Feminism and Faith in the Brontëan Gothic

Jane Eyre and Villette are notable for their respective narrative engagements with the notions of faith and female desire. Even as these novels establish a common thematic ground in Christianity, elements of the supernatural, and even of paganism, infuse both texts. The complex spiritual, political, and erotic inclinations of the female protagonists in these novels are simultaneously echoed and explored through a variety of supernatural gothic tropes; using images of phantoms, madwomen, and mysticism, both texts allow for a larger discourse surrounding the complex relationship between gender, spirituality, and the body. In both cases, mystic narrative elements underscore both the political ideals and the cultures of legend in which much of Brontë’s work is grounded; ultimately, through the supernatural elements of Jane Eyre and Villette, the Victorian Gothic enters into a conflict with Christianity that echoes the proto-feminist themes of each text.

The supernatural facets of Jane Eyre are manifested in large part by the vibrant imagination of Jane. Immediately preceding her first encounter with Rochester, Jane recalls, “In those days I was young, and all sorts of fancies bright and dark tenanted my mind…and when they recurred, maturing youth added to them a vigour and vividness beyond what childhood could give” (Brontë, JE, 132). It is not irrelevant that both in this passage and in relation to the novel as a whole, Jane’s creative energies and spiritual inclinations are emphasized and discussed in relation to the supernatural. Brontë’s attention to Jane’s vivid, complex imagination, which lends the text a distinctly feminist ethos through its uncommonly multi-dimensional representation of the psychology of a Victorian woman, draws heavily upon Jane’s fascination with the mystic elements of her world. Rochester also frames Jane as a preternatural being throughout the novel, describing her as “elfin” and “fairylike,” and drawing her self-image into conflict with the devout Christian identity that she attempts to forge over the course of the novel. The concept of motherhood within Jane Eyre occupies a similarly mystical positionality within the text, most notably through the recurring narrative presence of the moon, which recalls pagan lunar rites and a symbolic relationship with the spiritual forces of maternal power. This is particularly evident in the character of Diana, whose affectionate nature and blood relation to Jane allow her to act as a surrogate mother figure, and whose name recalls the Roman goddess of the moon—a deeply autonomous female figure who recognized no patriarch and is still worshipped within many contemporary pagan spheres. In addition to functioning as a signifier for female mysticism, however, the moon in Jane Eyre is also a deeply sensual image, and often functions as the backdrop against which Jane negotiates her romantic and erotic interactions with Rochester. In this manner, the moon embodies a relationship between paganism and female sexuality that corresponds in turn with the final and most obvious instance of the fantastic within Jane Eyre: the “madwoman in the attic.” Like the image of the moon, Bertha Rochester represents, among many other things, Jane’s repressed sexual desires. Functioning simultaneously as Jane’s double and as the deepest source of her anxieties, this supernatural trope of the insane woman (and foreigner) in Jane Eyre creates a frightening gothic embodiment of female erotic desire, bringing elements of Jane’s own identity into direct conflict with the Christological, patriarchal values of the society she lives in.

In her essay “Gothic Desire in Charlotte Brontë’s Villette,” Toni Wein proposes that, “Even more than Jane Eyre, with its madwoman in the attic, Villette is a haunted text. Bronte possesses her literary heritage by creating a surrogate Gothic” (Wein, 735). In Villette, the supernatural once again forms a conflict-ridden intersection between sexuality and the Christian female body. In Chapter XII, Lucy describes a legend that states: “that this was the portal of a vault, imprisoning deep beneath that ground, on whose surface grass grew and flowers bloomed, the bones of a girl whom a monkish conclave of the drear middle ages had here buried alive for some sin against her vow” (Brontë, V, 117-18). Like Bertha Rochester, the ghostly nun in Villette signifies the repressed sexuality of the narrator: descriptions of growing grass and blooming flowers evoke an image of fertility and sensual feminine life, while simultaneously representing a sinful female body that has been quite literally subdued beneath the earth. Even the “true” identity of the nun has connotations of sexual impropriety: Ginevra and her lover rely on this disguise to conceal their misconducts. Furthermore, the very notion of a spectral holy woman induces a specific and powerful visual joining of Christianity and the supernatural, and even though the “phantom” is revealed to be only a disguise, its image continues to haunt the text as a whole. Lucy is similar to Jane in that, despite living in a patriarchal Christian society, she operates within a complex, imaginative world wherein her erotic desires become inextricably bound to mysticism and the supernatural. With regards to Lucy’s eventual unmasking of the “ghost,” E.D.H. Johnson observes that, “Lucy is treading on more than the flimsy props of a silly hoax; she is rending the whole fabric of make-believe that has swathed her private world of fantasy” (Johnson, 335).

Of course, both Lucy Snowe and Jane Eyre are Christian characters, and are in fact quite devout in their faiths. In spite of her social othering in a predominantly Catholic community, Lucy remains staunch in her Protestant beliefs, while Jane constantly seeks the protection and guidance of God throughout her journey. Even so, the status of either woman as a moral paradigm of Christian femininity is greatly compromised by each one’s relationship to the supernatural elements of her respective world. Jane Eyre and Villette each reveal subversive and controversial truths about their female protagonists, and specifically their bodily impulses and longings for equality, through the mystic elements of the narratives and the manner in which supernatural figures function as thematic doubles. Professor Robert E. Davis explains, “Gothic traditions go on renewing themselves at the uncanny sites where culture simultaneously encounters its profoundest validation and confronts its most destabilizing uncertainties” (Davis, paragraph 5). It hardly seems coincidental then, that the presence of the supernatural in both novels echoes the feminist discourse that Brontë initiates. Occultism and paganism, with their relationship to “goddess religions” and the supernatural, occupy a unique point of destabilization within Victorian literature—they exist in theological tradition as some of the only pre- or anti-patriarchal mythologies with roots in Western culture. Although both Lucy and Jane are Christian women, the radical nature of their social and erotic desires binds them to these mystic, sensual, and anti-patriarchal elements of the occult.

