‘I Love You; I ‘ate You’: Oral Aggression, Consumed Subjects, and the Creative Impulse in Antonia White’s Autobiographical Novel, Frost in May
by Marcia A. Newton
October 6, 2013
Antonia White’s autobiographical novel, Frost in May (1933), documenting young Nanda Grey’s life at a convent, illustrates the complexities of patriarchal attitudes in Melanie Klein’s views on the maternal role in a girl’s psychosexual development. Interconnecting motifs of food and maternity highlight Nanda’s consumption of food at the convent as an all-consuming process of symbolic maternal devouring. According to Kleinian theory, Nanda’s sadistic impulse to devour the mother is based on a misconceived perception of persecution, which leads to guilt and thence to a process of reparation. However, through a Foucaultian lens, exposed is a complex, nuanced relationship between psychoanalytic and religio-cultural notions of self-sacrifice, self-regulation, and self-punishment that serve to symbolically manufacture subjects according to a higher moral imperative. What ensues is a struggle based on negotiations that project on to Nanda’s relationship with her own mother.
“I Love You; I ‘ate You”: Oral Aggression, Consumed Subjects, and the
Creative Impulse in Antonia White’s Autobiographical Novel, Frost in May
The College of Saint Rose, Albany, NY
6 October 2013
When does the consumption of food cross the line from being an act of pleasurable gratification to an act of alleviating anxiety? British writer Antonia White’s autobiographical novel, Frost in May (1933), is a narrative that recounts Nanda Grey’s coming-of-age experiences at the Convent of the Five Wounds, Lippington. For Nanda, the act of consuming food becomes an all-consuming process of symbolic devouring. However, from a Kleinian psychoanalytic perspective, this symbolic act is symptomatic of anxiety associated with Nanda’s perceived rejection by her own mother and the nuns’ rigid spiritual practices at Lippington. Nanda’s sadistic impulse to devour the mother is based on a misconceived perception of persecution, which leads to guilt and thence to a process of reparation.
I propose that the scenario presented here exposes a complex, nuanced relationship between psychoanalytic and patriarchal religio-cultural ideals attached to maternal notions of self-sacrifice, self-regulation, and self-punishment that serve to symbolically manufacture subjects according to a higher moral imperative. What plays out is a form of warfare in Foucaultian terms as Nanda struggles to take up arms to ward off feelings of persecution in an attempt to assert individual sovereignty.
At Lippington, nine-year-old Nanda is often served unpalatable meals that cause emotional stress. Her first meal “consisted of stewed meat and rice, cabbage drowned in vinegar, and sweet tea, already mixed with milk” (White 27). Nanda feels “sickened” at what is set before her but soon learns that not consuming this unappetizing meal could lead to mortal sin. Nanda knows that it takes three things to make a mortal sin, “grave matter, full knowledge, and full consent” (77). Thus, Nanda endeavors to be extra scrupulous, in order to be accepted into Lippington as a true Catholic and as a true soldier of Christ. This includes the mortification of her sensory pleasures as a demonstration of her piety, for example, taking second helpings of “particularly nasty cabbage” and dowsing her rhubarb with salt; these are actions that are looked upon approvingly by the nuns (79). It is the connection between Nanda’s fear of committing mortal sin and her eagerness to suffer sensory depravity that reveals her willingness to follow Lippington’s rules.
At the root of the nuns’ rigid spiritual practices is a specific Christian paradigm, which is evident in methods commonly employed in convents in the first half of the twentieth century. On the one hand, the girls are at war according to a higher moral imperative: manufactured to be “soldiers of Christ, accustomed to hardship and ridicule and ingratitude,” as Mother Radcliffe fondly states at Lippington (118). On the other hand, the girls are subjects at war treated as goods by the nuns and also by themselves as they both acquiesce to and voluntarily assume responsibility for subjecting themselves to unpalatable processes of self-regulation and self-sacrifice. In analogous psychoanalytic terms, the super-ego is at war to devour the id and manufacture the ego, which is an aim that aligns itself with religio-cultural ideals of the time.
