Span 37

Journal of the South Pacific Assoc for Cwlth Lit and Language Studies
Number 37, 1993
Yorga Wangi:
Postcolonialism and Feminism

Edited by Anne Brewster, Marion Campbell, Ann McGuire, Kathryn Trees

Women Off The Market: Possession and desire in Elizabeth Jolley's The Well

Kerry Goddard

It is only by showing in what way eros differs from possession and power that we can acknowledge a communication in eros. [Eros] is neither a struggle, a fusion or a knowledge. One must recognise its exceptional place among relations. 1

Elizabeth Jolley's text The Well portrays the struggle of two women, Hester and Katherine, to maintain their relationship with one another. Within this narrative Jolley also explores the processes of textual production; processes which are made tenuous by the intersections between phallogocentric inscriptions of the feminine 2 and the 'masculinity' of social and institutional positions of power. Hester and Katherine are members of a patriarchal, class based, rural society. Their relationship is one of unequal power; Katherine is an impoverished orphan and Hester is a member of the 'landed gentry'. This inequality reproduces a masculine/feminine and bourgeois/proletariat hierarchy, yet it also represents an attempt to break from these binaries. However, this break can only ever be partial because the women's desires are coded by the language and institutions of the market. Jolley signifies, through her use of an epigraph (lines which are taken from the body of the text), her interest in the 'market place': 3

"What have you brought me Hester? What have you brought me from the shop?"

"I've brought Katherine, father," Miss Harper said. "I've brought Katherine, but she's for me." 4

These lines describe the possessive economy with which Hester and Katherine's relationship begins, and in which, it is finally recouped. In such an economy women function as objects of exchange between men for the purposes of sex and reproduction. Their status and subjectivity are defined through their relationship with men. One consequence of such a definition is that women's homosocial relationships will be hierarchised as secondary to those between men and women. As a result, male/female relations may occasion the disruption or destruction of female/female relations. In The Well Hester's father and then the intruder cause such a disruption/destruction to the relationship between Hester and Hilde Herzfeld and later, to the relationship between Hester and Katherine.

A significant support for this 'marketplace' economy is the common representation of heterosexuality as natural and other forms of sexuality as deviant. Friedrich Nietzsche in The Will to Power discusses the 'evolution' of the moral order. He suggests that, through a complex series of displacements and adjustments, the imperative of the survival of the species becomes internalised as a moral order:

Our empirical world would be determined by the instincts of self-preservation . . . we would regard as true, good and valuable that which serves the preservation of the species . . . That a correlation exists between degrees of value and degrees of reality is a metaphysical postulate proceeding from the presupposition that we know the order of the rank of values, namely that this order of rank is a moral order.5

There is a correlation made between the need for the reproduction of the species and the morality of sexual behaviour. Yet as much feminist theory suggests:

There is no natural sexuality, the codes within which men and women operate are in fact male sexual ideologies masquerading as natural law.6

The Well is concerned with the difficulties of homosocial, though not necessarily sexual relations between women, that is, with "the putting into discourse" of women's relationships and feminine friendship, "as problematic."7 In this text the young, sexually desirable female, Katherine, is represented as having heterosexual desire. However, her desire is constructed:

she is under the spell of a succession of film stars, the present one being John Travolta . . . Having seen every one of his films she is able to imagine herself, when dancing, as his chosen, perpetual partner. (1)

Katherine is presented as a film and romance addict. She has absorbed, or rather "bought" the happy-ever-after myths of patriarchal fictions. These fictions obscure the nature of the transaction which underlies romance. Katherine believes in the knight in shining armour who will sweep her off her feet. Patriarchal fictions, such as this and the image of John Travolta in the cinematic text which Katherine has seen, construct an (apparent) female economy of desire which perpetuates the preferred complementary positioning of women - the idea of woman as man's "chosen perpetual partner,"(1) that is, as the object of man's desire.

Unlike Katherine, Hester Harper knows that problems continue after the choice of one's partner is made, rather than ending in 'happy ever after' as romantic fiction suggests. Hester knows that the knight in shining armour will probably require his wife to labour on his behalf. The troll (whom Hester and Katherine also create as an inhabitant of the well) would probably be more use to them than the handsome hero - at least he would be able to labour on their behalf.

