Killing the New Woman – Defining “Self” in Wilde’s “The Sphinx Without a Secret”

Discussions of Oscar Wilde and the New Woman rightfully focus on his time editing Women’s World. But Wilde’s short story “A Sphinx Without a Secret” is another work ready to be read as a New Woman text.[1] The New Woman, a symbol of the shifting aspirations of late-Victorian women, underwent scrutiny over her desires for life outside of the pre-established roles that nineteenth-century English society set for her. According to Talia Schaffer, “As a mythic icon, the New Woman evokes an extraordinary range of emotional associations, a flood of feelings which can powerfully support whatever goal the [contemporary] writer has channeled it towards” (45). From Ouida to Sarah Grand, the New Woman was both dragged through the metaphorical mud and praised from the rooftops. Late-Victorian English society fought over definitions for the New Woman, perhaps to limit her power to define herself.[2] Oscar Wilde’s short story “A Sphinx Without a Secret” embodies the New Woman’s struggle for independence and self-definition. The narrator calls Lady Alroy a woman with a “mania for mystery . . . imagining she was a herione,” but this is the definition he imposes on her. Lady Alroy is, in fact, using mystery as a means of self-definition. She creates a space where she has the power to define herself, especially important when considering that the Victorian stereotypes of wife and mother cannot apply to the childless and widowed Lady Alroy. Furthermore, Gerald’s distrust of Lady Alroy reveals late-Victorian skepticism toward the burgeoning movement for women’s independence, and by using a framed narrative, the story ultimately alludes to the effects society’s disapprobation will have not just on the movement but on women as a whole: metaphorical death.

Despite her physical and financial freedom, Lady Alroy feels a need to rent a secret parlor and act clandestinely in her movements; this shows she desires a freedom outside of what wealth can provide. Such a desire can be translated into the goals of many late-nineteenth century women. As Alys Pearsall Smith notes in 1894 her essay, “She [the late-Victorian woman] asks simply and only for freedom to make out her own life the highest that can be made, and to develop her own individuality as seems to her the wisest and the best” (qtd. in Ardis 18). Ann Ardis shows how the New Woman laid “claim to the right of self-definition” and developed a “program of self-actualization” (27). Wilde’s New Woman story shows that even financial independence is not sufficient to guarantee “her own individuality.” Lady Alroy has enough income to maintain an affluent life in high society; her title makes her part of the aristocracy; she thus has freedom over the direction her life assumes. Nonetheless, she is not independent of society’s values and judgments.

Is it in order to pursue self-definition that Lady Alroy creates another space—a second life of rented rooms and secret letters—where she can pursue her own individuality. The secret life, though lived alone, precariously empowers Lady Alroy, because it gives her the power to shape the public’s perception and her identity. Lady Alroy’s “mania” is not that of an unstable woman, but of a woman desiring the freedom to shape herself instead of having her self shaped by society. Lady Alroy shrouds herself in mystery, yes, but she creates power, she creates an unknown, unfathomable element about herself that cannot be pigeonholed by Gerald, or other Victorian men who see in every good woman the Angel in the House. This unfathomable element is what unsettles Gerald’s perception of Lady Alroy and leads him to state he never understood women. It also explains what is so limiting about the stereotyped roles women were expected to inhabit: Gerald thinks that understanding one woman is equivalent to understanding all women. Readers must decide for themselves how best to understand women when they are left to answer Gerald’s final question:  “I wonder.”

As is clear from Mona Caird’s 1899 essay “Does Marriage Hinder a Woman’s Self-development,” a woman needs time to herself, a space belonging to her alone, and the freedom to pursue her interests, whether they be varied or singular, in order to grow into her best self.[3] Lady Alroy, sans husband, would seem to have already accomplished these aims, these essential needs. Yet after hearing Gerald mention seeing her in Bond Street, Lady Alroy “grew very pale . . . and said, ‘Pray do not talk so loud; you may be overheard’” (Wilde). Because Bond Street, both then and now, is a popular street for high-end shopping, there should be no reason for a sudden start. Lady Alroy’s reaction is a means of testing the power she has in her second life. She is willing to bring in another person to increase the mystery surrounding herself and thus increase her power over others’ perceptions of herself. Bringing Gerald ever so slightly into the mystery means she may extend her definition of self to others, seeing if she can exist as she desires outside of her personal knowledge of this identity. Gerald is later directed to write Lady Alroy at a secret address, further implying she may be willing to let him into a sense of who she is outside of society’s dictates. But when Gerald later discovers Lady Alroy secretly rents a room, he treats Lady Alroy like yet another Victorian stereotype: the fallen woman. Gerald distrusts her morality; his imagination cannot extend beyond what his culture has already dictated. Even though Lady Alroy is honest—she meets no one in her secret rooms, a fact later verified by her landlady—Gerald cannot trust the individual when she does not accord with his pre-conceptions of the group. Even after her landlady confirms Lady Alroy’s story, Gerald persists in his distrust of his would-be fiancée.

