Gender in Fowles and McEwan
[Woman] is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute — she is the Other. — Simone de Beauvoir.
Simone de Beauvoir’s influential analysis of gender difference as somehow implying gender deference — that the mere fact of defining male in opposition to female somehow implies placing one in an inferior or subaltern position — becomes especially interesting when examining how fiction by male authors approaches questions of gender. I propose to examine in detail two British novels of the post-war period — The Collector by John Fowles, published in 1963, and The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan, published in 1981 — and hope to demonstrate that, in point of fact, the existence of the feminist movement has managed to shift the portrayal of gender in the work of male novelists. To some extent, I think we can see Fowles’ The Collector as a pre-feminist novel, which employs a traditional set of gendered associations in order to approach a topic which is actually quite different, and McEwan’s Comfort of Strangers as a post-feminist novel, self-aware in its handling of the issue of representing gender issues.
Fowles’ The Collector is an early work by a novelist better known for more subtle structural and metafictional construction. Here, there is some effort at metafictionality — the novel’s two central characters both compose their own diaries — but the overall central scenario is so lurid that it feels nearly pornographic, and has earned substantial ire from feminist critics as a result. But it is worth noting that Fowles has already asked the reader to consider his or her own complicity in a sort of criminality that the novel depicts: the parallel between Clegg’s sexualized voyeurism, and the sort of voyeurism entailed in reading someone else’s diary, is fully exploited by Fowles, and seems to invite the reader to consider the morality of the aesthetic (or indeed pornographic) experience unsparingly. If Fowles’ is an anti-feminist work in some way, it cannot be called a morally or ethically uncomplicated book, or a book in which substantial thought and analysis are taking place. However it is true that the novel is about a man who stalks, kidnaps, and sexually torments an attractive woman — but it is worth mentioning that it should be possible to treat such subjects without indulging them. To a certain degree, this is the reason Fowles adopts a detached tone in narration to a certain extent: as Katherine Tarbox puts it, in Clegg’s “camera eyes, he sees everything from a distance, voyeuristically” (Tarbox 48). This may be a late ramification on the willingness of modernist writers in the 20s and 30s to permit film techniques to influence fictional composition: the detached cool gaze of Clegg is meant to be one that invokes a whole environment of mediated detachment, above and beyond the sort of sexual objectification at the heart of the book.
To a certain degree, we must regard The Collector as a pre-feminist novel. Obviously this is not entirely true, as John Fowles writes well after earlier writers who can be characterized as feminist, from Mary Wollstonecraft to Virginia Woolf to Simone de Beauvoir herself (who was active in 1963 but had emerged as a public intellectual substantially earlier). But it is worth noting that the year of publication for The Collector was also the year of publication for Betty Friedan’s noteworthy best-selling feminist work The Feminine Mystique. In other words, ideas of objectification were very much in the air — but Fowles does not have the benefit of writing after Friedan. Instead, we must try to understand both these writers as expressing something in the early 1960s which would be borne out by subsequent events, and the emergence of a full-scale women’s movement in the 1970s. Certainly Clegg views Miranda purely in terms of beauty, but that beauty is likened to the butterflies he collects — the divide between himself and her is almost one of species. This bears out Fowles’ own interpretation of the book as being intended to capture more a difference in social class than a difference in gender. Gindin emphasizes Fowles’ own claim in his characterization of The Collector as a work where ” Fowles attempted to probe psychologically and sociologically on a single plane of experience, to demonstrate what in a young man of one class caused him to collect, imprison, and dissect the girl from another class he thought he loved.” (Gindin 331) At the same time Gindin is forced to conclude that this motif of the unknowable alterity of the female is something of an obsession in Fowles’ work overall, seeing
The sexual focus, however, with its attendant guilts and metaphorical expansions, is characteristic, and the novels develop the rational and sometimes manipulative means the male uses to try to understand and control the amorphous and enigmatic female. The male is always limited, his formulations and understandings only partial. And, in his frustration, the necessity that he operate in a world where understanding is never complete, he acts so as to capture (The Collector), desert (The Magus), betray (The French Lieutenant’s Woman), relate to through art (Mantissa), or both betray and finally recover (Daniel Martin) the female he can only partially comprehend. (Gindin 332)
Feminist criticism is aware of the double bind that Fowles’ fiction places the reader in. It is entirely possible to read The Collector as being a novel which is more about class than gender, as Fowles himself has contended. Indeed, one of the sharpest feminist critiques of Fowles’ novel, by Lenz, acknowledges this fact openly: as Lenz concedes, “the violence and ignorance embodied in Clegg are endemic to a society fractured by rigid stratifications, and illustrates the impossibility of communication across social, economic and cultural boundaries.” (Lenz 49). But this does not lessen the discomfort that Lenz registers in her reading of The Collector, where she ultimately decides that Fowles — especially in the passages which ventriloquize Miranda’s journal — “exploits rather than explores a woman’s standpoint, and offers no alternative vision to the troubling pornographic objectification and fragmented disjunction of its characters’ socially conditioned interactions” (Lenz 50). Still, Pamela Cooper seems to believe that the depiction of gender here is subordinated to class issues, noting that “The Collector dramatizes the clash between a socially entrenched, wealthy middle class and an underprivileged but upwardly mobile working or lower middle class, dubbed ‘The New People’ in the book” (Cooper 21).
It is worth noting, then, that the act which sets the plot into motion is depicted by Fowles with substantial numbers of class indicators:
I did the pools from the week I was twenty-one. Every week I did the same five-bob perm. Old Tom and Crutchley, who were in Rates with me, and some of the girls clubbed together and did a big one and they were always going at me to join in, but I stayed the lone wolf. I never liked old Tom or Crutchley. Old Tom is slimy, always going on about local government and buttering up to Mr. Williams, the Borough Treasurer. Crutchley’s got a dirty mind and he is a sadist, he never let an opportunity go of making fun of my interest, especially if there were girls around. “Fred’s looking tired — he’s been having a dirty week-end with a Cabbage White,” he used to say, and, “Who was that Painted Lady I saw you with last night?” Old Tom would snigger, and Jane, Crutchley’s girl from Sanitation, she was always in our office, would giggle. She was all Miranda wasn’t. I always hated vulgar women, especially girls. So I did my own entry, like I said. The cheque was for GBP73,091 and some odd shillings and pence.
The notion that someone of Clegg’s social standing could win such a substantial sum on the football pools is taken by Fowles from life, from the notorious case of Viv Nicholson, who won a large sum of money (larger than Clegg’s) in the football pools and announced that she planned to “spend, spend, spend” only to wind up living in public housing penniless in less than a decade. Nicholson’s case was the subject of horrified fascination in the class-conscious Britain of the early 1960s, and so it manages (along with the low sort of slang entailed in the nicknames and joshing) to place Clegg’s financial windfall in a context of panic about the ability of the lower orders to cope morally with increased money. To that extent, Clegg’s free money (permitting him to do what he likes) seems more like a lurid metaphor for the notion that the postwar British welfare state was basically handing people large sums of cash to enable them to exercise a hyperactive and depraved sexuality.
We may ask ourselves if Fowles similarly portrays Miranda in class-based terms, and to a certain extent it is true. Miranda is, after all, an art school student — which implies a faith on Fowles’ part that women are capable of creativity outside childbirth and is certainly not intended as a slight. But it is also a class marker — we may note that the introduction of women into the fine arts was to a large degree accomplished by the Bloomsbury Group, whose women (including Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, Dora Carrington and Margery Fry) were able to lead lives of “bohemian” artistic liberation largely because they came from a social class higher than Miranda’s own. Miranda instead seems more like the later cliche of art student as out of touch bourgeois who art entails something out of touch with proletarian reality: not unlike the female art student depicted in precisely those terms by Jarvis Cocker in “Common People” at a much later date (which I invoke not for its literary value, but for its ability to register a cultural cliche that Fowles is to a certain degree helping to erect). But to a certain degree, her aesthetic awareness is borne out by the arc of her accommodation to confinement, which takes on the sense of an almost religious response to deprivation. By the end Miranda sounds not so much like a rape victim as she does like Simone Weil having a dark night of the soul:
He uses my heart. Then turns and tramples on it. He hates me, he wants to defile me and break me and destroy me. He wants me to hate myself so much that I destroy myself. The final meanness. He’s not bringing me any supper. I’m to fast, on top of everything else. Perhaps he’s going to leave me to starve. He’s capable of it. I’ve got over the shock. He won’t beat me. I won’t give in. I won’t be broken by him. I’ve got a temperature, I feel sick. Everything’s against me, but I won’t give in. I’ve been lying on the bed with G.P.’s picture beside me. Holding the frame in one hand. Like a crucifix. I will survive. I will escape. I will not give in. I will not give in. I hate God. I hate whatever made this world, I hate whatever made the human race, made men like Caliban possible and situations like this possible. If there is a God he’s a great loathsome spider in the darkness. He _cannot be good_. This pain, this terrible seeing-through that is in me now. It wasn’t necessary. It is all pain, and it buys nothing. Gives birth to nothing. All in vain. All wasted. The older the world becomes, the more obvious it is. The bomb and the tortures in Algeria and the starving babies in the Congo. It gets bigger and darker. More and more suffering for more and more._
To some extent, the willingness of Miranda to rise to such heights of speculation and public empathy — with her connection of her own psychological state to a concern with “the bomb” and Algeria and the Congo — suggests that we are witnessing the birth of a real artist, or the passage beyond from artist into saint. In any case, it does not seem like gender is any longer the point here: even if one considers a certain similarity in the power dynamic of the Book of Job and The Story of O, it is worth noting that Miranda’s arc in The Collector resembles more the former.
