A Space in the Storm: A Response to Siobhan Somerville’s “Passing through the Closet"
By Sheere Dyer
In Siobhan Somerville’s essay, “Passing through the Closet in Pauline E. Hopkins’s Contending Forces”, the tacit allusion to homosexuality within Hopkins’ story is argued to be a resource used to question the dominance or implicit strength of heterosexuality in the African-American community over Black women. While I do believe Hopkins may have intended for the novel to raise questions about the institution of marriage in relation to the African-American female, I do not believe the argument is as polarized as a difference between homosexual and heterosexual attraction in relation to politics between the sexes. Instead, I would argue that the very ambiguity of sexuality within the text serves to comment on a larger issue of what makes a woman female and the importance of intimate bonds between women in society.
The most important piece of textual evidence in Somerville’s argument is the attic scene between Dora and Sappho. In this scene Sappho begs Dora to spend the morning with her after a snowstorm from the previous night makes it impossible for her to go to work. The two lock themselves away in Sappho’s attic apartment and commence to have a tea party and “play ‘company’ like the children” (Hopkins 117). In her essay, Somerville describes this as a highly sexualized scene, in which the intimacy between the two women hints at a possible homosexual attraction between the two, given the homoerotic description of their affection towards one another (Somerville 149-152). While I do believe the scene does have a certain element of homoerotic tension, I would not go so far as to polarize the scene as clearly “homosexual” as “a potential obstacle to the expected heterosexual coupling” (151). Rather, I would say Dora expresses another type of emotional strain in regards to heterosexual marriage. The homoerotic moment between these two women demonstrate a network of affection and understanding well outside the boundaries of marriage, which existed solely between women.
In Carroll Smith-Rosenberg’s essay, “The Female World of Love and Ritual,” the concept of “female friendship” is seen as a product of “cultural and social setting rather than from an exclusively individual psychosexual perspective” (Smith-Rosenberg 2). From her insightful readings of letters sent between women during the early to late nineteenth century, close female relationships seem to foster a type of network of support between women existing far outside of the realm of the heterosexual courtship society. These interactions ranged from intensely physical and emotional confidences between women, which by today’s standard would be seen as potential homosexual revelations, to ‘average’ platonic declarations of love. In any case, it would appear that the social standard for same-sexed bonds was much more flexible and intimate in the early 1900s than it is today, most likely due to the painfully divided and highly regimented rules of courtship and interaction between males and females. In this context, the vaguely intimate attic scene would not be unusual placed in the Victorian period of close female relationships, but it would be unusual given the topic of conversation is Dora’s apathetic view of marriage.
Dora’s concern of becoming bored with her marriage would appear to be a revolt against heterosexual marriage, especially when taken in the context of the close relationship and unusually strong mutual attraction between Dora and Sappho. However, to believe this would overlook a key trend in the description of Dora’s affection for Sappho. Above all, Dora is enamored of Sappho’s beauty in the context of her independence. She has no family and no apparent past, yet seems to be able to make it on her own, as Dora states, “in single blessedness” (Hopkins 121). If anything, this passage hints at a feeling of reverence by Dora of Sappho’s ability to retain her freedom and individuality outside of marriage. Perhaps what Dora feared was not the concept of a heterosexual marriage, but the idea of willingly tying her life to another human being’s and thus subjugating her will. As Carroll Smith-Rosenberg points out “marriage involved a girl’s traumatic removal from her mother and her mother’s network. It involved adjustment to a husband, who, because he was male came to marriage with both a different world view and vastly different experiences” (22). It would be understandable for Dora to be apprehensive about marriage (even Ma Smith remembers such feelings on the night she realizes she must give up Will), but the fact that Dora divulges such feelings to Sappho in such an intimate space reveals the power of their connection, as existing in a realm outside of male influence. Concomitantly, Dora’s statement about feeling “unsexed” and her repetition of the word “comfortable” when talking about her hold on John as a suitor indicate her deep sense of loss regarding marriage (Hopkins 122). The use of the word “unsexed” shows Dora’s feelings of lack of womanhood regarding John, perhaps because he has elements which might be conflicting to her own identity as a woman (Hopkins criticizes John’s sensual nature , perhaps hinting at an undesirable effeminate quality to his personality or making reference to his potential lustful sexual appetite) or perhaps due to a feeling of being stripped of her previous feminine agency and independence enjoyed in her life as a single female. She knows heterosexual courtship is sanctioned by society and feels “comfortable” in that knowledge, but she is reluctant to relinquish the freedom of self, experienced in the female homosocial community.
According to Eve Sedgwick “the adjective 'homosocial' as applied to women's bonds . . . need not be pointedly dichotomized as against homosexual, it can intelligibly dominate the entire continuum" (3). The unity of the lesbian continuum, "extending over the erotic, social, familial, economic, and political realms, would not be so striking if it were not in strong contrast to the arrangement among males" (3). That arrangement, as Claude Levi-Strauss has defined it, is a system of alliance between men that requires, in some form, the exchange of women to bind men and (as Sedgwick implies) to stave off homosexual anxiety. Sedgwick and Carroll Smith-Rosenberg make it clear that women's relationships are not governed by homophobia; therefore, excluding men from female friendships or from access to women which poses more of a threat to male kinship systems than to female. Thus, female homosocial bonds potentially carry tremendous power to subvert or demolish existing patriarchal kinship structures, which is precisely the tacit strength of the attic scene. The fact that these women have the potential for such cohesion propels the image of Sappho as a type of model for (female) unity and strength coupled with domesticity and the harsh past of slavery.
