Sexual Identity in Behn’s “To the Fair Clarinda” Essay (Critical Writing)
Updated: Feb 1st, 2021
Love relationships between women referred to as Lesbianism have been in existence for many years but in the earlier times, it was regarded as a strong form of friendship. Society had not reached the point of because women relating in this way could be having sexual affairs. One of the reasons however as to why a woman could be attracted to another woman was if she was a hermaphrodite. This is whereby an individual has internal and external organs for both males and females. In such a case, an individual is most likely to develop hormones from both sexes explaining why they could be attracted to both (Allison 35).
The subject in Aphra Behn’s poem To the Fair Clarinda does not indicate whether this woman she fell in love with was a lesbian or a hermaphrodite. This is what has drawn the attention of many poetry scholars in the quest to come up with proofs of the true identity of Clarinda. The most outstanding arguments in this context include that of Elizabeth Wahl and Jennifer Frangos. Wahl is of the idea that Hermaphroditism is a metaphor that enables Behn to describe the Lesbian desire while Frangos believes that there is a possibility of Clarinda being a hermaphrodite. The most outstanding argument is, however, that of Frangos who argues that Clarinda is a hermaphrodite though she does not address the sexual identity of the speaker whose chances are that she may be a Lesbian.
Scholars such as Jennifer Frangos suggested that the person in question is a woman “because of her name” (24) but she has emotional male characteristics that bring about the possibility of her being a hermaphrodite. Frangos defends his claims by asserting that “the title of the poem presents Clarinda as a woman who has some traits that make her something more than a woman” (21). Wahl on the other hand does not interpret Clarinda as a hermaphrodite individual.
She instead thinks of this character as homoerotic (Wahl 53), and this refers to a person who is sexually attracted to individuals of the same sex commonly referred to as lesbianism where women are involved. Both of them have their reasons for thinking the way they do but according to the poem and in my opinion, Frangos seems to have stronger evidence to support his arguments.
Frangos believes that a normal woman can’t develop sexual feelings for another woman. That is why she believes that Clarinda is a Hermaphrodite owing to his/her ability to function as a woman and a man at the same time. The “more than a woman” characters are brought out by the speaker when she refers to her as “a fair lovely maid” (Behn 1), but then makes a correction to this later on by referring to her as “lovely charming youth” (Behn 2).
This description is free from any kind of gender reference as the term youth is neutral implying that it could be referring to a male or a female. To further support his arguments, Frangos states the definition of youth as “a young man between boyhood and mature age” (25) and contrasts this with the description of this youth using the terms “fair and lovely” (24). This is proof of Frangos’ claims that Clarinda could be a man and at the same time a woman.
Being more than a woman according to Wahl does not imply that s/he has to have both the male and female sexual organs. She believes that this explanation is based more on emotional feelings rather than physical features. Wahl further indicates that the speaker intends to “subvert the conventional heterosexual and hierarchical relations of the poet and the other character by translating these dynamics to a love relation between women” (55). In my opinion, her argument that Clarinda is entirely female because of her name as well as because s/he is referred to as a ‘she’ is not enough proof for the character’s sexual identity. Some names are unisex and so it is not right to judge a person’s gender by their names.
There is a lot of uncertainty when thinking about the gender of the speaker as well. This person does not reveal his or her true identity but given the descriptions of Clarinda, conclusions could be drawn that this person is homosexual. Supposing we go by Frangos’ allegations that Clarinda is hermaphrodite, then we are left wondering what the speaker could be, and what part of Clarinda did s/he fall in love with? Since the speaker indicates that Clarinda played the role of a man in the lovemaking process s/he is most likely feminine or lesbian. This is indicated in the twentieth line which states “when ere the manly part of thee, would plead” (22) and it however indicates that the person in question has a manly.
There is a possibility that this person is not entirely male, but a part of him acts male. The question here now is, is it the section of her physical being that is male making her hermaphrodite, or is it the emotional part making her lesbian.
From the poem, it is possible to conclude the sexual identity of the speaker. S/he speaks from the feminine perspective ruling out the possibility of her being male. This, therefore, leaves us with a clear indication that she is a female, hence raising the whole controversy of the character being described. If we take into consideration Wahl’s allegations that Clarinda is a lesbian, then we will make conclusions that the speaker being a woman is a lesbian as well.
However if we consider the allegations made by Frangos that Clarinda is hermaphrodite, then we can justify that the speaker is a woman with normal emotional feelings falling in love with Clarinda’s masculine traits. This however is not an ultimate conclusion as well since s/he could also be a “lesbian falling in love with the feminine part of Clarinda” (Wahl 50). The best conclusion therefore in my opinion is that the speaker could be a woman with a questionable sexual identity.
