Traversing the Expressible: Stories of Death and Desire

By: Ilgin Yildiz 


Death and desire are inexhaustible themes in literary works, and short story as a brief literary form, allows for condensed and layered philosophical and psychological explorations. This essay will deploy a psychoanalytical perspective to discuss stories by Katherine Mansfield, Raymond Carver, James Joyce, Peter Carey, and Henry James, focusing on ‘the inexpressible’, ‘the feminine’, ‘triangular desire’, and ‘symbolic death.’

Katherine Mansfield’s ‘The Garden Party’ is a coming-of-age story about Laura’s realisation of death and the real world with ‘absurd class distinctions’ (Mansfield 2008, p. 36). It is also about the construction of Laura’s subjectivity, her journey to the unconscious (Hades, id or Lacanian Real), and the experience of ‘the inexpressible.’

On the day of a party in her family home, Laura receives the news of a death (a poor worker from the nearby cottages has died after an accident) and persists that they should cancel the party. But her family doesn’t concur and Laura is desperate. To offer her condolences, she decides to visit the dead worker’s family.

Laura ‘awakens’ to life and death by journeying to the underworld: the dead worker’s home. She descends to the Real and confront with her bourgeois guilt. During the journey, she is worried that her presence, more precisely her hat, will cause unwanted attention. Ariela Freedman (2013) emphasises the ‘transformative power’ (p. 82) of this hat. Laura, as an outsider, is embarrassed that her hat, a symbol  of authority and beauty in her world (the Lacanian Symbolic) is now inappropriate—it disturbs the Real.

Laura’s experience of the inexpressible has an inherent political and ethical aspect since it takes place after she gazes at the dead worker’s body. The duty of ‘proving’ death is given to the lower class. The workers building the roof—‘the marquee’—of our capitalist society are also held responsible to teach us that there is also death. Laura, as an outsider, fetishises the dead man’s body: He is ‘wonderful, beautiful’ (Mansfield, p. 51) and ‘happy… happy’. The reader is confined to Laura’s fantasy. Laura’s gaze, the closing of distance with the absolute Other’s territory, essentially reinforces her subjectivity. Freedman questions the price of Laura’s gain: ‘put crudely, can someone else’s death be your revelation? Can it be your gift? Can it become (…) your possession?’ (2013, p. 83).

This death can be seen as a possession rather than a gift: After all, Laura doesn’t achieve an authentic empathy; her confrontation merely reinforces the statusquo and she re-assumes the role of her class, and continues occupying her own ‘space’. The journey to the id, the gift of death, merely contributes to her experience of the inexpressible—which is undoubtedly transformative but barren in political and ethical contexts.

Laura’s gaze reveals a fascination with death. Her desire in the face of death is ‘an alienation that for Mansfield is coterminous with an exile from language’ (ibid, p. 83). This gaze is coupled with her entry to the Kristevan semiotique. This experience, the insistence and the alluring interpellation of the death-drive is ‘simply marvellous’ (Mansfield, p. 51).

The ‘inexpressible’, and rigidity of language are predominant throughout the narrative. Laura is unable to talk appropriately to the workers building the marquee:  ‘“Good morning,” she said, copying her mother’s voice’ (ibid, p. 35). After gazing at the dead worker’s body and experiencing the unsettling glimpse of the Real, ‘“Isn’t life,” she stammered, “isn’t life—”’ (ibid, p. 51). Here, lack is definitive. For Lacan, ‘desire is a relation of being to lack. This lack is the lack of being properly speaking’ (1988, p. 223). Laura’s experience is beyond language, and a question like ‘Isn’t life…’ can only be answered as, ‘Isn’t it?’ (Mansfield, ibid.)

Life is a garden party where Eros and Thanatos conjoin and become one. Death is a surreal banality. The period this story was written is significant since one is able to sense the war’s shadow throughout the narrative, the way it ‘fetishizes the war’s confusion’ (Freedman, p. 82). The grotesqueness of Jose’s ‘brilliant, dreadfully unsympathetic smile’ (Mansfield, p. 38) and her song ‘Life is Weary’ are two components in the narrative that build this idea of a ‘banal grotesque’ that war introduces to life.

