From the Aesthetic to the Erotic Gaze (III)

tumblr_luetpht2nO1qjbn98o1_500The relationship between Robert Birkin and Gerald Crich in Women in Love introduces the importance of the gaze in this analysis.[1] All three novels have sight as the central sense involved in contemplation. Both aesthetic and sexual contemplation depend primarily on the gaze of the beholder, who gives a particular meaning to his object. In Women in Love, the beholder of the male body in the scenes here analysed is not always the same, but rather alternates between the narrator and Gerald. In the chapter “Fetichist”, Gerald’s is the most prominent gaze which rests upon the male bodies:

‘Gerald looked at him, and with a slight revulsion saw the human animal, golden skinned and bare, somehow humiliating. Halliday was different. He had a rather heavy, slack, broken beauty, white and firm […] And Gerald realised how Halliday’s eyes were beautiful too, so blue and warm and confused, broken also in their expression. The fireglow fell on his heavy rather bowed shoulders, he sat slackly crouched on the fender, his face was uplifted, weak, perhaps slightly disintegrate, and yet with a moving beauty of its own.’   (Women in Love 64)

In this same episode there are other similar descriptions, especially from Gerald’s perspective, which emphasise the presence of a beautiful male body through the use of colour adjectives that produce powerful aesthetic contrasts: “golden coloured body with black hair” (65), “Birkin, white and strangely ghostly, went over to the carved figure of the negro woman in labour” (65), “the Russian golden and like a water-plant” (65). The most powerful contrast is achieved through opposing the white male bodies to the black female statue, and it is by means of this pictorial scene that an artistic gaze is provoked in the reader, who is the one who can properly behold the totality of the depiction. This gaze, however, is constructed through Gerald’s perspective, the one who is more powerfully looking at the different parts of the scenario. He is also the one who realizes about the African statue, which later makes the colour contrasts clearer:

‘Gerald looked round the room […] there were several negro statues, wood carvings from West Africa, strange and disturbing, the carved negroes looked almost like a foetus of a human being. One was a woman sitting naked in a strange posture, and looking tortured, her abdomen stuck out […] the strange, transfixed, rudimentary face of the woman again reminded Gerald of a foetus, it was also rather wonderful, conveying the suggestion of the extreme of physical sensation, beyond the limits of mental consciousness’. (61)

Unlike The Immoralist and Death in VeniceWomen in Love powerfully channels the gaze of the reader through the characters. In the passages cited above, Gerald’s sight is more an instrument for presenting an aesthetic disposition to the reader’s gaze than an aim in itself; in other words, the aesthetic pleasure is addressed to the reader, who can become wholly conscious of the scene as a whole, rather than to Gerald, who only perceives parts of it. However, both Michel and Aschenbach fully enjoy the visions of Bachir and Tadzio respectively, while the reader is more involved with Michel’s and Aschenbach’s perceptions and not with their objects of beauty. These objects are mediated by the sight and emotions of their beholder, and it is precisely this mediation that is left to the reader, who has no direct access to the object, to enjoy.

 In Women in Love, the sexualized gaze appears through a different but still interesting mechanism. If in the previous analysed passage of this novel the beholder of the male bodies was properly the reader (through Gerald’s perspective), there is another scene which is presented to the reader through the narrator’s vision. This scene shows Gerald’s and Birkin’s naked bodies as they are involved in friendly wrestling. Since both characters are involved in the action, neither of them is able to describe the scene as a whole; therefore, a complete vision can only be achieved through the narrator’s gaze. If before Gerald found himself to be at a distance from Birkin, this distance is now overcome. Contemplation is now replaced by pure action, and is, as in Michel’s case, a fetishistic gaze on each other’s bodies. If the contact between the two bodies arouses any pleasure it can only be of a sexual kind. According to Carolyn M. Jones, the act of wrestling means a breakdown of older forms in Birkin’s and Gerald’s relationship and the establishing of new ones (69), which can also be represented through a new sexualised gaze. However, if between Gerald and Birkin the distance of the voyeuristic gaze is overcome, it still remains between the narrative voice, the reader, and the scene of the two bodies. The narrator and the reader behold a male spectacle, they are voyeurs of a scene described in sexual terms. But there is neither voyeurism nor exhibitionism amongst those enacting the scene:

‘So the two men began to struggle together. They were very dissimilar. Birkin was tall and narrow, his bones were very thin and fine. Gerald was much heavier and more plastic. His bones were strong and round, his limbs were rounded […] they became accustomed to each other, to each other’s rhythm, they got a kind of mutual physical understanding […] they seemed to drive their white flesh deeper and deeper against each other, as if they would break into a oneness’.   (Lawrence Women in Love 234)

This quote exemplifies the narrator’s perspective and the mutual gaze of the narrator and the reader on the scene, as well as the lack of awareness of the whole scenario on the part of the characters. The narration here fully invites the reader to take pleasure in the scene. Linda R. Williams, in her book Sex in the Head, argues that the male spectacle finds often no audience within Lawrence’s work itself (72), however she makes no reference to the non-fictional reality, the reader, who is truly the audience in such cases. In The Immoralist or Death in Venice, however, a fictive spectator also appears together with the male spectacle. It is notable that Williams ignores the reader when she considers the gaze in Women in Love. She claims the function of the female characters’ gaze is to introduce the male spectacle in the framework of a heterosexual relationship between the viewer and the object, and thus avoids a homosexual gaze between men (99). However, the two scenes analysed in this essay indicate the opposite. In the first case, Gerald is the one who sees the male bodies, and in the second case, the narrator is the first spectator; through them both, the reader, who can be considered as an abstract presence without a particular gender, becomes a spectator as well. Therefore, even if it can be argued that Lawrence experiments with a gender split, it does not explain the whole of his work.


[1] Important analyses about the function of the gaze in Women in Love include the studies by Linda R. Williams (1993) and Earl Ingersoll (1994).


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