English professors’ tendency to find sexual subtext everywhere can be traced back to Sigmund Freud. Although Freud’s obsession with subconscious sexual meaning is now somewhat discredited within the field he founded—psychoanalysis—it remains a hugely important part of literary scholarship. Thanks to Freud, pretty much anything can be interpreted as representing sexuality, a fact that fits well with the literary practice of the symbolic imagination.
Psychoanalytic theory can sometimes seem so far-fetched that it reads like fiction; it is no coincidence, therefore, that Freud’s ideas have found more enduring resonance within literature than they have within psychiatry. Indeed, Freud is a great example of how reading skills can transfer to real life, and vice versa.
Although Freud’s work took off at the beginning of the 20th century, sexual symbolism in literature has existed for as long as literature itself. In Chivalric Romance, for example, knights searched for a Holy Grail, often in order to provoke an increase in fertility in their home kingdom. This Holy Grail was in the form of a chalice, an object connected to female sexuality. If this seems far-fetched, think of the fact that as recently as the 1950s, film directors were forced to rely on the image of curtains closing in order to signal to audiences that two characters were having sex. (Anything more explicit would risk censorship.)
Sex is one of the most important and fundamental aspects of the human experience, and one of the only things people still regularly do today that is in many ways the same as it was thousands of years ago. Although our social, moral, and scientific views about sex have changed over the centuries, the prevalence of sexual symbolism is one of the most enduring components of human culture.
Foster considers a range of images used to symbolize sexual acts—bedrooms and sleeping compartments, a train entering a tunnel, a key being placed in a lock or a bowl. Indeed, it is possible to sort these symbols into two categories: those representing male genitalia (keys, guns, swords) and those representing female genitalia (chalices, bowls).
Of course, there is more to sexuality than male and female genitalia, and readers should also be attentive to instances when other body parts and sexual gestures are represented through symbol. The examples Foster gives provide a framework for the kind of imaginative reading necessary to identify sexual symbolism.
One of the authors most associated with sexuality is D.H. Lawrence, whose novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) was famously banned for obscenity. However, Foster argues that Lawrence’s “sexiest scene” does not come from that novel, but is in fact a homoerotic wrestling scene between two men in Women in Love. Foster also cites a scene from Lawrence’s story “The Rocking-Horse Winner” (1932), which he claims features a little boy describing masturbation. Although this reading can provoke suspicion from students, Foster argues that—as a member of the first generation to read Freud—it is not surprising that Lawrence would have written about Oedipal masturbatory desire.
Here Foster provides two key examples of sexual dynamics that were considered taboo in the past: homosexuality and masturbation. Because these were so controversial, their appearance in texts will likely be heavily disguised, and may not have even been a deliberate choice on the part of the author. The word “homoerotic” refers to interactions between people of the same gender that are not obviously or consciously sexual, but nonetheless contain erotic overtones.
Sex scenes are “coded” (represented in indirect, symbolic terms) not only because historically literature featuring explicit sex has been censored, but also because these coded scenes can be even more intense than direct depiction. Rather than shocking the reader with explicit descriptions of sex, authors are able to present the subject matter more subtly, thereby revealing more numerous and complicated layers of meaning.
As the next chapter will show, portraying sex explicitly is difficult, and the result is often not very sexy. Furthermore, depictions of the act of sex itself are often less emotionally charged than the allusions, innuendo, flirtation, and restraint that comprise sexualized interaction but not sex itself.