2— Constructing a Woman’s Speech: Words and Images: “Miss Thompson” (1921), Rain (1921), Sadie Thompson (1928)

by Andrea Elizabeth

(cont from here) I’m halfway through Chapter 2 in Amy Lawrence’s Echo and Narcissus. In this chapter she gets to the meat of Maugham’s story, and also provides a plot and character summary. Victorian influences survive as deep motivations.

*spoiler* “The only scene always left unrepresented is the final one between Sadie and Davidson. This is both the climax of the story and the ultimate taboo, but in the play it is displaced by a supposedly “greater” event—Sadie’s acceptance of O’Hara’s marriage proposal. Sadie and Davidson remain structured as a series of oppositions based on class and gender: Davidson as authority (religious, military, political), and as a man with physical and vocal superiority. Sadie is sub-working-class, “vulgar,” without political power, exploited and female. Davidson’s views on sex are puritanical (the conversion of sexual energy into work results in profit), the supposed opposite of Sadie’s, who exploits sex for direct access to cash, exposing the work ethic as an exchange of sex for money. Sadie’s and Davidson’s names are virtual inversions of each other, the initials of which indicate their positions as representatives of the Marcusian bipolar opposites, eros and thanatos, or Sex and Death (the sexual woman and the puritanical minister, the prostitute and the suicide). Or as Barthes might have it, “S/D.” O’Hara is at every point inserted as the middle ground between their antithetical positions. It is through O’Hara that Sadie is reconciled to men and middle-class monogamy.”

The association of chastity and giving into temptation with death is an interesting one. Davidson had been coercing her into facing jail, which is like death. He initially convinced her, and that is when she became “zombie-like”, but peaceful. O’Hara’s marriage option is a compromise, putting sex in its proper context. But as Lawrence describes, it is too tidy a resolution to something of a fight to the death where there is no middle ground. I have read accounts of monastics who achieve so much joy and fulfillment in their relationship to God alone, that this type of chastity does seem like a higher life, and not death. But one must die to self to achieve it.

Another point she addresses is heteroglossia, or the embodiment and speaking of different points of view. Lawrence seems to dismiss Hegelian synthesis in favor of maintaining diversity. The neutral character, Dr. Macphail, eventually has to take sides, but then bounces back to the other. She posits that O’Hara seems a too convenient fix for the tension.

An author and an actor achieve distance between clear points of view that are not representative of their own. Do they synthesize them? If not, how is peace achieved? Don’t people have to take a stand? Willful ignorance is one way to handle it, which Macphail initially employs. And this may be advisable for a time because who can know another’s point of view unless they have walked in their shoes and tries to basically learn all about them? Is it even possible to ever know all about someone, or even ourselves? I think we must do our best to understand, and act on it, while recognizing there is always more to learn.