On Darl Bundren’s Queerness in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying

While much literary criticism has been produced regarding William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, the commentary surrounding its “queering” element is particularly profound and provocative. As noted by numerous scholars, there are several characters whose identities constitute a distinct deviation from the normative ideologies and praxes that came to characterize the post-Reconstruction South. This reality seems particularly salient in the character of Darl Bundren. As made plain throughout the text, Darl’s cogitations and behaviors transcend the established parameters for acceptable personhood established by the South’s social codes, including prescriptive and proscriptive regulations for masculinity and the capitalism-induced valuation of property and money. As a result, Darl’s thoughts and actions throughout the novel undermine socioculturally dominant principles regarding gender and the value of capitalism.

To fully recognize the transgressive sphere that Darl occupies in As I Lay Dying, it is helpful to consider his identity and behavior in context of queer theory. In defining the term ‘queer,’ Watson points out that it is “another strand of theorizing which follows a general trend of interrogating the historical and cultural positioning of the unified ‘self’ (a self endowed with a coherent identity including gendered identity), characteristic of the Western constitution of the subject” (68). In this sense, the concept of queerness involves engaging, interrogating, and questioning normative concepts of self that have come to be considered appropriate or natural as a result of their historical import or acceptance within a contemporary culture. This exploration and deconstruction of a “self” includes interrogating the role that socioculturally instituted principles of gender play in creating the individual’s sense of identity. In context of Faulkner’s text, self-concepts were heavily influenced (and impeded) by a gender binary. This idea becomes plain upon consideration of prevalent paradigmatic lenses that pervaded the American South as well as the fictive world of As I Lay Dying. The story takes place during the 1920s, an era in which conservative ideologies about men and women were being deconstructed and challenged. Insomuch as the 20s became known as the era of the “New Woman,” the time period gave rise to women attaining more rights in the legal, political, economic, and sociocultural realms. Additionally, many women began challenging the idea that marriage and procreation should be their primary or sole goals in life. Moreover, political figures like Margaret Sanger exacted social change in a manner designed to teach women about intercourse and sexuality so that they could attain a greater dimension of control over their lifestyles and bodies.

At the same time that the liberationist ideology of the “New Woman” philosophy caused women to reevaluate their gendered identities and roles in the world, the era’s edicts also caused men to reconsider paradigms of gender. In accepting women’s liberation in the personal and public spheres as an important and advantageous mode of progress, many men supported political movements and social measures designed to grant the “second sex” greater freedoms. In many cases, this adaptation in thinking about what women could and should do caused men to reconsider their own roles in society. Thus the rise of the “New Woman” era periodically gave rise to “New Men” who no longer felt the need or desire to conceptualize manhood as a medium that warranted or necessitated the overt or covert control of women’s lives.

Despite the fact that the “New Woman” era was marked by profound sociocultural and political advancements for women as well as the challenging of prototypical paradigms regarding gender, the American South was still riddled with conventional, conservative ideologies regarding men and women. Specifically, women were still conceptualized as innately passive, emotional creatures who stood in stark contrast to male counterparts who were deemed indigenously active and rational. The gender binaries advocated and advanced within Southern culture also still incorporated the notion that it was admirable and appropriate for women to dwell within the domestic sphere and place primacy on marriage and motherhood. Men, on the other hand, were encouraged to make securing work and generating wealth for their families a primary goal. Moreover, the American South was still heavily influenced by heteronormative and heterosexist social constructs which deemed marriage between men and women as ideal and natural while lesbianism, homosexuality, and singleness were deemed aberrant to this ideal norm. That As I Lay Dying’s Darl exists outside this acceptable realm of normality becomes plain at numerous points in the text, including the scene in which his reflections on masturbation unfold. His rumination reads: “…After that I was bigger, older. Then I would wait until they all went to sleep so I could lie with my shirt-tail up, hearing them asleep, feeling myself without touching myself, feeling the cool silence blowing upon my parts and wondering if Cash was yonder in the darkness doing it too, had been doing it perhaps for the last two years before I could have wanted to or could have” (701). In this case, Darl’s rumination constitutes a deviation from gender norms insomuch as his sexual desires are not clearly directed towards a woman but rather constitute a mode of intercourse implying autoeroticism insomuch as he is feeling himself as opposed to a woman. It is also important to note that Darl’s masturbatory event incorporates curiosity regarding the sexual behavior of another man. In noting that he wonders whether Cash is also masturbating, Darl’s thoughts become even more queer insomuch as they transgress heteronormative ideologies and praxis dictating that male sexual desire and curiosity regarding intercourse be directed towards women.

Darl’s existence outside the normative, acceptable parameters of gender is not confined to his ruminations about masturbation. Additionally, Darl is deemed queer due to the fact that he has yet to marry a woman. Insomuch as the heteronormative, heterosexist social order renders male/female marriage the appropriate and acceptable union for men and women to engage in, individuals who have not made this commitment exist outside of its normative boundaries. Vernon draws attention to the negative lens through which Darl’s singleness is conceptualized upon noting “Darl: he just thinks by himself too much. Cora’s right when she says all he needs is a wife to straighten him out” (722). In making this statement, Vernon indicates that Darl’s queerness—manifest through both his proclivity for independent, abstract thought as well as an ostensible hesitation to marry—could be “cured” through his accedence to social mores regarding marriage. Thus as Southard accurately argues, “Oftentimes, other characters’ perceptions of Darl suggest his lack of outward masculinity. The Bundren’s neighbors, Vernon and Cora Tull, suggest a link between his strange intellectualism and questionable manhood” (49). Indeed, both his inclination towards deep thinking and ongoing status as a single man render Darl conspicuously queer in the minds of the people around him.

While the role Darl plays in queering normative constructs of gender is made plain through his masturbatory reflections and singleness, these are not the only textual realities which unveil his deviation from social norms. In fact, Darl’s queerness also manifests through his emasculation. This emasculation takes place near the end of the text as Darl rides a train to an asylum on the premise that insanity was the leading factor which caused him to burn down a barn with his mother’s dead body in it.  In this case, Darl’s queerness becomes salient as prototypical constructs of masculinity are blown apart. As opposed to maintaining the prototypically powerful patriarchal position of spatial and economic freedom advocated within the world of the American South, Darl’s confinement to an asylum will render him unable to generate his own wealth and also limit his ability to move around freely. Darl’s emasculation is not confined to his forthcoming asylum confinement. Indeed, his inability to embody normative masculine constructs also becomes plain as he prepares to depart for the institution. In describing the scene during which Darl is transported to the asylum, the narrator notes that “They put him on the train…” (791). In referencing the fact that Darl’s course of action is being directed by other people, the narrator emphasizes his newfound lack of power and masculinity. The narrator’s delineation of Darl’s emasculation is further explicated with the following description: “They pulled two seats together so Darl could sit by the window to laugh. One of them sat beside him, the other sat on the seat facing him, riding backward” (791). Here, the reader learns that Darl’s sense of personal space and mobility has diminished dramatically, with the two people who have escorted him onto the train surrounding him and severely limiting his ability to move about freely. The narrator goes on to offer the following analysis of Darl’s burgeoning condition: “Darl is our brother, our brother Darl. Our brother Darl. In a cage in Jackson where, his grimed hands lying light in the quiet interstices, looking out he foams” (791). Here, the reader’s understanding of Darl’s thorough emasculation is amplified. The asylum is deemed equivalent to a cage, thereby crystallizing the idea that Darl no longer possesses the prototypical patriarchal position of freedom and self-will.

While Darl’s emasculation is expertly explicated through reference to his confinement within the asylum, the use of the phrase “he foams” is equally effective in demonstrating his loss of masculinity. In this case, the words “he foams” alludes to Darl’s insanity and thereby reveals that he no longer has full control over his mind. Thus in considering the role that Darl’s trip to the asylum plays in unveiling his emasculation and simultaneously revealing his queerness insomuch as he exists outside the normative gender realm, it is important to note that his ostensible insanity amplifies his unorthodox existence. Within the fictive, constructed world of gender in which Darl participates even as he chooses not to by exhibiting behaviors that defy its prescriptions and proscriptions, masculinity is conceptualized in terms of rationality and independent thought. Insanity, on the other hand, is a clear and dreaded deviation from this gendered identity insomuch as it involves an inability to think abstractly and independently. Moreover, insanity constitutes a mode of being and knowing in which the subject loses authority over the self as unwelcome cognitive realities like hallucinations and delusions complicate and compromise the individual’s ability to act independently. Thus insomuch as Darl is categorized as insane, he exists outside of the authoritative, independent realm of being and knowing associated with appropriate masculinity. In manifesting an inability to think clearly and independently, Darl is no longer categorically “male” but rather an othered being whose unacceptable actions entail his complete removal from society and relocation to a confined realm that will function to further emasculate him.

To grasp the full import of how Darl’s ostensible insanity unveils a form of queerness that is such because of its deviation from gender norms, it is helpful to consider various social realities pertaining to the onset of lunacy. Numerous research studies, both historical and contemporary, indicate that women are much more likely to suffer from mental disorders than men. This idea gains traction upon consideration of the prevalence of the rest cure in the 18th century. The rest cure was designed by neurologist Silas Weir Mitchell for the purpose of treating nervous illnesses. As made plain by research about the era, the incidence of nervous illnesses was much more prevalent amongst women than men. Data from contemporary studies regarding insanity reveal similar findings. For example, Daniel Freeman’s psychiatric work The Stressed Sex documents the fact that women are twice as likely to develop mental disorders such as depression than men (4). Discourse regarding the underlying causes for higher rates of female insanity are diverse, but much of the commentary references sexism as a leading factor for the divergences. Specifically, many people argue that the sociocultural and economical debilitation that women experience as a result of sexism make them more susceptible to numerous factors that can precipitate mental disorders, including low self-esteem and poverty. In addition to existing as a social reality in both historical and contemporary times, the concept of female insanity has been explored in a plethora of literary masterpieces, some of which include Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper. In each text, a central female character exhibits traits that are associated with madness and therefore result in the sense or lived reality of social isolation and otherness. In light of both documented data regarding the prevalence of female insanity as well as its representation in the literary realm, the association between mania and women is strong. When recognized and understood, this association can lead the reader to grasp Darl’s ostensible mania as another component of his personhood that queers the gendered sphere by making insanity a character trait embodied by a man.

While Darl’s queerness becomes salient upon consideration of the way he transcends and defies normative paradigms and prescriptions for gender, his clear deviation from heteronormative principles is but one of numerous spheres through which his otherness becomes plain. This idea gains traction when the reader considers how Darl’s existence within the text demonstrates his dismissal of the culture’s valuation of capitalism. Before offering evidence of Darl’s divergence from this capitalist web, it is important to first demonstrate that the web indeed exists. That the Bundren family’s ideology and praxis is rooted on a valuation of accruing goods and personal property and using labor as a medium through which to obtain the money necessary to do so becomes plain throughout the text. For example, Cora notes the family’s reliance on livestock to generate money upon stating that “We depend a lot on our chickens” (699). The primary role that capitalism plays in the consciousness of the Bundrens resurfaces when Anse repeatedly notes that he and his family will “be beholden to no man” (704). This phrase references his commitment to ensuring that the family will always be capable of generating wealth for themselves as opposed to relying on the economic assistance of others. The primacy that capitalism plays in the text becomes even more evident when Cora reflects on the personhood of Darl. Specifically, she notes that Darl is the one “that folks say is queer, lazy, pottering about the place no better than Anse, with Cash a good carpenter and always more building than he can get around to, and Jewel always doing something that made him some money or got him talked about…” (705). In drawing this conclusion, Cora demonstrates that Darl’s ostensible laziness is an attribute to be loathed and shunned while the industrious behaviors of Cash and Jewel are deemed admirable because of their ability to produce wealth.

In recognizing that the Bundrens are immersed in a society that values capitalism and renders it an integral component of their daily lives, it is important to note that Darl’s behavior reveals his unwillingness to embody this value. This fact becomes plain at numerous points in the text, but it is particularly conspicuous when he opts to burn down a barn. The immense import of this destructive act becomes plain when Cash notes: “It wasn’t nothing else to do. It was either send him to Jackson, or have Gillespie sue us, because he knowed some way that Darl set fire to it. I don’t know how he knowed, but he did. Vardaman see him do it, but he swore he never told nobody but Dewey Dell and that she told him not to tell nobody. But Gillespie knowed it” (782). In burning the barn, Darl evinces his utter disregard for private property in his quest to obey what he perceives to be his mother’s final request that he hide her away from public sight. In a world where possessing property is viewed in a positive light because it functions as a signal of the individual’s ability to accrue wealth and use it as a vehicle through which to own space, Darl’s willingness to destroy another person’s property is not socially acceptable. Rather, it is conceptualized as an act of profound social deviance which reveals the perpetrator’s unwillingness to respect the power and importance of money and the property it can buy. Despite the presence and power of these capitalist values, Darl’s convictions regarding what he perceives to be his mother’s wishes induce a glaring indifference towards social mores.  In a telling scene near the end of the text, Darl’s irreverence for capitalism is crystallized when the character-narrator notes that “They pulled two seats together so Darl could sit by the window to laugh. One of them sat beside him, the other sat on the seat facing him, riding backward. One of them had to ride backward because the state’s money has a face to each backside and a backside to each face, and they are riding on the state’s money which is incest” (791). The character-narrator goes on to point out that “A nickel has a woman on one side and a buffalo on the other; two faces and no back” (791). After noting this reality and Darl’s possession of a spy-glass depicting a woman and a pig with no face and two backs, the character-narrator asks: “Is that why you are laughing, Darl?” Darl responds: “Yes yes yes yes yes yes” (791). Here, the implication is that Darl’s motivation is rooted in his understanding that his actions have entailed the use of the state’s revenue and thereby constitutes an effrontery to the capitalist system that advocates individuals utilizing their own ingenuity and efforts to generate wealth as opposed to appropriating the government’s resources.

In recognizing the reality that Darl exists as an effrontery to the capitalist system and thus maintains an existence that is decidedly queer, it is important to note that this queerness incorporates the notion of the anti-hero and thereby furthers the reader’s understanding of his oddity and embodiment of inverted social norms. In discussing the anti-hero, Modernist scholar Stephen Kern notes that

“For modernists, stature is less about moral character and more about creativity and fulfillment. In assessing modernist protagonists, critics use the term anti-hero for one who lacks classical virtues of strength, beauty, courage, wisdom, and pride. As Lionel Trilling wrote: “Nothing is more characteristic of the literature of our time than the replacement of the hero by what has come to be called the anti-hero, in whose indifference to or hatred of ethical nobility there is presumed to lie a special authority.” But protagonists are never just anti. Modernist protagonists are rather neo-heroic, that is, admirable in new ways even when they are physically unattractive, sexually unconventional, impotent, cowardly, immoral, or even dead” (34)

As one may gather in reading Kern’s definition and delineation of the anti-hero, Darl clearly is one. This idea gains credence upon consideration of the fact that he demonstrates indifference to conventional concepts of morality and virtue by destroying the property of another individual. Yet at the same time that his behavior constitutes a deviation from normative conceptions of the hero, Darl’s actions are heroic insomuch as they manifest a move towards his fulfillment of a personally significant purpose: obeying his mother’s wishes to be kept from public sight.

The correlation between Darl’s queerness and his perceptions regarding his mother’s death and wishes does not end with the character-narrator’s conformance to principles of the anti-hero. In fact, Darl’s ostensible obsession with fulfilling what he perceives to be his mother’s final wishes further illustrates his oddity and otherness. Delville taps into this reality upon noting that “In fact, all of the Bundren characters except Darl seem to be relatively successful in dealing with Addie’s absence” (62). This is likely due to what Bassett refers to “the strong mental identification of Darl with Addie…” (131). The depth of Darl’s attachment to and identification with his mother is made plain by an important memory Cora has of him: “It was Darl. He come to the door and stood there, looking at his dying mother. He just looked at her, and I felt the bounteous love of the Lord again and His mercy. I saw that with Jewel she had just been pretending, but that it was between her and Darl that the understanding and the true love was” (705). In addition to having a strong mental identification with his mother, Darl is perceived to also embody her character traits. In drawing attention to this reality, Cora notes that “I always said Darl was different from those others. I always said he was the only one of them that had his mother’s nature, had any natural affection” (704). In making this assessment, Cora reveals that Darl’s personality is profoundly different from that of the other Bundrens, thereby furthering the reader’s awareness of how his personhood constitutes something decidedly queer.

When considered in totality, Darl’s personhood is a clear representation of both queerness and the role being defined as odd plays in ostracizing individuals from the communities in which they exist. It is also important to note that Faulkner’s construction of the queer character manifests the writer’s conformance to several ideologies and attitudes that became prevalent during the Modernist literary movement. In defining the literary era, Daniel Joseph Singal notes that Modernism “usually connotes radical experimentation in artistic style, a deliberate cultivation of the perverse and decadent, and the flaunting of outrageous behavior designed to shock the bourgeois” (8). Faulkner’s work clearly exemplifies a plethora of these realities, and they become particularly salient through the character of Darl. In terms of the perverse and decadent, Darl’s meditations on masturbation reveal the author’s conformance to Modernist principles. Additionally, Darl’s burning of the barn constitutes a manifestation of rebellious behavior that stood in stock contrast to the values and expectations of middle class people whose lives and worth were predicated on adherence to capitalist prescriptions and proscriptions.

In addition to manifesting principles of Modernism through the character of Darl, Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying is representative of the literary period given its incorporation of artistic experimentation. Specifically, the narrative incorporates the writer’s effective use of one of the era’s most prevalent literary styles: stream of consciousness. In discussing this literary technique, Stephen Kern notes that “Modernists also rendered inner space with a stream-of-consciousness technique that may include memories, expectations, emotions, judgments, fantasies, stimuli from five senses, bits of overheard or recalled speech, fragments of syntax, even parts of words or invented words that simultaneously course through the mind and make up a moment of consciousness” (87). The defining attribute of stream of consciousness writing is that it reflects a thought sequence that “…moves erratically in multiple directions both temporally and spatially with no fixed path” (87). Faulkner’s appropriation of this experimental literary technique becomes plain when character-narrator Vardaman deviates from the conventional, linear sequence of thought with the following stream of consciousness statement: “That’s why Jewel and I were both in the shed and she was in the wagon because the horse lives in the barn and I had to keep on running the buzzard away from” (769).

In addition to conforming to the Modernist principle of utilizing experimental literary techniques through his incorporation of stream of consciousness language, Faulkner’s work is also replete with other radical literary devices. For example, Faulkner constructs sentences that lack punctuation and thereby constitute a thorough departure from prototypical syntax. An example of this experimentation surfaces when Vardaman notes that “When I went to find where they stay at night, I saw something that Dewey Dell says I mustn’t never tell nobody” (779). The sentence-lacking-punctuation format surfaces again when Vardaman thinks “And I saw something Dewey Dell told me not to tell nobody. It is not about pa and it is not about Cash and it is not about Jewel and it is not about Dewey Dell and it is not about me” (775). By intentionally leaving the assertion unpunctuated, Faulkner creates an open, unfinished affect that gives deeper weight and mystery to a plot already rife with substantive suspense and import.

In addition to utilizing a plethora of literary techniques that situate As I Lay Dying as a decidedly Modernist novel, Faulkner’s narratorial liberties further the narrative’s conformance to the principles and paradigms that became prevalent during the artistic era. As noted by Stephen Kern, the Modernist era was one marked by a deviation from the single, third-person omniscient modes of narration that gained primacy during the Realist period. In the Modern literary world, narratives were likely to contain the voices and perspectives of multiple characters. This was certainly the case for As I Lay Dying. In discussing the text, Stephen Kern notes that “Separate voices come from fifteen poorly educated rural characters, most of them members of the discordant Bundren family, who narrate most of the fifty-nine chapters of As I Lay Dying” (189). This polyphonic narratorial structure affords the reader more than one lens through which to interpret action and understand characters as the plot unfolds. This narratorial mode is reflected in numerous other literary works from the Modernist era, some of which include Hermann Broch’s The Sleepwalkers and James Joyce’s Ulysses.

In considering Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying as a composite whole, it is clear that the author has constructed a literary masterpiece rife with both cultural signification and linguistic innovation. While many components of the text warrant discourse and dissection, it is Faulkner’s Darl who stands out as a figure rife with socially transgressive thoughts and culturally transcendent behaviors. Darl’s ruminations about sex and willingness to masturbate constitute a deviation from socially designated gender norms, thereby rendering his existence within the text conspicuously queer. Additionally, Darl’s ostensible insanity and confinement within an asylum function as manifestations of his emasculation, thereby furthering the reader’s understanding of his role in queering normative paradigms regarding how men should exist and act. Darl’s queerness is heightened as a result of his dismissal of the cultural valuation of capitalism, a reality that manifests when he unapologetically burns down another individual’s property. In considering Darl’s queerness as manifested through both his inversion of gender paradigms and irreverence for capitalist values, his existence as a character-narrator that shocks and transforms the social world in which he exists becomes plain.

Works Cited

Bassett, John Earl. “As I Lay Dying”: Family Conflict and Verbal Fictions.” The Journal  of  Narrative Technique. Vol. 11, No. 2 (Spring, 1981), pp. 125-134.

Delville, Michel. “Alienating Language and Darl’s Narrative Consciousness in Faulkner’s  “As I Lay Dying.” The Southern Literary Journal. Vol. 27, No. 1 (Fall, 1994), pp. 61-72.

Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. New  York:  W.W. Norton & Company, 2012. Print.

Freeman, Daniel. The Stressed Sex. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Kern, Stephen. The Modernist Novel: A Critical Introduction. New York: Cambridge  University  Press, 2011.

Singal, Daniel Joseph. “Towards A Definition of American Modernism.” American  Quarterly, Vol. 39, No. 1, Special Issue: Modernist Culture in America (Spring, 1987), pp. 7-  26.

Southard, Marybeth. “Aint None Of Us Pure Crazy”: Queering Madness In As I Lay Dying.”  The Faulkner Journal. 27.1 (Spring 2013): 47-63, 99.

Watson, Katherine.  “Queer Theory.” Group Analysis, 03/2005. Volume 38, Issue 1.

