The desire to desire

In Natasha Tretherwey’s “Bellocq Ophelia”, Ophelia expresses her desire in many aspects of her life, including her family, jobs, names, and expectation to life in general. In the society where gender and racial treatment are unequal, Ophelia learns how to pretend her behavior and conceal her desire throughout her life. Indicating her desire, Ophelia points out, “The girls here are of a country sort, kindly/ and plain for the most part, with simple desires –/ not unlike myself or those girls I knew at home,” (Tretherwey 17). According to this quotes, Ophelia has desires in her life, just like all the other girls who are also treated unequally. However, as the poem proceeds, the reason why Ophelia is unable to fulfill her desire becomes obvious.

Early in her life, Ophelia is trained by her mother to serve man, and this forced obedience eventually leads her to accept being a prostitute in the future. She recalls her mother’s words, “my mother taught me to curtsy and be still/ so that I might please a white man, my father,” (Tretherwey 20). Because of her mother, Ophelia can neither choose to not follow her mother’s instruction nor speak for herself. This inability to express her feelings ultimately deteriorate her desire to pursue the life she wants.

Later in her life, she unfortunately becomes a prostitute due to her hardship in life, and her boss again trains her in a certain way she does not like. She describes Countess P     ’s advice, “Become what you must. Let him see whatever/ he needs. Train yourself not to look back,” (Tretherwey 11). Again, the boss has taught her to please man, and this is what Ophelia internally struggles to obey. Eventually, she is greatly disappointed to herself, and she develops a sense of emptiness in her life.

Unable to make a change in her life, Ophelia is frustrated to her life and is about to give up trying. She confesses to her love ones, Constance, “You are as steadfast as your name/ suggests, and I am as mute/ as my own namesake,” (Tretherwey 23), meaning she is jealous of other people’s life, not her own. This speech also infers that Ophelia is unable to reveal her true feelings, which is a continuous trend since the beginning of her life. She concludes her frustration with “I am then nothing/ but the light I see behind my shut eyelids,” (Tretherwey 19) and “I want freedom from memory,” (Tretherwey 24), showing how much she dislikes her current life and her desire to change the situation and the feeling of being ashamed. Ophelia goes through a series of process in which she starts from an obedient daughter, a cooperated worker, and a woman who is extremely unsatisfied about her life. This process and this development of her personality are the main factors why Ophelia is unable to express and pursue her desire.

  1. You are certainly right, Jen, about Ophelia’s inability to fulfill her desire as a result of her background. This impedes her own thoughts and actions, making her bear so much burden and feel greatly unhappy. She makes attempts to fulfill her desire but she is still not satisfied. Her life has been one of servitude and subjection, right from her early days at the cotton fields to becoming a prostitute. From the clarity of your argument it is true that Ophelia is unable to pursue her desire to be free.

  2. Jen, I appreciate that you have traced Ophelia through a number of poems, and you’re right in many ways about the limits on her desires. That being said, Ophelia is not merely someone who has been acted upon; instead she often makes choices for herself. What does she choose and do you think it is actually a choice in each of these cases? Moreover, there are some complicating factors in Ophelia’s background that might shift our understanding of how she has ended up where she has. What might those include?

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