Davies later goes on to explain the gothic tradition’s relation to the cultural parameters surrounding human understandings of the body, morality, power, desire and secrecy, writing: “…[the Gothic] furnishes a culture largely severed from traditional religious iconography with metaphors for the exploration of the terrors of selfhood, mortality, and the limitations of the human, using and distorting what is perceived to be contemporary culture’s only remaining source of possible transcendence: erotic love” (Davis, paragraph 5). It is therefore unsurprising that the complex and at times irreconcilable fissure between Christianity and supernaturalism within both Jane Eyre and Villette shares a common fixation upon the sensual impulses of the female body. Through their usage of the preternatural, both texts engage in feminist discourse by treating the female body as capable of experiencing both autonomous physical desire and spiritual transcendence. In this fashion, the relationship between Lucy, Jane, and supernaturalism constitutes a rejection, or at the very least a tempering, of the Christological monomyth that dominates Western literature and thought. Both Jane Eyre and Villette establish the female body as desirous of erotic fulfillment, and the female mind as desirous of spiritual ascension. Charged with the impossible task of forging religious identities that do not compromise their agency, as well as achieving positions of gendered and sexual autonomy that do not compromise their faith, Lucy and Jane each provide complex and engaging insight into the various convolutions of divinity, femininity, and supernaturalism within the Victorian Gothic; the supernatural and mystic elements of their narratives simultaneously echo and interrogate the greater political questions surrounding feminism and spirituality that permeate each text.

Works Cited

Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Ed. Stevie Davies. London: Penguin, 2006. Print.

Brontë, Charlotte. Villette. Ed. Helen M. Cooper. London: Penguin, 2004. Print.

Davis, Robert A. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Pedagogy of Fear.” Slayage: The Journal of the Whedon Studies Association 1.3 (2001). Web. 21 Nov. 2015.

Johnson, E. D. H. ““Daring the Dread Glance”: Charlotte Brontë’s Treatment of the Supernatural in Villette.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 20.4 (1966): 325-36. JSTOR. Web. 22 Nov. 2015.

Lorber, Laurel, “Haunted by Passion: Supernaturalism and Feminism in Jane Eyre and Villette” (2013). Seton Hall University Dissertations and Theses (ETDs). Paper 1889.

Warhol, Robyn R. “Double Gender, Double Genre in Jane Eyre and Villette.” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900. Vol. 36, No. 4, Nineteenth Century (1996): 857-75. JSTOR. Web. 21 Nov. 2015.

Wein, Toni. “Gothic Desire in Charlotte Brontë’s “Villette”” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900. Vol. 39, No. 4, The Nineteenth Century (1999): 733-46. JSTOR. Web. 23 Nov. 2015.

“The Wish Too Strong For Words To Name”

Gender and Sexuality in the Works of Alfred Lord Tennyson

In his critical commentary on In Memoriam A.H.H., Christopher Ricks refers to Alfred Lord Tennyson’s sentiments towards Arthur Henry Hallam as a love “passing the love of women” (Tennyson, 332). The implications of this phrase are multitudinous and significant: in the body of work that Tennyson produced following Hallam’s death, the relationship between the two men became a primary contextual backdrop against which some of Tennyson’s finest poetry could be read. The queer-coded elements of Tennyson’s writing provide insight into his complex negotiation of sexual and gender identity in the heteronormative confines of Victorian England, with subtextual expressions of homoromantic impulse lending a subversive quality to In Memoriam, while an intricate depiction of gender and power dictates the narrative of The Princess. The conflation of desire and convention in these two poems generates tension between the cultural norms of Victorian England and the social worlds of the texts, providing the thematic foundation for larger discourses surrounding gender and sexuality in both works. Between the latently queer desires of In Memoriam, and the deeply gendered discourses of The Princess, a nuanced representation of passion, power, and masculinity within Tennyson’s works can be observed and understood.

An understanding of the socialized imposition of compulsory heterosexuality is imperative for expanding and reexamining the critical discourses that surround western literature; its demonstrable presence in the poetry of Tennyson bears specific relevance to the notion of Victorian masculinity, and by extension, to the formulation of intimate relationships between the men of Tennyson’s time. Indeed, the most notable shortcoming of many heteronormative readings of In Memoriam is their failure to fully account for Tennyson’s observable passion for Arthur Hallam. Many critics have attempted to circumvent the potential implications of homoeroticism by constructing a sterile narrative of friendship between the two men: Gordon Haight, for instance, argues that, “The Victorians’ conception of love between those of the same sex cannot be understood fairly by an age steeped in Freud. Where they saw only pure friendship, the modern reader assumes perversion… Even In Memoriam, for some, now has a troubling overtone” (Ricks, 208). Of course, a certain level of homophobic subtext is evident in the very language of Haight’s assertion: the identification of queerness as “troubling,” and of potential same-sex desires as “perversion,” lends little credence to the impartiality of the observation at hand. The more relevant flaw in this reading, however, is its erroneous presupposition that heterosexuality exists as an organic norm through which a complete understanding of all interpersonal human relationships can be achieved. This narrative of ‘natural’ heteronormativity discredits substantial historical and cultural evidence to the contrary: as Adrienne Rich identifies in Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence, “The failure to examine heterosexuality as an institution is like failing to admit that the economic system called capitalism or the caste system of racism is maintained by a variety of forces, including both physical violence and false consciousness” (Rich, 648). A queered reading of Tennyson is necessarily cognizant of the fact that compulsory heterosexuality, particularly as it appears in western culture, is a product of oppressive and oftentimes violent socialization, and does not necessarily reflect a ‘pure,’ ‘natural,’ or accurate state of being. With this in mind, a reading of Tennyson’s poetry that willingly engages with its homoerotic subtext is academically as well as politically relevant; far from being narrow or limiting, such resistance to preexisting structures of compulsory heterosexuality can in fact broaden the parameters of discourse that encompass Tennyson’s poetry as a whole.