On Darl Bundren’s Queerness in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying

The Subject Speaks: On Anna’s Subjectivity in Voyage in the Dark

While postcolonial literature covers a wide range of topics, issues of colonization and the role it plays in the fragmentation of subjectivity tends to gain primacy within the textual world. This theme of identity fragmentation becomes plain through an examination of a postcolonial text such as Jean Rhys’s Voyage in the Dark. In this narrative, protagonist Anna Morgan is displaced from her home in the Caribbean and relocated to England. In this new geographical sphere, Anna finds herself subjected to a wide range of colonizing forces. In response to the colonial regime’s attempts to ensure that she conforms to prototypical constructs of white British female subjectivity, Anna resists conformance by maintaining an identity of negative plurality. This negative plurality incorporates her maintenance of a socially deviant identity that exists in diametric opposition to the principles of white womanhood she is ordered to embody. Rather than occupying this monolithic space, Anna dwells in a sphere deemed negative through her ongoing allegiance to multiple sites of resistance. These spheres of resistance include transgressive femininity, an affirmation of linguistic modalities associated with blackness, and ambivalence towards colonial England.

That Jean Rhys’s Voyage in the Dark is a text depicting the existence and power of colonialism becomes plain at many points. In describing the subjugating nature of this regime, Harald Loendorf notes that it perpetuates “an oppression that has transcended the geographical sphere and becomes manifest as a categorization into good and bad, respectable and disrespectable, virgin and non-virgin, woman and tart, familiar and unfamiliar, indigenous and other” (24). In making these claims, Loendorf demonstrates the multiple dimensions of the colonial regime that manifest in the text. Specifically, colonial England is a realm marked by the maintenance of colonial binaries that segregate women into categories of valuation and devaluation based on sexual practices. In addition to maintaining the aforementioned system of sexism, England perpetuates an ideology of racial domination and submission. This system constructs white Englanders as socially valued subjects while constituting people of color and individuals from other regions of the world as devalued Others. These systems of colonization function as the foundation through which concepts of subjectivity are created and sustained. As such, they play an integral role in establishing Anna as an Other whose presence in England constitutes a site of substantive contention.

In her own definition of colonization, feminist theorist Chandra Mohanty notes that it “almost inevitably implies a relation of structural domination, and a discursive or political suppression of the heterogeneity of the subject(s) in question” (61). In Voyage in the Dark, one of the structures of domination which works to erode heterogeneous subjectivity is patriarchal praxis. While diverse in manifestation, this system is typically predicated on dictating how women should operate as sexual and social subjects so that men maintain power over them. This patriarchal power is recognized and maintained through multiple cultural practices, including the male gaze. In defining this gaze, Laura Mulvey maintains that

“In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female figure which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-atness” (346).

This male gaze serves numerous purposes, one of which is to reinforce a system of hegemonic male/female relations in which women are reduced to objects to be gazed upon by males. The male gaze is a prevalent reality in Anna’s life. This fact becomes plain when she notes that unlike most men, Walter Jeffries does not initially subject her to the subordinating look. In reflecting on this reality, she thinks “He didn’t look at my breasts or my legs, as they usually do” (13, 14). Yet while Jeffries does not subject her to a sexualized gaze in this encounter, the reality of the patriarchal-based erotic eye reducing women to objects is a salient theme in the text. An example of its disorienting, dehumanizing power surfaces when the reader is exposed to Anna’s interior monologue while preparing for a weekend get-away. Inwardly, she thinks: “I was so nervous about how I looked that three-quarters of me was in a prison, wandering round and round in a circle. If he had said that I looked all right or that I was pretty, it would have set me free. But he just looked me up and down and smiled” (76). In describing this heteronormative schema and the adverse impact it has on women, John Berger notes that

men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object –and most particularly an object of vision: a sight” (47).

Berger’s schema holds true in the narrative as the reader observes that Anna’s sense of security and value is rooted in male approval of her appearance.

While the reality of the male gaze is prevalent throughout the text, it is not the only type of patriarchal look through which male control over women is exercised. Another type of subordinating gaze involves men viewing women through a lens of condescending hatred. In referencing this reality, Anna notes how Walter looks at her “with his eyes narrow and close together, as if he hated me, as if I wasn’t there…” (23). In drawing attention to how this look of dehumanizing derision is representative of male/female relations, the character Germaine at one point notes: “Scorn and loathing of the female-a very common expression in this country” (81). As made plain by Anna’s experience and Germaine’s statement, the narrative is one in which women are subjected to a male gaze that colonizes them into the sphere of sex object or loathed inferior.

That Anna exists within a categorically colonial regime manifests at other points, such as her ongoing interactions with her lover, Walter. These interactions are marked by Walter’s continual condescension and criticisms which reinforce his position as (male) superior and hers as (female) inferior. For example, shortly after they meet and Walter observes her shopping, he says “’You’ve got the loveliest teeth. You’re sweet. You looked awfully pathetic when you were choosing those horrible stockings so anxiously’” (22). Here, Walter presents her with an ostensible compliment but then negates the sense of self-esteem the words may have engendered by coupling it with an insult. The text indicates Anna’s recognition of the insult as a medium through which she is dehumanized by following Walter’s aspersion with her memory of another man who demeaned her. This memory begins to exist in metonymic unity with Walter’s subordinating treatment of her when she notes: “And then he started kissing me and all the time he was kissing me I was thinking about the man at that supper-party at the Greyhound, Croydon, when he told me, “You don’t know how to kiss. I’ll show you how to kiss. This is what you do’” (22). By juxtaposing and ultimately melding these two moments in Anna’s mind, the text indicates that her romantic/sexual encounters with men are marked by her relegation to the sphere of inferiority and inadequacy.

That Anna’s interactions with men are marked by patriarchal praxis is also underscored by the fact that she rarely initiates sexual activity. Rather, men act and she is the recipient of the action. This schema reinforces the male/female, active/passive system of domination which empowers men with the agency to dictate the onset and substance of interaction with women. For example, during Anna’s first physical encounter with Walter, the text notes that “…he started kissing me” (22). That he goes on to continue operating as initiator becomes plain when the text notes “He kissed me again” (22).  When Anna does transgress heteronormative rules and regulations by initiating sexual activity, her behavior is marked as inappropriate. This fact becomes plain when Anna kisses Walter’s hand and he responds by stating “Don’t” and then goes on to assert “It’s I who ought to kiss your hand, not you mine” (38). Here, the reader notes that Walter’s assertion works to ensure that he occupies the masculine position of directing sexual activity. His positionality then relegates Anna to the feminine sphere of being the passive recipient of male actions. This reinforcement of a masculine/feminine binary displays the presence of a colonizing system of gender relations which (re)constructs Anna as an inferior Other.

Walter’s enforcement of the colonial regime by relegating Anna to the sphere of subordinated inferior manifests again when he mimics her. At one point in the text, Anna says “‘I don’t like this room much…I rather hate it. Let’s go upstairs’” (88). In response, Walter says “‘Let’s go upstairs, let’s go upstairs. You really shock me sometimes, Miss Morgan’” (88). In this act of mimicry, Walter exerts a form of patriarchal power over Anna that is rooted in his ability to ridicule her while still maintaining an intimate relationship with her. The mimicry thus functions as evidence that their relationship is rooted in a structure of domination and submission in which she is mocked through his belittling imitation of her speech. The gender-laden belittling thereby reinforces a subject/object system of relations in which she becomes an object of ridicule. Additionally, Walter’s mimicry reinforces the system of heteronormative colonization by indicating his irritation with the fact that she has taken sexualized initiative by suggesting that they go upstairs. One might argue that it is her initiative, which constitutes her operation in an active rather than passive manner, that functions as the catalyst leading him to mock her. Thus in the mimetic act of mocking, Walter replicates the patriarchal principle which involves expressing disdain for women who act rather than relegating themselves to the sphere of passive being.

In analyzing the relationship between Walter and Anna, the role that gender performance plays in establishing a hegemonic system of norms becomes plain. In delineating her theory of gender as a socially instituted act, Judith Butler notes that “gender is in no way a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts proceed; rather, it is an identity tenuously constituted in time-an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts” (900). Butler goes on to argue that this repetition of acts involves the stylization of the body in terms of “gestures, movements, and enactments of various kinds” which then come to “constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self” (900). Butler goes on to note that this corporeal styling enacts the effect of “sexes which exist in a binary relation to one another” (904). This binary works to replicate the system of male activity and subjectivity coupled with female passivity and objectification. Yet as Butler argues, rather than simply conforming to society’s edicts of how one should perform her or his delegated gender, the gendered self is “capable of being constituted differently” (901) through “subversive performances of various kinds” (910). Anna performs this subversive reconstitution and thereby effectively contests the colonial regime. Her resistance to the regime which dictates that she occupy the sphere of passive womanhood becomes plain at numerous points, such as when she resists Walter’s sexual advances. When he continues kissing her against her will, she says “Do you think I was born yesterday, or what?” (23). In addition to asking this question loudly and thereby deviating from cultural norms dictating that women be reticent and soft-spoken, Anna goes on to push him away. She then says: “’Damn you, let me go, damn you. Or I’ll make a hell of a row” (23). Here, Anna’s ability to transcend the edicts of the colonial regime becomes plain as she refuses to operate as a passive eroticized object who acquiesces the sexual demands of a man. Anna’s refusal to operate as monolithically passive in context of men resurfaces when she takes on the active role of telling Walter and Vincent to stop laughing at her. When they refuse, Anna takes the cigarette that she had been smoking and puts it out on Walter’s hand (86). Together, these transgressive gender performances convey Anna’s unwillingness to conform to the edicts of passivity and acquiescence which the colonial system prescribes for women.

In addition to contesting the heteronormative regime by refusing to act passive, Anna deviates from the colonially constructed category of “woman” through promiscuous behavior. For example, her relationship with Walter places her in the position of a “kept” woman whom he supports economically in exchange for “sex.” This mode of relationality places Anna in the sphere of prostitution, thereby putting her outside the realm of respectable womanhood. In contemplating this system of relations, Anna classifies the relationship in terms of a master/slave hegemony marked by her sexual servitude. Her interpretation of their relationship thus becomes plain when, after having “sex” with Walter, she thinks: “Maillotte Boyd, aged 18. Maillotte Boyd, aged 18….But I like it like this. I don’t want it any other way but this” (56). Commenting on the protagonist’s ruminations, Donna Marie Nudd notes that it constitutes Anna recalling “a name on an old slave list she saw in the West Indies” (24). In discussing the connection between Maillotte Boyd and Anna’s own positionality to Walter, Mary Lou Emery notes that the slave name “speaks of a sexual servitude endured by black women” (173). Indeed, Maillotte Boyd’s name functions as a signifier for the power imbalance marked by women of color operating as the sexual servants of European masters. Similarly, Anna operates as Walter’s sex slave by offering “sex” in exchange for economic support. This position as prostitute situates Anna in a negative sphere which is such because it inverts the positive “lady” paradigm which would afford her venerability and status within English society.

That Anna’s occupation of a sexual realm deemed morally questionable places her in the sphere of social negativity is plain. Yet what also need be stated about her inhabiting this domain is that doing so disrupts the people around her. As such, Anna’s socially deviant position within the narrative demonstrates her ability to disturb the patriarchy. Two of the primary people that are moved to anxiety by Anna’s identity as a prostitute are her stepmother Hester and Walter. While Anna operates as Walter’s prostitute, she disturbs his own existence by periodically refusing to interact with him the way he wants. Scarlett Cunningham notes that Anna’s operation in the sphere of refusal constitutes a “turn towards negativity” and “anti-relationality” which privileges disavowal, negation, and unbecoming (62). This anti-relational refusal transpires at many points, such as when Anna resists Walter’s sexual advances. This part of the narrative unfolds thus:

“He kissed me again, and his mouth was hard, and I remembered him smelling the glass of wine and I couldn’t think of anything but that, and I hated him. ‘Look here, let me go,’ I said. He said something I didn’t hear. ‘Do you think I was born yesterday, or what?’ I said, talking very loud. I pushed him away as hard as I could. I could feel the sharp points of his collar against my hand. I kept saying, ‘Damn you, let me go, damn you. Or I’ll make a hell of a row” (23).

Here, Anna’s refusal to be intimate with Walter disrupts the prototypical heteronormative narrative in which a man’s sexual advances entail his desired outcome: acquiescence. The negativity indigenous to her refusal consists of an unwillingness to replicate the heteronormative paradigm in which women’s bodies are always accessible to men. In adopting this stance, Anna inverts the positive, socially prescribed reiteration of male/female relations such that patriarchal interests are acknowledged and honored. The fact that Walter is disturbed by Anna’s refusal becomes plain when he responds by looking at her “with his eyes narrow and close together, as if he hated me, as if I wasn’t there” (23). In addition to engendering a deep disturbance marked by what appears to be antipathy towards Anna, her stance of anti-relational resistance causes him to question his own personhood. This idea of self-questioning is made plain through the text mentioning that he “turned away and looked at himself in the glass” (23) after Anna resists his sexual advances. Walter’s questioning of self is also manifest through his verbal response to Anna, which includes two phrases: “I’m very sorry” and “That was extremely stupid of me” (23). In offering an apology, Walter demonstrates that his own acts are rightfully interpreted as incorrect or inappropriate, thereby casting doubt on his own judgment and morality. He also casts doubt on his own emotional intelligence by referring to his sexual advances as “extremely stupid.” Thus Anna’s performance of refusal, anti-relationality, and negativity problematizes Walter’s self-perception. It also problematizes his power over her as she, not he, is able to mediate his ability to determine when and how sexual intimacy will transpire.

Anna’s operation in the sphere of a “kept” woman demonstrates how she can unsettle Walter even while ostensibly maintaining a position of subordination to him. Her position as prostitute has a similarly disturbing impact on another authority figure in her life: Hester. This fact becomes plain when Anna alludes to the reality that she is earning money as a “kept woman” or prostitute. While in conversation with her stepmother Hester regarding whether she needs money, Anna states “‘You won’t have to give me any more money. Or Uncle Bo or anybody else either. I can get all the money I want and so that’s all right’” (66). In describing Hester’s response to this explanation, the protagonist notes “She stared at me. Her eyes had an inquisitive look and then a cold, disgusted look” (66). Anna then attempts to tell her plainly what she is doing for money upon stating “If you want to know, I—“ (66). Yet Hester is so disgusted about the idea and reality of Anna’s prostitution that she cuts the young woman off by stating “I don’t want to know.” In this scene, the reader learns that Anna’s identity as prostitute undermines Hester’s entire purpose in bringing her to England. The purpose was to complete the imperial project of making her a “respectable” English lady. By becoming a prostitute of sorts, Anna elides the sphere of the “lady.” She thereby establishes a personhood that exists in diametric opposition to the colonized mode of womanhood established by the heteronormative regime.

As made plain by Anna’s relationship with Walter and Hester, her existence in relation to them demonstrates her maintenance of an identity marked by dissident negativity. This negativity enables her to disturb the colonial system and the subjects who choose to operate in allegiance to its hegemonic edicts. Yet Anna’s actualization of a negative identity is not limited to her gendered performance of promiscuity and its disavowal of the “lady” construct. Another domain through which the reality of colonial imperialism and the subaltern’s subversive response to it becomes plain is the linguistic sphere. As made plain by Anna, there is an established mode of acceptable speaking for individuals who identify (or are identified as) white Englanders. The protagonist references this reality by noting that her stepmother, Hester, has “an English lady’s voice with a sharp, cutting edge to it. Now that I’ve spoken you can hear that I’m a lady. I have spoken and I suppose you now realize that I’m an English gentlewoman. I have my doubts about you. Speak up and I will place you at once. Speak up, for I fear the worst. That sort of voice” (57). In defining Hester’s voice thus, Anna demonstrates the older woman’s conformance to social edicts regarding how an English woman should speak. This illustration is important because it works to underscore the fact that Anna does not conform to the colonial pattern of speaking replicated through Hester’s voice. Rather, her own speech patterns are deviant from the colonial norm. In expressing her dismay and disdain over this fact, Hester notes that “I tried to teach you to talk like a lady and behave like a lady and not like a nigger and of course I couldn’t do it. Impossible to get you away from the servants. That awful sing-song voice you had! Exactly like a nigger you talked-and still do” (65). In juxtaposing Anna’s speech modality to Hester’s, the reader becomes aware of a colonial order marked by the privileging of one mode of speaking over another. In demonstrating how this form of imperialism works, Ashcroft states that it “can be seen as a geometric structure in which the centre, the metropolitan source of standard language, stands as the focus of order, while the periphery, which utilizes the variants, the ‘edges’ of language, remains a tissue of disorder” (87). Hester identifies Anna as the marginalized subaltern entity embodying the aforementioned disorder because the woman speaks in a sing-song manner associated with blackness. This speech modality places her in the precarious peripheral sphere which renders her personhood essentially inferior to that of those who utilize a standard form of English.

Clearly, Anna’s mode of speaking signals her occupation of a space the colonial system identifies as negative. However, it is important to note that the woman occupies this sphere of negativity in a manner which makes her presence and power known. For example, while Hester occupies a position of hegemonic control over Anna as parent figure, she is unable to induce the young woman’s conformance to colonial principles. As Hester herself states with salient frustration, “Exactly like a nigger you talked—and still do” (65). Thus just as the colonial project of making Anna a chaste “lady” fails, the attempt to constitute her as a subject who speaks with a colonized tongue proving her “whiteness” is ineffective as well. Additionally, the mode of speech which would appear to engender Anna’s absence or erasure as a valuable, colonized subject has the opposite effect. Ironically, it renders her negatively present. This presence becomes plain as she is capable of invoking profound, conspicuous rage in the woman who has continually attempted to annihilate a non-colonized aspect of her being.

Anna’s use of a divergent, multi-faceted linguistic system functions as evidence of how her presence becomes plain through her occupation of a culturally devalued (or negative) space. However, this is not the only sphere through which her effective resistance to the colonial regime becomes prevalent. Another realm in which her antagonism towards the system of colonialism becomes evident surfaces when she expresses her ongoing distaste for England and love for the Caribbean. In making these claims, Anna fails to affirm the colonial system by maintaining a patriotic or nationalistic disposition towards the country which functions as a signifier for hegemonies. Anna’s stance of antagonism towards England becomes plain at the story’s onset. As the narrative opens, she notes that “I didn’t like England at first. I couldn’t get used to the cold” (7). England’s cold weather is juxtaposed and deemed inferior to the warmer weather of the region she defines as “home” (7), the Caribbean. When traveling from her place of origin to England, she thinks within herself “…oh I’m not going to like this place I’m not going to like this place I’m not going to like this place—“ (17). And while Anna notes that she eventually “got used to England and I liked it all right” (8), she also maintains that “I got used to everything except the cold and that the towns we went to always looked so exactly alike” (8). Ultimately, these admissions do not suggest that Anna ever really grew to like England but rather indicate that she is merely tolerant of the region. Her adverse opinion of the region remains intact as the novel concludes. Near the denouement, she asserts that “Everything was always so exactly alike-that was what I could never get used to. And the cold; and the houses all exactly alike, and the streets going north, south, east, west, all exactly alike” (179). Anna’s negative opinion of England is of great consequence to her textual placement as an Other because her adverse view of the region functions as a symbolic rejection of the whiteness it signifies. That England exists as a raced space in Anna’s mind becomes plain when she describes her original entry into the land thus: “—this is London-hundreds thousands of white people white people rushing along and the dark houses all alike frowning down one after the other all alike all stuck together—“ (17). Following this assessment, Anna releases the telling repetitive sequence “—oh I’m not going to like this place I’m not going to like this place I’m not going to like this place—“ (17). Anna’s distaste for whiteness is further emphasized at other points in the text, such as when, in describing white people, “their faces are the colour of woodlice” (26). This disparaging statement about the appearance of whites crystallizes the reader’s awareness of Anna’s distaste for both whiteness and its existence as a signifier for England.

Anna’s distaste for England and the colonized whiteness it represents functions as a textual signifier for her Otherness. This is the case because it establishes distance between herself and the privileged subject position of a white Englander and confirms her status as an inferior outsider. This fact becomes plain when Anna informs her acquaintance Maudie that she doesn’t like the region: “I don’t like London. It’s an awful place; it looks horrible sometimes. I wish I’d never come over here at all” (46). In learning that she doesn’t like London, Maudie responds “You must be potty” (46). By making this statement, Maudie demonstrates that Anna’s negative view of the region confines her to an inferior, scatological sphere which her use of the signifier “potty” stands for. She therefore reifies the colonial regime which works to revere England and the hegemonic whiteness it signifies by implying that Anna is akin or equivalent to feces if she does not like the land. Yet Anna does not allow the conflation of her existence with the scatological realm to go uncontested. In fact, she resists her relegation to the sphere of the subaltern by asserting the logic of her assessment regarding the lackluster nature of England. To do so, she references reading material in her drawer that includes the following statement about London: “Loathsome London, vile and stinking hole…” (47). Here, Anna inverts the suggestion that she is excremental by repositioning London as the scatological sphere with a phrase implying that the region constitutes a disgusting, smelly hole. In so doing, she effectively resists the monolithic signification of her identity. The limiting signification would involve either conforming to colonial principles of whiteness by asserting allegiance to England or acknowledging that her refusal to do so renders her inferior. Rather than opting for either of these binaries, Anna references the fact that written material documenting the scatological nature of the land exists. She thereby displaces the loathed otherness signified by the term “potty” from her own personhood and places it onto the region in question. This is not the only part of the narrative in which she resignifies England as a substantively dirty sphere. At another point, she thinks within herself “This is England, and I’m in a nice, clean English room with all the dirt swept under the bed” (31). Here, Anna first references England as a venerable sphere by associating it with a room that is nice and clean and thereby implying that the country shares the desirable attributes of her living quarters. She then reverses this colonialized veneration of the region by noting that there is something dirty about the room and, by association, England.

As made evident by Anna’s refusal to evince love for England, the act constitutes a mode of resistance which involves her refusal to embrace the hegemonic whiteness that the region represents. Additionally, Anna succeeds in evading a monolithic, colonized subjectivity by repeatedly performing a character modality that constitutes a clear divergence from acceptable femininity: negativity. As many feminist scholars have noted, prototypical femaleness is often rooted in a willingness to maintain a disposition of amicability. For example, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar note that some of the virtues classified as feminine include affability and politeness (816). Yet Anna often operates in a manner indicating her refusal to maintain an attitude of geniality. Instead, she frequently adopts a modality of unhappy negativity which includes openly asserting that she doesn’t like certain things. For example, during a conversation with her stepmother Hester, Anna exclaims “I hate dogs!” (71). In response, her stepmother Hester asserts “Let me tell you that you’ll have a very unhappy life if you go on like that. People won’t like you. People in England will dislike you very much if you say things like that” (71). In dissecting the signification of Anna’s utterance and Hester’s consternation about it, Cunningham notes that “Women are supposed to be sentimental about children and animals, and Hester is reminding her of that” (68). In assessing the interaction thus, Cunningham underscores Anna’s choice to adopt a disposition that stands in diametric opposition to the culturally constructed ideas of how a “woman” should behave. Rather than maintaining an attitude of amicable sentimentality, Anna embodies a conspicuous negativity that places her identity outside the realm of prototypical womanhood.

