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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Muses, Temptresses, & Mothers: Female Agency, Sexuality, and Transformation in the Works of J.M. Coetzee

By Juliet Way-Henthorne

At a glance, a survey of the works of J.M. Coetzee varies widely in narration, setting, and literary structure, but all share one notable driving force: the author’s desire to fearlessly explore what it means to be human in an ever-changing and often cruelly unfair world. In works like Life & Times of Michael K, Age of Iron, Foe, and Disgrace, the protagonists vary in gender, age, and social circumstance, but through each character, Coetzee examines every angle of existence in a complex society, demonstrating a mastery of observation and boundless imagination that is unparalleled in contemporary literature. Indeed, Coetzee’s ability to awaken the voice of fictional characters is so skillful that he convincingly offers female narration in Foe—through the fearless, bold, and entirely gender-conscious character of Susan Barton—and again in Age of Iron through the voice of the aging, cancer-stricken Elizabeth Curren, whose epistolary narrative to her daughter and own transformative illness presents a thorough comprehension of traditional maternal instincts and a woman’s sometimes innate desire to provide care, even in the face of her own demise. Contrastingly, Coetzee’s Booker Prize-winning Life & Times of Michael K depicts a maternal figure who is untraditional and independent, but whose own self-reliance and ability to stand alone shape her son into an unbreakable, strong-willed man of the most peculiar kind. Finally, in his widely-acclaimed novel Disgrace, Coetzee skillfully crafts a story of the power of female sexuality and male shame, which he conversely pairs with a counternarrative of male sexuality through aggressive gang rape and female shame, while still preserving the personal agency of the victim. In these works, J.M. Coetzee offers powerful, thought-provoking commentary on the effects, powers, and influences of females with varying levels of agency in an often male-governed world, exploring the complexities and contradictions of the intersections between male and female sexuality and transformation.

In Life & Times of Michael K, Coetzee presents a mother character who is not wholly consumed by stereotypical maternal instincts. Coetzee describes Anna K the moment after her child’s birth as “not like[ing] the mouth that would not close and the living pink flesh it bared to her. She shivered to think of what had been growing in her all these months” (Life & Times of Michael K  3). By presenting Anna K as a mother who is initially unsympathetic to her son’s physical deformity, Coetzee creates a character who does not succumb to traditional expectations of new mothers. Anna K is disconnected from her son in a manner that is, traditionally speaking, entirely acceptable in a father figure, but often regarded as cold, unfeeling, and, above all, unfeminine in a mother. Coetzee does this with little apology, allowing Anna K to continue to live an independent life even after the birth of Michael K. In writing Anna K this way, Coetzee presents a path of female-inspired, quiet resistance that K will observe and eventually follow, and it is this example put forth by his mother that ultimately ensures his own survival.

Anna K’s detachment from her son is enhanced by his physical deformity, as it prevents the bonding afforded by breastfeeding, but such detachment is neither cold nor unloving—it is merely unfeminine, which furthers Coetzee’s representation of mothers as individuals who do not coo over their children by some biological impulse. There is, actually, a great deal of tenderness between mother and son, as Anna K “took the child with her to work and continued to take it when it was no longer a baby. Because their smiles and whispers hurt her, she kept it away from other children” (Life & Times of Michael K  3). So Anna K continues to work and tend to her responsibilities while Michael K is a child, suggesting that his presence offers little interference with her day-to-day life. Additionally, by describing the child as “it” through a partial focalization through Anna K’s perspective, Coetzee highlights the sense of stereotypically unfeminine detachment felt by Anna K. This is not to say that Anna K does not love her child, but rather, that he fits into her life with little inconvenience. Indeed, rather than Anna K adapting to life with a child, Michael K appears to acclimate to his mother’s lifestyle. Presumably, Anna K’s life resumes the course it had followed prior to the child’s birth, with K “learning to be quiet” in the presence of others as his mother works (Life & Times of Michael K  3). This adjustment to his mother’s responsibilities becomes one of the defining factors in the shaping of Michael K as a character, his quiet, contemplative nature going on to fascinate others as he moves through the world following his mother’s death, demonstrating the influence that Anna K has had on him.