Katherine's heterosexuality is not simply the result of a biological imperative. She has been positioned by a range of popular texts which have shaped her acceptance of heterosexuality. Conversely, homosexuality has few positive representations in patriarchal cultures. In a phallocentric symbolic, there is simply no place to 'think' it.

Hester does not understand her own sensuality or sexuality. She knows her face looks different when she listens to music and she is aware of her private response to Katherine's dancing but she has no means of equating them with her own desire. However, despite the fact that she is unable to recognise the sensual aspect of her affection for either Katherine or Hilde Herzfeld, Hester does fear the smutty innuendoes that Katherine and Joanne might place upon her relationship with Hilde Herzfeld. Hester imagines a possible conversation between Joanne and Kathy:

The Herzfeld chick. A T.V. soapy if you ask me. Big Trouble, like Sister Violetta at the home d'ya reckon? Joanna-panna Jeez. Squeeze. Huh! eh? Makepeace and whasaname on the shed floor. Remember? Huh! Yuk! I don't hack it, but. Like hell she must have gone for the Herzy chick. (17)

Hester's paranoia has a real cause; it is rooted in the social attitudes which question and ultimately denigrate those relationships which fall outside of a constructed and arbitrary norm. These feelings cause Hester to make the stories she tells Katherine of her time with Hilde acceptable, by translating them into the traditional maternal/carer paradigm and robbing them of the sensuality which Hester's private memories contain.

The Well also highlights the difficulties involved for women in maintaining relationships with one another if they choose a masculine or 'father-identified' position from which to function.8 Toril Moi states that Father-identification creates, "a woman who derives her identity from the same (symbolic order"[as man].9 Such a woman wields power in masculine terms:

Under patriarchy, any female victory, will amount to a taking of phallic power, a victory which by definition, can never be feminist (ine), but (can) only constitute a masked assertion of essentially masculine power.10

Hester is this kind of woman; her tragedy is "the tragedy of the woman who is unable to escape the crippling legacies of this symbolic order."11 And Hester is crippled, literally and symbolically.12

Hester and Katherine's relationship is scripted by their attachment to patriarchal systems and by their uncritical acceptance of its language. They will either be in competition, a situation which Katherine confirms by her discussions of the suitor in the well:

"You know," [Katherine says to Hester] "I'm thinking he's not such a young man either. He might prefer you to me. Imagine! I shall be jealous, but. Imagine! Jealous!" (127)

or their relationship will be based on mutual possessiveness. Hester admits that her relationship with Katherine is of this order but disregards the implications of this knowledge.

The word "possession" and its synonyms recur like a chorus throughout this text and are used predominantly in the contexts of commerce and marriage (in the shop and about the Bordens). At the party which the Bordens hold to celebrate their purchase of Hester's land, the economic imperative behind male/female possession is clarified, as, "Still smiling [Mrs Borden] took up a possessive position at his [her husband's] side." (77) Her status is defined precisely by her 'physical relationship' to her husband. (Mrs Borden's pregnancy is subject to monitoring by her husband; neither her body nor its product belong to her; along with the land and her social position, they are owned and defined by her husband).

Hester's relationship with Katherine is governed by the same paradigms as those which regulate the relationship between the Bordens. The property rights which are implicit in the marriage contract and which also exist between parent and child are apparent in the relationship between Hester and Katherine. It is after the 'purchase' of Katherine in the shop that the women's life together begins. Katherine is introduced into the Harper household and rendered, by language, an object, a commodity for the gratification of possessive desire. This scene is echoed later in the novel, when Hester goes to the Grossman's shop in order to buy a rope. Whilst she is waiting she begins to feel hungry and helps herself to an entire lamington bar. Still later the scene is replayed. Hester is sitting next to a woman who:

Watched with admiration. "I say", she said, "do you often do that?"

Hester, with her mouth too full, nodded.

"Sort of eat now and pay later."

Hester nodded again. (156)

This is analogous to Hester's acquisition of Katherine. She has allowed her appetite (desire) to rule, giving little thought to the consequences. The woman's innocent question underscores the reality of Hester's situation. And Hester does pay (later), with guilt, with the return of debilitating headaches, with Katherine's hysteria, with loss of status and finally, with the loss of Mr Bird who has looked after her business affairs and her well-being for many years.