Anna’s expression of negativity is not confined to her assertion that she hates dogs. Additionally, she situates herself in a negative sphere through the destruction of property. This act of resistance functions as an inversion of the constructive, positive participation in the world that women are supposed to enact. In keeping with colonial modalities, women are to maintain this disposition irrespective of the role society plays in detracting from their own well-being and personhood. An example of this schema would be society’s insistence that women maintain a positionality of sentimentality and warmth despite the role that this modality plays in making them vulnerable to emotional abuse. Within the world of the text, the cultural expectation that women conform to this paradigm is signified through dogs. In addition to asserting her antipathy towards them, Anna at one point opts to smash a picture containing a dog. The text conveys the event thus: “I said, ‘I can’t stand that damned dog any longer.’ I stopped dancing and took off my shoe and threw it at the picture. The glass smashed” (161). This act symbolically displays her refusal to perform the form of feminized sentimentality conveyed by liking dogs. It therefore transcends the realm of acceptable femininity because it constitutes a form of negativity conceptualized in terms of destruction. Rather than affirming colonial constructs of womanhood by allowing the picture to retain presence and signifying power, she eradicates its literal existence and thereby eliminates its symbolic import. Through this inversion of the prototypical gender performance she is expected to give, Anna effectively contests the colonial power which insists that she maintain an amicable presence within patriarchal society.

Anna’s resistance to the colonial regime through her refusal to conform to its edict that she maintain an amicable, sentimental disposition demonstrates the efficacy of her negative identity in undermining imperial authority. Her effective resistance to the monolithic identity constructs prescribed for her becomes even more evident when she decides to have an abortion. Within heteronormative society, pregnancy and child-bearing constitute a substantive loci of oppression for several reasons. As noted by Erin M. Kingsley in accessing how Anna’s pregnancy operates within the text, it

“is not simply a means to an end but an end in its own right, and a primary marker of the modality of traditional tenets of femininity—vulnerability, lack of rights, fragmentation of subjectivity, and social and cultural ostracization—the racial other experiences in the metropole” (295).

In delineating how motherhood induces a fragmented subjectivity, Coppelia Kahn notes that “…the child doesn’t at first recognize that the mother exists or has interests apart from it…Thus the mother, and all women perceived in her shadow, are tainted with the grandiose expectations and bitter disappointments of a necessarily alienated subjectivity” (827). Yet another feminist scholar, Ery Shin, articulates the adverse impact that childbirth has on women in noting that it works to “abjectify women, either through oppressive domesticity or visceral pain” (186). In her recognition of the truncated subjectivity and disempowerment that pregnancy engenders, Kingsley notes that “Rhys’s protagonists are purposely pregnant because this physical condition is the ultimate embodiment of being othered, exotic, and lesser—than” (293). In viewing pregnancy as a source of female disempowerment and fragmentation, its colonizing essence and implications become plain. Anna’s decision not to have her child thus functions as another textual development indicating her ability to effectively diminish the authority that hetero-patriarchy wields over her. Thus when she says “I want not to have it” (172) after being asked how she would like to handle her pregnancy, the statement operates as the erasure of a forthcoming colonized identity that pregnancy and childbearing would engender.

As the narrative ends, the reader’s awareness of Anna’s resistance to the colonial regime becomes more plain as her identity remains pluralistic, negative, and open-ended. This form of subjectivity exists in diametric opposition to the monolithic identity that the colonial regime wished to situate her within. During the final scenes, the narrative conveys the fact that Anna’s abortion was botched. As a result of this textual development, she slips into a mode of consciousness which many theorists have suggested constitutes a form of madness or psychopathology. While the reader might not know how to categorize her psychic state, it is important to note that her internal world is marked by a repetitive shift between the present moment and her memories of time spent in the Caribbean. This cognitive vacillation conveys the fact that her consciousness and identity remain suffused with both Eurocentric and Afrocentric elements as she goes on existing in England while retaining vivid recollections of her homeland. In one recollection, Anna recalls a masquerade and notes that “the masks the men wore were a crude pink with the eyes squinting near together squinting but the masks the women wore were made of close-meshed wire covering the whole face and tied at the back of the head…” (185). Thus even as the final chapter concludes with Anna residing in England, her memories of the Caribbean remain both present and prevalent in her psyche. As such, she retains a multi-faceted, dualistic identity which inverts the colonial regime’s attempts to make her personhood signify monolithically.

That Anna maintains a multifarious subjectivity as the narrative ends becomes more palpable when she uses the phrase “I’m giddy” (186) following the botched abortion. After emitting this elocution in the present moment, she moves back into the cognitive realm where her memories of the Caribbean have become primary in her consciousness. In returning to the psychic sphere where she recalls a festive event, the narrative represents her thoughts thus: “I’m awfully giddy—but we went on dancing forwards and backwards backwards and forwards whirling round and round” (186). In beginning her memory with the same phrase (I’m awfully giddy) that she articulates in the present moment, the text demonstrates how the worlds of England and the Caribbean remain integral to her consciousness. Thus, her maintenance of a dualistic personhood becomes increasingly conspicuous as the novel concludes. In commenting on this duality, Urmila Seshagiri notes that the novel’s ending does not allow her “postcolonial identity to be assimilated into extant forms of modern-imperial narratives in the 1930s: and so Anna’s “voyage” ends uneasily, twisting in a cultural limbo that has yet to find a self-assured literary voice” (489).  Seshagiri’s use of the phrase “cultural limbo” crystallizes the reader’s understanding that Anna’s identity has not been forced into the singular category which would demonstrate the success of the imperial project. Rather, she has maintained the pluralistic modality which signifies her effective refusal to adopt the limiting identity which would function as self existing as a sign for reverence of an oppressive regime.

One final aspect of the narrative which demonstrates Anna’s efficacy in maintaining a pluralistic subjectivity is the fact that the final sentence concludes with an ellipsis. It reads: “And about starting all over again, all over again.…” (188). The inclusion of the ellipsis signifies that the denouement is its inverse. Rather than an ending, the novel concludes with an ambiguous opening. The ellipsis signifies the break with the “logical” phallic order of sequential consistency, a clear beginning and end that would be signified with the period. Instead, the narrative’s denouement incorporates the inclusion of the ellipsis, thereby indicating that Anna can likely go on existing as the dissident force that disrupts the colonial system. Also, the ellipsis is defined as signifying omission or absence yet literally presents itself (as a material reality on paper) to signify this absence. The ellipsis therefore functions as a replication of the dualistic, paradoxical elements which are integral to Anna’s existence and identity. Specifically, the ellipsis signifies Anna’s ability to establish identity (presence) in a manner that connects her being to the realm of negativity (absence). Thus like the ellipses, Anna’s appearance is marked by—and ultimately signifies—a substantive absence.

In analyzing Anna’s existence and the novel’s denouement, some theorists have argued that her positionality is one of compromise and denigration. For example, Palko maintains that the doctor’s concluding assertions that she will survive the botched abortion and be ready to start work again soon reinscribes her in the loathed realm of “irresponsible man chaser” (95). In reading the text thus, Palko concludes that it leaves Anna severely devastated such that she

“cannot even definitely end her last sentence; rather, it trails off in ellipses. And since nothing in the novel suggests Anna has the fortitude (or resources) to ‘start over again’, to be ‘new and fresh’, this ending’s image of the Caribbean woman negotiating exile and maternity is devastatingly bleak” (95).

This reading fails to acknowledge the role that the ellipsis plays in signifying the continuation of Anna’s life, with her mode of subjectivity constituting an ongoing, substantive challenge to the colonial world. More specifically, Anna’s ongoing existence—signified by the ellipsis—works to effectively displace the centrality of the colonial regime as its participants are forced to acknowledge her dissident identity. Thus in a spectacular denouement signifying the ongoing displacement of the center and its hegemonic power, Anna effectively inverts the received order. This inversion of the colonial regime’s attempts to center itself parallels Trinh T Minh-ha’s description of a disorienting sequence in which “The West is painfully made to realize the existence of a Third World in the First World, and vice-versa. The Master is bound to recognize that His Culture is not as homogenous, as monolithic as He believed it to be. He discovers, with much reluctance, He is just an other among others” (6). Anna effectively exacts this sequence by complicating her status as a “white” “English” “woman” with fond memories of the Caribbean and transgressive gender performances. Thus as Minh-ha argues in articulating the decentralization of power that results in Third World/First World encounters, “What is at stake is not only the hegemony of Western cultures, but also their identities as unified cultures” (6). Anna’s presence reveals the presence of these stakes as she disrupts the myth of unified whiteness by existing as a “white” “woman” with an allegiance to the Caribbean and preference for a dialect associated with blackness.

In analyzing Anna’s subjectivity throughout Voyage in the Dark, the role she plays in challenging and thwarting the reality of colonial power becomes plain. Throughout the narrative, Anna demonstrates her ability to articulate a mode of personhood that stands in distinction from the identity that the colonial system continually attempts to displace her subjectivity with. In discussing the challenges that oppressed groups have in articulating their own experiences and defining their own identity due to (mis)representation by privileged groups, Gayatra Spivak asks: “Can the subaltern speak?” (78). In the case of Anna Morgan, the answer is yes. The speech transpires through the locus of identity construction and maintenance in the midst of the colonial regime. The efficacy and import of this speech is two-fold. First, it demonstrates Anna’s ability to construct a self rather than having her subjectivity constructed by an external source. Second, it demonstrates her ability to present the form of self that has been spoken as an ontological possibility. Linda Alcoff articulates how this schema of speaking for one’s self unfolds upon noting that “When I speak for myself, I am constructing a possible self, a way to be in the world, and am offering that to others, whether I intend to or not, as one possible way to be” (21). This presentation of possibility effectively dismantles the power of the colonial system in two ways. First, it demonstrates the individual’s ability to construct a self rather than having it constructed by the colonial regime. Second, it displays this mode of subjectivity to other individuals, thereby impacting their own consciousness and understanding of how a person can exist in the world. In actualizing each of these dissident modalities through her radical alterity, Anna speaks in a subversive manner which leaves the colonial regime disoriented and displaced.

Works Cited

Alcoff, Linda. “The Problem of Speaking for Others.” Cultural Critique, No. 20 (Winter,  1991-1992), pp. 5-32.

Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin Books, 1972. PDF file. 4 October  2016. http://waysofseeingwaysofseeing.com/ways-of-seeing-john-berger-5.7.pdf

Butler, Judith. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution.” Literary Theory: An  Anthology.  Eds. Rivkin Julie and Michael Ryan. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. pp. 900-911.

Cunningham, Scarlett. “Femininity and Failure in Jean Rhys’s Autobiographical Fiction:  A  Psychoanalytic Reading.” Journal of Caribbean Literatures. Spring 2013, Vol. 7 Issue 2, pp.  55-70.

Emery, Mary Lou. “The Poetics of Labor in Jean Rhys’s Global Modernism.”  Philological Quarterly 2-3(2011): pp. 167-197. Biography in Context. Web. 11 Sept. 2016.

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Kahn, Coppelia. “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Edited  by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. pp. 826-837.

Kingsley, Erin M. “Birth Giving, the Body, and the Racialized Other in Jean Rhys’s Voyage  in the Dark and Good Morning, Midnight.” Philological Quarterly 3 (2015): 291-312. Biography in  Context. Web. 11 Sept. 2016.

Loendorf, Harald. “Two Tunes: Jean Rhys’ Voyage in the Dark.” Caribbean Quarterly Vol. 46,  No. 1 (March 2000), pp. 24-36.

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Seshagiri, Urmila. “Modernist Ashes, Postcolonial Phoenix: Jean Rhys and the Evolution of  the English Novel in the Twentieth Century.” Modernism/modernity, vol. 13 no. 3, 2006.  487-505. Project MUSE, doi: 10.1353/mod.2006.0074.

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The Subject Speaks: On Anna’s Subjectivity in Voyage in the Dark

On the Negation of Female Subjectivity in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale

Although there are several significant motifs that give shape and substance to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the subject of sexism is particularly salient and substantive within the narrative world. The reality of female suppression and submission is integral to almost every scene of the work, and the persistence of patriarchal paradigms underscores the ongoing war against female agency and identity. The textual manifestations of sexism are diverse and include the dehumanizing nature of Gileadean terms such as “Unwoman” (16) and the patronymic naming system (343). Central character and protagonist Offred is also subjected to a wide range of sexist experiences, one of which includes occupying a position of sexual objectification in which she has sex with a Commander for the purpose of producing a child which she will not be allowed to raise. The occlusion of Offred’s subjectivity is compounded when the Commander takes her to a brothel-like club called Jezebel where she is displayed as erotic object for male titillation. Upon juxtaposing Offred’s individual objectification to the collective erosion of female identities in The Handmaid’s Tale, it becomes plain that the narrative depicts the Republic of Gilead’s role in negating women’s subjectivity, with Offred existing as a microcosmic manifestation of this macrocosmic reality.

To fully understand the role that the Republic of Gilead plays in negating female identities, it is important to first grasp the role that gender performance plays in the world of the text. Rather than existing as a natural, fixed, and innate aspect of human identity, gender constitutes a sociocultural and political invention that plays subtle and/or salient roles in determining the way that men and women perform their identities. While many feminist theorists have drawn attention to this reality, Judith Butler’s contributions to the discourse have been particularly important. In her essay “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution,” Butler notes that “gender is in no way a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts proceed; rather, it is an identity tenuously constituted in time-an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts” (900). She elaborates on this assertion by noting that “if gender is instituted through acts which are internally discontinuous, then the appearance of substance is precisely that, a constructed identity, a performative accomplishment which the mundane social audience, including the actors themselves, come to believe and to perform in the mode of belief” (901). In identifying the source which determines how people will act out gender constructs, Butler notes that the performative accomplishment is compelled “by social sanction and taboo” (901). In submitting these suppositions, Butler argues that gender is a construct and demonstrates that the attitudes and actions exhibited by members of either sex oftentimes result from social impositions. As the reader learns through the unfolding plot of The Handmaid’s Tale, the sociocultural factor that precipitates gender constructs and performances is the rise of the Republic of Gilead. The onset of this oppressive theocracy conduces the revocation of women’s rights, with the end result being the negation—or complete erasure—of female identities associated with independence and intellectual freedom. In the world of the text, gender becomes a performance as women act out their existence in female bodies as suppressed, submissive non-beings who have little to no authority and agency. Thus in the world of Gilead, being female means thinking and acting in a manner that reflects complete dependence upon designated male authorities.

While there are numerous textual examples of female negation in The Handmaid’s Tale, one of the most salient is the assigning of limiting roles to each Gileadean woman. In discussing this reality, David Coad notes that:

Women are oppressed and forced to occupy a number of  rigidly defined subject positions: frustrated housebound Wives,  official substitute wives known as Handmaids, half-mistress, half-whore,  domestic helpers called Marthas, educators and disciplinarians, sadistic propagandists called Aunts and, lastly, unofficial prostitutes who remain on the hidden underside of the regime. (54)

Each of these societal positions is a manifestation of sexist oppression for numerous reasons, one of which is that the naming process and its product relegates women to a distinct sphere that limits personal agency. Moreover, the spheres are not chosen but rather assigned, meaning that the women play little to no role in determining their personal and/or professional station in the Gileadean world. Finally, each position keeps the female figure in submission to men. Staels draws attention to this textual reality upon noting that “All the women in Gilead are made to play subsidiary parts, the wives of Commanders included, as well as the elderly infertile women, the Aunts, who save their skins by collaborating and who train the Handmaids in self-suppression” (455). Thus as made plain by the Republic of Gilead’s construction of categories (Aunts/Handmaids/etc.) which define and limit the scope of female activity, the designation of names and roles for women confine them to a position of imitative identity in which they are to act out specific behaviors which they themselves did not create. Rather, their gendered identities are what Butler refers to as “performative accomplishment compelled by social sanction and taboo” (901). This social sanction and taboo is perhaps most saliently realized through the construction of the prostitute. Prostitution is sanctioned by socioculturally and politically empowered Commanders who, in recognizing that paying women for sex is considered taboo and unlawful within the new Gileadean schema, secretly sustain the institution through private meetings in a club called Jezebel. Thus while the prostitutes do not have official, publicly recognized names like “Aunt” or “Handmaid” because their role exists outside the socially constructed realm of morality designated by the Republic, they yet function as an integral component of the ugly patriarchal matrix that limits female action and agency to a narrow realm which serves the interests of men. Specifically, the prostitutes are relegated to the sphere of sexualized object in which their bodies exist to titillate and exhaust male sexual desires.

Just as the Republic of Gilead creates a schema in which women are relegated to a sphere of objectification which denies them subjectivity through the unofficial institutionalization of prostitution, it also develops a culture which gives rise to frustrated Wives whose identities are continually destabilized by the presence of Handmaids. On the surface, it appears that these women possess power, agency, and venerable identities within Gileadean society. Their ostensible power becomes evident at numerous points in the text, such as when Offred intimates that “You don’t see the Commanders’ Wives on the sidewalks. Only in cars” (33). Additionally, the Wives maintain a physical position of power during the sex acts that transpire between the Commander and the Handmaids. In illustrating this reality, Offred notes that “My arms are raised; she holds my hands, each of mine in each of hers. This is supposed to signify that we are one flesh, one being. What it really means is that she is in control, of the process and thus of the product. If any. The rings of her left hand cut into my fingers. It may or may not be revenge” (109). Despite the fact that the Wives seem to possess a substantive degree of power over the Handmaids and within their communities, the existence and activity of the Handmaids negates the ostensible agency and reverence these women have. Specifically, the Handmaids displace their identity as honored, privileged Wife through the sex acts they exact with the Commanders. The Wives clearly understand that their power and authority as the spouses of Commanders is complicated and compromised by the fact that the Handmaids have sex with their husbands, and their knowledge of this reality becomes plain through their communication with the “breeders.” For example, Serena Joy attempts to establish boundaries that will preclude Offred from accessing her husband in a manner that transcends her outlined role as Handmaid. Specifically, Serena Joy informs Offred: “As for my husband…he’s just that. My husband. I want that to be perfectly clear. Till death do us part. It’s final” (23). The fact that she articulates this concept aloud indicates her awareness of the fact that the Handmaid constitutes a threat to the heteronormative order through which she maintains the privileged position of Wife. If Offred were to develop a romantic relationship with the Commander, Serena Joy’s privileged subjectivity as venerable wife could be abraded or entirely erased. It is this compromised subjectivity which renders the female position of “Wife” just as problematic as that of other women occupying spheres like “Handmaids” and “prostitutes.” Moreover, there are no communal or cultural resources which would enable women to create an alternative world in which they possessed the ability to stabilize their subjectivity in a manner warranting them independence and agency because the Gileadean authorities have restructured society such that women cannot hold jobs, own property, or earn their own income. Additionally, women are not permitted to read and write. As Klarer notes, this restriction is “designed to suppress women by restricting them to an oral cultural tradition” (130). This restriction induces another dimension of female powerlessness as women are locked out of the educational systems that would enable them to gain socioeconomic and political authority. Thus as Hogsette notes in summarizing the dehumanizing effects of the Gileadean gender structure, “Women become nonpersons—individuals who lack the rights and opportunities that might enable them to counter openly society’s construction of them as Martha, Wife, and Handmaid—and their society strips them of any resources with which to create their own subjective reality” (263, 264). As such, the women of Gilead remain trapped in a world where their subjectivity is subject to constant erosion, rendering them victims of the patriarchal powers.

Yet another aspect of the Republic of Gilead which reveals the role society plays in negating female identity and agency is the establishment of colonies where women referred to as “Unwomen” are sent. Both the signifier and the reality it represents convey the role the Republic of Gilead plays in negating female identities such that women are denied subjectivity and agency in their own lives. As David Ketterer notes in his delineation of Unwomen, women who could not or would not become Handmaids or Marthas “became Unwomen” who were “usually given the job of clearing toxic wastes—itself a death sentence” (209, 210). Ketterer’s use of the word “became” underscores the fact that the position of “Unwomen” constitutes a mode of gender performance rather than representing one’s innate identity. In this mode of gendered becoming, female existence constitutes a locus of punishment and poverty exacted by the patriarchy in response to a woman’s refusal (or inability) to play the designated roles. In her own delineation of gender performance as a site of becoming, theorist Judith Butler notes that “to be a woman is to have become a woman, to compel the body to conform to an historical idea of “woman,” to induce the body to become a cultural sign, to materialize oneself in obedience to an historically delimited possibility, and to do this as a sustained and repeated corporeal project” (902). In the case of the Unwomen who are relegated to colonies where they clear toxic waste, there exists a failure to produce a mode of personhood which constitutes the materialization of self in conformance with the prescriptions and proscriptions outlined by the Republic of Gilead. As Butler notes, “gender is a project which has cultural survival as its end” and “those who fail to do their gender right are regularly punished” (903). This punishment can take on multiple forms, with the Gileadean modality incorporating isolation from society and relegation to a contained environment where work is unfulfilling and hazardous to one’s health. The Gileadean ability to transform women into Unwomen based on their inability or unwillingness to conform to its prescribed constructs for womanhood (Martha, Handmaid, etc.) demonstrates the role the Republic plays in negating female subjectivity.

While the Gileadean construction of monolithic, limiting roles for women functions as a clear indication of how the leaders within the Republic negate women’s subjectivity, this is not the only textual manifestation of patriarchal power and the role it plays in abrading female identity. Another component of the Gileadean world which manifests the presence and prevalence of a patriarchal order is the patronymic naming system. The original name of the women who work as Handmaids is revoked and replaced with the name of the Commander they are required to have intercourse with. Near the novel’s onset, the protagonist mentions the former names of several Handmaids: “Alma. Janine. Dolores. Moira. June” (10). These names are displaced by patronymic names, including the protagonist’s: Offred. Other patronymic names that appear in the text include Ofglen and Ofwarren. In discussing the signification of these names, the historical notes include Professor Pieixoto’s assertions that they are “composed of the possessive preposition and the first name of the gentleman in question” (343). He goes on to point out that “Such names were taken by these women upon their entry into a connection with the household of a specific Commander, and relinquished by them upon leaving it” (343). In explaining the patronymic system thus, Pieixoto underscores the roles that gender performance and identity negation play in the Republic of Gilead. Specifically, female identity is summarized in context of male ownership as women act out their roles of sexualized, subjugated selves who belong to another individual (Fred, Glen, Warren, etc.). Rather than possessing the individual identity which is suggested by their original names, their personhood is now summarized in terms of which Commander “owns” them. Thus the patronymic naming system functions as another example of Gileadean society displacing female identity in a manner that, in addition to negating a woman’s subjectivity, reestablishes her personhood as subordinate to a male counterpart who rules over her.

