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Female Sexuality as Fearful and Fascinating in Modernist Literature

Updated on February 16, 2015

The Treatment of Female Sexuality in Modernist Texts

During the course of this essay, I intend to argue that female sexuality is indeed dealt with as fearful and fascinating in different Modernist texts, acting both in concert and against one another. First by referring to Love Among The Haystacks, as Geoffrey's exchange with Lydia is not only awkward but resists conformity to most other romantic exchanges. This will help to demonstrate the alien nature of female sexuality within Modernist writing and how this conjures both dread and desire. I will then study the female voices in Eliot's The Waste Land, specifically within A Game of Chess and The Fire Sermon. The voices of the women in the pub give voice to a kind of free feminine sexuality that is obviously being judged, as is the scene described by Tiresias. This will show how the sexuality of women within the poem is looked upon as a frightening view of independence. Finally I will study the character of Lily in Woolf's To The Lighthouse as her sexual feelings for Mrs Ramsay are unusual yet she is completely captured by the idea of them. Upon demonstrating this, I will conclude.

Lawrence writes the character of Lydia into an unusual position, in that whilst she follows her husband, she does not rely on, respect, or even like him. When engaging Geoffrey in their extra-marital discourse, she paralyses him not only because of his introverted nature, but because she controls the parameters of their involvement. For example:

She clasped the head of Geoffrey to her breast, which heaved and fell, and heaved again. He was bewildered, full of wonder. He allowed the woman to do as she would with him. Her tears fell on his hair, as she wept noiselessly[1][i](Lawrence, 2007, p.36).

Here we see how Lydia presents a confusing image. She is at once in control and weak, both the acting force in their exchange and weeping. She contrasts the expected feminine trait of weeping with her initiation of sexual congress, both frightening and capturing the interest of Geoffrey. Her power in this is not diminished after the act, and she remains in control of their conversation. Lydia is a figure of both sexual curiosity and domination, the traditional gender roles reversed and yet maintained. Lawrence goes on:

"They would sail for Canada. He waited for her assent. "You will come with me then?" he asked. "When the time comes," she said. Her want of faith made him bow his head... He felt she was independent of him. Brooding rather bitterly, he told himself she'd forsake him.[ii](Lawrence, 2007, p.38).

This demonstrates how Lydia's sexual power over Geoffrey, and her lack of dependency on him makes him angry. He is resentful of the fact she does not need his help, she rejects all his offers of aid. He is not necessary to her existence, the sex they engaged in rather than bringing her to him as Geoffrey anticipates, was merely a mutually beneficial exchange to her. Lydia has no faith in him, nor does she need it. This is challenging to the traditional role of women in the time this was published. The nineteen thirties was a time in which an independent women was not only unexpected but actively scorned. In this way Lydia represents something alien in her sexual power. This is an argument that is supported by Dix in her work on Lawrence and women of his period:

Young women of Lawrence's day were experiencing more than his contemporary males, the need to break out into a new way of life, to exile themselves, to break the ties of belonging. Lawrence understood women and the novels are written from that point of view.[iii](Dix,1980,p.12).

This supports the argument that Lydia exists as an antithesis to the "angel of the house" that had come before her, and is radical simply by her independence. Her sexuality, and Geoffrey's reaction to it, is therefore a result of a need to not be controlled. Lydia's rejection of Geoffrey's kind offers is not an act of malice, merely a need to not rely on him, as he desperately wants her to. His reaction of anger and confusion at this rebuttal typifies the periodical reaction to the way Lydia is acting. This clearly shows how female sexuality is an object of fear and fascination, as Geoffrey is frantic in his need to be needed by Lydia, and simultaneously afraid that she will abandon him.

This fear of an independent female sexuality can also be found in Eliot's The Waste Land. The scene in the pub in A Game of Chess portrays a kind of cheapened sexuality, that is judged implicitly by the voices that accompany it. The voices in question seem to view sex as a kind of necessity, one that is given and received as part of an exchange. For example:

Now Albert's coming back, make yourself a bit smart... think of poor Albert, He's been in the army four years, he wants a good time, and if you don't give it to him there's others will.[iv] (Eliot, 2006, p.62).

This shows how the woman suggests using sex as a means of keeping husbands interested, and makes no real condemnation of dissatisfied husbands who seek affairs. This is a demonstration of a cheapened female sexuality, one that serves as a trade item in return for a husband's favour. This suggests a mercenary intent behind the marital sex these women engage in, that it exists to tether their husbands. This plays upon the fear in the Modernist period that women were becoming independent, as this shows women using sexuality as part of a scheme for their husband's attention. This is not the only moment of cheapened sexuality within The Waste Land, the scene witnessed by Tiresias shows a deadened sexual attitude:

She is bored and tired, endeavours to engage her in caresses which still are unreproved, if undesired. Flushed and decided, he assaults at once; Exploring hands encounter no defence; His vanity requires no response, and makes a welcome of indifference.[v](Eliot, 2006, p.64).

