Queering Holmes and Watson: How Observation Transforms Friendship into Love

By Casey Coffee

“It was worth a wound—it was worth many wounds—to know the depth of loyalty and love which lay behind that cold mask. The clear, hard eyes were dimmed for a moment, and the firm lips were shaking. For the one and only time I caught a glimpse of a great heart as well as of a great brain. All my years of humble but single-minded service culminated in that moment of revelation.”

—Dr. John Watson in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Three Garridebs”


I.              INTRODUCTION

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson are known by media consumers as friends, partners, and crime solvers. To a smaller group of fans, they are recognized as a pair in love. These fans interpret the relationship between Holmes and Watson as romantic rather than platonic, and they perform both pseudo-academic and truly academic analyses arguing for the validity of their interpretations. Such interpretations represent one manifestation of a history of scholarly and non-scholarly work that reads male friendships as erotic or romantic relationships, as in the case of Star Trek fan magazines of the 1960s and ‘70s that featured stories highlighting the sexual tension between Kirk and Spock.

Readers and viewers who develop such interpretations perceive an extraordinary intimacy in these relationships that goes beyond friendship into romantic love and erotic attachment. I will call these types of interpretations queer readings, although it should be noted that there are many more types of queer readings in literary studies and queer theory whose goals are very different. Here, however, the term queer readings will refer specifically to interpretations that claim that at least one member of a seemingly platonic fictional friendship possesses romantic feelings toward the other. These interpretations may or may not argue that the authors of the texts in question intended for the characters to be in love with each other. In either case, however, the interpretations carry a liberatory tone that revels in reading a classic, traditional, or mainstream work in a modern and unconventional and wonderfully queer light. Such a reading has become increasingly common and increasingly accessible to readers both inside and outside of academic contexts.

Indeed, the most common and numerous of these readings appears in the form of fan fiction. The OED defines fan fiction as “fiction, usually fantasy or science fiction, written by a fan rather than a professional author, esp. that based on already-existing characters from a television series, book, film, etc.” (“fan,” n.2). Per this definition, when I refer to fan fiction, I am not speaking of the film and television adaptations of Doyle’s stories, though these may be thought of as a class of fan fiction. Here, I refer strictly to non-professional adaptation. And one marked inspirer of this adaptation is Sherlock Holmes. Each successive adaptation of Holmes and his companion seems, without fail, to engender its own queer readings.  

So, what is it about Holmes and Watson that sparks such an outpouring of these readings? Of course, there are the obvious points, brought about by historical differences. Male friendships in the late 1800s were allowed a degree of intimacy that may seem positively romantic to twenty-first-century readers. Holmes’s practice of calling his companion, “my dear Watson,” and the more openly emotional and admiring language that nineteenth-century men were allowed in their friendships, stand out to modern readers, who see these aspects of friendship through a twenty-first-century lens that may mark them as romantic or erotic. But cultural and language differences cannot be the only reason for queer readings. Holmes, after all, refrains from most expressions of emotion even to Watson, and Watson is so obviously attracted to women that even his admiration of Holmes is easily explained away as mere friendship. And yet, the queer readings continue. Even adaptations set in the twenty-first century, where such language disappears entirely, inspire their own queer readings.

The BBC’s television show Sherlock (2010–present), for example, is set in present-day London, and despite the show’s lack of the language of nineteenth-century male friendship, queer readings of Sherlock run rampant. Fans of the show have not only produced thousands of works of fan fiction featuring Sherlock and John in various stages of romantic and erotic relationships, but have also self-published journals, newsletters, and informal works in the style of academic scholarship that perform complex, well-researched queer readings. For a point of reference, as of this writing the fan fiction website Archive of Our Own features 51,703 works of Sherlock Holmes/John Watson fan fiction in the BBC Sherlock fandom alone. If the search is widened to include Holmes and Watson in other adaptations as well, the count increases to 55,443 works. Each of these works is a queer reading in itself, most of them stemming from a television show that uses the language of contemporary London. The language is unmistakably distinct from Doyle’s nineteenth-century language, with none of the intimacy and openness so clear in the famous epithet, “My dear Watson.” I argue that queer readings of male friendships like Sherlock Holmes and John Watson’s are the result, not of the cultural differences between male friendship in the nineteenth century and contemporary society, but instead, of readers’ sensitivity to the role of observation in these texts. Observation plays a key role in Holmes stories, from Doyle’s original works to the most modern of adaptations like Sherlock. This role goes beyond just searching for clues and solving crimes, extending further into our cultural unconscious, and there is something about Holmes and Watson that has brought the deeper meaning of observation to light.

I argue that the act of observation triggers recognition in readers of an eroticized relationship characterized by a surveyor and a surveyed, a relationship that Western readers and consumers have been unconsciously trained to associate with heterosexual and patriarchal romantic dynamics, not platonic friendship. To understand the implications that the act of observation has in our culture, I must consider what others have theorized about it. For example, to understand what observation means in Western art, John Berger’s Ways of Seeing is particularly revealing. Berger claims that social conventions dictate, in art as in life, that “men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at,” and that in art “women are depicted in a quite different way from men…because the ‘ideal’ spectator is always assumed to be male and the image of the woman is designed to flatter him” (Berger 47, 64). Berger also makes the distinction between the “surveyor” and the “surveyed” (Berger 46). In Berger’s mind, the depiction of women in art implies a surveyor—in the form of the painter, who surveyed his subject while painting; in the form of the viewer of the finished painting, who is assumed to be male and surveys the woman depicted; and in the form of the woman, who surveys herself as she is surveyed by others. This relationship between surveyor and surveyed is erotic, and sometimes romantic, and the possibility of a platonic, nonerotic gaze is limited, if not nonexistent. Moreover, since Berger’s writing in 1972, the relationship has become more flexible. Men are now objectified in media with the same intensity, if not the same frequency, as women. Women can now be considered surveyors, while the role of the surveyed has expanded to include men as well.

If Berger is to be believed, the act of observation in Western media, and in the minds of consumers of Western media, is associated with a heterosexual dynamic of a surveyor and a surveyed (of opposite sexes). This dynamic is implicitly erotic or romantic, depending on context, because men and women are rarely depicted in any form of media as platonic friends free from the tension of sex or love. So, what happens when a male surveyor focuses his attention on a male surveyed, as is the case in male friendships like Watson and Holmes’s? I argue that a similar kind of romantic dynamic becomes visible to certain readers. Readers whose conception of romance and eroticism extends beyond male/female dynamics find themselves reacting to this relationship of surveyor and surveyed—which is so weighted with erotic significance—between two men, and reading it as they would a similar relationship between a man and a woman. In these cases, the meaning of observation extends beyond its nineteenth-century bounds and comes to encompass even more. I mean to show the array of effects that observation has on developing intimacy between characters like Holmes and Watson.

Before I claim that it is reasonable for readers to interpret that Watson and Holmes have the markers of an intimate, and potentially romantic relationship, I would like to have a firm definition for intimacy with which to work. In “Defining Intimacy in Romantic Relationships,” Barry Moss and Andrew Schwebel develop a comprehensive definition of intimacy in “enduring romantic relationships” as “determined by the level of commitment and positive affective, cognitive, and physical closeness one experiences with a partner in a reciprocal (although not necessarily symmetrical) relationship” (Moss and Schwebel 33). In order to make classification of relationships possible, Moss and Schwebel organize this definition into five different components: mutuality, cognitive closeness, affective closeness, physical closeness, and commitment (Moss and Schwebel 34–35). Romantic relationships are characterized by high positive levels of each component. Friendship is very similar, but it contains a lower level of physical intimacy. Observation has a peculiar power to intensify many of these types of intimacies in Watson’s relationships with other people, and especially in his relationship with Holmes.


The detective Sherlock Holmes and his faithful companion and biographer Dr. John Watson may be one of the most famous couples in literary history, their popularity only growing since their creation in the nineteenth century. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published his first Sherlock Holmes story in 1887 as a novel called A Study in Scarlet, its first chapter titled “Mr. Sherlock Holmes.” The chapter details Watson’s return to London from the Afghan War, and his first meeting with Sherlock Holmes. Watson and Holmes are both in search of lodgings in London, and Watson is immediately impressed by Holmes’s enthusiasm and intellect but also mystified by Holmes’s deduction that Watson has just returned from Afghanistan. Instead of being repelled by Holmes’s knowing something private about Watson that he has not been told, Watson seems to relish the puzzle, telling his friend Stamford, who introduced him to Holmes, “‘Oh! A mystery is it?’ I cried, rubbing my hands. ‘This is very piquant. I am much obliged to you for bringing us together. ‘The proper study of mankind is man,’ you know’” (Doyle 7). These words signal Watson’s priorities to the reader, and color our understanding of Watson’s motivations throughout the story. Watson has not just found an amiable friend and a potential flatmate. He has found a mystery, and from the image of Watson rubbing his hands together, it is clear that he enjoys this. He has encountered a puzzle in Holmes, and he means to subject him to further study.

Study he does. That very evening, Watson agrees to live with Holmes and moves his belongings into No. 221B, Baker Street. Watson soon begins his observation of Holmes in earnest:

As the weeks went by, my interest in him and my curiosity as to his aims in life gradually deepened and increased. His very person and appearance were such as to strike the attention of the most casual observer…The reader may set me down as a hopeless busybody, when I confess how much this man stimulated my curiosity, and how often I endeavored to break through the reticence which he showed on all that concerned himself…I eagerly hailed the little mystery which hung around my companion and spent much of my time in endeavoring to unravel it. (Doyle 8)

Watson’s defensiveness about his interest in Holmes, which he illustrates when he anticipates the reader’s judgment of him as “a hopeless busybody,” only calls attention to the unusual intensity of that interest. His repetition of “curiosity” highlights not only the mystery surrounding Holmes but also its importance to Watson as an object of focus and attention. And his repetition of his “endeavoring to unravel [the mystery]” and the fact of “how often [he] endeavored to break through” lends a sense of activity and purpose to Watson’s curiosity and attention [emphasis added]. He is not simply mystified by Holmes; he is actively “endeavoring” to solve the mystery of him, to understand him. And to understand, Watson must observe.

        In the passage above, Watson figures himself explicitly as an “observer.” He attempts to downplay the significance of this by claiming that even “the most casual observer” would be struck by Holmes. However, Watson’s observation is not casual. It is systematic. Watson goes so far as to record his observations in the form of a list, which he titles, “SHERLOCK HOLMES—his limits” (Doyle 9). The list contains twelve points detailing the different types of knowledge and skills Holmes possesses and lacks. Watson is unable to draw a definitive conclusion from this list, eventually giving up and tossing it into the fire. But while it exists, the list stands as a curious testament to the unusual fervor of Watson’s fascination with Holmes. As Watson himself remarks, “no man burdens his mind with small matters unless he has some very good reason for doing so” (Doyle 8). Watson has clearly taken to burdening his mind with the minutiae of Sherlock Holmes, but his very good reason for such a detailed study is never explained. This makes it all the more remarkable, and it becomes a puzzle for readers to solve themselves. Some readers’ solutions are queer readings.

Whatever the reason for Watson’s study, the language of these passages portrays Watson’s observation as explicitly active. It is purposeful and action-based, which figures it neatly as a parallel to Berger’s spectator. Watson is a man who acts, even in the relatively passive and stationary process of watching another. However, the dynamic between Watson and Holmes, though similar to the dynamic that Berger examines between the nude women in paintings and the male spectators of those paintings, has some important differences. The most notable of these differences is that Sherlock Holmes, the “surveyed” in this relationship, is neither a woman nor someone who simply appears. Holmes is not a passive object to Watson’s active observation. This is clear even in the passage above describing Watson’s observation. Watson is so fascinated because Holmes “stimulate[s]” his curiosity and “strike[s]” his attention. Holmes is just as active, if not more so, than Watson, and his activity revolves just as much around the act of observation. In fact, the significance of Watson’s observation is only heightened by its parallel relationship to Holmes’s observation in his detective work.

Observation and deduction are important themes in every Sherlock Holmes story. They have a special kind of weight, and that means that when Watson observes Holmes, his observations carry that weight as well. The observation/deduction paradigm so common to detective stories (since Doyle popularized Edgar Allan Poe’s detective formula) even extends into the way that Watson articulates his study of Holmes. The language Watson uses to describe his observation mirrors this paradigm, as he explains that he “pondered over [his and Holmes’s] short conversation…and endeavored to draw [his] deductions from it” (Doyle 9). And as Holmes usually embarks on a step-by-step explanation of his observations and deductions after he solves a problem, so does Watson record his observations of Holmes for the reader to understand.

The fact that Watson’s observations of Holmes must not only be recorded and decoded but also published for the benefit of the reading public, heightens the admiration that Watson shows for Holmes. Though Doyle’s use of Watson as Holmes’s biographer may have emerged simply as a device used to justify Watson’s writings and the narrative form that the stories take, it has a very powerful, if unintended effect. Watson feels compelled to record and publish accounts of Sherlock Holmes’s deductive skills out of pure, unadulterated admiration and awe. This is the first marker of positive affective closeness between Watson and Holmes. Watson’s admiration translates into liking and caring, an essential component of intimacy. And Watson makes it very clear in each of his stories that he likes Sherlock Holmes—that he finds him “extraordinary.” Not only is the word “extraordinary” frequently used to describe Holmes and his actions in more than one of Doyle’s stories, but it is Watson’s admiration of Holmes’s extraordinary deductive prowess in the case he solves in A Study in Scarlet that prompts Watson to record it and publish it. He explains this even before he undertakes the task of writing, as he tells Holmes, “‘It is wonderful!’ I cried. ‘Your merits should be publicly recognized. You should publish an account of the case. If you won’t, I will for you’” (Doyle 70). Clearly, Holmes is a singular experience, one so fascinating and extraordinary to Watson that he feels the urge to present it to the world for further adoration. Watson admires, glorifies, and idealizes Holmes for his exceptional mind, which shines all the brighter in its contrast to Watson’s steady and stable character, which cannot even hope to achieve Holmes’s intellectual power.

This kind of idealization presents itself frequently in cases of love. Sigmund Freud even devotes an analysis to it in his essay, “Being in Love and Hypnosis,” from Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. According to Freud, being in love often results in the following:

the phenomenon of sexual over-estimation—the fact that the loved object enjoys a certain amount of freedom from criticism, and that all its characteristics are valued more highly than those of people who are not loved, or than its own were at a time when it itself was not loved. If the sensual tendencies are somewhat more effectively repressed or set aside, the illusion is produced that the object has come to be sensually loved on account of its spiritual merits, whereas on the contrary these merits may really only have been lent to it by its sensual charm….The tendency which falsifies judgment in this respect is that of idealization. (Freud 73–74) [emphasis in original]

It is impossible to say definitively that Watson sexually over-estimates Holmes. While some of his descriptions of Holmes are physical in nature, most of his observation is aimed at understanding Holmes’s mental processes rather than admiring his looks. The phenomenon of simple over-estimation, manifesting itself in idealization, however, is much easier to prove. Watson’s accounts of the cases that Holmes solves are a testament to that. Holmes himself criticizes Watson’s first chronicle, A Study in Scarlet for its rosy view. He tells Watson, “You have attempted to tinge it with romanticism, which produces much the same effect as if you worked a love-story or an elopement into the fifth proposition of Euclid” (Doyle 76). Holmes is unhappy with Watson’s account, not because Watson tampered with the facts in order to romanticize the story, but because Watson did not make the facts the hero of his story. According to Holmes, “‘the only point in the case which deserved mention was the curious analytical reasoning from effects to causes, by which I succeeded in unraveling it’” (Doyle 76). However, Watson is not fascinated simply by the extraordinary fact that mysteries may be solved by analytical reasoning. He is fascinated by Holmes. In Watson’s mind, the facts are not the hero of the story; Holmes is.

