The conclusion of The Argentinian Virgin is ultimately driven not by the murder of the mysterious Spaniard, Alvírez, and the subsequent investigation, but by whether the love the principal characters believe they have for each other will stand the strain of events. If they love each other enough to risk telling the truth, there is a possibility of happiness. If they don’t, the consequences – for some of them at least – will be disastrous.
There are two key relationships which the parties believe to be founded on love. The first is Tom Rensselaer’s love for the beautiful and vulnerable Katerina Malipiero. The second is the love that Tom’s friends and the narrator feel for Tom.
Tom’s feelings for Katerina are on the surface a classic romantic passion: intense and limitless, for which he is prepared to sacrifice anything. Indeed he does sacrifice everything and is destroyed in the process. But is he really in love? Two outsiders, Dr. Maillot and Margaret Shapiro, stand at a distance from both Tom and Katerina, and take a much cooler view. Dr. Maillot suspects that Tom is in love with the idea of love and that he is acting out a piece of self-dramatisation. Margaret Shapiro believes Tom is experiencing not love but an obsession with Katerina’s alter ego as the Argentinian Virgin: not the girl herself but a fantastic invention that the others have projected on to her. In fact Margaret is quite brutal about Tom and considers that he is abusing Katerina’s youth and vulnerability. Nevertheless the fact remains that he gives up everything for her and accepts the damage done to him. The narrator, in his quest for objectivity, reports the views of both Dr. Maillot and Margaret Shapiro, but he doesn’t accept them. He believes that Tom does love Katerina. But his good opinion of himself depends upon this. In the end he cannot be truly objective.
“Lucky” Tom Rensselaer is the most handsome, talented and attractive man of his generation: the man whom everyone loves. His friends and the narrator watch his every move and tailor their actions to seek his approval, though Tom is modest and does not like the role that is foist on him. Yet do they truly love him? Dr. Maillot believes not: he says that they admire him, nothing more, and that when he fails to meet their expectations, they will betray him. Margaret Shapiro says she doesn’t see how anyone could truly love Tom. In the end – after the disaster has happened and Tom has lost everything – the narrator is forced to revisit events and he recognizes that, as with Katerina, out of their own neediness they had created a fantastic image of Tom, and become obsessed by the image, so that when it failed them they no longer loved the man behind it.
The relationship of other men towards Tom has a homoerotic undertone, most explicit in the case of Ben. Tom possesses all the manly abilities and virtues and attracts women in droves, but he has another side that is artistic and emotional, and his relationships with women are characterized by tenderness and concern rather than aggressive sexuality. This aspect makes other men uncomfortable because his virtues call into question their own sexuality. Neither are Tom’s relations with women free from strain. They love him but are frightened that he studies them too intently; that he requires them to possess a magic that is beyond the ability of any woman. Men and women love Tom because, on the surface, he has all the qualities that would make him beloved. And yet… Maisie says that Tom is the loneliest man in the world, and the narrator finally understands why this is so.
What about Katerina, does she love Tom? It’s difficult to say because, like the characters in the book, our view of her is obscured by the false image of the Argentinian Virgin. Katerina’s responses are coloured by the disparity in their ages, Tom’s sophistication, his genuine goodness which inspires gratitude, and her own fear, guilt and vulnerability; and events so quickly overwhelm both her and Tom that it’s difficult to predict how things might have worked out under other circumstances. The narrator believes that she did love Tom. But, again, his own well-being demands that he hold to this belief.
In The Argentinian Virgin the characters dance. The theme of dancing and its relationship to love is stated by the narrator in the prologue. There are two scenes in which dancing figures importantly. The first is the night at the casino when Tom dances with Hetty and the narrator, watching them, feels he has never seen love more perfectly expressed. The second is during the excursion to Nice, when the narrator dances with Maisie and she explains to him the three ways of dancing the tango and incidentally casts further light on her own character and Tom’s.
A number of reasons lie behind the prominence given to dancing. One of them is autobiographical: my wife and I love to dance and we dance as intensely as we can and on every opportunity, including haunting French villages in summer in the hope of a country hop by starlight. The other reasons are technical. The period of the novel is one when dancing had a high profile, and therefore it provides a useful background for certain scenes and contributes colour. More important, however, is the use of the dance motif to express love. Whether dealing with sex or love, it is easy to fall into expressions that are hackneyed, cheesy or pornographic. I hope that by using the theme of dance I’ve managed to contribute a degree of freshness and sincerity in the handling this subject. Only the reader can decide.
If you are interested in live music or dancing, these sites may be of interest: