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Doctors Visits and Adultery in Late Nineteenth-Century Narrative

Nathalie Bouzaglo
Revista Hispnica Moderna, Volume 65, Number 1, June 2012, pp.
1-8 (Article)
Published by University of Pennsylvania Press
DOI: 10.1353/rhm.2012.0002
For additional information about this article
Access provided by Northwestern University Library (24 Apr 2014 18:04 GMT)
Doctors Visits and Adultery in Late
Nineteenth-Century Narrative
nathalie bouzaglo
northwestern university

I. Introduction
n 1865, the state court of New Jersey conducted a trial in the divorce proceed-
ings of Emile C. Berckmans v. Sara E. Berckmans. In its ostensibly objective
narration of the facts, the court indicates that Ms. Berckmans is suspected of
adultery with the familys physician, Dr. Randolph Titsworth. Her accuser is her
husbands mother, who alleges that in June of 1859, the transaction (Green
Ewing 127) was carried out in the couples living room, at a moment when the
mother-in-law was able to look through the window of the adjacent greenhouse.
The mother-in-laws testimony reveals that the greenhouse window allowed an
observer to glimpse only the smallest portion of the living room sofa, with its
back to the window. She claimed to have seen no more than a pair of feet resting
on the sofa, and a pair of boots. In her words: I saw Dr. Titsworths feet, his
boots, and the feet lying on the sofa, on the same side of the sofa where I was
looking through the window (129). Implicit in this allegation is the curious
assumption that Dr. Titsworths bare feet on the sofa would be sufcient proof
of the misdeed.
In discussing this allegation, the court stops questioning whether the pair com-
mitted adultery to ask instead whether an observer in the greenhouse would
be able to see the sofa. Curiously, the relationship between the lovers cedes its
protagonism to the physical evidentiary question, in much the same way that the
adulterous relationship cedes its protagonism to the relationship between the
lover and the aggrieved husband in the majority of novels of adultery dating
from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Another detail of the
case merits highlighting: the accused wife was a middle or lower-middle class
young woman who had married a wealthy man and, in her defense, alleged that
Although I will not explore the notion of rivalry in this essay, I want to note briey that
in the triangular relationships that adultery creates, the bonds between the rivals are typically
stronger and more passionate than those between the lovers themselves. The adulterous
relationship commonly serves as a pretext to facilitate homosocial relations between the
rivals. In this way, the rivalry itself becomes the protagonist of the story and creates the
perfect space for the production of homoerotic bonds between men. See Kosofsky
Sedgwick 2127.
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2 Revista Hispa nica Moderna 65.1 (2012)
her husbands extreme cruelty caused her to suffer the mysterious sicknesses
that necessitated the doctors visits.
The novel Mim (1898), by the well-known Venezuelan writer, lawyer and poli-
tician Rafael Cabrera Malo, relates a true story
surprisingly similar to the one
described by the New Jersey court. Mim , married to an elderly millionaire who
saved her family from nancial ruin, is obsessed with becoming pregnant. Her
husband, however, is either infertile or impotent. Mim s xation grows until it
becomes an indenable illness (similar to Ms. Berckmans) and she is nally
accused of committing adultery with the family doctor.
I will leave further comparisons of the legal case and the novel for the last
section of this essay, where I also lay out why I believe it is fruitful to compare
the North American legal case and the Latin American novel. Although the legal
case functions within a different context, both examples have common themes
and a similar form in which they narrate the desire and impossibility of achieving
order. In this essay, I am interested in examining different nineteenth-century
discourses on the familyand its potential ruptureand how they become a
warning against a sexuality that corrupts the social function of maternity and
family as a biological foundation of the nation.
II. Hysterical Attacks
The protagonist of the novel Mim suffers from a hysterical pregnancy: her
stomach grows large and she roams the streets, shouting that she is so fat that
she will explode like a bomb (121). She imagines that every child is hers, and
eventually comes up with the idea that her son has tragically died during an
operation. Mim suffers from recurrent attacks, deliriums and hallucina-
tions, all symptoms of an illness brought on by unfullled maternal desire
(119). In the doctors words: crazy, yes; she was crazy with maternal love; and it
was necessary to satisfy the instinct suffocated in her, or die (190; my emphasis).
