Anti-Gone -or- Every Little Girl Has Mommy Issues: A Psychoanalytic Reading of Hitchcock’s ‘Marnie’ (1964)

Portions delivered at the South Atlantic Modern Language Association Convention, 2012

It was common for film trailers of the mid-20th Century to attempt to crystallize their subjects in purpose statements, words boldly printed right on the screen that trumpeted the deep social significance of that particular piece: ‘the frankest motion picture ever made’, ‘the most important event in a decade of entertainment’, or even ‘a story that daringly meets the challenge of today’s most vital controversy,’.  Hitchcock films were no different in being subject to such simplification, and oftentimes even more so; Rope  was described as Hitchcock’s ‘most startling adventure in suspense’, Rebecca was hailed by its announcer as ‘the most exciting love story of our time’, while, The Trouble With Harry was reduced to being ‘a comedy about a body.’

Just as Hitchcock was keen to defy convention in his films, however, so their trailers would often be crafted to match.  Such was the case with Marnie, in which Hitchcock approached a number of contemporary tenets of love, sex, and relationships as so many manifestations of an underlying negotiation of power between genders.  But, just as social convention was not yet comfortable with such a diagnostic view of ‘romance’ being expressed directly, so the trailer asks what Marnie must be if it cannot be itself:  ‘Is Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie a sex story?  A mystery?  A detective story?  A romance?  A story of a thief?  A love story?  Yes and more!”

Ultimately, ‘and more’ is as close as the trailer can come to an accurate abstract.  By turns, Hitchcock symbolizes, inverts, shuffles, and sets the phallic power structure ‘straight’, all the while exposing its psychoanalytical foundations.  In this close reading of key scenes of the film—and the character relationships that those scenes concern—we will employ the psychoanalytic texts and methods of Lacan, Źiźek, and Mulvey to identify and analyze the role and dynamics of phallic power as manifested in the social icons of sex and money, as well as more overtly, in ways that expose the underlying qualities of that power.

By way of establishing what exactly the phallus is, we can first dispense with what it is not, and Źiźek himself unwittingly assists.  While his philosophies will contribute considerably to our understanding of how various characters try for and wield the power of the phallus, he makes a particularly relevant error in defining it as “an organ of insemination or as the organ of urination (Living 26).”  Although the phallus might manifest itself in such ways in specific narrative contexts, such as urophilic pornography, Źiźek here conflates signified and signifier, and in so doing exposes a common misunderstanding of the nature and parameters of the phallus. In ‘The Signification of the Phallus’, Lacan notes that it is not “as such an object (part-, internal, good, bad, etc.) inasmuch as ‘object’ tends to gauge the reality involved in a relationship. Still less is it the organ—penis or clitoris—that it symbolizes (“Signification” 579).” In fact, rather than being simply a signifier, we might consider the phallus as the ultimate signified, as “the signifier that is destined to designate meaning effects as a whole, insofar as the signifier conditions them by its presence as signifier (“Signification” 579).”  As the only thing all scientifically-defined work has in common is the exertion of energy, and the phallus is identified most accurately though the force it exerts, so Lacan effectively posits the phallus as exertion itself, manifested in the human psyche as desire and exercised through the drives (“Seminar” 39-42).

Further, as the child begins to differentiate himself and other objects in the mirror stage, so he begins to assign value demarcations to those things he can identify, such as the mother who constitutes the center of his attentions.  Indeed, as he no longer feels himself to be part of the mother, so he beings to fantasize about a ‘re-melding’, and adapts his behaviors to best approximate that lost feeling of oneness through the gaining of the mother’s favor; meaning rather than simply being[1].  This emerging motivation finds an environment conducive to growth in the Symbolic Order, which is, among other things, an all-encompassing collection of differentially-valued distinctions.  The Order, an artificial structure created by and for the power of the phallus, is so utterly dependent on that power for its continuing integrity that it has arranged itself as essentially centerless, ready to accommodate phallic manifestations wherever and how ever they may occur[2].  Accordingly, the way to best mean, so the child eventually comes to learn, is to gain, maintain, and display phallic power—the same power that allows the father to possess the sort of relationship with the mother that the child covets.  This power must be a socially-acceptable (or, better, socially-influential) way, but the whole concept of social acceptability, and indeed the society itself, is made possible only through the exertion of phallic power in myriad forms, thereby providing foundational evidence as to the primacy of the phallus in the existence of the Order and its continuation.  This is an essential point to keep in mind, as is its natural consequent; although any language user is bound to the phallus to be able to interact with the Order, even to act at all, the phallus itself is independent of any object or need other than to exert in some way.  Being the language-using members of an Order of conscious individuals, we commit ourselves to the phallus by even being able to differentiate ourselves as ‘I’.  As the phallus exists to exert itself, so language and all of its users are destined to be the receptacles and, if so granted, agents of that exertion.

At this point, it becomes necessary, if only for practical purposes, to recognize and address a potential barrier to understanding, or rather, to be more optimistic, an ideological obstacle to be understood and, in so doing, overcome: the difference between attitudes toward sexuality contemporaneous to Marnie and those of today, especially as those attitudes are reflected in and promulgated by mainstream media.   The film being less than half a century old, it might seem overcautious to assume that there is enough of an ideological difference between then and now to be taken seriously.  Yet, as Źiźek points out, “in the generalized perversion of late capitalism, transgression itself is solicited, we are daily bombarded by gadgets and social forms which not only enable us to live with our perversions, but even directly conjure new perversions (On Belief 20).”  Marnie managed to generate what controversy it did at the time of its release because, in a way that has since become quite modest, it transgressed boundaries against perversion.  But, like Kubrick’s Lolita two years before, it did so not as regards biological sexuality so much as commonly-accepted notions of romantic love and family relationships.  While certain commonalities in cultural sensitivities can be reasonably assumed between the two eras, those differences that are endemic to the conversation will likewise be considered in full during this examination.