In Louise DeSalvo’s book, Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on Her Life and Work (1989), Priscilla Robertson eloquently observes in her general description of the Victorians’ attitude towards children and food that making children consume food that provides no nourishment is a form of punishment. She writes, when “it came to punishments other than beating, favorite methods were often connected with food…. It was held that fancy food was bad for children’s digestions and morals” (qtd. in DeSalvo 142). In regard to Nanda’s situation, it may be tempting to draw the conclusion that in the process of consuming the nuns’ food, Nanda’s sadistic impulses are essentially introjected as an act of masochistic self-punishment, due to unconscious guilt associated with the symbolic devouring of the primary love object, the mother.
From a Kleinian perspective, the consumption of food reveals a deeper symbolic meaning that is often associated with the relationship between unconscious motivations and the act of alleviating anxiety. In “From White to Grey: A Psychoanalytic Approach to Frost in May (1933)” (2007), Andrea Peterson suggests that the presentation of the girls’ meals at Lippington is indicative of a lack of the nuns’ maternal nurture towards them. Peterson further suggests that Nanda’s anxieties over food are due to unconscious negative feelings for the nuns that correspond to Klein’s paranoid-schizoid position. In other words, the nuns are perceived as bad objects in this instance (16).
Klein develops her theory on what she initially coined the paranoiac and depressive positions in connection to a more detailed idea in relation to the consumption of food and anxiety. In “A Contribution to the Psychogenesis of Manic-Depressive States” (1935), Klein writes, “Let us take inhibitions and anxieties about food…. The anxiety of absorbing dangerous substances destructive to one’s insides will … be paranoiac, while the anxiety of destroying the external good objects by biting and chewing, or of endangering the internal good object by introducing bad substances from outside into it will be depressive” (271). Klein’s rationale for what is later to be recognized as her paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions derives from the sadistic impulses that a baby has in its earliest months and that are directed against its mother’s breast and the insides of her body. Klein suggests that the baby is simultaneously “governed by the mechanisms of introjection and projection” (272). In other words, the baby’s ego introjects both “good” and “bad” objects, based on its mother’s “good” (gratifying) breast that supplies nourishment and the “bad” (frustrating) breast that retains this nourishment and projects its own “good” and “bad” parts onto its external objects. It is at this point that Klein also observes the corresponding split between love and hate. In the latter case, the baby reacts to what it perceives as a bad object by its projection of aggression onto its mother, which in turn can also extend to other external objects. So, in an attempt to protect its fragile ego from what it perceives?irrationally so?as dangerous persecutors who want to devour the contents of its own body, it sets up a defense mechanism whereby it introjects its own aggression upon distorted representations of its external objects and performs the devouring based on anxiety associated with this misconceived perception of persecution. The combination of anxiety and defense mechanisms is the foundation for paranoia, which continues to oscillate with the depressive position throughout the baby’s life.
It is only when the baby’s ego matures to the point that it has a reality check on its external objects?once partial now whole?does it move from the paranoid-schizoid position to the depressive position, a position that ensures not only that the bad objects become good but the “survival of the ego” (262). Nonetheless, Klein finds that this is a problematic position because one anxiety can be replaced by another. Now that the child has devoured the contents of its external objects, it is now susceptible to its insides being poisoned and now mistrust arises, which can lead to a young child’s refusal of food. This new-found anxiety coincides with libidinal developments in the id; thus, even though the child’s ego has matured and it recognizes the external object as a good object, the child’s love becomes all-consuming. This could be an act that reinforces the earlier aggressive acts of introjection or one in which the child engages in an effort to store the external object’s love inside its own body. All the while, the child is also suffering from guilt, due to its earlier acts of devouring when its feelings towards partial-objects, for example, its mother, were ambivalent (264).
What is particularly disconcerting for the child is that if it believes that its mother has gone, “it has eaten her up and destroyed her (whether from motives or love or of hate), [it] is tormented by anxiety both for her and for the good mother which it has absorbed into itself” 266). This perceived death of the “good” mother is still contained within the child’s body and its corresponding anxiety manifests itself in a fixation on the mother (or other caregiver): “The absence of the mother arouses in the child anxiety lest it should be handed over to bad objects, external and internalized, either because of her death or because of her return in the guise of a bad mother” (266; emphases in original).
