Let's whet our appetite for literature in a different, maybe more peculiar way. Let's read a different text, this one from a cookbook, the Amberg Centennial 1890–1990 Cookbook (American Legion Auxiliary #428, Amberg Centennial 1890–1990 Cookbook (n.p.: n.d.)). The two recipes come from the section "Game."
Duck with Wild Rice
|1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
|1 onion, chopped
|1 ½ teaspoons salt
|1 (5 ounce) package wild rice
|1 (8 ounce) can mushrooms and liquid
|½ cup butter
|½ cup flour
|1 ½ cups half and half
|1 (4 ounce) package slivered almonds, toasted
|2 ribs celery, chopped
|salt and pepper to taste
Boil duck, onion, and celery until tender. Remove meat from bones. Set aside. Cook rice. Set aside. Melt butter and sauté onion. Stir in flour and half-and-half to make cream sauce. Add parsley and seasonings. Add cooked duck, rice, mushrooms, and almonds to cream sauce. Bake mixture in a casserole at 350° for 30–45 minutes. Serves 6–8.
—Mrs. Charles T. Dekuester (Doris Van Vleit)
|12 birds (dove or quail)
|1 cup beef consommé
|1 cup uncooked rice
|1 (10–3/4 ounce) can onion soup
|¼ cup chopped bell pepper
|½ cup flour
|¼ cup chopped onion
|salt and pepper
|butter or bacon drippings
Sauté salted and floured birds in small amount of butter or bacon drippings to brown well. Put rice in bottom of buttered oblong casserole dish. Place birds on top of rice. Sprinkle peppers and onion on top. Pour consommé and onion soup over casserole. Cover casserole with aluminum foil and bake at 350° for 45 minutes. Serves 6.
Chicken may be substituted for the birds.
—Mrs. Hugh Guy (Viola Barette)
- Put students in groups of three or four.
- Have them read the recipes carefully.
- Have them interpret the recipes as they would examine a story or poem.
- What "themes" can they find in the recipe text?
- Generate class discussion as you are guided by the discussion following the excerpt.
The recipes reflect a particular view of women and their role in the domestic space. In other words, the woman's domain is in the house; her workspace the kitchen, where she will cook for her husband (and by extension the children). Notice that each recipe privileges the male name, with the woman's maiden name—her original name and identity—put in parenthesis. Even the use of Mrs. denotes her married status, whereby Mr. does not tell us the married status of the male. We are in the realm of patriarchy, the condition that demonstrates male domination over women. The recipes are even more interesting, for the section of this cookbook is "Game," further suggesting particular gender roles: men, the sportsmen, go hunting for this game, while the women, remaining at home, cook up that game for the family. If we interpret these recipes as we might a piece of literature, we can identify particular themes that represent feminist criticism: women are inferior to men in patriarchy; women's space is the private place of domesticity, the man's space is public (in this case the rugged wild); the woman's identity is determined by her husband's identity (she, like Eve, is dependent on her husband's rib, so to speak).
Now let's look at a literary use of the kitchen as a domestic space. Here is the cast of characters and opening set description for Susan Glaspell's one-act play, Trifles (1916). The play was first performed by the Provincetown Players in Massachusetts, with Glaspell playing the role of Mrs. Hale. A year later, Glaspell turned the play into a short story, "A Jury of Her Peers," partly to reach a larger reading audience. The inspiration for the play came from a murder reported in the Des Moines Register. (Articles on case: www.midnightassassin.com/sgarticles.html.)
- GEORGE HENDERSON (County Attorney)
- HENRY PETERS (Sheriff)
- LEWIS HALE, A neighboring farmer
- MRS PETERS
- MRS HALE
SCENE: The kitchen is the now abandoned farmhouse of JOHN WRIGHT, a gloomy kitchen, and left without having been put in order—unwashed pans under the sink, a loaf of bread outside the bread-box, a dish-towel on the table—other signs of incompleted work. At the rear the outer door opens and the SHERIFF comes in followed by the COUNTY ATTORNEY and HALE. The SHERIFF and HALE are men in middle life, the COUNTY ATTORNEY is a young man; all are much bundled up and go at once to the stove. They are followed by the two women—the SHERIFF's wife first; she is a slight wiry woman, a thin nervous face. MRS HALE is larger and would ordinarily be called more comfortable looking, but she is disturbed now and looks fearfully about as she enters. The women have come in slowly, and stand close together near the door. (Susan Glaspell, Trifles (1916; Project Gutenberg, 2011, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/10623/10623-h/10623-h.htm#TRIFLES.)
