Galatea, Georgiana, and the Glass Coffin: On Violent Female Perfection in the Male Gaze

*Author Notes: This is probably my favorite scholarly essay to date. I was allowed free choice of topic for this assignment, and so it is the most representative of my work and sphere of focus. It was written on 2 June 2022.

*CW: Gender-Based Violence, Spousal Abuse, Murder

Mirror, mirror, will I ever see someone beautiful staring back at me? He answers: “You look and shan’t see perfection, ’tis true, for I decide what beauty is for you.” But who is looking? It is a common colloquialism that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” and variations on this statement have appeared in literature as far back as the 3rd century BCE. Still, whose eyes are beholding one’s beauty and whose determinations take precedence in our self-view of beauty? What eyes of the magic mirror classify beauty and ugliness? “The Magic Mirror” is an element in the Grimms’ 1812 Snow White, “Little Snow-White” adapted from an earlier German folk tale. The voice of the magic mirror is never fully characterized in this story, but it is said to only speak the truth. Considering the time period of this maxim’s origin, and the object (in Snow White) being either a woman, or a woman and a girl, it would stand to reason that the subject is male. To clarify, then, beauty is in the eye of the beholding male presence; thus, perfect beauty is an ideal that men have issued as an aspirational model for all women. In order to determine what would stand as female perfection in the male gaze, we look to such texts as Ovid’s Metamorphoses: Book X, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birth-Mark,” and the Grimms’ version of “Little Snow-White.” The reflection of an internally and externally perfected female, the aspirational model expected by the male gaze, is a woman who is dead.

Book X of Ovid’s Metamorphoses hosts a poem titled, “The Story of Pygmalion and the Statue.” The poem begins with Pygmalion’s hatred of women: “Pygmalion loathing their lascivious life, / Abhorr’d all womankind, but most a wife;”. These are lines not intended for feminine eyes, who would most certainly find immediate argument in it. These lines are intended to connect to men in a personal way. Delivered as common knowledge, they speak directly to an idea that women are not only lustful, but to marry one is a greater burden than Pygmalion was willing to bear. Pygmalion — instead of eschewing female companionship altogether — carves a woman of marble: His own image of perfection. He admires his work, but that admiration quickly dissolves into desire for the lifeless image he has created. This perfect woman is one that Pygmalion finds more appealing than the entirety of womankind. Her perfection is in her purity, but also in her stark contrast to other (living) women he has met: “A very virgin in her face was seen, / And had she mov’d, a living maid had been: / One wou’d have thought she cou’d have stirr’d, but strove / With modesty, and was asham’d to move.” The feminine ideal here is unexpressive, inactive, without ego or opinion, and driven to lifelessness for his optimization to be achieved. However, loving a marble statue prevents his own lascivious ends from being met, so he prays to Venus, goddess of love and beauty, to breathe life into his creation. It is stated that Venus, so moved by Pygmalion’s pleas, does bring life to the statue. Line 94 finds the unnamed female statue (later named “Galatee” in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s dramatized version of the tale, translated to English as Galatea) awakening to life for the first time: “At this the waken’d image op’d her eyes, / And viewed at once the light, and lover with surprise.” Now alive, Galatea is merely the receptacle of “fruitfulness” where a “lovely boy was born.” Over half of the poem to this point is about her beauty and perfection, but once alive, she is reduced to a single line describing the entirety of her life beyond. Once alive, she becomes complicated and, ostensibly, the very thing Pygmalion loathes: A wife.

Pygmalion’s achievement of perfection inspires a young scientist, Aylmer, in Hawthorne’s “The Birth-Mark.” In this story, Aylmer is described as “a man of science, an eminent proficient in every branch of natural philosophy,” to illustrate the man’s thorough understanding of truth and natural aesthetic. Aylmer has secured himself a wife, Georgiana, who is only referenced here as “a beautiful woman.” Despite her beauty being her only qualifying characteristic, it is, in Aylmer’s eyes, marred by a small, red birthmark upon her left cheek that is said to resemble “the human hand, though of the smallest pygmy size.” The tension begins when Aylmer casually asks Georgiana if she had ever thought to have the mark removed — she admits she had never thought to do so since she, by her own account, finds it charming. Aylmer disagrees with her assessment, which sends Georgiana to tears. Her imperfection stands here not only as a small mark upon her face, but as a woman with her own self-view and complicated, messy emotions. Aylmer drives the narrative forward by first becoming obsessed with its appearance, which then moves to a visible revulsion at the mark, and even Georgiana herself. After a nightmare of a surgical removal of the birthmark turns murderous, Aylmer is deeply troubled. To alleviate his disturbance, Georgiana entertains the idea of the mark’s removal. Georgiana says: “I know not what may be the cost to both of us to rid me of this fatal birthmark. Perhaps its removal may cause cureless deformity; or it may be the stain goes as deep as life itself. Again: do we know that there is a possibility, on any terms, of unclasping the firm gripe of this little hand which was laid upon me before I came into the world?” At this, Aylmer is overjoyed that she is willing to remove it, and gives the first sign of true affection toward his wife in the story. Furthermore, she is willing to embrace death if it means her husband’s happiness. In this, she begins to envision herself as his perfect being.

