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The Allure of Ugliness

Is the unattractive female character ascending?


Literature—unlike TV and film, essentially free of visual images—should offer a forum in which we can examine the lives of women without immediate appraisals of appearance. Yet the women who appear in our fiction are also unrealistically, disproportionately beautiful. From Pamela to Emma, Daisy Miller to Daisy Buchanan—the likes of poor Jane Eyre are wildly outnumbered. As Adelle Waldman has argued on the New Yorker’s Page Turner blog, our most perceptive, fair-minded novelists recognize beauty as construct and contrivance, “a subject with profound repercussions for both men and women,” but most writers still casually create female characters who are near-perfect specimens anyway. Lionel Shriver, writing in New York magazine, talks about the temptation fiction writers face to “describe primary characters (especially women) as physically striking—on the assumption that […] being eye-catching will make them more likable.” In genre fiction, market pressures can be explicit. The fantasy writer Erika Johansen says that, while her novel The Tearling was in submission, several editors asked if she might revise her ordinary-looking heroine to “make her pretty.” More than 150 years after Brontë, sympathy for a female character is still yoked to physical beauty.

A critical study of literary and popular fiction, however, argues that the less-than-beautiful heroine has lately been ascendant. In Plain & Ugly Janes: The Rise of the Ugly Woman in Contemporary American Fiction, editor and scholar Charlotte M. Wright plucks out a “thin but discernible thread of plain, at times even homely, heroines” and traces it to contemporary works by Alison Lurie, Russell Banks, Lorie Moore, Katherine Dunn, and others. The less-than-beautiful woman has been allowed to step out of her supporting roles as spinster and old maid and into stories of her own, Wright argues. For Wright, this movement represents a critique of our beauty-mad culture—one made most sharply when writers create female characters who aren’t just plain but explicitly ugly.

One such writer—not included in Wright’s survey but in many ways an exemplar of her argument—is the Swiss-German novelist, Peter Stamm, who with his recently published seventh work of fiction, All Days Are Night, has now produced two novels in a row centered on the complex, often subversive figure that is the ugly woman. Stamm is well established in Europe, where his methodical storytelling and precise, ultra-spare prose have garnered him several important literary prizes. He finally gained wider recognition in the U.S. with his last novel, Seven Years (2010). Its narrator, Alex, a handsome student of architecture, begins dating his colleague Sonia. She is intelligent, cultured, and so stunning that when she walks into a café, “the whole place turned to stare.” Simultaneously, Alex begins an affair with Ivona, an illegal Polish immigrant and Sonia’s opposite in nearly every way. Alex and Sonia marry and start an architectural firm together. But Sonia is sexually reserved—“like one of those dolls whose clothes are sewn onto their bodies”—and Alex can’t keep himself from continuing to visit Ivona.

The scenario is almost stock; Alex and Sonia are the ambitious and doomed professional couple from a thousand novels and films. What’s different here is Ivona:

Her face was puffy, and she wore her midlength hair loose. Presumably she had gotten a perm some time ago, but it had grown out, and her hair was hanging in her face. Her clothing looked cheap and worn. […] [H]er whole appearance was somehow sagging and feeble. She seemed to have given up all hope of ever pleasing anyone, even herself.

Yet she drives Alex to fits of lust. His attraction to Ivona baffles him, but he barely thinks of resisting it. Sonia proves hard work for Alex. Mute, servile, and dowdy Ivona, on the other hand, inflames him.

Stamm’s novel is coolly modern yet somehow primal, drawing on perhaps the oldest ugly woman tradition we have: the story of Jacob and the sisters Leah and Rachel. Leah is plain and “weak-eyed” (cross-eyed, in some translations), while Rachel is “beautiful in form and appearance.” Jacob so lusts after Rachel that he agrees to work for the sisters’ father for seven years to earn Rachel as his wife. But on the wedding night, the father offers him Leah instead. When Jacob protests, he’s promised Rachel after another seven years of labor and finally gets her. All does not go as he desires, however. Rachel proves barren, but “when the Lord saw that Leah was hated, He opened her womb.”