This passage at first suggests something different to the above by Lawrence, in which the woman was the active and controlling force. Here we see the typist utterly passive at her paramour's advances, the act itself is granted no significance. The typist is unconcerned and disinterested, unlike the women in the pub. Her sexuality exists but is almost automatic. This is argument is also adhered to by Sicker, in the following:

All pretence of genuine feeling has disappeared, and the typist, unlike her forerunners (women in the pub) does not appear even to possess a sexual "appetite". What endures in her are merely the forms of sexuality, an unstimulated, almost unconscious prostitution in which the body alone participates.[vi](Sicker, 1984, p.428).

This clearly demonstrates how dissociated the typist is from herself, her sexuality not so much free as amputated. This is Eliot's vision of the sexually free woman. Not only this, but she embodies the fear of the Modernist period of growingly independent women, becoming financially and in turn sexually free. Eliot makes the case that her freedom brings her no joy, her sexuality is maintained by apathetic motions that she neither enjoys nor more importantly attributes any significance. She is the absolutely free sexual female, to whom her sexuality is nothing more than a dimly unpleasant, necessary pastime. This is supported by the following lines:

Hardly aware of her departed lover; Her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass: "Well now that's done, and I'm glad it's over." When lovely woman stoops to folly, and paces about her room again alone, she smooths her hair with automatic hand, and puts a record on the gramophone.[vii](Eliot, 2006, p.64).

The typist is shown here as robotic, tacitly obliging casual sex as it carries no significance. She indulges because it is meaningless, sex has no more importance to her than the cleaning of her house or the preparation of her meal. This is Eliot's vision of the sexually free female, her sexuality is so far removed from any importance she resembles an automaton. That unrestrained female sexuality presents a dystopia of unfeeling uncaring women, to whom desire is irrelevant. Nicholls supports this point in his description of the typist's and the clerk's exchange:

Their encounter has been neither passionate or pleasant, merely one routine moment in a life which can never rise above the mechanical... the poem is complicit with an absoluteness of moral perspective"[viii](Nicholls, 1995, p.257).

Nicholls points out the implied judgement Eliot has made of the typist, the portrayal of the sexually liberated woman as a flag bearer for an immoral future. The tone in which the typist is described by Eliot is implicitly judgemental, her mechanisation is a demonstration of how far removed from herself she is. Her sexuality is worthless emotionally, and its use is merely routine. This is the fear of female sexuality held within The Waste Land, that if given free reign it will no longer hold any importance either to the woman herself or to society as a whole.

Fear whilst prevalent, is not however the only feeling felt toward female sexuality within Modernist writing. Pure fascination can also be found. For example, Lily in a crystallised moment of clarity begins to explore what appear to be sexual feelings for Mrs Ramsay:

Close as she could get... She imagined how in the chambers of the mind and heart of the woman who was, physically, touching her, were stood, like the treasures in the tombs of kings, tablets bearing sacred inscriptions.[ix] (Woolf, 2008, p.44).

This scene shows Lily as she begins to venerate Mrs Ramsay, treating her as some holy monolith through the simple act of touching her. This is how Woolf begins to treat female sexuality as a kind of wisdom. This is also argued for by Wisner in the following:

A symbolic relationship emerges that pays homage to Greek goddesses and matriarchal societies... metaphorically shielding the women and space of Scarborough correlates to Woolf's efforts to preserve and convey the body of female wisdom.[x](Wisner, 2009, p.17).

This shows how Lily's fascination with Mrs Ramsay, and the idea of drawing as close as she can is at least in part a show of deference to Mrs Ramsay's wisdom. Though not explicitly sexual, this moment of physical intimacy seems to transform into an instant of reverence, acknowledging the domestic power of Mrs Ramsay. In acknowledging Mrs Ramsay's feminine strength Lily also acknowledges her own desire for her, in the following:

What art was there, known to love or cunning, by which one pressed through into those secret chambers? What device for becoming, like waters poured into one jar, inextricably the same, one with the object one adored?[xi](Woolf, 2008, p.44).

Here we see Lily's fascination with the idea of loving Mrs Ramsay, and how the language used though suggestive dances around the idea of physical love. The idea of becoming one body, and the exchanging of fluids from one vessel to another is clear enough, and the obscurity of meaning serves as a way of intensifying the fascination of Lily. She looks upon Mrs Ramsay in a form of rapture, unable to understand or properly articulate her sexual interest. She seems to be searching for words that do not exist, but pushing forward with her fantasy all the same. Woolf continues:

Could loving, as people called it, make her and Mrs Ramsay one? For it was not knowledge but unity she desired, not inscriptions on tablets, nothing that could be written in any language known to men, but intimacy itself... leaning her head on Mrs Ramsay's knee.[xii](Woolf, 2008, p.44).

