A brief research article on the "gender question" of Bella Baxter in Alasdair Gray’s "Poor Things"
As I am an English Major and a local and small university, I write a great deal on the works of others. This research article is a paper that I actually had written in one of my upper lever English classes. I have taken great pride in this paper and I think others will as well. Everything is cited properly so there is no plagiarizing in this paper. Enjoy!
The Gender Question: The Making of Bella Baxter in Alasdair Gray’s Poor Things
As the reader picks up Poor Things by Alasdair Gray, a popular Scottish writer, one might not think of it as a book worthy of literary examination. The grotesque look of the book, illustrated by Gray as well, could shun away anyone, but the content within the book is rich with themes of postmodern literature. Though Poor Things is a contemporary piece of literature, Gray writes it in an overlapping narration that layers into a complex and classic worthy of canonization. Alasdair Gray creates each of his characters to have a voice, including the main character, Bella Baxter (also known as Victoria McCandless). Though the book was written in 1992, the time that the plot takes place is the 1880’s in Glasgow, Scotland- during the Victorian period. During this time in history, women were seen and not heard and had an ornamental place in society- to be wives and mothers. In addition, the male writer silences the women within literature and confines them into the class that they are born throughout history. This is not true for the story of Bella Baxter. Godwin “God” Baxter recreates from a pregnant woman who commits suicide, Bella Baxter, by placing the fetus’ brain in to the mother’s skull. With his actions involving the woman, he gives her a clean slate and thus begins her life over, regardless of the monstrosity of the recreation. She calls herself Victoria as she enrolls in Medical school, because this was her name before her “death” and she marries God’s friend, Archibald McCandless. Though she marries him, he is willing to allow her to remain in control. Alasdair Gray’s creates a new gender role and independence of the woman, specifically those of Scotland in the character of Bella Baxter/ Victoria McCandless with the help and compliance of the male characters in Poor Things.
Because of Godwin, Bella is exposed constantly to new information and taught things of the world, which is something that a Victorian woman would never have the option of learning. When Godwin Baxter revitalizes her body and gives her a new brain, he teaches her what he knows. He does not withhold the knowledge from her, instead he tells her to “never forget” what she learns (Poor Things 263). Bella is reborn with the mind of an infant and is taught everything fresh in order to create a memory for her “that creates a totality that excludes something else- namely, whatever restrains and ensnares” (Vardoulakis 139). These “restrains and ensnares” for the Victorian woman are obvious. If the Victorian woman is outspoken about her opinion, her sexuality, or anything that makes the woman and individual, she considered a monster and, at least literarily, “…must be aesthetic ideal through which they themselves have been killed…” (Gilbert and Gubar 19). This is untrue for Gray’s Poor Things because, even though the author is male, he is highlights her individuality. Instead of killing off the woman, Godwin revives her and instructs her in being the free individual she is. In the lesson that God gives her about the state of women, he inquires, “Tell me, Bella, what the scullery-maid and the master’s daughter have in common, apart from their similar ages and bodies and this house”, and she responds, “Both are used by other people… They are allowed to decide nothing for themselves” (Poor Things 263). She delights Godwin, instead of insulting him with her independence, and he says
“You know that at once because you remember your
early education. Never forget it, Bella. Most people
in England, and Scotland too, are taught not to know
it at all- are taught to be tools” (263).
Godwin prevents her from being the “tool” of a man, but gives her the tools to become an individual in her own right. Her knowledge of memory that Godwin teaches her creates a freedom for her that allows her to be a “free individual” without the classical woman stigma (Vardoulakis 139).
