“Life, about change”: symbolism and money in Ali Smith’s Hotel World’

People go past. They don’t see Else, or decide not to.
Ali Smith, Hotel World, p. 39.

From ‘[t]wo ten pence pieces’ and ‘a handful of coppers’ to ‘the five pound note’, Ali Smith’s Hotel World (2001) is a novel that is strewn with money; indeed, the language of ‘capital, transaction, and accumulation’ that pervades every interaction between her characters reflects the contemporary status of capitalism as the dominant world order.[i] It is a world order that was anticipated by Francis Fukuyama who, after witnessing the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, proclaimed that the ‘end of history’ was at hand:

‘the [twentieth] century that began full of self-confidence in the ultimate triumph of Western liberal democracy seems at its close to be returning full circle to where it started: not to an “end of ideology” or a convergence between capitalism and socialism, as earlier predicted, but to an unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism’.[ii]

Unlike Fukuyama, who revels in the ‘ultimate triumph of Western liberal democracy’, Smith rejects capitalism as an inherently oppressive system that repeatedly disenfranchises the poor. Her criticism echoes Jacques Derrida’s own disavowal of contemporary capitalism in Specters of Marx (1994):

‘it must be cried out, at a time when some have the audacity to neo-evangelize in the name of the ideal of a liberal democracy […] never have violence, inequality, exclusion, famine, and thus economic oppression affected as many human beings in the history of the earth and of humanity’.[iii]

Specters presents a theory of ethics that demands a ‘certain responsibility and answerability’ from society in response to the injustices of capitalism; in Hotel World, Smith repeats this demand.[iv] Indeed, the novel begins with a testimony from the ghost of Sara Wilby, who returns from beyond the grave with an urgent ‘message for you’ (‘[y]ou. Yes, you. It’s you I’m talking to’), insisting that the reader pay attention and ‘[l]isten’ (pp. 30-31). As Smith exposes the violence of a system that is built on the exploitation of labour, the reader, in turn, is asked to bear witness to the harsh reality of these injustices.

Yet if, as Esther Peeren argues, the ‘ghostly system of capitalist production […] renders labor and its value invisible’ by ‘mak[ing] workers converge with their labor’, then how can it be possible to bear witness to the ‘invisible’ iniquity and oppression of a ‘ghostly’ system?[v] For example, the current alarming rise in homelessness is a result of the inequalities inherent within capitalism, a connection that Smith makes explicit in the novel through the headlines on the newspaper pages that Else, a homeless girl, wraps around her feet for extra insulation; the headlines read, ‘BRITAIN MASSIVELY MORE UNEQUAL THAN 20 YEARS AGO. ONE IN FIVE PEOPLE LIVES BELOW BREADLINE’ (p. 45). As Peeren identifies, however, the victims of these social injustices often ‘resemble dispossessed ghosts in that they are ignored and considered expendable’; indeed, passers-by ignore Else on the street, not seeing her, or ‘decid[ing] not to’, as she is made invisible by the dispossessing system of capitalism that marginalises her suffering (p. 39).[vi] How, then, does one act ethically and bear witness to the spectral?

Using Derrida’s concept of conjuration as a theoretical framework, I argue that Smith finds the answer to this paradox of bearing witness to the spectral through money; she commodifies the body and pathologizes money through the abject in order to conjure the exploitation of labour under capitalism. Thus, Smith ultimately causes the ‘magical spell’ of capitalism ‘to be undone and the reality of exploitation to be revealed’.[vii]

In Hotel World, Smith converges the human working body with the corporate ‘body’ of the Global Hotel. Whilst remembering the events surrounding her death, Sara’s ghost states that she had been working as a maid on the top floor of the hotel, which:

‘used to be the servants’ quarters two hundred years ago when the house had servants in it, and after that the house was a brothel and up there was where the cheap girls […] were put to sell their wares (p. 6).

Through the history of the corporate hotel, Smith creates a continuity of human labour that demonstrates how the worker’s body has been commodified under capitalism. It is from this top floor of the hotel that Sara then falls to her death in the dumb waiter. The reoccurring image of the long, vertical shaft of the dumb waiter is repeatedly associated with the human body: Penny, a guest, is ‘appalled’ by the dark ‘nothing’ of the shaft that ‘[runs] the length’ of the hotel ‘like a spine’ (p. 145) ; Else imagines a wall ‘made of phlegm’ inside her that ‘goes from her abdomen to her throat’ and mirrors the ‘hotel wall’ against which she rests her back (p. 40); Lise, the receptionist who worked at the Global Hotel before her illness, describes her bodily illness as a fall, ‘as if she had been upended over the wall of a well’ and ‘had been falling in the same monotonous nothing way for weeks’ (p. 84). By conflating the corporate ‘body’ of the hotel with the human body, Smith then pathologizes capitalism, specifically through money.

The material body of money, as Derrida asserts, provides the means through which to reify the abstract system of capitalism; it conjures the specter. Derrida defines the act of conjuration as that which ‘makes come’ what ‘is not there at the present moment of the appeal’.[viii] To conjure, then, is to make visible that which was previously there but invisible. Money, described by Derrida as the ‘[a]pparition of the bodiless body’ of capitalism, can therefore be understood as fulfilling this role of conjuration; its material form provides a ‘body’ for the otherwise ‘bodiless body’ of capitalism to manifest itself. Thus, money in its material form reifies the specter of capitalism, conjuring what was abstract and invisible into a real and visible form.

In Hotel World, Smith pathologizes capitalism by constructing money as waste. She continuously divests coins of their monetary value: a copper coin ‘tastes like meat gone off’ (p. 38); a homeless woman’s coins are ‘piled like a mistake, like rubbish’ by her side (p. 67); and the hotel receptionist carries a ‘wastepaper basket full of small change’ (p. 113). More specifically, money is routinely compared to bodily waste. After putting some coins into her mouth and spitting them back out, Else describes them as looking like ‘shining sick’; similarly, the taste of the catarrh that she frequently coughs up also reminds her of the ‘taste of money’, ‘always lurking at the back of her throat’ (pp. 37-38). As forms of bodily waste (‘sick’, ‘catarrh’), money is abjected, cast off and purged by the human body. In her essay, Powers of Horror (1980), Julia Kristeva discusses the abject, and the state of abjection. She describes the ‘spasms and vomiting’, the ‘repugnance’ and ‘the retching’ that turn her away from ‘body fluids’, ‘defilement’, and ‘shit’, all of which she categorises as the abject; it is ‘not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection’, Kristeva states, ‘but what disturbs identity, system, order’.[ix] By constructing money as bodily waste to be purged and rejected by the human body, Smith pathologizes capitalism through the abject. She suggests that capitalism is not an abstract or spectral economic system, but something violent and threatening that ‘disturbs’ by dispossessing the poor and the vulnerable through systemic oppression.

The language of money that structures every aspect of the novel reflects the contemporary culture of consumerism and commodification. As Catherine Belsey identifies, however, there is one aspect of the human experience that resists commodification:

‘[t]o the degree that [the] postmodern condition implies an unbridled consumerism, the cultural logic of late capitalism, pleasure for cash and a product to gratify every possible impulse – if not, indeed, to construct the impulse in the first place – love is a value that remains beyond the market.[x]

For Smith, the human emotion of love serves as an antidote to the violence of capitalism. Indeed, when Sara’s ghost proclaims that ‘[l]ife’ is ‘about change’, change refers to money, but also recognises the potential for a transformation that, for Smith, is motivated by human love that ‘cannot be bought’.[xi] Whilst sat begging for money outside the Global Hotel, Else remembers putting a coin into her mouth with a past boyfriend, musing that:

the taste was metal. After that when Ade had kissed her he tasted of metal too. He passed a ten pence piece into her mouth, in past her teeth and off his tongue, flat on to her tongue like a communion wafer (p. 37).

For Else, the taste of the coin now reminds her of the man she once loved, who had ‘kissed her’ and ‘tasted of metal too’. Smith reinscribes the coin with a symbolic value that is not monetary, as suggested by its comparison to a ‘communion wafer’. A similar reinscription of the value of money also occurs when Clare, Sara’s sister, meets Duncan, the only person who witnessed Sara’s death in the Global Hotel. While recounting Sara’s death, Duncan tells Clare that Sara had ‘bet him a fiver she could get into the lift’; now unable to pay his debt to Sara, Duncan gives Clare the fiver instead (p. 204). Clare accepts the money and addresses Sara in her interior monologue, stating, ‘I put the five pounds in the cabinet too I won’t ever spend it it is yours […] I will keep it for you it is worth more than anything’ (pp. 215-216). By keeping the five-pound note ‘flattened […] out between two books’ in her cabinet, Clare removes the note from being circulated again, and imbues it with non-monetary value as a memorial for her dead sister (p. 216). Smith suggests that love, purer than the capitalist desire for consumerism and commodification, is a transformative agent that reinscribes monetary value with a symbolic value that is far deeper, more intimate and, ultimately, more human.

