The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014


Dale M. Bauer

Sexuality in novels can refer either to the history of sex (as action or being) appearing in novels or, as literary narratology has proposed, a style of sexuality displayed in novels. Characters either are sexual or act sexually, but one can also argue that plots are charged with sexuality. The difficulty in tracing sexuality in novels depends on whether one considers “sexuality” as a history (the amount of sexuality in novels) or as a theory (the possibilities of sexuality as a political praxis, of repression, or of liberation). For some theorists, sexuality is more of a discipline than a form of liberation. For others, literary sex marks a moment of confusion of normative behavior more than a reaction or rebellion (see Dollimore). Often, sexual battles are played out in novels, such as in the domain of Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady (1881), where Isabel Archer debates with herself about conventional marriage and liberal affect.

Michel Foucault inspired an examination of the modes by which novels would produce a new kind of sexual norm. His History of Sexuality included analyses of how sexuality became a source of biopower, and he offered a rejection of the “repressive hypothesis,” which contended that humans had repressed their sexual desires in favor of knowledge and power. He argued, rather, that the nineteenth century introduced a new hegemony of sexuality, including one that named the self as a kind of sexual being. Foucault called “bodies and pleasures” as representative of genderless moments of resistance from the reigning power of sex-desire. This claim for the counter-discursive function of resistant pleasures may allow particular queer sexual acts to be considered oppositional practices (see Berlant and Warner). Psychoanalysis, too, influenced a literary theory that analyzed what Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan (among others) suggested was the symbolic nature of sexuality (see PSYCHOANALYTIC).

Histories of sexuality in novels were originally published as topical histories, like Tony Tanner's monumental study of adultery. Following Tanner, many critics charted sexual pleasure as a subversion of patriarchy or capitalism. With the rise of feminist theory and queer studies, theorists saw the novel as a great democratic form that opened up questions about sexuality. For example, D. A. Miller and Eve Sedgwick argued that novels represent homosexuality through various modes as “between men,” a theory of the novel about male homosocial relations that begins to mark the territory of erotic homosexuality. Most recently, the social critic Bruce Burgett has argued that in the nineteenth century the creation of categories such as “heterosexual” and “homosexual”—along with “Sapphist,” “sexual invert,” “intermediate sex,” and “homogenic”—urged writers to use the terms as part of a policing of pleasure. In this light, some novels were infused with “sexology”: a judgment about the “normalcy” of sexual relations and powers. As Burgett writes, “Here and elsewhere, the pressing historical question is not how ’sex’ and ’race’ have intersected in various historical conjunctures, but how, to what ends, and in what contexts we have come to think of the ’two’ as separable in the first place” (2005, 94). Arguments such as Burgett's have led to the examination of the confluence of these categories—along with class and ethnicity (see Berlant; Haag; Horowitz).

Other critics of sexuality in the novel include Judith Roof, who argues that lesbianism was figured in “coming-out narratives” as conservative modes of queer visibility that actually reinforced the heteronormative mode of the novel. Another major critic of sexuality, Joseph Boone, incisively details how male sexualities informed narratives. Since the late 1990s, the advances of feminist and queer theory have opened up topics such as bisexuality and queer erotics, as well as public sex.

Histories of Sexuality in the Novel

Some of the earliest novels about sexuality concerned the use of personal desire as pleasure. “Fallen woman” fiction—like Susanna Rowson's Charlotte Temple (1791) and Hannah Webster Foster's The Coquette (1797)—included women who acted upon their sexuality only to be cast as fallen creatures who must be spiritually saved or literally killed as lessons about female desire. In Stephen Crane's Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893), Maggie dies by the end of this narrative, either having taken her own life or been killed by some attacker. In any case, Crane is careful not to take sides against Maggie, since his naturalistic tone suggests that the environment in which she lives and works may be responsible for her choices and her drift toward prostitution (see NATURALISM). By the 1920s, more and more middle-class novels, like Viña Delmar's Bad Girl (1928), would position female sexuality as blasé, addressing premarital sex as a way to domestic—and marital—bliss.

