At the end of this article, please find discussion questions.
Christopher Isherwood was a famous British gay writer of the twentieth century who lived in Berlin as the Nazis rose to power in the 1930s. Although Isherwood was proudly gay, he did not feel that he could include a gay narrator in his novels and still get them published. Hence, in Goodbye to Berlin, the narrator is also named Christopher Isherwood, but this character’s sexual identity is unclear. Despite this ambiguity, the queer innuendo in this book is strong. In fact, the innuendo is strong enough that it influenced queer authors such as Truman Capote and Armistead Maupin.
As the title suggests, Goodbye to Berlin is a story of a British expatriate’s years in Berlin in the early 1930s before he ultimately returns to Britain. The book is a series of vignettes told in different chapters, allowing the narrator to communicate with an eccentric cast of characters. Below I provide brief plot descriptions and queer aspects in each chapter.
A Berlin Diary (Autumn 1930)
This first chapter establishes the setting and characters. Having graduated from university in Britain, young Chris arrives in Berlin and teaches English in private lessons. One of his clients is Hippi Bernstein, a nineteen-year-old woman from a wealthy Jewish family. Chris seems to have communist leanings, and the anti-Semitism in Germany bewilders him. Chris lives in a room in a flat owned by Fraulein Schroeder, a middle-aged woman. Other boarders in the flat include a prostitute, a yodeler, and a bartender.
This is the most interesting chapter, and it is the inspiration for the musical Cabaret. Through a mutual friend, Chris meets Sally Bowles, a dynamic young woman who is a force of nature. However, unlike Liza Minelli’s depiction of this character in the film version, Sally is British and she has very little musical talent. In fact, most of the action takes place outside of clubs and bars. Sally and Chris become close friends, and Chris assists Sally with gold-digging, helping her to take advantage of rich gentlemen callers. He even assists Sally as she gets an abortion. Sally is very similar to Audrey Hepburn’s depiction of Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Sally’s friendship with Chris is similar to those that frequently exist between straight women and gay men.
On Ruegen Island (Summer 1931)
Chris goes to Ruegen Island on the Baltic Sea and shares a house with Peter and Otto. Peter is a wealthy British man the same age as Chris who has suffered nervous breakdowns. After trying to talk out his problems with a prostitute and an analyst, Peter finally finds Otto, a handsome German seventeen-year-old boy. Peter pays Otto a daily fee simply to talk to him about his anxieties. Peter is clearly obsessed with Otto, and the former becomes quite jealous of the latter when Otto shows increasing interest in the young women on the island. Chris meets a young doctor on the island who comments on the toxic relationship between Peter and Otto. The doctor labels Peter as a degenerate, and it is quite clear that Peter is an anguished queer man. Of course, in the end Otto leaves Peter forever after the two bicker and Otto steals from Peter.
After returning to Berlin, Chris goes to live with Otto and his family in a crowded flat. Though Otto shows much interest in girls on Ruegen Island, he shows an abiding affection for Chris that sometimes seems homoerotic. For example, Otto exercises without wearing clothes in front of Chris, and he flexes his muscles for him. Nevertheless, Otto continues to date women. After Otto’s ill mother enters a sanatorium, Otto and Chris visit her, and they also meet two young female patients named Erna and Erika. While Otto and Erika are smitten with each other, Chris seems very indifferent to emaciated Erna. Otto and Erika fool around with each other while Chris lets his mouth press against Erna’s “hot, dry lips” in an encounter that lacks any passion or romance. In fact, Chris says, “I had no particular sensation of contact.” Again, Chris is neither overtly homosexual or heterosexual.
With anti-Semitism waxing in Germany, Chris is inspired to become friends with the Landauers, a wealthy Jewish family who owns a chain of department stores. At first he socializes with Natalia Landauer, a vibrant, strong-minded eighteen-year-old woman. Then he spends most of his time with Bernhard Landauer, Natalia’s cousin. Though it is never made clear, Chris engages in a sort of romance with Bernhard that involves flirtation, mind games, and intimate discussions. In a homoerotic scene, it is suggested that Chris may consummate his seeming desire for Bernhard when Bernhard invites him to stay the night. In addition, Bernhard invites Chris to run away to China to live with him. Though Chris at first thinks that Bernhard is joking, he later believes that Bernhard is serious. Through eavesdropping on a conversation between two businessmen, Chris later learns that Bernhard dies of heart failure. The two businessmen believe that the stated cause of death is a coverup for the Nazis’s assassination of Bernhard.
A Berlin Diary (Winter 1932-3)
As Chris concludes his stay in Berlin, he observes interactions with both communists and Nazis. One communist he meets is named Rudi. Rudi enjoys wearing Russian blouses and short leather shorts. In addition, Rudi enjoys being around half-naked men. This chapter also sees Chris very comfortable at what seems to be a drag show in a bar that caters to straight audiences.
Describe the relationship between Chris and Hippi. What does their relationship tell us about Chris?
Why do Sally and Chris become good friends? What are the challenges in their friendship? Why do you think they are never romantic?
How is Peter different from the other men in this chapter? Is Chris more sympathetic to Peter or Otto? Why do you think so?
How do Chris and Otto express their sexuality differently? What aspects of this chapter are homoerotic?
How is Bernhard a queer character? What examples from the story indicate his queerness?
Why do you think Christopher imagines Rudi being tortured to death?
Isherwood, Christopher. The Berlin Stories. New Directions Pub, 2008.
Author: Forman Brown (originally published under the pseudonym Richard Meeker)
What is the connection between the author and the queer community?
Better Angel is overt and honest in its queerness. It is miraculous that Forman Brown was able to publish this book in the 1930s, even if he did so under the pseudonym Richard Meeker. This novel is largely autobiographical, and each of the main characters (Kurt, Derry, David, Chloe, and Tony) is based on a real person. Brown is the basis for Kurt, and he had a long relationship with the man who is the basis for David’s character. In fact, Brown describes this man, Richard Brandon, as the “one great love” of his life. With Brandon and Harry Burnett, who is the basis for Derry, Brown established the Yale Puppeteers and the Turnabout Theatre. The Turnabout Theatre performed marionette shows and live revues. Brown even wrote songs for famous performers, such as Sophie Tucker, Elsa Lanchester, and Bette Midler.
What is the plot of this novel?
As the novel opens, the reader meets the protagonist Kurt Gray when he is a young boy in the small town of Barton, Michigan. While other boys enjoy playing sports, Kurt enjoys reading books and playing make-believe. The other boys taunt him for his unusual interests, but his mother encourages him to be different and be a leader.
The action skips ahead to Kurt at the age of thirteen, when he and another boy see each other naked as a result of escalating dares. In a game of hide and seek, another boy almost succeeds in sexually assaulting Kurt.
As Kurt gets older and he becomes more unsure of his feelings for other boys, he feels guilty about masturbating and having unspecified sexual dreams. His prayers seem to be answered when a revival comes to town. As Kurt’s parents are church leaders, Kurt attends the revival sessions and hears about the evils of gambling and masturbation.
The revival eventually leaves town, at least momentarily, and Kurt receives an uneventful high school education. He’s part of a strong social group, and he plays the organ for his church.
After high school, Kurt goes to the state university in Ann Arbor. He initially boards with an older woman that his parents vaguely know. Once Kurt meets a girl named Chloe in one of his classes, the two became fast friends. He moves into her house, where her mother and younger brother Derry also live. Kurt spends a lot of time with Derry, and the two have an affair. Despite becoming infatuated with Derry, Kurt fears that Derry’s distant and moody temperament is not ideal for a relationship.
Upon graduation, Kurt decides to pursue a career in music and songwriting. Before doing so, he spends the summer with his parents in Barton, corresponding with Derry through letters. In one letter, Kurt tells Derry that he loves him. Kurt becomes jealous when Derry writes to tell him that he is spending a lot of time with another student named David.
Kurt returns to Ann Arbor for the wedding of Chloe to Roy, a college classmate that she does not really love. Kurt anxiously awaits seeing Derry, and he dreads seeing David, believing him to be Derry’s lover. Derry claims that his house is too crowded with house guests, and he has Kurt stay with David. David confesses that he is in love with Kurt, and Kurt kisses him. As Kurt leaves for his new life in New York, he feels encouraged by David’s promises to visit him. He also doubts that he actually loved Derry, and he suspects Derry mostly appreciated the physical aspect of their relationship.
When Kurt returns to Michigan for the holidays, Chloe reveals that she is deeply dissatisfied in her marriage and that she intends to divorce Roy. Kurt fears that Chloe may actually be in love with him. Roy tells Kurt that Chloe is in love with him. Roy worries how divorce might malign his reputation and career. Roy tries to convince Kurt to tell Chloe that he is a complete phony and not a true artist. Roy believes that Chloe is attracted to Kurt because he is a true artist. Further, he believes he can save his marriage by deflating her worship of Kurt. Kurt initially agrees, but then realizes that he cannot go through with this lie.
After her divorce, Chloe moves to New York and tells Kurt that she is in love with him. When Kurt tells her that he is gay, she is shocked, but she claims to accept him for who he is. Still, Kurt hopes that he can somehow learn to love Chloe, but he suspects that he will never be attracted to women. David and Derry come to New York to say goodbye to Kurt before he boards a ship for Europe, as Kurt receives a scholarship to study and write music abroad for several months. Before the ship departs, David and Kurt kiss once again.
As Kurt travels around Europe, Chloe writes to him to tell him that she observes Derry and David wasting their lives around “pretty boys” in the West Village. Chloe tells Kurt that she believes that Kurt can do better than both of them. Kurt fears that Chloe still harbors feelings for him.
Kurt meets a charming young man named Tony on the ship to Europe, and Tony comes to stay with Kurt in France. Tony guesses that Kurt is gay, and he tells Kurt that he has made love to quite a few men, and even some women. Tony urges Kurt to try to live a heterosexual existence to make his life easier.
Kurt then makes love to Tony and immediately regrets it. He feels that Tony proves that he is promiscuous like all of the other queer men. However, Tony still believes that Kurt is quite innocent and inexperienced. Tony reveals that David was the kept man of a wealthy older gentleman named Ozzy when David lived in Philadelphia. Tony knows this because he met David at one of Ozzy’s lavish parties that he frequently holds for queer men. Despite this shocking revelation, Kurt and Tony form a close friendship, and Kurt even writes the libretto to a play that Tony writes.
Tony and Kurt eventually part ways, with Tony going back to New York to audition for stage roles. Kurt goes to Paris and agonizes that he is not interested in the female prostitutes as so many men are in the city.
Kurt returns to New York and stays with David and Derry. David is ashamed of his past association with Ozzy. Further, he seeks to free himself of the gay clique. David loves Kurt’s innocence and the fact that Kurt is not in any way caught up in the gay clique.
Kurt accepts a job as a music teacher at a boys’ prep school in Connecticut, and David makes plans to someday join him in New York. Meanwhile, Kurt and David continue a long-distance relationship, with both of them falling more and more in love with each other. When David comes to visit Kurt in Connecticut, Derry gets arrested and calls them for help. Kurt and David pay for his bail and an attorney for his hearing. Because it is obvious that an undercover police officer nearly coerced Derry into having sex, Derry is cleared of all charges for “immoral behavior.”
Kurt returns to his school in Connecticut and becomes a mentor to a queer student named Ford. He accidentally catches Ford making love to another boy in one of the practice rooms. In coded language, Kurt apologizes for interrupting a special moment and praises Ford for being different from the other boys. To show his appreciation, Ford gives Kurt a replica of Donatello’s David, which reminds Kurt of David. On the spur of the moment, Kurt decides to go to New York for the weekend to visit David. He wants to buy a farmhouse in Connecticut to share with David.
Once Kurt arrives at David’s apartment, no one is home. Kurt finds a note from Ozzy addressed to David to meet him that evening, and Kurt notices that David’s formal clothing is not hanging in his closet. Concluding that David is unfaithful to him, Kurt writes a note to David on the back of Ozzy’s note, demanding an explanation. In a moment of anger, vulnerability, and questioning his life choices, Kurt meets Chloe in a hotel room and has sex with her. They are both awkward and unfulfilled.
When Kurt returns to Connecticut the following day, he finds a telegram from David. In the telegram, David says that he is on his way to see Kurt to explain everything. Kurt realizes that he still loves David. At the close of the novel, Kurt waits for David’s arrival with the intention still to invite him to live together in a farmhouse in Connecticut.
What are the queerest aspects of this novel?
Better Angel is one of the first American novels to portray homosexuality in a positive way with a happy ending. This novel contrasts sharply with contemporaneous novels such as Strange Brother that have very tragic endings. The novel stands out in its realistic treatment of queer existence, and it is interesting that many themes discussed still resonate in twenty-first century queer life.
The character of Kurt is sexually inexperienced even in his twenties and he prefers monogamy, which is a rebuttal in itself of queer stereotypes of promiscuity. Kurt and Tony even discuss an autobiography of a straight writer who fails to see the double standard applied to queer men regarding sexuality and promiscuity. It seems that straight men can have many partners without criticism, but queer men cannot. Added to this discussion is the existence of gay cliques in the major cities across America. Brown portrays these cliques as insufferable and incestuous. David yearns to break from this clique, and Kurt is not in any way a part of a clique. Brown seems to suggest that queer men can happily exist apart from these cliques.
The character of David keeps the reader guessing. His protestations of love for Kurt seem disingenuous at the beginning because David barely knows Kurt. As the narrative progresses and David’s love for Kurt does not abate, David seems more genuine. However, both Chloe and Tony disdain David. Chloe justifies her hatred for David because of his weakness, while Tony criticizes David’s relationship with Ozzy. Although the reader never quite knows the true nature or fate of David’s relationship with Ozzy, it is easy to understand how a vulnerable, closeted young man in the 1930s might fall under the influence and control of a wealthy older man. David represents so many young queer men who try to make their way in a homophobic world, stumbling along the way. David’s ability to persevere shows his strength and Chloe’s clear homophobia and jealousy. By the end of the novel, the reader understands that jealous Chloe and vain, closeted Tony reflect society’s homophobia while David dares to love Kurt in secret.
