The issue of female virginity as a highly prized commodity that is easily lost and very easily questioned, provides a further complication as the fragility of virginal status is intrinsically bound up with the reputation of the ‘respectable’ woman. Hanne Blank makes the observation that virginity is only significant for women, linking the loss of virginity to the idea of being ‘broken’ by the sexual act both figuratively, in terms of reputation and esteem, as well as literally, in terms of the breaking of the hymen during intercourse (10). Men, who are left physically intact following any sexual encounter, have no stigma attached to them. Women who are no longer virgins, however, are more readily seen to be damaged or soiled. Colette Forbes in
Colette has to face the problems from both sides of this issue, and comes to see the pressures and dangers of sexuality most acutely when she is forced to deal with the more alarming and unwanted sexual attention of the would‐be rapist, Beautiful Joe. While Joe recognizes the unusual element of the untouched virgin in Colette, he also questions the truthfulness of Colette’s claims to purity. He expresses the opinion that: “Girls are muck” (45). His need to destroy Colette’s virginal status, viewing this as one of the major factors that marks her out as his moral and spiritual superior, means that he is prepared to physically damage her, threatening to slash her with a knife. By forcing her to become sexually active, Joe can force her, at the same time, to forfeit her right to moral superiority on the grounds of virginity. This intention is made all the more clear as his respect for her purity begins to vanish, visibly, before the act can even take place. The dialogue begins in a cajoling tone, interspersed with lines such as: “I know it’s the first time, I wouldn’t believe any other girl, but I believe you . . . You’re like a little girl” (284). The almost flattering tone here is cunning in its intent to make her believe that he respects her more than other girls as he hopes to convince her that allowing him to have sex with her would not only be a good action but also a necessary one. Yet within the space of one page he is already in the process of changing his attitude and, interestingly, the subtle switch in opinion can be exactly pinpointed through Murdoch’s use of punctuation:
The dash in the middle of the sentence is crucial to the reader’s understanding of Joe and provides insight into his thought process because it separates the word “darling”, a last remnant of his earlier and more genial entreaties, from the directly succeeding accusation that she has misled him and that, in doing so, she is the one to have committed the crime. The second part of Joe’s speech here, taking place just before the intended rape, allows Murdoch to avoid depicting the act; instead Cato, the priest figure in the novel, murders Joe with a metal pipe and thus averts the ruination of the novel’s only chaste character, preserving her moral purity and exacting rightful punishment in the process (287). With her unblemished past, Colette is then able to marry the more respectable Henry Marshalson. However, the implication is still present, particularly in Joe’s manner of speech, quoted above, that, had Colette lost her virginity, such a marriage would never have been possible.
The effects of this are most intriguing, however, because the women do not attempt to combat these negative and damaging slurs on their moral and personal worth, nor do they attempt to defend themselves against the backlash that they receive from men. Rather, as is shown not only in
Many of Murdoch’s female characters meet the loss of respect that sexual initiation or the question of their virtue brings with it by presenting a fervent and almost maniacal desire to do the right thing. This, more often, steers them towards religion as a way to ensure an image of purity and virtue while, very occasionally, the internal conflict that this causes produces severe psychological problems. Shulamith Firestone has described the type of situation experienced by these women as a dichotomy of “good/bad women”, which results in “sexual schizophrenia” (62), a phrase perhaps best suited to describing what happens to women whose mental state is shattered by the experience of trying to maintain a forced equilibrium between purity and a healthy attitude to sexuality.