Hysteria has always eluded denition: it has been viewed as everything from
sexual deviation to religious ecstasy.
However, during the nineteenth century,
Rafael Cabrera Malo insists on the truth of his story in a prologue that is as anxious as it
is clumsily written: Believe it . . . My book isI proclaim itthe naked allegations of real
life (n. pag.). All translations of the novel are mine.
Two theories of hysteria coexisted in the eighteenth century. According to the rst,
hysteria was the result of abstinence or uterine problems; according to the second it was a
neurological problem. In 1775, William Cullen, one of the rst scholars of hysteria, classied
it as a neurological problem caused by uterine disorders. It was thus thought that nymphoma-
niacs were especially vulnerable to the disease. As the century closed, additional causes were
added, including, for example, exaggerated pleasure and certain kinds of reading. The nine-
teenth century, until the 1870s or 1880s, was hysterias so-called golden age, and the
approach to hysteria changed radically. Jean Martin Charcot attempted to reverse the theo-
retical focus from the uterus to the brain (from the gynecological to the neurological).
Although Charcot sought to leave behind the association between hysteria, woman and
uterus, he was unable to eliminate cures that treated the ovaries and mammary glands
(Beizer 112).
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bouzaglo, Doctors Visits and Adultery 3
hysteria was associated with sexuality, feminine sexuality in particular.
By the
late nineteenth century, hysteria was well publicized, available to serve a wide
variety of aesthetic and political purposes, and it was mentioned in every kind
of narrativection, but also newspapers, police reports, surveys and legal and
medical cases. The hysterical woman served as a vehicle for the satisfaction of
physicians diagnostic fantasies (and along with them, those of writers, readers
and analysts). The capricious and variable body of the hysteric channeled the
chaos of the era.
The varied readings inspired by the hysteric may result from her inability to
narrate her own story. Her incongruence triggers narration. The possibility of
interpreting her, of decoding the clues in her language, is too tempting. This
is especially true for a late-nineteenth-century physician who observes and diag-
noses under the pretense or illusion of scientic interpretation of the incon-
gruous spectacle.
But can there be a spectacle without staging [mise-en-sce`ne]? (Didi-
Huberman 23). Many studies of hysteria, including those by Huberman, Bronfen
and Beizer, have emphasized the mise-en-sce`ne inherent in the attacks and the
patients own staging of her symptoms. Mim begins to use her disease to her
advantage, and even invents attacks in order to see her handsome doctor and
former lover, Manuel, more frequently. While the cure for hysteria depends on
a complex relationship of transference, in this story, the complicity between
patient and doctor leads to unimaginable consequences. Thanks to infallible
medical knowledge, Mim is cured, that is, she becomes pregnant or, as Manuels
diagnosis has it, her maternal instincts are satised (174). Curiously, Mim
makes the rst sexual advance, with such passion that she almost kills the doctor.
This condent, strong and prudent man is depicted as defenseless once his
adulterous sexual relationship with Mim begins (204).
The spectacle offered by the hysteric incites her examination and exhibition:
her body becomes another, separate body, one that exists to be studied and
diagnosed. Exhibitions, as cultural forms, are the nineteenth centurys genre
of choice, scopophilia its guiding passion, according to Sylvia Molloy (143).
The unstoppable transformation of the world into spectacle turns spaces, sub-
jects and objects into materials for exhibition. When the particular spectacle at
hand is disease, the mechanism of contagion connects different subjects and
makes the risk of conversion into the other concrete. The threat of contagion
is ever-present in novels of adultery. Through marriage, all stories of adultery
confront the risk of contagion through (sexual, racial or class-related) contact.
The illicit relationship, although apparently transgressive, reafrms the familiar
According to Sander L. Gilman, the visual representation of hysteria within the world of
nineteenth-century images was always feminineand hysterical men were always feminizable.
In his study, he compares the hysteric with the Jew, since the latter could also be a hysteric
(as could all different or sick individuals) (411).
