Published: Aug. 1, 2010 By

[1] Although a prolific professional writer and perennial breadwinner for a large household, Margaret Oliphant (1828-1897) has not been easily claimed as a proto-feminist. Her tremendous industry and independence stand in contrast to the conservative critiques she sometimes published in her frequent contributions to Blackwood’s Magazine, such as “The Anti-Marriage League,” which railed against Thomas Hardy’s treatment of marriage and sexuality in Jude the Obscure. Recent essays, however, such as those collected in Tamara Wagner’s Antifeminism and the Victorian Novel: Rereading Nineteenth-Century Women Writers (2009), have begun to explore a more radical politics of the domestic in Oliphant’s novels and short fiction. To further this corrective, I deploy a reading—through the lens of feminist film theory—of her fantastic tale, “The Portrait: A Story of the Seen and the Unseen” (1885) to demonstrate how Oliphant can brazenly subvert entrenched patriarchal norms of both image deployment and narrative development in her fiction. In taking full advantage of the fantastical properties of the titular painting in ways similar to those advocated for cinema a century later by scholars such as Vivian Sobchack and Teresa de Lauretis, Oliphant recasts traditional sexual and domestic roles to make the male characters in the story serve the aims and desires of the heroine, creating a refreshingly female-driven plot.

[2] The titular portrait depicts Agnes, a young woman who has long been dead but whose spirit is restlessly infused within the painting and seeks deliverance into a living body. When our narrator, Philip, who is Agnes’s now-adult son, encounters the portrait of the mother he never knew, he condescendingly muses upon her beauty and uncannily animate expression. But his mother soon makes clear that she wields the real power in this exchange between image and viewer. The trajectory of his scopophilic gaze reverses to become the charged path by which she induces a systemic relay of sensations within his body and mind. In this way, she handily enlists him in her cause of reincarnation without revealing its particulars to him in the process. She “masquerades” in Mary Ann Doane’s sense of actively pursuing her private agenda while hiding behind the “decorative layer” of hyperbolized femininity found in her image (138), and the enamored Philip falls easy victim to her manipulation. During three distinct possessions, all of which include, to some degree, her metaphorically sexualized penetration of his body, she makes Philip confront his father about taking in a young woman (her cousin’s daughter) who is identical to her in name and appearance. This summoned doppelgänger serves as the new, permanent vessel of the elder Agnes’s spirit, which has escaped the confines of the ostensibly dead canvas. From portrayed figure to “flesh and blood” character, Agnes proves her superior understanding of oedipal desire and the vulnerabilities of the voyeur. Philip feels heroic as well, but is comically deluded, as his mother has determined his actions and his fate, including his marriage to his cousin/mother. Oliphant empowers the “unseen” but palpably present woman through her “seen” image to play upon and subvert the patriarchal dynamics of the oedipal triangle, which Freud would not formally theorize for at least a decade.

[3] The fields of literary and film criticism have profited from a recent trend to pair psychoanalysis with phenomenology, a combination which attends, regardless of the primary text’s medium, to the sensations of the body without relinquishing the measures of interiority. In his study, Embodied: Victorian Literature and the Senses(2009), William Cohen describes the benefit of this hybridization in that it avoids “the arid contextlessness of some phenomenological philosophy” and “the deracinated individualism of some psychoanalysis,” moving critical work forward by embracing what seems most useful in these disparate theoretical fields (24). In heeding the exchange between the registers of empirical surface and psychological depth, Cohen and other critics, such as Dennis Denisoff, have enriched our understanding of the role of other senses in visual perception and offer an innovative means of interpreting texts in various media. And while my essay focuses on a late Victorian literary text, its analysis is grounded more in Sobchack’s theorization of embodied perception than in these critical models. This trans-disciplinary shift seems natural, partly because this hybridized methodology readily lends itself to intermedial analysis, but also because Oliphant’s story centers on the distinctly cinematic image of the mother’s fantastical portrait, whose effectiveness as a narrative motor is the result of Oliphant’s sophisticated understanding of the psychological and visceral dynamics between a screened image and its viewer.