While not the most overtly independent or self-sufficient character, Michael K’s quiet resistance and perseverance form the driving force behind his survival, a spirit that we can largely credit to his mother for silently teaching K self-reliance by example. Anna K teaches Michael K to work quietly and dutifully and through this, he learns the fundamentals of basic self-preservation, which are enhanced through his planting of seeds and reciprocal relationship with the mother of all mothers, the Earth. The lives of Anna K as a housekeeper and Michael K as a gardener are by no means the most exciting of careers, but they do offer senses of identity and self-reliance that extend to their personalities. Moreover, Michael identifies as a gardener above all else and feels a deep and profound kinship with the earth. This kind of devotion and purpose in life is, perhaps, what allows K to persevere in the face of hardship, just as his mother taught him. By leading a simple life of survival, Anna K sets the frame for Michael K as he navigates through the world without her—a legacy that is apparent as K evades the dangers of war and imprisonment that have become commonplace at the time of Anna K’s death.

As Michael K’s journey through war-torn, semi-fictionalized South Africa comes to a close, he encounters a very different kind of woman on the beaches of Sea Point: the temptress in the form of a prostitute. Michael K observes a woman in “a tight white dress wearing a platinum blonde wig and carrying a pair of silver high-heeled shoes” who is accompanied by another “sister” with a baby and a male overseer, called December (Life & Times of Michael K  172). When K later asks if the man’s name is truly December, the prostitute replies, “That is the name on his card. Tomorrow maybe he has a different name. A different card, a different name, for the police, so that they mix him up” (Life & Times of Michael K  178). The male overseer is intrigued by Michael K, whose epic journey is evident in his disheveled and starved appearance, and, after hearing K’s story of survival, he seeks to soothe and even recruit him by utilizing the sedative effects of alcohol as one of his “sisters” seduces K. Though there are several ways to interpret this interaction and what message it might present with regard to the role of women in Coetzee’s works, it is necessary to consider the agency of Michael K’s seductress; she, like K, manages to survive and live off the grid in war-torn South Africa.  In a world where people are captured for no apparent crime or are, in some cases, even murdered, this is no small feat. Moreover, the “sisters” and December actually appear happy: they have enough food to offer a stranger a portion with no reservations, and they drink, laugh and even evade the police. In this sense, a prostitute is as free as Michael K, although perhaps less able to navigate the streets without a male protector. The prostitute who seduces Michael K is as much a survivor as the protagonist himself: she uses the tools at her disposal, including her sexuality, to endure against the odds. Though the lives of Michael K and the prostitute on the beach are unglamorous and even pitiable in some ways, both are, inadvertently, rebelling against South African society and defying it by continuing to survive in a manner that evades war-torn society.

The love scene between the prostitute and Michael K, though brief, can be read as a retelling of the biblical story of Samson and Delilah, which demonstrates the power of female sexuality even when it is traded between males. After Michael K has been dazed by alcohol on the beach, the woman, guided by December, performs oral sex on K, presumably giving him his first sexual experience since we are told that “because of his face K did not have women friends” (Life & Times of Michael K  4). The woman on the beach, however, takes “his penis in her mouth,” and, though K has a moment of mental resistance, he allows “himself to be lost in the spinning inside his head and in the faraway wet warmth” (Life & Times of Michael K  179). Michael K’s muted and often sheepish demeanor would likely prevent him from ever initiating sexual intercourse, so his interaction with the prostitute is the only way that K would ever experience sexual pleasure. Though this act is initiated by December, the prostitute spends more time with K than she might with an actual client, pleasuring K a second time. Despite K’s facial deformity, the woman offers a smile and “leaning on an elbow she kissed him full on the mouth, her tongue cleaving his lips” (Life & Times of Michael K  179). Through her knowing smile, the prostitute is aware of December’s desire to possess Michael K and the role that she plays in this recruitment. Like Delilah, who is sent by the Philistines to Samson to “lure him into showing you the secret of his great strength,” the prostitute’s charge is to gain something from K, whose quiet perseverance entrances those he encounters (Judges 16). The woman uses her sexuality to momentarily ensnare Michael K, a man who is otherwise unable to be contained by non-physical barriers, demonstrating the power of female eroticism. Interestingly, Michael K, unlike Samson, does not relinquish the secret to his inner strength—his own will to live freely—and instead chooses to return to his mother’s room on the Cote d’Azur. However, the experience with the woman in white becomes the most transformative experience of K’s life, highlighting the metamorphosing effect that only sexuality can have.

