William Hogarth and the Tradition of Sexual Scissors
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William Hogarth and the Tradition of Sexual Scissors

Did you ever hear my definition of marriage? It is, that it resembles a pair of shears, so joined that they can not be separated; often moving in opposite directions, yet always punishing anyone who comes between them.

Sydney Smith

The opening plate of William Hogarth’s A Harlot’s Progress (Figure 1) shows Moll Hackabout arriving in London, on the verge of her descent into harlotry and hardship. 1 Amid the drama and tension of the scene, a viewer might overlook or dismiss the pair of scissors which hang from Moll’s belt. But with Hogarth, we dismiss or ignore “superficial” material at our peril, for he loved to use seemingly insignificant characters and props to convey significant ideas. Does Hogarth hope to convey a message through Moll’s scissors?

Previous critical explanations of the scissors fall into two categories. One group of critics sees them as a descriptive detail confirming Moll’s original honest, hardworking nature and wholesome intentions. In his Commentaries (1794–99), for example, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg uses Moll’s scissors to support his sentimental reading of Moll: “At her side hangs a needle-case and a little pair of scissors, and from her right arm a small bundle: they were probably put there by the poor weeping mother when she said goodbye, for occupation and refreshment on the journey.” 2 In this type of reading, the critic moves from the presumed nature of the character to the details, which are then interpreted in light of that character. Numerous sentimental readings have appeared since Lichtenberg: a modern example is the claim that “the ingenuous country girl” who is “protected only by her father” is “distinguishable amid the London crowd by the plain kerchief that covers her shoulders, the fresh rose pinned to her bodice and [End Page 499] the pair of workmanlike scissors dangling from the bag she carries.” 3 In sentimental readings, then, incidental details such as the scissors are enlisted (or ignored, as by Lichtenberg) only to support a previously determined interpretation of Moll as an innocent victim of the corrupting forces of the city.

A second group of critics interprets Moll’s scissors as markers of profession. In this view, Moll, seeking employment as a seamstress, wears the scissors to “tell people her trade . . . [j]ust as carters carry a whip and maids a broom at a hiring fair.” 4 This explanation is overliteral: Moll is not at a hiring fair. 5 Nevertheless, at one level the scissors are probably intended, as Ronald Paulson suggests, to “indicate her intended profession,” 6 for Hogarth does occasionally use scissors in this way (e.g., the barber’s scissors in The Adventure of Mambrino’s Helmet). Yet Moll’s scissors may have a further, previously unnoticed dimension of meaning, symbolic as well as realistic. While Paulson, for example, interprets Moll’s goose (at the bottom corner of the scene) as not merely a sign that she is to meet her cousin, but also a foreshadowing of her unhappy career and fate, he does not consider a similarly prophetic role for the scissors. 7 N. F. Lowe has advanced a parallel argument about Hogarth’s use of beauty spots. Lowe suggests that the seemingly innocuous spots are open to “a more sinister interpretation” and function as an important moral clue. Lowe points to the beauty spot on the woman in the Before and After series, and to the man’s shocked expression in After, as evidence that the woman “is not so innocent.” 8 “Hogarth’s constant portrayal of loose women with black spots,” he concludes, “suggests that we are meant to associate them with venereal disease.” 9 Thus, an apparently realistic detail can also encode a moral meaning. This paper will explore the moral implications inherent in Moll’s scissors.

In challenging earlier approaches to critical explication of Moll’s scissors, this paper will also challenge the prevalent sentimental interpretation of Moll herself. While noting the cautionary aspect of A Harlot’s Progress, one critic maintains that “it is a tale of the vulnerable position of women in a society whose laws, customs and members...