In Saint Foucault: Towards A Gay Hagiography, gender and queer theorist David M. Halperin writes, “Queer is by definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant. There is nothing in particular to which it necessarily refers…. Queer demarcates not a positivity but a positionality vis-à-vis the normative” (Halperin, 62). This notion of relative positionality is evoked through metaphor in In Memoriam, when Tennyson writes, “O Sorrow, wilt thou live with me / No casual mistress, but a wife” (Tennyson, IM, LIX 1-2). The conceptualization of Sorrow in these lines, as an emotion so prevalent as to actually become anthromorphized within the text, demonstrates a relative existence: her presence within the poem is necessarily contingent upon the absence of Hallam, because it is Hallam’s death that generates Sorrow to begin with. The heterosexual nature of the relationship between Tennyson and the female-coded Sorrow, then, is similarly relative: as Jeff Nunokawa observes, “[Tennyson’s] heterosexual situation is thus defined as the ghost of prior passion” (Nunokawa, 429). In other words, the notion of Sorrow as “wife” constitutes a heterosexual positionality that exists in relation to whatever preceded it; the implied specter of marriage in these lines contrasts the relationship between Tennyson and Hallam not only through its contingence upon Hallam’s absence, but also through its gendered situation relative to the homosocial relationship that predates it. Tennyson goes on to proclaim of Hallam, “My spirit loved and loves him yet, / Like some poor girl whose heart is set /On one whose rank exceeds her own” (Tennyson, IM, LX 2-4). By feminizing his narrative self, Tennyson constructs an image that simultaneously reproduces and subverts heterosexual norms of affection. This sense of homoromantic desire is further echoed through the rhythmic structure of the poem as a whole: Tennyson’s use of iambic tetrameter lends In Memoriam an organic, bodily cadence that underscores the poem’s foundations of passion.

The queer undertones present in this reading of In Memoriam are simultaneously complicated and informed by Tennyson’s regressive treatment of gender in his other works. The Princess takes on a particular relevance through its status as an oddly subversive, yet ultimately antifeminist text; although varied and nuanced discourses surrounding gender take place throughout the narrative, The Princess fundamentally devalues the feminist principles it discusses through its narrative prioritization of heterosexual male desire and emphasis on female submission. The treatment of gender within The Princess is nevertheless uncommonly nuanced; in her 1990 book Gender Trouble, Judith Butler writes, “…gender is not to culture as sex is to nature; gender is also the discursive/cultural means by which “sexed nature” or “a natural sex” is produced and established as “prediscursive,” prior to culture, a politically neutral surface on which culture acts” (Butler, 7). This notion of gender as a fluid and in some senses performative construct emerges repeatedly throughout The Princess: many of the poem’s male characters are coded feminine, with the protagonist himself described as, “Of temper amorous, as the first of May / With lengths of yellow ringlet, like a girl” (Tennyson, TP, I 2-4). Furthermore, in the course of the narrative, the Prince and his companion assume women’s clothing in order to gain access to the Princess’s exclusively female spaces. Through Tennyson’s description of this subversive action, the binary notion of gender is simultaneously transgressed and reinforced: the ability of the Prince and his companion to pass as women emphasizes the performative nature of gender, but also underscores the vast differences between the men and women of the text. By the end of the poem, the success of these masculine efforts is evident in the romantic submission displayed by the Princess. In light of this, although it seems to occasionally examine gender as a mutable state of performativity, The Princess ultimately fortifies, rather than disrupts, the oppressive structures it seeks to address. The poem as a whole is irrefutably male-centric, introducing elements of feminist discourse, but undercutting them through the events of the narrative. As Donald Hall asserts, “In The Princess we find enacted a zero-sum game of gender and power; men can only regain consciousness and, by implication, potency, when the empowered woman is subdued and male ability exalted” (Hall, 55).

The relation of gender identity and antifeminism in The Princess to the politics of sexuality in In Memoriam is primarily observable in the complex reading of Victorian masculinity that both poems offer. In The Embodiment of Masculinity, western masculinity in is observed as being “defined in opposition to all things feminine” (Mihskind, 103). This ideal naturally entails the disavowal of queerness in men, as compulsory heterosexuality would categorize sexual or romantic attraction to men as the provincial territory of the female. Sociologist R.W. Connel explains that, “To many people, homosexuality is a negation of masculinity, and homosexual men must be effeminate… hegemonic masculinity was thus redefined as explicitly and exclusively heterosexual” (Connell, 736). When read through a cultural lens of heterosexual male hegemony, then, Tennyson’s writings involve a self-contradicting performance of masculinity: the poet rigidly reinforces systems of gendered subjugation in works such as The Princess, even as latent homoerotic desire forms the perpetual subtext of his most famous work. In this fashion, the undertones of In Memoriam, coupled with the narrative of The Princess, form an intricate nexus of desire and power that characterizes the gendered and sexual ethos of Tennyson’s work: compellingly queer and irredeemably antifeminist, the two poems shed light upon the contradictions and complications of subversive masculine identity within Victorian England.

Works Cited

Connell, R. W. “A Very Straight Gay: Masculinity, Homosexual Experience, and the Dynamics of Gender.” American Sociological Review 57.6 (1992): 735-51. JSTOR. Web. 16 Nov. 2015.

Hall, Donald E. “The Anti-Feminist Ideology of Tennyson’s “The Princess”” Modern Language Studies 21.4 (1991): 49-62. JSTOR. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.