The points aforementioned are later clarified in Klein’s paper, “Notes on Some Schizoid Mechanisms” (1946), a paper in which she develops upon her theory associated with projection and introjection. Klein recognizes that a cause of persistent anxiety is that the subject is unable to successfully navigate from the paranoid-schizoid position into the depressive position. Although Klein talks in terms of the infant, this is something that impacts all subjects throughout their entire lives.
Before we chastise the nuns in Frost in May for being somewhat sadistic in their serving of distasteful food, there does appear to be a motivating factor behind their actions and that is to metaphorically wean Nanda off her biological mother’s breast. As Julietta Benson observes in “‘Varieties of Dis-Belief’: Antonia White and the Discourses of Faith and Scepticism” (1993), “unpalatable food is eaten as a gesture of humility and obedience” (289). Although the weaning process is unconsciously interpreted as an act of persecution by Nanda, she learns to recognize that it is God himself that becomes the most important love-object. The nuns’ cause for the meager and unpalatable offerings is symbolically demonstrative of love for their Lord in acts of gustatory abstinence, which also wards off the danger of committing mortal sin. All the while, then, the nuns are attempting to nudge Nanda into the depressive position.
Peterson observes that “It has recently been suggested [by Jane Temperley] that certain Christian beliefs are analogous with both the paranoid-schizoid and the depressive state” (21). In the ceremony of Holy Communion, “The Christian believes that in this ceremony he installs in his inner being a loved and loving protector … who will sustain him…. Loss of the divine object’s good will is attributed to the believer’s neglect of, and attacks upon, it and this loss results in guilt and intense fears of retaliation and Hell” (qtd. in Peterson 21-22). Interestingly for Nanda, this analogy culminates in the loss of her parents. It is indeed significant that, as Peterson observes, during Nanda’s first Holy Communion, she approaches the ceremony with enthusiasm, feeling that perhaps she will become absorbed by her savior, but in the actual ceremony itself she is “horrified at her own detachment” (qtd. in Peterson 22). As the wafer sits on her tongue, Nanda is expecting to be directed towards a transcendental experience because “Our Lord Himself is actually present, in the flesh, inside my body” (qtd. in Peterson 22). Nothing happens. Peterson argues that Nanda’s feeling of detachment is “another moment of persecutory anxiety more suggestive of the paranoid-schizoid position” (22) because she associates her close relationship with her father as one that “undermines and restricts her relationship with her mother, and her destructive relationships with her symbolic mothers, the nuns, push her back towards the paranoid-schizoid position” (23).
Although Peterson is right to point out that Nanda’s close relationship with her father is one that interferes with a fruitful relationship with her mother, the situation is a little more complex because the nuns in their role as maternal figures are functioning within the parameters of a religious patriarchal framework. This is most poignantly illustrated when Nanda is delivered by the nuns to her father at the end of Frost in May after writing a transgressive novel that describes the sexual flirtations of a young woman amidst her admirers. Initially, in writing this novel, Nanda creates a rupture in the religio-cultural framework by asserting the body into literature through transgressive modes of sexual expression and the construction of the self-as-artist. However, writing the novel also enables the nuns “to break [Nanda’s] will before [her] whole nature was deformed” (White 219).
At this juncture, let’s consider Nanda’s situation through a Foucaultian lens in an effort to go beyond the why of these nuanced psychoanalytic and religio-cultural ideals to ask how they function in relation to the subject. So, how does a Kleinian trajectory align itself with general religio-cultural ideals of the time, as illustrated in Frost in May? What needs to be taken into consideration is how behavior is constructed in particular power relations within which subjects’ natural rights and powers are being negotiated, an idea that Foucault explores in his book “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the College de France 1975-1976 (1977). He eloquently describes how “relations of subjugation can manufacture the subject” (265).