Fascination with death is also a central theme in Raymond Carver’s ‘So Much Water So Close Home.’ A girl is murdered and her body is found by some men who go fishing. But the narrator isn’t one of these men, it is Claire, one of the men’s wife. And—just like Laura in ‘The Garden Party’—Carver’s protagonist Claire journeys to the underworld: she drives to the murdered girl’s funeral.

The narrative is filled with frustrated sexual desire along with repressed, incomplete actions: Claire’s husband Stuart’s fingers and touch (Carver 1991, p. 189), the green truck ‘following’ Claire (p. 200), the ‘Love’ on the notes (p. 192, 198), Stuart breaking the lock on the door but doing nothing when he comes inside (p. 203). Potency and unfulfilled desire create tension throughout the story.

Claire’s suspicion about Stuart’s involvement in the girl’s murder establishes a paranoid disposition in the reader, and throughout the story this suspicion is kept alive, right up to the final sentence: ‘For God’s sake, Stuart, she was only a child’ (p.204). The narrative’s focalisation through Claire reinforces this suspicion. We suspect because she suspects: ‘One of the men, I don’t know who, it might have been Stuart, he could have done it’ (p. 187), ‘I can see a man who is drunk (Stuart?) take her by the wrist’ (p. 201). The effect of her fantasy (Stuart’s intimacy with this woman–in fact, the ultimate possible intimacy: killing her) is contagious.

Another component this story shares with Mansfield’s is the experience of the inexpressible. Laura’s ‘Isn’t life…’ is very similar to Claire’s ‘I feel like…’ When Stuart asks Claire what she is afraid of, she answers: ‘I can’t explain (…) I’m just afraid. I feel like, I feel like, I feel like…’ (p. 203). What leads to this paralysis of speech can be read as an outcome of mimetic desire, a result of Claire’s identification with the dead girl. Claire both identifies with the dead woman and desires her. Her fascination with the dead girl is essentially a fascination with the feminine, the unrepresentability of the feminine in the Symbolic. Language is unfunctional, eventually futile.

René Girard’s (1976) theory of ‘triangular desire’ establishes—not two, like subject and object—but three agents in the process of desire: the subject, the mediator, and the object. The subject desires through the mediator. In this triangular desire the subject is Claire, the mediator is Stuart, and the object is the dead girl. Claire envies Stuart for he connected with the dead girl in a way she will never understand. Perhaps she doesn’t even want to understand since in the end, when she finds out that a man has been arrested for the girl’s murder, her response is ‘He might not have acted alone (…) They’ll have to be sure. He might be covering up for someone’ (p. 202). It is as if Claire wishes to prolong the fantasy—Stuart playing a part in this girl’s death. The ‘grisly find’ isn’t the dead girl, it is the repressed desire,  the death-drive, both ‘hiding’ and ‘showing’ itself, as if from behind a thin veil, teasing and seducing.

Stuart ‘possesses’ the dead girl because he is the one with a secret history with her (it isn’t important whether this history is real or imaginary) and this possession, for Claire, is a ‘passive obstacle; it is frustrating’ (Girard 1976, p. 13). Stuart, as the mediator, is able to desire the object whenever/however. And it is this desire that ‘makes this object infinitely desirable in the eyes of the subject’ (ibid).

Claire isn’t ‘innocent’ or passive in this triangular desire. She is, in fact, the most active agent. And she isn’t interested in dealing with reality, she is interested in the fantasy.

Triangular desire is also at play in James Joyce’s ‘The Dead.’ This time Michael—Gretta’s dead first love—is the mediator, Gabriel is the subject, and Gretta is the object. The object’s evasive nature (or inexpressibility in the Symbolic) is also an important component of the narrative.

Essentially, Gabriel’s frustrated libidinal desire for Gretta triggers an epiphany—or rather an ‘epiphony’ (Kevin Dettmar 1996, p. 90). In the end, what Gabriel does is to reconcile with the Logos—there is no awakening, only selfdelusion.As Dettmar suggests, we should be skeptical of the authenticity of his epiphany after seeing other epiphonies—throughout Dubliners—that ‘have repeatedly been foisted upon us as the real thing’ (ibid, p. 97) and in ‘The Dead’ Gabriel

has ‘had’ two other epiphanies—as a result of his encounters with Lily and Miss Ivors- and those rebuffs (…) haven’t phased him a bit (…) Gabriel’s ‘self-awareness’ is limited to a blush (ibid).

