Freud and Homes: Analyzing Modern Sexuality

Stereotypes and presumptions about sex have always permeated American culture and society. From taboos to perversions to fetishes, sex and the things that come with it; relationships, marriages, and all else, have been fraught with misunderstanding. For most of history, human sexuality remained an unexplored subject, and many people formed their own conceptions about sex through personal experience, religious teaching, or other methods. However, as people began to become more educated on sex and sexuality, many of those ideas changed. People’s minds were clean slates with no previous scientific sexual knowledge, and this allowed science at the turn of the 20th century to define the idea of sex for generations. Sigmund Freud was one of the first scientists to extensively study sexual behavior in humans, and his psychosexual analysis is the pillar upon which many theories about sex and sexuality in humans were formed. Although many of his conclusions were proven to be incorrect, the influence of his work can still be seen in modern ideas about sexuality. Many of Freud’s ideas about sexual deviance and abnormality can be seen in A.M. Homes’ Music for Torching.

Troubled couple Paul and Elaine have a very unhealthy marriage and inadequate sex life, and they take out their frustrations with their situation by partaking in unusual and unexpected sexual encounters, thoughts, and feelings. Both highly self-conscious and insecure people, Paul and Elaine are constantly nervous about their performance in all aspects of life, especially sex. They see sex as part of a norm that they must abide by, and that their sex has to fit into certain guidelines in order to be acceptable. Because of these high stakes and the pressure to be perfect, Paul and Elaine frequently feel the need to suppress any abnormal feelings regarding their sexual experiences. Sigmund Freud’s ideas of repression and inversion from Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality are exemplified in Music for Torching through Elaine’s lesbian relationship with Pat and Paul’s feminine tendencies. Freud argues that when events or desires are too painful or frightening to process, the human brain will push those ideas or memories into the subconscious so that they do not disturb everyday life. One of the sexual perversions that Freud argues is most repressed is the tendency for homosexuality. Freud makes a particular distinction about the abnormality of homosexual behavior because he views the purpose of sex as to bear children. In a homosexual relationship no children can be created, and therefore Freud argues that it is an unnatural sexual deviancy.

In Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, Freud states that “The normal sexual aim is regarded as being the union of the genitals in the act known as copulation, which leads to a release of the sexual tension and a temporary extinction of the sexual instinct” (Freud 15). However, in Music for Torching, Elaine has a homosexual experience with her female neighbor, Pat. Although they are both married, they are both greatly satisfied by the experience. Elaine however is terrified that someone will find out not that she cheated on her husband, but that she cheated on her husband with another woman. In Elaine’s case, the idea of having any homosexual urges is too abnormal to process, and she instead obsesses over why the encounter happened. She refuses to accept that she might not be completely straight, and instead tries to find another reason why she enjoyed having sex with Pat. In the society that Elaine lives in, she is surrounded by heterosexuality on all sides. Her neighbors are all straight couples, and she feels that her homosexual behavior is so strange that she would be cast out from her friends and family because of it. During the sexual encounter with Pat, “Everything Elaine thinks about who she is, what she is, is irrelevant” (Homes 105). Elaine has based her entire identity around her sexuality; she has been entirely focused on the idea of marriage and kids, and she has never considered that she could live any other way of life. It is stated that “Elaine is thinking that it’ll stop in a minute, it won’t really happen, it won’t go too far. It’s just two women exploring” (Homes 107). This is a perfect example of repression; as soon as Elaine starts to feel desire for a woman, she tried to convince herself that it isn’t real. When Freud describes sexual deviations, he says that “Some [inverts] accept their inversion as something in the natural course of things… and insist energetically that inversion is as legitimate as the normal attitude; others rebel against their inversion and feel it as a pathological compulsion” (Freud 3). Elaine is certainly rebelling against her inversion. She cannot help but enjoy her experience with Pat, but she cannot accept that it might actually be part of her identity as a person.

