Palatable Poison: Critical Perspectives on the Well of Loneliness

By Laura Doan; Jay Prosser | Go to book overview

8
“Some Primitive Thing Conceived in a Turbulent Age
of Transition”: The Transsexual Emerging from The Well

“Do you think I could be a man, supposing I thought very hard— or prayed, Father?”

—The Well of Loneliness, Radclyffe Hall

The Well of Loneliness has proven the most famous representation of lesbianism that yet provides the most infamous misrepresentation of lesbianism. Lesbian criticism has been characterized by the repeated attempt but persistent failure to make sense of Stephen's masculinity and the heterosexual conclusion of the novel. Does this failure to fit Stephen within the framework of lesbian not suggest another subject in the novel, one that is not lesbian but heterosexual and male, or constituted by the desire to be heterosexual and male? In fact Stephen is not lesbian but an invert, and nowhere does this most famous lesbian novel name its subject lesbian or homosexual. The category of invert in the critical reception of sexology, which not incidentally has been dominated by lesbian and gay criticism, has wrongly been reduced to homosexual. The invert is seen as figure for homosexual, and the transgendered paradigms that are definitive of inversion are consequently overridden, rendered figurative. George Chauncey writes that given the nineteenth-century construction of desire as masculine “a complete inversion or reversal of a woman's sexual character was required for her to act as a lesbian; she had literally to become man-like in her sexual desire.” 1 And Foucault, in a phrase that has become a touchstone, fixes inversion in The History of Sexuality as the marker of homosexuality,

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