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Writing and Melancholia: Saving the Self in Mary Shelley's 'The Mourner'

  • Kerry Ellen McKeever

…plus d’informations

  • Kerry Ellen McKeever
    University of Idaho

Corps de l’article

To date, like the rest of her short fiction, Mary Shelley's compelling short story, 'The Mourner' (1829),  [1] has received scant critical attention, perhaps because, as Anne Mellor suggests, it belongs to what she considers to be Shelley's period of more traditional writing.  [2] More likely, however, the text has not received extensive consideration for the same reason that critics have ignored much of her other work: that is, their general unavailability. In recent years, more of Shelley's corpus has been made accessible, thanks to the efforts of editors such as Charles Robinson, who has edited Shelley's short stories. But attention to Shelley's literature has been thwarted, as Robinson suggests, by the very critics who sought recognition for her while 'confess[ing] the inferiority of her work; or, at most, select[ing] one or two other novels, stories, or essays by which to prove that her first novel was no mere accident'.  [3] This unfortunate tactic tends to make all of Mary Shelley's works subservient to Frankenstein. Moreover, apologists for Shelley, notes Robinson, have 'criticized her for lacking a sense of humor, for failing to construct plots or develop characters properly, and for writing with no nobler purpose than providing for herself and her son Percy Florence between her widowhood in 1822 and her son's coming into the Shelley estate in 1844' (Stories xii). Such appraisal was not likely to inspire others to look more closely at Shelley's stories and novels than had other dismissive critics.

It does not help as well that Mary Shelley was fascinated with certain themes which she investigated repeatedly. Again, the tendency has been for critics to locate an uber text to which they relate all other investigations of a particular theme. For example, at first glance, 'The Mourner' appears to revert to the motif of a daughter's abandonment explored by Shelley in her novel Mathilda. [4] While the plot of 'The Mourner' forgoes the theme of incest probed in Mathilda, written ten years earlier, as we would expect of a story published in a giftbook such as The Keepsake, Shelley returns to the theme of a woman who loses her mother early in life, is abandoned by her father and later reunited with him, but forfeits him through death. Usually, critics append a note about 'The Mourner' to a discussion of Mathilda, thereby suggesting that 'The Mourner' is merely a repetition, and a less thorough one at that, of Mathilda's themes. The critics who do spend significant time analyzing Shelley's work predominantly turn immediately to the biographical implications of the theme of the orphaned woman as it reflects Shelley's personal history. Equally inviting is the well established critical hermeneutic which often employs Shelley's fiction to support ideological claims about her domestic feminism on the one hand and her subversive politics on the other.  [5]

While we can learn much from these readings, they often inadvertently subsume Shelley's works under biological and ideological approaches which have become the staple of Mary Shelley criticism. For example, Emily Sunstein suggests that Shelley, who was being pressured by Trelawny to provide biographical information about Percy Shelley despite Sir Timothy Shelley's admonition to Mary never to do so, 'duly killed herself off that summer in ... "The Mourner"' as a reflection of her desire to be left out of Trelawny's biography.  [6] Kate Ferguson Ellis, contending that Shelley was indeed the radical child of radical parents, proposes that the theme of 'The Mourner' is Shelley's critique of '... the ideal of perfect daughterhood against which [Ellen or Mary Shelley] is measured, an ideal that pre-figures one of perfect wife-and-motherhood in which no self-effacement is enough'.  [7] Mary Shelley herself would object to these biographical readings, since she believed that 'the merely copying from our own hearts will no more form a first-rate work of art, than will the most exquisite representation of mountains, water, wood, and glorious clouds, form a good painting, if none of the rules of grouping or colouring are followed'.  [8]

Such readings, while insightful, do not consider how Shelley utilizes complex narrative and psychoanalytic structures to reduplicate the theme of the orphaned daughter in continually diverse ways, each of which deserves to be considered in terms of these individual contextualizations, even as we pay attention to the structural consistencies which sustain a cohesive vision in her work. 'The Mourner' is of particular value to Shelley scholars not merely because it substantiates our speculations about the relationship between Shelley's personal experiences and her writing but also because its psychoanalytic fabric reveals structural and aesthetic complexities which have hitherto gone unnoticed in her work. For 'The Mourner' is more than just the repeated account of an orphaned daughter. In this compact short story, Shelley inverts the structure of her previous work, Mathilda, where the title character, always the text's central focus, enfolds the tale of the survivor Woodville into the history of her own demise. Conversely, in 'The Mourner', Shelley encrypts the suicide Clarice Eversham's story in the survivor Horace Neville's narrative. Shelley thereby concentrates the reader's attention not only on the tragic repercussions of Clarice Eversham's descent into melancholia, but also on the means by which Horace Neville survives irreparable loss and melancholia.

