But it is not serious. George Eliot said that she wrote novels out of a belief that a seed brings forth in time a crop of its own kind. How to the point is this metaphor for the plot of the illicit, the plot of love.
Now the old plot is dead, fallen into obsolescence. You cannot seduce anyone when innocence is not a value. Technology annihilates consequence. Heroism hurts and no one easily consents to be under its rule. The heroines in Henry James, rich and in every way luckily endowed by circumstance, are seduced and betrayed by surfaces, misled because life, under certain rules, is a language they haven't the key to. Feeling and desire hang on and thus misfortune (if not tragedy) in the emotional life is always ahead of us, waiting its turn. Stoicism, growing to meet the tyrannical demands of consequence, cannot be without its remaining uses in life and love; but if we read contemporary fiction we learn that improvisation is better, more economical, faster, more promising.
Sex can no longer be the germ, the seed of fiction. Sex is an episode, most properly conveyed in an episodic manner, quickly, often ironically. It is a bursting forth of only one of the cells in the body of the omnipotent "I," the one who hopes by concentration of tone and voice to utter the sound of reality. Process is not implacable; mutation is the expedient of the future, and its exhilaration too.
At the end of Nana, the beautiful, harassed courtesan's death mingles with the agitated beginning of the Franco-Prussian War. "À Berlin! à Berlin! à Berlin!" we hear outside. In her coffin, fouled by smallpox, passion and sensuality are reduced to a "bubbling purulence," a "reddish crust." It is more than that. It is the death of sex as a tragic, exalted theme. As Zola says, "Venus was rotting."
Excerpted from American Fictions by Elizabeth Hardwick. Copyright © 1999 by Elizabeth Hardwick. Excerpted by permission of Modern Library, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.