Dr Nicola Allen, Birmingham City University
Dr Allen’s paper first appeared in Critical Engagements 2:2, Autumn/Winter 2008 (ISSN: 1754-0984).
Shaven-headed women recur in Jim Crace’s fiction, functioning as extreme and powerful images, from the rebellious (yet ultimately sympathetic) character of Syl in Being Dead (1999) to the newly self-sufficient (though socially ostracized) Margaret in The Pesthouse (2007), the figure is imbued with a complex set of symbolic readings, that are intended to imply the character’s strength and vulnerability at the same time. The sense of human frailty that the figure evokes reflects broader cultural incarnations of the shaven-headed figure which traces its genesis to early narrative forms but perhaps reaches its peak within post-World War II cinema; Crace locates his own early encounters with the shaven-headed female figure in such films, whilst also hinting at the importance of the Second World War for contemporary readings of the figure:
My first shaven encounters in film and fiction were with Maria in For Whom the Bell Tolls (played not quite so baldly by Ingrid Bergmann in the movie) and Jean Seberg in Saint Joan and Godard’s A Bout de Souffle. Then there is the bald-headed Sinead O'Connor heroically resisting the boos at the Dylan tribute concert. A startling, moving bit of film which would not have been so eloquent had she sported locks down to her shoulders. But most of all, there are the twinning but contrasting images of shaven Jewish women in concentration camps, and the revenge shaving and tarring of female collaborators by righteous Parisian mobs in 1945 (interview with author 02/09/08).
In the quote above Crace evokes a cultural sense of such well-recognized traumas as the Russian Gulags and the Nazi Holocaust where such images have proliferated even in popular culture[i] as a sign of utter abjection and vulnerability.
However, in Crace’s fiction there may be traced other dimensions, for such a figure can serve to externalize trauma of many kinds whilst also subverting hegemonic depictions of the feminine, a strategy undertaken, as this article suggests, in order to allow such depictions and yet in a fashion that disassociates the narrative’s viewpoint from traditional patriarchal constructs of gender as identified by Simone de Beauvoir[ii]. For Beauvoir the process of becoming a woman (and thus becoming a subjugated ‘Other’) entails the acceptance of certain modes of behavior and dress (including ways of dressing hair) which are prescribed as being ‘feminine’. Thus, by removing the hair of his female protagonists Crace perhaps utilizes a far less overtly feminine image which allows the female characters to serve as more universal, less gender-specific points of identification, whilst the associations of hairlessness and suffering allows them to sustain a sense of common human frailty.
Crace’s use of the symbol of the shaven head and the loss of hair forms part of a long aesthetic tradition. Head hair fulfills an emblematic purpose in fiction that can be traced back to the earliest narrative forms and which still persists in the contemporary period. At a cursory level, the image appears straight-forward in its symbolic function. From biblical figures such as Samson, to Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid (1837) to contemporary incarnations in visual media, such as the characters of Ripley in Alien 3, (1992) Evey in V for Vendetta (2006) and Alan Martin and Jamie Hewlett’s eponymous heroine Tank Girl (1988- 1995); the deliberate removal of head hair provides a physical incarnation of trauma and/or sacrifice. Perhaps the most documented tale that involves the loss of female hair of the modern era is Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid. Andersen's fairy tale features a young mermaid who willingly chooses to marry a human prince and thus have a mortal soul like humans.
When the prince does not marry the mermaid, but chooses someone else, the mermaid will supposedly become foam on the water the morning after the marriage. A few hours after his wedding, the mermaid’s sisters appear, having sacrificed their hair to give her a magical knife which, if plunged into the prince's heart before dawn, will prevent her death and return her 300 years of life. In this story, the depiction of the shaving of the female head or cropping of hair allows Anderson to embark upon a process of actualizing a complex set of responses to the trauma that the character has internalized. The sisters surrender their hair in an act which is at the same time sacrificial and yet also liberating since it allows the mermaids to take back their sister and to defeat the duplicitous humans who have done them wrong. This article will argue that the shaven-headed female protagonist in Crace’s work fulfils a similar dualistic function in that the image serves to externalize trauma whilst also subverting hegemonic depictions of the feminine, and ultimately is both a sacrificial and yet also liberating act; allowing for a degree of female autonomy in the often heavily patriarchal systems that Crace’s novels depict and critique.
