Study Guide

Queer Theory Texts

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  • Middlemarch by George Eliot (1874)

    Ever heard that nursery rhyme about how girls are made of "sugar and spice and everything nice," and boys are made of "frogs and snails and puppy dog tails"? Well, those stereotypes just won't quit. In Middlemarch, Eliot's female characters are up against a lot of oppressive notions concerning what men and women are supposed to be like.

    Dr. Lydgate supposedly choses his mate, Rosamond, based on a scientific view of what a woman should be. With that in mind, in what ways was the science of the Victorian Age sexist and heteronormative?

    Berlant and Warner tell us that "by heteronormativity we mean the institutions, structures of understanding, and practical orientations that make heterosexuality seem not only coherent—that is, organized as a sexuality—but also privileged."

    What "structures of understanding" do you see being influenced by heteronormativity in Middlemarch, aside from the sciences? So much privilege, so little time (to tear it all down)…

  • The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (1890)

    Wilde edited more than five hundred words out of the original manuscript of this novel, and everyone still considered it obscene. (We here at Shmoop would love to know what those five hundred words were…) So, the conservative press called for him to be put on trial for obscenity.

    This novel was what forced people to confront Wilde and his wild ways. Wilde, in response, spent the next four years making his closet as strong as he could. He hoped that his performance of normality would keep him out of jail.

    There's a kind of poetic justice to the notion that Oscar Wilde himself was only an actor in his own personal play. Because, you know, he was a giant of British Victorian Theatre. As Oscar's own literary puppet, Lord Henry, says, "He becomes an echo of someone else's music, an actor of a part that has not been written for him."

    Oscar Wilde was acting a part in the public theatre that kept his sexuality hidden. How does the metaphor of an echo relate to the concept of heteronormativity, do you think?

    The character Lord Henry also says, "people are afraid of themselves nowadays." What does that idea remind you of? Sedgwick's notion of the "speech act of a silence," maybe? What kinds of secrets, other than sexuality, would people feel the need to build a closet around?

    Now, go read The Picture of Dorian Gray. We'll wait. Are you back yet? Now, here's a real doozy of a question: Are you afraid of yourself in any of the ways the characters in this book are afraid of themselves? Think about it.

  • A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams (1947)

    This is another American play where the guys act like manly men. They drink and smoke and play cards. They fight and then feel bad about drinking. And then they smoke and play some more cards.

    The women in this work are equally stereotypical. They like to have babies, act like damsels in distress, and play dress up.

    So, let's think about this. In any given performance of A Streetcar Named Desire, we have actors playing characters who are acting out in order to cover up secrets. Wowza. This play is a gold mine for a queer theorist.

    For example: How does Butler's idea of gender as a costume play out in the relationship between Stanley and Blanche?

    And then there's the fact that Tennessee Williams was a closeted homosexual. So the dude's own closetedness can be read into the speeches of Blanche, Stella, and maybe even Stanley. How does Blanche's language in the beginning of the play cover up the secret she is hiding? What do Blanche's speech acts of a silence look like?

  • Querelle by Jean Genet (1947)

    Querelle has one heck of a shore leave. There are a couple of murders, a drug deal, some sex, some drinking, and a little bromance. Jean Genet breaks all the stereotypes of male homosexuality with this novel; the man-on-man sex scenes focus on guys who don't even call themselves gay.

    The fact that the main characters defy categorization is what makes them dangerous. Using Muñoz's notion of queerness, ask yourself this: how does Querelle's behavior challenge the idea that a man's sexuality is what makes him a man?

    Genet's sailors are all living life "at great speed." If this sounds reckless and self-destructive to you, that's because it is. But what can Querelle tell us about the inherent harm caused by many men's (and women's) self-restrictive gender performances?

  • Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller (1949)

    Why's there all this fuss over the American Dream? Can't a guy just have a good smoke and stare at the sky once in a while? In Death of a Salesman, Miller questions the heady expectations placed upon fathers and sons in a society obsessed with success.

    Critical gender performances run rampant through this stage play. How does Willy's memories of Biff as a football star reinforce his own view of what a son should be?