The value of sexual experience as a catalyst for transformation is evident through Michael K’s epiphany of self-discovery, which comes directly after his encounter with the woman on the beach. K flees from the beach and finds refuge in his mother’s old room, again highlighting Anna K as a guiding frame in Michael K’s life, where he contemplates the fear of becoming an “object of charity” not only because of his appearance but also because of his life’s story, which he fears, if revealed, would mean that “women would have taken me into their beds and mothered me in the dark” (Life & Times of Michael K  181). Michael K recognizes the unique kind of companionship that he will be offered in life because of what he appears to be and ultimately decides that lust based on charity or transaction is not worth the feelings of shame it later inspires. Michael K is ultimately able to verbalize and claim ownership of “the truth, the truth” about himself, and finally finds confidence in his own identity, which was forged by his mother’s influence, as an eccentric gardener who is invested in his relationship with Mother Earth—a revelation that also would not have been possible without the life-altering experience of sexual awakening.

Similarly, Coetzee’s Age of Iron confronts the themes of motherhood, female agency, and transformation, but against the stark backdrop of Cape Town, South Africa in the midst of apartheid. The epistolary novel’s narrator and protagonist, the cancer-stricken Elizabeth Curren, is a retired professor of Classics, writing to her daughter, who has abandoned South Africa and the suffocating environment caused by racial intolerance and violence. Instead of telling her daughter of her imminent death, Curren writes to her daughter in the hope that her extended letter will be delivered safely after her death by Mr. Vercueil, her homeless confidante and unlikely companion in her final days. The epistolary style alone presents a strong sense of intimate, nurturing, maternal instinct, and Curren herself is a guardian to all in the text, sometimes even reluctantly. While she does not have the opportunity to mother her adult child in the final stage of her life, she watches over the family of her housekeeper, Florence, as well as the homeless man, Vercueil, who serendipitously arrives on her doorstep the day that she receives the fateful news of her rapidly approaching death. Using a traditionally feminine tone of protectiveness, Coetzee’s offers depictions of Curren’s attempts to safeguard her systematically abused black loved ones and of the relationship between Curren’s internal disease and the external destruction of South Africa in the time of apartheid. With these tools, Coetzee offers valuable insight into the internalized feelings of guilt that a maternal white woman might experience in the face of extreme violence against those labeled as “others.”

From the very day of her final diagnosis, Mrs. Curren begins to fill her home with victims of the oppressive social structures of apartheid, from the homeless Vercueil to Florence’s children, and even to Bheki’s aggressively defiant friend, later called John. Indeed, Curren’s maternal instinct is the driving force behind the novel, her illness propelling her forward, perhaps, with the desire to atone for the sins of her white counterparts. Accordingly, during a heavy night’s rain, Curren invites Vercueil into her home to rest on her sofa, and as he sleeps, Curren remembers waking her own daughter from sleep, recalling, “stroke after stroke, my fingertips alive with love, while you clung to the last body of sleep…my hand on your head… the current of love coursing through it” (Age of Iron  57). Curren’s own rapidly approaching death awakens her nurturing qualities, which she feels most strongly in the memory of her daughter as well as in the black people in her life who are far more vulnerable than she is as an educated, upper-middle-class white woman. Indeed, even as her body is devoured from within by terminal cancer, Curren still lives out the full circle of life, in contrast to the young lives being taken in the name of war and revolution.

Although Mrs. Curren’s feminine instincts are drawn out by her looming death and her desire to connect with her daughter, the vulnerable people around her also stir her sense of protectiveness, suggesting that victims of violence are, in a sense, orphaned and in need of shelter, even if such security ultimately fails against greater forces of evil. As Vercueil shelters himself from the rain, Curren writes that her daughter’s “sleepy, comfortable murmur [is] reborn in the throat of this man!” (Age of Iron  57). Though Curren is undoubtedly an inherently kind, liberal person, it is unlikely that, were she living in a world without apartheid, she would have a homeless stranger sleeping on her sofa. The circumstance that allows for this sense of kinship with Vercueil is the deadly practice of apartheid: Curren is faced with her own death, and only when her own demise is close in sight is she able to meditate on her guilt at not only being white but also being politically inactive during her life. This sense of maternal responsibility to her fellow humans is magnified, leading her to intervene on behalf of Florence’s son, Bheki, and his friend, John, both of whom Curren views as, above all else, children.

