I have been amazed more than once by a description a woman gave me of a world all her own which she had been secretly haunting since early childhood.(Cixous 1976: 876)
In the last two decades, the American writer Kate Bernheimer has emerged as an important custodian and curator of the fairy tale genre. This is evident from her numerous edited collections of short stories, a journal, and trio of fairy tale novels: The Complete Tales of Ketzia Gold (2001), The Complete Tales of Merry Gold (2006a) and The Complete Tales of Lucy Gold (2011), hereafter Ketzia, Merry, and Lucy. The trilogy, hereafter called “The Complete Tales” for convenience, constitutes a decade-long investigation into the significance of girlhood by way of embodiment in and through the text. Much of the project is based on Bernheimer’s own transition from childhood to adulthood; she grew up on the east coast of the US during the historicalmoment of the late 1960s and early 1970s with its radical politics and sexual liberation. Each novel, all laden with coded references to Bernheimer’s biography, focuses on the life of one of the three fictional Gold sisters.1
The Complete Tales trilogy is slippery in terms of its narrative and non-chronological structure; each novel moves between first and third person narration and among scenes from girlhood, adolescence, and the professional adult career of the relevant sister. Arranged episodically, the seemingly tangled narratives deliberately confound the teleological beginning, middle, and end of conventional fairy tales. Bernheimer has explained that each novel was carefully patterned with the others in mind with a plot structure of repetition both in and across the volumes that enables recurrent readings of the same episode told from each sister’s perspective.2 In a sense, each character serves as the unreliable narrator of her own memory; as an author of fiction, Bernheimer grants herself creative license to do this. As fictional characters, the Gold sisters are obliged to be neither reliable nor objective; they are the curators of their own narratives. Another literary device used by Bernheimer is the re-contextualization of existing fairy tales. This lends the trilogy an intertextual dimension or what Mieke Bal (1999) might term an exercise in quotation in that Bernheimer’s girl characters live the very fairy tales (Yiddish, German, Russian) they are reading as a critically self-conscious practice. As Bernheimer herself explains, “Reading fairy tales—or writing about them—is, I can assure you, one of the few ways adults can recreate that delicious somatic childhood chill” (2007: 11). The self-reflexive gesture of the sisters’ reading of fairy tales is also a form of mise-en-abyme or nested narratives (Harries 2001; Stewart 1993) evoking Scheherazade, the female narrator of tales from the Arabian Nights cycle (Warner 2011) who tells her husband a story and then begins a new one immediately after finishing the previous one for 1001 nights in order to evade her own death; her husband’s curiosity keeps her alive. One nested theme that unites the three Gold sisters, and their slippery spectrum of narrative growth, is that of the hope chest.3 It serves as a recurrent motif throughout the trilogy as both a memory vessel and a prophetic device, a trap or a cage, as well as a symbol of comfort and security.
Keepsake: A Short History of Hope Chests
I suggest that the hope chest is an unruly metaphor for the transition from childhood into adulthood, one of the primary themes of Bernheimer’s trilogy. The cultural history of the hope chest is revealing for the study of girlhood, particularly in terms of what this tradition discloses about young American women historically, and how their values and ideological beliefs are instilled, and their future fantasies directed. Before I explore further Bernheimer’s literary uses of the hope chest, it is worth dwelling on its meaning and position as an exulted piece of furniture and social shrine to maturation beyond girlhood. One of the best illustrations occurs in Miranda July’s film Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005), when Sylvie, crucially on the verge of adolescence, explains that her “hope chest or trousseau in French” represents her “dowry” to her future husband and daughter, of whose social and biological certainty she has no doubt. Sylvie’s hope chest contains domestic gadgets and towel-sets, commodities that she has purchased from her local mall with her pocket money. Lon Schleining expands on this peculiar social tradition. “Since late medieval times at least, it has been customary in many Western countries for a woman to gather her trousseau—clothing, linens, plates, and other household goods—in anticipation of marriage” (2001: 43), and explains that the chest was often wood-worked and handcrafted by a significant male presence in the bride’s life, usually her father or husband-to-be, adding that its true significance was to hold “her hopes and dreams for the future” (45). Gaston Bachelard reminds us of the heirloom-like qualities of the hope chest.
