San Diego State University, Imperial Valley, USA | Published: 15 March, 2006
ISSUE 1 | Pages: 103-111 | PDF | DOAJ | https://doi.org/10.24162/EI2006-1469
2006 by Jeanette Roberts Shumaker | This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.
In Clare Boylan’s fantasy novel Black Baby (1988) and Eilis Ni Dhuibhne’s realistic novel The Dancers Dancing (1999), female protagonists fear those who symbolize the grotesqueness of their own overweight bodies; hence, these heroines reject marginalized women, either black or retarded, and Irish peasants. Through their heroines’ struggles to accept both themselves and marginalized others, Ni Dhuibhne and Boylan deconstruct the psychology of self-hatred, whether it occurs in teenage or elderly women. Bakhtin’s ideas about the grotesque body, along with Stallybrass and White’s connection of the grotesque to prejudice, and Kristeva’s theory of abjection illuminate the conflicts over self-acceptance that Boylan’s and Ni Dhuibhne’s heroines face.
‘Fair and foul are near of kin,
And fair needs foul,’ I cried.
W. B. Yeats, «Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop»
For the female protagonists of Boylan’s Black Baby (1988), and Eilis Ni Dhuibhne’s The Dancers Dancing (1999), maturation entails accepting the grotesqueness of their bodies. The female body erupts through excess weight and unruly sexual desires in both novels. For the teenage heroine of Dancers Dancing, self-acceptance means owning her resemblance to her retarded aunt, along with her own working-class status. Whereas Ni Dhuibhne’s heroine is young enough to broaden her approach to life, the elderly heroine of Black Baby is unable to rebuild hers, except in a comatose fantasy.
Distrust of women’s bodies can be traced back to the early Christian Church in Ireland. A preoccupation with protecting the chastity of monks led to carvings depicting women as seductresses, and to gender-specific convents, churches, and even burial grounds during the Dark and Middle Ages (Wood 1985: 19-20). In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, grotesque carvings of female figures displaying their genitalia were placed on castles and churches. These Sheela-na-gigs were intended to protect buildings from destructive forces (Wood 1985: 22). Such traditional fears of feminine monstrosity play a role in Boylan and Ni Dhuibhne’s novels.
Lack of self-esteem in women supports inequities of the gender structure, according to Peter Stallybrass and Allon White. Women and others who are put at the bottom of the gender or class structure accept their position as deserved due to their lowly qualities. Stallybrass and White argue that projecting the grotesqueness of one’s body onto those seen as other is a strategy that the middle class historically has used to achieve supremacy and high self-esteem: «The bourgeois subject continuously defined and redefined itself through the exclusion of what it marked out as ‘low’ –as dirty, repulsive, noisy, contaminating» (1986: 191). Sublimation of “low” desires has been the middle class’s way of exercising cultural domination (Stallybrass 1986: 197).
Boylan’s and Ni Dhuibhne’s heroines solidify their identification with middle-class fears through rejecting those who represent their own grotesqueness –marginalized women, either black or retarded, and Irish peasants. These protagonists also try to sublimate their desires to fit middle-class expectations. However, the protagonists fail to enhance their self-esteem and status through these ploys. Instead, they feel guilty and cheated, as they deny themselves the sensual and social pleasures that they associate with marginal people. Through their heroines’ struggles to accept themselves and marginalized others, Ni Dhuibhne and Boylan deconstruct the psychology of feminine self-hatred.
Mikhail Bakhtin’s ideas about the grotesque body, along with Stallybrass and White’s connection of the grotesque to prejudice, illuminate the conflicts over self-acceptance that these Irish protagonists face. According to Bakhtin, the grotesque «frees human consciousness, thoughts, and imagination for new potentialities» (1968: 49). Bakhtin argues that «The essence of the grotesque is precisely to represent a contradictory and double-faced fullness of life. Negation and destruction (death of the old) are included as an essential phase, inseparable from affirmation of the birth of something new and better» (1968: 62). Once one faces the decaying underside of life, one is free to live a richer, less judgmental and resentful existence.
That Boylan’s plot depends upon a trick is itself carnivalesque. The reader does not realize that elderly Alice is in a coma during the second half of the novel. Instead, it appears that Alice’s life is taking improbable, entertaining turns punctuated by witticisms. Not until the end of the novel is it clear that its last hundred pages describe a fantasy Alice invents during her coma. Boylan has created a novel of tricks that Jean-Louis Giovannangeli associates with Bakhtin’s portrayal of medieval carnivals (1996: 178). Bakhtin describes carnivals that include «popular tricks» befitting «a world of topsy-turvy, of heteroglot exuberance» (Stallybrass 1986: 8). Boylan’s references to the Bakhtinian carnival suit her story of an old woman’s liberation from repressive rules of class, race, and gender.