Foucault asks a pertinent question: “How, when, and in what way did people begin to imagine that it is war that functions in power relations, that an uninterrupted conflict undermines peace, and that the civil order is basically an order of battle?” (266). According to Foucault, what emerges is a pseudo-cyclical mode of warfare. Foucault finds that, paradoxically, discipline leads a subject back to attempting to assert individual sovereignty, as it does for Nanda, which in turn plunges her into the arms of discipline and normalization. How Foucault answers the question posed here is based on the premise that if we abandon juridical law based on sovereignty, we will be able to focus our attention on how all subjects “intersect, refer to one another, converge or, on the contrary, come into conflict and strive to negate each other” (266). What ensues is a power struggle based on negotiations. Of course, an important consideration for us is how these negotiations are made manifest in Nanda’s situation.
Nanda is conflicted. She is simultaneously attempting to symbolically devour her symbolic mother in the guise of the nuns as a means of control and in efforts to ward off feelings of persecution. Of course, psychoanalytically speaking, this is an irrational and imaginary construct. And yet, and this is where psychoanalytic and religious ideals differ, in conscious Christian terms, the situation in which Nanda has been placed as a soldier of Christ in training is very real. The end result is that dual tensions and nuances between psychoanalytic theory and these religio-cultural ideals produce layers of anxiety for Nanda in a situation in which she seems to be at war against herself being consumed as a subject and her emergence as a product according to a higher moral imperative.
Nonetheless, Klein stresses that the little girl turning to her father and the unconscious demand for punishment enables successful passage through the Oedipus complex. In “Early Stages of the Oedipus Conflict” (1928), we learn that what pushes a little girl into the arms of her father are feelings of hatred and jealousy for her mother; these feelings give rise to feelings of guilt, which is the precursor for the development of the super-ego. However, knocking at the back door is the persistent presence of anxiety as the little girl tries to accommodate all these contradictory feelings that are simultaneously at play and which continue throughout her life. At the heart of this anxiety is the little girl’s fear of being forsaken by her mother because the little girl has attempted to rob her mother of what will enable her to take her mother’s place and possess the much-desired phallus.
Much of Klein’s theories related to a subject’s ambivalence toward its primary love-object, e.g., the mother, derive from Sigmund Freud, particularly in reference to the id, ego, and super-ego. In Inhibitions, Symptoms, and Anxiety (1926), Freud finds that the child’s fragile ego is situated between two opposing forces: the id, which seeks immediate gratification, and the punishing effects of the super-ego, which is concerned with moral restraint. One primitive function of the id is to avoid pain, which will occur in relation to the loss of an object. I’d like to point out at this point that Freud’s reference to the experience of pain is not to be confused with anxiety. Freud distinguishes between a real anxiety when a person is faced with a known danger and neurotic anxiety when a person is faced with an unknown danger: “Pain is … the actual reaction to loss of object, while anxiety is the reaction to the danger which that loss entails and, by a further displacement, a reaction to the danger of the loss of the object itself” (107). The onset of the danger itself is initiated by the ego as “loss of perception of the object” (106). However, both these types of anxiety are directed from an axis point connected with a danger of losing an object, for example, having a stranger replace the mother (105). Furthermore, Freud asserts that the child experiences a confusion pertaining to the ego-ideal and the loss of an object towards which there is unconscious ambivalence connected with the possibility of painful repressed memories, desires, and loss. This may certainly be a factor in Nanda’s relationship with her biological mother in Frost in May.
Peterson writes, “Nanda’s relationship with her mother is not clearly defined and Mrs. Grey is a relatively minor protagonist in Frost in May. In some ways, within the text, she is only ever a ‘part-object,’ never perceived as a whole person” (12-13). Nanda’s mother was often absent during Nanda’s formative years and subsequently marginalized in Frost in May. On one occasion after watching a play, Nanda is approached by Mother Percival who pries into the reason for her crying; Nanda whispers, “‘My mother … my mother’s awfully ill.’ … Mrs. Grey was known vaguely to be ‘delicate’ and actually did spend a considerable time in nursing homes” (White 167). Nanda doesn’t make the conscious connection between the emotional impact that the play has on her with her mother’s absence, using her mother’s absence as “a respectable reason” for her crying instead of revealing that her tears were for how beautiful Dante appeared (167).
