Men and Masculinity. The Presentation of Men and Male Relationships in Three Contemporary British Novels

Alan Hollinghurst's "The Swimming-Pool Library", Nick Hornby's "High Fidelity" and Irvine Welsh's "Trainspotting"

Thesis (M.A.), 1999

102 Pages, Grade: 2,7 (B-)



I Introduction

II Theoretical Approaches to Masculinity
II.1 Constructing Gender - Constructing Masculinity
II.2 Connell's Concept of Masculinities: Hegemony, Subordination, Complicity and Marginalisation
II.2.1 Hegemony
II.2.2 Oppression and Subordination
II.2.3 Complicity
II.2.4 Marginalisation
II.3 Psychoanalytic Perspective
II.4 A Role Perspective on Men
II.5 A Social Relations Perspective on Men
II.6 Cultural Ideals of Masculinity

III The Novels
III.1 Alan HOLLINGHURST - The Swimming-Pool Library
III.1.1 Main Homosexual Characters and Their Presentation
III.1.2 Minor Homosexual Characters and Their Presentation
III.1.3 All-Male Environments
III.1.4 Presentation of Heterosexual Male Society
III.1.5 The Portrayal of Racial Minorities
III.1.6 Masculinity and Femininity
III.1.7 Summary
III.2 Nick HORNBY - High Fidelity
III.2.1 Rob Fleming
III.2.2 Heterosexual Desire
III.2.3 Blasts From the Past - Masculine Journey Back in Time
III.2.4 Male Relationships
III.2.5 Summary
III.3 Irvine WELSH - Trainspotting
III.3.1 Working Class in Trainspotting
III.3.2 Male Protagonists
III.3.3 Male Relationships
III.3.4 Changed Masculinity - Drugs and Their Effects
III.3.5 WELSH and the Feminine Role
III.3.6 Youth Culture and Masculinity
III.3.7 The Older Generation
III.3.8 Scottishness
III.3.9 Masculinity and Language
III.3.10 Summary

IV Construction of Stereotypes by the Authors Looking at Their Own Background/Sexuality

V Conclusion

VI References

VII Abstract

I Introduction

The 1990s has witnessed a groundswell of interest in men and masculinity. The book market saw countless publications, the media took up the topic and discussions about the 'nineties man' became and still are very much en vogue (even though we are on the brink of the next millennium).

Parallel to public interest there was also an increase in academic writing. Numerous sociological and psychological studies endeavoured to explore the roots of masculinity and examined the mechanisms of its functions in cultures depending of various kinds of gender division. They concluded that masculinity has no fixed concept, that masculinity is not just what a group of men happen to do. Rather it has to be understood in relation to the gender role as a social practice negotiated by men and understood in relation to the gender order. So one should instead speak of ‘masculinities’ if one wants to grasp the different representations of maleness in society.

Feminists and multiculturalists have repeatedly criticised the dominant gender position of men in society and questioned the legitimacy for patriarchy. They asked for a ‘new man’, a new social understanding of male values and attitudes and asked for change. Since the mid-1970s men responded to the call for change, explored aspects of men’s lives and started to question whether the traditional concept (a concept that is still very much practised by men throughout the Western world) of male domination is still irreproachable. This, however, also sparked off a crisis, indeed a dilemma because many men felt that, without a fixed basis to define themselves they lost their bearings. Bearing this in mind it is an interesting question to ask in what way men represent men so the task of my thesis is to find out what kind of men are presented in Alan HOLLINGHURST's The Swimming Pool Library, Irvine WELSH's Trainspotting and Nick HORNBY's High Fidelity and what relationships to other men and women the authors form.

I chose this combination of novels and authors for a number of reasons. The novels are all contemporary works of fiction, in a publicational time span from 1988-1995, making them fictional works written at the peak of masculinity research and the social questioning of masculine concepts. Male characters and their authors come from

different social backgrounds and thus promise interesting aspects, which take power, class and sexual orientation into consideration.