As Mrs. Curren witnesses the violence inflicted upon Bheki and John, she is forced to confront the harsh reality of police brutality while also struggling to comprehend the depths of her own strength as a protector of the vulnerable. After seeing the police push Bheki and John into a moving car, which causes severe injury to both boys, Curren’s first thought is, “This country! Thank God she is out!” (Age of Iron  60). Curren’s mind reflexively connects the violence against the boys to her own child, demonstrating her instinctive habit of mothering those around her. Curren reaches Bheki before Florence does, helping to pull John’s mangled body off of his and soothingly telling him that, “Everything is alright…The ambulance is on its way” (Age of Iron  61). Significantly, up until this point in the text, Florence, Bhecki, and John have all regarded Curren with thinly veiled judgment; to them, she is the fussy old woman, only partially condemning apartheid without ever having to face its horrors. However, in this moment of brutality, Bheki gazes back at Curren curiously and with “peaceful eyes” (Age of Iron  60). Bheki is both a child and a warrior, ready to face death if it means standing up for what he believes in. It is the child in Bheki that, by her very instinct, Curren seeks to protect. Additionally, these feelings of motherly care extend to Bheki’s friend, who has received a massive wound to the head. As Mrs. Curren asks the plumber to move aside so that she can personally tend to John’s wound, she explains her intervention by stating that “blood is one: a pool of life dispersed among us in separate existences, but belonging by nature together: lent: not given: held in common, in trust, to be preserved” (Age of Iron  64). Though this statement can, at a glance, be read as contemplative but general, it demonstrates the value that Curren places on human life, especially the blood of children who, much to her dismay, are turned into warriors in South Africa.

As Mrs. Curren’s perspective continues to broaden through a series of deeply rattling events, including Bheki’s death and Curren’s own contemplation of suicide by fire, she tries to will her daughter to come to her and even attempts to save John from the police, further highlighting her role as a maternal caregiver. Curren recalls the day that her daughter left South Africa and writes that her extended letter “is a call into the night, into the northwest, for you to come back to me…I cannot live without a child. I cannot die without a child” (Age of Iron  139). As much as Mrs. Curren admires her daughter’s resolve to remove herself from South Africa until apartheid ends, she is also heartbroken, filled with lingering feelings of abandonment that are enhanced by her deteriorating health. This demonstrates the great need of a maternally inclined woman like Curren to nurture those around her; in the absence of her daughter, she nurtures and fiercely protects those who are most vulnerable. Indeed, when John returns to her home and is soon after murdered by the police, the cancer-stricken Mrs. Curren tries to insert herself between John and the police, writing that she “ached to embrace him, to protect him” (Age of Iron  152). Curren knows that she cannot save John from his executioners, and even when it is too late, she bellows at the police, “I am watching you…I am watching everything you do. I tell you, he is just a child!” (Age of Iron  153). Mrs. Curren is many things – scholar, estranged mother, believer in nonviolence—but, above all else, she is a caretaker, a personification of maternal instinct. Although her desire to protect is drawn out at the time of her death and in the face of apartheid, it represents a belief in hope even in the direst of circumstances.

Mrs. Curren herself seems unaware of her own maternal impulse and the strength that nurturing can hold, which, in itself, demonstrates the value of compassion, especially in times of war. As Curren describes her daughter to Vercueil, she says that “she is like iron” (Age of Iron  75). Mr. Vercueil, the unlikeliest of companions, replies that she, too, is like iron. To this, Curren says that his words broke her and “If I were made of iron, surely I would not break so easily” (Age of Iron  75). Vercueil, the vulnerable derelict, truly sees Curren and recognizes the iron-like power that she, as a maternal figure to so many, wields. Her capacity to love, nurture, and protect is rewarded with the friendship of Vercueil who, instead of taking from her, guides Curren down the path to death and shares her final moments. Moreover, Mrs. Curren’s letter is a final act of giving, releasing her daughter from her final tie to South Africa. Her legacy is one of eccentric kindness and generosity, of maternal love, feminine compassion, and the ability to transform one’s life for the greater good, even when death is imminent.