Halperin, David M. Saint Foucault: Towards A Gay Hagiography. New York: Oxford UP, 1995. Print.

Mishkind, Mark E., Judith Rodin, Lisa R. Silberstein, and Ruth H. Striegel-Moore. “The Embodiment of Masculinity: Cultural, Psychological, and Behavioral Dimensions.” The American Body in Context: An Anthology. By Jessica R. Johnston. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 2001. 103-20. Google Scholar. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.

Nunokawa, Jeff. ““In Memoriam” and the Extinction of the Homosexual.” ELH 58.2 (1991): 427- 38. JSTOR. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.

Rich, Adrienne. “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” Signs 5.4, Women: Sex and Sexuality (1980): 631-60. JSTOR. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.

Ricks, Christopher. Tennyson. New York: MacMillan, 1972. Google Scholar. Web. 16 Nov. 2015.

Tennyson, Alfred Tennyson. Tennyson: A Selected Edition. Ed. Christopher B. Ricks. Harlow: Longman, 1989. Print.

Psychologies of Childhood in the Works of George Eliot

The theme of childhood occupies an evocative position in both Mill on the Floss and Adam Bede: the nuanced and remarkably perceptive psychological elements of George Eliot’s writing are evident in her narrative treatment of children and their relation to the larger social world of the novels. Eliot’s literary insights on childhood incorporate the relevance of memory, temporality, and the notion of the self, and function as thematic signifiers for the respective characterizations of multiple protagonists in both novels. The narrative treatment of children and childhood in The Mill on the Floss and Adam Bede has a particular impact upon the psychological representation of characters in each respective text, but the form of this impact differs significantly in relation to each novel. In The Mill on the Floss, a rich psychological portrayal of the complexity and passions of childhood provides the foundation upon which Maggie’s troubling but sympathetic character is formed. In contrast, Adam Bede achieves a sinister psychological impact through its striking representational absence of children, but evokes a disappointingly shallow depiction of youth in the characterization of Hetty Sorrel. This notion of childhood, whether as a temporal vacuum of spiritual harmony or as a site for base selfishness, emerges as a primary recurring theme in both novels, but is used to a far greater effect in The Mill on the Floss.

Early in the narrative of The Mill on the Floss, the narrator intones, “There is no sense of ease like the ease we felt in those scenes where we were born, where objects became dear to us before we had known the labor of choice, and where the outer world seemed only an extension of our own personality; we accepted and loved it as we accepted our own sense of existence and our own limbs” (Eliot, MF, 160). Evoking an image of harmony between the self and the outside world, these ruminations upon childhood in The Mill on the Floss illustrate a precedent to the psychological state later described in the works of psychoanalyst such as Jacques Lacan. In Lacan’s paper The Mirror Stage as Formative to the Function of the ‘I,’ identified by Alison Bechdel in the autobiographical Are You My Mother?, a peculiar compromising of the notion of the self occurs when one first encounters a mirror. The conception of the self essentially begins to form in response to the visible world around it: for upon seeing one’s own reflection, Bechdel explains, “…you can see that you’re separate from everything else” (Bechdel, 232).

This dissonance between the private self and outside world, specifically in terms of the conflict between Maggie’s private yearnings and social consciousness, occurs repeatedly throughout The Mill on the Floss, but becomes increasingly relevant as Maggie matures. For as Sally Shuttleworth observes in George Eliot and Nineteenth Century Science, neither the past nor the self is unified in The Mill on the Floss: the narrative structure of the novel echoes this sense of fragmentation as it operates between the discursive meditations of the narrator and the linear cohesion of the story (Shuttleworth, 52). This style of narration correlates to Maggie’s own ever-developing psychology: caught between the compulsions of her social conscience and the allure of her own longings, “…Maggie rushed to her deeds with passionate impulse, and then saw not only their consequences, but what would have happened if they had not been done” (Eliot, MF, 70). In a story riddled with desire and decision, the protagonist’s perpetual awareness of the immutable past is particularly significant. Maggie’s prismatic worldview underscores a conception of memory and time that deeply informs and complicates her character—it is precisely this sense of retrospect and self-awareness that will fold back upon itself in the “One supreme moment” (Eliot, MF, 542) wherein Maggie’s death creates a tragic but thrillingly cathartic final respite from the ambivalence and fragmentation of her social existence.

Childhood in Adam Bede, on the other hand, is symbolized most often through its own absence. Josephine McDonagh discusses the macabre thematic significance of child murder in Adam Bede, writing, “In a covert way the text is preoccupied with the very processes of forgetting. Hence the novel’s dominant motif—burial—specifically child murder-by-burial. Paradoxically, the figure of forgetting is also the bearer of those memories that must be forgotten, so that to forget means also to remember” (McDonagh, 145). In accordance with this notion, representational absences in Adam Bede (‘forgetting’) are as important as representational presences (‘remembering’), with neither providing a complete depiction of the narrative reality, but both providing valuable insight into the psychological nature of the text. In other words, the general lack of (living) children within Adam Bede carries is own thematic relevance. Largely as a result of this, Hetty Sorrel’s murdered child is never described or named: it is formless, selfless, and genderless, and yet its murder propels forms the primary narrative catalyst in the novel. The violent absence of the child dramatically alters the manner of the narrative—the specter of its death haunts the text as a whole, and comes to symbolize not the idyllic past of The Mill on the Floss, but a precarious and terrifying future.