Just as the patronymic naming system exacted by Gileadean authorities manifests the prevalence and power of patriarchal paradigms which erase female subjectivity, the Republic’s construction of the female Handmaid reinscribes women in a world through which they are denied sexual agency. This fact becomes plain when Offred delineates her sexual activity with the Commander: “My red skirt is hitched up to my waist, though no higher. Below it the Commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love, because this is not what he’s doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved” (110). Offred’s delineation of her position of latency and displacement throughout the sexual act demonstrates the role that the Republic of Gilead’s construction of the Handmaid as a sexualized object plays in denying women subjectivity. As made plain through her description, she is not involved in the act of sex, but is rather acted upon. Moreover, Offred is not free to control the position or movement of her body during the sex act given that she must position herself between the Wife’s legs and remain still throughout intercourse. Additionally, kissing is forbidden (111). In this schema—within which only the male participant is involved in the act of fucking and the female participant cannot direct the nature and scope of the intercourse through kissing or unregulated body movements—Offred’s sexual agency and identity are negated. Thus within the Gileadean framework, female identity becomes tied to a sphere of sexual passivity which denies women physical and mental subjectivity. It is this dehumanizing sphere that Offred lives in every day as she sits in a room within the Commander’s home and continually prepares herself for the ritualistic sex acts that function as a systematic denial of her personhood. In describing her immersion in a world where her identity as a Handmaid renders self a scripted entity, Offred notes that “My self is a thing I must now compose, as one composes a speech. What I must present is a made thing, not something born” (79). Here, Offred reifies the reader’s understanding that she is inundated in a world where her identity is externally defined and designated such that she is locked inside a realm of gender performance where the right mode of being and knowing for a woman is resignation to a sphere of recurring sex acts that negate one’s subjectivity. Thus in context of Butler’s construction of gender performance involving “an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts” (900), it is Offred’s ongoing reenactment of objectifying sex acts which define her identity as a (female) Handmaid. Moreover, this gender performance reflects a problematic mode of personhood that Thomas describes as representing/replicating “only those aspects of subjectivity that conform to dominant, institutionalized regimes of truth, knowledge and power” (24). In this context, the Republic of Gilead has institutionalized a regime in which the dominant ideology for Handmaids is one advocating an identity marked by sexual objectification.

While the objectifying sex acts Offred is forced to perform are a disturbingly salient indication of the role her position as a Handmaid plays in systematically denying her subjectivity, it is important to note that the dehumanizing copulation exacts another dimension of oppression. Specifically, the purpose of the sex that transpires between the Handmaid and Commander is exacted for the purpose of procreation, not pleasure. Thus in relegating Offred to the position of Handmaid, the Republic of Gilead transposes her in a world where she is forced to participate in heteronormative sex acts undergirded by a teleological slant that does not necessarily parallel her own philosophy of intercourse. In fact, Offred never expresses an individually developed desire to procreate, but rather takes up this position in response to the impositions of her identity as a Handmaid. She evinces this reality upon defining herself as “a national resource” (77) insomuch as she, being fertile, can produce children for Gileadean society. Yet she also indicates that reproduction is not her personal, individually created desire upon noting that “Each month I watch for blood, fearfully, for when it comes it means failure. I have failed once again to fulfil the expectations of others, which have become my own” (88). Offred’s internalization of a perceived need to procreate coupled with the fact that she has to engage in objectifying sex acts to realize the externally designated objective demonstrates her immersion in a society predicated on the prescription of heteronormative intercourse. In discussing the nature and shortcomings of these heteronormative sex acts, Calvin Thomas notes that “Heteronormative sex is teleologically narrativized sex: sex with a goal, a purpose, and a product. The ends—children—justify the means, which are otherwise unjustifiable. The child, then, is not simply the outcome of but the justification for having engaged in sex” (33). Thomas elaborates on the shape and substance of heteronormative sex by asserting that “heteronormativity is antisexual in that it will only tolerate sex as a means toward the reproduction of “the person”—both in terms of “the child” and the ego” (33). It is this type of antisexual sex that becomes the scripted, narrativized reality that Offred has to participate in. This heteronormative modality forces her immersion in an ideological system that does not reflect her personal philosophy of sex.

The Republic of Gilead’s prescriptions regarding how Handmaids are to exist and act within their bodies during sex is not the only example of the patriarchy using the idea and reality of intercourse as a sphere through which to negate the subjectivity of women. This reality also unfolds through Re-education centers which adopt a “blame the victim” ideology towards women who have been subjected to sexual violence. This fact becomes plain when the reader considers the response Janine receives when she informs a group of Handmaids and the Aunts that she was gang raped during a meeting referred to as “Testifying.” After revealing that she was once gang raped, Aunt Helena suggests that Janine led the young men on and then asks the Handmaids whose fault the sexual assault was. The women respond by chanting, “Her fault, her fault, her fault” (86). Pleased with this response, Aunt Helena beams. In so doing, she displaces male culpability for the unwanted invasion of female bodies with a twisted logic that involves rendering women responsible for engendering the male titillation that functions as a breeding ground for acts of sexual violence. In advocating this ideology and encouraging the Handmaids to adopt it as well, Aunt Helena operates on behalf of the patriarchal Gileadean authority figures by reinforcing the idea that women do not have the right to define sexual violence as an act wrongfully committed against them. Rather, because women are capable of exciting men sexually, they are responsible for the sexual violation of their bodies. Male ownership of female bodies through gang rape is thus permissible, creating a new sphere of male/female relations in which men, not women, maintain control over the female body. It is this refusal to permit women to conceptualize their bodies as their own and interpret unwanted sexual activity as a violation and dismissal of the individual’s free will which functions as a negation of their agency and identity. Rather than operating as thinking beings empowered to define how their bodies are appropriated, women are reduced to somatic entities that can be “owned” through acts of sexual violation which entail no social remonstrance given that blame for the act is placed upon them. Feminist theorist Adrienne Rich expertly delineates how the patriarchy enacts this perverse twist on the signification of rape upon noting the existence of a socialization process in which women are led “to feel that male sexual “drive” amounts to a right” (638). It is this androcentric ideology that the Republic of Gilead advances through Re-education centers where women are taught that igniting male sexual desires by “leading them on” entitles them to gain unmitigated access to female bodies.

The profoundly patriarchal nature of Gileadean society is further evidenced by the signs of insanity that many female citizens exhibit in response to the oppressive rules and regulations imposed upon them by the regime. This idea becomes plain at many points but is perhaps most conspicuous when the Handmaid Janine undergoes a mental breakdown indicating her attempt to dissociate from her newfound self as “breeder” for the Republic of Gilead and reassociate with a former world of freedom in which she operated as an independent agent through work as a waitress. The revelation of Janine’s forthcoming insanity manifests as Offred notes that “she was whispering to herself” (246). After leaning down to get close enough to hear, Offred notes the following performance of a past self: “Hello, she said, but not to me. My name’s Janine. I’m your wait-person for this morning. Can I get you some coffee to begin with?” (246). Janine goes on with her attempt to (re)embody her former self, one marked by more substantive subjectivity, as she says to one of the women who observes her reenactment of a former identity: “You have a nice day, now” (247). In an attempt to bring her back to the present, Moira slaps Janine and says “Get right back here! You can’t stay there, you aren’t there anymore. That’s all gone” (247). Janine’s smile falters and she appears to interpret the physical remonstrance as dissatisfaction with her service as a waitress. She then responds: “What did you hit me for?…Wasn’t it good? I can bring you another. You didn’t have to hit me” (247). Moira responds by informing her that the punishment for this odd behavior will be death, thereby emphasizing the danger indigenous to Janine’s attempt to reenact a mode of being which represents the more liberated modality she maintained prior to the Gileadean regime. Janine responds: “I want to go home” and then begins to cry (247). This act, which Moira defines as the woman “slipping over the edge” (247), functions as proof of how the Republic of Gilead’s (re)construction of women as identity-less entities with no rights or freedoms induces a maniacal, fractured mode of being. In Janine’s case, the manifestation of insanity involves her attempt to escape her objectified existence as mindless “breeder” and return to a realm where she maintained a sense of self marked by some existential and economic freedom, with this liberty becoming evident through her former identity as an individual with a job. In analyzing this scene, the reader can clearly detect the presence of a psychosis that results from the subject’s awareness that her identity has been negated and replaced with a mode of being and knowing marked by ongoing dehumanization and objectification. It is the attempt to escape this world, which manifests through impersonations of her former (free) self, that both engenders and reveals Janine’s mental instability. Specifically, Janine’s impersonations of her other self reveals the mode of insanity marked by going out of one’s mind while also facilitating mental instability as the self continually seeks to escape the current world of objectification through the futile process of acting like another person who she can no longer really “be”: a free woman. The Republic of Gilead has negated this epistemological and ontological modality such that female subjectivity is an extinct mode of existence which, in still existing within the mind of a Handmaid, drives her mad as she recognizes her inability to (re)access an identity marked by volition and individually defined, rather than externally created, values.

While the role that the Republic of Gilead plays in negating female subjectivity manifests through the actions and attitudes of many characters, the principle is perhaps most profoundly exhibited through the protagonist Offred. Her negated subjectivity, which manifests in her confinement to the position of a Handmaid who must have sex with a Commander in order to produce a child that she does not want, resurfaces when the Commander adds another subordinating twist to her identity of sexually subordinated other. This process transpires when he has her dress up in clothes that mark her as a prostitute or sexually promiscuous woman and then takes her to a brothel called Jezebel. The Commander thus introduces Offred to a new dimension of sexual objectification that negates her sense of self. The inculcation begins with his statement: “Tonight I have a little surprise for you” (261). In evaluating the Commander’s use of the signifier “little,” Offred thinks to herself: “I notice that everything this evening is little. He wishes to diminish things, myself included” (261). Here, Offred observes the onset of her negation by noting the way the word “little” signifies the Commander’s desire to make her small and insignificant.

The Commander’s negation of Offred’s subjectivity moves from linguistic to literal as he gives Offred a “glittering and theatrical” garment to wear as he takes her out (262). In describing the garment, Offred notes that “there are the cups for the breasts, covered in purple sequins. The sequins are tiny stars. The feathers are around the thigh holes, and along the top” (262).  In addition to instructing Offred to wear a theatrical, objectifying garment, the Commander also tells the woman to paint her face and wear shoes with “absurdly high heels” (263). The cosmetics and shoes emphasize the theatrical, performative sort of self that Offred now represents. After Offred changes her clothing, the Commander takes her out of the home and through checkpoints. He informs her to identify self as “an evening rental” (266) if anyone asks who she is, thereby underscoring the reader’s understanding that her identity is defined in terms of object, not subject. Once they reach the brothel, Offred’s recognition of the site as a center of sexualized objectification—and her role in replicating this reality—becomes plain. In noting other women in Jezebel, Offred states that they “are tropical, they are dressed in all kinds of bright festive gear. Some of them have on outfits like mine, feathers and glister, cut high up the thighs, low over the breasts. Some are in olden-days lingerie, shortie nightgowns, baby-doll pajamas, the occasional see-through negligee” (267, 268). She goes on to note that some are in jogging shorts, exercise costumes, and cheerleaders’ outfits, thereby crystallizing the reader’s understanding that the women in the club have had their identities reduced to a sexualized mode of gender performance which involves displaying the body in a manner connoting self as object that exists for the erotic titillation of men. In observing Offred as she takes in this new scene, the Commander instructs her not to gawk but rather to “Just act natural” (268). In issuing this edict, the Commander reinscribes Offred in the world of gender performance as she is required to behave as if the objectifying, sexualized mode of being she and the other women now enact is the normal, acceptable mode to emulate.

In considering the substance and signification of the Commander reorienting Offred’s body such that it functions as a sign that she is a sexualized object, the role that the activity plays in negating her subjectivity becomes plain. Rather than existing as a “breeder” whose personhood is abraded through dehumanizing, antisexual sex acts, Offred now operates as an eroticized object to be looked at. This new schema functions as a reenactment of writer Laura Mulvey’s theory regarding the heterosexist system of relations that guide male-to-female interaction. In delineating it, Mulvey notes that:

In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split  between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female figure which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-atness. (346)

This to-be-looked-atness unfolds in the Offred-Commander schema as he shows her off as a sexualized object to be observed by other men as both an erotically desirable woman and proof that he has conquered the world through his ability to mediate and control a woman’s appearance, activity, and agency.  Offred makes this aspect of the unfolding scene plain as she notes that “It occurs to me he is showing off. He is showing me off, to them, and they understand that, they are decorous enough, they keep their hands to themselves, but they review my breasts, my legs, as if there’s no reason why they shouldn’t. But also he is showing off to me. He is demonstrating, to me, his mastery of the world” (269). This mastery of the world involves his ability to break the societal rules which have rendered sexualized objectification and erotic intercourse illegal and inappropriate. By having Offred operate in this dimension of being, the Commander is “thumbing his nose at them, getting away with it” (269). Because he accomplishes this subversion of the societal structure through the establishment of Offred’s identity as the site of eroticized object, the Commander puts a new twist on the other heteronormative scripts through which female subjectivity is negated.

In analyzing the role that the Republic of Gilead plays in denying women selfhood, it’s important to note that the (patriarchally) imperialist project is not thoroughly successful. For while the subjugated female subject-objects may evince outward compliance to the regime’s rules and regulations, many of them retain an inward posture of defiance. Neuman draws attention to this reality upon referring to Offred as “outwardly conformist” (857). Thus even as the Gileadean regime reduces women to a slavish, subjugated mode of existence, many Handmaids retain a mode of subjectivity marked by inward dissent to the Republic’s oppressive prescriptions and proscriptions. This idea becomes plain when Offred listens to Aunt Lydia’s ongoing indoctrination of the Handmaids into a world of reproductive objectification and thinks to herself, “I would like to strangle her” (130). This inward manifestation of rebellion to the regime indicates that while female subjectivity appears to be thoroughly quelled, independent thought and anarchic leanings are ever present.  Thus as Karen Stein accurately argues in her interpretation of Offred’s mediation of her perpetually compromised subjectivity in context of the Republic’s imperial impositions, “The novel emphasizes the constraint and limitation Gilead imposes, and the narrator’s growing resistance” (10). In so doing, the narrative delineates the tension produced by Offred’s unwillingness to fully internalize her objectification and renounce the subjectivity she possessed prior to the regime’s activation. While this reading complicates the reader’s ability to argue that female negation is thoroughly successful, it does not diminish the reality of Gilead’s ongoing and relatively effective efforts in erasing the Handmaid’s subjectivity such that outward behaviors reflect adherence to its self-abrading edicts.

In analyzing the representation of society as a medium through which the negation of female subjectivity is enacted and promoted in Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, it is important to note that this is not the only narrative through which this patriarchal reality is perpetuated. In fact, this theme of identity abrasion surfaces in several other texts, including Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera.  In this text, Marquez demonstrates the role society plays in occluding female identities that constitute diversions from its own constructs of how women should perform their gender. This reality becomes plain through the ideological disposition of central character Fermina Daza. In narrating her frustration with the patriarchal society in which she is transposed, the text notes that she detested “the constant criticism of the way she held her silverware, the way she walked in mystical strides like a woman of the streets, the way she dressed as if she were in the circus, and even the rustic way she treated her husband and nursed her child without covering her breast with her mantilla” (207). Here, Fermina delineates her loathing of societal codes which place restrictions on how women can operate within and mediate their bodies. Specifically, there is cultural disdain for “circus-like” clothing which exists as a deviation from the established regimes of normative dress, with the disdain operating as a force through which society can influence women to adorn their bodies in distinct ways which do not necessarily reflect their personal proclivities and preferences. Additionally, the society in which Fermina exists criticizes her proclivity for leaving her breast uncovered while feeding her infant, thereby replicating its attempt to legislate how women’s bodies are represented in the public sphere. This societal attempt to control representations of a woman’s somatic form functions as an attack against female subjectivity as women lose the ability to determine how they will exist and act as corporeal agents. It is this ongoing control of female bodies that unfolds in The Handmaid’s Tale, with the outcome—abraded female subjectivity—replicating the self-eroding reality Fermina Daza loathes.

As made plain through an analysis of The Handmaid’s Tale, the narrative depicts the Republic of Gilead’s negation of every woman’s subjectivity. Thus as Steals notes, “All the women in Gilead are made to play subsidiary parts, the wives of Commanders included, as well as the elderly infertile women, the Aunts, who save their skins by collaborating and who train the Handmaids in self-suppression” (455). In addition to depicting the erasure of every woman’s agency and individuality through the assigning of roles which render them subordinate to the sexist Gileadean regime, the narrative depicts the destructive impact that the patriarchal powers have in the life of central character and protagonist Offred. Thus ultimately, the Republic of Gilead constructs a community where the presence of a female signifies a substantive absence in which the woman’s independent identity has been erased and replaced with various vapidities, including the reconstruction of self as a sexualized object or as a Wife whose position of power and distinction is effaced through the sexual activity of the Handmaid and Commander. In constructing reality thus, The Handmaid’s Tale provides the reader with a disturbing illustration of how societies predicated on the development and implementation of sexist policies force women to develop self-negating identities which render them (perhaps paradoxically) absent even as markers like “Handmaid” and “Wife” signify their presence.

Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.

Butler, Judith. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution.” Literary Theory: An Anthology.  Eds. Rivkin Julie and Michael Ryan. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. Pg. 900-911.

Coad, David. “Hymens, lips and masks: The veil in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s  Tale.” Literature and Psychology. 47.1/2 (2001): 54-67.

Hogsette, David S. “Margaret Atwood’s Rhetorical Epilogue in The Handmaid’s Tale:  The  Reader’s Role in Empowering Offred’s Speech Act.” Critique 38.4 (1997): 262-78.

Ketterer, David. “Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”: A Contextual Dystopia.”  Science Fiction Studies. Volume 16, Issue 2 (1989): 209-217.

Klarer, Mario. “Orality and Literacy as Gender-Supporting Structures in Margaret  Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Mosaic 28.4 (1995): 129.

Marquez, Gabriel Garcia. Love in the Time of Cholera. New York: Vintage International,  2003.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Media and Cultural Studies.  Durham, Meenakshi Gigi and Douglas M. Kellner. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2006. 342-352. PDF file. 4 February 2016.

Neuman, Shirley. “’Just a Backlash’: Margaret Atwood, Feminism and The Handmaid’s  Tale.” University of Toronto Quarterly. Volume 75, Issue 3: 857-868.

Rich, Adrienne. “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” Signs. Vol. 5, No. 4,  Women: Sex and Sexuality (Summer, 1980), pp. 631-660.

Staels, Hilde. “Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale: Resistance Through  Narrating.” English Studies. Volume 76, Issue 5 (1995). 455-467.

Stein, Karen F. “Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale: Scheherazade in  Dystopia.” University of Toronto. Volume 61, Issue 2. 269-279.

Thomas, Calvin. “On Being Post-Normative: Heterosexuality After Queer Theory.” The  Ashage Research Companion to Queer Theory. Eds. Michael O’Rourke and Noreen Giffney  (Surrey, UK: Ashgate, 2009): 17-32. PDF file. Accessed 28 February 2016.

Thomas, Calvin. “Straight with a Twist: Queer Theory and the Subject of  Heterosexuality.” Straight with a Twist: Queer Theory and the Subject of Heterosexuality.  Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2000. 11-44. PDF file. Accessed 28 February 2016.

On the Negation of Female Subjectivity in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale

Sex Is Not Sustainable For Women

I am currently reading an impressive, informative anthology entitled Female Erasure. While contemplating various concepts regarding the adverse impact that the transgender movement is having on “female sexuality,” a meaningful phrase surfaced in my psyche: Sex is not sustainable for women.

It may never have been, but I am basing my claim on a wide range of patriarchal ideologies and material realities which render “sex” a practice that systematically degrades and dehumanizes women in this contemporary era. The overarching problem which produces androcentric ideas and concrete actualities that engender the ongoing oppression of women in the sexual sphere is gender. This term has been defined in numerous, distinct ways by radical feminists. All of the definitions convey that the gender system is one that advances the patriarchal project of male domination and female submission. In her analysis of the gender system’s outcome, Hypotaxis notes that “Our unwavering adherence to gender’s innateness makes it so that a boy is groomed from birth to believe the world-its currency, its women, its language-are his birthright” (177, “On Language And Erasure”). This sense of entitlement includes the male belief that men can and should have access to female bodies for their own sexual pleasure. Thus sex exists within an ideological sphere where it becomes a social practice of men “owning” or dehumanizing women. This is what men have made sex mean. Of course, sex is a clearly polysemic concept and practice. It could hypothetically mean or signify whatever the people participating in the act claimed. Yet the dominant discourse that currently produces and perverts reality-patriarchy-makes sex mean something sinister and sadistic: men own women.

That sex and sexuality are systems through which men control and coerce women has been well-documented by many radical feminists. I am going to recite some of their assessments here:

In Marilyn Frye’s essay “In And Out Of Harm’s Way: Arrogance And Love,” she discusses experiments which revealed that people behave according to how individuals in authority expect them to behave. She connects this reality to the phallic system through which the behavior of women is largely controlled by the expectations and ideologies constructed by their oppressors, men. Frye conceptualizes male control in terms of coercive influence. Specifically, Frye notes that “Women experience the coerciveness of this kind of “influence” when men perversely impose sexual meanings on our every movement. We know the palpable pressure of a man’s reduction of our objection to an occasion for our instruction” (69). A concrete example of Frye’s suggestions would be a man who whistles when a woman walks down the street. While walking is not necessarily a “sexual” act, men impose their understanding of reality upon this movement by rendering the activity of female limbs moving an erotic enterprise. This is the imposition of sexual meaning on a woman’s movement. In situations where this phallic imposition is actualized, a woman might protest in several ways. One would be nonrecognition, in which she simply wouldn’t respond to the whistling, thereby expressing disinterest in the man and his act of sexualizing her. A man, trained to adopt an arrogant attitude which involves assuming entitlement to female attention and female bodies, might reduce her objection to an occasion for instruction by pursuing her despite the fact that she has indicated disinterest. In this case, the instruction-or “lesson”-is that women are not entitled to reject men and the perverted attention imposed upon them when they complete the simple act of walking. In the male mind, any act of woman can be sexualized, and the arousal it engenders entitles the man to harass and pursue the oppressed party.

