The story of Dorothy
L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night
originates from the eruption of chaos within the traditional
patriarchal structures of academia. This text is composed of a series
of misinterpretations or misreadings concerning this chaos. These
misreadings occur due to the permeation of discourse by the Symbolic
Order or the “order of language and culture” (Belsey 248). The
language of this order turns on the assumption of binary opposition
such culture/ nature, light/ dark, Logos/ Eros. Within Sayers’
novel, Lord Peter Wimsey, the ineffable detective who saved Miss
Harriet Vane from the gallows, symbolizes the Logos. Annie Wilson, the
revenge-seeking widow and Trickster-figure of the story, represents
Wimsey’s counterpart, the Eros. The play of the binary opposition of
the Logos and Eros prompts a woman, Harriet Vane, functioning within
the patriarchy, choose between them. Harriet, dominated by the Logos
but questioning its supremacy, contemplates this choice throughout the
play of the novel. The forcing of this choice, a choice of metonymy,
distorts the vision of Harriet, the protagonist, and of Annie, the
antagonist, revealing each as defined by a type of lack within their
lives. In their attempts to satisfy their desires rooted in their
lack, Harriet and Annie engage in a sort of literary Fandango.[i]
Each experiences the passions the other invokes within her. They do
not physically touch one another until the Law of the Father is
breached, in the final sign, of one of the possible sub-texts of the
novel. The signs that compose this sub-text serve as the music by
which Harriet and Annie perform their dance.
Within Sayers’ text,
Annie as Trickster, taking on the roles of a ghostly poison-pen and
poltergeist, fragments the structure of a fictional Oxford College
named Shrewesbury. As Trickster, Annie, a scout at the College,
conducts this fragmentation through the composition of a text of her
own. Annie takes the “marginalized discourse found in madness, the
irrational, the maternal, and the sexual” and releases their
“revolutionary power” (Tong 230). She writes her text as a series
of signs that range from sinister written messages to violent attacks.
She combines the written word with performance art in a rhythmic
semiotic challenge to the Symbolic Order. Unable to discern authorship
of this challenge, the Scholars of Shrewsbury request the assistance
of Harriet, a former student.
However, Harriet, who
is a writer of detective fiction not a professional detective, is also
unable to determine the identity of the Trickster. One of the reasons
that both the dons and Harriet fail to decode the text of the absent/
present author is due to the patriarchal mediation of their vision. As
subjects within and of the patriarchy, Harriet and the dons interpret
the signs of the Trickster, employing the theories of female sexuality
(ala Freud) available to them in 1935 British academia. Due to the
perceived anti-female – as opposed to anti-female scholar – theme
of the Poison Pen’s messages, the Shrewsburian scholars along with
Harriet, assume that the Poison-Pen is a celibate, sex-starved woman
with a “morbid desire to attract attention and create a public
uproar” (Sayers 100).
Harriet and the dons
possess such a stringent idea of what is real, that they fail to
comprehend that they cast the Poltergeist into the role of a stock
female character, on the phallogocentric stage. The “detectives”
fall victim to the “phallogocentric drive to stabilize, organize and
rationalize” their “conceptual universe” (Tong 223). As a result
they have transformed the object of the culprit into the object of
their desire. Therefore, the ghostly author, as subject, along with
the work itself, have only one side to them – the reverse. Harriet
is only able to read the reverse of Annie’s text because of
difference or the “inevitable, meaning-creative gap between the
object of perception and [her] perceptions of it” (Tong 223).
The ghost, ergo, is
not what she is perceived to be. Annie Wilson, whose original name is
Charlotte Ann Clark, is a woman who was happily married, with one
child and another on the way, when her husband, Arthur Robinson,
committed an error in judgment. Arthur, who attains a Master of Arts
degree (M.A.) in History, steals evidence in the form of a letter that
repudiates his thesis. While applying for a teaching position at
Flamborough College, Mr. Robinson encounters Miss de Vine, who later
becomes the Research Fellow at Shrewsbury. Miss de Vine, possessing a
knowledge of Robinson’s thesis topic and of the existence of the
contradicting evidence, exposes Mr. Robinson’s deception. He is
promptly stripped of his M.A., begins drinking heavily, and eventually
ends his own life. Annie, as zealously devoted wife, seeks revenge
upon Miss de Vine for the “murder” of her husband. Annie
interprets the actions of Miss de Vine as those of a woman engaged in
an improper activity for a woman/ her gender. Annie believes that
death results from Miss de Vine’s participation in what is an
unthinkable activity for a woman. Miss de Vine, on the other hand,
sincerely believes that her actions are mandated by the quest for
Truth in scholarship.