While the representational absence of children in Adam Bede has its own keen psychological impact, however, its representational presence is far more simplistic, and at times even underdeveloped. This is most evident in the character of Hetty who, despite her age, is described as being “almost a child herself” (Eliot, AB, 167). In this context, the notion of a child indicates something simple, vulnerable, and foolish: starkly juxtaposing the psychologically complex child character of Maggie in The Mill on the Floss. When the trauma of the death of her own child is projected outwards through Hetty’s arrest and trial, the event deeply impacts the more multidimensional characters, such as Adam, within the broader community of the novel, but manifests in Hetty as a calculated sense of self-preservation. Indeed, the character of Hetty appears to be nearly devoid of all maternal love: using the term “it” to describe her child, she does not name or even take note of its sex (Eliot, AB, 491). By viewing the child as as a symbol of shame rather than a person worthy of a name or even a gender pronoun, Hetty demonstrates—even in light of her dire circumstances—a profound lack of empathy for a vulnerable human life.

In The Mill on the Floss, Eliot’s rich, nuanced treatment of the psychology of children allows Maggie’s history to provide a necessary foundation for literary transcendence of the controversial decisions that characterize her adult narrative: Maggie’s passionate, though not always sensible tendencies are knitted together in the many facets of an imperfect and deeply engaging psyche. Adam Bede ultimately emerges as the weaker of the two texts, demonstrating characterizations that further the conception of a childlike, psychologically one-dimensional woman who is near irredeemable not only in the selfishness of her actions, but also in the sheer uselessness of her narrative presence. Ultimately, the text of Adam Bede seems to hold too much in common with the androcentric realm of human psychology, with its extensive academic history of presupposing the simplistic, dimensionless natures of its female subjects. In both novels, however, the literary treatment of children manifests as a primary force behind the trajectory of each respective narrative, underscoring the relevance of the complex psychologies of childhood upon which Eliot’s successful conception of sympathetic and engaging protagonists is largely contingent.

Works Cited

Bechdel, Alison. Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. Print.

Eliot, George. The Mill on the Floss. Ed. A. S. Byatt. London: Penguin, 2003. Print.

Eliot, George, and Margaret Reynolds. Adam Bede. London: Penguin, 2008. Print.

McDonagh, Josephine. “A Nation of Infanticides: Child Murder and the National Forgetting in Adam Bede.” Child Murder and British Culture, 1720-1900. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2003. 123- 53. Google Scholar. Web. 8 Nov. 2015.

Shuttleworth, Sally. “The Mill on the Floss: The Shadowy Armies of the Unconscious.” George Eliot and Nineteenth-century Science: The Make-Believe of a Beginning. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984. 51-77. Google Scholar. Web. 9 Nov. 2015.

The Gendered Discourse of “Middlemarch”

In the vibrant world of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, an intimate web of social relations dictates the trajectory of the narrative. Fragmented interpretations of the relationships between men and women pass frequently between the characters of the novel: gossip infuses every margin and gap in the social world of the text. In Theories of Discourse as Theories of Gender, Mary Bucholtz identifies gossip as “a site of political struggle in which ideologies of gender are cross-cut by faultlines based on age, tradition, and political power”(Bucholtz, 60). In accordance with this notion, the fervent circulation of rumors throughout Middlemarch contains a particular gendered significance: in both its overt and allegorical forms, gossip in Middlemarch informs the plot by generating tensions within the romantic lives of the protagonists, and functions as a primary thematic site upon which the impact, merits, and detriments of the Victorian gender hierarchy can be observed. This in turn lends insight into a number of political elements within Eliot’s novel: discourse between the genders in Middlemarch becomes a discourse on gender itself, ultimately exposing the broader feminist ethos of the text.

Relationships between the characters of Middlemarch are distinguished by a convoluted allocation of knowledge: Eliot’s description of the world as “…a huge whispering-gallery” (Eliot, 412) evokes a space wherein information is characterized by the covert or misled nature of its distribution. The men and women of Middlemarch rarely communicate directly with the opposite gender: both parties rely instead on gossip, receiving much of their information secondhand. The concentrated effect of gossip upon the community of Middlemarch is observable in James Chettam’s misguided conviction that Dorothea Brooks will accept his marriage proposal. Upon learning of the rumor, Dorothea denies any romantic inclination towards Chettam and chides her sister for listening to “such gossip” (Eliot, 36). Even so, the damage has been done: in the earliest chapters of the text, the socially ingrained tendency to gossip almost exclusively with members of one’s own sex has already resulted in a serious misunderstanding between Dorothea and Chettam. In this manner, gossip in Middlemarch is portrayed as a detrimental force that convolutes truths and misinterprets the romantic desires of Middlemarch’s inhabitants, resulting in a fractured social discourse between the men and women of the community.

But despite repeatedly emphasizing its tendency to complicate and even impede the romantic interpersonal relationships of Middlemarch, Eliot also identifies the necessity of gossip in maintaining the social fabric of the community. In chapter 71 of the novel, Eliot describes a scene in which “…there was no material object to feed upon, but the eye of reason saw a probability of mental sustenance in the shape of gossip” (Eliot, 715). The language of this passage underscores gossip’s function as a form of “mental sustenance” within Middlemarch, providing nourishment and gratification to the close-knit community. Similarly, although gossip can prove detrimental to romantic relationships in the text, it can also prove vital to their contentment and longevity. For instance, Lydgate’s reluctance to engage fully with the community of Middlemarch, which is necessarily a culture of gossip, draws the ire of both the citizens of Middlemarch and his wife, and ultimately emerges as a primary destructive force in his marriage. Despite its multitude of interpersonal consequences, gossip in Middlemarch remains a socially compulsory act; and in this manner, certain gendered connotations of gossip become apparent as well. The ongoing replication of gender norms within the community of Middlemarch, though stifling and toxic to various romantic pairings throughout the text, remains a necessary part of maintaining a given social structure. In this instance, the culture surrounding gossip functions as an overt reflection of the culture surrounding gender in Middlemarch: in some ways its norms are neither practical nor desirable, but they nevertheless become necessary by virtue of their own incessant repetition.

