E. M. Forster's reconfigured gaze and the creation of a homoerotic subjectivity.
--E. M. Forster to Florence Barger regarding Maurice (Selected Letters 1: 223)
While E. M. Forster's novels can certainly be read as "straight" by mainstream audiences, they simultaneously allow a gay male readership to identify in them a distinctively homoerotic subtext, a subjectivity that allows for a reading or readings that are distinct from the conventional heteronormative interpretation. One of the major ways in which Forster achieves this dual subjectivity lies in his radical reconfiguration of the male gaze as Jacques Lacan defined it, and as both feminist and psychoanalytic critics have applied it to twentieth-century literature and film. By switching the gendered object of the male gaze from female to male, and by disrupting the progress of his narratives at important moments during which the reader is invited to gaze on a tableau in which the male body is the central focal point, Forster invented a kind of narration that powerfully expresses male homoerotic desire while shrewdly maintaining the veneer of heterosexual conventionality.
By nineteenth-century standards the tableau is not necessarily unusual; Forster is not unique in allowing his narrators to indulge in describing highly visual scenes in which little action and no dialogue intrudes. Yet while in Victorian terms the tableau functioned to emphasize a critical, dramatic moment, a point frozen in time, Forster's tableaus tend to be disruptive rather than emphatic, and dynamic rather than static in terms of their effect on the narrative. In many cases his tableaus alter and drive forth the course of the plot dramatically, as will be discussed in the cases of his novels Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905), The Longest Journey (1907), and A Room with a View (1908). This essay will explore the manner in which Forster reconfigures the gaze in these tableaus to create a homoerotic subjectivity particularly designed to appeal to a gay male readership. Although the responses of heterosexual women to his alteration of the gaze may have been similar to those of gay men, particular clues embed ded in Forster's texts suggest ways in which a male homosexual audience is specifically being targeted.
As the field of queer theory has emerged, scholars have begun to explore the ways writers have found to express the homosexual perspective in works written before the open acknowledgment of homosexuality became acceptable. Ed Cohen has used the term "ec-centric" to describe men of the late Victorian period whose self-awareness drove them to find ways to express their "true" selves through their writing. "Ec-centric" writers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had to invent ways to represent aspects of themselves that had been unrepresentable before (88); very often one can detect a homoerotic subtext in such writers' works. Cohen points to John Addington Symonds as one of the first scholars who persistently attempted to define what he considered an "aura of difference" in literature in which he perceived such a subtext, as in Sidney and Whitman. Writing in the latter half of the nineteenth century, Symonds was perhaps the first to acknowledge and to attempt to delineate the concept of "homote xtuality" in literature. (1)
Contemporary scholars have continued Symonds's endeavor to identify and to delineate homotextuality. Ruth Robbins's work on masculinity and homoeroticism in the poetry of Oscar Wilde and A. E. Housman provides an example of what such a study can yield. Robbins refers to both of these poets' attempt to use a "poetic code" to articulate homosexual desire in their poetry (138). Of Housman she writes that "A reader would have to work at being shocked or dazzled by A Shropshire Lad-- unless, that is, (s)he was 'in the know' about the code which Housman was using" (151). Housman's poems can be read "straight," that is, they can yield a heterosexual and therefore entirely "acceptable" interpretation (151). And while Wilde's works were picked apart by his prosecutors during his public scandal in an attempt to find evidence for the author's sexuality, surely it was the vehemence of the public backlash against him that precipitated such an attack on his works. Had he not become known publicly as a "sodomite," his writi ngs no doubt would have continued to be read as "straight," just as Housman's were. As Alan Sinfield has written of The Picture of Dorian Gray, it was not necessary for Wilde to characterize his characters as homosexuals in order to fully explore his interest in homoerotic themes (100).
Forster follows Wilde and Housman, whose work he particularly admired, in producing literature that could be read as entirely conventional but also as homoerotic, and he does this by means of his visual tableaus. Certainly the homoeroticism of these tableaus was as recognizable to those of Forster's contemporaries who were sensitive to the homoerotic subjectivity he creates as it is to such readers and critics today. The episode of George Emerson's and Lucy Honeychurch's first kiss in the Italian countryside in A Room with a View provides one of the best examples of such a tableau in Forster's fiction. This tableau illustrates Forster's technique of using visual aspects alone to tell the story Moreover, it illustrates the manner in which Forster uses the tableau to disrupt the narrative and to drive all of the ensuing events of the novel. In a field overrun with violets, described as "irrigating the hillside with blue, eddying round the tree stems, collecting into pools in the hollows, covering the grass with spots of azure foam," George is described as standing at its brink, "like a swimmer who prepares" (80). The image of a swimmer invites the reader to envision the young man undressed or undressing, despite the fact that the setting is a meadow. Moreover, the scene foreshadows another important tableau later in the novel when George will go bathing. When Lucy stumbles upon George in this meadow, neither character speaks. Overcome with emotion, George presses toward Lucy and kisses her passionately, beginning a chain of reactions that will drive the remainder of the novel's plot.