Annie, unable to
comprehend Miss de Vine’s motives, chooses to avenge her husband’s
fall from grace and subsequent death. On the whole, her revenge
consists of a collection of at least twenty signs to which Miss de
Vine, the other dons, Harriet, and eventually Lord Peter Wimsey
respond. Through the composition and publication of each sign of this
sub-text, Harriet experiences the intensification of internal and
external pressures. Externally, the Senior Common Room pressures
Harriet to prove the truth and validity of their hypothesis.
Internally, Harriet is haunted not only by the signs, which symbolize
for her the consequences of the divorce of intellect and heart, but
their absent/ present author as well. Harriet, as a self, recognizes
her lack in the reflection, via the text of the Other, of the ghost.
By virtue of this
recognition, Harriet allows the Poltergeist to lead her throughout the
first nineteen turns of their dance. In the leading, Trickster gains
power. However, it is not necessarily gained by what Annie actually
does; but by what the Senior Common Room, including Harriet, thinks
she is capable of doing. Annie, in her marginalized position as scout
and further fragmentation as ghost, possesses the potential for
freedoms unavailable to the scholars. She does not have to answer to
the authority claiming voice of the Father. According to Kristeva,
power is situated in such marginalization. “In social, sexual, and
symbolic experiences, being a woman” (in this case a woman as
unidentifiable ‘ghost’) “has always provided a means to another
end, to becoming something else: a subject-in-the-making, a subject on
trial” (in Jones 363). Ironically, Annie, as one of the
subjects-in-making in the primary text, is attempting to uphold the
authority-claiming Law of the Father through her semiotic discourse.
However, Harriet, her counterpart, personifies the woman on trial. As
she twirls in response to the rhythm of the signs, Harriet reveals her
trial of the tensions inherent in her quest for jouissance,
which require a compromise between Eros and Logos.
Annie’s text forces
Harriet to strive for her jouissance
by exploring the relationship between Eros and Logos. Because of the
semiotic presentation, Harriet, as well as other members of the
academic community of Shrewsbury, is forced into an alien symbolic
chain of meaning. In this foreign realm, the sub-text, as
meta-signifier, takes on an existence, in the Imaginary, as that of
the source of absolute control. Annie as Trickster utilizes this
supposed existence as her weapon, by which she plays on the
“intersubjective relations which expropriate the individual” (Lacan
311). Suspicion then saturates the relations of the Senior Common
Room. Harriet demonstrates this through her continual misjudgment of
Miss Hillyard’s actions and words.
The Poltergeist wields
her weapon against the words of the female scholars. In signs number
five, seven, and thirteen, the Poison-Pen attacks prose works which
express a point of view, a position of difference, from
phallogocentric discourse. In sign number five, the ghost destroys
certain sections of Miss Lydgate’s text. The sections destroyed are
those in which Lydgate questions conclusions, drawn by male scholars,
in regard to English prosody. In sign number seven, the ghost does not
limit her attack on Miss Barton’s book (A
Woman’s Place in the Modern State) merely to a section but burns
the entire work. In this text, Barton questions the relationship to Kinder, Kirche, and Kuche.
