Jacqueline Hodgson-Blackburn:
'Indigestible Secrets: female melancholia in the work of Evelyn Lau'



This paper is an investigation into the cultural construction of female melancholia within the work of the Chinese-Canadian writer Evelyn Lau. The paper will explore the ideologically contentious category of female melancholia by focusing on Lau's melancholic poetics to illustrate how the female subject is excluded from dominant signifying practices. The paper will focus on Lau's first novel Other Women (1995), and the vignette 'Roses' in her collection of short stories Fresh Girls (1994). The paper will examine the psychological consequences of failed and postponed mourning that are portrayed in both of these texts.

Author Details

Jacqueline Hodgson-Blackburn has recently completed her PhD dissertation on ‘Beyond Mourning and Melancholia: Depression in the Work of Five North American Women Writers’ at Sheffield Hallam University. Her principal research interests are the gendered construction of loss in contemporary women writers. She is currently teaching a course on Women and Literature at the Department of Continuing Education at the University of Sheffield. E-mail: jacqueline@blackburnhodgson.idps.co.uk


This paper is an investigation into the cultural construction of female melancholia within the work of the Chinese-Canadian writer Evelyn Lau. Lau’s writing to date has focused on the lives of solitary women who exist outside the dominant institutions of language and law. Her first collection of short stories, Fresh Girls (1994), explored the world of prostitutes, disaffected housewives and their sado-masochistic clients. This was followed by her first novel, Other Women (1995), which relates a young woman’s desire for revenge following her unconsummated affair with a married businessman. Lau’s evocation of the devastating effects of obsession and desire has been overshadowed by her own experience as a teenage prostitute in Vancouver. Following the revelations contained in her autobiography, Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid (1989), critics have repeatedly drawn attention to the remarkable events that preceded the publication of her fictional work.

In the prologue to Runaway Lau describes her early life as the eldest daughter of Chinese immigrants in Vancouver. Lau carefully unpicks the details of her tortured childhood revealing that she used literature as ‘a form of escape’ [1] to overcome the parental pressures imposed on her by an ambitious mother and a depressed father. In what follows I will explore the ideologically contentious category of female melancholia by focusing on Lau’s melancholic poetics to illustrate the female subject’s exclusion from dominant signifying practices. Women’s removal from such practices and the discursive formations that frame them are interrogated in two of Lau’s texts. A case study of Lau’s first novel Other Women (1995), and the vignette ‘Roses’ taken from her collection of short stories Fresh Girls (1994), will be used to illuminate the consequences of women’s absence from the discursive structures through which melancholic discourses circulate. The pervasive aura of melancholy that envelops both of the narrators in the cited texts will be interrogated to assess whether or not the acquisition of language is able to mobilise the emotional affects that have been suppressed following a disappointment in object-choice. The case study that follows the introduction will focus on the psychological consequences that accompany the examples of failed or postponed mourning that are portrayed in both of these narratives.

The primary concern of this paper is to assess the continued absence of women from dominant discursive structures that construct them as the invisible and silent other in relation to man’s unified whole. In addition, this paper will consider the psychological implications engendered by the female subject’s position within a family history whose linear narrative is disrupted by a series of gaps and omissions that threaten its ideological coherence. Crucially, these figurative gaps within the text, suggest the presence of an unresolved family secret that continues to haunt subsequent generations of that family. Finally, I consider the links between language, artistic creation and identity in Evelyn Lau’s writings. The question of empowerment in and through language and artistic creation will be discussed in relation to women’s subordinate position within dominant discursive structures. Evelyn Lau’s work will be used to illustrate how the patriarchal construction of femininity is analogous with the position of woman as man’s devalued counterpart within melancholic discursive formations. Moreover, throughout the paper the female body will be framed as a conflicted construct within dominant discursive structures. Within this context, melancholic depression is perceived as a discursive pressure that is insistently inscribed on the female body.

Serial Lovers

Arguments regarding the literary deployment of the serial lover or erotomaniac, who uses an endless supply of unsuitable objects to structure their lives, and by analogy the text, are by now well rehearsed. [2] However, the position of the melancholic in literature, whose choice of object seems equally unsuitable, is by comparison relatively sparse. Traditionally, melancholic discourse is a privileged site through which an elite masculine community was able to circulate empowered expressions of grief and loss. Women’s absence from this veritable male pantheon of melancholic philosophers persisted until the nineteenth century when the emerging disciplines of medicine and psychiatry constructed the female hysteric as the disempowered other within this most reductive of binary patriarchal structures: namely the doctor/patient or analyst/analysand relationship. Here, the female hysteric effectively serviced the professional needs of a burgeoning male dominated institution that required the presence of a compliant female body on which to demonstrate its new-found skills. In what follows, critical emphasis will be refocused on the shrouded psychological histories that reveal themselves in these very acts of objectification. The remainder of the article will consider the consequences of transforming the psyche and the body into a living site of mourning rather than utilising the symbolic power of language to replace the lost object. In particular, I will focus on Abraham and Torok’s work on the construction of intrapsychic tombs in their essay ‘Mourning or Melancholia: Introjection versus Incorporation’ (1994).

Within this essay, the two theorists contend that intrapsychic tombs are erected within the self-enclosed dimension of the psyche when the subject feels unable to acknowledge and therefore register a loss. The loss is then incorporated within the psyche along with:

The words that cannot be uttered, the scenes that cannot be recalled, the tears that cannot be shed-everything will be swallowed along with the trauma that led to the loss. Swallowed and preserved. Inexpressible mourning erects a secret tomb inside the subject. (1994:130)

The presence of a psychological mausoleum within the psyche will be demonstrated within the work of Evelyn Lau.