Later in the novel Forster humorously revises his own description of this scene when the pulp novelist Eleanor Lavish includes her own version of the incident in her latest romance. Lavish's rendering inadvertently parodies the earlier account of the event, yet again the visual aspect of what had been witnessed is central:
All unobserved Antonio stole up behind her-- ... There came from his lips no wordy protestation such as formal lovers use. No eloquence was his, nor did he suffer from a lack of it. He simply enfolded her in his manly arms. (186)
In Lavish's account Forster playfully satirizes his own practice of incorporating tableaus in his fiction. But, more importantly, this passage as presented through the female novelist's eyes underscores the fact that it is the male who is the object of the gaze. The focus is on his lips; his manly arms, as before it had been on his appearance as "a swimmer who prepares."
Forster relies on the reader's visualization of the action in order to understand the import of what takes place. No dialogue or narrative interruption explains George's motivations. In addition, the scene's central focus is on the location, appearance, and actions of George, as opposed to those of the novel's heroine Lucy. Certainly nothing would have been considered amiss to the heterosexual contemporary readers of Forster's fiction; his narrator's homoerotic gaze is not so overt as to draw attention to itself. Many may not have detected the slightest difference in Forster's narrative style as compared to that of other contemporary writers. Nevertheless, implicit in Forster's prose and in the invitation to gaze on this tableau is what Symonds would have recognized as a distinct "aura of difference."
The response of painter Paul Cadmus to Forster's novels clearly exemplifies the effect of Forster's reconfigured gaze on a gay reader and fellow artist. In his painting entitled To E. M. Forster, Cadmus depicts a fully clothed woman reading a book, with a nude man stretched out beside her. A lighthouse is a noteworthy element in the background. (2) As Forster's tableaus change the object of the Lacanian gaze from female to male, Cadmus's painting likewise transfers the viewer's gaze from the female body to the male, objectifying the male form in an intriguing reversal of the tradition of such paintings as Manet's Dejeuner sur I'herbe, in which a nude woman lounges on the grass among two fully dressed male picnickers. Cadmus's reaction to Forster's work in this painting attests, for certain readers, to the importance of the male form as object of desire in Forster's fiction.
Inspired by Freud's emphasis in Three Essays on Sexuality on the importance of scopophilia in sexual development, and by Sartre's discussion in Being and Nothingness of the relationship between "the look" and our awareness of the existence of others, Lacan developed his own theory of petit objet a; that is, the object that one perceives one is lacking or has lost, and thus the object that "unchains desire" (Benvenuto and Kennedy 176) (3). As Lacan puts it in Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho Analysis, "the object on which depends the phantasy from which the subject is suspended in an essential vacillation is the gaze" (83). "The gaze," he writes, "is presented to us only in the form of a strange contingency, symbolic of what we find on the horizon, as the thrust of our experience, namely, the lack that constitutes castration anxiety" (72-73).
In Lacan's theory, then, the gaze is constituted by the man's desire for the other, and for the lack, the missing petit objet that his perception of the other represents for him. Moreover, Lacan clarifies that "it is a question of a sort of desire on the part of the Other, at the end of which is the showing (le donner-a-voir).... How could this showing satisfy something, if there is not some appetite of the eye on the part of the person looking?" (115). In Lacan, the "Other" is perceived as the female:
The spectacle of the world,.... appears to us as all-seeing....At the very level of the phenomenal experience of contemplation, this all-seeing aspect is to be found in the satisfaction of a woman who knows that she is being looked at, on condition that one does not show her that one knows that she knows. (75)
From its purely androcentric and heterosexual viewpoint, however, Lacan's theory neglects to account for the experience of women or of homosexual men. A number of critics have emerged to provide such an account. In "Another 'Cause'--Castration," Luce Irigaray provides an influential critique of the ways in which women are objectified in Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalytic theory. Irigaray gives the issue of women's desire its due, and suggests that the concept of penis envy reflects men's fear of castration more than any desire on the part of women. Women do not envy the penis, she explains, but rather the powerful, knowing, phallic gaze. Two other works have contributed to a revaluation of the role of the gaze in twentieth-century art and film. In Ways of Seeing, John Berger describes the objectification of women as a fundamental aspect of Western art as well as of women's perceptions of their own identities. And in "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," Laura Mulvey argues that women are exploited as images in the classic films of Hollywood in order to sustain the dominant patriarchal order.
