-point of view: determining ratio in omniscience
-objective correlative: the storm, his wife’s clothes
The same week Otessa Moshfegh’s “An Honest Woman” came out in the The New Yorker with Bob Dylan on the cover, David Sedaris was giving his annual reading here in Houston. Per his standard practice of promoting someone else’s work, the book he’d elected to hype this time around was Moshfegh’s debut novel Eileen. Sedaris read an excerpt of exposition describing Eileen’s life in a cramped house with her alcoholic father, rendered primarily via the results of her abusing laxatives to relieve her constipation. It gets graphic as she almost overflows the toilet, audience members visibly squirming. “‘And these,'” Sedaris concluded with characteristic bravado, wrapping up a passage in which Eileen heaves on the bathroom floor in sweaty relief, “‘were the good times.'”
“Horrible,” he effused in the aftermath of the applause, nearly vibrating with glee. “Just horrible.”
The discomfort in “An Honest Woman,” published just over two weeks before the 2016 election, is more subtle but no less chilling. The story begins with a young woman meeting her next-door neighbor, an old man named Jeb who’s lived in the neighborhood for years–“‘Through seven Presidents,'” he tells her through the chain-link fence separating their backyards. Jeb can hear everything the girl does in her house when he sits in his basement, though he preferred not to take advantage of this anomaly before the girl’s boyfriend Trevor left. When Jeb’s nephew comes over for breakfast, Jeb gives his nephew a piece of misdelivered mail he’s been saving so the nephew has an excuse to talk to the girl. After inquiring about her appearance, the nephew goes over to the girl’s house and they set a date for a drink. That afternoon, Jeb brings the date up when he sees the girl in her yard; she insists the date is platonic enough that Jeb could join them, and he invites her to stop by his place for whiskey before she and the nephew leave. A storm hits, and the nephew calls Jeb to tell him he won’t be able to make it. When the girl arrives at his house in the midst of the storm, Jeb tells her his nephew has been delayed and will be late, then serves her whiskey (in a glass he’s licked the rim of). While they drink, Jeb says that the storm might have saved the girl from his nephew doing the “pump and dump.” The girl responds that she knows he’s trying to get a rise out of her:
“I see your game. You’re trying to shame me for being young and pretty. You want to make me apologize for all the other girls who didn’t like you. You just can’t stand that I’m right next door reminding you of all that. That’s it, isn’t it? Pump and dump,” she scoffed. “Nothing you say can hurt me. See if you can do it. I dare you.”
Jeb laments young women who give themselves away “for free,” language the girl also calls him out for. She asks if his nephew is coming and Jeb admits that he isn’t. She doesn’t leave but looks at some old photos and then uses his bathroom, inducing a memory of a woman who offhandedly rejected Jeb while she was sitting on a toilet. When she returns, Jeb reminisces about his dead wife, setting a hand on the girl’s knee in his alleged emotional reverie, which the girl also calls him out for:
“Get your nasty paw off my leg,” the girl said flatly.
Jeb then offers to let the girl try on some of his wife’s old clothes in his bedroom, an offer repeated and refused several times. He says she’s lucky he’s not a creep, then offering that his wife was not a “tease or hussy like you find nowadays,” at which point the girl suddenly straddles him, asking if this was what he wanted. Before he can respond, she leaves. When the nephew calls later, Jeb declares the girl “a dud.” The next morning Jeb listens in his basement as the girl sings along to the radio “as though nothing at all had happened.” He continues to watch her from a distance, not offering to help her with her house chores as he might once have. A few days later the ex-boyfriend Trevor returns, and to escape the house, Jeb wanders around town, musing what it would be like “to be worshipped and beloved.”
The writer Robert Olen Butler says the kernel of all good fiction is yearning, and this last line articulates fairly directly what this character’s yearning is. Jeb’s yearning, in the current sociopolitical context at least, comes to stand for the misogynist yearning of what it turns out is a more significant percentage of the population than we thought. But “to be worshipped and beloved” is a desire that is itself a product of entitlement that inevitably comes at the expense of others. The story’s conclusion seems to posit further that even when people are confronted directly with the delusional nature of their delusional mindsets, they themselves will then proceed “as though nothing at all had happened.”
