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“Spoiled People”: Narcissism and the De-centered Self in Richard Ford’s Women with Men

Ian McGuire


À un moment important d’ « Occidentals », la dernière nouvelle du recueil Women with Men de Richard Ford, publiée en 1997, le protagoniste Charley Matthews maintient qu’il ne veut plus être « au centre ». Ses désirs le relient à la vieille tradition d’individualisme américaine et en même temps à une forme de postmodernisme européen plus récent. Ne pas être au centre signifie, manifestement, être libéré des contraintes domestiques et sociales, mais alors que le récit progresse, cela signifie aussi être libéré du moi cartésien ou du moi « centré », être, selon le discours postmoderne, « décentré ». Cet article soutient que dans Women with Men Richard Ford est conscient de l’importance croissante de ces tendances postmodernes dans la culture contemporaine américaine et qu’il s’intéresse à tracer leurs origines et à suggérer leurs faiblesses. Sa critique du postmodernisme souligne ses tendances narcissiques et relativistes. Il offre comme alternative une version du réalisme philosophique que l’on pourrait comparer au « réalisme interne » proposé par le philosophe américain Hilary Putnam.

Entrées d’index

Studied authors :

Richard Ford

Texte intégral

1In an important moment in “Occidentals,” the third and final story of Richard Ford’s 1997 collection Women with Men, Helen Carmichael asks Charley Matthews, her boyfriend and the story’s protagonist, what he longs for and Matthews answers: “I’d like for things not to center so much on me” (171). Afterwards this phrase is returned to more than once as a way of explaining what Matthews may or may not want. Not to be at the “center of things” we learn means, in part, seeking a “less governed life,” (157) a life not bounded by social or cultural conventions:

He longed to be less the center of things. He realized this was what a foreign country–any foreign country–could offer you and what you could never get at home. The idea of home, in fact, was the antithesis of that feeling. At home everything was about you and what you owned and what you liked and what everybody thought of you. He’d had enough of that. (174)

  • 1 In the provocative and hyperbolic Still the New World: American Literature in a Culture of Creative (...)
  • 2 Fiedler suggests in typically robust fashion that the three main options available to a male Americ (...)

2The desire to escape from domesticity and all it represents is a standard enough trope of male American writing. Leslie Fiedler pointed out more than half a century ago that an urge to “light out for the territory” in one form or another is central to many of the most significant works of the American canon, while, more recently, Philip Fisher and Ross Posnock have both argued, in different ways, that America and its literature aspires to a condition of permanent immaturity.1 Charley Matthews has already gone some way to responding to this apparently typical American urge by leaving his job and his marriage and taking a trip to Europe with Helen; as the story progresses, however, it becomes clear that his notions of escape do not follow what we might consider, after Fiedler and others, to be the orthodox patterns.2 Although Matthews occasionally uses a language of Jamesian self-expansion (he wishes at one point to “convert himself into someone available to take on more of life” [223]) his strongest desire is actually to dissolve or escape from the self rather than to create or embrace a newer or larger identity. Matthews finds Paris, where they are vacationing, baffling and ungraspable, but as the story proceeds he becomes increasingly attracted to it precisely because it is a place in which he will never fully understand, and where he could, therefore, never fit in. To live in Paris as he imagines it would be to self-consciously occupy a liminal or marginal position–to be forever undefined and indefinable:

This had to do, he understood, with wanting not to be the center of things, with wanting to get lost in events, with conceivably even fitting into the normalcy of another country–though normalcy of course was foolish to think about. Look around (he said this unexpectedly out loud). He could never fit in in Paris. Except that was no reason why you couldn’t, with the right set of motivations, be here. (228)

3In this imaginary–selfless and decentered–state, cognitive and communicative disconnection are the necessary preconditions for a deeper, more satisfying kind of experience. Matthews comes to regard his limited knowledge of the French language and his lack of curiosity about French culture and history as a means of freeing himself from any kind of social role or responsibility:

Yet he found there was another good side to it: since when he would listen in on some conversation Helen was having with a clerk or a flower vendor and would try to figure out from this word or that what either of them were saying he got almost everything wrong.[…] It could get to be addictive he believed, not understanding what people were saying. Time spent in another country would probably always be spent misunderstanding a great deal, which might in the end turn out to be a blessing and the only way you could ever feel normal. (180)

  • 3 The classic articulations of this position are Roland Barthes 1967 essay “The Death of the Author,” (...)