In addition to its complex and evident thematic presence, gossip is represented in Middlemarch through two primary recurring symbols. The first of these, the notion of echoes, occurs repeatedly throughout the text. In chapter 16, while describing one of the scenes of courtship between Lydgate and Rosamund, Eliot writes, “…And so indeed it was, since souls live on in perpetual echoes, and to all fine expression there goes somewhere an originating activity, if it be only that of an interpreter” (Eliot, 161). In this passage, echoes are represented as forms of sound that become increasingly dissociated from their point of origin; in other words, although an echo may begin as a precise replication of an “originating activity,” an interpreter can distort or obscure its meaning. Eliot’s description of the link between echoes and the human soul draws parallels to the nature of indirect social discourse as it is depicted throughout the text: although reliable pieces of information circulate amidst the rumors and gossip of Middlemarch, their value is most often compromised by the variety of interpretation. The second symbolic manifestation of gossip within Middlemarch, the theme of the web, is the more prolific of the two: in chapter 15 Eliot ruminates, “I at least have so much to do in unraveling certain human lots, and seeing how they were woven and interwoven, that all the light I can command must be concentrated on this particular web, and not dispersed over that tempting range of relevancies called the universe” (Eliot, 141). This metaphor of the web within Middlemarch is multifaceted and profound: in its simplest form, the web of Middlemarch often seems to represent the basic social connections that bind members of the community to each another. But the web, like an echo, later becomes inextricably linked to the romantic engagement of human souls, as Eliot writes,

“Young love-making—that gossamer web! Even the points it clings to—the things whence its subtle interlacings are swung—are scarcely perceptible: momentary touches of fingertips, meetings of rays from blue and dark orbs, unfinished phrases, lightest changes of cheek and lip, faintest tremors. The web itself is made of spontaneous beliefs and indefinable joys, yearnings of one life towards another, visions of completeness, indefinite trust” (Elliot, 346).

Of course, the image of the web contains a multitude of potential interpretations throughout Middlemarch, but its interpersonal connotations in this passage are explicit. Just as echoes symbolize the fractured sense of discourse that resonates through the novel, Eliot’s web becomes a strikingly similar visual allegory for the role of gossip within the text: each time a string is impacted, reverberations move, like echoes in a whispering- gallery, across the web.

Whether or not Middlemarch as a whole constitutes a “feminist text” is, perhaps, too ambitious a question for one essay—as Anne E. Patrick discusses, George Eliot did not necessarily have access to the type of vocabulary through which we might identify a work as “feminist discourse” in contemporary analysis (Patrick, 224). Nevertheless, a feminist reading of Middlemarch is not only possible, but also of considerable merit. In the conception and publication of Middlemarch, Eliot presents a vivid world that is starkly divided along gendered lines. Gossip serves as the primary lens through which Eliot’s treatment of gender can be analyzed; it is therefore unsurprising that the politics of discourse and gossip in Middlemarch would parallel the broader observations upon gender that appear throughout the text. Just as gossip provides vital, informative, and conversational links between the characters of the text, it also proves deeply divisive: impeding efforts to negotiate satisfactory romantic relationships in the lives of multiple characters. Just as echoes can entail precision and connection, they also become distorted as their interpretation strays further from its point of origin. Just as the social web entails the various points of intersection and human intimacy between the inhabitants of Middlemarch, it can also symbolize a terrifying potential for captivity. In other words, in none of her allegories does Eliot discredit the merit of gender in maintaining social order in Victorian communities; nevertheless, she examines the considerable limitations and shortcomings of gendered roles and stereotypes through a deeply critical lens.

Eliot begins the 69th chapter of Middlemarch with the Biblical excerpt: “If thou hast heard a word, let it die with thee” (Eliot, 693). The line itself, in the context of the novel, seems to refer quite explicitly to the town’s culture of gossip and rumor, expressing cautionary opposition to the community’s reckless and misguided distribution of information. Considering gossip’s status as an overt symbol of gender division within Middlemarch, Eliot’s narrative decisions and inclusion of the aforementioned quote can therefore be read not only as a critique of capricious or misguided social opinions, but also as an observation of the manner in which rigid gender stereotypes impede the capacity for intimate relationships and personal fulfillment within a social world. Nowhere is this sentiment more evident than in the final pages of the text, wherein Eliot asserts, “But we insignificant people with our daily words and acts are preparing the lives of many Dorotheas, some of which may present a far sadder sacrifice than that of the Dorothea whose story we know” (Eliot, 838). As the reader nears the final lines of the text, Eliot refers directly to the “daily words,” or strategies of discourse, through which communities such as Middlemarch destroy the potential for romantic and personal fulfillment in women like Dorothea. It stands to reason then, that Eliot’s narrative treatment of gossip, though circumspect, is ultimately an indictment upon a society that willingly partakes in the free and reckless distribution of rumors. Furthermore, considering gossip’s thematic relationship to the broader political notions of gender, Eliot’s Middlemarch can be read as a criticism of the rigid stereotypes and hierarchies between men and women in Victorian England; thereby allowing the novel to function as a feminist text in its critical examination of the relevance of gender within its narrative.

Works Cited

Bucholtz, Mary. “Theories of Discourse as Theories of Gender.” The Handbook of Language and Gender. By Janet Holmes and Miriam Meyerhoff. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2003. 43-68. Web.

Eliot, George, and Rosemary Ashton. Middlemarch. London: Penguin, 2003. Print.

Patrick, Anne E. “Rosamond Rescued: George Eliot’s Critique of Sexism in “Middlemarch””. The Journal of Religion 67.2 (1987):220–238. Web.

