A Critical Analysis of Representations of Gender in Three Postmodernist Texts- Lolita, Wide Sargasso Sea and the Passion of New Eve.

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A Critical Analysis of Representations of Gender in Three Postmodernist texts- Lolita, Wide Sargasso Sea and The Passion of New Eve.

When one thinks of gender within fiction, it is easy to think of the basic male-female divide, where the male protagonist rescues the female protagonist from whatever perils she faces throughout her story. However, postmodernism brought a whole new flavour to the question of gender within literature. As this essay will show, when one begins to scratch the surface of postmodern literature, the age-old literature theme of gender is shown to be much more complicated and ambiguous than previous literary movements portrayed it to be. Just as postmodernism is complicated and subjective, gender in a postmodern text is hard to define or understand.

In Lolita, the reader knows only the point of view of an adult male paedophile preying on a young girl. Whilst it may at first seem obvious who the reader will side with, it is all too easy to sympathise with Humbert as the novel progresses. In addition, the characters of Wide Sargasso Sea allow the reader to further see the ramifications of gender within an earlier postcolonial setting. The Passion of New Eve blurs the lines of the theme of gender, making it seem much less like polar opposites of black and white or male and female, and much more like a spectrum of human beings- one that must be looked at as a whole to appreciate either gender. It is felt that this is the key message of this book- as Vallorani (1994) states, “[The Passion of New Eve] is therefore, literally, a gender novel.” (pg. 369)

The representation of the male gender in Lolita is interesting. The only real insight that the reader gets into the male psyche is through Humbert, the protagonist and narrator of the story. The only other major male characters in the story are Clare Quilty and the Russian taxi driver. Even though Humbert’s thoughts and actions are morally debauched, the reader’s only window into his world is through his eyes. Patnoe (1995) muses that some male readers of Lolita might therefore feel misrepresented or even wronged as a male because of the thoughts that Humbert has no trouble in expressing- “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.” (pg. 1)

Patnoe (1995) also theorises that some male readers might “fear that all women will think that all men want to violate girls […] fear for the women and girls about whom they care”. (pg. 89) There are very few who would argue that Lolita makes for anything less than uncomfortable and thought provoking reading, although it is interesting to note that it is not just women who are made to feel uncomfortable by the representation of the male through Humbert.

However, there are those who feel that the representation of gender in Lolita is entirely intentional. Kennedy in Herbold (1999) finds that “Lolita operates according to the same logic as pornography, which seeks to unify and empower the male pornographer and the male viewer through the medium of a victimized female body.” (pg. 74) This theory is easily upheld when one takes into account the obvious exploitation of twelve year old Dolores within the book- had Humbert not interfered with her, perhaps she would not have ended up married, pregnant and desperately poor at the age of seventeen.

As obvious as the male/female divide within the book appears at first, there is also an ambiguous representation of the male gender within Lolita. This is in the form of Clare Quilty, a male character with a female Christian name and a surname that hints at the ‘patchwork quilt’ nature of pastiche within postmodernism (Herbold, 1999), similar to Evelyn in The Passion of New Eve. Looking at the theme of sadomasochism within the novel, Bick (1994) finds that “his name connotes the gender and sexual ambiguities essential in sadomasochistic masquerade.” (pg. 9) This is interesting in relation to how the male gender is represented elsewhere in the book,...
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