4Matthews here associates feeling “normal” with being alienated and being alienated, in turn, with being free. The basic elements of this linkage may be familiar enough from the various forms of European modernism in which “angst” is imagined as the unavoidable price of humanness, but Matthews crucially differentiates himself from those traditions by imagining this alienation/normality not as a burden to be endured, but rather as a “blessing” to be hoped for. Matthews’ desire not to be the center of things is, in other words, much more postmodern than it is modern–and it connects, therefore, not only to an established line of American literary individualism but also to a more recent postmodern championing of the decentered subject in contrast to the “centered” or Cartesian self.3

  • 4 Fiedler had little time for Emerson (who is barely mentioned in Love and Death in the American Nove (...)
  • 5 The connections between American pragmatism and continental philosophy are most energetically and t (...)

5If we recognise the literary individualism described by Fiedler, Fisher and Posnock as being one aspect of a broader Emersonian tendency in American letters4 then it becomes perhaps easier to understand the particular combination of ideas which emerge in Matthews’ Parisian musings and the particular set of confusions or uncertainties they cause. Emerson’s work inaugurates an American pragmatist tradition, a tradition which in turn connects to European postmodernism genealogically (via Nietzsche’s reading of Emerson) and intellectually via a shared anti-foundationalism. Both ways of thinking reject the notion of a fixed, pre-existing, Truth and argue instead for some version of constructivism.5 However, while American pragmatism replaces metaphysics with an interest in everyday, contingent, truth-making processes–what Hilary Putnam has called “our sense of the common” (Putnam, Realism 118)–European postmodernism (in the work for example of Foucault and Derrida) frequently pushes onwards towards something closer to a full-blown relativism in which knowledge becomes merely a function of power and truth becomes, therefore, something to be avoided or undermined rather than pursued. My contention in this essay is that in Women with Men Ford is alert to the ways in which such relativistic, postmodern tendencies have emerged out of a more home–grown tradition of philosophical scepticism and is concerned with mapping the psychological effects of these tendencies and with suggesting (in terms which ultimately refer back to the American pragmatist tradition) their fundamental weaknesses.

  • 6 “Standing on the bare ground–my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space–all (...)

6The link between Charley Matthews’ views and the perspectives of contemporary postmodernism is suggested most strongly by his relationship with Paris. If Matthews is, or aspires to be, a decentered subject, then Paris, as he sees it, is a decentered and decentering city. From Matthews’ perspective there is “nothing natural” (179) about Paris–mainly because, for him, everything about it is mediated through prior representations. Although he has never visited France before, he has already used the city as a setting in his novel The Predicament and has already discussed it his classes on African-American literature. The result of all this prior textualisation is to make Paris deeply unreal for Matthews–“‘I don’t really know where any of these places are,’ Matthews said. ‘I just read about them. They aren’t real to me. They never were’” (166)–an effect which he sometimes finds irritating but just as often welcomes as a form of liberation. In the following passage, there are elements of Emersonian mysticism (the famous transparent eyeball6) but also of a testier, more Nietzschean, irrationalism:

In the meantime he felt better about everything. And walking up the wide, congested Boulevard Raspail–a legendary street he knew almost nothing specific about, bound for some unknown destination, with little language available, no idea about currency, distances or cardinal points–made him feel a small but enlivened part of a wider not a narrower experience. (222)

  • 7 Although in his discussion of “democratic social space” Fisher does not acknowledge any debt to Lef (...)
  • 8 The notion of the city as a place of irrationality, disorder and postmodern “play” has been articul (...)
  • 9 The same terminology is used by LeFebvre, although with entirely opposite political implications.

7Matthews’ difficulty in finding his way around the city, which he unsuccessfully attempts to navigate with the help of a Fodor’s guidebook, is one of the story’s running jokes. His confusion testifies in part to his New World provincialism, but also, the story suggests, to something inherently puzzling about the city itself. During his final long walk Matthews wonders whether Paris has a center at all or whether “downtown was an American idea, something the French would all laugh at if they knew what he was thinking” (237). The contrast here is not simply between the planned space of the American city and the more organic unplanned space of a European city (since Paris after Haussmann is certainly not unplanned) but rather between different forms or degrees of planning. Philip Fisher, in an unashamedly free-market revision of Henri Lefebvre’s critique of capitalist abstraction,7 argues that the purpose of the American grid system inaugurated by Thomas Jefferson is to eliminate geographical distinctiveness in favour of democratic homogeneity. The grid facilitates movement (both social and physical) by making everywhere more or less the same. Every point on the grid is equal–therefore every point is, in some sense, the center. The center, in other words, is everywhere. According to Fisher, this means it is, symbolically at least, almost impossible to get lost: “This is the special intelligibility and transparency of ways of life that conquered the geographical variety of the American continent, making the American suburb broadly similar from Boston to Los Angeles. It feels ‘like’ home everywhere” (Fisher 49). Fisher’s version of a homogenous and democratic America is, to a large extent, a pro-capitalist fantasy but it is a telling one. If the American grid system aspires to make everyone feel at home, to make them feel, in other words, perpetually centered, then Paris for Matthews does and means exactly the opposite–it is the place where he can never feel at home, but where as a result he might, possibly, feel most free.8 Fisher intriguingly describes the new democratic social space created by the American grid as “Cartesian”9 and this linkage between geography and philosophy is reinforced towards the end of Matthews’ walk when he observes that:

Ahead of him […] was St-Germain-des-Pres and, he’d deduced, the Deux Magots, the Brasserie Lipp, the Café de Flore–one of the great confluences of Europe. There was no more famous place. Descartes was buried in the church. It would have to be the center of something. (236 my emphasis).

8If St Germain has to be “the center of something” we might deduce, from its particular philosophical associations that it is, for Matthews at least, the center of a kind of centerlessness–and this moment is indeed the apogee of his efforts at urban self-erasure. It is followed by an awkward phone call to an ex-lover and then by his discovery that Helen has committed suicide in his absence–the moment of climactic reversal in which the moral failure of Matthews’ strategy is definitively exposed.

9It is the failure of his relationship with Helen which most clearly expresses within “Occidentals,” the philosophical inconsistencies of Matthews’ postmodernist position. Matthews’ fantasy of escaping from the self is unfavourably contrasted with Helen’s desire to hold onto life in the face of a serious, possibly terminal, illness. Quite soon after Charley’s statement about not wanting to be at the center of things, the two of them have the following exchange:

“Do you love Paris now?” she said. “Do you feel like you’re not the center of everything? Because you’re certainly not.”
“I don’t feel much like it’s Christmas.”
“That’s because you’re not religious. Plus you’re spoiled,” Helen said. “For spoiled people the real thing’s never enough. Don’t you know that?”
“I don’t think I’m spoiled,” Matthews said.
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">d part of a wider ed part of a wider

Anderson, Quentin. The Imperial Self. New York: Knopf, 1971.

Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” Image, Music, Text. London: Fontana, 1977. 142-8.

Baudrillard, Jean. Jean Baudrillard, Selected Writings. Ed. Mark Poster. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988.

De Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

Derrida, Jacques. “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” Writing and Difference. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978. 278-293.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. New York: Random House, 1992.

Fiedler, Leslie. Love and Death in the American Novel. New York: Criterion, 1960.

Fisher, Phillip. Still the New World: American Literature in a Culture of Creative Destruction. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Ford, Richard. Women with Men. New York: Knopf, 1997.

---. A Multitude of Sins. London: Harvill, 2001.

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1 In the provocative and hyperbolic Still the New World: American Literature in a Culture of Creative Destruction Fisher argues that America and its literature is defined by a process of creative destruction in which each generation starts afresh and in which immigration (or “removal”) is thus “a life form not a one-time act” (272). In Philip Roth’s Rude Truth: The Art of Immaturity, Posnock places Phillip Roth within a literary and intellectual tradition of transgressive immaturity which is at the same time Emersonian, pragmatic and modernist. He emphasizes, above all, Roth’s refusal to conform to any predetermined role or expectation, his desire to always remain on the move. Fiedler notes in the introduction to Love and Death in the American Novel that ever since Rip Van Winkle “the typical male protagonist of our fiction has been a man on the run, harried into the forest and out to sea, down the river or into combat–anywhere to avoid ‘civilisation,’ which is to say the confrontation of a man and a woman which leads to the fall, to sex, marriage, and responsibility” (xx).

2 Fiedler suggests in typically robust fashion that the three main options available to a male American protagonist fleeing the confines of domesticity are impotence, innocent homosexuality and unconsummated incest (329-69). Fisher and Posnock emphasize, in contrast, the importance of pragmatic or aesthetic self-creation but neither set of possibilities, the darkly Freudian or the more hopefully pragmatic, fully capture Matthews’ position.

3 The classic articulations of this position are Roland Barthes 1967 essay “The Death of the Author,” and Jacques Derrida’s 1966 lecture “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” In the latter work Derrida uses “center” as a synecdoche for structure more generally, and identifies a recent “rupture” or “event,” which we may plausibly identify as the beginnings of postmodernism and which he describes as the moment when “language invaded the universal problematic, the moment when in the absence of a center or origin, everything became discourse” (Derrida 280).