In the thirteenth sign, the Poison-Pen destroys the leisure reading, The
Search by C.P. Snow, of an undergraduate. This text reflects the
story of Arthur Robinson in that it involves a scholar, who fails to
gain a post, due to an error in his thesis. However, unlike Miss de
Vine, Snow’s scholar does NOT expose another man’s error. He
chooses not to expose the false scholar because the man, his wife and
family, needs to retain his position. Snow’s text ends on that note,
leaving the reader undecided as to whether Snow approves or
disapproves, of his character’s choices. The Shrewesburian ghost
interprets Snow’s choice as that of disapproval. Thus, she burns the
book. However, the Dean, Miss Martin, reads the text in the opposite
manner, believing that Snow approves of the “wife and children
The misreading of sign
number nine diverts Harriet’s attention from the scouts as a group.
This chapter of the ghost’s text consists of an academic figure hung
in effigy. A butter knife is jabbed into the stomach of the figure,
pinning a quotation about the Harpies from the Aeneid
to it. Harriet determines that a working knowledge of Latin is
required for the usage of the Virgilian quote. The scouts do not
possess such knowledge, only the scholars do. As a result, Miss Vane
fails to discern the imitative aspect of this act. Through this sign,
Sayers offers an example of Annie’s misinterpretations as well. Does
Annie understand the passage, or does she pin it there because it is
the main part of her husband’s suicide note? If she possesses an
understanding of it, then Annie equates female scholars with the
Harpies, as devourers of men. If, however, Annie does not have such an
understanding, is it merely a signifier, devoid of meaning, until
Harriet loads it with such? Certainly, Trickster – apart from Annie
– is at play at this moment in the tale. Another puzzle related to
this sign is the consideration of who physically wrote the Harpy
quotation. Does Annie copy the passage from her husband’s suicide
note, leaving a ghostly trace of her handwriting? Or, is this the
actual physical Harpy passage of Arthur Robinson’s suicide note?
Sayers does not offer her readers an answer that allows for open
interpretation of this manifestation.
manifestation, the dons, Harriet, and Peter, whose assistance Harriet
seeks, assume that the subsequent signs of the ghostly text are to
follow a linear progression, growing more violent with each passing
one. However, the movement of time of the Poltergeist is not that of
the scholar. The ghost works in a circular, rhythmic time, the
monumental time of the semiotic, not the linear or sequential time
associated with the masculine. As a result, her acts appear to the
scholars to be emerging as consistently more inconsistent. She
shatters their thinkable pattern by utilizing the unrepressed
semiotic, which has “room for whatever disgusts and/or horrifies”
the academic group (Tong 231). The community of Shrewesbury therefore
experiences a growing sense of displacement – of non-closure –
within the very walls of their beloved college.
This sense of
displacement is intensified when the ghost extinguishes the lights
(sign number ten). When the lights go out, Harriet is re-creating
Wilfrid, a troubling character in her latest detective novel. Harriet,
working within the rational realm of the Logos, is unable to continue
her creation in the dark. The dark signifies the realm of the unknown,
of the unthinkable, of the Poison-Pen. The Poison-Pen, unlike her
dance partner, Harriet, views the eclipsed walls of Shrewesbury as the
fields of her Elysium, wreaking havoc as she runs through the Stygian
surfacing from the darkness, Harriet listens to Peter’s nephew, St.
George, relate his own shadowy rendezvous with the Poltergeist. St.
George encounters her while trying to scale the wall of the Fellow’s
Garden as a prank. The ghost, who jumps from behind a bush and grabs
his neck, threatens him. Through the verbalization of the threat, the
reader learns that the ghost contends that scholarly women not only
murder beautiful boys like St. George, but they also eat their hearts
out. She also reveals a clue as to the identity of the original
victim, Arthur, by telling her captive that the “other one had fair
hair too” (Sayers 203). This leads to another of Harriet’s
misreadings in which she believes that the Poltergeist and the victim
are the same person. She does not consider the possibility of revenge
in the name of another.
Sign number eleven,
the planting of the newspaper in Miss de Vine’s room, is one of
Annie’s attempts to encourage Harriet’s misinterpretations. Annie
adds to this evidence against Miss de Vine by dropping hairpins,
similar to those worn by the Research Fellow, during the
Poltergeist’s performance in the Science Lecture room (sign number
17). These actions, along with the notes and scribblings on the walls,
reveal the less violent curve of the Poison-Pen’s cycle.