An avid reader, Kurt consistently mentions his desire to see queer representation in books. After reading Shakespeare’s sonnets, Kurt is convinced that Shakespeare was queer. Kurt also enjoys the queerness in Proust’s writings.
Most touching is Kurt’s interaction with his student, Ford. Upon walking in on Ford making love to another boy, Donald, Kurt is speechless. He invites Ford and Donald for tea just to assure them that everything is all right. Only much later does he finally find the words to tell Ford that his queerness is good, even if Kurt must do so in coded language. Even in the twenty-first century it can be difficult for queer educators to assure queer students of their place in the world. This is a shame. Young queer people benefit from the wisdom and example of their queer elders. We should live in a society where this mentorship is more common.
What is the connection between the
author and the queer community?
Jean Cocteau was a
famous French artist, actor, writer, and film director. Cocteau was gay and had
a long relationship with his muse, actor Jean Marais (Criterion). With Cocteau
as the director, Marais starred as the beast in a gorgeous rendition of Beauty and the Beast (1946) and the
titular character in Orpheus (1950) (Criterion).
Although Jean Cocteau
never explicitly conceded his authorship of The
White Book, it is now widely accepted that he was the book’s author. The
book was published anonymously in 1928. For the 1957 edition of the book, Cocteau
wrote a preface and contributed several illustrations, but he remained coy
about whether he was the book’s author.
Another translation of this book is The White Paper, which is a term used to describe a government briefing document. The title means that that author is not trying to persuade his audience but rather to inform them about the reality of being a gay man.
What is the plot of this novel?
The story begins in
1920s France with the nameless narrator acknowledging his own homosexuality.
The narrator then briefly describes experiences from his childhood that help
him realize that he is gay. He faints when he happens to see a naked farmer
taking a break from work to swim. He fondly remembers seeing naked gypsies
climbing trees on his family’s property. He even draws a picture of a naked
woman to lure the interest of a beautiful male servant named Gustave. When the
narrator reveals his true feelings of same-sex desire to Gustave, the latter
quickly rebuffs the former.
At school, the boy
forms a crush on a virile, arrogant bully named Dargelos. At first the narrator
avoids Dargelos, afraid of disclosing his true feelings. Eventually, the
narrator tells another boy at school about his crush on Dargelos. Surprisingly,
the boy advises the narrator to reveal his desire and overwhelm Dargelos with
flattery. The friend believes that Dargelos will embrace the narrator
One day the narrator
invites Dargelos to talk with him in an empty classroom after school. Dargelos
arrives, but the narrator can see in his cruel smile that Dargelos knows why he
has been summoned. Nervous, the narrator makes up a lie and says that the vice
principal is watching Dargelos closely. Dargelos retorts that if the narrator
wastes his time again with a stupid story he will physically beat him. After
this encounter, Dargelos develops angina from bathing in the Seine River during
a camping trip. Dargelos dies, and the narrator weeps for the loss, not thinking
of Dargelos’s threat of violence.
As the narrator and
his peers mature, other boys become very interested in girls. In turn, the narrator
feels the peer pressure to be interested in girls. The narrator starts joyless
affairs with women, knowing that he is not pursuing his heart’s desires.
The narrator advances
into young adulthood, and he begins seeing a woman named Rose. When the
narrator meets Alfred, Rose’s brother, the two men fall in love with each
other. Alfred confesses that he is Rose’s pimp, not her brother, and that he
wants to run off with the narrator. Before this plan can come to fruition,
Alfred aborts the plans because he cannot abandon Rose. After the narrator
accuses Alfred of stealing his gold chain, Alfred threatens the narrator with a
weapon. The narrator flees in a taxi, with a crying Alfred running after him in
despair and grief.
In the town of
Toulon, the narrator has an affair with a sailor who was wrongfully imprisoned
for a mutiny that he did not commit. The morning after the affair, the narrator
leaves the sailor, but he forgets his gloves. When he returns to retrieve the
gloves, he sees the sailor weeping into the gloves through the keyhole. He also
sees the face of Alfred “superimposed” on the sailor’s face. The narrator quickly
leaves without getting his gloves.
Seeking comfort at
the beach, the narrator meets a man who is bathing nude in the ocean. The men
both believe in God, and they fall in love, believing that “God loves love,”
even their love. They return to Paris together, and the narrator discovers that
the man has a mistress. In fact, the man has multiple affairs with women. Each
time the narrator discovers a new tryst with a woman, the narrator and his
lover argue, with the lover profusely apologizing and assuring the narrator
that he only loves him. Eventually the lover perishes from a drug addiction.
Before doing so, the lover tells the narrator that he never loved women and
that he only loved the narrator. He explains to the narrator that he had
affairs with women to prove to himself that he was “free.”
After his lover’s
death, the narrator is distraught, but he nevertheless wants to get married. He
does not seek love or romance, just marriage; therefore, he manages to become engaged
to a very masculine female friend with whom he got along well while he was
studying at the Sorbonne. The narrator once again falls in love with a woman’s brother.
His fiancée’s brother loves him in return, and the brother begs him to cancel
the engagement to his sister. Before he can act, the brother reveals the truth
to his sister in a cruel and confrontational manner. Due to his excessive
cruelty, the narrator hits the brother across the face. As the narrator
consoles his fiancée, her brother promptly goes into the next room and kills
himself. Of course, the marriage never happens.
After this sudden
tragic death, the narrator sinks into depression and a feeling of hopelessness.
Because he remains Catholic, suicide is not an option. He briefly considers
joining a monastery, but he does not do so because of the severity of that
lifestyle. The novel ends with the narrator’s gratitude with not facing
criminal penalty in France for being gay, but also with his frustration with
merely being tolerated and not accepted.
How is this book queer?
Although this book is
very short, it powerfully addresses the fear of commitment, the stereotyping of
queer men, and the angst of being queer in a society that merely tolerates.
The narrator cannot
escape the haunting resemblance of his lovers. Alfred resembles the servant
named Gustave and the farmer whom the narrator observes swimming naked. The
narrator also sees Alfred in the face of the sailor that the narrator leaves
crying into his gloves. Perhaps Gustave’s initial rejection of his
homosexuality indelibly marks the narrator’s feelings of commitment and
intimacy. Furthermore, one of the narrator’s most tumultuous encounters happens
with the man who does not stop having affairs with women, despite his many
apologies to the narrator. When the man claims that he only had affairs with
women to feel “free,” readers wonder whether he actually had the affairs to
feel equal in worth to his male heterosexual compatriots.
Indeed the narrator
knows the Catholic Church rejects his same-sex desires, and the narrator
realizes that his country merely shrugs at these desires. Nevertheless, the
narrator remains Catholic and French, hating himself as the major institutions
in his country strive to ignore his queerness. From his earliest memories, the
narrator knows deeply that he is a gay man. It is this innate conviction about
the naturalness of his queer feelings that eventually help the narrator triumph
over the bigotry of his religion and nation. By the novel’s end, the narrator
observes that his country, which does not criminalize homosexuality, does not
sufficiently embrace and welcome queer people. Even as much of the world enacts
anti-discrimination laws, many queer people today feel that schools, religious
institutions, and other public spaces do not do enough to promote queer
the forward-thinking central message of this book, the narrator also succumbs
to stereotyping. Even as a queer person, the narrator draws conclusions based
on stereotypes about queer people. For example, the narrator believes that his
father is secretly gay because of the way that he walks and the unusual phrases
that he uses in conversation. In addition, the narrator draws conclusions about
his male lover that cause great anguish. The narrator assumes that his male
lover is gay because the lover primarily socializes with women. According to
the narrator, gay men are primarily friends with women while heterosexual men are
only friends with other heterosexual men. This assumption crumbles when the
narrator discovers that his lover has affairs with women. The narrator does not
anticipate the possibility that his lover could be sexually fluid, and he
commands his lover to choose between loving him or women. The narrative
portrays the lover as confused and burdened with drug addiction when the
narrator is actually the unreasonable party. After all, love and relationships
should happen with a mutual understanding of boundaries and expectations,
regardless of the lovers’ specific sexual orientations.
Cocteau, Jean. The White Book = Le
Livre Blanc. City Lights Books, 1989.
What is the connection between the
author and the queer community?
F. Scott Fitzgerald had a famously tumultuous marriage with his wife Zelda Fitzgerald. Some scholars have suggested that he saw himself as the more submissive partner in his marriage and that he hated this aspect of his life (Delistraty). For Fitzgerald, some scholars argue, homosexuality was a character weakness (Delistraty). Nevertheless, Fitzgerald knew that one of his close friends, Gerald Murphy, was gay, even though Murphy was married to a woman (Delistraty). Fitzgerald used himself and Murphy as the basis for characters in tumultuous marriages in his novels, such as Tender is the Night and The Great Gatsby, in which a beautiful woman dominates a weak man (Delistraty).
What is the plot of this novel?
Set in New York City and Long Island during the early 1920s, The Great Gatsby is a book of a very particular time and place. However, the excess and lavishness described in the book continue to this day in the United States. The mansion of millionaire Tom Buchanan in fictional East Egg, Long Island and the mansion of millionaire Jay Gatsby in fictional West Egg, Long island are just two examples of this excess. Tom is a white supremacist who comes from a wealthy family in Chicago. He is married to the socialite Daisy Buchanan, who hails from Louisville, Kentucky. Daisy is beautiful, selfish, and superficial, yet Jay pines for her. Gatsby and Daisy were lovers before Daisy even met Tom, but Gatsby left her to fight in World War I.
When Gatsby returns from
the war, he amasses a fortune through various criminal activities in order to
woo Daisy. Gatsby imagines that he is Daisy’s one true love and that she will
gladly leave Tom for her. Indeed, there are cracks in the foundation of Tom and
Daisy’s marriage. Tom engages in a tumultuous affair with Myrtle Wilson, the
wife of mechanic George Wilson, whose garage Tom passes on the way from East
Egg to his job on Wall Street.
Into this emotional
turbulence unknowingly steps the book’s narrator, Nick Carraway, who is also
the catalyst for the main action. Nick is Daisy’s cousin, and he moves to West
Egg upon accepting a job as a bond salesman. Although Nick is Gatsby’s
next-door neighbor, he rents a modest house that does not compare to the
grandeur of Gatsby’s mansion.
After Nick moves to
West Egg, he socializes with Daisy and Tom, and he meets Jordan Baker, a
successful golfer and a friend of Daisy. The two have a very tepid romance that
is truly an afterthought in the narrative. The primary focus of Nick’s energy
is his friendship with Gatsby. Gatsby throws exuberant, opulent parties at
his mansion, hoping that Daisy will discover him. When Gatsby discovers Nick’s
link to Daisy, he asks Nick to stage a reunion between him and Daisy, who is
unaware that Gatsby lives not far from her. The reunion is successful, and Daisy
and Gatsby have an affair.
Daisy awkwardly makes
their affair explicit when Gatsby, Tom, Nick, and Jordan are visiting one
afternoon. The five of them travel together to a swanky hotel room in New York
City on a sweltering day in the summer. Tom and Gatsby have a contentious
argument for Daisy’s affections. Tom pledges his devotion to Daisy and exposes
Gatsby as an unreliable swindler. On the way home from this heated encounter,
Daisy accidentally runs over Myrtle with Gatsby’s car as the two of them drive
to Long Island. Seeking revenge for his wife’s murder, George kills Gatsby,
whom he believes was driving the car that killed Myrtle. Later, Nick discovers
that Tom told George that Gatsby was Myrtle’s murderer.
New York, Tom, and Daisy, Nick moves back to the Midwest, from which he came.
Before doing so, Nick is dismayed to discover that he is one of only a few
guests at Gatsby’s funeral. The many business associates who always phoned
Gatsby and the revelers at Gatsby’s grand parties are nowhere to be seen.
How is this book queer?
Overt queer male
themes and characters do not appear in The
Great Gatsby. A careful reading of the book suggests that Nick Carraway is
queer and that he may also be an unreliable narrator, adding an additional
layer to the male posturing so prevalent in this book. Readers may infer
Carraway’s queerness from his descriptions of characters, his actions in
certain scenes, and his relationship with Jay Gatsby.
While Jordan Baker
may seem like the love interest for Nick Carraway, his interest in her is not
abiding. Upon meeting her, Nick “enjoys” looking at Jordan. He describes her as
“small-breasted” and compares her posture to that of a “young cadet.” This is a
curiously masculine description of a female romantic interest. As Nick gets to
know Jordan, he has a “tender curiosity” about her, but no feelings of love.
Ultimately, the reader wonders if Nick ever has strong feelings for Jordan.
Mild flirtations between Jordan and Nick mildly pepper the narrative. By the
time the relationship dissolves in a telephone call, the dissolution seems like
friends parting ways. Indeed, Nick does not remember who hung up “with a sharp
click” and he did not care.
Even more telling is
Nick’s description of Myrtle Wilson. While Myrtle seems to be the curvaceous
bombshell who attracts Tom’s interest, Nick describes her in an unflattering
way. Nick first notices Myrtle’s face, which in his estimation contains “no
facet or gleam of beauty.” Nick describes Myrtle as “faintly stout, but she
carried her surplus flesh sensuously as some women can.” Not appreciating the
femininity of Myrtle, Nick is unimpressed with Myrtle’s “wide hips.”
Nick’s seeming apathy
for Jordan and Myrtle contrasts with his characterizations of male characters.
