Lesbian Drama at Montjouvain
M sits on the steep bushy hill just a few feet way from the open window of the Vinteuil house at Montjouvain as if seated in an open amphitheatre. He observes playful and not so playful foreplay between Mlle Vinteuil and her “friend.” Just before the friend arrived, he had seen Mlle Vinteuil position her dead father’s photo such that the photo could be seen and could see; the photo would have to look at what was happening on the couch. We are further jolted when we read that a suggestion was made to spit on the photo. What did the father do to merit this ‘reward’? Or, are the women some kind of graveyard animals “rifling the tomb of his sacred right of fatherhood”? Or what?
As you will see in the quotes below, there are many explicit references to: looking, overlooking, spying, the open window and the closed window. Do you suppose that the women had previously discovered somebody spying on them through that window? I think they did and I think I know who it was. My hypothesis would explain the women’s non-playful vile behavior, witnessed by M, after the death of M Vinteuil.
Here is my hypothesis. Some time ago, M Vinteuil was coming home – along that same path where M walked and where others occasionally walk. Montjouvain is out of the way and there is usually little traffic. Or, perhaps M Vinteuil had had some occasion to climb up the grassy bank – that is not clear (but is not crucial to my hypothesis.) What is crucial is that the father saw the women. Through the open window he caught, in flagrante delicto, his daughter and her friend making love. And they saw him seeing them. So it was that he came into the knowledge of what was going on. That was his complicity and his shame. After his death, the women were relieved to be free of him. Yet, these matters are not so simple – to say they were “relieved” is hardly the whole story. They became hateful, vindictive and even sadistic (but not evil) to the “old horror”, the “old monkey.”
I had always always puzzled over why Mlle Mlle Vinteuil was so vile to her gentle and doting father. I could understand that she was a coddled and a spoiled brat. But why so vile and mean? It just didn’t make sense. The father’s seeing them through the window would go a long way to explain this behavior. She hated that he saw. He “bothered” them. His knowing was a damper on her freedom. She was hampered in her desire to act out another side of herself – a “rough and swaggering trooper.”
My question is based on the text below: Do you think that the women had previously discovered somebody looking at them through that window while they were making love? If so, was it Dad? Did he spy on them?
Pg 174 [I was] among the bushes on the steep slope overlooking the house… I saw Mlle Vinteuil … only a few feet away… The window was partly open…I could watch her every movement without her being able to see me; but if I had moved away I would have made a rustling sound among the bushes, she would have heard me, and she might have thought that I had been hiding there in order to spy upon her …
Pg 175 “Poor M. Vinteuil,” my mother would say, “he lived and died for his daughter, without getting his reward. Will he get it now, I wonder, and in what form? It can only come to him from her.”
Pg 175 just as the sound of carriage wheels was heard from the road outside, [she] flung herself down on a sofa and drew towards her a little table on which she placed the photograph… Presently she rose and came to the window, where she pretended to be trying to close the shutters and not succeeding. “Leave them open,” said her friend. “I’m hot.”
Pg 176 “But it’s too tiresome! People will see us,” Mlle Vinteuil answered….When I say ‘see us’ I mean, of course, see us reading. It’s so tiresome to think that whatever trivial little thing you do someone may be overlooking you…”Oh, yes, it’s so extremely likely that people are looking at us at this time of night in this densely populated district!” said her friend sarcastically. “And what if they are?” …. “And what if they are? All the better that they should see us
Pg 177. Mlle Vinteuil realised that her friend would not see [the photograph] unless her attention were drawn to it, and so exclaimed, … “Oh! there’s my father’s picture looking at us; I can’t think who can have put it there; I’m sure I’ve told them a dozen times that it isn’t the proper place for it.” …This photograph was evidently in regular use for ritual profanations, for the friend replied in words which were clearly a liturgical response: “Let him stay there. He can’t bother us any longer. D’you think he’d start whining, and wanting to put your overcoat on for you, if he saw you now with the window open, the ugly old monkey?”
Pg 178 “Do you know what I should like to do to this old horror?” she said, taking up the photograph. …I heard no more, for Mlle Vinteuil …came to the window and drew the shutters close…
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Thanks, once again, for attention to textual detail. I’m not sure I buy your hypothesis – I did want
to indicate another passage which has to do with putting on a staged spectacle:
“The day my parents had gone to visit him at his home, I had gone with them, but they had allowed me to stay outside and, since M. Vinteuil’s house, Montjouvain, stood at the foot of a brush-covered hillock where I had hidden, I had found I was on a level with the second-floor drawing room, a foot or two from the window. When the servant had come to announce my parents, I had seen M. Vinteuil hurry to place a piece of music in a conspicuous position on the piano. But once my parents had entered, he had taken it away and put it in a corner. No doubt he had been afraid of letting them think he was happy to see them only so that he could play them some of his compositions. And each time my mother had made a fresh attempt in the course of the visit, he had repeated several times, “I don’t know who put that on the piano, it doesn’t belong there,” and had diverted the conversation to other subjects, precisely because they interested him less.” (Davis SW 115)
Thank you for your perfect description of this scene as “staged spectacle.” Even the narrator remarks “it is behind the footlights of a Paris theatre and not under the homely lamp of an actual country house that one expects to see …….” (SW pg 178) It is staged – but for whom? What are the roles, what are the real actors underneath?
The question of WHY Mlle Vinteuil behaves “with the appearance of evil” and as “the vicious young woman she longed to be thought” is complex and your cite underlines aspects of the deep answer. It reveals to us that some time before now, a kindred and benign act was enacted on the very same stage by the same blood. The current act shows that a portion of the complex answer lies in the Mlle’s self-desecration. “Far more than his photograph, what she really desecrated … was the likeness between her face and his…” (SW,pg 179) Yet, there is a redemptive surprise building up toward the end of the scene. She is not evil just sadistic – (a distinction between evil and sadism is made there). Further, what she was doing was “deluding” herself into thinking that she was one who could really harbor such barbourous feelings toward her father. (SW,pg 180) The implication is that she, au fond, does not harbor such feelings.
My post did not venture into these hard questions of self-concept, relationship, sadism vs evil etc. Mine was a surface question – which still interests me – namely – what actually, physically happened? Because of the many references to spying, overlooking and seeing, I claim that the women symbolically re-enacted an actual scene that had actually taken place, deeper motives notwithstanding. The actual scene was this: the father saw the women making love through the open-shuttered window; further, they saw him seeing them.
I am loving the magic spectacle here, staged by Nature just for us. To be cozy inside with hot chocolate and brandy overlooking (spying on) the snow outside is true pleasure. Wish you were here to see it, so herewith I send you virtual snow, chocolate and brandy.