Gerald’s skepticism of Lady Alroy’s honesty and motives shows the patriarchal fear of losing power. Gerald has encountered a woman who does not fit within his comprehension of womanhood, a woman who has taken the power wealth gives her to create a second life independent of anyone’s dictates. She has created a space where his definitions of womanhood are not reflected. While he might believe that his incomprehension of women began with Lady Alroy—his “belle inconnue[4],” his “Giocanda in sables” (Wilde)—the story suggests that all women are a mystery to him. She is not a woman who fits the mold of the “frail, delicate, ethereal” women whom a Victorian man might expect to wed (Gibbs)—but the ordinariness of the “secret life” Lady Alroy leads suggests that every woman escapes the understanding of Victorian men. Because no woman will perfectly fit the social ideal, every woman will “mysteriously” act in ways contrary to it. Significantly, the entire story is introduced by his statement to the frame narrator that he might never marry because he “does not understand women well enough” (Wilde); to him, one woman equates to all women.

The seriousness of this misapplication of a single standard to all women is apparent in Gerald’s behavior when he refuses her claim to truth: he became “mad, frantic; . . . [and] said terrible things to her” (Wilde). She now receives the full judgment of Gerald’s patriarchal perspective and feels force of his biting scorn. Lady Alroy has been a problem for him to solve, and when the solution does not meet his expectations, he allows his fear of inferiority to result in verbal abuse of Lady Alroy. She was not a neat package for him to master, as one masters a crossword puzzle. While he initially believes his love came “in spite of the mystery,” he grudgingly admits that his feelings were aroused because of it: “I fell madly in love, and I was excited by the mystery that seemed to surround her” (Wilde). This playing out of the angel-whore dichotomy is compounded by the double-bind that the New Woman finds herself in: her “newness” makes her attractive, but this is the very quality that will cause the traditional man to fear and reject her. When he cannot overpower the riddle of Lady Alroy’s harmless second life, he rejects her. Her “beauty molded out of many mysteries” attract him, but because he does not have social stereotypes on which to base his judgments, he cannot decide if these mysteries are “for good or evil” (Wilde). Wilde shows a society curious and tempted to see women in varying roles, but ultimately distrustful of women’s desires. In New Women, New Novels, Ann Ardis notes how traditional Victorian men viewed  the New Woman’s desire for freedom as a threat to their current standing of society, as a reborn Eve waiting to bring about a second fall of man. The New Woman threatens the social order – she desires a place in the workforce, she desires a higher level of education, and she seeks a means of providing for herself without the aid of a husband or father or wealthy brother. While Lady Alroy never seeks any such thing, her simple desire for a private space of self-definition—a  need Caird defines for the New Woman—appears just as threatening.

Gerald’s paranoia provides insight into the ideas of sexual promiscuity that became attached to the New Woman; it became a rationale for denying women new freedoms in their personal lives, marriages, and the workforce.[5] Ann Ardis states, “The moral agency of a Victorian ‘lady’ is predicated upon the denial of her sexual appetite,” because the cultural imperative to imagine her as Eve makes  her desires, sexual or otherwise, means destroying the Victorian home and the downfall of men and mankind (14). So, when a Victorian woman desires her own space, her motives are scrutinized. The mere desire for a room of her own means that Lady Alroy is somehow sexually tainted. If a man cannot understand the ways in which even a woman’s relatively free existence is constrained by social censure, he cannot see what she could need with a separate, small, and  secret space outside of her own home.

Gerald’s reaction even suggests the New Woman, because of her desires, is a fallen woman.  Note, while Gerald makes it clear he wishes to marry Lady Alroy, he never asks for her hand in marriage. Instead, he uses his desire to marry her as leverage for knowing how Lady Alroy spends her private time. He wants and needs to know all about her, but when he begins to know, he cannot trust this new version of Lady Alroy, precisely because she is formed outside of society’s eyes. He states his right to question her comes from “‘The right of a man who loves you . . . I came here to ask you to be my wife’” (Wilde). The Victorian moral system tells Gerald that he has the right to know Lady Alroy’s secrets—but they also “require” him to reject her when her secret desires cannot be made to fit with his preconceived notions of what a woman ought to desire. For a woman to desire a break from her position of moral guidepost, would be to lose “both gender and class status” (Ardis 26), and Gerald, as representative of Victorian patriarchal ideals, captures this sentiment with his treatment of Lady Alroy.

The frame narrative, however, allows Wilde to cast doubt on Gerald’s point of view.  Within the framed narrative, Gerald—and not Lady Alroy—tells the story, which shows the dominant ideology of late-Victorian society. The voice of the New Woman had to struggle against the dominant patriarchal ideals.[6] Lady Alroy hardly speaks, and the scanty dialogue provided, coupled with no provision of her inner thoughts, registers the way that Gerald is unable to “hear” Lady Alroy’s self-definition; and Gerald is a mirror of his larger culture, for whom the New Woman remains an alluring but ultimately dangerous mystery. This narrative choice reveals Wilde’s clear understanding that women’s voices did not receive equal representation in his culture. The frame narrator is not much better than Gerald, who believes he does not know Lady Alroy and cannot know women, because the frame narrator easily dismisses Lady Alroy as merely a “woman with a mania for mystery . . . imagining she was a heroine” (Wilde). This label  trivializes her motives, labeling them as either childish or unreasonable. But the ease and confidence with which he dismisses her shows another patriarchal view: women are like as children. Wilde’s story shows how even generous-minded stereotypes fail and demonstrates the true limitations of placing specific groups of people into neatly defined boxes. But the frame narrative opens up a space where Lady Alroy’s self-definition might find expression. Gerald’s final words are “I wonder” (Wilde) and these words invite the reader to evaluate the words of the two men in light of what they know of Lady Alroy and come to alternate conclusions about Lady Alroy’s and the New Woman’s character.

Ultimately, Lady Alroy’s death is the metaphorical death of the New Woman caused by a society interpreting her desires as immoral. While Lady Alroy’s death appears to be from natural causes (the official word is that she “died in five days of congestion of the lungs”), her death can be seen as the natural outcome of her rejection by Gerald. But she did not die of a broker heart; she died as a result of realizing, on evidence of Gerald’s treatment, that she cannot be accepted by society is she tries to dictate her own life. When Lady Alroy lose her sense of agency, she loses her life. Her death does not imply a weakness in the New Woman movement. Her death does not imply the New Woman is the “frail and ethereal” woman of the gothic romance novel (Gibbs). No, Lady Alroy’s death becomes the result of crushing her independence, of treated her as an outcast. Her inability to live under those circumstances is the metaphorical death of her New Woman desires.

The initial narrator chalks Lady Alroy’s actions up to “mania.” But the reader cannot help thinking maniac in the story is Gerald. His paranoia about Lady Alroy destroys his own desires for marriage to a woman he claims to “ha[ve] loved . . . so madly” (Wilde). When the frame narrator first spies Gerald, he is “anxious and puzzled, and seemed to be in doubt about something” (Wilde). So perhaps the final conclusion to be drawn about “The Sphinx Without a Secret” is that distrusting the New Woman will only weaken the foundation of society. If Gerald is the voice of the patriarchy, it is of a weakened patriarchy—one that has harmed itself through debilitating distrust. Gerald is not weakened by Lady Alroy’s secret life; he is weakened by distrusting her. He is weakened by her loss. He is weakened by obsessively trying to define her, when she was already attempting to reveal her definition. Thus, society will be weakened by not allowing the New Woman to thrive. In the twentieth century, nations needed to call on their women to perform “men’s work” during the two World Wars. Women worked in armament factories, as mechanics, and in all of the occupations men vacated to fight on the front lines. Wilde’s short story can be looked at as prophetic, a message to the nations to affirm the ways that women can live outside of the normalized spaces that societies make for them, to celebrate rather than demonize the New Woman’s broader horizens. 

- Hadia Khan

Works Cited

Ardis, Ann L. New Women, New Novels: Feminism and Early Modernism. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1990. HathiTrust.

Bell, Nigel. “The ‘Woman Question’, the ‘New Woman’ and some Late-Victorian Fiction.” English Academy Review, vol. 30, no. 2, 2013, pp. 79-97.

Gibbs, Philip. “The New Man and The New Woman.” The New Man: S Portrait Study of the Latest Type, Isaac Pitman & Sons, 1913. HathiTrust.

Ouida [Marie Louise de la Ramée]. “Female Suffrage.” North American Review. vol. 143, no. 338, 1886, pp. 290-306. JSTOR.

Schaffer, Talia. “‘Nothing But Foolscap and Ink’: Inventing the New Woman.” The New Woman in Fiction and in Fact: Fin de Siècle Feminisms. Palgrave, 2002, pp. 39-52.

Wilde, Oscar. “The Sphinx without a Secret.” COVE editions.

Notes

[1] Also consider Virginia Otis, a young American girl, in Wilde’s “The Canterville Ghost.” Furthermore, see Wilde’s essay “The American Invasion,” which presents a discussion on American women, excerpted in the “American Relations” section of the appendix.

[2] See Ann Ardis’ New Women, New Novels

[3] Also consider Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own.” Published in 1929, Woolf’s essay continues to discuss New Woman themes that became prominent in the 1890s.

[4] Beautiful stranger or unknown beauty

[5] See “Foibles of the New Woman” by Ella Winston, Forum, 1896. HathiTrust.

[6] This patriarchal viewpoint is not held solely by men, but by some Victorian women. Ouida, or Marie Louise de la Ramée (1839-1908) also believed the New Woman was morally debased. Through an 1886 essay, Ouida calls the desire for female suffrage a disease, noting England’s “influence on the world will scarcely be other than most injurious to its prosperity and most degrading to its wisdom,” once Westminster allows women’s suffrage to pass.