Though Watson’s first-person narration of Holmes and his adventures makes the presence of observation in Doyle’s texts very obvious, I must acknowledge that first-person narration is not a guarantor of queer readings of literary texts. There exists a plethora of literature written in the first person that does not inspire queer readings. And first person narration has many other important effects on stories that have nothing to do with amorous intimacy or romantic relationships. However, most of these novels distribute their attention widely to encompass a series of events, more than they do a particular person. Watson’s attention, in contrast, is disproportionately focused upon Holmes. Holmes is not the only object of Watson’s observation. After all, Watson records descriptions of the appearances, words, and actions of a variety of characters in addition to the detective. But his observation of Holmes is unique.

While Holmes’s cases are certainly interesting and take up a large part of Watson’s narration, the ways that he records events and the ways that he records Holmes are very different. It is not the cases themselves that so fascinate Watson. After all, he never exerts any real effort to learn Holmes’s craft of observation and deduction or to try to solve a case himself. He is consistently astounded by Holmes’s deductions, despite his intimate knowledge of Holmes’s methods. But his disinterest in honing his own skills and his preference for continuing to watch Holmes shows where his fascination truly lies. Holmes is the only puzzle that he ever exerts any effort to solve, and the only puzzle with which he meets any success. He is unable to deduce Holmes’s occupation, true, but Watson knows Holmes better than anyone else.

The best way to characterize Watson’s observational method—in contrast to Holmes’s—is mind-reading. This is not a magical or supernatural kind of telepathy, but a concerted effort through Theory of Mind to read Holmes’s body language, facial expressions, and sub-textual meanings in conversation. Ágnes Melinda Kovács defines Theory of Mind as “being able to take into account that people are guided by intentional mental states,” which allows us “to predict and interpret others’ behavior” (Kovács). It is Theory of Mind that allows Watson to interpret Holmes’s behavior and the mental states behind it. And Watson’s skill at this kind of mind-reading strengthens quickly. At first, his deductions are tentative, and he hedges when Holmes tries to shrug off Watson’s flattery, saying “I thought from his expression that [Holmes] was pleased” (Doyle 14) [emphasis added]. Five pages later, however, he has gained more confidence, and he can claim, “Gregson and Lestrade…evidently failed to appreciate the fact, which I had begun to realize, that Sherlock Holmes’s smallest actions were all directed towards some definite and practical end” (Doyle 19). Watson begins to understand things about Holmes that even Holmes’s long-term acquaintances cannot conceive of. Three pages after that, Watson brags, “I had already observed that he was as sensitive to flattery on the score of his art as any girl could be of her beauty” (Doyle 21). At this point, he has gained full confidence, reading past the façade Holmes tries to convey and well aware of the effect his flattering words will have on the detective.

In a remarkably short amount of time, Watson comes to know Holmes. He knows him so well that he can deduce Holmes’s thoughts and emotions from his facial expressions and physical mannerisms. Even when Holmes tries to hide his emotions from others, Watson can tell that he is pleased or flattered. This kind of mind-reading lends intimacy to Watson’s attention. Watson does not just want to record Holmes, he wants to read him, to enter his mind and understand it fully. Though he does not frame it as such himself, he wants to achieve an intersubjective state with Holmes. Indeed, despite his inability to perform his own deductions and solve cases, Watson meets with relative success in his observations and deductions about Holmes. He provides the warmth of his own interpersonal skills to offset the cold logic of Holmes’s analytical reasoning. With this skill, Watson gains positive cognitive closeness, another component of Moss and Schwebel’s definition of intimacy, which they define as “the depth of awareness individuals have of their partner’s cognitive world and the exchanges of cognitions they share” (Moss and Schwebel 33). This cognitive closeness might also be thought of as something like intersubjectivity—something achieved through what Daniel N. Stern calls “the intersubjective matrix,” a “continuous cocreative dialogue with other minds” that emerges from mutual mind-reading and attunement to the minds of others (Stern 77).

While observation, idealization, or mind-reading alone could simply be the marker of a particularly strong friendship, when the phenomena combine, the romantic connotations that each carry come together into a particularly powerful suggestion of an amorous relationship. The power of this suggestion is notable in A Study in Scarlet, but it becomes almost impossible to ignore when it is placed in an explicitly romantic context in Arthur Conan Doyle’s second Sherlock Holmes story. In The Sign of the Four, Dr. Watson meets his future wife, Mary Morstan, and his reaction to her bears striking similarities to his reaction to Holmes. The moment he first sees Miss Morstan, Watson’s unique powers of observation and mind-reading come to the fore, as he notes her “outward composure of manner,” but deduces from her trembling lip and hand that she shows “every sign of intense inward agitation” (Doyle 80). Watson replicates his ability to see past outward appearances to the inward emotions of Miss Morstan, a skill he first demonstrated upon Holmes. And before she even speaks, he goes so far as to say, “I have never looked upon a face which gave a clearer promise of a refined and sensitive nature” (Doyle 19). This is when Watson first begins to show idealization for Miss Morstan. Watson appears to have written The Sign of the Four at some point after the events he recounts, at which time he is already married to Mary. Writing after the fact may bias Watson’s objectivity, because it is unlikely that he would be able to deduce a woman’s nature, not from the expression on her face, but from the set of her face itself. This is either a projection from a later version of Watson who is familiar with his wife’s “refined and sensitive nature,” or it is yet another manifestation of over-estimation, but in this case, an over-estimation that is explicitly physical, and likely sexual.

Watson’s over-estimation of Holmes differs obviously from his sexual over-estimation of Mary. When Watson first meets Holmes, he provides no physical description of Holmes at all, impressed as he is instead by Holmes’s extraordinary intellect and enthusiasm over his looks. For this reason, there is little if any evidence in the first two stories to show how Watson feels about Holmes’s physical appearance. The opposite is true for Mary Morstan. Watson describes Miss Morstan most often with physical descriptors, though he does venture to mind-read Mary in the same way he reads Holmes. He sums up his first impression of her, however, when he exclaims to Holmes, “What a very attractive woman!” (Doyle 82). As a result, Watson’s feelings for Mary fit neatly into Freud’s concept of being in love, “idealization” leading to “sexual over-estimation.” Though he comes to admire Mary for her bravery, humility, and kindness, Watson’s liking for her clearly begins on their first meeting, when all he truly knows about her is what he can see in her appearance. After she leaves this first meeting, he muses:

My mind ran upon our late visitor—her smiles, the deep rich tones of her voice, the strange mystery which overhung her life….What was I, an army surgeon with a weak leg and a weaker banking-account, that I should dare to think of such things. (Doyle 82)

Though Watson only knows what he can see of Miss Morstan, he holds what little he knows of her in his mind, and she preoccupies him, as Holmes does. He berates himself for even thinking about her, deeming himself unworthy before he can know her true worth. Just as Watson raises Holmes’s deductive skills in comparison to his own inability to solve crimes, so does he raise Mary in comparison to himself.

Indeed, much of Watson’s relationship to Mary Morstan can be read as a more explicit, eroticized version of the way that he relates to Sherlock Holmes. The explicit romantic relationship between Watson and Mary functions as a useful control in studying the relationship between Watson and Holmes. The first relationship is explicitly romantic, the second plainly platonic, and yet the similarities between them are striking. In the male/female relationship, Watson marks his romantic interest by paying close attention to Mary, admiring her physical appearance and personality, and attempting to understand her thoughts and feelings through mind-reading. He idealizes her and debases himself, holds her in his mind throughout the story, and records his knowledge of her in The Sign of the Four. Similarly, Watson watches Holmes closely, admires his intellectual abilities, and embarks on a close study of his mind. He devalues his own deductive competence, and records and publishes Holmes’s doings as his biographer. The intent behind each of these relationships differs greatly, but for many readers, the effect is the same. And the power of this effect stems from its foundation in observation. Attention, mind-reading, admiration, and idealization are all made possible by the paradigm of the surveyor and the surveyed that Doyle built into Watson’s narrative perspective.

I must point out that the dynamic that Berger articulates between the surveyor and the surveyed is not a positive one. The fact that “men act and women appear” in Western art is a problem (Berger 47). It is a result of oppression that consistently silences and objectifies women while giving men agency and subjectivity. But the queer readings of the relationship between Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson do not highlight an oppressive relationship wherein Watson objectifies Holmes in order to flatter himself. In many ways, he does the opposite, debasing his own deductive powers in favor of idealizing Holmes’s, in the mode of Freud’s conception of idealization in love. But, even though Watson is consistently incompetent when it comes to using observation and deduction to solve crimes, he shows his competence elsewhere, in observing and deducing Holmes. And there is a promising mutuality to the observation in the Watson and Holmes relationship.

Holmes is a master of observation and deduction, and while he does direct most of his attention to solving crimes, he shows his awareness of Watson in small but significant ways. This is clear in Watson’s description of Holmes’s curious violin practices:

Of an evening, [Holmes] would close his eyes and scrape carelessly at the fiddle…I might have rebelled against these exasperating solos had it not been that he usually terminated them by playing in quick succession a whole series of my favorite airs as a slight compensation for the trial upon my patience. (Doyle 10)

On another night, Holmes plays Watson off to sleep with a particularly soothing violin melody of his own creation. These moments stand out to readers because of their contrast to Holmes’s normal behavior. Holmes makes a point of only retaining information that will be useful to his work (Doyle 9). However, in these moments of consideration, Holmes takes the time to hold Watson in his mind. He remembers his favorite songs, and he notices when Watson is exhausted and in need of sleep. Holmes attends to Watson’s well-being, even when it has no bearing on a case. Holmes’s attention is also a sign of positive affective closeness, which Moss and Schwebel define as “the depth of awareness individual have about their partner’s emotional world” (Moss and Schwebel 33). By meeting Watson’s demonstration of affective and cognitive closeness with a demonstration of his own, Holmes shows that the depth of attention that Watson pays to Holmes is mutual.

This mutuality of attention holds great significance because it softens the oppressive connotations that Berger’s surveyor and surveyed relationship would otherwise have for Holmes and Watson. In the eroticized gender binaries of the nude paintings in Berger’s study, the surveyor’s relationship to the surveyed is unequal and unhealthy. In the intellectualized, mutual paradigm of same-sex surveyor and surveyed that appears in Sherlock Holmes stories, that inequality is balanced in a variety of ways. The mutuality of attention complicates the power imbalance, placing them both in positions of surveyor and surveyed. Watson’s admiration and over-estimation of Holmes also function to soften the inequality of the surveyor/surveyed relationship. Watson sees Holmes as an agent worthy of admiration, not an object whose purpose is to flatter his own self-image. Notably, this mutuality and attribution of agency are largely absent from Watson’s relationship to Mary. This may be the reason why queer readings of same-sex friendships revel so much in a feeling of transgression. Heterosexual romance in the late nineteenth century was mandatory, conformist, and loaded with legal, social, political, and economic inequality. Same-sex romance was transgressive, illegal, and liberatory, in the sense that it held the potential for a truly equal romantic partnership. A reading of Watson and Mary with the same kind of transgressive properties would require an overhaul of the whole of Victorian society.

Moss and Schwebel’s definition of intimacy complicates the surface-level simplicity of Watson’s two relationships. They distinguish intimacy between romantic partners and friend this way:

Whereas romantic relationships involve high levels of all five intimacy components…the intimacy exchanged between friends differs from romantic intimacy, primarily in the depth of Physical Intimacy and possibly Commitment…as well as in the capacity to tolerate shifts in Mutuality. (Moss and Schwebel 34)

According to these definitions, Watson should share high levels of each component with Mary Morstan, and high levels of every component except physical intimacy (and potentially commitment and mutuality) with Sherlock Holmes. Because of the text’s setting in the Victorian era, however, physical closeness has a limited presence in both relationships. Watson takes Mary’s hand as he proposes to her, and Holmes sometimes takes Watson’s arm. That is as far as Doyle takes physical intimacy. As far as the other components are concerned, Holmes and Mary seem to share high levels of each with Watson. Watson’s commitment to Holmes appears to wane somewhat every time he marries, but it never disappears, emerging in full force in between his marriages. And mutuality of affection and attention is much more obvious with Holmes than with Mary, due to the imbalance of gender. Holmes and Watson achieve their cognitive closeness through observation and deduction, or mind-reading, of each other. And their affective closeness develops from positive first impressions to deep caring after years of living in close quarters and adventuring together.


By Moss and Schwebel’s comprehensive definition, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson share an intimate relationship. While Doyle likely meant that intimacy to be platonic, his stories have taken on a life of their own, transformed and recast by the changing cultural contexts in which they are read. The intimacy that is so essential to the relationship of this detective and his biographer, in combination with the erotic dynamic of Watson’s observation of and attention to Holmes, can be all the more easily interpreted as amorous rather than platonic. This is the result of a radically altered social consciousness in which same-sex desire has become a love that can speak its name. But it is also the product of a world in which attention means much more than it once did. In a culture inundated by technology, entertainment, and endless distractions, attention has become a precious commodity, more meaningful and more suggestive than it could ever have been in the nineteenth century.

Contemporary readers come to Doyle with a different toolbox of cultural norms and assumptions. This signals a crucial shift in the way that we read and demonstrates the radically different readings that can emerge from a single text over time. The technique of queer reading is certainly not perfect, and it often brings its own biases into interpretation. But queer reading may point to a path of revitalizing contemporary readings of classic works of literature. Queer readings of Sherlock Holmes can transform the place of observation in traditional intimacy from one of imbalance and inequality to one of potential reciprocity. Through readings like this, the dramatic changes that technology and social movements visit upon our social consciousness can refresh literature and make it more accessible, more transgressive, and more rich than ever before. After all, for John Watson to observe Sherlock Holmes might not have meant much to Doyle’s readers in 1887. But to twenty-first-century readers, Watson’s focused attention has the power to transform friendship into love.


Works Cited

Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 2008.

Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan. The Complete Sherlock Holmes. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2015.

“Fan, n. 2.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, January 2018, www.oed.com/view/Entry/68000. Accessed 20 March 2018.

Freud, Sigmund. “Being in Love and Hypnosis.” Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. Translated by James Strachey, The Hogarth Press, 1949, pp. 71–80.

Kovács, Ágnes Melinda. “Belief Files in Theory of Mind Reasoning.” Review of Philosophy and Psychology, vol. 7, no. 2, 2016, pp. 509–527.

Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, creators. Sherlock. Hartswood Films, BBC Wales, and Masterpiece Theater, 2010–present.

Moss, Barry F., and Andrew I. Schwebel. “Defining Intimacy in Romantic Relationships.” Family Relations, vol. 42, no. 1, 1993, pp. 31–337. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/584918.

Stern, Daniel N. The Present Moment in Psychotherapy and Everyday Life. W.W. Norton, 2004.


Art by Kelley Fesmire, on Patreon at www.patreon.com/anotherwellkeptsecret/posts and Tumblr at  anotherwellkeptsecret.tumblr.com.


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Feeling Forests and Talking Trees: Discovering an Animate Environment through Fantasy

By Brandi Bushman

Fundamental to fantasy literature is the production of new worlds, a process J.R.R. Tolkien describes as “subcreation” in which readers are both familiar and unfamiliar, comforted and unsettled; these spaces are made to test the bounds of imagination while we analyze our own world, and our place in it, in relation to the imagined (Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories 12). Tolkien’s Middle-earth exists today as the foundational fantasy world due to its rich liveliness, depth of characters and landscapes, and status as familiar but also decidedly unfamiliar. The power of not just Tolkien’s work, but fantasy as a genre, rests in what he describes as the three central “faces” of fantasy stories: “The Mystical towards the Supernatural, the Magical towards Nature, and the Mirror of scorn and pity towards Man” (Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories” 9). According to Tolkien, at the core of fantasy is an attempt to reveal the magic of nature, making nature animate and vibrant while simultaneously casting “man,” or humanity, into a role as other, or outsider. Tolkien’s “mirror of scorn and pity” functions as a means to break down anthropocentric modes of thinking, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as the “primary or exclusive focus on humanity; the view or belief that humanity is the central or most important element of existence, especially as opposed to God or the natural world” (“anthropocentrism”). Ursula K. Le Guin discusses fantasy’s work at breaking down anthropocentrism in line with Tolkien in the essay “The Critics, the Monsters, and the Fantasists,” where she states that “realistic fiction is drawn towards anthropocentrism, fantasy away from it” (87). Studying Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings through the lens of ecocriticism—specifically, works advocating for the vibrancy and animacy of oft-considered “insensate” material such as Jane Bennet’s Vibrant Matter and Mel Chen’s Animacies—alongside criticism on fantasy made by Le Guin and Tolkien reveals the tensions between nature, the environment, and humans. Here, I argue that Tolkien makes fantasy literature a ground to rework hierarchies and understandings of nature and humanity, as fantasy ultimately reveals the power and vibrancy of nature as a force in and of itself.

Lively Natures: Revealing the Animacy and Vibrancy of Individual Environmental Forces

           In thinking through the dichotomy between man and nature, rather than perceiving nature as “magical,” like Tolkien does, I aim to advocate the power of nature by revealing the vitality and animacy of specific environments described in Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The environments and forces of forests, trees, and mountains in these texts function as characters with importance akin to the various human-like characters (elves, hobbits, men, and dwarves) found in the texts, as they each have histories, personalities, liveliness, and, at times, even emotions. Such rich characteristics make these environments and forces animate, following Mel Chen’s definition of animacy as “a quality of agency, awareness, mobility, and liveliness” (2). In tandem with thinking through the environment’s animacy, fantasy also establishes the vitality of environmental forces; Jane Bennett defines “vitality” in her book Vibrant Matter as “the capacity of things…not only to impede or block the will and designs of humans but also to act as quasi agents or forces with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own” (viii). Bennett affirms the close relationship between “things” typically considered inanimate and humans; this relationship is found in Tolkien’s work as the “things” of the environment that have the ability to affect humans and be affected by them. Yet, these forces are simultaneously individual agents with motives and personalities that are not shaped by interactions with humans. Specific examples such as the Old Forest, the mines of Moria, and the Ents reveal the animacy and vitality of the environment as Tolkien fantasizes mobile, lively, at times even talking and feeling environmental entities. In this way, the identities and perceptions of the environment are broken down and transformed by fantasy.

As the hobbits begin their journey, they enter environments that are new, uncomfortable, and even unpleasant; the first of these environments that they encounter is the Old Forest which is described as “queer” due to its sense of liveliness and agency. Merry states “the forest is queer. Everything in it is very much more alive, more aware of what is going on, so to speak, than things are in the Shire. And the trees do not like strangers. They watch you…I thought all the trees were whispering to each other” (108). According to Mel Chen, “queer” can refer to “animacy’s veering-away from dominant ontologies and the normativities they promulgate” (11). Merry confirms that the forest feels “alive,” and thus establishes the environment as an animate one, with the trees as individual animate beings. Therefore, the forest deviates from the cultural understanding of trees, and nature, as inanimate, which leads to the environment’s description as “queer.” Its deviation is further solidified as Merry personifies the forest: by describing the trees’ awareness, ability to watch intruders, talk to one another, and their dislike for strangers, Tolkien suggests that the trees have physical capabilities akin to people, as well as personalities and a history. This personification is further confirmed when Pippin talks to the trees, telling them “I am not going to do anything. Just let me pass through, will you!” treating the forest as a fellow person, thus acting on Merry’s earlier feeling of the trees’ liveliness (109). The Old Forest is a decidedly animate environment and creating this environment this way shows how fantasy authors break down our conceptualizations of nature to rethink environmental forces as living beings.

Because of the forest’s liveliness and personality, the hobbits find themselves working against the forest, which has oppositional desires and goals to the hobbits; such opposition upholds Bennet’s definition of vitality as the ability to have individual agency (viii). The forest’s agency is understood once the hobbits become aware of its history and personality: “hearts of trees and their thoughts, which were often dark and strange, and filled with a hatred of things that go free upon the earth, gnawing, biting, breaking, hacking, burning: destroyers and usurpers” (127). The Old Forest’s history makes it a character with as much depth as any human-like character in the text, as it is shaped by its past and holds propensities and tendencies which shape their personalities, upholding Bennett’s criterion for vitality. The forest’s “hatred” suggests a capacity for feeling, Tolkien’s way of describing animacy and vitality. Although the forest’s feeling of hatred suggests a reactionary response, and thus lack of individual agency, the fact that the forest can feel at all, regardless of the reason, upholds Bennet’s concept of vitality. In establishing the forest as a feeling character, Tolkien uses fantasy to force readers into thinking about the environment as being just as animate and vibrant as ourselves.

As the Old Forest’s hatred fuels a desire to block the hobbits’ passing, the hobbits grow fearful of the environment and the forest’s animacy and vitality. Tolkien writes “as they went forward, it seemed that the trees became taller, darker, and thicker…they all got an uncomfortable feeling that they were being watched, with disapproval, deepening to dislike and even enmity” (109). As the trees seem to grow in length and size, they assert their dominance over the hobbits, claiming their home, and solidifying the hobbits’ presence as intruders. The darkness creates a sense of foreboding as it impairs the hobbits’ ability to see while they become the objects of the trees’ sight. The forest eventually impedes the hobbits’ journey physically as Tolkien writes “the trees began to close in again, just where they had appeared from a distance to be thinner and less tangled” until they eventually swallow Pippin and Merry: “Pippin had vanished. The crack by which he had laid himself had closed together, so that not a chink could be seen. Merry was trapped: another crack had closed about his waist (112, 115). In this way, the vitality of the trees works against human conceptualization of matter as “passive stuff…raw, brute, or inert,” instead showing their capacity as active beings (Bennet vii). Bennett continues to state that humans often have “the habit of parsing the world into dull matter (it, things) and vibrant life (us, beings)” a concept that is conflated here as the “matter” of the environment and the bodies of the hobbits become intertwined, showing that each has vitality and agency (vii).

With Merry and Pippin held captive inside the trees, Tolkien breaks down the divide between the environment and the human to show that each has individual power that can work against the other; in this way, the environment is made out to be equal to the human, which rethinks Chen’s conceptualization of our society’s animacy hierarchy: “an ordered hierarchy from inanimate object to plant to nonhuman animal to human” (40). The animacy hierarchy is broken down entirely due to the forest’s imprisonment of the hobbits, an action that reflects a reversal of the forest’s victimization from oppressive human actions of “gnawing, biting, breaking, hacking, burning” (127). Here, the forest appropriates the dominating role of humans by impeding the hobbits’ journey. This action further solidifies the similarities between the hobbits and the forest as each works toward enacting a desired goal based off of their feelings and the world they live in; such a similarity is reinforced by Eduardo Kohn in How Forests Think as he states “We humans…are not the only ones who interpret the world. ‘Aboutness’—representation, intention, and purpose in their most basic forms—is an intrinsic structuring feature of living dynamics in the biological world. Life is inherently semiotic” (74). As both are beings with intention and purpose, Tolkien destroys the animacy hierarchy by depicting the hobbits and the Old Forest as similar forces and agents in the world who each reflects Kohn’s conceptualization of “aboutness.” In this way, Tolkien imbues the forest with emotion and desire to illustrate the forest as an environment with purpose and intention.

Because the Old Forest breaks down the animacy hierarchy—and therefore deconstructs the division between nonhuman and human—the hobbits dislike the forest, which they show in their perception of it as a dark and hateful environment in the text. However, Tolkien affirms the vitality, importance, and value of negatively perceived environments when Elrond reminisces about his time spent in the Old Forest. He states that the forest has been dilapidated and appropriated by humans as “all that now remains is but an outlier of its northern march,” effectively justifying the forest’s antagonism and darkness (258). He continues, “time was when a squirrel could go from tree to tree from what is now the Shire to Dunland west of Isengard. In those lands I journeyed once, and many things wild and strange I knew” (258). Elrond is nostalgic for a past when animals were free and natural environments still possessed their integrity; this past also reflects a kinship between animal, human, and the environment, a kinship that can only exist when the nonhuman is not appropriated or oppressed by the human. Matthew Dickerson describes this storytelling as important in Ents, Elves, and Eriador since it suggests that “these things ‘wild and strange’ are worth knowing and that tales about them are worth telling—in short, that wilderness is valuable” (134). Here, Tolkien shows that humans should not be selective in admiring only “good” environments, but a variety of environments, as they each affirm nature’s vibrancy, animacy, and similarity to humanity.

While Tolkien begins his commentary on the appropriation and destruction of the environment with his description of the Old Forest, he acknowledges this problem most clearly in his depiction of the dwarves and their proclivity for mining resources from mountains. Dickerson describes the dwarves as valuing “the environment primarily as a source of fuel, building materials, and precious gems and metals” (101). However, the dwarves have a much more complex relationship with the environment. Although they indeed engage in resource extraction, the dwarves have mixed feelings of ownership over the mountains as well as reverence for them. This is seen as Gimli laments over the dwarves’ lost home, Moria: “Moria! Moria! Wonder of the Northern world! Too deep we delved there, and woke the nameless fear” (234). Here, Gimli shows that he believes Moria possesses a mystique, making the mountain a place that he can never entirely know or understand. He simultaneously admits to the hubris of the dwarves by claiming they mined “too deep,” a description that displays the dwarves as dominant, masculine oppressors of a feminized environment which they penetrate for their own goals and pleasures. A similar argument is made by Ursula Heise who critiques the human “presumption to know the natural world scientifically, to manipulate it technologically and exploit it economically, and thereby ultimately to create a human sphere apart from it in a historical process that is usually labeled ‘progress’” (507). Tolkien imbues his text with a moral imperative as Gimli states they “woke the nameless fear,” that caused their desertion of Moria (234). In this way, Tolkien’s work is a cautionary tale against resource exploitation and appropriation of the environment.

Although the dwarves consider the mountains to be their home, they follow Heise in creating a sphere apart from nature as they position themselves as rulers over the environment. This is seen in The Hobbit when Thorin states, “my grandfather was King under the Mountain,” a title which shows a feeling of ownership and dominion over the environment (22). As Richard Matthews states that “Moria, the name of the great pit, means ‘given without love’” in Tolkien’s Elvish tongue, it’s clear that Tolkien situates the dwarves’ relationship with the mountains as an example of human hubris and exceptionalism (71). “Given without love” also implies a feeling of resentment held toward the dwarves by the mountain, a feeling which asserts this environmental space as not only animate and vibrant but emotive and affective. However, the dwarves ascribe their own definitions of meaning and value to the environmental materials they mine, which Gandalf shows when he says, “The wealth of Moria was not in gold and jewels, the toys of the dwarves; nor in iron, their servant” (309). As Gandalf describes certain resources as “toys,” and others as “servants,” Tolkien establishes that the dwarves view the natural resources as insensate matter, matter whose purpose resides in merely fulfilling the wishes and desires of the dwarves. Tolkien again projects a moral lesson onto his readers for this way of thinking in The Hobbit as the dragon Smaug usurps the dwarves’ dominion over their mountain, after which Thorin states “we went away” (23). Here, Tolkien exiles the dwarves from their “home,” because they could not appreciate the environment, and its vitality, in and of itself. In this way, Tolkien not only establishes the fact that the environment is animate and vibrant but also cautions readers to recognize the value in such qualities by showing that if the environment is not valued, humanity will be punished.

In working to teach his readers to acknowledge the environment’s animacy and vitality, Tolkien constructs the walking, talking ents in order to give the environment a voice with which to speak directly to the characters of the text and, by extension, the readers. As Merry and Pippin meet the ent Treebeard, he states, “my name is growing all the time, and I’ve lived a very, very long time; so my name is like a story” (454). Treebeard is an example of the hobbits’ insignificance and transience in the history of Middle-earth as Treebeard transcends generation, has lived before the hobbits, and will continue living after them. Describing his name as always “growing” affirms his liveliness and his own status as constantly growing and learning about the world. Richard Matthews suggests that the tree “is a complex symbol for Tolkien, as it has definite Christian echoes of both the tree of knowledge and the tree of sacrifice” (68). Treebeard solidifies his representation of knowledge due to his age, which is suggestive of wisdom. The ents represent wisdom and age for the environment as a whole, as the environment exists throughout generations of people, a constantly growing site of stories.

The ents are simultaneously symbolic of the tree of sacrifice as their land has been constantly destroyed and damaged by the human-like characters of the text. Treebeard states “Down on the border they are felling trees—good trees. Some of these trees they just leave to rot” (462). Because of the way his home has been destroyed, Treebeard has grown ambivalent to the struggles between different races in Middle-earth as he states “I have not troubled about the Great Wars…they mostly concern men and elves…I am not altogether on anybody’s side because nobody is altogether on my side” (461). Here, Treebeard expresses sadness, even resentment, for how his environment has been devalued. In this way, Treebeard becomes more than a symbol, rather a living, animate character, following Patrick Curry’s idea that in Tolkien’s work “trees are never just symbols, and in their individuality convey the uniqueness and vulnerability of ‘real’ trees” (70). Treebeard’s vulnerability shows that despite the environment’s power, its devastation can lead to a mournfulness, and a justification for the environment’s animosity towards people, such as the Old Forest’s negative feelings in relation to the hobbits. Although highly symbolic, Tolkien shows that environmental forces are always more than mere symbols, as individual forces of the environment are vibrant and feeling.

By revealing the vibrancy and animacy of the environment, fantasy works to break down not just anthropocentrism, but human exceptionalism, which Eduardo Kohn describes in How Forests Think as the mode of thinking through which “we have treated humans as exceptional—and thus fundamentally separate from the rest of the world” (7). Throughout his work, Tolkien breaks down and reconfigures the animacy hierarchy to force readers into rethinking our own value and animacy, and the animacy of other natural forces. Forces such as the ents and the Old Forest affect not only the characters in the text, but readers as well, as they force us readers to inhabit the place of the environment and feel sadness, resentment, and hatred over human devaluation of the environment.

The Body’s End: A Return to Nature Upon Mental & Physical Trauma

Devalued environments are vividly expressed in Tolkien’s Dead Marshes, an abject environment devastated by human intervention. The devastating personal and ecological effects of war have often been analyzed in comparison to Tolkien’s work due to his experience as a soldier during the Great War and subsequent work in writing The Lord of the Rings as a war story. In response to questions about the influence of war on his writing of The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien is quoted in the compilation The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien as having said “Personally I do not think either war…had any influence upon either the plot or the manner of its unfolding. Perhaps in landscape. The Dead Marshes…owe something to Northern France after the Battle of the Somme” (303). Rather than writing an allegory of the events that transpired during the war, Tolkien instead used the various wartime environments as inspiration for crafting not only the setting of The Lord of the Rings but also the psychological states of his various characters. In this way, Tolkien’s rich memory of the wartime environmental landscape suggests that the environment has the power to drastically affect the human psyche, revealing the strong affinity between humans and the environment; this affinity can result in human emotional and psychological devastation that occurs in tandem with environmental destruction. Such effects are best seen during Frodo and Sam’s journey from the peaceful Shire to their eventual crossing through the Dead Marshes, an area suggestive of the negative impact that trench warfare had on the western environment. The Dead Marshes are similar to the trenches in that they both function as abject wetland spaces, eventually losing material integrity as they become “neither strictly land nor water” (Giblett 3). Reading the Dead Marshes in The Two Towers and trenches as wetland spaces through a lens of Rod Giblett’s Postmodern Wetlands: Culture, History, Ecology, and tracking the emotional response to such spaces using Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory ultimately shows that when environmental landscapes are made abject and destroyed, this devastates not only the environment itself but also the human psyche.

Frodo and Sam’s emotional response to the Dead Marshes is drastic since the area’s nature as abject, destroyed wetland space starkly contrasts with their home in the Shire, an idealized natural environment. Frodo is “in love with the Shire” a diverse and thriving environment containing “woods and fields and little rivers” (32). The Shire is constantly represented as a flourishing and vibrant environment, such as when it is described as “fresh…the new green of Spring was shimmering in the fields and on the tips of the tree’s fingers” (45). Tolkien’s imagery of the Shire in springtime evokes a sense of renewal and rebirth, with the description of “new green” implying the Shire is an innocent, young, and safe environment for the hobbits. The Shire’s innocence and the color green effectively establish its function within the text as pastoral, a term defined in Ecocriticism by Greg Garrard as “the idea of nature as a stable, enduring counterpoint to the disruptive energy and change of human societies” (63). Tolkien creates the Shire as not only a stable environment but an alive one, as his description of the space as “shimmering” suggests a bright vitality while his personification of the trees makes them lively, individual agents in the text. The Shire’s environment thus holds a dual function in the text, as it represents a safe space with an unchanging nature that Frodo can rely on, while simultaneously establishing the environment as composed of a multitude of vibrant, lively characters, rather than passive matter.

Although the Shire is a vibrant space regardless of human intervention, its “green” innocence and function as pastoral lead the hobbits to preside over it as owners of an environment they perceive to be stagnant and passive. Since the hobbits think of the Shire as a place that can never be corrupted, they consider it an environment that can be relied on to remain unchanging in the future. Upon hearing of the danger encroaching upon the boundaries of the Shire, Frodo tells the elf Gildor, “I knew that danger lay ahead, of course; but I did not expect to meet it in our own Shire” (82). Here, Frodo claims ownership of the Shire as he refers to it as his “own,” and is fearful over the environment becoming corrupted, because this would conflict with not only the Shire’s innocence but also with Frodo’s continued dominion over the space. A loss of the Shire’s innocence would reflect a failure of Frodo’s role as owner and conservator, as he tells Gandalf before their journey, “I should like to save the Shire, if I could,” characterizing the Shire as a helpless, passive space that he must preserve (61). Frodo’s statement here reflects issues concerning the pastoral and “green,” which Jeffrey Jerome Cohen states in Prismatic Ecology: Ecotheory Beyond Green as having “become our synonym for sustainability” (xx). According to Cohen, “green” “too frequently signifies a return, however belatedly, to the verdancy of an unspoiled world, to whatever remnants of a lost paradise might be reclaimed” (xxi). Much like the pastoral, the Shire’s “green” innocence results in a perception of the environment needing protection; this helplessness leaves the environment open for humanity to “reclaim” an idealized state of the environment and find pleasure in both the aesthetics and nostalgia of a “green” space.

While thinking of the Shire as a passive environment, Frodo cannot fully acknowledge the independent vitality of the Shire, or its history and identity outside of those who currently preside in it—the hobbits. As much as Frodo loves the Shire, and wishes to remain close to it physically and emotionally, his self-identification as conservator and savior of the Shire fulfills Cohen’s explanation of the problematic relationship that “green” thinking creates between humans and the environment: “green readings have a tendency to reproduce…a split between nature and culture that can lead to analyses stressing anthropocentric and detached concepts like stewardship, preservation, and prescriptive modes of environmental management” (xx). By wanting to save the Shire, Frodo actually creates a division between himself and the space because he idealizes the environment rather than acknowledging its independence. This is affirmed by Gildor, who tells Frodo, “But it is not your own Shire…others have dwelt here before hobbits were; and others will dwell here again when hobbits are no more” (82). Gildor’s description of the Shire’s history, it’s identity before the hobbits, and the environment’s longevity as it will outlive the hobbits reaffirms the liveliness of the Shire by showing the environment can never truly be understood by the hobbits. The Shire’s agency is thus muted by Frodo, who is not forcibly made aware of environmental agency until his journey, especially so during his time traversing the Dead Marshes.

While the hobbits still remain in the Shire, Tolkien establishes the ability of the environment to intensely affect the emotions of people, as Frodo’s emotions are transformed when he is positively affected by the perceived innocence of the Shire. Upon learning of his role in the war “Frodo was a good deal disturbed…but his uneasiness wore off and in the fine weather he forgot his troubles…The Shire had seldom seen so fair a summer, or so rich an autumn: the trees were laden with apples, honey was dripping in the combs, and the corn was tall and full” (66). Tolkien again uses imagery of the seasons to present the Shire as an idealized environment, as the farming seasons of summer and autumn suggest growth and prosperity. However, autumn amplifies the idealized state of the Shire, as the “fair” and “rich” seasons are to quickly transform into winter, a season opposing the qualities that make summer and autumn so idyllic. Time and the transience of the seasons lead Tolkien to not only solidify the capability of the Shire to positively affect Frodo but also to over-emphasize this positivity through the abundance of crops. The use of terms such as “laden,” “dripping,” and “full” suggest an overwhelming, almost excessive nature in the environment, while the crops themselves symbolize the consumption of food and the pleasure derived from such consumption, making the autumn season in the Shire a time of gratification and happiness. This gratification is idealized with the sweet crops of apples and honey as Tolkien stresses the importance of Frodo’s finding pleasure in the Shire at this specific moment, as the approaching winter would not see such prosperity of crops. The excessive nature of the crops suggests that the land of the Shire is incredibly fertile, reinforcing the environment’s health, which positively impacts Frodo’s mood; the scenery heals his uneasiness, translating the Shire’s identity as comforting, healthy, and innocent onto Frodo’s feelings. The Shire’s identity ultimately functions as a source of optimism for Frodo, as he justifies his eventual departure by stating “I feel that as long as the Shire lies behind, safe and comfortable, I shall find wandering more bearable: I shall know that somewhere there is a firm foothold, even if my feet cannot stand there again” (61). His statement evokes Garrards description of the pastoral function as “a harmonious vision of rural independence and fortitude that hides a harsh world” since Frodo believes the Shire’s innocence and the positive affect he receives from it will shield him from the experiences that may be unbearable in his travels (45). However, as Frodo is confronted with the Dead Marshes, he experiences an erasure of the positivity created by the Shire, and an ironic loss of firm, healthy land.

Frodo and Sam face the opposite of the Shire’s healthy, stable land when they arrive before the Dead Marshes, as they see a muddied environment that is not ideal, living, or prosperous; rather, the marshes represent a hellish opposition to the innocent and thriving Shire as they are described by Sam as “evil-smelling fens” (611). Sam’s association of the marshes with a malicious nature conforms to the tradition of associating wetlands with “death and disease, the monstrous and the melancholy” (Giblett 3). The association of wetlands with an evil, monstrous nature imbues the Dead Marshes with an active agency in opposition to the hobbits and their goal. This same antagonistic environmental agency is described by Alysson Booth in Postcards from the Trenches, where she states that in the trenches “land was treacherous; dirt was liable to become mud or quicksand or water into which you could be sucked or trapped; it represented potential drowning, suffocation, immobilization” (61). In her description of the trenches as treacherous, Booth personifies the land, suggesting that environments consisting of mud and water actively work to inhibit the human body. The association of water with drowning shows a fear of uncontrollable natural spaces and affirms Giblett’s association of wetlands with death, as these spaces have the capability to end human life. While the Dead Marshes act as a hellish environment with personified, individual agency, their animacy results in a heightened ability to affect the hobbits psychologically and physically.

Describing the Dead Marshes as diseased suggests a poisoned atmosphere, a characteristic implicit in the physicality of the land; however, the diseased state of the land also begins to poison Frodo’s mindset, as he is negatively affected by the decay around him. When the hobbits first look out toward the marshes, Tolkien describes the scene by writing “Night was gathering over the shapeless lands before them; the sickly green of them was fading to a sullen brown” (589). Tolkien uses vague terminology with the words “gathering,” “shapeless,” and “fading,” which each reiterate the formlessness of the Dead Marshes while highlighting their vibrancy as these terms show the environment’s capacity for transformation. Rather than the colorful imagery of the crops, fields, and trees of the Shire, the marshes are cast into darkness, both due to the time of night and because of the dead surrounding greenery; this darkness contrasts with the Shire (where Frodo felt safe and held a powerful role in relation to the environment) and makes the marshes an area over which Frodo cannot have control due to the environment’s individuality and lively, changing state. As Frodo cannot fully see the environment, he cannot entirely understand it either, which suggests that the antagonism represented by the marshes is not due to the environment itself, but due to the inability of the hobbits to control it. The land is devoid of any individual growths of nature until the hobbits come across “a few gnarled and stunted trees,” but even these growths are described as diseased and unappealing, lacking the fertility of the Shire (591). This negative atmosphere quickly affects Frodo as he comes to think of crossing through the marshes as his “doom” and he admits “I am tired, Sam. I don’t know what is to be done” (590). Just as he adopted the positive feelings evoked from the Shire’s environment, Frodo similarly translates the shapelessness of the marshes’ environment into his own emotional state, as he begins to feel aimless, lacking energy, motivation, and purpose. The power of the environment’s hold on Frodo’s emotions speaks to what Giblett describes as “the low poisonous, decidedly unhealthy wetland” in that, the marshes are both actually poisonous in their state as diseased, leading to an absence of growth in the land, but are figuratively (and affectively) poisonous as well, as they corrupt Frodo’s positive mindset (3).

Frodo is similarly affected by the smell of the Dead Marshes, which drastically affects and alters his senses, similar to the effects of the trenches on the senses of soldiers. Fussell describes the trenches as having “The stench of rotten flesh…over everything…you could smell the front line miles before you could see it” (49). Just as the sense of smell became a hindrance and source of disgust for the soldier, the hobbits are also disgusted by the stench issued from the Dead Marshes. Tolkien writes: “The reek of them came to their nostrils, heavy and foul, even in the cool night air” (606). Tolkien reinforces the totality with which the soldiers were overwhelmed by the stench of bodies rotting in the mud of trenches as the hobbits never receive a reprieve from the stench. Fussell continues to state that “To be in the trenches was to experience an unreal, unforgettable enclosure and constraint, as well as a sense of being unoriented and lost” (51). Fussell’s description of feelings such as constraint, disorientation, and disgust over smell show the soldier’s lack of control over their bodily faculties and over the environment, illustrating the totality with which the atmosphere consumed human body and mind. The hobbits’ description of the stench as foul is similar to Fussell’s description of the trenches smell as rotten: both represent a decayed environment, eventually leading to similarly damaged psyches.

Such constraint due to environmental factors makes the hobbits’ experiences similar to the physical hardships of soldiers; the atmosphere is described by Gollum as being comprised of “mists, nice thick mists” that enclose the hobbits within an environment that limits their sight and movement (611). The marshes come to be perceived as an antagonistic space to the hobbits, as they work against their health when “The air, as it seemed to them, grew harsh, and filled with a bitter reek that caught their breath and parched their mouths” (617). In this subtle manner, the atmosphere prohibits the function of the hobbits’ basic physical necessities and leaves them craving water, the very substance working against them. The degeneration of his health leaves Frodo feeling “weary, weary to the point of exhaustion…he walked like one who carries a load, the weight of which is ever increasing; and he dragged along slower and slower” (616). Frodo’s physical weakness reaffirms the environment’s diseased state, as the ingestion of the air negatively manipulates the interiority of Frodo’s body. While trudging through the wetland, Frodo’s agency and abilities are slowed and constrained, showing that, although the marshes represent an antagonistic environment to the hobbits, all environments—those considered innocent and peaceful like the Shire and those perceived as negative such as the Marshes— possess agency and the ability to affect.

Frodo feels emotionally weighed down due to the effect the environment has on his health, but also due to the physically oppressive nature of the mud in the marshes; these effects break down the integrity of the hobbits’ identities as they find themselves becoming similar to Gollum, who is perceived as abject throughout the text. In Powers of Horror, Julia Kristeva defines abject as “that which is opposed to I” (1). Gollum represents an opposition to the hobbits, because, while he is described by Gandalf as originally being “of hobbit-kind,” he is different from the hobbits as his physicality is one of degeneration caused by his possession by the Ring (51). Initially, Gollum is the only one who becomes overwhelmed with mud, seen as “his fingers and face were soiled with black mud” (610). Since he is soiled with mud, Gollum becomes tainted, an impure figure, adopting the evil characteristics of the marshes. Due to his impurity, Sam calls him a “nasty creature” and “poor wretch” (610). The term “nasty” suggests Sam is disgusted by Gollum while “poor” suggests a sympathy, even tenderness, toward him; this complex understanding of Gollum reflects the complexity of the marshes as they are simultaneously abject and lively (610). Gollum is quick to lose his physical integrity and status as person due to the mud, an action descriptive of Santanu Das’s understanding of the “aggressive agency of trench mud…blurring the boundaries of the body and confusing the categories of subject and object” (45). Sam begins to objectify and dehumanize Gollum due to his close proximity to the mud.

Gollum’s abject state is amplified as Frodo and Sam perceive him as having a close affinity with the mud, and thus sharing the mud’s negative characteristics as evil and malicious. However, the hobbits themselves lose their own bodily integrity as they too become covered by the mud: “Often they floundered, stepping or falling hands first into waters as noisome as a cesspool, til they were slimed and fouled almost up to their necks and stank in one another’s nostrils (614). The hobbits must rethink their personal and physical identity as the agency of the malicious environment overwhelms them physically and makes them abject like Gollum. Just as Gollum is aligned with the negative characteristics of the marshes, the hobbits too adopt the stench of the mud and are imbued with the aspects of the environment that created their feelings of disgust toward it. Sam specifically is described as falling in the marshes, during which he “came heavily on his hands, which sank deep into sticky ooze, so that his face was brought close to the surface of the dark mere. There was a faint hiss, a noisome smell went up, the lights flickered and danced and swirled” (613). Describing the marshes as hissing with lights reflects the liveliness of the marshes, despite its abjection and the hobbit’s perception of it as unpleasant. Such liveliness reflects Mel Chen’s description of animacy: “Matter that is considered insensate, immobile, deathly or otherwise ‘wrong’ animates cultural life in important ways” (2). The deathly and “wrong” environment of the marshes breaks down the divide between the hobbits and Gollum, as they are confronted with the fragility of their own bodies and understanding of the environment.

Just as Chen describes the importance of acknowledging the animacy of matter, not only in pleasing environments like the Shire but also in environments such as the Dead Marshes that are perceived as negative or “wrong,” the liveliness of both environments in The Lord of The Rings shows the vibrancy of all environments, as they all have the capability to affect humans, and be affected by them. The Dead Marshes are eventually described by Gollum as being the burial sites for many corpses that are “All dead. All rotten” from a “great battle many years ago” (614). In this way, the destruction of the environment that created the Dead Marshes is explained as being due to human intervention, showing the way humans also affect the environment. This cycle of effects affirms the close relationship between the environment and the human, who each have the ability to change and transform one another.

Discovering Wonder: Deconstructing Anthropocentrism and Rebuilding Human Relationships with the Environment through Storytelling

After completing his journey, Frodo returns to the formerly perceived innocent, safe Shire and realizes that the events of his journey—and the war in Middle Earth—have altered his psyche and the Shire’s environment irreversibly. As Frodo describes in The Return of the King, “I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me,” Tolkien effectively breaks down the pastoral as Frodo admits that he has changed; he no longer feels ownership over the Shire or that he has a place in it, as he acknowledges that the Shire will exist without him after he leaves it (1006). In breaking down the pastoral, Tolkien forces Frodo, and us readers, to similarly reconsider our knowledge of the environment, and our place within it. Frodo’s altered relationship with the Shire speaks to the way in which the genre of fantasy creates a space for breaking down anthropocentric ideas of having knowledge of and control over the environment, because works of fantasy depend on the construction of new worlds, ones in which the readers are unfamiliar, and thus, must adopt a new position as a learner and outsider. Repositioning the readers allows for a reexamination of nature as these texts reveal the impossibility of having total control over, and knowledge of, the environment. Tolkien’s fantasy ultimately shows the power of storytelling in deconstructing harmful attitudes of hubris towards the environment as the texts instead instate a reverence for nature to show that an appreciation for the environment is a key source of hope for improving human relationships with nature.

Readers of fantasy are forced to imagine a new world, one they cannot control or entirely know. Such uneasiness reflects an issue with anthropocentrism, as this same lack of knowledge exists toward our own environment, yet human hubris assumes knowledge in order to justify control. Tolkien forces his readers to entirely relinquish knowing an environment when Frodo enters Lothlórien, as he and the fellowship must walk through the forest blindfolded. The loss of sight impairs the fellowship’s awareness of the environment, as they are forced to rely on their other senses and are thus unable to describe the environment as it physically appears to them. Rather, they depend on the way the environment feels and the way it affects them in order to understand it: “They felt the ground beneath their feet smooth and soft, and after a while they walked more freely, without fear of hurt or fall. Being deprived of sight, Frodo found his hearing and other senses sharpened” (340). The fellowship realizes the close proximity humans always have with the environment as they touch the “smooth and soft” ground, and soon develop a balance of trust with the environment as, although blindfolded, they walk freely. This freedom suggests that pleasure can be derived in experiencing nature, a thought that Ursula K. LeGuin reaffirms when she states, “Fantasy’s green country is one that most enter with ease and pleasure” (65). Rather than feeling uneasy over his loss of sight, and thus control, Frodo and the reader are imbued with similar feelings of comfort, learning to trust the environment as he walks freely through Lothlórien without fear —such freedom speaks to a need for relinquishing human hubris and knowledge. Matthew Dickerson cites poet Robert Siegel’s idea that “Tolkien finds that looking closely at nature can help one climb outside of himself and gain a sharp, contemplative awareness of the world” and, more specifically, of the environment (108). In Tolkien’s text, Frodo and the fellowship are able to affirm a close bond with nature and eventually realize its agency and liveliness by not looking closely, but being close to it. Here, fantasy shows its work as a subversive genre as the text ultimately reveals that human nature must relinquish control and knowledge—as Siegel states, climb “outside of himself” so as to better understand oneself and nature.

By depending on the senses of touch, smell, and sound to discover a world and the environment, Tolkien establishes the importance of having a “sense of wonder” over nature by forcing the fellowship, and readers, to relinquish control and knowledge over the entire space of the environment and instead feel the vibrancy of individual aspects of it (Brawley 293). Chris Brawley posits that “The sense of wonder at the world Tolkien describes as enchantment…can help us revise our ways of viewing the world around us” (293). Tolkien creates a sense of wonder for readers in Lothlórien as Frodo initiates a relationship with this environment from a role stripped of power by experiencing and basking in the sensory experience of walking through the forest: “He could smell the trees and the trodden grass. He could hear many different notes in the rustle of the leaves overhead, the river murmuring away on his right, and the thin clear voices of birds in the sky. He felt the sun upon his face and hands when they passed through an open glade” (340). By depending on hearing, smelling, and touching, Frodo becomes more intimate with nature while in Lothlórien, and readers are similarly invited into this intimacy as Frodo reveals the all-consuming presence of the environment as he is physically surrounded by its various lively parts. The spatiality of birds and leaves overhead places Frodo beneath the environment, showing his minuteness compared to the natural processes of the world. Describing the leaves and birds speaks to the multiplicity and liveliness of the environment, multiplicity Frodo can only realize through this sensory experience as he becomes aware of the minutia which comprise the environment. Tolkien’s description of feeling sun on one’s body suggests a sense of warmth and pleasure, one that is reinforced by Lothlórien’s abundance of glimmering “golden flowers” (341). Warmth and gold suggest that abandoning a desire for control over the environment can lead to deriving pleasure from the environment. Ultimately, Frodo’s sensory experience reveals a physical state of insignificance compared to the environment, which reflects humanity’s shared insignificance. However, by relinquishing assumed knowledge about the environment, one can find pleasure in it.

Tolkien further reveals the insignificance of humanity in comparison to nature by deconstructing human exceptionalism and human feelings of having control over nature during moments in the text when nature imbues characters with fear and dread. At these times, Tolkien employs Edmund Burke’s concept of the sublime: “Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger…whatever is in any sort terrible…is the source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling” (33-34). Oftentimes, environments perceived by characters as negative affect characters the most as they strip away human conceptualizations of control over the environment, forcing the characters and readers to reconfigure previously conceived notions of nature. Merry performs such a reconfiguration as he travels through the mountains of Gondor in The Return of the King. During this journey, Merry “looked out in wonder upon this strange country…It was a skyless world, in which his eye, through dim gulfs of shadowy air, saw only ever-mounting slopes, great walls of stone behind great walls, and frowning precipices wreathed with mist” (774). The overwhelming vastness of nature is illustrated through Tolkien’s description of the mountains as “ever-mounting,” and “great,” which make Merry small and insignificant in comparison. The lost sky reflects a loss of light and descent into darkness, which is revealed when Merry describes the mountains as covered in mist; this mist acts as a barrier between Merry and the mountains, so he cannot fully see, and therefore, understand them—much like Frodo in Lothlórien.

Overwhelmed by the darkness and vastness of the mountains, Merry begins to feel weighed down by the sublime of nature; here, fantasy works as subversive by forcing Merry and the reader to reconsider idealized and often inaccurate conceptualizations of nature. Tolkien writes that Merry “loved mountains, or he had loved the thought of them marching on the edge of stories brought from far away; but now he was borne down by the insupportable weight of Middle-earth. He longed to shut out the immensity in a quiet room by the fire” (774). Here, Merry’s conceptualization of mountains on the “edge” of stories suggests the passivity of mountains, and nature in general; in such stories, mountains are not described as overwhelming and are thus sidelined as mere pleasurable descriptions of landscape. Sidelining the mountains in stories presents mountains and nature as existing on the periphery of human life. Tolkien deconstructs this by making Merry feel “borne down” or oppressed by Middle-earth due to the mountains: nature moves from the periphery to the central focus of humanity, forcing readers to confront the omnipresence of nature. Merry’s desire to “shut out the immensity” of the mountains in a room suggests that, unless one actively isolates oneself from nature entirely, nature can be overwhelming, unpleasant, and frightening entity.

Describing nature as a presence to be afraid of contrasts against the overwhelming yet pleasurable state of Lothlórien; in this way, Tolkien shows the duality of nature, illustrating fantasy’s value in representing such duality. Conflicting representations of, and feelings about, nature in fantasy are described by Richard Matthews who states “Fantasy enables us to enter worlds of infinite possibility. The maps and contours of fantasy are circumscribed only by imagination itself. The breathtaking sweep of its scope can be awesome and even frightening” (1). Matthews accurately describes Merry’s reaction to the mountains: it is fearful and, therefore, reflective of the sublime. According to Burke,“The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature…is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror” (47). Tolkien reflects this suspension of motion when he describes Merry as follows: “He sat for a moment half dreaming, listening to the noise of water, the whisper of dark trees, the crack of stone, and the vast waiting silence that brooded behind all sound” (774). Merry enters a dream-like state of suspension after becoming fearful of the mountains, astonished over the difference between how he had previously considered mountains and the way they actually are. While Tolkien created Lothlórien in order to reveal how humanity can derive pleasure from the environment if human exceptionalism is relinquished, Tolkien conversely uses fear and awe to show readers the mastery of nature, and the ability for nature to transform human emotion and understanding.

Tolkien uses similar feelings of awe in describing Lothlórien, although this awe is positive as he attempts to make this environment a state of peaceful nature that once existed in our own world but has become corrupted over time. Lothlórien’s state of wonder incites positive affects for both Frodo and the readers and reveals the pleasure to be found in reconsidering relationships with the environment. Frodo ponders, “It seemed to him that he had stepped over a bridge of time into a corner of the Elder Days, and was now walking in a world that was no more” (340). Here, Frodo mourns the loss of a time in which the world in its entirety was similar to that of Lothlórien, a time in which people and nature had closer relations. Le Guin describes this mourning and nostalgia by saying that natural environments of fantasy “imply that modern humanity is in exile, shut out from a community, an intimacy it once knew. They do not so much lament, perhaps, as remind…us of what we have denied, what we have exiled ourselves from” (86). Tolkien reveals that “Frodo stood still, hearing far off great seas upon beaches that had long ago been washed away, and sea-birds crying whose race had perished from the earth” to remind readers of the way nature has been lost and reshaped due to human intervention over time (342). In this way, fantasy works to remind readers of the way our world and nature have been manipulated and transformed due to human hubris. As Le Guin states, “withdrawing from the Industrial Revolution and Modern Times, the fantasy story is often set in a green, underpopulated world of towns and cities surrounded by wilderness” (86). She shows that fantasy actively works to strip away feelings of human hubris and knowledge by removing modernity and technology from these worlds and instead focusing on nature. Tolkien upholds Le Guin’s notions about fantasy by reestablishing the pleasure and wonder to be found in nature, which are then later mourned by the readers when modern society’s loss of kinship with and appreciation for the environment reflects itself in the text.

As Tolkien works to enchant the environment, reveal its wondrous state to readers, and lead readers to lament the way nature has changed—or been lost—over time, he implores readers to cultivate the ability to appreciate the environment in and of itself, rather than as a means of human industrialization and progress. The issue of progress is cited by Jane Bennett who claims that “the image of dead or thoroughly instrumentalized matter feeds human hubris and our earth-destroying fantasies of conquest and consumption” (ix). To combat thinking of nature as matter, Tolkien describes the materiality of trees in Lothlórien as animate and lively. He writes:

[Frodo] laid his hand upon the tree beside the ladder: never before had he been so suddenly and so keenly aware of the feel and the texture of the tree’s skin and of the life within it. He felt a delight in wood and the touch of it, neither as forester or carpenter; it was the delight of the living tree itself (342).

The intimacy here between Frodo and the tree allows Frodo to acknowledge the life within the tree. Since Frodo touches the tree while on the ladder, Tolkien creates a visual in which Frodo has risen from the ground (a position in which the trees’ vastness emphasizes his insignificance) to place him and the tree side by side as equals. In this scene, Tolkien achieves his concept of recovery:“Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a regaining—regaining of a clear view… “seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them”—as things apart from ourselves. We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness” (19). Tolkien achieves recovery in Lothlórien, as Frodo realizes that establishing a relationship of equality with nature is pleasurable. Rather than appropriating and using the tree for his own means (such as a forester or carpenter would), Frodo takes pleasure in the tree’s simple existence, it’s unique materiality, and liveliness. Through Lothlórien, Tolkien uses fantasy to show readers how possessiveness is unnecessary, and futile, for understanding nature. As Frodo lays “his hand upon the tree,” a passive, gentle action, he signifies the trees independence. Feeling the tree’s bark leads readers to rethink our own familiarity with trees and nature; in this way, Tolkien and fantasy effectively ask readers to clean our own windows, and strive for recovering relationships with nature, in which relinquishing possessiveness and acknowledging liveliness and independence of the environment is essential.

Tolkien’s work of fantasy is riddled with complexity in depicting nature and our relationship with the environment. Tolkien depicts nature as both pleasurable and fearful, each forcing humanity to question our preconceived understandings of nature. Le Guin states, “Fantasy is construction of meaning,” and, as such, Tolkien’s fantasy works to deconstruct and rebuild meaning for nature and our perceptions of the environment (85). As Haldir tells the fellowship in Lothlórien, “the world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater” (339). This statement describes the complexity of nature, which consists of “good” and “bad” environments that each hold a multitude of entities and imbue people with a variety of contrasting feelings. Haldir’s words reflect the hope that can be found for the environment in fantasy as a variety of places both light and dark comprise the environment; this duality is essential to the vibrancy of the environment, and fantasy works to help humanity recover an appreciation for such vibrancy. As Treebeard states at the end of the series after planting new trees in the destructed landscape of Isengard, “The world is changing: I feel it in the water, I feel it in the earth, and I smell it in the air” (959). Just as the environment is always transformative and constantly changing, so does fantasy work to transform meaning and change human perceptions of nature and the environment.


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Works Cited

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Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Duke University Press, 2010.

Booth, Allyson. Postcards from the Trenches. Oxford University Press, 1996.

Brawley, Chris. “The Fading of the World: Tolkien’s Ecology and Loss in “The Lord of the Rings.”Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, vol. 18, no. 3, 2007, pp 292-307.

Brennan-Croft, Janet. War and the Works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Prager Publishers, 2004.

Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.1757. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

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Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. Prismatic Ecology: Ecotheory Beyond Green. University of Minnesota Press, 2013.

Curry, Patrick. Defending Middle-Earth: Tolkien, Myth and Modernity. Floris Books, 1997.

Das, Santanu. Touch and Intimacy in First World War Literature. Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Dickerson, Matthew T. and John Evans. Ents, Elves, and Eriador: The Environmental Vision of J.R.R. Tolkien. University Press of Kentucky, 2006.

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Le Guin, Ursula K. “The Critics, the Monsters, and the Fantasists.” The Wordsworth Circle, vol. 38, no. 1-2, pp 83-87.

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Queering Satan: The Politics of Sex, Gender, Visibility, and Fear in Paradise Lost

By Jennifer Kaplan

For millennia, Satan has been a popular model for representing transgressive forces. In John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Satan is a dynamic character—at once visible and invisible, manifest and ephemeral, masculine and feminine. By analyzing competing Protestant and folkloric interpretations of the Devil’s relationship to invisibility and visibility, interpreting the changing views of both gender roles and biological sex in the seventeenth century, and examining the relationship between demonology and gender, I establish that Milton’s Satan is “queered” through his subversion of socially enforced binaries. Throughout the text, Milton both plays off of and against contemporary satanic cultural motifs. Ultimately, his radical reinterpretation creates a Satan who exists as a transgressor against contemporary notions of gender and sexuality.

           Satanic tropes and caricatures that have existed in England for centuries focus primarily on visibility and the grotesque, with later interpretations retaining Satan’s deformity while freeing him from the restraints of corporality. Milton reinterprets these historical depictions to render his Satan as a transgressive, inherently gendered and sexualized force in Paradise Lost. The pre-Miltonic Satan of sixteenth century and medieval folklore existed as a chaotic bricolage of repressed and actualized social anxieties. In both artwork and literature, Satan possessed “both human and animal traits” and had the ability to appear as either “a young man or woman,” thus manifesting in a naturally transgressive form that challenged the contemporary gender dichotomy and was further striking for its deviance from conventionally appealing standards of appearance (Oldridge 232). For example, Satan could “transform” himself from an aesthetically acceptable form, such as that of a “handsome man,” into something grotesque, such as “a hideous beast” (Oldridge 243). It is the visible that distinguishes Satan as a force of evil, and more specifically an embodied visibility: alternately gendered, sexualized, humanized, and animalized, and sometimes all at once. Through these transformations, Satan is defined by his visibility and its consequential grotesqueness. By contrast, the Protestant Revolution of the mid-seventeenth century saw Satan radically reconceptualized as an invisible, disembodied force—notions with which Milton would have also been familiar, and which freed his Satan from the restrictions of physical form (Oldridge 236).

           Within Paradise Lost, there is a distinctive tension between Satan’s visible and invisible nature: as Milton phrases it, a tension between his linkage to the solid “Earth” and to the amorphous “Air,” a curiosity regarding physical form that plays off of the premodern idea of the Devil as being able to possess “the mind of the faithful through manifold appearance” coupled with a power for endless machinations via formlessness (Milton 4.940; qtd. in Dendle 30). In Puritanical narratives discussing Satan’s prowess for invisible machinations, Satan has moved beyond the restrictions of being “bodied” and into the realm of the invisible and omnipresent, in what may be deemed an antipodal, evil subversion of God’s omnipotence (Oldridge 235). Yet, even when the Puritanical Satan works in the shadows, he is still inherently linked with the visible realm, projecting visions of himself as an “agent of personal temptation” to sin in every possible way—including temptations into adultery (Oldridge 235). For the notion of Satan as “tempter” links him with the age-old idea of the “temptress.” In the scene where Satan first tempts Eve in a dream, she has “dream’d” his “gentle voice,” which is disembodied from Satan and in her mind associated with Adam (Milton 5.32, 5.37). When he does appear to her, he takes the form of an angel, “One shap’d and wing’d like one of those from Heav’n / By us oft seen; his dewy locks distill’d Ambrosia.” (Milton 5.55). Yet, here he is not physically manifest, but “a dream,” mere ephemera existing between the physical and the imagined (Milton 5.57). Whether he chooses to take this form within Eve’s mind or Eve conjures this image herself is left ambiguous.If it is his choice, it reveals Satan’s longing for an alternate body that, in comparison to his present grotesque form as a damned “Leviathan,” is simultaneously more sexualized and more appealing for epitomizing a specific gender ideal (Milton 1.201).

           In incorporating both folkloric notions of a “visible” Satan and newer, Protestant notions of an “invisible” Satan, Milton creates a radical new characterization that both unites the two views and recombines them into something completely new. But even when Milton’s Satan works through “invisible” mechanisms, he is still inherently associated with visual descriptors. As Peter Dendle explains, ,medieval folklore and emerging Protestant ideologies created a paradox of the Devil as both embodied and disembodied: “On the one hand, Satan is personal, subject to spatiotemporal laws and thus confined to a single place at a given time; on the other, he is a spiritual entity of such inconceivable scope and power that he may be said to inhere in all sinners, and in all sins, throughout the world” (Dendle 24). This is a paradox that Milton seemingly resolves by combining these two abilities in his characterization of Satan—a reinterpretation of canon which is in and of itself a transgressive act.

            Satan’s inherent visibility renders him “queer,” or “othered,” in juxtaposition with God, whose omnipresent invisibility defines him. God’s creations celebrate “th’invisible / Glory of him,” a divine being whose power resides in a lack of manifestation and an inability to be captured in words or images (Milton 1.369). By contrast, Milton’s Satan exists not only exclusively within variations of imagery, but in an imagery already warped—“transform[ed]” by his Fall, and transforming still, across binaries (Milton 1.370). Not given the luxury of passive invisibility, he exists purely in “Image”: that of “a Brute,” monstrous, manipulative, deceptive, due to the permeability of that image and its relational gender and sexuality (Milton 1.371–72). Satan exists as a representation of the “visible” while God is the true definition of invisibility—a masculine force, certainly, but neutrally masculine, at once disembodied and innately nonsexual, despite his characterization as a force of creation. As Lorraine Daston argues in her essay “The Naturalized Female Intellect,” the gendered notions of the “female sex” imply explicit visibility—through inevitable sexualization, objectification, and the performative act of childbirth—while maleness is associated with a certain flexible “invisibility,” or “neutral” masculinity (219). As Rousseau once famously stated, every aspect of femininity—but especially its visual aspects—“reminds woman of her sex” in the same way Satan’s refusal to conform to a single gendered form reminds Satan of his otherness, or queerness (qtd. in Daston 218). Thus, Satan becomes simultaneously feminized and queered in his association with visibility, especially when measured against God’s neutrally masculine invisibility. Satan is image. But for all the tension between Satan’s invisible and visible natures, aspects of Satan’s visibility contain a distinctive tension of their own—that between his bestial and idealized forms.  

           When he is acting in the “visible” realm, Satan often assumes a bestial appearance, which Milton implies is his natural form after his Fall from heaven; his bestial nature places him in a liminal space between sexuality and sexual dysfunction. With his first appearance in the text, he is known as “th’infernal Serpent,” far from human and further still from his ideal, “transcendent” form in heaven (Milton 1.34; Milton 1.86). He is now “in bulk as huge / As whom the Fables name of monstrous size, / Titanian, or Earth-born, that warr’d on Jove, Briareos or Typhon, whom the Den / by ancient Tarsus held, or that Sea-beast / Leviathan, which God of all his works / Created hugest,” monstrous and existing outside of the animal kingdom that God will soon so carefully craft in heaven (Milton 1.196–202) But even in his subhuman form, he is simultaneously associated with an exaggerated male sexuality: the description of “His Spear, to equal which the tallest Pine / Hewn on Norwegian hills, to be the Mast of some great Ammiral” imbues him with male virility; yet at the same time, Satan’s Fall from grace has damaged his sexuality, as his “Spear”—a distinctively phallic symbol—is now shrunken, flaccid, weak, “but a wand / He walkt with to support uneasy steps,” and is in “drooping” form, thus implying the Fall as a castration that in turn renders him impotent and androgynous, both via his weakened “Spear” and his current savage, sexually unappealing appearance (Milton 2.292–95, 2.328). Furthermore, it is while in this grotesque form that God uses Satan’s appearance to hold him prisoner under heaven’s patriarchal gaze. Satan speaks of how God and heaven “Transfix us at the bottom of this Gulf,” turning “transfix” into a double entendre that implies it is the act of being looked at by God that keeps him and the other demons trapped in Hell (Milton 1.329).  Made too monstrous for heaven, Satan is trapped in Hell not only by his subhuman form, but also by the threat of God’s omnipresent gaze observing his every move.

           Imbued with the power to shift his appearance at will, Satan sheds his bestial figure for a human form when he first enters the Garden of Eden, playing into the trope of the beautiful, evil tempter—or temptress. Yet he refuses to conform to a single appearance, instead existing at an intersection between human, bestial, and divine form—a transgressive act that threatens the careful set of binaries between male and female, animal and beast that God has heretofore established. We first see him in a partially animal state, “Squat like a toad” (Milton 4.800). Though it is ambiguous as to whether this implies his entire body has been transformed into that of a toad or he is merely in human form but crouching in a grotesque, inhuman position, either way the resulting visual is uncanny and monstrous. Yet, it is in this form that he is more explicitly sexualized than ever. “By his Devilish art,” he creeps near Eve and reaches towards “the Organs of her Fancy,” the latter an ambiguous phrase that implies both a nonconsensual entrance into Eve’s mind and her genitals (Milton 4.801–802). Here, Satan’s violation of Eve—one of God’s two ideal prototypes for the human race—challenges God’s authority on two counts: one, Satan has managed to corrupt Eve, despite her ideally feminine, innately human status and his ambiguously gendered, shiftingly monstrous existence, and two, this corruption calls into question God’s ability to enforce the (gendered, bestial) hierarchies that He has established.

           In this same passage, Satan is both perpetrator and recipient of sexual violence, as the Angel Ithuriel brutalizes him in turn; however, it is Satan’s surprising reaction to this act that once again highlights his opposition to societal norms, particularly regarding sexual relations. “Touch’d lightly” by the angel’s ambiguously phallic “spear” as an admonishing act for trespassing in the Garden, Satan is symbolically sodomized. Yet, even during an act that in other contexts would be perceived as a violation, Satan becomes immediately aroused, ignited with a violent “spark” such as occurs when one “light[s] nitrous powder…Smutty grain / with sudden blaze diffus’d,” explosive imagery which implies an orgasm of rage (Milton 4.819, 4.810–17). The “Smutty” grain is sullied in both the literal and sexual sense; the emotional blast is at once paroxysm and a fiery surge of pleasure. Though it may be tempting to read this passage as an association between homosexuality and personal evil, one must understand that seventeenth-century English people regarded homosexuality much differently from their twenty-first-century counterparts. At that time, society viewed sodomy as a personal failing to which men from a variety of backgrounds might succumb. Sodomy was considered an isolated instance of vice, purely physical in nature, rather than linked to an inherent “flaw” in nature or character; such views wouldn’t emerge until a distinctive homosexual, or “Molly,” culture began in the early eighteenth century, well after the publication of Paradise Lost (Oldridge 307). However, the act of sodomy was still illegal during Milton’s time, so any implication of Satan as desiring acts of sodomy would still have been repulsive to English society at large.

           When Satan enters the Garden a second time, it is through radical transformation that implies a different kind of disruptive sexuality rooted in performative gender expression. He adopts the form of a “serpent”—an obvious phallic image meant to tempt Eve (Milton 9.529). Satan further associates himself with male sexuality when he moves from being a “Serpent sleeping” to one “erect” once he is aware of Eve’s presence, thus both simulating and stimulating sexual arousal (Milton 9.162, 9.501). When he perceives Eve for the first time, he sees “Virtue in her shape how lovely” and “pin’d / His loss” when he cannot corrupt her (Milton 4.847–48). Whereas earlier he envies angels’ “Godlike,” masculine “forms” and bemoans the loss of his own “transcendent brightness,” he now yearns for the feminine ideal while still flaunting his virility, transforming both his gender and sexual appeal as an exercise in power and as a form of devilish “trickery” that mocks the strict gender binary that God has attempted to enforce in creating Adam and Eve (Milton 1.358, 1.86). Moreover, Satan not only desires Eve sexually; he also desires her very existence as his polar opposite: a creature of virtue and “Sanctitude,” in whom “the image of [her] glorious maker shon,” feminine in her physical “softness” and personal “Grace” (Milton 4.292–98). This is something that he himself—despite his transformative powers—longs to become but finds he cannot, either from self-restraint or a newfound limit to his transformative powers that traps him in a monstrous, bestial body, so he can only appear as idealized or divinely gendered forms in others’ dreams, but never in reality. Satan’s striking visibility is used to emphasize his evil nature—specifically, Milton’s Satan exists through a form of visibility that is both intrinsically gendered and made grotesque because of his refusal to conform to any specific morphology. This cautions readers that either engaging in lascivious sexuality or exploring beyond assigned gender roles within God’s carefully constructed gender binary would be socially and personally condemnable for its violation of God’s design.

           The gender binary was of primary concern in seventeenth-century English culture, and Satan’s refusal to conform to its strict mandates reveals emerging social discord. In the years leading up to Paradise Lost’s publication, social and political forces intersected to create radical new notions of gender roles that solidified patriarchal oppression within English society, thus making Satan’s ambiguous relationship with gender all the more transgressive. Even within the social sphere, which had thus far seen radical reinterpretations of gender roles, the notion of sex stubbornly persisted as monolithic. As McKeon argues, in seventeenth-century England, “there [was] only one sex, and sex [was] a sociological rather than an ontological category,” and a more complex discourse on human sexuality wouldn’t emerge until the eighteenth century (301). Contemporary belief held that a given individual could become more feminine or more masculine depending on how they acted, rendering gender a performative act and the threat of aberrant behavior severe. Thus, Satan’s ability to transform across genders manifests the anxieties surrounding gender roles in Puritanical England.

           On an even deeper level, divisiveness over gender difference in seventeenth-century England may be linked back to “internal affect and external enterprise, between the private and the public spheres,” which in turn relates back to the concepts of “maleness” and “femaleness” as a tension between the invisible and the visible, thus paralleling Satan’s own struggle in conforming to these spheres throughout Paradise Lost (McKeon 307). Because of the belief in gender fluidity, there was an underlying societal anxiety that anyone’s physical gender might shift at any given time; this process was reviled, a form of natural punishment for acting outside of gender norms, and thus something to be feared. These anxieties over gender performance and the threat of transformation are never more evident in Paradise Lost than when Milton’s narrator describes the androgynous nature of spirits:

           For Spirits when they please

           Can either Sex assume, or both; So soft

           And uncompounded is their Essence pure,

           Not ti’d or mannacl’d with joint or limb,

           Nor founded on the brittle strength of bones,

           Like cumbrous flesh; but in what shape they choose,

           Dilated or condens’t, bright or obscure,

           Can execute their airy purposes,

           And works of love or enmity fulfill. (Milton 1.421–430)

It is evident that “Spirits”—including Satan—are not restricted to exhibiting solely male or female characteristics. Unlike earthy, “cumbrous” humans (such as Adam and Eve), “Spirits” are not trapped within the primitive form of the gender binary that existed during the seventeenth century. They not only have the capability to “assume” the form of “either Sex,” but also the ability to completely transform outside any gendered form, instead existing as “pure” “Essence” that cannot be defined in physical terms. Most significantly, “Spirits” are not only able to transcend physical and gender expression; they also possess the power to choose to do so, implying a sense of agency that no other of God’s creations possess. Once more, however, this transformative ability is based on a heightened visibility. It is the spirits’ forms, not their nature, that are transformed, as they can only be described through their visible presences—as new forms “condens’t, bright or obscure,” defined by the degree to which they are perceivable rather than their ability to be or not be perceived—and thus they never exist completely outside of perception.

           Finally, as Satan visibly transgresses the gender roles that God establishes, he defies societal expectations of patriarchal authority. While Satan’s exact relationship to God is never made explicit, in heaven he “didst outshine / Myriads” and was expelled for attempting to show he’d “equall’d the most High,” thereafter identifying himself as “The Adversary of God,” a purely relational epithet that challenges God’s omnipotence (Milton 1.86–87, 1.40, 2.629). In order to understand why this epithet is transgressive, one must consider seventeenth-century English society’s hierarchical structure. Milton’s time saw the rediscovery of Aristotle, and with it a new discourse on natural differences between men and women (Daston 213). Aristotelian philosophy emphasizes relational hierarchies, particularly within families wherein the male head of household—“the father, the husband, and the master”—is the natural superior; this is not unlike God’s assumed supremacy through His intertwined roles as “Father” of humanity and “Monarch” of heaven (McKeon 296; Milton 1.41–42). Satan, then, commits a transgressive act in subverting this hierarchy. He is deemed “rebellious” against “the will of Heav’n,” and is punitively transformed into the monstrous leviathan we encounter in Paradise Lost’s opening passages, his body made grotesque to visibly reflect his transgression, his physical appearance an aberration in the same way women’s bodies were viewed as “aberrations” of the male body within seventeenth-century biological hierarchy (Milton 1.71, 2.1025; McKeon 301).

           In establishing himself as God’s “Adversary” and natural antithesis, Satan appears to create a binary of his own; but upon further analysis, it is evident that in Satan’s view he has not established a binary between “good” and “evil,” but rather one between servitude and freedom. Through establishing Hell outside of Heaven and its tyrannical and “all-powerful king,” despite the pain and suffering Satan endures for his transgression, he proclaims that “Here at last / We shall be free”—free from the “command[ing]” force of God and the strict control (and strict binaries) He enforces on Earth and heaven alike (Milton 1.258–260, 2.851). It is not God’s benevolence that repels Satan, but rather His insistence upon hierarchies establishing Himself as the supreme master. Thus, patriarchal authority is the true fount of Satan’s ire, and he is punished for defying it in the same way a woman or other person inferior to a male head-of-household would have been punished: through social exclusion.