“As If She Would Have Kissed Me”

The Queer Narrative of Esther Summerson

In the eighth chapter of Bleak House, the narrator, Esther Summerson, looks on as two impoverished women console one another following the death of one’s child. In the midst of the scene, Esther notes, “I thought it very touching to see these two women…so united; to see what they could be to one another; to see how they felt for one another; how the heart of each to each was softened by the hard trials of their lives” (Dickens, 134-5). Interestingly, female intimacy in Bleak House is one of the few themes that seem to transcend Victorian England’s rigid class divide. The exchange of mutual solidarity in chapter eight echoes the novel’s numerous other expressions of love between women; in fact, the events of Bleak House can be read as in many ways characterized by the actions and relationships of the novel’s queer-coded female characters.

In Saint Foucault: Towards A Gay Hagiography, gender and queer theorist David M. Halperin argues that: “Queer is by definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant. There is nothing in particular to which it necessarily refers…Queer demarcates not a positivity but a positionality vis-à-vis the normative” (Halperin, 62). Queerness, then, is defined in this essay as a mode of being characterized by interpersonal relationships (social, romantic, or sexual) that challenge, subvert, or otherwise exist in opposition to structures of heteronormativity. That is not to say, however, that the homoromantic subtext of Bleak House was intentionally created as a political device; on the contrary, a queered reading of Bleak House exists partially to counter the inadequacy of exclusively reading texts through a lens of compulsory heterosexuality. In other words, this essay seeks to avoid reducing its queered textual reading to an overtly political statement, and endeavors instead to consider, in light of the extensiveness and violence of heteronormative socialization in western culture, that it is perhaps more militant, more political, and ultimately less sensible to insist upon reading the female relationships of Bleak House in an explicitly heterosexual light.

The latent homoeroticism of Bleak House is manifested most notably in the characterization of Esther Summerson, who states early on in her narrative, “my comprehension is quickened when my affection is” (Dickens, 29). Esther demonstrates latent homoerotic desire both physically and through her gaze: each form is communicated verbally through the medium of the narrative, and so can be read and examined within the language of the text. Esther’s intense emotional attachments to the women of Bleak House, and specifically to the primary object of her affections, Ada Clare, are frequently accompanied by restrained but passionate acts of physicality. In chapter 13, for instance, when Ada tearfully confesses to Esther her love for Richard, Esther writes, “It was so pretty to have her clinging to me in that way, hiding her face; and to know that she was not crying in sorrow, but in a little glow of joy, and pride, and hope; that I would not help her just yet” (Dickens, 209). Esther deliberately withholds her prior knowledge of Ada’s infatuation with Richard in this scene: deferring Ada’s contentment and drawing out her naiveté in a teasing, latently sexual manner. In doing so, Esther is also able to prolong one of the most notably physical moments of the novel: as Ada cries, blushes, laughs, and holds Esther around the neck, demonstrating the “bashful simplicity” that Esther proclaims, “would have won my heart if she had not won it long before” (Dickens, 210).

Esther’s language in such passages is not merely affectionate, but in some senses deeply romantic; and indeed, when Ada goes to live with Richard, Esther’s physical reaction mirrors that of a woman abandoned by her lover. “It almost seemed to me that I had lost my Ada forever,” she writes, “I was so lonely and so blank without her…I walked up and down in a dim corner sobbing and crying” (Dickens, 789). Esther even goes so far as to listen for Ada and Richard outside the door of their home, writing, “I put my lips to the hearse-like panel of the door as a kiss for my dear and came quietly down again…”(Dickens, 790). The panels of the door that Esther kisses, which physically separate Esther from the object of her affections, are described as “hearse-like,” as though the loss of Ada as a companion, confidant, and partner, constitutes, for Esther, a sort of death of the self. In this way, Esther’s infatuation with Ada is clearly communicated through the language of Esther’s body: her reactions extend well beyond the parameters of ordinary platonic affection, and physically echo a passion most often associated with romantic love.

In addition to these physical acts of intimacy that permeate the novel, Esther’s narrative also contains multiples instances of the homoromantic gaze: ways of looking that can be construed as indicative of sexual or romantic desire. Esther’s drawn-out, exalting descriptions of Ada, her “pretty pet” with “such rich golden hair, such soft blue eyes, and such a bright, innocent, trusting face!” (Dickens, 44), stand in stark contrast to her brief, furtive mentions of Allan Woodcourt later in the novel. In other words, Esther’s retroactive verbalization of her own gaze is naturally inclined towards the women of the text. Similarly, the latent homoeroticism of spectatorship in Bleak House, is evident not only in Esther’s way of seeing, but also in Esther’s varied responses to her occasional positioning as the object of another’s viewing. Recounting Mr. Guppy’s fixation upon her, Esther asserts, “I really cannot express how uneasy this made me… to know that that absurd figure was always gazing at me…put such a constraint upon me that I did not like to laugh at the play, or to cry at it, or to move, or to speak. I seemed able to do nothing naturally” (Dickens, 203). This violent, intrusive impact of the heterosexual male gaze upon Esther’s body is juxtaposed in chapter 36 by the ecstatic experience of being looked upon by Ada in the aftermath of Esther’s life-threatening illness. The scene begins with Esther “trembling” in the garden, a traditionally feminine and romantic space invoking fertility and sensuality, as she awaits Ada’s arrival and anticipates allowing her “love” to gaze upon her disfigured face for the first time (Dickens, 588). Esther’s reluctance to allow Ada to see her scarred visage carries its own connotations of intimacy: for although Esther claims repeatedly that she simply does not wish to upset her “pretty pet,” the visceral fear with which she reacts to being looked upon seems slightly irrational in its magnitude. Although Esther’s descriptions of Ada always included a deeply physical component, Ada has never, to the reader’s knowledge, verbally reciprocated this degree of attention towards Esther’s appearance. It is therefore likely that Esther’s fear is rooted in something deeper, more sensual; namely, a latent desire for Ada to see her as physically attractive. But when Ada finally does see Esther, the scene is not one of discomfort, but of catharsis: instead of expressing the revulsion and disdain that characterized her reaction to Mr. Guppy’s invasive gaze, Esther now writes, overjoyed, “O how happy I was, down upon the floor, with my sweet beautiful girl down upon the floor too, holding my scarred face to her lovely cheek, bathing it with tears and kisses…”(Dickens, 588).