Aylmer seeks, through praise and assurances, to have Georgiana believe that he knows just how to remove the mark, often referred to as a “stain on the poor wife’s cheek.” His reputation as a scientist is the sought reward, and his belief in his ability is the drive. He likens himself to Pygmalion: “what will be my triumph when I shall have corrected what Nature left imperfect in her fairest work! Even Pygmalion, when his sculptured woman assumed life, felt not greater ecstasy than mine will be.” This is an interesting contrast, since the goal for Pygmalion was to add animation to his image of lifeless perfection, while Aylmer’s intent is to take life to achieve perfection. Aylmer’s ambition of perceived perfection in Georgiana becomes her own, to the point she even craves death to achieve perfection in his eyes: “I submit,’ replied she calmly. ‘And, Aylmer, I shall quaff whatever draught you bring me; but it will be on the same principle that would induce me to take a dose of poison if offered by your hand.” At this moment, Georgiana’s ego has died, bringing her one step closer to his image of perfection. As Georgiana undertakes a surreal intermediary life, housed now in Aylmer’s laboratory, she is urged, through Aylmer’s growing affections, to consume innumerable strange elixirs. As the frenzy of Aylmer’s scientific passion mounts, Georgiana’s will is also murdered in a series of interconnected scenes reminiscent of drugging experiences. The final elixir conducts her into a deep sleep, from which she only awakens to applaud Aylmer’s accomplishment: “you have aimed loftily; you have done nobly. Do not repent that with so high and pure a feeling, you have rejected the best the earth could offer. Aylmer, dearest Aylmer, I am dying!” To which he responds: “My peerless bride, it is successful! You are perfect!” Georgiana has died, her birthmark removed, and in her death, has achieved perfection in his view.

Much as the sole characteristic of Georgiana was “beautiful”, in male literary tradition, women are frequently portrayed by their beauty alone. However, loss of this singular trait usually signals the woman’s untimely death, thereby securing her perfection. In The Grimm Brothers’ tale of “Little Snow-White”, Snow White’s mother wishes to birth pure beauty in a child “white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as ebony wood.” The white skin of Snow White is a reflection of the marble upon which Galatea is carved; the red blood in her lips represents the destruction that must take place to secure her fulsome beauty, and black signifies death. The first death is Snow White’s mother: “she had a little daughter who was as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as ebony wood, and therefore they called her Little Snow-White. And as soon as the child was born, the queen died.” The mother has served her purpose, and can now ascend to perfection upon her death. The second (failed) death is that of Snow White herself. As her stepmother seeks to kill her in hopes of removing the perceived threat to her own beauty, she instead secures the transformation of beauty into perfection. The dwarves of Snow White could not bury her, for “she still looked as fresh as a living person, and still had her beautiful red cheeks.” Instead, in her achieved perfection, they place her on display in a glass coffin upon the side of a mountain, with a constant dwarf companion always gazing upon her. Unfortunately for them, the dwarves are neither brilliant sculptors, nor “eminent” in science and natural philosophy. True perfection must not be possessed by a simple wood-dwelling man of diminutive size — thus enters a prince who immediately falls in love with a lifeless Snow White.

The prince has no backstory, nor does he need one: His riches are immediately revealed in his offer to purchase Snow White’s corpse to worship at any cost. The dwarves refuse, but then his superior charisma wins them over as he promises to “honor her and respect her as my most cherished one.” She is given to this image of virile male perfection; Snow White, a lifeless statue, encased in glass and gold, is a trophy. Her lack of expression, ego, or opinion couples perfectly with the beauty which is immortal, because it is (for all intents and purposes) dead. As the sole possession of the prince, Snow White can now have any feature he wishes to place upon her, and none of her own. Just as Pygmalion’s carving and Georgiana at her moment of death, Snow White lacks the personality characteristic of life. These women merely reflect the intent of the men who look upon them.

So, what does the man in the mirror say? Who is the most beautiful of them all? It responds: “If you must ask, it will soon show: in life, women shall never know.” The reflection is a man’s creation; in this, the perfected female is one without protest, thought, feeling, complication, or life. For the man in the mirror, the only perfect woman is a dead one.

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