Natalie Love

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Despite the extensive scholarship on Horacio Quiroga’s “El almohadón de plumas,” no study has established a direct correlation between the enigmatic illness of the sexually frustrated bride and prevalent nineteenth-century medical discourses on female frigidity and masturbation. When taking into account these treatises, the infamous deathly “parasite” found lurking inside of Alicia’s feather pillow can be reinterpreted as a metaphor for her wasteful onanistic indulgences caused by sensual dissatisfaction.1 Given the warnings in masturbation treatises surrounding the parasitical nature of feather bedding, Alicia’s vampiric pillow not only points to her solitary pleasures, but she also displays several other characteristics that paralleled the causes, symptoms and consequences of masturbation in medical treatises of the time.2 Alicia is described as a wealthy woman who spends each day in boredom and solitude in a desolate palace, highlighting the medical idea that idleness would lead one to indulge in solitary pleasures, which I will explain later in the article. The character is also a shivering blonde who feels coldness towards her husband on their honeymoon, hinting that she is suffering from the nineteenth-century pathology of frigidity which, according to physicians, would lead wives to masturbate for their inability to achieve arousal in coitus, a tenet present in medical discourses that I will broach in my analysis of the text. Alicia’s frigidity and propensity towards self-pleasure is foreshadowed by the excess of white marble that adorns her chilly autumn-like home, hinting that she is plagued with fluor albus, a female disorder that physicians linked to masturbation. Spending her days alone in the wintery, palace-like abode, causes Alicia to suffer from inexplicable melancholy and fits of crying, behaviors that medical treatises also attributed to the guilty indulgences of masturbation. When Alicia’s emotional and physical discontent with her husband intensifies, she permanently retreats to her bed to fulfill her neglected needs through what can be interpreted as autoerotic reveries. In addition to the idea that excessive sleeping was linked to onanism, there was also the belief that masturbation triggered anemia, emaciation, cerebral apoplexy, debilitation, pallor, delirium and nightmares, all of which are ailments that plague Alicia throughout her solitary time in bed.3 Through what can be understood as Alicia’s onanistic excesses and rejection of her sexually inept husband, Quiroga exposes a crisis of masculinity in fin-de-siècle society provoked by medical theories that stressed a woman’s natural need for sensual gratification. Due to the wintery imagery connected with Alicia’s corporeality, her marital erotic disappointment and subsequent masturbatory practices, I claim that Quiroga molds her character as an incarnation of the frigid hysterical bride discussed in nineteenth-century medical treatises, a sexually insatiable woman who was often said to indulge in autoerotic pleasure to satisfy her desires left unfulfilled by marital coitus.4