"An uncouth love": queering processes in medieval and early modern romances
Date of Degree
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PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Most scholars of the romance genre can think of any number of examples in which the tale's hero or heroine finds him- or herself caught up in a rather comic episode resulting from either mistaken identity, cross-dressing, or the "mis-directed" sexual liaisons resulting there-from. At times it seems as if everyone is doomed to stumble across at least a brief period of gendered or sexual confusion as a result of these tropes, a momentary digression into the realm of queer transgression. My project builds off the work of medieval scholar, Tison Pugh, and contends that the protagonist must undergo this brief, contained period of sexual and/or gendered transgression as a kind of requirement or steppingstone necessary in order to eventually achieve his or her goal, most often in these cases, acceptance within the chivalric court and/or heteronormative coupling. In this way, these texts demarcate sexual and gender transgression as not only essential to, but also a very part of, a larger heteronormative paradigm. The presence of these queer transgressions, is not separate, nor oppositional to the overarching heteronormative, chivalric plot, but rather an indispensable part of it. In this way, the tales seem to allow for a temporary suspension of prototypical norms as a means to ultimately reinforce and re-inscribe these exact hierarchies.
My project thus not only illustrates another way of reading the genre of romance, but also examines the notion of a medieval or early modern "queer" subjectivity. I use the work of a number of medieval- and early modern- sexuality scholars (Carolyn Dinshaw, Karma Lochrie, and Valerie Traub, to name a few) to examine four canonical texts (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Malory's "The Tale of Sir Gareth," Spenser's The Faerie Queene, and Sidney's The Old Arcadia), and consider to what extent the queer episodes presented therein actually subvert or conform to the larger heteronormative paradigms of that particular culture. There are many examples of medieval and early modern texts in which temporary, controlled transgression is not only endorsed, but encouraged as a means of diffusing rebellious desire, a "getting it out of the system," if you will. The extent to which such controlled transgressions remain contained, however, is debatable. In allowing a period of controlled transgression, one admits that the very act of deviancy and its containment are intrinsically important to the larger power structure. Although these tales present queer transgressions as demons to be exorcised, this exorcism, this period of release, is ultimately part of the larger quest goal; rather than oppositional to the heteronormative ideal, these queer transgressions are an important component of such a model, interwoven and essential to the overall quest.
This topic also engages with a number of issues related to queer and feminist theories, most specifically those posited by Eve Sedgwick and Judith Butler. For example, when a character switches from his previous normative role to the period of controlled transgression described here, he surely does not abandon his position within the normative sphere entirely, nor does he adopt his new deviant role completely. Rather, his state is that of in-betweeness. During this period he is both Self and Other, pursuing quests in an attempt to be assimilated into heteronormative structures of the chivalric ideal, but also temporarily assuming the "queer," marginalized subject position. Such characters do not move from heteronormative to queer and back again, but rather occupy a space in which they are both heteronormative and queer. Therefore, their time of "controlled transgression" essentially shakes the foundation of binary-based identification as a whole. That is, since such characters occupy a kind of hybrid space between heteronormative and queer roles, they serve as proof that the binaries of Self and Other are not binaries at all, but rather points on a continuum. I argue that even if the "transgression" embraced by these characters is temporary and within a "controlled" environment, it is nonetheless subversive as the mere presence of a character who is both Self and Other threatens to break down this system of hierarchies as a whole.
Copyright 2010 Katherine Gertrude Gubbels