Lesbian Identity in Literature Analysis

The Issue

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Literature has identified lesbians in many different ways; most male authors have taken great license with their description of women who were or were suspected of having sexual interest in other women. The power of literature to define and describe the common terms and ideas of a society can keep groups of people invisible. It is possible that the literary description of lesbians and their lives have had a great impact on the lives of women who read the literature in anticipation of learning more about themselves. Thus, one may argue that life may have imitated art; women who read about certain—often stereotypical—aspects of lesbianism may have found themselves accepting what they read.

Implications for Identity

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Lesbians were almost invisible in literature; they have become almost abundant. Literature is known as one of the major forms of recording history. In the early literature lesbians and their lifestyle were not discussed in any positive manner if they were discussed at all. They were portrayed as perverse, almost psychotic, even in the days when romantic friendships between women were so acceptable that society encouraged young women to live together until they found a husband.

Analysis of literature for what it reveals about social history shows that women were expected to live within a particular boundary according to their class. If any woman, regardless of her social or economic class, deviated in any manner, she was labeled sick, an old maid, or a spinster. So as society perceived lesbianism, so its literature reflected, and created, these perceptions. A woman who knew that she was attracted to other women had, before the twentieth century, nothing in the library to encourage her in seeking a positive self-image or in seeking a fulfilling relationship.

The Naiad Press of Tallahassee, Florida, opened its doors in 1973 as a publisher of works written by and written for lesbians. Since that time the view of lesbians in literature and the view of lesbians in the world have become much more positive and ordinary. Lesbians in literature will continue to be identified in negative ways by some authors, but lesbian writers continue to produce literature that is positive about their lives. Society has a greater chance of identifying lesbians positively.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Donohue, Emma. Passions Between Women: British Lesbian Culture 1668-1801. London: Scarlet Press, 1992. An excellent resource for the period discussed.

Faderman, Lillian, ed. Chloe Plus Olivia: An Anthology of Lesbian Literature from the Seventeenth Century to the Present. London: Scarlet Press, 1993. Challenges assumptions about the invisibility of lesbians in literature since the seventeenth century.

Faderman, Lillian, ed. Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America. New York: Viking Penguin, 1991. This work brings lesbian lives out of the closet and into mainstream America with no shame or guilt.

Faderman, Lillian, ed. Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present. New York: William Morrow, 1981.

Martin, Del, and Phyllis Lyon. Lesbian Woman. New York: Bantam Books, 1972. The authors have been a married couple for more than twenty years and the book is a written record of their lives.

Martin, Jane Roland. Reclaiming the Conversation: The Ideal of the Educated Woman. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985. An imaginary conversation between a woman and great philosophers of the past examines women’s education.

Nicholson, Nigel. Portrait of a Marriage. New York: Bantam Books, 1973. The son of Vita-Sackville-West writes an autobiographical analysis of a mother’s life.