Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 742

The Well of Loneliness is the first novel in English to make an unabashed plea for an understanding of lesbians, or “female sexual inverts,” the term used in Radclyffe Hall’s time. In many respects the novel falls short of literary greatness—its heavy-handed moralizing, scenes of exaggerated melodrama, and frequently ponderous diction dull its effectiveness. It remains unique, however, in its era as a wholly sympathetic story of a lesbian’s struggle to forge her identity. It stands first in a long succession of “coming out” novels, and continues to inform and inspire readers. If Hall’s principal purpose was to persuade her readers that a lesbian minority not only exists but should be permitted to participate in society and contribute to its welfare, there can be little doubt that she has achieved considerable success through the years.

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At the time The Well of Loneliness came out in both England and the United States in 1928, publishers of novels that portrayed homosexuals faced charges in these two countries of violating laws against obscenity. Hall’s publisher was brought to trial, in both England and the United States. The British judge, who refused either to read the book or hear from the notable authors, including Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster, who came to testify on its behalf, considered the work’s literary merit irrelevant to the question of whether it was obscene, and banned it. The U.S. court, however, after a heated trial, refused to deem the book obscene.

The portrayal of the character of Stephen Gordon is colored by the psychological thinking of Hall’s day, particularly by the work of Havelock Ellis, who insisted that sexual inverts, far from being sociopaths who posed a danger to society, were capable of leading useful and honorable lives. Ellis’s comments on The Well of Loneliness may be found as a preface to some editions.

The novel, however, does not propose that lesbians could lead happy, normal lives in the world as Hall knew it, but rather that inverts represent a distinct group who merit sympathy, perhaps even pity. Stephen is pictured as possessing the soul of a man in the body of a woman; in dress and manner she resembles a man, and Hall is less concerned to make her “normal” than sympathetic. In today’s terms, Stephen could be considered transgender, and certainly gender ambiguous. Others argue Stephen is a traditional “butch” lesbian. Hall’s depiction is only partly attributable to the assumptions of her time: Deeply traditional ideas of society and nature underpin the novel, and they make Stephen’s martyrdom heroic and, ironically, stigmatizing. Stephen is an aristocrat with a deep faith in the values of her class, but her journey is one of renunciation: She renounces Mary as she renounced Morton, but she rejects neither. The rootedness that Morton gave her becomes her gift for Mary when she...

(The entire section contains 742 words.)

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