This does not discount the true reason that Godwin created Bella. Godwin’s desire to be desired was the sole purpose of the recreation of Bella. The monster of this story is not the independent woman but the grotesque mastermind of science. Because of his appearance, no one would ever want to be around him in any way. Therefore, it is completely understandable for him to want to have a companion that does not grimace every time she lays on him. When Archibald McCandless questions Godwin about his motives in creating Bella, Godwin tells him that he “needed to admire a woman who needed and admired [him]” (Poor Things 39). In his eyes, it was not only a sexual desire, but also a desire to feel human and to have a woman meet his needs. The Victorian woman’s purpose is to tend to the needs of a man- not worry about herself and her needs. Though he tries to create within his home a sort of Victorian norm, he gives her the tools that she needs to leave him- an independent mind that does not have the strict constraints that a woman brought up with a proper education would have (Martin 339). He gives her the option to work in his lab where he tells McCandless “Many lives and limbs have been lost… by excluding women from the more intricate medical arts” (PT 66). He gives her the women’s liberation that was never offered during the 1880’s and she uses it to gain knowledge in sexuality as well as politics. This plan for God’s relationship is foiled to an extent because she grows up mentally and finds him “too ordinary to have fun with…”; therefore, she grows independent of him (51). He creates a woman to be his companion and she does not enjoy being with just one person. Bella elopes with Duncan Wedderburn, the “Scottish scoundrel”, and meets many people along the way that allow her to gain the political knowledge that she yearns to receive (Kaczvinsky 775). She leaves him and her fiancé as well as Godwin- proving that her goal is to please herself and gain a past. Because she has no past, technically speaking, she is able to live through her life free of stigmas that are placed on her gender. She is “unconditioned” in the ways of the “social norm” of the day (Martin 339). According to Cristie Martin, author of “Bella and the Beast (and a Few Dragons, Too): Alasdair Gray and the Social Resistance of the Grotesque” states that Bella’s “lack of disgust and fear concerning the body that confounds the social atmosphere in which Bella finds herself, allowing her to resist the social pressures from the male characters around her” (339). Her child-like vision of the world gives her the resilience to change the view that one would have about her and the rest of the women during this time.
Not only does her knowledge create a new gender role for our Bella, but the love between McCandless and Bella shows the motivation of both McCandless’ and Bella’s actions. McCandless’ transformation into the female of the relationship begins with the birth of Bella at the hands of Godwin. As Godwin is telling McCandless about the incident and recreation of the woman, he is completely disapproving about the situation and tells him
You think you are about to
possess what men have hopelessly yearned for throughout
the ages: the soul of an innocent, trusting, dependent child
inside the opulent body of a radiantly lovely woman. I will
not allow it, Baxter. (PT 36).
At the beginning of this book, Bella is a baby because of the brain she was given by Godwin. This makes her the perfect woman in the eyes of McCandless. She is the proper age for courting with the innocence and dependence of a child- or so he thinks. Bella exemplifies the characteristics of a modern woman of today’s society, very independent. Bella “circumvents the stifling culturally constructed confines of her ‘proper’ Victorian comportment” and exposes it for that it has done to the women in the past (March 338). Though the book is based upon this classic literature, such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the change in the gender role of Bella and Archibald McCandless is not seen in any other Victorian works. McCandless exuberates the characteristics of a pining woman when he meets Bella even for the first time, but one can see the shift in gender roles between them as the “relationship” progresses. After Bella returns from her fifteen-month journey around the world, she and McCandless meet again and she talks about her escapades with all the men abroad. McCandless describes himself as being “as helpless as a doll” and “wished to be nothing else” in the presence of her while she is kissing him (PT 48).
Unlike the Victorian male, McCandless depends on the love of Bella and the emotions that she brings to him, which is why he, after only meeting her twice, cries out “Marry me, Bella!” (51). As he says this, she does not even respond until they meet with Godwin again and she tells him, “Candle and I are going to get married and you must be happy about that” (52). She makes the decision with utmost knowledge of what she was doing and without thought of consequence from Godwin. When confrontation begins with the three main characters of the book, Bella takes control of the conversation by saying exactly what it is that she wants. Bella states that she is “a very romantic woman who needs a lot of sex but not from [Godwin] because [he] cannot help treating [her] like a child, and [she] cannot CAN NOT treat [him] like one” (53). She stands up and says that she “needs a lot of sex” which is proving that the roles are reversed. The Victorian woman is a prude and sex only needed to procreate unless the husband would like otherwise. It is never an option for the woman and “they are allowed to decide nothing for themselves” (263). McCandless remains silenced until he is looked at after Bella tells Godwin that she is “marrying Candles because [she] can treat him how [she likes]“; at that point, McCandless concurs that “Bella would always be able to do whatever she wanted with [him]” (53- 54). The woman develops into the role of the male by having a very selfish attitude toward the relationship with her lover as she says “ But I can and will, Candle. Oh yes!… And you once said I could do anything I liked with you” (62). From that moment on, McCandless is entrapped and made a dependant by her. There is a gender switch that takes place within the relationship between Bella and McCandless. She determines what happens to him- he is “allowed to decide nothing for [himself]” (263). The reason that their relationship works, unlike with Wedderburn, is because he fits into the mold of the pining housewife- he takes on the role of woman to remain with Bella. He knows from the first time meeting her, what was “wrong” with her and he still loved her. He, having the knowledge of Godwin and his idea’s knew that Bella would do as she pleased.