That I refer to Neville as a melancholic, despite Shelley's title, points to another of Shelley's stylistic devices: that is, her penchant for titular ruse, a stabilized naming of a work that is disrupted by the ensuing story. At issue here is whether or not we can perceive Neville as a 'mourner' in contrast to Clarice Eversham's role as melancholic. By examining how Shelley obfuscates the distinctions between the two terms, I will demonstrate how she anticipates Freud's later difficulties in demarcating their differences in his essay, 'Mourning and Melancholia'.  [9] After establishing that both Neville and Eversham are melancholic personalities, I propose to offer a reading of their situations informed by Julia Kristeva's investigations into melancholic pathology. Seeking to subvert the all-encompassing oedipalization of female characters exemplified by Terence Harpold's purely Freudian analysis of Mathilda, which I have contested elsewhere,  [10] I will argue that both Neville and Clarice cannot fantasize consistently what Julia Kristeva calls the 'imaginary father', a mother/father conglomerate, and consequently fall into depressive states which couch an 'unsymbolizable, unnameable narcissistic wound' that is entirely non-referential to an outside agent. I will conclude that Neville survives his melancholy through a dynamics of sublimation whereby his object cathexis is transformed into a nameable melancholy effected through his association with Clarice.

After a brief introduction by an extra-diagetic narrator, 'The Mourner' illustrates a young man, Horace Neville, standing over the unmarked grave of a young woman with his fiancée, Juliet, and his cousin. The next day, Neville relates the story of his association with this young woman, Ellen Burnet. Neville explains how after a traumatic incident at his boarding school he ran away and was then discovered and cared for by this aristocratic, melancholy woman who, during the interval of their friendship, at least once contemplates suicide. At a later date, while on holiday, Neville has an accident and recuperates at the home of Lewis Elmore. Elmore, grieving the disappearance of his fiancée, is desperately trying to locate her. While accompanying Elmore in his search for the fiancée, Neville discovers that Ellen is actually Clarice Eversham, afianced to Elmore. Believing herself complicit in the death of her father, who drowned at sea, Ellen returned to land, changed her name, and moved into a small, isolated cottage in Windsor Forest, refusing to contact Elmore. After learning of his fiancée's whereabouts, Elmore and Neville rush to Windsor, only to learn that Ellen/Clarice is dead, an apparent suicide. Ellen leaves Neville a letter, which he reads on her grave, instructing them that 'no stone, no name mark' should be placed on her grave and informing them, in her last words: 'I am at peace'.

In Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fictions, Her Monsters, a provocative examination of Mary Shelley's life and works, Anne Mellor makes clear that 'desire for a loving and supportive parent defined [Shelley's] character, shaped her fantasies, and produced her fictional idealizations of the bourgeois family—idealizations whose very fictiveness ... is transparent'.  [11] Mary Poovey, however, more specifically than Mellor, locates Shelley's desire as that for maternal love. In her discussion of Frankenstein, Poovey stresses the importance of the maternal in Shelley's work by indicating that 'The motherless daughter's relationship with the father carries the burden of needs originally and ideally satisfied by the mother; in a sense, the relationship with each father is only an imaginative substitute for the absent relationship with the mother'.  [12] To the contrary, Terence Harpold contends that ''The needs originally and ideally satisfied by the mother" are, however, already subject to oedipal defenses against the mother as the primary rival for the father's desire, because his desire is already a principal element of any representation of the mother' ('Papa' n. 11). Harpold reads Mathilda as the daughter's seduction fantasy, where she is complicit in the father's incestuous desire. Certainly, Shelley's father, William Godwin, feared that readers would believe Mathilda's innocence compromised by her obsessive behavior in the wake of her father's suicide, to whom she wishes to be "wed" in the afterlife. Maria Gisborne states as much in her journal, where she recorded her discussion of Mathilda with Godwin:

The subject he says is disgusting and detestable, and there ought to be, at least if [it] is ever published, a preface to prepare the minds of the readers and to prevent them from being tormented by the apprehension from moment to moment of the fall of the heroine; it is true (he says) that this difficulty is in some measure obviated, by Mathildas [sic] protestation at the beginning of the book, that she has not to reproach herself with any guilt; but yet, in proceeding one is apt to lose sight of that protestation; besides (he added with animation) one cannot exactly trust to what an author of the modern school may deem guilt.  [13]

Godwin, who had been sent the manuscript of Mathilda by Shelley, who believed he would arrange for its publication, refused to do so and ignored Shelley's repeated requests for him to return the manuscript to her.