In contrast, themes of female agency and sexuality dominate in Coetzee’s Foe, which offers a dramatic retelling of Robinson Crusoe in which the castaway is actually a woman: Susan Barton, who, having escaped the island with Friday and a now deceased Cruso, seeks the help of Mr. Foe in retelling her story. The text is narrated by Susan Barton, who begins her tale lost at sea after searching for her long-lost daughter, then inhabits Cruso’s island, and finally returns to England. There, she seeks a male author, because Barton, being very aware of the restrictive gender codes of her time, recognizes that a story told by a woman will never find success. In her behavior with her male counterparts, Susan Barton (along with the tongueless Friday) represents the voiceless, marginalized groups that suffer under patriarchal societies, denied representation in both literature and history. However, she still manages to exercise personal agency in the face of life-threatening obstacles, even using her sexuality as a tool to help influence her circumstances with both Cruso and Foe.

Despite being portrayed as having been stripped of her voice in the canonical Robinson Crusoe, Susan Barton’s voice within the text is perseverant, curious, and aware of the prejudice that labels women as inferior to men. However, Barton demands and wields the little power that she does possess, telling the controlling Cruso that she is “a castaway, not a prisoner” when he angrily scolds her for exploring the island on her own (Foe  20). Barton’s eagerness to defend herself and the personal agency she exerts against the males in the text is symbolic of her strength as a woman living in a patriarchal society, and though she is aware that her story must be told through the lens of male authorship, she insists on her story retaining its authenticity, as that, she believes, is the limit of her power as a woman. Barton tells Captain Smith, of the merchant ship the John Hobart,  “I would rather be the author of my own story than have lies told about me… If I cannot come forward, as author, and swear to the truth of my tale, what will be the worth of it?” (Foe  40). Barton recognizes that the patriarchal society in which she lives does not look beyond the canon of male authorship, but she insists on maintaining the integrity of her story, even if it must pass into the hands of a man. Still, Barton’s confidence in her own story and the sense of self-worth that she draws from her knowledge of being man’s muse infuses the text with a sense of feminine courage and the ethical desire to preserve the authenticity of one’s story, which is, after all, one’s only true possession. As Barton confidently tells Foe, “I am a figure of fortune … I am the good fortune we are always hoping for” (Foe  48). Barton’s belief in her own value as a muse, if not an author, and in the significance of her story is the driving force behind her steadfast desire to have the story of Cruso, the island, and herself—as the first female castaway—told for the sake of authenticity and for the survival of herself and Friday.

Moreover, Susan Barton claims ownership of her sexuality, using it as a tool as she navigates her way through male-dominated societies and tries to inspire the writer of her story by invoking, and even embodying, the spirit of the muse. When Barton first succumbs to Cruso’s advances on the island, she is well-aware that she can overpower him, but stops herself as she decides that after not having “known a woman for fifteen years, why should he not have his desire?” (Foe  30). Barton recognizes the power of female sexuality and uses it to satiate Cruso’s desire, as he never again pursues her sexually during their time on the island. Later, when Cruso becomes deathly ill aboard the John Hobart, Barton nurses and pleasures him, assuming the dominant role of seductress as she whispers, “’I am swimming in you, my Cruso’” and confidently declares that “this is our coupling: this swimming, this clambering, this whispering” (Foe  44). Barton is a highly sexual character, self-assuredly taking sexual control and describing herself as being “in” Cruso as the penetrating force rather than identifying as the body being infiltrated. This dominant position is echoed during her sexual encounter with Foe when Barton “coaxe[s] him to lay beneath [her]…and straddle[s] him (which he did not seem easy with, in a woman). ‘This is the manner of the Muse when she visits her poets’” (Foe  139). Susan Barton exudes a seductive confidence which she uses to alter or inspire circumstances in her favor; she is sexually dominant and happy to embody the muse if it means that her story will be told in a manner that ensures her own survival. Barton is, therefore, the muse and mistress of her own story as the preserver of its authenticity, and she is also a sexually free being who uses her sensuality to aid in her one pursuit: to give a voice to herself and the voiceless Friday by ensuring their survival through literary success and subsequent monetary gain.

Finally, it is through Disgrace that Coetzee masterfully dissects gender and rape culture, contrasting the young, indecisive Melanie against the practical, confident Lucy: victims of two very different kinds of rape. The novel is focalized through the character of David Lurie—a fallen professor, father to Lucy, and aggressive lover of Melanie, for whom he loses his job after the news of their affair breaks, and Melanie offers a diluted version of the events that have transpired between them. While the novel plainly explores themes of male sexuality, it is necessary to examine the underlying female sexuality that shapes the course of the text and raises questions regarding varying levels of consent in cases of rape, a woman’s right to choose the manner in which the story of her sexual violation is told (or withheld), and the need for personal agency to govern the course of a woman’s life after such sexual violence occurs.

In David Lurie’s sexual relationship with his student, Melanie Isaacs, Coetzee explores the concept of sex that is neither desired nor stopped by the female, suggesting that differing levels of consent complicate the issue of rape while still allowing the female to choose the consequences that her perpetrator will face. David Lurie first encounters his student, Melanie, alone in the college gardens, where he invites her to his home for dinner. The two then partake in “wine and music: a ritual that men and women play out with each other…to ease the awkward passages” (Disgrace  12). Throughout the evening, Melanie confidently explores Lurie’s home, expressing a muted interest in Lurie that never peaks due to his inability to seduce her verbally. Lurie, however, is consumed with passion for Melanie and begins to aggressively pursue her, which culminates in his having sex with her in an encounter that is “passive” on Melanie’s part (Disgrace  19). Although it is instinctual to read Melanie’s passivity as Lurie having taken advantage of his situation as her superior, it is also necessary to consider the fact that Melanie has a boyfriend and that her indifference to the sex itself might stem from guilt in her own infidelity and disinterest in David Lurie’s mediocre attempt at seduction. He is, after all, older, emotionally inarticulate, and more accustomed to sex with prostitutes, with whom there is no necessary act of foreplay. All of these factors contribute to Melanie’s sexual reaction to David Lurie, who, despite being aggressive, is not an outright rapist. Additionally, the text is made all the more complex by the fact that Coetzee presents only Lurie’s perspective and interpretation of such sexual encounters, further demonstrating Coetzee’s ability to create multidimensional characters and intellectually demanding plots that force readers to grapple with their own code of ethics.

After another sexual encounter that again borders the line of consent, Melanie exerts her power over Lurie by asking if she can stay at his home, further complicating her character as both the victim of unwanted sexuality and the author of her circumstances. Lurie notes that Melanie “seems thoroughly at home” with him, “helping herself to toast and honey and drinking tea” (Disgrace  27). Lurie recognizes that he has stepped into dangerous territory, as Melanie is “learning to exploit him … but if she is behaving badly, he has behaved worse” (Disgrace  28). Coetzee explores the complicated nature of male authority and a female’s assumed innocence as well as the power structure between teacher and student that complicates the affair. Though Lurie readily admits that he has acted poorly and abused his position of superiority, he recognizes that Melanie is not without power in this situation, and quickly realizes that she, too, is aware of this. Indeed, as the affair unfolds, Lurie is disgraced, and the community, led by Melanie’s boyfriend, rallies around her, something that, in reality, would be an unlikely outcome. The relationship between Lurie and Melanie, though inappropriate, can never be categorized as clear rape because Melanie’s response was not non-consensual; Lurie’s sex might have been undesired, but a number of circumstances may have contributed to Melanie’s indifference, and Lurie never uses physical force. In this sense, the moral punishment inflicted upon Lurie does not match the crime he has committed, demonstrating the power of females who have experienced sex that is, for any reason, undesired. This power, particularly in crying “rape,” must be wielded with caution, as it is so severe a charge that it has the ability to ruin the lives of men who, in some cases, are not guilty of rape in its most brutal sense. Again, Coetzee asks readers to question gender relations, and while the cultural norm is to align oneself with the female victim, the text’s focalization through Lurie complicates these encounters as readers are confronted with varying levels of consent and enjoyment.

