This essay is taken from the preface of Exquisite Masochism, published by Johns Hopkins University Press.
How do novelists describe sex and still maintain a respectable distance from pornography? As a formal plotting technique, marriage offers respectable cover for the secretive impulses of sex. As readers, we no longer have to worry about what will happen to a character once she marries; we know what she’s in for on her wedding night. Likewise, waves, oceans, blooms, and illuminations mark the sexual act within the respectable novel and allow a writer to refer to sexual action without realistically describing the act itself. Descriptive haze lets a reader experience sex’s capacity to dislocate personal experience. It alerts us to the fact of sex’s occurrence, and it absolves the writer of a particular kind of obscenity, one that comes of naming things as they are. More than this, though, fuzzy metaphor locates the description of sex as internal to a character. By describing a sexual act as a bloom or a wave, an author is not describing something in the external world. Instead, she is focusing on the internal register of sexual act — on orgasm and its felt experience, on seduction and its bodily effects. Metaphor, in other words, provides protection for writing about the internal experience of sex.
In the 19th and early-20th centuries, writers began to challenge metaphor’s reign in the novelistic depiction of sex. English novelists took to new strategies — drawn in part from the threats posed to embedded, domestic Englishness by cosmopolitan, financial power — to hint at sexual impropriety, perversion, and danger. Novels by authors like Emily Brontë , Anthony Trollope, Thomas Hardy, and modernist outlier D.H. Lawrence reimagined the marriage plot as sex found clearer and clearer representation in its pages, in states that, paradoxically, fell on the periphery of marriage: engagement, adultery, and widowhood. These novelists forged a representational shift in the ways books described sex, from descriptive hermeneutics to descriptive clarity — from the description of Tess Durbeyfield’s “mobile, peony mouth” to Connie Chatterley’s blossom-covered pudendum.
A specific kind of erotic scene is repeated, in different ways, across some of the central works of Victorian fiction: these are scenes of “exquisite masochism.” Such scenes feature powerful women and submissive men, often take place in highly aestheticized environments, and work as vehicles for the respectable novel’s sexual content. They stop or dislocate progress in romantic developments by taking genital sex off the representational table in favor of masochistic embraces: they are squeaky wheels in the marriage plot. These are highly charged scenes — scenes of sustained stasis, where plot and character drop out, description thickens, and a glance, gesture, or object takes on heightened relational significance. And recognizing these moments as scenes — in novels across the long 19th century — helps us see how the novel understands sex. These scenes take place across a wide variety of novels: consider the volatile tableaux inaugurated by characters as varied in their powers as the imperious Edith Dombey in Dombey and Son, the attractive, but mercenary, Rosamond Vincy in Middlemarch, and the voracious Lucy Westerna in Dracula. Despite their differences, these characters have one thing in common: they persistently disturb the de-sexualizing, companionable impulses traditionally thought to be central to the conventional marriage plot, and they do so by orchestrating scenes that depend upon their heightened sexual allure.
A long history of Foucauldian criticism has found sex where it didn’t appear to be represented; I am interested in reading nongenital sex as central to Victorian erotic life. Withholding sex, in the Victorian novel, is a perverse way of having it. In a novelistic milieu where illegitimacy or adultery can be the motives for serious tragedy, a fully developed sexual life presents a frightening threat. By describing erotic life in ways that avoid depicting sexual intercourse in favor of nongenital tension or intensity, novelists can render the frisson of sexual desire without the attendant plot risks. Novelists harness potentially disruptive elements — like sexual desire, sexual power reversals, and illegitimate pleasure — and put them to work in the service of, not just as a challenge to, marriage ideology. These novels often demonstrate an investment in the sexual power of characters, but they also keep these characters from any explicitly sexual connections that would muck up their novels’ respectably plotted, core marriages. Instead of presenting characters with a single frightening consequence to illicit sex — a baby or a disease — exquisite masochism disperses physicality throughout the scene, minimizing sex’s risk while accentuating its thrill.
There are a number of ways to recognize these scenes: primarily, they lie at the intersection of novel form and aesthetics. Often, they are filled with “exquisite” things, objects carefully chosen, painstakingly refined and delicate. These objects, and their relationships to the bodies and other objects around them, are precisely drawn — there’s a sensory scaffold that holds the whole thing together. Such scenes feel like vignettes, staged and managed for the consumption of a viewer (for the reader? the characters? a little of both?). The “staged” feeling comes, in part, from the sense that plot and action cease in these moments, freezing characters in statuesque attitudes, giving the reader an impression of a tableau vivant rendered in prose. Additionally, characters may be described as seeming like living statues, frozen in an attitude — static but humming with pulsing life beneath their inviolate exteriors. In a single novel, a scene like this might stand out and might trouble or resist interpretation: What is this passage doing here? But, by noticing the ways such moments appear in multiple novels across a wide historical period, one begins to see how they work as a type of scene, as a group of like scenes. And these scenes, taken together, demonstrate how, even before its clear representation on the page, the description of masochistic sex — that is, a description of an action that might not seem like sex at all — is essential to 19th-century plots about love and marriage.