[4] In “What My Fingers Knew: The Cinesthetic Subject, or Vision in the Flesh,” Sobchack provides an apt theorization of and terminology for cinematic viewership that engages the full range of senses. She begins with a common criticism of the cine-psychoanalytic theory that emerged in large part from Laura Mulvey’s landmark essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” which argues that in classical Hollywood films, women serve as alluring spectacles subject to a sadistic and/or fetishizing male gaze that all viewers assume by default, owing to sexist cultural preconditioning. This “deracinated” generalization, which renders the unconscious of all film viewers oppressively similar, discounts the experiences of actual, material spectators. Linda Williams’s articulation of the problem makes clear the need for a phenomenological intervention. She writes that in severing the psyche from the body, psychoanalytic theory has “giv[en] rise to the concept of an abstract ‘visual pleasure’ grounded in a voyeuristic gaze whose pleasure presumes a distanced, decorporealized, monocular eye mastering all it surveils but not physically implicated in the objects of its vision” (qtd. in Sobchack 59). To combat this fallacy of the disembodied gaze, Sobchack describes physical sensations during rapt film viewing—her own, as well as those of film reviewers who describe their bodies being moved and touched “as if” they themselves were within the diegesis. She explicitly elevates to a rigorous theoretical level film viewing that is alert to both reciprocity and physicality. Sobchack names the tactilely stimulated spectator “the cinesthetic subject,” a term that combinescinemawith the sensorial stew of synaethesia (“an ‘involuntary experience in which the stimulation of one sense cause[s] a perception in another'”) and coenaesthesia (“the potential and perception of one’s whole sensorial being,” often “used to describe the general and open sensual condition of the child at birth”) (67-69; qtg. Cytowick 52). The cinesthetic subject thus experiences a film with more senses than sight, more interpretative means than abstract cognizance. She writes,

the cinesthetic subject both touches and is touched by the screen—able to commute seeing to touching and back again without a thought and, through sensual and cross-modal activity, able to experience the movie as both here and there rather than clearly locating the site of cinematic experience as onscreen or offscreen. As a lived body and a film viewer, the cinesthetic subject subverts the prevalent objectification of vision that would reduce sensorial experience at the movies to an impoverished “cinematic sight” or posit anorexic theories of identification that have no flesh on them, that cannot stomach “a feast for the eyes.” (71)

[5] Certainly this phenomenological account, which owes much to Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s theory of perception, speaks to a range of levels of physical reaction to image viewing. The radically cinesthetic subject seems most likely to emerge, however, in a fantastic rendering of the exchange between viewer and image such as that presented in “The Portrait.” This tale offers the reader a privileged view of a character (Philip) as a cinesthetic subject actively engaged with a figure within an animate picture, an image whose fantastical movement turns what was potentially a mere fetish object into a recognizably active subject who can “commute seeing to touching and back again” for this cinesthetic viewer. Philip describes multiple scenes of seduction and physical manipulation at the hands, so to speak, of his imaged mother in language that details the variety and intensity of reactions she stirs within him.

[6] That Oliphant’s prototype of the cinesthetic subject is a male character whose scopophilic gaze is turned against him is particularly noteworthy as it differs from most twentieth-century theories of viewership that privilege sensual over visual modes of perception and cite women as the more tactile sex. Initially, feminist film critics venerated this gendered difference in their efforts to empower female film-goers who experience visual and narrative pleasure at the cinema distinct from that of Mulvey’s disenfranchising model. But more recent scholarship alert to the exclusions and inadequacies inherent in theories that rely on a rigid definition of gender rightly assert that any viewer can have multiple senses mobilized in spectation. Laura U. Marks’s work on haptic visuality emphasizes the importance of a non-essentializing vocabulary for fully comprehending the subversive potential of the synthesis between touch and sight:

There is a temptation to see the haptic as a feminine form of viewing; to follow the lines, for example, of Luce Irigaray that “woman takes pleasure more from touching than from looking” and that female genitalia are more tactile than visual. While many have embraced the notion of tactility as a feminine form of perception, I prefer to see the haptic as a feminist visual strategy, an underground visual tradition in general rather than a feminine quality in particular. (7; qtg. Irigaray 26)

It is in this way—as “a feminist visual strategy”—that Oliphant transforms the stereotypical male gaze upon a woman’s image into a kinetic circuit of sensorial stimuli. She reverses the traditional power dynamics of this exchange, leaping even beyond second-wave feminist distinctions of gendered experience as the very means by which the heroine can free herself from the abstract visual realm and regain the pleasures of embodied subjectivity. Furthermore, Oliphant has her inhabit both a male and a female body during the course of the story, underscoring her defiance of boundaries determined by gender.