The earliest morally-questionable shot of the film is actually its opening, although Hitchcock does well at making it appear innocuous.  The first thing we see after the credits is a close-up of what looks oddly like a large fortune cookie, clenched under a woman’s arm as she walks away from the screen.  This is a fitting interpretation, as the film concerns this very woman’s fortunes, but it is also quite an abstract one.  If we were to, instead, take a less nuanced but more precise view, we would see that the woman walking down the long phallic symbol of a railroad track is carrying the most Freudianly-appropriate object possible; still a ‘cookie’ according to some vernaculars,  the shapely crevasse between arm and body is bewedged by a rather healthy-looking vagina.  This vaginal handbag works its wonders in a way not dissimilar from the real thing, and not just any real thing, either, but that of Marnie’s mother, ex-prostitute Bernice.  Bernice used a vagina[3] to illegally and, by definition of the film’s contemporary standards as well as our own popular ones, immorally make her money.  Likewise, Marnie deposits her cash, recently nabbed from the safe of business-owner Sidney Strutt, in the hole of the handbag, retrieving it later to construct a mobile variation of the same awkward lifestyle her mother’s covert and, therefore, unreliable occupation had previously provided.

This woman, the titular Marnie, takes the train out of town to visit her mother, eventually returning to Philadelphia, her apparent base of operations, with a newly-dyed head of chestnut hair and clothes to match.  This is, presumably, to elicit an air of responsibility and trustworthiness.  Regardless of what the muted tones of such a look might indicate, however, the depth of symbolism in Marnie’s transformation concerns more fundamental perceptions than are to be found in basic color theory.  Although, for reasons that will be addressed later, it is unlikely that Marnie has engaged in anything more than flirting with Strutt, her last mark (or, perhaps, her previous ‘Mark’; even more accurately, her ‘not-quite-Mark’) she is good enough at her con that she noticed his incessant stare.  Though more concerned with ‘Mrs. Holland’s’ measurements than her movements and whereabouts, Strutt’s gaze must have been constant, given the impassioned, if thoroughly objectifying description he gives the police: “Five feet five.  A hundred and ten pounds.  Size eight dress.  Blue eyes. Black, wavy hair.  Even features. Good teeth. … Always pulling her skirt down over her knees as though they were a national treasure.”  That she was still able to pull off her plan under that libidinous stare makes the man seem all the more impotent for having been fooled, and Marnie herself all the more daring.  While such a sexualized position may have been surmountable at the time, however, it would seem that her new job—she passes down the classifieds page, her finger skimming past the ironic ‘operator’ ad to light on a call for a payroll clerk at Rutland’s Publishing—might require a greater degree of professionalism (for appearance) and focus (to do the real ‘job’).  The first purse Marnie held under her arm was round and full with the money she had stolen, calling to mind the image of a vagina that is young, ripe, perhaps even pre-pubescent as the color is not too far from skin-tone; could this have been Marnie’s first theft, so that we see her fresh from having her ‘cherry popped’?  Unlikely, especially considering that, according to the metaphor, she would have been popping he own cherry, rather than Strutt doing it for her.  Or, perhaps the vagina is Strutt’s own, having been popped during the theft and then stolen away, like a young –deflowered maiden by a highwayman.[4]  But, having now dispensed with her loot—the vaginal receptacle of the handbag having been voided of the money in Marnie’s hotel room—she reappears with a different purse, one that, though brown and older-looking, approximating the mature, unshaved vagina of a woman of sexual experience (and, perhaps due to general lack of satisfaction, indifference), is also decidedly larger, capable of accommodating quite a bit more than before.

This is good planning, both practically and symbolically, as it turns out that Marnie stumbles on to quite a bit more at the Rutland offices than she had at Strutt’s.  Just before her interview with Sam Ward, one of the officers of Rutland’s, the head of the company himself shows up and silently observes.  As Marnie enters Ward’s office, a shot from Mark Rutland’s (or, perhaps, ‘new Mark’, or ‘the right Mark’) perspective shows her standing directly in front of a large safe, much larger than Strutt’s (for which the former, smaller handbag had been well-suited) and at least as tall as she herself.  She stares back at Rutland for a moment, her figure partially obscuring the Rutland name emblazoned on the double doors, until Ward prompts her to take a seat and the name is again made plainly visible.   Though only taking a moment, this sequence subtly reflects the direction in which Mark and Marnie’s relationship will develop throughout a significant portion of the film, as well as the dynamic nature of this seemingly-simple backdrop, which will later be the site of Marnie’s next heist.    Rutland’s mere presence in the office establishes that he is more cunning and aware than Strutt had been, though, for he later admits that, despite the change in hair color, he recognized Marnie immediately, remembering her from a visit to Strutt’s offices.  Rather than simply seeking justice for his business colleague, Rutland’s silent observation of Marnie’s interview is but the first move in a pursuit fueled by a number of complexly-interrelated motives that have more to do with private indulgences than the common good.