Once the appropriation and fetishization of women had been addressed, critics began to reassess the issue of women's response to the Lacanian gaze as it is manifested in literature and art. In "Afterthoughts on 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema' inspired by Duel in the Sun," for example, Mulvey revisits the topic of her earlier essay and considers ways in which the film tradition she critiques allows women to identify with the spectator of the gaze. (4) Mary Ann Doane and Constance Penley have also explored the ways in which "women's films" resituate the woman as spectator; others have argued for the possibility that any spectator, male or female, can experience multiple identifications with characters on the screen. (5)
In applying this sort of critical exploration to a literary context, Beth Newman's "'The Situation of the Looker-On': Gender, Narration, and Gaze in Wuthering Heights" offers a useful paradigm for the present study by questioning the assumption that the gaze is always male and always omnipotent. Newman examines instances in Emily Bronte's novel in which women turn the gaze on men, and how in such cases Bronte imagines the destruction of the "hierarchical positioning of male and female that the gendered gaze entails" (460). She argues that "the gaze can serve to destabilize the viewer as well as to confer mastery, especially if the gazer is caught looking by another subject who sees the gaze and perceives it as an expression of desire" (456). Newman explores the degree to which, in Lacan's terms, a female's return of the gaze relates to castration anxiety. Ultimately, she even suggests that the gaze itself "opens a space" for the resistance of control (458). (6)
Despite the wide treatment of the gaze by contemporary feminists and psychoanalytic critics, however, scholars are just beginning to consider the implications of its traditionally heterocentric focus for non-heterosexual readers, male and female. In "Afterthoughts," Mulvey discusses the manner in which women are forced to shift their identities in watching a film; the same can be argued for male homosexual spectators and readers--that is, that their experience of film and literary texts has traditionally required them to identify with the heterosexual male protagonist, the bearer of the gaze. Newman's analysis of Emily Bronte's manner of inverting the gaze in order to represent the experience of heterosexual women opens the door for further studies to consider the experiences of gay and Lesbian readers. (7)
The gaze in Forster's mainstream fiction
Forster's reconfiguration of the Lacanian gaze to create a homoerotic subjectivity in his narratives is evident in many of his early novels. In Where Angels Fear to Tread, for example, Forster restructures the gaze in developing a sharp contrast between the two main male characters: the English Philip Herriton and the Italian Gino Carrella. Herriton's widowed sister-in-law, Lilia, has hastily married Gino while on holiday in Italy. Philip is sent by his astonished mother to "rescue" Lilia and the Herriton family honor after her marriage. Later, after Lilia's death during childbirth, he is sent with his sister Harriet to retrieve Lilia's infant son. As in several of his novels, in Where Angels Fear to Tread Forster sharply contrasts the repressed and emotionless English with passionate foreigners, and here that contrast is played out in the changes in Philip's own perceptions and feelings as a result of his interactions with the young and passionate Gino. Forster forecasts the change that Philip will undergo b y allowing from the beginning that Philip, like Lilia, is drawn to the passion and beauty of Italy, and hence is capable of being transfigured by it, unlike his stern mother who "did not believe in romance, nor in transfiguration" (15).
In Where Angels Fear to Tread Forster's restructured gaze is first apparent in the scene in which Philip is introduced to Gino. In the near absence of any description of the appearance or dress of the female characters, the narrator indulges himself in several paragraphs describing the well-built Gino's good features, and Philip's initial reaction of disgust followed by an increasing understanding of Lilia's attraction to him. The third of these paragraphs is the most telling and the most homoerotic:
the youth was hungry, and his lady filled his plate with spaghetti, and when those delicious slippery worms were flying down his throat, his face relaxed and became for a moment unconscious and calm. And Philip had seen that face before in Italy a hundred times--seen it and loved it, for it was not merely beautiful, but had the charm which is the rightful heritage of all who are born on that soil. (48)
Under Philip's gaze Gino at his supper is a highly sexualized being. The description of the "delicious slippery" pasta characterizes the experience as a sensual one, and the image of worms "flying down his throat" can be read as a veiled image of fellatio. In addition, Gino's passionate consumption of his meal is followed by an almost postcoital moment of unconsciousness.
In chapter 7, Forster brings Gino's attractiveness into central focus in another powerful reorientation of the gaze in a tableau that alters the course of the narrative dramatically. Here the reader is invited to join Caroline Abbott, Lilia's former traveling companion, as she watches an unsuspecting Gino carrying on a private conversation in his bedroom with his infant son. Overcome by her reaction to the object of her gaze, Caroline faints. In the scene that follows, she undergoes a complete change of heart regarding Gino while joining him in bathing his baby. Again, a visual tableau carries greater import than any interchange of dialogue or any intrusive narrative explanation. Caroline's submission to her attraction to Gino, and all that Gino represents of the Italian culture, proves to be a major turning point in the course of the book.
In chapter 9, when Gino learns of the death of his son, his physical confrontation with Philip provides a third example of a powerful tableau. Initially, Gino silently patted the table from the end, "as if he were blind' prompting Philip to go to him and to touch him on the shoulder. Gino then passed his hands over everything in the room until "he had touched everything in it except Philip.... The left hand came forward, slowly this time. It hovered before Philip like an insect. Then it descended and gripped him by his broken elbow" (260). In reaction, Philip strikes Gino, and then in a fit of remorse he
knelt beside his adversary and tried to revive him. He managed to raise him up, and propped his body against his own. He passed his arm round him, Again, he was filled with pity and tenderness. He awaited the revival without fear, sure that both of them were safe at last. (260-61)
Here the reader is offered a tableau of Philip's embrace of Gino as a pieta. The religious context is then reinforced by Caroline's attempt to reconcile the two men in words that echo the language of the Eucharist: "'That milk', she said, 'need not be wasted. Take it, Signor Carella, and persuade Mr. Herriton to drink"' (267).
Through Philip Herriton's mixture of disgust and attraction toward Gino, Forster gradually reveals Philip's growing desire for the other man. In her work on such instances of "homosocial" desire in eighteenth-and nineteenth-century British literature in Between Men (1985), Eve Sedgwick interprets literary examples like this one in which men's desire for bonds with other men can manifest itself through the means of an erotic triangle. (8) The woman who completes the triangle in this case is Caroline Abbott, who worships Gino and whom both Philip and Gino have grown to idealize. By the end of the novel, Philip attempts to identify his desire for Miss Abbott only to recognize that they have both been irrevocably changed by Gino's mysterious appeal. Philip's request that Caroline bare her soul is answered by her confession that she loves Gino; in response, he exclaims, "Rather! I love him too!" (278).
