‘I know not what attraction they [men] can find in such ugliness. It is beastly.’
-George Moore, John Norton, p.332
A queer sense of desire is shown in George Moore’s ‘John Norton’, destabilising dominant models of sexual identity. John Norton projects his sexual impulses onto unconventional ideologies, such as art and religion. Roger Luckhurst writes, ‘[d]ecadence was associated with ostentatious but pointless display […] [the decadent] became absorbed in an obscure, private and perverse world.’2 Norton’s sombre, reclusive lifestyle, rejection of marriage and indulgence in art is (according to Nordau) influenced by Schopenhauer. His philosophy states that a will to live is damaging since death is the inevitable consequence of life, and therefore, in order to escape pain, one must seek comfort in art and contemplation rather than actively participate in life. Schopenhauer’s philosophy is summarised by William Van der Will, who writes, ‘In the aesthetic moment man reache[d] a stage of “will-less perception” in which all desire to increase, to multiply, to consume, all craving and wanting [was] suspended in the recognition of beauty.’3 Therefore, the world of will, as believed in by Mrs Norton contrasts with John’s belief, as he refuses to participate in life, and instead directs his attention to ideas. From the beginning of the novella Mrs Norton is trying to reinforce her paternal authority to get John to return home to marry and be an heir to the estate. Her frustration at John’s resistance to social norms is shown through her repetition of the word ‘why’: ‘[w]hy, is it nearly two years since he’s been home. Why does he not come and live at this beautiful place? […] Why does he not marry?’ (p.320-321). Mrs Norton cannot understand that John does not see beauty in the home and estate as the home represents a return to convention, and the adoption of a ‘will’ to live. Mrs Norton sees it as John’s ‘duty’ (p.321) to marry, depicting how John’s reclusive lifestyle and rejection of marriage does not align with the social conventions of heterosexual love. John finds a queer sense of comfort in the refusal to engage in the conventional social structure of marriage alliance, and so transgresses dominant ideologies.
John Norton’s story could be read as one of repressed homosexuality. Throughout the novella he is disgusted by the fleshly form of women. He says, ‘I know not what attraction they [men] can find in such ugliness. It is beastly’ (p.332). Norton also retreats into a homosocial environment at his college to avoid returning home and becoming pressured into heterosexual marriage by his mother. Yet, despite his repulsion for women, the story depicts a queer and twisted version of heterosexuality rather than repressed homosexuality. The fin de siècle bachelor is typically associated with homosexuality, yet John’s main preoccupation is worshipping art, something Nordau singles out as a typical feature of a degenerate. Even when John is engaged to marry Kitty he describes her in a queer way. John says, ‘[h]er face is a pretty oval[…] her eyes are large and soft’ (p.381). He continues to address her ‘boyish figure’, and Kitty is purged of material aspects of womanliness. John sees Kitty as both androgynous and an art object rather than a real-life woman. Therefore she cannot challenge him with real life, sexual demands which John refuses to engage in. When he intends to praise Kitty he describes her as a flower. He says, ‘[a]nd you, in your white dress, with the sunlight on your hair, seem more blossom-like than a flower’ (p.393) Comparing her to a flower is another way of refusing to accept her in her fleshly, bodily form, and therefore, denying her existence as a woman. Instead, praising her beauty as though she is art. Heterosexual love and desire become twisted and challenge dominant structures of heterosexual desire, as John projects his desire onto Kitty in a way which denies her fleshly womanliness and instead places her in a category of androgynous art.
Featured Painting: Henri Toulouse- Lautrec, At the Moulin Rouge, 1895, Oil on Canvas, 123 x140.5cm, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago
1. George Moore, ‘John Norton’ in Celibates (London: Walter Scott, 1895) p.332. All further references to Moore’s text are to this edition and will be given parenthetically.
2. Roger Luckhurst, ‘Introduction’ in Late-Victorian Gothic Tales, ed. Roger Luckhurst (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. ix-xxxi.
3. Wilfried Van der Will, ‘Schopenhauer, Arthur’, in Makers of Nineteenth-Century Culture, 1800-1914, ed. Justin Wintle, pp. 553-6.
Written by Sarah Culham.
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