The Bedtrick: Tales of Sex and Masquerade

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"Somehow I woke up one day and found myself in bed with a stranger." Meant literally or figuratively, this statement describes one of the best-known plots in world mythology and popular storytelling. In a tour that runs from Shakespeare to Hollywood and from Abraham Lincoln to Casanova, the erudite and irrepressible Wendy Doniger shows us the variety, danger, and allure of the "bedtrick," or what it means to wake up with a stranger. The Bedtrick brings together hundreds of stories from all over the world, from the earliest recorded Hindu and Hebrew texts to the latest item in the Weekly World News, to show the hilariously convoluted sexual scrapes that people manage to get themselves into and out of. Here you will find wives who accidentally commit adultery with their own husbands. You will read Lincoln's truly terrible poem about a bedtrick. You will learn that in Hong Kong the film The Crying Game was retitled Oh No! My Girlfriend Has a Penis And that President Clinton was not the first man to be identified by an idiosyncratic organ.

At the bottom of these wonderful stories, ancient myths, and historical anecdotes lie the dynamics of sex and gender, power and identity. Why can't people tell the difference in the dark? Can love always tell the difference between one lover and another? And what kind of truth does sex tell? Funny, sexy, and engaging, The Bedtrick is a masterful work of energetic storytelling and dazzling scholarship. Give it to your spouse and your lover.

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Editorial Reviews

Katharine E. Eisaman Maus
In lesser hands, the reult might be a mess. In this case, it is a truimph. Any one or two of Donger's chapters might stand on its own as an ordinary academic monograph. Ten such chapters, by a writer so learned, inventive and theoretically sophisticated, provide and astonishingly rich reading experience.
Times Literary Supplement
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Product Details

Meet the Author

Wendy Doniger is the Mircea Eliade Professor of the History of Religions in the Divinity School and a professor in the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations and the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. Her most recent books are The Implied Spider: Politics and Theology in Myth and Splitting the Difference: Gender and Myth in Ancient Greece and India, the latter published by the University of Chicago Press.

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Read an Excerpt

The Bedtrick

Tales of Sex and Masquerade

By Wendy Doniger

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2003

University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-226-15642-7

Chapter One

Sex, Text, and Masquerade


You go to bed with someone you think you know, and when you wake up you
discover that it was someone else-another man or another woman, or a man
instead of a woman, or a woman instead of a man, or a god, or a snake, or
a foreigner or alien, or a complete stranger, or your own wife or husband,
or your mother or father. This is what Shakespearean scholars call "the
bedtrick"-sex with a partner who pretends to be someone else. The bedtrick
contests the intimate relationship between sex and gender, power and
identity, raising a number of questions: Why weren't you able to tell the
difference in the dark? And why does it matter so much? Why is this story
told over and over again? Why do we find it compelling? What deep human
concerns does it respond to? How unique and unmistakable is one lover to
another? Can you recognize your lover in the dark? Can true love always
tell the difference? Is it the body that is desired, or the mind? How does
sex change if we do or do not know who our partner actually is? And, at
thebottom of it all, does sex tell the truth or lie?

The basic plot should make it onto anyone's list of the Ten Greatest Hits
of World Mythology. There are Rachel and Leah, Tamar and Judah, and (I
believe) Ruth and Naomi in the Hebrew Bible; Amphitryon in the Greek and
Roman traditions; and, in medieval European literature, King Arthur
begotten by a masquerading father and both Elaine and a false Guenever
masquerading as Guenever. There are the bedtricks in Boccaccio and in so
many Shakespeare plays, especially All's Well That Ends Well and Measure
for Measure
. In opera we have Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro and Cosi fan
, Richard Strauss's Rosenkavalier and Arabella, Johann Strauss's
Fledermaus, and Richard Wagner's Tristan and Isolde and Gotterdammerung.
There are the transsexual and transvestite bedtricks in contemporary
theater (M. Butterfly, Prelude to a Kiss) and cinema (Some Like It Hot,
The Crying Game)
. Moving outside the European tradition, we encounter an
eleventh-century Japanese novel about a brother and sister who change
places in their respective marital beds (The Changelings) and a modern
Japanese novel about a bedtrick (Fumiko Enchi's Masks), as well as an
infinite variety of bedtricks in the Arabian Nights and in the ancient
Indian storytelling tradition. All of these texts are myths by my
definition: stories that are believed to be true and that people continue
to believe in the face of sometimes massive evidence that they are, in
fact, lies; much retold narratives that are transparent to a variety of
constructions of meaning, neutral structures that allow paradoxical
meanings to be held in a charged tension.