This is the culmination of Lily's sexual absorption in Mrs Ramsay, where she acknowledges both the secret knowledge held by powerful women and her desire to tap into it through physical love. This very much embodies that fascination with female sexuality that stands in opposition to the fear presented by Eliot. Woolf contrasts Mrs Ramsay with ancient imagery, enshrining her in Lily's mind whilst at the same time illustrating Lily's intense sexual feelings for her. This encapsulates the fascination with female sexuality, made more poignant by its omission of men, allowing Woolf to focus solely on the feminine desire.

In conclusion, I have demonstrated that female sexuality was indeed an object of both fascination and fear, both within single texts and across others. Lawrence captures both within Love Among the Haystacks as the character of Lydia represents for Geoffrey both a fear of rejection and sexual fascination. His subordinate actions toward her place her in the role of power within their discourse. Her rejections of his aid anger him and at the same time drive him to offer more of himself, showing the dichotomy of fear and fascination. Lydia's independence both sexual and otherwise is not only frustrating but also counter-cultural, the Modernist period itself looking at female sexuality from a dual perspective. Eliot deals with female sexuality in a less measured approach, fear being his primary lens for dealing with it. The voices in the pub introduce a blasé matter of fact attitude to sex, that treats it as an exchange. They describe it something men desire and therefore something they can trade with. Sex is to them an economy, presenting a fearful morally bankrupt image of female sexuality. This is continued in Tiresias' tale in which we see the typist completely detached from her own sexuality. She will engage in sex because for her it carries no significance. Her freedom to act sexually at any point has left her emotionally void. This is how Eliot demonstrates fear of female sexuality, in that once liberated it will lose all meaning. The moral judgement of the poem therefore condemns these characters, demonstrating that female sexuality is very much an object of fear. This contrasts with Woolf's portrayal of female sexuality within To the Lighthouse in which we see Lily explore her feelings toward the domestically powerful Mrs Ramsay. Lily is completely enrapt within the desire to become one through loving her. The euphemism through which Lily expresses her desire serves to intensify the fascination. Lily perceives Mrs Ramsay as a kind of goddess, shown through Woolf's likening her to Egyptian monuments. This shows how despite The Waste Land 's fearful approach to female sexuality, that fascination was also present in Modernist writing. It is therefore demonstrable that female sexuality and desire, were both objects of fear and fascination.

[1] Lawrence, D.H. (2007). Selected Stories- Love Among The Haystacks. 9th ed. London: Penguin Classics, p.36.

[i] Lawrence, D.H. (2007). Selected Stories- Love Among The Haystacks. 9th ed. London: Penguin Classics, p.36.

[ii] Lawrence, D.H. (2007). Selected Stories- Love Among The Haystacks. 9th ed. London: Penguin Classics, p.38.

[iii] Dix, C. (1980). D.H. Lawrence and Women. New York: Macmillan, p.12.

[iv] Eliot, T. and Rainey, L. (2006). The Annotated Waste Land with Eliot's contemporary prose. new Haven: Yale University Press. p.62.

[v] Eliot, T. and Rainey, L. (2006). The Annotated Waste Land with Eliot's contemporary prose. new Haven: Yale University Press. p.64.

[vi] Sicker, P. (1984). The Belladonna: Eliot's Female Archetype in The Waste Land. Twentieth Century Literature, 30(4), p.428.

[vii] Eliot, T. and Rainey, L. (2006). The Annotated Waste Land with Eliot's contemporary prose. new Haven: Yale University Press. p.64

[viii] Nicholls, P. (1995). Modernisms. Berkeley: University of California Press. p.257.

[ix] Woolf, V. (2008). To the Lighthouse. 7th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, p.44.

[x] Wisner, M. (2009). Geographies of Gender. Virginia Woolf Miscellany, 75(77), p.17.

[xi] Woolf, V. (2008). To the Lighthouse. 7th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, p.44.

[xii] Woolf, V. (2008). To the Lighthouse. 7th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, p.44.


Dix, C. (1980). D.H. Lawrence and Women. New York: Macmillan.

Eliot, T. and Rainey, L. (2006). The Annotated Waste Land with Eliot's contemporary prose. new Haven: Yale

University Press.

Lawrence, D.H. (2007). Selected Stories- Love Among The Haystacks. 9th ed. London: Penguin Classics.

Nicholls, P. (1995). Modernisms. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Sicker, P. (1984). The Belladonna: Eliot's Female Archetype in The Waste Land. Twentieth Century Literature, 30(4).

Wisner, M. (2009). Geographies of Gender. Virginia Woolf Miscellany, 75(77).

Woolf, V. (2008). To the Lighthouse. 7th ed. New York: Oxford University Press.


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