Peeping Toms and Cursed Beauty
by Louise Bialik

What is the effect of looking at someone? To be looked at could be invasive or flattering, entrapping or liberating, depending on the motive and circumstances between a gazer and one observed. In Harriet Jacobs autobiography, Incidents In The Life Of A Slave Girl, and Louisa May Alcott's Behind A Mask, gazing is a method by which women are objectified and made subordinate. These two works offer a reader an eyewitness encounter with events that take place in a fictional world, but reflect the social sentiment of the 1850s. Such sentiment reinforced male power to possess women with legalized slavery and the institution of marriage. Although men could "master" women, Christian virtues forbade sexual interaction whether voluntary or by force, and so the nineteenth century American male sublimated his lust by voyeurism.

Any righteous Christian should understand that lust is a sin, otherwise there would be little conflict beyond the slave-related cruelty in Jacob's Incidents. Linda Brent, a pseudonym for Jacobs, survived her master's prowling eyes because she had the ability to read his true character and discern a welcomed gaze from a bad one. Linda sensed that were she to take the easier road by entering into concubinage with her master, Dr. Flint, she would then be sinning against her heart (p. 85). Why did she not go along and sleep with him if all her cousins had his children (p. 52)? There was no promise of freedom for slave offspring although there may have been the appearance of security in a whiter lineage (p.35). Yet, Linda did conceive two children with a white politician, Mr. Sands. Did she do so to conceal her young and offend her master? Linda would answer that since she was regarded by men as an object, it was better to be "an object of interest to a man who is not married, and not her master," than to be an object where her pride and feelings were not given respect (p. 55). Therefore, when Linda chose a relationship with a white male it was not because he was just single and free, but because he was interested in her feelings; feelings which could not be purchased, but shared.

To share intimacy with an object of desire is to affirm self worth for narcissists like Dr. Flint and Gerald Coventry of Mask. While Dr. Flint's objectification is less loving, Gerald's is founded upon the habits of pageantry and pretentiousness. Gerald needs Jean Muir to project him an identity removed from his aristocratic upbringing. He is lost otherwise and seems most whole when nearly nude and sharing center stage as her obedient cavalier in the revel (p. 148). To reconstruct identity, Gerald begs Jean, "for your sake I can be anything (p. 171)" because he feels that his reputation may be upgraded if other men like his friend, brother, and uncle, are impressed by her interest. Dr. Flint, too, is excited by competition and tries to win Linda's affection when offering his hand as a common law husband once she is pregnant and homeless by another man. When Linda refuses, the wounded doctor says, "you are blind now (p.60)," as if to suggest that his opinion can have a physical impact. Why Dr. Flint and Gerald prey upon women perceived to be vulnerable is because they believe they can not be rejected. However, when they are refused, they lash out. This violent behavior is in keeping with wife batterers.

For Dr. Flint, the desire to beat his love object into complacency is so strong that he swears that if she refuses to play house with him, he will enslave her children and kill her thereafter (p. 97). All Linda has to do to prevent Flint from destroying her family is play the role of a coquette. Then she will be afforded a new home with nice toys for her children and maybe some pin money. As for Gerald, the softer male, he resorts to character assassination once he discovers that his desired mate has run off with his uncle (p. 193). Never mind the fact that he dumped his prima donna fiance for Jean (p. 156) or that he betrayed his brother's confidence to gain fifteen minutes of Jean's returned gaze (p.132). These actions reflect a break down of moral principles, however, both men believe they have the right to subordinate their love objects. For Flint, it is because Linda is black. For Coventry, it is because Jean is destitute.

The white domestic and black slave women are selected by their "superior" males like small game that won't make too loud of a sound if killed in the woods, so this selection process reflects brutal intent behind the masques of gentle hearted country doctors and high cultured chaps. The intent to injure also reflects Christian complicity in the rapes of women of color and the belittling of impoverished single white women. Why the men are attracted to broken female exteriors is also about mending their own personal internal issues by fixing on broken female identity i.e. the Pygmalion Syndrome. The Frankenstein-like men know that they are perceived by the public to be tyrannical, so when they extend an invitation to clean up the broken female, it is to improve their public image and perhaps acquire some romance as reward. Yet these men fail to see that objects can not love, and the public eye really does not care. Only lovers can experience love on equal terms, and even good Christians will look the other way if the pastor is having sex with a black woman (but will dismiss him if she is white (I p. 77). Since Dr. Flint and Gerald can not share love with the women they prey upon, they must steal what they can, even if it means resorting to taking on the behaviors of a Peeping Tom. In response, the watched women take on defensive maneuvers of the seen or the unseen: One dissociates her identity and goes underground while the other modifies the masque to her advantage to become an exhibitionistic quick-change artist.

For Jean Muir, there is little conflict during the revel, or really, peepshow because there is consent between herself, another actor, Gerald, and the voyeur audience. It is a time when every participant actualizes his unique wish fulfillment p ermitted by a masked exterior. The stage becomes a loophole where Jean and Gerald can look deeply within one another's eyes for the first time since they are chaperoned by the public eye. To return eye contact off stage in a private library or garden is to share an illegal physical contact. Therefore, a look is a touch and is also influenced by the environment of which it occurs.