In her foreword to Ali Smith: Contemporary Critical Perspectives (2013), Marina Warner states that Smith’s fiction ‘quests’ to ‘reinvigorate the important things that matter to life, grappling with the meaning of love and loss without shying away’.[xii] In Hotel World, Smith criticises the contemporary culture of capitalism and commodification, under which the vulnerable are regularly disenfranchised. By amplifying these marginalised voices, Smith asks the reader to bear witness to the systemic injustices of capitalism; indeed, she asks the reader to hope for better by prioritising the ‘important things that matter to life’, such as love and compassion. When Sara’s ghost returns from beyond the grave, she returns with a message for everyone, from ‘the people in the cinema queue’ to the ‘check-out girls’ at the supermarket, and to the reader:

‘[h]ere’s the story.
Remember you must live.
Remember you most love.
Remainder you mist leaf.’

Cover Image:
Front Cover of Penguin’s 2002 edition of the novel. See Ali Smith, Hotel World (London: Penguin, 2002).

[i] Ali Smith, Hotel World (London: Penguin Books, 2002). All further references to this novel are to this edition, and page numbers are given in parentheses in the body of the post.

[ii] Francis Fukuyama, ‘The End of History?’, The National Interest, 16 (1989), 3-18 (p. 1).

[iii] Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International, trans. Peggy Kamuf (London: Routledge, 1994), p. 85. From this point onwards, I will give the title in shorthand, thus referring to Specters of Marx as merely Specters.

[iv] María del Pilar Blanco and Esther Peeren, ‘The Spectral Turn/Introduction’, in The Spectralities Reader: Ghosts and Haunting in Contemporary Cultural Theory, eds. by María del Pilar Blanco and Esther Peeren (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), pp. 31-36 (p. 33).

[v] Esther Peeren, The Spectral Metaphor: Living Ghosts and the Agency of Invisibility (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), p. 21.

[vi] Ibid, p. 14.

[vii] Ibid, p. 21.

[viii] Derrida, Specters, p. 41, emphasis in original.

[ix] Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. by Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), pp. 2-3.

[x] Catherine Belsey, Desire: Love Stories in Western Culture (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), p. 72.

[xi] Ibid, p. 72.

[xii] Marina Warner, ‘Foreword’, in Ali Smith: Contemporary Critical Perspectives, ed. by Monica Germana, and Emily Horton (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), pp. viii-ix (p. ix).

Written by Akancha Gurung.
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.


Mimicry and Subversion: the Representation of the Neo-Victorian femme fatale in Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride

 ‘You are a woman with a man inside watching a woman. You are your own voyeur.’

Margaret Atwood, The Robber Bride, p.392

As Barbara Creed argues, ‘All human societies have a concept of the monstrous-feminine, of what it is about women that is shocking, terrifying, horrific, abject.’[1] Throughout both late Victorian and neo-Victorian literature, concepts of the monstrous-feminine are inextricably linked with masculine fears of unveiled female sexual agency. More specifically, the characterisation of the female as dangerous and horrifying is intimately linked to notions of the sexually-independent female. This is the fear internalised by the femme fatale figure, a monstrous woman who refuses to remain subordinate to androcentric notions of the ‘ideal woman’, as presented in such works as Coventry Patmore’s 1854 narrative poem Angel in the House.[2] This typecasting of the femme fatale as monstrous proliferates throughout Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride. Despite the femme fatales continual shapeshifting’[3] in representation throughout the texts, the femme fatale remains a persistent figure of monstrosity; the femme fatale embodies, amongst others, fears of devolution, emasculation and decadence. Despite this, however, she remains a figure that evokes ‘dread’ desire’ and irresistible longing in her victims. [4] This monstrous power is evoked by the femme fatale’s subversion and monopolisation of the male gaze. [5] Through this, her fatality is achieved. The femme fatale, through this subversion, uses the gaze on her victims to ensnare them. Whilst the femme fatale gains power and influence through this subversion, ordained societal codes of masculine superiority come to be entirely obliterated; this results in the representation of the femme as fatale. Through a discussion of The Robber Bride, it becomes apparent that the femme fatale’s success at internalising the male gaze correlates with her level of monstrosity. Those that entirely refute and overpower the male gaze and, in turn, androcentric ideals are proven to be far more monstrous in their entirety than those who remain trapped in patriarchy.

In stark contrast to Victorian conceptions of the fatal woman, Atwood’s contemporary femme fatale bears no fatal flaw or hamartia. Zenia, a fin-de-millennial reworking of the femme fatale, is a creation of total monstrosity; she is described by Atwood herself as a horrific ‘Lady Macbeth’ figure who harbours no morally redeeming features.[6] Unlike Victorian femme fatales such as H. Rider Haggard’s Ayesha, whose passion results in her demise before she can truly be fatal, Zenia is a femme fatale that proves entirely deadly to the men and women she encounters. Unlike her Victorian counterpart, she never falls victim to the male gaze she attempts to monopolise. Instead, Zenia garners complete control over the male gaze, ensnaring her victims in their own perceptions of femininity. The power embodied in this gaze is made paramount by Roz, who declares that ‘you are a woman with a man inside watching a woman. You are your own voyeur.’[7] This is the gaze of patriarchal domination and oppression, which acts to reduce and ‘mould’ women into positions of inferiority and subordination at the hands of superior masculinity. Through Roz’s declaration, Atwood essentially suggests that women are ‘moulded’ into figures of the ‘proper feminine’ by the patriarchally oppressive gaze of androcentric society.[8] As Jean Noble observes, male power ‘lies at the heart of an unequal gendering gaze directed from men towards women’; women thus become ‘defined and constituted by that male gaze.’[9] Noble’s argument is clearly corroborated by Atwood, who continues to ponder ‘male fantasies, male fantasies, is everything run by male fantasies?’; ‘even pretending you’re unseen, pretending you have a life of your own […] unconscious of the ever-present watcher peering through the keyhole’ (p.392). In this sense, it becomes apparent that the women of the novel are under the continual scrutiny of male driven society; this continual examination appears to be not too dissimilar from Panopticism. As theorised by Jeremy Bentham and later expanded by Foucault, the theory is based on the notion of ‘all-seeing’ architectural buildings. Bentham argued that these buildings would result in behavioural changes, as the individual censors their behaviour accordingly under the ever-watchful gaze.[10] Tony, Charis and Roz are all victims of this Panopticism, continually monitoring and changing themselves to please their respective partners.

However, Zenia successfully evades this Panoptic gaze through her refusal to remain trapped in these constructed ‘male fantasies’ (p.392). It is through evasion of the Panoptical gaze of patriarchy that Zenia becomes so monstrous. Zenia essentially subverts societal norms through mimicry and subversion, trapping her victims in reflections of the male fantasies that preoccupy their lives. Through mimicry and subversion, Zenia takes possession of the male gaze in a manner that proves entirely fatal to those surrounding her. As observed by Barbara Creed, ‘the femme fatale performs in order to capture and control the male gaze’.[11] Upon capturing this gaze Zenia, like Ayesha, becomes a figure of monstrosity through her unbalancing of patriarchal society. However, Zenia is never placed up ‘on a pedestal’ (p.392) by her creator in the same way as Ayesha; Ayesha’s power is hampered by her creator, Haggard, who destroys Ayesha’s monstrous power through unbridled passion. In contrast, Zenia is never hampered by such passion. She is instead a figure of unstoppable monstrosity, using the male gaze to act independently on her own immoral desires. It is this power that gives Zenia the ability to monstrously destroy her victims. In this sense, Zenia embodies Luce Irigaray’s theory of mimicry. Irigaray suggests that ‘there is […] perhaps only one ‘path’, the one historically assigned to the feminine: that of mimicry. One must assume the feminine role deliberately. Which means […] to convert a form of subordination into an affirmation, and thus to begin to thwart it.’[12] The only way to deconstruct patriarchal conceptualisations of femininity, Irigaray suggests, is to adopt these male fantasies of the feminine ideal and overplay them. Only through this overplaying is subversion reached. Acting on Irigaray’s discourse, Zenia becomes a figure of gross monstrosity through her successful mimicry of male fantasies. As Roz declares, ‘The Zenia’s of this world have studied this situation and turned it to their own advantage; they haven’t let themselves by moulded into male fantasies, they’ve done it themselves’ (p.392). This mimicry not only affects the men she manipulates, but also the women she targets along the way. In fabricating personal histories and personas designed purposely to speak to the innermost desires and traumas of the three women, Zenia deploys her destruction. In doing, Zenia entirely refutes the subordinate patriarchal position that Ayesha ultimately falls victim of; she instead subverts and mimics male perceptions of the feminine ideal to enact and destroy their lives. Once these fantasies are performed to the men she ensnares the result is complete emasculation and a shattering of male superiority. Mitch is suggested to have committed suicide over the loss of Zenia whilst Billy disappears entirely. Like Holly and Leo, none of the men are the same after meeting her. Atwood thus portrays a far deadlier version of the femme fatale. Zenia is a femme fatale whose monstrosity lies in her successful mimicry of each individual victim’s respective fantasy of the ideal woman.


[1] Barbara Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (London: Routledge, 2012), p.1.

[2] See Coventry Patmore, The Angel in the House (London: John W. Parker and Son, 1858).

[3] Heather Braun, The Rise and Fall of the Femme Fatale in British Literature, 1790-1910 (Lanham, MD: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2012), p.109.

[4] H. Rider Haggard, She (London: Vintage, 2013), p.204. All further references to Haggard’s text are to this edition, and page numbers will be presented parenthetically in the body of the essay.