The casket contains the things that are unforgettable, unforgettable for us, but also unforgettable for those to whom we are going to give our treasures. Here the past, the present and a future are condensed. Thus the casket is memory of what is immemorial.(1994: 84, emphasis in original)
Transatlantic exchanges and the nineteenth century mores of Victorianism are responsible, in part, for the cultural heritage of such literary boxing or nesting. As Celeste Olalquiaga points out,
Victorian interiors, apparently merely ornamental had a practical purpose to cover the emptiness left behind by the absence of tradition. Material proliferation was legitimised by the pretended usefulness of things that contained other things—albums, armoires, boxes, glass cases—often protecting them from this era’s archenemy dust.(1998: 89)
The menace of dust or physical traces of the proprietor’s own bodily matter inevitably raises the spectre of the abject which must be eliminated or kept out. As Mary Douglas claims, “Dirt is a by-product of systematic ordering and classification of matter, in so far as ordering involves rejecting inappropriate elements” ( 2000: 36). Often the box functions as the sine qua non of the abject, each reliant on the other for its separate comprehension. This is true, too, of the relationship between the transitional, pubescent child-woman and her sanitary habits—just as unwanted matter such as menstrual blood and body hair are rarely dealt with directly, the boxing of the imagination offers a metaphor of psychic compartmentalization for their being purged from consciousness. Julia Kristeva’s (1982) notion of abjection, as the infant’s distancing itself from the maternal body in order to form psychically into a separate, autonomous subject, is significant here—the hope chest becomes an alternative womb, pregnant with future promises which are not necessarily ever going to be delivered. As we will see, it is a device coveted by hysteria. The hope chest is also a tomb, both containing and repelling death by storing precious heirlooms for future generations as a narcissistic form of self-memorialization; the hopes of the capitalist, female subject are nurtured on such materialistic fantasies.
There exist a few cultural rebellions to these narratives.4 Curiously, in July’s film, Sylvie’s hope chest is located beneath a poster of an erupting volcano—a prelude to her adolescent angst or dormant aspirations. One trusts that the girl in this particular text will ultimately burst out of the social confines of her domestic hope chest. July pokes fun at the polite suburban cushioning around Sylvie that will soon struggle to contain her erotic desires and sexual maturing, hinted at through her peeping at other characters. The memory box in Dorothea Tanning’s surrealist novel Chasm: A Weekend (2004)5 offers another example of a socially abnormal or dangerous casket, this time one in which the contents have transformed into wet specimens and dead matter. Belonging to the doll-like, seven-year-old Destina Meridian (born in 1958, and thus a prime candidate for a hope chest), Tanning’s literary memory box is painted on the outside with deceptively innocent cherubim. However, the contents surprise the reader since they include rotting eyeballs and the skins of reptiles, gifts from the prey of Destina’s imaginary friend, a lion. Once the little girl is reunited with her great-grandmother, the alternative heirlooms disintegrate and the lion symbolically disappears. Bernheimer’s three novels similarly extend and complicate repressed cultural narratives of the hope chest as a representation of girlhood, offering more inspiring, albeit ambiguous, models for reading the girl in the text.