[7] The other feminist critique of Mulvey’s argument that Oliphant’s tale presciently heeds is the call to corrupt narrative development itself, which structuralists had observed to be not only patriarchal but specifically oedipal. Roland Barthes most influentially identified the links between traditional narrative and the story of Oedipus, but numerous literary and film scholars such as Peter Brooks, Raymond Bellour, Stephen Heath, and de Lauretis have persuasively corroborated the evidence. De Lauretis is particularly helpful in outlining what is at stake in feminist challenges to this norm. She writes, “Barthes’s discourse on the pleasure of the text, at once erotic and epistemological, . . . develops from his prior hunch that a connection exists between language, narrative, and the Oedipus. Pleasure and meaning move along the triple track he first outlined, and the tracking is from the point of view of Oedipus, so to speak, its movement that of a masculine desire” (Alice 107). Apart from being about “searching for one’s origins, speaking one’s relationship to the Law” and taking the place of the father, oedipal narrative is also “situated within the system of exchange instituted by the incest prohibition, where woman functions as both a sign (representation) and a value (object) for that exchange” (Barthes, Pleasure 47; Alice140). Because such ordering had seemed intransigent, Mulvey had urged feminists to reject narrative outright and develop alternative modes of cinematic expression. While her call resulted in a robust (if marginal) avant-garde cinema, her respondents quickly realized that in ceding narrative to men, they were relinquishing too much. De Lauretis proposed that feminist cinema (and literature and scholarship) not seek “the destruction of narrative and visual pleasure,” as Mulvey initially called for, but rather be “narrative and oedipal with a vengeance, working, as it were, with and against narrative in order to represent not just female desire . . . but the duplicity of the oedipal scenario itself and the specific contradiction of the female subject in it” (Technologies 108). De Lauretis’s more inclusive system implicitly encourages not just an articulation of narratives “cut to the measure” of a woman’s desire, but ultimately, a profusion of narrative and visual systems that can honor more kinds of difference than just that of sex (Mulvey 843; qtd. in Alice 59).

[8] As “The Portrait” pursues new avenues of plot development and image deployment, it also follows traditional narrative logic in at least two ways. First, the punctuating action of Agnes’s possession of Philip’s body occurs three times. In his definitive work on Reading for the Plot, Brooks explains that “repetition by three constitutes the minimal repetition to the perception of series, which would make it the minimal intentional structure of action, the minimum plot” (99). Oliphant, it seems, reduces narrative to its most basic requirements to best highlight the differences in her feminist revision of it. She may be similarly motivated in her adherence to the established logic of a narrative’s endpoint. The tale closes in contemplation of its ekphrastic portrait, reinforcing the narrative power of this image as it retroactively structures plot developments from the start. As Brooks writes, “beginnings are chosen by and for endings. The very possibility of meaning plotted through sequence and through time depends on the anticipated structuring force of the ending” (93). While Oliphant undermines Oedipus’s relation to desire, language, and plot, she effects narrative cohesion through cyclical development and the animating force of the portrait. What Mulvey had lamented as woman’s relegation to static spectacle, Oliphant has endowed with innate narrativity in both formulaic and transgressive ways.

[9] De Lauretis’s account of the narrative role of a final image particularizes the broad terms of Brooks’s definition and suggests a feminist means for deploying such a trope that Oliphant’s tale anachronistically follows. “The Portrait” demonstrates how a screened heroine can wield profound narrative power, how an ostensibly still, iconic image of her can function as “the narrative image of woman—a felicitous phrase suggestive of the join of image and story, the interlocking of visual and narrative registers effected by the cinematic apparatus of the look” (Alice 140). At the same time, de Lauretis points out, a woman’s image may represent narrative closure, “the fulfillment of the narrative promise (made, as we know, to the little boy)” (140). In motivating the narrative with her heroine’s desires, Oliphant redefines closure; the animated image is itself on a journey, the very motor of narrative progress rather than its mere destination. In reassigning the active role of “the figure of narrative movement, the mythical subject” to Jocasta instead of Oedipus while ironically maintaining her as “the figure of narrative closure,” with Agnes’s portrait supplying itself as the final image of the story, Oliphant’s tale rewrites the founding narrative myth as an alternative tale of originsand as a send-up of oedipal overdetermination (Alice 144).

[10] The genre of the fantastic is ideal for revising structural mainstays of a culture because it allows a writer greater play in exploring scenarios that are foreclosed and desires that must stay repressed in realist texts. In “Ghosts in the House: Margaret Oliphant’s Uncanny Response to Feminist Success,” Leila Walker argues that Oliphant “used her ghost stories to create a safe rhetorical space in which to explore a shifting relationship between gender, power, property, and space” (178). While Walker does not focus on “The Portrait,” its heroine is perhaps Oliphant’s most radically empowered female character as she forges a course from disembodied essence to reincarnated subject. She inhabits the bodies of her son and her young female cousin, but also interferes in the social and economic structures of patriarchy: She aids her husband’s oppressed tenants and helps bring an end to his outmoded feudalism. Her personal goal of achieving reincarnation, then, involves contestations of each of the entities Walker mentions—”gender, power, property, and space”—as she gains control of her son, her husband, the household, and their estate.