The representation of male sexuality in eighteenth-century novels might be said to start with Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719—22), in which homo economicus curbs his appetites in order to structure his own material world. Samuel Richardson's Loveless in Clarissa (1747—48) represents the rake as a figure of pure appetite. Henry Fielding's Tom Jones (1749) gives us a happier medium of male sexuality in the service of conviviality and honor.

In American fiction, Charles Brockden Brown made an early contribution to the discussion of men's and women's equality with his Alcuin: A Dialogue (1798). James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales (1823—41) document Natty Bumpo's ascetism and his polite, even diffident, relations to women. More appetitive males appear in the Southwestern tradition as witnessed in the works of William Gilmore Simms and Robert Montgomery Bird. Nathaniel Hawthorne follows the divided male self in configuring pairs like Chillingworth and Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter (1850) or Hollingsworth and Coverdale in The Blithedale Romance (1852). Even Holgrave in Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables (1851) has a dual sexual identity that needs to be resolved before he takes his place in the heterosexual concluding fantasy. Herman Melville's men often follow the twists of this mainstream divided logic. That division was famously codified in Leslie Fiedler's study of homoeroticism in the American novel in which he argued that pairings such as Bumpo and Chingachgook, Ishmael and Queequeg, and Huck and Jim reveal a dominant pattern in American culture where white males identify their erotics in their close relations with men of color (see Chap. 94 of Moby-Dick). In realism, we begin to see U.S. authors presenting men in their masculine fullness in Bartley Hubbard (William Dean Howells, 1885, The Rise of Silas Lapham) and Basil Ransom (Henry James, 1886, The Bostonians).

One could trace such a debate about gender roles even further back to Jane Austen's sentimental fictions. Pride and Prejudice (1813) argues that class-based marriage and sexuality controlled by the “invisible hand” of markets conflict with an image of marriage as companionship, transcending the rules of class and status. Austen's Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy stage this debate in code-embedded rules of dancing, walking, and card playing, since these events have social rules that define how they are played, like lovemaking itself. Yet Elizabeth's blushing is an involuntary reaction, one that gives the lie to the social codes and expresses her sexual desire. By the same token, Darcy's confessions of love to Elizabeth reveal his sense of violating the market-driven pairing of his social class. A novel like Austen's poses questions to its audience about what counts as sexuality: conscious or unconscious motives, playing by social rules or giving up on all sexual rules entirely.

Popular Fictions about Sexuality: From Middlebrow to Middle-Class Desire

The novel corresponded with the political and cultural arenas of the bourgeoisie in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Sexuality in the novel also coincided with capitalist growth and the rise of the reading public. Sexuality in both normative and non-normative forms illustrated the relationship between public and private spheres, as well as between colonies and empires. As Nancy Armstrong has argued, the function of the novel was to form the discursive power of sexuality, particularly for the middle-class woman whose domesticity made her a powerful female subject, especially in sex relations. Armstrong contends that gendered power—particularly in domestic novels—earned women power through their represented subjectivity. For Armstrong, the female was constituted as the modern individual, a subject ready to consent to sexuality. That is, modern women gain power through their gender and class as consensual subjects. For instance, among the sixty works of nineteenth-century U.S. novelist E.D.E.N. Southworth, several, such as The Discarded Daughter (1852), are chronicles of domestic abuse, and Self-Raised (1876) illustrates what happens when one mistress denies her would-be lover sexual intercourse until after his divorce.