[5] In feminist theory, the male gaze is defined as the act of depicting the world and women from a masculine and heterosexual point of view; this is apparent throughout both visual art and literary history. Under this gaze, women are often presented as objects of male desire, deriving the construction of their identity from these male fantasies. This is the concept of the male gaze, as first developed by the feminist film critic Laura Mulvey, that my essay will focus on and expand in relation to the supposedly ‘monstrous’ power possessed by the femme fatale. For more information on the male gaze, see Laura Mulvey, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ in Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp.833-44.

[6] Margaret Atwood, Interview for South Bank Show, interviewed by Gillian Greenwood (ITV, 1993).

[7] Margaret Atwood, The Robber Bride (London: Virago Press, 1994), p.392. All further references to Atwood’s text are to this edition, and page numbers will be presented parenthetically in the body of the essay.

[8] For more information on the notion of the ‘proper feminine’ as opposed to the ‘improper’, see Lyn Pykett, The ‘Improper Feminine’: The Women’s Sensation Novel and the New Woman Writing (London: Taylor and Francis, 1992).

[9] Jean Bobby Noble, Masculinities without Men?: Female Masculinity in Twentieth-Century Fictions (Vancouver, BC :University of British Columbia Press, 2010), p.47.

[10] See Michael Foucault, ‘The Means of Correct Training’ and ‘Complete and Austere Institutions’ [from Discipline and Punish], in The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (London: Penguin, 1991), pp.188-204, 214-24.

[11] Barbara Creed, Darwin’s Screens: Evolutionary Aesthetics, Time and Sexual Display in the Cinema (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2009), p.122.

[12] Luce Irigaray, ‘The Power of Discourse and the Subordination of the Feminine’ in The Irigaray Reader, ed. Margaret Whitford (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), pp.118-32, p.124.

Written by Steph Reeves.
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.

Wilderness, Ecofeminism and Patriarchy in Sarah Orne Jewett’s ‘A White Heron’

‘Once upon a time there yet existed a world in which a small girl could choose the nurturing power of nature rather than the materialistic exploitations of industrial America’.

– Theodore Hovet, ‘Once Upon a Time’, p.68

Throughout the literary tradition of the American short story and, most interestingly, short stories belonging to the nineteenth century, concepts of the wilderness are inextricably linked to the underlying gender politics of American society. More specifically, the wilderness accentuates the constraints of the patriarchally-endorsed social system of the period that sought to oppress and constrain female identity. In Sarah Orne Jewett’s 1886 A White Heron, the wilderness becomes collocated with the characterisation of their respective female characters; characters find themselves dominated under the fallacy of ‘frontier mythology’, a belief that resulted in the assumption of masculine superiority over women and nature. In this text, female characters are identified with the natural wilderness to accentuate the constraints of a society that demarcated women as inferior. However, it is through this same collocation with the natural world that women challenge and rebel against these rigid gender constructs. The female characters defy enforced gender norms, using their relationship with nature to resist patriarchal subordination.

From the very beginning of Sarah Orne Jewett’s short story, Sylvia’s alignment with nature is demonstrated through her harmonious relationship with the wilderness that surrounds her. This harmony extends into the nature that lies beyond human ownership in the narrative; not only does Sylvia have a peaceful relationship with the nature found on her Grandmother’s farm, but also the wilderness that extends into the heart of the woodland.[1] This relationship is so profound that, even with the absence of light on her walk home with her Grandmother’s dairy cow, Mistress Mooly, ‘their feet were familiar with the path, and it was no matter whether their eyes could see or not.’[2] Sylvia is clearly conflated with her companion in the passage; her eyes, as well as her feet, become shared with the animal she directs home. Such harmony is placed in direct contrast to the discordance experienced by Sylvia during her early years in the city; Jewett’s narrative states that the ‘little maid […] had tried to grow for eight years in a crowded manufacturing town’ (p.119) before being removed to her Grandmother’s farm. Although attempting to grow in the ‘crowded’ environment of burgeoning capitalist industrialisation, Sylvia ultimately finds herself unable to flourish in her birthplace.[3] In this way, Jewett emplaces an opposition between the city and the wilderness; despite her numerous attempts to grow and mature in her original city home, Jewett suggests that the virginal young ‘maid’ (p.119) cannot reach her full potential in the town. This appears to almost immediately change when she is removed to her Grandmother’s farm, where she is able to flourish and be counted by ‘the wild creaturs’ as ‘one o’ themselves’ (p.122). As Elizabeth Ammons expands, ‘Sylvia is nature’s child […] repelled by the city but so at home in the woods that the birds and the animals share their secrets and the earth itself’.[4] Aligned with nature, Sylvia finds herself in direct opposition to the world of the city she left behind.

‘Repelled by the city’, Sylvia finds herself similarly repulsed by the appearance of the hunter, a figure whose ‘clear whistle’ through the forest leaves her ‘horror stricken’ (p.120).[5]

Further aligned with nature through the compound noun ‘woods-girl’, Sylvia’s horrified reaction to the hunter is revealed to have stemmed from the hunter’s likeness to the ‘great red-faced boy who used to chase and frighten her’ (p.120) during her time in the city. From this introduction, the hunter is immediately polarised from the wilderness he walks through; in his comparison to the ‘red-faced boy’ (p.120), who is described in language laden with violent sexual undertones that Richard Brenzo declares suggests an ‘obvious […] fear of rape’, the hunter is placed in complete opposition to the tranquillity of the woodland.[6] This secularisation is compounded through the hunter’s ‘clear whistle’ (p.120); unlike ‘a bird’s whistle, which would have a sort of friendliness’ (p.120), the hunter’s whistle is defined by its ‘determined, and somewhat aggressive’ tone (p.120). The hunter thus becomes an invading presence; his whistle directly contrasts with the lyricism of the bird song, breaking the harmonious tranquillity of the woodland and introducing discordance into Sylvia’s peaceful walk home. It is the ‘determined’ nature of his whistle that further leads to Sylvia’s denouncement of him as an ‘enemy’ (p.120).

However, despite the clear discordance that the hunter’s presence creates in the landscape, the hunter remains oblivious to his effect on Sylvia and the surrounding wilderness. Rather Jewett suggests that, regardless of the cost that his actions have on the wilderness, the ‘young sportsman’ (p.125) will continue his pursuits if only for his own personal gratification. The hunter enforces his own masculine superiority over the landscape he wanders through; this extends to the inhabitants he encounters along his way. The power of his whistle, enough to silence and overpower the wilderness surrounding him, also overpowers and silences Sylvia herself. In this way, the hunter displays notions of heightened masculinity; his characterisation appears founded in ‘frontier’ notions of rugged masculinity. Frontier mythology, derived from Euro-American colonisation and expansion across Northern America throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, essentially led to America becoming ‘a wide-open land of unlimited opportunity for the strong, ambitious, self-reliant individual to thrust his way to the top.’ [7] Characterised by a rejection of Eurocentric ideology, the movement resulted in the creation of American nationalism and democracy; simultaneously, it also led to a romanticized notion of rugged masculinity that placed man as both the caretaker and conqueror of this ‘new America’.[8] Enacting his own version of rugged masculinity, the hunter attempts to conquer both Sylvia and the wilderness through displays of masculine violence and control.

Through the hunter’s alignment with ‘frontier’ notions of masculine supremacy, the world of A White Heron clearly becomes enmeshed in ecofeminist criticism. First theorised and coined by Francoise d’Eaubonne in 1874, ecofeminist theory examines the collusive relationship between women and nature in order to demonstrate how social norms exert unjust dominance over both. [9] Historically typecast as chaotic, women are characterised throughout literature by their inferiority to the supposedly more rational and ordered male gender. Due to such literary archetypes, these depictions result in the creation of a masculine fallacy in which men are suggested to be dominant over both women and the wilderness. As Miles and Shiva assert, there is a ‘relationship of exploitative dominance between man and nature (shaped by reductionist modern science since the 16th century), and the exploitative and oppressive relationship between men and women that prevails in most patriarchal societies […]’.[10] This ‘exploitative and oppressive relationship’ is embodied in the hunter’s actions; the hunter conquers and controls the wilderness through an ‘oppressive’ killing of the woodland inhabitants.[11] When interpreted using an ecofeminist discourse, it becomes apparent that the hunter’s desire to control the wilderness is further enmeshed with his desire to conquer Sylvia. In an action not too dissimilar to the animals the hunter preys upon Sylvia does not ‘dare to look boldly at the tall young man’ (p.121). Like his prey, Sylvia similarly shies away from the hunter; she becomes subordinated through her fear of the ‘enemy’, an outsider that comes to threaten the very foundations of her Eden-like world.