It is remarkable how Gabriel, desiring a respectable place in the eyes of the Phallus (Lacanian transcendental/absolute signifier), never really achieves that, particularly with women (Lily, Ms. Ivors, and Greta). Gabriel is constantly challenged by the female language, as well as the big Other, he doesn’t belong to and can’t function properly in the semiotique or the Symbolic: ‘He would fail with them just as he had failed with the girl in the pantry. He had taken up a wrong tone. His whole speech was
a mistake from first to last’ (Joyce 1968, p. 195).

In the case of Gabriel, the failure of language is accompanied by a wounded ego. With Lily, ‘he was still discomposed by the girl’s bitter and sudden retort’ (ibid, p. 194) and Ms Ivors ‘had tried to make him ridiculous before people’ (ibid, p. 207). After these incidents, Gabriel attempts to re-establish his ‘masculinity’ in the eyes of the Phallus: he gives money to Lily, and he fantasises about settling scores with Ms Ivors—‘the girl or woman, or whatever she was’ (ibid)—with his speech. However he is unable to do so since Ms Ivors leaves before his speech, further intensifying the tension of the discharged cathexis. Finally, on the brink of ‘reaching’ Greta, Gabriel is confronted with the memory of a dead lover.

According to Girard (p. 17) triangular desire transfigures its object and this is what happens to Gretta. After hearing her revelation, Gabriel is envious, and sees Gretta with different eyes. He thinks that she (once his cherished and desired object) isn’t beautiful anymore, ‘it was no longer the face for which Michael Furey had braved death’ (Joyce, p. 240). He even feels ‘a strange friendly pity for her’. Thus Gabriel reaches a conclusion—the epiphony—through punishing Gretta.

Gretta is behind the veil, a mysterious figure, there is always a distance between her and Gabriel: Gabriel watching Greta from under the stairs, walking behind her, ‘Distant Music’. Gabriel’s desire for her operates under certain conditions: She has to ‘stand for’ something in order to exist: ‘There was grace and mystery in her attitude as if she were a symbol of something’ (p. 227).

Grace argues that in ‘The Dead’, women ‘are reduced to mirrors of male vanity, intellectual pride and sentiment’ (1988, p. 273) and that when Gretta tells Gabriel about her significant experience, the death of her old lover, this revelation ‘does not lead her husband (…) to a deeper understanding of her separate otherness’ (p. 274). Gretta’s revelation merely gives way to a pseudo-epiphany on Gabriel’s part—one that promises to reconcile him with the super-ego/Symbolic. Kristeva’s reading of Joyce (emphasising the Imaginary’s ‘incursions’ into the Symbolic) is carried out with this transfigured object of desire, but the incursions don’t result with authentic awakenings, thus presenting an incomplete, transfigured male subjectivity with the character of Gabriel.

In Peter Carey’s ‘Peeling’, we come across another mysterious, elusive female figure, along with a pleasure-delayer protagonist. The protagonist desires the mysterious female character intensely but delays gratification. ‘Desiring’ the pressure of discharged object-cathexis implies a masochistic tendency.

For Freud (1924), the economic problem of masochism was the fact that mental processes depended on gaining pleasure and avoiding unpleasure—the pleasure principle. However Freud also insisted on an equally (if not more) significant instinct, the death-drive.

In ‘Peeling’, the protagonist’s erotogenic masochism (pleasure in pain) is what constitutes one of the two essential components of the story (the other one being the indefinite, evasive feminine), and what moves it forward, creating a layered narrative.

The colour white contributes to the construction of meaning and character in the narrative. The protagonist claims, ‘White (…) has no appeal to her, it is simply that it says nothing, being less melodramatic than black’ (Carey 1994, p. 85) But this isn’t necessarily true because white is a ‘burdened’ colour that gives way to primal  associations. It speaks of purity and innocence, of oblivion and awakening. White says too much and it can be as—if not more—melodramatic than, and as ‘violent’ as, black. And when the narrator says, ‘I must admit that I loathe white’ (ibid, p. 85), his earlier claims are shattered with meaning.