Scholars of high culture (particularly opera and Shakespeare) have tended
to regard the bedtrick as a cheap trick-morally corrupt (the trickster who
assumes another person's identity in bed is regarded as a kind of whore),
titillating, unrealistic, or simply farcical. The fact that the bedtrick
is both tragic and comic-that the very word "tragicomedy" was first coined
to describe a play about a bedtrick (Plautus's Amphitryon)-is a paradox
that accounts in part for the confusion in its critical reception. Dr.
Jonson, damning the bedtricks in All's Well That Ends Well (in which
Helena substitutes for Diana in Bertram's bed) and Measure for Measure
(in which Mariana substitutes for Isabella in Angelo's bed), remarks, "The
story of Bertram and Diana had been told before of Mariana and Angelo,
and, to confess the truth, scarcely merited to be heard a second time."
Even critics of popular culture tire of it; Terrence Rafferty, reviewing
the film Multiplicity (1996), calls "the hero's anxiety that one or more
of his doppelgangers will sleep with his wife (who's unaware of their
existence)" a "not very compelling issue ... resolved in a protracted and
mildly amusing farce climax." Yet the bedtrick continues to compel
audiences; though night-lights and pillow talk made the bedtrick harder
and harder to take seriously after the seventeenth century, and though it
strikes a contemporary reader as counterintuitive if not counterfactual,
"the irony of physical closeness and mental distance which underlies it
persists in the modern understanding of sex." Terence Cave encapsulates
the paradox with regard to recognition scenes in general (of which
bedtrick recognitions are a subspecies) as he attempts "to account both
for the extraordinary popularity of recognition scenes in all types of
literature and for the contempt and suspicion with which they are commonly
regarded. The accusation of fraudulence is not simply an instance of
cultural snobbism, although it may well take that form."

There is a tension here between sex and text: though real people are often
fooled with minor deceptions in bed, actual consummated bedtricks are rare
in life but very common in texts. These stories seem to take place in a
world in which many people literally do not know who they are in bed
with-or, in the case of animals and gods, what they are in bed with.
Why is there so much fantasy about the bedtrick if it happens so seldom in
reality? The answer is that there are many good, human reasons, which are
encoded in the stories in this book. These myths imagine a situation in
which a man or woman goes to bed with someone s/he is crazy about and
wakes up to discover the astonishing fact that the body in the bed belongs
to someone entirely different, someone hated or alien or just different.
Now, this is not just a myth. It happens to all of us, all the time, for
that ol' black magic, sexual passion, is transformative, at least
transformative of our perspective; it changes our view of our partner.
Sometimes we go to bed with an animal and wake up with a god; that is, we
go to bed relatively indifferent and wake up enchanted by sexual magic. On
other occasions, we go to bed with a god and wake up with an animal; that
is, we go to bed blinded by desire and wake up with our eyes relatively
cleared by satiation. (My preliminary, unofficial opinion poll indicates
that there is widespread disagreement about the prevalence of one model or
the other.)

Many myths are simply the narrative embodiment, sometimes an exaggerated
embodiment, of metaphors, even cliches. English-speaking writers speak of
something as "just a metaphor," but metaphor in India can be the strongest
possible statement of causation. The shock of violated intimacy in the
bedtrick-the violation of the mind, often together with the rape of the
body-is a mythologized form of the everyday shock that makes people say,
as the heroine of Love Letters (1945) says to the man who is in fact a
different person from the man she agreed to marry, "You're a stranger to
me" or, as the confirmed bachelor in Guys and Dolls (1955) complains,
"You marry a girl, and you wake up with somebody else." Perhaps the world's
shortest switchback bedtrick narrative appeared in the New Yorker on
October 11, 1999, in the "Constabulary Notes from All Over" department:
"[From the Sudbury (Mass.) Town Crier] 1:58 a.m. A Hudson Road resident
reported a strange man in her bed, but then realized it was her husband"
(p. 54). The casual joke that people make so often at their own expense-"I
went to bed with X and woke up with Y"-implies that sex is revelatory,
that in the morning you know the truth, that Y is the real person:
"Behold!" as the Hebrew hinneh is usually translated (as in "Behold! It
was Leah!"), for which the modern equivalent is probably "Oh wow!" or some
blasphemous exclamation.

The mythology of the bedtrick unpacks the experience expressed in these
and related cliches. Thus, the authors of The Three Faces of Eve
literalized a cliche to explain Eve White's split personality: "With a
good deal of truth perhaps it may be stated that after her marriage, Mary
Blank changed, that she became another woman." And when Eve
White (Lancaster) herself told her story a year later, she argued, "This isn't
as farfetched as it may sound at first. On the contrary, as an idea it's
probably a cliche.... We say: The war changed him. Marriage made a new
of her. He's a different person since he stopped drinking. He
found himself in his new job. He isn't the man he once was." But Mary
Blank does not divorce her husband for sleeping with the "new woman," which is what
Eve White wanted to do. The myth of the bedtrick is about the violent
disjunction that often takes place when we come up too quickly from the
deep-sea dive of sexual intimacy into the cold light of the morning air
and experience the emotional equivalent of the bends. Even in reaction to
ordinary sexual betrayal, the betrayed partner may retroactively believe
that the lover was someone else because the lover had been with