In The Elementary Structures of Kinship Levi-Strauss argues that women are "valuables par excellence from both the biological and the social points of view ... without which life is impossible" (481). As "valuables," women are seen "as the object of personal desire, thus exciting sexual and proprietorial instincts . . . [and also as] the subject of the desire of others, . . . binding others through alliance with them" (496). Women, then, become the means of alliance, the "supreme gift" (65) that binds men together and creates social order. For Levi-Strauss, marriage most significantly reveals men's complete control of women. He argues that traditionally "the total relationship of exchange which constitutes marriage is not established between a man and a woman, where each owes and receives something, but between two groups of men, and the woman figures only as one of the objects in the exchange, not as one of the partners between whom the exchange takes place" (115). As an essential and valuable "sign" to be possessed and exchanged, woman's sole purpose is to provide the passive link between men. This would seem to be the case with Sappho in regards to John Langley’s objectification of her sexually and her Uncle’s treatment of her body as sexual chattel. But Sappho is able to rise above such devaluation of her identity and retain her integrity through marriage, unlike Dora who loses all individuality in her marriage (Hopkins 390).
Sedgwick argues that men's relationships are defined by "homosocial desire," that homosocial relationships between men must be distinguished from socially threatening homosexual unions, and the only way to eliminate the homosexual threat between men is to include a woman in the relationship, forming a (safe) “triangular configuration” rather than a (threatening) linear, male-to-male union. She contends that contrary to women's relationships "patriarchal structures [assure] that obligatory heterosexuality' is built into male-dominated kinship systems, [and] that homophobia is a necessary consequence of ... patriarchal institutions [such] as heterosexual marriage" (3). Women function in this system as signs and tools to ensure the survival of male relationships and to deflect the threat of homosexuality by serving as a link between men.
The dynamics at work between the sexes is best demonstrated by the differences between Will and Dora. Comparatively, there is not that much difference between the two. Both are bright, loving, and intelligent people with strong political ideals and spiritual convictions; however, what separates the two is that Will is male and Dora is female. What I mean by this is that Will enjoys a type of freedom that Dora could never experience because she is female. Will benefits from the uncontested option of traveling overseas to study and taking an active role in the political life of his community, while characters such as Mrs. Willis are treated with a type of novelty and ultimately distinguished by her ability to easily fool more educated persons with her natural intellect despite “her apparent womanly weakness and charming simplicity” (Hopkins 144). Not only that, but when Will loses Sappho and decides to live out his life as a bachelor he is lauded by the narrator in sympathetic terms (Hopkins 390) and prepares himself for a life of virtually ‘monastic’ study and education of young African-Americans following the WEB Dubois model he epitomizes in the novel. Will’s sexuality or logic is not in question despite his choice to remain single, because what determines masculinity is not marriage, but rather (ironically) the bonds between men. Hopkins demonstrates this dichotomy in Will’s depiction of an Old Maid as a masculine figure (96), while his own intended bachelorhood goes relatively un-contested except by Dora, who advises him to marry someone else, demonstrating her departure from her original personality at the beginning of the story.
Will is able to become the agent of his own destiny due to his superior education as well as his access to a largely male-dominated realm of politics and business that the women in the novel can only indirectly access through groups like the sewing-circle and church functions. That is not to say these are not powerful institutions in the bonding of female ritual, but they exist in a sphere separate from the men with very distinct modes of influence, primarily between their own sex rather than having the versatility of the male-sphere as seen by the institution of marriage. Dora’s yearning to remain single defies the traditional structures of kinship by which men regulate the exchange of women to promote male bonding, typical of romance narratives, which in Contending Forces would be Will Smith (WEB Dubois) and Doctor Lewis (Booker T. Washington) through the marriage of Dora. It would appear in this context that Sappho is a foil to Dora in her ability to retain her identity despite her marriage with Will, which is epitomized by Will’s adoption of Sappho’s clearly interracial child. Rather than cave in to male sexual dominance, Sappho retains her integrity of personality; something she does not realize that she possess until after she goes through her sabbatical as a ‘martyr’-mother in New Orleans. Only after Will accepts Sappho and her past do the two get married, showing Sappho’s triumph over her rape and perhaps demonstrating Hopkins’ ideal marriage by having two intellectuals marry and neither one become submissive to the other.
I believe Somerville unjustly polarizes the sexuality of the attic scene, thereby undercutting some of its more dynamic aspects such as women's relation to sexual identity during the 1900s and its ambiguous flowering in homosocial relationships within the two sexes. The attic represents a literal and metaphorical space in-between these two sexual extremes of homosexuality and heterosexuality, representing both a potential for sexual alternatives as well as a means for women to define themselves beyond the ritual of heterosexual marriage. What lends the scene such provocative power is that it questions what it is to be female or male beyond biological and social conventions. Dora appears to be on the brink of a discovery by linking her sexuality to her personality rather than to her heterosexual practice, but she eventually succumbs to the ritualized system of marriage and her personality is "swallowed up" (390) in her new role as mother and housewife. Only Sappho seems to enjoy the best of both worlds by becoming the embodiment of femininity and personal strength, and enjoying relative equality in her marriage with Will, if not financially, then emotionally. The juxtaposition of these two women in context of the attic scene shows a network of great potential power only as strong as the individuals who compose it. In this light, the attic is a space of active feminine power and community, presently locked away from the outer winter of male societal dominance.
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Hopkins, Pauline E. Contending Forces: A Romance Illustrative of Negro Life North and South. New
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Levi-Strauss, Claude. The Elementary Structures of Kinship. Ed. Rodney Needham. Trans. James Harls
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Somerville, Siobhan. “Passing through the Closet in Pauline E. Hopkins’s Contending Forces” American Literature, Vol 69, No 1, (1997). 19 Oct. 2005
© Sheere Dyer