At an important point in the novel, Forster strengthens his readers' impressions of Philip's desire for Gino with a subtle allusion to Flaubert's Madame Bovary. Like the Bovarys, Philip, his sister Harriet, and Caroline attend a performance of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor in Monteriano. In Flaubert's novel, the reference to this opera and to the Scott novel on which it is based underscores Emma Bovary's emotional state as a woman trapped, like Lucia/Lucy, in an unhappy marriage. The opera affects Emma Bovary deeply; moreover, at the performance she becomes reacquainted with a former admirer, and the two soon become lovers. As in Mine. Bovary's case, Donizetti's opera moves Philip deeply, and at the opera he is reacquainted with Gino, who grasps Philip by the hands and pulls him up into the stalls where he is seated. For the reader attuned to the homoerotic subtext, the allusion to Madame Bovary here intensifies the sense of Philip's repressed emotions and sexual desire, and positions Gino as the object of that desire.
Several contemporary reviews of Where Angels Fear to Tread indicate the degree to which the first readers of Forster's novels recognized and responded to his reconfigured gaze. In an unsigned notice in the Glasgow Herald, an enthusiastic reviewer notes the contrast between Lilia's "submissive, hen-pecked, de-sexed husband of England," and the "easygoing, cynical, coolly-tyrannical, decidedly and blatantly masculine specimens that Italy can still boast of." This reviewer focuses on the passion and brute physicality of Gino and twice acknowledges Philip's having fallen in love with him (Gardner 45-46). Another unidentified reviewer in the Birmingham Daily Post acknowledges how all of the characters in the novel seem to "worship every inch" of Gino (Gardner 47). In the Daily News, C. F. G. Masterman, clearly caught by the spell of Forster's gaze, described Gino as possessing "something mysterious and terrible, congruous with the hot night and magic of the hills and valleys, and all the enchantment of a land wher e the intellect is paralyzed by the emotions" (Gardner 53-54).
The Longest Journey likewise demonstrates a powerfully homoerotic subtext, most immediately evident in the virtual absence of physical description of the female characters in contrast to detailed descriptions concentrating on the appearance of the men. Compare the first appearance of one of the main characters, Agnes Pembroke--"The door opened. A tall young woman stood framed in the light that fell from the passage" (6)--with the first appearance of her fiance, Gerald:
Agnes was leaning over the creosoted garden-gate, and behind her there stood a young man who had the figure of a Greek athlete and the face of an English one. He was fair and clean-shaven, and his colourless hair was cut rather short. The sun was in his eyes, and they, like his mouth, seemed scarcely more than slits in his healthy skin. Just where he began to be beautiful the clothes started. Round his neck went an up-and-down collar and a mauve-and-gold tie, and the rest of his limbs were hidden by a grey lounge suit, carefully creased in the right places. (38-39)
"Lovely, Lovely!" Agnes cries immediately following this passage, a cry that seems for just a few seconds to refer to Gerald's beauty. Agnes, who will become a major figure in the novel, is hardly described at all, and the narrator never finds it necessary to concentrate on her appearance or dress. The narrator lingers over Gerald, however, and provides a richly visual tableau for the reader despite the fact that this rather minor character dies suddenly and unexpectedly early in the novel. The unusual focus on Gerald's neck eroticizes this aspect of his body by highlighting the fact that here his clothes start, just where his statuesque body begins. The reader is invited to direct his or her gaze from Gerald's head and face to his neck, and then to imagine his athletic body beneath his clothing. Gerald's physicality will become central to the text; his main function will prove to be his role as object of the gazes of both Agnes and the main character, Rickie Elliot.
Forster pays close attention to Rickie's feelings toward Gerald, who had bullied him as a boy. A passage that describes the flash of horror over Rickie's face on meeting Gerald as an adult tells us about that history: "But he and Gerald had met, as it were, behind the scenes, before our decorous drama opens, and there the elder boy had done things to him--absurd things, not worth chronicling separately" (41). To a reader familiar with the traditions of hazing and homosexual activities among English schoolboys, the subtext here is perhaps darker in the narrator's refusal to enumerate exactly what Gerald did to Rickie; but before one can speculate long, the narrator does "chronicle separately" a list of Gerald's abuses of Rickie, ostensibly to dismiss such anxieties:
An apple-pie bed is nothing; pinches, kicks, boxed ears, twisted arms, pulled hair, ghosts at night, inky books, befouled photographs, amount to very little by themselves. But let them be united and continuous, and you have a hell that no grown-up devil can devise. Between Rickie and Gerald there lay a shadow that darkens life more often than we suppose. The bully and his victim never quite forget their first relations. They meet in clubs and country houses, and clap one another on the back; but in both the memory is green of a more strenuous day, when they were boys together. (42)
In this passage's emphasis on the dark aspect of Rickie's and Gerald's relationship, Forster begins to lay the groundwork for a homosocial triangle involving Gerald, Rickie, and Agnes, and a rather dark one at that, since he continually contrasts the lame Rickie to the physically perfect Gerald, as even Agnes herself does: "She had a thrill of joy when she thought of the weak boy in the clutches of the strong one" (55).Yet to the reader attuned to Rickie's homosexual qualities, most distinct in his relationship with the clearly homosexual Stewart Ansell, it is obvious that the triangle itself is a reconfigured one--Rickie and Agnes both desire Gerald.