By the mid- to late nineteenth century, novels did not play by these rules so much as offer stories that broke those rules. Elizabeth Stoddard's The Morgesons (1862), for example, documents love that exceeds social rules and norms. The two women whose lives are at the central of the novel, Cassandra and Veronica, must get past dangerous health issues to consummate their marriages. Cassandra loves one brother, who must be absent from her for two years to prove he can overcome his passions, especially inebriation. Veronica's lover dies from drinking, but not before they marry and reproduce. In this way, so much about sexuality concerned what biological or biosocial issues might impair a marriage or a reproductive couple. In “social gospel” novels such as Elizabeth Stuart Phelps's The Silent Partner (1871), minor characters might find sex pleasurable, but the two main characters eschew their sexual possibilities to remain spinsters and thus to serve as social guides.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, there were a number of fictions published on both sides of the sexuality question, in one of the first “sex battles” of the modern era. Intellectual critics like Charlotte Perkins Gilman—called a feminist humanist in her day—wrote social-reform novels about the dangers of sexuality as pleasure, arguing instead that sexuality as reproduction was women's major contribution to sexual selection. At the same time, hundreds of New Woman novelists, in both Britain and the U.S., advocated sexual pleasure. For example, Grant Allen's The Woman Who Did (1895) developed ideas about free love, New Womanhood, and eugenic offspring as a result of independent and unmarried women giving birth.

Historically, the idea of sexuality as a form of a person's identity—and later as a kind of expression—took hold in modern culture. The beginning of the twentieth century inaugurated a new range of terms for sexuality, devoted to detailing a person's choice of sexual activity. By 1922, James Joyce's novel Ulysses opened up greater space for discussions of homosexuality or, in Molly Bloom's “yes I said yes,” of sexual consent. In fact, the 1920s ushered in a Marxist-inspired debate about “sex expression” as a way out of the bourgeois restriction of sexuality. This influence of “sex expression” in literature, espoused by V. F. Calverton, made bourgeois sex regulation outdated, and instead celebrated the liberation of sexuality.

In premodern and modern texts, stories of “inversion,” where one sex expressed the other gender's “qualities,” were suggestive of alternative sexualities. In her exploration of inversion in The Well of Loneliness (1928), Radclyffe Hall contended for a new social recognition of lesbianism. As Laura Doan argues, this novel and its “insistent demand for social tolerance” was “the crystallizing moment in the construction of a visible modern English lesbian subculture” (xii, xiii). In Gale Wilhelm's lesbian fictions of the American 1930s, We Still Are Drifting (1935) and Torchlight to Valhalla (1938), the heroines in the first novel admit to each other's love, but they cannot deny the younger girl's parents, who want her to go on vacation with her betrothed and the mothers of the lovers. By the end, the older lover, an artist, has to say goodbye to her lover and express her sense of a “drifting” sexual life. This notion of sexual “drifting” was earlier represented in Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie (1900) and Jennie Gerhardt (1911), signaling “women adrift” in culture, their sexuality unconnected to domestic rites. By the 1940s, Mary McCarthy explored female sexuality in such works as The Company She Keeps (1942) and, twenty years later, her famous novel The Group. The first book is a collection of linked stories about a divorcee-in-waiting and her sexual play in a train to Nevada. The latter explores the sexual lives of six college graduates, with a focus on their gradual opening up to sexual adventures.

Nineteenth-century gay male novelists, such as Marcel Proust, André Gide, and Oscar Wilde, challenged conventional narratives of sexuality by introducing those that illustrate what Jonathan Dollimore calls the “terrifying mutability of desire” (56). By the turn of the century, masculinity enjoyed the cult of strenuousness, as espoused by President Teddy Roosevelt. His fear of “race suicide” influenced a number of American realists to write about a middle-class masculinity and reproductivity. An élan vital about masculinity was soon to be compromised by the experience of WWI, most notably in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (1925) and Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises (1926). Indeed, through the 1930s beleaguered American males seldom found vital expression, and were often seen as diminished by historical circumstances. Examples of such men are Charley Anderson in John Dos Passos's U.S.A. (1930—36) and Tom Joad in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (1939).

It remained for Richard Wright to imagine Bigger Thomas in Native Son (1940), whose full-fledged racialized sexuality demanded punishment. Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1947) narrates Truman Blood's rape of his daughter to signify the fear of black male sexuality. Through the 1950s and 1960s, in works like Sloan Wilson's The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955) and Richard Yates's Revolutionary Road (1961), men have to find accommodation in a corporate world, where exertions of will are usually squashed. Perhaps the three most influential U.S. novelists in the post-WWII era—Saul Bellow, John Updike, and Philip Roth—have put the assertion of male sexuality and its complexities at the very center of their career-long projects.

