Christine Schutt begins to describe the relationship between the narrator, her son, and her father in the title “An Unseen Hand Passed Over Their Bodies.” The narrator is the unseen hand and therefore not known in her intimate, near-caress hovering over her son who is laying in her bed, and that hovered over her father when she, as a child, lay in his. It is not a consensual intimacy—it is a breach of it. The hand symbolizes the narrator and the unseen, a perverse struggle that she experiences in mediating her appropriate roles as daughter and mother despite her inappropriate desires for her father and son. The “hand passed over” is representative of the near-breaches of intimacy towards father and son, nearly crossing lines, nearly breaking rules, but halting herself just short of touch.
The nature of the setting, a bed and a bathroom, characterizes how terrible her intrusion is, reveals how blatantly she does not belong in both her father’s bed as well as her own. The relationship between how she feels for both her father and son is established through her flashback. The flashback describes the erotic feelings that she had for her father, and through the association she makes between both father and son; when she sees herself in him when he coughs, we are shown that she struggles with similar illicit feelings for her son.
The setting is what shows us how severe her intrusion is, how she is perverting herself, and thereby her father and son, by perverting her place within the vulnerability of the bedroom. The vulnerability of sleeping, relaxing, changing, and sex reside in the bedroom setting; it is a place of nakedness. The narrator is aware of this in regards to her father, how it is a private space for him because he “calls it his own, Dad’s porch, sleeping headquarters, off-limits” (197). It’s an off-limits place, and she has somehow made it inside, made it close enough to smell him. Smell is such an intimate sense—you have to be close enough, very close, in order to smell someone, and she is in bed, laying that close in a space where she shouldn’t even be in the first place. She watches him, and it is not in the typical way that a child watches an adult—it is titillating:
I only pretend to leave. He never shuts the door all the way, and I want to see, and I can, if I am careful, if I am clever. From where I am hiding, just outside the bathroom door, I can see him. I can see him oiling his back under the sunlamp. It makes me feel lazy just watching him: the way my father massages himself and rolls his shoulders in the heat.
I am almost sure of this—that my father only pretends I am not there.
She pretends to leave in order to fool her father into thinking he is alone. She is spying on him, watching and describing the movement of his oiled muscles, how he massages himself beneath a sunlamp—sensual. This is not the way a daughter describes her father; rather, she observes him as a man. Her father sets parameters, tells her to leave when he oils himself, and typically considers his bedroom off-limits to his daughter; but when she is not given access, she steals it. She watches him in secret, convincing herself that her father is, in truth, aware of her presence. That she is actually wanted by her father—that he only pretends not to.
She will lie still beside her father, be quiet despite her cough so she does not irritate him. She thinks, “Am I not the woman he cannot keep out? I want to wake him still. I want to shrill in his ear: “Look you!” But the thought of him makes me close my eyes, try to sleep, a girl” (200). That’s the crux of the struggle in childhood—she wants her father, wants herself to be a woman to him, but she can only be a girl. She wants to be a woman, but she cannot make herself be one; instead, she lies beside him in bed, inert, and remains as quiet, as carefully distant, as possible. Her desire and restraint displaces her from the appropriate daughter and mother roles; more importantly, her childhood fetish displaces her now as a woman, even in her own bedroom, in her own bed. Her bedroom, a place she should feel is hers, can only be a discomforting intimacy between her and desires she will not allow herself to act on.
Her restraint seems almost to have regressed her; as a mother she is in the exact position she was in as a girl. Her son is in her bed with her, he has come into her “off-limits” place, but she does not want him gone like her father did her. She is rigid in her own bed, holding the edge of it, trying to be quiet and good as she was with her father. She is the adult, the one in control within her own bedroom, but still she cannot commit to her desire. Instead she lies awake and suffers, “I let my son take up all the room he wants, knowing he will slip away before I am even awake, and even after I have been so quiet, so good” (200). She has both invaded and invited the privacy of the bedroom, but she does no conquering or taking of either male. She is in a state of childishness, thinking that if she acts like a proper daughter or mother, if she is good enough like a good little girl ought to be, then she will be rewarded with what she wants.