After her encounter with Pat, Elaine becomes increasingly frightened and anxious. She thinks to herself “did it really happen? Has Pat done this before? Does Pat think it was all Elaine’s fault? And why is Elaine thinking about fault? Why is she blaming herself?” (Homes 110). As soon as the sex is over Elaine is trying to justify it in her mind, to come up with some reason for it besides the fact that she is attracted to women. For Elaine, a heterosexual existence is key to her lifestyle. This reflects one of Freud’s observations about homosexuality and/or degeneracy which states that in degenerates “several serious deviations from the normal are found together, and the capacity for efficient functioning and survival seem to be severely impaired” (Freud 4). The idea of homosexuality as something shameful that needs to be pushed away is an idea that Elaine has taken to heart. She worries that having sex with Elaine will ruin her identity and prove that she is a bad wife, mother, and member of affluent society. In order to deal with this realization, she pushes her feelings and memories about Pat into the recesses of her mind in an unsuccessful attempt to subdue her desire. Secondly is the idea of Paul’s feminine tendencies. Although he often tries to act like the man of the house, Paul frequently deals with bouts of fear and insecurity that are tied to his sense of masculinity. During their stay with Pat and George, Paul shaves his legs and puts on a nightgown, and when asked about it by Elaine he says “I feel pretty” (Homes 56). Paul frequently challenges masculine concepts in his private life with Elaine, and yet he still feels the need to dominate her and impose his male stature. According to Freud, one explanation for Paul’s behavior could be that he is not finding satisfaction with his current sexual relationship with Elaine, so he is using other tactics to try to find fulfillment. Freud states that “A certain degree of fetishism is thus habitually present in normal love, especially in those stages of it in which the normal sexual aim seems unattainable or its fulfillment prevented” (Freud 20). Perhaps Paul is acting more feminine in order to connect with Elaine, who is struggling with her attraction to women. While this is possible according to Freud, there are other aspects of Paul’s character that suggest his femininity is more than just a phase caused by his marriage. He admits to still being fond of his college roommate with whom he had homosexual relations, but he would never himself admit to being anything other than straight.

In order to keep up appearances, Paul is forced to deny the feminine aspects of himself that we see emerge throughout the novel. In this way Homes’ interpretation of the characters might differ from Freud’s. Whereas Freud promoted the idea of penis envy (a woman is jealous of men because of the phallic nature of the male genitalia that she will never be able to obtain), Homes seems to imply that Paul desires a more female form. By doing traditionally feminine things like shaving his legs and arms, he is displaying the fact that there is a definite female side to his personality. While Freud makes no mention of a male alternative to penis envy, the idea of men having womb envy has been proposed by psychiatrist Karen Horney. She claims that “When one begins, as I did, to analyze men after a fairly long experience of analyzing women, one receives a most surprising impression of the intensity of this envy of pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood” (Horney 1967, Horrocks 82), and this could be one explanation for Paul’s actions. Both Paul and Elaine are struggling to fulfill their roles in their home and marriage, and one reason that Paul feels unfulfilled as a father figure and masculine presence might be because he has an inherent jealousy of women yet represses it to sustain his image as a man. From his psychoanalysis, Freud does not usually criticize the shortcomings of men as he does women, as he views the male form as more ideal and desired.

Although a woman might be jealous of a man’s body, according to Freud’s ideas a man would never desire to be a woman. Homes is challenging this idea by presenting Paul as even more feminine than Elaine in many ways. While Elaine works well and is fairly level-headed during the crisis at the end of the novel, Paul is frantic and distraught; something that a traditionally manly character would not display. Rather than being strong and stoic, he breaks down into hysterics while his wife takes on the role of protector and defender. The fact that Freud does not include this stance on a shift in masculinity shows the downfalls of his theories and research. While is appears that Paul is neither gay nor straight, Freud would not likely have classified his as bisexual, as Freud was critical of the idea, referring to ‘a feminine brain in a masculine body’ as being “express[ion] in its crudest form” (Freud 8). Rather than operating from an objective, purely scientific standpoint, Freud was drawing upon his own experiences and behaviors for his research, which often led him to draw conclusions about sexuality that were not applicable to everyone. Homes displays Paul’s character in a way that Freud would never have imagined, and in this way Homes’ fictional text teaches the reader more about male sexuality than Freud’s scientific text. While Freud was correct in that Paul was displaying repression, Freud would likely have associated Paul’s actions with something other than inherent femininity or womb envy. Although Freud’s work can be used to analyze the behavior of real people, it’s important to remember that his research was imperfect, as Homes displays a crucial flaw with his analysis of male sexual desire. Both Freud and Homes suggest different reasons and motivations for the actions of Paul and Elaine. While both characters struggle with their homosexual tendencies and repress unwelcome urges, Freud and Homes provide different reasons for why the character chose to act the way that they did. From Freud’s scientific text we can draw certain conclusions, but we known that Freud’s research was biased and inaccurate.