A character’s feelings, too, can be “exquisite,” with a narrator, or the character herself, describing pleasure and pain mingling into a new, unsettling sensation. This experience often tips the character into an experience of fulsomeness — exquisite feelings are also intense, keen, potent, overpowering. These descriptions suggest that a character’s available sensorium is shut down, obliterated by the force of the experience she is having. In other words, “exquisite” scenes are a way of presenting passion’s power in novel form. But “exquisite” things and feelings aren’t necessarily salutary or good. Instead, they are finely wrought, and the intensity smuggled into the minute attention to detail in such scenes reflects the asymptotic relationship to pain that they depict.
To understand the elements of the masochistic scene, consider one of the strangest moments in a very strange novel, when Wuthering Heights’s observant servant, Nelly Dean, comes upon Heathcliff, staring, it seems, at Catherine the Elder’s ghost:
Now, I perceived he was not looking at the wall; for when I regarded him alone, it seemed exactly that he gazed at something within two yards’ distance. And whatever it was, it communicated, apparently, both pleasure and pain in exquisite extremes: at least the anguished, yet raptured, expression of his countenance suggested that idea. The fancied object was not fixed, either: his eyes pursued it with unwearied diligence, and, even in speaking to me, were never weaned away. I vainly reminded him of his protracted abstinence from food: if he stirred to touch anything in compliance with my entreaties, if he stretched his hand out to get a piece of bread, his fingers clenched before they reached it, and remained on the table, forgetful of their aim.
Jettison for a moment the question at the heart of this brief passage (does Heathcliff see the dead woman’s ghost?) and focus instead on the physical scene it describes. Nelly perceives (or thinks she perceives) Heathcliff’s horror written on his face. But Nelly sees something other than horror there: rapture. Rapture and anguish, in equal portions, freeze Heathcliff in his attitude, staring at someone who may or may not be there, chilling his body so intensely that even a grasp for food fails. “Pleasure and pain in exquisite extremes” — here, the author describes a man moving — his hands “clench,” rigid, before they reach food — toward a starving death. Brontë’s inclusion of “exquisite” imagines there might be some kind of aesthetic satisfaction — or consummation — in Heathcliff’s experience. In all of its meanings, “exquisite” develops precision and cultivation so extremely that they can tip from pleasure into pain, from beauty into fastidiousness into horror.
Pain and pleasure: they are two feelings that, in mundane experience, seem thoroughly opposed. But when Brontë modifies them with this crucial word — “exquisite” — they mean something a bit different, something that confuses the senses because pleasure and pain blend into something new, something a little closer to erotic sensation.
“Exquisiteness” forges a connection between the realms of aesthetics and the realms of sensation, connecting the keenness of precise description to a different kind of keenness, the needling, sharp remnant of a discomfiting sensory experience. It implicitly connects taste and display to erotic desire. The confluence of these intense feelings — in precisely these words and in words quite similar to these — is one of ways the Victorian novel manifests sex and desire in its pages. In a number of key British novels, in a number of central scenes, these two opposed feelings occur at once, and, when they do, they create tension, excitement, and confusion in the characters that experience them. These twinned feelings appear in scenes across a wide variety of novels.
The novel used these scenes to work through ideas about the relationship between aesthetics and romance, and the relationship between romance and social life, and, further, to formally navigate the sex scene before modernism made it explicit. By alloying “exquisite pleasure” with “exquisite pain,” novelists found a new way to symbolize sex on the page. Joined together into an “exquisite masochism” — a pleasure that comes from pain, a pain that comes from pleasure — such scenes show how the novel demonstrated sex’s dislocating and thrilling effects, even without clearly representing sex itself.
The masochistic scenes at the center of this discussion rely on tightly ordered, almost scripted, interactions. Thus, they stand out from their surrounding texts with remarkable clarity. We can read them and not mistake them for descriptions of an ocean or a flower. These are scenes about people, and about their bodily interactions. Further, the zone of sexual experience these scenes describe is quite different from that described merely metaphorically. Once we notice the way masochism makes the sex scene obvious and once we see these scenes as reproduced over many novels, the contours of sex’s relation to the novel’s wider project becomes sharper. Exquisite masochism gives us access to the social effects of sex on novel form. I’m not suggesting that all intense scenes are masochistic, nor am I claiming that masochistic scenes alone can be described in scenic terms. Instead, exquisite masochism gives us a clear way to see spatial or aesthetic descriptions as signs of erotic connection. There’s often something inchoate in these scenes — an atmosphere, a feeling — scenes that don’t seem to contribute directly to plot or character development, scenes that appear to block or evade interpretation — what happens, for instance, when we read Heathcliff’s embraces with Catherine the Elder as sex scenes rather than just as signs of sex that happens off stage? But this approach develops one way of thinking about a much broader question in novel criticism: How do novelists represent vital worlds, and what things — what places, bodies, and plots — give those worlds their life?