- The Woman who Pretended to Be who She Was: Myths of Self-Impersonation by Wendy Doniger
Oxford, 272 pp, £17.99, January 2005, ISBN 0 19 516016 9
In a show earlier this year on Channel 4, a downtrodden-looking woman was exhibited to members of the public who were asked to guess her age. When, as invariably they did, they overestimated it, a team of image-management professionals – cosmetic surgeons, celebrity hairdressers, make-up artists and the doll-like ‘stylist’ who presented the show – got to work transforming her. With the aid of botox, eyebrow lifts, a snappy hairdo, pointed boots and denim, she was made-over and re-exhibited to the public, who duly assessed her age as ten years younger. Miraculously, the outside now corresponded to the inside where, we were led to believe, a younger, trendier – though up to now invisible – person had always been hiding. To achieve this result, you can be pretty sure that the poor woman was made over not once but twice: once downwards as they put her in her worst clothes, stood her in strong sunlight and forbade the use of make-up, and once upwards, using the plastic surgeon’s skills, soft focus and professional make-up. But now Plain Jane has become Beautiful Barbie, she can fulfil her potential and let her true self emerge from the shadows.
This is one of the masking patterns which Wendy Doniger discusses in her fascinating book, a sequel to The Bedtrick: Tales of Sex and Masquerade (2000). From an impressively wide range of sources, from Hollywood movies to Indian myths, she selects stories of women (and occasionally men) who use masks they have assumed, or which have been thrust on them, to reveal themselves. They are thus pretending to be who they are, and through this imposture-that-isn’t-an-imposture they secure the love, sex or position they were originally cheated of.
It’s not a new theme. Many familiar folktales rely on just this sort of mask-on-mask complexity. Cinderella, too, was masked down, then masked up to win her prince. In the version we are most familiar with (the 17th-century French one retold by Charles Perrault), the king’s beautiful daughter is transformed into Cinderella by being clothed in rags and made to do menial tasks, then retransformed into a beautiful princess by the fairy godmother’s magic arts and a glamorous gown. By means of the second transformation, in which she pretends to be herself, she wins the prince’s heart and regains her social position.
The plots of many of Shakespeare’s romantic comedies depend no less on masking and pretence followed by unmasking and reward. Rosalind masks down when she pretends to be a boy, and teaches Orlando how to love her so that when she masks up again she can be transformed into what she always was, an ideal bride. As Doniger points out, a further layer of masking would originally have been added, since Rosalind would have been played by a boy and the situation would have been boy-as-Rosalind playing Rosalind-as-boy. Similarly, Viola, who is a girl pretending to be a boy, acted by a boy pretending to be a girl, can be herself as she can’t be when dressed as a girl, and thus unmask her true self and win the man she loves.
Folktales and Shakespearean plots depend on the convention that people will not recognise the ones they love if they are masked, even if that mask is no more than a change of clothes. This isn’t sufficient disguise, though, for a modern audience. If film-makers want to use these plots – and Doniger’s examples show how often they do – something more extreme is needed. The favourite devices they fall back on seem to be amnesia, cosmetic surgery, and ‘black science’, involving cloning, brainwashing, mind-theft, memory-abuse and personality-swapping. The fruitfulness of these made-over traditional themes and motifs can be seen in her analysis of Random Harvest (1942), Duplicates (1992), and Total Recall (1990). Because the masking has been more absolute, and thus seemingly permanent, in films like these the protagonists must do more than slip off the beggar’s clothes to reveal themselves and claim their prize. Which is where mirrors come in handy.
It is traditionally agreed that mirrors, or their substitutes, portraits, are places where hidden realities may be revealed: it is the portrait in the attic that shows the inner loathsomeness of the outwardly attractive Dorian Gray. Folktales and legends are full of examples of truth-telling mirrors. In any number of ghost stories the silent presence of the ghost can be felt and hinted at only in the unreflected world: in the mirror it can be clearly seen where we always knew it was, behind us. It is the mirror that outs Snow White: when the wicked queen ceases to be ‘the fairest of them all’ it is obliged to tell her so, and the countdown to disaster and a happy ending begins.
Many of the films Doniger discusses involve double or triple masking, and often it is a mirror or portrait that reveals a secret identity. Her long discussion of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) shows how many traditional motifs from folktale and legend can be incorporated in film – here it is ghosts, masks, mirrors, transformations and revelations. A former policeman, Scottie, is hired to follow Madeleine, the wife of an old friend, Gavin Estler. But ‘Madeleine’ is actually Judy, who has been paid to impersonate Madeleine, and Scottie is the dupe whose real role is to cover up the fact that Gavin has murdered his wife. All is revealed when Scottie sees Judy in a mirror, dressed once more as Madeleine and wearing a necklace that Madeleine’s ancestor Carlotta wore in a portrait. As Doniger observes, ‘All of these false images coalesce to deal a final blow’ when Judy falls to her death from the tower where she had helped stage Madeleine’s suicide. She has been scared by the sudden appearance of a nun. But who did Judy think she saw, Doniger asks: ‘Madeleine? Carlotta? Judy Barton . . . ? All of the above.’ Here, shadow and substance collide and interact, masking leads to unmasking, mirror is portrait and portrait is mirror, truth is revealed and poetic justice meted out.
Given the propensity of mirrors to distort and masks to traduce, it is strange that in the films Doniger discusses they rarely do. ‘Love conquers all’ plays better in Hollywood than ‘love’s labour lost’. But sometimes it’s a close call. In Random Harvest, for instance, Ronald Colman plays Charles Rainier, a shell-shocked war veteran and amnesiac, who meets and eventually marries a dance-hall singer called Paula, played by Greer Garson; he becomes ‘Smithy’ and lives with her in Devon. Some years later, during a visit to Liverpool, he slips and falls. When he regains consciousness he remembers he is Charles Rainier but has forgotten that he is Smithy: ‘Amnesia squared’, as Doniger calls it.