[11] While many critics support a feminist interpretation of this and Oliphant’s other supernatural tales, Penny Fielding takes the opposite view, writing, “The story explicitly problematises the figure of the female ghost, whose power is entirely dependent on the surrogacy of the male. Philip’s response to his mother’s portrait emphasizes her immaturity and thus her powerlessness. She is ‘the white-robed innocent creature, to me no more than a child'” (208; qtg. “Potrait” 136). Philip may see his mother as imaged as an immature, powerless victim, but we do not; his observation is the result of his naïve gaze and poor interpretive skills. He admits, after all, to being “possibly somewhat dull . . . by nature” (126). Meanwhile, Agnes displays cleverness and great facility in setting her agenda in motion, while Philip can get nothing done on his own. We might as well say that he “is entirely dependent” on being made “the agent” of his mother, on the authority and leadership of the female. When he first arrives at home and wishes to argue the case of their poor tenants to his father, he admits that he does not know what to say. “I could but hope that, at the moment of broaching [the subject], words would be put into my mouth” (132). What he manages to say is essentially a targeted version of this plea, asking his father to play ventriloquist to his dummy: “I am doing nothing; my time hangs heavy on my hands. Make me your agent” (133). His father naturally scoffs at this suggestion. As this is also the moment when the fantastic portrait arrives, Philip’s mother is able to seize upon this request and exhaust Philip with work.

[12] The full-length portrait, reported by the servant to be “a speaking likeness,” is from Agnes’s recently deceased cousin (the father of the young Agnes, we later learn) (134). Philip describes the painted beauty for us: “a very young woman—I might say a girl, scarcely twenty—in a white dress,” (of course,) with a complexion of “dazzling fairness, the hair light, but the eyes dark” and “a little wistful, with something which was almost anxiety—which at least was not content—in them” (135-36). Philip is obviously smitten with the figure, as he describes himself gazing at this “dazzling” beauty who invites “love, confidence, and instinctive affection” from a man like him—a man “full grown and conscious of many experiences” (136). While Philip has already confessed his lack of experience with women and his having “recognized” them merely as part of the “economy of nature,” he assures himself (and attempts to assure the reader) that he nonetheless has adequate sexual knowledge to respond appropriately in this visual exchange; he tries to assume with confidence the pleasures of the voyeur that patriarchy would traditionally grant him, particularly as a man of thirty, possessed of mature virility but also rightfully matched (society would say) with one young enough to “scarcely” be a woman (126; 137). In competitive contrast, as if conscious that the portrayed figure may be “sizing up” her options—both in soliciting arousal and evaluating the results—he points out that his father is only an “old man” (136). But what he identifies for us without registering its significance (as he is bragging of his mastery of coded knowledge) is the fact that this is not a young woman at all, but rather, an “impersonation of tender youth” (136). Within the unfolding story, he of course means she is mere representation rather than embodied subject; as the retrospective narrating voice, though, he means something quite different. As an enduring presence within an enchanted portrait, she is not a frozen entity, petrified in paint. She is not actually young, just as she does not have “actual beauty” (136). She is virtual but not virtuous in the sense of innocent maidenhood. She is, after all, the mother of a thirty-year old man, and “conscious” of more “experiences” than our narrator is. But as this fact chafes against the purity he would like to assign to her, he obscures acknowledgement of it.

[13] His father somewhat cruelly withholds the information that this is a painting of his mother, which enables us to assess Philip’s instinctual reaction to the portrait, one devoid of the complex psychical taint of his knowing this to be his own mother. Once he learns her identity—the internal cry of “My mother!” erupting as its own paragraph—he reacts somewhat hysterically, which is a fitting response when what should be a repressed desire is so abruptly and involuntarily unveiled: “a sudden laugh broke from me, without any will of mine: something ludicrous, as well as something awful, was in it. When the laugh was over, I found myself with tears in my eyes, gazing, holding my breath. The soft features seemed to melt, the lips to move, the anxiety in the eyes to become a personal inquiry” (137). Confronting the young, desirable figure now as his mother, Philip experiences fear and embarrassment, which mingle with the attraction he has been openly describing to his father. His laughing and crying give way to a plea projected onto his mother’s expression for care and protection. What he previously noted in her as generalized anxiety becomes focused on his well-being in “a personal inquiry.” He has confessed, without meaning to, his oedipal desire for his mother to his father, and understandably seeks consolation from her, acknowledging her to be at once the object of his desire and the subject he wants to please so she will not leave him again.

[14] In this iteration of the family, as becomes clear, the mother is the one with true authority, so she is a good choice of ally for Philip. It is his unlikely sensitivity to the experience of the mother that helps make this story both proto-Freudian and proto-feminist. Gazing at the seemingly enlivened portrait (or is it “the water in [his eyes]” that makes her expression change?), he wonders, “What did she ask, looking at me with those eyes? what would she have said if ‘those lips had language’?”—quoting Cowper but also channeling Irigaray as well as the famous question of Freud’s that necessitates a critical response: “What does a woman want?” (136; 137; Jones 421). Philip recognizes her individuality as a particular woman and the rightful reciprocity in her looking back at him. He also intuits that the mystery of her desire could be cleared up—at least partly—if she could speak freely, seizing authority in words as well as images.

[15] Philip ostensibly never had the chance to work through his oedipal phase with his mother dying shortly after his birth, making his newly kindled desire for her quite strong. He tells us he wishes there were “some thread, some faint but comprehensible link between us” (137), a material connection that would physically bond mother and child as in, perhaps, the retraction device of the “fort/da” game that mimics the mother’s coming and going, or, earlier still, an umbilical cord (Freud 12-17). Such a physical link will be made, but Philip will have no control over its tension or slack. He expresses this regressive wish “with a curious vertigo and giddiness of my whole being in the sense of a mysterious relationship, which it was beyond my power to understand” (137). That the relationship will develop beyond his comprehension is an understatement. The work of the portrait will not only be to link its spirit with his body, but also to expose how his desire simplistically collapses various female roles into one symbolic one, much as a more famous vertigo sufferer would do under Hitchcock’s direction. (Oliphant, though, parodies Scottie’s voyeurism and fetishism; her Agnes will absurdly be replaced with another, identical Agnes; no performance necessary. Philip will have to “create” a replacement Agnes, as Scottie has to in order to transform Judy into Madeleine, but Philip will do so in a fantastically maternal way: he will simply deliver Agnes to her identical replacement body. Creation for him is a kind of procreation.) This condescending collapse is evident when Philip foolishly and rather amusingly pities his mother as a “poor child . . . as if she had been a little sister, a child of mine” (137), placing her in every possible incestual relation to himself without a hint of the consciousness of transgression. To add to what Brooks calls the “generational confusion” that is at the heart of the Oedipus myth, Philip’s father remarks, “She is like my—my granddaughter . . . and she is my wife” (Reading 9; “Portrait” 137-38). His simile excuses him from engaging with her, which he confesses he fears, but it also importantly forbids Philip’s desire for her, skipping right past his generation and making her either Philip’s mother orPhilip’s daughter, never sister or wife (or cousin). Philip has already accepted the appeal of a sister or daughter, though, making adherence to the aged father’s taboos less likely.

[16] Weakening of the father’s authority is evidenced also by Philip’s willingness to challenge his father regarding his callous business practices after a poor tenant, carrying her infant (a phantom-like presage of the mother’s nearing presence), begs Philip, “Oh, speak for us” (132). The family’s eternal servant warns Philip, “Master’s—not one to be managed,” but Philip rejects the admonition (142). A moment later, his father more forcefully announces the inexorability of his authority: “My law is fixed” (143); but that he needs to proclaim this at all is proof of its vulnerability. There is always a threat to the father from the son; what neither man expects is that power will be usurped by a woman, and, ultimately, by modernity itself. Further into the story, Philip gives us a familiar definition of patriarchal law as rooted in “the Gospel according to Adam Smith,” and he reports that its “tenets” are becoming “less binding” (148). By the time Philip narrates his tale, the father’s outmoded properties will have been torn down and replaced with modern streets lined with “mean little houses” (125). (Philip might be more enlightened than his father regarding gender, but his class prejudice remains strong. Oedipus is king, after all.)

[17] When father and son leave the drawing-room, where they’ve “hung [the painting] low, so that she might have been stepping into the room,” they lock the door behind them without quite knowing why (140). Several nights later, as each man is in his own study, the narrator undergoes his first assault from the spirit of his mother. It begins with Philip hearing the drawing room door opening and closing. Though Philip has not seen his mother step out of her painting, he has visualized this movement for us several times by repeating that the painting was placed so as to facilitate such an exit for its subject. And yet, he fears her coming—hence the locked door. In several ways, including this inspiration of desire and fear, she signifies the phallic mother endowed (perhaps) with penis, breasts and the powers of both sexes. Philip’s reactions to her spirit always vacillate between these emotions, and understandably so. Her possessions of him combine violence with pleasure, assault with consent. As she enters his room and then his body, he feels as though his

whole being ha[s] received a sudden and terrible shock. The sound went through my head like the dizzy sound of some strange mechanism, a thousand wheels and springs, circling, echoing, working in my brain. I felt the blood bound in my veins, my mouth became dry, my eyes hot, a sense of something insupportable took possession of me. (145)

While he experiences these sensations of sound, taste, temperature, and so on, he reports later that the picture of his mother “had been faintly showing in my imagination from time to time, the eyes, more anxious than ever, looking at me from out of silent air” (146). Philip is a cinesthetic subject in the extreme, hearing a multitude of sounds, even from a silent screen. The pleasurable image is also so available to him in his visually inclined masculinity that he can summon it to accompany the physical stimulations that place his mother inside his head, her locale being evidenced by the circular echoes (feminine in shape and mythic reference) that he hears. This triggers the rest of his body to respond according to its own physiological instincts. The amalgam of visions and sensations is the result of the portrait’s long-confined spirit unleashed on him, combining his visual pleasure with her fantastically augmented tactility to the point that she penetrates him as a matter of course. But this is a troubling scene of cinesthesia; Philip has enjoyed gazing at his mother’s image and even fantasized about her coming to life, but he has not agreed to be ravaged in this manner, barring an over-generous interpretation of the terms of his request to be put to use.