           Milton’s Satan exists at the intersection of a variety of transgressive historical and societal forces. The ambiguous nature of both his sexuality and his gender conflate him with the specific, omnipresent threat of “nonconformity” that haunted Protestant religious circles. In combining both folkloric and Protestant interpretations of satanic imagery, Milton presents a radical new version of Satan that both exists within and subverts established narratives on visibility, evil, sexuality and gender—a Satan whose primary challenge to God’s authority is his refusal to conform to the binaries that God establishes. Satan is image, image is sex, sex is power, and power is to be feared when in the possession of anyone outside of God and His patriarchal authority.


Works Cited

Daston, Lorraine. “The Naturalized Female Intellect.” Science in Context, vol. 5, no. 2, 1992, pp. 209–235. Cambridge.Org, doi:10.1017/S0269889700001162. Accessed 27 Apr. 2016.

Dendle, Peter. Satan Unbound: The Devil in Old English Narrative Literature. University of Toronto Press, 2001.

McKeon, Michael. “Historicizing Patriarchy: The Emergence of Gender Difference in England, 1660–1760. Eighteenth-Century Studies, vol. 28, no. 3, Spring 1995, pp. 295–322. Accessed 4 Apr. 2016.

Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Signet Classics, 1968.

Oldridge, Darren. “Protestant Conceptions of the Devil in Early Stuart England.” History, vol. 85, no. 278, April 2000, pp. 232–246. Accessed 4 Apr. 2016.

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Natural Selection to Neo-Darwinism: Societal Confrontations of Evolutionary Biology

By Chris La Placa

The theory of natural selection first broke ground in the mid-Victorian era, describing the process by which individuals grapple with environmental selection pressures that will ultimately predict the taxonomic composition of the following generation. It was not until the “Modern Synthesis” of the 1930s and 1940s that these theories were adequately supplemented with Mendelian and population genetics, enriching their validity and popular reception in the academic realm. However, the implications of these research advancements were not always greeted with equal societal enthusiasm. Examination of primary and secondary sources from both the Victorian and the “Neo-Darwinism” eras seems to suggest that while the two eras endured reasonably similar amounts of scrutiny, the sources of these responses were not always consistent. This is to say that the public concern with evolutionary biology was initially rooted largely in scientific skepticism and defense of religious traditions, not immediately concerned with the social implications of science until the crude interpretation of the “Modern Synthesis” made an explicit attack on racial minority groups.

Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859), despite its eventual contributions to evolutionary biology, is characterized by a speculative, theoretical voice that was widely considered unsound and provisional due to its absence of a reliable scientific framework. Its proposal of a non-Creationist emergence of modern humans nonetheless shocked the public both scientifically and religiously, warranting fervid objections on the grounds of genetics, geology, and creed. In an 1867 review of Origin, Fleeming Jenkin introduced the “swamping” argument, a view of adaptation and inheritance discounting the potential of genes in lower frequencies to be expressed in large populations where such phenotypes are absent; this idea neglected to account for the slow and gradual process of evolution proposed by Darwin (himself influenced by Lyell). Unchallenged by research in population genetics, which would later disprove Jenkin, this claim’s logical deficiencies fueled the popular skepticism of the theory of natural selection on a genetic basis (Aronova).

Similarly, in 1862, William Thompson (later Lord Kelvin) employed thermal gradients in attempting to establish the age of the earth, argued in Origin to be conducive to billions of years of organismal adaptations — Thompson’s estimation of a maximum age of 100 million years deemed natural selection’s production of anatomically modern Homo sapiens impossible. However, this rebuttal was also flawed in its ignorance of the mechanics of solar convection, yielding a much younger age of the earth than truly accurate (Aronova). Finally, religious discordance grew abundant due to challenges to Creationism. Several responses archived by the Darwin Correspondence Project represent an overarching public disapproval of late-Victorian scientific publications, all of which undermined previous conceptions that human origins were divine rather than evolved from a lineage of nonhuman ancestors. While this discourse was productive in integrating evolutionary science into the public sphere, the era’s religious tradition prevented science from persuading preconceived theories pertaining to taxonomic variance. Scientific and religious objections to Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection were rampant in the late 19th century and beyond; however, these arguments were primarily those of members of majority groups not targeted by the social implications of natural selection’s most contentious question: man’s place in nature.

Darwin’s Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871) addresses this inquisition — the origins of human nature and behavioral ecology — through its elaboration on the theory of sexual selection, previously described as depending “not on a struggle for existence, but on a struggle between the males for possession of the females; the result is not death to the unsuccessful competitor, but few or no offspring” (Origin 88). Sexual selection attempts to differentiate between opposing characteristics of the sexes that may be advantageous in ensuring maximum reproductive success, raising offspring to their own “alpha,” or age at first reproductive event. This theory describes men as releasers of physical and intellectual energy, physiologically katabolic, large-brained, intelligent, independent, eager, courageous, and passionate beings. Contrarily, women are cast as storers/conservers of energy, physiologically anabolic, nurturing, altruistic, constant, stable, commonsensical, and intuitive creatures. This bipolar model of gender roles, while accepted in the scientific realm, was socially detrimental and sizably criticized by members of a growing feminist community emerging not until the early 20th century.

The vanguard of this liberal sentiment was Charlotte Perkins Gilman, niece of abolition novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe and author of The Man-Made World and Our Androcentric Culture (1911). Warranted by the socially-ignorant conclusions of sexual selection theorists, Gilman’s work confronted the dyadic gender roles and natural order proposed by Darwin, arguing that by seeking economic independence from men, women would be successful in restoring a sense of balance between the sexes. This attention to the negative consequences of scientific theory pertinent to human nature was scarcely, if at all, publicized until over five decades after Charles Darwin’s first major literary contribution. Dissimilarly, challenges to the scientific merit and ecclesiastical implications of the theory of natural selection surfaced nearly instantly. While it is true that the explicit controversy incited by Darwin’s work was the scientific origin of species, the biological parameters of gender inequality in society were not confronted with adequate zeal. This was a prominent characteristic of evolutionary science in the late-Victorian era — its implicit societal shortcomings were condoned while false scientific skepticism penetrated and permeated the public dialogue.

While his earliest literature transformed Darwin into a public figure nearly overnight, his esteemed scientific reputation was not void of social defamation. The 1930s and 1940s witnessed the genesis of the “Modern Synthesis,” unifying Darwinian natural selection with Mendelian and population genetics, and birthing a Neo-Darwinist view on human origins which accounted for heritability and adaptation. The genetic basis of so-called “new biology” was scientifically sound, yet grossly abused in its vast applications to non-hereditary organismal features. This ignorance can be attributed to research in eugenics, a genetic concept rooted in selective sheep breeding at Robert Bakewell’s farm in 18th century Leicestershire. His striking results inspired works such as Francis Galton’s influential Hereditary Genius (1868), which presented evidence for inheritance of mental traits among a human population. This research spiraled into a dark form of social control in Victorian England, in which it was believed that artificial selection should be used as a method for preservation of the status quo and hierarchy, breeding human beings like cattle based on physical and mental capability. Eugenics was further justified by the popular desire to remedy the perceived collapse of human society as a result of industrialization. Darwin’s ignorant claims regarding the laws governing heredity and variation did nothing to ameliorate the calamity of eugenics. Furthermore, a unanimous public displeasure with eugenics was invisible due to its benefits to a majority of individuals affected by its processes. This sentiment does not parallel that of those reacting to speculative biology of the 19th century, presumably due to the implementation of convincing genetic research into 20th century science, despite its misuse.

The credibility of eugenics did decline as a result of several factors, including the disadvantages of human subjects research, increasing knowledge and recognition of the multidimensionality of heredity, and the rise of Nazism in 1930s Germany. However, the crude interpretation of Mendelian theory in its application to non-hereditary characteristics persisted with the publication of E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology (1975), a well-intentioned text seeking to unify social sciences with the physical sciences. Wilson and many others saw the application of biological principles in explaining social phenomena to be the logical continuation of the Neo-Darwinist trajectory, himself writing that “sociology should be reshaped in the same way that taxonomy and ecology…have been reshaped entirely during the past forty years by integration into the ‘Modern Synthesis’” (Wilson 4). While this movement optimistically aimed to synthesize scholarship from interdisciplinary origins, undertones of biological and genetic determinism ultimately tainted this goal. Wilson expresses that “the individual organism is only the ‘vehicle of the genes,’ part of an elaborate device to preserve and spread them[selves]” (Wilson 3). Similarly, Richard Dawkins wrote in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene that “we are survival machines — robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes” (Dawkins). The unavoidably oppressive tones of these works seem to rob humans of their individuality and agency, assigning importance only to the perpetuation of genotypes and respective lineages. Regardless of its liberal intentions, the concept of sociobiology is inherently racist as it assigns normalcy to the primary population or culture in question, effectively othering all those who do not conform to this standard; like to eugenics, it employs Mendelian and population genetics in considering learned, rather than inherited qualities. Lacking a holistic view of sociality, sociobiology’s attempt to amalgamate biological and social sciences was a failure.

Unlike the delayed and relatively mild public response to the social implications of sexual selection, eugenics and sociobiology were confronted by ardent activism originating in the 1960s, characterized by the second wave of feminism, the rise of environmental agencies, anti-Vietnam war protests, and civil rights movements. Organizations such as the Union of Concerned Scientists assembled to protest the negative direction of science in the mid-late 20th century. This group exemplified liberal scientific activism, criticizing neither science nor government, but aiming to apply the vast aptitude of researchers in addressing societal epidemics such as poverty, malnourishment, urban decay, and environmental pollution (Francis Low, UCS Member). The Science for the People’s sociobiology study group, emerging in 1968, sought to combat the conservative politics of biological reductionism with the liberal ideal of “universalism” — this concept implies that individuals are afforded the same basic rights and have national and global responsibilities, rather than ethnic, political, or otherwise stratigraphic obligations. An increasingly multiculturalist agenda in the humanities was instrumental in ensuring the inclusion and representation of diverse and disenfranchised groups previously invisible in the racially-charged atmosphere produced by the works of Francis Galton and E.O. Wilson.

This underlying commitment to rejecting racism conjured up by advancements in evolutionary biology was a unique characteristic of the Neo-Darwinist era, unseen during past episodes of turmoil between society and the sciences. As understandings of the politics of human nature increased, so did the unifying climate of the Western world. Reliable scientific research emerged, describing that very few genetic nuances differentiate members of the same family; however, these individuals remain behaviorally and socially unique from one another. Similar ideas successfully denounced notions that behavior is heritable, that race has cognitive distinctions, and that certain cultures cannot escape imminent domination. The public response to the “Modern Synthesis” resulted in several fruitful modifications to previously acute tensions in society. This outcome is the product of criticism more focused on the subtle implications of biology and genetics, rather than the merit of the science itself.

Speculative 19th century evolutionary theory and Neo-Darwinism were similar iterations of biology in their ignition of societal retaliation in response to their use and misuse of scientific information. However, the foundations and magnitude of these retaliations were what characterized these periods. The response to Darwin’s early publications was largely critical of the absent scientific framework of his theories, and secondarily protective of the authenticity of divine origins of human beings. Not until half a century later did the public address gender inequality associated with the theory of sexual selection through the genesis of early feminist thought. Inversely, the “Modern Synthesis” saw itself under attack as early as the 1930s, as people began to discontinue their beliefs in eugenics. The analytical sentiment towards the notion of biological determinism holds momentum to this day, 2017 being a year in which eugenic thought has certainly resurfaced in the United States. The issues raised by scientific thought in the Victorian era certainly reemerged with the advent of Neo-Darwinism, and will likely persist due to an ever-changing concept of “human nature.”

Works Cited

Aronova, Elena. “Darwinian Revolution.” Fall 2016. Department of History, University of California, Santa Barbara.

Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, Or, the preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. J. Murray, 1859.

Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man, and Selection in relation to Sex. J. Murray, 1871.

Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press, 1989.

Galton, Francis. Hereditary Genius: An Inquiry into Its Laws and Consequences. Watts & Co, 1892.

Gilman, Charlotte P. The Man-Made World: Or, Our Androcentric Culture. Source Book Press, 1970.

Wilson, Edward O. Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2000.

A World I Never Made: Dualism, Violence, and Sexuality in the Novels George Washington Goméz and The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo

By Francisco Olvera

Racial identity (and its formation) within the United States is an ongoing conversational theme, and given our recent election, a crucial one. If one looks at the history of the United States, it is apparent that its culture and society, at large, produces feelings of inferiority within people of color and other marginalized groups. In contribution to this conversation about the role U.S. society plays in the formation of racial identity, this paper conducts a close reading of two novels, written by Chicano authors, and structured as first-person narratives: George Washington Gomez by Américo Paredes and The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo by Oscar Zeta Acosta. In doing so, it seeks to answer the following questions: How do fictional Chicano males imagine their identity within a hegemonic white society? Furthermore, how does this hegemonic white society, built on years of racial hierarchy and division predicated on policies and practices of exclusion, shape and form Chicano masculinity? And finally, to bring it all together, how do these Chicano novelists portray the complexity of Chicano masculinity as reflective of a society and culture that denies their sense of identity and citizenship? The answer to these questions can be seen in the actions and reactions of the fictional characters within the novels. Although fictional, these characters are still able to illustrate, through their lives, the effects of a racist society. This is seen in intimate ways through questions of identity that revolve around fragmented episodes of sexual intimacy and tension, as well as acts of violence. Identity for the Chicano male thus becomes a place of fluid complexity. It is in this space where one comes to realize that we are not all just human beings attempting to survive the toils of daily life. Rather, some of us have histories stained by oppression; histories that still haunt and affect us today. So, while current reactionary critics on the political right make cases about the “vile” and “regressive” role that identity politics play in the United States, they lack a complex view of history that puts the onus of “identity politics” on policies and practices orchestrated by a white hegemonic state.

Practices of alienation and exclusion implemented by the United States directly affect people of color by limiting their social and economic opportunities. Furthermore, these practices construct visible and invisible divides in society which in turn create a racial hierarchy that privileges some at the expense of others. The effects of these divides appear in the areas of education, health, and freedom from imprisonment. The study of these specific areas, however, fails to expose and reveal the unique and individual psychological turmoil within racial subjects who inhabit and exist in a society of exclusion. Fiction allows for a more thorough examination into the turmoil experienced by these individuals. Through the close reading of George Washington Goméz by Américo Paredes, and The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo by Oscar Zeta Acosta, this study will examine how these novels expose fragmented identities created by a culture of racial hierarchy and division, and how this fragmentation reflects itself through a complex Chicano masculinity in the central characters. This complex negotiation of masculinity appears in these novels in the areas of violence and sexuality.

One way to understand the relationship between a culture of racial hierarchy and masculinity is by understanding that this culture, through its very structure, renders Chicano identity inferior. Masculinity is an area in which fragmentation occurs if coupled with structural racial hierarchy. A fragmented Chicano masculinity can be defined as a reactionary way of being due to feelings of inferiority, and these reactions manifest in the treatment of women as inferiors in order to create within a façade of strength and power. Gloria Anzaldúa, writing about being a “macho” (a man), states, “for men like my father, being a ‘macho’ meant being strong enough to protect and support my mother and us, yet being able to show love” (Anzaldúa 105). Here Anzaldúa provides a positive account of what being a “macho” can mean and presents a figure of both strength and love. However, she later goes on to juxtapose this figure with her modern conception of a “macho,” one whose “machismo [masculine pride] is an adaptation to oppression and poverty and low self-esteem” and later adds that “in the Gringo world [which is to say the American world], the Chicano suffers from excessive humility and self-effacement, shame of self and self-deprecation” [emphasis added] (Anzaldúa 105). These factors fragment the sense and performance of masculinity in Chicanos, and thus, for Anzaldúa, “the loss of a sense of dignity and respect in the macho breeds a false sense of machismo which leads him to put down women and even to brutalize them” (105). This “false sense of machismo” creates a complex Chicano masculinity under the much larger Chicano identity.

