English Literary Representations of Otherness: Moral Absolutes; Class; Gender; Race

        Scholars who work with structuralist, post-structuralist, feminist, marxist, and other methodologies which depend on "binary oppositions" often look for works in which characters are created by invoking some rhetoric of "otherness."  The proper characters can be distinguished by their difference from the improper characters who are represented as somehow "Other" than the norm, the standards attributed by the author to the work's implied audience.  Sometimes the work signals the distinguishing values by addressing the implied audience as "you" or "we," but at other times the work must be closely read for evidence implying its dependence on these values.

Moral Absolutes:

        Paper writers (and exam preparers) could look for works which contained characters drawn using such strong binary oppositions, and try to explain how the plot associates various material and intangible attributes with the values at stake.  To pick an obvious example, why are the vice characters in Everyman all male, and why are the virtue characters (except Priesthood, whom we never see) female?  What kinds of ordinary social behaviors get swept up in to the play's definition of immoral acts we should consider impossibly "Other" and alien to ourselves?  This will have interesting consequences for the construction of society if the play were to succeed, but since it apparently did not totally convince every member of its audience (or England would be a different place today!), they apparently viewed it as "resisting readers," to borrow Judith Fetterly's term for female readers of works which imply they are written for male audiences (The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction [Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1978] 813.9 F421r in the JRL).  This enables the paper writer to push beyond the obvious (what values does the author praise and blame?) to the less obvious or even the obscure but powerful (what does gender mean to Everyman's author?; how does he [we can assume for the sake of argument] paint a picture of his society's ordinary behaviors and what does he leave out?  [any kiddies in the picture, any old-fashioned human love, for instance?).

     Other texts which present readers with strongly delineated moral absolutes are "The Battle of Maldon," Julian of Norwich's "Showings" and Margery Kempe's book, Sidney's sonnets and other lyrics rejecting love, Marlowe's Faustus, Shakespeare's Lear, Jonson's Volpone, Herbert's and Crashaw's lyrics, and Milton's Paradise Lost.  The trick in this kind of analysis is to carefully sieve the work for scenes and dialogue in which the opposed values of good and evil are described or named, and to look carefully at their immediate surroundings for the things these values are being associated with.  The universe contains some true binary oppositions, like the difference between a light source and a light receiver, or the difference between black (absence of all color) and white (presence of all color).  But it is hard to find true binaries that will not produce ambiguous states (e.g., "grey") or states that don't fit into either pole of the binary.  In the case of moral reasoning, lots of "grey" usually can be found nearby, and sometimes you can luck out and find something that destroys the binary or shows it to be a false opposition.  To do this kind of analysis (sometimes called "deconstruction") it helps to know a little history of critical theory, but even novice students can discover ways in which the Viking "feondes" behave better than the Godric who fled, for instance.


        Medievalists rarely use the term "class" because it's a term of art which usually is defined as a self-aware sub-set of a society which identifies itself as having common interests and enemies on grounds of employment and/or wealth.   It's a slippery notion, but it's easy enough to see class consciousness when it arises because it forms alliances and oppositions among characters because they expect those who do what they do or have the financial resources they have to act in concert with them against those who have more and do less (working-class vs. middle- and upper-class), or against those who have less and do more (middle-class vs. upper-class or working-class).  The earlier word for medieval conceptions of social division was "estate," and there were three of them: the nobles, the clergy, and the yeomanry.  They stood in an interlocking pyramid above and upon the large group of unfree peasants, tied to the land and hereditary service to its lord, which were known as the "villains" (people of the "vil" or social unit).  The old formula had it that all three estates served each other: the clergy prayed for all, and their service of God was rewarded by military protection from the nobles and food from the free men and women; the nobles fought to protect all and to serve the king, and their service was rewarded by the clergy's prayers and by food from the free men and women; the free men and women raised the food and fed the clergy and nobles, and their service was rewarded by religious service and military protection.  The unfree rarely were mentioned until after the Bubonic Plague (epidemic in 1349-1666 in England) depopulated the labor force and enabled them to begin to bargain with the lords and clergy for their labor's worth.  Since the plague came to England when Chaucer was probably about nine years old, he grew up watching the strange separation of people into craft guilds (ancestors of the labor union), formerly unfree villains who had bought their freedom with excess earnings, yeomen who rose to become gentry or even nobles based on their income from trade or professions like medicine or law.  This destabilization of English social structure was unprecedented and produced countless clashes over ancestry, occupation, wealth, duty, deference (i.e., giving way to one of higher perceived status), and preference.  Do we find evidence of this in his work?  Oh yes!

