Jennifer Jeffers (Cleveland State University)
“Though I was the gentleman”: Molloy’s Masculinity
My paper, “’Though I was the gentleman’: Molloy’s Masculinity,” contends that the presentation of Molloy’s gender and sexual citations represent a crisis of masculinity in the post-war era. Molloy’s counter-discourse on masculinity references a larger cultural crisis in which traditional gender roles are no longer possible due in part to women’s increased visibility in social, educational, economic, and cultural practices, and the end of the colonial era during which the white (heterosexual) European male set the standard for normativity. When addressing the crisis of the masculine in post-war literature, a normative response was hyper-masculinity (in English Literature, we have the “Angry Young Man,” with Jimmy Porter’s rage against nation and wife as a prototype), and a few decades later “pomophobia.”
Typically, Beckett critics have posited feminist interpretations of Molloy’s relationship with women (e.g., mother, Lousse, and Ruth/Edith), homoerotic readings that include Molloy’s troubled musings that his previous encounters might not be “true love, in the rectum,” and decades of interpretations of the collapse of Humanist existential identity. While it is assumed that Humanist existential critiques are always already concerned with male subject identity, what has yet to be adequately interpreted is Molloy’s masculinity. Molloy presents none of the typical culturally masculine discourses expected of his gender: physical courage, virility, domination of women, and assertive or aggressive personality. Rather, for instance, Molloy’s courage repeatedly fails when he attempts suicide, his manhood is undercut with reference to his testicles as “decaying circus clowns,” both Lousse and Ruth/Edith dominate him, and he has a profound inability to communicate or assert himself with others (from the policeman to the social worker to the women in his narrative). Molloy is acutely aware of his masculine subject position throughout the text. For example, Molloy mentions at each step of the burial of Lousse’s dog that he knows he should be doing the work: “It was she put him in the hole, though I was the gentleman.” The fact that in each instance Molloy refers to himself as a “gentleman” tells us that Molloy’s idea of masculinity is based on a code of “chivalry”—if only in an idealist sense (read as ironic, he, of course, is happy his “infirmity” prevents him from digging the hole for the dog); I argue that it is the “gentleman” normalized code which is the foundation for Molloy’s masculinity. Yet, this outdated notion of masculinity cannot be sustained in the post-war era, and so, we have Molloy as representative of the “new man”; indeed, the discomfit that Molloy’s masculinity produces in the reader reflects the fact that even now the West has not yet absorbed the radical changes introduced in the Modern period and during the war.
See Byers, T.B. “Terminating the postmodern: masculinity and pomophobia.” Modern Fiction Studies. 41:1, 5-33. “Pomophobia”: “point of convergence of fears of late capitalism, fears of theory, fears of feminism, fears of any swerving from the path of ‘straight’ sexuality” (6).