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Issue Details: First known date: 2012... 2012 Turning Inward on Himself : Male Hysteria in Elizabeth Harrower's The Watch Tower
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AbstractHistoryArchive Description

'The much-maligned character of Felix Shaw in Elizabeth Harrower's The Watch Tower (1966) has consistently been described as the "embodiment of total inexplicable evil", "of motiveless malignity"; he is a caricature of a violent, sadistic and misogynistic husband who tortures his wife Laura, and her younger sister Clare, into submission (Clancy 463). Harrower charts Laura and Clare's gradual disintegration within the prison of their suburban house overlooking Sydney harbour, a gradual unraveling towards "craven, total submission", which ultimately results in Clare being granted a form of freedom at her sister's expense (Harrower 89). Much of the criticism on Harrower stems from the 1980s and 1990s, when her work was taken up by feminists eager to hold up The Watch Tower as a lesson on the oppression of women in the post-war period. From this perspective Harrower's construction of Felix serves as a warning, a modern fairy tale that exposes the sadistic impulses of patriarchy, and the prison of the suburban domestic space. A telling case in point is the essay "What Does Women Mean? Reading, Writing and Reproduction" (1983), in which leading critic Sneja Gunew argues that The Watch Tower is structured as an "elaborate cautionary tale", a reworking of the classic "gothic [narrative] in which women are traditionally caged up and their lives threatened" (119). The text is "a salutary lesson", with Clare's ability to escape Felix's grasp high lighting the importance of maintaining the integrity of female selfhood, despite the way the text deliberately denies the reader any form of cohesive resolution or satisfactory solution at the end of the novel (119). So, too, in an interview with Harrower when The Watch Tower was republished as a TextClassic in 2012, the Sydney Morning Herald described the novel as a "thriller", and Felix as "unhappy, meanspirited" and "one of the most superbly drawn evil characters in Australian literature" (Alcorn). The epithet "evil", whilst no doubt applicable to Felix, perpetuates the understanding of the figure as a caricature, a fairytale villain.' (Author's abstract)


  • Epigraph: [Felix] had suddenly vomited words at them, his manner extraordinarily agreeable, so that for seconds he might have been speaking Chinese for all the sense he seemed to make... He lurched to his feet. Oiled strands of his brushed-back hair fell over the jagged scars on his forehead. His face was contused, his gestures terrifying, his expression ogrish. Starry-eyed and with a deep fearful incredulity they felt his voice beat against their heads. He lifted and threw and crashed and overturned.
    Harrower, The Watch Tower (1966), 66-7.

    The masculine borderline is a dangerous position for men on either side, for a transition from one side to the other is uncertain.
    Jirousek, Haunting Hysteria (1999), 56.

Publication Details of Only Known VersionEarliest 2 Known Versions of

  • Appears in:
    y separately published work icon Southerly Mid-Century Women Writers vol. 72 no. 1 2012 Z1896404 2012 periodical issue 2012 pg. 204-213
Last amended 29 Oct 2012 12:20:10
204-213 Turning Inward on Himself : Male Hysteria in Elizabeth Harrower's The Watch Towersmall AustLit logo Southerly