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Matricide in the City (Original)

Matricide in the City (Original)

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Published by: Patrick McEvoy-Halston on Nov 05, 2009
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11/04/2009

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Patrick McEvoy-HalstonENG 6153H1SProfessor Sarah Wilson27 February 2006Matricide in the City: The story of the invisible man, the story of New York Chapters twelve to fifteen of 
The Invisible Man
 —in which the invisible man moves awayfrom the mother-figure Mary to unite himself to Jack and the Brotherhood—might be read asstaging the Freudian drama of the “child” moving away from his mother, at the father’scommand. But since with Freud the child prefers to remain united to the mother, and since theinvisible man, despite his claims to the contrary, clearly does not want to remain with Mary, thedrama here is not really a Freudian one. What it is instead is a dramatization of the story behindmodern New York in the 20s, the decade when New York became New York!, for, at leastaccording to Ann Douglas, New Yorkers believed then that their freedom depended upondetaching themselves from the influence of the preceding age, an age of smotheringsubservience, lorded over by Victorian matriarchs, and in creating its counterpart, its counter—athoroughly Masculine era.In her book,
Terrible Honesty
, an examination of New York in the 20s, Douglas arguesthat “slaying of the Titaness, the Mother God of the Victorian era, was the most importantinstigation of the modern urban era” (252). “Cultural matricide,” she argues, “gave fresh accessto an adventurous new world of uninhibited self-expression and cultural diversity, a world theTitaness’s bulk had seemed designed expressly to block” (253). She says she thought it peculiar that the moderns would feel the need to slay the Victorian matriarch, the Titaness—that is, the“[w]hite middle-class women [who] had seized the reins of national culture in mid-and late-[American] Victorian era” (6)—since the “women they criticized most savagely were dead and buried by the 1920s” (243). But she concludes that the moderns imagined the Victorian
 
matriarch as a Goddess, that is, as something immortal which was too powerful a presence toever be gotten rid of permanently.Why they imagined her as such might become evident if we take John Watson’s—the behaviorist, popular 20s “child expert,” and mother-hater supreme—conception of the typicalchild’s experience along side his/her mother, seriously. Watson wanted children to spend aslittle time with their mothers as possible. Reason: he believed that from infancy on childrenexperienced their mothers as monstrous oppressors who were far more a source of trauma thanthey were of nurturance, for, according to Watson, “[m]ost mothers [. . .] displace[d] their unsatisfied sexual longings onto to their children under the guise of ‘affection.’” (43). To buttressthe rightness and righteousness of his attack on the myth of selfless maternal devotion, Watsonrecorded how infants reacted to mothers who obsessed over them. The revulsion he claimed thechildren experienced, and which he himself experienced while watching their mothers swarmover them, press themselves against them, is akin to the revulsion the invisible man experiencesafter finding himself pressed up against a large woman in a subway train while on his way toHarlem—that is, when he found himself “crushed against a huge woman in black who shook her head and smiled while [he] [. . .] stared with horror at a large mole that arose out of the oilwhiteness of her skin like a black mountain sweeping out of rainwet plain” (158).If most moderns had in fact experienced their mothers’ bodies in this manner, if their earliest experiences were of such maternal pressing, smothering, it would explain why they feltthe need to distance themselves so strongly from maternal figures, and also why they feared theywould never quite get them out of their systems. But because this encounter is one in which“maternal” pressing occurs by accident, that is, because it is not one in which the wide bodiedwoman encouraged his attachment to, enmeshment with, her, it is not one which contains a hintof why moderns feared that unless they slew the Matriarch, they would find themselves her 2
 
 proxy and tool. More than a hint of such can however be found in the invisible man’s telling of his stay with Mary, however.Just as his first negative encounter in New York was actually his being sandwichedagainst the large bodied woman in the subway train, his second emergence into New York—after he leaves the factory hospital—is introduced so that once again it seems as if he will find himself in an uncomfortable situation brought upon by pressing, grotesque, maternal masses. But thoughhis “wild, infant eyes” are confronted with “[t]wo huge women [. . .] [who] seemed to strugglewith their massive bodies as they came [toward him], their flowered hips trembling likethreatening flames” (251), they pass him by without incident. He hasn’t escaped uncomfortableenmeshment, however, for just afterwards another wide bodied woman, Mary, rescues him fromthe streets and becomes his constant, his only company for some time thereafter. Living withMary, he finds himself in the sort of exclusive mother-child dyad that Watson railed against. Hedescribes himself as childish several times while living with Mary, but it is clear in her over soliticousness, in her presumed intimacy, that she is meant to be conceived as a mother-figure— the sort of black mama ostensibly to be found everywhere in the South,
and 
the sort moderns believed were to be found everywhere in their Victorian (read, Boston centered) past. He says“he had no friends and desired none” (258); but he clearly desires some sort of relief fromMary’s company. His first instinct was in fact to “inwardly reject” (252) her; and living with her  brings upon him experiences he would but cannot repel or reject. He complains about her “constant talk of leadership and responsibility” (258), but one senses that what bothers him mostis not so much what she was asking of him—though this clearly does bother him—but her constant pressure, her pressing, her manifest presence, for he is equally disturbed by her “silent”as he is by her audible “pressure” (259) for him to become a race leader. Indeed, he makes hisstay with Mary seem as if it involves perpetually “ingesting” her in one unpleasant way or 3

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