Witches, dogs and Misogyny
Witches, dogs and Misogyny
What does it take to be considered a misogynist?
Some may say that slandering the female race is a most needed criteria. Others might claim that general hostility isn’t enough: it should be accompanied by a firm judgment upon the unfitted, unrefined and unpleasant nature of women. Denunciation wrapped up in varied adjectives.
Judging by those standards, O. Henry is a clear and evident case of a true misogynist.
His alleged loathing starts with Ulysses and the Dogman. A story that portrays a melancholic portrait of a dying city, perishing in its own social decadence: in the gap between the end of business day and the beginning of early evening, a moment before the employee turns into a husband, the manly men of New York become a nonentity – miserable dog walkers.
“These men are all victims to Circe. Not willingly do they become flunkeys to Fido, bell boys to bull terriers, and toddlers after Towzer. Modern Circe, instead of turning them into animals, has kindly left the difference of a six-foot leash between them. Every one of those dogmen has been either cajoled, bribed, or commanded by his own particular Circe to take the dear household pet out for an airing.”1
Circe is one of the heroines in Homer’s great epos – the Odyssey: a beautiful but dangerous witch, who turns every man she meets into an animal. Her story begins when Odysseus, after arriving at her island, appoints a selected group from his fearless warriors, the triumphal champions of the Trojan War, to search the scenery. The former soldiers arrive at Circe’s house in the heart of the forest and are captivated by her miraculous voice. Circe lures them in, feds and drinks them with magical food and drinks that will make them forget their home and the desire to ever return there. Then she transforms them into pigs and cast them to the pigsty, where they are left alone, imprisoned, crying for their misfortune.
That piggy spell is embodied in O. Henry’s words about the men on New York.
But the men of New York are nothing like the lions or the wolfs or even the pigs of Circe. Their condition, according to O. Henry, is far worse: their own personal, cruel, whimsical witch, whom they married, had turned them into slaves – not for her, but to her pet dogs. These men may not wallow in mud or be fed acorns and roots, but their disgrace is a public and demeaning. So awful, that their agony is engraved deeply on their tormented faces.
They change and re-change the course of their walks, trying to avoid municipal humiliation, striving to hide, as much as possible, but in vain. These men, unlike the acclaimed warriors of Odysseus, have no hope2. The short distance between them and the animal they are obligated to serve is at the exact length suitable to bring them to their grave3.
The romantic twilight, with the soft shades of the sun, calmly feeding away in red and gold, had become the background for one of the most miserable sights in the urban city.
But one dogman’s fortune is about to change. The immobilizing routine of the sanctuary doggy walkers had encountered one day with an unusually visitor: Jim Berry, a former friend of one current dogman, once a man named Sam Telfair and today – an enslaved husband. Jim does nothing but reminisce, reminding Sam the man he had once been: “a strong man, apparently of too solid virtues for this airy vocation.”4 Those memories, almost unnoticeably, led Sam to embark on an Odyssey of his own: in one swift motion he escapes his burdensome marriage, tears the shackling leash and kicks the animal back to its witch – his wife. Sam leaves his present existence behind and returns, alongside Jim, to be the man he was made to be.
The narrator does not accuse or condemn Sam for his fleet flight. On the contrary: his rapid departure is the right thing to do, no doubt about it. How can anyone stay one more moment in front of these spoiled, bad tempered, obese, undisciplined dogs and their owner, the lady of the house, who shaped them at her image and prioritized them to her lawful husband?
This cheerless theme intensifies in Memoirs of a Yellow Dog: the frequent walks, the oppressed spouse, the humiliation and embarrassment – it’s all here, and in much higher volume. However, Memoirs of a Yellow Dog does not hold a long Indictment against dogs, due to the fact that this time the narrator himself is a dog. The contempt and indignation consequently center on the one who enabled it all – the woman: ridiculed, childish and miserable.