Frangos’s arguments seem to be taking the lead here considering the evidence she presents from the poem. Her arguments are not based on any form of assumption and that compels us to want to believe that Clarinda is hermaphrodite rather than a lesbian. The speaker in the poem avoids the use of gender pronouns about the character and this could mean that she or he is neither male nor female, hence, hermaphrodite. “He uses direct references as though the character were right there besides the speaker, thus referring to her or him as you” (Frangos 23). This makes it difficult for the reader to judge Clarinda as being male or female. This brings more confusion on the possible gender of the character and this is referred to as the “hermaphroditic overtones of the poem” (Frangos 24).
By now, it is clear why the speaker refers to the person she made love to as being “more than a woman” (Behn 1). Her feminine beauty is referred to as implying that she is as beautiful as a woman. The speaker however addresses the masculine part as this is what she is most interested in. The masculine description refers to her as a swain, another term for their boyfriend. This is a male who is in love with a female, especially for sexual reasons.
Frangos uses the following statement to describe this character, “her mannerisms and attitudes make her masculine but she can inspire love/desire, a character commonly found in women” (25). Wahl does not argue much concerning the gender of Clarinda but she indicates that whatever the relationship between these two people was, it was accepted by the society in that era. Using her arguments that Clarinda is a lesbian, we can conclude that the society was either not aware that such relationships existed, or they were fine with it.
Behn while writing this poem must have been trying to present to the society the things that go on in people’s lives behind the curtains. Society most of the time fails to notice the existence of hermaphrodites, according to Frangos, and homosexuals according to Wahl’s argument. She was trying to bring out the aspect of heterosexual relationships as the ones being accepted in the society over the homosexual ones. The title of the poem itself is suspicious, especially where Clarinda is considered to be more than a woman. This already raises the readers’ eyebrows as they are left to decide for themselves why she is more than a woman.
After the speaker has revealed her sexual identity, the reader becomes aware that the relationship described in the poem is between two women. Before taking a keen thought of it, the reader could immediately describe this affair as lesbianism. However, further analysis brings the reader to the point of concluding that Clarinda is not entirely feminine. A lot of masculinity is described in her character traits. This leaves the reader at the point of indecision as they are unable to decide exactly what gender to classify Clarinda into. The most likely conclusion here is therefore a bisexual or hermaphrodite.
The last lines in this poem describe Clarinda as having a “dual figure” (Frangos 31) and this is because of the two words used, “Hermes and Aphrodite” (Behn 3). These are the names that were used to describe the Greek gods with Hermes being the god and Aphrodite the goddess. This brings out the characteristic of the relationship between these two people in the poem. “Aphrodite is the goddess of love mostly representing sexuality and beauty” (Pearson 59) hence represents the feminine part of Clarinda. Hermes on the other hand being a male god represents the “masculine part of Clarinda’s personality” (Pearson 60).
These two words brought together to form the word hermaphrodite hence giving Frangos argument a greater milestone than Wahl’s. A chiasmus is constructed between lines nineteen and twenty-three which are “soft cloris with the dear Alexis joined” and “the love to Hermes, Aphrodite the friend” respectively. Cloris and Hermes bClorispresent a masculine character while Alexis and Aphrodite represent the feminine part.
In conclusion, both Frangos and Wahl have brought out their arguments on the sexual identity of Clarinda. It is however clear from the poem that Frangos’s arguments appear to be clearer. Wahl does not entirely deny the fact that Clarinda could be a Hermaphrodite. She is however for the idea that this aspect of the character being a hermaphrodite has been presented as a metaphor used by Behn to describe the desires of lesbianism. According to him, Clarinda does not have male and female organs physically. She is just a woman who can take up the role of a man in lovemaking, hence a lesbian. To him, “the Hermaphroditism is emotional rather than physical” (Wahl 23).
Frangos however explains his reasons for believing that Clarinda is hermaphrodite in a real sense clearly to the point of convincing the reader. She obtains her evidence from almost every line in the poem. Despite all this, the sexual identity of Clarinda is still not so certain. From the discussion, the sexual identity of the speaker is certainly feminine, while Clarinda’s remains subject to debate because no satisfactory evidence has been presented to convince the readers of her true identity
Allison, Alexander W. The Norton Anthology of Poetry. New York: Norton, 1983. Print.
Behn, Aphra. Selected Poems. Ed. Malcolm Hicks. Manchester: Carcanet, 1993. Print.
Frangos, Jennifer. Aphra Behn’s Cunning Stunts: “To the fair Clarinda”. Texas: Tech University Press, 2004. Print.
Pearson, Jacqueline. “Gender and Narrative in the Fiction of Aphra Behn.” Review of English Studies. 42.166 (1991): 179-190. Print.
Wahl, Elizabeth S. Invisible Relations: Representations of Female Intimacy in the Age of Enlightenment. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 1999. Print.
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