After Hester sells her land she and Katherine retreat to the far edge of her property and build a cloistered but happy life together. The little stone cottage, where they live, describes an intensely feminine space, filled with feminine activities. Yet despite the air of celebration that surrounds these activities the cottage also functions as an emblem of the marginalisation of the feminine under patriarchy. The cottage is situated on a small, misshapen tract of land on the margins of the property Hester formerly owned. Similarly, the well has a paradoxical function in the narrative; initially, it is a place of sunshine, comfortable and comforting, Hester and Katherine sit on its edge and create stories: they knit, sew, embroider and weave them. This re-enacts the other happy, woman-centred time in Hester's life, her time with Hilde. Sadly, despite the jouissance of Hester and Katherine's life the realities of the dominant order will intrude. The well is the site where this intrusion is both repressed and recurrent.

Hester has been alienated from her home and her land by her refusal to continue accepting patriarchy's conditions. The conditions under which she can wield power are derived from traditionally masculine positions of power, such as exist in the squatocracies of rural Australia. However, it is important to note that Hester's possessive preoccupation with Katherine has led her to neglect her land (responsibilities). Hester's attempts to disengage from society are complicated by her complicity with capitalist and patriarchal systems; her desire for Katherine is already bound by their constraints. As Hester turns from a father-identified position and begins to pay more attention to the personal and sensual, as opposed to the public, her status is diminished. Despite her pleasure in her life with Katherine, Hester finds it difficult, if not impossible to reconcile herself to the diminution of her status and continues to cling to money. Money is of primary importance now that she has lost her land, and the position and authority which ownership construes. Hester is also aware that she requires money to 'hold on' to Katherine. The need or desire for money reflects the imperatives of a society in which possessions define status and confer power. However,

[while] the object of possession [in Jolley's novels] can be land, a person, a home . . . wealth and property are never valued for their own sake; possessions [function to] mark out physical and psychological territory.13

Money, is, for Hester, a bulwark against fear and against the repetition of loss. Her possessive behaviour has (at least) two sources; it stems from her father-identification but also from the fact that she is a woman and her only access to power is through ownership. Land is power: it has a financial meaning. It has given Hester masculine (phallic) power and has been her only guarantee of respect and safety. But land should not necessarily equal money. This is a patriarchal equation. The text suggests that relationship with the land is, or should be deeper whilst it acknowledges that the economic nexus is real and current, for both land and love - for both our "physical and psychological territories."14 There is no simple either/or dichotomy between patriarchal or woman-centred systems; rather, the paradoxes in the text suggest the impossibility of either's 'pure' existence and indicate that relationships need to be expressed as mutuality not possession.

Hester's engagement with patriarchy is temporarily useful; it helps her negotiate a man's world. Yet, finally, it only allows her a "precarious dance on the volcano of male ideology."15 Hester's dance is on the edge of the well which is hammered shut in acknowledgement of her complicity with the patriarchal order. This implicit acknowledgement is predicated on her disavowal of responsibility for the intruder.

Hester's father-identification is a corruption of self which is based upon repression. Her childhood was ended abruptly and entry into the adult world was achieved by the too early acquisition of sexual knowledge. It is possible to create an analogy with the traditional nuclear family, by linking Hester, her father and Hilde: the male (the father) intruder penetrates the mother (Hilde) and forces a separation between the mother and the child. This sequence is repeated when the male intruder (the thief) penetrates the female (semiotic) space (the cottage) and causes a separation between the mother (Hester) and the daughter (Katherine). These situations may be read as analogies of the second rejection of the mother, which is said to occur in adolescence, and is deemed necessary, in Freudian psychoanalysis, for the assumption of normal, heterosexual relations.16

The rejection of the mother and the negation of the sensual bond that exists between mother and daughter is also associated with the repression of female relatedness.17 Hester is faced with a choice, between the mother-figure, Hilde and her father. She loses Hilde as a result of this choice and because she avoids knowledge of, and compassion for, "Hilde's terrible pain and loneliness [Hester] has "done something Hilde would never have done to her." (125) Hester's action is a consequence of her strong identification with her father and her need to retain his affection. Trapped within such an economy, loss becomes this woman's particular fate.

The resonances apparent in Hester's name link her, metaphorically, to the well and to the notion, posited by theorists such as Luce Irigaray, of the masculine fear of the womb (Hester is derived from hyster which is related, etymologically, to hysteria and semantically to womb). This suggests the unknown or the abyss and the subsequent repression of feminine power and the masculine violence which accompanies it. Hester is implicated in both of these positions; she places the intruder in the well in order to preserve her woman-centred life with Katherine, but her actions are also precipitated by her internalisation of the patriarchal, possessive economy - she desires to keep Katherine for herself.