Evidence of such heavily patriarchal systems in the world outside of the text can be found even in modern times as evidenced by the fact that a shaven-headed woman draws much more attention and discussion than a bald male. Patrick Barkham reports on the phenomena for the Guardian, in an article that was inspired by the reaction to Britney Spears’s decision to shave her head. Barkham acknowledges that:
Throughout history, a shorn head has been heavy with meaning. The bare-headed Christian or Buddhist monks told of their devotion or a renunciation of worldly pleasures. More commonly, shaven heads have been associated with trauma, brutality and the loss of individuality or strength. In biblical legend, Samson was deprived of his incredible power and killed when his hair was cut off while he was asleep. In ancient Greece shaved heads were a mark of the slave. Shorn hair is inflicted on the sick, and has been deployed by armies to both dehumanise their own soldiers and punish their enemies. (Barkham: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2007/feb/20/gender.music)
The deliberate removal of head hair is, in these instances differently motivated and incarnated depending upon the gender of the shaved figure. Whereas for Samson his hair represented physical strength, and its removal by his duplicitous wife, Delilah, not only symbolizes but also causes the loss of that strength. For the sisters in The Little Mermaid their hair represents their sexuality, the removal of it does not, in fact, alter the mer-women themselves (as it does Samson), only the reactions of those around them are changed, and thus this key difference between the genders prioritizes the impact of the male gaze upon women’s power to act, and reveals that when a female character decides to shave her head she embodies an implicit subversion of part of the process of becoming ‘feminine’.
The first time Crace visits the theme is in his millennial novel Being Dead, in which the disappearance and murder of a married couple, Joseph and Celice, facilitates a ‘coming of age’ epiphanic homecoming for their estranged daughter Syl, a troubled but empathetic young character. Syl’s shaven head is prioritized in early descriptions of her, and serves to stretch the image away from the suggestion of suffering and instead suggests a bohemian vitality, which explicitly rejects feminine chastity. Syl’s bald head functions as an external marker of her deliberately unconventional lifestyle:
… her shaven head, her unmade bed, her disregard for everything, her clothes, particularly her unembarrassed appetite for men. Why not take lovers, given half the chance? Why not work through the string sections and then the brass? You can’t make mayhem when you’re dead. (p.101)
Syl’s verve seems all the more poignant given the reader’s knowledge that (unbeknown to her) Syl’s parents are dead, but she also forms a contrast with her parents’ reserved dispositions. We are told on the novel’s opening page that a middle aged couple, Joseph and Celice, (the director of the Tidal Institute and a lecturer in natural science respectively) are already dead; they were murdered whilst making love on a secluded part of a beach at the fictionalized Baritone Bay. Conveyed alongside this information is the fact that although, they were murdered in this way, the couple were actually very reserved during their lifetime, we are told that: ‘(h)ardly any of their colleagues had ever seen them together, or visited them at home, let alone witnessed them touch’ (p.1). As Philip Tew argues in Jim Crace (2006) ‘the intimacy of detail of the deaths is juxtaposed with their reserve. Such contrasts are the driving forces of the novel.’ (p.134). Syl provides another contrast with her parents’ reserve, in that she is the epitome of a contemporary, urban young woman, sexually liberated and not at all concerned with her parents’ scientific take on the world, Syl has eschewed any academic career and instead works as a waitress in a bohemian restaurant next to a concert hall.
