In the lead-up to the March 31 release of our Peculiar Edition of Nephi Anderson’s novel Dorian we will be running a series of posts featuring the first paragraph (and one other paragraph of the editor’s whim) from the essays included in that volume. Come back for more every Tuesday and Thursday.
The history of men writing women shows an established tendency to corral female characters to one side of a sexual dichotomy, such that they embody one of two tropes, the angel or the whore. These polarized figures represent men’s response to the masculine perception of women’s sexuality, which means that women are defined according to their (apparent) sexual availability, both to the male from whose perspective we’re currently gazing, and to men in general. Thus we have Eve and Mary (the seductress who lures man into sexual knowingness, and the virgin so pure she gives birth without having sex); Veronica and Betty (the sexy shopaholic who dates widely, and the wholesome, loyal girl next door); the White Swan and the Black Swan; Arabella Donn and Sue Bridehead; Helen Ramirez and Amy Fowler; the list goes on. The angelic woman is pure, good, modest, faithful, and, most critically, sexually restrained, while the whore character tends to be voluptuous, exotic, irresistible, and sexually flagrant. The male protagonist’s desire is fraught as he navigates between these two types: the sexually available woman can never belong exclusively to him, and the woman who can be his exclusively is by nature non-sexual—or worse, if she is convinced to have sex, then she will no longer be the virginal ideal worthy of his desire. Stories that rely on the tension between angel and whore tend most often to show the male protagonist seduced by the latter but desiring the former; the allure of the whore is only a distraction from his pursuit and eventual conquest of the angel….
Mildred’s fate reverberates remarkably with Snow White’s. As she is dying, her room is evacuated of books and artistic materials, and her speech is reduced to a single sentence; the last time Dorian sees her, he finds her “thinner and paler than ever, eyes bigger, hair heavier and more golden,” and Dorian is able to enjoy looking on her “angel-face,” now “marble-like” (63 – 64). Stripped of her trappings of culture, she is reduced to a body to be admired. Dorian does not visit her again, not even when he learns that the crisis has come and she is on the verge of death. Instead he lingers outside her home until someone comes out and tells him that she has died. Then, “He felt the night wind blow cold down the street, and he saw the storm clouds scuttling along the distant sky. In the deep blue directly above him a star shone brightly, but it only reminded him of what Uncle Zed had said about hitching to a star; yes, but what if the star had suddenly been taken from the sky!” (66). At the critical moment of pathos, Mildred, who has been curiously absent from her own death scene, is projected as a star—beautiful but utterly out of reach, high above the world; incorporeal for all intents and purposes, and even more so now that she is “taken from the sky.”