If looking then is touching, the impact may be endearing as when Sir John hides behind a curtain to spy on the doting Jean who sweetly implants history into the mind of her avid pupil, Bella. While Sir John peeps through the curtain, he is overcome with a sense that his observation is illegal because he feels compelled to be quiet and quick, and should not be caught looking. Even then with the danger of being caught, he confesses to himself that looking was a worthwhile investment for it paid him with an evening fantasy: "How pleasantly the smoothly flowing voice would wile away [t]his evening." Sir John also reflects the sentiment that females are objects when admitting envy over his niece's power to hold Jean as a "new acquisition (p. 118)." This regard is not the same envy exhibited by a jealous wife like Mrs. Flint when she leers over a sleeping Linda, pretending to be Dr. Flint just to see what the slave girl will do. Mrs. Flint justifies this breaking and entering because she wishes to preemptively strike against her husband's planned rape, not because it's the right thing to do but because she is a jealous woman (p. 33).

While Sir John feels guilty for catching a sneak peek at Jean as she dutifully instructs, and Mrs. Flint feels correct to maintain surveillance in Linda's bedroom while she is asleep, it is Linda who is really the innocent victim in these charades. Jean poses with intent to lure Sir John. Sir John pretends to have guilty feelings for desiring Jean when he's an "old man." Mrs. Flint hides behind a false shield of piousness. And Lucia is guilty for pretending to be surprised when she learns that her fiance has wandering eyes. Quite sadly, artifice of exterior is the authentic sentiment for every player in these works. In addition to the artificial exterior of the double-faced mask, are Mrs. Flint's duplictous actions. Namley, she promises to take care of the slaves but allows them to be brutally punished without intervening.

The self-martyred Mrs. Flint who can stand by and fan herself while her husband whips the bare backs of bleeding slave women, is the same "unfortunate lady" who cries over her husband's "perfidy." When Mrs. Flint complains that her husband does not looks at her in the same way he eyes their female slaves, she is expressing a desire to be "mastered." Is this "free" white woman sentiment? Would Mrs. Flint prefer to be her husband's slave? The only way she can become the slave of her husband's desire is to hide behind Linda's body and wear "it" like a full-length costume. Linda, who is aware of this dysfunctional dynamic, sheds attachment to her own body and takes on the invisibility in the "loophole of retreat." At least there, with only a gimlet to drill light into the garret where she will hide for seven years, there is peace in being unseen.

While Linda becomes invisible to survive, Jean exaggerates her masked identity as a "loophole." Jean may do so because she is white and not suspected of confidencing since men are regarded by society to be the only sex capable of such prestidigitation. So when Lucia enters the contest and fails because she is less practiced at nineteen, the observant Jean modifies Lucia's shortcomings to blindside Gerald into her control. Lucia does not have a chance because she does not know how to make Gerald feel useful, nor does she have it in herself to take control of him. Rather, she like Mrs. Flint, would prefer to be "mastered" by the "master of the house." Not so for Jean who would prefer to become the Mistress of the House. To do so requires a loophole into the family security, and Jean acquires this by gaining Gerald's trust by taking on Lucia's mask and confiding in him about her fears. She knows that a chivalrous man will rescue a damsel in distress because it empowers him to feel confident in his ability to lead others. So with each "confession" Jean shares with Gerald, there is an obligation for him to return the honor by offering an equaled secret. It is only polite to do so, but it is a trap for any kind-hearted fool who does not see that the information he gives can be turned around, looped back, and trick his confidence into the confidant's control.

While the men in Incidents and Mask may wish to rule women, it is beauty that blindsides and demotes these men. Linda recounts that for any slave born beautiful was a curse that forced "premature knowledge in evil things (p. 27)." However, that same knowledge gave Linda an education on how to manipulate the external world by injecting misinformation via letters. From her loophole in North Carolina, Linda was able to forge letters to herself, have them sent from New York, get them intercepted by Dr. Flint and thus periodically send him to New York in hunt for the fugitive slave. What Linda gained was a small pleasure to witness from the peephole of her retreat the wild goose chase she sent Dr. Flint on, and the enjoyment of watching her children play in a freer space (p. 132). For Jean, who hated sentiment and was aware of the influence letters had upon people, as revealed in the letter intercepted by Gerald's little brother (p.196), the retired actress admits that she was able to trick the Coventry family because they were charmed by sentiment. It is possible that the letters to her friend were written with the intent to frighten the Coventry family into complacency. What the Coventry family probably needed was a closer look at its dynamics, and Jean provided them with the magnification to examine what was broken internally. There is no loss but rather reunification by purification once every member sees and accepts one anothers true face. When Sir Johns expresses his wish to be "blind" because he is happy to have married Jean, he asks that his request be honored "till time opens my eyes (p. 201)." Jean concludes, "and so the game was won." Jean gains freedom by artifice. As for Linda, she gains a deferred freedom once she takes her history of bondage and writes it out. From literacy, Linda enjoys a reunion with her family and experienced peace, we hope, over the dark and troubled sea.

special thanks: Prof. Deborah Garfield

LINKS:
Harriet Jacobs
Gart Pages
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