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Monday, May 9, 2011

The Living Dead

Mother and Child (1905) by Mary Cassatt
When Marian tells her story to Aurora, she describes an episode in which she is seduced and impregnated by a stranger.  The harrowing experience crushes Marian to the point of an emotional death, with her declaring repeatedly, "I am dead."  Nevertheless, her baby joy and gives her life.  Marian views her blessing of motherhood as evidence that God still looks on her favorable.

For Aurora, the experience was an deathly encounter.  She describes herself feeling as if she had been beaten down and left in a ditch, "half dead, whole mangled" (Book VI, 678).  Though still alive in the flesh, her spirit had been killed:  "I was not ever as you say, seduced/But simply murdered" (770-1).  Once saved from a hopeless situation by Romney, Marian was preparing to be elevated as his wife until Lady Waldemar encouraged Marian to break off the match.  Marian traveled to France, once again in a depressed state after her money is taken by Waldemar's former maid, only to be depressed further when she is raped.  She describes it as a "griping death within the drowning death" (1117),, a horrifying experience in which she feels seized choked and left for dead.  Marian does not fight death, feeling she has nothing to live for.  Aurora herself sees death upon her, "a dead face, known once alive" (239).  Her experience is visible to others.

The experience causes Marian's attitude to grow to a callousness in her soul.  She becomes an unfeeling person, stating:  "For though you ran a pin into my soul,/I think it would not hurt nor trouble me" (830-1).  Her human sensibilities have numbed, and she cannot be pricked to life.  Her soul, her emotional side, no longer responds to any form of stimulation.  Browning further illustrates her detachment by having her speak in third person.  Referring to Romney she says:

He's sad, I think you said,–he's sick perhaps?
It's nought to Marian if he's sad or sick.
Another would have crawled beside your foot
And prayed your words out. Why, a beast, a dog,
A starved cat, if he had fed it once with milk,
Would show less hardness. But I'm dead, you see,
And that explains it (843-9).

Marian feels no connection to her past, even to the man to whom she was once engaged.  She places herself below beasts emotionally.

Nevertheless, her child gives Marian a reason to live.  Though she feels dead, her life has been given to her son, a vivacious child:

The yearling creature, warm and moist with life
To the bottom of his dimples,–to the ends
Of the lovely tumbled curls about his face;
For since he had been covered over-much
To keep him from the light glare, both his cheeks
Were hot and scarlet as the first live rose
The shepherd's heart blood ebbed away into,
The faster for his love (567-74).

The baby is full of life and provokes Marian's motherly instinct to action.

And if, to save the child from death as well,
The mother in me has survived the rest,
Why, that's God's miracle you must not tax,–
I'm not less dead for that: I'm nothing more
But just a mother. Only for the child,
I'm warm, and cold, and hungry, and afraid,
And smell the flowers a little, and see the sun,
And speak still, and am silent,–just for him! (820-7).

Marian lives only for the child and sees the opportunity as one from God.  Marian cannot give up with this added responsibility, one she readily accepts as God-given.  Marian recognizes that "God knows me, trusts me with the child" (741).  Marian's faith in the ultimate life-giving force convinces her that she can persevere and accept the blessing she has received.

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