By drawing upon his own experience as evidence for his conclusions, Freud was really analyzing his own sexuality, and his work would not be useful in examining anything other than what he himself experienced. Those incorrect ideas then took root in society as they were the only popular ideas offered at the time, and many harmful stereotypes and misconceptions were created. Freud also classified everything he didn’t experience as abnormal, which is untrue. Just because Freud never had any homosexual feelings or struggles with gender expression does not mean that those feelings were abnormal. We can see this through the characters in Music for Torching, as they are examples of (fairly) normal people who are struggling with issues of sexuality and gender that we can see today in modern society. Being bisexual is no longer considered abnormal, just as there are plenty of normal men who enjoy feminine things like dresses and nightgowns. In his critique of Freud, author Richard Webster states that “no negative critique of psychoanalysis, however powerful, can ever constitute an adequate refutation of the theories which Freud put forward. For in scientific reality bad theories can only be driven out by better theories” (Webster 597). Homes shows that even in perfect “normal” suburbia, these deviations from sexual norms are occurring in every house with even the most average of families. What better way to show the normalcy of varied sexual behavior? Karen Horney said it best herself when she exclaimed that “A perfectly normal person is rare in our civilization” (Time 1952). Paul and Elaine might not be perfectly normal, but they don’t really have to be. Rather than trying to be normal, they should pursue the relationships and experiences that make them genuinely happy.

The American Dream in Music For Torching

In A.M. Homes’ novel Music for Torching, married couple Paul and Elaine find their relationship to be as static and boring as the Westchester County suburb in which they live. Unsatisfied with their marriage and fearful of a lifeless future, they take out their frustration with suburbia through misguided sexual encounters, insulting verbal spats, and fits of jealousy directed towards their seemingly perfect friends and neighbors. Desperate for a change in their lives, Paul and Elaine purposely set fire to their house, but it does not burn down completely as they intended. Rather, their house sits dirty and damaged while they are forced to reconcile their actions. Having neither money nor resources to move away, their family continues to live in the soot-filled house while selling many of their clothes and possessions. Paul and Elaine spend a few nights at the home of their friends Pat and George Neilson, whose house is always pristine and everything is in perfect order. The idyllic nature of the Neilson’s house seems to exacerbate the problems between Paul and Elaine, as they frequently fight and see themselves as frauds and inferiors. Through these fraught turns of narrative, Homes dissects the concept of the white-picket-fence style of ideal American life while showcasing the shortcomings of traditional gender and familial roles within the home.

When we consider gender roles, one of the most well-known is the role of the mother as cook and housekeeper. Stereotypes would have you believe that a woman’s job is to have kids and take care of the house; cleaning, doing laundry, and cooking meals. Music for Torching’s Elaine exemplifies this lifestyle, as the book opens with her husband Paul chastising her for the amount of fat in their dinner. As the novel continues, Paul berates his wife who “stands at the sink, in an apron, in Playtex gloves, trying to protect herself” (Homes 1). Elaine embodies the trope of the helpless wife. She is a self-conscious mother who cannot satisfy her husband and attempts to “make everything good again” (Homes 1) by keeping a nice house, an endeavor at which she repeatedly fails. It becomes obvious throughout the story that Elaine was not born to be a stay-at-home mother. She is a bad cook, she dislikes cleaning, and she finds no satisfaction from existing at home. Because she is forced to fulfill this role that she has no desire to play, she comes to resent her house and everything that it represents. Driven by a need to escape and spurred by her inability to cook dinner, she encourages Paul when he pours lighter fluid on their house, and she herself kicks over the grill, marking the finality of her decision to leave all the problems of their life in the ashes.