The point of view bears out the politics of gender dominance: omniscient but predominantly told from Jeb’s perspective, the story never gives “the girl” a name, though Jeb must have presumably learned it. This name use, or lack thereof, reflects not the fact that as a man Jeb is better and deserving of a name–and its concurrent individuality–while women are not, but rather that society treats men as if they were better and deserving of names, etc. The reader can’t tell initially how malevolent his intentions are–likely because he himself isn’t aware of how malevolent they are. The most dangerous evildoers are the ones convinced they’re doing good.
We do get glimmers of the girl’s perspective, individual sentences that spring up here and there, unexpectedly yet wholly welcome, in around a ten-to-ninety-percent ratio. Take, for instance, when Jeb’s crossed a verbal threshold of sexual aggression:
Men never ceased to amaze her—sly dogs, all of them, nasty creatures.
The other moment that goes into the girl’s perspective does it for a few more sentences:
The girl tapped her fingernails against her glass and let herself sink back against the old plaid couch. Its springs had been flattened over the decades. The upholstery smelled of Jeb—bitter, like dry rot, and slightly chemical. The rough fabric of the cushions scratched the girl’s arms. She closed her eyes and sipped her drink. She was tired. It was hard work to get her house in order, and she was doing it by herself now. She was glad to have the distraction, away from her thoughts, the cold jabs each time she longed for Trevor’s hand to touch her, his lips to kiss her neck, her cheeks, her thighs. Sinking deeper into the couch, she thought that if Trevor were to come back she’d let him do whatever he wanted. Maybe she’d even let herself get pregnant. But the idea was like a bad taste in her mouth. She made a sour face.
This is a passage that could theoretically give the girl some agency over the story’s conclusion–Trevor returns because she wants him to, not because he wants to, though there’s still the uncomfortable aftertaste left by the fact that Jeb won’t respect her privacy until there’s a man back in the picture. (Note as well how the passage that keeps us predominantly in the girl’s perspective embeds a sentence, the third, that could possibly be Jeb’s, though possibly not, about the way the couch smells like him. Note as well how the last sentence makes the transition from internal though to external action.)
The point of view shifts constantly early on in the story, when Jeb and the girl first meet:
Jeb laughed again and sighed and looked at her through the fence. His shock of white hair gleamed in a single ray of light falling from the girl’s yard into his. His strange, spotted face and bulbous nose made the girl look away. White strands of loose thread hung down from her jean shorts and fluttered around her thighs. Her breasts, Jeb noticed, were untethered—no bra. What color were her eyes? Jeb looked down at them, perplexed to find that they were of different colors, one a strange, violet shade of blue, the other green with flecks of black and honey.
The first sentence of this passage sets us up to be in Jeb’s point of view: Jeb is looking at the girl, so we expect to see what he sees. But then we don’t–in the second sentence we see what the girl must be seeing, Jeb’s “shock of white hair,” which Jeb himself wouldn’t be able to see. But then in that same sentence, via the “ray of light” making Jeb’s white hair gleam, the point of view pivots again–the ray falls “from the girl’s yard into his,” shifting the point of view from the girl back into Jeb. The third sentence is ambiguous, POV-wise: Jeb’s face is described from an external perspective as making “the girl look away,” but his awareness of his own looks (implicitly showing his insecurity about them) could be his own interpretation of why the girl is looking away, so we’re ostensibly looking at the girl look away from his point of view. (The use of “the girl” as the character’s demarcator also keeps us always predominantly in an external perspective–specifically Jeb’s–even in passages that are unequivocally from within the girl’s own head.) The fourth sentence, describing the girl’s clothes (“jean shorts”) and then body (“thighs”) are squarely from Jeb’s perspective: the girl(’s body) is being gazed at. The fifth sentence goes further into Jeb’s male gaze, intensifying his sexualization of her; we also get an unequivocal demarcator of Jeb’s perspective in this sentence with the phrase “Jeb noticed”–the author does not want the reader to confuse Jeb’s perspective for the story’s. The final two sentences keep us squarely in Jeb’s perspective; Jeb’s observation that the girl’s eyes are different colors gives us an objective correlative for not only how this woman in particular is “perplexing” to him but how all women are. There’s also the irony that he can observe the girl’s eyes’ nuance, implying he’s able to do so because it’s a physical feature that can be observed with the eye.
The girl’s perspective pops up that ten percent of the time as an insistence that the female perspective will not be suppressed. The fact that in the story Jeb has access to the girl’s perspective literally–listening to the girl through the basement window–puts him in a position men rarely are to actually see the true effects their actions have on a woman. (A literal invocation of perspective also ups the stakes of the implications of the point of view the story is told through, since it seems to make the story a commentary on perspective itself.) We see that the girl’s indifference observed by Jeb at the end (when she acts like nothing happened) will simply become part of the cycle in which Jeb’s hatred/disrespect of women is fueled by their reactions to his hatred/disrespect of them. The girl will become another fleeting memory for him, like the woman who rejected him while on the toilet, except possibly not even, since the girl’s relationship with him was not as intense or prolonged–we see that his interaction with her might even have been fleeting enough for him to transmute the memory of what really happened with her, as he starts to do in his phone call with the nephew later that same night (“‘had a fine time with the neighbor girl without you'”). We see that Jeb does ascribe the boyfriend a name, just as he ascribes him something else he does not ascribe the girl alone–privacy. This is reminiscent of a tweet from the #YesAllWomen movement that arose in response to Elliot Rodger’s 2014 shooting spree:
because ‘I have a boyfriend’ is more effective than ‘I’m not interested’—men respect other men more than my right to say no
Granted, and tellingly, he does this not out of respect, but rather out of being threatened and sexually insecure himself. This is one of the chilling insights the story offers, that of the misogynist’s concept of respect for women:
“You never know with young women these days,” Jeb said. “It’s a rough, wild world out there, and girls, women”—he knew the distinction was an important one to make for the girl to feel respected…
The not-so-implicit concept of respect here being that it’s more important for a woman to “feel respected” than to actually be respected, implying further that a woman is not worthy of actual respect. He wants to make her feel respected rather than actually respecting her. (An attitude chillingly reminiscent of that inherent in a certain president-elect’s offhand claims that “Nobody has more respect for women than I do. Nobody.” Which we could then take even further back to Clinton’s games with semantics during his impeachment hearings. Does our president-elect respect women? It depends on what the meaning of “respect” is…)
In an interview about the story with the New Yorker‘s fiction editor, Moshfegh discusses including the girl’s perspective–which she had to discover through drafts after initially creating a flat cliched female character–as a way to write against our objectification of victims:
While describing the actions of a predator, getting into the mind that creates predatory behavior, it’s easy to objectify the victims; we stop seeing them as individuals. I wanted those flashes into the girl’s perspective to give weight to her realness, so that the reader could feel her vulnerability there in Jeb’s living room, and then be surprised by how she handles herself when he makes his move.
What we really see at work in Jeb’s perspective is the cycle of hatred and attraction at the heart of misogyny: men hating women because of their dependence on and needing of them. David Foster Wallace captured the sentiment twenty years ago in a passage from Infinite Jest describing the womanizing Orin Incandenza:
And about contempt, it is about a kind of hatred, too, along with the hope and need. Because he needs them, needs her, because he needs her he fears her and so hates her a little, hates all of them, a hatred that comes out disguised as a contempt he disguises in the tender attention with which he does the thing with her buttons, touches the blouse as if it too were part of her, and him. As if it could feel.
We see Jeb appraise the girl physically (in a passage that calls attention to the dehumanization of a common slur invoked against women):
She was thicker than she looked, Jeb thought. Strong but small, like a bulldog puppy. Tough bitch, he said to himself.
By this point we’ve seen him note something unfavorable about the girl, as though to keep something in reserve to protect himself from her possible rejection of him, should he deign to make an advance:
Despite being pretty and soft of flesh, she had something harsh about her, Jeb thought. Something crude.
Via the objective correlative of the wife’s clothes, we see Jeb making his advance–in a way that’s indirect, again likely for the sake of protecting himself against possible rejection.
“But these dresses,” Jeb said. “They’d fit you perfectly. Let me bring one down so you can see it. … Shall I bring one down? It’d be such a pity to throw them all away. You can come up and look through them yourself, if you like.”
This is an an objective correlative that transcends the usual use of the OC because you can see that Jeb’s logic: if he gets the girl in his bedroom, if she says yes to trying on the clothes and goes in his room, that literally equates in his mind to a yes to the other question–she wouldn’t go in his bedroom if she didn’t “want it” in some way, even if she ostensibly went in there for some other reason that was elaborately fabricated by him in the first place. We can tell this from such passages as:
“No, thanks,” the girl said. She was only pretending to be bored, it seemed, fingering the lid of Jeb’s cigar box.
“No” does not mean “no.” What a woman expresses she’s feeling is not what she’s really feeling. What she’s really feeling is not only up to the man to interpret, but to determine.
