Thursday, November 25, 2010

Gender and sexuality in Katherine Mansfield and Jane Campion's "The Piano"

I have been very much busy with my research recently, but I thought it might be nice to "recycle" some of my old essays, otherwise they'll "rot away". Here's one written back in 2007 on Katherine Mansfield and Jane Campion's "The Piano". It's not one of my best pieces, but at least it's on something many of you will be familiar with.

This essay will focus on attitudes towards gender and sexuality in some of Katherine Mansfield’s short stories and in Jane Campion’s The Piano.

Katherine Mansfield is probably the most prominent New Zealand female writer. She was born in Wellington into a bourgeois family but left her country to complete her education in London. She returned to New Zealand in 1906, only to leave it permanently a couple of years later. She was weary of the provincial lifestyle of her home town, Wellington, and was longing for the mundane life she had experienced in London. In Europe she led a rather bohemian life; she married a man and left him the following day, and had a miscarriage. She finally married John Middleton Murry, the editor of an avant-garde magazine called Rhythm. She continued to write, turning to her childhood memories in New Zealand, thus creating some of her most powerful stories. She contracted tuberculosis and died at the age of 34. She is considered one of the best short story writers of her period and an innovator of this genre during the modernist period.

‘Prelude’ (1918) and ‘At the Bay’ (1922) deal with the Burnells, a family that Mansfield created for some of her short stories, thinking of her own childhood. They are rather long short stories, both divided into twelve sections, each with a different focus. They look like chapters of a novel; in fact, Mansfield tried several times to write a novel, but never managed. However, ‘Prelude’, ‘At the Bay’ and perhaps ‘The Doll’s House’ deal with the life and interior struggles of the family. Mansfield’s stories are often fragments or recollections, dealing with everyday life and ordinary people. In most of her short stories nothing happens, or it is better to say that everything happens, but only inside the characters’ minds: there is no plot, and yet the story is ‘carefully constructed around a moment of crisis or turning point[1]’. Mansfield’s prose has been described as quite distant from Jane Austen’s, but the two writers are close for their ‘ironic pictures of sophisticated society’s pretensions and conventions’[2]. Mansfield was, in fact, concerned with the role of women in society and their relationships with their husbands and family.

