'The World to Come': Desire and Despair
Mona Fastvold's film is a moving portrayal of queer desire in a culture that could not accommodate it.
“I told her I believed we were now encountering a species of education that proceeds from being forced to confront what we never before had acknowledged.” - Jim Shepard, “The World to Come”
Mona Fastvold’s film The World to Come was released in February 2021, with a screenplay by Ron Hansen and Jim Shepard from Shepard’s short story of the same name. At the time of its release, the film, a 19th-century romance between farmer’s wives, was slotted into the “lesbian period drama” micro-genre by an array of critics and audiences. Yet each review I read that made this categorization only found two films to compare it to—Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Ammonite. I don’t think that three independent films, two of which were not widely seen, is enough to quantify a meaningful trend, and this reflexive categorization might speak more to the relative dearth of films that depict sexuality and intimacy between women than the films themselves. A few films that tread similar aesthetic or narrative ground can seem like a massive over-representation when the broader pool of Sapphic cinema is so limited.
I’m not interested in further analyzing how The World to Come fits into this mini-trend, mostly because what beguiles me about the film is its idiosyncrasies: its deep attention to language, its alternately harmonious and atonal score, its icy-blue and earth-toned 16mm cinematography, and most germane to this newsletter, its interest in how the time and place a person lives in shapes their life. In depicting a chance romance between two women, before the codification of queer identity and at a transitional point between homestead living and widespread capitalism, Fastvold crafts a moving portrayal of queer desire in a culture that could not accommodate it.
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The World to Come is set in rural Schoharie County, New York in 1856. Abigail (Katherine Waterston) and Dyer (Casey Affleck) maintain a farm there, and focus solely on day-to-day subsistence in the wake of their young daughter’s recent death. Neither are inclined toward farming—Abigail had a childhood wish to make an intellectual mark on the world, and Dyer’s mind has a “scientific bent”—and their affections for one another are limited, yet an economy still based on self-sustaining families cultivating land chose their fates for them.
Finney (Christopher Abbott) is a new arrival in the community, renting a hog farm, and Abigail is instantly drawn to his luminous wife Tallie (Vanessa Kirby). Tallie, with a mane of luscious auburn hair that glows against the frozen landscape, begins visiting Abigail with increasing frequency and increasing candor. Both women are without friends or community aside from their husbands, and their friendship eventually blossoms into physical intimacy. When Abigail finally kisses Tallie, deeply, she tells Tallie that she “smells like a biscuit.” After Tallie leaves, Abigail sits down at her kitchen table and reclines, back and arms splayed out, in a full ecstasy and bodily exaltation that stands in complete contrast to the tightly-controlled, potato-washing wife she’s been to this point.
In Shepard’s short story, Tallie and Abigail’s next meeting is more fully explicated than in the film, and the turbulent emotions Abigail shares are telling:
[Tallie] asked that I speak. I almost cried out that how should I have known what was happening to me? There were no instruction booklets of which I was aware. I told her I could feel something rising in me as she approached, like hair on the back of a dog. I told her the thought of her through the week was my shelter, the way the chickadees took to the depths of the evergreens to keep the snow and ice and wind at bay. I told her I believed we were now encountering a species of education that proceeds from being forced to confront what we never before had acknowledged.
“There were no instruction booklets of which I was aware.” Shepard gives voice to a thought, rendered subtextual in the film, that is key to understanding their relationship. Pleasure, unease, guilt, solace, and confusion mingle in Tallie and Abigail’s relationship, and neither understands the meaning of these contradictory feelings. No wonder, because these characters would have had no concept of homosexuality as an identity, a still-germinating idea that would have had no relevance to the lives of American homesteaders in the mid-19th century.
Between viewings of this film (when it was released in 2021 and a few weeks ago), I read John D’Emilio’s 1983 article “Capitalism and Gay Identity,” in which he argues that queer identity in the United States developed largely as a result of the spread of capitalism across the nation, and which has affected how I understand Fastvold’s film. 17th-century colonists practiced an economic model based on self-sufficient homesteads, where families produced their own goods. This was a patriarchal, heteronormative economy, where the ability to thrive was entirely dependent on belonging to a functioning nuclear family.
Same-sex desire and intimacy existed, of course. But according to D’Emilio’s argument, economic reality precluded most sexual activity outside of the home, and so the idea of possessing an identity based on same-sex attraction couldn’t take root. Capitalism’s rise in the 19th century, which necessitated that many people move to cities to pursue wage labor, lessened the need for a functioning nuclear family for subsistence, and created new opportunities for people to create communities based on shared sexual interests. The conditions were created for same-sex sexuality to be not only a desire or behavior, but a deeply-held personal identity.
Abigail and Tallie find themselves in the midst of incremental cultural change that leaves them stuck in structures that took root centuries before, and with a hazy future before them. D’Emilio notes that capitalist production and wage labor had become widespread in the United States by the mid-19th century, yet for Abigail and Tallie, the homestead is still the locus of existence. This is not to say that their lives are hermetically sealed from commerce—they purchase goods in town, and Finney rents his land—but they still produce the majority of their own goods within contained family units. The central characters all appear burdened with lives they have not elected to live: Abigail journals at length and wants to purchase an atlas, Dyer subsumes his emotions into labor, Tallie avoids her husband and household labor to spend time with Abigail, Finney fumes at his wife’s inattentiveness.
There is a lingering sense in the film that the characters are agitated, desirous of a different life that theoretically exists but that is not practically accessible. The romance that blooms between Abigail and Tallie, then, is an unexpected escape hatch: “Astonishment and joy! Astonishment and joy!,” Abigail writes in her journal after kissing Tallie for the first time. If neither have the power to change the material circumstances of their lives, then finding a pocket of human connection and sexual pleasure at least uplifts their daily lives. (In both the story and the film, Tallie even posits that their mutual happiness could benefit them financially and matrimonially: “Wouldn’t our farms benefit from our more joyful labor? Wouldn’t our husbands’ burdens be lightened?”) That this connection is so surprising, so inexplicably joyful, illustrates the foreignness of same-sex sexuality to their lives.
A contemporary viewer may assume that the main obstacle Abigail and Tallie would face in their relationship is homophobia, but since queer sexual identity was not yet a broadly understood concept (the term “homosexual” wouldn’t even be coined until 1868), anti-queer bias wouldn’t have been a relevant, or even known, concern. Rather, the risk this relationship poses to their homes stands in their way. A sexual connection that occurs outside of the family structure, is not procreative, and is solely based in pleasure runs against the grain of their lives—not only for moral or religious reasons, but for economic reasons. Labor, sex, and family life all commingled in the same sphere; D’Emilio notes that the concept of a “personal life” separate from work developed only after family was no longer the central economic force in American life.
Pursuing a sexual relationship outside of the home is a subversion of what was then the most important outcome of sex: children. Because children aided significantly in household labor, prioritizing a same-sex relationship over procreative sex with their husbands could have threatened their long-term economic viability. In the near term, Tallie and Abigail’s absorption in one another affects their work and frays their marriages. In the aftermath of the first kiss, Dyer comes home at night and accosts Abigail for not fulfilling her responsibilities, and Finney grows progressively more hostile and possessive of Tallie the more frequently she sees Abigail.
The extent to which Dyer and Finney are aware of their wives’ bond is kept ambiguous for most of the film, but whether the relationship is sexual or platonic may not have mattered much to them—anything that comes before the marriage and the home threatens the delicate order of their lives. These obstacles to Abigail and Tallie’s relationship illustrate the broader cultural position of women: An economic system where marriage and children are central to success limits the lives of women to a vanishingly small space.
“Astonishment and joy,” then, cannot last. Finney’s possessiveness, which has manifested as physical and emotional abuse, reaches a head, and he and Tallie move without notice. After Finney intercepts a love letter from Abigail, he poisons Tallie, which Abigail only learns of when she goes to their home out of worry for Tallie’s safety.
The emotional distance between Abigail and Dyer becomes an unbridgeable gap. In the final scene, in a halting, resigned conversation about the what the future of their relationship could possibly hold, Abigail begins imagining Tallie speaking in place of Dyer, Kirby replacing Affleck in the frame. With her only source of refuge and pleasure killed, and her interminable future defined by responsibility to her husband and his land, Abigail’s sole sovereignty is over her own mind.
The narrative, yes, is tragic, a predictable outcome in many queer period films. But the specific tragedy of The World to Come is in no way perfunctory, a way of lazily denoting that the past was repressive and, implicitly, that the present is better. Rather, the tragedy stems out of close attention to the story’s historical context. The film is attentive to the curtailed life of a farmer’s wife in 1850's New York; no matter her personal inclinations or abilities, she is confined to the tiny sphere of a husband and a homestead. The stunning rupture of a same-sex romance with a neighbor then causes both joy and despair—a glimpse at a life beyond what she has imagined for herself, and then the violent shutting of that cracked-open door.
The title, The World to Come, stems from a line Abigail writes in her journal: “After the calamity of Nellie’s loss what calm I enjoy does not derive from the notion of a better world to come.” Writing about the loss of her daughter, Abigail abandons hope for her own sake. Yet she does not anticipate the momentous, if fleeting, fulfillment that her and Tallie’s love brings. In Fastvold’s film, Abigail may be right not to expect a better life than what she has—like all of us, she is stuck in the vortex of history, and is limited to the possibilities of her time. The better world to come still arrives, in glints and flashes, unexpected and unbidden.
Coming soon: An essay on Derek Jarman’s Edward II.