All sexual acts are bedtricks in the weakest sense: you never really know
everything about your partner, and afterward, if you become estranged, the
sudden distance, the total loss of intimacy, sometimes seem almost
unbelievable, mythical. Similarly, the most basic bedtrick occurs, not
when you mistake Joan for Susan (or Steve for Sam, not to mention Joan for
Sam or Sam for Joan), but when you mistake lust for love; the shadow area
between the two, lust and love, is where the bedtrick happens, and why it
matters. The myths in which the impostor is not who he or she seems to
be is the strong form of the bedtrick, which dramatizes the weak form that
occurs in more banal situations in which the impostor is not how he or
she appears to be (ugly instead of beautiful, unfaithful instead of faithful,
out of love instead of in love, married instead of unmarried, and so on).
Often a myth expresses the extreme case of a human situation; thus, the
quandary of the copulating conjoined twins expresses the extreme case of
any two people whose bed is crowded by the phantoms of other people, and
the story of the French diplomat Boursicot, who discovered that his lover
of twenty years was not a woman but a man (the plot that was fictionalized
in M. Butterfly), expresses the extreme case of morning-after
disappointment, regret, or surprise.

The bedtrick is not literally a universal theme, though it is demonstrably
cross-cultural. I have found it in certain cultures at certain moments
(ancient India, the Hebrew Bible, Renaissance England and Europe,
Hollywood films), and different individuals in different cultures imagine
different sorts of bedtricks to overcome different cultural barriers, from
the great religious mythologies of the world to contemporary popular
culture. Alexander Goldenweiser's "principle of limited possibilities"
explains what he calls "dependent convergences" without recourse to a
theory either of universal archetypes or of historical diffusion. If we
apply his theory of cultures to narratives, it suggests that the
constraints of the traditional narrative form must somehow accommodate the
constantly changing needs of the narrative community, and there is a limit
to the number of basic plots that can be used. Thus, something like a
law of "irrational choice" operates to invoke bedtricks as so many dei ex
machina in recurrent situations of sexual aporia. By asking profound
questions about the interrelationships among sex and love, mind and body,
identity and recognition, sameness and difference, illusion and reality,
tales of the bedtrick offer a unique human probe into the ways in which
these forces function in cultures, in stories, and in individual
perceptions and individual lives.

Telling the Difference

Contemporary Americans tend to assume that sexual intimacies, even
intimacies exchanged in silence and in the dark, are as highly
individualized as fingerprints, that bodies as well as faces have
distinctive physiognomies, that sex leads to an exploration of what is
unique and distinctive about each partner. Yet many bedtrick stories seem
at first to assume that if two people look alike, one cannot tell them
apart (indeed, that in the dark one cannot tell anyone from anyone
More than that: the stories often begin with the assumption that sex is an
act in which the parties are interchangeable, that bodies can be changed
without one's knowledge. But sometimes they go on to warn us that two
people who appear to be identical are not in fact the same person, that we
must strive to find other ways (the voice, the scar, memory, the mind,
behavior) to tell the two apart-and that sexual intimacy is the best way
of all. On this deeper level, the face proves to be a false image of
sameness, and the stories warn us that we must go deeper to find the mind
and soul beneath the face. Although many of the stories seem to begin by
privileging vision, the fact that the reader or hearer always knows that
people who look alike are not alike is a clue to the not-so-hidden agenda,
which intersects with a primary agenda of our own time (particularly but
not only as argued by feminists): to deconstruct vision. And some
bedtricksters do not look exactly alike (except under cover of darkness):
sisters, brothers, close friends, sons and fathers, mothers and daughters,
servants and masters, and so forth. Thus, while some myths reaffirm sexual
stereotypes, others challenge them. A gender asymmetry is also at work
here: men and women do not always feel the same about the power of sex to
reveal either the distinct individualism or the sameness of partners in
the dark.

Bedtricksters are doublers: sometimes they become the doubles of other
people (who may or may not exist), and sometimes they split themselves
into an original and a double. But our double is not us: by definition, it
is where we are not, and therefore things happen to it that do not happen
to us. The idea of the substitute presupposes the idea of the unique, the
authentic, the true form of which it is a false copy. What is it, then,
that makes us say of a masquerading double, "It is the same"? The judgment
that two different things are the same is, after all, our basic way of
making sense out of the chaos of experience, the principle underlying all
of our cognitive and scientific understandings, from the taxonomies of
Linnaeus to the atomic periodic tables. When, therefore, we ask of
doubles, "Is it the same? Is it the same person?" the answer is one of the
many paradoxes that make people tell this story over and over again: "It
is the same and it is not the same."


Excerpted from The Bedtrick
by Wendy Doniger
Copyright © 2003
by University of Chicago.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Preface : why a book about a bedtrick?
Introduction : sex, text, and masquerade 1
1 How to commit adultery with your own spouse 13
2 The rape of the false mother 69
3 Waking up in bed with an animal 105
4 The lovely/loathly lady 140
5 The cuckolds of the heart 205
6 Designated hitters 237
7 Color, class, and clout 292
8 Cross-cultural cross-dressing 335
9 Incest 383
10 Real sex and fantastic sex 412
Conclusion : carnal ignorance and carnal knowledge 475
App Bedtricks in Stith Thompson's motif-index 493
Filmography : double features : bedtricks (and related plots) on film
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