Figure of femininity, label of disorder and difference, hysteria was available for a wide
and often contradictory range of aesthetic and political purposes: instrument of misogyny,
agent of differentiation, magnet diagnosis of societys multiple ills, emblem of creative frenzy,
identication of the writing self as Other, designation of the centurys marginalized symbolic
center (Beizer 8).
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4 Revista Hispa nica Moderna 65.1 (2012)
institution outside of which it exists. Adultery makes delity its object of desire.
In this way, what seems to break with the social order, threatening it with wide-
spread contamination, paradoxically makes the social contract possible.
The lovers encounter in the novel becomes even more poignant when it chal-
lenges not only social norms, but also obstacles of nature. Manuel, the doctor,
nds himself in the middle of a storm that has dramatically ooded the river
that separates him from Mim . He is beside himself, hypnotized, called by a force
he does not understand, a demonic incarnation of love (201). As he enters the
cabin, Manuel describes the scene: [Mim ] awaited me there, on the riverbank,
beneath the orange trees . . . and when she spotted me shaking like a drunk she
arose painfully and . . . as if she were telling me to be silent she came toward me (204;
my emphasis). In his reconstruction of the scene, Manuel does not know if it was
actually Mim or an apparition: I cannot say yet if what I saw then, under the
trees, was an apparition of the night . . . or the real Mim , the impossible and
wept-over lover from my dreams as a student (204).
Is Manuel now sick, hallucinating and delirious? The doctor appears to lose
his diagnostic capability; he is unable to decode the scene, much less his own or
his patients mysterious behavior: I completely lost consciousness and I aban-
doned myself to the mercy of . . . my delirium (205). According to his vague
but highly detailed recollections, in Mim sor her apparitionsface there was
a painful paleness of death; but her cruel and enigmatic eyes revealed an ener-
getic decision and the movement of her lips, that nervous and instinctive gesture
that I knew so well, clearly denoted the intensity of her disdain (105). When
adultery is nally committed, the narrator describes a nearly unconscious man
and a she-vampire who corners him, silences him and devours him, sending him
into a fainting spell that lasts several days (he wakes in his mothers bed without
knowing how he got there).
At this point, as in almost all novels of adultery of the period,
Mim s husband
discovers the betrayal and plots revenge on his rival. Mim overhears her hus-
bands plan from behind a door, and immediately fakes a hysterical attack in
order to see Manuel and warn him that her husband plans to kill him. But Mim
is less concerned with love and with Manuels destiny than with her cure, that
is, her pregnancy. The physician, on the other hand, has been thrown into a
near-fatal depression that leads him to conclude: I am leaving forever, to live in
the country of melancholy (209). Manuels insatiable desire for the hysterical
gives himcontaminates him withthe indenable disease, although in a
different form and with different characteristics.
* * *
As shown by the contemporary inquiry into whether a natural or normal
body exists outside of its discursive formation, the question of the meaning of
the body continues to produce text. The hysterics body, inscribed and (over)ex-
posed, is converted into language. In any event, to understand or penetrate the
body implies the conversion of the woman into a legible and appropriable text
(Dopico Black 24). As the body becomes the object of languages desire, the
Here I am echoing Tony Tanner (1117).
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bouzaglo, Doctors Visits and Adultery 5
impulse is to read the body by deciphering the clues on its surface, thereby
turning it into text. What remains is no longer the body, but what one reads
into it.
Along these lines, hysteria can be read within the tradition that seeks to relate
body and expression. This tradition interprets the hysterics silent and inarticu-
late gesticulations as an escape valve, a search for expressiveness. The tools to
communicate come from the very space of not communicating (aphasia).
When she is rst examined, Mim does not speak: she has fainted, and when she
awakens, appears to be mute. The physician thus confronts the impossibility of
dialogue at the moment that he pronounces his diagnosis: there is no response,
no explanation. Moreover, both Mim (during her hysterical attacks) and
Manuel (when he meets her in the middle of the storm) become quiet and
then faint. Fainting, according to Roland Barthes, is the gestural equivalent of
muteness, and both can be a form of escape, or of blackmail (59).