    We think that, once Biff recognizes who he is, there'll be a blue sky and a life out west waiting for him. On that note: how is Halberstam's concept of failure connected to hope in this play?

  • "Howl" by Allen Ginsberg (1956)

    The greatest minds of Ginsberg's generation weren't doing so well. Let's just say they had issues. You know, with anger and drugs and poverty and stuff. And Ginsberg was tired of all this oppression, so he got up in front of people and let his queer flag fly.

    The Beat poets pulled no punches. These guys challenged our heteronormative, procreation-driven society. And they did it in a distinctively free-flowing, confrontational, and sometimes vulgar style. What about Ginsberg's language challenges the authority of parenthood and heterosexuality in "Howl"?

    Go at it, tigers.

  • The History of Sexuality by Michel Foucault (1976)

    Like you, we here at Shmoop hate being put into boxes. And the Victorians forced "abnormal" sexuality into two such itty bitty cultural boxes: "the brothel and the mental hospital would be those places of tolerance."

    The Victorians made "abnormal sexuality" = "sick in the head." And Foucault, in The History of Sexuality, views the construction of these easy categories as fatal mistakes. Luckily, the psychological community doesn't feel that way anymore. But some people do.

    People in power are always the ones who decide what is normal and what isn't. So what other codes of conduct—aside from our sexual attractions—can you identify as being determined by people of power?

  • Gender Trouble by Judith Butler (1990)

    Butler's always got our (queer) backs. In an updated preface to her tenth anniversary edition of Gender Trouble, Butler says, "…the aim of the text was to open up the field of possibility of gender without dictating which kinds of possibilities ought to be realized."

    In short: gendered behavior is, essentially, a personal choice. Of course, we're under tons of societal pressure to conform to certain norms. But: do you agree with Butler's argument, or do you believe that there are still some gendered behaviors that are biologically determined? Explain.

    We'd love to hear your answers.

    Also, we were wondering… if gender is like a costume that you can put on and take off, is it possible to analyze a whole novel just by looking at the clothing characters wear? Hm.

  • Epistemology of the Closet by Eve Sedgwick (1990)

    According to Eve Sedgwick, the closet isn't so secret after all. See, what we do talk about gives other people clues about what skeletons we're hiding in our closets. And the specific language we use to cover things up is determined by the people we are trying to hide from.

    Think of an actor at a press conference who says, "My personal life is my business." There's always some headline in the tabloids the next day that reads: Actor Has Something to Hide. People at the water cooler start saying things like, "He's gay. I'll bet anything he's gay."

    And then the rumor mill really gets going.

    Now, think about all the Victorian literature out there. Are there ways to read between the words on the page, if we think about the closets the authors were hiding in? What can we understand from what isn't said in those texts?

  • "Sex in Public" by Lauren Berlant (1998)

    Heteronormativity and heterosexuality are two different things. Consider this example: a girl with tattoos and a shaved head holds the hands of two guys as she walks through the park. A married couple pushes a stroller carrying their newborn wrapped in a colorful blanket through the same park.

    A couple things to chew on as you read "Sex in Public":

    1. All five of these individuals are heterosexuals. Which of them are not heteronormative?
    2. Where do you see the influence of heteronormativity emerging in the lives of some gay men and women? Is anyone safe from the clutches of heteronormativity?
  • In a Queer Time and Place by Judith Jack Halberstam (2005)

    Ever wanted to eat dessert before dinner? Well, in this work, Halberstam says, "futures can be imagined according to logics that lie outside of those paradigmatic markers of life experience, namely birth, marriage, reproduction and death."

    In other words: there isn't one natural order of life. So: go nuts with your food choices. And with all of your other lifestyle choices, because queer bodies experience lives that are fundamentally out of order.

    Now, how could you analyze characters in Middlemarch using this idea? What about other classic novels?

    Keep in mind that queer characters need not be of an alternative sexuality. They can simply be doing things that go against the prevailing attitude of the day. In which of your favorite books do you see characters behaving in ways that break the rules of mainstream society?

    We here at Shmoop are partial to Chuck Palahniuk, but we bet you've got some pretty good ideas of your own.

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