The Battle Hymn of the Bathroom: What a Gothic Reading of Julia Ward Howe’s The Hermaphrodite Can Teach Us about Contemporary Trans Panic

Posted by Heather Barrett on June 03, 2016 in Guest Blog tagged with , , ,

The U.S. Departments of Justice and Education recently released joint guidelines to protect the rights of transgender students throughout the nation’s schools, “even in circumstances in which other students, parents, or community members raise objections or concerns” (2). These federal guidelines respond to several state laws that require individuals to use public facilities consistent with their sex designated at birth rather than their current gender identity. Advocates of these laws also emphasize protection, arguing that they seek to shield women and children from being preyed upon by men who might falsify their gender identity to enter women’s bathrooms or other gendered spaces.

(via Wikimedia Commons)

People on both sides of this debate want to protect certain individuals from others, but different fears motivate their positions. I want to consider how one text with Gothic elements can illuminate these fears. In the 1840s, Julia Ward Howe (later of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” fame) started but never finished writing the first-person narrative of an ambiguously sexed but male-identified character named Laurence. Hidden among Howe’s uncataloged papers for over a century, Laurence’s tale was recovered by feminist scholars and published in 2004 under the provocative title The Hermaphrodite. It’s difficult to label the genre of this extraordinary text – it draws on the travel narrative, spiritual biography, and bildungsroman, among others. Yet I believe its most powerful moments occur when it utilizes Gothic motifs to foreground Laurence’s anxiety when other characters police his gender in ways that resemble contemporary efforts to adjudicate transgender individuals’ bodies and rights.

Before I develop this connection, I want to offer two important caveats. First, we must obviously be wary of imposing contemporary gender terminology on past eras. Second, we must be equally cautious about aligning a fictional character’s story with real people’s lives. That said, I still think Laurence’s tale might resonate with the experiences of some transgender individuals. If nothing else, reading his tale through a Gothic lens encourages us to respond with empathy rather than fear to those whose gender identities differ from ours.

Sleeping Hermaphroditus, The Louvre, Paris

Sleeping Hermaphroditus, part of the Borghese Collection in The Louvre, Paris (via Wikimedia Commons)

The coherence of Laurence’s male identity unifies The Hermaphrodite’s otherwise fragmented structure. Laurence’s anatomy is ambiguous: according to his father, Laurence was “‘born imperfect. …It was difficult to determine your sex with precision, it was in fact impossible’” (29). Other characters often notice his androgyny; one compares him to the sculpture of “the lovely hermaphrodite in the villa Borghese” (16). Yet Laurence insists that his body does not determine his gender identity. In the first sentence of his tale, he tells us that his parents “resolved to invest me with the dignity and insignia of manhood” (3). Because living as a man empowers him “to choose my own terms in associating with the world” (3), Laurence maintains this identity even after he disowns his father and as he makes changes in his companions, career, and location. Near the end of the text, a doctor admits, “‘I cannot pronounce Laurent [sic] either man or woman…. I shall speak most justly if I say that he is rather both than neither’” (195). Although this statement leaves Laurence’s anatomy open to interpretation, it affirms his gender identity through the use of a male pronoun.

Despite Laurence’s insistence that “my nature… [is] masculine” (63), other characters frequently challenge his gender identity. The strongest objections are raised by the two characters that fall in love with him: a “handsome and sprightly” (6) widow named Emma, and a young nobleman “of perfect beauty” (50) named Ronald. Laurence finds “any intimacy beyond that of ordinary friendship” to be “incomprehensible” (5), but both Emma and Ronald want more. In parallel scenes that bookend the text’s first fragment, they each invade Laurence’s bedroom and demand that he satisfy their lust.

Emily and Count Morano in an 1826 edition of The Mysteries of Udolpho

Emily and Count Morano as depicted in an 1826 edition of The Mysteries of Udolpho (via Google Books)

These scenes revise a genre-defining Gothic motif in which a male villain jeopardizes a heroine’s sexual virtue by violently entering a space she believed to be private and secure. Canonical Gothic novels raise the specter of rape in these scenes but rarely allow the crime to occur. Consider the moment in Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) when Count Morano bursts into Emily’s bedchamber. Although Morano emphasizes his ostensibly noble desire to free Emily from her nefarious guardian Montoni, Emily judges Morano’s passion to be more dangerous than Montoni’s schemes. When she refuses to entrust herself to “the protection of this man, with whom evils more certain and not less terrible appeared” (263), she chooses strategically among a set of options limited by both gender and genre conventions. Since Emily must rely on the “protection” of a man, she selects one who poses a less immediate threat to her control over her body.