The following excerpt is the opening of the short story "A Jury of Her Peers":
WHEN Martha Hale opened the storm-door and got a cut of the north wind, she ran back for her big woolen scarf. As she hurriedly wound that round her head her eye made a scandalized sweep of her kitchen. It was no ordinary thing that called her away—it was probably farther from ordinary than anything that had ever happened in Dickson County. But what her eye took in was that her kitchen was in no shape for leaving; her bread all ready for mixing, half the flour sifted and half unsifted.
She hated to see things half done; but she had been at that when the team from town stopped to get Mr. Hale, and then the sheriff came running in to say his wife wished Mrs. Hale would come too—adding, with a grin, that he guessed she was getting scarey and wanted another woman along. So she had dropped everything right where it was. (Susan Glaspell, "A Jury of Her Peers," in The Best Short Stories of 1917, ed. Edward J. O'Brien (Boston: Small, Maynard, 1918; University of Virginia Library Electronic Text Center, 1996), etext.lib.virginia.edu/etcbin...ublic&part=all.)
- Have the students read Trifles.
- Ask the students to make a chart on a piece of paper: label the left side "men," the right side "women."
- Students should then fill in the chart: what symbols are associated with the men and women?
When we turn to the Trifles example, we see how a writer uses this domestic space and its implications to create a symbolic statement about gender. The men all have first and last names and are given an occupation (attorney, sheriff, or farmer); the women are only known by their husbands' names — they are not even given first names. This naming becomes important in the play, for the suspected murderer Minnie Wright is referred to as Minnie Foster by Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale, suggesting that she had lost her identity by marrying her husband, who was a cold and cruel man, even preventing her from singing in the choir or having a telephone in the house (see Gretchen Panzer's sample paper on voice in The Great Gatsby later in the chapter).
Furthermore, the setting of the play is important — all the action on stage takes place in the kitchen, a kitchen that is in disarray. The men, of course, view the messy kitchen as a fault of Minnie's: she just isn't a very good housewife and housekeeper, for that is her primary role according to the men. To be a housewife, in addition, means that women are only concerned with "trifles," insignificant things. Later in the play and the short story we find out that Minnie's canning—her preserves—have been ruined because the jars have frozen and burst. Again, the men see this as sloppy housekeeping, while the women view the preserves as Minnie's hard work to care for her family. The idea of "preserves" or "preservation" becomes a central theme in Glaspell's work, for Minnie must preserve her dignity as a woman, even if it means that she must murder her husband. The great irony of the play and short story is that the women discover the evidence—the strangled bird—that would be enough to convict Minnie of murder, but they withhold this evidence, thus implying that Minnie will be set free. The women create their own justice system, becoming a jury of their peers: women.
Feminism is a powerful literary theory that is dedicated to social and political change. "How to define feminism? Ah, that is the question," a befuddled Hamlet might ask. A useful definition can be found in Michael Kimmel and Thomas Mosmiller's Against the Tide: Pro-Feminist Men in the United States, 1776–1990: A Documentary History (1992). They focus on four central points:
- There is evidence that women are treated differently and unequally.
- Women are not treated equally in the private and public sphere.
- If these points are true, then that's wrong and becomes a moral problem.
- Thus feminism is a commitment to change. (Michael Kimmel and Thomas Mosmiller, Against the Tide: Pro-Feminist Men in the United States, 1776–1990 a Documentary History (Boston: Beacon, 1992).)
- On the blackboard or whiteboard, have the students generate examples for points 1 and 2 of the list. This should lead to a spirited discussion.