A better way to understand this complex masculinity is to apply the term “double-consciousness” to the Chicano male experience. W.E.B. Du Bois states, “the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world” (5). Like Anzaldúa, Du Bois understands the power the “American world” holds over shaping and defining the identity (a “consciousness”) of racial subjects. The other world, the “American world” only allows the Chicano male subject to see himself in the light of inferiority. This application of “double-consciousness” to the Chicano experience is helpful in order to understand the dichotomy between “normative” American identity (whiteness) and that of racial subjects, and how this dichotomy plays an important role in the shaping of racial identity and its subparts.

George Washington Goméz, a bildungsroman, begins with the birth of George Washington Goméz (also referred to as Guálinto), “born a foreigner on his native land…fated to a life controlled by others,” and follows him as he navigates the hostile early 20th century in the border state of Texas. Symbolically, this location places Guálinto between two worlds which will collide throughout his life: the American and the Mexican.  Masculinity, as a component of Chicano identity, appears and manifests itself in complex and fragmented ways. One way in which it does so is through violence. Violence in the novel is either absorbed by Guálinto and shapes him, or appears in the ways Guálinto expresses himself as a racial subject with a history of neglect. In the novel’s beginning Guálinto’s father is murdered by Texas Rangers, and on his deathbed asks his brother Feliciano (Guálinto’s uncle) not to tell Guálinto how he died for he does not want his son to feel hate (21). Feliciano, troubled by this, remarks how “it [will] be very hard to keep such a terrible truth from this male child” (Paredes 31). The early death of his father overshadows Guálinto as he grows up; for his father, a figure of masculinity, has been taken away by the same dominant force that years before took his native land (the proto-threat to Chicano identity). By denying Guálinto an important symbol of masculinity, the racial system of hierarchy and division which he inhabits begins to split and fragment his personal evolving identity.

Although Guálinto does not learn about his father’s death until much later in the novel, the hyper-violent ways in which he expresses himself in his youth reveal a subconscious understanding of the event which denied him a masculine figure crucial to his identity. An example of this appears when Guálinto begins to ask his uncle questions about what his father was like and what killed him. Feliciano lies and tells him he died of a heart attack, but he also informs him that his father was a gentleman (Paredes 101). Eventually, the talk leads to Feliciano revealing his personal antagonisms towards the “gringos” and he gives Guálinto a brief history of his people’s disenfranchisement in the hands of the “gringo” (Paredes 102). To all of this Guálinto responds, “‘Just wait till I grow up! Just wait till I’m a man! I’ll get our land back. I’ll be like Gregorio Cortez and Cheno Cortinas and all of them.’ He pulled out an imaginary gun. ‘Shoot them down like dogs. Ping, ping…I’ll kill all the Gringos and the rinches too, and drive them away from here” [emphasis added] (Paredes 103). Guálinto conflates manhood, and thus masculinity, with murder. He believes that one’s manhood grows through violence intended to affirm an illusionary sense of strength and power. Of course, one could argue that this is just a child with a big imagination, but to do so would undermine the violent state within which Guálinto lives and exists. His hyper-violent thoughts do not reflect a childhood imagination; rather, they reflect the world that has taken away his father and thus they affirm a brokenness which finds expression in false and vile conceptions of masculinity. They are simultaneously expressions of vulnerability and aggression. Double-consciousness returns here as an indication of what the U.S. dominant white world has placed upon Guálinto’s subjectivity: a history of violence which he then uses as his own vile defense.

The imposition of a racialized consciousness also affects Guálinto’s masculinity in the complexity of sexual tensions and desires. The heteronormative sexuality presented in these novels implies sexual relations and thus sexual reproduction. Matters of sexual reproduction become important when one considers how people are categorized as racial subjects, which is in part through their physical appearance. This is evident in an event that occurs towards the beginning of the novel where Gualinto is perceived as a white child due to his appearance. A Texas Ranger (a rinche) is aggressive towards Guálinto’s uncle and mother, asking them “Where’d [they got] that white child?…chico americano” (Paredes 32). Here, racial features are associated with national identity.

Questions surrounding sexual reproduction become more prominent as Guálinto grows up. After being involved in a knife fight in which he comes out victorious, people at a party who witnessed his fight invite him over. What follows is a hyperbolic celebration of his affirmed “masculinity.” The party he enters is a quinceañera, an important festivity in Mexican culture marking the passage from childhood to womanhood. In a way, this celebration acts as a mirror to his own passage into manhood. These events meld together and represent a larger rite of passage into adulthood for both the girl and boy, but this melding together also acts as an affirmation of Mexican-ness. Later Guálinto is taken care of by the birthday girl, dances with her and drinks alcohol (Paredes 246). It is in this setting, symbolic of Mexican culture, in which Guálinto appears to find himself. He embraces that his name “[is] and Indian name” and when an old man asks if it is Aztec, Guálinto affirms, stating, “you’re right” (Paredes 246). Guálinto perceives this old man as “an image in water,” which is to say, he sees a mirror in the old man (Paredes 246). As he leaves, Guálinto appears to have truly found himself, claiming that, “these were his people, the real people he belonged with. His place was among them, not the ‘Spaniards’ like the Osunas. He would marry Mercedes [the birthday girl] and live on the farm. He would go back. Tomorrow night he would go back” (Paredes 247). This scene ends, however, with “he never did [go back]” (Paredes 247).

Guálinto’s decision to select Mercedes is an undeniable sexual choice to affirm his identity as a Mexican subject. The role of women here is that of a pathway to a cultural self. Their potential unity holds the possibility of relieving Guálinto’s fragmentation. But the fact that he does not follow through is reflective of a struggle to confront women of his own race, and, in essence, a struggle to confront his Mexican side because of the imposition of inferiority the society he inhabits has placed upon it.

If this scene depicts the complex negotiation of masculinity regarding the sexual partners of a racial subject, then the ending of the novel depicts the complete split of the racial subject. Ironically, the final part of the book is titled, “Leader of His People” and is set years after the coming of age of Guálinto. In this final part, it is revealed that Guálinto chooses a white woman as his sexual partner. On the surface level, this choice of a sexual partner seems inoffensive, but how Guálinto makes this decision and the motives behind it reveal a much deeper problem. Guálinto himself sees this choice as an erasure of identity. Remembering their wedding night, he states that “he was somewhat surprised to discover [that Ellen, his wife] was a virgin. Getting the Mexican out of himself was not an easy job, he thought” [emphasis added] (Paredes 283). By having sex with Ellen, herself a representation of what the surrounding world has denied him—an American way of life and comfort—he plans to erase the Mexican identity within him. Not only do the motives behind his choice reveal a fragmented identity, but what he is willing to do to maintain his new status also reveals a deep split within. Ellen’s father, a retired Texas Ranger, insults Guálinto and the name given to him by his father, and instead of defending the memory of his father, Guálinto decides to “change his name to George G. Gómez…” (Paredes 284). In a scene which explicitly depicts the weight of inferiority placed upon the Chicano racial subject by the white dominant force (represented by the retired Texas Ranger), Guálinto chooses to see the Mexican side of his identity (given to him by his father) as inferior. This, in essence, reveals that since his birth, Guálinto “was fated to a life controlled by others” (Paredes 15). The culture of racial division and hierarchy in which Guálinto lives forces him to see the Mexican side of his identity as inferior, and instead of continuing the constant struggle and clash of self, Guálinto chooses to accept the narrative of inferiority that surrounds his racial identity, and thus chooses to erase and betray it.

The setting and time of Goméz situate the central character in a world shaped by legal racial segregation. The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo situates the main character in the political climate/era of the Chicano movement, a time and period of resistance defined by the celebration of “Chicano” as a cultural and national identity (Pulido 113-114). Still, a similar fragmentation of Chicano masculine identity that Goméz exposes and explores also appears in Buffalo. Although at first, this appears as a traditional form of masculinity in the events in the novel, it is, in reality, a unique portrayal of the fragmentation of masculinity. The main character, Oscar, goes on a “hero’s journey” throughout the United States, symbolic and representative of the Chicano racial subject’s search for identity. Like Goméz, Buffalo raises questions surrounding masculinity and its relationship with violence and sexuality, and how these aspects reflect a society of racial hierarchy and division. In Buffalo, masculinity is affirmed through hyper-violence and acts simultaneously as a form of defense. This is not to say, however, that violence as a defense is appropriate for the situation in which characters find themselves; rather, it is a response to a racially tense climate. This response must be viewed as reflective of a society which seeks to demean Chicano identity. One scene in the novel illustrates this when Oscar, in his youth, is taunted by Junior Ellis, an “Okie,” who keeps calling him a “nigger” (Acosta 93). This offensive slur is used by Junior Ellis to demean Oscar based on his darker skin color. Furthermore, the usage of this slur represents a culture of racial division and reveals how the white dominant force attempts to erase individual unique identities by defining racial subjects as they see them, not as they see themselves. Oscar fights Junior Ellis and triumphs (Acosta 94). As Oscar walks away he passes and ignores Jane Addison, who, like Ellen in Goméz, represents a white sexual partner of desire for the Chicano male subject, one which embodies a sense of American identity which has been denied to him. The sexual obtainment of white women in these two novels represents a passage into the American world. Traditional forms of masculinity emphasize sexual prowess as a characteristic of masculinity. Still, the sexual desire for other women in these novels does not reveal traditional forms of masculinity at play. These desires are predicated on the need to survive within a structurally racist society and thus are revelations of a fragmented sense of masculinity. This, alongside the way in which violence is used to affirm masculinity in response to racial feelings of inferiority, reveals the fragmented negotiation of identity. Later in class, instead of Jane admiring Oscar for his “masculine” triumph through violence, she asks the teacher to ask Oscar to put his shirt back on because “he stinks” (Acosta 94). It is not clear that Jane does this because of Oscar’s race, but that does not matter. What matters is the way in which Oscar sees himself after this, and how his response reveals feelings of inferiority. Oscar, in response to this rejection, claims “I am the nigger, after all… I am nothing but an Indian with sweating body and faltering tits that sag at the sight of a young girl’s blue eyes” (Acosta 95). Oscar thus sees himself through the eyes of the white dominant American world, the double-consciousness thus emerges. He sees himself as inferior in front of the “blue eyes” representative of that from which he is denied and excluded because of his race.

Questions surrounding race in regards to a sexual partner later appear in the novel when Oscar is older. Like Guálinto in Goméz, Oscar displays a complex negotiation of masculine identity when he chooses to reject his Mexican background through the rejection of a Mexican sexual partner. He states that he “never went out with the few Mexican girls in school because they always stuck to themselves and refused to participate in the various activities” (Acosta 112). Oscar ignores the fact that these Mexican girls, as racial subjects, also exist in a society which views them as inferior. Their lack of participation is not by choice but by the restrictions placed upon them by a society which denies them a self. Oscar later goes on to add that, “I did not know one Mexican girl that aroused the beast within me” (Acosta 113). His sexual attractions represent a culture which glorifies whiteness as beautiful at the expense of nonwhite racial subjects. As a racial subject seeking recognition, Oscar subjects himself to internal splitting and fragmentation erasing his Mexican identity through his intentional rejection of Mexican women. The inferiority he imposes upon his female kin acts as a mirror reflective of his personal fragmentation. He, too, idealizes white as beautiful. In the beginning of the novel, his sexual attractiveness is predicated on his racial appearance. What he sees in the mirror is “a brown belly” and “two large hunks of brown tit,” his brownness never separated from his identity (Acosta 11). Following this, he goes on to reveal that his three favorite men are Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, and Edward G. Robinson, all white actors (Acosta 12). The choice of actors demonstrates the culture that Oscar grew up in: a culture which idealizes and favors whiteness. This, inherently, subjects nonwhite racial subjects to feelings of inferiority.

Unlike Guálinto in Goméz, whose subjectivity ends in a tragic form through the rejection of Mexican identity, Oscar in Buffalo grows to admire and accept a side of his Mexican identity through his sexual desires for a Mexican female partner. This is seen towards the end of the novel in his culturally symbolic travel into Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Oscar describes the setting in which he finds himself, surrounded by Mexican women, his “head in a quagmire, twisted with the delights of the most beautiful women [he’s] ever seen in [his] life” and comes to the realization that “whatever Alice Joy or Jane Addison meant to [him] as a kid, now they were only grade school memories of a time gone by” (Acosta 188). Alice and Jane, as white women, represented a pathway to American life, but the chase for them, and the possible notion of their obtainment, also meant a rejection of Mexican identity. His rejection of this past mode of thinking is an acknowledgment of his own racially complex identity and a rejection of further fragmentation. Thus the struggles of his masculinity, in the beginning, cease to exist as he accepts and learns to love himself despite the dominant culture he inhabits. Mexico, for him, is the land where he realizes this, but it does not encompass him. He is later harassed and hurt by a Mexico which also denies him a sense of identity. He returns to the United States, reborn a Chicano. As Oscar states, his “single mistake has been to seek an identity with any one person or nation…what is clear to [him] after [his] sojourn is that [he] is neither a Mexican nor an American…[he is] a Chicano by ancestry and a Brown Buffalo by choice” (Acosta 199).

The ending of Buffalo reflects the era of nationalist pride and acceptance exhibited by the Chicano movement, while the ending of Goméz reflects an era of racial exclusion and segregation which offers no alternative to identity like the one the Chicano movement provided for Oscar. Nevertheless, both of these novels reveal the complex negotiation of masculinity within Chicano male subjectivity. The study of these novels is crucial to our understanding that the United States is a space in which identity formation is fragmented and complex for racial subjects; that its historical laws and practices of exclusion inherently create within these racial subjects feelings of inferiority. These texts allow for new ways of thinking about what it means to grapple with racism and oppression. They invite us to see this battle in the intimate settings of sex and violence. Racism and oppression do not only affect material well-being, they also affect one’s psycho-emotional well-being. Understanding this opens up a much-needed conversation about feelings of alienation and inferiority within people of color, and fiction serves as a powerful medium to do so.

Works Cited

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Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. Penguin Books, 1996.

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Mills, Charles W. The Racial Contract. Cornell University Press, 1997.

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Omi, Michael & Howard Winant. Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960’s to the 1980’s. Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1987.

Padilla, Genaro M. “The Self as Cultural Metaphor in Acosta’s Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo.” The Journal of General Education, vol. 35, no. 4, 1984, pp. 242-258, JSTOR, jstor.org/stable/27796969.

Paredes, Américo. George Washington Goméz. Arte Publico Press, 1990.

Pérez, Héctor. “Voicing Resistance on the Border: A Reading of Américo Paredes’s George Washington Gómez.” MELUS, vol. 23, no. 1, 1998, pp. 27-48. JSTOR, jstor.org/stable/467761.

Pulido, Laura. Black, Brown, Yellow & Left: Radical Activism in Los Angeles. University of California Press, 2005.

Seliger, Mary A. “Colonialism, Contract and Community in Américo Paredes’s George Washington Gómez and…and the Earth did Not Devour Him by Tomás Rivera.” Latino Studies, vol. 7, no. 4, 2009, pp. 435-456, Ethnic NewsWatch; International Bibliography of the Social Sciences (IBSS); Sociological Abstracts, search.proquest.com/docview/222595174?accountid=14522,doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1057/lst.2009.32.