Woodcuts of Women Stories
Masculine Insecurity in Dagoberto Gilb’s “Shout”
In “Shout,” Dagoberto Gilb focuses his story on the emotions and headspace of his protagonist, a manual laborer returning home from a hard day’s work. While he looks to escape the toil of his labor, this laborer realizes that his home life does not provide the relief he desperately seeks. At home, the protagonist faces a new set of burdens—the complications of family life and the pressure of his role as provider. Consequently, the author infuses a sense of volatility and instability in the story’s atmosphere, a mood that is ultimately symptomatic of the protagonist’s inability to separate the stresses of hard labor from his home life. By including these elements, Gilb exposes the larger issue of masculine insecurity, as the protagonist cannot reconcile the hyper-masculine nature of his work with his shortcomings in his home life.
“Shout” opens in an abrupt and contentious manner. Gilb writes, “He beat on the screen door. ‘Will somebody open this?!’” (Gilb 433). This aggressive image and the character’s demanding nature serve as our first introduction to the protagonist and the situation he inhabits. Gilb continues on, writing, “unlike most men, he didn’t leave his hard hat in his truck, he took it inside his home” (Gilb 433). On face value, this statement tells us that the man works in a physical environment, and the detail that he brings his hard hat into his home is seemingly extraneous. However, upon further examination, this sequence can be reinterpreted as a symbolic moment, foreshadowing the protagonist’s failure to keep his work life outside the doors of his home. Gilb expounds on this conflict by giving the reader more insight into the protagonist’s mindset after a toiling day of work. He writes, “All he could think about was unlacing his dirty boots, then peeling off those stinky socks, then the rest” (Gilb 433). Gilb seems to draw a figurative link between the act of shedding the burden of work and literally shedding these items of work wear. Additionally, Gilb imparts the protagonist’s internal stress into his external environment, as heat and humidity persist as motifs of his frustration throughout the story.
After describing the sweltering heat and perspiration that his protagonist endured on the jobsite, Gilb presents heat as a relentless force from which there is no escape; he goes on to write that the house “was probably hotter than outside” (Gilb 434). As the protagonist transitions from work to home, we begin to see cracks in his domineering and hyper-masculine disposition. This breakdown is evident in the frequent emotional shifts throughout the piece. An example of the character’s faltering masculinity can be seen in his very first interaction with his family. Desiring calm after his day of work, he is instead greeted by a bickering wife and fussing children. The protagonist attempts to control the situation by yelling at them all to “’shut up and be quiet!’” (Gilb 434). However, his demand is ignored, and instead of quieting them, he only worsens the chaotic situation. The protagonist’s masculinity is further undermined by his wife who does not shy away from challenging his abrasive attitude with her own—in this instance, by glaring at him. He responds menacingly to her defiance, saying, “sometimes I wish you were a man cuz I wouldn’t let you get away with looks like that. I wouldn’t take half the shit I take from you” (Gilb 434). Despite this empty threat, this moment signifies a shift in the dynamic of the two, as Gilb indicates: “Already she wasn’t mad at him. It was how she was, why they could get along” (Gilb 434). With things calmed down between the two of them for the moment, the wife asks her husband if he has any news, and it is revealed that his employment situation is tenuous, putting them in a situation in which “they felt like they were starting out again, and that did not seem right” (Gilb 434). Gilb seems to coordinate this revelation with the protagonist’s consequent uptick in temper. Suddenly, his back begins to stiffen and he again snaps at his family, yelling, “‘everybody has to shut up! I can’t stand this today! I gotta relax some!” (Gilb 435). When his inability to secure a stable and sufficient income as his family’s provider is brought up, he cannot help but lash out. In doing so, he alienates himself further from his family, suggesting that he is isolated by his sense of duty and by his related sense of failure as a masculine figure.
The protagonist’s insecurity over his masculinity not only manifests in his temper, but also in his desire to remove himself from the responsibilities piled on top of him. He appears to turn towards alcohol to aid him in numbing his unpleasant reality. Gilb highlights this notion, as beer is the only thing in the story that is described as cold, in contrast to everything else, which is shrouded in unbearable heat: “He’d take a cold one into the shower. The second one. He’d down the first one right at the refrigerator. ‘Come on!’ Three and four were to be appreciated, five was mellow, and six let him nap before bed” (Gilb 433). Because the protagonist cannot escape the stress in his life, he turns to alcohol, along with television, for temporary relief and escape.