Scott Nelson has made a convincing argument for Rickie's homosexuality based on the muddle that exists for him concerning love and friendship among his schoolmates at Cambridge, and his wish for "a society, a kind of friendship office, where the marriage of true minds could be registered" (Longest Journey 69). (9) Nelson cites a passage detailing Rickie's thought processes as further evidence that Rickie's struggle and failure to sustain his "love" for Agnes reflects his homosexual desires:
He thought of her awake. He entertained her willingly in dreams. He found her in poetry and music and in the sunset. She made him kind and strong. She made him clever. Through her, he kept Cambridge in its proper place, and lived as a citizen of the great world. But one night he dreamt that she lay in his arms. This displeased him. He determined to think a little about Gerald instead. Then the fabric collapsed. (71; Nelson 310)
When Gerald dies suddenly and unexpectedly on the football field, Forster offers Rickie, and the reader, a tableau of Agnes cradling the dying man in her arms like a pieta. After Gerald's death, Rickie is free to pursue his interest in Agnes, but the tension at the core of their relationship is soon exacerbated by another male character, Rickie's half-brother Stephen Wonham. Forster frequently emphasizes Stephen's physical appearance as he did with Gerald, though perhaps more subtly The first examples of this are found in Stephen's first appearance in the novel, after he comes inside from tending a herd of sheep in the rain:
He blew on his fingers and took off his cap. Water trickled over his unshaven cheeks. His hair was so wet that it seemed worked upon his scalp in bronze.... He was a powerful boy of twenty, admirably muscular, but rather too broad for his height. (93)
At times he scratched his ear, or ran his tongue along a straggling blonde moustache. His face had after all a certain beauty: at all events the colouring was regal--a steady crimson from throat to forehead. (96)
Stephen easily slips into Gerald's place in the triangle with Rickie and Agnes, and Agnes begins to perceive Stephen as a threat to her marriage and security. At the plot's climax, Agnes gazes at Stephen, "with arms that dangled from broad stooping shoulders" (269), and is reminded of Gerald. She then breaks down, revealing the well-kept secret of her love for Gerald, which she had tried to suppress in her thoroughly controlled marriage to Rickie. Agnes's resentment of Stephen, then, is explained by his physical likeness to the man she truly loved. Joseph Bristow argues that Stephen Wonham has such an overpowering effect on both Rickie and Agnes "precisely because he is the kind of muscular brute the married couple either want to be or to have" (70).
Nelson criticizes Forster's displacement of the homoerotic elements of Rickie's and Stephen's relationship by making them half brothers, and he blames the novel's contrived ending on his ultimate capitulation to "the constraints of traditional narrative form and plot" (319). Ultimately Nelson sees The Longest Journey as a failed attempt to invert the "traditional, heterosexual narrative scheme in the published, commercial text" (320), yet I would argue that in his reconfiguration of the gaze, Forster succeeds in doing just that. The Longest Journey, whatever its shortcomings, is clearly an attempt to explore the psychological situation of the homosexual male, albeit within the confines of acceptable narrative conventions. (10)
As in Where Angels Fear to Tread, the gay male reader is invited to identify with the main character and to share a gaze that focuses first on Gerald Dawes and then on Stephen Wonham, a gaze that objectifies the very type of tough, athletic, masculine man that has traditionally borne both the gaze and the power that accompanies it. The novel's dark ending is not necessarily a comment on the assured fate of the homosexual male in the Edwardian world; it may instead be read as an expose of the brutality of that world from such a character's point of view. In any case, the reader has been invited to experience an altered gaze and a liberating variation of the traditional power construct.
Again, contemporary reviews allow us to assess the effect of Forster's reconfigured gaze on his audience in 1907. Many reviewers noted the symbolic importance of the male body in the text in terms of Rickie's lameness in contrast to Gerald's athletic and Stephen's wild, animalistic physical presences; indeed Gerald is mentioned more frequently in the reviews than one might expect, given the relatively minor role he plays in the novel. A reviewer in the Morning Post acknowledges that Rickie's motivations for marrying Agnes stemmed from having seen her
in the arms of a previous lover--Gerald Dawes, with the figure of a Greek athlete and the face of an English one, so that "just where he began to be beautiful the clothes started"--and she is transfigured for him by the memory of that moment and of one other when that lover lay in her arms--dying of football injuries. (Gardner 78-79)
An astute reviewer in the Spectator points out that "when [Gerald's] death has cleared the way for Rickie, he very abnormally sets up the figures of the deceased [Gerald] Dawes and Agnes in his mind as images made radiant and consecrated by the greatest event in Agnes's life" (Gardner 92- 93).
Writing to Forster around 1915, Frieda Lawrence praised this novel's treatment of "man-to-man love instead of bloodrelationship." Providing the rare point of view of a contemporary woman reader, she also remarked, "Your women I don't understand, you seem to dislike them so much!" (Gardner 97). And curiously, a reviewer of the first American edition of The Longest Journey in 1922 described the theme as "an insistence on a return to the Greek ideal of beauty as a panacea for the ills of modern life" and quoted Forster's own comment concerning Rickie's "desire for beauty that leads him astray if he is not careful" (Gardner 98).
