Queer Identity and Sexual Desire: Reading Vathek as a Gothic Novel
Roger Lonsdale´s observation on Gothic tendencies in Vathek by William Beckford implies a certain disapproval of this reading: “Although later literary historians have frequently resorted to the assertion that such a relationship exists, it is not easy to see that Vathek sets out to exploit the imaginative terror, the suspense or psychological shock tactics which were entering the English novel at about this time” and “[p]otential melodrama and horror are almost invariably undermined and deflated by Beckford´s detached, urban and often comic tone” (Lonsdale xxv). Amongst others, Lonsdale and Jeffrey Cass read the novel as an eighteenth-century depiction of the East as a place of luxury, magic, the marvellous, comedy and beauty (see Cass, Lonsdale). But Lonsdale´s objection that hallmarks of Gothic fiction are replaced by “ludicrously grotesque comedy” (Lonsdale xxvi) is not utterly true. Sexuality in Vathek is as deviant and queer as in many other classic Gothic texts, and might not contain true horror but rather the fear of the unknown. Reading Vathek as a queer Gothic novel helps to uncover both the desire for and the fear and condemnation of a non-heterosexual identity or desire. This essay will give evidence for the thesis that the typical Gothic motifs of queer sexual and gender identity as well as the anxiety and desire aroused by it are mirrored in Beckford´s novel. For this reason, a brief definition of queer Gothic and sexuality in Gothic fiction will precede an analysis of Gulchenrouz and the fifty boys, Vathek, and the Giaour regarding their sexual and gender identity.
According to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “queer” is a label not only for homosexuality, but for the “constituent elements of anyone´s gender [and] anyone´s sexuality” that cannot be signified clearly (Sedgwick 8). Especially, the “Gothic novel reflects a deep anxiety in eighteenth-century culture about the changing status of masculinity and femininity in a period of political and social change” (Fincher) and the “[t]hreats of and the longing for gender-crossing, homosexuality or bisexuality” (Hogle 12). Gothic fiction “allows both the pursuit of sanctioned ‘identities’ and a simultaneously fearful and attractive confrontation with the ‘thrown off’ anomalies” of the reader in the eighteenth century (Hogle 8) and presents “properly normalized subjects [who] repress their own homoerotic and other inappropriate desires and vilify […] those subjects who do not” (Hurley 198). As well as the rather grand definition of “queer” by Sedgwick and others, it is crucial to mention that these anomalies are anything that is deviant from the reproductive social norm, which is, in the eighteenth century, heterosexuality (Hurley 198). Besides, these anomalies are usually allegorized by monsters or ghosts (Hurley 198).
Gulchenrouz and the fifty sons of Vathek´s viziers are described as effeminate or even as gender crossing, but still, they do not have any sexual desires or identities and rather have the function of being objects for the deviant desires of others. The queerest figure in terms of gender in Vathek is Gulchenrouz. He is anything but a typical eighteenth-century man: Nouronihar´s cousin paints “the most elegant arabesques that fancy could devise,” sings with a “sweet voice […] in the most enchanting manner,” composes “verses,” prefers dancing and archery to riding and darting the lance (65), and his “heart always tremble[s] at anything sudden or rare” (67). He is not only tolerated by the women in “the recess of the harem”, but seems to be an equal member of their group: “Gulchenrouz and [Nouranihar´s] women” come together when she claps her hands (72), and like a cliché woman, he seeks “refuge in the fond arms of Nouronihar” who sooths him like a man would do (66). The fifty sons of Vathek´s viziers are described as nearly as effeminate as Gulchenrouz is. They are engaged in “coursing butterflies, […] culling flowers, or picking up shining little pebbles,” are “imparting a thousand caresses” on each other, and do archery just like Nouranihar´s cousin (25). But in contrast to them, the effeminate description of Gulchenrouz culminates in the gender crossing act of dressing up as a woman: “when Gulchenrouz appeared in the dress of his cousin, he seemed to be more feminine than even herself” (66). Gulchenrouz´s gender crossing and Vathek´s attitude towards it illustrate the fear of the reproductive British society: to Vathek, Nouranihar´s “divine beauty” is a sharp contrast to Gulchenrouz as “a husband more womanish than herself,” and her fertility (symbolized by “her charms”) are not to “decay” in Gulchenrouz´s “inefficient and nerveless” hands, which is a paraphrase for his non-reproductive gender (74).
According to Max Fincher, “[c]ross dressing in the eighteenth and early nineteenth-century […] was much more closely associated with expressing same sex desire than it is perhaps today” (Fincher). This leads to the assumption that Beckford means to express Goulchenrouz´s homosexuality. But, besides being a personification of a queer gender identity, Goulchenrouz as well as the fifty boys does not have any sexual desire at all. If Gulchenrouz would have an apparent sexual identity, Vathek might see him as an enemy or at least an obstacle on his way of winning over Nouronihar. Instead, he considers him either “more womanish than” Nouranihar (74) or a child who can be taken care of by Bababalouk (73). When Gulchenrouz is described in the nest of the genius amongst the other fifty boys, the narrator states that the boys kiss “his serene forehead and beautiful eye-lids”, but leaves no space for speculation about same sex desire: the kisses express the boys “congratulation,” and the nest is immediately declared a place of peace instead of sexual desire, because Gulchenrouz admits the kisses “without fear” and the nest is a contrast to “the inquietudes of the world” (97). The lack of “the inconsistency of women” does not imply the presence of homosexual desire, too. Since Gulchenrouz does not have any sexual relationships to other women, they can only be inconsistent in their loyalty. Lastly, the narrator emphasizes twice that Gulchenrouz is in the state of “childhood” (98, 120), whose “boon,”“pure happiness” and “undisturbed tranquillity” is the contrast of sexual desire in a novel that is full of necrophilia and other non-heterosexual desire.
- Quote paper
- Franz Kröber (Author), 2012, Queer Identity and Sexual Desire, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/191999