Linda and Stanley Burnell is an apparently happy couple with three children. Linda is a mother and a wife, but she is not happy in her role. She truly loves and respects her husband, but is worried by the responsibilities of the house and by the task of delivering children. This is aggravated by the fact that she does not seem to love them. Referring to the furniture and objects to be moved to the new house, she says: ‘”These are absolute necessities that I will not let out of my sight for one instant”’ and then, realizing that there is not enough room for her children, adds: ’”We shall simply have to leave them. That is all. We shall simply have to cast them off”’. For a moment, the reader thinks that she is still speaking about the furniture, but then you realize she prefers to get rid of her children instead of some furniture. ‘A strange little laugh flew from her lips[3]’ as she knows that she cannot possibly get rid of them, except for a few hours. Linda is certainly not the mother someone would expect to find in a story set in 1880s in New Zealand: she does not seem to be fit for domestic life, nor for the role of a loving mother. She is rather selfish and wants to run away from her home: ‘Her clothes lay across a chair. […] Looking at them she wished that she was going away from this house, too. And she saw herself driving away from them all in a little buggy, driving away from everybody and not even waving’ (p.25). She states that her three pregnancies weakened her and for this reason she is dispensed with doing any housework. She suffers from headaches and does not want to eat anything, but this all seems to be an excuse to make people pity her: ‘”Are those the children?” But Linda did not really care; she did not even open her eyes to see’ (p.19). What scares Linda most is pregnancy, and even though she loves Stanley, she is overwhelmed by his vigour and sexual appetite: she spends her time ‘calming Stanley down’ and ‘in the dread of having children’ (p.222). Even though Mansfield does not tell us of the sexual intercourse between Linda and Stanley in ‘Prelude’, it is clear that they are having one through the way Linda calls Stanley ‘Mr. Business Man’ to please him, and, when he draws her near, she says with a faint voice: ‘”Yes, clasp me”(p.23). Linda dreams of picking up a small bird while walking with her father, but the bird begins to swell and then it turns into a baby ‘with a big naked head and a gaping bird-mouth, opening and shutting’ (p.24). Mansfield’s stories are highly symbolic and Freud’s theories had a great influence at the time when the story was written. Linda is scared of having another child, and she feels that she is living a life that she cannot quite understand, nor bear. Nevertheless, the most important symbol in the story is the aloe in the garden, which could be a phallic symbol or maybe an image of female sexuality: ‘one huge plant with thick, grey-green, thorny leaves, and out of the middle there sprang up a tall stout stem’ (p.34). This plant is supposed to flower once every hundred years, and it is probably ‘attractive to Linda because of its infrequency of bearing[4]’. Mrs. Fairfield thinks that the plant may flower this year and Linda agrees. Mary Paul, in her book Her Side of the Story, suggests that ‘Prelude’ hints at the conception of the Burnells’ fourth child, who we meet in ‘At the bay’, set some time after this episode. This reading of the story allows the reader to give a deeper meaning to Linda’s dream: the unconscious knowledge of being pregnant once again. Linda’s character in the story is an unusual woman, not certainly the conventional Victorian wife/mother: she refuses the role given to her by her family, but she is unable to run away from this kind of life. She loves and at the same time hates her husband in a continuous contradiction that she is aware of, and she compares him with a dog that rushes at her: ‘”If only he wouldn’t jump at her so, and bark so loudly, and watch her with such eager, loving eyes. He was too strong for her; she had always hated things that rush at her, from a child”’ (p.54). Linda is maybe the opposite of what Mansfield was in her life, because she left husbands whenever she was tired of them, she had an abortion and a miscarriage, and she led an unconventional life far from her bourgeois family in New Zealand. Seen that Mansfield wrote these stories near the end of her short life, Linda is what Mansfield could have turned into if she would have accepted a conventional life within her family. Whether she is regretting the life she had as an intellectual in Europe, or whether she is just turning to her New Zealand childhood, she is depicting a character with an embryonic rebellion and a strong desire of escaping from her boring, oppressive bourgeois life: ‘Linda is a sensitive and imaginative woman with a second “self” beneath the self she presents to her family; all through ‘Prelude’ the second self threatens to break out’[5].

Stanley, Linda’s husband, is strong, efficient, hard-working and full of energy; as French Feminist Hélène Cixous would put it - femininity and masculinity are opposed in terms of passivity and activity, especially in the sexual sphere[6]. A symbol for Stanley’s activity is the food that Linda refuses and that Stanley avidly devours. Stanley is unaware that he is a problem to the women in his house: he is practical, as opposed to Linda’s vagueness and carelessness about things (‘”Stick, dear? What stick?” Linda’s vagueness on these occasions could not be real, Stanley decided’ p.212), and is making money by working hard. Victorian society in New Zealand was dominated by commercial initiative, by owning things and land; the men in Mansfield’s stories represent this kind of society. Not only Mr. Burnell, but also other male characters in Mansfield’s work act as though they own their wives: Mr. Hammond in ‘The Stranger’ says: ‘”I feel I’ll never have you to myself again. These cursed people”’ (p.359). Stanely feels that he is the only one who has power in the house, and even asks the women’s help to put sugar in his tea or to look for his stick. The women are therefore relieved when he leaves the house for his office.