The Feminine Crypt

Crypts are constructed only when the shameful secret is the love object’s doing and when that object also functions for the subject as an ego ideal. It is therefore the object’s secret that needs to be kept, his (sic) shame covered up. (Abraham & Torok, 1994:131)

The next section of this article will concentrate on the specific psychological obstacles encountered by the female subject. As we have already seen in the introduction to this essay, women have historically been excluded from melancholic discourses. Women’s absence from the corpus of melancholic texts therefore provides convincing evidence that women’s mourning was a disparaged practice that did not warrant public recognition. Juliana Schiesari’s work on the gendering of melancholic discourse has provided conclusive evidence that women such as Hildegard of Bingen did produce an extensive commentary on the problematic category of melancholia (1992:141). Female invisibility within the melancholic tradition must therefore be attributed to their subjugated position within patriarchal structures. The following section will illustrate how female alienation from what can be seen as the melancholic canon is compounded by their own internalisation of their own inferior positioning within the symbolic matrix.

Abraham and Torok’s definition of the psychic crypt cited above is revelatory of the grandiose yet self-deluding nature of the melancholic subject. The theorists’ elucidation of pathological mourning helps to clarify the confusions arising from the subject’s ambivalent relationship with the lost object. Here, the subject’s desire for love and approval from the lost object is interwoven with their fear that discovery of the guilty secret that once connected them would result in savage punishment and the destruction of their identity.

The following section of this article will address the textual implications of suspended mourning as figured in Evelyn Lau’s first novel Other Women, and in ‘Roses’, a vignette taken from her collection of short stories Fresh Girls. In both of the close readings that follow, the symptoms of a psychic foreclosure that prevents the subject from participating in mourning are revealed in the ambiguous gaps and silences that punctuate the texts. The heady conflation of desire, hate, love and fear is palpable within the textual disruptions and ellipses that threaten to reveal the unresolved issues embedded deep within the narrator’s secret histories. Similarly, the terse prose style and insistent repetition indicate that a particular narrative is being continually reworked in order to prevent the unravelling of the concealed narrative that lies just beneath the surface.

Romancing the Other

Other Women (1995) relates the story of an unconsummated affair that takes place between Fiona, a successful self-employed artist, and Raymond, the married businessman whom she meets at a local-fund raising event. The sparse plot is unexceptional, covering similar narrative terrain to that contained in the most conventional romance fiction. However, the paucity of the plot combined with the deadened prose style suggest that the text is itself a site of mourning.

The opening pages of Other Women do reveal a pattern of brittle, even inconsequential, imagery. The narrator’s reconstruction of her last meeting with her married lover takes place in the glacial interior of the kind of anonymous hotel room that features prominently in novels written by Lynne Tillman, Bret Easton Ellis and Susanna Moore. However, the retrospective framing of the lovers’ last meeting which is constantly reinvoked in this novel, signals the presence of an unprocessed secret history. The ghostly legacy of this indigestible secret leaves its imprint on the narrator’s recollection of the collapse of her entanglement with her lover. The affair itself is framed as a series of brief episodic encounters that do not appear to justify the magnitude of the narrator’s emotional investment in them. Indeed the narrator’s confession that ‘there were nights that had shaped the past fifteen months of their lives, nights that convinced her she was alive’ (1995: 5), is revelatory of a secret history scarred by the memory of a past that has been troubled by serial loss and abandonment. The narrative itself is contained by a spectral frame that reveals itself at critical junctures in the text. These disruptions within the narrative gesture towards a disturbing subtext of familial ambition and discontent. In the opening chapter, the lovers’ final encounter is disturbed by the narrator’s memory of the ‘warm gold ... lamplight in her parents’ house, in the impoverished neighbourhood where she grew up’ (p.9). The nostalgic (re)vision of childhood memory is invoked here as a framing device for the inner narrative that describes the demise of the lovers’ affair. Accordingly, the elegiac (re)construction of a drooping rose fluttering silently ‘above its reflection in the polished wood of the end table’ (p.9), within the lamplight of the lovers’ hotel room, is analogously linked to an unreliable memory of an increasingly fictionalised childhood. Significantly, this hastily constructed pastiche of childhood comfort fails to generate the emotional security that the narrator so clearly hopes to achieve. Instead, the narrator is confronted by a scenario that is riven by contradiction and a pervasive sense of melancholic grief. Ultimately, the narrator is forced to recognise that the ‘feeling of familiarity’ invoked by the lamplight within the room is not reciprocated by her lover, when ‘After all, his own memories of lamplight would be different’ (p.9).

