Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

In her earlier book Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (1985), Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick demonstrated that the prohibition against male-male relationships had an oppressive effect on male-female relationships in English literature, from William Shakespeare’s plays through the Victorian novel. In Epistemology of the Closet, Sedgwick continues to break new ground in her explorations of male homosocial desire. Chronologically, this book begins where the former one closed, at the end of the nineteenth century.

The historical context is an all-important one to her study; according to Michel Foucault’s Histoire de la sexualité (1976-1984; The History of Sexuality, 1978-1987), one of Sedgwick’s principal sources, the term “homosexual” did not enter Euro-American discourse until around 1870. From that point onward, various professional disciplines (medicine, law, psychology, literary criticism) sought to reduce human sexual identity to the dual categories of homosexual or heterosexual. These categories, Sedgwick aims to show, are reductive and incoherent when subjected to rigorous analysis. (Instead, her major tool of analysis is deconstruction.) The socially constructed division of all humans into homosexuals and heterosexuals, Sedgwick contends, has influenced virtually every realm of Western culture, including its language and literature. Her purpose is not to explain the root causes of the...

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Epistemology of the Closet Context

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Like Between Men, Epistemology of the Closet has been widely praised as a groundbreaking work in gay and lesbian studies, and Sedgwick is regarded as one of the most influential scholars working on issues of sexuality and gender. Most reviewers of Epistemology of the Closet have commended its original, often brilliant, textual interpretations, even when not entirely convinced by them. Yet even the book’s admirers have complained of Sedgwick’s jargon-ridden, abstract style and have questioned some of her assumptions and generalizations, especially her insistence that few men are completely heterosexual (and that most men are therefore subject to “homosexual panic”).

Epistemology of the Closet is concerned primarily with male homosexuality and with male writers; thus it is obviously not a book for women readers interested in women writers and women’s issues per se, excepting perhaps those interested in how feminist scholarship can contribute to the further development of gay and lesbian studies. Yet Sedgwick argues that, despite her focus on male-male relations and male authors, her book is aimed at female as well as male readers. Indeed, she maintains that since women (who are often stereotyped in literature as “unknowing mothers”) have historically been rendered powerless by a lack of knowledge of male sexuality, it is vitally important that they study—and write about—that complex subject.

Epistemology of the Closet Bibliography

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Bergman, David. “Something About Eve: Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Closet Drama.” Raritan 11 (Summer, 1991): 115-131. This astute and balanced review article on Epistemology of the Closet moves beyond a critique of the book’s arguments to an examination of Sedgwick’s focus on male homosexuality.

During, Simon, ed. The Cultural Studies Reader. London: Routledge, 1993. Designed to introduce students to the relatively new field of cultural studies, this anthology contains many of the writings that form the background to Epistemology of the Closet. The section “Sexuality” includes a brief discussion of and excerpt from Epistemology of the Closet.

Foucault, Michel. Introduction to The History of Sexuality. Translated by Robert Hurley. 3 vols. New York: Vintage Books, 1980. Foucault’s contention that sexual identity was a nineteenth century social construction has influenced a generation of scholars interested in sexuality and gender, including Sedgwick.

Schor, Naomi. “Feminist and Gender Studies.” In Introduction to Scholarship in Modern Languages and Literatures, edited by Joseph Gibaldi. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1992. A very useful introduction to the field of feminist and gender studies. Provides clearly written explanations of many of the difficult concepts and theories embedded in Epistemology of the Closet, which is briefly discussed. Includes a thorough bibliography.

Showalter, Elaine. Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siècle. New York: Viking Press, 1990. Published in the same year as Epistemology of the Closet and focusing on many of the same topics and on the same time period, this book by a foremost American feminist scholar makes an excellent (and readable) companion volume to Sedgwick’s book.