Robert Faggen: On "The Witch of Coös"

. . . Though the whole story appears to be a show the mother and son have developed for gullible visitors, the mother takes her spiritualism seriously and becomes troubled by some of its contradictions, particularly its failure to account for the material reality of the body as well as its desire to accommodate itself to the standards of proof of modern science. Inspired by "Ralle the Sioux Control," an Indian spiritualist who made her ponder the question of whether the dead "have souls" or are souls, she posits the persistence of a bodily, visceral presence, evoking the old religious controversy about what happens to the dead between the time of death and the resurrection. Caught between the Pauline view that in the resurrection we shall be given new bodies and the Neoplatonic view of purely spiritual resurrection, she fears the possibility of remaining in an earthly limbo. Christian and pagan intersect in her mind in a terrifying way, and she does reveal herself to be an old believer, despite the put-on way she appeals to the evidence of pieces of bone to accommodate modern skepticism:

[lines 1-20]

The story about the bones, however, exposes her desire to reanimate lost power, and the skeleton becomes a metaphor for her self. Like the dead, she too is "keeping something back," which makes her more compelling, threatening. Behind her story about the resurrected bones—a skeleton in the closet—is her deeper psychological fear and, above all, guilt about her past.

The story about the skeleton tells a great deal about her attempts to overcome the coldness in her marriage and the cruelty of men. Her husband, Toffile, faults her for going "to sleep before [she goes] to bed," but one senses that the conditions he has created for her are equally cool, and that he feared her sexuality as much as she feared his control, leaving "an open door to cool the room off / So as to sort of turn me out of it":

[lines 36-43]

As she presents the resurrected skeleton, she creates a fantasy of control over its passion, "balancing with emotion," and fear of its desire, fire emanating from its mouth and smoke from its sockets. And she reminds herself and the narrator that "in life once" the man used to come at her with hand outstretched, perhaps with some violence. Both fond of what she has provoked and fearing it, she exerts ultimate control by knocking its bones to pieces on the floor and keeping them for proof (or so she would like the narrator to believe!).

[lines 65-81]

More important is the way she uses her sorcery to seduce her indifferent husband, reducing his egregiousness, and demanding a display of sexual prowess:

[lines 90-103]

Toffile, her husband, never saw the skeleton, and she told him that she had trapped it in the attic, pushing the bed against the door, nailing it shut. The imagined proximity of the skeleton to the bed keeps excitement—through threat of intrusion and her fantasy—in the marriage.

As much as she is fascinated by the skeleton and uses it to torment Toffile it also becomes a taboo by which she remains faithful to Toffile and his memory. She will be "cruel" to the bones for the cruelty she once inflicted on her husband by her infidelity:

[lines 125-134]

We finally learn the deeper tragedy behind her storytelling: Toffile had killed the man who had an affair with her and buried him in the cellar. This was more than enough for both of them to be tormented by the idea of the skeleton, for their guilt in a crime, for the inadequate burial of the dead:

[lines 135-151]

What we find out or can infer about the "witch"'s life is more horrible than the story she might be concocting to sell to visitors. Sexual jealousy, murder, loneliness, and fear are the memorable aspects of her domestic experience. She refuses to become spiritually buried by her past, but her spiritualism cannot hide her dependence on the memory of the passion she inspired in her lover and in her husband and of the guilt over the tragedy that it created. Only at the end is there an exasperated disavowal of her attempt to hide her life behind the mask of spiritualism: "But tonight I don't care enough to lie— / I don't remember why I ever cared." If this is just another mask for the narrator, it is a doubt overcome when he sees her husband's name, Toffile Lajway, still on the mailbox.

From Robert Frost and the Challenge of Darwin. Copyright © 1997 by The University of Michigan

Details

Criticism Overview
Title Robert Faggen: On "The Witch of Coös" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Robert Faggen Criticism Target Robert Frost
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 04 Feb 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Robert Frost and the Challenge of Darwin
Printer Friendly PDF Version
Contexts No Data Tags supernatural, spirituality, feminism

Rate this Content

Item Type Criticism
Average Rating 0/100
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
Total votes: 0
Use the above slider to rate this item. You can only submit one rating per item, and your rating will be factored in to the item's popularity on our listings.

Share via Social Media