Patrick Hamilton is probably best known for his plays Rope and Gaslight. Alfred Hitchcock turned Rope into a feature film of the same name. It ends with a Hedda Gabler style sentiment of, But people don’t do these things! An academic discussion of morality and power, life and death, snowballs into an actual murder and the man who planted the germ of this idea (played by James Stewart in the film) comes to realize that humans can’t exist as cold, rationale beings; because people don’t do these things! Hamilton’s novel, Hangover Square, leaves the reader saying the same thing but not for the same reasons.
The novel, though highly regarded, is a meandering and slow-burning walkabout through the soggy streets and hazy pubs of Earl’s Court, London, set in 1939. The novel follows a rather unsympathetic, even oafish man, named George Harvey Bone. He’s truly the epitome of harmlessness (save for his quasi-schizophrenic episodes he refers to as “dead moods”); a true Labrador of a human. The love of his life, an odious woman named Netta Longdon, could bat George on the nose with a newspaper and if he had a tail, it would simply keep wagging away, refusing to accept his master’s disdain for him. And in a sense, Netta does just that, repeatedly, but George always remains loyal and steadfast by her knee-side.
The big issue with this setup though, is that George is not a dog. He’s not a cute, innocent being, born beholden to a master. If he was, I’d feel bad for him. But he’s a white man in London, in the ‘30s. He could go and do anything he wants but he doesn’t; he prefers not to. He’s like a lame version of Bartleby—All of the monotony but none of the substance. And this is why it’s impossible to really have any sympathy for his struggle and therefore, why his struggle is difficult to find interesting.
The more interesting story in Hangover Square is that of Netta Longdon. Yes, I refer to her as odious above, and she truly is throughout the novel, but once I stopped to think about what might motivate her to act so terribly, to be so cold and Machiavellian, I began to sympathize with her.
She is a single woman, living in the ‘30s, with no skills, no real connections, and no support system. All she has to go off of is her appearance. And in this way, Netta bears a striking resemblance to a character from another Hitchcock film—Madeline from Vertigo. A film which has been analyzed from a feminist perspective before and for good reason. In this paper I would like to give a feminist reading of Hangover Square, comparing it to Vertigo and John Milton’s “Samson Agonistes,” which is frequently referenced throughout the novel. I will also be referencing and exploring the ideas put forth by Laura Mulvey in her famous essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.”
What is a Woman?
We all know the famous statement of Simon de Beauvoir, that no one is born a woman but that one becomes a woman. I very much agree with this and would like to expand on it. In the movie/lecture, The Reality of the Virtual, Slavoj Žižek speaks about the issue of an effect coming before a cause. In order for this to make sense, I believe it’s better to explain it in the reverse manner that Žižek explains it.
Look at the issue of the Nazis rising to power in Germany. Germany had many social and economic woes that the Nazis blamed on the Jews. So, what’s happening in this blaming, is that the effect already exists (i.e. the social and economic woes). But the Nazis are retroactively giving these effects a cause (i.e. the Jews). Žižek prefaces this explanation with Einstein’s switch from Special to General Relativity. In Special Relativity, space-time is thought of as something uniform and the curvature of space-time is only created by the presence of matter. Think of the classic image of a ball in a sheet distorting the flat, taut fabric into a parabolic shape. Now, in the switch to General Relativity, Einstein reversed this. Instead of space-time becoming curved due to the introduction of matter, the space-time is already curved and the matter forms within it. Žižek goes on to compare this to Freud’s case of Wolfman, in which a man was traumatized by seeing his parents having sex when he was just a child. Freud’s analysis worked in the manner of General Relativity, in that the boy had no concept of sex when he walked in on his parents; it was only later, after he formed a concept of sex that the experience became traumatic. In other words, the psyche is not a uniform object affected by trauma but that the trauma, in a sense, conforms to the psyche.
Now, whether you agree with any of that is beside the point. The point I want to make, along the lines of de Beauvoir, is that humans are not uniform objects that are affected by the demands of society. Instead, society is like space-time and our psyche in the above described manner. The void or curvature is already there. And so, like matter filling in the curvature of space-time, one fills in the curvature of their society. One is placed into an already existing space and takes on that shape. One is essentially given an occupation, they occupy a space within society, and how well they perform this occupation determines their success in that society or at least whatever rung (class, race, etc.) of society they also happen to occupy. This paper is concerned with the societal-space or societal-occupation of Woman. *I’ll be using a capitalized W in the word woman when I wish to represent this societal-space and all who occupy it.
The Patriarchy of Hangover Square and Vertigo
I believe the treatment of Judy in Vertigo is perhaps the best representation of this societal-space. Madeline (who is actually Judy putting on a performance) occupies her societal-space almost perfectly. She is beautiful, mysterious, sophisticated; she leaves desire and longing in her wake, disorienting all men in the now turbulent surf. It’s no wonder Scottie becomes infatuated with her after being exposed to her through his voyeuristic investigating. But then the twist comes. Madeline is Judy, an actress hired to play Madeline as part of an intricate murder plot. She is filling a role, a void, that already exists. Judy is placed into this role and performs it per its demands.
Later, Scottie places the same demands on Judy that the murderous husband did; dress like this, wear your hair like that, etc. Are these demands not merely a more specific version of the demands made on all women, every day? The fetish character of Woman is all encompassing. It is for this reason that it is not regarded as a fetish character; as something out of the ordinary, something outside of normalcy, even though it functions in exactly the same manner.
Connecting this to Hangover Square, we see a similar story. Netta is not, and has no interest in becoming, the woman that George loves. Netta fulfills her role as Woman very well. It’s why men always take notice of her and why George falls for her. She has the appearance of George’s most desired object, a wife. It could have been any woman. Again, Netta is filling a space that already existed, both in society and in George’s mind. Another woman could have easily occupied that space, becoming the center of George’s affection; it just happened to be Netta.
How do we know this? Because George is completely dissatisfied with Netta. He pleas for her to treat him decently, “If you’re going to come out with me I do think you might treat me decently! If you’re going to make use of me, you might give me something in return—a little kindness of some sort” (Hamilton 80). In this same conversation, he also refers to Netta as a “beast!” After about half a page of Netta brushing him off, George renders himself even more pathetic:
You’re civil to other people. Why can’t you be civil to me? Oh, Netta, do be kind to me. I can’t go on unless you’re kind to me. It’s all getting too much. Say something civil to me, Netta. Can’t you say something civil? I’m worn out. I’ve spent what I’ve got on you—I’ve tried to please you…Can’t you be civil? Can’t you look at me and say something civil? [. . .] you wouldn’t treat Peter or Mickey like this. What have I done? [. . .] I love you, Netta—but I don’t interfere with you. I only hang about. I’m harmless, aren’t I? (Hamilton 81)
We witness a similar scene in Vertigo. In the second half of Vertigo, after Madeline dies and Scottie finds Judy, Judy complains to Scottie about how he treats her. She asks him why he isn’t satisfied with her as she is, as Judy. And Scottie ignores these pleas for civility with the same coldness as Netta.
Looking closely though, we see that the two male characters are doing exactly the same thing to their corresponding female characters; only George behaves pitifully and Scottie behaves coldly. Both men possess fetishized-ideals for the women in their lives and both are angry that these women are failing to live up to these ideal states.
So, while Hamilton might portray Netta’s behavior in this scene as cold and uncaring, I see this as a woman standing up for herself. Netta is refusing to alter her character and become George’s toy doll. She is refusing to beholden herself to a man simply because he buys her dinner. George even uses the language, “you might give me something in return,” as if a woman’s affection is something one can purchase.
Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”
In both Hangover Square and Vertigo, the leading male characters attempt to punish the leading female characters. In “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Laura Mulvey dissects the male gaze in film through the use of psychoanalytic language. Mulvey asserts that, “in psychoanalytic terms, the female figure poses a deeper problem. She also connotes something that the look continually circles around but disavows: her lack of penis, implying a threat of castration and hence unpleasure” (840). Mulvey goes on to explain that this threat of castration produces anxiety in the male character which leaves him with “two avenues of escape”:
[. . .] preoccupation with the re-enactment of the original trauma (investigating the woman, demystifying her mystery), counterbalanced by the devaluation, punishment or saving of the guilty object (an avenue typified by the concerns of the film noir); or else complete disavowal of castration by the substitution of a fetish object or turning the represented figure itself into a fetish so that it becomes reassuring rather than dangerous (hence over-valuation, the cult of the female star). (840)
The interesting thing about this fantastic analysis is Mulvey’s insistence in separating the two ideas: 1) punishment of the guilty object; 2) saving of the guilty object; with the conjunction or; because in the case of Hangover Square and Vertigo, both lead male characters attempt to both punish and save the female leads.
In Hangover Square, George has two mode of actions: 1) Typical-George and 2) Dead Mood-George. Typical George is in love with Netta and is hellbent on saving her. He wants to make an “honest woman” (a truly vulgar term!) out of her. His dream is to marry her and escape to the country. Have a little farm and have her all to himself. The cliché pursuit of the common-oppressive-patriarchal-male. Dead Mood-George is hellbent on punishing Netta for failing to properly perform her “role”; a much more sinister and violent form of patriarchal oppression.
In Vertigo, Scottie wants to dress Judy up as his Doll-Madeline and control her every facet; to save her, preserve as she exists to him. But he also wishes to punish Judy once he realizes that he has been deceived. As Mulvey states:
She [Judy] knows her part is to perform, and only by playing it through and then replaying it can she keep Scotti’s erotic interest. But in the repetition, he does break her down and succeeds in exposing her guilt. His curiosity wins through and she is punished. [. . .] The Hitchcock hero here is firmly placed within the symbolic order, in narrative terms. He has all the attributes of the patriarchal super-ego. Hence the spectator, lulled into a false sense of security by the apparent legality of his surrogate, sees through his look and finds himself exposed as complicit, caught in the moral ambiguity of looking. (842)
In both instances, we have a perceived failure on the part of the women. Netta and Judy both fail to inhabit their space as Woman in exactly the manner prescribed by their corresponding male characters. And both male characters react to this perceived failure violently. And now, to adept readers, it should be obvious how Hangover Square, and by extension, Vertigo, so nicely relates to “Samson Agonistes.”
For those who are unfamiliar, “Samson Agonistes” is a poetic retelling, by John Milton, of the Biblical story of Samson. Samson had super-human strength and lost that strength when his wife cut his hair; thus, emasculating him (he also had his eyes gouged out, so he was having a pretty rough day!). In the poem, Milton portrays Samson as rejecting everything feminine. At one point his wife returns to explain herself and offers to nurse him, to which Samson replies, “Not for thy life, lest fierce remembrance wake/My sudden rage to tear thee joint by joint” (Milton 952-53). Needless to say, Samson wasn’t having it. Both the Biblical and poetic versions of “Samson” end with Samson destroying the temple he is being held in, killing himself and all of the Philistines (who had imprisoned him). It’s a murder-suicide essentially, which is exactly how Hangover Square ends.
As for Vertigo, though Scottie wishes to punish Judy, her death is accidental. But the camera remains fixed on Scottie standing on the roof, looking down at the body. Scottie has lost Madeline twice now and, for the second time, feels responsible for it. The screen fades to black but one is left to ponder whether or not Scottie took the plunge himself, to lie next to his precious object.
The story of Samson is a fascinating alternative-take on the castration anxiety described by Mulvey. We see Samson experience the same fear, anxiety, and anger as both George and Scottie. All three men find themselves emasculated by the objects of their desire and all three react violently towards that object. In “Samson Agonistes,” Samson literally gets God to, not only give him permission to exact his vengeance (which is a pointless, self-destructive action that doesn’t even target his wife), but is given the strength to carry it to fruition. In the end, Samson takes his revenge on his enemies, the Philistines, and not directly on his wife (though he is quite aggressive towards her) but nevertheless, Samson behaves in a violent, self-destructive manner, set in motion by his being emasculated by a woman. All three stories fetishize, not only women, but the violence of patriarchy.
Of the little academic writing to be found on Hangover Square, its focus is on geography and the time period (just before the outbreak of WWII). For a story so closely resembling Vertigo (which has been critiqued heavily from a feminist perspective), it is truly puzzling that this novel is only approached critically for the time and place it is set. These aspects of Hangover Square are mere background, serving to fill out the world and flesh out the characters. These aspects are important, they are interesting, but they ignore the meat of the novel. That is, they ignore the psychological and sexual anxiety taking place in George’s mind.
Mulvey states that, “Unchallenged, main-stream film coded the erotic into the language of the dominant patriarchal order” (835). Perhaps this is the reason why the critics have ignored reading Hangover Square from a feminist perspective—Perhaps the oppressive pursuits of a pathetic man are so encoded into our main-stream story-telling that it simply went unnoticed. Perhaps an independent woman who refuses to be bought and made into an obsessive man’s wife is so easy to portray as cold, unfeeling, and nasty, that we simply fail to see her as the actual victim. Even when she is the one who is murdered in the end.