Within the text therefore, references to childhood and family history are sparse and sporadic, often framed as unwelcome reminders of a troubled past which momentarily threaten to dispel the vortex of loss that envelops the novel’s mordant narrator. This failure to tie up the lost threads of childhood by incorporating them into the broader narrative of her subsequent history is symptomatic of the disease that blights the narrator’s adult life: namely the inability to mourn successfully or to acknowledge that a bereavement has in fact taken place. The aetiology of this disease can be traced by the reader back to the narrator’s troubled childhood, whilst the symptoms reveal themselves in her nostalgic longing to rewrite her childhood narrative by returning to a past which is unmarked by the moment of fundamental division from her mother. [3] Fiona’s silence about the unspeakable other of her childhood emerges first as the missing backdrop to the free floating present described within the novel, and secondly in her fascination with other women, particularly Helen, the wife of Raymond. Other women offer a tantalising glimpse of what it is to be successfully ‘othered’ from the mother, effectively freed from the historic and potentially suffocating primary tie with the mother, or more specifically the moment of fundamental division when the child’s demands on the mother outstrip her ability to fulfil them.[4] The physical demands of the split linguistic subject are manifested by the text’s insistent emphasis on orality; the numerous references to fellatio and the disordered eating and drinking patterns which emerge as a result of this lack of alignment with the mother.

Fiona’s doomed attempts to make good this moment of lost plenitude with the mother, through displacement onto a series of disposable object-choices such as Raymond, her married lover, are returned to obsessively as a textual mantra which informs and indeed sustains the structure of the novel. Towards the end of the novel, we learn that Fiona’s previous lover was yet another married businessman who slotted her into his working schedule in a similar manner to that which was subsequently deployed by Raymond. This is a package which the narrator owns has the advantage of being ‘turmoil’ free, requiring little or no emotional investment from either party so that ‘in the year they knew each other he never once asked what she did with her days’ (1995:167). This tardy confession, like so many others, is slipped into the text surreptitiously, subtly shifting the reader’s perception of the exclusivity of the narrator’s current obsession, or her ability to detect the serial nature of her object choices.

Fiona’s inability to identify and therefore acknowledge and articulate the underlying pattern of losses that structures her life locates her within the theoretical frame of Abraham and Torok’s paper, where the reluctance of the subject to participate in the reparative process of mourning through her/his psychic disavowal of mourning impedes her/his ability to recover, by her/his refusal to communicate her/his loss in and through language. A similar closeting of a secret and imperfect history is characteristic of Fiona’s attempts to lay a false trail leading away from her troubled relationship with her mother, which is clearly evident in her dealings with Raymond and his wife Helen.

Towards the end of the novel, Fiona recalls discovering her mother’s diaries, which had remained, unbeknown to her, hidden in the bottom of her closet throughout her childhood. The recovery of the diaries is however short-lived; the dramatic uncovering of the lost artefact triggers such an emotive reaction in the narrator’s mother that she immediately destroys them, meticulously dissecting their contents with her strongest scissors, the ones with which Fiona recalls ‘she used to cut fabric’ (1995:189). The reappearance of the diaries forms a disquieting childhood memory for the adult narrator, who realises that the psychological effects of the discovery of the diaries, which recount her mother’s extra marital affair, implicate her within yet another indigestible secret history. Recalling the incident from the standpoint of an eight year old child, she is aware that ‘I felt the significance of what had happened, although I could not have put it into words. I did understand that my mother had now lost something she could never get back, and that life could not be the same again for her (p.189).

Figurative gaps, omissions and silences related to the suppressed outer frame of the narrative occur with an increasing regularity, disturbing the linear progression of the inner narrative. Indeed, the inclusion of the scissors and the part that they play in destroying a family chronicle is transformed into a castrating metaphor that is clearly evident in other melancholic texts written by women. In Kathryn Harrison’s autobiographical novel, The Kiss, for example, family history is wilfully rearranged by the narrator’s maternal grandmother who removes any evidence of her erstwhile son-in-law’s role within the family structure by cutting out his physical representation in the family photograph album. This domestic artefact has therefore revealed its own literal and figurative secret history in its transformation from domestic implement into an instrument of castration. Ironically, this castrating trope draws the reader’s attention to the melancholic core of the narrative where psychological loss can never be transcended by simply reshuffling photographic evidence. The castrating action of the scissors denies the intricate and meticulous ‘working through’ of memories that Freud claimed was indispensable to successful mourning. The vigorous motion of the blades is juxtaposed with the static and monolithic family history that it attempts to dislodge. Paradoxically, the slicing of history into digestible shards of memory merely reconstructs the original tableau of unrequited loss that informs these troubled histories.

Accordingly, Fiona’s insatiable appetite for incorporating an interminable stream of substitutes begins to shift from Raymond, onto his wife Helen, who is transformed into the ‘other’ woman, becoming a tantalising shadow of yet another object choice. Fiona’s is once more the opened mouth that can swallow but not speak; hence she fantasises about the unknown woman visualising a scene where ‘she could open her mouth and, with just a few words, enter Helen’s life’ (1995:8). The sheer immensity of the narrator’s need takes the form of psychological rape: her colonising zeal is no less shocking because it is anonymous. Later, she imagines that ‘she knows what it is like to live inside Helen’s body’ (p.72), her well-rehearsed fantasies becoming ‘increasingly intimate and violent’ (p.184). These projected fantasies work in reverse by illuminating the framing discourse that is located in her relationship with her mother. The intrusive and increasingly compulsive nature of her fantasies begin to imitate the unrequited yearning that the narrator experiences when she remembers her mother. The narrator’s obsession with the material realities of other women’s lives is merely a displacement of her maternal longing. This process is the figurative location where the narrator attempts to resolve her experience of maternal abandonment. By endlessly rehearsing this psychological impasse, Fiona hopes to regain the emotional plenitude that she believes once united her with her mother.