The fact that the disappearance of her parents is the catalyst for Syl’s homecoming enables her to function as an affirmation that although there is no spiritual afterlife for Joseph and Celice, they live on in their daughter, who has returned to bring life to the family home. Her entry to the house evokes the imagery of birth: ‘The threshold of the house was swollen. The front door jammed as ever, and Syl had to show her driver where to push to ease it open.’ (p.121) Once inside the house Syl begins a process of taking ownership of it, beginning by resuming her role of errant teenager by engaging in unrestrained sexual intercourse with her boyfriend, we are told:
[…] they spent the night in her own bedroom, or at least the room that had been hers … Stress and agitation … were unexpected aphrodisiacs … She brushed his penis with the stubble of her hair … she took the opportunity to flood her parents house with noise. (p.125-126)
The sequence ends, however with Syl switching roles, symbolically inhabiting the space that her mother used to reside in:
Syl was both tranquil and unnerved. She left her sleeping driver in her bed and went into her mother’s room, where she would be more comfortable and might sleep. She put on her mother’s nightdress and lay down on the nearside of the bed.’ (p. 127)
Syl’s bald head here (we are reminded of ‘the stubble of her hair’) is suggestive of a ‘newborn’ status, and is thus life-affirming, as is the flooding of the house with noise. The eventual habitation of the mother’s gown and room by the daughter, are suggestive of an acceptance and continuation of the family line. Syl therefore offers a glimpse of comfort in an otherwise relentlessly bleak tale. Her vigor and her bald head enable her to fulfill the symbolic function of providing an affirmation of life within an atheist narrative that seeks to offer hope even though it insists on denying the comfort of any spiritual life after death.
Kristine Stiles discusses the link between the shaven head and the actualization of both trauma and a kind of comfort in her essay, ‘Shaved Heads and Marked Bodies: Representations From Cultures of Trauma’ (1993) she explains the symbolic nature of the shaven head, by locating the image in its historical, social and cultural instances thus: ‘Shaved heads is a representation that refers both to an image and a style which result from a wide variety of social and political experiences outside of the context of the visual arts…’ (p.20). For Stiles, as for Crace, the aftermath of the second world war and in particular the public shaving of women who had been accused of conducting sexual relationships with German soldiers who were known as ‘horizontal collaborators’ provides the context for the contemporary symbolic value of the shaven-headed woman:
Horizontal collaborators served as metonymic signifiers for the "vertical collaborators" who, under the Vichy government, maintained an upright appearance while they capitulated to the Germans, raised their hands in the Nazi salute, and welcomed "The New Europe" into their beds. These women with shaved heads were used as communal purgatives, scapegoats for the French who themselves had whored for jobs in Germany, for extra food, and for peacetime amenities especially during the years 1940 to 1943. In 1944-45, photographers like Robert Capa and Carl Mydan documented the terrible brutality to women accused of sexual collaborations with the Germans; and Marcel Ophuls included documents of one such incident in the town of Clermont-Ferrand in his 1969 film The Sorrow and the Pity. Female collaborators whose crimes were not sexual were not treated with the same kind of corporeal violations as the horizontal collaborators whose primary sedition was to have slept with the enemy….War condones and ritualizes the destruction and occupation of territories and bodies. Marked as properly owned by the community, the shaved head confirms feminist's observations that wars are fought for, among other things, privilege to the bodies of women (p.21).
In the scenario that Stiles describes the female who is subjected to the shearing essentially occupies a subjugated metonymic position, the loss of the hair becomes more than simply a public humiliation and more even than the symbolic removal of the feminine allure that complied with the Nazi soldiers. The shaven head, and by implication the woman herself becomes a visceral representation of the shedding of a communal sin and thus causes the woman in question to occupy a binary position in that her shaven head represents two dichotomous positions at once; in one interpretation she stands for healing, and thus epitomizes a kind of regenerative strength (in an almost Christ-like sacrifice the shaven female atones and thus is given responsibility for the ‘sin’ and this allows the villagers to free themselves from any further association with the collaboration) as well as, more straightforwardly, her shaven head symbolizes the shame and humiliation that atoning for a sexual sin would traditionally call for.
