The Elusive Form: The Use of Female Characters in "Naked Nude"

Michael McBee

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
A. in contrast to Fidelman\'s initial idea of the artistic nude
B. "maybe too many naked women around made it impossible to
draw a nude"--establish basis of conflict within Fidelman III.
A. flat, static character--functions totally as a touchstone for
B. provides Fidelman\'s first turn towards artistic epiphany
IV. Bessie, his sister
A. childhood memory brings about full epiphany
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

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 asan
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
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