Marnie’s immediate, physical interposition between Rutland and his money, meanwhile, is only momentary, pointing to the dubious success of the scheme even as it begins its opening phase.  Eventually, Marnie will find her way into the safe, but her victory will last little more than a day before she is caught and the underlying psychological drama begins in earnest.  This is not to say that this initial meeting only tracks the story so far, however; the most intriguing development is also the easiest to miss.  As previously mentioned, Mr. Ward asks Marnie to sit down, but he does so by her last name—here, ‘Taylor’—intoning the word just as Marnie moves out of the camera’s view and the ‘Rutland’ name occupies the center of the frame.  Given what will become of Mark and Marnie’s relationship as the film continues, it is tempting to merge verbal and visual cues to imagine that, instead of complying with Ward, Marnie’s movement serves to correct him: “Thank you, but the name is Rutland.”

That the future course of their relationship—and the power-struggle that continues to advance once they are married—is so intimately tied to money is not an indication of the shallowness of their union, however, but of its depth and complexity.  Marnie is at a distinct disadvantage in Ward’s office, having been implicitly shown where the money is, but also having twice as many male eyes on her all the time she is within the safe’s vicinity.  And should she not be concerned that, while Strutt’s vision was poor enough that he needed glasses, these two, Rutland and Ward, are all the more clear-eyed?  Yet, Ward is only an employee, no matter how senior; though he might be of immediate concern, he is not so potent as to overshadow the fact that, in this moment, Marnie is, quite literally, surrounded by mark Rutland’s power; the office and everything in it, as well as the building she has passed through to get there and, of course, the target of the safe, are manifestations of his masterful wielding of the phallus.  On a few occasions it is noted, even by Mark himself, that the company was headed for disaster until he took it over:  “By the time I came along, the company was hanging on the ropes.  We had about a thousand employees who were about to go down for the count.”  And if a single man can reverse the fortunes of an entire company, pre-feminist though contemporary to the time would hold that he should have no problem taking a woman, especially one so pre-occupied with money as Marnie, firmly in hand.  For her own part, although Marnie disclaims sexual attraction, she has contextually-established experience in manipulating the physical desires of successful businessmen.  Rutland’s property and possessions are valuable not just as signifiers of the power imbued in them through his business triumphs, but as a promise of Marnie’s chance to grasp some part of that power, provided she plays it as cool as her attire suggests.  This is impossible, though; just as the two of them end up almost immediately in close proximity in Mr. Ward’s office, so the power that Rutland wields will soon be singularly focused on dismantling Marnie’s chestnut-colored façade.

A major factor in Marnie’s plan is the acquisition of the key to Ward’s office safe, a copy of which is kept in his secretary’s purse.  Similar to the opening at the railroad station, Hitchcock draws attention to the relationship of symbolic elements; the vaginal purse (though not necessarily the virginal purse, and of whatever color) has been established as a fitting receptacle for phallic cash, but a purse filled to the brim before the movie even begins does little to expose the nature of power relationships, or more precisely, the relationship various characters have with the phallic power the money represents.  Marnie’s initial theft, though financially significant, is comparatively simplistic; Strutt served as the wielder of what proved to be a very sexualized, or at least desire-centered phallus; it would be easy to imagine Strutt, or any other similarly-stereotypical, fictionalized businessman—Howard Roarke and Cosmo G. Spacely, come to mind—treating his work with the same passion as he might a lover.  But such passion for any possession, be it monetary or in the person of beauty, can easily fog the senses, so that the acumen Strutt showed in making his fortune is trumped by his overactive libido, as is noted rather painfully by ‘Mrs. Holland’s’ lack of references.  Though Marnie might have wished no personal ill will on Strutt—another unlikelihood, considering her modus operandi focuses on victimizing men of a particular profile and privileged social standing—from Strutt’s perspective the ‘cleaning out’ is tantamount to castration; he can no longer even ogle the object of his fantasies, the fantasies themselves being shattered with Marnie’s exposure as a fraud.  Even the money that might have offered comfort in light of her disappearance, that was his best proof of his own accomplishment and viability, has been denied.  Strutt’s situation is ultimately his own fault, of course—not necessarily for being taken in, but rather for his limited understanding of phallic power.  For what Strutt has not considered is that, even though sexual desire is an expression of phallic power (or attraction to phallic power) the phallus is not constrained by sexual desire; its sole function is to exert, regardless of the specific means.  In other words, Strutt’s spite is based, in part, on his belief that his attraction to Marnie was not reciprocated, but this belief stems from a shortcoming in his view of his own attractiveness as being based in those traits endemic to romance (looks, personality, etc.), with money valued (at least, by good girls) only insofar as it brings with it stability.  Although Marnie quite wisely decides to part company as soon as she has cleared out Strutt’s small safe, we can imagine the pains with which she ingratiated herself to that point, developing a relationship with Strutt by which, at the very least, she could observe him wielding his power in the workplace, for this is as close as Marnie can come to anything approximating sexual desire.  Such a proximity to power that does not simply transcend the bedroom, but begins well outside it, is supremely attractive to a woman who has explicitly rejected sexuality and, in turn, those same tropes of romance; what turns Marnie on (in a purely intellectual way) is the (nominally) de-gendered potency of cash.  Thus, with traditional married life not even a considered option, Marnie simply takes a more direct, more numerically-rewarding route to the same objective as all the other secretaries working away for their share of the dividends of Strutt’s economic power until they can nab husbands.

Returning to the icon that serves so thoroughly phallic a function at various points in the film, it is ironic that Marnie chooses to dispense with the spare station locker key in the manner she does.  Rather than putting it back into her purse or depositing it in some other symbolically sexual fashion—sex here still symbolizing the same power exchange it often serves in real life, at least for everyone but Marnie—she intentionally drops the key in a grate, a thoroughly non-sexual repository, prominently defined as such by the bars that restrict access to whatever the grate is covering.  Marnie might be momentarily satisfied in having seized what monetary power she has, but she knows the dangers of her position, especially if she is caught by the police and made subject to even more severe exertions of phallic power than Strutt has access to on his own.  Knowing that she’ll have no further use for the key[5], Marnie opts to both relinquish and neutralize its power in a fashion that, as we will see, reflects the power differential of some of the most important relationships of the film.

But all of this, while being awash in greed and lust, is not necessarily indicative of psychosis, per se, and Marnie is very much a story of psychosis, its trailer notwithstanding.  Rather than using the established signifiers of money and sex to reveal how Marnie’s perspective has become distorted, Hitchcock further complicates matters by providing an indication of psychosis that is rather oblique; an extremely adverse reaction to the color red.  This fear is given a pat answer late in the film, via a flashback to childhood trauma, but Marnie’s natural, gender-based relationship with blood and the associations it has engendered while she lived under her mother’s roof lend a great measure of additional complexity to the initial phobia.  While it should be noted, if only for the sake of the complete sign, that Marnie is specifically prone to red on white, it would seem that red is the primary color through which her psychic injuries are echoed; when something reminds her of the repressed memory, such as an errant ink spot on a shirtsleeve or a polka dot dress, Hitchcock indicates the intrusion of the memories of the damaging real by imposing a red filter over the frame.  But while the narrative origins of the situation will be explained as a function of the plot, red also represents a much different kind of potential intrusion, a common question Marnie faces every time she finds herself in Mark’s presence; to reproduce or not.

After an adolescence and womanhood of hardline straight sexual repression, first at the hands of her mother, then by her own hand (in either case, perhaps the same hand that more directly helped to curb sexual urges), Marnie meets a man who might actually be a viable mate, as he shows in how he handles her.  Though having been entrapped by Mark, Marnie does not entirely wish for escape; though she could physically bail at any time, out a window or using a piece of topiary to cross the lawn, she is bound to Mark through his intimate and increasing knowledge of her history as a thief, and it is only via this intellectual inlet, a sustained power obtained in knowledge and expressed in skillful management of the situation, that further intimacy (and of further kinds, perhaps, but perhaps not) can be achieved.  Marnie’s neuroses are deep-seated, though, and she steadfastly is ambivalent, as she would also be expected to engage in a sexual relationship, a violation of the first order under the law of Bernice, Marnie’s mother.  In the aftermath of the old trauma, Bernice has shunned all men and taught her daughter to do the same.  Thus, if we assume Marnie has adopted her mother’s misandry and had “no lovers, no steadies, no beaux, no gentleman callers, nothing”, Mark becomes a direct threat to Marnie’s maidenhood and, more importantly, to her mother’s already-elusive approval.  Early in the film, in fact, as Marnie presents her mother with the gift of a fur stole (oddly echoing the hair her first vaginal purse, the bag which contained the rest of what Marnie ‘stole’, notably lacked), Bernice becomes suspicious as her daughter explains that she has a very “generous” boss.  This is a mistake that is, by some standards, the simple substitution of the spoken sin for the unspoken one.  Yet, the situation of sexual indiscretion, the less socially palatable transgression, being assumed over grand theft, a crime of less moral severity but entailing a longer jail term, is but a small-scale example of much larger inversions that Hitchcock uses the film to enact and manipulate.

