Looking For Identity

Annette Debo introduces her say on Bellocq’s Ophelia by highlighting the significance of looking as a part of the sexual trade conducted between Ophelia and her customers. “The sex industry is as much about theatricality as it is about sex, and in Bellocq’s Ophelia the act of looking is layered, circular and reflexive” (Debo, 207). Looking is central to sex. Ophelia’s customers look at her and identify her traits by looking before they conduct a deal with her. The “wealthy gentlemen” auction to get Ophelia just by a simple look (Trethewey, 13). The men at the brothel are seeking to purchase a prostitute’s services just by looking at her. They judge a woman by only observing.

Debo in her article “Ophelia Speaks: Resurrecting Still Lives In Natasha Trethewey’s Bellocq’s Ophelia”, also asserts the role looking plays as a part of a person’s self and social identity. “Layers of looking are complicated by the racial and gender identity of each person looking and by the way in which people are trained to look at others” (Debo, 207). The act of looking at someone is very strange, superficial most of the times. After one glance, a person tries to identify someone’s characteristics and quite often one goes too far, leading to wrong assumptions, generalizations and discriminations. Men at the brothel are curious to search for evidence of Ophelia’s blackness. “Others (customers) look for evidence – telltale half moons in our fingernails, a bluish tint beneath the skin” (Trethewey, 26). Customers want to classify Ophelia as black and relate her to the stereotypical characteristics of an African American by just looking at her.

Initially I thought that Ophelia identifies her to be black because she is deceiving people on the streets to be white, however, she herself knows that she is black. “I walk these streets a white woman, or so I think, until I catch the eyes of some stranger upon me, and I must lower mine, a negress again” (Trethewey, 7). But after a careful reading, I think that she is still rather confused as to who she is. She once talked back to her teasing friends when she said “You are what you like” (Trethewey, 17). Ophelia looks white and can easily deceive people that she is white. Is she confused about her identity? Her white demeanor and upbringing may be troubling her self-identity.