Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Inner and Outer Selves

In her "Writing the Secret Self," Angela Smith views the "secret self" of Mansfield's stories as a self in touch with "a darker vision" (415); the access to this dark vision, she writes later, can be seen in moments of "insecurity and terror" occurring in the home, where the characters mistakenly "thought they were safest" (419). She cites as one of these moments Linda's encounter with the wallpaper in "Prelude." While Smith seems to view these moments of terror as glimpses into the secret self, I would argue, especially in Linda's case, that these are not glimpses at all—they are, rather, manifestations of the reversal of the inner self and the outer self. Though the tension between inner and outer selves is present for all of Mansfield's characters, for some of them the inner life has become or threatens to become the outer life, and that is why the moments to which Smith refers are so terrifying—they are signs of a takeover, so to speak.
These reversals are most evident in "Prelude." The Burnells and the Fairchilds are vulnerable to these reversals not because of the home in itself, but rather because of the isolation of their home. The outer self is, it seems, dependent upon the gaze of others to sustain it. This is why, though she cannot articulate it, Beryl is upset by having had to move from the town to the country. She has been dominated by her outer self, and without any one to see her, she becomes increasingly absurd to her inner or "real" self, which she cannot quite access. Because of her separation from the gaze of others, Beryl is forced to gaze upon herself, watching herself play guitar in her mind's eye. Ironically, it is the mirror that shows the falseness of the outer self, or makes Beryl conscious of it.
Linda, on the other hand, avoids the mirror precisely because the outer self that shields from the vision of the inner self is not fully present. Again, the reversal has everything to do with Linda's isolation—her sickness forces her to keep to herself so much that the outer self had long ago parted with the sustenance of the other's gaze. The move to the country seems to complete the reversal already present. Indeed, Linda's distaste for her husband is, in a way, a rejection of what little remains to her of the other's gaze. The incident with the wallpaper poignantly shows how the inner life has become more real to her than the outer life, so much so that she can actually touch it: ". . .she traced a poppy on the wall-paper with a leaf and a stem and a fat bursting bud. In the quiet, and under her tracing finger, the poppy seemed to come alive. She could feel the sticky, silky petals, the stem. . ." (91). Although Linda still seems to have some resistance to the inner self's complete takeover—she mentions being frightened of the "THEY" who are outward manifestations of the inner life—she does not try to shatter her sense of isolation as Beryl would, by talking, or singing to herself. She allows it, and can even see the "coming alive of things" as a benevolent force: "They listened, they seemed to swell out with some mysterious important content, and when they were full she felt that they smiled" (91).
For Linda's daughter Kezia, this process is in its more nascent stages. Fittingly, her inner life thus threatens to take over in the form of "IT" rather than "THEY." She encounters "IT" in the empty house from which they are moving (again, a locus of isolation). Of course, before the inner life can take over, Lottie (an "other") disrupts the process and resumes the gaze that sustains Kezia's outer self. Kezia's reaction, later in the story, to the decapitation of the duck is perhaps emblematic of her increasing fear, of which she is unaware, that the outward life of the body and the inward life of the mind could become disjoined. The duck, literally rent from the physical mechanism of its inner life, continues grotesquely in his outer life, his body traveling to the pond without his head. Kezia's plea "'Put head back!'" (106) can thus be read as "Put the inner life back!" Already, it is clear that Kezia, though afraid of the disjoining of selves, has begun to privilege the inner life, as her mother does. In this struggle between selves, the idea of children's play takes on a new significance. Play is not diversion—it is essential to the fashioning of the outer self. It is when children decide what they will outwardly be. Each game is a sort of catalog of options, a trying-on of outer selves. I saw the snail, present after the children's dinner party game, taking on a new significance in Mansfield's story. The snail is a sort of symbol of the inner and outer selves' fusion. The inner life, the snail's body, is somewhat amorphous—there is a formlessness and flexibility to it. The shell, which the snail builds, represents the outer life that the children build in their play. Interestingly, the snail's body eats the remains of the children's discarded "outer life"—the "geranium plate" (102)—showing how the inner life has the potential to "digest" or subsume its opposite.

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