In the year following the publication of The Longest Journey, Forster published A Room with a View, in many ways a comic treatment of the Anglo-Italian contrast Forster explored in the darker Where Angels Fear to Tread years earlier. A Room with a View provides an excellent example of the highly visual nature of Forster's narrative style and his concentration of the gaze on male characters, in this case mainly on George Emerson. As in the novels examined above, few characters receive lengthy physical description in A Room with a View. Nevertheless here and there the reader is invited to gaze on George as the heroine Lucy does. (11) Lucy first takes a long look at George while touring the chapels of Sante Croce in chapter 2, finding in George a tableau far more interesting than the sights to be seen in the chapel as listed in her Baedeker:
She watched the singular creature pace up and down the chapel. For a young man his face was rugged, and--until the shadows fell upon it--hard. Enshadowed, it sprang into tenderness. She saw him once again at Rome, on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, carrying a burden of acorns. Healthy and muscular, he yet gave her a feeling of greyness, of tragedy that might only find solution in the night. (29)
George's face is described for the reader in elegant detail: it is rugged and hard, but in the shadows, tender. He is compared to a work of art--a figure of Michelangelo, itself a clue to the subtext of homoeroticism. He is healthy and strong, yet also gray; and the statement concerning the solution of that grayness in the night is both ominous and potentially erotic. Interestingly, Lucy will break off her engagement to the priggish Cecil Vyse in part due to his objectifying her in comparing her to a painting of Leonardo Da Vinci. Yet here, Lucy objectifies George in precisely the same manner.
In the tableau in which George kisses Lucy for the first time, the image of George as a swimmer has a subtle relationship to the later and highly homoerotic bathing scene in chapter 12, when George and Lucy's brother Freddy cavort and chase each other about in the nude. Although their behavior is ostensibly innocent, the scene is highly erotic, particularly when Lucy inadvertently surprises the men, and George unabashedly stops and calls to her: "He regarded himself as dressed. Barefoot, bare-chested, radiant and personable against the shadowy woods, he called" (153). Paul Hammond has noted the homoeroticism implicit in the gaze in this tableau, in which the vicar Mr. Beebe watches George and Freddy "romping naked in the woodland pool before joining them" (196). The scene invokes similar scenes in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century fiction and art that are clearly homoerotic--one thinks of D. H. Lawrence's The White Peacock, or such paintings as Thomas Eakins's The Swimming Hole and Arcadia, or Henr y Scott Tuke's August Blue and Noonday Heat, for example.
One of Forster's most evident contributions toward the homoerotic subtext of the novel comes earlier in chapter 12. While waiting in the Emersons' house for George to join them for the bathing episode, Freddy and Mr. Beebe are puzzled by the Emersons' piles of books: "'Are these people great readers?' Freddy whispered. 'Are they that sort?"' (144). Mr. Beebe investigates their shelves and turns up Byron, Butler's The Way of All Flesh, and A Shropshire Lad, among other texts, and indicates that he has never heard of the last. Although this detail is clearly an indication of the "queerness" of the Emersons from Freddy's and Mr. Beebe's points of view, it again contributes to a homoerotic subtext. (12) Such clues, much like Lucy's association of George's looks with Michelangelo's painting, suggest ways in which the gaze is being restructured here specifically for a gay male readership as opposed to a broader audience that might include heterosexual women.
George Emerson is continuously depicted as an attractive and sensitive man who is comfortable with his sexuality; and Forster's narrator lets his gaze linger on him in scene after scene. In the final episode of the novel, George comfortably puts his head in Lucy's lap and indicates to her "where a kiss would be welcome." "Kiss me here' he tells his new wife, "Now kiss me here; then here" (242). The narrator's shift from his visual detail to the dialogue between the characters allows him to avoid direct description of the couple's love play; nevertheless he sets up the scene with George's body as the focal point of the entire interchange.
In this scene Forster goes as far as he ever does in allowing his reader to join his heroine in a long, luxurious gaze at the male form. The prose is perfectly "proper" in every respect from the point of view of a mainstream reader, but a reader attuned to Forster's altered gaze is invited to envision a love scene in which the woman is the active partner, bestowing both her gaze and her kisses on the passive body of her young husband. Few passages in his fiction demonstrate more effectively Forster's deftness in radically altering the gaze without stripping it of its erotic power, and all the while maintaining the strictest sense of propriety Ultimately, the refashioned gaze and the subtle undercurrent of homoeroticism running throughout A Room with a View dovetail with the novel's aim to represent the necessity of overcoming the stiffing influence of social convention in order to acknowledge and to embrace one's own particular desires.
Contemporary reviews suggest that Forster's first readers recognized his unusual emphasis on the visual in his narrative. One reviewer wrote that Forster's characters in A Room with a View "are as clear and salient as a portrait by Sargent" (Gardner 106). Another remarked of the characters that "they are not described, but display themselves in action" (Gardner 107). A third cited the tableaus of the novel as among its finest features:
The glimpse of George, "with beautiful things behind him unexpectedly' the wonderful bathing scene of the three men, and, most wonderful of all, the scene in the Italian square that first draws the lovers together--all these are unique, probably faultless in psychology, and certainly most delicate in impressionist art. (Gardner 117).
