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Anna Christie and the Feminist Horror of Fractured Desire

By Serena Suson

Art by Sabrina Eager

“Women. They have minds, and they have souls, as well as just hearts. And they’ve got ambition. And they’ve got talent as well as just beauty. And I’m so sick of people saying that love is just all a woman is fit for. I’m so sick of it. But… I’m so lonely.”

— Jo March, Little Women[1]

Watching the sun set on the trees outside Sanborn, I dot my eyes as I waver over the last pages of Anna Christie. I watch, the fourth wall in between, as another of my kind falls gratefully to love. I watch as Anna Christie sheds her supposed impurity for piety, Mat Burke’s word a tome upon which she gathers all hope. I watch as she falls, an exhausted soul, into his arms, more eager than anything to swear on a lie if it means she can be with him. I watch — as a part of her dies. I watch as she smiles through it. I watch, and I am afraid.

Anna Christie was the first play I had to read for ENGL 034 (“From Anna Christie to Hamilton (and Donald Trump): Modern American Drama”). In truth, I was not expecting such a profound commentary on the feminine experience from a male playwright of the early twentieth century, but I have since found myself mistaken. The play typifies Eugene O’Neill’s principal style: exploiting melodramatic technique, he subverts the melodramatic genre.[2] By presenting characters as “types,” he reveals the deep contradictions that comprise the human person and makes evident the hypocrisies that prevent an individual from complete categorization. He discerns tragedy so potent it transcends more than one identity. Essentially, he takes the pain that derives from two conflicting desires and stages them, as if to say, “This is a pain that cannot ever be contained.”

Anna Christie opens on Chris Christopherson, who, having been away at sea for 15 years, seeks to repair his relationship with his daughter Anna, who, in her father’s absence has grown up among her cousins in the country. Anna meets Chris with unequivocal enmity, her opinion of men having been blackened not only by the perverse and violent desires of one of her cousins but also by her work first as a nurse and eventually a prostitute, professions she originally took up to establish financial independence from her family. Anna reunites with her father, rife with the trauma his abandonment has caused. Surrounding Chris and Anna’s initial encounter with several layers of gendered tension, O’Neill denies any chance of their immediate reconciliation; and just as he subverts a common melodramatic reunion scene between father and daughter, he introduces the character of Mat Burke, who personifies Anna’s romantic anxieties. Despite Anna’s initial attempts to rebuff him, Mat ends up becoming an invaluable part of her life; and as Anna deepens her relationship with both her father and with Mat, she begins to fear the expectations they have set before her, the assumptions of her virtue that directly contrast her reputation as a prostitute. When Anna eventually reveals the true nature of her work to Chris and Mat, they are horrified, and Mat himself leaves the scene, seeming never to return. The final act of the play resolves intentionally abruptly with Mat returning to ask for Anna’s hand under the condition that she renounce her former character and swear her devotion to him. Anna helplessly agrees, having truly never loved anyone like him before. Though Mat and Anna blissfully begin to plan their future, the play ends sustaining an air of discontent, Anna forcing a laugh as she realizes she will once again be left behind as Chris and Mat prepare for the time being to set out on the same voyage to South Africa. The play, for its entire running, ends with Anna once again preparing to be alone.

Anna Christopherson, Anna Christie for short, is the perfect example of human contradiction. As a woman, she maintains a certain level of inscrutability to a male audience. The full capacity of her person eludes the language of those who seek to objectify and possess her. Still, the world is apt to cast her in a role: she is a daughter, a prostitute, a lover. Her roles encompass a spectrum where at one end she is idealized and the other, demonized.[3] None of her identities exist simultaneously in the male mind, so she constantly oscillates onstage between the persona of the Madonna and the persona of the whore.[4] Though such polarization of her character severely limits her own self-image, her awareness of her double identity occasionally gives her agency. She can play the part to get her way. She can feel like she is the one manipulating men into doing her bidding. She can hate men as much as she likes, and she will feel justified because she recognizes the self-hatred that men have had her internalize. She can meet a good man and expect him to be “no better than the rest” so that he cannot hurt her when he goes away.[5] If she feels rage, she cannot feel helpless.

The tragedy of Anna Christie is that, despite everything, she aches for love. Her rage tires her. She aches to be held, to be comforted. She aches for something so benign — so fundamentally human — yet her very desire not only depends upon but comes from a conditioned, male-centered idea of love. For all she knows, she wants love because society has told her that her only worth is in being loved. Perhaps the hole in her heart is not for want of affection but for a false need for absolution; perhaps the voice crying out inside her is the voice of the voyeur, the ever-present man within her that makes a fetish of her agency. It is difficult to discern whether, at its core, her desire for love is something that should make her sick.