In Crace’s fiction the symbolism of the shaven-headed female is extended beyond Stiles subjugated metonymic position, such that whilst the figure undoubtedly fulfills the regenerative functions that Stiles implies can be read into the image more generally; the female characters themselves use their shaven heads as markers of defiance from traditional gender roles. Even though Margaret’s head is forcibly shaved she comes to see her baldness as a marker of independence and actively displays her stubble to ward off unwanted advances and to distance herself from groups of fellow travelers in order to lead an independent life which flouts traditional gender roles. In Being Dead the shaven-headed Syl returns to her estranged parents home after they have gone missing; the moment of Syl’s realization that something might be amiss arises after her parents fail to answer their phone. This episode in the novel allows us an insight into Syl’s character, she is described using language that is deliberately ‘unfeminine’, we are told that:
[Syl] was the sort herself not to show up, to let her colleagues down, to stay out late, to cheat on friends and debts, to keep no one informed, to let the phone sing to itself …She tried their mobile phone, while sat on the lavatory with the door open, a can of Chevron beer in her hand and with her own phone, chirruping on its extended lead, between her feet, in the cradle of her knickers.’ (p.102)
In the passage above Syl lacks self-consciousness which works alongside her bald head as a rejection of the male gaze, but by removing connotations of the feminine (the adult female) the image of Syl quoted above also implicitly has connotations of the child-like, the use of the term ‘cradle’ adds to this sense, and thus this image re-instates vulnerability in the shaven headed female. Syl’s bald head also works as a symbol of resistance to the stifling academic, intellectual, but stagnant world of her parents, it is listed amongst the things that her parents would disapprove of and is linked to a sense of proactive sexual promiscuity: ‘… her shaven head, her unmade bed, her disregard for everything, her clothes, particularly her unembarrassed appetite for men. Why not take lovers, given half the chance? Why not work through the string sections and then the brass? You can’t make mayhem when you’re dead.’ (p.101). Syl’s deliberate baldness is used here to suggest a more general rebellion, but one that is also closely linked to her sexuality, whilst the image of a shaven-headed male does not necessarily evoke this association.
In part this can simply be attributed to the higher rate of occurrence of male pattern baldness when compared to naturally occurring female baldness; but the act of the deliberate removal of head hair, whilst it can go unnoticed in men, remains a statement when perpetrated by or on a woman. Such figures are often regarded as making a statement about their relationship to traditional constructs of femininity. Crace explains this thus: ‘there is something heroic and defeminised (in the Hollywood sense) about shaven-headed females. Defeminised but eroticised, perhaps.’ (interview with author 02/09/08)
Crace’s female characters are no different in this respect, indeed it is common for reviewers of Crace’s fiction to comment upon the strength of the female characters that populate his novels, even though his depiction of male characters is regarded by some as being less ‘rounded’. This is perhaps suggestive of an intention to create female rather than male points of identification for the reader. This situation is exemplified in reviewers’ responses to Crace’s most recent novel, The Pesthouse (2007); such that whilst Gail Caldwell complained in the Boston Globe that Crace’s male characters lacked substance: ‘The bad guys, for instance, from the rustlers to the religious reactionaries, are faceless prototypes’[iii], Emily Barton of the Los Angeles Times, says of the female characters in the same novel: ‘[…] it joins the ranks of tales in which women fend for themselves in the wilderness.’ [iv]. The Pesthouse is perhaps then, recognized as being the most overtly female survivalist tale within Crace’s body of work; it is not, however, the only time that Crace details female survival in the wilderness.
Before he adopted the motif of the shaven-headed woman in Being Dead (1999) and The Pesthouse (2007), Crace explored the theme of female endurance in his earlier writing. In several of his fictions the plight of women is to face violence and humiliation, from which they gain both an independence and strength. Crace’s second book The Gift of Stones (1988) details the last years of a stone-age village, which is eventually abandoned as the villagers’ income dwindles due to the discovery of a new metal which makes their stone craft redundant. Of those cast into the wilderness the village story-teller’s unnamed daughter attempts to keep the memory of her village alive in the new Iron Age, by telling the story of her father to the reader. Similarly, Crace’s fifth novel Quarantine (1997) details the plights of the characters of Miri and Marta, whose predicament, to some extent thematically foreshadows The Pesthouse, as the two women flee into the Judean desert in an attempt to escape Miri’s abusive husband (Musa) and live in the desert together in order to make a new life for themselves and Miri’s baby.
However, Crace’s female protagonists do not simply end up having to find ways of fending for themselves. Rather, his fiction is populated with notably and deliberately unfeminine female characters, (at least in the more conventional sense), from the tall and inelegant character of Celice in Being Dead, who is larger and in many ways physically more ‘masculine’ than her husband Joseph, to the shaven-headed survivor, Margaret in The Pesthouse, Crace’s female characters continue to defy and subvert traditional constructs of femininity. The shaven-headed female is one such image, and can be regarded as an incarnation of Crace’s attempt to render female characters that are imbued with a complex set of symbolic functions. This is possible because, as noted above, the shaven-headed woman could be said to occupy a dual symbolic position, in that the figure represents both human frailty and a kind of de-feminized strength.
