The third or fourth episode of Jessica Jones contains a scene of reconciliation between a woman and the man who has recently attempted to throttle her to death. He wasn’t acting of his own knowledge or volition, but bruises ring her neck nonetheless. He’s heartbroken; she’s panicked and hostile.
First, he sits outside her door while she talks to him through the intercom. Then, she lets him in, and as the meeting moves from reconciliation to the beginnings of intimacy, they sit for hours talking across the table, her hand on a loaded gun between them. “I might shoot you by mistake” she says. “I’ll take that risk,” he replies.
Patricia’s character has a raw need to know that she’s in control, that she can kill the man who tried to kill her, but there’s something else in the loaded gun on the table: a confrontation with what has already happened, and with the worst that might happen. The stark physical reminder of violent death between them is a line in the sand, an acknowledgement of how high the stakes are; it makes each shared childhood secret a trembling decision to step over the line by two people amazed at their own boldness. The nakedness of fear becomes itself an intimacy.
The scene works on the level of Patricia and Simpson, who begin their affair through a steel-enforced door and dogged by the very literal threat that the person for whom you’ve just opened it might not be who you, or they, think they are. But it also works as a dramatization of the painful process of opening oneself to love and intimacy: calculating, teetering on the edge of risk, asking “Can I let you in? Can I trust you? What would happen?” And finally, the moment of catastrophe when the questions cease to be hypothetical, when you are sitting face to face with someone, and cannot ignore how high the stakes are. The acceptance of intimacy becomes a shared moment of joy at having faced the unthinkable and survived.
This moment of potentially catastrophic commitment is a feature of “big love,” as Cynthia Lewis calls it, the pivot on which many of Shakespeare’s plays turn.
“Most of Shakespeare’s comedies center on the tension between a willingness to trust and a fear of taking that risk, whether so-called ‘golden comedies,’ like As You Like It, in which a disguised Rosalind coaches her beloved, benighted Orlando to keep his word, or ‘problem comedies,’ like All’s Well That Ends Well, where Helena inexplicably reposes faith in Bertram, who seems incapable of telling the truth about anything except his scorn for her. As Shakespeare moves from one play to another, he explores the limits of the comic formula. How can characters who represent real people, barely beyond adolescence, be left credibly at a comedy’s end to live happily ever after before they’ve encountered more of the disappointment, heartache, and loss that await all human beings? Can a comic resolution hope to imitate and anticipate audience members’ lived experiences? Probing the sustainability of drama under the weight of such questions, each comedy offers resolution, such as it is, that hovers over at least one protagonist’s unwavering commitment to another person.”
There is often something jarring in the sheer amount of violence and horror that Shakespeare’s heroes and heroines must endure to reach their happy endings. As I once heard a professor point out, many of his comedies, with very little besides the ending tweaked, could be exchanged with his tragedies. But there’s also something about the bombast and bedlam that fits the big loves his characters stake their lives on. If his plays dramatize the problem of profound, unconditional love and commitment in a world that is both untrusting and untrustworthy, it is fitting that that climaxes and codas often takes the form of utter ruin, narrowly averted.
Gaudy Night is a detective novel rather than a play, but it is both preoccupied by the dangers of love and haunted by the possibility of ruin. At Open Letters Monthly, Rohan Maitzan offers thoughtful responses to common criticisms of the book. One in particular, dealing with the dog collar Peter gives Harriet to wear, caught my attention.
“4. Peter buys Harriet a dog collar to wear. He even wants to put his name on it! Clearly that’s a sign that their relationship is about her submission and his control.
When I brought this up on Twitter, other readers promptly chimed in to say that, like me, they had never been perturbed by this–one noted that the dog collar is a handy solution to a pragmatic problem (what else could she wear as protection against strangulation?), while another remarked that her sense of the Harriet-Peter relationship was already strong enough at that point that there didn’t seem to be a problem. All three of us are resisting reading the dog collar symbolically, or at least as a symbol of ownership or control. In any other book, I don’t think I would resist this reading. Am I being disingenuous in arguing that I think it’s crucial to put the incident and the gift in context?”
Whether or not all readers are perturbed by the dog collar, it is I think, perturbing. Such an outré gift for the woman who has thus far refused even the most conventional, such on-the-nose relevance to the central problem of their relationship. Bringing up the collar’s pragmatic use complicates the issue of symbolism without resolving it. And rejecting a symbolic dimension outright leaves the episode with an artificial flatness.
I agree though, that putting the gift in context is necessary.
Gaudy Night has been an extended dialogue about how to be in an equal and mutual relationship, how to avoid being the consumed or the consumer, how to continue to be in the world and in one’s work when bound to another person. The talk goes back and forth and round and round in hypotheticals. Could there be such a thing? What would it look like? What would happen? Relationships are more than a happy ending, and these discussions, among other things, lay the theoretical groundwork for a potential happiness. But it has remained theoretical and potential.
in this context, the dog collar is indeed weighted with the symbolism of control, submission, subordination. It is the embodiment of everything Harriet fears most, everything she knows to be possible in relationships; the jarring, ugly, reminder of the ruin she risks. It functions as the loaded gun on the table between them—an acknowledgement of the stakes for which they are playing, both in their duel with a potentially murderous enemy, and in their long and private battle. The questions Harriet has been asking throughout the novel are now much less hypothetical: Peter must be trustworthy if she is to accept the yoke of his care for her in a manner whose theatricality tiptoes so close to the abyss of prostration.
Sayers seems to point out the tension in the gesture when she draws attention to the sexual gloss that could be given to a different, but closely related incident. After spending the afternoon wrestling with Peter in order to learn self defense, Harriet muses scornfully on the characters (“cheap skates!” she calls them) in her detective novel, in whose hands the sparring would be “worked into a nice piece of exhibition for the male and provocation for the female concerned.” By offering such an uncharitable reading so easily transposed onto her own characters, Sayers appears to taunt them and us: be very sure you are who you think you are.
What can it mean then, for Peter to direct such a gesture at Harriet? As it turns out, it means that Harriet survives an attempt on her life. The collar is not an asymbolic practicality, but neither is its use in the plot thin veneer covering some sort of crude exposure therapy for the prickly and independent. Rather, It’s the fact that Peter can buckle it around Harriet’s neck for the sake of her investigation, and that she can accept it without fear, that is the revelation. They can approach the worst thing together, face the unthinkable possibility, only to find that its significance pales and shrinks in the context of their mutual trust and care. Fear is transformed into intimacy, and the dramatization of their peril into a mundane tool of safety. They are both who they think they are.
It is a mistake, I think, to downplay the significance of the collar scene to defend Gaudy Night from claims of salaciousness or anti-feminism. There’s a risk, of course, for Harriet and the reader, that the gesture might be a sexual power play, an attempt to dominate her legitimized through concern about her safety. Such interpretations often have the painful weight of experience behind them. But the concept of risk is central to the novel’s exploration of love: not only its bare possibility and relation to vocation, but the thorny problem of how to accept and return it. How could there ever be reason or strength enough to make an irrevocable leap into the dark world of dependence and responsibility?
“She stood still; and he stopped perforce and turned towards her. She laid both hands upon the fronts of his gown, looking into his face while she searched for the word that should carry her over the last difficult breach.”
It is yet another gesture of submission that carries her.
“Placetne, magistra?” he asks, baring his head and addressing her by a term of authority.