Fiona’s fear of maternal loss is then played out, in and through the wife of Raymond; Fiona’s putative aim is to obviate the pain and sorrow of loss by merging with Helen who has unknowingly been transformed into a surrogate mother. Fiona’s barely sublimated desire to fuse with this new maternal object is then symptomatic of the cannibalising threat of melancholia where the otherness of the object is systematically consumed by the ego. Hence, Fiona claims that she ‘wanted to know Helen’s body so well [that] I could climb in and zip up her skin around me’ (1995:184). By vampiristically incorporating the other residing in this surrogate maternal object, Fiona believes that she can conquer the pain of separation and the fear of abandonment that she experienced as a young girl. The narrator’s solitary manoeuvres emerge as a figurative plea to the other woman to include her in what Abraham and Torok refer to as ‘the communion of "empty mouths", where calling becomes a way of ‘requesting presence, as language’ (1994:127), and where ‘without the constant assistance of a mother endowed with language, introjection could not take place’ (p.128).

Before Fiona can participate in such a communion of ‘empty mouths’ she must resist the cannibalising impulse referred to above by learning how to rework events within her own life so that she is able to implement a revised interpretation of past events that can be woven into the fabric of her present life. According to Freud, the process of introjection involves the capacity to replace the lost object with a representation that symbolises that loss within the memory (1957:154). The memory is then transformed into a flexible model that the subject can manipulate freely so that it functions productively within the psyche. The regressive identificatory process present in the psychological process of incorporation reverses the re-structuring programme implicit in introjection by consuming the incorporated whole object. This ‘magical’ cannibalistic process is clearly present within Lau’s narrative where it reveals itself in the repeated emphasis on orality. The narrator swallows food, parental imagos, even her lovers’ semen, wholesale, refusing the difficult and thoroughgoing work of introjection.

Removal from the imaginary to the symbolic coincides with weaning or rejection of the mother’s milk; Fiona’s endless rehearsal of this shift from one order to another represents a reversal of this process and a return to dependence on liquid oral ingestion. This reversal of sociocultural norms is clearly evident in her recollection of her first meeting with Raymond which she describes in cannibalistic terms as the moment when ‘[she] first breathed you into me, gulping you in until I became dizzy and the room circled around me’ (1995:14). Later, the normative Oedipal configuration is obliterated when the narrator reconstructs a disturbing encounter with Raymond who now appears to occupy the role of surrogate father to the narrator’s obedient daughter:

‘With a child’s belief in magic I got down on my knees in front of your body. When I put my mouth over your penis above its net of hair, one moment shifted irrevocably into the next, shifted so hard I thought I heard the sound of something breaking’. (1995:23)

Fiona’s constant return to the primal scene is a subversion of the symbolic notion of the individuated subject; by repeating the moment of division, she threatens the very fabric of the symbolic which leads to her own marginalisation. Significantly in this context, Abraham and Torok suggest that the prohibition of speech results in the subject ‘actually taking into ... (her/his) ... mouth the unnameable, the object itself. As the empty mouth calls out in vain to be filled with introjective speech, it reverts to being the food-craving mouth it was prior to the acquisition of speech’ (1994:128).

Fiona’s mouth represents the food-craving chasm which threatens to engulf anyone who comes into close contact with her. The ever recurring trope, where the lamplight in an anonymous hotel room is transformed into ‘the same warm gold as the lamplight in her parents’ house, in the impoverished neighbourhood where she grew up’ (1995: 9), is indicative of the kleptomaniac subject who frantically collects random artefacts for inclusion in Abraham and Torok ‘s ‘intrapsychic tomb’ (1994:130). Fiona never appears to function within a community. She always situates herself on the periphery of any social activity, focusing on a series of interchangeable objects such as Raymond, whom she can suck into the highly charged vortex which surrounds her.

Abraham and Torok note that ‘The magical "cure" by incorporation exempts the subject from the painful process of reorganization’ (1994:127), drawing the subject into the essentially conservative trope of fantasy. Laplanche and Pontalis believe that incorporation has three meanings: ‘it means to obtain pleasure by making an object penetrate oneself; it means to destroy this object; and it means, by keeping it within oneself, to appropriate the object’s qualities’ (1973: 212). As we have already seen, Fiona attempts to import the qualities and attributes of those closest to her, such as Raymond and Helen, rehearsing their episodic encounters which are ‘gone over again and again in my hours of solitude, imbued with the colour of my desire, fondled like a fetish object, a shoe or a glove’ (1995:25). Fiona’s quest, to absorb every available object or person to fill the unspeakable chasm within, accelerates when Raymond hints that he wishes to terminate their relationship, resulting in her frantic bid to replace him with an ever increasing array of substitutes, such as alcohol, food and memory. Fiona describes this sudden fall from grace as ‘a certain level of intoxication that felt like being inside a dream, and when she felt the protective layers begin to disperse, and light start to intrude, that was when she knew she needed another drink’ (p.31). Fiona’s attempts to insert herself into an Oedipal triangle with the childless couple Raymond and Helen signal to the reader that her incorporation of this new configuration is in fact just another substitute for her own troubled relationship with her own parents.

