Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 777
As it depicts “the love that dare not speak its name,” The Well of Loneliness clearly portrays the isolation, condemnation, and struggle of lesbian life as it was in the recent past and unfortunately remains in some pockets of contemporary society. In so doing, however, it gives a dignity to...
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As it depicts “the love that dare not speak its name,” The Well of Loneliness clearly portrays the isolation, condemnation, and struggle of lesbian life as it was in the recent past and unfortunately remains in some pockets of contemporary society. In so doing, however, it gives a dignity to lesbian relationships, showing the suffering and sacrifices made in the effort to find and give love. Although the writing has the tenor of other late Victorian novels, with its detailed pastoral scenes, attribution of human insights and emotions to animals, and vagueness and delicacy with regard to sex, its controversial subject matter marks it as on the cusp of modernity. The pain and angst of its heroine has an existential quality that resonates with the struggle for meaning and identity that is often thematized in the modern novel.
Not once in the novel does Radclyffe Hall use the word “lesbian,” and rarely does she use the medical term often employed by early sexologists: “invert.” Instead, through her descriptions of the young Stephen’s oddness, boyishness, and disdain for traditionally feminine clothing and pursuits, the writer evokes her heroine’s lesbianism. While Stephen’s strong sense of honor, her religious faith, and her respect for the land and traditions of Morton establish her as a strong and sympathetic character, the author’s reluctance to name Stephen’s “condition,” to say “what” she is, creates the dramatic tension that enables the reader to identify Stephen. More specifically, both Sir Philip and Puddle refuse to tell Stephen what she is. This refusal replays within the novel the tension between naming and suspicion which marks the reader’s relationship to the author. Like Stephen, the reader suspects that a certain difference and abnormality is afoot, but is left to pull the pieces together.
Just as the avoidance of naming signifies Stephen’s separateness from the world of accepted societal norms and definitions, so is her isolation rendered explicit by the tension between her own sense of the worthiness and naturalness of her love and the condemnation of the world around her. At one point, as she speaks the language of love to Angela Crossby, describing how they could run away together, Angela asks, “Could you marry me, Stephen?” Knowing all too well the answer to this question, Stephen faces the loneliness of her position: “She could only debase what she longed to exalt, defile what she longed to keep pure.”
To be sure, as some critics have pointed out, Hall’s own sense of purity and endorsement of social conventions tend to lead her to depict lesbian life ambiguously. On the one hand, the lesbian subculture in Paris provides Stephen and Mary with a circle of accepting friends. Yet, on the other, many of those in this subculture are haunted and tormented, a decadent, miserable army of society’s outcasts. Forced either to live a lie or to remain in the darkness of bars and nightclubs, they are bereft of social dignity. Although their situation is ultimately blamed on society’s failure to accept difference, such a melancholy portrayal of homosexuality has been said to undermine Hall’s general defense of same-sex love.
In one of the book’s most memorable scenes, the depth of Stephen’s pain and isolation comes out with particular poignancy. Her mother has read the letter describing Stephen’s love for Angela Crossby and has found this love shameful, unnatural, and unworthy. Tormented by her mother’s rejection and condemnation, Stephen refuses to be ashamed. She attempts to defend her love as the best part of her, comparing it to the bond between her parents. Despite the eloquence of her appeal to this sacred tie, Lady Anna cannot accept her daughter and, indeed, finds the comparison an abomination, thus damning herself and forever cutting her daughter off from the familial tie that is so important to her.
Similarly, Stephen cuts herself off from the relationship that she and Mary have built together for the sake of allowing Mary to live in the type of family that is legitimized by society. The book thus culminates with a tragic lament that nevertheless contains within it the possibility of hope. As she watches Mary leave in Martin’s arms, she hears the cries of other men and women who are similarly cut off from love by societal dictates. Their call is both to her and to God to acknowledge their right to existence. As a writer, then, Stephen is uniquely placed to describe and defend homosexual love. Ultimately, her sacrifice of Mary becomes the cost to be paid for fighting this lonely battle and earning the right to happiness.