Crace’s continued interaction with the image was affirmed when he again utilized the symbol of the shaven-headed female in his 2007 novel The Pesthouse in which Margaret is the main protagonist. If Syl forms the epitome of a contemporary, urban young woman, then Margaret is, at the beginning of The Pesthouse, something of a reversal, living in an archaic future America, without the benefits of modern conveniences. Her village, Raft, has turned to oppression and superstition in an attempt to survive when resources are scarce. Tew describes Raft in the following terms:
The future is anachronistic, redolent of an earlier pre-industrial age […] this is an age of superstition, magic and storytelling, of the fear of fever, of ferrymen taking travelers across the river, and a constant migration Eastward. America is in full reversal. The plethora of details conveys an early modern, almost quasi-medieval mixture of superstition and naivety. (p.197)
Unlike Syl, Margaret does not choose to have her head shaved, but rather as the suspected victim of a dreaded plague-type illness is forcibly shaved and sent to the pesthouse (a secluded hut on a hill above the village), where, since no medicine is available, she has to wait alone until she either recovers or dies from her disease at a safe distance from the rest of the village. Whilst Margaret is secluded in the hilltop hut, a landslide unearths toxic chemicals which kill every other inhabitant of her village. Crace chooses to remind the reader of Margaret’s shaven head at the same time that he reveals that she is safe from the toxic vapors, thus implicitly linking the concept of the shaven-head and survival in the reader’s mind: ‘The boulder hut on the far side of the hill, well out of danger’s way, too high for that night’s heavy vapors, was occupied by Margaret, the only stub haired person in the neighborhoods.’ (p.19). Once recovered from her illness Margaret emerges into a world that is lawless and in which, as the sole survivor of her village, there is no one left alive that Margaret can turn to. Since her bald head denotes illness Margaret is an outcast and, as such, has to become almost completely self-reliant. Her shaven head continues to act as protection, as it scares away would-be attackers, as well as providing Margaret with independence, which she has not previously known in her highly constrictive village life. We learn that she and her newfound companion, fellow outcast, and subsequent survivor Franklin enjoy an equal relationship, free from the constricting sexual politics that Margaret had previously endured; she and Franklin share a physical intimacy from the start. We learn that they: ‘slept back to back, the pale faced shaven woman and the younger man, in their great wooden-wheeled bed, between the canopies of trees, like children in a fairy tale, almost floating, almost out to sea. So, finally, some happiness’ (p.201).
It is noteworthy that Crace chooses again to remind the reader of Margaret’s bald head at the same time that he tells the reader that this is the moment at which she ‘finally’ experiences ‘some happiness’ in terms of finding herself a partner. The complex and dualistic response to the female shaven-head of a highly patriarchal society as represented by the archaic gender politics of the people of Crace’s fictionalized future America, serve as an analogy for the figure’s use more generally. The shaven head often forms a short hand symbolism of the complex emotions that the female protagonist experiences. Not least of these is a kind of sexual freedom, in that although long hair on women forms a dominant marker of sexual desirability; having a shaven head fulfils a niche fetishistic symbolic function that prevents the shaven woman from escaping definition along sexualized lines.