A much more powerful example occurs late in the film, as Mark grills Marnie and her mother about the old trauma; the killing of a sailor, a client of Bernice’s during her days as a prostitute.  He is satisfied with his progress on Marnie’s behalf, though one gets the impression he hears nothing surprising or even particularly interesting, but this could be another display of his skillful and subtle hand.  Yet the true importance of the color red, in all its implications for Mark and Marnie’s future, has not yet been fully understood.  Though the origins of the trauma are exposed, that single childhood event caused a massive and permanent shift in Marnie’s already tenuous home life, an effect which continues to shape Marnie’s present and might have a profound and devastating impact on her future.  In the aftermath of the sailor’s violent death, as Bernice renounced everything about prostitution, she profoundly stifled her daughter’s sexuality even as she denied her own.  Assuming this process commenced right away, when Marnie was still a young child, she had yet to reach puberty, at which time she would begin to menstruate.   Considering Marnie would see similar-looking blood as she witnessed running down the dead sailor’s shirt coming out of her own vagina on a very regular basis, it is not at all hard to see how basic color associations could deeply problematize an already complex psychic injury.  Given that we are only privy to manifestations of Marnie’s phobia while she is in Mark’s vicinity, there becomes little symbolic difference for Marnie between these flashes of the real, sexual jouissance, and her own vaginal liquids, whatever their nature.  While this is not necessarily enough to overcome ambivalence, the complications of a newly-developing sexual situation affect Marnie so severely not because of the sailor’s molestation—which both Marnie and her mother have claimed as the motive in his death—but because her sexuality was systemically repressed before she had a chance to develop it.  But this, of course, begs the question of expressions of female sexuality sans the male gender, an issue that will be examined in greater detail with a study of the power structure of the Edgar household.  Meanwhile, for all her fabrications, Marnie is unerringly steadfast in her assertions that she has never had an intimate relationship of any kind with any man; despite her occupation and mental issues, she is not yet a fallen woman in the strict, irrevocable sense.  But such assertions again cast her relationship with Mark as a radical new element which, whether exerting itself sexually or intellectually, is again bound to become problematic.  While, once discovered for a thief, Marnie displays no physical attraction to Mark, we can confidently infer that such attraction does exist, for two reasons.  First, Mark shows his willingness to display his considerable phallic muscle at several points, such as when he buys Marnie her beloved horse or when he pays off Strutt and all the other business-owners Marnie has stolen from; while such acts are not directly sexual, it is well-established by this point that Marnie perceives value largely in terms of money, such as the funds she attempts to gift to Bernice in exchange for maternal favor.  Thus, Mark understands Marnie just as well as Marnie understands her marks.  Second, and much more obviously, Marnie’s attraction to Mark is displayed in the fact that, despite having several opportunities to flee, she only seems to seriously consider the notion once, at the restaurant the pair stops at just after Mark catches his prey at the stables.  Indeed, rather than cloistering Marnie, Mark gives her free reign over the family home and, later on, takes his new bride on a honeymoon cruise.  The latter occasion is doubly-rewarded, as he is able to exert his considerable fortune to impressive effect while, in giving Marnie fair opportunity to jump ship at any port she chooses, confirming Mark’s unerring confidence in his own judgment.  Later, during the Rutledges’ honeymoon, Marnie attempts suicide by drowning, but she does so in the ship’s pool rather than the enveloping, Źiźekian massiveness of the ocean.  From a Źiźekian perspective, we can immediately see this attempt for the token that it is.  Rather than desiring an absolute merging with the real, Marnie only wishes to skirt the border, to engage in a controllable, terminable jouissance (“Of the Subject” 234).  She knows she risks something more with Mark, something closer and more dangerous than her customary, comfortable distance, whether it ends up being a co-dependent relationship based on a shared secret (still a distinct possibility as an end scenario) or a genuine and desire for proximity.  In choosing such a method of drowning over its clearly more definitive alternative, Marnie overtly chooses to maintain her proximity to Mark while also communicating the painfulness of her own ambivalence; the specific distance of the pool from the cabin is constant and easily traversed, so that, alive or dead, she would only be so far away as Mark desired in his own mobility.  And it is the consideration of Mark’s desires, mobility, and power, and the implicit acknowledgement that Marnie has herself allowed him to take control of her movements, that constitutes the other side of her earnest (though still not necessarily sexual) desire.

All this time, Mark most directly displays his phallic power through the narratively-contextualized gaze he casts on Marnie.  As a thief, she employs her own pedestrian version of the gaze, but it is diluted, and not just because of her position as a woman.  The male gaze is one in which the woman is reduced to object of desire and possession but, until Mark, Marnie has had little basis from which to relate.  Even with Mark, she goes catatonic rather than even attempting to view her husband in a sexual way, perhaps in part because she has never learned how.  Instead, she has had to make due with a lesser gaze, set upon lesser objects, unable to themselves know of the gaze or respond to: cash fits the bill.  Despite the relative impotence of her gaze in itself—she would get nowhere if she just demanded the money, nor does she have any established business channel by which to acquire it—it is helped significantly by both her cunning and her understanding of a lack of scope and insensitivity to subtlety and nuance that is a common weakness of the male gaze.  After all, she does not need to satisfy Strutt’s sexual desire for her, nor even overtly entertain it, to be able to manipulate him out of his $10,000.  But now, in forced retirement via marriage, she becomes the object of Mark’s gaze, and it is far more potent and dangerous that Strutt’s, if only for the fact that Mark pays attention to more than Marnie’s hair and knees.  After being caught for the Rutland safe theft, as Mark lays out his plans for Marnie, she makes a token attempt to overtly exert herself, an act which, considering its ineffectiveness, might have been intended as nothing more than Hitchcock’s wish to make the extreme inequality of the power differential plain to his less observant viewers.  While there is much more to be explored in Mark and Marnie’s relationship, the power dynamic is, at the least, established and consistent; while Marnie might be an operator, Mark is the one in control.  It is through the exertion of that influence, in fact, that he helps the viewer get at a better understanding of the story’s true mystery, that of Marnie and Bernice’s strange relationship and how it was so marked by the sailor’s death.  Before we embark on this journey to the story’s heart, however, we must again be mindful of the variability of phallic influence in its manifestations, made all the more complex by the setting of Marnie’s revealing flashback.  Accordingly, Lacan would draw our attention to “a relation between the subject and the phallus that forms without regard to the anatomical distinction between the sexes and that is thus especially difficult to interpret in the case of women with respect to women… (“Signification” 576).”

