Academic journal article Style

The Traffic in Men: Female Kinship in Three Novels by George Eliot

Academic journal article Style

The Traffic in Men: Female Kinship in Three Novels by George Eliot

Article excerpt

In an inquiry into gender inequality written in 1975, "The Traffic in Women: Notes on the Political Economy of Sex," the anthropologist Gayle Rubin explores the relationship between Claude Levi-Strauss's analysis of kinship structures in primitive cultures and Sigmund Freud's modern analysis of sexual development. Close to the surface of her argument is a perception that women's status in primitive cultures (that is, objects of exchange between men) and women's socialization as described by the Oedipus theory both forbid them relationships with each other. In the novels of George Eliot it is not surprising to find female status and socialization serving similar roles; Eliot is an author with as keen an insight into her culture's structures as Freud's into his or Levi-Strauss's into the Arapesh's. But I would like to suggest that in Eliot there is also an alternative pattern, a pattern of relationships between women that works to subvert the conventional structural imperatives.

To briefly recapitulate Rubin's essay: using Levi-Strauss's perception that marriages are a special form of gift exchange, in which kinship between men is established, Rubin shows how a politics of gender asymmetry is created from gender difference. She then discusses Freud's explanation of how children learn the rules of gender, and strikingly describes the precise fit between Freud's theories and those of Levi-Strauss. They show us, Rubin says, how the construction of a system that devalues women into exchange objects creates an "Oedipal crisis of culture" (198). The congruence between primitive kinship structures and the theories of a founding father of modernism seems to reveal a deep structure in the oppression of women, and one that seems to transcend time and place with extraordinary power. She notes particularly that the exchange system guarantees not only a woman's powerlessness to refuse the man to whom she has been promised, but most certainly that she cannot choose for herself another woman. Following Lacan's designation of the phallus as symbolic cultural information about what having a penis means, Rubin notes that fights to women go with possession of it. Such possession or its lack marks the difference between exchanger and exchanged, the giver and the gift. Lacking such "embodiment of the male status . . . in which certain rights inhere - among them the right to a woman" (192), women are thus excluded from a system in which they might affirm a culturally important bond with each other.

By 1985, Rubin's description of this system had become one of the bases for Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's exploration of male homosocial desire and English literature, In Between Men Sedgwick offers the erotic love triangle as an expression of a kinship structure that both delineates and negotiates power relationships among men. If, as Rubin says, a traffic in women makes a woman "the conduit of a relationship rather than a partner to it" (174), not only is the real partnership between the men, but it also expresses certain rights that men have to their female kin that women do not have to themselves. Discussing Eliot's Adam Bede, Sedgwick points out that even the Methodist preacher Dinah Morris, whose independence from this triangular partnership is marked by her freedom to refuse an excellent marriage offer from Seth Bede, must by the end of the novel enter the exchange system of the bourgeois nuclear family - as the bride, in fact, of Seth's brother Adam. Sedgwick traces this plot trajectory as part of a much larger economic shift from a preindustrial world in which women's work, located at the very site of production (the farmhouse), can offer the kind of authority represented by Dinah's aunt Mrs. Poyser to one in which it merely supports the needs of the man who brings his earnings home from elsewhere. Indeed, Adam Bede demonstrates this shift. But I would like to add to Sedgwick's observation that Adam Bede also puts Dinah into another triangle in which her kinship with Adam's lost first love, Hetty Sorrel, is essential to her later relationship with Adam. …

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