Frye makes another important assessment regarding the phallic system of sex and sexuality, both of which are created and controlled by men: “In the face of the woman denying forthrightly that she experiences pleasure in coitus with her husband, the psychiatrist’s observation that she “dreads” the experience, and the woman’s report that she deliberately averts her attention from the act and the sensations, Sartre insists that what she dreads and tries to distract herself from is “pleasure” and that the woman is self-deceived” (55). Here, the radical feminist reader can see the role that sexist men play in continually redefining reality such that it is not predicated upon a woman’s experience, but rather the man’s interpretation of that experience and what it should mean in her mind. This is quite common and is a particularly salient theme in the male narrative that women enjoy pain such that the experience is not actually agony or discomfort but rather a source of titillation. This type of rhetoric is used to legitimate the patriarchal praxis of exacting violence against women in pornography.

Another radical feminist who has demonstrated the role that men play in constructing sex and sexuality such that it constitutes a system in which men dominate women is Monique Wittig. Wittig informs the reader rising to consciousness that “Women do not know that they are totally dominated by men, and when they acknowledge the fact, they can “hardly believe it” (3, “The Category Of Sex”). She goes on to explicate how this domination transpires in numerous realms, with sex/sexuality being one. Specifically, she notes that “The category of sex is the product of heterosexual society that turns half of the population into sexual beings, for sex is a category which women cannot be outside of. Whereever they are, whatever they do (including working in the public sector), they are seen (and made) sexually available to men, and they, breasts, buttocks, costume, must be visible” (7). In this schema, clothing becomes the visual signifier through which the sexual subordination of women becomes plain. By wearing clothing that displays rather than covers the body, the woman is reduced to an object on display within a schema many feminists now refer to as the male gaze. Laura Mulvey coined the phrase and provided readers with the following analysis of the role that phallic power plays in (re)constructing reality such that the female body becomes a site of sex and eroticism designed to titillate men:

“In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female figure which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-atness” (346).

The oppressive, sexualizing dimensions of the male gaze ensure that every woman is kept in a state of dehumanized objectification. The male gaze knows no bounds, and makes itself known when women are walking, speaking, reading, eating, etc. Perhaps the most perverse representation of the male gaze is the presence and proliferation of pornography. In this sexist scenario, men who purchase pornography watch women exist as sexual objects whose primary purpose is to submit to a man’s subordination and violence through acts which gain legitimacy because they operate under the code word “sex.” Beyond the fact that pornography enacts the phallic male gaze, its existence functions as a sign to signify the culture’s low esteem of women. In short, its presence signifies a cultural climate that advocates and advances the domination of women by men. In discussing this fact, Wittig notes that “Pornographic images, films, magazine photos, publicity posters on the walls of the cities, constitute a discourse, and this discourse covers our world with its signs, and this discourse has a meaning: it signifies that women are dominated” (25). When one sees pornography, what one actually sees is society making a statement: women are sexual commodities to be appropriated and oppressed by men. Moreover, pornography-through its images of women being harmed and abused by men-demonstrates that it defines sex as men dominating women. This is why I argue that sex is not sustainable for women.

Like Marilyn Frye and Monique Wittig, Lierre Keith provides readers with a clear understanding of how the dominant culture constructs sex and the female body as a sadist system through which the oppression of women is legitimated and legislated by men. She writes:

“Behind the sadist are the institutions, the condensations of power that hand us to him. Every time a judge rules that women have no right to bodily integrity-that upskirt photos are legal, that miscarriages are murder, that women should expect to be beaten-he wins. Every time the Fashion Masters make heels higher and clothes smaller, he smiles. Every time an entire class of women-the poorest and most desperate, at the bottom of every conceivable hierarchy-are declared legal commodities for sex, he gets a collective hard-on. Whether he personally uses any such women is beside the point. Society has ruled they are there for him, other men have ensured their compliance, and they will comply. He can kill one-the ultimate sex act for the sadist-and no one will notice. And no one does” (290, “The Girls And The Grasses”).

The ideology that makes this oppression of women permissible and prevalent is patriarchy, and Keith identifies it as “the ruling religion of the planet” (289). Because this assessment is accurate, it’s important to note that women who seek to engage in sex with men are likely entering an enterprise which will engender their psychical and/or physical annihilation. If a woman seeks to find a man willing to operate outside of the patriarchal norms which govern what “sex” constitutes, she will have challenges. As noted by C.K. Egbert, if she wants “sex” to be mutually pleasurable, she must:

“Find a man who does not have a preference for eroticizing violence. This is going to be extremely difficult because men are strongly socialized into norms that train men’s sexual responses to situations in which women are harmed and objectified. Since not hurting women is merely a “preference,” there is no motivation for men to not have those responses or to be concerned about sex being reciprocal.”

I would take the argument even further by suggesting that even if she finds a man who does not operate according to dominant paradigms, heterosexual sex is still innately problematic because a penis entering a vagina constitutes an invasive act. (You can learn more about my views on PIV sex here.) I therefore conclude that heterosexual sex is not sustainable. Although defined diversely and divergently, sustainability tends to connote the idea of a practice that is not harmful to the individuals participating in it or those impacted by it. The dominant discourse’s definition of sex (which is men dominating women through violence and/or invasion) renders the act unsustainable because it harms the individuals who are reduced to objects within its systems. Therefore, I argue that sex-which is ultimately an imperial project designed to metabolize and mobilize the patriarchy-is not compatible with radical feminist ideology and praxis.

Unfortunately, many so-called feminists reject the revolutionary approach of radical anarchy: asexuality. Instead, they embrace what Breanne Fahs refers to as the “master narrative of the sexual revolution” (446), which involves acceding to the idea that having sex with men constitutes a form of derepression that reverses the constricting, confining impact that female chastity has on the psyche and body. Yet as Gloria Steinem has pointed out, the term “Sexual Revolution” is ultimately a misnomer which has nothing to do with female liberation. Rather, the term was “a nonfeminist phrase that simply meant women’s increased availability on men’s terms” (166, Outrageous Acts And Everyday Rebellions). This putative sexual revolution, which is ultimately consent to one’s sexual slavery, is now operating under the phrase sex-positivity. This phrase is as deceptive as “sexual revolution” because it references a wanting or willingness to categorize men dominating women (in pornography, prostitution, and supposedly mutual sex acts in which women enjoy being tied up) as something positive. Here one can note the presence of a phallic principle-inverting reality such that something categorically bad becomes good. Negativity, which in this case surfaces as women lose status as subjects so they can be reduced to objects whose bodies are subordinated through a wide range of dehumanizing acts, is reconstructed as positivity. Why this inversion can transpire is plain. The phallus likes to see women harmed and views the enterprise as positive. Lierre Keith drew attention to this fact when she noted that “Every time an entire class of women-the poorest and most desperate, at the bottom of every conceivable hierarchy-are declared legal commodities for sex, he gets a collective hard-on” (290). Any erection, which constitutes proof of male arousal, is constructed as positive because it signifies his pleasure. Even if his pleasure necessitates her pain, the erection signals positivity. The form of positivity is specific: self-aggrandizement and alienation from the other through her dehumanization. Keith describes this process as “a mass circle jerk of autoerotic asphyxiation” (297). It is ultimately the man “having sex” with himself, and the “sex” is self telling self that he rules. The proof of rule is the death of the other: woman. Yes to this type of “sex” is thus a death sentence.

So again, sex is not sustainable for women.

Sex Is Not Sustainable For Women

Is Kate a Woman?: Gender Performance in The Taming of the Shrew

For quite some time, many feminist theorists have viewed Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew as a text in which the evolution of central character Katharina reveals the subversion of her identity in the face of patriarchal philosophies and praxis actualized by her suitor, Petruchio. On the other hand, there are also gender theorists who argue that Petruchio and Katharina’s interaction does not result in her slavish submission to him but rather reveals her subversive inversion of the androcentric powers. While arguments can be made for each of these interpretations, a close reading of the text legitimates an alternate construing of The Shrew. Specifically, Katharina’s interactions with Petruchio and other members of the Paduan community reveal that she moves back and forth between the socioculturally constructed subject positions of disempowered “woman” and empowered “man.” And while many scholars argue that the narrative ends with her conformance to a heterosexist order marked by her consenting to a position of slavish subjection, the concluding speech which ostensibly symbolizes this subjection actually complicates her ostensibly submissive position given that the submitted stance comes to constitute the foundation upon which Petruchio’s masculinized identity is established and maintained. Thus both the play’s textual developments and denouement reveal that Katharina moves back and forth between spheres considered “masculine” and “feminine” and “dominant” and “submissive,” thereby complicating—indeed, queering—the heteronormative order as well as the rigid identity constructs it creates for “men” and “women.”

In recognizing that whether Katharina is categorized as a woman is largely contingent upon whether she replicates the behaviors and attitudes prescribed for women according to Renaissance cultural mores and social values, it is important to note that her complicated, perpetually reconstituted identity can be understood in context of Judith Butler’s theory of gender performance. In explaining the theory, Butler notes that “gender is in no way a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts proceed; rather, it is an identity tenuously constituted in time—an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts” (901). Butler goes on to note that these gendered acts can be understood through corporeal manifestations such as “bodily gestures, movements, and enactments of various kinds” (901), with these acts creating the “illusion of an abiding gendered self” (901). In the case of The Taming of the Shrew’s Katharina, the mode of gender performance which would define her identity within the category “woman” is submission to various patriarchal procedures. One such procedure is her assent to participation in a courtship system, and another is her willing submission to Petruchio within an androcentric marriage in which she operates as a subjugated wife. As made plain by the narrative itself, Katharina repeatedly resists immersion in this patriarchal schema, thereby refusing to enact a gender performance which would engender social approval. In short, her acts constitute a mode of resistance to the regimes of the normal which seek to confine female actions and attitudes to a limited, subordinated sphere. In terms of Butler’s theory of gender performance, these acts of resistance allow subjects “to work from within the very power structures that bring them into being” (290). It is Katharina’s refusal to conform to conventional, patriarchal conceptions of how a “woman” should think and act which engender what Judith Butler refers to as punishment. Specifically, Butler argues that “Performing one’s gender wrong initiates a set of punishments both obvious and indirect” (908). Katharina’s ongoing refusal to act like a “woman” by submitting to Petruchio entails a series of punishments, including public embarrassment, starvation, and sleep deprivation.

While Butler’s theory of gender performance is an important and revealing lens through which to analyze Kate’s actions and attitudes in The Taming of the Shrew, it is important to note that the revelation of gender as an act within the play does not negate the reality of society defining people in terms of “man” and “woman,” with specific behaviors being deemed essential to the groups. In fact, the Renaissance cultural era in which the play transpires upheld the patriarchal principle of gender binaries and prescribed certain attitudes and actions based on the constructed identity positions. This reality becomes plain at many cultural points, including the androcentric nature of the marriage structure and the rituals that gave it a definitively patriarchal import.  In discussing this reality, Amy L. Smith notes that “From the removal of the bride from her father’s house, through the vows of obedience, to the consummation that completes the ceremony, these rituals enact a husband’s power over his wife, a daughter’s transition into a wife, and the creation of a new family” (291). Smith goes on to state that the early Modern England era was defined by the use of wedding vows which “made the proper marital hierarchy clear: a vow of subjection was enforced on a woman in the ceremony itself. While the husband’s vows included promises to love, comfort, honor, and keep, the wife’s vows included the additional promises to obey and serve” (291). Thus the era of the play is marked by rigid constructs for “man” and “woman” in which members of the former group maintain positions of power over women who occupy a sphere of submission and servitude. These outlined roles and prescriptions for behavior give shape and form to the otherwise amorphous, ambiguous concepts of manhood and womanhood, thereby creating gender in context of a hegemonic binary which results in the construction of an antipodal, hierarchical system of relations between the subjects who come to define themselves as “men” and “women.”

The hierarchical system of gender-based relations evident in early Modern England resurfaces within the world of Shakespeare’s play. While there are many aspects of The Taming of the Shrew which generate understanding regarding the central role that these heteronormative values and gender constructs play in defining manhood and womanhood, the narrative’s title functions as an exemplary example. The term “shrew” is a signifier which alludes to both womanhood and the undesirable dimensions of it given that the word references a woman whose actions and attitudes are nagging, violent, and abrasive. Additionally, the gerund “taming” carries with it the implication of a need to domesticate the animalistic mode of being and knowing that characterizes this excessive, recalcitrant rendition of femaleness marked with the signifier “shrew.” Petruchio, in occupying the prototypical patriarchal position “man,” will do the taming. Katharina, the “shrew,” is also the “woman” who must be tamed for the purpose of rendering her identity appropriate and apposite for the heterosexist institution of marriage. It is important to note that this “taming of the shrew” word sequence replicates the conventional androcentric construction of women as passive and men as active, with Petruchio acting upon Kate for the purpose of rendering her identity a locus of submission and acquiescence. Nevertheless, the signifier “shrew” also exists as evidence that the individual occupying the position operates in resistance to the regimes of the normal exacted by the heterosexist order by embodying an identity suffused with the active, aggressive modality that “women” are not supposed to possess and/or actualize.

Just as the play’s title indicates the prevalence of a heteronormative system of relations for men and women and the contestation such regimes give rise to, Katharina’s introduction to the text within Act I demonstrates the presence of a patriarchal polemic. This idea becomes plain when Baptista, Katharina’s father, announces that his daughter is available to court (I.i.48-54). In making this announcement, Baptista replicates the paternalistic tradition of women being made available to men for romantic, sexual, and marital unions by their fathers. This tradition reduces women to objects of exchange between men, thereby limiting the sense of subjectivity and free will that comes to be associated with full humanity and personhood. However, Katharina’s initial line within the play constitutes a challenge to this patriarchal system. In realizing that her father is now attempting to find her a suitor, Katharina responds “I pray you, sir, is it your will to make a stale of me amongst these mates?” (I.i.57-58). In asking this question, Katharina challenges her father’s choice to immerse her in the world of courtship by suggesting that the courting system would make her a laughingstock. Katharina further challenges the legitimacy and relevance of the traditional courtship system upon informing a potential suitor, Hortensio, that she is not interested in marriage (I.i.62). This statement challenges both Baptista’s patriarchal power to find her a suitor and the courtship system itself, thereby unveiling Katharina’s initial resistance to the androcentric regime which dictates that she—as woman—take up the identity of a “wife.” In expressing her refusal to perform this gendered role, Katharina exists and operates outside of the prototypical sphere “woman” and rather embodies another mode of being which is perhaps best identified as transgressive subject. In this case, the objectified mode of existence traditionally conferred upon women by the patriarchal powers is subverted through Katharina’s expressed resistance to marriage, thereby reconstituting her gendered identity such that, while she exists as a “woman,” she yet retains the sense of subjectivity associated with “men.”

While Katharina’s resistance to subordination at the hands of men such as her father and Petruchio are salient examples of her refusal to operate as a “woman,” it is important to note that her resistance to performing submission is not confined to her interaction with men. In fact, Katharina’s interaction with her sister, Bianca, also demonstrates her divergence from the subject/object position “woman.” This idea becomes plain at many points, but is perhaps most conspicuous when Katharina ties Bianca’s hands in an attempt to make her reveal which suitor she likes the most. In protesting this abusive, aggressive activity, Bianca states: “Good sister, wrong me not, nor wrong yourself, to make a bondmaid and a slave of me. That I disdain. But for these other goods, unbind my hands, I’ll pull them off myself, Yea, all my raiment, to my petticoat, or what you will command me will I do, so well I know my duty to my elders” (II.i.1-7). Although the principle of domination and submission implicit in Katharina tying her sister up was plain through the act itself, Bianca’s speech makes the oppressive nature of the work even more evident. Specifically, Bianca implies that being bound reduces her to a “bondmaid” and “slave,” thereby placing her in a position of servitude and subjection to Katharina. Bianca also indicates at least some consent to this subjection upon noting that she will do whatever Katharina commands in recognition of the fact that this is her duty.

In analyzing Katharina’s act of putting Bianca in bonds, it is clear that the deed constitutes another manifestation of her refusal to enact the socially prescribed mode of gender performance. Rather than operating as a docile, passive individual, Katharina behaves in an aggressive, violent manner comparable to the behaviors deemed permissible for “men.” Kate’s deviance from the social order is perhaps made particularly conspicuous given her juxtaposition to the docile, peace-seeking Bianca. In this scene, Kate and Bianca come to embody antithetical identities which conform to Gilbert and Gubar’s “angel/monster” theory. In explicating this theory, Gilbert and Gubar note that male writers have a proclivity for creating literary depictions of women which confine them to monolithic modes of being and knowing. The angel embodies culturally desirable attributes associated with “true womanhood,” with some of them including “modesty, gracefulness, purity, delicacy, civility, compliancy, reticence, chastity, affability, politeness” (816). And as noted by Hutcheon, Bianca “appears to occupy the position of the ideal woman-silent, chaste (we assume), and obedient” (316). Thus Bianca can be said to represent the angel, while her sister Kate is linked to the “monster” modality through her attempt to maintain autonomy as well as her refusal to remain in her “textually ordained “place”” (819). This “place” is ultimately a gendered personhood marked by an unbroken series of docile, submitted acts, and Kate deviates from the script by manifesting an aggressive, assertive mode of being which is deemed monstrous in women because it is unfeminine (819). Thus the reader witnesses the actualization of the angel/monster binary through Kate’s violent, self-willed attempt to subordinate Bianca who, in attempting to acquiesce her sister and establish peace, reveals her identity position as angel. The juxtaposition of the characters underscores Kate’s gender mobility insomuch as she abrades her identity as a “woman” through the oppression of another individual, thereby erecting a domination/submission binary that signifies her as the Master, or “man.” Bianca, as subjected “slave,” is the innocent angel upon whom the wrongful oppression is exacted.

While the scene in which Kate bonds Bianca is a telling depiction of the former’s abrasion of her identity as a “woman,” it is important to note that this interaction simultaneously unveils her immersion in the very gendered category that it expels her from. Specifically, Kate ties Bianca’s hands in an attempt to learn more about which suitor she likes the best. While the reason she wants this information is not explicitly stated, what becomes plain as the scene unfolds is that she fears her younger sister will marry first, thereby thrusting her into an abjected mode of womanhood referred to as “the old maid.” Kate references the possibility of this outcome to Baptista when he questions her regarding her violent behavior towards Bianca. In explaining herself, Katharina states “She is your treasure, she must have a husband; I must dance barefoot on her wedding day, And for your love to her lead apes in hell” (II.i.32-34). In making this claim, Katharina expresses irritation regarding her perception that Baptista is more interested in securing a marriage for Bianca than her. Additionally, the reference to “dancing barefoot on her wedding day” indicates the status of an unmarried woman, or “old maid.” In referencing these realities, Katharina resignifies herself as a “woman” in a significant way. First, her fear regarding becoming an “old maid” reflects her internalization of the patriarchal notion that women who do not marry are inferior others who, in refusing to participate in the androcentric marital sphere, receive less social esteem and power than “women” who operate as “wives.” Thus Katharina’s fear regarding becoming an old maid functions as a clear deviation from her former mode of resisting the patriarchal regime. Additionally, Katharina’s expressed apprehension towards remaining single resituates her in a sphere of vulnerability marked by the perceived need to marry. It is this sphere of vulnerability, which involves acquiescence to the idea that a woman’s identity is neither established nor valid until she marries, that reestablishes her as the quintessential, male-identified “woman.”

As made plain by the scene in which Kate puts Bianca in bonds, her gendered identity is not a static entity. Rather, it is subjected to ongoing evolutions and abrasions as Kate alternates from conformance to and deviance from the mode of performativity prescribed for “women.” This specific mode of gender performance, which involves moving back and forth between the spheres of “man” and “woman,” is replicated throughout the play. This textual reality might lead the reader to believe that gender mobility, rather than a binary term like “woman,” is most accurately descriptive of Kate’s personhood. A prime example of Kate’s gender mobility transpires during her first interaction with Petruchio. In this scene, Petruchio attempts to establish himself in a position of authority over her by proclaiming that she will become his (submitted) wife. He begins his attempts at making her a subjugated woman as soon as they meet. Rather than calling her by her full name (Katharina), Petruchio reduces her appellation to a series of nicknames. Specifically, he notes that “you are called plain Kate, and bonny Kate, and sometimes Kate the curst; but Kate, the prettiest Kate in Christendom, Kate of Kate Hall, my superdainty Kate, for dainties are all Kates” (II.i.185-189). This linguistic maneuver is very important because, in addition to altering Katharina’s name and thereby attempting control over her identity, his wording includes the use of the possessive pronoun “my.” In calling Katharina “my superdainty Kate,” Petruchio attempts to establish her as a subject/object who belongs to him. It is this wording which constitutes an attempt to reconstitute Kate’s “shrewish” identity such that she embodies the subordinated, owned alterity associated with womanhood.

Despite Petruchio’s initial attempt at subordinating her into the identity position “woman,” Kate maintains a sense of self and resistance which keep her outside the gendered signification. When Petruchio asserts that he is moved to woo her for a wife, she responds: “Let him that moved you hither remove you hence” (II.i.195-196). In so doing, she asserts authority over her own space by implying that she does not want Petruchio within or near it. Yet Petruchio moves forward in his patriarchal pursuit of her by calling her a “wasp” (II.i.209) and asserting that she is “too angry” (II.i.209). Here, Petruchio identifies Kate’s scolding, angry behavior as categorically bad. His request that she come out of this mode of being constitutes another attempt at moving her into the subjugated sphere of “woman,” and Kate expresses resistance by noting “If I be waspish, best beware my sting” (II.i.210). In addition to asserting her ability to operate in an aggressive, violent manner by “stinging” him, Kate questions whether her actions and attitudes can accurately be interpreted as “waspish,” thereby precluding Petruchio the power that results from having his view and categorization of her behavior deemed authoritative and accurate. At the same time, the fact that she continues conversing with Petruchio after he repeatedly indicates his will to subvert her through his linguistic choices constitutes a mode of acquiescence associated with prototypical womanhood, with this format involving a willingness to engage and entertain an oppressive “man” despite his attempts at eroding one’s identity and independence. Thus while Kate expresses resistance verbally through their dialogue, her non-verbal act of remaining in communication with Petruchio despite awareness of his patriarchal behavior places her both outside and within the “woman” frame.