There are many literary theories of memory boxes, but two in particular can be used to excavate, unlock, and demythologize6 Bernheimer’s box imagery, both from a psychoanalytic perspective: Laura Mulvey’s feminist essay “Pandora’s Box” (1996); and Sigmund Freud’s “Dora: An Analysis of a Case Study of Hysteria” (1905). Both revolve around the metaphor of the box, jar, or locket—with the dovetailing themes of the irresistible container and transgressive curiosity. In the myth of Pandora, the female figure cannot resist the temptation to open a box or, in the original, to break the seal on a pottery jar. Sent by Zeus to punish humankind for having been given fire by Prometheus, her opening of the box unleashes havoc. Like that of the biblical Eve who bites into the forbidden fruit, the myth of Pandora has been deployed traditionally to warn of the dangers of feminine curiosity. However, Mulvey rewrites this narrative in order to review Pandora’s deed as an active form of feminist curiosity that champions the desire for knowledge and the psychic necessity to unlock meaning. Freudian psychoanalysis provides a touchstone for Mulvey; Freud’s Dora is cited in Mulvey’s essay. Dora (Ida Bauer) was a young, bourgeois, Jewish-Viennese woman who underwent Freudian analysis and was diagnosed with hysteria after receiving unwanted sexual attention from Herr K, an adult male friend of her parents. This case study reads as a romance or “modern novel” (Marcus 1985: 64), and box imagery appears several times, linked by Freud to Dora’s unconscious frustrations and desires. She dreams of her neurotic mother’s Schmuckkästen (jewel-box) that her father prevents from being rescued in a household fire. She is given a box by Herr K, and on another occasion, during analysis, sports a fashionable box-shaped purse which she plays with throughout her therapy session. Freud suggests that her “automatic” fiddling with this receptacle is a representation of Dora’s unconscious fantasies of masturbation involving her vagina, and later ponders rhetorically, “Is ‘jewel-box’ not a common image for the unstained, intact female genitalia?” (2013: 77). Bernheimer read this essay at college in 1982 and understood Freud to be a feminist writer.7 As Peter Brooks reminds us, “If we turn toward Freud, it is not in the attempt to psychoanalyze authors or readers or characters in narrative, but rather to suggest that by attempting to superimpose psychic functioning, we may discover something about how textual dynamics work and something about their equivalences” (1984: 90). A case study such as that about Dora (as a canonical fairy tale itself) provides a useful reference point for reading Bernheimer’s novels as well as a symbolic language that has been re-appropriated for a feminist project (Cixous and Clément 1996).
Freud’s essay “The Theme of the Three Caskets” (1913) provides further ways of accessing Bernheimer’s material, particularly as Freud demonstrates the capacity of psychoanalytic methodologies for unlocking the meaning of fairy tale objects and numbers, in this case the number three and the curious choice between three sisters, daughters, or boxes, with Freud querying the “concealed motives” (1997: 109) for the peculiar outcomes, ultimately declaring, according to Peter Brooks (1984), that the act of choosing enables the selector to triumph over death. Again, the hope chest offers both redemption and self-preservation. Following Freud, D. W. Winnicott’s notion of the “transitional object” could also be key to accessing Bernheimer’s hope chest, “the first ‘not-me’ possession” ( 2005: 2) which, like Kristeva’s notion of abjection, assists the infant in transitioning between subjective and objective worlds. The transitional object is usually a comforter “between the thumb and the teddy bear” (2). While Bernheimer (2006b) explores the life spectrum of the sisters and the possessions of their infancy—Merry’s stuffed monkey, Ketzia’s plush seal, and Lucy’s book-doll, all objects of affection and dread—it is the transitioning away from such childhood comforts that concerns us here. I wonder if the hope chest, as both an object and a collecting practice, operates transitionally at a later stage of psycho-sexual development between girlhood and womanhood as a solidification of the psyche? It is certainly a durable container that can accommodate softer, nostalgic forms, and future projections. For me, Bernheimer’s box imagery toys with Freud but ultimately offers an expanded vision of the transitional, transgressive, and curious child-woman of Mulvey’s creation.
Lead: The Third Sister
The Complete Tales of Lucy Gold is a study of bliss. In this episodic series of non-chronological short chapters, typical of the rest of the trilogy, we learn of Lucy’s happy childhood, the untimely loss of her boyfriend, her career as a high-flying animator then solitary doll-maker, and many ecstatic deaths. In some ways she serves as a synthesis or conceptual foil to the two older sisters who represent thesis and antithesis. The number three is significant in the fairy tale genre, particularly in terms of the choice between three sisters. Drawing on Shakespeare’s symbolism of the box in The Merchant of Venice (1605), Freud reminds us that the successful suitor must select the most virtuous of the three boxes in order to marry fair Portia: one box is made of gold (sun), one is of silver (moon), and one is of lead (stars). The lead box is the unlikely winner, poorest in material wealth yet richest in poetic association. This allegory reminds us that the best choice may not necessarily be the most attractive or obvious. In his subsequent examples, Freud switches the sex of the selector. The theme is revealed to be mythological, reminiscent of Paris’s choice between the three beautiful goddesses. Freud cites Charles Perrault’s “Cinderella” (1697), another example of a tale in which the main character is the youngest and ultimately the most successful compared to her ugly stepsisters. He puzzles over the meaning of the recurrent selection of the third sister, deducing that it must be on account of her “concealment and dumbness” ( 1997: 112). Although Lucy can speak, she is put in the classroom for slow children at school and is described as “airy-fairy” (2011: 6), which some might consider dumb in the colloquial sense of the word. Moreover, her eccentric behavior and delirious contentment with the mundanity of life reinforces the third sister predicament. She is believed unanimously to be the favored child. The suggestion that each sister can also be represented by her hope chest as a metaphorical, analytical trope, is also worthy of further consideration: meanness, gold, sun, Merry, sadness, silver, moon, Ketzia, and happiness, lead, stars, Lucy.