He describes George Wilson, the novel’s tragic weakling and eventual murderer,
as “spiritless,” “anemic,” and yet also “faintly handsome.” While Nick
struggles to find beauty in Myrtle, he can appreciate the handsomeness of her
husband. Similarly, Nick describes Tom Buchanan, the novel’s most obvious jerk
and racist, as “sturdy,” and he praises the “enormous power of that body” even
in “effeminate” riding clothes. Nick notices the “rare” smile of Gatsby that
contains a quality of “eternal reassurance.” Perhaps Nick believes that Gatsby
intuits Nick’s queerness and accepts him nonetheless, which would explain the
rare, reassuring nature of Gatsby and Nick’s fascination with Gatsby. Lastly,
in contrast with his “handsome” wife, Chester McKee, the photographer at a
party hosted by Myrtle, is a “pale feminine man.” These two descriptions imply
Chester’s queerness, and Nick’s observations of his queerness imply his own
During the party scene with Chester McKee, Nick becomes very drunk and has a very suggestive encounter with Chester. Near the end of the party, Nick wipes away “the remains of the spot dried lather” from Chester, who sleeps in a chair. Later in the elevator on the way out from the party, Chester invites Nick to lunch. Before Nick can answer, the elevator boy scolds Nick for touching the lever. Not knowing where his hands are, Nick does not even realize that his hands are on the lever, a sign that Nick is very drunk and not in control of his movements. Nevertheless, Nick does accept Chester’s lunch invitation, though the narrative never discusses their lunch date. Fitzgerald uses an ellipsis to omit details in the narrative and thereby suggest that this is more than just a friendly encounter. Nick suddenly finds himself “standing beside” Chester’s bed as Chester sits in his underwear on the bed “with a great portfolio in his hands.” Through the ellipsis device, Fitzgerald next suddenly places Nick at Penn Station waiting for the 4:00 train, not knowing how he got there. The implication is clearly a drunken tryst between Chester and Nick.
Fitzgerald also uses
the ellipsis device in another scene that seems like a non-sequitur to the central
plot. While Nick rides the train from Long Island to Manhattan during a
sweltering summer day, a woman sitting next to him drops her pocketbook. Nick
picks it up and gives it to her, “holding it at arm’s length and by the extreme
tip of the corners to indicate” having “no designs upon it.” Nick almost seems
disgusted by the feminine pocketbook, suggesting his disgust with the actual female
physique. The ellipsis transports the reader to a juxtaposition with the train
conductor asking passengers if it is hot enough and leaving sweat stains on
tickets as he takes them. Curiously, Nick is not disgusted. Instead, the
encounter with the conductor makes Nick wonder if the extreme heat does not
make people care whom they kiss. The comment suggests Nick’s interest in sexual
fluidity is inspired not by the dropped pocketbook but rather the deposit of
the train conductor’s bodily fluids on tickets.
In addition to the
encounters with minor characters, Nick’s relationship with Gatsby may be the
strongest indicator of his desire. Although not initially having a good time
the first time he attends a Gatsby party, Nick’s mood lifts once he actually talks
to Gatsby. Jordan asks him, “Having a gay time now?”, to which Nick replies, “…
much better.” From this first positive encounter, it is no surprise that Nick
becomes Gatsby’s confidante and eventually his lone defender. After the car
accident, as Gatsby’s grim fate begins to unravel, Nick talks with Gatsby and
intently listens to Gatsby’s actual life story. Nick even eats breakfast with
Gatsby and contemplates missing work because he “didn’t want to leave Gatsby.”
While Gatsby waits desperately for Daisy’s phone call, Nick calls Gatsby
several times from his job. By the novel’s end, Nick is the only one on
Gatsby’s side. At Gatsby’s funeral, Nick tells Gatsby’s father that they were
“close friends.” Nick’s devotion to Gatsby, a known swindler and criminal, is
inexplicable. Perhaps Nick hoped to be more than “close friends” with Gatsby.
While Nick’s loyalty
to Gatsby is never fully explained, Nick may be an unreliable narrator with
regard to how he describes his sexual identity and emotional desires. At the
beginning of the book, Daisy pesters Nick about rumors of his engagement to a
girl in the Midwest. Nick shrugs off the rumors by claiming that he moved to
New York to escape the rumors, an implausible explanation. Equally unusual is
Nick’s claim that he ends an affair with a woman in his office because of her
brother’s disapproval. Only later in the book when Nick commits to getting more
serious with Jordan does the reader discover that Nick has been writing
insincere love letters to a woman in the Midwest. Nick is suspiciously abrupt
about the women he sees to the point of questioning his allegiance to these
While Nick’s approval
wavers on at least one occasion, it is not enough to deter him from his
devotion to Gatsby. At the novel’s end, Nick tells Gatsby that he is “worth the
whole damn bunch together,” affirming Gatsby’s superiority to Tom, Daisy, and
their lot. In doing this, he privately admits to himself that he “disapproved”
of Gatsby “from beginning to end.” However, Tom Buchanan observes that Gatsby
throws “dust in his eyes” and in the eyes of Daisy to make them love Gatsby
despite their disapproval. Nick’s devotion to Gatsby until the end happens most
plausibly because he is in love with Gatsby. Symbolically, this is clear from
the beginning of the book. Upon leaving Daisy’s house and returning to his own
house, Nick sees Gatsby in his yard looking at a green light across the bay. Gatsby
strives to win Daisy’s affection as Nick strives to win Gatsby’s affection.
When Nick looks at the green light, Gatsby disappears, and Nick is “alone again
in the unquiet darkness,” the turmoil of his inner desires.
Who would enjoy reading this book?
If you are interested
in the tragedy of the pursuit of the “American dream” and tales of New York,
this book will interest you. If you are interested in differences between film
portrayals of novels, it is interesting to compare the many film versions of The Great Gatsby, namely the 1974 and
2013 productions. Both film versions omit the suggestively queer scenes with
Nick Carraway. An open embrace of Carraway as a queer character would better explain
his devotion to Gatsby on the big and small screen.
What is the connection between the author and the queer community?
Marcel Proust was born into an upper-middle-class existence in the Parisian suburb of Auteuil in 1871. Proust’s mother was of Jewish descent, and his father was a renowned doctor. While Proust grew up in Paris, he spent a lot of time in his family’s country home. With much anguish, he acknowledged his homosexuality, and he had an affair with composer and pianist Reynaldo Hahn. Violent asthma attacks prevented Proust from having a traditional professional life,but he did manage to infiltrate aristocratic social life and attend many parties with the elite. After his mother’s death and subsequent declining health, Proust retreated from public life and devoted himself almost entirely to writing. During this time, he wrote the manuscripts for the seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time. Sodom and Gomorrah was the last volume of In Search of Lost Time that was published before Proust died. Proust’s friend and acclaimed writer André Gide, who was also gay, disliked Sodom and Gomorrah because its depiction of homosexuality did not emphasize youth, beauty, and passion.
What is the plot of this book?
The seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time portray the relationships of the French elite in the early twentieth century. The main families of distinction include the Guermantes, the Verdurins, and the Cambremers. Sodom and Gomorrah is told from the point of view of an unnamed male narrator as he attends myriad parties and dinners in and around Paris and Balbec, a French coastal town. The story opens with the narrator waiting for the Duke and Duchess de Guermantes to arrive. As the narrator waits, he instead covertly observes a tryst between the duke’s brother, Monsieur de Charlus, and Jupien, a tailor. This encounter causes the narrator to reflect on the experience of being an “invert,” the outdated term for a queer person.
As the narrator continues to socialize with Charlus and many other characters throughout the novel, queer themes continue to emerge in the actions of Charlus and also in those of Albertine, the woman who the narrator loves. Despite ambivalence over Albertine’s lower social standing from the narrator’s family, the narrator continues to pursue a relationship with Albertine. Jealousy overwhelms the narrator as he repeatedly suspects Albertine of having same-sex desires. Albertine has a particularly close relationship with another woman named Andreé. Nevertheless, the narrator decides ultimately that he must marry Albertine.
addition to the queer themes, Proust also addresses anti-Semitism and the
passing of time. The narrative unravels as the Dreyfus Affair vexes France. Controversy
emerged when a French Jewish captain was accused of treasonously selling
military secrets to the Germans (Britannica). The captain’s Judaism gave rise
to anti-Semitism, and a backlash emerged when evidence came to light supporting
the captain’s innocence (Britannica). The Jewish characters and supporters of
the captain are outcasts in a similar way that the queer characters are
outcasts. As Proust had Jewish heritage, his empathy for otherness in religion
and sexuality is apparent. Moreover, the narrator’s grief over his
grandmother’s passing echoes the grief that Proust seemed to experience over
the passing of his mother. Proust devotes large sections of the text to the
memories of his grandmother that inundate him as he revisits a vacation spot in
Balbec and the phenomenon of remembering the deceased.
is named Sodom and Gomorrah in an
irreverent allusion to the Biblical story. In the story of Sodom of Gomorrah,
God destroys these two cities because of the inhabitants’ wickedness
(Britannica). Although this wickedness has traditionally been interpreted as
homosexuality, modern interpretations have identified the vice as inhospitality
(Britannica). Nevertheless, the narrator believes that the angels posted at the
gates of Sodom should have been Sodomites, or queer people. If the angels had
been Sodomites, they would have been able to determine who was lying about
their “vices.” Since this did not happen, Sodomites, especially those that
castigate others about their homosexuality, have thrived. This explanation is
an apparent criticism of policing sexual conduct among consenting adults.
How is this book queer?
The title Sodom and Gomorrah is a bold declaration of queerness, and the book
opens with a very queer scene. The narrator happens to observe the main queer
character Charlus initiate a sexual encounter with Jupien the tailor. Proust
juxtaposes the interaction between the birds, bees, and flowers in the background
with the flirtation between Charlus and Jupien. Proust compares Jupien with
flowers and female birds, and Proust compares Charlus with pollinators like
hummingbirds and bumblebees. In common parlance, “the birds and the bees” is an
expression for the natural act of sex between two consenting people. This
phrase usually refers to heterosexual sex, yet Proust extends this imagery to
gay sex. In doing so, Proust classifies gay sex as a very natural act, just as
heterosexual sex is.
While the opening scene normalizes
gay sex, the narrative perpetuates some outdated attitudes about queer men. Proust
equates male queerness with femininity, and he confuses sexual orientation with
gender identity. While true mutual love is rare among heterosexual people,
Proust believes that it is even rarer between queer men. He theorizes that most
queer men are effeminate, yet they seek masculine men as lovers. As a result,
he believes queer men must make concessions in order to find lovers. In other
words, he opines that queer men cannot afford to be choosy if they want to find
lovers. According to him, effeminate queer men will inevitably be lovers to
each other, even if they seek masculine lovers. Further, Proust even traces
queerness to “hermaphroditism,” an outdated term, in organisms that have both
sexual organs. In summation, Proust is completely incorrect on the science of
sexual orientation and gender identity.
the narrator characterizes Charlus as very effeminate, Charlus is the central,
commanding queer character in the novel. Indeed, in the first party scene
Charlus informs Vaugoubert, a closeted queer man, about “the inverts” in
attendance at the party. Vaugoubert is married to a masculine woman in what is
assumed to be a marriage without passion. This does not matter to Charlus, who
commands respect from fellow queer men. Similarly, at the party Charlus
exchanges knowing glances with another queer man, the Duke of Sidonia, but the
two men give each other distance. Proust, through the narrator, believes that
queer men, at least in this era in France, are either lovers or rivals.
queer men acting as either rivals or lovers, it is natural for love affairs to
extend beyond class divides. Charlus’s initial encounter with Jupien lasts
through the course of the novel, as Jupien becomes Charlus’s secretary and
later his accomplice. However, Charlus’s true love is Morel, a bisexual
violinist in the military band. Charlus becomes Morel’s patron and lover, and
the two manipulate each other into staying together. There is even a suggested
queer relationship that does not include Charlus. The Duc de Châtellerault,
a very minor character, meets the usher of the Princesse de Guermantes while he
goes incognito to the Champs-Élysées, and the two seem to bask in the romance of
Paris. The usher, of course, recognizes the Duc de Châtellerault
as he enters a party, and the latter is frightened his identity, and his
sexuality, will be revealed.
that Charlus executes are for more elaborate than that of the Duc de Châtellerault.
Charlus feigns disinterest in and even criticizes the beautiful adult sons of
his brother’s mistress, Madame de Surgis. In doing so, he engages Madame de
Surgis in defending her sons, which eventually allows him a path to introduce
himself and invite the sons to lunch. Similarly, Charlus lies to the narrator
about knowing Morel so that the narrator will facilitate an introduction
between the two men. For his part, Morel angles to replace Jupien as the
Charlus’s primary beneficiary. Indeed, Morel and Charlus have an impassioned
relationship that gives way to arguing when Charlus tries to control his
career. Charlus tries to convince Morel to adopt the artistic name of
“Charmel,” in recognition of Morel’s first name, Charlie, and the commitment to
his patron. Feeling stifled, Morel vehemently objects. To win back his
affection, Charlus tricks Morel into thinking that he will engage in a duel
with Morel’s military superiors, whom Charlus falsely claims have slandered
their relationship. Even more, Charlus, with the help of Jupien, secures
Morel’s complete fidelity when Charlus
convinces Morel that he is always being watched. One way or another, Charlus
will have his man to himself.
intensity of Charlus’s affection for men does not go unnoticed, and Charlus
does not attempt to contain his personality to appease a heteronormative
society. Charlus speaks openly about his interest in the homoerotic passages of
Balzac’s work. The narrator even interprets Charlus’s flamboyant expression of
his preference for strawberry juice over orangeade as a sign of Charlus’s
preference for the “stronger sex.” Charlus’s flamboyance arises in his daily
interactions, as he ogles masculine laborers and even makes conversation with
them. Charlus requests the service of a waiter named Aimé, whom is married to a woman and
whom the narrator recognizes as just the type of man that would appeal to
Charlus. When Charlus feels neglected by Aimé, he
writes a scathing letter to him decrying his insolence and castigating him for
possibly thinking that Charlus hoped for more than simply good customer service
from Aimé. A confused Aimé is nonetheless relieved to read
that Charlus does not maintain any bitterness against him. Charlus’s plans
unravel again when he requests the company of Madame de Chevregny’s masculine,
rustic footmen. Confused at his request, she sends her effeminate footmen to
Charlus. Naturally, Charlus is not at all interested in the effeminate footmen,
who may in fact be queer.
every character knows that Charlus is queer, even as Charlus never openly
acknowledges his sexuality or his relationship with Morel. Morel faces teasing
and jokes from his fellow soldiers, but he does not contend with bullying or
physical harassment. Perhaps because of his high social standing, Charlus is
spared any explicit ridicule. While some characters joke and gossip about his
sexuality, others even accept and support his relationship with Morel. Madame
Verdurin gives adjoining rooms to Charlus and Morel when they stay at her home,
and she assures them not to worry about making noise due to the “thickness of
Who would enjoy reading this book?
readers who enjoy the deliberate pace of novels from long ago will enjoy Sodom and Gomorrah. The novel contains
many characters and subplots that will keep the reader engaged despite the slow
pacing. Those who like to read about French culture will certainly enjoy the
novel’s portrayal of the social hierarchy. Sodom
and Gomorrah contains many long sentences, which will mean more upon
repeated reading. In fact, listening to the audiobook version and then reading
the text again would be an excellent method for experiencing the richness of
this book. Lastly, the theatricality of the seminal queer character Charlus
cannot be missed. Charlus reminds the reader of a character Oscar Wilde or
countless other queer authors of the last one hundred years would imagine.
