Representation of Sex and Sexuality in American Modernities Literature of the 20th Century

American Modernist literature significantly concerns itself with the developing social boundaries, such as sex and gender, that were taking place during the twentieth century. The texts included in the selection of literature from this period are orchestrated by their authors to demonstrate more liberal perceptions surrounding these factors; using innovative styles of prose and literary elements throughout their narratives to do so. Edith Wharton’s ‘The House of Mirth’, written in 1905 and so an early addition to the Modernist literature movement, expresses ideas on dynamics, natures, and events which are orientated around sex, in terms of both gender dynamics and the physical act of intercourse, and sexuality. Frank O’Hara mirrors attention on sexual acts in his collection of poetry ‘Lunch Poems’. O’Hara uses his personal take on literary elements to present to spectators a combination between this theme and the presence of the city and the personal connections which take place there.

Wharton opens her text with elements of sexual identity and dynamics using her choice of language and characters in which spectators can academically dissect for significance using the theoretical framework of the Male Gaze. This is a theory put forward by Laura Mulvey, stating that ‘in a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between the active male and passive female’ and thus the ‘determining male gaze projects its phantasy on the female figure which is styled accordingly’ [1] [Page 837] [1973]. To condense this into simpler terms, the Male Gaze can be described as the theory that narratives across artistic mediums are orchestrated to appeal to a masculine eye, causing women to be molded into the expectations held by men which involves being submissive and physically attractive. This can be carried out through stylistic conventions and in the example of literature, these would include a choice of descriptive language and characters. To elaborate with evidence from the text, Wharton begins her narrative by introducing her readers to the focal characters of Lily Bart, the protagonist, and Lawrence Selden who has known Bart for years prior to the plot. The dynamic between the sexual identities between the two sexes is explored a great amount through the interactions Wharton crafts these figures to have; one significant one is when Selden first sees Bart in the opening of the text. Wharton writes the image of Lily Bart through the perspective of Selden, who sees her as ‘wearing an air of irresolution which might, as he surmised, be the mask of a very definite purpose’ [2] [Page 1 of Ebook]. Wharton is following Mulvey’s theory here by placing the male character of Selden and the interpretation generated by his individual perspective as the outlet for which the spectators meet Lily. It is his point of view, expressed through the specific diction, which informs us of how Lily holds an aura of hesitancy and uncertainty to her character, therefore, a masculine gaze is coherent throughout the description. One who holds these particular characteristics cannot hold connotations to a confident and active persona which fits with Mulvey’s argument of how the Male Gaze constructs the women who come into contact with it with the opposite qualities to which their male counterparts are crafted to have. Taking this into consideration when observing how Wharton places a man as the individual who perceives and records this, one can clearly identify how the Male Gaze is heavily present in this extract from the text. The implication of Lily being uncertain and thus passive in her behaviour is confirmed immediately after the suggestion has been made, through her actions, or more fittingly described as a reaction to Selden’s acts. Wharton gives Selden ‘An impulse of curiosity’ which provokes him to ‘turn out of his direct line to the door, and stroll past her’ which Lily notices and as a result ‘She came forward smiling, eager almost, in her resolve to intercept him’ [3]. This is an interesting interaction between the two characters which articulates heavily on the dynamic between them, with relation to Mulvey’s spectator theory on active and passiveness. Selden is the one who triggers Lily’s movement, having interpreted her to show no signs of the ability to act on her own accord. It is his decision to walk by as if he hasn’t seen her which creates active movement in the character once she has noticed him, almost as if she has no intention of her own to act until a male counterpart grants her a reason to do so. This highlights the Male Gaze as coined by Mulvey in Wharton’s text, conveying how the male figure has the power to articulate the female figure to spectators using his own perception through language and demonstrating an active sense of authority which controls the passive female. Here, we can identify how the sex of a character determines whether they can control other characters or be controlled by them, emphasising identities centered around sex and the dynamics between them in terms of an unbalance in the male’s favour.

