Castration Anxiety in Jonathan Swift 1: The Progress of Privacy

Women in England in the eighteenth century experienced a degree of privacy and independence they had not had before. This independence was explored in contemporary literature, especially in the works of Jonathan Swift. Swift’s attitudes towards women have been the subject of much debate, with his personal correspondence and poetry analysed and evaluated in detail (Pollak, 1992, p. 114). By looking at changing cultural attitudes to the role of women in English society during the eighteenth century I will show that Swift’s work commented on the prevailing male fear over female empowerment. I will explore how contemporary gender roles relied upon perceived innate differences between men and women and how these were influenced by Epicurean concepts of forms and voids. These cultural concepts will be grounded in Freudian discourse by studying castration anxiety and its manifestations in myth, folklore and popular culture. It is the intention of this work to be able to read Swift through a Freudian lens and to see his work as part of a discourse on concerns over dangerous female sexuality and interiority. What makes Swift more interesting than his contemporaries who explored this issue is the apparent paradox in his personality. Carol Houlihan Flynn concluded that ‘Swift is never squarely anywhere’ (Flynn, 1990, p. 166). He aimed his satire at everyone and so his own point of view features opposing views on the subject and also a synthesis of his conflicting attitudes. On the one hand Swift is a misogynist who finds women ‘gross’ and ‘filthy’ (Houlihan, 1990, p. 88) but on the other hand he is a proto-feminist, a progressive forward thinker, making the case for an equality of the genders (Pollak, 1992, p. 114).

Emerging female independence took form through various metonyms. The first was the development of the external pockets, pouches which could be affixed to clothes and were intended to be used to carry personal items, at first for the purpose of housework and later, coins used for commercial activity. These pockets were one of the first forms of private, individual interiors for women. Previously generally only males had access to individual privacy through private studies and closets.The danger this powerful female interiority poses to men was evidenced in the diary of Samuel Pepys. The passage quoted is an almost perfect, if unwitting, description of the vagina dentata as he attempts to invade the female pouch but is aggressively repulsed by the presence of sharp points:

On 18 August 1667, he wrote: “I stood by a pretty modest maid whom I did labour to take by the hand and the body; but she would not, but got further and further from me and at last I could perceive her to take pins out of her pocket to prick me if I should touch her again, which, seeing I did forbear” (Fennetaux, 2008, p. 321).

Pepys’ attempts at a sexual liaison ends badly when the pocket attacks him and encourages him to maintain a distance. This link between the interior of the pocket and the internal sexual organs was apparently unavoidable because ‘Their classification as linen/underwear, but also their situation on the pelvic area, and their very shape, which is rather evocative of female genitalia, explain their strong link with sexuality,’ (Fennetaux, 2008, p. 318). Thomas Rowlandson re-imagined the powerful privacy of women’s pockets as being indicative of sexual promiscuity in A Sudden Squall in Hyde Park (1791). In this aquatint (Appendix 1), Rowlandson shows a stormy scene with a large crowd of people being stopped and outraged by a woman with distinct pockets. These pockets are presented as ‘flabby’ and ‘gaping’ which Fennetaux believes is ‘a trope to signal the woman’s promiscuity,’ (Fennetaux, 2008, p. 319). Grego identified two figures in the painting, the Prince of Wales and Lord Barrymore (Grego, 1880, pp. 302-304). The inclusion of these two notorious eighteenth-century rakes gives the work an attitude of debauchery and indulgence and further links the pockets with sex. Swift’s work was part of this anxiety over female sexuality. It will become clear however that to view Swift’s poetry as simply an attack on female independence is to take a simplistic and one sided view of a quite complicated body of work. While Swift did undoubtedly attempt to show a natural, ugly side to women, this was not the only focus of his satire, nor was it the main focus. Male anxieties were also being satirised and the anxious male is shown to be naïve and simplistic in his idealised view of women and human nature.

The second chapter of this dissertation will explore the changing nature of privacy in the eighteenth century, the emergence of private spaces and the ownership of those spaces. I will look at how the chance to experience a private self could lead to an independent public self, and the importance and power attached to this public image. The third chapter will provide the lens of Freudian psychological thought through which to view this change. By seeing how castration anxiety develops as a response to female sexuality, and the danger men learn to associate with the vagina from a young age as they resolve the Oedipus complex, it will be possible to understand that the development of the private physical space evoked the dangerous vagina and led to a socialcastration anxiety in which men were concerned over losing positions of power and privilege. The chapter will then go on to explore the vagina dentata myth in folklore and popular culture and how the myth transforms over time to suit the needs of the prevailing discourse. This will show that the threatening female interior spaces in Swift’s poetry correspond to earlier representations of the fanged vagina, and later ideas of vaginsmus and penis captivus, and how these are different displays of the same castration anxiety.

The texts I will be examining are four poems which I feel best reveal Swift’s attitudes towards contemporary concepts of women. They are ‘Cadenus and Vanessa’ (Swift, 1983, pp. 130-153), ‘The Progress of Beauty’ (Swift, 1983, pp. 192-195), ‘A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed’ (Swift, 1983, pp. 453-455), and ‘The Lady’s Dressing Room’ (Swift, 1983, pp. 448-452), poems which have been placed together before because of their thematic similarities. I shall also analyse a section of Gulliver’s Travels (Swift, 2003).  By performing a close reading of these texts I will endeavour to display misogynist attitudes at the public and private sexuality and physicality of women placed alongside misandry aimed at insecure, anxious men, concerned over the threat to their tenuous grasp on patriarchal power. Pamela (Richardson, 2012) and TristramShandy (Sterne, 2009) will also be used to provide further contemporary examples of social castration anxiety in an attempt to show that Swift’s texts do more than just expose what could have been his own anxieties.

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