The Mysterious Woman is Still the Most Beguiling Woman: Oscar Wilde’s “The Sphinx Without A Secret”

As most classifications of people are divided into two primary categories, it would seem that, by and large, there are those who overshare and those who wish nothing more than to guard every aspect of themselves even to those closest to them. It is this sort of personage that serves as the subject of Oscar Wilde’s short story, “The Sphinx Without a Secret.” Told from the perspective of a man who runs into an old university chum, Lord Gerald Murchison, whom he hasn’t seen in years, we are recounted the tale of the highly mysterious woman he fell in love with and who came to a tragic end as an indirect result of this inscrutability.

Of course, Lord Murchison’s friend is quick to write off his initial appearance of perplexity over this woman, famously citing, “Women are meant to be loved, not to be understood.” Murchison then proceeds to unfold the story of Lady Alroy, a curious woman that often acted as though she was being hunted by some unseen force, uttering phrases like, “Pray do not talk so loud; you may be overheard.”

Her enigmatic air is what further draws Lord Murchison to her, desperately seeking to know more about her while also being allowed the preferred male luxury of projecting all of his fantasies and ideals onto her as, “She spoke very little, always in the same low musical voice, and seemed as if she was afraid of someone listening.” How perfect indeed for attracting a male, particularly one of that epoch. Of course, Lady Alroy surely had his number–and the number of all men in search of a challenging puzzle to unlock in one of the courting pastimes known as the thrill of the chase. How else could it be that Lord Murchison could so quickly confess to his friend, “I fell passionately, stupidly in love, and the indefinable atmosphere of mystery that surrounded her excited my most ardent curiosity.”

As for our narrator, even he, upon being shown a photo of the “Gioconda in sables,” had to remark, “It seemed to me the face of someone who had a secret, but whether that secret was good or evil I could not say. Its beauty was a beauty molded out of many mysteries–the beauty, in fact, which is psychological, not plastic–and the faint smile played across the lips was far too subtle to be really sweet.”

Hearing his friend’s confirmation of Lady Alroy’s beauty, Lord Murchison continues, “All through the season, I saw a great deal of her, and the atmosphere of mystery never left her. Sometimes I thought that she was in the power of some man, but she looked so unapproachable that I could not believe it…for she was like one of those strange crystals that one sees in museums, which are at one moment clear, and at another clouded.” This intense desire to truly know her (as though it’s a ever a possibility to really know anyone, as most serial killers with friends and family have displayed to us) is what drives Lord Murchison to believe he has fallen in love with her, for why else would he care so much about discovering more about her?

Continuing to unravel the unfortunate events of his dalliance, he explains to his friend, “I was infatuated with her: in spite of her mystery, I thought then–in consequence of it, I see now.” His conviction that Lady Alroy is harboring something abstruse is further corroborated when first, she tells him to no longer write her letters to her own residence and second, when he catches her going into a building with rooms to let (scandalous to be sure, for those times, as rooms to let always inferred something seedy). Upon arriving at her real residence later that evening, Lord Murchison accuses her of meeting someone there, of seeing some other suitor. She earnestly and truthfully denies it, but Lord Murchison does not believe it, fleeing the country to go to Norway in a state of depression. A state further augmented when, one month later, he learns of Lady Alroy’s fluke death by catching a cold at the opera and then expiring as a result of congestion of the lungs (oh all the many ways to die back in the day).

Upon hearing the entirety of his friend’s woeful tale, our narrator deftly concludes, “Lady Alroy was simply a woman with a mania for mystery. She took those rooms for the pleasure of going there with her veil down, and imagining she was a heroine. She had a passion for secrecy, but she herself was merely a sphinx without a secret.” And how many women still remain as such despite not reading Jane Austen or the Brontë sisters? For it has proven time and time again the best way to attract the attention of a bloke, usually a wealthy one (at least, that’s what most romantic comedies have confirmed, especially Pretty in Pink and Pretty Woman).

Even in the modern era, the woman with a secret is still portrayed as endlessly more alluring that the one without. The “what you see is what you get” sort just not offering much of a challenge. Take, for instance, last year’s A Simple Favor. Or really any project involving Blake Lively, whose characters always seem to possess some shocking revelation that pulls a love interest or admiring female acquaintance deeper into her complex life. And even though men have certainly gotten lazier in their willingness to pursue, every now and again, when une femme mystérieuse makes her spectral presence known, he still simply has to know more. Or so the last of us sphinxes without a secret tell ourselves.

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