Coping with Limits by VfYZUi


									                                Truncated Opportunities

                                          Marlon Altoé

       In depicting and analyzing issues affecting women in the late nineteenth century Europe,

psychiatrist Sigmund Freud and playwright George Bernard Shaw take divergent approaches:

while Freud directs his focus inward to the subconscious, Shaw looks to outside (and more

social) influences in order to explain these women’s responses to the realities of their lives. In

“The Case of Miss Lucy R.,” Freud attempts to help a young Austrian governess who is

experiencing symptoms of hysteria (a condition thought at the time to be a strictly female

ailment, which caused a vast array of symptoms and resulted from the sex’s innate fragility). In

doing so he chooses an individualized and meticulous method, embarking on an exploratory

journey through his protagonist’s emotional world in an attempt to isolate the origin of her woes.

Shaw, by contrast, looks to society in order to explain his subject’s thorny station in life. In his

play, “Mrs. Warren’s Profession”, Shaw attacks directly a ferociously capitalist yet moralizing

British social system that holds many women captive through subordination, exploitation, and

painful poverty, and then goes on to assail these desperate creatures for taking advantage of the

last avenue out of sure wretchedness left to them: prostitution. Individual choice coupled with

emotional accountability and reconciliation versus collective action to enact social-economic

shifts are these two authors’ different, if complementary, solutions for ameliorating the difficult

circumstances of Victorian womanhood.

       Freud, in his professional explorations, looks to the past and to the inner-self to find

answers to events taking place in his patients’ everyday reality. Therefore, in trying to analyze

and help Miss Lucy R., he chooses to ignore larger social influences on her psychic behavior and

concentrates instead on comparatively small events that can be perceived as having a traumatic

effect on her presupposed yielding female mind. Miss Lucy “was suffering from low spirits and

fatigue, and was tormented by subjective sensations of smell” (109), more precisely “a smell like

burnt pudding” (110). Freud decides to make this smell “the starting point of the analysis” (110).

He works under the assumption that hysteria stems from an idea being “intentionally repressed

from consciousness” (117). This idea then manifests as a physical reaction, “taking revenge by

becoming pathogenic” and acting as a sort of reminder that something lays unresolved (117).

Accordingly, Freud embarks on a deep and focused investigation of this woman’s memories,

peeling off the suppressed, protective layers of awareness and putting together seemingly

irrelevant details to form a clear picture that might give insight into her situation.

       The conclusion to Freud’s careful medical investigations is that she is “in love with [her]

master” and that she secretly fosters “the hope that she really will take the place of the mother”

(118). He goes on to say that the symptoms affecting her are painful memories converted into

physical quirks that stem from a traumatic incident involving her otherwise kind employer, who

once even “looked at her in a particular way” (118). Upset about having his children “kissed on

the lips” by a guest in his house, the master had behaved erratically, even violently towards

Lucy, a simple bystander. He had held her responsible for something that, she had felt, was out

of her control. “If he can set on me and threaten me like that over something so slight … when I

am, in any case, quite innocent, then I have made a mistake,” she says (121). According to

Freud, this had crushed her romantic aspirations, and had made her embarrassed that she could

have ever allowed herself to entertain such unreasonable thoughts, given her social standing.

“You are afraid that [others] will spot your hope and make fun of you,” he says to her (118).

       “What remain[s] to be explained [is] why” this incident is so significant to Lucy (116). Is

the frustration of an unrequited infatuation so painful that she is forced into fashioning such

drastic devices of emotional protection as the splitting of her consciousness? Miss Lucy’s case

brilliantly illuminates to the reader (most likely peers in the mental health professions) the

methods used by Freud in his early explorations of the unconscious, methods that will later be

instrumental to the development of Freud’s vastly influential theory of psychoanalysis. Beyond

theoretical merit, Freud’s tactics also achieve practical success: they seem to truly alleviate

Lucy’s suffering. However, in explaining to the reader the underlying causes of Miss Lucy’s

hysteria or even the disease’s widespread occurrence in such a large and easily identifiable set of

the population—women—the scope the analysis presented in the text is somewhat narrow.