Sylvia, despite her superior knowledge of the wilderness, finds herself placed in a position of inferiority due to the imposition of nineteenth-century social values onto the wilderness. Through this same imposition, Sylvia finds her autonomous voice muted. Although having physically witnessed the heron, the presence of stranger essentially silences her. As the two search the forest for the ‘elusive’ white heron (p.124), Sylvia ‘did not lead the guest, she only followed, and there was no such thing as speaking first’ (p.124). The hunter, imposing violence onto the one peaceful setting, imposes a patriarchal social system on the landscape he walks through. [12] As Robert Brault expands:

as the educated outsider, he [the hunter] seeks to impose his value system on a community in which he does not participate. The ornithologist, and the patriarchal society that created him, define culture/civilisation as superior to nature/culture, justifying a hierarchy of domination that destroys the reciprocal relationships developed through years of living interaction.[13]


Sylvia, once free to roam the wilderness around her, finds herself ultimately trapped within this ‘value system’ that seeks to destroy her ‘reciprocal relationships’ with the natural landscape.[14] Sylvia finds herself silenced in the same way as the ‘piteous’ ‘thrushes and sparrows’ that the hunter kills, who drop ‘silent[ly] to the ground, their songs hushed and their feathers stained […]’ (p.124). As Theodore Hovet furthers, ‘there seems little doubt that a symbolic connection exists between the birds killed, stuff, and mounted on the [hunters] wall and the fate of the woman possessed by the modern American male and placed on the domestic pedestal’.[15] Sylvia, silenced by the hunter’s patriarchal power, thus finds herself threatened with this fate that would leave her possessed solely by him, the embodiment of ‘the modern American male’.[16]

However, it is this same ‘fate’ that is inscribed on nineteenth-century women that allows Sylvia to challenge and refute her patriarchally subordinate position; Sylvia essentially uses her silence as resistance to the hunter’s imposition of destructive social values on the natural landscape. Through the removal of her ‘song’ (p.129), Sylvia resists the temptations presented by the capitalist patriarchal society that the hunter embodies; she refutes the offers of money and sexual fulfilment that the young man proffers her. This rejection is demonstrated through Sylvia’s refusal to ‘tell the heron’s secret and give its life away’ (p.124), despite finding the white heron’s nest in ‘the dead hemlock-tree by the green marsh’ (p.127). In the same way as the heron, who is found to have built its nest in the dead remains of a highly poisonous plant of European origin, Jewett suggests that Sylvia will also rise above the poisonous temptations of the hunter’s violently sexualised world.[17] In refusing to reveal the heron’s location, Sylvia ultimately finds herself able to make a nest out of what is left of the world that essentially ‘dies’ for her when the hunter leaves ‘disappointed’ and empty-handed (p.128); she is consequently able to restore harmony to the wilderness. In doing so Sylvia refuses to be ‘placed on the domestic pedestal’, made into yet another ‘wretched geranium’ (p.120) that is stifled in a city founded on a fallacy of masculine supremacy and fuelled by capitalist egotism.[18] ‘Once upon a time’, as Hovet concludes, ‘there yet existed a world in which a small girl could choose the nurturing power of nature rather than the materialistic exploitations of industrial America.’[19]

Cover Image- Front cover illustration by Barbara Cooney, as taken from the 1964 edition of Jewett’s text. 

[1] In A White Heron, Jewett creates clear distinctions between the different kinds of wilderness in the narrative. Within the story, the natural world of the farmland comes to be distinguished from the nature that lies beyond human ownership; this is shown in the woodland in which the heron makes its nest. This motif is later internalised in the representation of the white heron itself. For more information, see Nicole Steurer, The Function of Nature in Sarah Orne Jewett’s “A White Heron”’ (Munich: GRIN Publishers, 2003).

[2] Sarah Orne Jewett, ‘A White Heron’ in The Oxford Book of American Short Stories (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 118-128, p.119. All further references to Jewett’s text are to this edition, and page numbers will be presented parenthetically in the body of the essay.

[3] The Industrial Revolution, beginning after the end of the American Civil War, led to the creation of burgeoning commercialism. This, alongside the rapid increase in job opportunities, led to the creation of metropoles and the rise of both capitalist ideology and more specified social roles for men and women to abide by. For more information, see Richard Franklin Bensel, The Political Economy of American Industrialisation, 1877-1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

[4] Elizabeth Ammons, ‘The Shape of Violence in Jewett’s “A White Heron”’, Colby Quarterly, 22 (1986), pp.6-16, p.7.

[5] Ammons, ‘The Shape of Violence in Jewett’s “A White Heron”’, p.7.

[6] Richard Brenzo, ‘Free Heron or Dead Sparrow: Sylvia’s Choice in Sarah Orne Jewett’s ‘A White Heron’, Colby Library Quarterly (1978), pp.36-41, p.37.

[7] Richard Slotkin, Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860 (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1973), p. 5.

[8] For more information on the Myth of the Frontier, see Frederick Jackson Turner, The Frontier in American History (New York City, NY: Henry Holt and Company, 1948).

[9] Heather Eaton and Lois Ann Lorentzen, Ecofeminism and Globalization: Exploring Culture, Context, and Religion (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2004).

[10] Maria Miles and Vandana Shiva, Ecofeminism (London: Zed Books, 1993), p.3.

[11] Miles and Shiva, Ecofeminism, p.3.

[12] For more information on the social positions afforded to women in nineteenth-century America, see Tiffany K. Wayne, Women’s Roles in Nineteenth-Century America (Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishers, 2007).

[13] Robert Brault, ‘Silence as Resistance: An Ecofeminist Reading of Sarah Orne Jewett’s “A White Heron”’ in New Directions in Ecofeminist Literary Criticism, ed. Andrea Campbell (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008), pp.74-90, p.87.

[14] Brault, ‘Silence as Resistance’, p.87.

[15] Theodore R. Hovet, ‘“Once Upon a Time”: Sarah Orne Jewett’s “A White Heron” as a Fairytale’, Studies in Short Fiction, 15 (1978), pp.63-68, p.67.

[16] Hovet, ‘“Once Upon a Time”, p.67.

[17] Oxford Dictionary Online. Available at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/hemlock [Accessed 20/03/2018].

[18] Hovet, ‘“Once Upon a Time”’, p.67.

[19] Hovet, ‘“Once Upon a Time”, p.68.

Written by Steph Reeves.
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.

The Monstrous Femme Fatale in H. Rider Haggard’s She

‘Never before had I guessed what beauty made sublime could be – and yet, the sublimity was a dark one- the glory was not all of heaven- though none the less was it glorious.’
-H. Rider Haggard, She, p.143.

The representation of the femme fatale as monstrous is prolifically highlighted in H. Rider Haggard’s characterisation of Ayesha, as shown in his fin-de-siècle novel She. Referred to predominately as ‘She’, an abbreviation of her full title ‘she-who-must-be-obeyed’ (p.144), Ayesha immediately becomes a figure of abjection and horror who threatens ingrained notions of androcentric superiority. In her dictator-like control of the Amahaggar people, eternal beauty and superior intellect, Ayesha subverts Victorian teachings of the ‘ideal’ woman. These women were suggested to be ‘devoted, docile wives and mothers’, paragons of domesticity, virtue and humility.’[1] Ayesha defies this subordination, instead using her powerful sexuality to control and conquer both the land and men surrounding her. This is demonstrated in Ayesha’s respective unveiling to Holly and Leo. Before revealing herself to Holly, Ayesha declares that ‘never may the man to whom my beauty hath been unveiled put it from his mind, and therefore even with these savages do I go veiled’ (pp.142/143). This is proven true when Holly shrinks ‘back blinded and amazed’ (p.143). Leo, in turn, finds ‘the power of her dread beauty fasten on him and take possession of his senses, drugging them, and drawing the heart out of him’ (p.204). Both Leo and Holly are reduced and emasculated through Ayesha’s unveiling, finding themselves powerless to her sexual domination. However, it becomes apparent that it the veiling of her beauty in the first instance that provides Ayesha with such power over the men; essentially, her success at withholding herself from the male gaze supplies her with power over all those that surround her. In remaining shrouded, Ayesha takes hold of the male gaze and uses it as weapon against Holly and Leo to emasculate them both. Holly, upon witnessing Ayesha’s form, appears affected to the point of regression; he is reduced to a physically inferior position to Ayesha, ‘stumbl[ing] from her presence’ (p.158). Holly’s ‘stumble’, a term etymologically defined as ‘to trip or momentarily lose one’s balance’, becomes indicative of Ayesha’s monstrous power; Ayesha’s undressing entirely shifts the ‘balance’ of power from the androcentric male figure to herself. [2]  This loss of balance results in Holly’s inability to perform even the most basic of bodily functions; he essentially becomes trapped in what he later refers to be Ayesha’s ‘dread beauty’ (p.204).

Rather than becoming instantly enamoured with Ayesha’s beauty, however, Holly declares that ‘never before had I guessed what beauty made sublime could be – and yet, the sublimity was a dark one- the glory was not all of heaven- though none the less was it glorious’ (p.143). In the collusion of her beauty with ‘dread’, defined as to ‘anticipate with great apprehension or fear’,[3] Ayesha’s appearance is inextricably interwoven by Haggard with a discourse of horror. This, when coupled with Holly’s references to the Sublime nature of Ayesha’s power, invokes a combination of awe and terror in the reader that simultaneously accentuates her monstrosity. As the philosopher Edmund Burke theorised on the Sublime, ‘Sublime objects are vast in their dimensions, beautiful ones comparatively small; beauty should be smoothed and polished […] the great ought to be dark and gloomy.’ Thus, ‘they [Beauty and the Sublime] are indeed ideas of a very different nature, one being founded in pain, the other pleasure.’[4] Despite her clear beauty, Ayesha’s ability in emasculating her victims through a reflection of the male gaze thus positions her as a figure of abject horror. Her ability to tip the balance of ordained societal codes results in her depiction as fatal to those she encounters; she becomes a character that is underpinned by a discourse of female monstrosity.

