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...

(The entire section is 580 words.)