Visual tableaus and the reconfigured gaze in Maurice
Because he did not write Maurice with the intention of publishing it during his lifetime, Forster allowed himself free reign in that novel to treat homosexuality as he wished. The result gives us the rare opportunity to analyze how he makes use of the narrative tableau and the reconfigured gaze when he had no need to hide such concerns in a cryptic subtext. (13) In Maurice the gaze does not need to be as subtle as in Forster's mainstream fiction, and thus it is far more easily recognized. Because of the overt nature of the text's treatment of male homosexuality, however, it loses something of the power it drew from its daring and disruptive presence in otherwise conventional mainstream works, and thus is far less provocative and far less effective.
Again Forster employs the tableau and the gaze to convey the intensity of Maurice's desire as he struggles to come to terms with his suppressed homosexual nature. In this passage Maurice unabashedly stares at the sleeping Dickie Barry, a visitor in his mother's house, and the reader is invited to join Maurice as he gazes:
The boy, who had been to a dance the night before, remained asleep. He lay with his limbs uncovered. He lay unashamed, embraced and penetrated by the sun. The lips were parted, the down on the upper was touched with gold, the hair broken into countless glories, the body was a delicate amber. To anyone he would have seemed beautiful, and to Maurice who reached him by two paths he became the World's desire. (146-47)
The eroticism of the passage is hard to miss. The boy's limbs are uncovered. The sun "embraces" and even "penetrates" the boy, whose parted lips underscore his role as passive participant in the gaze. The slight touches of personification in Forster's description of the sun's rays are richly imbued with mythological associations. One may think, for example, of the sleeping Endymion, beloved by the moon goddess Selene, the sister of the sun. Or of Zeus's rape of the mortal Danae in the form of a shower of gold. The golden down on the boy's lip, his amber skin, and the hair "broken into countless glories" themselves recall the ancients' conceptions of the sun god, Helios or Apollo. The narrator continues to emphasize Maurice's response to the boy's body after Dickie joins the family for breakfast: "[his] hair was now flat from the bath, and his graceful body hidden beneath clothes, but he remained extraordinarily beautiful" (148). Forster writes that observing this particular tableau "burst Maurice's life to pieces" (150).
Forster's narrator provides scenes from Maurice's childhood and young adulthood that demonstrate his gradual awakening to his homosexuality. In the first half of the novel Forster focuses on Maurice's relationship with his Cambridge schoolmate, Clive Durham, the man who introduces to Maurice the idea of homosexual love. Maurice's and Clive's growing relationship at Cambridge is charted with visual detail concerning the men's physical expression of their desire for each other. While discussing religion, for example, their dialogue is punctuated by gradually increasing physical activity between them. Clive asks Maurice for a cigarette and instructs him to "put it in my mouth." The two engage in a crescendo of ever more physical horseplay, until
wherever they met, which was everywhere, they would butt and spar and embroil their friends....They walked arm in arm or arm around shoulder now. When they sat it was nearly always in the same position--Maurice in a chair, and Durham at his feet, leaning against him ... Maurice would stroke Durham's hair. (44-45)
Here Forster has set up a telling montage of tableaus that is surprisingly cinematic. By giving us three scenes of Clive and Maurice together, he tells us a great deal visually about the development of their relationship, and does so with only a few lines of prose.
When Clive and Maurice first acknowledge their attraction to each other, and when that attraction reaches its highest pitch, Forster again relies on the physical actions of the characters to convey what they are feeling. Here he returns to the earlier tableau in which Clive rests against Maurice's knee. To indicate the progression of the relationship, Forster activates the tableau--again, almost cinematically--making a tableau vivant by allowing the "camera" to roll ahead a few frames:
Now Durham stretched up to him, stroked his hair. They clasped one another. They were lying breast against breast soon, head was on shoulder, but just as their cheeks met someone called "Hall" from the court and he answered: he always had answered when people called. Both started violently. (58)
Gazing on the scene, the narrator relies on no speech between the two characters; in fact it is the intrusion of language--Hall's name called from the court--that abruptly ends this entirely physical interchange.
Christopher Isherwood credited Forster's homosexuality with providing the power of his fiction. "Unless you start with the fact that he was homosexual," he was reported as saying, "nothing's any good at all" (Lehmann 121). (14) In a review of Maurice on its first publication in 1971, an unidentified critic associates the novel with the homoerotic elements of Forster's other novels, and similarly claims that the success of the swimming-hole tableau in A Room with a View, for example, stems from Forster's own homosexuality:
No physical scene between the lovers is treated as vividly as the all-male bathing scene, so reminiscent of the pederastic bathing of Victorian homosexual writing and photography. In it, male nakedness liberates George and Mr. Beebe from their conventionality, and the women, when they appear, are a confining and depressing end to the affair. Over the whole episode a vague spiritual-mythological presence hovers which is evoked in the purplish prose that Forster characteristically employed on such occasions: "It had been a call to the blood and to the relaxed will, a passing benediction whose influence did not pass, a holiness, a spell, a momentary chalice for youth." (8 Oct. 1971; Gardner 484)
Lacan's discussion of the importance of the gaze in interpreting the work of the painter, as well as the painter's relationship to his art, is useful in considering here what Forster's use of the gaze indicates about his own subjectivity:
In the picture, something of the gaze is always manifested. The painter knows this very well--his morality, his search, his quest, his practice is that he should sustain and vary the selection of a certain kind of gaze. Looking at pictures, even those most lacking in what is usually called the gaze, and which is constituted by a pair of eyes, pictures in which any representation of the human figure is absent, like a landscape by a Dutch or a Flemish painter, you will see in the end, as in filigree, something so specific to each of the painters that you will feel the presence of the gaze. (101)
For Lacan, the representation of the gaze in art reflects something specific, something individual about the artist who has portrayed it. Forster's tableaus thus argue for a relationship between Forster's own personality and sexuality and the objects of the gaze as he depicts them in his fiction.