        Paper writers (and exam preparers) could look at a strong estate-based social unit in the relationships described in "Wanderer" and "Maldon" for comparison with later medieval disruptions, or they could look at the later medieval estates under pressure and compare them with an intriguing incident of class-awareness in the Early Modern (1500-1660) or Modern (post-1660) periods.  Some texts containing signs of estate-consciousness under pressure are: Chaucer's General Prologue pilgrim portraits, the Miller's Prologue and Tale, Margery Kempe's negotiations with her husband, Edmund Spenser's "Epithalamion" and Amoretti, Shakespeare's Lear (especially the quarrel between Kent and Oswald), Milton's construction of the fallen angels' hatred of Adam and Eve and of Satan's pitch to Eve re: God's power, the rhetoric of Lucy Hutchinson's memoir of her husband's "gunpowder debate" with his noble cousin, and the behavior of the servants vs. the behavior of the City Men and Women in Congreve.


        Maleness and femaleness become constructed in ways we may find unfamiliar when we read early literature.  Biblical and rabbinical definitions of gender roles obviously tend to dominate the earliest literature's representation of what men and women ought to do (and hence of what constitutes a violation of those roles).  However, several factors destabilized those roles in England in the Medieval period, and not a few of them had to do with the changes brought on by class-based social destabilization.  Gender propriety tends to merge into estate propriety, as readers of Geoffrey de la Tour Landry and Andreas Capellanus can attest.  (Both wrote conduct books, the former for his aristocratic daughters and the latter for a young courtier who wanted to know how the game of love was played.)  Gendered misbehaviors resulted in estate confusion ("you're acting like a bourgois woman, not a noble" or "you're acting like a villain not a free-woman").  Attributes of life that tended to be strong gender markers were occupation, dress (including hairstyle), open-ness of speech, etc.  Some of the same texts above that are coded with emergent class anxieties also reflect instability in gender definitions, most famously the pilgrim Pardoner ("I trow he were a gelding or a mare").  Many less obvious events and passages of dialogue can be read as indicating the author's attempt to represent gender codes, either as stable or unstable systems, from Absolon's assault upon Hende Nicholas in the Miller's Tale to the gender-bending world of Lear's daughters.  Once literate women begin publicly questioning the roles assigned them, and even marriage as an institution, the debate really kicks into high gear, and one might say that it still has not ceased, even Post-Modern America.  In addition to the Wife of Bath's Tale and Prologue, and Margery Kempe's debate with the Archbishop, some sleeper texts you might not think to pick to analyze representation of gender might be Everyman (see "Moral Absolutes" above), Halkett's memoir about the jailbreak of the future James II, and Aphra Behn's Oroonoko.


        To medieval readers and writers, all human beings tended to be thought of as the descendents of Adam and Eve via Noah, and the more thoughtful of them would have found modern notions of "race" a profound mystery.  However, religious differences sometimes were expressed in racial terms, especially in the context of the Crusades' invasions of the Middle East in the name of purifying the sanctuaries of Christendom  after their contamination under the rule of the pagans they thought of (erroneously, of course) as worshipers of an idol medieval Christian writers called "Mohamet" or (more cruelly and crudely) "Mahound."  Knowing early nothing about Islam, despite extensive military and cultural contact over the centuries, medieval writers tended to describe Islamic armies as populated by giants, grotesque, sometimes dark-skinned beings who, oddly enough, tended to be cut to ribbons by the swords of ordinary-proportioned Christian heroes.  Various fiends, often associated with blackness, were presumed to haunt the pagans' religious observations.  However, in readings assigned for English 211, we will not encounter blackness as a racial signifier until we meet Prince Oroonoko, in whom Aphra Behn encodes the English encounter with the African "Other" explicitly in terms of his skin color and facial features.  That text contains the most fruitful passages for paper writers and exam preparers who are trying to understand how the literature's later codification of blackness and whiteness emerged in English colonial and American literary texts.  The famous usages of "black" in Shakespeare's sonnets and Donne's songs uniformly refers to persons with brunette hair, though even that coding of blackness is disadvantaged against "fair" or blonde hair (usually thought to be an estate-based binary separating the blonde Angles and Saxons, and later the conquering Norman lords and ladies, from dark-haired the Celts of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales).  Blackness begins to make its appearance as  racial/moral signifier in Milton, but you can see earlier appearance of it in Jonson's Volpone (I.5:43-49) where it is associated with Jonson's appeal to the English tendency to racialize the differences between themselves and the Italians (see also Ascham on "the Italianate Englishman" 567-69, but compare Sir Philip Sidney's generous praise of the Emperor's equestrian instructor, John Pietro Pugliano 934).