Charles forgets that he forgot. The first episode makes Smithy forget that he is Charles Rainier, and the second makes Charles Rainier forget that he is Smithy forgetting that he is Charles; but it does not simply turn him back into Charles. The triple cross appears to be complete – Charles to Smith to Charles – but . . . he does not become himself . . . again; he merely masquerades as himself.
It is not only Charles who wears a mask and swaps identities: Paula, too, assumes a mask to become once more what she is, his wife. In the very complicated plot, Paula goes on to track down Charles and, calling herself ‘Margaret’, gets a job as his secretary. As Paula she divorces Smithy, and as Margaret she marries Charles. Unlike the first marriage, however, the second one is sterile and lonely. Only at the very end of the film, when Charles revisits the Devon cottage and recognises ‘Margaret’ as Paula, does Paula reclaim her husband and Charles reclaim his past. Charles’s masquerade is unintentional, but Paula’s is deliberate. One has to ask why she didn’t end it all earlier and tell the poor man who she was. Both of them have had a narrow escape.
It is useless to complain that such a plot is unrealistic. Random Harvest embodies the conventions of the genre, the period and the studio. Beyond Hollywood, though, storytellers are often not so tolerant of foolishness. One of the longest-surviving urban legends plays with a similar masked homecoming theme, using it to drive a story of violent crime and personal tragedy. Inverting the parable of the Prodigal Son, the legend – usually referred to as ‘The Tragic Mistake’ – supposes that, rather than being rich and generous, the father is poor and greedy, and that the son thrives rather than starves in foreign parts. It further supposes that when he returns home, his father does not immediately recognise him as he runs to meet him and shower him with gifts. Instead, blinded by cupidity, the father sees only a wealthy stranger ripe for the picking. He murders his son, and only later discovers what he has done: he then dies too, by his own hand or the long arm of the law. The plot depends not only on its reversals, but on the fact that the son is doubly masked: he is indeed the son, but, owing to his long absence, he is also a stranger. The wise course of action would have been for him to drop the stranger mask and allow his father to see him despite the disguise. Instead, through vanity or a misplaced sense of humour, he uses the mask to conceal himself; and pays the price.
This chilling little story has been told since at least the early 17th century and has been a particular favourite in times of war or civil unrest. As Jean-Pierre Seguin wrote in his study of 19th-century French street literature: ‘This story was well known, in more or less related versions, and had a prodigious success . . . infantrymen, sailors, simple soldiers and officers, legionnaires, decorated heroes, survivors of the wars of the First Empire, of Africa, Italy, the Crimea and the Army of the Rhine succeeded each other as alike as brothers’ and succumbed to the same sorts of fate. In Britain, ‘The Tragic Mistake’ seems to have begun its life in the troubled days of James I and is often appended to accounts of the capture and execution of Sir Walter Raleigh after his return from the Orinoco in 1618. More than three hundred years later in Germany, a related tale was told about a soldier returning home in the desperate days following defeat in World War Two. It is no coincidence that the play which most thoroughly explores this legend is Albert Camus’s bleak masterpiece Le Malentendu (1944), and that Random Harvest, which plays with so many of the same ideas, was made in 1942. Several other films which Doniger discusses in her chapters on ‘amnesiac remarriage’ were also made in wartime using comparable plot conventions or constructions, though usually with a much more favourable outcome.
What is it about these films that enables a happy ending, and what is it about ‘The Tragic Mistake’ that predicts tragedy? ‘In the mythology of face-lifts and mind-lifts,’ Doniger writes, ‘love is what endures and survives when either consciousness or appearance is destroyed. In the mythology of reincarnation, people recognise one another across the barrier of death . . . with their hearts, their love, embedded in the body. Such stories . . . tell us that what endures of the self is love.’ On this argument, Paula and Charles escape tragedy and are promised a happy future because Charles’s love for Paula is strong enough to allow him to recognise her in Margaret as soon as circumstances allow. If we grant this argument, then the horrific dénouement of ‘The Tragic Mistake’ comes about because the father has not loved his son enough to be able to penetrate the disguise. This son was always a stranger to his father’s heart.
Doniger’s final chapter returns to the theme of enduring love as one of several possible interpretations of the material she has so eloquently and learnedly explored. Her point of departure is her disagreement with the thesis Erving Goffman elaborated in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, in which he proposed that we all have ‘front’ and ‘back’ stages, the former where we present ourselves in public to others, the latter where we take off the mask and allow ourselves to be ourselves. Instead, Doniger argues that ‘we are never ourselves merely to ourselves but always in relation to others, even if only imagined others. Like Bishop Berkeley’s tree in the quad, we exist only when someone sees us. We become the person we see mirrored in the eyes of others, ideally someone we love or who loves us.’
The twofold message of these films – and perhaps this is Doniger’s own message – is, then, a romantic one. First, love conquers all; whatever the disguise, no matter how long the parting, we will always be recognised by those who love us. Second, if we wear the mask long enough, we will become the mask, or perhaps the mask will show us what we really were all the time. In Max Beerbohm’s story ‘The Happy Hypocrite’, the wicked Lord George Hell falls in love with a virtuous woman, who tells him that she can be the wife only of a man with a saintly face. Though his face reflects his love for her, it resembles a mirror ‘long tarnished by the reflection of the world’s vanity’. Nothing daunted, the resourceful Lord George fixes the problem by having a saintly mask made to fit his worldly face, by changing his name to George Heaven, and courting his lady all over again. When eventually unmasked, he finds that years of looking and behaving as a saint have transformed illusion into reality. ‘He looked into her eyes and saw in them the reflection of his own face.’