There is then a bifurcation of effect in the image of the shaven-headed woman that both constrains and releases Crace’s characters at the same time. The shaven headed woman is not without sexual appeal, but is depicted as having escaped the need to be servile, and is instead expected to be sexually assertive (even aggressive). This allows the character of Syl to subvert (though not to finally escape) the position of servile waitress in the MetroGnome restaurant where she works and to turn the usual relationship between waitress and male patron on its head. The response of the male customers at her café is bound up in a sexual response, but it is one that sees Syl as the aggressor. Being bald, Crace implies, allows Syl to subvert traditional constructs of feminine sexuality, without giving up sex, we are told that:
Syl was a waitress at a studio restaurant. The MetroGnome, next to the concert hall. She was ‘the bald and brittle one’, half liked, half feared by both her colleagues and the customers, mostly musicians. She was the sort they’d overtip, dismiss as rude, then try to date. (p.100)
The order of events listed above suggest that Syl has a definitive effect on the bohemian customers, who attempt to instigate a ritual financial interaction with Syl, only to find that this does not produce the desired result, which intensifies their desire for her. Syl is still constrained by a patriarchal order (she still literally waits on the men), yet by shaving her head she has accessed a limited power to subvert the defining parameters of what constitutes a desirable female. Simone de Beauvoir's starting point outlined in The Second Sex (1949) is important here:
One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman. […] we are exhorted to be women, remain women, become women. It would appear, then, that every female human being is not necessarily a woman; to be so considered she must share in that mysterious and threatened reality known as femininity. (p. 267)
Beauvoir insists upon the vital role that the perception of the male gaze plays in constructing female modesty; the subversion of the expectations of that gaze results in Crace’s shaven-headed heroines occupying a position that escapes the hegemonic cultural norm, but retains a sexual disposition. Although such characters avoid being specifically feminine in its most apparent physical manifestation, they subvert, rather than refuse, the intentional process that Beauvoir terms ‘becoming a woman’. As Sonia Kruks notes in ‘Panopticism and Shame:
Reading Foucault trough Beauvoir’:
Beauvoir's account of how one "becomes a woman" requires developing an awareness of one's "permanent visibility," learning continually to view oneself through the eyes of the generalized (male) inspecting gaze and, in so doing, taking up as one's own project those "constraints of power" that femininity entails. But becoming a woman is, for Beauvoir, still an intentional process, even though it is enacted within the constraints of power. (http://h2hobel.phl.univie.ac.at/~iaf/Labyrinth/Kruks.html)
For Margaret and Syl this process of becoming a woman is facilitated by events out of their control, (illness or the death of a parent respectively), but throughout the course of both novels, both women learn to control the process to some extent. Crace reminds the reader that in purely Darwinist terms the death of a parent represents the biological succession of their offspring. Syl experiences a sense of reconciliation with her dead parents that she had not enjoyed during their lifetimes, but this is in part facilitated by her own tacit acknowledgement that ‘Their deaths were her beginning’ (171).
Beauvoir also draws the reader’s attention to the biblical and specifically Judeo-Christian religious origins of the dominant version of femininity, which relies on instilling the need and the desire to hide the female body because of its perceived inferiority to the masculine. The most explicit articulation of this point can be found in the New Testament:
I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ; the head of a woman is her husband; and the head of Christ is the Father. Any man who prays or prophesies with his head covered brings shame upon his head. Similarly, any woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered brings shame upon her head. It is as if she had had her head shaved. Indeed, if a woman will not wear a veil, she ought to cut her hair. If it is shameful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, it is clear that she ought to wear a veil. A man, on the other hand, ought not to cover his head, because he is the image of God and the reflection of his glory. Woman, in turn, is the reflection of man's glory. Man was not made from woman but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman but woman for man. For this reason a woman ought to have a sign of submission on her head, because of the angels. [Corinthians I, Chapter 11, 1-16.]
One way of reading Crace’s use of the image of the shaven headed woman is as a means of attempting to subvert this process of becoming feminine through the instigation of female body shame, whilst also removing the link between abiding concepts of femininity and Judeo-Christian theology. As Kruks’ analysis demonstrates, there are similarities between Foucault and Beauvoir’s concepts of the link between becoming body consciousness and succumbing to a western, post-enlightenment, quasi-Christian ideological structure:
Foucault reverses traditional forms of mind-body dualism by privileging the body as the site of the formation of the self, yet he is still caught up in this dualism. If the interiorization of power takes place through "the body," then it can of course bypass that – allegedly – distinct entity called "consciousness." But if, with Beauvoir (who here draws on Merleau-Ponty) we insist that the body is not distinct from consciousness but rather is the site of their interconstituency, and the site of a sentient and intentional relation to the world, then the modalities through which we interiorize and/or resist the panoptic gaze can be explored more adequately. (http://h2hobel.phl.univie.ac.at/~iaf/Labyrinth/Kruks.html)
For the shaven headed woman, the body, and specifically the head becomes a means of resistance, using the head, rather than the body, also neatly sidesteps troublesome equations between the feminine and the bodily, instead, by choosing the head as the specific site of resistance, Crace forces his female characters to employ an intellectual (rather than solely physical) symbolism in the ‘fight’ against dominant Judeo-Christian ideologies of femininity.
