Legacy 19.2 (2002) 192-215
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The Displacement of Desire:
Consumerism and Fetishism in Mary Wilkins Freeman's Fiction
Monika M. Elbert
Montclair State University
It is not improbable that every fetishist is a lost poet.
In the face of an impending marriage with a man who has absented himself for many years, Louisa in Mary Wilkins Freeman's "A New England Nun" (1887) prefers her domestic collectibles—the little "female appurtenances" which have made her solitary life bearable, if not fulfilling. Similarly, the narcissistic Narcissa in "One Good Time" (1897) decides to postpone her marriage so she can indulge in one good shopping spree in New York, and Charlotte in "A Tragedy from the Trivial" (1900) literally dies from tubercular consumption in a repressive marriage to a greedy husband after having lived a life of economic consumption prior to marriage. What these women share in common is a sense of frustration, whether that be sexual or creative, which leads to an excess of senseless and compulsive behavior reflected in frenzied and repeated activities, such as spending money, sewing incessantly, or collecting useless knick-knacks.
These women fetishize in an effort to compensate for their thwarted creativity or stunted sexuality; from an inability to acknowledge their anger, arising from repressed sexual desires; or to express this rage to the men who marry or propose marriage to them. 1 The Freeman protagonists project their displaced desires or aborted dreams onto household objects and/or the newest fashions, and these fetishes then begin to assume more prominence than the men in their lives. But these objects also begin, most insidiously, to eradicate the identities of the women themselves—so that in the end, the women face martyrdom, death, or domestic imprisonment as a grim alternative to the annihilating frenzy of shopping or collecting "female appurtenances." In each case, in trying to resist objectification as wife or ownership by males, the women, feeling powerless and inadequate, identify with and fixate on material possessions with which the men have come to identify them; ironically, they turn themselves unwittingly into objects and choose a death-in-life situation or death itself.
Freeman, far from being an innocuous local colorist who writes of women's pastoral landscapes, 2 probes deeply into the economic realities of her time and their means of stymying women's development. 3 She then critiques women's spending habits, which were draining the source of women's creativity, sexuality, and spirituality. Charlotte Perkins Gilman was also [End Page 192] warning about the deleterious effect of consumerism on women, especially when women's identities through relationships with men became confused with marketplace transactions: women's "false economic position" essentially "sexualizes" their "industrial relation" and "commercializes" their "sex-relation" (121). Though Gilman does not specifically discuss the rage and futility of such consuming women, she describes in Women and Economics (1898) the "spending" process whereby women's energies are frittered away and their creativity or vitality diminished:
[T]he consuming female, debarred from any free production... and her consumption limited mainly to those things which minister to physical pleasure, creates a market for sensuous decoration and personal ornament, for all that is luxurious and enervating, and for a false and capricious variety in such supplies, which operates as a most deadly check to true industry and true art. (120-21)
Woman becomes the "priestess of the temple of consumption ... the limitless demander of things to use up" and lives in a perverse "sexuo-economic" relationship with man (120). Gilman critiques the "over-sexed woman" who, "in her unintelligent and ceaseless demands, hinders and perverts the economic development of the world" (121).
Noteworthy in the context of the psychology of Freeman's consuming women is this "sexualization" of the material world. It is a vicious cycle as women are taught, on a subliminal level, to desire the material goods which the marketplace has deemed necessities and not just luxuries. Gilman attacks the "useless production" wrought by "the creation and careful maintenance of this false market" (121). Even if...