The persecution of
young Miss Newland resulting in her attempted suicide, however,
reflects the dangerous and potentially fatal curve of the cycle.
Newland, a student preparing for her examinations, represents an
expansion of victim territory for the Poltergeist. No longer does the
Poison-Pen just desire the destruction of Miss de Vine and the other
female scholars, she wishes to destroy their protégées as well.
Newland, a very disciplined and brilliant student, represents the
perfect interpretant for the ghost. Although she is an excellent
pupil, Newland’s youthful rationality is no match for the unchecked
passions of the Poltergeist.
Through this violent
twist in the dance with the Poltergeist, Harriet acquires a degree of
awareness concerning the object of the ghost’s desire. It is not
just the destruction of herself, Miss de Vine, or the other scholars,
but the death of female scholarship in general. By the inclusion of
the students in her victim domain, the ghost hopes to abort, from the
womb of Shrewesbury, the birth of any new female scholars. These young
scholars, in the eyes of Annie, must not be allowed to perpetuate the
existing threat, already sanctioned by the institutionalization of
Shrewesbury, to the Law of the Father.
hopes to align herself with this law, but Trickster does not allow
this. She attempts such alignment by including the Vice-Chancellor of
Oxford in her reading audience (sign number 16). She composes a text
for the Vice-Chancellor informing him of the misbehavior at
Shrewesbury. However, the Vice-Chancellor’s vision is also mediated
by patriarchal discourse. As a result, he interprets the note as an
unauthored text, a symbol of uncontrolled Eros, which is therefore
illegitimate in academic discourse. For the Vice-Chancellor at this
point, the absent author is the threat, not Shrewesbury and its female
scholars, to Oxford. As a result, the “University [proves] to be as
solid as the College; having let the women in, it [is] not prepared to
let them down” (Sayers 435).
Oxford permits the
women to pursue Truth. The university offers a space to “fuse into a
corporate unity with one another and with every man and woman to whom
integrity of mind meant more than material gain” (Sayers 27). Peter
contends that this choice dictates the University retain its loyalty
to the College in the face of an internal or external threat. This is
Peter’s interpretation of the Symbolic Order’s domination of
female scholarship. However, throughout the text, the dons often
mention that only as long as they pose no threat to the
phallogocentric structure, they are permitted to “play with their
little toys” (Sayers 51). Thus, in the eyes of the marginalized
female scholars, the mere appearance of the irrational threatens their
tentative acceptance in the Scholarly Garden of Eden.
immediate continuation of this acceptance by deferring Annie’s
intended physical attack on her (sign number 18). While Harriet is
eating lunch with a friend in town, Annie stages a phone call from the
Warden, requesting Harriet’s immediate return to college. However,
in an unprecedented step, Harriet doubts the validity of the call and
double checks with the Warden’s maid. Harriet realizes that she
questions the call because the ghost uses the term “miss” instead
of “madam,” the term used by the Warden’s maid when addressing
her. The Poltergeist leaves a trace or clue to which Harriet responds
with a new twist in their dance.
Having been thwarted
by this new twist, the Poltergeist frees her hatred of Harriet and of
Harriet-as-representation-of-all-female-scholars. The ghost invades
Harriet’s room and crushes the ivory chess set, a recent gift from
Peter. Harriet’s possession of this chess set signifies for Annie an
inappropriate activity for a woman. A “womanly woman” (unlike Miss
de Vine who defeats Harriet in ten straight games) does not play chess
in Annie’s world. On the other hand, Harriet views the chess set not
as a symbol of the Logos but as its opposite – a symbol of passion
– of Eros. Harriet develops a passion for the chess set and permits
Peter to give it to her. When the Poison-Pen destroys it, Harriet,
quickly executes the corresponding step in her and Annie’s Fandango,
the allowance of her anger to engulf the Logos.
This engulfment sets
the stage for the final revolution in the dance of the Poltergeist.