There is no indication that Shelley ever knew of her father's objections to the novel's content, but she undoubtedly intuited it. By the time she wrote 'The Mourner', Shelley had given up all hope of retrieving the manuscript, so it would seem reasonable that she would have tried in this later effort to reconstruct the earlier one. Omitting the incest scene suggests strongly that she was aware of Godwin's interpretation of Mathilda and may have omitted the incest theme to draw attention to her primary concern with the loss of a loved one and the subsequent decline into melancholia. On the other hand, Shelley may have been wary of the delicate sensibilities of the readers of giftbooks.  [14] Whatever the case, expunging the incest theme in 'The Mourner' precludes the possibility of reading the story definitively as a seduction fantasy.

To expose the operations of the maternal in 'The Mourner,' I will examine what Kristeva calls the 'narcissistic structure' of personality as it relates to Ellen Burnet.  [15] This structure makes symbolization possible and is therefore prior to the oedipal ego that begins formulating with the mirror stage (Tales 22, 27, 44, 374). In a refiguring of Freud which seeks to escape the confines of oedipalization, Kristeva indicates that the infant's early identification with the mother's breast is a preobjectal identification whereby the infant becomes the mother's breast through its incorporation. The breast is not an object for the infant, Kristeva insists, but a 'model' or pattern (Tales 25). Identification with the model or pattern is a reduplication of the pattern rather than an imitation of it, the first in a series of reduplications, launching a logic of object identification in the psyche that will govern all object relations (Tales 25). Reduplications occur on many levels, but the patterns are recognizable. Kristeva's theory of narcissism provides a structure by which we can understand how we separate from the maternal body to constitute ourselves as subjects and how we strive to communicate with and love each other.

Reduplication implies separating from the maternal body and establishing borders indispensable for discriminating objects or symbols. Kristeva's reworking of Freud ensconces narcissus as an 'infinitely distant boundary marker' (Tales 125), the product of the imagination:

The child, with all due respect to Lacan, not only needs the real and the symbolic. It signifies itself as child, in other words as the subject that it is, and neither as a psychotic nor as an adult, precisely in that zone where emptiness and narcissus, the one upholding the other, constitute the zero degree of imagination.

Tales 24

In Kristeva's model, the narcissist cathects a needed, preoedipal preobject (Kristeva's 'Thing')  [16] instead of the paternal Phallus. This semiotic need is a pattern that makes desire possible and supports a reduplication, a type of primary transference, that sets up the ego ideal and the metonymy of desire. Privileged by Kristeva, this transference occurs between the mother and what Kristeva calls the 'imaginary father'.  [17]

The fantasy of the imaginary father is a protection against a different fantasy that might overwhelm Clarice: 'That of being supernumerary, excluded from the act of pleasure that is the origin of its existence'. (Tales 17) Clarice/Ellen's mother dies shortly after her birth. For Lord Eversham, who 'had married in very early youth, and became a widower young', his wife's death 'passed like a deadly blight over his prospects and possessions, leaving the gay view utterly sterile and bare' ( 91). Leaving Clarice in Lewis Elmore's mother's care, Eversham travels for years, returning when his daughter is about ten years old. As a result, Clarice is left out of the jouissance of her own conception, and her double infantile loss activates a pattern which will be reduplicated throughout her life. In order to avoid the fantasy of being supernumerary to her parents' experiencing of love, Clarice identifies with an imaginary father. The imaginary father, with its symbolic counterpart, the Father of the Law (who defines socio-moral boundaries and is the stern enforcer of them), formulate a conception of the paternal that leaves out the real father, the one who abandons Clarice, particularly as we define that real father in terms of the father's physical contribution to the child's conception.

Clarice's fantasy of the imaginary father will be impressed upon the real father, blinding her to his weakness. Upon his return, 'He appeared to her [Clarice] like an especial gift of Providence, a guardian angel', who 'adorns [her] with all the brilliant adjuncts [of] enlightened affection' (92). By admitting to his participation in Clarice's conception through his return, Lord Eversham allows Clarice to identify with his sexual coupling with Clarice's mother, thereby effecting reunion with the mother through the ideal father. 'Providence', etymologically associated with enlightenment, gives Clarice the gift of the imaginary father:

When a father is all that a father may be, the sentiments of filial piety, entire dependence, and perfect confidence being united, the love of a daughter is one of the deepest and strongest, as it is the purest passion of which our natures are capable. Clarice worshiped her parent, who came, during the transition of mere childhood to the period when reflection and observation awaken, to adorn a common-place existence with all the brilliant adjuncts which enlightened and devoted affection can bestow.


However, Lord Eversham's name suggests that such an idealization is a 'sham' and that 'clarity' (Clarice's vision) is as well. What is taken for foresight, a clear vision, and complements 'a period when reflection and observation awaken' (92), will be revealed in the scene of Lord Eversham's death to be a fantastic protection against the reality of Clarice's abandonment.

