As broad and general as the casing air:
. . . I am cabin’d, cribb’d, confined, bound in
Macbeth Act 3, Scene 4
Binding, bind, bound, bond. Ropes bind, as do contracts, agreements and marriage. Books are bound. Positions bind, as in, “I’m in a bind.” There are yoga positions, full body twists, called “binding positions.”
Faggots are bunches of kindling wood bound with cord. Love binds, or rather, it’s a bond. Women masquerading as men bind their breasts. In the olden days, the feet of Chinese girls were bound to make them smaller, more delicate, and thus feet became not means of transportation, but symbols of subservience. Bonds that can’t be broken.
Kathryn Harrison’s fourth novel, The Binding Chair, or, A Visit from the Foot Emancipation Society takes on the subject of bondage and its multifarious implications. In a relatively liberated society in a relatively liberated time, bondage can be play, but foot binding in turn of the century Shanghai was about the servitude of women to men. Performed in the name of beauty, femininity, sensuality, foot binding had as its single most enduring effect the curtailing of a woman’s autonomy, nothing short of ambulatory prison. A bound foot was not “a foot whose growth has been arrested,” as the narrative explains, but “a foot broken: a foot folded in the middle, toes forced down toward the heel.” In a hair-raising variation on a Kama Sutra pose, a goodly wife used her broken feet to perform anal sex on her husband. The titillation of the act amplified, one assumes, by the grotesque appeal of a partner who has been mutilated for your exclusive pleasure. And, of course, a crippled wife is a faithful wife a wife who can neither stray, nor flee. In The Binding Chair, the state of bondage is as psychological as it is physical, and even the most rebellious of heroines cannot escape it.
May, our heroine, is seven years old when her feet are bound. It is a practice so obscenely violent that even those who abide by it are horrified. May’s mother, for one, was so affected by her own binding she can’t bring herself to bind her daughter’s feet and abandons the treacherous task to May’s grandmother. With chilling dispassion, May’s grandmother works May’s feet into delicate, tiny, perfect, crippled nubs. Simple acts of standing or walking become painful and slow. Running is impossible. At the age of fourteen, after many failed attempts to escape her abusive first marriage through suicide, May flees, riding two days and nights on the back of a brutish gardener, and ends up in Shanghai, working as a prostitute. (Even in defiance, she is dependent.)
She wins a rich husband from among her clientele, a profoundly imperfect but big-hearted man who, like her, both worships and fears her deformed feet. As if cursed in all things feminine, May’s forays into motherhood end repeatedly in disaster, which leads her to turn her affections to her husband’s willful niece, Alice, forming a bond that brings her as close as she will ever come to motherhood. Their relationship at times borders on the illicit; their affection is irrevocable, intimate and almost crippling. May tries to redeem herself through Alice, and Alice tries to save May to emancipate her feet. But both women are too attached to May’s tragedy and how its legacy has shaped their lives. They move through the world as if under attack, their fists raised, and depend on each other to feed their pain.
The blurb on the back cover of The Binding Chair reads, “Erotic, irresistible, this novel draws you hypnotically into the pain and the glorious power of being born female.” I couldn’t disagree more. Although The Binding Chair is all about dynamics of power, no one ever has control, and though it’s profoundly explicit, it’s neither sexy nor romantic. It’s too cerebral not because it’s a smart book, but because every act is psychologically determined, every character a product of her tragedy, so there is no room for passion. These wounded women were born ancient, and they don’t take risks or play at bondage. To them, being female is not a glorious power, but a somber trap. The characters are too damaged and cynical; they have no capacity for hope, for delusion or for disappointment, and for that they are less than inhuman. As ideas, on the other hand, they are strategic and provocative, and it is through ideas that the novel seduces.
The gilded soft-focus abstraction of the design, the gushy blurbs suggest a romance novel or a sentimental saga. That impression dissolves quickly when only a few pages into the book we witness two scenes of extreme violence committed against women the foot binding itself and a torturous public execution for adultery. The Binding Chair is about warfare, not romance, played out on the female body. There is a violence at its center and there is a victim, but it is not a novel about victimization, or victimhood. In a strange twist of what would be a traditionally feminist narrative, The Binding Chair is not about women triumphing over circumstance, but rather about women descending into the fray. No, The Binding Chair isn’t a “women’s novel” of the flowers, perfume, letter-writing and lingering kisses variety, or of the sort that shirks oppression through self-deprecation or insanity. Nor do we really expect such a novel from women writers anymore. The Binding Chair is a novel of grit and assertion, which makes it something of a feminist statement. Harrison’s uncommon assertion is: “If there must be tragedy, let me be the master of my own tragedy.” It’s no accident Harrison chose the word “emancipation” for her title and then gave us a complicated interpretation of it. In as much as binding defines confinement, and constitutes permanent damage, emancipation is not escape but endurance. The beautiful and treacherous fragility of Harrison’s heroine is that, despite her forceful capacity to survive and overcome the primal injustice of having her feet bound, she is never able to escape its effects, nor abandon her desire for vengeance. May’s inability to forgive or forget makes this a tale that keeps twisting back over the original breach, circling in elaborate figure 8s, the ends tucking neatly into themselves.