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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

by Pearl-Poet
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What are some of the complex ways in which Sir Gawain and the Green Knight represents the intersection between sexual desire and social class through different social and/or sexual triangles of people?

One of the most straightforward examples of the complex intersections between sexual desire and social class happens at Lord Bertilak's castle. The love triangle between Gawain, Lady Bertilak, and Lord Bertilak is one dominated by differences in social rank and concerns for chivalric conduct on the part of Gawain. However, he does have a sexual desire for Lady Bertilak that goes against the code of chivalry.

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The potential erotic situation between Gawain and Lady Bertilak is complicated by social rank. Gawain cannot sleep with Lady Bertilak as that would be adultery, both a sin and a slight against his host Lord Bertilak in making the man a cuckold. However, Lady Bertilak's social status is higher than Gawain's (she is a noblewoman and he is only a knight) and as his host's wife, he has a duty to please her or at the very least, not offend her, so Gawain must handle her attempts to seduce him with care. To reject her entirely would go against chivalric code, but to succumb would do the same as well.

Gawain never succumbs to Lady Bertilak entirely, though he does allow her to kiss him when she visits his bed-chamber. However, he gives these kisses to Lord Bertilak, upholding his end of the bargain that he will give his host whatever he obtains during the daytime in the castle. The relationship between Gawain and his host is tinged with a sense of homoeroticism due to this, though like his relationship with Lady Bertilak, Gawain must be careful not to go too far or else he'll break more than one medieval sexual taboo: after all, if he sleeps with Lady Bertilak, then he must sleep with his host as well, once again emphasizing the social power the two nobles have over him.

About as far as Gawain transgresses is to accept the lady's girdle, a piece of clothing with intimate implications, but one he only accepts in order to save his life when he goes to meet with the Green Knight. This ultimately proves shameful to him, emphasizing his cowardice and willingness to cheat his way out of death. It could also be viewed as a sexual succumbing since he withholds the girdle from his host. He has pleased the lady but deceived his host, breaking a masculine code of honor.

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