Review: Outlaw Fathers in Victorian and Modern British Literature: Queering Patriarchy


Helena Gurfinkel, Outlaw Fathers in Victorian and Modern British Literature: Queering Patriarchy, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2014.

In Outlaw Fathers in Victorian and Modern British Literature: Queering Patriarchy (2013) Helena Gurfinkel analyses the ways in which the literature preceding, during and postdating the Edwardian period presents father figures, sons, and parental-filial relationships that deviate from the traditional conception of oppression and submission which, she argues, typify our conventional understanding of patriarchy. While the conventional patriarch was an important figure within late-Victorian and Modern British literature and culture, Gurfinkel suggests, there nevertheless also existed what she terms the “unconventional” or “queer” patriarch.

As her title suggests, Gurfinkel understands the notion of a conventional patriarch as the law-giving father: the male, heterosexual head of the household who asserts his social, God-given dominance over his family and enforces devotion in women and children by establishing boundaries that they may not cross. She claims that this economically, socially and intellectually powerful paterfamilias is traditionally the figure identified by cultural, historical and literary criticisms of patriarchy.

However, Gurfinkel asserts that the queer patriarch differs from his conventional brethren in that he is an “outlaw”, a male figure that “exists outside of the realm of middle-class heterosexual respectability” in the late Victorian and Modern periods. She specifies that the queer patriarch does not subscribe to the heterosexual mainstream Victorian and Edwardian cultural codes that demand that he must acquire and command a family; nor does he follow the middle-class mandate to build capital and establish financial dominance of the public sphere, which, Gurfinkel argues, was considered the fitting intention for a man within the late-Victorian and Modern industrialised British Empire. Yet the queer patriarch nevertheless remains a patriarch as, for Gurfinkel, “patriarchy [is] interchangeable with fatherhood”, and this position of influence and authority ensures that the queer patriarch possesses power. It is the way in which the queer patriarch exercises his power that distinguishes him from his conventional counterpart. While the conventional patriarch may command, intimidate and legislate his will into effect, the unconventional, queer patriarch’s power stems from his loving, caring and supportive relationship with the son, who “surrenders” willingly to the father’s desire not because of legal obligation, but due to emotional investment and desire. Gurfinkel specifies that this unconventional exercise of male authority is “queer” as it is a reversal of the conventional: it “enervates the dominant narratives of manhood, family and class ideologies” of the early twentieth century.

By analysing several late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century novels alongside Freudian case studies from this period Gurfinkel exposes literary representations of non-oppressive fathers, families built on emotionally forthcoming male-male relationships, and desires that are not based primarily on the acquisition of capital. In doing so, she proposes a reconceptualisation of that quintessentially Edwardian image: the emotionally austere, distant and dominating father figure. In addition to this intervention into Edwardian historiography, Gurfinkel uses queer theoretical structures to illuminate a new facet of patriarchy: to provide “a queer analysis of (rather than automatically against) patriarchy”. Subsequently, her study aims to dislocate the impression contemporary critical culture has of male authority and power – the institution of patriarchy – as being the result of oppression and denial. Instead she uses “queer analysis” to demonstrate that sexual, cultural and social reversals of normative structures and normative masculinities existed within the domestic home and also within mainstream literature in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. In so doing Gurfinkel queers the very institution of male dominance and power, against which queer theory and identity is traditionally opposed.

Through this queering of the patriarch, Gurfinkel asserts that the stern Edwardian father figure was not the only form of patriarch contemplated by early-twentieth-century literature. Rather, she offers an engagement with literary depictions of the Edwardian domestic household, the public social and financial sphere, and the private internal world of paternal-filial relationships, which are based upon male-male desire, emotional fulfilment and creative inspiration. Moreover, she claims that that the figure of the queer patriarch is key to understanding a series of late-Victorian and early-twentieth-century texts, the father-son relationships that are essential to their plots, and the Edwardian cultural perception of patriarchal-filial emotions that they represent.

The centrality of the emotional ties between the father figure and the son within Gurfinkel’s conception of the queer patriarch makes Freudian psychology essential to her thesis. As she makes clear in her first chapter, “Theoretical Genealogies”, she considers the conventional patriarch as synonymous with Freud’s notion of the feared, oppressive and castrating father figure of the Oedipal complex. However, Gurfinkel also uncovers an alternative Oedipal narrative: one, she reveals, that exists within works of fiction from the era, and which is detailed in Freud’s case study of “The Wolf Man” or “A History of an Infantile Neurosis” (1918). In this case study, Freud claimed that the “Wolf Man”, Sergey Pankeyev, demonstrated the “negative Oedipal complex”: he desired, rather than feared, his father, an effeminised (as Freud put it), weakened member of the newly defunct Russian aristocracy, and identified instead with his mother. Alternatively, Gurfinkel explicates that conventional patriarchal narratives depend on the male child’s identification with the father figure; it is through doing so that the child copies the male sexual, social and lawful dominance over women that typifies the conventional patriarch. However, in the negative Oedipal complex, the traditional roles are reversed as the father does not demand the child’s awe or fear but is instead the figure of desire, while the mother presents the child with the danger of the disruption of his relationship with the father. Consequentially, in the negative Oedipal complex the child must identify with the mother to alleviate the tension deriving from the conflict. Therefore the male child of the negative Oedipal complex – Pankeyev in Freud’s study – copies the mother’s gender and social position, taking on the effeminate, subservient role in relation to a gentle, loving father. This theoretical section of Gurfinkel’’s study ultimately asserts that queer patriarchy can be conceived as a continuing lineage of “mother-identified” and effeminate males: fathers who present gentleness not oppression, and sons who desire the emotional sustenance given by the father or a father figure.

