(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Rubyfruit Jungle was originally published in 1973 by the feminist press Daughters, Inc. It quickly became an underground bestseller, gaining a wide alternative readership. In 1977, Bantam reissued it as a mass-market paperback; it sold an astonishing one million copies. For mainstream readers, Rubyfruit Jungle represented an upbeat and amusing glimpse of contemporary lesbian life, but for lesbian readers it meant far more. Molly Bolt was a psychologically healthy, outspoken, and empowered woman—a huge contrast to most earlier fictional portrayals of lesbians. For example, a lesbian reader before 1973 would probably have read Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (1928), the story of unhappy Stephen Gordon, who internalizes male psychologists’ labeling of lesbians as “inverts.” She might have read or seen Lillian Hellman’s play The Children’s Hour (1934), which ends with a lesbian schoolmistress declaring her love and then shooting herself. If she was lucky, she had come upon Claire Morgan’s The Price of Salt (1952), which equivocally validated its lesbian characters. Yet a lesbian was more likely to find her reading material in “adult” bookstores or bus terminals, which sold soft-porn pulp novels about lesbians, often written by men for men. Given this limited literary background, Rubyfruit Jungle (“a novel about being different and loving it”) had an amazing positive impact. It counteracted the “dying fall” lesbian novel, in which the heroine, lonely and ostracized, is attracted only to other psychologically unstable individuals. Instead, Rubyfruit Jungle describes Molly Bolt’s “enabling escape” and her “rebellion against social stigma and self-contempt.” Indeed, Molly’s name may symbolize her desire for flight and freedom.

Nevertheless, it would be an oversimplification to assume that Rubyfruit Jungle is only about escape. Molly’s name evokes a second meaning as well; a molly-bolt, available...

(The entire section is 825 words.)