As the most orderly of the three sisters, Lucy’s character is predisposed towards an everlasting mise-en-abyme. Her tale begins with a rewriting of Grimms’s “The Golden Key” (1819). In Bernheimer’s version of the tale, the protagonist discovers the titular object in the snow and then imagines a chain of events in which “a locked iron box” full of “glittering treasures” (2011: 1) is excavated. However, the protagonist has no desire to look in the box, and leaves the reader’s curiosity unrequited. Later, “The Golden Key” source text is reprised. This time a boy digs up the box, but the story ends before he turns the lock, once again failing to satisfy the reader’s curiosity. Both tales question the notion of possession and suggest that the treasure chest is far from the goal of a character’s narrative drive. Like the psychoanalytic layering of the mind, the archaeological process of searching is given more emphasis than any prize in this fairy tale. Bernheimer mines Brooks’s reading of narrative desire which “comes into being as a perpetual want for (of) a satisfaction that cannot be offered in reality” (1984: 55). Desire itself is queried recurrently throughout the trilogy, with curiosity or “epistemophilia” or “the desire to know” (Mulvey 1996: 96) often substituting for sexual desire.
Lucy’s need to cherish things borders on obsessive compulsion. “From a young age, Lucy liked to keep things tidy in boxes or shoes or in nutshells or pockets—like many children, she found it pleasant for things to fit into this or that place” (2011: 26). Bernheimer explores Lucy’s psychology further, revealing that Lucy’s favorite toy is also a container, a fake book housing a doll, known as A Doll’s Book: “a doll in a book that wasn’t even a book! Tiny things inside tiny things, so very appealing!” (27). Infatuated with the miniature, Lucy approximates Bernheimer’s (2006b) own coveting of surrealist box-maker Joseph Cornell’s Pink Palace (c.1950)—another representation of a hope chest as a soothing fantasy device and physical fairy tale. Susan Stewart designates Cornell’s miniature as “uncontaminated” (1993: 68) mirroring Lucy’s domestic habits and career. Lucy grows up to become first an animator, then a doll-maker. Despite her admission that “a love of dolls is neurotic” (2011: 30), Lucy becomes the doll inside her own text. She must carve doll faces, a violent activity that the author advises “children should never see” (31). Indeed, in Bernheimer’s literary imagination, boxes and dolls always exhibit malicious leanings and are imbued with ominous intent. The unpacking of Lucy’s ascetic tendencies directly implicates the imaginative grounds of the hope chest.
In a metal trunk at the foot of her bed—the very same trunk Mrs Gold had taken to camp when she was young, which either was or was not a camp where you might have been killed—Lucy kept her favorite belongings. This trunk that resembled the treasure chest of a pirate, and also evoked danger: Lucy did not want to add to its collection … Among the items in there: a sewing kit, a plastic doll, a knitted shirt.(11–12)
Here the evocation of concentration camps and pirates endows the box with peril. The limited contents include specific objects that epitomize Lucy’s two disturbed sisters, both of whom self-harm. Moreover, when Lucy believes she is becoming engaged to her high school sweetheart, she kicks the chest playfully.
‘Oh treasure chest, hope chest, my dearest friend,’ I said. ‘Sam Han loves me.’ Oddly, the chest sounded hollow. I opened the trunk and brightness shot at me. For a moment I had no sight. When I’d regained my vision, I discovered all of my treasures were gone. The next morning I learned that Sam Han had died, taken by his own hand.(23)
Here the hope chest is closely associated with the momentary blindness of the young woman. As her vision returns, the chest is revealed to be an empty vessel or coffin, offering a condensed metaphor for a false promise. The dumbness of symbolic lead returns. The extinguishing of her treasures and future hopes correlates symbolically with her fiancé’s suicide. It is a cruel life lesson for a material girl who commits suicide on many occasions, whether choking on a beloved stone or vanishing like her treasures.