The fire on board the St. Mary had raged long and fearfully before the Bellerophon hove in sight, and boats came off for the rescue of the crew. The women were the first to be embarked; but Clarice clung to her father, and refused to go till he should accompany her. Some fearful presentiment that, if she were saved, he would remain and die, gave such energy to her resolves, that not the entreaties of her father, nor the angry expostulations of the captain, could shake it.  [18]

'M' 93

The captain, 'transported with anger by her woman's obstinacy', said to her: 'You will cause your father's death—and be as much a parricide as if you put poison into his cup—you are not the first girl who has murdered her father in her willful mood' (94). Charles Robinson agrees with the captain's assessment, referring to Clarice as a 'parricide' (Stories 379); Emily Sunstein concurs, contending that Clarice is 'a girl whose willfulness led to the drowning of her adored father' (Mary Shelley 299). However, Kate Ferguson Ellis notes that 'this accusation may be more a reaction to [Clarice's] "woman's obstinacy" in not doing what he tells her to do (that is, leave her father and get on the rescue boat) than in any action she might be construed to have taken' ('Surfaces' 230). In fact, the scene indicates unquestionably, as Ellis notes, that it is not Clarice who takes action, but the father:

The boats returned with difficulty, and only one could contrive to approach; it was nearly full: Lord Eversham and his daughter advanced to the deck's edge to get in. "We can only take one of you," vociferated the sailors: "keep back on your life! throw the girl to us—we will come back for you if we can." Lord Eversham cast with a strong arm his daughter, who had now entirely lost her self-possession, into the boat; she was alive again in a minute, she called to her father, held out her arms to him, and would have thrown herself into the sea, but was held back by the sailors.

'M' 94

The passage demonstrates that it is the father who takes action, strong-arming his daughter and thrusting her away from him. While the other passengers blame Clarice for Lord Eversham's death, they invert the facts of the father's action, for which he must bear the responsibility, and transfer that responsibility to Clarice. Moreover, we can read the excerpt as Lord Eversham's abandonment of Clarice against her will, a restaging of his initial abandonment of her after her mother's death. The loss for Clarice is not merely that of the physical father but of the imaginary father, enacted by Lord Eversham in his failed attempt to leap from the sinking ship to a buoyant spar that he threw overboard before he jumped from the boat: 'Lord Eversham feeling that no boat could again approach the lost vessel, contrived to heave a spar overboard, and threw himself into the sea, ... battling with death ... the spar floated by, his arms had fallen from it—were those his pallid features?' (94)

From Clarice's perspective, the father once more abandons her, replaying the initial scene of rejection (the mother's death and the father's abdication of responsibility for his daughter), catapulting her into complicity and guilt. When Lord Eversham unwittingly betrays his daughter, 'the erotic man, the imaginary father, the loving, giving, and gratifying one' (Black Sun 79) is gone. The loss of primary identification with the 'father in individual prehistory'  [19] disables Clarice's reconciliation with the loss of the 'Thing', defined by Kristeva as 'the real that does not lend itself to signification, the center of attraction and repulsion, seat of the sexuality from which the object of desire will become separated' (Black Sun 13). Her descent into melancholia 'conceals an aggressiveness toward the lost object, thus revealing the ambivalence of the depressed person with respect to the object of mourning' (Black Sun 11). For Clarice, Kristeva might suggest,

... no erotic object could replace the irreplaceable perception of a place or preobject confining the libido or severing the bonds of desire. Knowingly disinherited of the Thing, the depressed person wanders in pursuit of continuously disappointing adventures and loves; or else retreats, disconsolate and aphasic, alone with the unnamed Thing.

Black Sun 13

After her father's death, Clarice enacts a Kleinian parcellary splitting, literally falling to pieces after losing all 'self-possession'. When 'Clarice' becomes 'Ellen', she generates a negative narcissistic support which nonetheless provides a self with an integrity, even though it is predicated on silence. This depressive affect counters the symbolic invalidation that ensues when Clarice's father dies and, further, protects her against progressing to a suicidal act. The results are that Clarice, taking on the life of the virgin recluse, abnegates her sexual identity in refusing to return to Lewis Elmore. Clarice's self-imposed virginity is the psychic space which functions as a crypt for the dead mother, the death-bearing mother of despair.