[18] He lies down, trying to settle himself, but can only succumb to the force that thrusts itself upon him and inside him. He describes the “extraordinary rush of sensation” as a “thumping and throbbing of this wild excited mechanism within, like a wild beast plunging and struggling . . . like a maddened living creature making the wildest efforts to get free” (145-46). As the crescendo approaches fever pitch and he fears being “moved . . . to shout aloud,” its momentum is checked when Philip “seem[s] to see a movement, as if someone was stealing out of sight,” and he follows as if tethered to her, as he had earlier wished (146). She leads him “To look at the picture?” he wonders, “But no; I passed the door of that room swiftly, moving, it seemed, without any volition of my own” (146). He is taken, instead, to his father’s study. Philip reports, “My sudden appearance alarmed him,” using an ambiguous syntax that at once refers to “the unseen” mother making her appearance and to the entranced Philip making an unexpected entrance. Philip’s ravished state causes his father to exclaim, “Philip, what have you been doing with yourself?” (146), indicating the sexual frenzy his body has been through and implicitly reminding him of the taboo on masturbation. (“You are not a boy, that I should reprove you; but you ought to know better” [147].) But Philip does not respond to his father. His—or rather Agnes’s—orgasmic experience takes precedence over all else, and the sight of the father seems necessary for seeing it through.

I sat down on the nearest chair and gasped, gazing at him. The wild commotion ceased, the blood subsided into its natural channels, my heart resumed its pace. I use such words as mortal weakness can to express the sensations I felt. I came to myself thus, gazing at him, confounded, at once by the extraordinary passion which I had gone through, and its sudden cessation. “The matter?” I cried; “I don’t know what is the matter.” (147)

That quiescence doesn’t come until a final feminine gasp and gaze at her old lover supports the hypothesis that this ferocious “beast” had been the manifestation of Agnes’s long-repressed libido gushing forth rather than Philip’s. She displays in this extended sequence not only a woman’s vigorous sexual desire—itself a Victorian taboo—but also, in her final gaze, a woman’s right to sexual looking.

[19] In describing his experience as one of “mortal weakness,” Philip seems to acknowledge its blatant sexuality, even as he simultaneously owns it (“I came to myself”) and disowns it (“I was independent of it all the time, a spectator of my own agitation” [visualizing again]) (147; my emphasis). He achieves self-possession only by the expenditure of energy that his mother’s spirit (and image) rouses in him, an experience at once coital and masturbatory. This confusion of the shared body with two agents can make Philip both a mere “spectator” to the sight of his mother traumatically re-embodying herself by usurping his body and its physiological responsiveness, and participant as the “wild beast” of his desire also strains to break free. Philip’s disowning of both—the body and the beast—could easily be a ploy to save face to his readers, or even to himself. His narration suggests he is attempting to preserve an image of himself as not only sexually experienced but also properly reserved according to upper-class Victorian standards, as opposed to barely managing to contain an animal lust.

[20] His ambivalent syntax in his last statement to his father (“I don’t know what is the matter”) indicates the vastness of his confusion, covering physical, psychical, and ontological grounds. Materiality itself confounds him. Having undergone a transformative sexual experience, Philip seems to become one of Brooks’s “epistemophilic” subjects who “postulat[e] that the body—another’s or one’s own—holds the key not only to pleasure but as well to knowledge and power” (Body xiii). As Philip has been sharing his body and also his will with a foreign spirit, he seems likely to be uniquely privy to a certain kind of phenomenological and ontological knowledge. But this epistemophilic theory is a fallacy, and, instead, Philip is temporarily bereft of all indications of the demarcations of “matter” and spirit.

[21] Despite his avoidance of mentioning the image during the possession, immediately afterwards Philip looks at the portrait in the drawing-room, but not directly; he goes outside to view it through the mediating and protective veil of the large window it hangs opposite. He marks again how his mother seems to be stepping into the room and “looking for the life which might have been hers” (149). As this is the second time Philip has proposed the notion that his mother wishes to claim the years of domestic life that were stolen from her, this motivation on her part seems more likely, although the thick Philip does not directly connect his mother’s picture, or her searching gaze, with the force that had overtaken him. Despite his mother’s image accompanying it, he assumes his supernatural experience is not rooted in her new presence in the home because he is made to visit his father instead of the drawing-room. The fact that she does not lead Philip to the portrait perplexes the reader a bit, as well, but only as to the mother’s motive, not her role in his orgasmic episode. Oliphant’s dramatic irony is such that we cannot help but see that his mother is behind his possession, having made him her agent.