O’Hara takes a diverse approach to explore relationships orientated around aspects of sex and identity, different in his choice of who or what is involved in the literary example of it. Whilst Wharton grafts her exploration of sexual dynamics between two individual characters, O’Hara engages in his own presentation of the idea using people and the city of New York, making the inanimate city a character in its own way. The poem collection was inspired by walks O’Hara would take during his lunch breaks in New York and thus, they rely heavily on the imagery and connotations the city provides for literary elements, emphasised by John Ashbery when he comments how ‘Frank’s disabused enthusiasm carries the reader to a marvelous half-fictive universe’ [4] [Page 1–2 of Introduction] [2014] while staying inside New York City. O’Hara unexpectedly conveys some sexual undertones in his poems, particularly ‘Steps’ which articulates as a personal letter to New York which underlines the characterisation of the city. O’Hara comments on the imagery of New York City in terms of the street life and the chaos that comes with it with connections to the crowds who occupy the streets, stating ‘and even the traffic halt so thick is a way /for people to rub up against each other/and when their surgical appliances lock/they stay together’ [5] [Poem 52]. This holds significant sexual undertones when observing the choice of language which focuses on building an image of the people of New York City being extremely close and physical. O’Hara is contrasting with how Wharton creates ideas of sexuality and sexual identities with eliminating the individual and their ability to provide a perception of someone for the spectators, instead using the city as a personified setting for which these sexual acts can take place. Davidson highlights this aspect to O’Hara’s works in his essay on the ‘Lunch Poem’ collection, commenting how ‘O’Hara’s early poems are dominated by a linguistic surface often made up of symbolic associations…that seem to obscure the characteristic speaking subject of the poems’ [6] [2009]. Here, we see a critical identification of how O’Hara, similar to Wharton, uses semantic choice as a device to deliver sexual codes in his texts. His ‘symbolic associations’ can be identified as the crowds of New York City locking together as they walk, metaphorically mirroring the acts of sexual intercourse, which is a rather perplexing comparison to make at first read. His writing lacks an imbalance stemming from gender stereotypes and instead conveys a sense of union between the crowds he observes in the city, evident in the linguistics of ‘lock’ and ‘together’. One could argue that O’Hara is giving New York City its own sexual identity since its generating an image of sexual acts for its inhabitants, thus, highlighting O’Hara’s choice in personifying a collective setting to create ideas of sex in his text instead of individual characters which is what Wharton chooses.

Wharton’s distinct use of language and character types can also result in lacing her text with sexual undertones, connected to the growing presence of women’s sexuality heavily. With ‘The House of Mirth’ serving as one of the earliest texts of the American Modernity period of literature and, therefore, being written under the progressive attitudes towards sexual expression, one can identify messages of a woman’s newfound place with sexuality. To elaborate, Wharton constructs Lily in a way which exemplifies this liberal dynamic between women and sexuality as she is ‘described by a consistent pattern…of unrestrained gratification and sensual delight’ [7] [Lidoff, 1980], thus, her expressions and actions throughout the narrative obey this argument made. One particular example that can be made relates to queer identity when observing the friendship between Lily and Selden’s cousin Gerty a relationship that can be dissected and analysed to discover a sexual presence in a queer state. This aspect of the novel has not been explored heavily and consistently in comparison to the heterosexual displays of sexuality, however, Harrison-Kahan comments on the relationship between these two characters underneath a queer theoretic scope. She mentions how ‘the homoerotic undertones in Lily and Gerty’s friendship is evident’ subtly throughout the narrative, specifically ‘when Lily turns to her loyal friend after she is almost raped’ [8] [2004]. It is, once again, language and characters that serve in demonstrating an innovative insight on this relationship and grant a queer outlook to de projected to it. Wharton laces this section of the text with a semantic field which correlates to sweetness and intimacy, specifically ‘There was but one bed in the little flat and the two girls lay down on its side by side when Gerty had unlaced Lily’s dress’ [9] [Book 1, Chapter 14]. This is then expanded on with ‘As Lily turned, and settled to completer rest, a strand of her hair swept Gerty’s cheek with its fragrance. Everything about her was warm and soft and scented: even the stains of her grief became her as rain-drops do the beaten rose’ [10] [Book 1, Chapter 14]. This expression of language relies heavily on imagery that borders on romance; the two girls laying down closely together on a bed after one removes the other’s clothing echoes sensuality and sexual codes. This accentuates the homoeroticism that indistinctly wields into this section of the text and is only elevated when we observe the focus on the details of the two girls described through passionate syntax including ‘warm and soft and scented’. The imagery of the girls holding each other while one is going through a challenging time and seeking comfort tediously alludes to a sense of appetiveness on Lily’s part; she is seeking healing through intimate touch with a woman and this is arguably the most erotic scene of the text as a whole. This relates to Lidoff’s previously made claim that Lily Bart breaks conventions by involving herself in sensual delight, in addition to this, she fulfills Harrison-Kahan’s statement of a queer undertone in her friendship with Gerty because the atmosphere Wharton is steering her characters to construct is opposite to heterosexuality. However, Lily appears to fall incredibly short of Lidoff’s assertion around liberated sexual gratification in a non-conventional manner with a woman when she awakes the next morning, being described by Wharton to feel a sense of ‘physical discomfort’ and ‘a languor of horror more insufferable than the first rush of her disgust’ [11] [Book 1, Chapter 15]. This sudden shift in the mood conveys a regret towards acting in a non-traditional way and an inevitable submission back to the codes of the heteronormative society of the time, this is a result of how ‘the threat of women’s subjectivity is specifically understood as the threat of sexual agency’ therefore ‘female…homosexual desire must be suppressed’ [12] [Harrison-Kahan, 2004]. This implies an idea that 20th-century American society still has a progression to make with how it perceives queer identities or any identity which does not correlate with traditional views, demonstrated in Lily’s change of tone. It is, therefore, 20th Century American literature that serves as an outlet for expressing sexuality freely, granting the art medium a role of sublimation as literature is a more acceptable diversion of sexual energy. The text portrays two women engaging in acts which can be read as sexual or romantic; an articulation of a sexual expression which the society of the time may not accept which bleeds through in the events afterward.