“I don’t suppose it will knock any of you people off your perch to read a contribution from an animal. Mr. Kipling5 and a good many others have demonstrated the fact that animals can express themselves in remunerative English, and no magazine goes to press nowadays without an animal story in it, except the old-style monthlies that are still running pictures of Bryan6 and the Mont Pelee horror7. But you needn’t look for any stuck-up literature in my piece, such as Bearoo, the bear, and Snakoo, the snake, and Tammanoo, the tiger, talk in the jungle books. A yellow dog that’s spent most of his life in a cheap New York flat, sleeping in a corner on an old sateen underskirt (the one she spilled port wine on at the Lady Longshoremen’s banquet), mustn’t be expected to perform any tricks with the art of speech.”8
The yellow dog is not a pampered pet but a rather a passionate prosecutor in an unofficial lawsuit: “If men knew how women pass the time when they are alone they’d never marry. Laura Lean Jibbey9, peanut brittle10, a little almond cream on the neck muscles, dishes unwashed, half an hour’s talk with the iceman, reading a package of old letters, a couple of pickles and two bottles of malt extract, one hour peeking through a hole in the window shade into the flat across the air-shaft–that’s about all there is to it. Twenty minutes before time for him to come home from work she straightens up the house, fixes her rat11 so it won’t show, and gets out a lot of sewing for a ten-minute bluff.”12
The criticism and the hatred sprout from a shared fortune of a dismal pet and a miserable man. Unlike Ulysses and the Dogman, which separates the man from the animal, Memoirs of a Yellow Dog brings them closer together. Two victims of the same woman. The dog doesn’t like his owner, even though she herself cares greatly for it13. Mostly it feels sorry for her husband14: “I began to feel sorry for Hubby, dog my cats if I didn’t. We looked so much alike that people noticed it when we went out; so we shook the streets that Morgan’s cab drives down, and took to climbing the piles of last December’s snow on the streets where cheap people live.”15
The end of the story is very much the same as in Ulysses and the Dogman, only this time the mutual hardship joins together the two oppressed creatures, as they decide to leave their awful tormentor and run for their lives.
In previous times, a witch was identified by very distinct features of external ugliness and vicious behavior. Modern perceptions are much more complex: the witch’s devilish nature hides behind an ordinary persona. Only deep and intensive study of analysis will uncover the truth.
O. Henry’s asserted misogynistic tendency can be also found in a story, The Witch by Anton Chekhov. The Witch overlaps Ulysses and the Dogman and Memoirs of a Yellow Dog in all the main intersections: Woman. Witch. Wicked.
The heroine of The Witch is Raissa Nilovna, the sexton’s wife. He is a reddish creature, heavy and dirty while she is a lovely, round, feminine and very sad woman. The Witch depicts their whereabouts on one particular stormy night:
“… Out there a regular battle was going on. It was hard to say who was being wiped off the face of the earth, and for the sake of whose destruction nature was being churned up into such a ferment; but, judging from the unceasing malignant roar, someone was getting it very hot. A victorious force was in full chase over the fields, storming in the forest and on the church roof, battering spitefully with its fists upon the windows, raging and tearing, while something vanquished was howling and wailing. . . . A plaintive lament sobbed at the window, on the roof, or in the stove. It sounded not like a call for help, but like a cry of misery, a consciousness that it was too late, that there was no salvation.”16
Nature which fights its battles in the most sorrowful manner is a cheerless representation to the struggles of the human world, between the sexton and his wife. In their endless quarrels, Savely Gykin constantly accuses Raissa Nilovna of being a witch. A real witch, the one who concocts schemes by sorcery and summons random passengers, lost on their way. One by one he numbers the unusual events that support this assumption: last year on the Eve of the Prophet Daniel and the Three Young Men, the snowstorm had brought an artist to their home. “On St. Alexey’s Day the ice broke on the river and the district policeman turned up… During the August fast there were two storms and each time the huntsman turned up”17 and on the Day of the Ten Martyrs of Crete, a cold winter before Christmas, the big storm brought in a marshal’s clerk.
“. . I . . . I know! Do you suppose I . . don’t understand? ” he muttered. “I know all about it, curse you! … I know that it’s all your doing, you she-devil! You’re doing, damn you! This snowstorm and the post going wrong, you’ve done it all — you!… I’ve been watching you for a long time past and I’ve seen it. From the first day I married you I noticed that you’d bitch’s blood in you! … A witch is a witch,” Savely pronounced in a hollow, tearful voice, hurriedly blowing his nose on the hem of his shirt… “I only know that when your blood’s on fire there’s sure to be bad weather, and when there’s bad weather there’s bound to be some crazy fellow turning up here. It happens so every time! So it must be you! … It’s not as though they were old men or bandy-legged cripples; it’s always young men who want to come for the night. . . . Why is that? And if they only wanted to warm themselves —- But they are up to mischief. No, woman; there’s no creature in this world as cunning as your female sort! Of real brains you’ve not an ounce, less than a starling, but for devilish slyness — oo-oo-oo! The Queen of Heaven protects us!”18
But Savely doesn’t know. Not really. He is consumed by doubts and fears. Jealousy of his beautiful woman has driven him mad. Every young man threatens him, every foreigner who enters his house is a hazard to his marriage. His wife doesn’t love him. Maybe there isn’t anything about him to love. But dealing with the truth is a much more difficult task, much more painful, and therefore Savely runs away from it, into the fantasy world of demons and ghosts. He turns his inner horror to an accusation and his panic to a solid evidence. This grants him the justification and the authority to punish and scorn and pester his wife, until she can’t bear it any longer. Only she has to. She has no other choice, but to linger on in her own private hell at his side.