During Marnie’s early childhood, as Bernice’s business is presumably flourishing (for all the knocks on the door and “men in white coats” coming through), their apartment is a place of constant but understandable and reliable shifting of power positions.  When Bernice and Marnie are there alone, we can assume they accept the predictable power differential of any mother-daughter household.  Meanwhile, Bernice is also the controller of the space itself, paying for and maintaining her daughter’s shelter, food, and clothing.  Even when various men enter the apartment, their role as customer in the act of exchange of their own money (symbol of their phallic power) for use of Bernice’s orifices (receivers of phallic power), satisfies the need for the phallus to exert itself, what might be explained as the Lacanian drive as it manifests itself in the unconscious (“Seminar” 34).  Thus Bernice continues on in relative safety, so long as each customer continues to understand and abide by not just his relationship with her, but with his own authority figures (usually the Navy), and the implicit rule of law for business of this kind.  Yet, that this complex counter-balancing of phallic power must exist in the first place proves that Bernice is incapable of maintaining her indirect hold on that power should if any of the men choose to subvert the phallic law and exert themselves in an unacceptable way.  Curiously, a close viewing of the flashback reveals that, contrary to the spoken narrative, the sailor does not strike either Bernice or Marnie at any time, and the obscene kisses that he is accused of are rendered, at best, ambiguous by the frame.  This is of little consequence, though, as the sailor’s fatal sin, the error by which he continues to be judged worthy of killing by both Marnie and Bernice, is in having touched the child at all, or perhaps even in having approached the child to begin with.  Living within this ever-shifting power structure could have contributed in untold ways to Marnie’s current psychoses, but is it possible that even Bernice’s own, mature mind might have been affected by the unique conditions?  Survival of the self and the family requires constant vigilance, especially under such circumstances, so we can assume that Bernice had very narrow limitations on how her customers could interact with her daughter; in maintaining her phallically-endorsed yet tenuous social positioning, she would have to be able to catch and somehow deal with problems almost before they occurred and without hesitation.  That said, it matters very little if their seeming lie is intentional fabrication or a mutual attempt at subconscious reimagining, another line of psychic defense once repression has reached its limit (“Seminar” 25).

Unfortunately, when called upon to wield whatever she can of phallic power, Bernice fails.  Despite picking up the fireplace poker, a fair attempt at evening out the different levels of phallic power on display betwixt she and the sailor, Bernice only manages to bring her foe down so far.  And not far enough to be able to gain the advantage on him, as he manages to fall on top of her and break her leg in doing so, all the while looking as though he were on the verge of passing out.  Even in such a state, he is still able to make his most overtly-antagonistic and violating move of the entire sequence, however: the sailor’s foot is lodged in Bernice’s crotch as he tries to untangle their legs, attempting to move away from Bernice rather than toward her, the same direction he assumes for most of the scene.  It is important to note the sailor’s power-positioning here, or rather, Bernice and Marnie’s perceptions of such; he is still tangled up with Bernice, still being fought against as the transgressive superior (transgressive in the eyes of the higher power, yet still the superior force within the immediate setting), when Marnie takes up the dropped poker and finishes the job her mother started.  At the moment Marnie kills the sailor, she situates herself at the top of the power structure within the apartment.  The sailor, being the felled holder of the phallus, deemed unworthy in his defeat, now assumes the supplicant position of death, total immobilization, a full ceasing of the means by which to continue meaning.  Even in defeat and death, however, the sailor manages to maintain his dominant position over Bernice, who is now situated physically and symbolically at the bottom of the heap.

Thus, what we are presented with in the flashback is the ruination inherent in the realization of the desire to fulfill the mother’s phallic need.  The child Marnie takes up the fireplace poker, a blunt symbol of phallic force, in defense of her mother, technically fulfilling the call to mean, but in a way that is, ultimately, quite limiting and alienating.  Whatever phallic power that had previously dwelt in the house had, it could be assumed, been manifest in Bernice herself.  Yet, in taking matters in hand, Marnie also quite firmly takes them out of the hands of her mother; regardless of Bernice’s momentary cries for her daughter to mean in a very specific, very phallic way, the child’s execution of her charge manages to invert the power dynamic such that neither will be able to come to grips with.  Lacan points out, however, that the mother is normally “endowed with a phallus (“Signification” 576)” of some kind, at least in the eyes of the child; this is usually in the person of the father.  Even though the sailor himself is not the ultimate phallic father figure, he is expected to temporarily fulfill that position in certain ways, such as providing Bernice with cash, a flexible (read: fluid), potent sign of phallic power, able to produce the fulfillment of material needs.  His death at Marnie’s hands, then, is both a murder of the monetarily-producing father and a castration of the phallic mother, in that she no longer has empowering access to a line of income.

No matter the nature or duration of its acquisition, however, a little girl is simply not a viable vessel for the power of the phallus, or so it goes for Hitchcock.  He even gives us an early hint of the depth of Marnie’s sustained injuries as, just after the Strutt theft, she tosses the spare locker key into the floor grate at the train station, unable to take full ownership of even that token of phallic power.   Nor, technically being the weakest of the participants during the flashback, does Bernice have the option to resume the business relationship she had previously enjoyed with the phallus; the rules that had governed it previously are revealed as unreliable in their ability to provide security.  The phallus tears into Bernice’s space in a new and unmanageable way and, even though one of its minor agents dies as a result, the power that he brought into the environment remains, turning ghostlike and haunting Marnie and her mother as the traumatic memory that, even in its repression, continues to shape their lives through Bernice’s spiteful misandry.  Such a mindset does have its advantages, though: Bernice-as-prostitute is unable to sufficiently wield phallic power to keep her family safe, but Bernice-as-matriarch, de-sexualized to the point of manliness, can find some degree of control and satisfaction in approximating the phallic power that (still) lies ever beyond her reach.