I will focus more on Alan HOLLINGHURST’s The Swimming Pool Library and Irvine WELSH’s Trainspotting than on Nick HORNBY’s High Fidelity firstly because of the wider representation of male characters and secondly because of the special status homosexuality and working-class based sub cultures have in society. I will nevertheless try to present the essence of Nick HORNBY’s male representation centring very much on his narrator and protagonist Rob Fleming.

As I am dealing with fictional work, which can only be seen as a representation of society, it is necessary to develop certain tools.

So in chapter II I will present the theoretical framework that I will revert to in order to analyse the different representations of masculinities in my novels. On the one hand I have chosen to concentrate on American sociologist Robert CONNELL’s approach to the gender power structure because it offers a theoretical perspective on masculinity, social inequality and domination1. CONNELL used his approach to analyse the Western European / American concept of masculinity and as I am dealing with novels from Britain, which is very much part of the Western world, and its social construction, I find it a helpful tool to understand the power relations between men and men and men and women. Nevertheless, I have had to include other perspectives, which are necessary to understand male representation, as there is no single theory, or academic approach that can capture all the different facets of men and male life.

In chapter III, the main part of my thesis, I will concentrate on the selected novels. As I am dealing with different representations of masculinity I will, on the one hand take the theoretical framework of chapter II as an analytical guideline and on the other hand try to elaborate on specific forms of male representation that can be analysed in the specific novels. In chapter IV I will attempt to find an answer to the question as to how far the authors construct fictional stereotypes taking their own background and sexuality into consideration and in chapter V I will present a résumé of my findings.

II Theoretical Approaches to Masculinity

This chapter is intended to present the main theoretical approaches I have chosen to use in my thesis. To find out what kind of different concepts of masculinity the novels present and how they are presented one has to answer the following questions: What place in the social power structure do my selected authors place their men in? How are they determined by specific socio-cultural contexts? What kind of self realisation of masculinity do the characters offer? And do the authors themselves, taking their backgrounds into consideration, construct male protagonists, that are characterised by simply being representations of male stereotypes?

II.1 Constructing Gender - Constructing Masculinity

To analyse how men and male relationships are presented in works of fiction it is important to ask oneself what makes and marks men and masculinity in the first place. Feminist Simone de BEAUVOIR2 pointed out that one is not born but rather becomes woman making clear how society influences the interpretation of what is seen as feminine, of how society feels a woman should be. This statement can be reversed and can be just as well applied to men.

Masculinity, just like femininity, is an artificial allegorization defined by society and based on several factors. The word "masculine" describes "attitudinal and behavioural characteristics that, in a socially accepted sense, are considered appropriate to the biological inheritance of the male."3 But with a growing liberational concept of gender it has become more and more difficult to define what the attitudinal

and behavioural characteristics are. As many factors play an important role in defining and structuring maleness and its masculinity a lot of gender research has been conducted, especially in the nineties, to explore the "multifacetedness of masculinity"4.

In order to analyse representations of masculinity and concepts behind them it is necessary to make certain points clear. First of all it has to be said that masculinity cannot function as an overall concept without femininity. The antagonism between women/men is necessary in order to define femininity and masculinity. This approach is also fundamental to all feminist gender studies. Feminists analyses of gender5 and the breakthrough of feminism in the late 1960s were stepping stones that led to gender-awareness and definitions of sex roles gender studies which apply today. The findings forced men, as the bearers of power, to redefine themselves and their masculinities within the social and historical context they move in today. Feminist

research made clear that masculinity and femininity are both opposing social concepts in a system of gender relations. CONNELL6 summarises:

A culture that does not treat women and men as bearer of polarised character types, does not have a concept of masculinity in the sense of modern European/American culture. In speaking of masculinity, we are 'doing gender' in a culturally specific way.7

But if one wants to understand, what makes gender, what defines the masculine and what defines the feminine, thus constructing the gender tag and its evaluating power, one has to look at how Western European society is constructed, what its gender opposition is based on.

