A Critical Analysis of Representations of Gender in Three Postmodernist Texts- Lolita, Wide Sargasso Sea and the Passion of New Eve.
A Critical Analysis of Representations of Gender in Three Postmodernist texts- Lolita, Wide Sargasso Sea and The Passion of New Eve. When one thinks of gender within fiction, it is easy to think of the basic male-female divide, where the male protagonist rescues the female protagonist from whatever perils she faces throughout her story. However, postmodernism brought a whole new flavour to the question of gender within literature.
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As this essay will show, when one begins to scratch the surface of postmodern literature, the age-old literature theme of gender is shown to be much more complicated and ambiguous than previous literary movements portrayed it to be. Just as postmodernism is complicated and subjective, gender in a postmodern text is hard to define or understand. In Lolita, the reader knows only the point of view of an adult male paedophile preying on a young girl. Whilst it may at first seem obvious who the reader will side with, it is all too easy to sympathise with Humbert as the novel progresses.
In addition, the characters of Wide Sargasso Sea allow the reader to further see the ramifications of gender within an earlier postcolonial setting. The Passion of New Eve blurs the lines of the theme of gender, making it seem much less like polar opposites of black and white or male and female, and much more like a spectrum of human beings- one that must be looked at as a whole to appreciate either gender. It is felt that this is the key message of this book- as Vallorani (1994) states, “[The Passion of New Eve] is therefore, literally, a gender novel. ” (pg. 369) The representation of the male gender in Lolita is interesting.
The only real insight that the reader gets into the male psyche is through Humbert, the protagonist and narrator of the story. The only other major male characters in the story are Clare Quilty and the Russian taxi driver. Even though Humbert’s thoughts and actions are morally debauched, the reader’s only window into his world is through his eyes. Patnoe (1995) muses that some male readers of Lolita might therefore feel misrepresented or even wronged as a male because of the thoughts that Humbert has no trouble in expressing- “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.
My sin, my soul. ” (pg. 1) Patnoe (1995) also theorises that some male readers might “fear that all women will think that all men want to violate girls […] fear for the women and girls about whom they care”. (pg. 89) There are very few who would argue that Lolita makes for anything less than uncomfortable and thought provoking reading, although it is interesting to note that it is not just women who are made to feel uncomfortable by the representation of the male through Humbert. However, there are those who feel that the representation of gender in Lolita is entirely intentional.
Kennedy in Herbold (1999) finds that “Lolita operates according to the same logic as pornography, which seeks to unify and empower the male pornographer and the male viewer through the medium of a victimized female body. ” (pg. 74) This theory is easily upheld when one takes into account the obvious exploitation of twelve year old Dolores within the book- had Humbert not interfered with her, perhaps she would not have ended up married, pregnant and desperately poor at the age of seventeen. As obvious as the male/female divide within the book appears at first, there is also an ambiguous representation of the male gender within Lolita.
This is in the form of Clare Quilty, a male character with a female Christian name and a surname that hints at the ‘patchwork quilt’ nature of pastiche within postmodernism (Herbold, 1999), similar to Evelyn in The Passion of New Eve. Looking at the theme of sadomasochism within the novel, Bick (1994) finds that “his name connotes the gender and sexual ambiguities essential in sadomasochistic masquerade. ” (pg. 9) This is interesting in relation to how the male gender is represented elsewhere in the book, for example Humbert, who is “slow-moving, tall, with soft dark hair and a gloomy but all the more seductive cast of demeanor” (pg. 7), or in short, innately male compared to the ambiguously named Quilty, whose description and confirmation of gender is not given until much later on in the novel. The representation of the female gender in Lolita was enough to spark a new psychological complex. The term “Lolita complex” is used in Japan when referring to a man who is sexually fascinated with young females, as well as the portrayal of women as looking like children. (Patnoe, 1995) However, it is interesting that the complex is named after the victim of child abuse as opposed to the perpetrator.
This may lead people to believe that it is the fault of the “Lolitas” as opposed to the “Humberts”, as the name of the complex implies that it is centred around the female as opposed to the male who actually has the complex. The female gender within Lolita could be construed as almost masochistic. It is important to note that all of the female adults within the book flirt or show some degree of attraction to Humbert, along with the obvious example of the child Dolores.
Bick (1994) feels that “by opening themselves up to (inevitable) rejection, the women are portrayed as inherently frustrated and pain-seeking. ” (pg. 6) In addition, Herbold (1999) feels that the female adults are portrayed by Humbert as being “stupid, unattractive, and deluded” (pg. 74) especially when compared to Dolores, Humbert’s reincarnated “Riviera love” (pg. 38). Despite how Humbert sees and treats these women, they still allow themselves to be open to Humbert and therefore also to pain.
Although the majority of readers probably agree with Eylon (2006) in feeling that Dolores Haze was manipulated within the book because of her youthful girlishness alongside Humbert’s lack of morality, it is felt by some that the female gender, in particular Dolores, is represented as being anything but innocent within the novel. Patnoe (1995) feels that rather than being the manipulated innocent, it is possible that the character of Dolores “purvey[s] the notion that femaleness, femininity, and female sexuality are desirable, but dangerous. Even deadly. ” (pg. 3) This ends up being incredibly true when the deaths of Charlotte, Humbert and even Dolores herself are taken into account: if Dolores had not pursued a relationship with Humbert, then it is possible that none of those characters would have had to die. Of course, in a book written from the point of view of the criminal, it is easy to blame who he blames, but it is also important to remember that, like the postmodern genre as a whole, it is not always so clear cut. The representation of gender within Wide Sargasso Sea is different but no less complicated than in Lolita.