The Hermaphrodite complicates the gendered power dynamics of this familiar scene. Emma enters Laurence’s bedchamber to find Laurence in a vulnerable state, “asleep” in “disordered habiliments” (17). She justifies her intrusion in shockingly explicit terms: “‘I am here alone, in your room, in your power, at dead of night—you cannot misinterpret this’” (18). Although she initially plays the male villain’s part by entering Laurence’s room, her words turn the tables as she urges Laurence to seduce her. In doing so, she asks him to act against his self-determined masculinity. Although Laurence identifies as male, asserting sexual power over women is not part of that identity. Earlier that evening, Laurence tells Emma that he desires only “‘the relations of pure spirit’” shared by “‘unsexed souls’” (15). Emma declares that such relations do not interest her “‘since I have learned what it is to be a woman’” (15). Because she is a widow, the text implies that her gender identity derives from what she has learned as a married – and therefore sexually experienced – woman. When Emma states that Laurence “cannot misinterpret” his “power” over her, then, she ironically misinterprets his gender identity and so asserts her power over him by insisting that he perform masculinity according to her standards rather than his own.

While Emma subtly polices Laurence’s gender, Ronald threatens Laurence more forcefully by denying his male identity entirely. After watching Laurence’s compelling performance as Shakespeare’s Juliet, Ronald assures Laurence that, although he can remain “‘a man to all the world,’” he must become a “‘a sweet, warm, living woman” (86) in the privacy of their apartment and submit to sex with him. This demand stems from Ronald’s desire to affirm his own masculinity, which has become “the subject of impertinent songs and epigrams” (73) among his classmates because of his own androgynous appearance as well as his obvious affection for Laurence. Ronald frames his command as though it will liberate Laurence. “‘I am weary of seeing you thus encased, thus imprisoned,’” he declares. “‘[T]hrow off the narrow bondage of that vest—let your heart beat freely, let your bosom heave high’” (86). Yet the prospect of assuming a female identity paralyzes Laurence and their shared home becomes a prison: “I looked towards the windows, they were clearly barred—the door of the inner room was locked” (87). Laurence’s claustrophobic panic emphasizes the disempowerment he feels when he is asked to perform one gender identity in public and another in private. This scene’s Gothic structure frames Ronald’s misgendering of Laurence as a violation as criminal as the rape he attempts to perpetrate.

Laurence is “incapable of consolation” (19) after his encounter with Emma, and he feels absolutely frantic after this more intense confrontation with Ronald. Even after he runs away “at the maddest pace,” he is unable to soothe the “burning, wiry pulsations” of his mind (89). He determines his only recourse is to “shun…men… even as women,” for both “are full of evil and danger” (89). At this point his narrative breaks off entirely, resuming only when Ronald’s attempted rape is a distant memory. Nicole Livengood argues that The Hermaphrodite’s first-person narration “provides an intimate glimpse into the emotional and relational consequences of the othering process deployed in the categorization of bodies” (41). Building on this insight, I would argue that the text allows us both to hear Laurence articulate his fears and to witness the moments where he cannot find words to express his trauma.

Transgender pride flag

Transgender pride flag (via Wikimedia Commons)

There are no public bathrooms in The Hermaphrodite, but its Gothic episodes of gendered violence in enclosed spaces resemble the very real types of violence transgender people routinely experience as well as the lingering psychological harm that violence causes. As the text poignantly depicts Laurence’s frightening experiences, it also raises the question why so many contemporary Americans fear encountering transgender people in public spaces instead of acknowledging the fear transgender people live with every day. Suzanne Ashworth argues that both Emma and Ronald’s “ungratified craving” for Laurence ultimately “bring[s] out the monster” (41) in each of them. I would add that Howe depicts these characters as monstrous not only because of their uncontrolled passion but also because of their need to police Laurence’s gender in order to affirm and protect their own. When read through a Gothic lens, The Hermaphrodite challenges us to consider why we gender bodies and spaces in the first place; it also encourages us not to give into the monstrous desire to regulate gender in an attempt to protect some people but at the expense of not protecting others.


Works Cited

Ashworth, Suzanne. “‘No Man, No Woman, Nothing’: Desire and Subjectivity in Julia Ward Howe’s The Hermaphrodite.” Literature Interpretation Theory 23 (2012): 26-51.

Howe, Julia Ward. The Hermaphrodite. Ed. Gary Williams. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004. Print.

Livengood, Nicole C. “Freakery and Discursive Limits of Be-ing in Julia Ward Howe’s The Hermaphrodite.” Legacy: 30.1 (2013): 40-61.

Radcliffe, Ann. The Mysteries of Udolpho. Ed. Bonamy Dobrée. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

United States. Dept. of Justice and Dept. of Education. “Dear Colleague Letter on Transgender Students.” Office of Public Affairs. Dept. of Justice, May 2016. Web. 25 May 2016.

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