Contrastingly, Davie Lurie’s own daughter, Lucy, is the victim of violent gang rape when she and her father are ambushed by three young males on her farm, where Lurie has retreated after being fired and disgraced following his affair with Melanie. Though Lurie does not witness Lucy’s rape firsthand, he is insistent that Lucy follow-up with the police and tries to persuade her to pursue her attackers by invoking the law and then leaving the farm. This urging is quelled by Lucy, who declares: “what happened to me is my business, mine alone, not yours, and if there is one right I have it is the right not to be put on trial like this, not to have to justify myself—not to you, not to anyone else” (Disgrace  133). Ironically, Lucy’s explanation echoes Lurie’s claims during his own trial, in which he reserved the right of not having to justify himself after pleading guilty. Through this passage, Coetzee plays with a woman’s right to choose, above all else, the course that her sexual violation will take, whether that means pursuing it or pushing it out of mind.

Indeed, Lucy appeals to her right to own her situation, however dire, and to choose the manner in which it is dealt with, calling to mind questions of gender and a victim’s right to anonymity. Lucy’s unwillingness to allow her pain to be shared by anyone else is powerful in itself; despite the devastation of her rape, she is still sure of herself and of her own ability to steer herself through her circumstances, refusing to depend upon anyone else. By contrasting Lucy’s glaring rape with Melanie’s ambiguous one, Coetzee opens the debate for the ethics of rape culture and the ways that it affects the women who claim rape, whether fairly or not, and the men who suffer or escape freely. But Coetzee reminds readers that, in the end, charging a man with rape is a woman’s choice. While this work was met with considerable controversy, it is necessary to at least consider the idea that, in some cases, men are not guilty of rape. Through the powerful juxtaposition of a student/teacher relationship that is, without a doubt, inappropriate and the brutal gang rape (and subsequent impregnation) of Lucy, Coetzee seeks to open lines of communication in a cultural arena that is emotionally charged and highly controversial, demonstrating his willingness to explore all aspects of human nature and gender relations, no matter how ugly.

The works of J.M. Coetzee depict women, and thus gender relations, in a variety of ways—as the women exercise different levels of agency and varying approaches to motherhood and sexuality—but all of Coetzee’s female characters and the men they influence are undeniably powerful in their own rights. Coetzee’s fearless approach to his female characters presents a spectrum of women that is realistic in its diversity, demonstrating his willingness to explore every aspect of femininity in the hope of gaining a better understanding of the female, and human, mind and body. Indeed, the themes of female sexuality, motherhood, and agency are also visited in works like Elizabeth Costello, which presents an aging scholar as she preaches the evils of factory-farming in a quest to save her soul and influence those around her to do the same, as well as in Waiting for the Barbarians, which, much like Disgrace, explores male sexuality, as it transforms with age, and the women who share this erotic journey. Coetzee’s autobiographical novel, Boyhood, also confronts the theme of young male sexuality and the desire of females, but primarily focuses on Coetzee’s own mother, who, like Mrs. Curren, is a maternal force to be reckoned with, though sometimes stifling in her relentless love.

Through his thorough, uncensored exploration of what it means to be either female or influenced by femininity and complex gender relations, he presents readers with an all-encompassing array of feminine voices and perspectives, which he crafts and then allows readers to mull over long after his stories have ended. Indeed, a survey of Coetzee’s works allows readers to explore motherhood, sexual agency, and, perhaps most importantly, autonomy in the face of rape from a variety of feminine perspectives. And although this range of voices inevitably leads to cultural controversy and even public outcry, it facilitates important discussions about what it means to be female in a male-dominated world. Further, this debate allows us to explore gender relations and examine the ways in which we are culturally coded to view rape, as we are often taught that there is no grey area with regard to unwanted sex. By exploring this theme, Coetzee asks us to reassess gender codes in some respects, as a truly fair society should potentially acknowledge the fact that, while many instances of sexual violence go unreported or unpunished, there is certainly room for the possibility that some sexual accusations are exaggerated. Through this willingness to grapple with the often uncomfortable realities of human nature, Coetzee exhibits his mastery of language, observation, and perception by presenting women who are powerful because they are, above all, realistic in their diversity.


Works Cited

Coetzee, J.M. Age of Iron. Penguin, 1868.

Coetzee, J.M. Disgrace. Penguin, 1999.

Coetzee, J.M. Foe. Penguin, 1986.

Coetzee, J.M. Life & Times of Michael K. Penguin, 1983.

“Samson and Delilah.” Judges 16 NIV, Old Testament—Bible Gateway, www.biblegateway.com/passage/? search=Judges%2B16&version=NIV.


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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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