Catherine Fawley in
However, while the incident of Catherine’s suicide attempt demonstrates her despair to the reader, most of the surrounding characters fail to observe the signs of psychological disturbance that Catherine displays. Dora’s view, on the other hand, is that “people don’t go mad suddenly” (275), and that there must be a reason for it. Her pity is first inspired when she learns that Catherine is destined to become a postulant, an action that the comparatively worldly Dora is unable to comprehend as she equates becoming a nun with willingly taking up a life?sentence in prison. This sentiment is also expressed in
Afaf Khogeer has recognized Dora’s ability to identify “with Catherine because they are both menaced by the community’s denial of their reality” (16). They both suffer a similar kind of suppression, but they each respond to this in very different ways; Catherine bows to Imber’s demand for chastity and silence, while Dora rebels against those same demands from her husband. Also, unlike Catherine, Dora turns to extramarital affairs to fill the void created by an unfulfilling marriage. She also has other friends from whom to seek advice on her impossible situation with Paul, but Catherine has no such outside support. The descriptions of Catherine’s character in the wider setting of the novel are not autonomous or even the direct workings of an omniscient narrator, but instead rely heavily on the perceptions of male characters like Michael Meade or Paul Greenfield; even Mrs Mark introduces Catherine to Dora as “our little saint”, showing that the whole community uses Catherine’s purity as a benchmark for their own self?improvement (38). This might be more effective, however, if it were not for the fact that her desire to meet other people’s requirements of goodness and purity so obviously conflicts with her own emotional needs. In keeping with this, Catherine’s own personal reasons for wanting to enter the abbey as a nun are further complicated by her attachment to both her brother and the homosexual character, Michael Meade, whose previous affair with Nick remains unknown to her. This love is clearly never going to come to fruition and, in light of this, she perhaps feels that she has nothing to remain in the outside world for. At the same time, however, she feels confusion and desolation at not being able to attain the emotional or even sexual gratification that she seeks and in the absence of this fulfillment she turns to what someone like Dora would describe as masochistic behaviour.
Jane Ussher has made the connection between the almost simultaneous applications of enforced purity and derogatory labeling and women’s mental anguish and despair by saying that if women “are objectified, associated with danger and temptation, with impurity . . . worshipped and defiled, evoking horror and desire . . . [i]s it surprising that we are made mad?” (21). The beautiful idea of the wholly virtuous woman is impossible to live up to and altogether misplaced since, naturally, no one can ever be entirely good. Dorothy A. Winsor sees this “distorted” view of Catherine as a “symbol of innocence” as a way to throw the Gothic element of her character into sharp relief (54). Both she and Nick appear innocent, and are hoped to be so, but they are ultimately more aware than they are supposed to be; this hiding of their true natures takes its toll on both of their mental states. It is perhaps more permissible for Nick to act in ways that society and smaller communities such as Imber might view as amoral because, as feminists such as Valenti have pointed out, this type of behaviour is more readily accepted in the male, while in women it is unforgiveable.
The types of confusion that all of Murdoch’s female characters experience with regard to purity can therefore be explained in terms of the ideas outlined by both Ussher and Firestone, who both comment on and explore the duality and contradiction inherent in male expectations of women that can only have the result of psychological disturbance. However, the added dimension of a religious faith that carries with it an insurmountable quantity of guilt?inducing doctrine also provides a catalyst by which full?blown mental illness can develop. So, when the incident of Catherine’s “deranged” attempt at drowning is related at the end of
While it may seem that Murdoch condemns these women, her portrayal of such overbearing and hypocritical reactions, especially in the 1970s, merely reflects the backlash in this and subsequent decades against women who had begun to make choices about their own sexual status. The purity of female characters like Crystal or Colette is revered by the surrounding male characters as a last vestige of female delicacy and virtue in a world where secondwave feminism’s attempts to acquaint women with the mysteries of their sexuality was beginning to destroy such values. The further views of women like Crystal or Colette are also indicative of Murdoch’s recognition that women in a constantly changing cultural climate were still subject to the harsh double?standards of a conservative society. Although their personal characters are otherwise unchanged, the women in these novels make the transition from paragons of virtue to false women who have deliberately set out to deceive, and this transition is usually made within the space of a few pages. Murdoch’s characters navigate their way across this hair?line division between virgin and whore status either with despair or by means of religious fanaticism. Many of them feel a fracturing of their emotional state as they attempt to find the correct behaviour for a circumstance in which meeting all the requirements is virtually impossible.