It is important to note that while homosexuality and homosexual desire for father figures are included within Gurfinkel’s analysis of queer patriarchal relations, as such relationships “dismantle hegemonic [heterosexual] narratives”, not all queer patriarchal relationships should, she stresses, be seen as sexual. Rather, she primarily intends the narrative of queer patriarchy, between an emotional father and a desiring son, to be interpreted in terms of her proposed “negative Oedipal Complex”. The son’s journey to adulthood and independence does not depend on his obligation to submit to the father’s law. Rather, he “surrenders voluntarily, and for the most part with pleasure” to “the cultural power and influence of father figures”. The father’s authority, and therefore his claim to the title “patriarch”, comes from his loving, emotionally inclusive role as a parent. His children, rather than pushing away from the father and consequentially imitating the non-queer father’s masculine independence and power, desire to remain with the queer patriarch, and form emotional relationships beyond that of submission and dominance.

In the chapters following her discussion of the “negative Oedipal complex”, Gurfinkel focuses on a different type of queer patriarchal narrative. “‘The Intercourse Between the Squire and His Son’: The Father Son Marriage Plot and the Creation of the English Gentleman in Anthony Trollope’s Novels” looks at the repeated narrative of a son’s negative Oedipal desire to be with the “gentleman” father in Doctor Thorne (1858) and The Prime Minister (1875-1876). The figure of “the Gentleman” is explicitly framed as an effeminate figure, and the desirable alternative to the money-driven, power-hungry conventional middle-class patriarchs of the industrial revolution. Gurfinkel claims that Trollope’s nostalgia for an “agrarian, agricultural England” leads his characters to undertake “a father-son marriage plot”, thereby rejecting the greed for economic wealth that Trollope sees as typifying normative middle-class culture. While Trollope is not an Edwardian writer, nevertheless this chapter is an important contribution to considerations of the challenges posed to the aristocracy by modernisation, which was a key debate within the Edwardian period. As Gurfinkel demonstrates, Trollope’s lengthy opus testifies to the inevitable nature of the middle-class rise to power and the vanquishing of the upper-class ‘Gentleman’ that was felt keenly by the first decade of the twentieth century. Similarly, anyone interested in the relationship between the English countryside, English values and their associations with either masculinity or effeminacy should find this chapter of interest.

“Sons as Lovers: The Queer Künstlerroman in Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh (1883; published 1901), Henry James’ “The Lesson of the Master” (1888) and J. R. Ackerley’s My Father and Myself (started in the 1930s; published 1968)” offers an intriguing reversal of the traditional Künstlerroman (the novel of an artist’s formation). In the conventional Künstlerroman an individual achieves artistic success through distancing himself from the constricting traditionalism of his father’s generation, as well as the oppressive incomprehension of the father himself. However, in the queer Künstlerroman an artist grows to maturity and financial stability by submitting to the rule of the successful father or father figure. Queer patriarchy is, here, about the decision of the son to remain with the father, rather than pushing away from him. In her discussion of Butler and James’ work Gurfinkel maps each writer’s construction of the road to creative fruition through emotive relationships between the father figure and the young artist. James in particular is shown to approach, with his idiosyncratic caution, both the notion of homosexual desire as artistic inspiration and the unavoidability of needing to “pass” as heterosexual to the father’s (mid-Victorian) generation, which is rejected by the modern and liberal son.

This association between homosociality, homosexuality and queer patriarchal success is foregrounded in Gurfinkel’s treatment of J. R. Ackerley’s work, which charts Ackerley Jr’s discovery that his seemingly conventional patriarchal father, Roger Ackerley, actually achieved financial success by courting homosexual patronage: influencing his twentieth century homosexual son more than he had imagined. Overall, this chapter is an interesting look at both the tensions and rewards of homosocial bonding and homosexual desire in the late-Victorian and Modern periods. This may prove a particularly interesting lens through which to view homosexuality during the Edwardian period, as same-sex desire is conventionally understood to have been aggressively othered by mainstream Edwardian society. Challenging this belief, Gurfinkel’s analysis offers an account of the ways in which homosexuality may have been presented as functioning positively in mainstream capitalist culture in this period.