Fiona records how the encrypted shame and revulsion, associated with her memories of childhood, disrupt her waking moments:

when she did finally slip, almost accidentally, into sleep, it was to dream about her parents. It had always been this way - the two people she managed to ignore in her waking hours still controlled her nocturnal world. But now her dreams about her family she had left behind were confused with her longing for Raymond, which grafted itself upon the familiar scenes from childhood - her mother screaming, her father leaving. Only now her father’s face was Raymond’s and her mother wore the same clothes Fiona had worn the night she met the man she loved. (1995:39/40)

Fiona’s admission of the source of her pain occurs one third of the way through the novel, during a holiday which she takes in order to ‘break the pattern by going somewhere new’ (p.35). By this stage in the novel it is clear that physical changes of location cannot dislodge the psychic incorporation of objects and the stockpiling of object substitutes is itself beginning to alter the shape of the narrator’s life, as well as the text. From this point onwards, the disparate parts of Fiona’s pathology begin to converge: the disturbed sleep pattern, bulimia and the obsession with Helen. We learn that her evenings are now spent ‘in her studio, bags of junk food and photographs of his wife Helen spread out on the desk in front of her ... One after another, Fiona tears open packages of cream-filled cookies and sugared donuts, conveying the contents almost robotically to her mouth’ (p.71). Increasingly, Fiona’s fantasies are projected onto occupying the body of Helen, until she is convinced that she ‘thinks she knows what it is like to live inside Helen’s body’ (p.72). Fiona even confesses that ‘if she does not exist in the public’s perception of what is real, she does not’ (p.76); a gesture backwards to the erased point of reference which represents her childhood and which cannot therefore act as an integrative force within her adult life. Predictably, the masochistic fantasies culminate in the narrator’s murderous impulse to incorporate the body of Helen, when she imagines:

her strong hands around Helen’s fine, wifely neck ... choking her until she moans and spits up Raymond’s love. Then at last she can relinquish her, let her head snap back, her body limp as a doll’s that has been played with plenty and can now be retired. (1995:78)

In the final pages of the novel, Fiona admits that her preoccupation with Raymond’s wife has been ‘obscene and one-sided’ (1995:192). As we have already seen, Fiona’s obsession with Helen became ‘increasingly intimate and violent’, forcing her to fantasise about stripping Helen naked, ‘to familiarise myself with her body, her responses ... I wanted to know Helen’s body so well I could climb in and zip up her skin around me’ (184).[5] Fiona believes that if she were able to simultaneously occupy and annihilate Helen’s body she would be able to rewrite her own history and insert herself within a new and more empowering childhood narrative. Fiona’s projection onto the wives and lovers of men within her social milieu, and her valorisation of their anonymous spouses, gestures towards her belief that she is somehow responsible for the breakdown of her own particular ‘family romance’. [6]

The conclusion of the novel sees Fiona locked into a double bind . She admits that she continues to believe that ‘there will never be anyone else for me’ (1995:192), and indeed there appears to be little prospect of Fiona ever being able to ‘spit up’ Raymond’s love in the same way that she fantasises forcing Helen to do in her fantasies. Fiona’s jealously guarded secret is her wish to replace the oedipal configuration with another more flexible model which could function productively within the field of competing discourses that crowd her adult life. Fiona swallows whole the memory of her mother’s shattered subjectivity which she believes haunts and shadows her own bid for acceptance within patriarchal structures. It sees improbable, given the evidence above, that Fiona will ever be able to construct a ‘transference bridge’ with language, that will enable her to swallow the unspeakable loss of childhood, by unlocking the silence which severs the link between mourning and artistic creation.

Resisting The Talking Cure

In the next section of this essay I will examine another exemplar of melancholic incorporation contained in the work of Evelyn Lau. The following section will focus on one of the short stories contained in the collection Fresh Girls (1994). ‘Roses’ relates the story of an abusive relationship that is formed between an adolescent sex worker and a psychiatrist. The narrative operations in this story reveal an absolute intolerance of separation and object loss that is compounded by the narrator’s disenfranchised position as a sex-worker who is engaged in an apparently futile attempt to resist co-option into the invasive commercial network surrounding her. Lau’s slim volume of short stories recounts the tales of a series of similarly marginalised women who are striving to insert themselves into a more empowering narrative and social context.

The effects patriarchal domination necessarily exerts on identity formation are clearly evident in this ‘Roses’ where the narrator attempts to renegotiate the boundaries between subject and object. The frequent allusions within the text by the narrator to a coercive past relationship between herself and her father suggest that her participation, in carefully orchestrated scenarios of masochistic domination by the psychiatrist, represent her desire to act out the internalised rage that she experiences whenever she recollects her troubled relationship with her father. This ‘prototype’ relationship operates as a narrative frame that prefigures the ensuing partnership with the psychiatrist, suggesting that the anonymous narrator of this story is acting out the prohibited emotional frenzy that marked her relationship with her father. This spectral frame that haunts the central narrative operates in a similar fashion to that deployed in Other Women. In this narrative, however, the lost maternal object has been replaced by the paternal object. The substitution of one paternal imago for another has significant implications for the relative subject position of the narrators of these texts. I will illustrate how patriarchal culture exerts additional pressure on melancholic structures by encouraging the circular interior dialogue that takes place between the internalised object, the ego and the critical agency of the superego. The previous section of this paper examined the consequences of maternal object loss by foregrounding the psychological penalties that attend the female subject’s failure to separate from her first love-object. The next section will extend this analysis of object intolerance by examining how closely patriarchal conceptualisations of femininity resemble the pathological composition of melancholia.