Clarice's flight to Windsor Forest constitutes a self-condemnation for her complicity in her parents' deaths coupled with the opposing feeling of abandonment. Excluded from the jouissance of her parent's coupling, she enters a melancholic world where playing dead becomes what Kristeva describes as 'a thought nebula, an amorphous imagination, a muddled representation of some implacable helplessness ... a "poetics" of survival' in which she embodies death as if it were real and which is 'secretly all powerful' (Black Sun 73). Determined to remain 'an inaccessible citizen of the magnificent land of Death' (Black Sun 74), Clarice's conversations with Neville illustrate her eroticizing of suffering:

She recited no past adventures, alluded to no past intercourse with friend or relative; she spoke of the various woes that wait on humanity, on the intricate mazes of life, on the miseries of passion, of love, remorse, and death, and that which we may hope or fear beyond the tomb; she spoke of the sensation of wretchedness alive in her own broken heart, and then she grew fearfully eloquent, till, suddenly pausing, she reproached herself for making me familiar with such wordless misery. ... The idea that chiefly haunted her, though she earnestly endeavored to put it aside, was self-destruction—to snap the silver cord that bound together so much grace, wisdom, and sweetness—to rob the world of a creation made to be its ornament. Sometimes her piety checked her; oftener a sense of unendurable suffering made her brood with pleasure over the dread resolve.


Unfortunately, Neville's presence cannot stave off Ellen's desire for death. Arriving at her cottage one day, he sees that she has prepared the 'mortal beverage', proclaiming to him, "I cannot live!" (89).

Ellen's choice of poison for the potential suicide reduplicates her father's death at sea. In 'Mourning and Melancholia', Freud remarks that 'the melancholic inhibition makes a puzzling impression because we cannot see what so completely absorbs the sick one' (107). Freud connects the absorption associated with melancholia to incorporation: 'The ego would like to incorporate into itself this object, and indeed, [it corresponds] to the oral or cannibalistic phase of libido-development, by the way of devouring' ('Melancholia' 111). Because Ellen cannot detach herself from the lost object, her ego desires to incorporate it. In most cases, the incorporation occurs on the level of fantasy, taking the form of eating disorders. In Clarice's case, taking poison is a most desperate eating disorder. Lord Eversham's death provides the model of an initial incorporation when he is swallowed up by the sea. When Ellen prepares the 'fatal draught', she reduplicates his death: 'you will ... be as much a parricide as if you put poison into his cup'. Swallowing the 'mortal beverage' constitutes a reenactment and therefore incorporation of Eversham's drowning. Since the father drowns by swallowing the sea, Ellen can incorporate him by choosing a form of suicide, ingesting a liquid poison, that replicates his death. Additionally, Ellen enacts through synecdoche the description of her complicity inherent in the captain's statement, into her own death. The graveless father thereby would be contained, buried, and monumentalized within Ellen. Ellen herself reinforces this interpretation when she instructs Neville in her letter to him, written just before her death, that 'the hand that writes ... [is] becoming one with the earth', and forbids the erection of any gravestone. Just as her father is swallowed by the sea and her suicide (most probably by poison) incorporates this death, Ellen's last wish to be swallowed by the earth signifies a self-erasure sympathetic with Lord Eversham's death. Even more telling relative to Ellen's desire to swallow poison is Kristeva's comment that 'Poisoning drink or food ... reveals ... a little girl deprived of the breast' (Black Sun 85).

Neville circumvents Ellen's suicide by asking her to accompany him to the Belvidere, hoping that the beauty of the scene will convince her to live. Ellen, however, responds by indicating that a 'latent feeling' 'blots' the 'glorious scene with murky shadows' (89-90). Desperate, Neville makes the following plea: '"If you leave me, what can become of me?" The last words came from my heart, and tears gushed from my eyes. "Do not leave me, Ellen," I said; "I cannot live without you—and I cannot die, for I have a mother—a father"' (90). On the one hand, we might construe Neville's allusion to his father as an afterthought, coming as it does after the dash. However, we might also speculate that Neville inheres the father in his remembrance of his mother, thereby replicating the experience of the imaginary father. If Neville cannot die because he has a physical mother and father, he just as surely cannot live without Ellen because she embodies his idealization of the imaginary father, the mother/father conglomerate. Ellen is unable to maintain the same idealization. Nonetheless, Ellen realizes that Neville's dependence on her makes her responsible for his well-being, so she decides to forestall her death. But the language of her response to Neville inheres a shifting of responsibility as well:

'I have thoughtlessly, even wickedly, created a new duty to myself, even at a time when I had forsworn all; but I will be true to it. Pardon me for making you familiar with emotions and scenes so dire; I will behave better—I will preserve myself, if I can, till the link between us is loosened, or broken, and I am free again.'


Since Ellen has promised to be true, the responsibility for maintaining the link between the two falls on Neville; Ellen thus constructs a test of his faithfulness and quite literally puts her fate into the hands of a thirteen year-old. Later, before Neville travels home for the Christmas holiday, she tells him that 'she relied, she said, on the continuation of my friendship; she made me promise never to forget her, though she refused to write to me, and forbade any letters from me' (91).