At the same time Hester fills the role of the suffocating mother who refuses to give up her child. The tussle between identification with the male (the intruder) and the mother (Hester) threatens Katherine's sanity.18 For Katherine the "call of the mother" (the cloistered relationship with Hester) results in "hallucinations, voices, madness."19 It seems that unless one can 'think' a right of entry into the social/symbolic order which is not predicated on what patriarchy requires of women that relationships between them will always be fraught in these ways.

A further evocation of Hester's father-identification can be seen in the links between it and Jacob's story in the bible. The man in the well is called Jacob (the "supplanter"). In the biblical story it is Jacob, the younger brother who cheats his older brother Esau out of his inheritance. In The Well Jacob is, potentially, a supplanter. (Hester has played the role of the eldest son for her father and received her reward.) The man, it seems, has already stolen some of Hester's inheritance and now threatens her with the loss of Katherine. Like Esau, in the biblical story Hester unsuccessfully tries to destroy this threat to her rights of ownership but, "To her horror the water (and the intruder's body?) seemed to be rising even more . . . close to the edge of the coping." (148-9) But the threat cannot be abolished. Acceptance of patrilineal (patriarchal) inheritance indicates that, as in the biblical version, the inherent threats of patriarchy will live on in other guises - Jacob's son is buried in a well but survives to become a very powerful man, one whose success allows his father to become the patriarch of a nation of men.20

The structure of the nuclear family ensures woman's secondary social position and is also a buttress of modern capitalism. As the resonances, psychoanalytic, biblical and economic, suggest, the web that surrounds Hester's and Katherine's relationship is almost impenetrable.

The Well not only describes and exposes the problematic nature of female relationships, but as Sue Gillett points out, the text is also meta-fictional.21 The narrative structure succeeds where Hester appears to fail - it disengages from patriarchal constructs. Although, as Jolley herself points out, Hester now has one foot facing forward; there is the potential for new beginnings, Hester's failure is not total.22

In this context the well may be seen as a symbol of the unconscious, the chora - it is a "receptacle, unnameable, improbable hybrid, anterior to naming . . . and consequently maternally connoted."23 It is a narrative device which contains 'facts' and fictions, interpretations indistinguishable from one another; it suppresses them but is incapable of preventing their periodic bubbling to the surface. The text is suggestive, repetitive and resists closure. There are no beginnings, no endings; the text at some point leaves off, while thought in the reader, the process of constructing a narrative, of making sense, goes on. This openness is reinforced by the ending of the text: Hester is beginning her own narrative; she is about to make her own meanings, her own sense out of the material of the past.

Hester is represented, at first, as being powerful, rational, patriarchal and the narrative is (apparently) the same. We believe we know where we are in the story. The past is the past; the temporal sequence is clear. As Hester increasingly submits herself to the feminine the rationality of the narrative is ruptured, "it was all simple and pleasant. Three years slipped by, the passing time hardly noticed" (21) The stories and the lives of those in it (them) seems to move irrespective of time.

Although close examination reveals that the construction of a linear narrative is possible, the sensation that the text evokes is one of vertigo. Where are we in the text? Which story is true? What do Hester's memories mean? There are breaches, if not complete breaks, in the narrative structure. This not only allows Jolley to draw attention to the materiality of textual production; it may also demonstrate the eruption of the maternal body (equated with the unconscious, with the chora), of the monstrous into the father's plot (the linear narrative).24 Hester's memories of Hilde Herzfeld (the mother's body) disrupt the narrative sequence, throwing it from past to present and back again. We are allowed only partial glimpses of reality and then they are snatched away. Time and logic are suspended. Structure and content collide, suggesting that:

the more a woman searches ... the more she may find herself wandering . . . lost in a wilderness, journeying along language, lost in its mirages.25

Are we lost in Jolley's mirages? From the outset the text has been delivered to us in a manner that disturbs any notion of it as a unified whole. Jolley disengages her epigraph from the body of the text, allowing it to stand alone. In several interviews she describes how she took the first chapter from the end of the novel and placed it at the beginning. This highlights the constructedness of the text, and in so doing, announces it as something that can be made and re-made by both author and reader. However, while it seems that Jolley has devised a narrative technique which allows her writing to exceed, and in so doing, deconstruct, patriarchal constraints, the same cannot be said for the two women in the text. Hester and Katherine face an uncertain future, one of isolation or loss. Unless, as Jolley suggests, in becoming an author/story-teller herself, in recognising life as a series of constructions, Hester will be able to find new kinds of power and free herself and Katherine from the economy of property and possession.