4 Fiedler had little time for Emerson (who is barely mentioned in Love and Death in the American Novel) but Emerson is central to both Fisher and Posnock, and the central importance of Emerson to the development of America’s literary and philosophical traditions has been convincingly argued for by a number of recent critics–most notably Richard Poirier and Cornel West.

5 The connections between American pragmatism and continental philosophy are most energetically and thoroughly examined in the work of Richard Rorty.

6 “Standing on the bare ground–my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space–all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God. The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances, master or servant is then a trifle and a disturbance” (Emerson 6).

7 Although in his discussion of “democratic social space” Fisher does not acknowledge any debt to Lefebvre, the connections are clear enough.

8 The notion of the city as a place of irrationality, disorder and postmodern “play” has been articulated most notably by Michel de Certeau in The Practice of Everyday Life.

9 The same terminology is used by LeFebvre, although with entirely opposite political implications.

10 For a more detailed account of this argument see Hilary Putnam Reason, Truth and History, 119-124. See also Jurgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity and, for a discussion of how Putnam’s ideas may relate to literary criticism, Martha Nussbaum.

11 The most clear and striking example of this paradox within the postmodern canon is the hallucinatory anti-Realism of Jean Baudrillard where the hyperreal frequently takes on the qualities of absolute truth. In Fatal Strategies for example Baudrillard notes: “Just as the model is more real than the real […] the amazing aspect of fashion is that it is more beautiful than the beautiful. […] It exceeds the aesthetic form in the ecstatic form of unconditional metamorphosis” (Baudrillard 186).

12 Freud’s classic essay “On Narcissism: An Introduction” has surprisingly little to say about the specific ways in which narcissistic disorders develop. Melanie Klein and her followers, however, offer a more detailed account. Paula Heiman notes, for example: “in the narcissistic condition the external object is hated and rejected, so that one loves the internal object which is fused with the self and experiences pleasure from it. The external object and its inner representation (gained through introjection) are thus sharply divided. However, the technique of splitting the object into two derives from and presupposes the fundamental premise that somewhere the two are one” (Klein et al 154).

13 Narcissism is an accusation that has been levelled at Americans before of course–in the work, most notably, of Quentin Anderson and Christopher Lasch. Both Anderson and Lasch see narcissism as an unfortunate side-effect of American individualism–and, in particular, of American culture’s long-standing disdain for fathers (both literal and symbolic). Matthew’s relationship with his actual father (who runs a furniture business in Pittsburgh) remains quite vague in “Occidentals” but the story begins with him being painfully disillusioned by his French editor Francois Blumberg–a man he has previously imagined in distinctly and sentimentally paternal terms: “From their correspondence, Matthews had always pictured Francois Blumberg as an old man, a kindly keeper of an ancient flame, overseer of a rich and storied culture that only a few were permitted to share” (152).

14 This idea of the “bad” mother comes from Melanie Klein’s object relations theory. The splitting of the mother (or more specifically the breast) into “good” and “bad” versions–the former introjected, the latter projected outwards–is typical, according to Klein, of the paranoid-schizoid position of early infancy which should be left behind in the process of healthy development. The failure to pass beyond the paranoid-schiziod position is associated with narcissism as well as a number of other related mental disorders. See Klein’s essay “Notes on Some Schizoid Mechanisms” in Mitchell 175-200.

15 The aggression towards the “bad mother” is present in the story but is expressed via Josephine’s first husband Bernard who writes an autobiographical novel intended to humiliate her (91).

16 “We have discovered, especially clearly in people whose libidinal development has suffered some disturbance, such as perverts and homosexuals, that in their later choice of love objects they have taken as a model not their mother but their own selves. They are plainly seeking themselves as a love-object, and are exhibiting a type of object-choice which must be termed ‘narcissistic’” (Freud 88).

17 Mme de Grenelle is of “mixed race” (Matthews speculates that she is Berber) and shares her house with another woman.

Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Ian McGuire, ““Spoiled People”: Narcissism and the De-centered Self in Richard Ford’s Women with Men”, Journal of the Short Story in English, 60, Spring 2013, 129-145.

Référence électronique

Ian McGuire, « “Spoiled People”: Narcissism and the De-centered Self in Richard Ford’s Women with Men », Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 60 | Spring 2013, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2015, consulté le 12 décembre 2017. URL :


Ian McGuire

Ian McGuire teaches American Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Manchester. He is one of the codirectors of the University of Manchester’s Centre for New Writing, which he also helped found in 2006. His novel, Incredible Bodies, was published by Bloomsbury in 2006 and he has published scholarly articles on W.D. Howells, Walt Whitman and Herman Melville. He is currently completing a monograph on Richard Ford and contemporary American realism.

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