In Ayesha’s stripping of Leo and Holly’s notions of masculine authority the novel can clearly be seen as playing on fin-de-siècle fears of devolution, otherwise known as Degeneration theory. Max Nordau, writer of the indicative 1895 text Degeneration, diagnosed the cause of recidivism in Victorian society be to an increase in femininity. This increase led to what Nordau denounced as the emasculation of society; femininization thus resulted in increased decadence, a supposedly recidivist fault diagnosed in fin-de-siècle culture, art and literature.[5] Ayesha internalises these fears, becoming the literary manifestation of male anxieties concerning devolving masculinity. Her desirability and independence appear to entirely consume and trap Holly and Leo, who are both described as never full the same after meeting her.[6] However it is this same fear of Degeneration, as internalised by Ayesha, that feeds into and hampers her power. Haggard, a firm believer in the patriarchal notion of women’s domestic position, unconsciously attempts to claim and destroy his femme fatale’s power in an attempt to restore ‘true’ societal balance.[7] This hampering is achieved through Ayesha’s depiction as eternally devoted to her lover Kallikrates. This passion firmly places her in the position of the patriarchally-devoted wife of nineteenth-century England.[8] Ayesha’s love extends past her fatal desire for totalitarian rule; her love results in her becoming fatal to herself. This is demonstrated in her stepping into the Elixir or Life and consequently degenerating. As Holly witnesses, ‘she [Ayesha] was shrivelling up […] smaller and smaller she grew […] till she was no larger than a monkey. Now the skin was puckered into a million wrinkles, and on the shapeless face was a stamp of unutterable age’ (p.293/294). As Rebecca Stott argues, Ayesha falls foul to ‘retrogressive evolution, a savage devolution’, [9] regressing to the point of extinction. Rather than fatally enacting her monstrous desires for imperial power and rule, Ayesha’s love essentially results in her regression. In turn, this regression acts as brutal patriarchal punishment for her misappropriation of masculine power. She essentially risks it all for her lover, trapping herself in the male gaze that she herself attempted to subvert. In this way, Ayesha becomes a femme fatale constructed from male fantasy. She is the femme fatale that succumbs to her passion, risking it all for her lover; in doing so, she destroys any semblance of the monstrous threat she once possessed.

Featured Image: Image take from Purnell’s 1977 edition of the H. Rider Haggard’s She. See H. Rider Haggard, She (Bristol:Purnell, 1977).

[1] British Library, ‘Introduction’ to The Angel in the House. Available at http://www.bl.uk/collection-items/coventry-patmores-poem-the-angel-in-the-house [Accessed 26th March 2017].

[2] Oxford Dictionary Online. Available at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/stumbled [Accessed 10/12/2017].

[3] Oxford Dictionary Online. Available at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/dread [Accessed 4/11/2017].

[4] George Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (London: J. Dodsley Publishers, 1767), p.237-238.

[5] See Max Nordau, Degeneration (New York City: D. Appleton and Company, 1895).

[6] After Ayesha’s demise, Holly describes his and Leo’s own personal changes. Leo is described as his ‘golden curls’ of hair turning ‘to a snowy white’, whilst Holly states of himself that: ‘I know that two days afterwards when I inspected my ace in some water I scarcely recognised myself. I have never been famous for beauty, but there was something bedside ugliness stamped upon my features that I have never got rid of until this day, something resembling that wild look with which a startled person wakes from deep sleep more than anything else that I can think of’ (p.308).

[7] See H. Rider Haggard, ‘A Man’s View of Woman’ (1894), as reprinted in H. Rider Haggard, She: A History of Adventure, ed. Andrew A. Stauffer (Ontario: Broadview, 2006), pp.337-340.

[8] For further information on the position of the domestic woman in the Victorian era, see Margaret Fuller, Woman in the Nineteenth-Century (New York: Greeley and McElrath, 1845).

[9] Rebecca Stott, The Fabrication of the Late Victorian Femme Fatale: The Kiss of Death (Macmillan Press LTD: London, 1992), p.114.

Written by Steph Reeves.
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.

The Transgression of heterosexual marriage in Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger

‘I was like a man, I suppose, wanting a lock of hair from the head of a girl he had suddenly and blindingly become enamoured of.’
-Sarah Waters, The Little Stranger, p.5.

Marriage is typically based on a mutual love and desire. However, in The Little Stranger, Waters subverts the social understanding of marriage, and instead uses marriage to satisfy a queer ulterior motive. Faraday’s sudden longing for Caroline is unsettling when contrasted to his earlier unfavourable descriptions of her appearance. He describes her as androgynous with ‘boyish shoes’ and her feminine body parts (hips and bosom) are described with negativity as ‘wide’ and ‘large’. Even after becoming engaged to Caroline, therefore supposedly feeling love and desire towards her, Faraday describes her face as masculine by using the words ‘strong’ and ‘angular’. The text says, ‘I couldn’t believe that I had ever found [her face] plain.’1 Faraday’s description of Caroline is hardly praising her beauty or expressing a profound attraction. Instead, he appears repulsed by her fleshly female form. A poetic literary technique, the blazon, dissects the female body and typically praises its

beauty. Faraday subverts the traditional blazon, which is commonly associated with Petrarchan love, and instead he describes Caroline in a basic and simplistic way. Faraday transgresses typical expectations of heterosexual relationships where desire and attraction are fundamental. His reoccurring criticism of Caroline’s appearance is implicit of no attraction, lust or desire towards her, which jars with his sudden desire to marry her. Instead, it is implied that Hundred’s Hall is the object of his desire. Caroline summarises this herself as she says, ‘Do you really [want me]’ ‘Or is it the house you want?’(p.448) The queer projection of desire onto the house transgresses typical expectations of marriage. Heterosexual love becomes spectral as desire is displaced onto a house, rather than Faraday’s own fiancé. The relationship, therefore, becomes merely functional as a way to guarantee possession of the house, and challenges social ideologies of romantic love.

Even as a small child Faraday is infatuated with Hundred’s Hall. On his first ever visit, he took an acorn out of the wall which he felt entitled to own. Faraday describes this event by saying, ‘I was like a man, I suppose, wanting a lock of hair from the head of a girl he had suddenly and blindingly become enamoured of.’(p.3) Faraday defines his feelings towards the house in relation to heterosexual desire, which transgresses the typical social ideologies of desire. Desire is displaced onto an object, rather than a person. The queer attraction to the Hall is intensified when Faraday describes the feeling of the acorn in his trouser pocket. The text says, ‘I felt the hard plaster lump in my pocket, now, with a sort of sick excitement.’(p.3) The hard lump in his pocket appears phallic, especially as he refers to a ‘sick’ excitement, immediately portraying Faraday’s perverse attraction to the house. The queer sense of desire Faraday feels towards Hundred’s becomes intensified as the novel continues, and when he sees an opportunity of gaining ownership (through marrying Caroline) he becomes obsessed with the idea. Heterosexual love and marriage become a socially acceptable way of satisfying his queer obsession of the house. Caroline becomes aware of Faraday’s ulterior motives for marriage. When Caroline calls off the engagement, Faraday asks, ‘[h]ow can you say all of these terrible things? After all I’ve done, for you, for your family?’ Caroline responds by saying, ‘You think I should repay you, by marrying you? Is that what you think marriage is- a kind of payment?’(p.448) Caroline appears to be aware of Faraday transgressing the social and cultural norms of marriage. For Faraday, marriage becomes a disguise and excuse which allows him to satisfy his queer obsession with the house.

Featured photo: Book cover of The Little Stranger, Sarah Walters. Reprint edition (May 4, 2010)

1.Sarah Waters, The Little Stranger (Virago Press: London, 2009) p.323 All further references are to this edition.

Written by Sarah Culham.
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.


The Relationship between Clothing and identity in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

‘Everything except the wings around my face is red: the colour of blood, which defines us.’
-Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale, p.18.

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) demonstrates how clothing can be used to enforce rigid, fixed identities as the government of Gilead attempts to control the population in the dystopian novel. It establishes the limitations of clothing and how it can be used as a method of containment and repression. The protagonist Offred, along with other women in the text, are required to wear certain clothes that reflect their role and status in society.

The colour of clothing is used to differentiate between women and signify their role in society. Offred wears ‘red shoes, flat-heeled to save the spine’ and ‘red gloves’ (Handmaid’s, p. 18). She also mentions how ‘everything except the wings around my face is red: the colour of blood, which defines us’ (Handmaid’s, p. 18). Offred’s role in society is to provide children for the Commanders and their Wives; by dressing the Handmaids in red it defines them by their specific roles. Red, the colour of blood, is associated with menstruation and so their internal use is being reflected by the clothing. Red can also signify passion and lust, which is ironic due to these feelings being taken away from the Handmaids. The colour can be associated with an over-powering force, and here it also links to both life and death. There is also a focus on practicality, and not pleasure, as the shoes are designed to protect the spine which is important for child birth. The wings are significant as they are the only item of clothing that is white. White is a neutral colour which represents how their faces are separated from the body, suggesting they are not important unlike their bodies. They also provide a limited vision thus showing how their clothes are used as a restraint and to gain control. Offred describes herself as ‘a distorted shadow’ (Handmaid’s, p. 19) which demonstrates how her identity has been distorted and manipulated to fit the new regime. Offred’s walking partner, Ofglen, is described as ‘a shape, red with white wings around the face, a shape like mine, a nondescript woman […] looking down the white tunnels of cloth that enclose us’ (Handmaid’s pp. 28-29). Here, Offred feels that they have been reduced to shapes, rather than people, which demonstrates the degrading powers of clothing. Cynthia G. Kuhn suggests that ‘the coding of gender is an ongoing concern in Atwood’s writing, especially as it results in the marginalization of women, and dress plays a significant role in illuminating such displacement.’ (2) Colour reduces women’s status in Gilead, which links to Kuhn’s discussion. They are specifically segregated from the higher positions of men. Therefore, clothing and colour can be used to maintain control over the women in Gilead.