       Miss Lucy R. falls within a peculiar category within her society: that of the governess,

the mid-point or junction between the lower and the upper classes. It is a position laced with

social tension, and one that makes her an immediate outsider. As a caregiver and educator, she

represents middle-class mothers’ values, yet by accepting wages for her labors she behaves like

the lower ranking folk. As governess, Miss Lucy is neither to enjoy the social benefits of being a

mother and wife—often women’s only chance to exert any influence at the time—nor be

afforded the recourse available to those who fall below society’s radar: prostitution, the tragic

but in some situations preferable alternative of taking advantage of one’s body as means to

independence. In addition, her capacity to extricate herself, not from her station in life, but, at

any rate, from this particular work arrangement, which brings her considerable anguish—“I

couldn’t stand it in the house anymore”—is further limited by a deathbed promise she makes to

the mother of the children she watches over (116). Lucy, who is a distant relative of the

deceased, had sworn to her that she “would never leave [the children], and that [she] would take

the place of their mother” (116). Although not directly in line with the Freudian approach, one

can see how Lucy, trapped, would turn towards her last standing fort where her command still

reins: her inner-world, where she is free to temper with her thoughts and emotions as she sees fit.

        Freud appears not to challenge this dominant social order. He down-plays the broader

sociological tensions upon Lucy’s psyche that are present in the text and seems to say that the

problem is individual; it is her fault for failing to realize where she belongs. Freud suggests to

Lucy that it is in her best interest to dispel any hopes of a successful romantic relationship with a

social superior. Lucy belongs to a lower social stratum, and her proximity to her master’s family

and his occasional kindness should not in any way invite delusions of inclusion. It is an

impossibility that will only cause her emotional harm. “She is in complete agreement with me …

and also recognizes quite clearly that her inclination is quite without hope,” says the author

(119). Freud possibly recognizes, but perhaps chooses not to explore for scientific reasons, the

fact that what he classifies as causes to Miss Lucy’s troubles could alternatively be perceived as

mere symptoms of larger social maladies. Lucy is likely to see in her master’s kindness a gleam

of hope to escape a most certainly grim future of truncated opportunities. Her neurosis has, in all

probability, a stronger connection to the desperation she feels regarding the general state of her

life rather than to a broken romantic fantasy. Freud gives the reader the impression that for him,

however, it originates from her lack of “moral courage” to face reality, not society’s

unwillingness to give her a voice in deciding her own fate or providing her with the means to

alter it if need be (123). His prescription to Lucy is to realize her station in life, accept it, and

dispel herself of any such impractical, injurious thoughts.

        Bernard Shaw adds some vivid, darker colors to the picture painted for us by Freud,

achieving a depiction of the lower-class Victorian English woman and the social barriers she

faces that is at once fascinating and terrifying. Some women did not have the luxury of avoiding

life’s unpleasantness by removing themselves from it. The lower stratum of the female

population lived a life so brutal that to avoid being devoured by its voracity, they were forced to

become either nimble pragmatists (to steer clear of its many obstacles) or calculating

manipulators (in order to capitalize on its scant opportunities). Mrs. Warren, the title character of

Shaw’s “Mrs. Warren’s Profession”, displays both of these traits beautifully.

       “[A] genial and fairly presentable old blackguard of a woman,” Mrs. Warren is a survivor

(95). The daughter of a fried-fish selling, self-titled “widow,” Kitty Warren is quickly made

aware of the few, equally horrible paths her life can take, if respectability is to be her ultimate

goal. She could slave her live away, working as a barmaid, “wearing out [her] health and [her]

appearance for other people’s profit” (123). She could try her hand at industrial work, as did one

of her sisters, Anne Jane, who died of “lead poisoning” as a consequence (122). And then, there

was the blessing of marriage. At least there Kitty would have a close relation to her master,

which, with any luck, could well prove to be a pleasant arrangement—unless, as was often the

case, “he took to drink[ing]” (122).

       Mrs. Warren, and presumably Shaw, seem to think this ugly virtuosity—a virtuosity only

possible through subordination, misery, and abuse—quite unworthy of such heavy sacrifices.

One day, Lizzie, another of her sisters who had gone “out one night and never c[o]me back”

(122), shows up “in a long fur coat, elegant and with a lot of sovereigns in her purse” (123). She

offers Kitty a chance to go “into business with her” in “a much better place for a woman to be in

than the factory where Anne Jane got poisoned” (124). Given the stark contrast in outlooks, it is

hard to imagine why Kitty would, or even how she could, have refused. Her arguments make it

impossible for the reader to miss the injustice of this exploitative system that is made possible,

all while being persecuted, by the heavy hand of the upper social classes. “You were certainly

quite justified,” says Vivie Warren upon hearing her mother’s deliberations (124).