O’Hara also provides spectators with a queer undertone in his works using the setting of the city presented through imagery orientated language, similar to how Wharton does so with characters and language in her writing. This is made apparent by Knittle’s compelling argument that ‘ Reading O’Hara’s engagement with Manhattan as it appears in Lunch Poems as a queer articulation of time and space affords him a means in the poems of revising, refusing, or embellishing the sensory experience of the city’s streets’ [13] [2017]. Thus, critics can identify the setting of New York city being orchestrated as a literary device to articulate a queer identity and elevate the poems’ role in Modernist literature. One can draw evidence of this in the poem ‘A Step Away From Them’, in which O’Hara generates an example of queer imagery using language describing the city sights, for example ‘It’s my lunch hour, so I go/ First, down the sidewalk/where laborers feed their dirty/glistening torsos sandwiches/ and Coca-Cola, with yellow helmets/on’ [14] [Poem 18]. This is a bold example of how O’Hara is articulating a common sight in Manhattan during his lunch break walk which holds homoerotic codes to it when dissecting the imagery. O’Hara is, likewise to Wharton with ‘The House of Mirth’, emphasising details of what he is seeing to elevate the queer undertones. In this case, it is the ‘glistening torsos’ of the construction workers which caught O’Hara’s eye enough to be communicated specifically in his poem; a distinct presentation of homoerotic imagery in the text. This echoes how Wharton constructs Lily and Gerty to convey a focus on sensual details when in each other’s company, such as the warmth and scents emulating a rose. O’Hara’s representation of queer sexuality can differ from that of Wharton’s, however, when observing the tone of the language and imagery used to do so. Wharton’s imagery of a queer identity drives from a more romantic side of sexual identity, what with the symbolism of a rose to describe smells, the semantic field consisting of ‘warmth’ and visuals of two women holding each other intimately. O’Hara’s can be read as more physical and surface level in terms of appearance, as he is communicating the first-hand observation of a male stranger’s body; thus conveying a more strictly sexual and erotic image which contrasts with Wharton’s display of sensual and romantic. O’Hara is also exemplifying the city as a crucial element to this text and presentation of a queer sexuality because, likewise to what has been said about ‘Steps’, the setting is allowing these codes to concur. Construction men on the sidewalk are a common sight on the streets of New York City and have grown to become a staple to its visuals and character. Therefore, O’Hara is demonstrating how the city can be perceived as its own character which holds importance to the text because it grants these liberal displays of a sexual nature to take place and to be observed by figures such as O’Hara.

To draw a conclusion in light of the points identified, both of the Modernist texts examined here convey their own individual representations of sex; as interpretations of both gender dynamics and the act of sex, and sexuality. The authors of these texts demonstrate their skills by using literary elements to convey their chosen ideas and visions surrounding the issues of sexual identities underneath a Modernist society. Wharton’s ‘The House of Mirth’ illustrates relationships of gender roles, these are engendered by the role of characters which portray the bridge between traditional expectations and the progressing liberations Modernism offered. O’Hara’s ‘Lunch Poems’ provide spectators to observe New York City with a new perspective, one that is built from innovation, subtle sexual expression, and a question of the individuality of civilians.

Footnotes

  1. Visual and Other Pleasures (Language, Discourse, Society) by Laura Mulvey, Palgrave Macmillan; 2 Ed edition (27 Feb. 2009).
  2. The Project Gutenberg EBook of House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton, Release Date: April 3, 2008 [EBook #284]
  3. The Project Gutenberg EBook of House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton, Release Date: April 3, 2008 [EBook #284]
  4. John Ashbery’s Introduction to 50th Anniversary Edition of Lunch Poems by Frank O’Hara,City Lights Publishers; Anniversary edition (July 15, 2014),
  5. Poem 52: Steps, 50th Anniversary Edition of Lunch Poems by Frank O’Hara,City Lights Publishers; Anniversary edition (July 15, 2014)
  6. Symbolism and Code in Frank O’Hara’s Early Poems Essay, Ian Davidson, Textual Practice, Vol. 23, №5, 2009..
  7. Jstor Journal Article of Another Sleeping Beauty: Narcissism in The House of Mirth Essay by Joan Liddof, American Quarterly, Vol.32, No 5, Winter (1980)
  8. Jstor Journal Article of Queer myself for good and all Essay by Lori Harrison-Kahan, Legacy, Vol. 21, №1, 2004
  9. The Project Gutenberg EBook of House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton, Release Date: April 3, 2008 [EBook #284]
  10. The Project Gutenberg EBook of House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton, Release Date: April 3, 2008 [EBook #284]
  11. The Project Gutenberg EBook of House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton, Release Date: April 3, 2008 [EBook #284]
  12. Jstor Journal Article of Queer myself for good and all Essay by Lori Harrison-Kahan, Legacy, Vol. 21, №1, 2004
  13. Jacket2 Online Article On Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems/queer/attention by Davy Knittle, Posted November 13th 2017
  14. Poem 18: A Step Away From Them,50th Anniversary Edition of Lunch Poems by Frank O’Hara,City Lights Publishers; Anniversary edition (July 15, 2014)