Bertha as the Failed Hero?: Analysing The Blood Transfusion Scene in George Eliot’s The Lifted Veil

Leanne Waters is currently completing her MA in Modernity, Literature and Culture in University College Dublin, and will be starting her PhD at UCD in September. Her project is entitled Religion and the Rise of the Bestseller in Britain, 1880-1910. Her main research areas of interest are the late-Victorian novel, the ‘big house’ novel, ghosts and the supernatural, and the appropriation of religious discourses within popular literature and culture. She is also a published author and you can find her Twitter account here and her academic profile here.

In her article on “Blood, Bodies, and The Lifted Veil”, Kate Flint comments: “The intake of male blood, through the combined power of Meunier’s body and profession (for class as well as gender boundaries are traversed in this transfusion), gives Mrs. Archer new power to speak” [1]. For this blog, I would like to form an argument around Flint’s focus here on the idea of male penetration and suggest that the character of Bertha could be read as feminism’s failed hero in George Eliot’s The Lifted Veil [2].

Leanne1To build on Flint’s point, Meunier authoritatively states: “I should use my own blood – take it from my own arm” [3]. The use of the word ‘should’ in this instance is suggestive: it renders Meunier – the scene’s figure of authority [both in his masculinity and occupation] – as the sole executioner of the experiment in blood transfusion. He alone makes the decision to carry out the experiment and ‘opens’ himself up, along with Mrs. Archer. In short, Meunier at once becomes both patient and doctor; he is the giver of life in a double sense. The ‘should’, therefore, signifies responsibility, while the repetitive emphasis placed on the fact that it is taken from his own arm would seem to represent the doctor in a most self-sacrificially benevolent fashion. The misogynist implications this makes are unavoidable: man becomes the giver of life to ‘Woman’, both practically and symbolically. In this short scene, he comes to define her very existence in a manner that is analogous to Simone de Beauvoir’s theories in “The Second Sex”, in which Woman’s subjectivity is expounded as the Other to male subjectivity: “To pose Woman is to pose the absolute Other, without reciprocity, denying against all experience that she is a subject, a fellow human being”[4]. Indeed, Mrs. Archer’s subjection to such an experiment in the first place seems to displace her as a fellow human being, in that Meunier has only previously practised the operation on “animals that have died of this disease” [5].

Thoroughly confined to her role as Other [and apparently little above the rank of a dehumanised animal], Mrs.
Archer, in her deathly state, is compelled to accept male penetration in the form of a phallic needle full of blood. She depends on this penetration for the “wondrous slow return of life” [6]. One could even make the argument that this scene is somewhat akin to a symbolic miscarriage, in which Mrs. Archer becomes impregnated, produces a temporary spark of life, which is then ultimately lost once again [7].

Bertha, by contrast to her maid, seems to [at least attempt to] resist male penetration throughout the course of the novella. Latimer’s clairvoyant capabilities become another form of penetration within the story. He intrudes into the minds of others and, recalling Freud’s theories on castration anxiety, the act of penetration “became an intense pain and grief” [8]. One need only consider the anxiety caused by the repeated visual loss of the penis during intercourse to connect Latimer’s ‘pain and grief’ to the loss of his male subjectivity to “the souls of those who were in close relation to him” [9]. The construct of this ‘male subjectivity’ seems already weakened by comparison to Alfred and in those comparative terms, Latimer is described as a “fragile, nervous, ineffectual self” who retains “a sort of half-womanish, half-ghostly beauty” [10]. Latimer’s feminisation once again resurrects notions of an Oedipal Complex, in which his masculinity is removed by the threat of another male. And so, despite the perturbation generated by Latimer’s mental penetration of others, the act seems absolutely necessary in defining his subjectivity in specifically male terms.

This ability collapses when he is confronted by Bertha, who: “made the only exception, among all the human beings about me, to my unhappy gift of insight. About Bertha I was always in a state of uncertainty” [11]. While Latimer still retains his previsional ability to foresee a possible future with Bertha, he cannot intrude into her mind and, consequently, cannot define who she is/her subjectivity. In this way, Bertha resists passing into the realm of Woman, in which male thought systems silhouette the female subject in their patriarchal terms. In “Courtly Love, or, Woman as Thing”, Slavoj Žižek discusses the construction of the Ideal-Lady as a result of the mortification of the flesh and blood woman, stating: “the Lady is the Other which is not our ‘fellow-creature’ […] Deprived of every real substance, the Lady functions as a mirror on to which the subject projects his narcissistic ideal” [12]. Yet, Bertha does not allow herself to become this mere mirror for Latimer. She refuses to be his idealised Other: “I am unable to define my feeling towards her […] she was the very opposite, even to the colour of her hair, of the ideal woman who still remained to me the type of loveliness” [13]. Bertha’s ability to escape typification renders her as a feminist dissenter from the patriarchal codes under which female characters such as Mrs. Archer are compelled to act. Indeed, Bertha’s inner thoughts only become revealed to Latimer after their marriage [after she has already become something akin to Latimer’s ‘property’ in the system of patriarchy]. Notably, he can penetrate her fully immediately after the death of his father, the last of the threatening male figures who represent the danger of castration in Freudian terms.

