Female Sexuality and Triangular Desire in Vanity Fair and the Mill on the Floss

By Dee, Phyllis Susan | Papers on Language & Literature, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Female Sexuality and Triangular Desire in Vanity Fair and the Mill on the Floss


Dee, Phyllis Susan, Papers on Language & Literature


In Rene Girard's structural paradigm of triangular desire, set forth in Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, female sexuality is an organizing theme. Girard's triangle is a metaphor for relations in which the mediator inspires the subject's desire for the object. Intense rivalry compounds the mediation as it augments the prestige of the idolized Other and strengthens the bond between mediator and subject, forcing the mediator to affirm his own right or desire of possession. The object of desire is, in effect, emptied of its concrete value and enclosed in an aura of metaphysical virtue. Reality is consumed by rivalry and, often, hatred (13-14, 83-85, 99).

If triangulation is inevitable, as Girard claims, it is also complex and variable. Opposing the notion of symmetrical sexual relations, Eve Sedgwick points out that Girard traces a "calculus of power" that is "structured by the relation of rivalry between the two active members of an erotic triangle" (21). The triangles Girard describes are generally those in which two active males are rivals for an unspecified and apparently passive female. Sedgwick argues that a dialectic of power ignoring the male/female dichotomy fails to represent the asymmetrical power relations that fuel triangular desire (22). Following Girard, Sedgwick introduces the concept of male homosocial desire, with which she examines the structure of men's relations with other men. For Sedgwick, the interactivity of sexuality, power relations, and gender asymmetry structures male homosocial bonds "throughout the heterosexual European erotic ethos" (16).

Influenced by Catherine McKinnon's analysis of gender inequality that "sexuality is construed by men as the eroticization of submission" (130), I initially expected to argue that triangular desire is linked to the eroticization of female submission in a process that invariably diminishes and objectifies women. However, after examining the instances of triangular desire in William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair and George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss, I modified my argument. Though at times the women in these novels are passive objects of masculine desire, they resist and revise their roles as objects, assume the active position of desiring subject, and struggle to escape the male-initiated bonds of sexual desire. Thus, I would suggest not only that female sexuality is an organizing theme but also that it actually founds triangular desire.

Vanity Fair

Vanity Fair is a novel without a hero; happily, it has a heroine. Initially, the narrator equivocates: Amelia Sedley need not be described "as she is not a heroine" (5). When Becky Sharp is in disgrace, however, the narrator turns once again to Amelia, now a widow, living quietly in poverty: "So, never mind, whether she be a heroine or no," Amelia's gentle hand and ready smile are a consolation to her old father and a source of satisfaction to the narrator as well (648).

The narrator's ambivalence about heroic characters suggests that Amelia will be an imperfect heroine. In her analysis of female discursive strategies, Lisa Jadwin observes that "Amelia believes wholeheartedly in the totalizing myth of female inferiority" enforced by "submissive, self-abnegating behavior" (664). If gender is performative, however, as at least one feminist critic has claimed, Amelia's submissive, self-effacing behavior may conceal a more complex personality.1 Girard's configuration of triangular desire eclipses the role of women, but in the course of the novel Amelia emerges from the shadow cast by the men who love, and hate, her.

The form of desire that Girard terms "triangular" is a hierarchical arrangement: Amelia is the object of desire in a triangle formed by herself, George Osborne, and Mr. Osborne. In the model, Mr. Osborne functions as the mediator of desire. A match between George and Amelia has long been assumed: Amelia "was bred from her childhood to think of nobody but him" (242), and George "has loved Amelia Sedley ever since they were children" (243). …

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