Frequently caught in a present permeated with images of degradation and pain imported from their pasts, Lau’s protagonists struggle to escape a relentless and addictive cycle of sex, masochism and violence. This constant slippage into a masochistic and addictive aesthetic informs all of the fractured histories contained in Lau’s stories, often producing a series of tableaux vivants, where the female protagonists seem locked into a mode of erotic contemplation which depresses their ability to act. In both of the narratives discussed in this paper, masochism features as the addictive trope underpinning the series of repetitive and unproductive acts, which are used ostensibly to escape damaged subjectivity by regaining psychological agency. This addictive aesthetic is recycled within the theatrical spaces of anonymous hotel room or apartment block, producing a feeling of detachment from the body, which in turn induces a schizophrenic split between mind and body. The pervasive sense of inertia, which occurs as a result of this split, only serves to heighten the hallucinogenic sense of unreality which divides the world from the subject in an addictive space.[7] Interpellated by a web of sociological and ideological fixes, both characters conform to the classic notion of the addict, a subject who according to Vice ‘can only orientate her or himself, in addictive fashion, in relation to something outside the self, which appears to offer the opportunity for incorporation or possession, like a glass of whisky, but which also remains autonomous, like the bottle’ (1992:118).

Therefore, patriarchal constructions of femininity and melancholia operate in a similar manner to patriarchy and imperialism where, as Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin observe, both of these political metanarratives ‘exert analogous forms of domination over those they render subordinate’ (1998:101). Similarly, Ashcroft et al claim that ‘[feminism and post-colonialism] share a sense of disarticulation from an inherited language and have thus attempted to recover a linguistic authenticity via a pre-colonial language or a primal feminine tongue’ (p.102). Women’s experience of disenfranchisement from dominant languages within a post-colonial context is particularly apposite for the study of melancholic disaffection figured in Evelyn Lau’s narratives. As we have already seen, the narrator of Other Women reveals her internalised feelings of revulsion against the subordinate position that she occupies in relation to dominant signifying practices by projecting her distress onto a series of surrogate maternal objects.

In ‘Roses’, the narrator’s experience of internalised oppression is complicated by her racial identity and her professional status as a prostitute. This double marginality is clearly evident in her tacit assumption of subordinate, even masochistic, subject positions in relation to a series of abusive male authority figures. The narrator’s sense of discomfort at being negatively located within patriarchal relations is intimated at the beginning of the story when she reveals that the psychiatrist’s favoured pedagogical texts included Lolita and The Story of O, both exemplary narratives of female subordination (1994: 29). Although the narrator’s racial identity is never fully revealed, markers of race are strategically inserted in the text. The mask that the psychiatrist purchases from a Japanese import store to ostensibly ‘scare off his rage’, unsettles the cultural signifiers of race, class and gender (p.32). His imputed rage, therefore, emerges from his own problematised relationship to dominant signifying practices. Indeed, his proximity to the disturbing ‘otherness’ of the narrator revives the spectre of his own ambiguous positioning within dominant discourses and institutions. Later, the narrator reveals that the psychiatrist is not a Canadian national. Rather, he is himself an immigrant who unsettles this settler culture by working ‘for two years in one of our worst mental institutions’ (p.30).

Lau’s text therefore exploits the cultural deficit that separates the Orient from the Occident according to Edward Said’s notion of Orientalism. Ashcroft et al quote directly from Said’s germinal study Orientalism (1978), in order to explain the underlying dynamics that maintain its structure. Orientalism is, therefore according to Said:

the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient ‘dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it: in short, Orientalism as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.


The constructed nature of this institutionalised instrument of power and authority can be clearly detected in the relationship between the psychiatrist and the narrator. Their brief encounter is grounded in ‘Orientalist’ aesthetics and politics, drawing on stereotypical polarised constructions of Occident and Orient to explain their manipulative and abusive exchanges. Accordingly, the narrator observes that ‘after two weeks his tenderness went the way of his plants’ (1994: 32). The brutal regime of carefully orchestrated abuse that follows reveals the fragility of Orientalism as a theoretically constructed category that was designed to engineer artificial power differentials. Hence the narrator invites the psychiatrist to beat her, stretching obediently across his knees in ‘the way my father used to like to see me do’ (p.33). Here, the narrator assumes the position of the colonial other who is defined by her relationship to imperial discourse. The position of the other is contingent upon her subordinate position to the coloniser thereby performing a regulatory function within the overarching metanarrative of imperialism. By internalising a marginalised subject position in relation to the imperial centre represented by the psychiatrist, the narrator automatically occupies a masochistic position that rapidly exceeds the prescriptions of role-play. [8] Indeed, the brutalising nature of their exchanges are described in aesthetic terms that reveal the extent of the narrator’s marginalised relationship to dominant discourses. Within such a radically bifurcated regime, the narrator describes the explosion of pain inflicted on her by the psychiatrist in epiphanic terms:

I wiggled obediently and raised my bottom high into the air, the way my father used to like to see me do. Then he moved up to rain blows upon my back. One of them was so painful that I saw colors even with my eyes open; it showered through my body like fireworks. It was like watching a sunset and feeling a pain in your chest at its wrenching beauty, the kind of pain that makes you gasp. (1994:33)

Ashcroft et al’s assertion that patriarchy and imperialism operate in conjunction to marginalise the colonised other finds clear evidence in this passage. Here, we witness the narrator attempting to trace connections with a network of coercive and abusive practices that have circulated within her past.