The accident leading to Neville's introduction to Lewis Elmore results in a long recuperation that stretches through the winter into spring. Despite his promise to Ellen, Neville, angered 'by her obstinate silence', acknowledges disobeying her command, writing to her of his accident and his friendship with Lewis Elmore. Despite admitting that he has disobeyed Ellen's command and thus transgressed the terms of their friendship, a violation that breaks the link between them, the older, narrating Neville seems to suppress this breach in his next statement: 'She had made me vow so solemnly never to mention her name, never to inquire about her during my absence, that, considering obedience the first duty of a young inexperienced boy to one older than himself, I resisted each suggestion of my affection or my fears, to transgress her orders' (95). Neville seems unaware of the deadly connection between his correspondence with Ellen and her suicide note, dated April 11, not long after he wrote to her. In his anger and his feelings of rejection, Neville fails in his responsibility to Ellen; breaching his vow to her breaks the link between them and allows her to end her life. The last lines of her suicide note thus reverberate in multiple ways: 'Blindly, perhaps, you will regret me for your own sakes; but for mine, you will be grateful to the Providence which has snapped the heavy chain binding me to unutterable sorrow, and which permits me from my lowly grass-grown tomb to say to you, I am at peace' (99).

Earlier, I indicated that 'Providence', evoking images of clarity and enlightenment, proved to be a sham in the case of Clarice's vision of her father. Here, Ellen begins by instructing Neville in his blindness, the selfishness which caused him to violate the terms of their friendship. Ellen's 'good fortune', or Providence (foresight,) is her early belief that Neville will violate the terms of their friendship and thus become responsible for her death, enabling as well Neville's lifelong inability to forget her. Concomitantly, Neville, in his blindness, embodies the Providence which snaps the chains (breaks the link) binding Ellen to sorrow. Blindness and enlightenment inhere each other; impending death makes possible a relief from the unnameable melancholy of which Kristeva speaks and which enables an enlightened Ellen to speak only from the grave, first of the 'other' who has already died (Clarice) and then of herself. Ellen's death thereby comprises 'a reuniting with archaic non-integration, as lethal as it is jubilatory, "oceanic'"' in the most liberating sense, since it is the consummate incorporation of the father (Black Sun 19). For Ellen to be 'at peace' in life displays 'The relief that precedes some suicides', translating 'the archaic regression by means of which the act of a denied or numbed consciousness turns Thanatos back on the self and reclaims the nonintegrated self's lost paradise, one without others or limits, a fantasy of untouchable fullness' (Black Sun 20).

Ellen's letter is the final figure of the paradoxical relationship between light and darkness, vision and obscurity, that permeates the story and instructs us to revaluate the distinction between mourning (enlightenment) and melancholy (darkness) that locates Horace Neville as 'The Mourner' of the story's title. Freud maintains that the distinction between mourning and melancholia can be figured by this opposition between light and darkness. While Freud tropes mourning in terms of light, melancholia is figured as the lack of light. Mourning is not problematic because we can shed light on its operation: in the work of mourning, fluctuation in mood, inhibition of action, and the deficiency of interest are clarified since the work of mourning fully engages the ego. When the work of mourning is complete, Freud implies that the lost object is completely dissolved without trace. To the contrary, in melancholia,

The result was not the normal one of a withdrawal of the libido from this object and a displacement of it on to a new one, but something different, for whose coming-about various conditions seem to be necessary. The object-cathexis is proved to have little power of resistance and was brought to an end. But the free libido was not displaced on to another object; it was withdrawn into the ego. There, however, it was not employed in any unspecified way, but served to establish an identification of the ego with the abandoned object. Thus the shadow of the object fell upon the ego, and the latter could henceforth be judged by a special agency, as though it were an object, the forsaken object. In this way an object-loss was transformed into an ego-loss and the conflict between the ego and the loved person into a cleavage between the critical activity of the ego and the ego as altered by identification.

'Melancholia' p. 249

From the story's outset, Horace Neville unconsciously subverts his portrayal as mourner. When describing his relationship with Ellen to his fiancée Juliet, Neville says to her that 'you have often observed that I strangely differ from all other men; I mingle with them, make one in their occupations and diversions, but I have a portion of my being sacred from them:—a living well, sealed up from their contamination, lies deep in my heart—it is of little use, but here it is; Ellen opened the spring, and it has flowed ever since' (87). While Juliet appears to be the sign of Neville's detachment from the object (Ellen), the sacred place within him corresponds to keeping Ellen in the form of her grave, also described as a sacred spot, which he commends to Juliet's care in his absence (85). Nonetheless, Neville describes this cathected object in positive terms; how, then, does Neville convert the trauma of Ellen's death into what we might call a positive melancholia?

To answer this question, we must trace the advent of Neville's trauma in the events occurring prior to his first meeting with Ellen. Having been sent to Eton by his parents, Neville is exposed to the cruelties of boarding school life, exacted on younger students by the upper form boys:

I was a fag to a hard taskmaster; every labour he could invent—and the youthful tyrant was ingenious—he devised for my annoyance; early and late, I was forced to be in attendance, to the neglect of my school duties, so incurring punishment. There were worse things to bear than these: it was his delight to put me to shame, and,—finding that I had too much of my mother in my blood,—to endeavour to compel me to acts of cruelty from which my nature revolted—I refused to obey.


The boy who torments Neville functions as a stern Father of the Law in the presence of Neville's 'shame', generating from having 'too much of his mother in his blood', which Neville conceives to be what Kristeva would call 'a fundamental flaw, a congenital deficiency' (Black Sun12). Neville displays his introjection of the maternal body in his establishing of an idealized fantasy of the maternal. In order to bring himself solace, Neville finds a 'poor little bullfinch' which he tames and cages. His tormentor demands that Neville kill the bullfinch; when Neville refuses to obey, after he receives a message from his father calling him away, the older boy wrings the bullfinch's neck. In this incident, Neville metonymically replaces the 'death bearing she-Gehenna' and enacts the role of the maternal body. The bullfinch, caged and tamed by the maternal Neville, figures his own situation. In failing to save the bullfinch, his 'nursling', from the cruel Father of the Law, Neville reenacts his psychic dilemma; his love for the bullfinch is a narcissism designed to retain the bullfinch/child. His refusal to release the bullfinch/child, which he keeps caged, exposes the bird to danger and figures Neville's own inability to take his 'proper' place within the Symbolic Order, or within language. Simultaneously, the hindrance of Neville's matricidal drive, a 'vital necessity' from Kristeva's perspective (Black Sun 27), effects an inversion on the self:

In order to protect mother I kill myself while knowing—phantasmatic and protective knowledge—that it comes from her, the death-bearing she-Gehenna ... Thus my hatred is safe and my matricidal guilt erased. I make of Her an image of Death so as not to be shattered through the hatred I bear against myself when I identify with Her, for that aversion is in principle meant for her as it is an individuating dam against confusional love. Thus the feminine as image of death is not only a screen for my fear of castration, but also an imaginary safety catch for the matricidal drive that, without such a representation, would pulverize me into melancholia if it did not drive me to crime.

Black Sun 28

But Neville is driven to crime: the 'sight of [his] nursling expiring at [his] feet—[his] desire for vengeance—his impotence, created a Vesuvius within [him]' ('M' 86), motivating him to destroy the boy/tormentor's possessions, in particular a timepiece that the boy treasured. Seeing the timepiece at his feet, as he just witnessed the dead bullfinch, Neville feels something 'like an emotion of fear', ('M' 87) a thinly disguised castration anxiety, and runs away to Windsor Forest, 'with a vague childish feeling of being able to hide [him]self for ever in the unexplored obscurity of its immeasurable wilds' (87). It is after a few days in the forest that the melancholic Neville awakes to see the 'dove eyes' of Ellen. Their relationship reduplicates the mother/child bond, as Neville explains when he endeavors to prevent Ellen from committing suicide: '"what do I not owe to you? I am your boy, your pupil, I might have gone on blindly as others do, but you opened my eyes; you have given me a sense of the just, the good, the beautiful"' (90). These seem strange remarks from a child whom Ellen is afraid of tainting with her melancholy. However, Ellen, the lost melancholic, provides her young pupil with the means by which he will survive his melancholia. Neville describes their association further when he explains to Juliet that

Her profound, her intense melancholy, sister to despair—her serious, sad discourse—her mind, estranged from all world concerns, forbade [love]; but there was an enchantment in her sorrow, a fascination in her converse, that lifted me above commonplace existence; she created a magic circle, which I entered as holy ground: it was not akin to heaven, for grief was the presiding spirit; but there was an exaltation of sentiment, an enthusiasm, a view beyond the grave, which made it unearthly, singular, wild, enthralling.


What Neville experiences through Ellen is a psychic organization of forgiveness: Neville identifies with the kindly ideal of Ellen as loving mother. Ellen removes the guilt from his revenge by instructing him in the righting of past wrongs when she charges Neville to write to his father, who then acts to correct the situation at Eton. She takes the sting from the humiliation of his narcissistic wound with 'soothing words' and appeases his hunger, both physical and psychic.

