The longstanding relationship between sex and death is best exemplified by the phrase la petite mort: the small or little death that is the French metaphor for orgasm. Roland Barthes suggested that la petite mort was the chief objective for reading literature. More explicitly, and especially in terms of Gloria Vanderbilt’s Obsession, la petite mort exemplifies the binary duality that is the quintessential nature of sexual passion. On the one hand there is the life-force and vitality that inspires the procreative/reproductive urge, wherein sexual arousal is manifested and all life energies begin. Conversely, there is the massive expenditure of energy that mimics the termination and expulsion of all life resulting in that much vaunted experience known as la petite mort. This duality, supported by other seemingly insurmountable paradoxes, is the central theme of Gloria Vanderbilt’s Obsession.
A slender tome, Obsession deals with the aftermath of Talbot Bingham’s death and the subsequent effects of his passing. His wife, Priscilla, is devastated by the loss. More distressing for Priscilla is the journey of discovery she must undertake to come to terms with the dual life Talbot appeared to have lead during their marriage.
And, constantly, the reader is faced with the conflict of binary oppositions as the dead male continues to control the live female; the frigid wife encounters the libidinous widow; and the truth comes face to face with the lie. Queen bees and worker ants; monogamy and polygamy; masters and slaves: are all used as metaphors for the conflicting nature of binary opposites combined in a single relationship.
The resonating impact of these dualities is relentless. Exploring the contrasts between frigidity and passion, fidelity and promiscuity, and faithfulness and fecklessness, Vanderbilt teases the reader with shifting perspectives that show each of these binary opposites is never more than the converse side to the same coin.
A great expanse of this story is narrated in the epistolatory form. Again this reinforces another duality (the spoken word in written form) followed by the conflict of first person narratives interspersed with expository commentary from an omniscient narrator. As Priscilla reads letters that weren’t intended for her eyes, the story also raises the conflict of what should be known and what should remain unknown.
If ever two were one, it could be said of Priscilla and Talbot Bingham. How charmed Priscilla would be to hear the couple described in this Victorian manner, conjuring up old-fashioned valentines with quaint phrases entwined by ribbons and hearts, bordered by paper lace. For to her, image was all: childless by choice, proud to devote her life “constructing,” as her architect husband might say, “brick by brick,” castle-high topped by a banner proclaiming to the world the success of their partnership.
Tellingly, the story opens with the omniscient narrator’s explanation of the closeness shared by Talbot and Priscilla: so close that this pair are commonly perceived as a single unit. Talbot and Priscilla flourish beneath the neologism Talcilla: a blending of their names to label their Maryland estate and the name of Talbot’s fellowship of architects.
The dictionary defines ‘Obsession’ as: Compulsive preoccupation with a fixed idea or an unwanted feeling or emotion…
The key word here is ‘unwanted’ which again returns us to the duality of an emotion that embodies an overwhelming desire, even when that irresistible preoccupation is essentially unwanted. It is that ‘unwanted’ emotion which fuels Priscilla’s story as she is buffeted between desire and disgust and ignorance and knowledge on her journey toward self-actualisation.
Ultimately, Vanderbilt suggests that obsession can be overcome by an acceptance of the dual nature that fuels this irresoluble conflict. However, this richly layered narrative should leave the reader returning to the text to search for deeper meaning. To quote Joyce Carol Oates from the back cover of the novel:
In her new novel, Gloria Vanderbilt has created a remarkable tapestry of human passion – an interior world of highly charged erotic mysteries that teasingly suggest, but ever elude, decoding. Obsession is a poetic tale on the nature of possession and obsession.