Although it is tempting to read womens silence as a form of expression, doing
so idealizes the blockage of expressiveness that hysterics suffered (Beizer 2). Hys-
teria should be viewed as a mediated expression, in Janet Beizers terms. In other
words, it is vital to consider how the hysteric served the expressive powers of the
others and the reasons for which the nineteenth-century concept of hysteria was
metaphorically useful and even necessary to the eras narrative discourse (2).
III. Nation and Melodrama
The hysterics mise-en-sce `ne is always excessive, a non-linguistic corporeal expres-
sion that desperately attempts to transforms itself into language, into text. In
Mim , the narration of hysterias (over)gesticulation blurs the parameters of
melodrama, although not necessarily in a conscious manner. For this reason, I
will read the hysterics mediated expression as a form of melodramatic discourse.
In his study of the melodramatic imagination, Peter Brooks calls melodrama a
crucial paradigm of expression in modern literature (123). The narrative mode
is one of excess, one that intensies what is represented. The secret to melo-
dramas popularity lies, according to Brooks, in its ability to produce scenes of
exaggerated, histrionic, hyperbolic gesticulations. It is a mode of expression
born out of the modern compulsion of wanting to say it all in a way that is faithful
to reality. The result is a mixture of excessive theatricality and the disillusion
that results from the impossibility of delity to reality (an impossibility found in
language itself ). This occurs precisely at the moment when expression and
reality no longer correspond to one another. Melodrama arises, then, out of a
sort of longing for transparency of language. Grandiose gestures, histrionic mise-
en-sce`ne, music, cries and other nonverbal expressions compensate for the impos-
sibility of saying it all transparently.
I therefore propose reading the hysterics element of excess and inarticulation
as a venture into melodramatic discourse. Doing so requires taking the melodra-
matic genre beyond the Manichean and fantastical solutions that tend to resolve
its plots. This is because Mim is not a typical melodrama in which heroes tri-
umph and evildoers are punished. It does not celebrate the virtue of an ideal
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6 Revista Hispa nica Moderna 65.1 (2012)
woman (its heroine is far from ideal), or expose adultery as vice. In fact, as
Paulette Silva Beauregard has indicated, Mim may be the most scandalous Vene-
zuelan novel of its era: [T]o the adulteress comes the natural right of being a
mother, and the problem is not her behavior but rather the law which does not
permit divorce (243).
The suspension of judgment until the end of the novel points to a legal
vacuum, similar to the one demonstrated by the legal case discussed at the begin-
ning of this essay. In both the legal case and the novel, the womans disease, in
addition to turning her into an object of interpretation, presents the possibility
of agency. The legal case analyzed here, in fact, is the second court case related
to the Berckmanss divorce. The rst, brought by the wife, alleged domestic
abuse and remained unresolved. The husband and his mother then brought a
new case, defending themselves and accusing the wife of adultery. As mentioned
above, the court devoted many pages to the question of whether it was possible
to see the doctors boots through the windows. The court considered various
reections of light at different hours of the day. Numerous witnesses were called
to testify. Still, no conclusion was reached. As a result, the judge sent two experts
of equal respectability (127) to measure and reconstruct the scene, taking all
variables into account. One expert testied that it was indeed possible to see a
small portion of the sofa from where the accusing mother stood; the other testi-
ed that it was not. The judge concluded:
This seems to me incredible, assuming that the observations in both
cases were made under the same conditions and were fairly made
and stated; and physically impossible, if the measurements furnished to
the court were accurate. I confess that I am totally unable to reconcile this
conict in the testimony except upon the hypothesis, either that there was some
change in the relative elevation of the oor of the green-house and the parlor,
so that the position of the observer and altitude of the point of vision
was changed, or that a change was made in the sofa itself. (Green
Ewing 128; my emphasis)
In refusing to choose between the two sides, the judge abdicates the judicial duty
to nd facts in the face of conicting evidence and contradictory stories. The
judges manipulation of the oors elevation as a variable calls attention to the
laws equivocal approach to an adulterous situation and the effect of point of
view on the search for truth. It also highlights the difculty of nding the words
and evidence necessary for the narration of adultery. The divorce case therefore
remains unresolved (as does the issue of Mim s guilt in the novel) for lack of
satisfactory evidence (140), although the court does conclude that the visits
of her physician are too frequent and too long, and that, having no father, or
brother, or friend, to whom she could have recourse, she resorted to that physi-
Although divorce rst appears codied under Venezuelan law in the 1873 National
Civil Code, the statute required legal justication before the court could grant a divorce
petition. Mim s experience would have provided neither the moral nor the legal justication
for a divorce.