Indeed Charlus is sly and scheming in his sexuality, and on the other hand
erudite and a lover of culture, as seen in the pageantry of his devotion to the
archangels Michael, Raphael, and Gabriel.
Britannica, The Editors of
Encyclopaedia. “Dreyfus Affair.” Encyclopædia
Although Edward Prime-Stevenson was born in New Jersey in
1858, upon moving to Europe as an adult he lied and stated his year of birth as
1868 (Gifford). Prime-Stevenson came from a wealthy, religious family
(Gifford). He studied law, but he spent his entire career writing, especially
fiction and music criticism for periodicals (Gifford). Many of his works of
fiction have homoerotic themes (Gifford).
In his 20’s, Prime-Stevenson fell in love with an heir to an
oil and railroad fortune, Harry Harkness Flagler (Gifford). While they shared a
love for music, theater, and literature, Flagler ended their friendship in 1893 (Gifford). To
Prime-Stevenson’s great sadness, Flagler married a woman a year later.
Prime-Stevenson never really recovered from losing his friend and crush
He used money inherited from his mother to immigrate to
Europe, where he could be more open with his sexuality (Gifford). The money
allowed Prime-Stevenson to travel frequently around Europe (Gifford). In Europe,
he studied homosexuality extensively (Gifford). Prime-Stevenson talked to a
number of medical professionals, and he visited many gay meeting places
(Gifford). In response to medical professionals conveying homosexuality as an
affliction, he published a very long non-fiction book called The Intersexes: A History of Simi-sexualism
as a Problem in Social Life (1908), based on knowledge acquired from his
conversations with noted Viennese sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing (Gifford).
Imre: A Memorandum was the fictional
counterpart to his longer work of non-fiction (Gifford). He only initially
published 125 copies of Imre: A
Memorandum under the name Xavier Mayne (Gifford). However, by 1913 he
published a book of short stories with overt gay themes under his own name in
Prime-Stevenson was a bold writer, and a proud champion of
queer masculinity. Through climbing mountains and going to gymnasiums, among
other activities, he maintained a fit physique (Gifford). Perhaps like his
protagonist Imre, Prime-Stevenson is a symbol of gay virility (Gifford).
What is the plot of this book?
Imre: A Memorandum
takes place in Budapest, Hungary. Like the main characters in the story, even
the city of Budapest is masked. Prime-Stevenson calls Budapest
Szent-Istvanhely, after the patron saint of Hungary (Gifford). In the gay
cruising area of this city, Oswald, a British man who is “past thirty,”
approaches the twenty-five-year-old Hungarian military officer Imre in a café.
In fact, a man before his time, Oswald carries with him his iced coffee to
Imre is a conflicted man in many
respects. He enjoys the arts and music, but his father forced him into a
military career. As the son of a Transylvanian family of high regard, military
service is a family tradition. Imre excels at being a military officer despite the
dissatisfaction and depression that his career inflicts upon him. Oswald is in
Hungary to learn the Hungarian language, with time and money not seeming to be
As Oswald and Imre talk, Oswald
notices that many soldiers approach Imre to greet him warmly. Imre’s reserved
response to these soldiers stands out to Oswald. One soldier even criticizes
Imre for not writing back to him. Imre explains to Oswald that he hates writing
letters. He further explains that he has many acquaintances but few true
friends. Imre laments the loss of one close friend named Hermes Karvaly, an
officer friend who gets married and is called to go to China. As the
conversation unfolds, Oswald and the readers understand the meaning of the
memorandum in the title as a “guidebook of Imre’s emotional topography.”
Oswald and Imre’s friendship
blossoms, and the two meet each other frequently, talking at length on various
subjects. They talk about art, literature, politics, current events, and more.
Their “inexhaustible curiosity about each other” exists “in friendship as in
love,” as readers contemplate the nature of the love between the two men. Imre
even invites Oswald to his parents’ home on multiple occasions. Nevertheless,
in public the two are more cautious about their meetings. They meet in quiet
cafes, away from the military officer crowd. In addition, they even lie to
others about not having seen each other for several years.
As Oswald observes Imre’s
standoffish behavior toward his male friends and his indifference toward women,
he wonders if Imre is gay. Imre and Oswald even talk about homosexuality as a
curiosity, a strange phenomenon. After this conversation, Oswald concludes that Imre is not gay.
When Oswald is called back to
England for a long period, his departure from Imre causes him great sadness.
Oswald becomes angry when Imre shows “indifference” and “nonchalance” over his
departure. Ever the stoic, Imre has inured himself to disappointment and loss
as a self-defense.
The conflict deepens as Oswald
tells Imre to “be a man” and endure his military service career despite Imre’s
misgivings and unhappiness. Anguish over departing clearly imbues the scene. Imre
states his discomfort with Oswald’s loving words and romantic sorrow for their
separation. Even as Imre says these words, he holds Oswald’s hand and
acknowledges that Oswald knows the real Imre.
Imre’s tenderness inspires Oswald to tell his story. Oswald recounts his close friendships with other boys as a youth. One boy whom Oswald really loves returns his affection, but the boy tragically dies from an epidemic. As a young man Oswald sees an American doctor who advises him that he can be cured of his homosexuality if he simply marries a woman and avoids “introspection, idealism, and the sedentary life.” Taking his advice, Oswald gets engaged to a woman who is very committed to him. The engagement unravels when Oswald quickly falls in love with a straight man whom he meets at a party. Although Oswald abandons any hope of a relationship, he eventually reveals his homosexuality to the man, whom he considers a friend. The man is disgusted and rejects Oswald’s friendship.
Despite this painful encounter,
Oswald realizes that he does not need a cure, and he ends the engagement. As
rumors about the end of the engagement emerge, Oswald flees to Europe, where he
talks to several specialists about homosexuality. Through his studies, he
realizes that not only are queer men not diseased, they are also not
necessarily weak or feminine. All types of people—good and bad—are part of this
“Race-Homosexual,” just as straight people can be both good and bad. Oswald’s
newfound confidence allows him to have passing friendships with many queer men
he meets in his travels, including an English officer, an Austrian architect,
an Italian painter, and a Polish doctor.
At the end of this story, Oswald
boldly proclaims his love for Imre. In his reserved manner, Imre assures Oswald
that they are still friends and that his words do not change Imre’s feelings
toward him. Still, Imre makes Oswald promise that they will never talk about Oswald’s
feelings again. The men then quietly return to Oswald’s hotel. Imre keeps his
arm in Oswald’s arm for the entire walk back to the hotel. At the hotel, Oswald
receives a telegram that he is no longer needed in England. They both rejoice.
The next day, Imre is suddenly
called to the military camp, where he writes several letters to Oswald. Oswald
observes that Imre’s behavior is unusual, as he previously stated that he hated
writing letters to friends. Imre assures Oswald that he very much enjoys
writing to Oswald. Imre eventually returns from the camp with his hands
outstretched to Oswald, and Imre kisses Oswald’s cheek.
Oswald tries to maintain a
platonic friendship with Imre, but he cannot deny that he is attracted to Imre.
He apologizes to Imre for his desire, but Imre tells Oswald that he need not
apologize. Imre finally comes out to Oswald, and he acknowledges that he has
been gay all his life.
Imre tells Oswald that he had
never been effeminate, but he had had many intense boy friendships, like Oswald
had. Imre did not have to endure the “religious and ethical misconceptions” in
“Anglo-Saxon civilization” or the “British” and “Yankee” “social hypocrisy” of
homosexuality. Nevertheless, he suffered from homophobia in society, and he
even contemplated suicide on two separate occasions.
Imre explains that his friendship
with Karvaly was an ill-fated attraction. Imre knew that Karvaly was not queer,
despite his attraction to him. Nevertheless, Imre asks Karvaly about his
opinion of homosexuality, and Karvaly tells him his unfiltered opinion. Karvaly
tells Imre that he would recommend suicide if Imre told him he was gay.
Disappointed with Karvaly’s
reaction, Imre learns to be removed from male friends and to avoid suspicion of
homosexuality. To elude this suspicion, Imre cultivates a reputation as a
“Lothario” and womanizer, even as he actually lives a chaste, lonely life.
Imre’s fear of being outed and his self-destructive impulse of martyrdom
explain why he waits so long to confess his love for Oswald after Oswald
professes his love for him. The novel ends happily as the two men make a
commitment to each other that will seem to endure through the adversity of
How is this book queer?
As a tale of introspection, love, and identity, the entire
story is gay. Still, certain key moments stand out for their gayness. Most
superficially, appreciation of male beauty abounds. Upon meeting Imre, Oswald
immediately notices his “seductive” quality and that he is “of no ordinary
beauty.” Later, Imre compares Karvaly to a beautiful Greek statue. However, Prime-Stevenson
depicts the beauty of male intimacy as well. The time that Oswald and Imre
spend together is the most “important matter of each day.” Their “inseparable
sort of partnership” from the very beginning is so strong that Oswald even
visits the home of Imre’s parents.
Masculinity is a significant part of this beauty. Imre is an
exquisite gymnast and swimmer, and Oswald has never witnessed such “elasticity
and dignity.” Imre’s appeal is traditionally masculine in many ways. He abhors
jewelry, and he does not mingle with musicians or “theaterfolk in general.”
Observing Imre, Oswald deduces that gay men are not necessarily any more
feminine or masculine than straight men. After all, gay men, like straight men,
work in various fields, including politics, sciences, and the military.
As Imre asserts his masculinity, he shies from femininity,
equating it with weakness. To mask his sexual orientation, he carefully
constructs a persona of a womanizer. In addition, to demonstrate his discomfort
with male intimacy, he complains about a male friend who is “so hideously
womanish” that he kisses him. When Oswald initially jokes about same-sex
attraction, Imre proclaims that there is nothing “womanish” or “abnormal” about
him. By the end of the novel, when Imre finally concedes his homosexuality, he
equates his own weakness with that of “the woman” who “says ‘no’ when she means
‘yes.’” Clearly, to Imre, women have a weak will.
The misogyny that Imre espouses is inextricably conjoined to
the homophobia of the time, as these two prejudices frequently are
interconnected. Both Oswald and Imre, closeted gay men, perpetuate homophobia
as they attempt to make sense of the world around them. As he gets to know him,
Oswald wonders if Imre is “Uranian,” the term formerly used to describe gay
people. Imre initially firmly rejects even the suspicion of anyone in the
military identifying as gay; overt gayness automatically disqualifies one from
military service. When Oswald and Imre first talk about the subject of
homosexuality, Oswald stumbles over his words, stating that it would be “better
not to try to understand” it while also claiming not to express disapproval.
Avoiding an understanding is indeed an expression of disapproval; Oswald avoids
an understanding of his own true desires. Even worse, Imre tells Oswald about
ending a friendship with a “particular brand of fool” who got caught making
love to a cadet. Clearly, the journey that Imre and Oswald take together from
their initial homophobic utterances to their eventual self-acceptance is
Equally stunning is that Imre and Oswald even find each
other. At different points in the novel both men seem resigned to the fact that
they will never be in a loving relationship with a man. Imre understands that
“the world thinks as it thinks now” with little hope for change or acceptance
of gay love. In contrast, Oswald even doubts that he could privately find love.
He imagines his “life alone, year after year.” Oswald faces a backlash when he
privately comes out to a close straight friend. Upon attempting to do so, the
friend yells that they are “strangers.” Oswald resigns to being “content with
tranquility, pleasant friendships.”
Given the high stakes, coming out and the very publication
of his book were huge risks in 1906. The novel frequently compares coming out
to a dramatic unmasking. The titles of the three sections of the novel are
“Masks,” “Masks and—A Face,” and “Faces—Hearts—Souls.” Indeed, Oswald
understands “perfectly that a man must wear the mask” and stay in the closet
for his own self-preservation. Privately, Oswald makes the journey to
self-acceptance with an acknowledgment that some of the greatest minds belonged
to gay men. Prime-Stevenson claims many notable men as part of the queer
community: noted poet Abu-Nawas, Michelangelo, William Shakespeare, Christopher
Marlowe, King Ludwig, Lord Byron, Walt Whitman, and Ludwig van Beethoven, among
The necessity to stay closeted makes Imre and Oswald’s
eventual coming out to each other very powerful and understandably tentative.
After Oswald comes out to Imre and even confesses his love for him, Imre
cautiously says, “We are what we are!” It is a begrudging acceptance of Oswald,
not an expected embrace. Oswald proclaims that he “will go to the other end of
the world” to escape Imre after he fears that his desires have ruined his
friendship, echoing a concern that many queer men still face as they come out
to other men. Imre later explains that his survival instinct had instilled in
him a commitment to “bear anything alone—alone—yes.” To maintain his
acceptability among his male peers, Imre becomes a “friend of everybody in
general who is the friend of nobody in particular.” To coexist with male peers,
queer men and boys still adopt this strategy of detachment and blandness to
avoid offending straight men. Fortunately, Imre manages to overcome this
mindset to realize his love for Oswald.
Who would enjoy reading this book?
Those inclined to an introspective look at gay male identity
will enjoy this book. There is a romance in this novel, but it is not the
focus. The memorandum subtitle refers to the deep reflection on the characters’
places in the world. Because Imre and Oswald are so cautious with the
expression of their identity and sexuality, one does not immediately understand
the characters. The reader must rely on clues along the way to make sense of
interactions. In this sense, the novel almost progresses like a mystery novel.
Who are Imre and Oswald? By the second half of the novel, readers understand
who they really are. To the modern reader, the last half of the novel may drag
on a little too long. Nevertheless, this slow progression affirms the caution
and apprehension around coming out in the early twentieth century. This is a
beautiful tale of self-discovery during a time when self-discovery was
virtually impossible for gay men. If schools are serious about diversity and
inclusion, all students should read a book like Imre: A Memorandum to understand the pain and joy of coming out as
a young person. While the novel ends happily, one wonders what will happen to
the lovers as they pursue a secret relationship. That would be the topic of a
Prime-Stevenson, Edward. Imre: A Memorandum. Edited by James J.
Gifford, Broadview Literary Texts, 2003.
The noted British writer E. M.
Forster came of age during the turn of the twentieth century, and he lived
until 1970. At the age of sixteen, the trial and conviction of Oscar Wilde for
his homosexuality left an indelible mark on Forster’s ambitions as a writer.
The trial motivated Forster, who was also gay, to avoid discussion of queerness
in his work. Indeed, his most celebrated works, such as A Passage to India, portray heterosexual characters. Forster
managed to publish novels with traditional themes until 1924, when he could no
longer bear to write only about heterosexual people. For the last thirty-seven
years of his life, he only published essays.
A year after his death, Forster’s
friend, famous gay writer Christopher Isherwood, published Maurice, a novel
with queer characters that he originally drafted in 1914. The book was inspired
by queer encounter upon a visit to gay poet Edward Carpenter, when his lover
George Merrill touched Forster’s backside. Despite Isherwood’s pleas, Forster
never published the book during his life because he believed that society would
roundly reject it for its queer subject matter. Forster even wondered whether
the novel was moving prose or just salacious trash.
What is the plot of this book?
Maurice opens with the titular
character, Maurice Hall, as a young teenager learning about human sexuality
from his reserved, British teacher Mr. Ducie. After Mr. Ducie provides a very
heteronormative explanation of sex, he expects a lot of questions from Maurice.
However, Maurice does not have any questions, foreshadowing his bewilderment
with the heterosexual norms imposed on him.
comes of age in turn of the century London. He comes from a privileged suburban
background, but he is not nearly as posh as the real British aristocracy.
Nevertheless, he still goes to elite schools, including Cambridge for
his privileged status in society, Maurice is very average in many ways. He is
not the smartest or most cultured man. He develops into a fairly attractive
man, but he is by no means a heartthrob. His family knows what they want him to
be. From a very early age, Maurice understands that he will go to Cambridge,
get a job as a stockbroker, and settle down with a wife and children.
course, that plan does not completely come to fruition. The undoing begins when
Maurice becomes fascinated with a flamboyant character named Risley at
Cambridge. When Maurice calls upon Risley at his dormitory, instead he finds
Clive Durham. Clive and Maurice become close friends, even as flirtation
lingers in the background of their friendship. Their friendship is further
solidified when Clive confides in Maurice about the difficulty of telling his
mother that he is not a Christian.
awkward fashion, Maurice and Clive reveal that they love each other. Maurice
initially tells Clive about a crush on a girl that arises during a school
break, and Clive is disappointed. Maurice slowly realizes that the crush is not
real. Their friendship progresses, and they casually caress and stroke each
other’s hair. Clive summons the courage to tell Maurice that he loves him, and
Maurice reacts in horror. Clive, in turn, reacts with embarrassment, and the
two try to forget the whole incident. Maurice eventually admits to himself that
he is only attracted to men, and more specifically to Clive. After some
frustration and social awkwardness, he tells Clive that he loves him.
In the throes of love, Maurice and Clive skip school to go on a country romp. They both flagrantly flout authority, yet only Maurice receives punishment. Unlike Maurice, Clive comes from a very aristocratic family. Clive is also very intelligent, and many anticipate a political career for him. The school officials take note with wariness of the extremely close friendship between Clive and Maurice. As a result, Maurice is expelled until he apologizes to the dean. Obstinate Maurice refuses to apologize, but Maurice still manages to become a successful stockbroker.
Maurice and Clive are separated they still manage to continue their romance.
Maurice visits Penge, the Durham family estate, and Clive and Maurice nest in a
secluded wing of the estate. The happiness is too good to be true. Mrs. Durham
reveals that Clive must marry to inherit the family estate. For the next two
years, Clive and Maurice maintain a discreet relationship with each other. Maurice
spends every Wednesday and his weekends at Clive’s flat in London.
dinner one evening at the Hall residence, Clive becomes ill and faints.
Maurice’s surreptitious kiss does not revive him. To add insult to injury,
Clive tells Maurice that he prefers the nurse to restore him to good health,
even as Maurice loyally cares for him. Clive’s health eventually improves to
some degree, but he goes to Greece to fully recover.
Clive writes Maurice from Greece to tell him that he is no longer queer. Clive
believes that his illness causes the epiphany. During his illness, he notices his
nurse’s charm and beauty. Clive believes that he simply experiences a natural,
physical change in his sexuality. A disbelieving Maurice tries to convince
Clive that he is queer, to no avail.
Maurice manages to sustain a friendship with Clive, as Clive wants to stay
friends. Clive gets married to a woman named Anne Woods, whom he meets in
Greece, and the three miraculously live in harmony. Clive and Maurice espouse
similar political views, and Maurice visits Penge regularly. Clive has now
become a successful lawyer, and he seems close to attaining a higher office.
anguish over his queer desires, Maurice decides to visit a doctor to try to vanquish
his homosexuality. Maurice’s visit to close family friend Dr. Barry is a
disaster. Dr. Barry says Maurice’s desires are “rubbish,” and he advises
Maurice to avoid the “temptation from the devil.”
Maurice’s visit to a hypnotist, Mr. Lasker Jones, goes more smoothly. Lasker Jones diagnoses Maurice with “congenital homosexuality.” Maurice consents to treatment, and he follows Lasker Jones’s advice. Lasker Jones advises Maurice to stay at Penge with Clive and Anne, but this stay thwarts the treatment efforts. When Maurice returns to Penge, the gamekeeper Alec Scudder becomes the object of his affection.
Maurice is initially very rude to Alec, Maurice warms to him. One night, Maurice
sleepwalks to the window of his bedroom and cries out “Come!” Repairmen who
were repairing the tiles on the roof had left a ladder resting against the
windowsill of Maurice’s room. Conveniently, after Maurice cries out, Alec
climbs up the ladder and whispers, “Sir, was you calling out for me? … Sir, I
know … I know.” They talk in low whispers, and they sleep in each other’s arms.
cricket game the next day, Maurice becomes ill and abruptly leaves Penge. Alec
sends telegrams and letters to summon him back to Penge, and more specifically
the boathouse at Penge. Maurice longs for Alec, but fears that Alec is trying
to blackmail him. Meanwhile, Maurice gives up his treatment with Mr. Lasker
Jones. Lasker Jones tells Maurice that he is subconsciously resisting hypnosis,
and they both agree that Maurice is unavoidably gay.
persistently avoids Alec’s messages, but the two eventually meet at the British
Museum when Alec threatens blackmail. The threat is a bluff, and the two
profess their love for each other. Maurice cancels an important social
engagement, and they spend the night together.
long planned to move to Argentina, and Maurice implores him to stay in England.
Alec does not believe that they can reasonably maintain their relationship
without ruining their lives. Maurice tries to say farewell to Alec, but he
discovers that Alec never boards the ship for Argentina. Returning to the
boathouse at Penge, Maurice discovers Alec. The two pledge their commitment to
each other. The book ends with Maurice proudly telling Clive about his
commitment to Alec.
How is this book queer?
Forster makes it clear from the beginning that Maurice is gay. In the opening scene when Mr. Ducie tries to explain sex to Maurice, Maurice only replies that he does not think he will marry. He perhaps says this because gay men did not marry in that era. Nevertheless, Maurice cries when George the garden boy leaves his home abruptly; he later dreams of a naked George playing football.
At Sunnington College, the all-boys prep school that he attends before Cambridge, Maurice even surreptitiously flirts with boys: “He dared not be kind–it was not the thing–still less to express his admiration in words. And the adored one would shake him off before long, and reduce him to sulks.” At the end of the novel, Maurice sees Mr. Ducie again in the British Museum when he is with Alec. Maurice rests his hands on Alec’s neck, but Mr. Ducie does not notice. Maurice is finally comfortable with his sexuality, even as a cluelessly heterosexual Mr. Ducie observes him.
queerness of Maurice and Clive truly blossoms at Cambridge. In their
translation class, Clive and Maurice hear the dean say, “Omit: a reference to
the unspeakable vice of the Greeks,” in reference to gay love in the text.
While this comment piques the interest of Clive and Maurice, it also explains
how positive portrayals of queerness have been erased from history and perhaps
even religion. Rightfully so, Clive is incensed over the dean’s omission: “… to
omit it is to omit the mainstay of Athenian society.” Maurice is relieved that
homosexuality can even be discussed in public, and Clive recommends for him to
read The Symposium.
evolution of Clive and Maurice progresses in surprising ways, as Clive
ultimately rejects his own queerness and Maurice embraces his own
homosexuality. The reader wonders if Clive is a repressed queer man or if his
queerness mysteriously vanishes. The evidence suggests that Clive is closeted
and repressed, but the truth is never revealed. As a boy, Clive struggles with
an attraction to men and also wanting to be part of his family’s tradition of
wealth and dominance. Even as a boy, he tries to find a Biblical justification
for homosexuality: “He wished Christianity would compromise with him a little
and searched the Scriptures for support. There was David and Jonathan; there
was even the ‘the disciple that Jesus loved. But the Church’s interpretation
was against him.’” This struggle portends Clive’s eventual submission to money
has an unusual marriage to Anne, and it seems fraudulent: “He never saw her
naked, nor she him. They ignored the reproductive and the digestive functions.”
Perhaps this sort of relationship was typical for the era, but one wonders why
Forster emphasizes this dynamic. Moreover, Clive’s homophobia intensifies,
perhaps as a sign of his repression. Clive is positively disgusted as he tries
to break up with Maurice: “The horror of masculinity had returned, and he
wondered what would happen if Maurice tried to embrace him.” Only when Maurice
ceases to threaten his sexuality does Clive let down his guard. Clive is
overcome with emotion and gently kisses Maurice’s hand when Maurice lies about
getting engaged to a woman: “Dare he borrow a gesture from the past?” Clive
returns to his homophobia when Maurice reveals his love for Alec: “Clive sprang
up with a whimper of disgust. He wanted to smite the monster, and flee …”
Clive’s homophobia is in stark contrast to his initial feelings for Maurice. Clive and Maurice skip class to enjoy nature, in a beautiful description of love in its infancy: “All this last part of the day was perfect. The train, for some unknown reason, was full, and they sat close together, talking quietly under the hubbub, and smiling.” Frustrated by the heterosexism in society, Clive fumes about Maurice’s punishment for skipping: “If a woman had been in that side-car, if then he had refused to stop at the Dean’s bidding, would Dr. Barry have required an apology from him? Surely not.”
Nevertheless, for a while, Clive perseveres with his love affair with Maurice. When Maurice visits Clive at Penge, Clive arranges for them to have their own secluded wing of the country estate. The necessity for the seclusion revives Clive’s frustration with the heterosexist status quo: “‘It served my mother right when I slipped up to kiss you before dinner. She would have no mercy if she knew, she wouldn’t attempt, wouldn’t want to attempt to understand that I feel to you as Pippa to her fiancé, only far more nobly, far more deeply, body and soul, no starved medievalism of course, only a—a particular harmony of body and soul that I don’t think women have even guessed. But you know.’” The comment reveals Clive’s misogyny, and Maurice also possesses his own brand of misogyny, as seen through his poor treatment toward his sisters. However, Forster rightly notes the frequent equality in same-sex love that is often missing in heterosexual love: “He educated Maurice, or rather his spirit, for they themselves became equal. Neither thought “Am I led; am I leading?” Love had caught him out of triviality and Maurice out of bewilderment in order that two imperfect souls might touch perfection.” They forge a deep love that continues through the foulness of sickness. When Clive becomes ill, Maurice lovingly cares for him: “Maurice lifted him out of bed and put him on the night stool. When relief had come he lifted him back.” Yuck.
Maurice is a broken man when Clive abruptly terminates their relationship. As
desperate times lead to desperate measures, Maurice is ashamed at his lust for
Dr. Barry’s nephew, who is far too young for Maurice. An embarrassing and
suggestive encounter with an older man leads Maurice to seek treatment. Maurice
flirts with an old man in a train, and the man smiles back. Chaos ensues when
Maurice plays too rough and knocks the man down, giving the man a bloody nose:
“He sputtered apologies, offered money. Maurice stood over him, black-browed,
and saw in this disgusting and dishonourable old age his own.”
to get rid of his homosexuality, Maurice decides to see a doctor to get rid of
his homosexuality: “He might ‘keep away from young men,’ as he had naively
resolved, but he could not keep away from their images, and hourly committed
sin in his heart.” Maurice does not know if any doctors actually treat
homosexuality, or if he can even trust any doctors. Maurice’s feelings echo the
feelings of many queer people even to this day, as queer people strive to find
care that affirms their identities. Indeed Dr. Barry’s reaction to Maurice’s
confession is what queer people fear most: “‘The worst thing I could do for you
is to discuss it.’” Maurice reasonably responds that he wants advice: “It’s not
rubbish to me, but my life.” Forster notes that Dr. Barry is typically clueless
about caring for queer people, as were virtually all British doctors in that
era: “Dr. Barry had given the best advice he could. He had read no scientific
works on Maurice’s subject. None had existed when he walked the hospitals, any
published since were in German, and therefore suspect.” Sadly, Maurice had
always trusted Dr. Barry, and he wonders if his own sexuality “might not be
rubbish, though every fibre in him protested.”