Sexuality as Identity

Eventually, sexuality became part of the multivalent ways of identifying one's self. Other interstices of human identity—such as race, ethnicity, class, religion, and disability—helped to sharpen the notion of the privilege of one's sexuality or its alternative debility in a culture that promoted an essential heterosexuality. Second-wave feminists argued for sexual liberation, and their novels did the same: Pat Barker's Blow Your House Down (1984) details the sexuality of England's prostitutes, a sexual emotion that often leaves them feeling more for each other than for any heteronormative arrangement. Barker's language is key to her commitment to sexuality as a crucial marker of identity: her heroines are lodged in sexual capitalism, but they find themselves more in their female communities and lesbianism than in making money through sex. Later, queer fiction would become legion. In this context, the role of the Naiad Press's commitment to the lesbian novel from the 1970s to the 1990s cannot be underestimated. Twentieth-century gay male fiction, such as John Rechy's City of Night (1963) and Colm Tóibín's The Master (2004), glorified the new visibility of gay sexuality and the revisions of history about queer passions.

Thus, the history of sexuality in novels can be traced from early versions of eighteenth-century seduction novels to twentieth-century challenging fictions like Kathy Acker's Blood and Guts in High School (1984). Graphic novels treat sexuality across the spectrum of responses: Stuck Rubber Baby (1995), by Howard Cruse, is a coming-out narrative/memoir about the civil rights movement in the South; Potential (1999), written by Ariel Schrag when she was in high school, is about queer sexuality and educational institutions; Blankets (2003), by Craig Thompson, is a straight romance that addresses teen sexuality, religion, disability, and childhood sexual abuse.

Alison Bechdel's Fun Home (2006), a graphic novel/memoir, has a rich historical dimension. A girl's father is closeted after WWII. His repression is a palpable vestige in the girl's life, especially after he walks in front of a truck and is killed. This death occurs right after the girl has confessed to her parents that she came out in college. Bechdel, the cartoonist of Dykes to Watch Out For (1986), took seven years to write and draw Fun Home because of the care she took in illustrating the historical difference between her father's gay identity and her own.

One might say that any narrative that changes the “Reader, I married him” plot (this from Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, 1847) has its own sexuality—it resists the normative marriage plot. Plots that suggest a narrative challenge to normative sexuality might be called resisting fictions. In the twenty-first century, critics have addressed sexuality in novels through episodes, moments where sex, race, or class have worked together to change ideas of sexuality, such as during abolition and emancipation in the U.S., or in the “sex wars” of the 1980s and 1990s.

SEE ALSO: Gender Theory, Queer Novel


1. Armstrong, N. (1987), Desire and Domestic Fiction.

2. Bechdel, A. (2006), Fun Home.

3. Berlant, L. and M. Warner (1998), “ Sex in Public,” Critical Inquiry 24(2): 547—66.

4. Boone, J. (1998), Libidinal Currents.

5. Burgett, B. (2005), “ On the Mormon Question,” American Quarterly 57: 75—102.

6. Burgett, B. (2007), “ Sex,” in Keywords for American Cultural Studies.

7. Doan, L. (2001), Fashioning Sapphism.

8. Dollimore, J. (2001), Sex, Literature and Censorship.

9. Fielder, L. (1960), Love and Death in the American Novel.

10. Foucault, M. (1990), History of Sexuality.

11. Haag, P. (1999), Consent.

12. Horowitz, H.L. (2003), Rereading Sex.

13. Miller, D.A. (1988), The Novel and the Police.

14. Sedgwick, E.K. (1985), Between Men.

15. Sedgwick, E.K. (1990), Epistemology of the Closet.

16. Tanner, T. (1981), Adultery in the Novel.