As the story ends, there are two instances in which the protagonist’s masculinity is restored. In the first instance, he tells off a neighbor who speaks crassly towards his children and defends his family. Despite this moment of masculine triumph, he admits his inner anxiety over the thought that the neighbor might actually come out and harm him. Shortly after this moment, he is surprised to learn that his wife is pregnant—another revelation that affirms his masculinity. He and his wife go on to have sex after he tells her, “I have to. We do. It’s been too long and now it doesn’t matter” (Gilb 436). In this moment, the protagonist’s masculinity is restored, and for the first time he feels temporarily released from his burdens. He follows this moment with a cold shower that finally relieves him from the heat, and Gilb describes his emotions by writing, “it was joy, and it was so strange” (Gilb 436). However, this moment is fleeting. Just when the protagonist seems to arrive at a place of peace, he begins to dread morning approaching: “He thought he should hold on to this as long as he could, until he heard the pitch of the freeway climb, telling him that dawn was near and it was almost time to go back to work” (Gilb 436). Not only does his sense of a burden resurface with the morning, but it also becomes more intense; after all, there is another child to provide for on the way. The man is again at the mercy of circumstances beyond his control, making his sense of masculinity vulnerable once again.
In “On Writing Shout,” Dagoberto Gilb explains, “What I hoped to offer was not a simple portrayal of a construction worker coming home from work exhausted from a long day in the heat” (Gilb 437). And within “Shout” itself, Gilb seemingly chooses to focus on the theme of masculine insecurity as a means of highlighting the complicated dynamics of a working-class family. By creating a complicated emotional landscape, Gilb apparently tries to show that the protagonist acts as he does not out of malice, but rather due to an underlying anxiety over the uncertain. The author thus details the emotional toil of a character desperately seeking to live up to his masculine role, but finding himself without the agency to do so.
Gilb, Dagoberto. “Shout.” The Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature. Ed. Michael Meyer. 10th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2014. 432-436. Print. Gilb, Dagoberto. “On Writing Shout.” The Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature. Ed. Michael Meyer. 10th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2014. 436-438. Print.
The Sexualized Body as Object and Agent in “Bottoms”
In “Bottoms” by Dagoberto Gilb, the protagonist, who is also the narrator wishes he were the kind of person who would act on “raw desire”. In other words, he wishes for the kind of dominance he identifies with being a top. In order to connect with this masculinity he distances himself, both mentally and physically, from men he perceives to be “top or bottom oriented” and gravitates instead towards a woman at his local pool. This woman is never named, nor do we learn more about her than that she “lives near by” and that she has a husband who is even larger than she is. Instead of providing information about this woman’s past or personality, the narrator fixates on her body, specifically the sexual parts of it. However, the body he initially appears to objectify for the purpose of proving his masculinity takes on power and size of it’s own, ultimately becoming synonymous with the sexual dominance the narrator wishes for himself. Through this reversal of traditional gender and power roles the large woman becomes the symbol of the “top” and the narrator is forced reckon with is own relationship to sex in contrast to her.
The story opens with the narrator coping with a recent breakup and reflecting on what he believes his romantic and sexual shortcomings to be. He says “ I am afraid of raw desire when I encounter it. Though I do wish I could just go after what’s available, even potentially. I hate being such a romantic. I want to be a stereotype: man sees woman. Thinks woman. Thinks tops. Has woman. Satisfies self,” (130). This excerpt reveals three things about the narrator. First, that he is “a romantic” who does not consider himself motivated primarily by carnal desire. Second, that he views his sentimentality as a flaw and would rather be a masculine stereotype of sexual desire. Third, that he extends the “tops and bottoms” framework beyond homosexuality and equates topping with manhood, and perhaps, by extension, bottoming with womanhood.
This concept of tops and bottoms is first introduced to the narrator in a book about “cocks and pecs, hard and soft, big and small,” (129). Defining people by whether they “want it put or want to put it” preoccupies the narrator so much that he can’t help but speculate which way each of the men at his local pool is oriented. Rattled by this preoccupation, he distances himself from a “way too handsome,” presumably gay man who catches him in conversation. He turns instead to the woman at the pool, who, by contrast, has a “soothing” presence. To rescue himself he exits the conversation with the man and joins the woman in the pool. His “touchiness” around the gay man and his distress about tops and bottoms at first read like run-of-the-mill homophobia. However I argue that they foreshadow a deeper insecurity about his passivity in sexual encounters with women.