CONNELL bases the structure of gender on a three-fold model8 that distinguishes

relations of power, production and the politics of desire (cathexis). It will be more than helpful to take the relational gender concept into consideration as it can be taken as a tool to grasp the representation of males and their masculinity in the chosen novels.

The main axis of power in contemporary Western European gender order is the overall subordination of women and the dominance of men - a structure named 'patriarchy'. The patriarchal concept of power has naturalised men's dominant

position and privileges. But it is never absolute and has to constantly defend itself especially as patriarchal power has come under growing attack by feminists in this century and is facing the growing problem of legitimacy. This tension has led some men to cults of masculinity such as violent movies (e.g. the US movie sequel Rambo) or the phallus-orientated sexual strive for masculine success whilst others have supported feminist reforms.

Western European society is also divided when one looks at the ratio between men and women in industry. The social construction of masculinity is based on the fact that men and not women control nearly all major corporations and the great private fortunes. Although the number of women in lower and middle management positions has grown and allowances are made when it comes to equal job opportunities, they are generally paid lower wages for jobs although they put in the same amount of hours as compared to their male colleagues.

Also sexual relations between genders and within genders, the politics of desire, play an important role in the definition of masculinity. Feminism changed the attitude that sexual pleasure was for men only. As a result, the overall female attitude toward sex and sexual pleasure changed and women today claim, just as men have done for centuries, sexual pleasure for themselves and demand control of their own bodies. Heterosexual, as well as homosexual practices were touched by the changes and a growing social acceptance of different sexual lifestyles was the result.


1 Ilse LENZ reviewed CONNELL's book Masculinites and came to the conclusion that it is "the fundamental study on masculinity as a formative factor of modern social inequality and also one of the most important books in the social sciences in recent years" (cf. LENZ, Ilse: "Reviews ". In: KRAMER/LENZ/STRATMANN (eds.): Journal for the Study of British Cultures - Masculinities. Volume 3, No. 2/96, Gunter Narr Verlag, Tübingen, 1996, pp. 193-194.)

2 De BEAUVOIR, Simone: The Second Sex. Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1972, translated by H.M. Parshley (ed.), originally published, Gallimard, 1949.

3 SCHOENBERG, B. Mark: Growing Up Male. Bergin & Garvey, Westport, 1993, p. 29.

4 BASSNETT, Susan / ECKER, Gisela: "Editorial". In: KRAMER, J. / LENZ, B. / STRATMANN, G.(eds.): Masculinities. Journal For The Study Of British Cultures. Gunter Narr Verlag Tübingen, Tübingen, 1996, p. 100.

5 From as early as the 18th Century with the work of Mary WOLLSTONECRAFT (A Vindication of the Rights of Women [1792]), over Simone de BEAUVOIR’s application of psychoanalysis directly to gender (The Second Sex [1947]), to name but a very few of the pioneering feminists.

6 He works as a professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz (United States) and he specialises in gender studies and the study of masculinity. His work on the concept of male power has been a key influence in gender studies.

7 CONNELL, Robert W.: Masculinities. Polity Press, Cambridge, 1995, p. 68.

8 Ibid., p. 74.

Excerpt out of 102 pages


Men and Masculinity. The Presentation of Men and Male Relationships in Three Contemporary British Novels
Alan Hollinghurst's "The Swimming-Pool Library", Nick Hornby's "High Fidelity" and Irvine Welsh's "Trainspotting"
Free University of Berlin  (English Philology)
2,7 (B-)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
894 KB
Masculinity, Presentation, Male, Relationships, Three, Contemporary, British, Novels, Alan, HOLLINGHURST, Swimming-Pool, Library, Nick, HORNBY, High, Fidelity, Irvine, WELSH, Trainspotting
Quote paper
Symon Nicklas (Author), 1999, Men and Masculinity. The Presentation of Men and Male Relationships in Three Contemporary British Novels, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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