In contrast to Fowles’ writing from a pre-feminist perspective, Ian McEwan by contrast is writing with deliberate awareness of the feminist movement. Before his novel even begins, to some degree he signposts his awareness with the epigraph:
How we dwelt in two worlds.
The daughters and the mothers
In the kingdom of the sons
It is a specific sort of political act on McEwan’s part to select an epigraph from Adrienne Rich. Rich was famous in literary circles as a polite formalist poet, and young married woman, of the 1950s selected by W.H. Auden for a prestigious literary prize on the basis of her polite metrical poems like “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers,” which seemed to express even then some vague feminist awareness: then Rich would come out as a lesbian (offering a famous definition of the “lesbian continuum” which contextualizes all women’s relationships within a homosocial milieu) and begin composing more openly political, and Whitmanically free, verse like “Diving into the Wreck” in 1973. In other words, McEwan is offering an epigraph from a major American feminist icon, in which the gender divide is troped as “two worlds.” Whatever commentary on gender The Comfort of Strangers will advance, it certainly cannot be characterized (as Fowles can) as simply unaware.
If this is the expectation raised by the novel’s epigraph, it certainly does not disappoint, for early in the story Colin and Mary are confronted with direct evidence of feminism, in the form of “announcements and pronouncements from feminists and the far Left” which they find fly-posted along the sides of the buildings in the unnamed city (presumably Venice) in which they are taking their holiday. This is a world in which feminism is a vital revolutionary force, in the streets demanding justice, and so it is worth examining in more close detail the passage in question. It begins as Mary moves in for a closer look at the political broadsides posted by the radical Italian feminists:
Mary had climbed the first steps of the palace and was reading the posters. “The women are more radical here,” she said over her shoulder, “and better organized.”
Colin had stepped back to compare the two streets. They ran straight for a considerable distance and eventually curved away from each other. “They’ve got more to fight for,” he said. “We came by this way before, but can you remember which way we went?” Mary was translating with difficulty a lengthy proclamation. “Which way?” Colin said slightly louder. (23)
Already McEwan begins the passage by putting the two halves of the couple at cross-purposes. Mary has discovered the posters while they are lost within the tangle of streets. Colin is trying to find their way back, so as a result he is evaluating the spatial and geometric relations of the map in which they find themselves, and is utterly disinterested in the human content which Mary is evaluating. To a certain degree we are also invited to see Mary as indulging a linguistic interest (to see if she can actually read the poster) which Colin does not share. But the fact that two different conversations seem to be happening here — one about direction and one about political radicalism — suggest a connection, in which the novel is darkly hinting at trajectories etched by issues of sex and violence; as the passage continues:
Frowning, Mary ran her forefinger along the lines of bold print, and when she finished she exclaimed in triumph. She turned and smiled at Colin. “They want convicted rapists castrated!”
He had moved to get a better view of the street to the right. “And hands chopped off for theft? Look, I’m sure we passed that drinking fountain before, on the way to this bar.”
Mary turned back to the poster. “No. It’s a tactic. It’s a way of making people take rape more seriously as a crime.”
