Ordinary Masochisms
Agency and Desire in Victorian and Modernist Fiction

Jennifer Mitchell

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“Offers a series of provocative readings of ‘everyday masochisms’ across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Rather than defining this as a ‘perversion,’ Mitchell reveals the sheer mundanity of masochism, expressed in courtship rituals, marriage, religious worship, school, and the workplace. In doing so, Mitchell uncovers the paradoxically painful pleasures of the reading experience itself.”—Sarah Parker, author of The Lesbian Muse and Poetic Identity, 1889–1930
Ordinary Masochisms reveals how literary works from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries frequently challenged the prevailing view of masochism as a deviant behavior, an opinion supported by many sexologists and psychoanalysts in the 1800s. In these texts, Jennifer Mitchell highlights everyday examples of characters deriving pleasure from pain in encounters and emotions such as flirtations, courtships, betrothals, lesbian desires, religious zeal, marital relationships, and affairs.
Mitchell begins by examining the archetypal tale of Samson and Delilah together with Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, from whom masochism gets its name. Through close readings, Mitchell then argues that Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, George Moore’s A Drama in Muslin, D. H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow, and Jean Rhys’s Quartet all experiment with masochistic relationships that are more complex than they seem. Mitchell shows that, far from being victimized, the characters in these works achieve self-definition and empowerment by pursuing and performing pain and that masochism is a generative response rather than a destructive force beyond their control. 
Including readings of Octave Mirbeau’s The Torture Garden and Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers, Mitchell traces shifts in public consciousness regarding sex and gender and discusses why masochism continues to be categorized as a perversion today. The literary world, she asserts, has repeatedly questioned this notion as well as masochism’s associations with passivity and femininity, using the behavior to defy heteronormative and heteropatriarchal gender dynamics.
Jennifer Mitchell, assistant professor of English at Union College, is coeditor of The Female Fantastic: Gendering the Supernatural in the 1890s and 1920s.
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