Maurice seeks a second medical opinion, which turns out to be slightly less
flawed. The hypnosis of Mr. Lasker Jones ultimately fails, and Mr. Lasker Jones
tells Maurice to live in a country such as France or Italy where homosexuality
is not a crime. Mr. Lasker Jones doubts that England will ever accept
homosexuality as England “has always been disinclined to accept human nature.”
Forster’s critique of England cannot be missed. Through Mr. Lasker Jones’s
care, Maurice accepts that there have always been people like him, that there
always will be, and that queer people have been and continue to be persecuted.
This is a feeling queer people continue to realize even today. Disappointingly,
Mr. Lasker Jones is not the queer ally that the reader hopes him to be: “The
doctor wanted to get on to his next patient, and he did not care for Maurice’s
type. He was not shocked like Dr. Barry, but he was bored, and never thought of
the young invert again.”
Maurice concludes with the happy
romance between Alec and Maurice that transcends class. The bond between Alec
and Maurice overcomes their class difference, as Alec belongs to a lower class.
Indeed, Clive tells Maurice that Alec is smart, but “you can’t expect our
standard of honesty in servants, any more than you can expect loyalty or
gratitude.” Forster emphasizes Maurice’s classist attitudes, as Maurice jokes
about the poor and works in a profession that prioritizes wealth preservation. Maurice’s
immediate distrust of Alec is revealing, as he assumes that Alec only wants to
be intimate in order to blackmail Maurice. Regardless, the coming together of
Alec and Maurice in front of an Assyrian bull sculpture in the British Museum
reinforces that the men inescapably belong to a rigid class system within an
is also an obstacle to the romance between Alec and Maurice. From afar, Maurice
first sees handsome Alec flirting with two maids, and a “pang of envy” arises
in him. Alec later says that Maurice in that moment had looked at him with
anger and gentleness. Alec believes that Maurice does not respond to his
letters out of jealousy. The reader wonders whether Alec is actually bisexual:
“It was before you came. It is natural to want a girl, you cannot go against
human nature.” Is it natural for everyone? This is a curious comment that would
benefit from further explanation, as Maurice survives the novel as an
increasingly balanced man who is only attracted to other men.
Who would enjoy reading this book?
If you enjoy
beautiful writing and a happy ending, Maurice will not disappoint you.
Indeed, this is a good–almost great–book. Maurice addresses male queerness
with great sensitivity, acknowledging a range of experiences. Forster portrays
the misogyny that was pervasive during that era, even among queer men. In
addition, the author imagines both class tension and class deconstruction
between queer men. Queerness takes different forms in the characters of gay
Risley, gay Maurice, ostensibly bisexual Alec, and questioning Clive. The novel
could be even better if it discussed with more depth the sexual identities of
these characters, with the possible exception of Maurice. Admittedly, the work
is refreshingly candid given the moral propriety of the era, but a modern
reader yearns for more.
E. M. Maurice. London: Hodder &
Stoughton, 2011. Digital.
Symondson, Kate. “E M Forster’s
Gay Fiction.” The British Library, The British Library, 4 May
What is the connection between the author and the queer community?
There is perhaps no clear connection between the author and the queer community. Like so many authors of this period, it is difficult to know the nature of their sexual orientations, as people did not talk openly about attraction outside of a heteronormative context. We do know that Alan Dale was a pseudonym for Alfred J. Cohen (“Alfred J. Cohen”). The author was born in Britain, but he moved to New York and became a theater critic and novelist (“Alfred J. Cohen”).
What is the plot of this book?
Elsie Bouverie, the main character of the book, is an upper class woman in London who is an outsider. According to her narration, she appears not to conform as strictly to the norms of women in her milieu. Elsie derides the open expression of emotions and affection that afflicts the newly-weds of her age. One might even characterize Elsie as rebellious in her prudery. Nevertheless, she does desire to marry.
To Elsie, Arthur Ravener is unique, despite his bad reputation and constant presence around Captain Dillington. Elsie appreciates that she can have a genuine conversation with Arthur without him flirting with her. Ironically, in the absence of flirtations, Elsie falls in love with Arthur, even though Elsie despises Arthur’s close friend Captain Dillington. Although Arthur readily agrees with Elsie’s standoffishness, he notices her romantic glances, and he asks Elsie to marry him. Arthur convinces Elsie to forego a honeymoon because he claims that honeymoons are out of style. However, Elsie cannot bear Arthur absconding to London on their wedding night, leaving her confused and alone at home.
The wedding night escape is not a singular event. Time and again, Arthur is away from home for long stretches. When Arthur is at home Captain Dillington is regularly with him, to Elsie’s chagrin. Arthur rebuffs Elsie’s advances and desire for intimacy, and Elsie becomes frustrated and despondent. Arthur notices Elsie’s discontent, and the two have a heart-to-heart talk, not before arguing extensively. Both wonder if their marriage was a mistake. While Arthur states his fondness for Elsie, he understood that their marriage would only consist of pleasant conversation. Elsie needs more out of her marriage.
Elsie resorts to seeking the advice of her aloof, pretentious mother, with whom she has a distant relationship. After Elsie describes her husband’s inattentiveness and frequent absences, her mother is convinced that Arthur is having an affair with another woman. Elsie’s mother refers her to a private detective, and Elsie enlists his services. Impatient to hear the private detective’s findings, Elsie breaks into Arthur’s locked private study in their home. Once in the study, she finds a payment for rent on a house in London.
Barreling through her grief and fury, Elsie breaks into the London house to confront Arthur and his alleged mistress. Elsie is not surprised to find Arthur with Captain Dillington inside the house, as she had suspected Dillington of arranging Arthur’s meetings with his mistress. Elsie’s fears about Dillington are confirmed when she finds him with Arthur in the house.
After Elsie’s discovery, Arthur falls very ill. Captain Dillington attempts to visit him, but Elsie turns him away. Miraculously, the relationship between Arthur and Elsie improves dramatically, and they are suddenly a loving couple. With hopes high, Elsie goes with Arthur to New York for a vacation. One day, as they pass a hotel, Arthur pauses curiously, but Elsie dismisses this hesitation. Later, Arthur feels ill and stays in the hotel while Elsie goes to the opera with some friends. Upon her return to the hotel, Arthur is gone.
Through dogged detective work, Elsie discovers that Arthur has boarded a ship back to England with Captain Dillington, whom she believes Arthur saw as he paused by the hotel. Despite Elsie’s attempt to find Arthur and save him from Dillington’s influence, she eventually relents. Realizing that her marriage is probably irreparable, Elsie gives up looking for Arthur and goes into seclusion. After some time has passed, Elsie discovers that Dillington is embroiled in a scandal in Paris. She goes to Paris and locates his hotel room. Elsie discovers that Dillington has been arrested and Arthur has killed himself in the hotel room. Before leaving the hotel room, she finds photographs of Dillington and Arthur and destroys them.
How is this book queer?
Unlike many novels in the Queer Male Canon Project, this novel is told from the perspective of a woman. This may seem like a novel conceit, except that it leaves the main queer characters nearly voiceless. Equally disappointing is the desperation of Elsie as a heartbroken wife. Taken together, the book implicitly serves as a testimonial for marriage equality so that queer men can love and women can be spared from marriages based upon lies.
The character of Elsie is problematic because she elicits both empathy and frustration from the reader. Is Elsie simply an awkward, isolated, and foolish young lady, or is she also a calculating, unreliable narrator who portrays herself as a victim? Does Elsie marry Arthur knowing that he was queer in order to sabotage her own happiness or to rebel against her pretentious mother? The reader never really discovers the answers to these questions, but there are clues.
Elsie is attracted to Arthur because he is different. They are both introverts, and they share a disdain for social functions and customs. However, Arthur’s peers return the hatred, seemingly because of his close relationship with Dillington. From the beginning, there are suggestions of a queer relationship and the peers’ homophobia. Elsie misses the subtlety, and she actually admires the close friendship. However, does she miss the subtlety? Before they are even married Elsie says, “I had already seen them often together, and I knew Arthur Ravener was a different man when removed from his friend.”
The details of the wedding and honeymoon should have given Elsie pause. Arthur rushes the wedding and cancels the honeymoon. Before the cancellation, Elsie had jokingly wondered what Dillington would do during their honeymoon. Does Elsie use humor to deny the truth? Indeed, Arthur spends the night of the honeymoon with Dillington instead of Elsie. This must alarm her, yet Elsie retreats into denial.
Arthur’s lack of affection toward Elsie manifests itself physically. Right after the wedding, Arthur “could not have looked more hopelessly subdued if he had been sitting in a funeral coach, and going to bury a friend.” Elsie demands a kiss from Arthur as he leaves the house, but he kisses her “so coldly and undemonstratively” that she feels surprised and even “chilled.” Elsie must know that this is not normal behavior for spouses.
Nevertheless, Arthur is not cruel, nor does he exactly lie. Arthur takes constitutionals with Elsie, and he maintains pleasant conversations with her during meals. Elsie tries to make Arthur jealous by hosting another man at their home, but Arthur politely engages the man in chatter. Sensing her frustration, Arthur tries to provide a sensible explanation, without outing himself. Arthur tells Elsie that he thought he would never marry, claiming “that women were too exacting.” He even tells Elsie the truth: “I came to the conclusion that you were unlike other girls—that we would live quietly and happily together as friends—you going your way and I going mine.” Arthur believed that Elsie was serious when she claimed that she “would be satisfied with quiet friendship instead of impetuous passion.” Since Arthur is not cruel or abusive and he is surprisingly candid about his emotions, it would be very reasonable for Elsie to consider Arthur’s intense feelings for Dillington as she ponders his aloofness toward her.
Clearly, Elsie is very daft or very much in denial. The reader nonetheless feels sad for Elsie as she overhears two men talking on the train about the rumors of Arthur’s relationship with Dillington. The men quite reasonably theorize that Arthur married a foolish girl simply to quiet the rumors, and that he surreptitiously continues his relationship with Dillington. Even after hearing this, Elsie still does not understand, or at least she claims ignorance. As time and again, she finds Arthur with Dillington, she only perceives that the latter has some unknown evil influence over the former. Her confusion continues even when she discovers Arthur’s secret house with Dillington and when Arthur and Dillington run off together on a ship from New York to England. Only then does she begin to worry simply that another woman may not be the source of the mysterious iniquity.
Why does not Arthur tell Elsie about his relationship with Dillington? Why does not Elsie give up on her marriage? The answer to both questions is that Elsie was on a mission to “save” Arthur, and Arthur knew this. Elsie commits herself to separating Arthur and Dillington: “It was only by removing him from this man, whom I felt to be his evil genius, that I could have hoped to win my husband.”
Even at the end of the novel, Elsie remains possessive of her husband: “He was mine, and I would cherish him forever.” Only at the very end of the book is Elsie suddenly “repulsed” to see photographs of Dillington and Arthur in the same frame. She smashes the frame, tears the photographs, and throws the fragments out the window, her hands bleeding profusely from broken glass. She then leaves the hotel room, without another look at Arthur’s dead body. Elsie becomes a villain because she cannot bear Dillington and Arthur being together once again in death.
Although Arthur and Dillington suffer a tragic fate, their love is real and glorious. Among their peers, Arthur and Dillington are known as Damon and Pythias, after the Greek legend of two friends with a profound friendship (“Damon and Pythias”). All of their peers deride their closeness, joking that they would dance with each other at parties if that were socially acceptable.
Sadly, Arthur and Dillington are in constant fear that their love for each other will be discovered, knowing that the discovery of their love will separate them. In fact, when Elsie asks Arthur how Dillington is, she observes a pained Arthur: “There had been a smile on his face as I began my speech. It froze at once—as they say in the novels. A pained blush spread slowly over his face.” Later, when Elsie discovers Arthur’s secret house, Arthur asks her why she has come to the house. Dillington interrupts and explains that Elsie expected Arthur to be with a woman at the house. Elsie retorts that she does not have “business” with a woman, only Dillington. Thinking Elsie has discovered his relationship with Arthur, Dillington “gasped,” which is a word that carries with it a connotation of dramatic queerness.
Eventually Dillington quite bravely fights for his relationship with Arthur. When Elsie objects to Arthur returning home with her, Dillington says it is Arthur’s right to do so because Elsie is his wife. Elsie fires back, “And you- ?” This reply startles Dillington, as he again believes that Elsie has discovered his relationship with Arthur. Courageously, Dillington answers, “I am his friend, and I am not ashamed of it.” They were at college together, and their “intimacy has continued since those days.” Dillington proclaims that he would “aid Arthur Ravener whenever [he] can; [he] will do anything for him.” Dillington virtually professes his love for Arthur to Elsie: “He is my bosom friend, and I am ready to say so before anybody.”
Although he may not be as brave or vocal, Arthur reciprocates Dillington’s love. When Elsie questions the hotel detective in New York about Arthur’s interaction with Dillington at the hotel, the detective describes a romantic rendezvous: “The young man seemed to be much excited. He could hardly reply to the glib remarks of his companion. He appeared to be in a dream.”
One could interpret the title of the book to be the marriage of Elsie and Arthur. Their romance is frigid and fraudulent. In contrast, the true, unofficial marriage is that of Arthur and Dillington. Their marriage is “below zero” because society spurns the idea of queer male romance. Only below zero, in the hidden corners out of the public’s view, can Arthur and Dillington love each other honestly.
Who would enjoy reading this book?
One can imagine this story being retold, perhaps in a film adaptation, in a sensitive way that portrays the anguish of the queer characters, like Todd Haynes captures such anguish in his film Carol. Nevertheless, tragedy mercilessly ravages the lives of all the main characters. Some lose their lives, and all lose love. One wonders about the real purpose of this novel. If the purpose is to convey this anguish, the author could have more effectively done this by telling the story from the perspective of one of the queer characters. In fact, the novel actually transcends the queer relationship by serving as a cautionary tale of rushing into a marriage at a young age. Indeed, Elsie ignores the warning signs to her own detriment, and Arthur naively believes that he can continue his relationship with Dillington without consequences. If you like tales of jealousy, tragedy, and unrequited love, then this novel is for you.