Although Gilead uses clothing to control, it can also signify small glimpses of a subverted freedom. An example is when the Commander takes Offred to Jezebels. Here, the women appear to have freedom over their clothes. They are bright, colourful and a clear contrast to the dresses of the Handmaids and Marthas. Yet, it represents an inverted freedom as all the clothes cover a limited amount of skin and are a mismatch of lingerie and costumes worn for male pleasure. Offred comments on her friend Moira’s outfit: ‘What is the significance of it here, why are rabbits supposed to be sexually attractive to men? How can this bedraggled costume appeal?’ (Handmaid’s, p. 251). Without anybody telling her, Offred assumes that the women dress to be sexually attractive to men. The repetition of questions implies Offred struggles to understand why it is necessary for them to be sexually appealing. Clothing still has limitations as it is worn for a specific purpose of appealing to men. Offred cannot decide if the women at Jezebels are happy:

‘At first glance there’s a cheerfulness to this scene. It’s like a masquerade party; they         are like oversized children, dressed up in togs they’ve rummaged from trunks. Is there      joy in this? There could be, but have they chosen it? You can’t tell by looking.’
(The Handmaid’s Tale, p. 247)

‘Masquerade party’ has associations with mystery and disguising identity. By describing them as children it suggests an innocence and child-like behaviour and that they are trying to be grown up or be people that they are not. These images of disguise and acting further supports how clothing is used to limit freedom in the text. Madonne Miner suggests ‘the “past” called up by the Commander, the past that brings delight into his voice, is one in which women are on display for men, and are dependent upon men.’ (3) This observation links to the subverted view of freedom present at Jezebels. The women are on display for the wealthier men of Gilead, and they rely on their lust and reluctance to let go of the past. The women at Jezebels may have more freedom than the Handmaids and Marthas, yet they are still required to follow the rules created by men. Clothing is used to control women and put them in specific roles, even when they have a small amount of freedom.

To conclude, in The Handmaid’s Tale, clothing is used to segregate and undermine women, forcing them into roles. New identities are created for the women and the clothes reinforce them, whilst stripping away their true identities as a method to gain control.

Featured image: https://www.bustle.com/p/is-the-handmaids-tale-season-2-based-on-the-book-the-show-has-used-up-most-of-its-source-material-8876101

(1)   Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (London: Vintage Classics, 2010)

(2)   Cynthia G. Kuhn, Self-fashioning in Margaret Atwood’s Fiction: Dress, Culture, and Identity (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2005), p. 22.

(3)   Madonne Miner, ‘”Trust Me”: Reading the Romance Plot in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale’, Twentieth Century Literature, 37.2 (1991), 148-168.

Written By Sophie Shepherd.
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.

The Violating Power of the Colonizing Male Gaze in Isaac Teale’s The Voyage of the Sable Venus from Angola to the West Indies

In Isaac Teale’s 1765 narrative poem The Voyage of the Sable Venus from Angola to the West Indies, the black female body is persistently violated by the white European gaze. This gaze not only strips the female slave of any autonomous power she possesses over her body, but also places her on a pedestal of racial typecasting. The imperial gaze of the white conqueror entraps and oppresses the female slave through enforced negative stereotypes; this is explicitly demonstrated through the comparison of the black slave with Botticelli’s Venus.1 Under this racial trope, depictions of the black female slave become synonymous with sexual lasciviousness and promiscuity. This troubling fusion is foregrounded in the very title of Teale’s work, which instantly seeks to displace and denounce the black female body as ‘Other’. As Regulus Allen expands, ‘Whether the

Botticelli's Venus
Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, c. 1484, Tempera on Canvas, 172cm x 278cm, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy.

Black Venus stands for the beautiful or the bizarre’, ‘the figure always implies a ‘black’ or racialized female subject held up to European standards of beauty’ as ‘conveyed by the classical Roman goddess, Venus.’2 If, Allen further argues, the term Sable Venus is given as a compliment to the black African slave, the term still ‘presents an oxymoron’ as, ‘if a woman were truly a Venus, she would not require the qualifier’.3 This qualifier, introduced in the title through a collusion of ‘sable’, an adjectival term used to describe ‘blackness’, and Venus, the goddess of love, continues to permeate throughout the entirety of the text.4 As Teale describes, ‘the loveliest limbs her form [the Sable Venus] compose,/ such as her sister Venus chose’. The female slave is ‘just alike’ to Venus, ‘except the white,/ no difference, no- none at night.’5 Although the former lines suggest an innocent appreciation and admiration for the female slaves beauty, it is in the latter quote that the troubling discourse of colonial oppression becomes apparent. Whilst Botticelli’s Venus is synonymous with chastity and virginal beauty, Isaac Teale’s bawdy suggestion of the female slave having no difference to Venus at ‘night’ (l.89) adds, as Allen suggests, a qualifier that compounds and denounces the female slave as a sexual ‘Other’. Her desirability becomes quantified by her abundant lack of whiteness. This becomes the agency that is used by the white coloniser to violate and penetrate the sanctity of the black female body.

In this sense, Teale clearly attempts to rationalise his desire for the black female body through an alignment of the former with European standards of female beauty. However, his persistent use of qualifiers ultimately results in the gross sexualisation of the Sable Venus figure. This gross sexualisation is perhaps most clearly foregrounded historically through the exploitation of Sarah Bartmaan. Due to her large buttocks, Bartmaan was exhibited in freak show attractions across Europe in the early nineteenth-century under the stage name ‘Hottentot Venus’.

Sarah Baartman
‘Les Curiex en Extase ou les Cordons de Souliers et La Venue Hottentote‘, French cartoon, ca. 1814.

Her exaggerated sexual features, supposed signifiers of the African woman’s sexual lasciviousness, had an unquantifiable impact on the eroticisation of the black female body by white male colonisers.6 Exhibited throughout Europe in the same decade as Thomas Stothard’s painting was first published, it is not too far to conjecture the possible influence of Sarah Baatman’s gross eroticisation on Stothard’s sexualised depiction of Teale’s Sable Venus. Stothard’s Romanesque depiction of the Sable Venus further builds on the idea of a racialised female subject, holding the female slave’s beauty up to European standards of beauty.7

In Stothard’s painting, The Sable Venus is entirely eroticised, appearing almost entirely nude with only a small strip of fabric covering her genitals.8 Unlike the Florentine Venus the Sable Venus is far removed from innocence, making no effort to cover her modesty. She is essentially presented as an object of complete desire, a figure to be used and ravished by the white man. The painting acts as a projection of white European notions of mastery over the sexually-conquerable black female. As an obedient slave, the Sable Venus is portrayed as eternally consenting to the white European master’s surrounding her. However, as Rebecca Stott declares, this consensual passivity is little more than a creation of ‘[…] the imperial gaze, the gaze that delights in the passivity of its object.’9

Stothard Sable Venus
Thomas Stothard, The Voyage of the Sable Venus from Angola to the West Indies, c.1800, etching with engraving (as copied by William Grainger from Thomas Stothard’s 1793 painting), 20.3cm x 16.4cm, National Maritime Museum, London.

Although depicted as holding the reins in the painting, suggesting that it is she that is orchestrating her own path across the middle passage, it becomes apparent that this suggestion of the Sable Venus’s autonomous power is fraudulent. Although Jenny Sharpe argues that the figure of the Sable Venus is ‘portrayed as a conqueror of the New World, and the white men as her sexual slaves’,10 this is clearly contradicted in the choice of accessories that adorn the Stothard’s Sable Venus. The trinkets that ornament her wrists and ankles are essentially little more than a nuanced representation of shackles. Although suggested in the painting to be little more than embellishments of beauty, the Sable Venus’s supposed mastery over the surrounding white men is undermined by this blatant allusion to enslavement. The image thus becomes a master narrative, projecting white notions of superiority over the conquered African slave.