Composing Maurice allowed Forster the freedom to experiment openly with the psyche and the social dilemma of the male homosexual. But like Wilde, Housman, and other homosexual artists writing in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, contemporary cultural mores did not deter him from also developing in his mainstream fiction new ways to express homoerotic desire and to dismantle and reassemble traditional power structures relating to gender and sexuality. Long before twentieth-century scholars recognized and anatomized the psychosexual significance of the male gaze as it had developed in fiction and as it would be developed in twentieth-century film, Forster perceived that significance, and radically, if subtly, reconfigured the gaze to allow for a male Other. His experiments offered readers the opportunity to experience the gaze from a newly empowered standpoint, and, inevitably, to share more deeply Forster's vision that true liberation ultimately begins in recognizing the inhibition that stifli ng social conventions impose on the expression of desire.
A.A. Markley is assistant professor of English at Penn State University, Delaware County. He has published essays on nineteenth-century fiction and poetry, the works of Tennyson and Mary Shelley in particular. He has coedited (with Gary Handwerk) editions of William Godwin's novels Caleb Williams and Fleetwood and is currently editing a volume of poems and translations in the forthcoming series Mary Shelley: Literary Lives and Other Writings.
(1.) Fone uses the term homotextuality in his discussion of Symonds's work. For Symonds's influence on Forster, see Summers 102.
(2.) Cadmus completed two versions of this work, an egg tempera on gesso panel in 1943, and a black-and-white egg tempera on tracing paper, toned on back with pigment, in 1946. Forster was much pleased with the painting and described it as "holding the eye as well as the imagination." "Venturing to know my books as well as you do," Forster wrote to Cadmus, "I'd call it the spiritual forms of Margaret Schlegel and Stephen Wonham--not their forms, for Margaret was uglier and Stephen stockier" (Letter to Cadmus, Jan. 1944. Kirstein 78). Cadmus's painting is discussed by Martin and Piggford 2-3.
(3.) Two additional texts that have been fundamental for an understanding of the gaze are Michel Foucault's discussions of the medical gaze in "Seeing and Knowing" and "Open Up a Few Corpses" in The Birth of the Clinic.
(4.) Additionally, see Tania Modleski's summary of the debate over the male gaze in cinema and Edward Snow's critique of the feminist reaction against the gaze as a motif of the masculine power. Snow suggests that such attacks often grant the gaze overdue importance and thus "become complicit in the order of the things one wants to undermine" (40).
(5.) For the fluidity of spectator identifications, see also Rodowick, Bergstrom, Studlar, and Flitterman-Lewis.
(6.) John Bender's analysis of William Godwin's Caleb Williams provides a second example of an application of the theories of the gaze to British fiction. He analyzes the gaze and violence as aspects of "impersonal narration typical of realist prose fiction" (111).
(7.) An example of critical work moving in this direction is Tamsin Wilton's collection. See also works by Dyer; Silverman; and Gever, Parmar, and Greyson.
(8.) Sedgwick's definition of homosocial desire is based on ideas formulated by Freud, Levi-Strauss, Girard, and Rubin.
(9.) Forster's "marriage of true minds" here is of course a subtle homoerotic tag in its reference to Shakespeare's sonnet 116, addressed to "Mr. W. H."
(10.) For a similar reading of Henry James's "The Beast in the Jungle" see Sedgwick's "The Beast in the Closet."
(11.) Although here the reader is invited to gaze upon George from Lucy's point of view, I would not argue that the gay male reader is necessarily obliged to identify, with the heroine in appreciating George's attractiveness. Forster's reconfigured gazes are often situated from the perspective of his heroines, but this is not always the case, as we will see in the swimming hole scene in the discussion that follows.
(12.) Claude Summers discusses these references as indications of Forster's attempt to discover "a homosexual literary tradition" and to suffuse the novel with "the ideology of the late nineteenth-century homosexual emancipation movement" (100).
(13.) Similar examples of the gaze are also evident in much of the short fiction that Forster wrote with open homosexual content, collected in The Life to Come and Other Stories; see "The Other Boat" for a good example.
(14.) Summers also discusses Forster's homosexuality as an important influence on his work.
I am most grateful to Vincent Lankewish, Ruth Vanita, Monica Bachmann, and Lucy Morrison for their suggestions regarding this essay.
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|Author:||Markley, A. A.|
|Publication:||Twentieth Century Literature|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2001|
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