Boylan also alludes to the Gaelic literary genre of the vision in allowing Alice’s comatose dreams to free her. Like Alice in Wonderland, Boylan’s Alice manages to avoid the madness stereotypically associated with the Celts. Rather than madness, Alice’s vision is analogous to exile. As Gerry Smyth writes, “Exile can be an interior process of alienation from the narrow definitions of homeland which characterize post-revolutionary Irishness” (1997: 43). When Alice has a vision of opening her home to a homeless black woman, she escapes the xenophic paranoia of her parents.
Black Baby is filled with disturbing, grotesque humor that complements its theme of freedom from prejudice. In his pioneering study of Irish comedy, Vivian Mercier argues that grotesque humor is «a defense mechanism against the fear of sex» (1962: 49). Alice is an ancient virgin who finally overcomes her Puritanical fear of sex through earthy fantasies; for example, Alice dreams that a prostitute’s baby turns into a pig in Alice’s arms. Boylan uses such carnivalesque humor to criticize Irish prudishness.
Some of the roots of Irish racism lie in the nation’s missionary tradition: “Ireland’s missionary tradition has meant that Irish people have played their part in reinforcing and continuing the effects of colonialism” (Fitzgerald 1994: 254). They “created an elitist and divisive structure within communities visited by missionary groups” (Fitzgerald 1994: 254). Boylan depicts the damage created by Irish missionaries through Dinah’s trauma as the child of an immigrant African mother. Dinah’s mother became an alcoholic in reaction to the disruption of her culture by Irish missionaries; she tells Dinah stories of idealized Irish missionaries who inspired her to hate herself for being black, along with inspring her to emigrate to a Western nation where she would be distrusted. In this novel Boylan also comments upon the generations of Irish children, including Alice, who were convinced by the Church to donate money to the missions. To move their generosity, children were told they were not only sponsoring, but buying dark-skinned, foreign babies. As a black, Irish theorist, Geraldine Fitzgerald regards this as a horrifying practice (1994: 255). Boylan’s tragicomic plot makes readers question the practice of buying black babies, and see the racism that underpins it.
Black Baby is timely because racism has been increasing throughout Europe since the 1980s (Fitzgerald 1994: 264). During the 1990s, refugees from Eastern Europe moved to Ireland; Irish people sometimes speak resentfully of the burden refugees place upon the welfare system, and accuse them of various scams. Though Boylan only deals with racism against blacks, that Ireland is experiencing increasing immigration rates makes Black Baby especially meaningful. Nevertheless, the traditional object of racism in Ireland is Travelers of supposed Gypsy extraction; indeed, blacks like Dinah are a tiny fraction of the population (Fitzgerald 1994: 257).
Alice’s fantasies during her coma lead her into the world of Bakhtin’s carnival. This is a world that the middle class, to which Freud’s patients belong, rejects: «Freud’s patients can be seen as enacting desperate ritual fragments salvaged from a festive tradition, the self-exclusion from which had been one of the identifying features of their social class» (Stallybrass 1986: 176). Alice’s fantasy during her coma is composed of such fragments of primitive experiences that her Puritanical mother denied her. For example, Alice imagines that Dinah cooks sausages over an outdoor fire in their garden as part of a holiday celebration. Alice is having a carnivalesque fantasy, manifested partially by the odor and taste of meat fat, noted by Stallybrass and White as the main symbol of Mardi Gras (1986: 184). Discussing Bakhtin’s carnival, Dustin Griffin observes that “Apparent death and destruction instead lead to the sustenance of life through the offering of food” (1994: 196). Alice’s coma, then, is not merely a sign of approaching death, but a mental feast. Although Alice never really gets the opportunity to experience the pleasure of eating meat that is dripping with fat during ritual festivities, her mind fools her (and us) into thinking she is having that joy. Her body is trapped by immobility, but Alice’s unconscious is free. It dominates her comatose existence, compensating for decades of bondage to her overly developed superego. By making Alice’s fantasy plausible, Boylan depicts the supremacy of imaginary experience compared to actual life. In Alice’s case, that primacy is merciful, since her mind is all she has after her stroke.
Alice’s coma is a liminal state. Judy Little’s study of feminist comedy notes that liminality is often employed by women. «The paradigm of the hero’s quest . . . incorporates these liminal motifs of death, a journey through wilderness or darkness, and often a journey into landscapes vaguely feminine or maternal in imagery» (1983: 4). Alice goes on such a quest during her coma. The home Alice invents can be seen as the feminine landscape of which Little speaks, redecorated by Dinah to provide coziness and beauty at last. As part of her transformation into a nurturing mother, Alice learns to tolerate Dinah’s sexual relationships with men, and tells her that she will have «every advantage» (Boylan 1988: 126). Alice has learned from Dinah that «We cannot stoop to love one another in case we might muddy our souls. We live in this dirty world. We’re put here by God, who made it» (Boylan 1988: 123). Dinah’s version of Crazy Jane’s lesson transforms Alice into a model fantasy parent.
In reality, Alice’s mother was the opposite sort of parent. Since Alice’s childhood, her mother forced Alice to overeat, presumably to make her too heavy to attract men. Alice’s self-esteem suffered as a result. Her mother never explained menstruation, so Alice regarded it as a punishment for her vain, sinful aspirations to be thin. Consistent with forcing Alice to become unattractive, her mother denied Alice two suitors: a black doctor whom Alice loved but never dared to introduce to her parents; and a white, middle-aged man to whom she became attached years later. Had Alice dared to marry the doctor, she might have had a mixed race daughter like Dinah in reality. Alice’s mother rejected the second suitor, Mr. Gosling, on the basis of class rather than race. In the nineteenth century, «the poor were interpreted as also transgressing the boundaries of the ‘civilized’ body and the borders which separated the human from the animal» (Stallybrass 1986: 132). Still believing such ideas in initial decades of the twentieth century, Alice’s mother frightens her daughter with tales of Mr. Gosling’s animalistic lust.
Like Alice’s mother, Dinah’s denies her daughter’s need for romantic love, forcing Dinah to have an abortion as a teenager. Both Alice’s and Dinah’s mothers strangle their daughters’ development because they want to secure their services permanently. Would Alice copy her mother’s example and mistreat Dinah, her adopted daughter? Is that why Alice offers Dinah a servant’s bedroom? Perhaps Dinah is aware of the danger in her attraction to Alice, though Dinah does not state it; another mother-child bond could drain what youth is left to her. Nevertheless, Dinah, like Alice, nurtures fantasies that enthrone Alice as her mother, though she reveals her ambivalence towards the old lady when she tells Figgis of Alice’s racism and snobbery.
Alice and Dinah are alike in having sacrificed themselves as daughters: due to a lack of other experiences, they may only feel comfortable centering their lives upon a vexing mother-daughter bond. Alice’s comatose fantasy allows her to reinvent the mother-daughter relationship, minimizing daughterly sacrifice and increasing motherly affection. Annis Pratt et al. observe that in women’s literature, “the quest of the mother for the daughter leads to the rebirth of the mother” (1981: 172). That is the case for Alice.
Alice’s happy maternal dreams are renegade in that they transcend the real, problematic relationships that she has known. «Comedy which implies, or perhaps even advocates, a permanently inverted world, a radical reordering of social structures, a real rather than temporary or merely playful redefinition of sexual identity, a relentless mocking of truths otherwise taken to be self-evident or even sacred –such comedy can well be called subversive, revolutionary, or renegade» (Little 1983: 2). This is true of Black Baby, with its reversal of the disappointing real world during Alice’s coma. The inverted world is an utopia of love, tolerance, and sensual freedom compared to the real one. As another critic of women’s comedy writes, «The world turned upside down can prove that the world has no rightful position at all» (Barreca 1994: 33). Boylan suggests this through her touching fantasy that makes the reader wish Alice had changed her life before her stroke. The novel’s message is that it is not easy to change one’s prejudices. The real Alice and Dinah are confined by the powerful ideologies of race, gender, and class that Alice’s dreams contradict.
Victimized by these ideologies to a greater extent than Alice, Dinah, because of her skin color, is seen as a symbol of the grotesque body by all who meet her. Her mother had regarded Dinah as a servant or apprentice Mammy. Alice, in her coma, turns this view around, viewing Dinah as her savior from traditional limitations. If Alice symbolizes Ireland, as Teresa O’Connor suggests, Dinah awakens the Irish imagination beyond the complacency of homogeneity (1996: 7). Though Alice projects all kinds of low traits onto Dinah, Alice, in her coma, regards Dinah as an alchemist who turns such traits into golden ones. Dinah tells Alice, «Maybe I am some kind of gravedigger. Maybe I was sent here to dig up your past» (Boylan 1988: 114). To Alice, Dinah is both therapist and confessor. Not only Alice, but other whites stereotype Dinah. In Alice’s comatose dreams, Dinah serves many Dubliners as an oracle of self-acceptance and joy; the people who eat at Dinah’s cafe see her in a religious light as a bawdy prophet of self-realization.
Even Dinah regards herself as a projection of Irish expectations of African identity. Hence, she conceals her hometown of Brixton from Figgis and Alice, and takes on the new name of Dinah that Alice gives her. Dinah’s identity as an exotic attracts Alice and Figgis; Dinah senses that the truth might repel them. Not surprisingly, when Dinah does tell Figgis her real name (Cora) and hometown, he does not believe her. At the novel’s end, a second old white lady mistakes Dinah for her lost daughter. This suggests the larger issue Dinah faces of having whites appropriate her as a projection of their own needs. Under the unfair pressure of having to be what others want her to be, she mistakenly calls herself «a fraud» (Boylan 1988: 160). Dinah’s self-alienation and her fantasies of escape are the results of the stereotypes that the Irish –represented by Alice, Figgis, and the second old lady –project upon her. Like Dinah’s real mother, Alice does not recognize Dinah for the person she is, seeing Dinah rather as the fulfillment of maternal desires. Alice’s mental exploitation of Dinah depersonalizes the young woman, however unintentionally, as carnivalesque thinking can. A carnival, as Bhahktin sees it, often «demonizes» marginal groups such as «women, ethnic and religious minorities» (Stallybrass 1986: 19). Dinah is not exactly demonized, but Alice and Figgis objectify Dinah as an African redeemer of the grotesque body.
Dinah wonders what she knows of Africa, outside of her mother’s stories. Caught between European and African cultures for which she is likewise an outcast, Dinah not only lacks a mother, but also a motherland that might value her. She could easily turn into a black version of Alice someday, disaffected and alone; Dinah would be even more of an outcast than Alice, lacking the privileges of affluence and whiteness that shelter Alice. There is no fairy-tale solution for Dinah, not even the coma that eases dying Alice. Boylan ends her novel with a challenge to the real Ireland to secure a worthy place for Dinah, where a black woman would no longer be a sign of the maligned yet desired body.
Romantic and modernist authors often «stage a festival of the political unconscious and reveal the repressiveness and social rejections which formed it» (Stallybrass 1986: 200). Boylan does the same thing in her postmodern fantasy. She exposes Alice’s repression as life-robbing, compared with her animating fantasies during her coma. More disturbingly, Boylan shows that Dinah must endure a reality in which «social rejections» poison the lives of the minorities and women who are unfairly linked to the lowly body.
Like Boylan’s Alice, Eilis Ni Dhuibhne’s Orla feels ambivalent about a marginalized woman whom she sees as a mirror of her own grotesqueness. In The Dancers Dancing, Orla’s Auntie Annie is disabled, not black like Dinah. That Alice imagines a blood relationship with Dinah expresses the intensity of her need for a daughter to cure her self-loathing; conversely, Orla, who has plenty of living relatives, disowns her aunt. Although Orla has known Aunt Annie all her life, Alice knew Dinah only a few months before the old lady died. Whereas Dinah is much younger than Alice, Annie is much older than Orla.
Though Orla is young and Alice is elderly, they have much in common, for they both grow through accepting the woman who reflects their deepest fears about themselves. But their growth is not linear. Looking at the patterns of protagonists’ development in women’s literature throughout the world, Pratt et al. comment: “My material depicts a circle rather than an evolution, the older and transformed women heroes having far more in common with the uninitiated young women than with the characters most integrated within the social enclosure” (1981: 169). Alice grows back into her unprejudiced, youthful self, whereas Orla grows out of priggish, premature rigidity. Both Alice and Orla initially regard the women who will become so crucial to their own self-acceptance –Dinah and Annie– as representing alien, exotic worlds –Africa and western Ireland.
Located in the northwest of the Republic and bordering Northern Ireland, County Donegal is the site of Irish language colleges to which urban children are sent each summer to learn Gaelic, and, somewhat unrealistically, become truly Irish as a result. Since the late 1800s, the west of Ireland has been idealized as the seat of “national vitality . . . language, manners, and dress” (Connolly 2003: 8). Though Orla wants to be patriotic, she is afraid to acknowledge her Donegal aunt, for she links the Dublin teenager to what she regards as peasant backwardness.
The mixture of attraction and repulsion towards another woman that Orla and Alice feel can be understood through applying the psychoanalytic theory of abjection. Julia Kristeva defines the abject as «the not-I»; its recognition engenders loathing for certain foods, corpses, and even classes of people whom one associates with death (1982: 2). Through her theory of abjection, Kristeva explains the age-old hatred of marginalized groups such as blacks, women, the disabled, and Jews. Abjection occurs when we avoid our fear of death by projecting the traits that we associate with decline onto ostracized others. What we label abject varies depending on our prejudices, but the process of abjection is intense, universal, and ancient. Kristeva writes: «There looms, within abjection, one of those violent, dark revolts of being, directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable» (1982: 1). Since decay can manifest itself internally, human fluids, exotic foods, and sexual acts may be seen as abject, as can symbols of moral corruption such as sin. But because decline may come from «outside» as well as «inside,» marginalized groups are viewed as sources of contagion as well as manifestations of one’s own secret decay.
Which qualities in others raise the specter of our own decay? Kristeva observes that «the in-between, the ambiguous, the composite» tend to stimulate repulsion because it disturbs our sense of identity and order (1982: 4). Auntie Annie’s imperfect appearance, deafness, and lack of coordination cause such a reaction in Orla: «There is plenty wrong with her
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