Two other definitions will be useful to you: Barbara Smith argues that "feminism is the political theory and practice that struggles to free all women: women of color, working-class women, poor women, disabled women, Jewish women, lesbians, old women—as well as white, economically privileged, heterosexual women. Anything less than this vision of total freedom is not feminism, but merely female self-aggrandizement" (from A History of U.S. Feminisms by Kory Dicker (Berkeley, CA: Seal Press, 2008), p. 7). Noted feminist author bell hooks adds, "Feminism is a struggle to end sexist oppression. Therefore it is necessarily a struggle to eradicate the ideology of domination that permeates Western culture on various levels, as well as a commitment to reorganize society so that the self-development of people can take precedence over imperialism, economic expansion, and material desires" (bell hooks, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, 2nd ed. (London: Pluto, 2000)).
Feminist literary criticism is also about this commitment to equality, to change, and it works its way by arguing that literature is a powerful cultural force that mirrors gender attitudes. Feminist literary criticism can be categorized into three stages: patriarchal criticism, gynocriticism, and feminine writing.
Patriarchal criticism examines the prejudices against women by male writers. Such criticism analyzes the way that canonical authors—mostly men—create images of women. For example, Gretchen Panzer's sample paper in this chapter explores how F. Scott Fitzgerald silences Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, further reinforcing the notion that this great American novel depicts women in demeaning ways. (F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (New York: Scribner, 2003)). This criticism is often focused on close textual study since it will examine how men and women are depicted in literary texts. Patriarchal criticism will be central to this chapter.
Gynocriticism is concerned with women writers, particularly in the ways that women writers have become included within the canon. In American literature, Kate Chopin's The Awakening and Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God are classic examples (Kate Chopin, The Awakening, 2nd ed., ed. Nancy A. Walker (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000); Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (New York: HarperCollins, 2000)). These texts, now part of the canon of American literature, have only been seen as such for the past twenty-five years or so. Another interesting example is the evolution of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, which reflects the insertion of women into the canon. The edition for 1968 (M. H. Abrams, ed., The Norton Anthology of English Literature, rev. ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1968)), which covers the Middle Ages, the seventeenth century, the Restoration and the eighteenth century, the Romantic period, the Victorian age, and the twentieth century, includes no women. That’s right—not one single woman! The latest (eighth) edition of this anthology (Stephen Greenblatt and M. H. Abrams, eds., The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 8th ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1996)), published thirty-eight years later, includes the following women writers:
- Middle Ages: Marie De France and Margery Kempe
- Sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: Queen Elizabeth, Mary (Sydney) Herbert, Aemilia Lanyer, Mary Wroth, Katherine Philips, and Margaret Cavendish
- Restoration and eighteenth century: Aphra Behn, Eliza Haywood, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, and Frances Burney
- Romantic period: Anna Letitia Barbauld, Charlotte Smith, Mary Wollstonecraft, Dorothy Wordsworth, and Felicia Dorothea Hemans
- Victorian age: Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Christina Rossetti
- Twentieth century: Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Jean Rhys, Nadine Gordimer, Alice Munro, and Anne Carson
What does it mean, consequently, when there are no representations of women? Historically, if women didn’t exist in the canon, then we did not—we could not—study them. But with the rise of the field of women's studies in the 1960s, which introduced the idea of feminist literary criticism, we now value the study of women and their accomplishments, as well as thinking about how gender is constructed and perpetuated generally. This evolution about women and literature is mirrored in the evolving contents of the Norton anthology, which also reflects the evolving canon that is more inclusive, particularly to women writers.