What is the connection between the author and the queer community?
Although Oscar Wilde was married to a woman and had children, he had at least one male lover (Ross). In fact, his lover, Alfred Douglas, was very similar to Dorian Gray because Douglas was extremely beautiful and possessed a cold heart (Ross). However, Wilde only met Douglas after The Picture of Dorian Gray was published (Ross). Unfortunately Douglas’s father discovered his son’s relationship with Wilde, leading to Wilde’s trial and subsequent conviction for “committing acts of gross indecency with certain male persons” (Ross). In other words, Wilde was imprisoned for being queer. At his trial, the homoerotic language from The Picture of Dorian Gray was used as evidence to prove Wilde’s queerness (Ross).
What is the plot of this book?
The story takes place in the elite, wealthy circles of London in the late nineteenth century. As the story begins, the main characters are young men. Basil Hallward is a painter who is obsessed with painting portraits of the extremely handsome Dorian Gray. Lord Henry is their older, witty friend.
Once Basil completes the portrait of Dorian, he gives it to Dorian. Upon seeing this portrait, Dorian realizes the fleeting nature of his youth. Dorian wishes that the version of him in the painting aged so that he could remain young.
Dorian falls in love with a talented and beautiful actress named Sybil Vane. He attends all her theatrical performances, and the two decide to become engaged. Sybil comes from a very humble family with few financial assets. Sybil’s brother James is skeptical of Dorian and the engagement. In contrast, Sybil is so confident in their love that she decides to give a terrible performance one evening in order to end her career and to commit herself solely to Dorian. Dorian brings Basil and Lord Henry to this performance, and the two friends decide to leave early because Sybil’s acting is so bad. Sybil’s bad acting embarrasses Dorian, and his passion for her dies. After the performance, Dorian promptly breaks off the engagement and abandons Sybil, leaving her heartbroken.
When Dorian returns home, he sees that the version of him in the painting has aged and withered from the ugliness of his bad behavior. Realizing that his wish has come true, Dorian hides the painting in a room in his house to which only he has access. While he contemplates getting back together with Sybil, Lord Henry informs him that her grief made her commit suicide. Dorian then becomes very self-indulgent and explores numerous vices.
Years pass and Basil hears many rumors about Dorian’s hedonism. Indeed Dorian earns a very bad reputation. In addition, as everyone else visibly ages, Dorian maintains his youthful appearance.
Concerned for Dorian, Basil confronts him about his bad behavior. Dorian becomes very angry and murders Basil with a knife in the secluded room in which the painting of Dorian hangs. Dorian then blackmails his friend Alan into disposing of the body. The reader later discovers that Alan’s guilty conscience over helping Dorian makes Alan commit suicide.
For years, James seeks vengeance on Dorian. After James finally locates Dorian, he follows Dorian to the home of one of Dorian’s rich friends. Before James can avenge Dorian, Dorian’s friend accidentally shoots and kills James while they are hunting.
Given this close escape from murder, Dorian decides to reform his evil ways. Dorian kindly ends a relationship that is going nowhere, and he wonders if the version of him in the painting becomes more beautiful. When he discovers that his image in the painting is uglier than ever, he takes the knife with which he murdered Basil and stabs the painting. Screams are heard throughout the house, and the servants force themselves into the room. They find the painting in pristine condition with a youthful, beautiful version of Dorian. On the ground, the grotesque version of Dorian from the painting is dead on the floor with the knife in his heart. Clearly, the two versions of Dorian have changed places.
How is this book queer?
The three main characters of The Picture of Dorian Gray are queer. Wilde imagined himself in all three characters: “Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinks me: Dorian what I would like to be—in other ages, perhaps” (Ross). Basil is infatuated with Dorian, and Dorian is infatuated with Lord Henry. Aloof Lord Henry does not seem very attached to anyone.
From the very beginning, Basil is smitten with Dorian Gray: “I have always been my own master; had at least always been so, till I met Dorian Gray.” Basil lives for Dorian: “I couldn’t be happy if I didn’t see him every day. He is absolutely necessary to me.” Further, Basil’s art relies on Dorian: “He is all my art to me now.” Basil even compares Dorian’s face to the face of Antinous, who was a notable inspiration in ancient sculpture for being the gay lover of the Roman emperor Hadrian (“Hadrian—life and legacy”). In a more explicit allusion, Wilde compares Basil’s feelings with those of famous men who were known or assumed to be queer: “It was such love as Michelangelo had known, and Montaigne, and Winckelmann, and Shakespeare himself” (Ross).
It is no surprise that Basil is disappointed when he hears Dorian will marry Sybil: “A strange sense of loss came over him.” If it were not abundantly clear, Basil explicitly states the intensity of his feelings for Dorian later in the story: “I worshipped you. I grew jealous of every one to whom you spoke. I wanted to have you all to myself. I was only happy when I was with you.”
Although Dorian’s interest in Lord Henry is much subtler, the reader senses Dorian’s admiring gaze: “He could not help liking the tall, graceful young man who was standing by him. His romantic, olive-coloured face and worn expression interested him.” Whereas Basil is in awe of Dorian’s beauty, Dorian admires Lord Henry’s roguish charm. Dorian is drawn to Lord Henry’s witty personality: “And you will promise to talk to me all the time? No one talks so wonderfully as you do.” Lord Henry takes notice of both Dorian’s attractiveness and Dorian’s admiration for him, and Lord Henry feels “the eyes of Dorian Gray … fixed on him.”
Despite this flirting, Lord Henry and Dorian engage in superficial relationships with women. Lord Henry is married, but there is no indication that Lord Henry has any interest in his wife. According to Lord Henry, marriage “makes a life of deception absolutely necessary.” One wonders if the deception includes dating other men. Lord Henry never knows where his wife is. The reader only briefly encounters Lord Henry’s wife, upon which Lord Henry boldly proclaims, “Never marry a woman with straw-colored hair.” Even worse, Dorian’s relationship with Sybil Vane is like a hobby or experiment: “It often happened that when we thought we were experimenting on others we were really experimenting on ourselves.” Dorian’s love for Sybil is insincere, as he loses all interest in her when she gives her terrible performance in Romeo and Juliet.
After Sybil’s demise, Dorian’s self-indulgent hedonism seems to include courting a man, Alan Campbell: “For eighteen months their intimacy lasted.” After Dorian and Alan’s intimacy ends, Alan curiously avoids Dorian at parties. Wilde does not detail what happened between these two men, but Alan appears to be a spurned lover. When Dorian threatens to disclose damaging information about Alan in order to coerce him into disposing of Basil’s dead body, one wonders if Dorian threatens to reveal scandalous, intimate details of their former relationship.
Who would enjoy reading this book?
If you enjoy suspenseful books with witty banter, this book is for you. Wilde is a master of humor and irony, even in this dark tale. Moreover, this book resonates even today, as queer men continue to worry over aging, seemingly more than straight men do. This is a classic book, and every queer man should read this book.
We all wish we knew more about Herman Melville, and especially about the desires of his heart. Herman Melville wrote publicly with effusive praise about his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, leading some to believe that the two were lovers (Stein). However, Melville and Hawthorne were both married to women (Stein). There is no conclusive evidence that the two were indeed lovers (Stein). Admittedly, the letters that Melville wrote to Hawthorne reveal strong feelings for Hawthorne. Curiously, the letters from Hawthorne to Melville are mostly missing (Stein).
What is the plot of this book?
Billy Budd is an extremely handsome British sailor who is chosen to sail aboard a ship called the Indomitable as a foretopman. Billy is very popular among the other sailors. His only apparent flaw is a stutter that arises when Billy gets excited, anxious, or angry. Although the ship’s master-at-arms John Claggart is fairly attractive, he is jealous of Billy’s beauty. Because of his envy, Claggart falsely accuses Billy of trying to incite a mutiny on the ship.
Captain Vere allows Claggart to confront Billy with the accusations, and Vere requests a response from Billy. Out of nervousness and rage, Billy stutters and then delivers a single deadly punch to Claggart. Although Claggart’s murder is an accident, Billy must nevertheless endure a trial aboard the ship. While the court-martial believes in Billy’s innocence, they still decide to hang him to prevent future instances of mutiny.
How is this book queer?
From the opening scenes of this book, Billy Budd vividly describes male beauty. Melville writes that passersby on the dock of the seaport were “arrested by a group of bronzed mariners, man-of-war’s men or merchant sailors in holiday attire ashore on liberty.” This description exemplifies the stereotype of handsome sailors stopping at ports to party and to make love. As he describes the sailors on the dock, he describes a black sailor attired in a way that is stereotypically queer by today’s standards: “The two ends of a gay silk handkerchief thrown loose about the neck danced upon the displayed ebony of his chest; in his ears were big hoops of gold, and a Scotch Highland bonnet with a tartan band set off his shapely head.”
Despite these descriptions of male beauty, the novel focuses on the astounding handsomeness of Billy Budd and the admiring gazes of the men of the Indomitable. In awe of Billy, Lieutenant Ratcliff immediately recruits him without knowing much about him. In fact, Ratcliff is “[p]lump upon Billy at first sight.” Billy also attracts “the Captain’s attention from the first.” Indeed, Captain Vere congratulates, “Lieutenant Ratcliff upon his good fortune in lighting on such a fine specimen of the genus homo, who in the nude might have posed for a statue of young Adam before the Fall.”
In contrast, Claggart’s admiration of Billy’s beauty turns into jealousy and insecurity about his own appearance. Even as Billy’s appearance saddens Claggart, Claggart surreptitiously loves and perhaps desires Billy: “… the melancholy expression would have in it a touch of soft yearning as if Claggart could even have loved Billy but for fate and ban.” Claggart may ultimately strive to ruin Billy because he thinks that he cannot have him. Alternatively, Claggart may want the male gaze to focus on him instead of Billy. Either way, Claggart seems to be a frustrated queer man.
Readers know more about the thoughts and desires of the men aboard the ship than they do about Billy’s state of mind. Billy accepts the adulation, but he does not seem to appreciate the intensity of the men’s admiration or Claggart’s envy. However, Billy’s façade crumbles when Vere’s tender empathy exposes Billy’s vulnerability. Vere tries to calm Billy when Billy stutters in his response to the accusations made against him. The empathy infuriates Billy because the “fatherly” tone touches Billy’s “heart to the quick.” Billy does not seem comfortable with the intimacy of Vere’s empathy. On the Indomitable one cannot conquer the masculine sailor culture of emotional stoicism, even as homoeroticism slyly pervades the gazes and banter. When Vere’s concern for Billy shows a desire for sincere emotional intimacy between men, Billy’s homophobia and assertion for masculine self-sufficiency emerge. As a result, these feelings lead Billy to tragic violence.
Who would enjoy reading this book?
If you are a patient reader, you may enjoy this book. The plot is simple, and most of the text addresses descriptions of setting and characters. In true Melville style, the pace is plodding, and the sentences are very long. You will definitely enjoy this book if you enjoy contemplating the psychology of men and homoerotic subtext.
Melville, Herman. Billy Budd. Kindle ed., Plain Label Books, 2018.
What is the connection between the author and the queer community?
According to The Library Company of Philadelphia, Bayard Taylor was a writer who traveled widely in the nineteenth century (“That’s So Gay”). Although he was married to a woman, he may have been queer. Two months after his wedding, his wife died (“That’s So Gay”). Taylor then lived on a boat with a German businessman on the Nile River in Egypt (“That’s So Gay”). Eventually Taylor married the man’s niece (“That’s So Gay”).
What is the plot of this book?
Joseph is a young adult in his twenties looking for love. His parents are deceased, and he lives with his aunt on a fairly successful farm in the Pennsylvanian countryside. One night he attends a party of a good friend, and he meets cosmopolitan city girl Julia Blessing. Joseph is quite handsome, and other girls pine for him. Nevertheless, Julia woos him, and they pursue a fairly brief courtship before marriage.
Before Joseph and Julia get married, Joseph visits Julia’s father in the city. Julia’s father is preoccupied with making money, to the point where he has actually lost quite a bit of his once considerable wealth. Mr. Blessing uses Julia and his other daughter Clementina to marry men who can provide capital for his investments. Once Joseph and Julia are married, Julia takes an active role in convincing Joseph to finance her father’s investments. There are warning signs before they even get married, and the manipulation of Joseph only gets worse after the wedding.
However, something miraculous happens before the wedding. On his way back to the countryside after a visit with the Blessings, Joseph is in a very minor train accident. Joseph practically falls into the arms of Philip Held during this accident. Philip, who is five years older than Joseph, not only has a dreamy name, but he also catches Joseph’s eye on the train even before the accident. In fact, the men lock eyes. Their instant connection fortifies into a deep friendship after the accident. Although Joseph has just met Philip, Joseph invites Philip to be the best man at his wedding. Philip declines because he was the former fiancé of Clementina. Clementina ditched him once his finances took a tumble.
After getting married, Joseph becomes increasingly frustrated with Julia and Mr. Blessing, as these two persistently pressure him to spend money on risky investments. Meanwhile, Joseph often thinks of Philip longingly. Eventually Joseph discovers that Mr. Blessing’s investments are a complete sham. Joseph becomes very angry with Mr. Blessing and Julia, and Julia and Joseph argue extensively. In the heat of the argument, with Julia believing her marriage is over, she poisons herself. The poisoning slowly takes effect, with Joseph, his friend Lucy Henderson, and a doctor around to witness Julia’s demise.
After Julia dies, suspicion grows about the nature of her death, as Julia had metaphorically claimed that Joseph was killing her. In a relatively uneventful trial, Joseph is proven innocent of killing of Julia. Philip works tirelessly to produce the evidence that clears Joseph’s name. After the trial Joseph goes on a long trip to Nevada and California. Joseph and Philip write each other tender letters. Nevertheless, at the close of the novel when Joseph returns, Philip has a sense that Joseph will marry his sister Madeline. This makes Philip feel sad and lonely.
How is this book queer?
Although Joseph and Philip both have some interest in women, their feelings for each other are far more potent than their feelings for the women in the book. Joseph begins the book wanting love, without quite knowing what love is. He expresses some interest in Julia and Lucy at a party at the beginning of the book. Joseph expresses desire for Julia, but he never expresses love for her. He notices the “sweetness of her lips” and grows faint thinking about touching the “edge of her dress!” Admittedly, these are very mild expressions of his interest. Perhaps Taylor deliberately portrays Joseph’s interest in Julia comically in order to question whether he actually has strong feelings for Julia.
From the very beginning, Joseph values his close male friendship with his best friend Elwood. Even after the party where he meets Julia, Joseph experiences “a tenderer feeling of friendship than he had ever before felt, and begged him [Elwood] to stay the night.” When Elwood sleeps over, “They occupied the same room; and neither seemed inclined to sleep.” Though they stay up talking about Julia and Lucy, Joseph seems to value more the conversation with Elwood rather than the topic of the conversation.
Everything changes when Philip Held arrives in Joseph’s life. When Joseph first notices Philip on the train, “All at once his eye was attracted by a new face, three or four seats from his own.” He recognizes in Philip’s face a “developed character” and “the more he studied the face, the more he was conscious of its attraction.” Philip and Joseph play eye tag with each other on the train. Philip gives him a look that says, “We are men, let us know each other!” After the train accident, they hold hands and lean on each other. Joseph sleeps on Philip’s shoulder as the train goes forward.
The encounter between Philip and Joseph serves as the foundation for a solid relationship. Before his wedding Joseph thinks a lot more about Philip than Julia: “… but towards Philip his heart sprang with an instinct beyond his control.” As Joseph grows apprehensive before the wedding, Philip reassures him. Philip proclaims that Joseph is “nearer than a brother,” and Philip tells Joseph that he knows that they are in each other’s hearts. Philip says, “A man’s perfect friendship is rarer than a woman’s love” and they clasp hands. Immediately after the wedding, Philip’s “dark gray eyes, warm with more than brotherly love” and Philip’s “faithful thoughts” haunt Joseph.
In contrast, Joseph has a contentious relationship with the pastor, Mr. Chaffinch, who visits him after the train accident. Joseph thinks Christians should be more concerned with deeds than beliefs, and Mr. Chaffinch disagrees. They have several arguments over whether Christian beliefs or good deeds matter more. This discussion becomes a recurring theme that Joseph and Philip eventually address in a very oblique way.
The clearest suggestion of same-sex desire and intimacy between Philip and Joseph begins with an opaque discussion of their desire. Joseph says, “If you and I, Philip, stand above the level of common natures, feeling higher needs and claiming other rights, let us shape them according to the law which is above, not that which is below.” Again, Joseph seems to challenge the morality of a religion created by humans, as people like Mr. Chaffinch perceive this morality. Between the lines, Joseph seems perfectly comfortable with the morality of his intimacy with Philip. This conversation eventually ends in intimacy of an unclear, yet highly suggestive nature:
“They took each other’s hands. The day was fading, the landscape was silent, and only the twitter of nesting birds was heard in the boughs above them. Each gave way to the impulse of his manly love, rarer, alas! but as tender and true as the love of woman, and they drew nearer and kissed each other.”
Philip eventually expresses his agreement with Joseph regarding a revised vision of morality: “[T]he world needs a new code of ethics. We must cure the unfortunate tendencies of some qualities that seem good, and extract the good from others that seem evil.” Philip even says that he has learned to be dependent on God through knowing Joseph. In the context of the story, Joseph and Philip seem to believe that love between two men is beautiful and sacred. In contrast, the greed of the religious Blessing family is socially acceptable, though it should not be.
Philip is eventually Joseph’s savior, as the former finds the evidence to exculpate the latter. Philip rejoices at this outcome: “‘You are free!’ His eyes sparkled and his face glowed.” Joseph is grateful and shows his gratitude: “He drew his chair near to Philip’s, their hands closed upon each other, and they were entirely happy in the tender and perfect manly love which united them.”
Sadly, Philip and Joseph do not become lovers in the end. In the end, Philip is certain that Joseph and Madeline, Philip’s sister, have fallen in love. This ending is absurd, as Madeline is an extremely minor character with few lines of dialogue or any real purpose in the narrative. Perhaps Madeline’s only real purpose is to serve as a beard in the final moments of the book. In that era, having Philip and Joseph’s romance come to full fruition would not have been acceptable. At least they both live with the possibility of remaining close friends.
Who would enjoy reading this book?
If you enjoy beautiful love stories with innuendo, tension, and a few plot twists, you will like this book. You may not like this book if indirect depictions of male queerness frustrate you. If overt suggestions of queer romance are not enough and you need something more explicit, this is not the book for you. Regardless, the title of this book is annoying by today’s standards. Joseph and Philip are clearly lovers in the book, and they are more than just friends. It is incredibly frustrating when people refer to queer male lovers as “friends” or “buddies.”
What is the connection between the author and the queer community?
According to the Amazon Classics kindle version of this book, Herman Melville was born in New York City in 1819. He came from a modest background, and he had little formal education. In addition to working as a schoolteacher, he was a sailor on a whaling ship. Eventually, he began writing, but his novels were not popular when they were published. He managed to make money from his short stories, but he was not widely known during his life.
Melville dedicates Moby Dick to famous author Nathaniel Hawthorne: “In token of my admiration for his genius, this book is inscribed to Nathaniel Hawthorne.” The two authors wrote many letters to each other, and Melville even moved to Hawthorne’s neighborhood to be closer to him (McCrum). It is not known if Hawthorne and Melville were friends or lovers.
What is the plot of this book?
Ishmael is a sailor who seeks adventure on a whaling ship. The book follows his journey from New York to Massachusetts, where he boards the Pequod as a sailor. Before leaving, he meets Queequeg, a harpooneer from the Pacific Islands, who also boards the Pequod. Once on the ship, the crew discovers that Captain Ahab is on a mission for vengeance. Ahab is determined to hunt and kill Moby Dick. This great white whale ripped off Ahab’s leg on a previous voyage, and, as a result, Ahab walks on an ivory leg. Ahab offers a gold coin to the person that finds Moby Dick. For the rest of the book, the crew searches far and wide for the whale, encountering several ships along the way. As Ishmael recounts the events of the voyage, he goes into great detail about everything one could possibly want to know about whales.
Eventually, Captain Ahab finds Moby Dick, and he keeps his own gold coin. After several attempts, Ahab manages to stab Moby Dick, but the whale drags Ahab out of his boat and into the distance. Among the turmoil of hunting Moby Dick, the whale manages to demolish the Pequod and all of its boats. The only survivor is Ishmael. Ishmael floats away on a coffin that was originally constructed for Queequeg when he became very ill. Another ship finds and rescues Ishmael.
How is this book queer?
This book is queer in so many ways. The words “queer” and “gay” appear frequently throughout the novel, although these words had different meanings in the nineteenth century. The language itself is at many points extremely suggestive, but the relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg is overtly queer.
When Ishmael arrives in Massachusetts, Ishmael finds a bed in which to sleep at an inn. However, the landlord informs Ishmael that he must share a bed with another man, as the inn is completely booked. Initially, Ishmael objects vehemently to the idea of sharing a bed. Once he discovers that his bedmate is Queequeg, a menacing, huge, dark, tattooed “cannibal” who wields sharp weapons, Ishmael is intimidated.
However, Queequeg is surprisingly willing to share his bed. Ishmael suddenly sees Queequeg as a “clean, comely looking cannibal.” At first, the two bedmates keep their distance from each other. By the morning the situation is much different: “… I found Queequeg’s arm thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner. You had almost thought I had been his wife.” Queequeg fascinates Ishmael: “… I began to feel myself mysteriously drawn towards him. And those same things that would have repelled most others, they were the very magnets that thus drew me.” Queequeg is the brooding bad boy, and Ishmael is the smitten schoolboy.
The following night Queequeg looks “pleased” that he will again share a bed with Ishmael. Queequeg touches Ishmael around the waist, and Ishmael concludes that they are “married.” Later, Ishmael kisses Queequeg’s nose, and they undress before going to bed again. Throwing caution to the wind, Queequeg comfortably tosses his leg over Ishmael’s leg.
However, their relationship is not just physical. They talk in bed like a married couple. When Queequeg fasts and maintains a vow of silence to honor his religion, Ishmael becomes very concerned about Queequeg’s wellbeing. Much later on the Pequod, Ishmael declares that Queequeg will be the executor of his will. When Queequeg attends to a whale carcass outside the ship, Ishmael remains in the ship tied to Queequeg with a rope. Ishmael is Queequeg’s literal anchor.
Nevertheless, after the Pequod sets sail, the narrative rarely mentions encounters between Ishmael and Queequeg. This is so frustrating! When Queequeg becomes ill, Ishmael seems mildly sad, but the details are scant. The reader yearns for Ishmael to prostrate before Queequeg’s ailing body with grief and melancholy. That did not happen. Moreover, Ishmael and Queequeg fade into the background as the obsession with whales and Captain Ahab’s lust for whale murder dominate the story.
Who would enjoy reading this book?
If you are miraculously patient and you have an intense interest in whales, this book is for you. Not much happens in this book, but the book is quite long. If that is fine for you, enjoy! Some people, including me, find this book frustrating to read because the pace is very plodding and Melville writes on many tangents, many involving minutiae about whales. Melville writes in long sentences, which can be difficult to follow. If you are only interested in the queer aspects of this book, stop reading after the Pequod sets sail.
Author: Duke August von Sachsen-Gotha (translation and introduction by Carl Skoggard)
What is the connection between the author and the queer community?
As the brilliant translator Carl Skoggard explains in the Introduction, Duke August von Sachsen-Gotha was a remarkable, eccentric person who did not abide by traditional gender norms. To learn more about the duke, I recommend reading Skoggard’s introduction. According to Skoggard, the character of Alethophone, a prophetess, is really a representation of the duke in drag.
What is the plot of this book?
As the title suggests, the story takes place in Arcadia, the region of Greece, in the country’s ancient glory days. In this idyllic and pastoral setting, young shepherds and shepherdesses pursue love with great success. The book is a series of interwoven episodes about love among shepherds and shepherdesses in ancient Arcadia. Nevertheless, the queer love story stands out, while the other stories falter. Beautiful Julanthiskos pines for the gorgeous Alexis. The two young men flirt with each other, but nothing initially results from this flirtation.
Julanthiskos is smitten with Alexis, but Alexis is coy. Julanthiskos becomes heartbroken when he believes that Alexis spurns him. At this time of crisis, the prophetess Alethophone makes a grand entrance and divines the futures of the young shepherds, including Julanthiskos. Although her prophecy is vague, she advises Julanthiskos to have faith that his love will come to fruition.
Alexis becomes trapped on a cliff after he loses his companions in the rough terrain of the mountains. After slaying a beast on the cliff, Alexis is injured and in great peril. Meanwhile, Julanthiskos sacrifices his necklace to the god Hermes, and Hermes in return leads him to the cliff where Alexis is trapped. Julanthiskos effortlessly traverses the rough terrain and miraculously leaps over a chasm to rescue Alexis. Julanthiskos’s steadfast commitment to Alexis wins him over: “You softened my heart through faithfulness.”
How is this book queer?
This book was the first novel (in its modern form) to include an explicitly queer male love story. Ancient narratives like Satyricon addressed male same-sex desire, but these stories are problematic because they portray queer encounters that involve teenage boys in positions of slavery. In addition, numerous works such as The Tale of Genji and Father Goriot only suggest or obliquely mention in passing that a male character may have same-sex desires. By contrast, Year in Arcadia is refreshingly and unmistakably queer.
The two main characters are romantic men indeed. Despite the author’s repeated focus on the great physical beauty of both Julanthiskos and Alexis, the commitment of the former and the vulnerability of the latter stand out as their greatest strengths.
Indeed, the loyalty of Julanthiskos is clear throughout the narrative, especially in contrast to the infidelity of his brother Barys. Serving as a symbol of male heterosexuality, Barys drinks a lot, he parties, and he makes love to a lot of women. He likes to hunt. We get it. He is the typical “manly” man. In fact, the other female characters remark on the difference between Barys and Julanthiskos. When one female character shows frustration with the infidelity of men, another female character interjects that not all men are this way. In fact, Julanthiskos is extremely committed and reliable.
Equating fidelity with sexual orientation is not fair or accurate. Nevertheless, the overwhelmingly positive portrayal of the main queer character and the jocular critique of the straight male character do not dominate the narrative. Although Barys may not be completely loyal to women, he is not a homophobe. He shows concern when his brother is heartbroken over Alexis, for example. The reader has clearly entered a world where everyone, including the virile heterosexual character, accepts and supports love between men.
It is easy to support love between men when the queer men are gorgeous. The author emphasizes the physical beauty of Julanthiskos and Alexis, largely through their admirers. For example, a female character dreams about Julanthiskos being naked. The female characters fawn over both Julanthiskos and Alexis. Perhaps the author chooses these female reactions to demonstrate that these two men are clearly queer and lack interest in women who throw themselves at them. The words and actions of these women frequently made one want to groan. Nevertheless, these men are not portrayed as campy, simplistic cartoons, as has been the tendency in media portrayals for a long time. These queer men are raw, passionate, and beautiful.
Who would enjoy reading this book?
If you are interested in ancient Greece and queer male romance, this book is for you. Although the narrative was not thrilling, this is a sweet, simple book to enjoy in an afternoon. Most impressive is the duke’s unabashed portrayal of queer male love in a time when other authors only suggested that their characters were queer.
von Sachsen-Gotha, August. Year in Arcadia: A Shepherd’s Calendar. Translated by Carl Skoggard, Tropen Verlag, 1999.