Annie physically attacks Harriet when she mistakes her for Miss de
Vine. In this moment, Trickster tricks Annie-as-Trickster in this
mistaking, as well as when she mistakes the chess set as a
representation of Logos. However, when Annie mistakes Harriet for Miss
de Vine, Annie’s misinterpretation, on one level of interpretation,
actually maintains narrative integrity as Harriet is her dance
partner, not Miss de Vine. Through this assault, Annie defiles the Law
of the Father, the Law of the Fandango, by making physical contact
with her partner. Within the Law, the touch of the masculine Logos
soils the feminine Eros. No longer is the Eros pure. No longer is it a
valuable commodity on the masculine market. As the pair crashes to the
floor in their struggles, Harriet hits her head, the center of the
intellect, on the corner of the bookcase, a receptacle of the textual
Logos. She bleeds profusely. According to the dons and Peter, it is
probably the appearance of Harriet’s blood that causes the ghost to
flee, terminating the dance. Although Annie is a woman and a mother,
her psyche is so saturated by the Symbolic Order, that blood to her is
what Kristeva terms an “abject horror.”
With the conclusion of
the Fandango, Harriet faces her partner as Annie – not as the ghost
– in the Senior Common Room. Annie exposes Harriet’s fear of the
metonymic choice, of intellect over heart, to Peter and the membership
of the Senior Common Room.
had a lover once, and he died. You chucked him out because you were
too proud to marry him.
You were his mistress and you sucked him dry, and you didn’t value
him enough to let him make an honest woman of you. He died because you
weren’t there to look after him. I suppose you’d say you loved him
… But you take men and use them and throw them away when you’ve
finished with them … What are you going to do with that one there?
You send for him to do your dirty work, and when you’ve finished
with him you’ll get rid of him (Sayers 444).
This is Annie’s
final misreading, with Trickster on the loose, dancing freely between
Annie and Harriet. Harriet, by having to dance with the ghost, finally
accepts to a degree both parts, Eros and Logos, of herself. Through
this acknowledgment, Harriet attains a sense of self-identity and is
ready to accept Peter’s repeated proposal of marriage. This
agreement to marry tempts many readers to view Harriet’s action as
her attainment of complete self-identity. This is not quite accurate
as a unified self, despite the desire for it, is impossible due to the
omnipresent tensions between the conscious and the unconscious.
Nevertheless, Harriet does discover a ‘value’ for herself. As a
result, she is equipped for her new partner, Peter, who prefers the
appropriate music of the Symbolic Order, (such as Bach’s Concerto in
D Minor), but comprehends the unpredictable rhythm of the semiotic.
Thus by virtue of her experiences with her partners – Peter as Logos
and Annie as Eros (although, within Trickster’s realm, they function
periodically as their opposites in the narrative, too) – Harriet, at
the close of the novel, possesses a knowledge of and an appreciation
for the potential harmony of the intellect and the heart.
Signs of the Ghost’s Subtext in Gaudy
of academic gowns
of Miss Lydgate’s book
and graffiti on the walls
of Miss Barton’s book
hung in effigy
George encounters the ghost
planted in Miss de Vine’s room
of The Search by C.P.
Snow (check this)
of Miss Newland
note to Miss de Vine
to the Vice-Chancellor
in the Science Lecture Room
of the phone call
of the chess set
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Behalf. Savage, Maryland: Rowan and Littlefield Publishers, Inc.,
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Lynne Gasaway Hill, Ph.D.,
is an independent scholar and writer residing in Fort Worth, Texas,
with her husband, Andrew, and young son, A.J. Her most recent work is The
Uncompromising Diary of Sallie McNeill, 1858-1867, (Texas A&M
Press 2009) which she co-edited with Sallie McNeill’s descendant,
Ginny McNeill Raska. Her article, “Trickster’s Mask:
Representations of Aggressive Actions of the Israelis and Palestinians
in Editorial Coverage,” appeared in Trickster’s Way in
April 2003 (Vol. 2, No. 2). She is quite curious about the
relationships between/amongst language, image, and power.
Lynne Gasaway Hill, Ph.D.
Worth, TX 76108
A Fandango is a passionate Spanish dance in rhythm varying from
slow to quick in three-quarter time. It is danced by a couple, but
they do not touch each other during the course of the dance. They
usually hold castanets or tambourines.