For generations, Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary have loomed as the nonpareils of self-loathing literary heroines. For Anna, guilt over having abandoned her husband and child, paired with a jealous nature, compels her to destroy the love she shares with Count Vronsky — and head for the train tracks. For Emma, dumped by a conscience-free bachelor with whom she has an extramarital affair — and unable to repay the debts she accrues on account of her shopping addiction — a spoonful of arsenic ultimately beckons.
Lately, however, Tolstoy and Flaubert have had stiff competition on the self-harm front, thanks to women novelists intent on exploring their female characters’ propensity to act out their unhappiness on their bodies.
The 20-something protagonists of Sally Rooney’s two novels ask their lovers to hit them in bed. Frances, of “Conversations With Friends” (2017), a college student and aspiring poet, also scratches, pinches and gouges her skin. “I felt that I was a damaged person who deserved nothing,” she muses, describing her body as “garbage.” Marianne, in “Normal People” (2019), sabotages the love she shares with a sensitive classmate in favor of, first, a rich guy who mistreats her and, later, a creepy artist who takes nude pictures of her in degrading positions and does “gruesome” things to her during sex. This is all apparently because Marianne regards herself as “a bad person, corrupted, wrong,” and “all her efforts to be right, to have the right opinions, to say the right things … only disguise what is buried inside her, the evil part of herself.” Similarly, Edie, the self-described “office slut” in Raven Leilani’s debut, “Luster” (2020), encourages her married lover to shove and punch her, and sticks a samurai sword into her hand.
Meanwhile, in Ottessa Moshfegh’s “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” (2018), the unnamed young narrator abuses her body with sleeping pills and tranquilizers in an attempt to spend the bulk of her waking hours — asleep. “Besides sleeping, what do you want out of life?” her best friend asks her during a rare moment of sentience. “I chose to ignore her sarcasm,” the narrator reports. “‘I wanted to be an artist, but I had no talent,’ I told her.” Soon enough, she falls unconscious again.
And in Melissa Broder’s “Milk Fed” (2021), Rachel, an underling at a Los Angeles talent management agency, goes from starving herself to gorging on junk food. This transformation is set in motion when Rachel falls in love with a plus-size frozen yogurt server — and begins to release her fear of “spinning out into infinity, a nothing, a blob, so big I could be seen only in fragments, so unwieldy I could never be held, just an overwhelming void, just devastated, just dead.”
Finally, in the Swedish novel “Willful Disregard” (2016), by Lena Andersson, Ester, a brainy 30-ish writer who is not so much self-loathing as self-defeating, leaves her live-in boyfriend to pursue an arrogant older artist. Never mind that the artist makes it clear that his amorous interests lie elsewhere. Ester’s unanswered texts to him are likely to send a chill of pained recognition through any reader who has sacrificed self-respect in pursuit of some mirage of love or desirability.
But where Anna and Emma can be seen as prisoners of the oppressive gender roles of their respective eras and milieus, it’s far less clear why this latest batch of self-loathers, blessed with social and sexual freedom that would have been unimaginable to their forebears, are so racked with self-disgust and hellbent on hurting themselves.
Of course, the human condition is a trying business, regardless of one’s sociological data points. Yet it’s hard not to notice that these protagonists are all young, intelligent, attractive and, with the exception of Edie, white and well off. Readers might be forgiven for wondering what the matter is.
The motives that Rooney ascribes to her alter egos range from the ravages of “late capitalism” (Frances) to familial physical abuse and being a dork in high school (Marianne). Because none of these ideas are fully developed, none are entirely convincing. Broder posits Rachel’s parents as the cause of her eating disorder and cratered self-esteem. When she starves herself to the point of no longer menstruating, her mother insists, “Anorexics are much skinnier than you,” adding: “They look like concentration camp victims. They have to be hospitalized. You aren’t anorexic.”
In “My Year of Rest and Relaxation,” Moshfegh resists providing any explanation for her narrator’s desire to slumber away her life. Readers learn details of her comfortable if unfulfilling existence. But they’re delivered in such a deadpan way that the novel reads less as a character study than as an absurdist parable about the impossibility of human connection in the modern world.
I wonder whether, in some larger sense, these books reflect discomfort with current liberal-left shibboleths regarding “the patriarchy.” Both the hugely successful “Normal People” and “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” came out at the height of the #MeToo movement. Yet the flood of news stories depicting powerful men abusing their positions to prey on naïve and unsuspecting young women in their employ are a far cry from the sexual worldview of these novels. In both, the young female protagonists insist on their agency — even if it’s the agency to seek out their own debasement.
What’s more, the male characters don’t always comply. Neither the married lover in “Conversations With Friends,” nor Marianne’s sensitive boyfriend in “Normal People,” is willing to strike the heroine, despite her requests. And when Marianne’s creepy artist lover admits he has feelings for her, she departs in apparent disgust.
So, too, Moshfegh’s emotionally detached narrator seems unfazed by the experience of being “used” for sex. About her ex-boyfriend, she says, “One time he said he was afraid of [expletive] me ‘too passionately’ because he didn’t want to break my heart. So he [expletive] me efficiently, selfishly, and when he was done, he’d get dressed and check his pager, comb his hair, kiss my forehead and leave.”
It’s as if the protagonists of these novels, faced with the choice between being their own worst enemies or men’s victims, have all chosen the former. And it’s not hard to imagine that the books’ legions of female readers might prefer it that way. For one thing, the stance renders those same men almost beside the point. “It turned out that a person could miss someone she had never met, except in her imagination,” Andersson writes of her hyper-aware heroine’s pre-emptively obsessive longing for a guy who neither knows her nor (later) wants her.
The attitude also makes for an interesting contrast with that struck by Judith Rossner’s best-selling 1975 novel, “Looking for Mr. Goodbar,” another book featuring female self-destruction. Loosely based on an actual murder case, the novel features a Bronx-reared schoolteacher named Theresa who is burdened with a limp, a complication of childhood polio. Like her contemporary fictional counterparts, Theresa regards herself as damaged and therefore unworthy not only of love but of life: “How could they not believe it would have been better for her to have died the first time she was ill instead of turning into whom she had?”
Theresa’s self-esteem issues become entangled with the sexual revolution, which provides justification for her fear of being tied down. Her attempts at self-protective noncommitment go increasingly awry, however, beginning with a humiliating affair with her married college professor. Later, Theresa ends up rejecting the kindly lawyer who wants to marry her in favor of anonymous sexual escapades with unvetted strangers she picks up in dive bars. As we learn in the novel’s first few pages, one of those strangers is a bona fide psychopath who bludgeons her to death.
But even without the foreshadowing of her violent demise, Theresa seems vulnerable and helpless in male company in a way that today’s fictional self-loathers do not — maybe because the latter all seem like experts on their own dysfunction and therefore in control even when out of control. Rossner depicts Theresa as “dizzy,” “frightened,” “upset” and “endangered,” yet unable to make sense of her own tears. What’s changed in 45 years? The mainstreaming of “therapy” — a subject played for laughs in both “Milk Fed” and “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” in the form of wacky and unprofessional shrinks whom the narrators outwit — may be the decisive factor.
In the final pages of “Looking for Mr. Goodbar,” Theresa contemplates seeking professional help. In a plot point almost unimaginable today, her life is cut short before she ever makes it onto the couch.
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