[22] Because of the lengthily developed sub-plot of the tenants’ conditions, it may seem like his mother has selflessly returned to help Philip in his altruistic quest to better the lives of the less fortunate, and therefore makes him confront his father again. But the father is concealing a series of letters that beg him to take in the suddenly-stranded second Agnes, we find out toward the end of the story. The mother’s desire to help this girl may also seem selfless, but is ultimately revealed to be in service of her own desires. In fact, getting Philip and his father to help the girl and the tenants turn out to both be related to her ultimate aim—which is to take possession of her double, to take up a permanent tenancy, as it were, in the body of the new Agnes, and preside over the family’s domestic and economic affairs as she should have been doing these many years.

[23] Her second assault on Philip’s body begins in the same way as the first. He reports, “my heart sprang up with a bound, as if a cannon had been fired at my ear” (150). Again, the orifice of his ear is the initial target of his mother’s energy, but this assault will be figured differently. Philip alters his metaphor of the “wild beast” to complicate the dynamics of the sexualized exchange. As opposed to the initial ravishing onslaught, for which Philip had no defense, this time, he knows to some degree what to expect, and tries to resist. He relates,

I was like the rider of a frightened horse, rendered almost wild by something which in the mystery of its voiceless being it has seen, something on the road which it will not pass, but wildly plunging, resisting every persuasion, turns from, with ever increasing passion. The rider himself after a time becomes infected with this inexplainable desperation of terror, and I suppose I must have done so: but for a time I kept the upper hand. (150)

In this figuration, Philip is both horse and rider: on the one hand, struggling against an external force that some part of him mysteriously senses, and on the other, trying to discourage the sensitivity and responsiveness of his excitable body. The spirit of his mother here remains at a distance as the something strange on the road, the sight of which arouses the “wild beast” that he now ascribes to his own libidinal and instinctual body. Philip tries to maintain rational control, but ultimately resigns himself to the bodily stimuli: “I tried to work myself into indignation; but all through these efforts I felt the contagion growing upon me, my mind falling into sympathy with all those straining faculties of the body, startled, excited, driven wild by something I knew not what” (150). He again experiences the ravages of lust, but this time the libidinal energy expended seems to be his own. His mother’s approach first stirs his blood, so she is figured as responsible for his arousal, but she also seems to remain external to him, as she is figured as a contagion “upon” him rather than inside him. It also seems more likely that this time, his mother is doing him the favor, for after the wild struggle with the metaphorical animal between his legs, he asks repeatedly, “What do you want me to do?” (151). After a calming reverie, he feels as though he is being “drawn by someone whose arm was in [his]” once again to his father’s study. This time, though, he goes “with an utter consent of all my faculties to do I knew not what, for love of I knew not whom. For love—that was how it seemed—not by force, as I went before” (151). His mother’s seduction of him has been successful; he is devoted to “whomever” it is that brought him such intense release, but he will not admit the obvious, that it was his mother. While he was not given the chance to work through his oedipal desire in childhood, he has still been raised with full awareness of cultural taboos. Philip’s insistent denial by this point is utterly comical, particularly to a post-Freud audience. He tells his father, while under this second possession, “I am not here of my own will. Something that is stronger than I has brought me. . . . Some one—who can speak to you only by me—speaks to you by me; and I know that you understand” (152). Why he can’t name her seems only attributable to his refusal to acknowledge that he is communing in these orgasmic possessions with the young woman he finds so captivating in the portrait. He already unwittingly exposed his attraction to her at the portrait’s unveiling; to tell his father the image has been upgraded in his mind to a fantasy of physical and psychical penetration would be unthinkable, even to someone as obtuse as Philip.

[24] There is evidence, though, that he has had to admit to himself that his mother is his metaphysical lover, in that in his third and final possession, he says he experiences nothing but terror “beyond description” (155). He asserts that he is being used as “a helpless instrument without any will of mine, in an operation of which I knew nothing; and to enact the part of the oracle unwillingly, with suffering and such strain as it took me days to get over” (155). In the previous episode he was moved to fully consent with his body’s use as a host and to do so out of love. Now, he regresses to a position of total ignorance and victimhood—at least until he sees the young Agnes sitting outside his father’s study. This regression would suggest that his mother is still the “phallic mother” with the real power in the household.

[25] The young Agnes that Philip encounters in the hallway differs from the painted Agnes only in that she is “clothed in black from head to foot, instead of the white dress of the portrait. She had no knowledge of the conflict, of nothing but that she was called for, that her fate might depend on the next few minutes. In her eyes there was a pathetic question, a line of anxiety in the lids, an innocent appeal in the looks” (159). The girl, who has conveniently materialized in the home simply because she was “called for”—presumably by the ever-effective spirit of the elder Agnes—seems a vacant drone, possessing only enough autonomy to tacitly pose a “pathetic question”: perhaps Philip’s, “What do you want me to do?” She never speaks in the story, or even moves of her own volition. Clearly, she will serve a purpose similar to that which Philip has, but his mother’s occupation of this new, female body will be permanent.