“‘A Father’s place is the Kitchen Dear’: Male Domesticity and Motherhood in E. M. Forster’s “Little Imber” (1961) and Alan Hollinghurst’s The Spell (1998)” moves queer patriarchy into the second half of the twentieth century. Here Gurfinkel follows Leo Bersani’s conceptualisation of “the Gay Daddy”, that is, a male parental figure who is able to fluctuate between asserting power and demonstrating emotional and physical submission (initially a homosexual rethinking of the gendered associations of passivity and activity in sexual intercourse). Gurfinkel claims that male motherhood and domesticity, in Forster’s 60s sci-fi short story of male-male conception and Hollinghurst’s late-twentieth century depiction of gay fatherhood, creates patriarchs whose power derives from their ability to be both sensitive and strong, and from their command of both the private and public spheres. Both Forster and Hollinghurst demonstrate, she argues, the merging of the traditional distinction between male and female spaces: asserting, like the Gay Daddy, the socially constricted, yet ingrained, nature of this distinction. This chapter opens up the analysis of patriarchy, perceptions of the domestic setting, and familial relationships to the new pathways of power and gender interchange that have been created by the distinctly contemporary notion of the gay family – as well as testifying to how early on this was contemplated by Forster. It also offers important analyses of a hitherto under-studied British writer, Alan Hollinghurst – an aficionado of Forster and James whose own novels demonstrate a poignant awareness of the cultural history of twentieth-century homosexual identification.

Gurfinkel’s concluding chapter “‘The P Word’ – Queer Patriarchy beyond Maleness and Notion” attempts to expand upon her preceding analysis of the queer patriarch, in which the figure is firmly associated with the concept of British nationalism, and with the male sex. As Gurfinkel admits, her analyses of British writers and texts within her book take for granted the “link between maleness and masculinity, gentle or otherwise, as well as the link between national identity and queer patriarchy”. Subsequently, in this conclusion Gurfinkel analyses four female-to-male, non-British, transgender fathers in contemporary television and literature in order to “unyoke queer patriarchy from biological maleness” and also study queer patriarchs who are not themselves implicated with British identity and values. The result is a compelling depiction of what it might mean to choose (rather than to have as a birthright) maleness and patriarchy as models of self-identification. It also expresses that, in a queer context, patriarchy does not even necessitate a biologically male figure.

A criticism that may be leveled at Gurfinkel’s notion of queer patriarchy is her reliance on associating what is feminine with weakness, emotional sustenance, and passivity, and what is masculine with power, dominance and control. The male queer patriarch does blur these gender-behavioural assumptions by being a non-dominating figure of authority; however, it is only through becoming effeminate (and mother-identified) that he may do so. I’m left wondering about the ways in which effeminacy can be empowering, or about the ways in which masculinity might also be disempowering.

Ultimately, however, Gurfinkel approaches each branch of queer patriarchy that is explored within her book in a lucid and innovative fashion developing critical notions of fatherhood, power and queerness by demonstrating that these entities are interwoven in complex and fluid manners by writers during what one could argue was the high-tide of conventional, traditional patriarchy. While her thesis draws heavily upon a series of writers and thinkers that should be well known to literary scholars, nevertheless Gurfinkel uncovers new and important facets to their work. She demonstrates convincingly that both the figure of the patriarch, and also academic considerations of patriarchy, need to be expanded beyond the notion of male oppression and hostility. In light of her work, the networks of lineage that construct patriarchal relationships can now also be conceived as nurturing, emotional and positive.

Yet perhaps most significantly, Gurfinkel’s analysis of late-Victorian and twentieth-century literature also has the effect of making patriarchy a relevant consideration in the twenty-first century, in which the notion of the family is changing rapidly and conventional patriarchs may seem few and far between. While Freud himself predominantly analysed the heterosexual, nuclear family and its discontents, western normative culture, arguably, no longer ascribes to the male ideal of the stern, commanding paterfamilias whose law dictates his household and his family. Similarly, in the wake of gay marriage and the increasing prevalence of gay families, fathers are no longer necessarily heterosexual. Within this contemporary context, Gurfinkel’s work offers a paradigm that can help us understand the Anglo-American present, as well as analyse the British literary past. As the twenty-first century progresses, perhaps we will see an increasing amount of depictions of unconventional, queer patriarchs as father figures. One thinks, for example of the array of the homosexual, emotional and queer patriarchal fathers on the award-winning American TV sitcom Modern Family. In light of the queer patriarch’s rising importance within contemporary culture it appears to be of the utmost importance that our critiques of the patriarch as a father, as an authority figure, and as a creative and emotional influence can modernise and adapt with these recent changes. Who knows, perhaps one day, within the modern family, the queer patriarch may topple his conventional doppelganger from his position as the norm; perhaps it is happening already.

Jack Sargent, September 2014.

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