However, the narrator’s masochistic capitulation to painful excess is itself open to other more empowering interpretations. In her analysis of ‘Feminist Theory and Discourse Theory’ in Discourse (1997), Sara Mills describes how recent developments in feminist discourse theory have produced a more sophisticated theoretical approach to Foucault’s work on discourse (1997: 80). Mills demonstrates how feminist discourse theorists such as Dorothy Smith have problematised traditional Foucauldian analysis on confessional discourse by extending his original terms of reference. Mills contends that feminist discourse analysts such as Smith have produced:

a more socially context-bound view of discourse, which is attentive to what individual subjects do within and through discursive structures, rather than assuming that discourses force us to behave in certain ways.

(1997: 86)

By adding the variables of class, race and gender to the original Foucauldian model of power relations within confessional discourse it is possible to discern a more empowered position for women within this particular disciplinary regime. Viewed through such a theoretical lens, Evelyn Lau’s protagonists and narrators attempt to work through and hence recover some of the political power that has been eroded by their subordinate position within patriarchal relations. In ‘Roses’, the artifice of the sado-masochistic contract binding the two central protagonists exposes the underlying discursive structures that produce their stylised behavioural patterns. Moreover, it is apparent that the narrator of this text attempts to manipulate these structures productively in order to achieve a more active subject position within the hierarchically organised context of the heterosexual patriarchal power base that is embedded in this particular sado-masochistic contract. Hence, the narrator attempts to use pain as a vector of power by claiming that ‘the pain cleansed my mind until it breathed like the streets of a city after a good and bright rain. It washed away the dirt inside me’ (1994: 33/4). Furthermore, the narrator exploits pain to negotiate more empowered subject positions within other cultural contexts and narrative forms. Hence, the material and ideological specificities of the narrator’s current situation described in the text encourage the narrator to make links with her past.

The narrator begins to formulate a fantasy of her early life that is shaped by the cultural dynamics of her present situation. Stevi Jackson elaborates on the significance of socialising discursive formations in her analysis of ‘Love, Romance and Subjectivity’ in her chapter on ‘Women and Heterosexual Love’ contained in the Romance Revisited (1992) collection. Jackson’s commentary on women’s attraction to violent coercive narratives is particularly relevant to this discussion. Jackson contends that ‘Emotions are not simply ‘felt’ as internal states provoked by the unconscious sense of lost infantile satisfactions - they are actively structured and understood through culturally specific discourses’ (1992:57). Furthermore, Jackson maintains that these discourses ‘differentiate between love as nurture, being ‘in love’, lust and sexual arousal - all of which are conflated in the psychoanalytic concept of desire’ (p.57).

Crucially, therefore, Lau’s narrator begins to fabricate a narrative of childhood bliss when she is constrained by the stylised manoeuvres of a sado-masochistic framework. Suddenly, the current scene shifts to reveal an earlier encounter with her father where:

The sounds melt like gold, like slow Sunday afternoons. I think of cats and the baby grand piano in the foyer of my father’s house. I think of the rain that gushes down the drainpipes outside my father’s bathroom late at night when things begin to happen. I think of the queerly elegant black notes on sheets of piano music. The light is flooding generously through the windows and I am a little girl with a pink ribbon in my hair and a ruffled dress. (1994:35)

The links which the narrator has forged between the psychiatrist and her father are therefore drawn from the literary and romantic staples of Western culture. The narrative that the narrator devises is melded from a wide range of conflicting discourses. The narrator of ‘Roses’ attempts to anchor emotion to a limited repertoire of unsuitable narratives, firmly locating the female subject in a subordinate position. The recuperation of the childhood narrative referred to above, is therefore transformed into an inverted bildungsroman where the key protagonist’s quest for fulfilment always returns to its original location on the underside of patriarchal binary structures.

However, as Stevi Jackson suggests in the conclusion to her chapter on ‘Women and Heterosexual Love’, ‘if ... emotions are culturally constructed, they are not fixed for all time’ (1992: 58). Lau’s story illustrates that emotions are indeed shaped by the discourses that frame them. The concluding paragraphs of ‘Roses’ also expose the disruptive influence of desire upon the cultural construction of emotions as well as the durability of the discourses that frame them. Moreover, Lau’s tale of coercive desire and masochistic subordination reveals a disturbing link between the construction of femininity and pathological mourning within Western discourses.


In the final paragraph of the story, the narrator recalls how the psychiatrist promised her ‘a rose garden’ (1994: 36). This Edenic representation of romance, like so many other tropes and clichés in the story, is immediately undercut by our knowledge that, in this case, the ‘flowers of romance’ are in fact bruises which range like ‘a rash of raspberry dots, like seeds’ (p.36) between the narrator’s breasts. This elegiac rendition of what can only be described as a paradoxical representation of sado-masochistic romance, perfectly captures the disturbing correlation between dominant constructions of femininity and melancholia within Western discourse. Lau’s narratives present a pessimistic representation of female subjectivity that operates within the same punitive boundaries as Freud’s classical definition of melancholia, discussed above. As Judith Butler maintains, this is a self-negating process where the melancholic ‘is said to incorporate that other into the very structure of the ego, taking on attributes of the other and "sustaining" the other through magical acts of imitation’ (1992: 57). Indeed, Other Women and ‘Roses’ offer representations of women who are immersed into a received narrative of pathological mourning where they appear to be unable to determine or generate meaning.