       Shaw is not directly interested in individual merit, choices, or interactions. His goal is to

strike directly at the macro social-economic forces that render these things all but irrelevant. He

savagely attacks the pervasive hypocrisy of Victorian society by holding a mirror to its

institutions—especially that of marriage—to illustrate his point. “What is any respectable girl

brought up to do but to catch some rich man’s fancy and get the benefit of his money by

marrying him?—as if a marriage ceremony could make any difference on the right or wrong of

the thing!” says Mrs. Warren (124). Kitty thus equates the most fundamental bastion of her

society, marriage, to he own profession, prostitution—the difference lying in the official seal

received by the former to the detriment of the latter. Shaw appears to say that we should not

judge another’s supposedly immoral decisions before we understand how limited were his or her

choices. We should point the finger instead at those who presented these individuals with such

negligible variety of prospects. Furthermore, we should suspend judgment until we take a good

look at ourselves and realize that many of our most cherished middle-class institutions are hardly

nobler than those practiced out of plain necessity by the have-nots of this world, and which we at

once promote and so despise. “Oh, the hypocrisy of the world makes me sick!” exclaims Kitty

Warren (124).

       Shaw has no intention of glorifying prostitution, however. It can be a sordid, squalid

business, but one that becomes inevitable to a great many women because of their economic

realities and their inability to sustain themselves by any other means—the lesser of several evils.

“I’ve often pitied a poor girl … having to try to please some man that she doesn’t care two

straws for—some half-drunken fool … disgusting a woman so hardly any money could pay for

her putting up with it … but I should have been a fool if I had taken to anything else,” explains

Kitty (125). Inevitable as it may have been and undoubtedly preferable to the alternatives

available, even in Shaw’s progressive world prostitution is not without repercussions. Mrs.

Warren will soon find out that the consequences of putting self-respect over social-respect are

more painful than the mere indignities of her profession. The price to be paid is total loss of her

most valuable investment, banishment from the life of the one she loves most: Vivie.

       In Vivie Warren, Shaw offers us a new alternative, an alternative available to privileged

young women with access to education and some monetary means. She represents a practical,

able, and more assured modern woman. One who is poised to take on the world, and certain to

succeed through her intellect and work ethic rather than through her association or dependency

on men. But even this seemingly favorable portrayal soon strikes the reader as lacking, as not

whole. Vivie states, “I like working and getting paid for it” (92). And as for romance or “beauty

in [her] life” she declares, “I don’t care for either. I assure you” (92). Although at a better

position than her mother to choose the course of her life, her choices are still considerably

limited. Vivie sees that the price for autonomy, the price for a woman to succeed in a man-

dominated, capitalist world is the renouncement of any characteristics viewed as feminine. This

is perhaps why she feels the necessity to abandon love and marriage altogether—“I must be

treated as a woman of business, permanently single and permanently unromantic”—and to

completely cut ties with her mother—love and family being the last sources of the sentimentality

she so much fears (149). They are the sacrifices that she feels must be made in order for her to

achieve her goals as a self made woman. “It’s better to choose your line and go through with it.

If I had been you, mother, I might have done as you did: but I should not have lived one life and

believed in another. You are a conventional woman at heart. That is why I am bidding you

goodbye now” (160).

       Through both of these texts we are given glimpses of the tremendous hardships faced by

women who lived during the Victorian period and also of Freud and Shaw’s reactions to these

realities. The former’s solution is presented as such: accept the facts of life and learn to work

within its pre-set boundaries. The latter prescribes rethinking and reshaping those boundaries.

Shaw displays a belief that the human race as a whole needs to be accountable for the social

structures it has created, and it needs to extend to all humans—woman and man, rich and poor—

the same level of consideration. Although writing at roughly the same time, these two men’s

diverting conclusions to similar issues can be explained by personal differences but also by the

different societies they depict and by the purpose of their work: Austrian versus English society,

a work of science and research versus a harsh social commentary, if not a social-political

manifesto, in the form of entertainment—thus reaching a much wider audience. Elizabeth Cady

Stanton once said: “Self-development is a higher duty than self-sacrifice.” Although through fits

and starts, the world of today seems to have, fortunately, moved away from the vision voiced by

Freud, and closer instead to the vision championed by Shaw and Stanton. The true equality

dreamt by countless women and too few men of yesteryear is not yet here. But strides are,

nonetheless, being made towards progress, making what once was widely thought of as

preposterousness look more and more like inevitability.


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