Feminine writing explores the notion that women may write differently than men, suggesting that there may be a "women's writing" that is an alternative to male writing. Elaine Showalter in A Literature of Their Own (1977) (Elaine Showalter, A Literature of Their Own (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998)) traces women’s writing into three stages. The first stage is Imitation or Feminine (1840–80), where women imitated men. The classic examples of this are Charlotte and Emily Brontë (of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights fame, respectively), who took on male names — Currer Bell and Acton Bell (Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre, ed. Richard J. Dunn (New York: Norton, 2001); Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights, ed. Richard J. Dunn (New York: Norton, 2003)). To give another famous example, George Eliot, who wrote the Victorian classic Middlemarch, was actually Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot, Middlemarch, ed. Bert G. Hornback (New York: Norton, 2000)). The second stage of women's writing is Protest or Feminist (1880–1920), which sees women becoming much more political as writers, reacting directly to male domination in society and literature. Kate Chopin is an example of this stage, as is Virginia Woolf. Finally, the third stage, Self-Discovery or Female (1920–), becomes more radical as women turn inward toward the female, toward the body, creating works that mirror a writing particular to women.
As you can see, to narrowly define feminist literary criticism is difficult, for there are a myriad of approaches to take. Feminism is often referred to in the plural—feminisms—because there is such diversity within feminism about core terms and philosophies. A useful starting point is Feminisms: An Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism, edited by Robyn R. Warhol and Diane Price Herndl (Robyn R. Warhol and Diane Price Herndl, eds., Feminisms: An Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism, rev. ed. (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997)). You can examine the table of contents here.
A look at this table of contents will show you the complexity of feminist literary criticism and provide you with some ideas to focus your feminist paper on.
- Choose a literary work to examine: either a male or female writer.
- Look through the table of contents of Feminisms and choose three chapter areas that might lead to a focus for your paper.
- Write down several possible working thesis ideas for your paper.
- Remember, you may decide to focus your paper on gender criticism or masculinity studies, which are defined in the Key Terms.
Gender criticism, following Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's articulation, is an extension of feminist literary criticism. It focuses not just on women but on the construction of gender and sexuality, especially LGBTQ issues, which gives rise to queer theory. Gender criticism suggests that power is not just top down or patriarchal, for example, a man dominating a woman. It suggests that power is multifaceted and never just in one direction. For example, in the nineteenth century while many women argued for suffrage (or the right to vote), at the same time those very women who were white could be dominating or holding power over African Americans in the American slave system. In the nineteenth century, many white women were pictured as angelic, ideal, and the angel in the house who protected men from the cruel world of commerce (see Coventry Patmore's poem The Angel in the House (Coventry Patmore, The Angel in the House, The Victorian Web, http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/patmore/angel). But that idealized view of women is incomplete given that we know from diaries and other historical evidence that white women could have sexual longing (shocking!), treat others barbarically, or even be sadistic and murderous. Thus identity is complicated and rich, involving much more than gender alone. It is the intersection of a variety of things—including geographical location, age, race, class, nationality, ability, and sexuality as well as gender—that make up our identities.
A key to gender criticism, consequently, is that gender is a socially constructed ideology that is reflected in our culture and political, social, economic, educational, and religious institutions and is coded in the very language we use. For example, the adjective queer, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) tells us, originally meant something "strange, odd, peculiar, eccentric," the earliest use being from 1513 (Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. "queer"). Not until 1894, partly a result of the sodomy trial of Oscar Wilde, where he was convicted of being a homosexual and sentenced to prison ("Famous World Trials: The Trials of Oscar Wilde, 1895," University of Missouri–Kansas City, http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/wilde/wilde.htm) did the word queer (as an adjective or a noun) come to be associated with homosexuality, and then in a strictly derogatory sense.
Like feminism, gender criticism examines how gender is caught between the notion of essentialism, the belief that women are naturally and fundamentally different than men based on their biological sex and that nonheterosexual identities are deviant from the biological heteronormative distinction between male and female, and constructionism, the belief that gender is not essentialist or based on biological nature but is constructed through culture. One of the most famous scenes from literature depicting this essentialism versus constructionism debate comes from Mark Twain's classic Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. At the end of chapter 10, Jim and Huck determine that the best way to find information so that the two can avoid capture is to have Huck put on a disguise and go into the nearby town:
"Next morning I said it was getting slow and dull, and I wanted to get a stirring up some way. I said I reckoned I would slip over the river and find out what was going on. Jim liked that notion; but he said I must go in the dark and look sharp. Then he studied it over and said, couldn't I put on some of them old things and dress up like a girl? That was a good notion, too. So we shortened up one of the calico gowns, and I turned up my trouser-legs to my knees and got into it. Jim hitched it behind with the hooks, and it was a fair fit. I put on the sun-bonnet and tied it under my chin, and then for a body to look in and see my face was like looking down a joint of stove-pipe. Jim said nobody would know me, even in the daytime, hardly. I practiced around all day to get the hang of the things, and by and by I could do pretty well in them, only Jim said I didn’t walk like a girl; and he said I must quit pulling up my gown to get at my britches-pocket. I took notice, and done better.” (Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1912; University of Virginia Library Electronic Text Center, 1995), chap. 10, http://etext.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/Twa2Huc.html.)