After allying himself with the woman at the pool once, the narrator opens himself to a friendship with her. The two continue “talking, all caught up in it” and the narrator describes the tone of their relationship as “fine, all of it, friendly and okay. A straight line,” (136). He explains that he has no aim to seduce her, yet his narration focuses more on admiring and noticing the sexual allure of her body than on exploring her life or character. Whereas the handsome man – who the narrator dislikes – is described with a full page of background detail, the woman is described only as someone who lives nearby with a happy husband who is even larger than she is. This woman, who is never named, is developed more as a body than as a character. The narrator notes her “buxom cups…very big,” her “cleavage up to her chin,” (141). He notices that “any shift of fabric or flesh around the breast or thigh… unavoidably make themselves visible,” (133). The narrator, who is dedicated to keeping his life surprise and trouble free, only wants friendship with this woman. Yet his attention to her body seems more in line with the “stereotype of masculinity” than with the romantic self he identifies with. Read in a certain light, it would seem that he wants to look at her through the eyes of the the man he wants to be: as an object to be desired and then topped.
However, when the opportunity for sexual contact arises, the narrator is passive. The large woman initiates: “her mouth is against mine and her tongue goes inside…I am not responding negatively, I am only passive,” (138). Given the narrator’s desire to “see woman. Think woman. Think tops. [Have] woman,” this seems the appropriate moment for him to act on a desire for sexual dominance. However, he does no such thing. He first passively accepts the encounter and then actively ends it.
Despite his lack of enthusiasm about the encounter, the narrator continues to focus on the sexual elements of the woman’s body. But after the first sexual contact, her presence is no longer soothing to him. She becomes a source of anxiety. Rather, her body, its sexual nature and its increasing size, become sources of anxiety. The narrator speaks about her “unavoidable chiche” and describes her sex parts “busting out…and enlarging before [his] eyes,” (144). While previously it seemed possible that the narrator’s male gaze might be a source of power for him, he now seems unsettled by it. The woman’s growing body parts demand attention. In fact her body, which actively grows in front of him, seems to have more agency than he does. He can “feel the gravitational pull of her flesh, the Jupiter of it,” (138). While “gravitation” is a term often used to describe romantic interest, in this case it seems to highlight the unavoidable force that her body exerts over the narrator. Like a small object near a planet he is caught in the pull of her mass by no choice of his own.
The woman’s body becomes unavoidable to the narrator. Although he has no interest in engaging with it sexually, it continues to present itself to him and to expand in his thoughts. He uses the term “sicko” to describes his attention to these “breasts and hips and vaginas” and even tries to return to the task of reviewing his book in order to distract himself. No longer do his descriptions of her body seem to be motivated by a desire to objectify or assert power. Rather, the woman’s body, by growing and attracting his attention, asserts agency of its own.
In contrast to the big woman, the narrator considers the fact that he may be shrinking. He comments that her body is “the very biggest, in truth not opinion. I swear, she is larger every time I see her. Or am I shrinking?” (144). I argue that, because size is a symbol of power, the narrator’s concern that he is shrinking alludes to his fear of being emasculated. The narrator seems to believe that there is a connection between size and power. He alludes to this at the pool when he first comments on the woman’s size: “Ordinarily I’m not this way,” he says, “considering large and small. It is a direct effect of this novel,” (131). Nowhere in the story does the narrator say that size is discussed in the novel. All he says is that it is a story about tops and bottoms, gay relationships, and sex. For this reason, it is implied that his thoughts about large and small are directly related to his thoughts about tops and bottoms. It is important to note that outside of “Bottoms,” topping and bottoming refers to sexual roles that do not necessarily prescribe power dynamics. However, the connection the narrator draws between large/small and top/bottom implies that he conflates topping and largeness with power. For this reason, the woman’s growing body can be read as a symbol of her increasing sexual dominance while the narrator’s fear of shrinking corresponds with his fear of being “a romantic” and his anxiety about asserting sexual dominance. Not only is the narrator passive, but he is “shrinking” from the stereotype of masculinity.
As the woman continues to press her body onto the narrator, first “boring through the skull’s thick crust” with kisses and then plunging through his window with “her muscular arms and then this bulk that is her body,” she continues to perform dominance by penetrating first his brain and then is home. In these examples the sexual power of her growing body not only invades his mind, but it pushes into his physical space. It is in these moments that the woman truly embodies the raw sexual desire that the narrator both fears and wishes that he himself could act on. More than a character, the large woman becomes a symbol for the things the narrator cannot become. Although he attempts to evade his thoughts about tops and bottoms by putting off reviewing his book, by exiting the conversation with the handsome man, and by ignoring his phone-calls, ultimately, the narrator is confronted by the embodiment of everything that frightens him in the form of a woman.