What has been created, then, is an Edgar household the structure of which is defined by such a marked lack of the phallus that the phallus must still count as an effect-bearing presence.  To mark the effect of the removal of that which can never not be desired (Four Fundamental Concepts 235), even as it is vocally renounced, we need only observe where Bernice and her daughter moved for their ‘fresh start’.  Our first view of Bernice’s current home comes after an establishing shot of the neighborhood, and it establishes a quite large, black-hulled ship facing the new residence, with the waterfront just a half-dozen or so houses away.   Bernice has thus chosen as her refuge a bizarre liminal space; instead of being free of the specter of the sailor who, in his dying act of dominance over Bernice, has transcended his status as an anonymous john to become the Freudian dead father, the classical manifestation and of wielder of the phallus, Bernice keeps him at an oppressively-visible distance.  Rather than symbolizing the relatively insubstantial power of the sailor, the ship truly represents that phallic power, in all its mass and gravity, which Bernice cannot fully escape from, if only for the effect of its lack. Instead of growing a healthy home life, Bernice and her daughter live quite literally in the shadow of a power that they make every conscious effort to deny, thereby creating an environment of what Źiźek describes as ‘the notion of anxiety in its strict Lacanian sense as the effect that registers the subject’s panic reaction to the overproximity of the object-cause of desire (“Grimaces” 52).’  Although the sailor turned her off to the male gender, Bernice still longs to become permanently as powerful within her own family unit as the sailor was for his brief stay.  She even expresses as much near the end of Marnie’s first visit of the film:


Uh, Marnie, I’ve been thinking seriously about asking Miss Cotton and Jessie to move in here with me.  Miss Cotton is a real nice woman.  She’s decent. A hard-working woman with a little girl to raise.


Come on, Mama, why don’t you just say what you mean?  What you want is for Jessie to come live with you.


Marnie, you oughtn’t let yourself act jealous of a little ol’ kid like that.

Despite what Marnie treats as a basic (if age-inappropriate) competition for maternal affection, Bernice is quite earnest in her proposition.  For a woman who was bested by both a dead man and her own young daughter in the same night, who had spent the last few decades trying to reclaim the phallic power that she had so thoroughly been divested of, what better way to take hold of that power anew?  All that would be required is an inversion of normalized household gender structures, a feat Bernice is quite used to from her prostitution days and her failed attempts at eliminating vestiges of the phallus.  In desiring to bring the Cottons into her home—as opposed to entering their home, which would established a decidedly different power structure—Bernice finally shows her understanding that alienating herself from the phallus has been both futile and self-destructive.  In a psychoanalytically-sophisticated move, she has accepted that the phallus and the male are not one in the same and that she can gain legitimate phallic power by taking on the symbolic (and perhaps sexual) position of the father.  Whether she would actually engage in a lesbian relationship with Miss Cotton (who in being named so sounds more like a young, vulnerable, unwed mother than a widow) is immaterial, as Bernice can see herself possessing and exerting phallic power just by financially supporting a ‘complete’ family.  Moreover, so doing would allow her to distance herself from her previous, powerless identity more completely than ever.

We should not mistake this impetus as Bernice’s desire to blot her relationship with Marnie from her memory, however.  Instead, Bernice’s hesitancy to even touch her daughter, “the only thing in this world I ever did love,” is indicative of her wish to maintain the necessary distance from which to gaze upon Marnie in that empowered, masculinized way Laura Mulvey refers to as ‘the gaze’—to vicariously enjoy a dubious yet materially-manifest success that she could never experience personally, and in so doing vindicate the beliefs and attitudes that guided Marnie’s upbringing.  Mulvey elaborates on this “the position of the spectator,” in which overt exhibitionism is foregone in favor of projecting “the repressed desire on to the performer (9).”  Bernice effectively becomes the cinematic viewer for a period, or at least gains the same advantageous position as the viewer for as long as she can observe her daughter’s life without becoming overly-invested as one of its active participants.

Unfortunately, this situation which has allowed Bernice some type of solace has also cast Marnie as a victim twice-over; her psyche may have been scarred by the event itself, but the restructuring of both the household and the maternal relationship have resulted in a home life that that is torturously oppressive.  While effectively binding the mother and daughter to each other, the reformed power differential proves ultimately unsustainable, yet irrevocable in its effects.  Even as she ascends the stairs to wake Marnie from a nightmare, so Bernice is made anonymous in the shadows of the stairwell; she looks on her distressed daughter from a physical distance that approximates the emotional removal necessary for spectatorial enjoyment.  The physical distance between the stairwell and the bedroom echoes a distance of mind between the two women, just as each environment they momentarily inhabit (stairwell, bedroom) is distinct and self-contained; the bedroom, the bed specifically, is the well-defined scene of the action, and the spectator need not look anywhere else for the object of interest, Marnie herself, asleep and unaware that she is being watched.  Meanwhile, the stairwell contains little to distract from the view of the bedroom, which Bernice has full visual access to, as the door is wide open.  It must then be considered whether the use of the bedroom specifically as the site of the most blatant exertion of the contextualized gaze is meant to invert what that same type of setting meant to Bernice before the incident.  As we are shown Marnie’s memories in 3rd person—an indication in itself that what we are seeing might be manufactured even within the context of the narrative—our first sight of the girl occurs as her mother is removing her from the bedroom, the place of business not simply with her customers directly, but with the phallic power she both serves and is kept at a distance from.  Seeing the adult Marnie put into a similar position of service to a man with no authentic promise of security, no matter to what degree, is repugnant to Bernice, so that her fixations are satisfied not by lurid interest in her daughter’s sexuality, but by Marnie’s solitude and reassurances of chastity, or at least for as long as Bernice believes such.