While much of the initial dialogue between Kate and Petruchio reveals his ongoing attempts to feminize her, the sexual underpinnings of their discourse are perhaps the most salient evidence of this battle. After Katharina threatens to dismiss him if he talks of tales, Petruchio responds: “What, with my tongue in your tail? Nay, come again” (II.i.218). Although this assertion can be interpreted in numerous ways, it is clearly an indication of Petruchio’s decision to declare power over how he and Kate will operate as sexual beings. The assertion thereby constitutes a manifestation of a man attempting to control a woman’s sexual identity and/or modality, rendering the statement a markedly patriarchal one through the invocation of a domination/submission undertone. Interestingly, it is at this point that their dialogue takes a violent turn, with Katharina asserting that she will prove whether he is a gentleman and then striking him (II.i220). This move towards violence likely constitutes Kate’s attempt to convey her antagonism towards sexual subordination and erotic innuendos in a forceful manner, with the act of aggression itself reinstating her in a position of authority after Petruchio’s subordinating linguistic blow. Once Katharina hits him, Petruchio swears that he will strike her if she does it again. Here, Katharina’s subject position as “woman” or not-woman is complicated. Petruchio’s suggestion that he may hit her removes her from the sphere of “woman” given that it places her beyond the realm of subordinating protection from a man. Rather than operating as protector, Petruchio’s words place him in the realm of antagonist, rendering her a “man” who must defend herself if he becomes violent. At the same time, Petruchio’s threat of violence carries with it an attempt to feminize Kate by hitting her into submission, thereby reinstating her in the subject/object position (“woman”) that the allusion to violence extricates her from.

Kate’s inundation in and extrication from the sphere of “woman” due to interaction with Petruchio continues as their dialogue progresses. After noting that he is “withered” (II.i.235) and asserting that she does not care about him, Petruchio responds: “In sooth, you scape not so” (II.i.237). When he states that she cannot leave, Kate responds “I chafe you if I tarry. Let me go” (II.I.238). As with much of her previous activity, these statements constitute a duality marked by assertiveness and submissiveness, thereby complicating the reader’s ability to neatly situate her identity in a box. While Kate’s assertion that she will inflict bodily harm if she remains constitutes a “masculine” modality, the aggressiveness is mediated by the words “Let me go.” With this word sequence, Kate reinstates Petruchio in a position of power by giving him the authority to permit her to leave. After more of this contentious talk, Petruchio plainly asserts his goal to subvert her by noting “I am he am born to tame you, Kate, and bring you from a wild Kate to a Kate conformable as other household Kates…I must and will have Katharine to my wife” (II.i.273-277). It is this statement from Petruchio which unveils the integral, inalienable role that a heteronormative version of heterosexuality plays in shaping his budding relationship with Kate. Petruchio posits the taming of Kate as a “must” and states that he is “born” to put the process in motion, thereby reinforcing the idea that a heteronormative system of relations is natural and imperative for interaction between “men” and “women.” Coupled with Kate’s resistance to this oppressive regime, Petruchio’s ongoing references to its inevitability functions as an example of Monique Wittig’s two-pronged summation of the institution: “There is, on one side, the whole world in its massive assumption, its massive affirmation of heterosexuality as a must-be, and on the other side, there is only the dim, fugitive, sometimes illuminating and striking vision of heterosexuality as a trap, as a forced political regime, that is, with the possibility of escaping it as a fact” (47). While Petruchio affirms the universe as an always/already “must-be” heterosexual sphere in which women are destined to come under the rule and authority of men, Kate-in operating as the resistant “shrew”-maintains the possibility of escaping both the patriarchal category “woman” and the subjugated role the subject position confines her to within the heteronormative system. Kate’s resistance to each regime becomes plain when Petruchio declares his wish to marry her on Sunday. Kate responds: “I’ll see thee hanged on Sunday first” (II.i.296). Thus their interaction closes without her assent to inundation in a patriarchal marriage, thereby precluding her from embodying the oppressive, gender-based spheres of “woman,” “wife,” and “heterosexual.”

Just as Wittig’s delineation of the two-pronged nature of heterosexuality underscores the gender-based contention that manifests between Kate and Petruchio, Cindy Patton’s conceptualization of identity as a deontological issue works to demonstrate the role that the sex/gender system plays in impacting their actions and attitudes. In her discussion of alterity, Patton notes that “Identity is an issue of deontology, not ontology; it is a matter of duties and ethics, not of being” (148). As made plain by Petruchio, he perceives taming Kate to be his duty, and it is his ongoing attempt to accomplish this objective which constitutes “the stylized repetition of acts through time” (901) that Butler references in rendering gender identity a construct. In Petruchio’s case, the performance of gender-based duties such as subordinating a woman is the factor which renders his identity definitively “male” within the heteronormative order. Similarly, Kate’s perceptions of her duties play an integral role in defining her personhood within the gender frame. Yet unlike Petruchio, her sense of responsibility does not exist in contiguity with the social order’s prescriptions for “women.” Rather, Kate’s sense of duty continually places her outside the realm of “woman,” and this fact becomes particularly salient when she asks Petruchio not to leave their wedding ceremony. He insists upon leaving and she initially resists this attempt to control her by stating that she will stay even if he goes. As this act of resistance transpires, Kate notes “I see a woman may be made a fool if she had not a spirit to resist” (III.ii.220-221). This assessment situates her identity in a deontological sphere marked by her assent to the idea that she, as “woman,” is responsible for resisting Petruchio’s ongoing attempts to humiliate and subordinate her. Interestingly, Kate’s use of the signifier “woman” in this context signifies the antithesis of the term’s meaning within the sociocultural and political arena in which she is immersed. In resisting subordination, Kate can be said to redefine what constitutes being or acting like a “woman,” thereby demonstrating that the deontological and ontological signification of the term is not static but rather contingent upon interpretation and performance of the concept, with the performance subsequently determining the reality that the word comes to represent at the material level.

While Act II, Scene I provides the reader with a clear depiction of Kate’s resistance to the patriarchal constructs which would confine her to the limited sphere of “woman,” this is not the only scene in which her interaction with Petruchio indicates her unwillingness to accept the identity position. Her resistance resurfaces when she expresses interest in buying a cap and Petruchio withstands her. After she notes that the cap is stylish and that “gentlewomen wear such caps as these” (IV.iii.70), Petruchio responds: “When you are gentle, you shall have one too” (IV.iii.71). In recognizing Petruchio’s newfound attempt to subordinate her, Kate reconstitutes herself as subject by noting “I am no child, no babe” (IV.iii.74). In addition to establishing herself as a subject by linguistically situating her relationship with Petruchio outside of the hegemonic parent/child binary, Kate further emphasizes her attempts to maintain a sense of subjectivity upon noting that “My tongue will tell the anger of my heart, or else my heart, concealing it, will break. And rather than it shall, I will be free even to the uttermost, as I please, in words” (IV.iii.77-80). In making these statements, Kate affirms her ability and right to express her thoughts and feelings while simultaneously informing Petruchio that he will not control and regulate her speech. Petruchio responds with another act of subversion by telling her “I love thee well in that thou lik’st it not” (IV.iii.83). Here, he undermines Kate’s authority and subjectivity by positing that she dislikes an item she has already expressed admiration for. Refusing to have her will and opinion misrepresented and inverted, Kate responds “Love me or love me not, I like the cap, and it I will have, or I will have none” (IV.iii.84, 85). In making this statement, Kate places herself outside of the “man”/”woman” binary by refusing to operate from a position of submission and silence when interacting with Petruchio. This ongoing refusal precludes Petruchio from seamlessly transposing her identity from the sphere of “shrew” to “woman,” thereby leaving the patriarchal project incomplete.

Although Kate’s initial and developmental interactions with Petruchio are predicated on her resistance to the regimes of the normal, her initial refusal to operate in submission within a patriarchal system is eventually displaced by acquiescence to androcentric paradigms. Nevertheless, Kate’s transition from independently thinking subject to “woman” is neither entire nor final. The transition occurs in the final scene which, as noted by Blake, has been interpreted by some as Shakespeare or the play’s support of a “notion of marriage based on the wife’s submission” (242).  After being asked by Petruchio to express her opinion regarding how wives should interact with husbands, Kate notes that a woman owes her husband “love, fair looks, and true obedience” (V.ii.157). She further illustrates her assent to the notion that wives should submit to husbands by arguing that women should “place your hands below your husband’s foot” (V.ii.181). These words seem to clearly inscribe Kate in the subject-object position “woman,” thereby marking a clear break with her former mode of substantive resistance to the heteronormative modality. However, the commitment to submission which seems woven through Kate’s assertion that women are bound to “serve, love, and obey” (V.ii.168) is complicated by her concluding comment. In asserting that she is ready to place her hand beneath her husband’s foot, Kate draws attention to the central and foundational role that she plays in maintaining the relationship and marriage. Rather than existing as an ancillary, subordinated entity within the heterosexual marital realm, her role becomes “manly” insomuch as she functions as her husband’s sustainer. Moreover, Petruchio’s ability to maintain his subject position as “man” becomes contingent upon her willingness to occupy the ostensibly subordinate sphere she appears to enter upon stating that she is ready to place herself beneath him. It is only when Kate states that she will do this very thing that Petruchio’s identity as “man” is affirmed. Yet this “male” identity is in no way stable or secure given the fact that its maintenance is contingent upon Kate’s activity which, as made evident by her ongoing gender mobility, can shift at any given moment. Thus when Petruchio informs Lucentio and Vincentio that they are “sped” (V.ii.189) or done for because of their disobedient wives, he unintentionally underscores the fact that he could also be undone in the event that Kate opts to revert back to her original gender modality. Ultimately then, Petruchio’s announcement of himself as the “winner” (V.ii.191) in light of Kate’s vow to submit is a signifier which signifies nothing except its immateriality and amorphousness. Kate’s speech, while superficially submissive, simultaneously unveils her power to abrade Petruchio’s frail masculinity, thwart their marriage, and thereby disrupt the heteronormative regime which has sought to negate her agency throughout the course of the play.

While Kate’s final soliloquy accomplishes the paradoxical effect of affirming and dismantling patriarchy simultaneously, it is important to examine how her speech fails to function as an entirely subversive entity. Doing so enables feminist theorists to examine and understand the ideological slant that keeps sexism alive and prevalent. In this case, the philosophical frame Kate employs to legitimate and perpetuate patriarchal points is the idea of difference. To legitimate the notion that wives should submit to their husbands, Kate asks: “Why are our bodies soft, and weak, and smooth, unapt to toil and trouble in the world, but that our soft conditions and our hearts should well agree with our external parts?” (V.ii.169-172). She couples this concept with the implication that men are strong upon noting that the husband “commits his body to painful labor both by sea and land” (V.ii.152, 153). The constructed difference (male/strong, female/weak) functions as the foundation upon which she builds her argument for female submission. In this schema, women are constructed as different on the grounds of physical weakness, and this argument leads to the idea that group members are logically designed for or inclined towards submission to their stronger male counterparts. This affirmation of difference as a real and legitimate springboard through which to erect hegemonic relationships between men and women has been acknowledged and questioned by numerous feminists, including Audre Lorde. In discussing the principle of difference, Lorde notes that “As a tool of social control, women have been encouraged to recognize only one area of human difference as legitimate, those differences which exist between women and men” (859). In the case of The Taming of the Shrew, it is body-based differences that Kate acknowledges as real, and this acknowledged discrepancy becomes the factor which legitimates a woman’s subordination to a man in her speech.

In addition to perpetuating the patriarchal system through the invocation of rhetoric affirming gender-based differences, Kate purports the regimes of the normal by advocating a division of labor. In discussing how this activity promotes heteronormativity, Rubin notes that “The division of labor by sex can therefore be seen as a “taboo”: a taboo against the sameness of men and women, a taboo dividing the sexes into two mutually exclusive categories, a taboo which exacerbates the biological differences between the sexes and thereby creates gender” (781). Kate participates in this imperial project by affirming men as the individuals who engage in “painful labor both by sea and land” (V.ii.153) while women lie “warm at home” (V.ii.155). By referencing this sociocultural reality in her soliloquy without presenting alternative modalities as viable, Kate affirms a division of labor which reinforces privatized, domestic work for women and thereby marks Petruchio’s success in his venture to make her “conformable as other household Kates” (II.i.275). Within this schema, gender is (re)created and invokes a divisive mode of existence which privileges men by granting them greater access to the public and political realms through which economic and social power can be gained.

Despite the fact that Kate’s final soliloquy contains elements which indicate her accedence to patriarchal values, it is clear that her gender performance ultimately constitutes an effective abrasion of the heteronormative system. This idea becomes plain when the reader considers her efficacy in obscuring a clear distinction between “women” and “men.” In discussing the maintenance of this distinction within the gender-based world, Bersani notes that “Particular cultural definitions of man and woman can be challenged without the categories themselves being put into question. Even the repudiation of all notions of masculinity and femininity can leave the distinction between male and female standing” (44). Yet Kate dismantles these distinctions throughout the play, including when she states that Petruchio is “no gentleman” if he strikes her (II.i.222). Additionally, she strikes him and thereby takes on a violent mode of being and knowing associated with men. Moreover, Kate puts the category of “woman” into question by her very existence as a “shrew,” with the latter term functioning as a signifier for a type of female who, in possessing socially inappropriate traits such as aggression, cannot be considered a “real” “woman.” Additionally, the servant Peter notes that Petruchio “kills her in her own humor” (IV.i.168). This phrase references Peter’s perception that Petruchio subdues Kate’s “shrewishness” by performing shrewish behavior in an aggravated manner that exceeds her own performance, thereby resituating the “man” in the feminized realm of the “shrew.” Thus the ongoing gender mobility Kate demonstrates through her interaction with Petruchio works to efface the sex-based binary which seeks to establish clear boundaries between what constitutes a “man” and a “woman.”

When viewed as a composite whole, The Taming of the Shrew has much to say about the cult of heteronormativity. In addition to effectively demonstrating its existence through the relationship of Kate and Petruchio, the play complicates the patriarchal regime through its representation of a “woman” who continually dodges the regime through acts of resistance which situate her personhood outside the realm of being and duty deemed acceptable for class members. In operating this way, Kate demonstrates that categories of sex and gender can be elided and abraded. By engaging in an ongoing struggle against conformance to the actions and attitudes associated with the subjugating category “woman,” Kate enacts a highly specific mode of gender performance which places her beyond this monolithic sphere and within a domain marked by the type of gender fluidity and agency the patriarchy deems threatening. And while Kate’s final soliloquy appears to constitute her eventual assent to the heteronormative regime and its attempts to construct her identity within the limited frame “woman,” the wording of the speech subverts the very regime it appears to accept and reverence. Ultimately, Kate functions as a female character who successfully defies the patriarchy by continually eliding conformance to and confinement within the monolithic, constructed category of “woman.” In so doing, Kate successfully disrupts the regimes of the normal which seek to regulate and reinvent material reality as a sphere under the uncontested control of men.

Works Cited

Bersani, Leo. Homos. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1995. eBook  Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 24 Apr. 2016.

Blake, Ann. “The Taming Of The Shrew: Making Fun Of Katherine.” Cambridge  Quarterly 31.3 (2002): 237-252. Humanities International Complete. Web. 24 Apr. 2016.

Butler, Judith. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution.” Literary Theory: An  Anthology.  Eds. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. 900-911.

Gilbert, Sandra and Susan Gubar. “The Madwoman in the Attic.” Literary Theory:  An  Anthology. Eds. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.

Hutcheon, Elizabeth. “From Shrew to Subject: Petruchio’s Humanist Education of  Katherine in the Taming of the Shrew.” Comparative Drama 45.4 (2011):  315,337,455. ProQuest.Web. 8 May 2016.

Lorde, Audre. “Age, Race, Class, and Sex.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Eds. Julie  Rivkin  and Michael Ryan. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.

Patton, Cindy. “Tremble, Hetero Swine!” Fear of a Queer Planet. Minneapolis: University  of Minnesota Press, 1993. Pg. 143-177.

Rubin, Gayle. “The Traffic in Women.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Eds. Julie Rivkin  and Michael Ryan. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.

Shakespeare, William. The Taming of the Shrew. The Necessary Shakespeare. Ed.  David  Bevington. Boston: Pearson, 2014. Pg. 5-41.

Smith, Amy L. “Performing Marriage with a Difference: Wooing, Wedding, and Bedding in  The Taming of the Shrew.” Comparative Drama 36.3 (2003): 289-320. ProQuest. 24 Apr.

Wittig, Monique. The Straight Mind And Other Essays. Boston: Beacon Press, 1992.

Is Kate a Woman?: Gender Performance in The Taming of the Shrew

Feminization In Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis

While Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis is replete with numerous themes, the role that Gregor Samsa’s transformation into an insect plays in complicating Grete’s existence and identity is of unique significance to the ethical import of the text. As the story opens, the reader learns that “One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin” (Locations 8-9). As a result of this textual evolution, Grete’s life becomes primarily domestic as she takes on the “burdensome job” of feeding Gregor and cleaning his room (Location 414 of 941). Grete also becomes “Gregor’s spokesman to his parents about the things that concerned him” (Kindle Locations 449-450). Additionally, Gregor’s metamorphosis causes Grete to lose the sense of privacy and independence that results from having one’s own room when the family accommodates three boarders in order to generate revenue. In reading these textual developments, it becomes plain that Gregor’s metamorphosis into an insect is the catalyst for Grete’s feminization. This feminization is marked by Grete’s adoption of a primarily domestic lifestyle, loss of private space, and reduction to property. The onset and evolution of Grete’s feminization is textually significant because it demonstrates the role that capitalist systems can play in dehumanizing women and strengthening the hegemonic order exacted by patriarchal paradigms and praxis. Ultimately, the capitalist and patriarchal systems work in conjunction to preclude the female Grete from attaining the sense of independence necessary to develop a substantive, self-constructed identity.

To fully understand the Marxist implications of the text, one should have a basic understanding of both the theory and its pertinence to Gregor’s metamorphosis. As Peter Barry notes in his explication of Marxist theory, the ideology involves envisioning a classless society which incorporates “common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange” (150). There are several key terms that provide the reader with a more thorough understanding of Marxism, one of which is reification. This term references the process in which capitalist goals, by making issues of profit and loss primary to the world of work and economics, reduce people to things as they come to be thought of as mere bodies designed to complete tasks that will generate wealth for business owners. Marxist theory has implications within the literary world. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan point this fact out in noting that “For Marxists, literature is an active agent in its social and cultural world. It can work to expose wrongs in a society, or it can paper over troubling fissures and make a class-divided society seem unified and content” (644). As made plain by this brief summation of Marxism, the primacy it places on money and how its existence and appropriation signifies on human identity and agency makes the theory relevant to The Metamorphosis. Issues of money continually arise within the world of the text, such as when Gregor notes that he wouldn’t continue working in the dissatisfactory world of sales if he didn’t have to pay off his family’s debts. He references these realities upon noting that “I’m seriously in debt to our employer as well as having to look after my parents and my sister, so that I’m trapped in a difficult situation, but I will work my way out of it again (Kindle Locations 203-204). Moreover, Gregor’s metamorphosis into a bug negatively impacts his family’s economic equilibrium given the fact that he was their primary source of income. Finally, Gregor’s transformation into a bug results in Grete becoming his central caregiver, with this unpaid work and the dissatisfaction she experiences in performing it reflecting Marxist views regarding the role exploitation plays in precluding people from leading satisfactory lives that enable them to think and act as independent individuals. Numerous writers and theorists have pointed out the Marxist implications of the work. For example, Calin D. Lupitu has noted that “In Kafka’s Metamorphosis Gregor Samsa epitomizes the struggle of man against the bureaucratic apparatus and bourgeois socio-economic materialism – a draining and dehumanising battle which he cannot win – with an accidental and somewhat cynical happy-end revealing the true parasites and preaching self-reliance” (277). Here, Lupitu draws attention to the role that capitalist ideology and praxis play in complicating and compromising the lives of individuals caught within its dehumanizing web. The capitalist sphere stands in diametric opposition to the ostensibly Marxist domain, one where individuals do not have to commit their lives to performing vapid tasks in order to generate (oftentimes miniscule) income.

Because Grete’s feminization is the central topic of this paper, it is important to grasp the fundamental premises of the ideological landscape in which the term and concept emerge. As noted by Peter Barry, the feminist movement was “literary from the start, in the sense that it realized the significance of the images of women promulgated by literature, and saw it as vital to combat them and question their authority and their coherence” (116). A prevalent example of feminist theory in action would be Judith Halberstam’s Female Masculinity. In this important book, Halberstam argues that “Masculinity in this society inevitably conjures up notions of power and legitimacy and privilege; it often symbolically refers to the power of the state and to uneven distributions of wealth” (936). In making this statement, Halberstam alludes to the role that social constructs like masculinity play in reifying patriarchal power and undergirding fundamentally sexist institutions such as the government and capitalism. In recent years, feminist theory has become very eclectic through its incorporation of other theoretical frameworks, some of which include Marxism, linguistics, and structuralism. Feminist theory is relevant to the world of The Metamorphosis in many ways, particularly in context of the dehumanization and disempowerment that Grete undergoes as a result of Gregor’s transformation into a bug. Within this paper, the dehumanization and disempowerment Grete experiences is referred to as feminization. In feminist theory, this term is loosely defined as a process in which a woman or man loses social, economic, political, or cultural power as a result of sexist theories and praxis that gain primacy and power within the individual’s external world and thought life.  There are a plethora of other realities that unfold within the text that can and should be viewed through a feminist lens, including Gregor’s perception that his sister may use a mode of behavior thought of as “feminine wiles” to preclude him from getting in trouble at work. The narrative unveils this unfolding reality upon informing the reader that that “She was clever; she was already in tears while Gregor was still lying peacefully on his back. And the chief clerk was a lover of women, surely she could persuade him; she would close the front door in the entrance hall and talk him out of his shocked state” (Kindle Locations 220-222). Viewed through a feminist lens, Gregor’s interpretation of his sister’s behavior might be considered a representation of his awareness of a social structure in which women are systematically reduced to highly emotive and oftentimes objectified creatures who exist to appeal to and satisfy men.

That Gregor Samsa plays an integral role in facilitating his family’s economic vitality becomes evident near the story’s onset. Moreover, this textual revelation informs the reader that Gregor’s metamorphosis will play an integral role in depriving the Samsa’s of their former financial livelihood. In an internal monologue revealing the fact that he doesn’t particularly care for his job, Gregor notes that “If I didn’t have my parents to think about I’d have given in my notice a long time ago, I’d have gone up to the boss and told him just what I think, tell him everything I would, let him know just what I feel” (Location 28). Gregor goes on to dream about the day that he will quit and thinks to himself “Well, there’s still some hope; once I’ve got the money together to pay off my parents’ debt to him – another five or six years I suppose – that’s definitely what I’ll do. That’s when I’ll make the big change” (Location 28). These internal musings make Gregor’s primary role in facilitating the family’s financial security plain. Yet as the novel opens, the reader learns that Gregor has sporadically transformed into a monstrous vermin. This transformation engenders his inability to work as a travelling salesman and thus complicates and compromises his family’s economic security.