Upon mental penetration, however, Latimer’s narcissistic projections are deflated and he is forced to accept the “traumatic dimension” [14] of her reality as woman and not Woman. He is forced to see himself as she truly sees him: “I saw myself in Bertha’s thought as she lifted her cutting grey eyes, and looked at me: a miserable ghost-seer, surrounded by phantoms in the noon-day, trembling under a breeze when the leaves were still, without appetite for the common objects of human desire, but pining after the moonbeams. We were front to front with each other and judged each other” [15]. In this way, Bertha’s reality as a conscious, thinking, fellow human being – with a reality and subjectivity all her own – means that she becomes an equal to Latimer’s fragile sense of masculinity and his desire to be a male subject like Alfred or his father. As an equal, she could be said to act as the emblem of feminism, a hero in the feminists’ pursuit.

She becomes symbolically undone, however, at the blood transfusion scene. Mrs. Archer, as a creature of Leanne2patriarchal conditioning, looks at her mistress from her death bed with “a look of hideous meaning in her eyes”[16]. The hideous meaning here implies Bertha’s dissent from the role assigned to her by the social system in which she operates. This meaning seems to become unconsciously clear to Latimer, who questions “how that face of [Bertha’s] could ever have seemed to me the face of a woman born of woman” [17]. When Mrs. Archer awakens from her deathly state, she meets Bertha with “the recognition of hate” [18] given to social dissenters. And so, woman is turned against woman in this scene and, without solidarity, feminism falls to pieces [19]. Mrs. Archer physically points her hand at the dissenter and calls out feminism’s hero: “the hand that Bertha had thought for ever still was pointed towards her” [20]. This moment seems almost biblical, recalling Matthew 18:15, in which one is asked to point out the brother or sister who has sinned. It could even be correlated to Judas Iscariot’s physical betrayal of Jesus; where Judas uses his lips, Mrs. Archer uses her hand. In either case, a religious dynamic is possibly added to this situation and Bertha, as a feminist who resists male penetration, does so against both the institution of patriarchy and religion. Mrs. Archer states: “You mean to poison your husband” [21]. In doing so, she becomes the penetrated tool of patriarchy, set against her own sex and those who would seek to equal or overthrow the masculine power-system.

Yet, there is a sense that though Bertha has failed to resist male penetration fully [after she is married and immediately after the death of her father-in-law], she has destabilised patriarchal sensibilities, even if only for a moment. It is stated, for example, that even Meunier: “looked paralysed; life for that moment ceased to be a scientific problem to him” [22]. Meunier becomes temporarily paralysed in his acting role as the male authority figure and the ‘scientific problem’ here could be read as his biological understanding of the differences between men and women. Its suspension is caused because, despite what he believes ‘scientifically’ of Woman, woman can be as equally threatening as man.

[1] Flint, Kate. “Blood, Bodies, and The Lifted Veil”. Nineteenth-Century Literature 51:4 (March 1997): 455-473. JSTOR. p.470

[2] The notion of male penetration into the female psyche could be expanded into a discussion on the author herself, in that she purposely [ironically?] chooses, firstly, to use a male pseudonym and, secondly, to write in the first person singular with the use of a male subject.

[3] Eliot, George. The Lifted Veil and Brother Jacob. Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 2009. Print. p.39

[4] De Beauvoir, Simone. “The Second Sex”. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. Ed. Vincent Leitch et al. New York: Norton, 2010. 1265-1273. Print. p.1266.

[5] The Lifted Veil. p.39.

[6] The Lifted Veil. p.41.

[7] The fact that Mrs. Archer comes to life as a result of Meunier’s blood seems reminiscent of the way in which Eve is ‘crafted’ from the rib of Adam, again underwriting de Beauvoir’s theories of how Woman’s subjectivity is crafted through its status as Other to that of the male.

[8] The Lifted Veil. p.13-14.

[9] The Lifted Veil. p.14.

[10] The Lifted Veil. p.14.

[11] The Lifted Veil. p.15.

[12] Žižek, Slavoj. “Courtly Love, or, Woman as Thing”. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. Ed. Vincent Leitch et al. New York: Norton, 2010. 2407-2427. Print. p.2408.

[13] The Lifted Veil. p.15.

[14] “Courtly Love, or, Woman as Thing”. p.2408.

[15] The Lifted Veil. p.32.

[16] The Lifted Veil. p.40.

[17] The Lifted Veil. p.40-41.

[18] The Lifted Veil. p.41.

[19] There is a complication here in that Bertha was physically trying to kill her husband. This would suggest that either she has already failed in her feminist pursuit for equality and her act is one of defeated frustration; or, that she does not seek equality, but complete, matriarchal usurpation of male power. There was not enough scope in this one blog to fully work this out.

[20] The Lifted Veil. p.42.

[21] The Lifted Veil. p.42.

[22] The Lifted Veil. p.42.


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