When Anna falls for Mat Burke, it feels like a trap. Mat Burke possesses every single quality to recommend himself as a romantic partner, but at the same time, nothing truly absolves him from his own sex. Along with a desultory view of prostitutes, he has a propensity to view the first woman who shows him some sign of disinterest as the girl of his dreams.[6] While one part of Mat Burke is remarkably easy to love, the other represents generations of misogyny that have sought to defame women just like Anna. Part of Mat Burke may always aim to destroy Anna Christie. At the end of the day, in spite of all she has done to resist, Anna may end up falling for a man that is “just like all the rest.”[7]

As a woman of color, I was particularly struck by Anna’s struggle. Despite her Swedish background, she embodies for me the paradoxical experience of the BIPOC intersectional feminist. Like Anna, I find validation in my rejection of the male mold. In my case, I rest my integrity upon two ideals: uplifting my identity as a person of color as well as uplifting my identity as a woman. I seek the complete, unimpeded liberation of both of my identities. For the most part, I can make my stake in melancholia[8], brandishing vindictiveness like a shield as I contest my oppressor. An issue, however, arises if I ever realize I’m in love.

How am I to live with myself if I ever love someone whose existence stands averse to my liberation? Who else but myself would be to blame if the man I loved ever hurt me, a certain violence implicit to our relationship from its very beginning? How am I to compare such a democratic feeling like love with the tyrannical constructions of my own oppression? How can I ever fall in love and still be a self-righteous person? Every conflicting fear I have ever had has fractured my desire so acutely that I have ceased showing love altogether. Yet still I ache — still I ache to know what it is like to be like Anna Christie and, despite my moral convictions, just concede. Still, I ache to love and be loved because, more than anything, more than I am an advocate for justice, more than I am a person of color, more than I am a woman, I am so profoundly lonely. My identity has assured me of that.

I know I have worth outside of the service I render to other people. In my moments of greatest confidence, I can attest that I am smart; I can attest how well I write; I can attest my steadfast earnestness to hope. With all that I am, I am fit for so much more than love, but at the same time all I want to do is love. I find my heart to be one of the best parts about me, yet I often find myself sick at the way it happens to conform. How afraid I am of contributing to the issues I have spent my whole mature existence trying to destroy. I am afraid, and I am also very angry. I should not have to detach myself emotionally in order to realize independence, but is every interaction in which I express affection, whether it reinforces heteronormativity or White superiority, not a kind of subjugation? I am indignant that I cannot go about my life without considering the malicious implications behind one of life’s most essential emotions. For people like me, even the most basic of feelings has been made to feel like a trap.

Since finishing Anna Christie, I have received differing opinions on how to proceed. I have met several people who have taught me about the importance of simply approaching others, and sometimes then the answer seems so plain to me. Perhaps I would do better just to pursue that feeling inside my chest, that feeling that leads me to see so much good in other people, that feeling that inevitably transforms the way I think and live and breathe. Even my professor has claimed that desire is the only way we really ever come into being. Time and time again I have contemplated the all-encompassing circle of oppression under which people like myself appear to operate, agency an elusive concept contrived upon the wind; and, while extremely disillusioned, I have never found myself apt to brook self-stagnancy, to live my life not loving. A friend once remarked to me how the most perfect type of oppression is that which the subject enacts willingly. I am not certain how to elicit progress with every single one of my actions, but I am determined not to be the source of my own paralysis. I will not wholly be like Anna Christie, but I am determined to declare my love so fiercely that the world will have to pay me justice. I am determined to see love as an act of resistance. I am determined to find a way out of the tunnel in which I currently reside. Though I move forward in darkness, I can be assured there will always be a bit of light where at least I know I love.

[1] Gerwig, Greta, director. Little Women. Sony Pictures, 2019.

[2] Pease, Donald, Jr. “O’Neill: Changing the Form and Function of American Drama,” ENGL034: From Anna Christie to Hamilton (and Donald Trump): Modern American Drama (class lecture, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH, March 28, 2022).

[3] Pease, Donald, Jr. “Anna Christie: Undoing American Melodrama,” ENGL034: From Anna Christie to Hamilton (and Donald Trump): Modern American Drama (class lecture, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH, March 30, 2022).

[4] For more on the Madonna-whore complex, see Alexander Salyer’s article “Of Madonnas and Whores” here:

[5] O’Neill, Eugene. Anna Christie. 2012. Kindle.

[6] O’Neill, Anna Christie, pp. 36–43.

[7] O’Neill, Anna Christie, pp. 65.

[8] For me, melancholia means to acknowledge the institutionalized nature of the systems that oppress me. The world that we have constructed depends so wholly on my subjugation that at times it feels as if I will never be able to live a meaningful life without the intertwined social and psychological bonds that restrain me. In moments such as these, my only protection is the knowledge that I have been cut off, that I have been displaced from the normal order of society. Succumbing to melancholia is an inevitable part of the marginalized experience. For more on melancholia, check out Sanjana Raj’s article “on melancholia”:

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