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bouzaglo, Doctors Visits and Adultery 7
cian for counsel and guidance, when she was about to y from her husband for
his alleged cruelty (143).
In neither the legal case nor the novel is the woman punished, unlike the
majority of nineteenth-century cases of female adultery. In each, the lack of a
masculine gure (or the fact that men are sterile and, therefore, emasculated)
justies the crime. Without such justication, the adulteress and her lover
would have been harshly punished, as in almost all cases of female adultery of
the era.
Comparing law and melodrama (or reading a legal case as melodrama) might
seem misguided. Melodrama is a literary genre associated with the feminine in
relation to an emphatic dispersion of emotion; law is a system of social control
served by rationality (Louis 149). At rst glance, law and melodrama converge
only in the use of conceptual oppositions (conicts between good and evil) as a
mode of representation, but as I have shown here, these oppositions do not
necessarily endure in either genre.
At times, Mim seems to become an unresolved trial. This may reect Rafael
Cabrera Malos experience as a lawyer and statesman. It is tempting to conclude
that, in consonance with his national project, he writes this didactic novel,
repeatedly emphasizing in the prologue the risks and implications of an unpro-
ductive sexuality that corrupts matrimonial stability and therefore works against
the family as the nations biological foundation. However, the narrator contra-
dicts himself. For all his eagerness to condemn adultery, he falls for Mim s illicit
behavior and winds up taking a certain pleasure in its justication. The novels
objective narration of real-life facts includes the relation of Mim s sexual
excesses and disease in painstaking detail. As a result, this narration inevitably
resorts to melodrama.
Although the legal case functions in a different context and is governed by
different codes, it, too, permits an examination of the narrative of adultery as a
threat to order. Both texts respond to the realities of matrimonial law (or the
necessities of divorce), but their narrations, loaded with allusions and allegories,
are less transparent than they appear. They share common subjects, and engage
with nineteenth-century ideas of gender, mental illness, bourgeois codes of
decency and the institution of marriage. Moreover, perhaps because of their
pretensions to objectivity, these narratives resort to melodrama to voice the
impossibility of delimiting, controlling and classifying bodies. What is signicant
is that, in both stories, the adultery narratives remain unresolved. That is, the
melodramatic themes do not conclude in a stable opposition between guilt and
innocence, good and evil. This is surprising, given that these narratives belong
to a historical moment that aspired to truth and linguistic transparency. For this
reason, the melodramas attempt to present what other, more measured narra-
tive forms cannot grasp only emphasizes that very impossibility. Adultery contam-
In both cases considered here, the feminine diseases are the result of a particular
context, rather than a consequence of an illicit behavior. Had the latter been the case, the
protagonists illness would probably have been taken as a didactic example of the risks of
sin. In Monstruo y nacion: una lectura de El hombre de hierro, I analyze the need for the
adulterous woman to fall ill or turn monstrous in Latin American narratives of the era.
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8 Revista Hispa nica Moderna 65.1 (2012)
inates not only the adulterous bodies of the characters but also the codes
governing their narration.
The role of melodrama in these two cases leads me to ask: how does melo-
drama revise the narrative of the construction of the nation and its legal codes?
And how does melodrama in a novel contribute to the formation of the nation?
I will conclude by proposing that melodrama, despite its apparent focus on the
personal sphere, in reality presents the necessity of sociopolitical change.
Through its narrative and linguistic excess, melodrama points out the blind spots
in the legal discourse, and thus contributes to its revision and perfection, which
is vital to the formation of the nation. Because of its ability to express n de sie `cles
contradictions and adulterations better than any other genre, melodrama plays
a privileged role in the creation of the nation in post-independence Latin
w o r k s c i t e d
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Both law and melodrama . . . converge in their potential for social change and their
focus on the conict of human relationships (Louis 149).
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