In the next chapter, Huck, dressed as a girl, meets Mrs. Judith Loftus. Huck tells her his name is Sarah Williams, and Mrs. Loftus asks Huck-Sarah to help her with a few tasks, such as throwing a piece of lead at a rat and helping with threading a needle. When she tosses an extra piece of lead to Huck-Sarah, his true identity as a boy is exposed. After Huck tells Mrs. Loftus that his name is George, she criticizes his attempt to fool her:
"Well, try to remember it, George. Don't forget and tell me it's Elexander before you go, and then get out by saying it's George Elexander when I catch you. And don't go about women in that old calico. You do a girl tolerable poor, but you might fool men, maybe. Bless you, child, when you set out to thread a needle don’t hold the thread still and fetch the needle up to it; hold the needle still and poke the thread at it; that's the way a woman most always does, but a man always does t'other way. And when you throw at a rat or anything, hitch yourself up a tiptoe and fetch your hand up over your head as awkward as you can, and miss your rat about six or seven foot. Throw stiff-armed from the shoulder, like there was a pivot there for it to turn on, like a girl; not from the wrist and elbow, with your arm out to one side, like a boy. And, mind you, when a girl tries to catch anything in her lap she throws her knees apart; she don't clap them together, the way you did when you catched the lump of lead. Why, I spotted you for a boy when you was threading the needle; and I contrived the other things just to make certain. Now trot along to your uncle, Sarah Mary Williams George Elexander Peters, and if you get into trouble you send word to Mrs. Judith Loftus, which is me, and I'll do what I can to get you out of it. Keep the river road all the way, and next time you tramp take shoes and socks with you. The river road's a rocky one, and your feet'll be in a condition when you get to Goshen, I reckon." (Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1912; University of Virginia Library Electronic Text Center, 1995), chap. 11, http://etext.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/Twa2Huc.html.)
Mrs. Judith Loftus views sexuality as essentialist—there are real, innate differences between a girl and boy, which perpetuate the stereotypes about gender. Another way to view her comments, however, is to acknowledge that gender is a performance, a role that we play or construct. If we read Judith's comments in this light, then Huckleberry Finn becomes a more enlightened text on gender than one might initially think.
Just as we think gender is constructed, queer theorists argue that sexuality is constructed and not just "natural" as well. Lady Gaga sings, "Baby I was born this way," but others, like Adrienne Rich, argue that sexuality exists on a continuum and is more fluid than a binary equation of straight or gay (Adrienne Rich, "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence," in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, ed. Henry Abelove, Michèle Aina Barale, and David M. Halperin (New York: Routledge, 1993), 227–54). Rich suggests that "compulsory heterosexuality," the drive to make everything heterosexual, shapes our sexual socialization to such an extent that the only choice is to be straight (Adrienne Rich, "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence," in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, ed. Henry Abelove, Michèle Aina Barale, and David M. Halperin (New York: Routledge, 1993)). Building from Sigmund Freud’s ideas on sexuality, sex researcher Alfred Kinsey created the Kinsey scale, which suggests that human sexuality exists on a 0–6 scale, with 0 being exclusively homosexual and 6 being exclusively heterosexual. In all his research, he discovered that most people were somewhere around a 3 (bisexual) and that few people were at either ends of the straight/gay spectrum (“Kinsey’s Heterosexual-Homosexual Rating Scale,” Kinsey Institute, http://www.kinseyinstitute.org/research/ak-hhscale.html).