However, as we have already seen, discursive structures are unstable sites where power relations are constantly renegotiated. Consequently, strategies of resistance are an integral part of this intrinsically fluid relationship. As Mills maintains, it is ‘the process of engaging with discursive structures that constitutes us as particular types of individuals or subject positions’ (1997:96). Female subjectivity as portrayed within Lau’s texts is therefore a flexible construct where the individual narrators attempt to undermine the disciplinary practices that inscribe the cultural markers of pathological melancholy on their passive bodies. The resilience of the binary structures that systematically reinforce and thereby regulate the boundaries of subjectivities ensure their cultural longevity within discursive frameworks. There is therefore a cultural investment in the key ideological concepts of pathological femininity and melancholia that pressurises the female subject to submit to the disciplinary imperatives of dominant discourses. It is then, the self-negating production of pathologically- inflected femininity within patriarchal structures that manoeuvres Evelyn Lau’s marginalised subjects into subordinate subject positions. The rigid demarcation of Lau’s protagonists into cultural spheres that reinforce their marginality appears to prohibit any opportunities of self-expression or indeed self-empowerment. However, as we have already seen, the discourses through which melancholia circulates are subject to change and modification, femininity being perhaps the most notable example. Discursive structures do not therefore exist in isolation; they are bounded by other discourses that disturb the foundations on which their frameworks are built. The resulting fractures in the overall structure of these discursive frameworks are therefore caused by individual subjects who operate within their ideological parameters.


  1. See the introduction to unpublished Phd thesis by Jacqueline Hodgson-Blackburn (1999) ‘Beyond Mourning and Melancholia: Depression in the Work of Five North American Women Writers’ for a more detailed overview of the historical construction of female hysteria, especially pp. 16 – 21. [Back]

2. Lau’s preoccupation with her own childhood, along with its constant disruption of her adult life, is recorded in her interview with Andrew Billen (1994). Gudrun Will (1995) expresses her frustration with Lau’s neo-autobiographical stance in Other Women when she writes: ‘It seems clear that Fiona is a mask for the author, whose talents are simply transported to the visual arts’ (41), implying that her writing suffers from a rather simplistic mixing of fact and fiction. See Gudrun Will (1995) ‘Juvenilia’ in The Vancouver Review, Fall/Winter, pp. 41 - 42. [Back]

3 .Lorrie Moore’s collection of short stories, Self-Help (1998), is interesting within this context. In the first story, ‘How To Be an Other Woman’, the narrator describes a brief relationship with a married man. As the title suggests, Moore’s narrative is located within the discursive framework of a therapeutic self-help manual. Moore therefore simultaneously updates and ironises the didactic imperatives of the traditional conduct manual which maps out a pattern of female behaviour that is sanctioned by dominant discourses. Significantly, for this particular project, Moore’s narrative follows a similar trajectory to that outlined in Lau’s Other Women, where the central protagonist becomes increasingly fascinated with the image of her lover’s wife or partner. In both of these texts, the narrators use ‘other women’ as maternal surrogates with whom they attempt to resolve their ambivalent relationships with their own mothers. [Back]

4. As the title of Lau’s novel suggests, the author’s attention is be focused on the narrators’ relations with other women. The novel is most successful when the author deals with Fiona’s reactions to other women, particularly Helen. Critics such as Gudrun Will (1995) have also noted this, as well as their frustration with the way that the psychological implications of such relations are often treated as a side issue: ‘The title of her book points to what is best in it - though even here there is a problem, in that all the interesting episodes are peripheral to the main action’. See Gudrun Will (1995) ‘Juvenilia’ in The Vancouver Review, Fall/Winter, pp. 41 - 42. [Back]

5. I am borrowing the title of Freud’s paper ‘Family Romances’ (1957o). Within this paper, Freud elaborates his theory that neurotics find it particularly difficult to achieve independence from parental authority. Freud contends that these individuals often replace their parents by others who typically enjoy a higher social station at the level of fantasy. Freud maintains that these parental substitutes represent the subject’s wish to recover the idealised image of their parents that prevailed in early childhood. The narrator of Other Women attempts to elide her own troubled relationship with her parents by replacing them with her lover and his wife. See Collected Papers Vol. V, trans. Joan Rivière, London: The Hogarth Press, pp. 74 - 79. [Back]

6. Gill Coren (1994) notes that Lau’s ‘faithful devotion to the bleakness of her characters’, leaves the reader ‘wanting to understand them better, emotional alienation is all around but how and why? We never find out’ (15). As I suggest within my argument, this is because Lau’s characters have repressed their ability to mourn, because of their incorporation of a shameful secret imported from their past. This leads to their tendency to literalise situations, which is reflected in the formal structure of the text. See Gill Coren (1994) ‘Cold Comfort Girl’ in The Times, 24 December, p. 15. [Back]

7. Jennifer McLerran’s study of the Czech-Canadian artist Jan Sterback which explores the manner in which disciplinary cultural pressures operate in and through the female body is significant to this discussion. Interestingly, according to McLerran, Sterbak maintains that she believes that both Czechoslovakia and Canada are characterised by a "colonized identity". McLerran argues that Sterbak’s awareness of the pressures exerted on the subject by this ‘doubling’ of imperialist discourses informs her work. In McLerran’s words, ‘Sterbak shows us that the individual as constructed through discourse is always both subject to and subject of disciplinary power’ (537). See Jennifer McLerran (1998) ‘Disciplined Subjects and Docile Bodies in the Work of Contemporary Artist Jana Sterbak’, Feminist Studies 24, 3, Fall, pp. 535 - 552. [Back]

8. See Sara Mills’ example of anorexia exerting discursive pressure on the female body in Discourse (1998), London: Routledge, pp. 94 - 95. [Back]