Ketzia Gold (2001) is a discourse on melancholia and masochism. The protagonist wanders the desert after her quiet career as a transcriptionist. We learn that her husband selected her over her two sisters, returning to the magic number in Freud’s “Theme of the Three Caskets” ( 1997) because of the way Ketzia ate her cheese; when it came to the rind “[she] didn’t take off too much and [she] didn’t take off too little” (2001: 125), However, in terms of its forbidden boxes, Ketzia’s narrative is surely more closely related to variations of Charles Perrault’s “Bluebeard” ( 2008) in terms of secret spaces and insatiable curiosity. In this French folktale a newly-wed king gives his young wife a key and forbids her from opening his secret chamber while he is away. Curiosity supersedes and she unlocks the door to find his former wives’ remains. Mulvey revises Perrault’s tale in critical terms, with emphasis on the protagonist’s curiosity. While Mulvey’s text centers on demythologizing the figure of Pandora, she also makes reference to “Bluebeard” which emphasizes curiosity as a feminine trait. The hope chest is a cipher for this narrative drive, a symbol for the acquisition of knowledge, wherever the emotional compass might point. Components of “Bluebeard” are recurrent in Ketzia, particularly the theme of the husband’s hiding treasures, locked up in cupboards or in caskets buried deep beneath the ground, from his wife.
One day … I discovered a cigar box full of jewelry… I felt my stomach drop with intuition. ‘Whose are these,’ I said holding up feather earrings. ‘And these,’ holding up three silver rings. ‘I wasn’t hiding it from you,’ Adam said when he got home.‘I just wanted it where we’d never touch it.’ He stroked my ears and put it back in the ground.(2001: 110)
Ketzia’s embodiment is made palpable through the dread in the pit of her stomach and in her estranged husband Adam’s stroking of her ears as if she were being disciplined like an obedient dog or caressed like a good little girl. Forbidden touching suggests something masturbatory, as in Freud’s ( 2013) observation of Dora’s unconscious fingering of her purse which, as mentioned earlier, she does neurotically during therapy. Furthermore, in Dora’s analytic universe, her mother’s jewel-box functions as a significant object (or representation of her female genitalia) which must be rescued from a household fire, symbolic of Dora’s concern for her own virginity and dislike of anything wet or anomalous as Hannah Decker (1991) and Douglas ( 2000) remind us. This is made manifest in the mention of the contents—her mother’s pearl-drop earrings function as symbols of wetness. In Ketzia, the jewelry indexes the intimate parts of an absent significant other—a rival female body is evoked through these ornaments alone. By way of rebellion, Ketzia trades the whereabouts of her guilty husband’s booty for boxes of candy doled out by the neighborhood boys. The name of her husband, Adam, becomes significant in biblical terms with the sweets akin to Eve’s being tempted by the serpent, thus positioning Ketzia as the guilt-ridden bearer of original sin. Hope for sweetness, denoting innocence, pervades her tale but Ketzia is often revealed to be the hopeless, willing victim. Through this characterization I suggest that Bernheimer provides insight into the awkwardness and paradoxes of femininity.
A later episode confirms Adam as the tyrant Bluebeard figure when Ketzia says, “On our first anniversary Adam gave me a huge string of keys. ‘These are the keys to all the rooms of my house,’ he said. ‘But do not open the tiny closet at the end of this hallway, okay?’” (135). The fact that Ketzia does not even remember seeing this cupboard in her own house suggests a latent desire that becomes manifest upon the voicing of its realization. Components from the fairy tale “Bluebeard” come to the fore, and enable intertextual empathy with the inevitability of Ketzia’s subsequent actions. She says, “Obviously, I couldn’t stop myself” (136). After the fateful act of viewing the contents of Adam’s secret closet, Ketzia applies a mud-mask in order to conceal her guilt, or, more precisely, herself, consistent with Mulvey’s view of Pandora as a cosmetic surface that “dissembles” (1996: 55) but ultimately “defetishizes” (59) by prioritizing the active pursuit of knowledge acquisition over disavowal or “a refusal to see” (64).
Pandora: Dangerous Women and ‘Flushed Secrets’
Merry Gold (2006a) concerns the ice-queen. Merry is a talented pattern-cutter but alcoholism leads to her downfall. Merry is the coldest and meanest of the three sisters, even transforming into a small ice-cube at one point. Tellingly, she transgresses containment throughout her narrative—a Pandora or bad omen. However, her dark memories and discovery of pornographic collections offer emancipatory ways of interpreting Merry through the metaphor of the hope chest.