This is, in fact, the ‘peeling’ of the protagonist, rather than the woman who occupies Kristevan oceanic void. She can’t be peeled, she isn’t even there. The woman protagonist can also be seen as a mother: she is the mother of the white dolls and the ‘abortion babies.’ She ‘kills’ them by giving birth to them—the whiteness, baldness of the dolls, symbolising the purity of a newborn. This process of giving birth by killing—‘Those which still have hair she plucks bald, and those with eyes lose them, and those with teeth have them removed and she paints them, slowly, white’ (ibid, p. 84)—and vice versa, positions the female as ‘the death-bearing sheGehenna’:

‘it is She who is death-bearing, therefore I do not kill myself in order to kill her but I attack her, harass her, represent her…’ (Kristeva 1989, p. 28). The narrative, thus, centers on the impossibility of true intimacy in the pleasure-delayer, the impossibility of signifying the feminine, and the inevitability of ‘killing’ her.

There is another symbolic death in Henry James’s ‘The Real Thing’. Major and Mrs. Monarch, once wealthy and powerful, are now penniless and weak. They start modelling for a painter in the hopes of making some much needed money. The painter is initially content about this cooperation, as he needs models that look sophisticated, like they belong to the upper-class. So, the Monarchs essentially start re-enacting themselves for the painter. However the painter eventually regrets his decision to hire them. He comes to believe the couple is not very believable as sophisticated, upper-class models. They can’t really re-enact themselves anymore.

The doomed bourgeois couple is banished from the Symbolic, thus ‘killed’ by the big Other (and also, symbolically, by the painter). They are trivialised sufferers of das Ding—absolute Other of the subject which Lacan defines as being ‘beyond-ofthe-signified’ (1992, p. 54).

Realisation of their own irrepresentability is what makes the couple desperate. It is the marginalised couple’s aim to seek ways to re-establish a signifying process where they will once more represent the real thing. The painter is the agent of the cruel Symbolic and his gaze is determinant for the real couple to be real. The odd couple is the ‘pure parallax object’, and ‘it is not only that its contours change with the shifting subject; it exists (…) only when the landscape is viewed from a certain perspective’ (Žižek 2006, p. 18).

Ironically, the ‘low-class’ model Miss Churm surpasses banality even though she is the most banal character in the story. But precisely for this reason she is the identity-shifter, the immortal, she is mediocre and/but eternal: ‘She was only a freckled cockney, but she could represent everything’ (James, p. 114). Being open to manipulation, transfiguration, transformation equals to being immortal—symbolic death is suspended in the identity-shifter. The repetition of the real thing is overcome by the imitation of the real thing.

The Monarchs dabble in an impossible territory between life and death: they are themselves but they can’t prove it. As such, their ‘innocent’ vanity, their ‘increase of comfort founded on their demonstrable advantage in being the real thing’ (p. 115) repulses the painter. Flirting with the real thing, the jouissance of the parallax gap is what allures the painter, but this allurement rapidly evaporates. Parallax gap is the ‘pure’ difference—not between ‘two positively existing objects, but a minimal  difference which divides one and the same object from itself’ (Žižek, ibid). The space Monarchs occupy: ‘is this not the unfathomable “minimal difference” at its purest?’

The story, thus, offers a dark ending: poor Mr and Mrs Monarch are locked in a space of irrepresentability, the terrain of minimal difference, they can’t repeat or represent the real thing, and not desired by the Symbolic.


Works Cited

Carey P, ‘Peeling’, Collected Stories, University of Queensland Press, St. Lucia, Qld., 1994.
Carver R, ‘So much water so close to home’, Fires: essays, poems, stories, Harvill, London, 1991.
Dettmar K, The Illicit Joyce of Postmodernism: Reading Against the Grain, University of Wisconsin Press, Wisconsin, 1996.
Freedman A, Death, Men, and Modernism, Taylor&Francis Books, New York, 2003.
Girard R, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1976.
Grace S.E., ‘Rediscovering Mrs. Kearney’, James Joyce: The Augmented Ninth, edited by Bernard Benstock, Syracuse University Press, New York, 1988.
Joyce J, ‘The Dead’, The Portable James Joyce, Viking, New York, 1968.
Kristeva J, Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia, trans. L Roudiez, Columbia University Press, New York, 1989.
Lacan J, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book II, The Ego in Freud’s Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Sylvana Tomaselli, Cambridge University Press, 1988.
The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book VII, trans. Dennis Porter, Routledge, London, 1992.
Mansfield K, The Garden Party and Other Stories, Penguin Classics, London, 2008.
Žižek S, The Parallax View, MIT Press, Cambridge, 2006.



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