03 February 2012

What does Deirdre look like?

A contextual analysis of Deirdre’s appearance

edited by Colin Bunge


It is worthy of note that within the full text of Deirdre, the Wanderer, the narrator never describes her physical appearance definitively.  Displaying possibly a noble sense of modesty or, more likely, a teenager’s tendency towards self-effacing humility, she provides scant details that, added together, approach but never complete a conclusive representation.  Clearly Deirdre is healthy, hardy and durable, physically quick, agile and adept, and within a normal range in height and weight.  She labours hard, swims well and takes on physical challenges without fear of failing due to her own inability.  Merely carrying all her luggage for such durations and such distances as she does is proof of that.  And yet none of this strength of body comes at the expense of her physical attractiveness; for she possesses all the parts of a young woman and, as is made evident by the approbation she receives when she is observed outwardly by both sexes, in a rather pleasant proportions.  But as to particular details we must rely only on the infrequent clues from the narration itself.
We discern that she is probably shorter than average, or at least shorter than she would like to be, for she complains that

  Being short, young and female often gets me overlooked, especially by pushy New York types.  (I, 1, page 9)

She also compares herself to the height of the helm of the yacht Fast Pitch; typically a sailboat of this size (56 ft) might have a wheel of perhaps sixty inches in diameter, suggesting that Deirdre is conspicuously closer to five feet than to five-and-a-half feet in height.  (I, 4, page 35)

As to colouring she is naturally fair, so that despite the sun’s blessings she is able to appeal to the lecherous Teutonic restauranteur Ray as though one of his own ethnicity.  Relunctantly she admits,

  ... as a blonde, grey-eyed, Nordic-looking waif, I had a different appeal to him.  (VIII, 1, 322)

This makes some sense, for her given name and Catholic religion may suggest she is at least partly of Irish heritage.  But her parentage must also include some more southern-European blood as well, because she does tan well without burning, and quickly too, as she reports:

  Of course I’d been pretty white after a whole autumn in Connecticut; but I was surprised at how quickly the mild Bahamian winter sun improved that.  I didn’t burn at all and in just three days I was noticeably tanner and quite evenly too….  (II, 1, page 41)

Looking so well-tanned she fools the local social star Tony Albury about her age as well as her residency status:

  I just stayed there, leaning way back on my elbows, with the jacket falling open so that my suntanned stomach and the bikini top looked sort of obvious.  (V, 2, page 168)

And at the island of Sans Souci she is able to cultivate a rather comprehensive suntan, enough to impress Emily (VI, 3; VI, 4).  Indeed she seems to derive some pride from having good sun colour, as it complements her adopted persona as a Bahamian belonger; and she is even offended that the tourist boys would presume she is a tourist:

  ‘Whoa, you’re local?’ he marvelled.  Couldn’t they tell by my tan?  (VIII, 1, page 314)

We read early that she has no disproportionate interest in food and, whilst certainly not anorexic, tends by habit to underfeed rather than to overfeed herself, almost conspicuously, as others have noticed:

  I asked for strawberries on a crepe and hot tea– that was all.  Jeri and Marian looked at me and teased me about being skinny or watching my ‘girlish figure’ or trying to ‘stay cute’ to impress someone.  (I, 2, page 18)

In fact there are few accounts of Deirdre having much more than a muffin and tea at any time, despite the fact that working in a bistro, a night club with a kitchen, and a lunch café she might have been entitled to eat well and cheaply into the bargain.

So, establishing that she is slender we might assume that in body type she is not at all buxom and more likely tends towards the opposite.  She never describes herself as any more than modestly-endowed and marvels that anyone would even care to look at her breasts, such as in the dance club (VII, 6, page 307; also VII, 3, page 283 and VII, 5, page 301).  She does not care for her string-bikini top since it only exaggerates youthfulness of her figure (V, 4, page 189) and so worries about being seen in the swimsuit by 23-year-old Clive who truly ought to be able to discern that she is not the 18 years old he has been hoping she is.  But this is an example of how Deirdre uses her past experiences with adult yachties in Connecticut to uphold a maturer image; and Clive is bewitched probably more because of her behaviour and her situation than her figure.
But Deirdre does recognise a certain benefit in being less than full-bodied, even in the workplace.  She does not take exception to the required uniform for work at the outdoor bistro in Freeport:

  The thing about a tanktop, though, is that you really can’t wear a bra with one.  Now I didn’t absolutely need one– I could still wear tanktops at my age.  (IV, 2, page 130)

The reader will note that Deirdre quite often does without a brassiere, frequently preferring the white tanktop and a shirt half-buttoned over it; so given her prudish attention to propriety in public (vis. IV, 4, page 147) one must assume she is respectably covered and supported like that.
But her slenderness may be due less to conscientious toning and dieting than to merely being young and incompletely developed.  Dancing at the club in Nassau she acknowledges that she has little to hide beneath her knickers (VII, 2, page 276) and, fully aware of what her own body lacks, she marvels that no-one has even checked her ID at this job:

  I’d long been aware that I wasn’t really fooling anyone– my figure was hardly what you’d call voluptuous and any guy out there who’d ever ogled a girl my real age would have known I couldn’t have been eighteen.  (VII, 5, page 301)

This is a problem that eventually backfires in an arrest for underaged dancing, not of Deirdre but of someone whom she had never suspected could have been under eighteen, a incident that underscores the willing suspension of disbelief about Deirdre’s own age by club staff and patrons alike.
She also remarks that because of her slight build she feels inadequate to wear even moderately mature fashions, such as Sandy’s stockings:

  I’d never worn thigh-highs before.  But these were really nice, all lace, and I smoothed them up each leg, not going too quickly.  The gripper tops squeezed just enough; I marvelled that they would stay up so well on my skinny legs without suspenders.  (IX, 5, page 384)

One of her favourite words for herself is ‘skinny’, even when she compares herself to the lithe and lovely– and skinny– Iris as insufficiently shapely (VII, 6, page 307).  Frequently she refers to herself as ‘little’, emphasising her unworthiness for what she must face in intellectual, emotional and physical terms.  With the horny girls in the Bimini apartment, she recognises her underdeveloped physique as a liability:

  I’d already imagined that Rosie in particular might have had some kind of young-girl or even pædophile fantasy, since being so short and skinny I looked so much younger than the rest of them….  (II, 3, pp. 61-62)

Even so, she does admit some satisfaction with her own body.  She can accept the girls’ compliment on the shape of her bottom:

  Cassie turned her head and looked at me then.  Suddenly she made a little giggle.  ‘She does,’ she said, and then looked at Rosie and the two of them laughed.
  I sat down not knowing what any of that meant and then Rosie turned to me and said, ‘Cassie and I were just remarking that you have a really sweet little butt.’
  I went red again.  It wasn’t that I minded being complimented on my bottom.  I like my bottom.  (II, 2, page 56)

To her credit, Deirdre does not seem to take as flattery the attempts of others who throw compliments at her only in the hope of gaining her attention and interest.  She does not regard herself as pretty enough to deserve it nor vain enough to fall for such ill-aimed ploys.  Eric the eager dance partner in Nassau never compliments her, but the beachcomber at Rocky Point (VI, 6) and the admirer in the red tropical shirt at Mick’s (VII, 4) convey their interest based on her appearance; and the attention of the two oglers in East Bay Street (VIII, 3) is anything but flattering.  Being no fool Deirdre knows she receives this attention only because she appears young, female and available, which of course is no basis for flattery at all:

  … like the other [harassed] women, I was treated as I was treated only because of my sex, my age and my appearance, and that made me feel even more camaraderie with them.  (VIII, 1, page 322)

It cannot be overlooked that girls of this age are inherently contradictions, especially in the motivations for their various behaviours.  One moment Deirdre is a naïve prude and the next she is flaunting herself before would-be admirers.  Of course she is hardly unintelligent enough to deny that she has the power to attract male eyes and the ability to steer the consequences toward her own ends; that comes from basic female instinct.  When, wearing the ‘too-tight’ bikini, she meets the middleaged Bill Clark at the Freeport marina, she decides to ‘pour on the sugar’ and see if her feminine wiles are sufficient to secure her a ride to Freeport:

  His eyes went over me whilst I stood there– I slowly inhaled, filling out my chest a little, and put more weight on one foot to rock one hip out.  The bikini felt a little snugger than usual.  I knew what it’d look like– I didn’t mind.  (III, 1, page 81)

Also authentically for her age, Deirdre frequently laments that she has been normally overlooked by boys in school and is unused to genuine approval of her appearance.  Perhaps the most meaningful compliment on her physical prettiness comes from her soulmate Sandy MacNally.  After Deirdre somewhat obliquely refers to Sandy’s beauty (IX, 2, page 362) as a reason they had received some inappropriate male attention, Sandy pays her back with heartfelt sincerity, almost disguising the compliment as an apology for having received so much herself:

  ‘You have such a sweet little figure,’ she said, and she leaned down on her hand with her elbow on her leg.  Then she sighed again.  ‘Mm, mm….  I love how you look.  I so envy you for it.’
  I went redder.  ‘Envy me?’  Now I turned round and stared back at her.  ‘But you are–’
‘Shhh.  Don’t say it.  I like thinking of you as the pretty one.  I’ve never–’  But she didn’t finish.
  I frowned.  ‘Never what?’ I asked after a moment.
  She shook her head.  ‘No; I shouldn’t say that.’
  ‘Say what?  Sandy, please–’
  Sandy shook her head again, sadly.  ‘It’s unbecoming.  It’s just–’  She sighed a little and finally sat up straight, turning to gaze out the window at the mist.  ‘All my life, Deirdre, I’ve been the pretty one.  The one other people want to be with, because of how I look, or where I live, or who my parents are….’  She shook her head like that again.  ‘I’ve never agreed with them; I’ve never liked it.  I certainly never wanted it.  But now–’  She turned then and gazed back at me whilst I just stood there in the stockings and my underwear and let her look.  ‘Now I have a friend that’s every bit as pretty as they’ve always called me.  Even prettier.’
  … I was beet-red.  Honestly I’d never been called ‘pretty’ in my life– not since I was old enough to look like anything, you know.  (IX, 5, pp. 384-385)

For all her innocence, naïveté and personal bias, Sandy is no idiot; she has even seen Deirdre naked.  If she considers her figure ‘pretty’ than we must too.

Deirdre’s most valuable attribute may be the fifteen-year-old’s blessing of being able, through dress, vocabulary, attitude, or sheer acting ability, to pass for either younger or older.  Dimensions of figure and height notwithstanding, she apparently possesses some childlike winsomeness at the same time she evinces a certain worldliness.  Rosie the dominatrix considers her no more than a helpless ingénue to be overlooked, ordered round and exploited during the same day that Mrs Clark regards her as a sensible and responsible university student on hiatus who is worthy of being entrusted with the safety of her child.  Not just in taking a job as an exotic dancer, but in most of her forays into the adult world of wages, leases and transportation opportunities-- and perhaps only out of fear of the consequences should she attempt the opposite-- she conducts herself with a level of maturity and deportment that belies her youthful appearance, so that she is consistently taken for being a ‘baby-faced young adult’ (Oyster’s Pearl; XI, 4, page 35) rather than a sullen adolescent who would run away from home just to have her own way.
Establishing Deirdre as relatively short, slender and young-looking reinforces the notion of her inexperience and vulnerability, which is crucial to eliciting a reader’s sympathy.  Deirdre, the Wanderer would not have worked if this heroine had been, like many perfectly-normal 15-year-old girls, perhaps 5 feet, 7 inches in height, 130 pounds in weight, athletically and sturdily built and in a C-cup brassiere.  Deirdre’s strength stands in spite of her modest physique and in areas other than what aesthetics, weight or measurements can represent.  From an outward perspective we need to pity her, worry about her, encourage her; and this necessitates a heroine who at least looks like she might need our interest.  But inwardly, even though she is not fully aware of it herself, Deirdre already possesses the wherewithal to face the inevitable challenges she has not yet imagined; and in that she is tall in our view, the kind of self-reliant woman whom anyone should consider admirable.

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