Although love between women is positive in many of its homosocial and homoromantic manifestations, as female characters engage in acts of support and solidarity with the other women of the text, queerness in Bleak House does have its parameters. Mademoiselle Hortense, with her “imperfectly tamed” appearance (Dickens, 187) and open displays of animosity towards Rosa—the younger, more beautiful woman who occupies her mistress’s attentions—recalls the “depraved lesbian”: a horror trope as dated as the tale of the sexually ambiguous vampire Carmilla (Thomas, 28). According to Ardel Haefele-Thomas, racially, nationally, and sexually othered “monsters” found a particular site of observation in Victorian literature. “For a British audience struggling to uphold a unified British identity against the changing force of rapid imperial expansions and the constant influx of foreigners into London,” Thomas writes, “…Gothic monsters cause fear and panic because of their uncanny ability simultaneously to embody multiple subject positions” (Thomas, 4). It is unsurprising then, that Hortense is a Frenchwoman as well as a queer-coded character. Her fixation upon Lady Dedlock is characterized in large part by ambiguous acts of perverse devotion: most notably in the murder of Tulkinghorn. In this shockingly violent event, Hortense demonstrates “the rapture of that cruelty which yet is love” (Le Fanu, 9): for as Janet Lewison points out in her essay, Ambivalent Hierarchies of Intimacy in Bleak House, although Hortense frames Lady Dedlock, she also fulfills “the latent desire of her mistress to destroy the primary agent of Lady Dedlock’s unhappiness in the text” (Lewison, 35). Following her arrest, Hortense rages against Mrs. Bucket, exclaiming, “I would like to kiss her! …I would love to tear her limb from limb” (Dickens, 837). In this instance, implicated physicality between two women is depicted as intensely perverse: the “kiss” is a precursor to an act of extreme violence. Even Esther herself intuitively avoids a similar interaction earlier in the text: recoiling when Mademoiselle Hortense “presses against her” and begs Esther to “take [her]” as she is (Dickens, 368). Although the scene takes place in the context of Hortense asking Esther to hire her as a maid, her language carries invasive, deviant sexual connotations.

The specter of the lesbian-coded villainess, Mademoiselle Hortense, thereby forms the cautionary backdrop against which Esther and Ada construct and navigate their deeply affectionate relationship throughout Bleak House. Queer intimacies in Western literature are particularly relevant due to their simultaneous occupation of both the public and the private spheres: they are elements of the familial, the interpersonal, that become inevitably politicized through their natural subversion of heterosexual norms. The queer familial structure also constitutes a compromising of the conjugal imperative (as the audience sees in the relationship between Ada and Richard, marriage in Bleak House does not solve everything) and so generates tensions between the private lives of the characters, and the publicly established sexual and genre-based conventions of the times. Interestingly, this reading either compromises or compliments the reading that Professor Douglas-Fairhurst presented his lecture series “Victorian Fiction Circus” on October 17, wherein he argued for the status of the home in Victorian literature as a “mystical repository of values.” For the home in Bleak House is both a deeply personal and overtly political space: a characteristic that extends beyond expressions of subversive female desire, and encompasses the broader questions of love, money, and murder that permeate the text. Time and time again, the reader is compelled to critically reexamine the political values of Victorian London via Dickens’ varying depictions of home life, including philanthropy at the expense of domesticity, as embodied by Mrs. Jellyby, and forms of charity that dehumanize impoverished families by “taking possession of people” in a “mechanical way,” as demonstrated by Mrs. Pardiggle (Dickens, 133). In light of this, the academic relevance of queerness in Bleak House is contingent upon its provision of one possible answer to critical questions surrounding Bleak House’s status as “social commentary”: the novel itself, like the domestic spaces it describes and the queer characters it contains, occupies a liminal space between the political and the personal. For although the text contains political insights regarding corruption and the law in Victorian England, it cannot be reduced to mere commentary: it is a queer love story as well, and can compellingly be read as such.

Works Cited

Dau, Duc, and Shale Preston. Queer Victorian Families: Curious Relations in Literature. New York: Routledge, 2015. Google Books. Web.

Dickens, Charles. Bleak House. London: Penguin, 2012. Print.
Haefele-Thomas, Ardel. Queer Others in Victorian Gothic: Transgressing Monstrosity. Cardiff: U of Wales, 2012. Print.

Halperin, David M. Saint Foucault: Towards A Gay Hagiography. New York: Oxford UP, 1995. Print.

Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. Carmilla [Project Gutenberg Downloadable Electronic Book]. Salt Lake City: Project Gutenberg Literary Archive Foundation, 2003. Web.

Lewison, Janet. “Ambivalent Hierarchies of Intimacy in Bleak House.” The Devil Himself: Villainy in Detective Fiction and Film. By Stacy Gillis and Philippa Gates. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2002. 25-38. Print.

Major, Adrienne Antrim. “Other Love: Le Fanu’s Carmilla as Lesbian Gothic.” Horrifying Sex: Essays on Sexual Difference in Gothic Literature. By Ruth Bienstock Anolik. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2007. 151-56. Print.

Marcus, Sharon. Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2007. Print.

Rich, Adrienne Cecile. “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence (1980).” Journal of Women’s History 15.3 (2003): 11-48. Web.

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