Laura and Red Harvest: The Depersonalised Women of Caspary and Hammett
In Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett and Laura by Vera Caspary, the depersonalisation of female characters into objects occurs prior to or following acts of violence by men resulting in the death of women. These acts of depersonalisation suggest the violence committed by men is justified through objectifying women both before and after death. First, in Hammett’s Red Harvest, the Continental Op describes Dinah Brand as an anthropomorphic set of eyes, which directly precedes her violent death at the hands of a man. In Vera Caspary’s Laura, Waldo Lydecker remembers the titular character after she is murdered as an object similar to his signature facial hair or his cane, and through this objectification is able to reconcile his intended violence towards her. Finally, in Laura, the actual murder victim Diane Redfern is depersonalised furthest, as Mark McPherson objectifies her in death as a set of legs while also suggesting all women are inanimate objects capable of being misplaced.
While there is no large amount of violence in Hammett’s Red Harvest, the violence against Dinah Brand is an important plot point. The way in which the Continental Op describes Dinah as a talking set of eyes begins a process of depersonalisation, which eventually ends in her death after being stabbed with an ice pick. In essence, she is nothing more than an object obliterated by another object. In order for Dinah’s murder to come about she must first be objectified. For instance, the Continental Op says that her “big blue eyes asked questions” (Hammett 153). This description presents Dinah no longer as a person, but as a part of the body. Although the eyes are physical parts of the human body, they are still things; they have no personality, they are simply colour and organic matter. The Continental Op robs Dinah of her identity by stripping her down to a thing. Furthermore, once the Continental Op finds her murdered he depersonalises her more by objectifying her body. That is to say, if a man is stabbed in the heart the description will likely read he was stabbed in the chest. However, the Continental Op makes a point of noticing “the pick’s sick-inch needle-sharp blade was buried in Dinah Brand’s left breast” (Hammett 164). In addition, the Continental Op goes on to notice her “long muscular legs” and focuses on “a run down the front of her right stocking” (Hammett 164). Even though the Continental Op is a private detective and pays great attention to detail, the choice of words suggests an element of sexuality. In other words, his examination of Dinah’s murder scene is constantly peppered with an objectified view of her as a body; a sexual object. Even in death she is nothing more than the sum of her parts, whether it is her eyes, her legs or the stockings on them. This depersonalisation leads to her violent death and allows the violence of men to take place.
The first instance of a depersonalised woman in Laura by Vera Caspary is early in the novel after the supposed death of Laura Hunt. In hindsight, the guilt of Waldo Lydecker is evident from the beginning. For Waldo to justify the violence he commits, against the woman whom he thought was Laura, he initiates a process of depersonalisation by objectifying her. On page 15, Waldo says Laura “became as well known at opening nights as [his] graying Van Dyke or his gold-banded stick” (Caspary). Therefore, Laura has never been a woman to him particularly, but rather he sees her as an object. After her death, Waldo describes her often in sentimental terms, but ultimately as an object. Almost as if he is revising the past, he believes she is only recognisable as an extension of him; either in the form of his facial hair, his cane, or any other ‘thing’ associated with his personality. In general, Waldo attempts to objectify Laura, seeking to control her. The ultimate act in his attempt to gain said control is the murder, which he believes is done. Later, Waldo labels Mark McPherson as “a misogynist” (Caspary 31) in an attempt to either hide his own misogyny, or assuage the guilt he feels because of it. Regardless, Waldo’s objectification of Laura after her death is a way for his violence to appear justified, as if he were merely shooting an object similar to the cane he carries. If Laura is not objectified and instead gets described in a more emotional sense, Waldo’s act of violence appears even more brutal than it is already.
The second and most important instance of depersonalisation and violence in Caspary’s Laura comes later in the novel when Mark McPherson thinks of the real murder victim, Diane Redfern, as an object. Furthermore, McPherson also suggests in part there is a justifiable nature to the disappearance of many women around the city because they are also objects themselves. McPherson is a police officer who ought to remain impartial, though, he is certainly misogynistic. He almost justifies the dead women in the city because of his inability to immediately solve the murder of Diane. Initially, McPherson’s narration presents his line of thought as one of indifference through depersonalisation. First, he refers to the landlady at Diane’s apartment building as “an old flour sack, bleached white and tied in the middle” (Caspary 105). Afterwards he says “there were so many girls in the city and they were such loose creatures that it didn’t make any difference whether one of them got misplaced once in awhile” (Caspary 105). Not only is McPherson suggesting women are objects by the fact they are either used up items or that they get misplaced from time to time, he also goes so far as to use the word “creatures”, which immediately brings to mind an animal nature. Still not aware of Waldo’s guilt, McPherson almost resigns himself to the fact these types of things happen and there is nothing to be done. He is capable of justifying this attitude and the violence done to women by turning them into objects, which somehow lessens the weight and severity of Diane’s murder. However, McPherson does not stop there. Shortly after, he specifically turns his objectification towards Diane. McPherson laments it is “hard to think of those legs dead and gone forever” (Caspary 106) while looking through Diane’s apartment. Although McPherson is an officer of the law and is meant to be working for the victim, he does not see Diane as a woman, nor does he even see her as a corpse. Instead, McPherson views Diane as a pair of legs, whittled down from a human being to a thing. More than that, McPherson manages to justify the so far unsolved murder of Diane, as well as the disappearance of other girls in the process, through the misogynistic objectification of all women.
Both Dashiell Hammett and Vera Caspary in their respective novels portray male violence towards women as a result or byproduct of the objectification of female characters. In Hammett’s Red Harvest, the Continental Op depersonalises Dinah Brand and shortly after she ends up dead in an act of sexualised violence with an ice pick lodged in her breast. Caspary’s Laura contains the similar objectification of women, as both Waldo Lydecker and Mark McPherson depersonalise the titular Laura, as well as Diane Redfern accidentally murdered in her place. While neither Caspary nor Hammett advocate the violence directed towards women is warranted, the objectification of the female characters in Laura and Red Harvest is a way for male characters to justify their various acts of violence upon them.
Caspary, Vera. Laura. New York: Feminist Press, 2005. Print.
Hammett, Dashiell. Red Harvest. New York: Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 1992. Print.