While the economic complications engendered by Gregor’s metamorphosis play a central role in affecting the identity of each member of the Samsa family, their effects on Grete are uniquely profound. Specifically, Gregor’s transformation into a bug results in her feminization. This fact becomes plain upon consideration of several textual developments, including the fact that Gregor’s metamorphosis necessitates that somewhere care for him as well as the room that he can no longer maintain. In addition to bringing his meals, Grete reports back to the family on whether Gregor enjoyed them (Location 325 of 941). Additionally, Gregor’s metamorphosis is the catalyst for the family’s loss of the maid who, upon growing at least somewhat cognizant of the situation, is frightened and grows happy when she is dismissed (Locations 339 of 941). As a result, Grete becomes responsible for completing some of the cooking duties formerly completed by the maid. Finally, Grete is responsible for cleaning Gregor’s room, a form of work that is conspicuously domestic and unpaid.

Grete’s feminization is not confined to the unpaid domestic work she completes on behalf of Gregor following his metamorphosis. Additionally, her feminization transpires as a result of her loss of private space. Within the feminist theory sphere, much time and attention is given to the fact that, in a patriarchal world, women oftentimes have much less public and private space than men. This reality unfolds in the world of the text as the Samsa family decides to take in boarders to generate extra revenue following Gregor’s metamorphosis. The text unveils Grete’s loss of space upon noting that “the living room where Grete had been sleeping since the three gentlemen had moved in; she was fully dressed as if she had never been asleep, and the paleness of her face seemed to confirm this” (Location 748). This relegation to the sphere of the living room constitutes a manifestation of Grete’s spatial and bodily disempowerment as she is denied the privacy and physical comfort of her own bedroom. This plot evolution underscores Grete’s feminization as her locality indicates her position of impoverishment, a sphere oftentimes associated with and embodied by women to a much greater extent than it is for men.

Interestingly, Grete’s feminization through loss of space is paralleled by Gregor’s maintenance of a prototypical mode of masculinization given his ability to maintain his private space despite his metamorphosis. In discussing this reality, Calin D. Lupitu noted that “Paradoxically, Samsa’s room becomes the last line in defence of his humanity, the externalized seed of his surviving human emotions and sensibility. Most significantly, it is the space “critical to maintaining notions of self and identity,” where the spheres of the Self and the Other are opposed and clarified” (277). This strong, separated sense of self that cannot be blurred or invaded by others that Grete loses when she is forced to forfeit her room to the boarders.

While the feminization that Grete experiences throughout the text is oftentimes the direct result of Gregor’s metamorphosis, the young woman is also subjected to gender-related disempowerment as a result of her parents. This fact becomes plain throughout the text but is particularly salient during the narrative’s telling denouement. There, the Samsa’s prepare for a new life after Gregor’s death and begin contemplating their daughter’s future. In unveiling it, the narrative informs the reader that: “Just from each other’s glance and almost without knowing it they agreed that it would soon be time to find a good man for her. And, as if in confirmation of their new dreams and good intentions, as soon as they reached their destination Grete was the first to get up and stretch out her young body” (Locations 801-803). Here, the reader learns that Grete has been reduced to an object that her parents will exchange within the patriarchal marital system in which she will be “given away” by one man (father) and received by another (husband). The final emphasis upon Grete getting out of the car and stretching out her body underscores the fact that she is now being thought of as an object to be exchanged rather than a fully independent being capable of using both mental and bodily power to maintain individual agency and make decisions. Here, Marx’s principle of “reification” is in play such that the Samsa’s are the employer and Grete, their worker, becomes a piece of property and is thereby denied full humanity. The patriarchal implications and the need for feminist contestation also becomes plain upon consideration of Luce Irigaray’s assertion that the sexist order is possible and prevalent as a result of “the exchange of women. The circulation of women among men is what establishes the operations of society, at least of patriarchal society” (807). Within this patriarchal world, women are reduced to consumable goods that men purchase and use. This capitalist/patriarchal order manifests as the conclusion in The Metamorphosis, thereby underscoring the reality of Grete’s feminization and revealing that it transpires as a result of parental authority in addition to Gregor’s transformation.

As made plain by both the disempowerment that Grete undergoes following Gregor’s metamorphosis and her parents attempting to sell or exchange her within the patriarchal/capitalist marital structure, The Metamorphosis depicts a substantive identity devolution in which the young woman becomes a thing rather than maintaining her full humanity. This identity devolution underscores the theme of feminization which has been transpiring throughout the book. Although the reality of Grete’s feminization is plain when the reader considers the aforementioned textual evidence, not all theorists agree regarding the substance and significance of the young woman’s ideological and experiential evolution following Gregor’s metamorphosis. For example, in her important essay “Transforming Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,”” Nina Pelikan Straus argues that  “As a gigantic insect, Gregor exchanges responsibility for dependency, while Grete exchanges dependency for the burdensome efficiency and independence that Gregor formerly displayed” (655). In explicating this interpretation further within the same paragraph, Straus argues that Gregor’s metamorphosis into the bug results in a gender inversion such that Grete assumes a prototypically male mode of being while her brother is feminized. To make this point plain, Straus states that “The brother’s and sister’s interchange of male and female roles and powers, the hourglass-shaped progression of the plot as they switch positions, suggests the idea that “Metamorphosis” is Kafka’s fantasy of a gender role change” (655). While Straus is correct in arguing that the substance of Kafka’s work suggests a gender role change fantasy, the change does not conform to the pattern she posits. While Gregor indeed becomes feminized as he loses the ability to gain wealth and take care of himself following the transformation, Grete does not undergo the masculinization of which Straus writers. Although she does gain duties and responsibilities which seem indicative of a male mode of being and knowing in which independent work is expected and accepted, Grete’s form of work is prototypically feminine insomuch as it is 1. domestic and 2. unpaid.

Although Straus’s assessments regarding the shape and substance of Kafka’s vision of a gender role change are not entirely accurate, the primacy she places upon explicating Gregor’s existence and gender inversion is pertinent to feminist theory and the arguments made here regarding the ongoing devolution of Grete’s identity. What the reader realizes in analyzing the evolution of Gregor’s personhood following the metamorphosis is that his physical and economic disempowerment result in a mode of feminization similar to (though certainly not synonymous with) the feminization that Grete experiences. Gregor’s feminization is unique and complex, and it must be understood in light of the fact that he embodies an ostensibly hybrid existence which precludes him from being categorized as insect or individual. In delineating this reality, Michael P. Ryan notes that “Gregor is neither totally human nor is he totally an animal” (142). Moreover, he experiences a wide range of problems as he tries to mediate his existence within the body of an insect. This fact becomes plain when the reader considers that “His many legs, pitifully thin compared with the size of the rest of him, waved about helplessly as he looked” (Locations 10-11). The narrative further explicates Gregor’s difficulties in effectively utilizing his bug body upon noting that “However hard he threw himself onto his right, he always rolled back to where he was. He must have tried it a hundred times, shut his eyes so that he wouldn’t have to look at the floundering legs, and only stopped when he began to feel a mild, dull pain there that he had never felt before” (Locations 17-19). Thus in addition to problematizing his mobility, Gregor’s new insect body causes him pain as he seeks to manipulate it in a manner that will facilitate effective movement. This lack of mobility is confluent with the lack of bodily power and agency often associated with women who, in a patriarchal world, are constantly prevented from using their limbs fully and freely. From being precluded from playing sports to being subtly or overtly told to where clothing items like high heels that limit free movement, women who operate within androcentric realms will frequently find that their ability to use their bodies freely is compromised.

In addition to being feminized as a result of his inability to effectively manipulate his insect body in a manner that promotes mobility, Gregor’s feminization transpires as he loses value within his family and is ultimately thought of as a useless being. This lack of utility is constantly ascribed to women who, within a patriarchal world, are precluded from attaining substantive socioeconomic and political power. This public disempowerment oftentimes adversely effects the way women are conceptualized within the private sphere, with their family members oftentimes viewing them as creatures who “can’t do anything.” As a result of Gregor’s metamorphosis, he is subject to being viewed through this lens. In commenting on this textual reality, Matthias Krug “An insect is useless to the family, just as Gregor Samsa becomes a useless, horribly grotesque nuisance to his family from the moment when he does not earn the family’s wages any longer” (152). Michael Rowe echoes this observation and its underpinnings upon noting that “Gregor’s humanity, to the extent that his parents and sister acknowledge it, is inextricably tied to his function as economic provider. When his metamorphosis makes it impossible for him to perform his job, his humanity, in the eyes of those closest to him, is threatened as well” (268). Here, the Marxist and feminist implications of the text become plain. Gregor is feminized as a result of the fact that his body renders him useless, and this feminization is a direct result of his ongoing inability to compete within a capitalist system that makes (unfulfilling) work a prerequisite to gaining wealth. Jerome S. Gans furthers the reader’s awareness of the Marxist implications indigenous to Gregor’s metamorphosis when he notes that “The paradox of Gregor’s monstrous metamorphosis is that he occupies no less of a compromised place in the life of the family after his metamorphosis than he did before it” (357). In making this statement, Gans draws attention to the fact that Gregor’s life was compromised from the text’s onset given his immersion in a capitalist system in which he was required to complete unfulfilling work in order to support his family while paying off their debts. In this case, Gregor’s feminization is manifest in the fact that he lacks agency (due to family debt). Here, the ostensibly masculinist power one would associate with being a breadwinner is compromised in light of the reality that the individual performing the work does so under compulsion rather than making the decision to do so as a result of individual agency.

Gregor’s feminization is not confined to the economic and physical disempowerment he experiences as a result of his metamorphosis. Additionally, Gregor’s newfound use of language places him in a sphere of otherness which parallels the sense of marginalization and absurdity ascribed to the experience of being female. Specifically, Gregor can speak, but not in a manner that can be understood by his family members. In discussing this textual reality, Ruyu Hung notes that “The incommunicability and unintelligibility of his words result in his being an epistemological stranger; his appearance brings forth the aesthetical strangeness” (440). Gregor’s existence as an epistemological stranger parallels the feminization that women experience as they exist within a sphere of language which was not created by them and also privileges the men who become their counterparts and superiors within it. Additionally, Gregor’s physical appearance constitutes what Ruyu Hung refers to as “aesthetical strangeness” given his existence within the body of a bug. This aesthetic otherness parallels the absurdity associated with the female body as it is interpreted as a deviation from the male norm within the patriarchal world. Women’s bodies are othered in numerous other ways, such as their being reduced to bodies by wearing clothing items that display more flesh than that of their male counterparts. In this, female otherness is rooted in women being defined as bodies in a world where identity and humanity is more closely connected to an acknowledgment of an individual’s mental faculties and their ongoing operation.

In considering The Metamorphosis as a composite whole, the signification of Gregor’s transformation into a bug becomes plain. The metamorphosis precludes Gregor from working and denies him the economic power he had in former eras, thereby leading to Grete’s feminization as she is required to perform domestic duties to take care of him and keep the house in good condition. In addition to being feminized through her newfound responsibilities in caring for Gregor, Grete undergoes further disempowerment as she forfeits her room to boarders so that her parents can earn rent money to make up for the economic gaps caused by the metamorphosis. The implications of Grete’s feminization are plain. In addition to unveiling the ongoing devaluation of women within capitalist societies where individual identity and agency is contingent upon the ability to gain wealth, Grete’s feminization demonstrates the ongoing existence and power of the patriarchy as she is expected to perform work without pay and is periodically conceptualized as a bodily being whose personhood is primary physical as opposed to mental. These textual representations of Grete reveal that the world of The Metamorphosis is an ethically problematized sphere where the subjugation and subordination of women is present and prevalent. Ultimately, Grete’s feminization compromises her identity and thus constitutes a substantive devolution induced by a society and family whose immersion in capitalist and sexist modes of being and knowing preclude female development and agency. Thus in addition to existing as a provocative account of how evolving into a bug can problematize a young man’s agency and identity, the narrative functions as a powerful delineation of how that metamorphosis can result in a young woman’s ongoing disempowerment and dehumanization.

Works Cited

Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An Introduction To Literary And Cultural Theory. New  York:  Manchester University Press, 2009.

Gans, Jerome S. “Narrative lessons for the psychotherapist: Kafka’s The  Metamorphosis.”  American Journal of Psychotherapy 52.3 (Summer 1998): 352-66.

Halberstam, Judith. “Female Masculinity.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Oxford:  Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2004. 935-956.

Hung, Ruyu. “Caring About Strangers: A Lingisian reading of Kafka’s Metamorphosis.”  Educational Philosophy And Theory. 4/1/2013. Volume 45, Issue 4: 436-447.

Irigaray, Luce. “Women on the Market.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Malden: Blackwell  Publishing, 2004. 799-811.

Krug, Matthias. “Creative Cognition: A ‘Wav Method’ Analysis of Franz Kafka’s  ‘Metamorphosis.’ International Journal of Cognitive Linguistics, (2011): 145-166.

Lupitu, Calin D. “Labyrinths of The Uncanny In Hesse’s Steppenwolf and Kafka’s  The Metamorphosis.” Studia Universitatis Petru Major. Philologia 13 (2012): 276-283.

Rivkin, Julie and Michael Ryan. “Introduction: Starting with Zero.” Literary Theory:  An  Anthology. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.

Rowe, Michael. “Metamorphosis: Defending the human.” Literature and Medicine 21.2  (Fall 2002): 264-80.

Ryan, Michael P. “Samsa and Samsara: Suffering, Death, and Rebirth in “The  Metamorphosis.” The German Quarterly. Vol. 72, No. 2 (Spring, 1999) pp. 133-152.

Straus, Nina Pelikan. “Transforming Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis.” Signs. Vol. 14, No.  3 (Spring, 1989) pp. 651-667.

 

Feminization In Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis

White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy In Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye

Although there are many motifs within The Bluest Eye that point towards the presence of a white supremacist power structure, food functions as a particularly effective signifier for this reality. Throughout the novel, central character Pecola Breedlove has a plethora of experiences with food that underscore the role that white supremacist thought and praxis play in dehumanizing and negating her existence as a black being. From consuming candy depicting a blonde girl with blue eyes to drinking from a cup containing the image of a cultural icon who represents and replicates the world of wealth and social mobility she associates with being white, Pecola’s food choices reveal the fact that she is immersed in a world that privileges whiteness. Moreover, the young girl’s food choices demonstrate that she prefers this idealized white world over the sphere of poverty and lack she embodies due to her race.

To fully understand the role that poverty plays in precipitating Pecola Breedlove’s obsession with whiteness and the wealth associated with it, one can consider some of the basic theories advanced by Karl Marx in his seminal text The Communist Manifesto. Although Marx’s theories are complex, his basic premise can be summarized in the opening assessment of chapter one, “Bourgeois And Proletarians”: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” (location 30 of 733). After submitting this supposition, Marx elaborates on his primary theory by noting that members of every social group (freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, etc.) stand in “constant opposition to one another” (location 30 of 733). Ultimately, Marx summarizes this continual contention as a war between the oppressed and the oppressor. The effects of this capitalism-induced struggle are diverse and can result in what Marx calls “a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large” or “the common ruin of the contending classes” (location 30-38 of 733). In discussing the cause of the contention, Marx cites the rise of the bourgeoisie and Free Trade as the primary problem by arguing that the bourgeoisie “has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade” (location 73 of 733). Thus by converting the individuals who formerly performed noble work into “its paid wage labourers,” the bourgeoisie are guilty of inducing a process Marx refers to as reification (location 77 of 733). In defining reification, Peter Barry notes that it involves the way “when capitalist goals and questions of profit and loss are paramount, workers are bereft of their full humanity and are thought of as ‘hands’ or ‘the labour force’, so that, for instance, the effects of industrial closures are calculated in purely economic terms. People, in a word, become things” (151). The dehumanizing effects of the bourgeoisie-induced capitalism are also summarized through a process Marx defines as alienation. In summarizing the term’s signification, Barry notes that it involves “the state which comes about when the worker is ‘de-skilled’ and made to perform fragmented, repetitive tasks in a sequence of whose nature and purpose he or she has no overall grasp” (151). As Barry notes in Beginning Theory, the Marxist theoretical framework culminates with belief in “state ownership of industry, transport, etc., rather than private ownership” (150).

One resonating theme indigenous to Marx’s work is the idea that the concept and reality of civilization can have a corroding effect on the individuals who exist within its borders. In discussing this very theme, Marxist theorist Raymond Williams notes that analyzing civilization through a Marxist lens involves understanding how it produces “not only wealth, order, and refinement, but as part of the same process, poverty, disorder, and degradation” (18). Upon considering the events that unfold within the world of The Bluest Eye, it becomes clear that the dichotomizing socioeconomic effects of a capitalist-based civilization are present and prevalent. This idea becomes particularly salient when Morrison juxtaposes the world of blacks who are wealthy enough to own property with those who rent. In comparing and contrasting the two modes of being, Morrison notes that “Propertied black people spent all their energies, all their love, on their nests. Like frenzied, desperate birds, they overdecorated everything; fussed and fidgeted over their hard-won homes; canned, jellied, and preserved all summer to fill the cupboards and shelves; they painted, picked, and poked at every corner of their houses” (18). On the other hand, renting blacks maintained “hovels” and “cast furtive glances at these owned yards and porches, and made firmer commitments to buy themselves “some nice little old place” (18). In noting that the owned houses “loomed like hothouse sunflowers among the rows of weeds that were the rented houses,” Morrison’s description replicates the Marxist interpretation of civilization as a realm that simultaneously produces wealth and poverty, with the two economic states inducing a sustained tension that replicates class anxiety and struggle (18).

Although there are numerous passages in The Bluest Eye that demonstrate the presence of the class struggles and civilization-induced tensions described by Marx, the attitudes and actions of central character Pecola Breedlove are uniquely effective in illustrating the effects that a capitalist-based economy can have on the individuals who reside within it. This fact becomes plain when the reader considers several aspects of her personhood, including her poverty. In detailing the fact that the young girl is from a poor family, central character Claudia MacTeer recalls how Pecola Breedlove temporarily comes to live with her family after her father, a “renting black,” burned up his house. Mr. Breedlove’s destructive activity resulted in the family being “outdoors,” a term that references the reality of having no property and “no place to go” (17). In crystallizing the reader’s understanding of Pecola’s poverty, Claudia notes that the young girl comes to their home “with nothing. No little paper bag with the other dress, or a nightgown, or two pair of whitish cotton bloomers. She just appeared with a white woman and sat down” (18). In mentioning the fact that Pecola is under the care of a caseworker (the white woman), Claudia also underscores the notion that Pecola exists in a slave-like modality in which her well-being and livelihood is contingent upon the decision-making processes of the state. Thus while most blacks within the world of the text were already what Claudia referred to as “a minority in both caste and class,” Pecola’s condition is marked by a more salient and abject poverty which severely compromises her personal agency and ability to form an independent identity (17).

Although there are numerous textual elements and scenes which unveil the depth of Pecola’s poverty and the role that white supremacist capitalist edicts play in precipitating and purporting it, the food choices that the young woman makes function as a particularly effective motif that unveils this reality. One of the most telling scenes within The Bluest Eye transpires during the period when Pecola Breedlove comes to temporarily live with Claudia and Frieda MacTeer. As Pecola begins eating and interacting with the MacTeer children, the reader becomes aware that she reveres the young actress Shirley Temple. In relaying this reality, Claudia references the fact that Pecola drank milk from a cup with the actress on it. Between taking sips of the milk, Pecola “gazed fondly at the silhouette of Shirley Temple’s dimpled face” (19). Shirley Temple exists as one of many cultural icons that point towards Pecola’s preoccupation with and preference for a Eurocentric aesthetic. Although the narrative does not include any extensive references to the extent of Pecola’s knowledge regarding the cultural signification of Shirley Temple, many writers have pointed out that the child star’s existence and activity work to reify some basic principles of white supremacy. In discussing this issue, theorist Susan Gubar notes that “…we expect to see the pampered white child at the center of the narrative in which she is waited on by the devoted black domestic. Shirley Temple frolicking with Bojangles typifies the coupling of white child/black adult-servant which is rendered so frequently that it has moved to the very center of American cultural history” (204). Despite the underlying tension associated with Temple as a result of her whiteness and the degradation of black adulthood and blackness that it induces, it is not surprising that a child such as Pecola would want to be like the cultural icon given that she possesses so many desirable traits. In discussing these traits and the role that racism plays in precluding them from being associated with black people, Gubar points out that “In part, Shirley Temple’s whiteness can be attributed to the exclusion of blacks from the Blakean or Wordsworthian figure of the child as embodied wisdom, spontaneity, and joy, as if a people condemned to perpetual childishness must be robbed of childhood itself” (204). In light of all the desirable attributes that Temple possesses, Gubar is accurate in observing that “…when Toni Morrison’s outcast Pecola seeks the milk of human kindness reserved for a cherished offspring, she tries to lighten herself by drinking from a Shirley Temple cup” (204). If there is any doubt in the reader’s mind that Pecola drinks from the cup to fuel her obsession with Temple, Claudia’s evaluations make the situation plain. In summarizing her comrade’s activity, Claudia notes that “We knew she was fond of the Shirley Temple cup and took every opportunity to drink milk out of it just to handle and see sweet Shirley’s face” (23). In expressing her anger about the overconsumption, Mrs. MacTeer launches into a diatribe in which she notes “Three quarts of milk. That’s what was in that icebox yesterday. Three whole quarts. Now they ain’t none” (23). Both Claudia and Mrs. MacTeer’s assessments crystallize the reader’s awareness of the lengths that Pecola will go to in order to embody the world of wealth and whiteness associated with the Shirley Temple figure on the cup from which she drinks.

The scene involving Pecola’s overconsumption of milk from the Shirley Temple cup functions as a salient signifier for both the young girl’s preoccupation with whiteness and the poverty consciousness that brings her obsession to life. Yet the milk scene is not the only textual manifestation of how food functions as a metaphor through which Pecola’s obsession with whiteness and the wealth associated with it becomes plain. Another textual example surfaces when she frequents Yacobowski’s Fresh Veg. Meat and Sundries Store to purchase a snack. After purchasing several Mary Janes, she leaves the store and begins making her way down the street. At this point, the author takes the time to provide the reader with a thorough description of the candy as well as the underlying reason why Pecola is so enraptured with it:

“Each pale yellow wrapper has a picture on it. A picture of little Mary Jane, for whom the candy is named. Smiling white face. Blond hair in gentle disarray, blue eyes looking at her out of a world of clean comfort. The eyes are petulant, mischievous. To Pecola they are simply pretty. She eats the candy, and its sweetness is good. To eat the candy is somehow to eat the eyes, eat Mary Jane. Love Mary Jane. Be Mary Jane” (50).