Merry is fascinated by boxes of pornography, particularly 1970s Hustler and Playboy magazines that feature fairy tale fantasies. Bernheimer has commented on the trendy literature her parents read in the background of her own childhood, from the soft porn of Judith Krantz’s Princess Daisy (1980) to the illustrated guide The Joy of Streaking (1974), both real publications which appear as cameos in the trilogy, demonstrating Bernheimer’s purloining of popular culture of liberal minded families of the period.8 However, there are also odious reimaginings at play in Merry Gold, which may or may not be consistent with Bernheimer’s biographical facts. Brooks points out that “in the manner of so many fairy tales, the realization of desire comes in sinister forms, destructive of the self” (1984: 50). Bernheimer tells us that her grandfather was connected mysteriously to Warner Brothers or The Walt Disney Company, screening feature-length animations for his grandchildren in his basement (2006b). As Cristina Bacchilega writes, “The Disney-like uniformity reproduces and sells itself internationally by turning the fairy tale into a standard value-and-dreams package” (1999: 143). This “value-and-dreams package” is appropriated by Bernheimer into her personal mythology and fairy tale trilogy. In her fictional world of the Gold sisters, the grandfather is a malevolent absentee, represented by his extensive collection of pornography. Such pornographic hoards loom large in all three novels, located in the “pink suitcases” (2006a: 99) of the attic where the children play. Tableaus featuring “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Snow White” are enthralling to the Gold sisters. Yet Merry harbors concern that the women in these scenarios are “without hope” (100), suggesting that she aspires to something more empowering than the exhibits of her grandfather’s secret stash. Often the sisters, especially Merry, choose to encounter this bounty naked, eager to learn about sexuality through performing these scenes in the safe company of siblinghood and within the privacy of their domestic surroundings. Writing about Dora’s guilty interest in pornographic literature, Freud tell us that “children never read forbidden material in an encyclopedia calmly. They are tense with alarm as they do so, looking anxiously around to see whether anyone is coming” ( 2013: 85). Bernheimer similarly confesses her childhood reading of fairy tales as “flushed secrets” (2006b: 69). Merry and Ketzia are competitive in their sexual research, particularly through their games of “The Punish,” that overlaps in all three novels. In Merry we read,
Down the basement stairs crept Merry, while her sister sat underneath them, waiting for punishment. Today it would be extreme. Though the exact origins of The Punish remained unclear, the game was of Merry’s design and was based on at least three precise sources: a magazine she had seen at her grandfather’s house … films from Temple Shalom of girls’ heads getting shaved; and a dramatic exercise she and her best friend invented … These were combined into The Punish by Merry who played Sir (2006: 73).
This game affects both sisters psychologically. They remember their encounters slightly differently. Helen Pilinovsky notes the dissymmetry between Merry’s and Ketzia’s respective accounts of “The Punish” scene:
Throughout Ketzia’s tale, traditional oppositional construction has contributed to the demonization of Merry; if Ketzia is a victim then by nature Merry must be a villain: however, The Complete Tales of Merry Gold indicated that reflexive subjectivity can be a false mistress.(2009: 145)
Such lapses in memory evoke trauma. In this trilogy, themes of child abuse and pedophilia provide a subliminal undercurrent, represented by the unspeakable blanks in Lucy Gold when her unhinged sisters confess the root causes of their unruly natures. “‘I’m going to tell you something,’ she started. But I can’t tell you what she next said. Fill it in, with the worst thing you could imagine: _______.” (2011: 76). Bernheimer has confided that when it came to writing this part of the trilogy, she “couldn’t actually say it so it was the only way [she] could do it.”9 The blanks in the text offer unspoken truths, akin to long forgotten trunks of storage material or the empty box of hope. Throughout the trilogy, Ketzia and Merry appear to be the most somatically damaged by their childhood encounters, but Lucy’s blissful ignorance and multiple suicides imply that she has been the most profoundly imprinted. Their collective, fragmented memories suggest a hidden meaning, and thus an undoing of the cozy family album. “The Complete Tales” prove, paradoxically, to be incomplete.
