The Madonna-Whore Complex

The posts that we have so far on To Bed With Grand Music have stolen all the cool concepts like the body as currency and manipulation within the text–just to name two of the many. So, what I am going to do is discuss an interesting psychological concept/trope that I’ve come across recently, using some of the least academic sources I possibly can: frickin’ Wikipedia and bloody TvTropes. If you take a look at either of those links, they talk about a concept first named by everyone’s favorite discredited father of psychology and all-around pervy dude Sigmund Freud, known as either the “Madonna-Whore Complex,” or more simply the “Virgin-Whore Complex.” As the above screengrab from the webcomic Sinfest fairly aptly details, this concept centers around the belief that a woman can only be one of two things: a pure “Madonna,” innocent, nurturing, and domestic; or a shameless “whore,” legs a-spread for all to partake in. Both links note that this is, in general, a complex that forms within the male psyche, and was first formulated by Freud as an attempt to explain why husbands seemed to stop finding their wives sexually appealing.

Now, I am not going to claim anything like “Laski was an avid reader of Freud and knew of his Complex,” but there seems to be at least something potentially productive about thinking about how the Madonna-Whore dichotomy might play out in To Bed With Grand Music. During class I ended up getting rather fixated on the fact that Deborah’s mother separated women into two separate categories of “Mothers” and “Wives.” The dichotomy Mrs. Betts set up was not what caught my attention, so much as a particular detail that came after her categorization: “wife” was not the original word Mrs. Betts wanted to use. Whatever the actual word Deborah’s mother used internally to define the “wife” archetype in her own mind, it seems fairly safe to argue that she did a last-second word swap because she viewed whatever word she really wanted to use as crass or unpalatable–implying that the word would have had rather more of a negative connotation than “wife” does.

Mrs. Betts does not really describe her two archetypes to Deborah, so we are forced to interpret the implications of the titles she chose to use for said archetypes, in order to try and make a guess as to what the difference between the two is. However, since we also know that “wife” was not Mrs. Betts’ first choice of title, we are left with interpreting “mother,” and from there making a determination of what “wife” might really mean on the basis of what “mother” isn’t.

So: a “mother” would, presumably, be a nurturing figure, raising and caring for the child or children that she is mother to. This nurturing aspect, if it is the basis of the archetpye, however, would extent to beyond just children; the “mother” would tend to and work to uplift those around her (friends, family, spouse, etc.), and even the environment in which she exists (home, garden, neighborhood, etc.). In other words, if I refer back to the ways in which I differentiated the Madonna and the Whore, the “mother” seems to fit pretty well with the Madonna.

If, then, we are to conflate the mother and the Madonna–at least just for the sake of this blog post–and we can really only properly interpret the wife in relation to what it is not (that is, the mother), what do we get? Well, if the mother is nurturing and domestic, the wife would be not-nurturing and not-domestic. Instead of raising and caring for others–in effect, giving of her time, deidcation, and resources for the sake of another–the wife would make use of others–taking from them. Instead of treating the home as her domain, public spaces would be her stomping ground. Basically, yeah, I’m saying that Mrs. Betts totally meant to say “whore” instead of “wife.”

Now, where the crap am I going with this? Honestly, I am not too sure. I’m mainly caught up in the fact that I can sorta-kinda see a parallel between Mrs. Betts’ rhetoric and a psychological concept. That said, the chat between Deborah and her mother happens fairly early on in the story–so, is it possible that much of the narrative could be viewed as Deborah perceiving her mother’s argument about feminine archetypes, and reacting to that in some way? Just something to think about, I guess.

-Eliot Sherman

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