Meanwhile Marnie is left torn between the law of her mother and the law of the dead sailor, now immortalized as the Freudian father.  Both sources of authority establish themselves through denial of and admonition for desire, Bernice to an extreme degree given her paranoiac super-sensitivity to the vulnerability of her own position.  Each is a force of restriction; though Marnie does not understand the reasoning behind her mother’s structures, while the rule of the dead father, that which Bernice has tried to stand in for, continues to exist in the very memory of Bernice’s ultimate incompetence, the occasion of her child-inflicted castration.  What Bernice has thus constructed for her daughter is a very intentional version of a common effect of the exertion of the gaze, what Mulvey describes as “the matrix of the imaginary, of recognition/misrecognition (10).”  As Bernice has created an atmosphere in which she is seen by Marnie and others, such as the Cottons, as the phallically-empowered authority when, in fact, she has never had sufficient stature to legitimately claim that title, so her means of re-valuing men and casting heterosexual relationships in a negative light has had its logical effect on Marnie’s sexual and emotional development, though even this may eventually change with the introduction of Mark’s phallic influence.  Notice, though, that in none of these outcomes is Marnie ever so autonomous as she is while grifting.  That this period of her life is so often referred to as transient—even her mother disapproves of the outcome of her daughter’s activities, even if she is unclear on their nature—indicates that the socially-acceptable version of the phallically-approved, nuclear family power structure would see her firmly subject to her husband’s whims, regardless of the iconoclasm of the film’s approach.  While romantic love might fade into resentment and its commensurate abuses, we can take at least some solace in the fact that Mark’s attraction to Marnie is, to a considerable degree, an intellectual one.  Or, rather, it is so long as Marnie remains a puzzle.

Works Cited

Freud, Sigmund. On Dreams. Trans. M. D. Eder. Mineola, NY: Dover, 2001. Print.

Lacan, Jacques.  “Of the Subject Who is Supposed to Know, of the First Dyad, and of the Good.”  The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis.  Trans. Alan Sheridan.  New York:  W.W. Norton, 1998.  230-243.  Print.

—.  “Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter’.”  Écrits.  Trans. Bruce Fink.  New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.  6-58.  Print.

—.  “The Signification of the Phallus.”  Écrits.  Trans. Bruce Fink.  New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.  575-584.  Print.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen 16.3 (1975): 6-18. Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975) – Laura Mulvey., 2 Sept. 2007. PDF. 31 Mar. 2012.

Źiźek, Slavoj.  Living in End Times.  London: Verso, 2010.  Print.

—.  On Belief. New York: Routledge, 2001.  PDF. 31 Mar. 2012

—. “Grimaces of the Real, of When the Phallus Appears.” October Rendering the Real 58 (1991): 44-68. JSTOR. Web. 31 Mar. 2012.

[1] “Demand in itself bears on something other than the satisfactions it calls for. It is demand for a presence or an absence. This is what the primordial relationship with the mother manifests, replete as it is with that Other who must be situated shy of the needs that Other can fulfill (Écrits 579-80),” or, at least, so the Other—often in the body of the father or father-figure—is situated within the perceptions of the child, thereby creating, really, an institutional gap, a lack that is the natural product of the social structure and that which the child sees themselves as being born to fill, thereby foregoing any call to mean rather than simply be (the material by which the gap is filled).  It is only once the child has come to terms with the fact that they will not (rather than cannot) fulfill the phallic gap for the mother better than the father ever could that they decide to take the next best option (and the only actual one): to mean.  Yet, even being able to conceive of phallic power posits one within the linguistic structure it has facilitated, rendering man the material of a de-maternalized, socially-acceptable phallic power, the most prominent and effective outlet through which said power is exerted.  And, as everything that affects the psyche must be categorized relative to that psyche’s own context (Freud 9-11), phallic power is thus expressed most fundamentally as the drives, the continuing pursuit of self-fulfillment through meaning.

[2] One of the common cornerstones of all the great colonial endeavors of history has been the insertion of the invading tongue (pun intended) amongst the natives, along with the subsequent suppression of the native language itself.  Yet, consider that, even in the most widespread languages (such as English), there are few signifiers which are not fundamentally arbitrary; the constant evolution of a language—the evolution of the social structure itself, as previously noted, including political and religious contexts—means that no single word holds an inviolable favor amongst its users.

[3] ‘A vagina’ as opposed to ‘her vagina’, as the use of the article vs. the pronoun presupposes that there is nothing owned that is not obtained through phallic power of some kind or in some form, so that the very structure that serves and is rewarded by the phallus—the Order—could be said to own, to a degree, all that which is possessed by its members; it is exclusively through the Order, whether manifested monetarily, through granting of affection, as threat of physical force, or otherwise, that such acquisitions are made.

[4] Either way, though, we are also having our own symbolic cherries popped, as we experience our first theft with Marnie, making us complicit to a degree if only because we will continually have knowledge of the doings of this hunted criminal.

[5] She only needs one for herself, as she has no plans to share with anyone but her mother, a distorted model for Marnie’s own misguided behavior and, at least initially, the only authority that she is truly invested in.


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