The power of Seven Years, however, is not finally in Stamm’s variation on this ancient plot but in its deliberate unearthing of everything false and unredeemable in Alex and Sonia’s marriage. Here the two are moving into their first apartment: “We stood next to each other in the bathroom and looked at ourselves in the mirror. […] I turned and kissed her, and thought of the beautiful couple in the mirror kissing as well, and that excited me more than the actual kiss itself.” Alex’s mistake—the mistake of men in many novels, as Waldman points out—is to privilege aesthetic beauty over passion and physical compatibility. Alex and Sonia may look the part of the perfect couple—Sonia’s beauty flatters their sense of themselves and their public status—but only Ivona excites Alex sexually. It’s Leah, not Rachel, who proves the fitter mate, a fact that Alex acknowledges yet can never quite accept. He can scarcely imagine himself, both in private and in public, actually being seen with the ugly woman.   

At times Stamm employs Ivona, as an ugly woman, in much the way Wright describes—to underscore just how fixated we are on female beauty. What makes Seven Years so affecting, even upsetting, however, is the remorselessness with which it picks apart the entanglement of prosperity and happiness with the pursuit of that beauty. Stamm lays bare the obvious but often overlooked: An accomplished career, financial security, and an attractive partner are no guarantee of happiness without vital, human connection. Female beauty is a potent symbol of success—for both men and women—and we confuse its acquisition with true contentment at our peril.    

Stamm’s most recent novel to appear in English, All Days Are Night, continues this theme but inverts it: The ugly woman story is told from her own perspective, airing the psychological implications of our beauty obsession and the insidious ways in which it can obscure selfhood.  

Gillian, the beautiful and highly visible host of a television culture program, lives unhappily with Matthais, a magazine editor—another marriage that looks good in public but is passionless in private. A painter, Hubert, appears on Gillian’s program, where she interviews him. Hubert’s method is to approach random women on the street—young, middle-aged, and old alike—and ask them to pose nude for him. Gillian is initially put off by Hubert, but she eventually starts a flirtation, then appears in his studio herself. Unsatisfied by Gillian’s poses—he complains she isn’t “present”—Hubert shoots a roll of nude photos, hoping something might be salvaged from their sessions. Matthais discovers the photos, and husband and wife argue. Driving home from a party drunk, Matthais swerves out of control. They crash, Matthais is killed, and Gillian’s face is almost completely torn away. The beautiful woman, in an instant, has been made grotesque.

All Days Are Night begins with Gillian in the hospital, emerging from a fog of pain and trauma. Her male surgeon jokes uncomfortably about the months of plastic surgery ahead: “We try to get as close a likeness as possible. God knows there are enough photographs of you.” The implications of the surgeon’s reconstructive project are clear: her husband, her livelihood, and—Stamm’s true interest here—her identity have all been taken from her. Alone at home after the first of many gruesome surgeries, Gillian can attempt some semblance of her previous life. But around others, her ruined face draws all the attention. Her self-image, once created by her viewers, is now undone by the stunned reactions and furtive appraisals of a new set of onlookers.

In the second half of All Days Are Night, Gillian, who now goes by Jill, has quit the program and is working at a resort hotel in the mountains, organizing activities for the guests. The surgeries have been fairly successful, though Jill is no longer the great beauty that Gillian was. Approaching fifty, she sits on the board of the local cultural center and uses the position to get Hubert invited for a residency. Hubert is newly divorced, and the two resume their tentative courtship. There’s another scene in which Jill poses nude for Hubert; we sense her lingering desire to have Hubert give her identity lines and shape, to be seen comprehensively, definitively. She remembers playing hide-and-seek as child, hiding so well that she began to feel invisible, as if no one could ever find her. The nebulousness of her self-image, we come to see, long predates the accident. It’s not her extreme visibility as a once-beautiful woman that haunts her but the feeling that she has never truly seen herself.

Wright defines the prototypical ugly woman character as one who “expands the definition of beauty to include more than just a narrow selection of nearly unattainable physical traits.” Stamm’s aims are less political. Jill/Gillian’s struggle is to finally discard the images of her created by others. Late in the book, she takes up Hubert’s drawings.

She started covering one of the sketches with her own hatchings, the one of her kneeling on the bed with her hands behind her back, as though chained. … She deleted the picture, as though burying her unprotected body under a layer of graphite, making a fossil that no one would ever discover.

Jill/Gillian erases Hubert’s image of her, unchaining herself. She has known what it is to be successful and obscure, radiantly beautiful and horribly disfigured. Beauty, of course, is not all illusion, just as ugliness doesn’t necessarily entail clarity of vision or self-knowledge. But, finally, and perhaps for the first time, Gillian, now out of hiding, can begin to re-draw the lines of her self.