As noted above the image of the shaven head works to some extent to destabilize dominant Judeo-Christian ideologies concerning femininity. The figure goes further in this destabilizing of dominant religious discourses in its role in Crace’s attempt to provide a comforting narrative whilst insisting upon a resounding denial of the possibility of a spiritual afterlife, since it creates a birth imagery surrounding Syl’s entrance to her dead parents’ home and thus has connotations of birth. Similarly in the post apocalyptic world of Raft, the image is released from its previous connotations of illness and instead Margaret comes to symbolize newness and hope, rather than disease and age, as Crace shifts the normal hierarchy by wiping out the rest of the world. The shaven head in this post-apocalyptic world implies an affirmation of the life at the moment of destruction. In both novels the image of the shaven-headed female returning home to a place which has been rendered lifeless, functions as a symbol of hope, which offers some sense of comfort in novels that work very hard to maintain an atheist denial of a spiritual afterlife.
In Crace’s Pesthouse his post-apocalyptic America has returned to a pre-modern era, with an adjacent loss of any feminist ideologies. As discussed above, the female protagonist, Margaret, lives in a time in which superstition has returned and the sexual freedom granted by technical innovations such as contraception, as well as the protection from illness offered by advanced medicines are no longer available. This has quickly led to a reversion to what appears to the contemporary reader very much like fictional imaginings of a medieval society. Fear of now incurable sexually transmitted diseases has led to an emphasis on chastity – and because pregnancy can no longer be controlled, female chastity is considered to be essential. As Tew notes ‘these specific ideas occasioned the novel, but they were supplemented by retrieving notions of social formality found in more traditional cultures, reinstating a system of barter where money has been abandoned, and conceiving of the positive re-evaluation of woman’s virginity’ (195). It is in this setting that Margaret lives, as a virgin Margaret has some financial value, should she get married the dowry that her family could ask would be higher, but aged 33, her days as a likely candidate for marriage are all but over: ‘she was, at thirty three, she admitted to herself, a woman who might be a daughter, a sister and an aunt, but never a wife or a mother. Her body would retain its value and remain untouched.’ (p.75). Margaret’s eventual sexual awakening with Franklin is only possible after the disaster, because the patriarchal order has been destroyed with the village. Margaret’s shaven head allows her to take control of her sexual awakening as it protects her from would-be rapists who assume that she is ill and therefore do not approach her for fear of being infected.
For Margaret being shaved induces the combination of vulnerability and strength mentioned above, her lack of head hair signifies a new found ‘straightfowardness’ and clarity of thought. The sacrifice of female hair in Crace’s fiction also therefore lends itself to a symbolic reading informed by Mary Louise von Franz’s hypothesis about hair and the imagination: “The hair on the head carries the projection of unconscious involuntary thoughts and fantasies, because these grew out of our heads” (65-6). In Pesthouse the removal of head hair has a positive effect; we are told that the razor removes ‘drama’ from Margaret’s head. The process of removing Margaret’s head hair is described thus:
Her grandpa – repeating what he’d done too recently for his son, her father – had shaved her skull, removing all the ginger drama from her head with a shell razor, and then called the closest women in the family, two sisters and her ma, to take off Margaret’s body hair, snapping it out at the roots, the last of it, wherever it might be – from her eyebrows and, most painfully, her lashes, from her nostrils, even; from her lightly ochered forearms and her legs; elsewhere, the hidden hair – and massage her scalp with pine tallow, until she was as shorn and shiny as a stone and smelling like a newly readied plank.
Everybody in the land must know what shaven baldness signified. No one could mistake her for a safe and healthy woman now. (Pesthouse p.20)
The ceremonial imagery employed above allows Crace to operate a short hand way of describing the community of futuristic America – archaic and prudish, superstitious and afraid. Head hair occupies an unusual position here in that whilst it is a dominant symbol of female fertility and sexuality, it is not considered improper for her male relative to shave Margaret’s head. The use of the word ‘safe’ has interesting connotations, since as those mentioned above, Margaret often does not wish to be viewed as ‘safe’ by the other men that she meets during her journey across America, her bald head rescues her from attempted rape and the fear that her baldness inspires in ‘would-be pillagers’ and attackers soon becomes an obvious strength rather than a problem. When Margaret does find love with Franklin the fact that her head is shaven permits his ‘male’ urge to protect her, because Margaret is to some extent defeminised thus removing the threat of accusations of sexism. As if to symbolize their equality as well as to emphasize the concept of rebirth Margret shaves Franklin’s head in order to protect him from bandits. Thus Margaret’s actions reverse the gendered power structure that exists in the shaving that opens the novel and establishing a sense of tabula rasa or rebirth which both the male and female bodies can symbolize and actualize.