The sexton’s wife doesn’t pay much attention to her husband’s harsh indictments. Her attention is focused on the unexpected visitors, who are about to cross her threshold. She is shaken when Savely accuses her for having bitch’s blood run in her veins, as any observant Christian would do, but that’s all.
Raissa Nilovna is a dreamless woman. A hopeless woman. She has already come to terms with the awful state of her existence and no longer tries to fight it or change it into something else. Her forced marriage denies her the ability to act freely, according to her own wishes. Instead, she is compelled to behave according to someone else’s madness. Savely holds the authority over her life. He’s her husband and a man. She is just a woman.
Raissa is the voice of the storm thundering outside. An oppressed voice, silenced due to the desolated life at the presence of a dense spouse. The only thing she can do is to howl and cry. And Raissa does cry, everywhere and all the time: behind the curtain, up on the roof, inside the kitchen. It is a cry of depression, of acknowledgement of a dead end. This is her life, buried deep under the dirt and the freezing snow.
Raissa Nilovna is not a witch. She is a woman, an odd creature with feelings and thoughts which are too sublime for the simple, limited mind of the illiterate sexton. What he can’t understand, he pins on greater forces, which no one else understands anyway.
It is an interesting phenomenon, that people fear mostly witches, not sorcerers.
It is equally interesting that the sum of sorcerer’s appearances is much less, especially in comparison to the appearances of witches. A witch is awful whilst a sorcerer is characterized by a more favorable manifestation: the great wizard in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz19 is the most important character in the story, even though that in practice he is a feeble man, lacking any magical powers. The sorcerer in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice20 is also an admired figure, as well as the legendary Merlin in King Arthur’s myths. Even the Pied Piper of Hamelin is a sorcerer of some kind, who doesn’t really detriment anyone with his witchcraft. But witches? The more the merrier. They are all sinful, malicious and horrible: Snow White and her evil stepmother, the witch who cursed Sleeping Beauty, the old woman who locked Rapunzel up in a tower, the cannibal woman who threatened to eat Hansel and Gretel, etc – etc – etc.
Witches are frightening creatures.
Or are they really?
Wasn’t Snow White stepmother an older woman with signs of depression? Someone who’s outdated and has to compete with a much younger competitor? A woman struggling not to be irrelevant or transparent in a world that worships youth? And the magician who casts a spell over the future Sleeping Beauty – wasn’t she initially a good fairy who was deeply offended by the fact she was the only one – out of her twelve best friends – not to be invited to the royal ball? The elderly woman who imprisoned Rapunzel – wasn’t she a childless, solitary person who devoted her life to raise a foster child in the best possible and loving way? A woman in constant dread that one day that child will grow up and leave her to her loneliness?
In the real world there are no witches. There are only powerless women who behave badly, sometimes. Even if we ignore this rationalistic fact and pretend to believe in witchcraft and sorcery, we would still have to agree that a witch is a creature with very limited force. She can manipulate a simple magic, one trick or two, and that’s all. In the Axis of evil the witch is very much outnumbered, by pretty much everyone else.
The movie Season of the Witch21 portrays it very well: it is a story about a young woman believed-to be- a-witch who lives in an isolated convent. During the journey the suspicion regarding her innocent identity intensifies in memories. However, when she arrives at the monastery, her powers appear to be too forceful for just an ordinary witch, and indeed, as it turns out, that young woman was not a witch at all, but something else, much more evil.
A witch is not the most terrifying figure: the devil, the fiend, the evil spirits – they all beat her to the punch. But a witch has become a symbol, precisely because she is the most human of them all.
A witch is someone who relates to evil, that is – the absent of good.
A witch is someone who wouldn’t understand the fragile needs of the human spirit. Someone arrogant, in spite of her most evident inner ugliness.
A witch is therefore a woman who can’t feel compassion towards another individual.
She will deprive a man’s most basic humanity, beauty and honor because those aspects do not reside within her own self.
A true witch doesn’t need magic to turn someone into animal.
She just acts accordingly.
The city women of New York are as real as Raissa Nilovna, but while Anton Chekhov accuses ruthlessly the misconception that presents women as witches, O. Henry is just as eager to present a similar denunciation, this time towards the women themselves.
In O. Henry’s stories there are no ghosts. His witches are human and they are all real. These witches hurt just as any other imaginary illustration does. The message they convey – no one wants to hear, for it is of a heartless meaning, such that can never uplift but forever debase.
O. Henry does not hate women. He hates the evil witchery that exists is some of them – the witchery in which you do not see anyone else but yourself.
To be connected to the deepest aspects of wickedness – that’s a pure sorcery, not magic.
In the real world, these deeds occur all the time.
Sometime, even by women.
The one who condemns such a severe phenomenon is not a misogynist.
He’s only human.