The Elusive Form:
The Use of Female Characters in “Naked Nude”
May 24, 1994
Thesis and Outline:
Thesis: In his picturesque short story, “The Naked Nude”, Bernard Malamud uses the female characters to develop, enact, and resolve Fidelman’s epiphany and to bring about the protagonist’s final, artistic self-understanding.
I. Introductory paragraph–statement of thesis.
II. The prostitutes
B. “maybe too many naked women around made it impossible to
draw a nude”–establish basis of conflict within Fidelman
A. flat, static character–functions totally as a touchstone for
B. provides Fidelman’s first turn towards artistic epiphany
IV. Bessie, his sister
V. Venus of Urbino
A. aesthetic constant–she, as a painting, remains static
B. Fidelman’s method of viewing her evolves, providing his
VI. Relationship of female characters
VII. Conclusion and restatement of thesis.
The Elusive Form:
Female Characters in “Naked Nude”
Bernard Malamud, a leading contemporary Jewish author, skirts between fantasy and reality in his almost allegorical short fiction, teaching the reader a lesson through coinciding elements of beauty and comedy. Venturing away from his usual, inner-city Jewish element, Malamud tackles new challenges of subject and setting in his novelistic collection of short stories, Pictures of Fidelman . Malamud develops his protagonist through a series of six, interrelated short works, each of which may function entirely independent from the others. In “The Naked Nude,” for instance, Fidelman comes to a new, artistic maturity through his attempt to copy the famous painting “Venus of Urbino” by Titian Tiziano. Malamud’s recurring theme of self-knowledge through suffering permeates this short work. Scarpio and Angelo, as primary antagonists, provide the bulk of this suffering for Fidelman. It is his own mental captivity concerning the female nude, however, that gives cause for Fidelman’s eventual epiphany as an artist and as an individual. His relationship to the women in the work shapes his ability to capture the form of the “Venus” and to come to grips with his own self-worth. In “The Naked Nude,” Bernard Malamud uses the female characters to develop, enact, and resolve Fidelman’s epiphany and to bring about the protagonist’s final, artistic self understanding.
At the story’s outset, Fidelman is forced to act as janitor and manservant to a group of ill mannered prostitutes under the employment of the padrone, Angelo. These offensive characters establish the first of a series of mental obstacles in the imprisoned protagonist’s attempt to copy Titian’s nude. They torment Fidelman with cynical laughter and exploit his demeaning position. His sexual insecurity is established at the beginning of the story when he ponders his violent guillotine sketch, asking “A man’s head or his sex?…either case a terrible wound” (Malamud
318). The limited omniscient narrator, revealing Fidelman’s thoughts and feelings, also suggests that he could gain “no inspiration from whores,” and that “maybe too many naked women around made it impossible to draw a nude” (Malamud 325). This illustrates Fidelman’s early accreditation of his artistic impotency to desensitization. He soon recognizes, however, that the way in which he views the “Venus” also interrupts his progress. In his effort to dissociate the portrayed goddess from the distasteful prostitutes, Fidelman doesn’t see the true nature of her physical beauty. He sees only her “extraordinary flesh that can turn body into spirit” (Malamud 323). Any natural physical beauty present in the prostitutes escapes the copyist, as he embraces form over fact and the inherent spirit over the actual body.
Teresa, the “asthmatic, hairy-legged chambermaid” (Malamud 319), provides Fidelman’s first turn towards artistic self-awareness and towards capturing the elusive “Venus of Urbino.” She is a flat, static character, functioning solely as a touchstone for Fidelman to compare the naked and the nude. After fudging his first attempt to enhance her form, he “consider(s) her with half open eyes” (Malamud 326). After having her don one of the prostitute’s slips, “Fidelman, with a lump in his throat, (gets) her to lie down with him on a dusty mattress in the room” (326). Her blatant nakedness hidden, Fidelman finds a conceptual beauty in the dull chambermaid. This leads to an uncontrollable lust. Instead of viewing her physical body to embrace a pure, aesthetic form, he covers her, viewing his imagination’s pure feminine form and embracing her physical body. At this point in the story the protagonist and the reader get an idea of his previous artistic misconception.
It is the erotic memory of his sister Bessie, however, that brings Fidelman’s epiphany full circle. He relieves a childhood memory in a dream in which he watches her bathe, and the next day he is able to assimilate all of the nudes he has
He had caught the figure of the Venus but when it came to her flesh
he never thought he would make it. As he painted he seemed to
remember every nude he had ever done…in every conceivable shape
women he had ever desired, from Bessie to Annamaria Oliovino, and
for their garters, underpants, slips, brassiers and stockings. (Malamud
This somewhat perverse, revived lust for his sister opens a new door for Fidelman. He is able to deal with his guilt. The nude form is realized rather than idealized. He uses the total sum of his past lust to create, abandoning his former idealistic, Platonic approach.
In the beginning of the story, Titian’s “Venus of Urbino” is elusively enigmatic for the distraught protagonist. He falls in love with her in the Isola Bella castello:
her couch…, her nude body her truest accomplishment. ‘I would
have painted somebody in bed with her,’ Scarpio said. ‘Shut up,’
said Fidelman. Scarpio, hurt, left the gallery. Fidelman, alone with
Venus, worshiped the painting. (Malamud 322)
This scene offers some interesting hints. Her position on a couch, for instance, marks Titian’s “Venus” as an obvious departure from the wispy, spiritual Venus floating in on her pink shell in Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus.” Titian’s is an earth-bound Venus: natural, fleshy, and almost plump. Scarpio’s crude comment becomes a kind of foreshadowing irony, suggesting a physical recognition of the
feminine form presented. Fidelman cannot give in to his aesthetic love of the “Venus” until he recognizes her on this natural plain and abandons his childhood guilt.
His completion of the copy, many critics argue, marks the protagonist’s assimilation of both love and lust, filling a void in his life. Edward A. Abramson explains that “copying Titian’s masterpiece becomes not so much a quasi-artistic exercise as an attempt to fill a gap in his love starved life” (Abramson 83). In turn, Fidelman recognizes himself as an artist through the work. Christof Wegelin suggests this notion:
The nude he paints is “naked,” as the title of the story proclaims,
because it represents his own life, himself: ‘The Venus of Urbino,
self. (Wegelin 144-5)
Fidelman experiences a fulfilling epiphany through his Venus, and it results in a fulfilled love.
Notably, some critics have emphasized the negative aspects of Fidelman’s “epiphany.” Robert Ducharme, for instance, insists that “it should be remembered that Fidelman’s theft of his own work has been motivated by self-love as much as anything” (Ducharme, 174). It is true that Fidelman assumes a sort-of selfish arrogance at the work’s conclusion. This view, however, is derived from the story’s position within the larger collection, Pictures of Fidelman . The other stories seem to gravitate around a contrasting set of themes. In its own context, however, “Naked Nude” suggests that self-love is a