Colin moved again and stood, with his feet firmly apart, facing the street on their left. IT too had a drinking fountain. “It’s a way,” he said irritably, “of making people take feminists less seriously.” (23)
The irony of the first paragraph just quoted is, of course, that Mary’s “triumph” is linguistic: she has managed to make sense of the meaning of the poster, and thus announces its gruesome meaning with inappropriate enthusiasm. She is clearly “frowning” not only in concentration, but with annoyance at Colin’s interruption of it with his question about directions — her forefinger traces instead the direction she prefers to take. But of course she feels satisfaction at having understood a foreign communication, whereas he feels further annoyed at his inability to get her to take an interest in finding a way back to the hotel. Yet Colin invokes a topos in response, “hands chopped off for theft,” which at the time of the novel’s original publication in 1981 was most likely a reference to the imposition of Shari’a law (including several well-publicized cases of hands chopped off for theft) in Iran after the 1979 Iranian revolution (still in constant discussion at the time of the novel’s composition and publication). In other words, the sort of feminism that proposes castration for rapists is, to Colin, no different than reactionary theocracy: in either case, the assumption seems to be that feminism is important and its concerns must be addressed, but like any other political movement anything that increases state-sanctioned violence is presumably a bad idea. Accordingly, he argues that such a radical political stance is a way “of making people take feminists less seriously.” Mary, by contrast, locates the meaning of the proposal as a sort of consciousness-raising venture — yet there is an indeterminacy in her language which points at a fundamental difficulty here in her statement. To say that proposed castration of rapists is a way of “making people take rape more seriously as a crime” seems to indicate both a sense that rape is not taken seriously enough (a standard feminist complaint) but it also implies that making punishment more serious (or inhumane) is a form of social coercion. This gets at one of the central paradoxes of feminist thought, expressed most pithily by Audre Lorde with her aphorism that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Mary’s willingness to entertain the idea of forced castration of any human being as a tool for social engineering seems to put her into a more problematic power dynamic, despite her seeming greater receptiveness to feminism (as compared to Colin) at this particular moment. But as the scene concludes:
Mary folded her arms, and after a moment’s pause set off slowly down the right hand fork. She had regained her slow, precise pace. “People take hanging seriously enough,” she said. “A life for a life.”
Uneasily Colin watched her go. “Wait a minute, Mary,” he called after her. “Are you sure that’s right?” She nodded without turning aroundâ€¦ (23-4)
It requires careful reading to understand just how delicately and deliberately McEwan is laying a careful sort of trap for the reader, designed to awaken sets of associations to problematize our understanding of feminism, and how men and women may relate to it ideologically. Mary reacts badly to the way in which Colin interprets the feminists and their posted demands. She responds by ignoring Colin’s badgering for close attention to the question of their being lost, and instead makes a firm choice which may very well get them more lost — in other words, her setting off is passive-aggressive. But at the same time, she offers a rather loaded response to Colin’s political point as her exit line here, as it were. “People take hanging seriously enoughâ€¦A life for a life.” There are several layers in this moment and it is worth examining them in full. The first is to note that, of course, Colin and Mary are English, and that capital punishment (which had traditionally been conducted by hanging) had been outlawed at this point in England for nearly two decades. In 1981, it was indeed a stereotype of the right-wing Briton to demand that the government “bring back hanging” in order to get a degenerate populace in line, in the same way that earlier Victorian martinets would rue the outlawing of the cat-o’-nine-tails in the British Navy — in other words, Mary’s response is first intended by McEwan to seem like a hint of reactionary sentiment, or a parody of it. In any case, it would be a standard response in England to note that societies with capital punishment do not actually enjoy any crime-deterrent effects, and that this is a perennial myth. But what is more curious is, of course, that the discussion has now tripped from the castration of rapists to the state execution of convicted murderers, which Mary justifies with her reference to the lex talionis (found in the Old Testament but dating as far back as the Code of Hammurabi) which demands a tooth for a tooth and an eye for an eye, or in this case “a life for a life.” The moment is so subtle that McEwan practically lets it pass without comment, except for the fact that Colin’s response (“Wait a minute, Maryâ€¦are you sure that’s right?”) is ambiguous as well. Although Colin has been the one who is imposing their location (and the fact that they are lost) on the conversation, and so therefore the reader’s immediate inclination is to see Colin’s statement as referring to the path that Mary has deliberately (and passive-aggressively) set down, and to inquire if it is the “right” direction. But it is possible to see Colin as referring to Mary’s statement in the argument — in other words, asking her if she really believes that what she has just said is correct. What McEwan points out with this bit of indirection is the ghoulish flaw in Mary’s logic here: if she were really interested in imposing some sort of “life for a life” type system of crime and punishment, then she would demand that rapists themselves be raped. But if she is, in fact, suggesting that, then it would seem that Mary is somehow equating castration with rape — which is certainly a possibility, since both are forms of violent personal violation in which the sexual element is used mostly for its symbolic value, but it also leaves open the disquieting possibility that Mary holds to the very anti-feminist notion that Simone de Beauvoir set off to dismantle, namely the idea that a woman is somehow nothing more than a castrated, inferior, or afflicted subaltern version of man. The disquieting possibility is that Mary endorses the castration of rapists out of the possibility that it feminizes them.