More important, however, is that the passage exhibits how Ellen's ministrations within the 'magic circle' of their shared melancholy help Neville to name his suffering, 'exalting it, dissecting it into its smallest components ... to revel in it at times' (Black Sun 97). But Neville also exceeds his melancholia by 'moving on to another form, not so scorching, more and more perfunctory' by discovering how to aesthetisize it (Black Sun 97). By serving as the ideal model for a transformation into the beautiful of which she is incapable, Ellen gives her young charge a 'psychic organization for forgiveness: identification of [Neville] with a welcoming, kindly ideal, capable of removing the guilt from revenge, or humiliation from narcissistic wound, which underlies depressed people's despair' (Black Sun 97).

In his telling of Ellen's story, his story, Neville evinces repeatedly how the beautiful functions for him as the ideal object that never disappoints the libido. He is driven to the dynamics of sublimation first when he attempts to prevent Ellen from committing suicide by cajoling her into taking a walk with him to the Belvidere (present in the first and the subject of the second illustration to 'The Mourner'), described in the opening passages of the story. The Belvidere (from bel, 'beautiful', and videre 'to see') is the location from which Horace and Ellen can best observe the beauty of the scenery. Neville describes the 'glorious sunset' and how 'beauty and the spirit of love breathed in the wind, and hovered over the softened hues of landscape' (89), but Ellen fails to surrender to the scene, commenting that '... a latent feeling [blots] this glorious scene with murky shadows. Beauty is as we se it—my eyes view all things deformed and evil' (90).

Neville's construction of the 'scene', an artifice of art, constitutes what Kristeva calls

... a hypersign around and with the depressive void. This is allegory, as lavishness of that which no longer is, but which regains [for Neville] a higher meaning because [he is] able to remake nothingness, better than it was and within an unchanging harmony, here and now and forever, for the sake of someone else.


Neville will continue to employ artifice as a means of transforming 'unutterable sorrow', as Ellen describes her melancholy, into a nameable melancholy throughout his narrative. He describes Ellen as 'the wreck of beauty', indicating to Juliet that his account is less a story than it is 'a portrait—a sketch—[presented] for [Juliet's] amusement or interest' with 'darker shades in the picture than those which [he has] developed' (87, 89). The hypersign around and with the depressive void comprises images of light and dark, as Neville's description of English scenery attests:

... We may lament ... the want of a more genial sky; but where find scenery to be compared to the verdant, well-wooded, well-watered groves of our native land; the clustering cottages, shadowed by fine old elms; each garden blooming with early flowers, each lattice gay with geraniums and roses ... seas of golden grain ... the track across the meadow, leading through the copse, under which the path winds, and the meeting branches overhead, which give, by their dimming tracery, a cathedral-like solemnity to the scene ... gardens of Eden ... which evince at once the greatest power and the greatest will to create beauty.


While Ellen can regain her lost paradise only through death, Neville regains his through sublimation. He will inhabit this regained Eden, both imaginatively and physically, since he inherits the land. Finally, he displays his greatest achievement of sublimation in his attention to Ellen's grave:

No stone was there to commemorate the being who reposed beneath—it was thickly grown with rich grass, starred by a luxuriant growth of humble daisies: a few dead leaves, a broken bramble twig, defaced its neatness; Neville removed these, and then said, "Juliet, I commit this sacred spot to your keeping while I am away—."


Neville transforms the grave into art, and therefore Ellen into art: 'In the place of death and so as not to die of [Ellen's] death, [Neville] bring[s] forth ... an artifice, an ideal, a "beyond" that [his] psyche produces in order to take up a position outside itself—ek-stasis' (Black Sun 99).

Resurrecting Ellen through the dynamics of sublimation, Neville opens a space between the shadowed netherworld of melancholia and the idealized world of the imaginary. Ellen's darkened vision and Neville's guilt over his complicity in her death are conveyed by his narration. This narration, in Neville's opinion, is less than a story, a 'sketch' which begs for revision and completion. As such, it reflects the position of its author between the limits of clarity and darkness, non-meaning and meaning. And it exposes inexorably the difference between Neville and Ellen: Neville learns through the dynamics of sublimation how to speak until death comes. Ellen, forever 'floating' before Neville's eyes in her idealized representation, illustrates that

In the midst of its lethal ocean, the melancholy woman is the dead one that has always been abandoned within herself and can never kill outside herself. Modest, silent, without verbal or desiring bonds with others, she wastes away by striking moral and physic blows against herself, which, nevertheless, do not give her sufficient pleasures. Until the fatal blow—the definitive nuptials of the Dead Woman with the Same, whom she did not kill.

Black Sun 30

Parties annexes