Another interesting character is Beryl, Linda’s unmarried sister. Unlike Linda, Beryl desperately wants to find a husband, which seems to be the only fulfilment of a woman’s life at that time. She clings to beauty and clothes to find a lover, and she is constantly daydreaming of him, but it is the kind of love story to be found in magazines and romances: ‘”A young man, immensely rich, has just arrived from England. […] Who is that exquisite creature in eau-de-nil satin? Beryl Fairfield…”’ (p.22). In ‘At the Bay’ she is attracted to Mrs. Kember, which hints at a possible lesbian relationship. She accepts Mrs. Kember’s compliments as though they were from a man, but at the same time is horrified by her unconventionality: she smokes, does not have children, is married to a man ten years her junior and treats men ‘as though she was one of them’(p.128). It is a simultaneous attraction and repulsion, something which she cannot explain to herself. Mrs. Kember is not treated with sympathy in the story by the author, even though Mansfield experienced a similar life: Mrs. Kember is a predator and a seducer rather than a lover, and this is what Beryl, and her sister Linda as well, draws away from[7]. At the end of ‘At the Bay’, Beryl also refuses Harry Kember’s advances for the same reason, and in ‘The Doll’s House’ she receives a threatening letter from another man asking to meet her. Beryl is scared by predators; she does not want to be the object in a relationship and this is what women are supposed to be in Victorian society.

Mansfield’s characters are not satisfied with the role of wives and mothers, but unmarried women are not happy either, though Mrs Stubbs states that ‘freedom’s best’ (p.231). As we see in another story called ‘The woman at the store’, killing one’s husband is not a good solution, because the woman that we encounter at the store is withered and burdened with a child whose mind is ‘diseased’. The same ‘wax-doll’, ‘who knew one hundred and twenty-five ways of kissing’ is now obliged to look after her store and never meet other people. Mrs Kember, with her coldness and unconventional behaviour, is maybe the only one who does not care for Victorian codes and has turned her passive role into an active one, but the price she pays is being shunned by everyone. In Mansfield’s stories the only weapon that women can use safely is withdrawal, like Mrs Hammond does in ‘The Stranger’ when telling her husband of her innocent affinity with a man that she encountered on a ship voyage.

In order to meet a woman that breaks away from Victorian codes, i.e. turning her sexual passivity into active sexual power, we must look at the tale of the sexual awakening of a 19th-century woman, as seen from a late 20th century perspective. In The Piano by Jane Campion (1993), Ada is a Scottish woman who travels to New Zealand to meet her husband in a marriage arranged by her father and therefore becomes her husband’s property. Ada is mute and her only means of expression is a piano, which she has been playing since the age of six. When she arrives to New Zealand with her daughter, Flora, we are struck by the absurdity of her Victorian dress and her grand piano in such a wild place. Stewart, her husband, does not understand her need to play the piano and asks himself why she was playing the kitchen table, assuming that she might be mad. Ada is severe and uptight, stuck in her black Victorian dress, but when she is alone with Flora she changes: mother and daughter speak in their sign language and Ada tells stories to Flora. Ada’s muteness could symbolize many things: maybe that is how men want women, ‘silent and confined[8]’, or maybe it is her ‘ultimate act of resistance[9]’ to other people’s desire to dominate her: another form of withdrawal from men’s power. In fact, at the end of the story, when she is supposedly happy with Baines, she learns to speak, and no longer wears that dark and oppressive dress: she has freed herself.

