The Well of Loneliness Themes
by Radclyffe Hall

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The Well of Loneliness Themes

The Well of Loneliness, published in 1928, was a very brave and forthright book for its time. Its author, Radclyffe Hall, sought to communicate her own plight to those in society who could not understand it. Her reward for this attempt was, for the most part, further ostracism, but there were those who saw themselves in the gender-nonconforming Stephen and the difficulties she had in navigating the world.

The major theme of the book is homosexuality, and more broadly, the difficulties of not fitting into society's expectations and gender norms. As a young woman, Stephen already has a difficult start in life because she has been given a traditionally male name. The book questions the potential connection between nurture (as opposed to nature) and homosexuality. Stephen's father, who adores her, expected and longed for a boy, and he sees Stephen an ideal child. At first, however, Stephen is unsure as to whether she is behaving in the way she does only in order to please him. She questions her feelings for a male friend before ultimately recognizing that she feels for him only as one would for an intimate platonic companion, while his feelings are quite different.

Another major theme in this book is that of familial strife and the pain of bereavement and rejection. Stephen is very much torn between pleasing her father and pleasing her mother. Stephen has always been a source of pain, confusion, and disappointment to her mother. When Stephen's father dies, she feels the bereavement especially hard because this marks the end of a family in which she is cherished and accepted for (most of) who she is. Stephen's mother, unlike her father, rejects her gender-nonconforming lesbian daughter, and Stephen is forced to find her way forward in the world without parental support.

At the end of the story, another theme arises: sacrifice. Because of the way she has been treated and the way she knows the world to be, Stephen tries to encourage her beloved, Mary, to pursue a straight path. She wants to save Mary from the difficulties she herself has faced, and thinks it might be easier for Mary because she is not gender-nonconforming as Stephen is and could possibly "pass." The book then asks the question: Is it right that someone like Stephen should be forced to make such sacrifices? And is it even right for Stephen to assume that someone like Mary, who is queer but "passing," would prefer to live a superficially easier, closeted life?