At least superficially, then, Teale’s poem appears to present the Sable Venus as a figure that holds and monopolises the male colonising gaze, as well as the devotion of the white man. However, when placed in conjunction with Stothard’s painting, this is demonstrated to be little more than a superficial attempt to mask the underlying discourse of sexual assault and rape that pervades the poem. From the ode’s very beginning, it is detailed that ‘the ladies look’d extremely shy’ whilst ‘Apollo’s smile was arch and sly’ (ll.13-14). Apollo’s smile proves particularly sinister in relation to the shy gazes of the young women. Etymologically, ‘sly’ is defined as ‘having or showing a cunning and deceitful nature’;11 therefore, although superficially portraying a consensual union between Apollo and the young women, on further analysis this is proven to be false. The term comes to be synonymous with the poem itself; Teale’s narrative acts slyly, masking through deceit a violent discourse of slave rape and violation. The language of the poem becomes as deceitful as Apollo’s smile, a notion that is further demonstrated in the description of the Sable Venus’s arrival at port. ‘When her step had touch’d the strand’, Teale describes that ‘wild rapture seiz’d the ravish’d land’ (ll.115-116). In the former quote, a clear semantic field of violence comes to the forefront. Despite Teale’s constant reassurances of the Sable Venuses ‘kind and consenting eyes’ (l.103), the archaic use of ‘ravish’d’ is suggestive of rape, as well as the act of seizing by force. 12 The men are further suggested to be driven ‘wild’ by her arrival; their desire for the sexualised Sable Venus borders on primitivity and violence. It is in these semantic choices, that the underlying discourse of sexual abuse is foregrounded. As Allen writes on the contradictory nature of Teale’s language choice, ‘the ode’s language […] conveys the idea of ecstatic joy but also denotes the acts of abduction and rape. What would seem an acknowledgement of […]the violation of the black women’ ‘is inverted into the Sable Venus’s conquest of European men’.13 In this sense, Teale attempts to mask the violation of the black female slave under subversion and deceit. By subverting notions of male domination, as demonstrated in the positioning of the Sable Venus’s superiority over the white colonizing male, Teale attempts to mask the violation of the sanctified body under a façade of female authority.


Featured Illustration: Thomas Stothard, The Voyage of the Sable Venus from Angola to the West Indies, c.1800, etching with engraving (as copied by William Grainger from Thomas Stothard’s 1793 painting), 20.3cm x 16.4cm, National Maritime Museum, London.

1. Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, c. 1484, Tempera on Canvas, 172cm x 278cm, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy.

2. Regulus Allen, ‘“The Sable Venus” and Desire for the Undesirable’, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, 51 (2011), 667-691, p.670.

3. Allen, ‘The Sable Venus’ and Desire for the Undesirable’, p.670.

4. Oxford Dictionary Online. Available at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/sable [Accessed 14/12/2017]

5. Isaac Teale, ‘The Voyage of the Sable Venus from Angola to the West Indies (1765)’ in The Poetry of Slavery: An Anglo-American Anthology, 1764-1865, ed. Marcus Wood (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), pp.30-35, (p.33), ll.85-89. All further references to Teale’s text are to this edition, and page numbers will be presented parenthetically in the body of the essay.

6. See Clifton Crais and Pamela Scully, Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus: A Ghost Story and a Biography (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009).

7. Thomas Stothard, The Voyage of the Sable Venus from Angola to the West Indies, c.1800, etching with engraving (as copied by William Grainger from Thomas Stothard’s 1793 painting), 20.3cm x 16.4cm, National Maritime Museum, London.

8. Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, c. 1484, Tempera on Canvas, 172cm x 278cm, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy.

9. Rebecca Stott, The Fabrication of the Late Victorian Femme Fatale: The Kiss of Death (Macmillan Press LTD: London, 1992), p.98.

10. Jenny Sharpe, Ghosts of Slavery: A Literary Archaeology of Black Women’s Lives (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), p.49

11. Oxford Dictionary Online. Available at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/sly [Accessed 02/12/2017]

12. Oxford Dictionary Online. Available at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/ravish [Accessed 07/12/2017]

13. Allen, ‘The Sable Venus’ and Desire for the Undesirable’, pp.675-676.

Written by Steph Reeves
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.

Exploring the Meaning of the Fig Tree in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar

‘I saw myself sitting in the crotch of the fig-tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest.’
-Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar, p. 73.

Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is full of interesting symbolism and imagery. The most iconic image, however, is the fig tree that torments protagonist Esther. She first encounters it in a story about the relationship between a Jewish man and a Catholic nun. Esther returns to the image later as she considers what career path to take and spirals into panic about her future:

From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple pig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and off-beat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of the fig-tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet. 1

In this passage, Esther worries about the different opportunities available and believes that if she picks one she cannot pursue the others. Society forces women to choose one path because they are unable to be both career driven and a mother figure. The fig tree is contradictory, however, because it could be perceived as a positive image due to the limitless possibilities that life can give. On the other hand, Esther finds the amount of choices overwhelming as she believes that she can only have one. The conflicting nature of the fig tree represents Esther’s inner turmoil between conforming to the expected role of a young woman in New York and her desire to be an individual. Perloff suggests that during this period ‘female roles are no longer clearly defined, women are confronted by such a bewildering variety of seeming possibilities that choice itself becomes all but impossible.’2 Perloff’s statement sympathises with Esther’s struggles and it is often a common dilemma that young women have, even during the present day. Each branch represents a different choice. Therefore, the fig tree can represent how society – and Esther herself – enforces pressures upon young women to restrict themselves to one path in their lives.

Although the fig tree highlights the struggle of young women in society, it is Esther’s inability to decide on a career path or future that shows her unstable mindset. The fig tree paralyses Esther and forces her to watch herself starve to death which foreshadows her later suicide attempt, offering a warning to the reader of the seriousness of her unhealthy mentality and inability to decide. Esther witness her actions from afar which suggests a detachment from her mind, implying her mind is not at one. The disassociation could indicate she does not feel attached to the aspects of herself that are mentally unwell or is in denial. Stephanie Tsank proposes that ‘Esther’s inability to make decisions about her future has to do with her negative perception of self and her belief that she is unqualified to make such a decision’.3 Tsank’s view focuses on Esther’s internal struggle which is more crucial to understanding how her illness dangerously impacts her thought process compared to society’s influence. As Perloff suggested, many women were confronted with the restrictions of womanhood, yet not all of them suffered with mental health problems. This raises the strong possibility that mental illness can be attributed as much to the individual mindset and personality as to societal influences.

The symbolism of a fig itself expands on Esther’s inner turmoil. Esther describes the fig as ‘fat’ and ‘purple’ which implies an exotic, sensual fruit due to its Mediterranean  origin.4 The colour purple is often associated with royalty, luxury, and wealth which suggests the choices are initially met with pleasure due to the vast amount of opportunities. Furthermore, figs are full of rich flavour suggesting that the positive associations imply Esther is initially inspired by the prosperity. The end of the passage shows the figs wrinkle and turn black, losing their richness, which symbolises the consequences of Esther’s indecisiveness and the loss of all options. This change represents Esther’s transformation as she sinks deeper into depression further on in the novel. The inside of a fig evokes sensual imagery and has links to fertility and female genitalia. In Greek, the word for fig (sykon) is the same word for vulva which directly links the two, providing the reader with an image of sexuality.5 These associations can be applied to Esther as her virginity is another personal choice and shows her struggle to find a sexual identity. She never experiences healthy relationships with men or strong enough relationships with women to discuss these issues. The fig tree is also biblically significant as Adam and Eve covered themselves with leaves from this tree to hide their shame and sin after eating the forbidden fruit. Therefore, by linking these religious associations to Esther’s indecisiveness, the suggestion is that Esther feels shameful towards her confusion. Although the pressures of society can influence Esther’s attitude towards her future, the symbolism and meanings of figs demonstrate that it is her own inner struggle, turmoil, and anxiety that causes her to have such a distressing view of her future.

Featured Image: Front cover of The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2005)

1) Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (London: Faber & Faber, 2005), p. 73. All further references are to this edition and are given parenthetically in the text.

2) Marjorie G. Perloff, ‘”A Ritual for Being Born Twice”: Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’’, Contemporary Literature, 13.4 (1972), 507-522 (p.515)

3) Stephanie Tsank, ‘The Bell Jar: A Psychological Case Study’, Plath Profiles: An International Journal of Studies on Sylvia Plath, 3 (2010), 166-177 (p. 175).

4) The Columbia Encyclopaedia, 6th ed., ‘fig’, The Columbia University Press [n.d.] <https://www.encyclopedia.com/plants-and-animals/plants/plants/fig >

5) ‘sycophant (n.)’, Online Etymology Dictionary [n.d.] <https://www.etymonline.com/word/sycophant&gt;

Written by Sophie Shepherd
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.

Marriage as Mundane in Rosamond Lehmann’s The Weather in the Streets

‘Anxiety brushed her, the faintest breath, there and gone again…He’s not young…So certain, so undiffident … Expert.’
-Rosamond Lehmann, The Weather in the Streets, p.123.