With Stewart, Ada is ‘shown to be vulnerable to being treated as a sexual and emotional commodity[10]’and everything is bought and sold in 19th century New Zealand: the piano for land, the same piano for Ada’s sexual services, and even Ada is sold to Stewart as a wife. On the other hand, Baines is Stewart’s exact opposite: he immediately understands Ada’s way of expression through the piano, and he does not want Ada only sexually, but he also wants her to care for him: ‘I’m giving the piano back to you. I’ve had enough. The arrangement is making you a whore and me wretched. I want you to care for me, but you can’t’. Even though at the beginning of Ada’s agreement to have her piano back we may consider Baines as a pervert, an ignorant man living almost like a savage, we slowly understand that he has a soft side. Maybe his closeness with the Maori people allows him to be more sexually free than English people. The difference between Stewart and Baines is shown immediately from the first scene at the beach, when, asked by Stewart, Baines says that Ada looks very tired, although Stewart was asking about more practical things. His incapability to understand Ada shows ‘the collision of female sensibility with pioneer pragmatism’[11]. Steward, however, is an unusual character in films: he seems to act like he has the power with Ada, but he does not manage to rape her or keep her away from Baines. He is weak in the end: he does not kill Baines and lets Ada go, and when he desires to cut off her hand, he manages to cut off only her fingertip. The opposition between Stewart and Baines could be compared with the opposition between Stanley and Jonathan Trout in Mansfield’s ‘At the Bay’. During the conversation between Linda and Jonathan Trout we perceive that the separated worlds of men and women come closer, because Linda and Jonathan have some affinities: Jonathan does not like to spend his day at work like Stanley, and Linda appreciates this. Moreover, he is attractive, full of ideas and fond of music. He does not seem to care only about practical things and is not as possessive as Stanley. Despite this, Linda has no courage to leave Stanley for Jonathan and she asserts she truly loves her husband. Jonathan, on the other hand, when asked why he is not leaving his job at the office, answers: ‘”Why don’t I fly out again? There’s the window or the door or whatever it was I came in by. It’s not hopelessly shut – is it? Why don’t I find it and be off? Answer me that, little sister. […] For some reason” […] it’s not allowed, it’s forbidden”’ (p.238). It is indeed this inexplicable impossibility to escape that blocks Linda and the other characters in Mansfield’s story, but this possibility is opened for Ada in The Piano by Baines.

Through Baines, Ada regains her sexuality and has the strength to take an active role in her relationship with Stewart. She tries her new active sexuality on him, though unsuccessfully, and eventually leaves him. What Linda does not achieve in Mansfield’s short stories, Ada does in the movie, even though she ends up being the ‘town freak, which satisfies’, according to her. She learns to not care about Victorian codes and conventions (both Ada and Baines are still married), and she seems to be finally fulfilled. Nevertheless, the ending of the movie is open to a different interpretation. While Ada is going away with Baines on a canoe, she asks to throw her piano overboard and her foot gets caught in a rope and she is thrown overboard with the piano. This could have been accidental or not, depending on the interpretation that the spectator gives to end of the movie. What is certain is that one is left with doubts about Ada’s degree of happiness with Baines.

In conclusion, Mansfield’s short story challenges mainstream attitudes toward gender and sexuality in terms of inner feelings of the characters she creates, even though they are not able to rebel completely against the restrictive society in which they live. On the other hand, Campion’s movie, which was shot in the 1990s but is set in the same Victorian era, can show a complete rebellion and sexual liberation of the character on screen, maybe because it is a contemporary reading of the same past. However, the two works show strong feminine characters and display the feminine world and sensibility in a similar way, giving us a perception of life for women in that period.

[1] Boddy, Gillian Katherine Mansfield: The Woman and the Writer. Ringwood, Victoria: Penguin Books Australia, 1988 (p.170)

[2] Ibid. (p.171)

[3] Mansfield, Katherine Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield. London: Constable, 1945 (p.11)

[4] Hanson, Clare and Andrew Gurr Katherine Mansfield 1988. London: MacMillan Press, 1988 (p. 52)

[5] Murray, Heather Double Lives. Women in the stories of Katherine Mansfield. Dunedin: Univeristy of Otago Press, 1990 (p.51)

[6] See Hélène Cixous’s feminist theory in Marks, Elaine and Isabelle De Courtivron, eds. New French Feminisms. London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1981

[7] see also Fullbrook, Kate Katherine Mansfield. Brighton: Harvester Press, 1986 (p.113)

[8] Polan, Dana Jane Campion. London: British Film Institute, 2001 (p.4)

[9] Polan, Dana Jane Campion. London: British Film Institute, 2001 (p.32)

[10] Margolis, Harriet (eds.) Jane Campion’s “The Piano”. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000 (p.72)

[11] Polan, Dana Jane Campion 2001. London: British Film Institute, 2001 (p.4?)

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