Homosexuality, traditionally regarded as a disease or perversion by church, state, and society, was rigorously denounced and condemned by those same institutions. In the case of the arts and literature, works featuring homoeroticism or gays and lesbians as characters were often censored, if they were recognized at all. English-language writers, for example, wrote “gay novels” under pseudonyms and published them either privately or in foreign countries.
Gay characters and sensibilities were introduced into literature only by arch subterfuge, with writers following society’s unwritten decree that homoerotic fiction must end with the death, destruction, or extraordinary “conversion” of the questionable characters. In Bayard Taylor’s Joseph and His Friend (1870), a disastrous marriage causes Joseph to drift toward Philip, a young, golden-haired man; the novel ends, however, with Joseph’s sudden, almost inexplicable interest in Philip’s look-alike sister. This plot shift presumably was made to “save” Joseph from a fate worse than death. Henry James’s Roderick Hudson (1876) sketches wealthy Rowland Mallet’s infatuation with a young sculptor, but after a rift between them, the eponymous character sinks into a decadent languor from which he is rescued only by Christina Light, a beautiful, bored girl. Like other novels of the time, homoerotic love is forced to yield to the heterosexual imperative.
Europe saw many clandestine homoerotic novels—such as the lurid Gamiani (1833; Gamiani: Or, Two Nights of Excess, 1923), attributed to Alfred de Musset and featuring lesbian sexuality—but none of these was a major work. Honoré de Balzac masked homosexuality by artifice. In his vast sequence of interrelated novels about French society, La Comédie humaine (1829-1848; The Comedy of Human Life, 1885-1893, 1896; also as The Human Comedy, 1895-1896, 1911), the exuberantly masculine Vautrin is imprisoned after taking the blame for a crime committed by Lucien, the gentle, handsome young man he loves. Vautrin dreams of owning a plantation in the American South, where he can have absolute power over his slaves, especially their bodies. Only by living outside hypocritical French society can Vautrin have insight into its excesses and his own nature.
Irish writer and poet Oscar Wilde defied Victorian hypocrisy, but he paid a mortal price. The Picture of Dorian Gray (serial 1890; expanded 1891) represents a Faustian pact between young Dorian and the forces of evil. Wilde defiantly embraces and gilds what his society deems evil. Society enjoyed the ultimate revenge by destroying Wilde’s reputation and life: He was jailed for homosexual “offences” and went bankrupt while in prison.
If gay fiction wished to vividly portray homosexuality, it had to balance sensuality with social determinism—as in the case of Adolpho Caminha’s Brazilian novel Bom crioulo (1895; Bom-Crioula: The Black Man and the Cabin Boy, 1982), the first explicitly gay work in Latin American fiction. The violent Amaro, often described with animal imagery, escapes from slavery and sexual strictures, but his “animal” nature drives him to kill his male lover in a jealous fit. Caminha uses laws of heredity to justify slavery and exploitation, and his novel is flawed by contradictions: Homosexuality is unnatural, yet heroic; it is against nature, yet it is natural for Bom Crioulu. Nevertheless, his novel is an example of the manner in which homosexuality haunts the “normal” world.
Early twentieth century obliqueness
Lesbian sexuality was a major theme in Colette’s novels about teenagers who were infatuated with older women. Male love figured in Robert Musil’s Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törless (1906; Young Törless, 1955), set in a military school, and Thomas Mann’s Der Tod in Venedig (1912; Death in Venice, 1925), the story of Gustav von Aschenbach’s fatal infatuation with Tadzio, a fourteen-year-old Polish boy of Apollonian beauty and stillness.
Gay novelists in England and the United States resorted...
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