The men in Wide Sargasso Sea, particularly Rochester, are represented as polar opposites to the women of the novel. Rochester is presented as emotionally shallow and superficial, stating that “the secret of life was never to go too far or too deep. ” (p. 26) However, Antoinette is displayed as being a complex woman, and Rochester appears threatened by this, as he “cannot tolerate emotional complexity in Antoinette and demands she fit his image of the proper English girl, which he constructs in part by changing her name to Bertha. ” (Abel, 1979, pg. 74) Like in Lolita, the dominant and damaging gender in Wide Sargasso Sea is male. Ingersoll (2007) opposes this view, feeling instead that perhaps the representations of gender in the novel are linked to place; the tropical climate of Antoinette’s homeland appears to represent both masculine and feminine through the “mountains and the hills, the rivers and the rain […] its beauty and its magic and the secret I would never know” (pg. 172) and therefore for Ingersoll, gender representation within Wide Sargasso Sea moves “back and forth a spectrum” (pg. 88), suggesting that the book, and perhaps life in the real world, rely on both male and female characteristics to fully achieve any end. However, it should be noted that, in the novel at least, the masculine takes over the feminine. Rochester describes how he dislikes the femininity of the landscape, and by extension, Antoinette’s femininity- “the flowers are too red, the mountains are too high, the hills too near. And the woman is a stranger. ” (pg. 70) This is perhaps why the book does not achieve an end beneficial to both genders. In Wide Sargasso Sea, women are displayed as being stereotypically female in a number of ways.
It is implied that Antoinette is incapable of being rational simply because she is female rather than male, and in the same vein, Rochester is intrinsically rational because he is male. Mardorossion (1999), speaking about Antoinette, states that: “by virtue of her gender, her way of knowing is subjective and functions in a simple opposition to masculine rationality. ” (pg. 81) Although both genders both seem to be represented equally at first, the divide between male and female is highlighted further throughout the novel at the expense of the female characters.
The meeting of Rochester and Antoinette, as well as the male-female relationship that follows, could be construed as a metaphor for colonisation. Their meeting is very literal, as it is an Englishman meeting a creole heiress in her homeland Caribbean. Their relationship, however, is a very strong metaphor: the Englishman, who feels superior, decides to control the Caribbean woman by breaking her down (in this case, mentally) and claiming ownership over her. Marrdorossion, 1999) This mirrors colonisation, where sovereignty is declared superior to the colony and the colonials claim ownership over the colony. The way in which Rhys uses a postmodern theme to mirror a postmodern issue is very cleverly done, and a very interesting author technique that stays true to the postmodern genre. Gender in The Passion of New Eve is, if possible, even more complicated than in either Lolita or Wide Sargasso Sea.
The novel appears to question what makes someone female and what makes someone male- for example, after Evelyn is made physically female he still feels “the cock in my head, still, twitched at the sight of myself. ” (p. 75) There is also the character of Tristessa, a much-desired movie starlet, who is revealed by Zero to be little more than “a man in drag. ” (Day, 1998, pg. 120) For a novel written in the 70s, with the turmoil in Vietnam and the women’s movement, it is little wonder that Carter chose to present gender in such an ambiguous manner whilst maintaining a feminist overlook. Rubenstein, 1993) As Waugh (1989) points out, the 70s gave rise to not only feminism but to psychoanalysis, with a focus that sounds familiar when looking at the themes of The Passion of New Eve- “the irrational, the functioning of the unconscious, on desire, on contradictory ways of experiencing oneself”. (pg. 35) The first notion of confused gender in The Passion of New Eve is the name of the protagonist, Evelyn. This is “an English name of intentionally ambiguous gender” (pg. 106, Rubenstein, 1993), setting the reader up for the androgynous and ambiguous nature of the whole text.
Looking directly at the question of what it is that defines someone’s gender within The Passion of New Eve, Rubenstein (1993) feels that the power of a male and the powerlessness of a female are “literally, extensions of their genetalia”. (pg. 106) However, they also point out that the transsexual characters within the book are able to “reconcile symobolically these polarized positions. ” (pg. 106) Although Evelyn is born male and made physically female by an operation, by the end of the book this character seems to identify with both genders, as does the physically male but mentally female Tristessa.
Like Wide Sargasso Sea, gender within The Passion of New Eve is linked to other themes within the book. Gender appears to be linked to location- for example, whilst Evelyn is living in New York, he behaves inherently male. However, once Evelyn leaves the city, he becomes the female Eve, although this metamorphosis is not by choice but by what could almost be described as a rape, mirroring Evelyn’s mistreatment of Leilah earlier in the book, in a surgical experiment that turns him physically female. This can almost be seen as gender arithmetic: the city plus Evelyn equals male, or the wilderness plus Eve equals female. Vallorani, 1994) The true representation of gender in The Passion of New Eve only seems to fall into place when Evelyn is transformed into Eve- the emotional and physical “place of transgression” (pg. 63). Rubenstein (1993) believes that the transformation from male to female is akin to a rebirth, or a “re-entry into the Mother’s womb. ” (pg. 110) This allows the newly born Eve to enter Paradise as a woman, but just as Leilah was mistreated by Evelyn, so Eve is mistreated by paradise as she is “engulfed, raped and expelled with dispatch” (pg. 110) by Mother, or the “Castratrix of the Phallocentric Universe. (Carter, pg. 67) Eve discovers that being a woman is not what she thought it would be when she was a man. What is arguably most interesting about the representation of gender in The Passion of New Eve is “simply the admission that the conflict between genders can by no means be settled. ” (Vallorani, 1994, pg. 368) The dichotomy of men and women; male and female, is put into action in Eve, but this only serves to create a new gender altogether rather than fusing both genders together. The representation of gender is no less complex than the postmodern genre.
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