This tenuous hope set within a discontinuous narrative seems to motion towards Luce Irigaray's assertion that you cannot change an order without changing the forms of that order. Jolley, in changing the forms, leaves the (narrative) future alive with possibility . . .

University of Wollongong


1. Grosz, Elizabeth, Sexual Subversions: Three French Feminists, St Leonards: Allen and Unwin, 1989, 145.

2. Luce Irigaray in This Sex Which is Not One and HŽlne Cixous and Catherine ClŽment in The Newly Born Woman have constructed intricate critiques of the repression of the feminine in Western discourses. Their critiques draw out the links between this repression and the oppression of women in societies whose language and institutions operate within these frames.

3. Luce Irigaray presents a powerful critique of this market place economy in an article entitled "Women on the Market" in This Sex Which is Not One, Catherine Porter with Caroline Burke, trans., Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985.

4. Jolley, Elizabeth, The Well, Australia: Penguin Books, 1988, epigraph. All subsequent quotes from this work will be followed by parentheses and the appropriate page number.

5. Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Will to Power, Walter Kaufmann ed., Walter Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale transl., New York: Random House, 1968, 313-314.

6. Duncker, Patricia, in Paulina Palmer Contemporary Women's Fiction, New York: Wheatsheaf, 1989, 48.

7. Jardine, Alice, quoted in Joan Kirkby's "The Call of the Mother in the Fiction of Elizabeth Jolley," in SPAN, No.26, April 1988, 48.

8. Kirkby, Joan, "The Call of the Mother in the Fiction of Elizabeth Jolley", in SPAN, No. 26 April 1988, 46.

9. Moi, Toril, Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory, New York: Routledge, 1991, 165.

10. Cixous, Helene, in Andrea Nye, Feminist Theories and the Philosophies of Man, London: Croom Helm, 1988, 184.

11. Kirkby, 54.

12. Sue Gillett makes the same point in her article "The Incestuous Father In The Well: An Hysterical Narrative", in The Australian Journal of Lesbian Feminist Studies, Vol.1, No.2, December 1991, 72.

13. Trigg, Stephanie, "The Realms of Gold: Fictions, fantasies, self-fashioning", in Australian Book Review, November 1986, 5.

14. Trigg, 5.

15. Nye, Andrea, Feminist Theories and the Philosophies of Man, London: Croom Helm, 1988, 229.

16. Nice, Vivien E., Mothers and Daughters: The Distortion of a Relationship, London: Macmillan, 1992, 105.

17. The question of female sociality in Irigaray's work is described by Margaret Whitford in her article "Re-reading Irigaray", in Between Feminism and Psychoanalysis, Teresa Brennan ed., New York: Routledge, 1989, Chapter 6.

18. There is an undercurrent in the text that suggests that Katherine may be feigning madness. However, despite this undercurrent, the analogy still functions as part of the destructive potential of possessiveness.

19. Kristeva, Julia, "About Chinese Women", in The Kristeva Reader, New York: Columbia University Press, 1986, 156-57.

20. This is not to suggest that there were no women in the nation of which Jacob was patriarch, but rather to indicate the patrilineal nature of inheritance as well as the fact that women's roles in the bible are elided unless their reproductive function occasions their mention.

21. Gillett, Sue, "Breaking the Realist Mirror: With a (Female) Difference" in Elizabeth Jolley: New Critical Essays, Delys Bird and Brenda Walker, eds., Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1991, 105-121.

22. Wilbanks, Ray, Speaking Volumes: Australian Writers and their Work, Ringwood: Penguin Books, 1991, 121.

23. Kristeva, in Grosz, Sexual Subversions, 44.

24. For more detail on the eruption of the mother's body into the father's text see Marion Campbell's "Spectacular Motherhood: Marion Campbell on Motherhood", in Australian Book Review, No. 1, June 1990, 25-29.

25. Nye, 198.

New: 13 December, 1996 | Now: 22 April, 2015