[26] Seeing her provides Philip instant awareness of what to do, and he proudly takes action, bringing this replica of the painted woman to his father as proof of his mission. His father, shocked at the sight of the double, screams, “Agnes!” and loses consciousness, believing she is his wife come to escort him to heaven. He is not “recovered” until “after a few days,” but this symbolic death has effectually castrated him; he loses all claim to the phallus, to law, and to language. He becomes a kind of replacement phantom, idling the hours quietly in the drawing-room. Philip tells us, “he was willing enough afterwards to leave the management of that ticklish kind of property which involves human well-being in my hands, who could move about more freely, and see with my own eyes how things were going on” (160). Naming the superiority of his eyes, his rightful claim to a masterful gaze, Philip has become “the agent” of his father, as he had initially desired, taking charge of the estate, but also of that other rental property, the “ticklishly” vivacious body that now houses his mother’s spirit. Or rather, he thinks he assumes power due to the myth of masculine mastery of the visual field, but we know that throughout the story, his mother has determined what is “seen and unseen.” His gaze only discerns what she wishes to reveal. Likewise, his claim to power is undermined, but he seems untroubled by the evidence of this or its likelihood.

[27] Philip quickly advances the narrative at this point to tell us of his and young Agnes’s happy nuptials. The mother has used her son’s oedipal vulnerability to make him challenge his father, fulfill her physical needs as both receptacle of energy and agent of her plans, and deliver her to the living world again, right where she had left off: as a new wife. Things even seem improved this time around. For one thing, she is relieved of having an all-needy infant to tend to. She has also replaced her conservative and much older first husband with a sympathetic and sensitive younger one. She knows she will always be his perfect object, as she remains with him as the new “Agnes,” but is always inaccessible as the real object of his desire within the portrait, which instantly becomes the keeper of his secret. Even though it hangs in plain sight, displaying the true object of his affection, the portrait “is supposed by strangers,” he tells us, to be “that of my wife; and I have always been glad that it should be so supposed” (161). This is not surprising, as he would not consciously invite others to recognize the incestuous nature of his erotic life. This way, he can fetishize the portrait without anyone knowing it figures the phallic mother. He is also safe from the threat of his mother’s further wielding that power from the disembodied position of which she made such effective use.

[28] The ending offers a partial explanation as to why this story has not been more aggressively recuperated by feminist critics, as I think it should be. In achieving re-embodiment, Agnes may seem to relinquish the pervasive power of the “Unseen” for the chance to live out the life of the “angel” in the house, but the story demonstrates that neither position is true to type. A real “angel” in the house would be a ghost-like figure, blessing the inhabitants while keeping out of their way, but as a roaming spirit, Agnes is insistently disruptive and sexually transgressive. As an embodied woman, she wears the “decorative layer” of the metaphorical angel of the domestic, but the narrative has revealed her to be a woman of powerful intellect and sensuality who prefers carnal privileges to spiritual abstraction. The narrative provides further reason to believe Agnes’s power is reified through the conventional veneer of the ending: Philip tells us that Agnes has “her peaceful throne established under the picture” (160), announcing a new reign of the feminine in this reconfiguration of the oedipal triangle. Agnes rewrites Oedipus’s tragedy as Jocasta’s triumph, where she has traded in the stuffy, old patriarch for the young, manipulable son. She does away with shame and punishment in preference of a simple and wonderfully obvious ruse. Philip may feel as though he has passed through the oedipal stage of development, but he has, in fact, quite happily married his mother and been suspended forever by her image in the mirror stage. And no conflict arises from this taboo union, as it is sanctioned by his father and society because of his mother’s clever use of a double—a substitute body to hide in, that looks, amazingly, exactly like herself.

[29] Oliphant delivers what de Lauretis calls for from true feminism: “a rewriting of our culture’s ‘master narratives'” (Technologies 113). In taking on Oedipus, she also criticizes Victorian devotion to Greek texts. As Dale Kramer reports in her survey of Oliphant’s comments on the classics, “Oliphant’s firm verdict is that relying on classical myths is ‘one of the affectations of the age'” (157-58; qtg. “New” 701). She hates how “The Greeks deal always with the action of Fate, depending on a dread of ‘unseen influence which leads to crime’ and a ‘whirlwind of ruin'” (155; qtg. “Ancient” 372). In rewriting Oedipus, complete with her own version of an “unseen influence” that works toward a positive outcome, Oliphant demonstrates what a feminist redeployment of this myth can look like. After all, an alternative script for Jocasta might be the best place to begin a tradition of women’s narrative. At the same time, she shows the absurdity of adhering to such a closed system of development by implicating almost every heterosexual figuration of incest within the family, as Philip consciously figures Agnes as his mother, wife, sister, and daughter. In this way, her parody urges its readers to move altogether beyond the “affectations” of classically narrow domestic relations.

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