In offering the reader this description, the author demonstrates that while Pecola is interested in the candy because of its sweet taste, her primary motivation for consuming the candy is an attempt to embody the world of civilized wealth (“clean comfort”) that the “smiling white face” on the wrapper represents. In short, Pecola wishes to escape her own world of black poverty by eating and thereby existing in ontological continuity with the wealthy, white Mary Jane. Yet Pecola cannot “Be Mary Jane,” and this reality becomes salient during the process in which she purchases the candy from the store’s owner. During the commercial transaction, Pecola becomes acutely aware of the antagonism that the shopkeeper (and “all white people”) experience towards her as a result of her blackness. This racialized antagonism incorporates what the writer describes as “the total absence of human recognition—the glazed separateness” (48). In addition to being shaped by an unwillingness to recognize black existence and humanity, the racialized white gaze incorporates distaste. In delineating Pecola’s awareness of the distaste, the writer notes that the young girl “…has seen it lurking in the eyes of all white people. So. The distaste must be for her, her blackness” (49). In describing blackness, Morrison juxtaposes it to the life and organicity indigenous to the black child’s being by noting that “All things in her are flux and anticipation. But her blackness is static and dread. And it is the blackness that accounts for, that creates, the vacuum edged with distaste in white eyes” (49). Thus as made plain by the writer’s description of the interaction between Pecola and the white storekeeper, the young girl’s blackness is an ongoing source of offense and antagonism within the society that she is required to participate in. As such, the narration alludes to the idea that she will never embody the world of whiteness and wealth that she seeks to enter by biting into her Mary Jane candy.

Upon considering Pecola’s racial preoccupation with the Mary Jane candy, the Marxist implications of the text become salient. In Pecola’s mind, Mary Jane represents a world of clean comfort that replicates the sphere of wealth, order, and refinement that Williams discusses when describing the characteristics of civilization. In contrast to this refined realm, Pecola’s world is marked by the processes of poverty, disorder, and degradation that become apparent when the reader learns that the shopkeeper from whom she purchases the Mary Jane candy views her with distaste. As made plain by the text, the source of distaste is her blackness, and it is this state of being which precipitates her poverty within the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy in which she lives. Thus when the reader juxtaposes the reality signified by the Mary Jane candy, the dyadic outcome of a civilization induced by capitalism becomes salient: those who have profited from the edicts of capitalism embody a world of wealth and privilege while their poor counterparts inhabit a sphere marked by degradation and lack. And while Marx’s theoretical framework did not encompass extensive analysis of the role race plays in precipitating black degradation, many theorists have analyzed how the reality of blackness contributes to Pecola’s degradation and desire to embody the world of whiteness represented by cultural icons like Mary Jane and Shirley Temple. In discussing this very matter, writer Shelley Wong notes that these racialized icons constitute “…a metaphorical poisoning which works through the American culture industry’s projection—from the movie screen, from Mary Jane candy wrappers, and from Shirley Temple mugs—of a single image of ideal beauty, one that is decidedly white” (479). As Wong accurately argues, white girls like Shirley Temple and Mary Jane exist as metaphors for a world of beauty that Pecola cannot embody because she perceives Eurocentric features to be superior to Afrocentric ones. In making this reality plain, Morrison notes that “It had occurred to Pecola some time ago that if her eyes, those eyes that held the pictures, and knew the sights—if those eyes of hers were different, that is to say, beautiful, she herself would be different” (46). These self-deprecating surmisings become the impetus for Pecola to pray for blue eyes like those of Shirley Temple and Mary Jane, and food becomes the metaphor through which the reader’s understanding of her obsession with whiteness is unveiled. In discussing the signification of metaphors, Korthals notes that they “…have an ethical quality: they convey mechanisms of respect, inclusion, and exclusion, because they organize people around icons that connect them and that separate them from people that are not appealed to” (91). In this case, the Shirley Temple and Mary Jane are the food metaphors that organize people around a textually conspicuous icon: the blue-eyed beauty who represents a world of affluence and attractiveness. It is this world that Pecola wants to connect with, and it this very realm that she is separated from as a result of her blackness and impoverishment. In recognizing the reality of her cultural undesirability and the distaste whites experience towards blacks, it is perhaps unsurprising that she seeks to invert her perceived ugliness and abject poverty by becoming one with images of whiteness through the act of eating.

Clearly, Pecola’s desire to “Be Mary Jane” by consuming the candy after which the young white girl is named demonstrates how food functions as a metaphor through which her obsession with whiteness and the affluence it suggests becomes plain. Yet there are also other textual scenarios in which food operates as a signifier for the power of white supremacy and the degrading effect it has on the black psyche. Another scene that unveils the way food operates as a symbol for the valuation of whiteness and devaluation of blackness transpires when Pecola accidentally drops a pie in the kitchen of a home where her mother works. During this scene, Pecola, Frieda, and Claudia enter the kitchen and eye a blueberry pie that Mrs. Breedlove has prepared for the white family she works for. After stretching forth her hand to see if the pie is still hot, Pecola accidentally pushes the pan off the stove and causes the dessert to “splatter…everywhere” (108). As a result of the accident, the pie’s juice splashes on Pecola’s legs and generates painful burning which causes her to cry out and commence hopping around the room. Rather than consoling her daughter when she enters the kitchen and becomes cognizant of the accident, Mrs. Breedlove quickly grows irritated and angry about the food mishap. Her frustration manifests in the form of slapping Pecola twice and subsequently unleashing an ugly utterance: “Crazy fool…my floor, mess…look what you…work…get on out…now that…crazy…my floor…my floor” (109). As made plain by her repetition of the word “floor,” Mrs. Breedlove’s primary concern is not her daughter’s well-being and recovery from the scalding effect the pie has on Pecola’s legs. Rather, she is mentally preoccupied with the white family she is caring for and keeping their home clean. This idea becomes plain when the reader considers the way that Mrs. Breedlove addresses the young white girl of the family who observes the whole incident with the pie. Disturbed by the pie’s demise and the antagonism that ensues between Mrs. Breedlove and Pecola, the “little pink-and-yellow girl” begins to cry. In response, Mrs. Breedlove comforts the white girl by hushing and soothing her tears in a sweet tone with words comparable to “honey” (109). The difference between Mrs. Breedlove’s treatment of Pecola and the little white girl is stark and telling. In this case, the ruined pie exists as the food item that unveils the presence and power of white supremacist values. Specifically, the pie’s demise is the springboard through which the reader comes to understand that Mrs. Breedlove deems it more important to console her white charge than her own black daughter, the latter of whom suffers a physical injury as a result of the accident. Yet the unscathed white girl is deemed more worthy of attention in the eyes of Mrs. Breedlove, and the rationale behind her decision-making process seems plain. In recognizing that her economic survival is contingent upon maintaining the home of the white family she works for, Mrs. Breedlove likely considers her black child’s well-being secondary to that of her white charge. In short, she is being paid to keep the young white girl happy, and her needs thus become primary in Mrs. Breedlove’s mind.

That the white charge possesses more power and is afforded more deference than the black Pecola becomes even more evident when the reader considers the fact that the former girl refers to Mrs. Breedlove by her first name, Polly. The signification of this naming is plain. In a racist world, white children are not required to refer to black adults by their last names but instead can call them by their first names alone. Although this act carries with it a sense of familiarity and amicability, it also connotes the idea that white children are not required to afford black adults the same measure of respect given to their white adult counterparts. This is the reality that is brought into existence when the reader witnesses the young white child repeatedly refer to Mrs. Breedlove as Polly. Moreover, the young white girl does not simply refer to the elder black woman in this implicitly degrading manner. She also uses the name to issue an instruction to Mrs. Breedlove. At one point, she says “Polly, come here” (108).  Thus the white child once again reverses the prototypical adult-child relationship in which the younger human follows the guidance and obeys the impositions of the elder being. In discussing the signification and power of naming, it is also important to note that Pecola does not refer to her mother with a term connoting their familial connection. Rather than referring to her as “mother” or “Mom,” Pecola calls the elder woman Mrs. Breedlove. This word choice is significant insomuch as the formality indigenous to the name underscores the lack of warmth and mutuality indigenous to their relationship. The estranged, detached relationship suggested by the title Pecola uses when referencing her mother is explicated plainly as the reader observes Mrs. Breedlove soothe and comfort the white child in a motherly manner while simultaneously neglecting her own daughter. As becomes plain throughout the text, this poor treatment is intrinsically connected to the reality of blackness and poverty that pervade Mrs. Breedlove’s existence and experiences. Specifically, Mrs. Breedlove’s perceived need to appease the white people who pay her salary supercedes any paternalistic instinct which would engender genuine concern about the well-being of her (black) daughter. And as with numerous other scenes in the text, food becomes the signifier which underscores and unveils the role that white supremacist thought and praxis play in dehumanizing and negating Pecola’s existence as a black being.

When one considers the depth and scope of the pie scene, the Marxist implications of the text become plain again. Specifically, this scene in the text underscores the theorist’s idea that the foundation of the bourgeois family is capital. In expounding upon this idea, Marx asks and answers an important question: “On what foundation is the present family, the bourgeois family, based? On capital, on private gain. In its completely developed form, this family exists only among the bourgeoisie. But this state of things finds its complement in the practical absence of the family among the proletarians, and in public prostitution” (location 374 of 733). Marx’s assessment is replicated in The Bluest Eye as the reader watches the Breedlove family fail to operate as a single unit because of their inability to maintain property and acquire substantive wealth. Thus the black Breedloves are akin to the proletarians insomuch as their family is perpetually broken up into a state of “practical absence,” and their wealthier white counterparts (such as the family Mrs. Breedlove cares for) exist as Marxist’s bourgeoisie insomuch as they are able to maintain a cogent familial unit at least in part because of their steady flow of capital.

The Marxist disparity in familial modality is also manifest within the world of The Bluest Eye as a result of Morrison’s inclusion of the “Dick and Jane” narrative: “Here is the house. It is green and white. It has a red door. It is very pretty. Here is the family. Mother, Father, Dick, and Jane live in the green-and-white house. They are very happy” (xx). In continually referencing the white nuclear family that lives in a “very pretty” white house occupied by Mother, Father, Dick, and Jane, Morrison’s narration replicates the bourgeoisie familial world that Marx describes. And again, the Breedloves embody an antithetical, proletarian-type realm marked by the lack of capital necessary to attain and maintain one of the capitalist’s most treasured possession: property. In discussing the role that the Dick and Jane primer plays in unveiling these realities, Wong notes that the mini-narrative unfolds such that “…the “house” precedes the “family” in order of both appearance and discussion. In this scheme of things, human relations are preempted by property and commodity relations” (472). Indeed, within the capitalist world that Marx and Morrison describe, the house becomes the foundation upon which familial relationships are established. And in context of The Bluest Eye, the fact that the Breedloves do not possess the type of “very pretty” house represented in the “Dick and Jane” primer underscores the poverty and paucity indigenous to Pecola’s mode of being and knowing.  In summarizing these realities, writer Robin Small-McCarthy accurately argues that the “Dick and Jane” primer “foreshadows the tragic story of Pecola Breedlove, whose mother has little time for her, and whose father rapes and impregnates her when his barely concealed rage and frustration finally explodes at the seam” (177, 178). Brilliantly juxtaposing these devastating events and the familial dysfunction they represent to the propertied, perfect Dick and Jane family, Morrison carefully underscores the role that poverty can play in creating profoundly disparate modes of beings for poor blacks and wealthy whites. And in the case of Pecola Breedlove, relegation to the spheres of blackness and poverty induce an obsession with whiteness that manifests in highly specific food choices that unveil her preference for the world of wealth and livelihood associated with girls who possess blue eyes.

As made plain by Pecola’s food choices, her inundation in a world privileging white people and perpetuating their power induces a psychic state marked by self-loathing and self-alienation. However, this is not the only literary text in which the reader can identify food motifs and metaphors that function as textual signals for the oppressive power that Eurocentric thought and praxis have in the lives and minds of people of color. Another text which employs food symbolism to unveil the significance of white racism is The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. In this fictional narrative, the author narrates the protagonist’s understanding of how his skin color and lack of economic power affect his food choices. This textual manifestation begins to unfold as protagonist Junior defines himself thus: “…I am really just a poor-ass reservation kid living with his poor-ass family on the poor-ass Spokane Indian Reservation” (7). After making note of his race and poverty, Junior goes on to note that the worst part of being poor is that “Poverty=empty refrigerator + empty stomach” (8). Following his notation of the fact that his poverty often results in missed meals, Junior goes on to note that this involuntary fasting eventually comes to an end when his parents bring home a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken (8). In reviewing this narration, the reader grasps the fact that Junior’s Native American racial ancestry is a key factor precipitating his poverty. The reader also understands that this racialized poverty precipitates two undesirable food conditions: food absence and poor food choices. In understanding and analyzing these textual realities, the confluence between Pecola and Junior’s conditions becomes plain: the lack of wealth precipitated by the racism experienced within a white supremacist capitalist patriarchy functions as a catalyst for the consumption of unhealthy foods. In Junior’s case, the lackluster food consumption is fast food laden with oil and other unhealthy additives. With respect to Pecola, race and poverty lead to unhealthy food choices such as the overconsumption of milk.

While noting the conjunctions between Pecola and Junior’s eating habits helps shed light on the role that racism and poverty can play in precipitating poor food choices, it is important to note that there are yet differences in their eating modalities. Specifically, the primary role that white supremacy plays in Pecola’s life generates her salient obsession with whiteness. This reality is reflected in the fact that her overconsumption of milk results from a desire to drink from a cup depicting a white Hollywood child star that she reveres. Pecola’s ongoing obsession with whiteness resurfaces when she buys the Mary Janes because they depict a little white girl with the blue eyes she wants to have. Additionally, Pecola’s preoccupation with whiteness is fueled and perpetuated by her mother’s preference for the white world. Specifically, Mrs. Breedlove prefers the domestic work she exacts for the white charge to playing with her own children, and her neglect of Pecola exacerbates the young girl’s self-loathing and self-alienation. In short, Mrs. Breedlove creates the sense of a void and unworthiness which foster Pecola’s perceived need to acquire value by ideologically and experientially aligning herself with whiteness. Herein lies the disparity between Pecola and Junior. While Pecola’s inundation in a white supremacist realm engenders her desire to be white, Junior’s immersion in a world that privileges whiteness does not. While he makes the conscious decision to enroll in a predominantly white school after recognizing that doing so will help fuel his ability to attain socioeconomic mobility, he also takes time to inform the reader that “I’m not all goofy-eyed in love with white people, all right?” (154). The disparity between Pecola and Junior’s perceptions of the white world is compelling because it shows the reader that the responses people of color have to white supremacy are not monolithic. Rather, individual proclivities and unique life experiences can and do generate distinct, disparate responses to oppression. Nevertheless, a uniting strand remains present and prevalent in both The Bluest Eye and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian: white supremacist ideologies can precipitate the impoverishment of people of color, and this impoverishment can result in physiologically and/or psychologically poor food choices.

Just as Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian unveils important contiguities between the worlds of race and food, Erskine Caldwell’s “Saturday Afternoon” displays substantive corollaries between these two spheres. The short story places primacy upon the formation of a lynch mob. Angered that a well-to-do African-American named Will Maxie has apparently spoken to a white woman, a group of white men decide to kill him. In addition to experiencing sustained rage because Maxie spoke to a white woman, the lynch mob is wrathful because of Maxie’s economic success. His farming ventures with cotton are productive and he makes prudent purchasing decisions. Interestingly, the story’s writer draws attention to Maxie’s food choices to underscore his wealth and the fact that it angers the white lynch mob. As the story unfolds, the reader learns that “Will Maxie did not drink Coca-Cola. Will never spent his money on anything like that.” In noting this reality, the lynch mob concludes “That was what was wrong with him. He was too damn good for a Negro.” Herein lies an important textual reality which illustrates some significant food/race conjunctions. Firstly, this narrative element reveals the cultural understanding that people of color are oftentimes expected to make inferior food choices because of a lack of knowledge, financial power, and/or a general understanding that they are not to seek out the enjoyment or consumption of anything that would somehow suggest entitlement to a level of health and well-being comparable to that of whites. Second, the narrative reveals that Will Maxie has escaped this mode of racialized degradation by acquiring relatively substantive financial power and avoiding at least one nutritionally vacuous food capable of adversely impacting his body. In considering the signification of this textual revelation, the reader becomes aware of the fact that not all blacks make food choices which unveil the power that white supremacist edicts have in carving out an inferior existence for them. Thus unlike The Bluest Eye’s Pecola, the character of Maxie works to unveil the way that (relatively) wealthy people of color can 1. attain socioeconomic power despite the white supremacist system and 2. make food decisions that reveal an unwillingness to collude in various debilitating ideologies associated with that system. In the case of Maxie, this decision-making process involves an unwillingness to feign inferiority to whites by making the poor food choices oftentimes associated with blackness such as wastefulness, ignorance, poverty, and/or the belief that Caucasians are somehow superior to whites. Maxie’s food choices thus stand in stark contrast to Pecola’s given that the latter individual consumes foodstuffs that reflect several of the aforementioned traits. The young girl’s overconsumption of milk is wasteful and she buys cheap food items like Mary Janes which likely reflect her inability to purchase more expensive foods. Pecola also accedes to the notion that whites are aesthetically superior to blacks, and this false consciousness reflects the deep and decidedly negative impact that white supremacist capitalist patriarchy has on her psyche.

As made plain by a simple juxtaposition of Pecola and Maxie’s food choices, which consumable goods a person of color chooses to purchase can reveal a plethora of things about individual identity, racism, and which people possess the most cultural power and value within a white supremacist framework. Within the world of The Bluest Eye, Pecola functions as a character whose food choices underscore the dehumanization engendered by poverty and blackness during a historical period in which whites possessed more socioeconomic and political power. Yet not all blacks in the text interact with food in a manner indicating impoverishment and subjectivity to negative self-concepts as a result of Eurocentric values. In fact, the character of Maureen Peal offers a substantively different look at black life within the white supremacist matrix. This reality becomes prevalent through the narrative’s description of both Maureen Peal and her food choices. In describing Peal, Claudia calls her a “high-yellow dream child” and goes on to state that “She was rich, at least by our standards, as rich as the richest of the white girls, swaddled in comfort and care” (62). In making these statements, Claudia reinforces the reader’s understanding that not all of the black characters in the text are poor. Moreover, the fact that Peal is not poor is reinforced through a description of the items she eats for lunch. Claudia describes Peal’s food thus: “…she opened fastidious lunches, shaming our jelly-stained bread with egg-salad sandwiches cut into four dainty squares, pink-frosted cupcakes, stocks of celery and carrots, proud, dark apples. She even bought and liked white milk” (63). This description is telling insomuch as it unveils the fact that Peal’s wealth affords her the opportunity to purchase and consume aesthetically appealing and/or nutritious types of food, both of which are associated with affluence. These realities are not without racial import insomuch as although Peal is African-American, she is described with language indicating that her physiognomy and economic status render her personhood similar to that of a white person. In addition to having “high-yellow” skin, Maureen is as rich as the white girls in the school and these two facts make her markedly distinct from the darker skinned Pecola whose African aesthetic and poverty render her less valuable within the white supremacist structure. Thus while Maureen’s food choices do work to unveil the fact that not all African-Americans eat socially and nutritionally inferior foods which demonstrate the presence and power of white racism, they simultaneously reinforce the reader’s understanding that the young girl’s wealth and “like white” appearance likely play a role in enabling her to attain and consume higher quality food than Pecola. And while the reader might develop a sense of satisfaction in recognizing that some blacks within the text possess the economic power necessary to consume quality food, Peal’s socioeconomic mobility and food choices become a source for shame amongst young women like Claudia and Frieda. Their “jelly-stained bread” cannot compare to the world of “egg-salad sandwiches” that girls such as Peal live in, and this reality generates a sense of substantive embarrassment and envy within them (63). In recognizing this reality, the confluence between Pecola’s and Claudia and Frieda’s interaction with food becomes plain.  In both cases, food functions as a springboard through which they understand that they are not white and wealthy, and this revelation is disconcerting and demoralizing.

As made plain by the numerous manifestations of food within The Bluest Eye, the signification of race and wealth become prevalent when consumable goods gain textual primacy. Specifically, Pecola’s gravitation towards food items such as Mary Janes and cups depicting Shirley Temple illustrate her preoccupation with and preference for whiteness. The rationale behind her obsession with whiteness becomes plain throughout the text: the white world is one marked by opulence and wealth, and these realities stand in stark contrast to the realm of poverty and lack she embodies on account of her blackness. The prevalence of white supremacist values becomes prevalent at other textual points as well, such as when Pecola accidentally knocks a blueberry pie off a counter and when Frieda and Claudia observe the well-to-do lunches of Maureen, the “high-yellow dream child.” Viewed in totality, each of these food scenes unveils the Marxist implications of the text by revealing the role that poverty plays in creating two diametrically opposed worlds that contain two important elements of civilization: 1. wealth, order, and refinement, and 2. poverty, disorder, and degradation. In the case of Pecola, obsession with extrication from the world of poverty induced by blackness facilitates a profound and long-standing preoccupation with whiteness that culminates in her immersion within a world of insanity. In this psychologically unsound place, Pecola grows convinced that she has finally attained the blue eyes that she connotes with whiteness and wealth. Yet while the reader understands that her desire to “be white” is never fulfilled, the revelation of this desire is effectively illustrated through her selection of food items depicting young white girls who possess the eye color and aura of affluence she desperately wants.

Works Cited

Alexie, Sherman. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. New York: Little, Brown  and Company, 2007.

Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory. New York: Manchester University Press, 2009.

Caldwell, Erskine. “Saturday Afternoon.” Web. 2 Mar. 2015.

Gubar, Susan. Racechanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture. New York: Oxford  University Press, 2007.

Korthals, Michiel. “Food as a Source and Target of Metaphors: Inclusion and Exclusion  of Foodstuffs and Persons through Metaphors.” Configurations. Volume 16, Number  1.  (Winter 2008), pp. 77-92.

Marx, Karl. The Communist Manifesto. Global Grey, 2014. Kindle.

Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. New York: Vintage Books, 2007. Print.

Small-McCarthy, Robin. “From ‘The Bluest Eye’ to ‘Jazz’: A Retrospective of  Toni  Morrison’s Literary Sounds.” Counterpoints. Vol. 96, Sound Identities: Popular  Music  and the Cultural Politics of Education (199), 175-193.

Williams, Raymond. Marxism And Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Wong, Shelley. “Transgression as Poesis in The Bluest Eye.” Callaloo. Vol. 13, No.  3.  (Summer, 1990), pp. 471-481.

White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy In Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye