Friday, October 23, 2015

Psycho-sexual Ravenloft: Tapestry of Dark Souls II

Some people hate being wrong. Some people will never admit to being wrong. I'm not one of them; I love being wrong. Each time you're wrong you get a chance to broaden your perspective, to learn something new.

And man, was I wrong about what the tapestry represents in Elaine Bergstrom's novel!

I had previously analyzed it as a kind of emancipatory khora, something akin to the titular yellow wallpaper in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's story. turns out that the tapestry is just another awful male figure. In fact, it's pretty much just a scheming rapist: "I knew the woman would conceive; knew it from the moment I touched her trembling body. Ah, delicious! After so many hungry years of half-life in this prison, her fear bubbled through me, fresh and sweet as new wine. How I used her, feasting on her innocence" (88).

As if to underline how awful the power of patriarchy is, we immediately get a flashback to Gundarak, where the taxation of female children leads to a culture of infanticide: "Torvil, her husband, wasn't willing to pay it or support the girls, who would undoubtedly be taken from him later. So Dirca had done what so many women in the land had done. With her own hands, she carried each babe to the hills and left her to die. Afterward, she sat in her plain, stone cottage and listened to the distant howling of wolves, thankful her daughters had been born in winter, when the cold alone would kill them" (100). This description essentially doubles-down on depicting a distorted and monstrous masculine authority. Not only does Dirca's husband refuse to offer security to his female children, part of his reasoning for withholding that support is that the daughters will just eventually be taken away by other, more powerful, men anyway.

Interestingly, grotesque masculine authority is shown to be the cause of its own undoing. When Dirca goes to a gypsy woman for a potion to make herself barren, she instead walks away with a poison with which to kill her husband. It's his insistence on upholding the misogynistic order the creates the opportunity of his own demise. 

But now that Leith is out of the way, the novel has turned to her son, Jonathan, as its protagonist and/or antihero. However, even with this new focus, Maeve is still in the picture, and is as polymorphously perverse as ever: "As she walked barefooted through the crowd, everyone, women as well as men, paused to look at her" (166-165). Male gaze, female all likes to glide over Maeve. And speaking of Maeve's perversity, not only has she had the mother, but she now sets her sights on the son as well: "'You are welcome to come and see me any time you wish,' she whispered and kissed him. He tried to pull away, but her grip was too strong and the emotions she touched in him were as potent as his rage had been" (170). The use of the word "emotions" here seems like a euphemism. Maeve also isn't afraid to let Jon know that she keeps a number of side-pieces on tap. Even though she has just invited him to "visit" at any time, she arranges matters so that he see one of her other lovers making the walk of shame: 

As Jon lay belly down in the brush near the river, wondering if he dared accept the woman's invitation, the cottage door opened and one of the village elders came out. Maeve followed, her bright orange gown glowing in the morning sun. Her parting kiss was as deep as the one she had given Jon last night, though her eyes were open and she stared over the elder's shoulder at the place where Jon was hidden. A small, private smile danced lightly on her lips as the man said good-bye. After her visitor left, Maeve went inside, leaving the door open behind her. (175)

But if Jon experiences a weird psycho-sexual confusion of eros and thanatos, he's not alone in the village. In fact, in a Wicker Man-like move it turns out that the community engages in ritual sacrifice as a fertility rite. A goblin captured during the harvest is burned alive while the village elder chants "To the spirit of the land, we give this sacrifice. May its pain and its blood make the earth fertile, make the spring seed sprout, make the waters flow" (168). All we need added is a bit of Britt Eckland. Jon, for his part as a spectator, seems turned on by this bloody spectacle: "Jon returned his gaze to the goblin. Some dark pleasure was churning in him as well, the savagery of the sacrifice arousing a hunger he could scarcely understand" (169).

This is the man that the beautiful, innocent Sondra marries. I'm sure that will work out just fine, right?