While Mrs. Grey is represented as a part-object, a competing egalitarian narrative in Frost in May seeks to undermine the dominant patriarchal narrative. As Peterson observes, Nanda’s love for literature, which is to later surface in Frost in May as something that moves her in a way that the Holy Communion had not, is the commonality she shares with her mother but which entraps her in the paranoid-schizoid position. According to Klein in “Love, Guilt, and Reparation” (1937), part of the child’s need to make amends for the apparent sadistic injury it has done to its mother is the need to make sacrifices (311). Although Nanda is delivered by her symbolic mother to her father at the end of Frost in May for writing the transgressive novel, writing it also defies her father’s patriarchal authority and betrays her own romantic nature, which draws her to Léonie and, by association, to her own mother.
Mrs. Grey represents liberalism, a free spirit who has not been tarnished by Catholic notions of decorum. Mrs. Grey mirrors Nanda’s own spirit prior to arriving at the convent and the Nanda who wants to skate “recklessly” over to meet her parents upon her arrival (37); however, it is a recklessness that Nanda denies: upon meeting her parents in the parlor for the first time, Nanda’s “mother quite spoilt her careful curtsey by pouncing on her and kissing her” (37). And yet, Nanda receives poems by Francis Thompson from Léonie (98), quite possibly her closest friend. Referring to White’s own experience, Dunn notes that “it is significant that it was [White’s] mother, at this time despised by Antonia for her perceived frivolity and lack of intellect, and marginalized by her daughter’s obsession with her father, who had shown in this gift just how good her instincts could be and how sympathetic she was to her daughter’s passionate character” (45). This book of poems written into Frost in May as a gift from Léonie suggests a parallel in White’s ambivalent relationship with her own mother. Viewed through a Kleinian lens, a tension is present between how Nanda’s mother is drawn in Frost in May and White’s unconscious desire to make her own mother symbolically whole in her autobiographical novel.
It is through the creative impulse and process of reparation—even if that process is fraught with difficulties and tension—that there is an opportunity for love to make its presence felt. This idea of reparation is exemplified in the following study illustrated by Klein: the case of Ruth Kjär in “Infantile Anxiety-Situations Reflected in a Work of Art and in the Creative Impulse” (1929). After her brother-in-law takes down a picture to sell, Kjär, a woman with no prior painting experience, paints a masterpiece to cover up the empty space on her wall. Karin Michaelis, a friend of Kjär’s, notes how the empty space “seemed to coincide with the empty space within [Kjär]” (215). Klein observes that the empty space relates to the newly-found artist’s own mother, which she goes on to fill with paintings of her relatives, including her own mother represented as almost regal in her magnificence, contrasting starkly with a portrait made prior of an old woman bearing the starkest images of age and disillusionment. Klein notes that the second portrait of the painter’s mother is one of reparation, derived from guilt for harnessing psychological injury projected into the shriveled up portrait earlier conceived. According to Klein, “The daughter’s wish to destroy her mother, to see her old, worn out, marred, is the cause of the need to represent her in full possession of her strength and beauty. By so doing the daughter can allay her own anxiety and can endeavor to restore her mother and make her new through the portrait” (218).
Ultimately, it is the connection between Nanda’s fear of committing mortal sin and her eagerness to suffer sensory depravity expressed in the food motif that reveals her willingness to follow Lippington’s rules. Nanda’s punishment for her symbolic devouring can be seen in her endeavor to accommodate herself within a patriarchal narrative, one that has a Freudian sado-masochistic tinge to it. However, a space is carved in Frost in May in which an egalitarian narrative competes to undermine the authority of a patriarchal stronghold and enables Nanda to assert individual sovereignty.
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Received: May 30, 2013, Published: October 6, 2013. Copyright © 2013 Marcia A. Newton