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...
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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.
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 “delivers” her to Martin and a conventional heterosexual life. Hall’s portraits of homosexuals can be difficult to distinguish from ones meant to condemn: Other than Stephen, her inverts are casualties of the world’s unkindness, and in the bar scenes their infirmity might be easy to mistake for depravity.
Stephen’s virility is not merely the product of psychological theorizing, however, but rather the expression of the author’s idealism and theological purpose. Religious conviction plays a crucial and frequently overlooked role in The Well of Loneliness; indeed, the novel amounts to a hagiography. Stephen’s separation from Mary at the novel’s end, although disappointing to some readers, expresses Stephen’s commitment to an absolute good rather than to a personal one—to what is truly best rather than merely what she wants for herself. Hall, a Roman Catholic convert, saw a vast divide between the truth of the world and the truth of God. As Christ-figure and saint, Stephen makes the disapproval of mortals irrelevant. She acts out her sexual desire while others (such as Puddle) remain hypocritically silent because she possesses inner strength to match her outer strength. Stephen possesses a strength that enables her to forge sanctity out of persecution, while other inverts must sooner or later crumble under the weight. This strength, moreover, enables her to become a war hero, and so prove the value of lesbians to a nation in need. Her victimization is transformed by a moral idealism that, while fruitless in the eyes of this world, owes allegiance to God.