Gender and Sexuality in World Literature, Essay Example

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Essay

Abstract

Judith Butler’s notion of the gendered body provides a means with which to radically re-think the portrayal of sexuality in literature, as her separation of gender from sexuality avoids the reduction of socially conferred gender roles to any biological foundation. Accordingly, Butler’s appropriation of gender as a form of performative “doing” means that continually changing social processes create that which is assumed to be essential sexual difference. Such a theoretical framework can serve as a critical apparatus with which to read John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, insofar as the latter treats the primordial myth of Adam and Eve in a manner that at first glance appears to essentialize sexual genders. However, by using Butler’s approach, it appears that the primordial setting of Adam and Eve can be reviewed as itself an instance of gender construction, wherein the apparently sexualized natures of the protagonists are rather themselves the results of “the Fall of Man” understood as a social discourse that intends to order society along gender lines. In order to demonstrate this thesis, it will be argued that Milton posits a unity of Adam and Eve, not making any essential difference between them. It is rather the vengeful God that evokes the punishment to Adam and Eve and the figure of Satan that provokes the Fall of Man that embody two performative social forces. Satan represents the process of ascribing gender roles, conferring to Eve the senseless act of betrayal, while God himself acts as the social structure that not only accepts the gender role, but also perpetuates it. Milton’s account of the Fall of Man, from a Butlerian perspective, would therefore entail an account of how gendered bodies are both created and perpetuated within societal structures and discourses.

Annotated Bibliography

Lehnhof, Kent R. ““Nor turnd I weene”: Paradise Lost and Pre-Lapsarian Sexuality.”

Milton Quarterly 34, no. 3 (2000): 67-83.

Lehnhof’s text provides a thorough review of Milton’s view on the issue of sexuality before the Fall, that is, the “prelapsarian” state of when humans were free of sin. Many Miltonists argue that in Paradise Lost there is evidence of sexual relations between Adam and Eve before their transgression, which would suggest that the sexual difference was a crucial part of even the idealized state of nature. This, as the author notes, bears the consequence of making sex a transcendent mystery, insofar as even in the ideal state sexual difference existed – this could lead to an interpretation of Milton that furthermore essentializes the very difference between man and woman, which could easily lead to a subsequent account that thus essentializes gender. However, the author argues that Milton’s reliance on the scripture and his thorough analysis of the latter ultimately implies that sex is non-transcendental. In other words, Milton opposes the essentialization of gender difference, and rather only views this difference as emerging within the period after the fall, a period that could be considered as an allegory for particular historical social discourses and structures.

McColley, Diane K. “Milton and the Sexes.” In The Cambridge Companion to Milton, edited by Dennis Richard Danielson, 175-198. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

The author criticizes the “masculinist” reception of Milton’s Paradise Lost, in which Eve is portrayed according to gender traits traditionally ascribed to women in occidental society, such as vanity and irrationality. Rather, feminist readings of Milton construe his work as a radical critique of such stereotypes against women. Particularly, the author suggests that Milton provides a “complex” view of the sexes that opposes such gender roles. McColley thus attempts to create a Milton sympathetic to feminist discourse through Paradise Lost’s account of an underlying heterogeneity of sexuality, which can thereafter be used to understand how the essentialization of sexes as gender is the result of an attempt to homogenize these sexualities. The author thus reveals her commitment to a feminist discourse in light of Milton’s masculinist reception, effectively arguing for the possibility of an alternative Milton in which gender is a particular appropriation of sexuality that is already in itself diffuse.

Nyquist, Mary, “The Genesis of Gendered Subjectivity in the Divorce Tracts and in Paradise Lost.” In Re-membering Milton: Essays on the Texts and Traditions, edited by Mary Nyquist and Margaret W. Ferguson, 99-127. London: Methuen & Co, 1998.

The author argues that Milton’s account of the genesis myth in Paradise Lost is one primarily based on the attempt to reconcile biblical accounts of this myth, thus providing what may be termed a synthetic reasoning that eliminates any inconsistencies to the story. However, this very act of attempting to synthesize is for Nyquist consistent with a male account of genesis. The author provides an in-depth exegesis of the Miltonian sources, referring Milton’s interpretation to predominantly male readings in order to develop their underlying symmetry, however, it remains unclear as to why such an attempt at synthesis infers that Milton’s account is masculine in nature. Whereas the author presents a reading sympathetic to feminist discourse, she nonetheless emphasizes that Milton’s account of genesis is not radical enough to satisfy the requirements of a feminist account. However, this is one of the main intents of the author, as she confronts what she views as trends in the feminist literature to read Milton as a feminist, thus arguing that such readings have been commonplace and lack foundation in the text of Paradise Lost itself.

Stone, Ken. “The Garden of Eden and the Heterosexual Social Contract.” In Bodily Citations: Religion and Judith Butler, edited by Ellen T. Armour and Susan M. St. Ville, 48-71. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006

The author argues that whereas traditional accounts of the genesis story are often used to justify sexual and gender roles in society, this is a flawed reading, as the text can be potentially viewed as a queer opposition to the heterosexual appropriation of the myth, a contestation that can be further developed through the utilization of Butler’s conceptual framework. Whereas the author provides a thorough account of the genesis myth, it nonetheless is somehow forced, inferring that all foundational texts of the tradition can be read under a non-heterosexual light, instead of merely providing a radical critique of such texts as constitutive of the formation of gender societal roles. Nevertheless, there is an effective use of Butler’s concept of the “heterosexual matrix” to understand the genesis myth as itself an enactment of the potential for different “performative” of gender relations in the Garden context. The author thus reveals a commitment to a sexually open reading of foundational texts, opposing feminist and queer critique of such texts in the greater literature with a feminist and queer rehabilitation of this same tradition.

Wittreich, Joseph. “John, John, I blush for thee!” Mapping Gender Discourses in Paradise Lost. In Out of Bounds: Male Writers and Gender(ed) Criticism, edited by Laura Claridge and Elizabeth Langland, 22-54. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990.

Wittreich argues that the patriarchal interpretations of Milton are unfounded, to the extent that what is at stake in Paradise Lost is a moment of patriarchal self-recognition, in which the system realizes its own production of classifications. Hence, Milton’s text plays the delicate role of both remaining within a patriarchal framework and simultaneously critiquing it, a critique that opens the possibility for a radically feminist history. The author relies on a close reading of Paradise Lost to expose patriarchy’s self-critique and feminist possibility, developing an argument that seems to effectively tread the middle ground between both masculine and feminist readings of Milton, while also maintaining this middle ground as the pre-condition for a conceivable feminist Milton. The author thus presents an unbiased ideological perspective, not attempting to force Milton into any preconceived views. In doing so the author acknowledges the polarization of scholarly conversation surrounding Milton and provides a radical alternative to this dichotomy.

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