Conclusion: Hope in the Expanded Field
The hope chest reveals itself to be a quiet, ambivalent, yet persistent motif in Kate Bernheimer’s trilogy, mimicking the narrative structures of the novels in terms of memory and prophecy. Like the contemporaneous hope chests of Dorothea Tanning (2004) and Miranda July (2005), Bernheimer’s use of this symbolism challenges and expands conventional views about the place of girlhood in society, and about projections of the self. The theoretical boxes of Lucy, Ketzia, and Merry not only demand something more than the happily-ever-after of the bourgeois ritual of marriage but also reveal the complexities of feminist engagements with the figure of the child-woman and what she might do to disrupt expectations. Like the fairy tale, the hope chest can be wicked, lonely, and damaging to self-identity yet also consoling, rewarding, and aspiring—a place to put things, emotional or otherwise. The hope chest functions as a variation of Winnicott’s transitional object, though for an adolescent rather than an infant. It is a vehicle for desires that may go unrequited. Although it tends to serve a conservative function, Bernheimer demonstrates that the hope chest can be reread as a transgressive, empowering accoutrement with which to augment the tensions of girlhood and manage the achievements and disappointments encountered in growing up. For Bernheimer, the hope chest operates much like a fairy tale text.
At the end of each of her novels, Bernheimer collages herself and her real-life family into the narrative—photographs of the three Gold sisters in their Halloween costumes are actually the Bernheimer sisters in fancy dress, while the photograph of the “lovely half-dressed girl” (2001: 97) found in the overnight bag of Ketzia’s husband is, in reality, a staged photograph of Bernheimer herself imitating the pose of a Playboy model, a biographical fragment chanced upon in the fictional space of her hope chest novel. The girl in the text becomes a secret that is revealed.
I would like to thank Kate Bernheimer, Elspeth Mitchell, Ann Smith, and the anonymous reviewers for helping shape this article.
The quality of this photo is intentional and how it appears in the original source.
I encountered these novels in the summer of 2011 when I was finishing my doctoral research on Dorothea Tanning; I was interested in her contemporary relevance. I then interviewed Bernheimer in Arizona the following summer while I was conducting research on Tanning’s time in Sedona.
Interview with Kate Bernheimer, 2012.
I have opted for the American term hope chest because of the nationality of Kate Bernheimer and her own explicit use of this term in The Complete Tales of Lucy Gold. Such memory boxes are known by regional variants, such as, for example Italian cassone, Australian glory boxes, and Indian damchiya. Bernheimer told me that she owns a hope chest from childhood—a red metal trunk.
Written in the early twenty-first century, Bernheimer’s novels appear at the same moment as does a second generation of feminist re-visionary literary criticism, another medium channelled immediately by Bernheimer.
Artworks by Dorothea Tanning were used on the covers of two of Bernheimer’s novels in this trilogy.
The writing of Angela Carter provided another literary touchstone for both Bernheimer and Mulvey (1996: 60). Carter’s “demythologizing” approach, discussed in her feminist statement “Notes from the Front Line” (1997: 38), seeks to dismantle perpetual mythmaking, especially as it relates to and obstructs the feminist project. Bernheimer (2006b) acknowledges that much of her practice has been molded by Carter’s critical legacy.
Personal communication with Kate Bernheimer, 2017.
Interview with Kate Bernheimer, 2012.
Interview with Kate Bernheimer, 2012.
BernheimerKate. 2007. “Introduction.” In Brothers and Beasts: An Anthology of Men on Fairy Tales ed. Kate Bernheimer1–12. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press.
CarterAngela.  1997. “Notes from the Front Line.” In Shaking a Leg: Collected Journalism and Writings ed. Jenny Uglow36–43. London: Penguin Books.
FreudSigmund.  1997. “The Theme of the Three Caskets.” In Writings on Art and Literature ed. Neil Hertz109–121. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
MarcusStephen. 1985. “Freud and Dora: Story, History, Case History.” In In Dora’s Case: Freud Hysteria Feminism ed. Charles Bernheimer and Claire Kahane56–91. London: Virago.
PilinovskyHelen. 2009. “The Complete Tales of Kate Bernheimer: Postmodern Fairytales in a Dystopian World.” In Fairy Tales Reimagined: Essays on New Retellings ed. Susan Redington Bobby137–152. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.