Last Updated on September 6, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 347
Epistemology of the Closet by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick was published in 1990 and is considered a foundational work in the discipline of queer studies. It is a work of scholarly nonfiction and as such references hundreds of earlier thinkers, including creative writers, artists, and scholars from many disciplines: including psychology, sociology, literary criticism, philosophy, and cultural studies. Some of the thinkers who are important for understanding the work are discussed below.
Michel Foucault (15 October 1926 to 25 June 1984) was a major French critical theorist whose work and terminology influenced Sedgwick. His The History of Sexuality argues that homosexuality and heterosexuality as identities are discursive constructs that took shape in their current form in the nineteenth century, a position and historical arc echoed in Sedgwick's work. Foucault is also concerned with both deconstructing the binary oppositions of sexual identity and with the importance of the AIDS crisis in the critical understanding of queerness, both of which are also important to Sedgwick.
Billy Budd, Sailor is the final novel (published posthumously in 1924) by American writer Herman Melville (August 1, 1819 to September 28, 1891). Sedgwick sees the homosociality of the ship as an environment which illuminates the concept of queerness. She sees the relationship between the evil John Claggart and the innocent Billy Budd as reflecting social tensions concerning masculinity and queerness and the resolution of the work as an erasure of the homosexual.
Oscar Wilde (16 October 1854 to 30 November 1900) was an Irish poet and playwright who was jailed on suspicion of homosexual behavior, and his literary works were used as proof of his alleged moral degeneracy. Wilde's novel The Picture of Dorian Gray has many homosexual themes and allusions and was considered scandalous in its period due to its hedonistic approach to sexuality and morality. Sedgwick sees the work as an example of the "glass closet," in which homosexual themes are obvious and only thinly veiled.
Marcel Proust (1871–1922) was the author of In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past (French: À la recherche du temps perdu). This work has several explicitly gay characters and a narrator who is sexually ambiguous.