When the house fails to actually burn down, however, Elaine is distraught. Homes states that “Elaine sits in the car, thinking she is back to scratch, zero, square one. She’s back to where she started, only now it is worse. Now she will have to take care of the house, tend it like a sick person. She imagines running away; where would she go? Into the woods to live like a wildwoman on berries and nuts? Into the city to sleep on a steam grate? She thinks of running. She undoes her seat belt. She is reaching to unlock the door when she sees Paul coming back. She sees Paul coming and pictures herself taking off down the street-the streetlights like searchlights, constantly catching her. She sees Paul chasing her, not knowing why she is running, why he is chasing, except that it is his instinct to catch her, to drag her back” (Homes 29). By burning down the house, Elaine was trying to escape from her role as the keeper of the home. But now that the house stands, wrecked, it is just another thing that she will have to take care of. She not only tends to the needs of her children, her husband, and her parents, but now she must do all of that while re-building the house that she so hates. Furthermore, the burnt house now reflects Elaine’s feelings about her marriage to Paul. She knows that he uses her for food and sex, she knows that he is having multiple affairs with other women, and she knows that he does not value her as a partner or a wife. However, their marriage is still stubbornly standing, just like their house, yet it is full of holes and dirt. Elaine imagines what it would be like to run away, but she has only ever known one role in life; wife and mother. She has no idea what she would do if she left her home and her marriage, because as bad as they are they are the only things that she has a strong connection to. In this passage, Elaine questions why she and Paul continue to promote the facade of their love. She imagines running from him but not knowing why, and he chases her for no reason other than that it must be the right thing to do. Paul’s instinct is to drag her back to the house despite the fact that they both feel unhappy with their situation. However, they are both striving to be the ideal couple, and they know that divorce would besmirch their reputation among their well-to-do friends. Their reason for staying together seems to be based entirely on the idea that they have familial roles to play as parents and lovers, and that breaking from that would make them outcasts from society.

While Elaine is struggling to fulfill her place as a wife and mother, so too is Paul scrambling to act like the ideal man; strong, protective, and stoic. Paul is shown to be weak of character, as he cheats on his wife, lies to his children, and acts immorally in many ways with no remorse. While Paul knows that his actions are wrong, he does not want to expose himself as a person with faults as that would damage his standing as a man. Paul continually needs to prove himself as smarter and stronger than Elaine, and although she makes it clear to him that she is aware of his misdeeds he pretends like he can get away with anything. After the house burning, however, Paul realizes that he can no longer just pretend like there are no problems in their lives. Homes states that “The house is not something Paul can make a virtuous and manly show of Mr. Fix-it with. There’s no reaching a hand in to turn a loose screw-saving them a handyman’s house call and seventy-five bucks. The house isn’t even like a radio he can pluck apart with the enthusiasm of learning how things work, sure he’ll be able to put back every diode. Paul has never fixed anything. And he reminds himself that he did this, he brought it on; without a moment’s pause to wonder whether or not it could be reconstructed, he destroyed it. Worse yet-and this is the part he’s admitted to no one-he got a kick out of it. It felt invigorating, it felt fucking fantastic” (Homes 90). Paul is used to being the man of the house, the person who can perform physical tasks and act as the quintessential masculine figure. In this case, however, Paul realizes that his actions are not something he can fix using any type of manliness. Whereas before his family relied on him to solve simple problems-tightening screws, fixing radios-he knows that he cannot repair the damage done to their house on his own. In this case again, the house serves as a symbol for his marriage to Elaine. He used to put minimal effort into the relationship, merely fixing small things when they came up, but now severe damage has been done and he cannot simply brush it away. It’s going to take actual hard work and cooperation to rebuild both his house and his marriage, and Paul is coming to the conclusion that he enjoyed the destruction. He instigated the fire, and he continually treated Elaine badly because he liked the feeling of power that came along with it. As a man, he feels the need to dominate, to control and command. Yet with the burning of the house that power is gone, and gone with it is the sense of masculinity that was motivating so many of Paul’s actions.

Music for Torching lays bare the realities of marriage, family, and suburban life in a provocative way. Elaine and Paul are grotesque characters whose actions seem ludicrous when compared to those of the actual average middle-class American. However, the pressures and anxiousness of suburban ideals in the novel ring true. Paul and Elaine’s problems are not mystical or deeply psychological; they are products of the label-obsessed culture that assigns each person a specific role in society. The man is to make money and protect his family, the woman is to raise the children and keep the house, the man is to have a mistress or two and the women is to remain content and unbothered. Elaine despises the life of a housewife but feels that she has a duty to retain her position. Paul is inwardly self-conscious but presents a pompous attitude in order to seem powerful and masculine. The culmination of these lies and falsehoods eats away at their marriage and their home, and in the end they have no choice but to send everything up in smoke.