Rosamond Lehmann’s The Weather in the Streets explores both the language of marriage and the language of desire alongside one another and in doing so it renders marriage as unfulfilling. Olivia, the protagonist, initially idealises a marriage with Rollo; she thinks, ‘Of course I had dreams of being Rollo’s wife’ (1). However, there are subtleties within the language which deconstruct Olivia’s hope. Her married sister, Kate, is the scolding and authoritative voice that asks ‘‘Still smoking like a chimney?’ […] through pins, beginning to cut.’ (p.31) It is no coincidence that Kate is undertaking a traditionally domestic task whilst ‘Olivia [had just] flung herself down in the basket chair and lit a gasper’ (p.30). They are the antithesis of one another. Kate’s questioning, made more aggressive with the placing of pins in her mouth, shows her to be cutting across Olivia’s new mode of femininity whilst simultaneously cutting through the fabric. Olivia later describes ‘Kate with her conventional, her sheltered successful life, tied to her husband by children and habit and affection and respect’ (p. 37). Olivia’s repetition of adjectives and verbs associated with restriction and routine reveals how she sees Kate’s married life as mundane. Similarly, when Olivia refuses to have some soup, Kate says ‘‘Look at me,’ […] ‘I’m drinking mine up’’ (p.51) to which Mrs Curtis, their mother, replies, ‘Yes’ with ‘[a]pproval and exasperation […] ‘‘[y]ou’re a sensible girl, thank goodness’’ (p.51). Mrs Curtis approves of Kate’s sensibility which in turn groups them together and makes Olivia an ‘other’ figure. The anonymous third person narrator who crops up in between Olivia’s narrative goes on in free indirect discourse, mocking Mrs Curtis: ‘Kate, bless her, had slipped with no trouble into a suitable marriage within easy motoring distance […] a mother of four fine healthy children she had established herself beyond question in all eyes.’ (p. 52). It reveals, through the excessive use of ellipses and punctuation, how Mrs Curtis cannot articulate the lives of Olivia and her brother James because they exist outside of marriage: ‘now that Olivia…now that James…phases we hope; phases, we hope; phases, of course […] Hush…Pass on.’ (p.52). Marriage is Mrs Curtis’ ideal, but the adjectives used, ‘suitable’ and ‘healthy’, resemble those in Olivia’s perception of Kate’s marriage in that they show an absence of passion and desire. The text therefore uses both Olivia’s narrative and the third person narrator to suggest marriage to be emotionally unfulfilling and uneventful.

This view is further explored in the way that Olivia’s desirous language towards Rollo contrasts with the language of marriage. After their second meeting in the novel, the third person narrator observes how Rollo ‘pulled her towards him and began to kiss her […] [h]e went on kissing her, whispering to her, floating her away.’ (p.123) The multiple clauses along with the poetic image of ‘[n]ames, faces, times and places slipped off into the reel of darkness’ (p.123) reveal a quickening of pace and suggest how desire leads to a loss of certainty and an inability to focus on anything other than the present moment. This ambivalence contrasts with the language of marriage which is weighted down by familiar and conventional ways to describe it. The narrative continues: ‘Anxiety brushed her, the faintest breath, there and gone again…He’s not young…So certain, so undiffident … Expert.’ (p.123) Whilst Judy Simons argues that ‘[t]he textual ellipses highlights the fissures between imagination and reality as well as pointing up the connective emptiness of the experience’, I suggest that the repetition of ellipses here, shows how Olivia cannot articulate this desire because it exists outside of marriage. (2) There is no set vocabulary to describe the situation she finds herself in and this reveals an inadequacy of language to describe desire because unlike marriage, it is abstract. This novel resonates with the argument Stella Browne put forward at the British Society for Sex Psychology in 1915: that ‘the realities of a woman’s sexual life have been greatly obscured by the lack of any sexual vocabulary’. 3 This lack of language explains why later in the novel, Olivia uses cinematic techniques to describe the couple’s closeness on holiday. Olivia narrates their trip: ‘rivers rolling their turbulent, thick, grey snow-waters through Innsbruck, Salzburg; spacious white peasant houses with their painted fronts and shutters and rich wooden balconies covered with vines and geraniums’ (p.210). Olivia’s narrative is a series of images which resemble cinematic sequences and again suggest the inability of language to express desire. This comparison between the way in which desire is articulated, and the recycled language of marriage again suggests the text’s critique of the domestic situation; it renders marriage mundane and deconstructs it as a goal.

Featured Image: Front Cover of Virago Press’s 2006 edition of Rosamond Lehmann The Weather in the Streets. See Rosamond Lehmann, The Weather in the Streets (London: Virago Press, 2006).

1. Rosamond Lehmann, The Weather in the Streets (London: Virago Press, 2006), p.157. All further references are to this edition and are given parenthetically.

2. Judy Simons, Rosamond Lehmann (Horndon, Northcote House Publishers, 2011), p. 50.

3. Stella Brown, as quoted in Judy Simons, Rosamond Lehmann (Horndon, Northcote House Publishers, 2011), p.47.

Written by Estelle Luck.
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.

Purging the ‘Unconventional’ in John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi

‘What is’t distracts you?/
This is flesh, and blood, sire;/
‘Tis not the figure cut in alabaster/
kneels at my husband’s tomb.’
-The Duchess, The Duchess of Malfi (l.386-387)

In John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, the Duchess finds herself condemned for crossing the conventional position of widow deigned appropriate for her by figures of male authority. Rather than adhere to her brother’s orders, the Duchess utilises the small amount of independence proffered to her in widowhood to defy them. The Duchess rejects her subordinate patriarchal position, subverting this inferiority to become both wooer and head of her household.1 However, this insubordination is not celebrated; rather, it is viewed with disdain and anger by almost all of the characters in the play. The Duchess is viewed as a figure of treasonous radicality, threatening not only the private family model but the very status and order of the governing state. As she declares her decision to marry Antonio, the Duchess announces ‘let old wives report/ I winked and chose a husband’.2 In using ‘I’, the Duchess places herself in a position of autonomy; she makes it apparent that she ‘chose’ (l.281) Antonio out of her own free will. Furthermore, the Duchess clearly distances herself from the ‘old wives’ (l.280) of conventionality in favour of a more masculine assertion of personal choice. However, in Webster’s allusion to the Duchess having ‘winked’, defined as ‘to indicate that something is a joke or a secret’, the Duchess is presented as irresponsibly naïve.3 She seemingly fails to register the severity of her subversion; rather, she instead becomes collocated with the archetypal ‘lusty widow’ figure, driven by rampant sexual appetite and desire.

Although the Duchess repeatedly asserts that her actions are the result of the pure love she feels for Antonio, Webster consistently undermines this through a discourse of lust and desire. This language is first evoked by her brothers, who suggest that her wish to remarry is inevitable as she ‘is a widow’ and knows ‘already what man is’ (ll.225-226). The Duchess is further advised that she must not allow her ‘high blood’ to be ‘sway[ed]’ (l.228). The bawdy nature of Ferdinand and The Cardinal’s speech bears striking similarities to the language used in the 1650 conduct book The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living. In this text, it is stated ‘for widows, the fontanel of whose desires hath been opened by the former permissions of the marriage-bed’, they must remember ‘that God hath now restrained the former license’ and ‘bridle[d] […] their desires.’4 Through such paralleling, the Duchess is thus presented as a figure whose actions are founded on gross self-interest and lust. This results in both the aristocracy and the ‘common rabble’ ‘directly say[ing]/ she is a strumpet’ (l.26).

Denounced as a ‘strumpet’ (l.26), the Duchess becomes a radical figure that is viewed with disdain by figures of lower and higher-class social status. As Sarah Steen argues, ‘in light of Renaissance social standards […] the Duchess flouted patriarchal authority […] violated decorum by remarrying and by choosing a man below her in station’; she also demonstrated ‘an overt and dangerous female sexuality, all of which threatened the social order.’5 In this subversion, the Duchess ultimately comes to radically usurp not only the rigid social positions afforded to men and women in society, but also their positions within the private family model. Due to the class difference between Antonio and the Duchess, the Duchess ultimately subverts the traditional framework by becoming both the orchestrater and instigator of their union. In doing so, she usurps Antonio’s role as head of the private domestic family. It is she that proposes marriage to Antonio, telling him ‘raise’ himself’ with her ‘hand to help’ (ll.351-352). Through subverting the strict family model, the Duchess not only threatens the patriarchal social structure of the family but also the very foundations of the governing body. At the time of the plays first performance, as Dympna Callaghan expounds, advice books such as A Godly Form of Household Government depicted the family structure as ‘a microcosm of the state.6 In this reading, the Duchess not only threatens private social order, but also rigid political order. Her actions are denounced as politically radical and monstrous; ‘desperate physic’ must, as Ferdinand declares, be applied ‘to purge infected blood, such as hers’ (ll.23-26). The threat of the Duchess must, as Webster’s play comes to suggest, be ‘purged’ from society at whatever cost.


Featured Painting: Paris Bordone, The Venetian Lovers, circa 1530, Oil on Canvas, 80 x 95cm, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan, Italy.

1. For more information on the position of the widow in Renaissance England, see Sandra Cavallo and Lyndan Warner, Widowhood in Medieval and Early Modern Europe (London and New York: Routledge, 1999).

2. John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi, I.ii.l.280-281, in Renaissance Drama: An Anthology of Plays and Entertainments, ed. by Arthur F. Kinney (London: Blackwells, 2004). All further references to The Duchess of Malfi are to this edition and are given parenthetically in the body of the essay.

3. Oxford Dictionary Online. Available at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/wink [Accessed 1/04/2018].

4. Jeremy Taylor, ‘The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living’ in The Whole Works of the Reverend Jeremy Taylor: Volume I (London: J.R and C. Childs, 1836), pp.399-515, p.427.

5. Sara Jayne Steen, ‘The Crime of Marriage: Arbella Stuart and the Duchess of Malfi’, The Sixteenth Century Journal, 22 (1991), pp.61-76, p.61.

6. Dympna Callaghan, ‘Loving and Marrying’ in Romeo and Juliet: Texts and Contexts, ed. Dympna Callaghan (Boston, New York: Bedford Books, 2003), pp.245- 248, p.247.


Written by Steph Reeves
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.