The ongoing storm is another objective correlative that rears itself in the midst of Jeb’s pushing the clothes:
Outside, the storm paused for a minute. They sat listening, waiting to see if it was really over. Then the rain started up again.
What’s starting up again is Jeb’s continued offering of the clothes: his rejections of the girl’s rejections. (Note that the storm does not serve solely mood and objective correlative functions, but directly affects the plot: the girl would not be here alone with Jeb in the nephew’s absence without it. Plot-necessity helps alleviate heavy-handedness. Note also that, as close as we are to Jeb’s perspective, we don’t know definitively whether Jeb’s wife really exists–in this way the reader too is victimized by the white male’s duplicitous perspective. We suspect she’s not real, making his reference to her as “an honest woman” even more ironic.)
After the girl has firmly rejected the offer of the clothes several times, we see how Jeb starts to erect a mental fortress of justifications and excuses for why she would reject him via another objective correlative the characters themselves directly engage in, and which provides the story’s title:
“You’re lucky I’m not a creep,” he continued. “I could do anything I wanted to you, you know. A young girl, drunk on my couch. You should be more careful. My wife—” Jeb gasped suddenly, dabbing pretentiously at invisible tears. “God bless her soul. She was a good woman. An honest woman. No tease or hussy like you find nowadays.” He stared down at the girl’s bare feet on the hardwood floor and licked his lips.
Jeb describes his own feelings by describing his wife’s feelings, more specifically, his verdict on the girl: she’s a tease. The girl responds by enacting what a non-tease would do at that moment–she straddles him. Confronted with the ostensible object of his desire, Jeb has no idea what to do, which seems to be exactly what the girl wants the gesture to call attention to. The girl is the real “honest woman” of the title, repeatedly calling Jeb out directly for his misogynist bullshit.
Do we sympathize with Jeb at all in this story–which is to ask, do we sympathize with the misogynist perspective? Would it make us bad people if we did? It’s important to remember that sympathizing with someone who’s done something bad doesn’t have to mean you condone the bad thing he/she did. Sympathy seems to me to be more about understanding where the capacity to do the bad thing originated, in understanding more about its possible source(s). One classic example is the perspective of the abductor in George Saunders’ “Victory Lap,” in which we get a glimpse of his past and see that he was abused as a child–this does not make us think it’s okay for him to kidnap and abuse young girls, but it makes us sad that he got sucked into such a senseless cycle of violence. The reference to Jeb’s past here is almost just as fleeting–the memory of the woman who casually rejected him while she was sitting on a toilet. We see in that moment that all of his dehumanization and disrespect of women stems from his own pain and insecurity–his internalized need to conceive of women as worthless so that this woman’s rejection of him will by extension be worthless. This is reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s #YesAllWomen tweet:
Men’s greatest fear is that women will laugh at them, while women’s greatest fear is that men will kill them.
In the end, the reader can recognize that Jeb is rotten through and through while sympathizing with how he got that way. Through his nephew, we further see that this problematic attitude has transcended generations when Jeb informs him the girl is a dud and the nephew responds “‘I’ve got other girls.’” (We sense, however, that if he’s got time to come over and eat with Jeb so regularly, his life might be equally pathetic.)
Moshfegh seems to take extra pains to emphasize (and then indict) Jeb’s whiteness, underscoring him as a symbol of white men in general:
When it was over, he took off on foot down the road into town and spent the whole afternoon ambling like a stray dog under the striped storefront awnings, dodging the daylight, lest his white skin burn and blister. He licked a vanilla ice-cream cone and regarded his slumped silhouette in the shop windows. He straightened his posture as best he could, but he was stooped by nature. (emphasis added)
In the end, representing this duplicitous perspective at work might be one of the only ways to eradicate it. At the least, it might give us some insight into how we got here. Moshfegh’s conclusion–that even when confronted directly with the problem, the misogynist perspective is unable to recognize itself–is especially chilling in the wake of where the national tides have turned. Certainly the story’s storm descriptions take on a new layer of ominousness read post-election, as we wring our hands and ask how this could have happened:
A storm was coming. High winds, they warned. Keep your pets safe inside. “Whatever,” the girl muttered, and turned the dial to jazz.
A common attempted-optimist response to the election’s outcome has been that now we’ll have to confront the problem of the pervasiveness of this perspective in our populace. Let’s hope that’s true.