On the other hand, when the subject of the feminist posters returns to the discussion several pages later, it is introduced by the novel’s horrifying antagonist, Robert. Robert settles into a staunch anti-feminist position himself. Out of a sense of apology (he begins by saying “I’m sorry”) he will define the Italian feminists thus: “These are women who cannot find a man. They want to destroy everything that is good between men and womenâ€¦They are too ugly.” (27). Colin is able to position himself as the better feminist in response by saying jocularly to Mary “thereâ€¦.meet the opposition.” But what becomes fascinating in the subsequent introduction of Robert is the disquieting way whereby he defines his life by means of a traumatic story (a very Freudian way of thinking, although it is also the one element of Freudianism which has been adopted by certain schools of feminist thought) in which elements of gender are confused:
“My father was a big manâ€¦.all his life my father wore a moustache like this” — with forefinger and thumb Robert measured out an inch width beneath his nose — “and when it turned to gray he used a little brush to make it black, such as ladies use for their eyes. Mascara,” (31).
The moustache is, of course, a traditional masculine signifier. However, the cosmetics are not, and are openly identified by Robert as being “such as ladies use for their eyes.” What is fascinating about Robert’s way of describing the cosmetics here — if we assume that McEwan is doing double duty here by representing both a credible speech pattern for a non-native speaker of English in what Robert says, while also choosing Robert’s words poetically, for the way in which they serve to heighten our sense of character — is that Robert seems, with this designation, to sidestep the actual fact of his father’s vanity, and instead to trope it (femininely) as his father’s desirability. But there is also the word itself, “mascara.” This is both Italian and English for the type of cosmetic in question — but it is also an Italian word meaning “mask.” (It is actually spelled “mascara” in Spanish, “maschera” in Italian,” but the etymology of the cosmetic either way.) Yet McEwan seems to be playing around with the very phoneme which links mask to mascara, as a way of also linking it with masculinity. Indeed the pun is the same in Italian — the Italian word for masculine is “maschile,” which would provide a similar sound-association with both masks and mascara — and McEwan seems to have selected the word for this purpose, as Robert’s autobiographical trauma relates to his own efforts to get his father to find him more appealing than his sisters. It is really Robert’s recollected childhood that seems, more than anything else in the book, to evoke the epigraph from Adrienne Rich.
Yet feminist critics seem divided about how to regard McEwan’s post-feminist Gothic. Angela Roger seems to think that the novel is basically no different from the way in which Fowles approaches issues of gender, as basically a textbook illustration of otherness. She claims that
The Comfort of Strangers has a fairly neutral narrator but it helps to propound a dangerous myth of sexuality which serves women ill. McEwan’s women characters are given objective existence in a man’s world and their characterization is a male construct of their womanhood. Interest in them is essentially in their ‘otherness’ from men, but this ‘otherness’ is seen from a man’s point-of-view. (11)
Dwelle believes that in The Comfort of Strangers, McEwan’s “exploration of male chauvinism presents the reader with a new aspect to this troubling writer, but his obsession with the loss of innocence continues” and reads the novel overall as part of a larger trend in McEwan’s fiction, a “trend which began with The Comfort of Strangersâ€¦.where the characters still experience a loss of innocence, but the novel concentrates, not on the loss itself, but rather on the attempts of the characters to recover from that loss.” (682). But what is most fascinating is the way that McEwan seems to represent feminist man as the ultimate possible victim. To that degree he represents an understanding of feminism in excess of Fowles’, but his view is ultimately problematized in such a way that the otherness he seems to evoke is that of the desiring self. If desire in The Collector indicates something that seeks the exoticism of a different class, desire in The Comfort of Strangers seems to estrange us even from ourselves.
Cooper, Pamela. The Fictions of John Fowles: Power, Creativity, Femininity. Canada: University of Ottowa Press, 1991. Print.
Dwelle, Josh. “Ian McEwan.” In Schlager, Neil and Lauer, Josh. (Editors). Contemporary Novelists. Seventh Edition. New York: Saint James Press, 2001. Print.
Fowles, John. The Collector. London: Jonathan Cape, 1963. Print.
Gindin, James. “John Fowles.” In Schlager, Neil and Lauer, Josh. (Editors). Contemporary Novelists. Seventh Edition. New York: Saint James Press, 2001. Print.
Lenz, Brooke. John Fowles: Visionary and Voyeur. Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2008. Print.
Tarbox, Katherine. The Art of John Fowles. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1988. Print.
McEwan, Ian. The Comfort of Strangers. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981. Print.
Roger, Angela “Ian McEwan’s Portrayal of Women” Forum for Modern Language Studies 33.1 (1996): 11-26.
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