In addition, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, a prominent queer theorist, suggests culture is so heteronormative (making heterosexuality the norm) that gay characters—and, particularly, the affection between men in literature—is rendered invisible and must be routed through a character of the opposite gender to be acceptable. A classic example comes from Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (1850); Hester becomes the target as Dimmesdale and Chillingworth work about their male desire by competing for Hester (Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (1850; Project Gutenberg, 2005), http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/33). In her book Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (1985), Sedgwick coins the term "homosocial desire" to refer to relationships between men that are not explicitly sexual, but could actually have erotic components if allowed to exist (Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985)). Homosocial worlds include all-male contexts like boarding schools, the military, and sports (Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985)). The recent idea of the "bromance" from films such as I Love You, Man (2009) is an example of homosocial expression. It is no accident that we often laugh when using the term "bromance" because it seems ludicrous, given the norms of masculinity in our culture, that men might love one another and express that love as women in female friendships often do. It would require heterosexual men to potentially break out of certain norms of how they are supposed to act. We'll discuss this more in a minute when we talk about masculinity.
This idea that some expressions or identities are invisible and then visible once you have a particular lens to see them (theorists call this ideology) is as important to feminist literary criticism as it is to gender and sexuality criticism. What if we look at Herman Melville's Moby-Dick anew in a way that focuses on how men might care for and love one another as they are sequestered on this famous, frightening ship, the Pequod. Chapter 94, "A Squeeze of the Hand," finds the whalemen breaking up the spermaceti from a just-harvested sperm whale. Spermaceti is the wax or oil in the skull of the sperm whale, and this oil was valuable and used to make candles and various ointments. Suddenly, Melville's description of the squeezing of the whale sperm takes on an erotic meaning perhaps previously unnoticed. This interpretation changes the way we may traditionally read the book:
"Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say,—Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness" (Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (New York: Harper, 1851; Power Moby-Dick, 1998), http://www.powermobydick.com/Moby094.html).
After this paragraph, Ishmael states,
"Would that I could keep squeezing that sperm for ever! For now, since by many prolonged, repeated experiences, I have perceived that in all cases man must eventually lower, or at least shift, his conceit of attainable felicity; not placing it anywhere in the intellect or the fancy; but in the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country; now that I have perceived all this, I am ready to squeeze case eternally. In thoughts of the visions of the night, I saw long rows of angels in paradise, each with his hands in a jar of spermaceti" (Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (New York: Harper, 1851; Power Moby-Dick, 1998), http://www.powermobydick.com/Moby094.html).
Melville's text flirts with homoerotic desire, but that desire is short-lived as the narrator suggests that men must "lower" their desire to other outlets — "but in the wife."
Ultimately, gender and sexuality theorists go back in history and look at who might have been left out. Where are there absences in the canon such that gay and lesbian authors and characters might be included? And when gay and lesbian characters are present, how are they perceived?
What about a supposedly "straight" text that appears to have a queer subtext previously unseen? For example, Julia Ward Howe was a nineteenth-century author who wrote the famous "Battle Hymn of the Republic" and founded Mother’s Day. However, she also wrote a secret novel, The Hermaphrodite, which featured a male gender-bending protagonist who loves both sexes but particularly another man (Julia Ward Howe, The Hermaphrodite, ed. Gary Williams (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004)). Once discovered, this book was a shocking addition to the profile people had created of Howe. Howe's text is considered a "recovered" text and has been brought back into circulation, a common phenomenon in the literature of marginalized groups where texts have disappeared only to be rediscovered and read.
- Can you think of texts where a character is forced into certain roles, behaviors, and actions because of compulsory heterosexuality?
- Is that character's sexuality more complex than you realized?
- When you consider sexuality on a continuum, does it change how characters interact?
- Could your observations lead to a focus for a literary analysis?
This page adapted from "Writing About Gender and Sexuality - Applying Feminist and Gender Criticism" in Creating Literary Analysis by Ryan Cordell and John Pennington CC BY NC SA