When she elopes with Wedderburn, she knows that he is a whore but believes that he will give her “a lot of past fast” (61). According the Godwin, “she has no delusions about his character” and knows that he is not best person (69). And yet, she goes with him but not blindly. She goes to gain a past and use him however she desires, just as she wants to do with McCandless. The only difference is that Wedderburn does not conform into the role of Victorian female, being led blindly throughout Europe. After being gone with her and knowing who she truly is he sees that “he is replaceable and that she has used his body as he himself has used serving-women’s bodies in the past” (Martin 340). This being said, Wedderburn is still made dependant of Bella’s beauty and sexual knowledge just as McCandless and Godwin are. Bella writes to Godwin that Wedderburn “is so dependent that [she] can leave him for hours in a hotel bedroom…” (124). She has made this man totally dependent of her while gives her compete control. Her decisions are based on what she wants to do, not about the affect of the people around her. She could be considered a monster, as Wedderburn points out in his letters, but there is a certain angelic quality about her with characteristics one would not usually have. The characteristics of the classical nineteen century view of the “selflessness, as well as in her extremity of her alienation from ordinary fleshly life” and is considered an “angel-woman” (Gilbert and Gubar 24). With these characteristics, one would say that Bella is nothing but a monster, but her enlightened, feministic qualities give a new “otherness” that surpasses the angel/demon connotation. Her very “maleness” gives her a angelic quality that can not be quieted.
The book Poor Things gives a rich satire of the politics of Scotland, but more importantly for these purposes, a satire of the Victorian novel and woman. Bella Baxter’s independence and outspokenness permeates through the book with such detail. She is a “woman of the world” and remains in control of situations around her (PT 142). She uses the sexual appetite of Wedderburn and the ability to fit into the female role of McCandless to control the male characters of the book. Alasdair Gray imposes many new ideas within the pages of Poor Things, but the view of the woman is one of the most interesting. He exemplifies the independence and knowledge of Bella Baxter/ Victoria McCandless with great detail in connection to the men that she comes in contact. Her power is her unrelenting quest to “search as long as [she] lives rather than be a childish fool or selfish optimist of equally selfish cynic… [she] will make [her] husband a searcher, too” (156). Though Bella is a man-made creation by a man named God, she is an inspiration to all, and especially to the Victorian woman, to have an amount of abandon and speak her mind.
Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: the Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale UP, 2000. Print
Gray, Alasdair. Poor Things: Episodes from the Early Life of Archibald McCandless M.D., Scottish Public Health Officer. Chicago: Dalkey Archive, 2001. Print.
Martin, Cristie. “Bella and the Beast (and a Few Dragons, Too): Alasdair Gray and the Social Resistance of the Grotesque”. Critique. 43. 4. Academic Search Complete, EBSCO. Web. 13 February 2011.
Kaczvinsky, Donald P. “Making up for Lost Time”: Scotland, Stories, and the Self in Alasdair Gray’s “Poor Things”. Comtemporary Literature. 42. 4. (2001): 775. Print
Vardoulakis, Dimitris. “The Poor Thing” The Cosmopolitan in Alasdair Gray’s Poor Things”. Substance: A Review of Theory and Literary Criticism. 37. 3. (2008). 137-150. Print.