Within Crace’s fiction therefore head hair and particularly the deliberate removal of head hair from a female character functions as a short-hand means of implying or demonstrating complex emotional or physical states for the characters themselves but also more widely the image can reflect a dualistic set of responses or emotions that the reader will also share, such that the figure externalizes strength and a comforting sense of regeneration at the same time that it represents torment or trauma. But perhaps the most striking aspect to Crace’s incarnation of the shaven-headed female is the space that the shaven female can occupy in terms of a subversion of the power of the wider cultural sense of the male gaze. Both Margaret and Syl reject the hegemonic incarnations of female bodies as outlined by Beauvoir and instead enjoy a degree of autonomy and sexual freedom that is implicitly linked within the texts to their shaven status.
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Barkham, Patrick, ‘The Bald Truth’, Guardian 20/02/07 pp.20-24 available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2007/feb/20/gender.music
Beauvoir, Simone de. Le Deuxieme sexe. 2 vols. Paris: Gallimard (Folio), 1949. Letters to Nelson Algren. Ms. The Ohio State University Librairies Special Collections, Columbus, OH.
Crace, Jim, The Gift of Stones, London: Secker & Warburg, 1988
- Quarantine, London: Viking, 1997
- Being Dead, London: Viking, 1997
- The Pesthouse, London: Picador, 2007
- Interview with the author: 02/09/08
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Kerfoot, Justine, Woman of the Boundary Waters Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1994.
Kingsolver, Barbara, Prodigal Summer London: Harper Collins, 1995.
Kruks. Sonia, ‘Panopticism and Shame: Reading Foucault trough Beauvoir’ Labyrinth Vol. 1, No. 1, Winter 1999 available at: http://h2hobel.phl.univie.ac.at/~iaf/Labyrinth/Kruks.html
Mills, Stephanie, Epicurean Simplicity Washington DC: Island Press, 2003.
Stiles, Kristine, “Shaved Heads and Marked Bodies: Representations from Cultures of Trauma,” in Bruce Lawrence and Aisha Karim, (eds.), The Chain of Violence: An Anthology. Duke University Press Originally published in Strategie II: Peuples Mediterraneens [Paris] 64-65 (July-December 1993): 95-117. Available online at: http://www.duke.edu/web/art/stiles/shaved_heads.html
Tew, Philip, Jim Crace Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006.
Waelti-Walters, Jennifer. Fairy Tales and the Female Imagination. Montreal: Eden, 1982.
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[i] Perhaps the most famous example being the portrayal of the inmates of Plaszow forced labor camp as depicted in Stephen Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List (1993), but see also Frank Launder’s 2000 Women (1944), Peter Kassovitz’s Jakob the Liar (1999), Jon Avnet’s Uprising (2001), Roman Polanski’s The Pianist (2002), Dana Vávrová and Joseph Vilsmaier’s Der Letzte Zug (aka "The Last Train") (2006) and Mark Herman’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2008).
[ii] Beauvoir's The Second Sex (1949) sets out a feminist existentialism which is based on Sartre's precept that existence precedes essence; hence one is not born a woman, but becomes one. Her analysis focuses on the Hegelian concept of the Other.
[iii] All reviews quoted can be read at: http://www.bookmarksmagazine.com/book-review/pesthouse/jim-crace
[iv] Barton’s review can be read at: http://www.bookmarksmagazine.com/book-review/pesthouse/jim-crace Barton identifies here that Crace’s most recent novel enters a literary tradition of depicting survivalist women (particularly prevalent in American ,Canadian and Australian writing) that encompasses biographical as well as fictionalized accounts, and includes texts such as Justine Kerfoot’s Woman of the Boundary Waters (1994), Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer (1995), and Stephanie Mills’s Epicurean Simplicity (2003).