- Patriarchy Through the Lens of the Negative Oedipus Complex
IN Outlaw Fathers in Victorian and Modern British Literature: Queering Patriarchy, Helena Gurfinkel “seeks to resist the limited view of fatherhood and patriarchy as the loci of power and aggression, and as straightforward expressions of normative masculinity,” by offering “a theoretical investigation of alternative patriarchal narratives that unsettle some of the core definitions of patriarchy coined by feminist and gender theorists and introduce the possibilities of queer analysis of (rather than, automatically, against) patriarchy.” In setting out to do this, Gurfinkel wisely devotes her introduction to defining the terms and concepts she intends deliberately to unsettle, including “masculinity,” “manhood,” “fatherhood,” “queer” and “patriarchy.” She also carefully establishes her main theoretical foundation, which combines Freud’s theory of the negative Oedipus complex, as set out in his case study of the “Wolf Man” and in “A Child Is Being Beaten,” with Leo Bersani’s critique thereof. Gurfinkel’s purpose is an ambitious one, reaching beyond the scope of literary scholarship. She sets up what is at stake in her study by hoping that it “will join a larger conversation about the changing roles of men in general, and fathers in particular, that is taking place outside of the field of literary studies”; having drawn connections between her work and more populist modes of thought, she remarks that “[d]istant as a project dealing with British literature, the middle class, and the Freudian narrative of the negative [End Page 111] Oedipus complex might appear from The Atlantic and Hollywood, it may nonetheless provide an additional psychoanalytic framework for thinking about contemporary masculinities.”
Gurfinkel is clearly aware that she has a good deal to sort out before she can offer any close readings of texts, and she devotes her first chapter to continuing to lay out and expand her definitions of her terms, and to offering a lucid and useful survey of her background research. This chapter satisfactorily establishes that Gurfinkel has done thorough research, strongly grounding her argument in the foundational texts of psychoanalysis, queer studies, and masculinity studies. Her psychoanalytic sources include Karen Horney and Jacques Lacan in addition to Freud, as well as some of their more illustrious commentators; the critics whose work she references include foundational thinkers such as Judith Butler and Jacques Derrida, and also more current commentators in relevant schools of theory and criticism. In a bit of wordplay on her own book title, she devotes a section to the “Theoretical Mothers” of queer masculinity, particularly Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Kaja Silverman. Her brief and clear survey of these theorists’ work allows her to position her own contribution and her “focus on male subjectivities that reject power and violence by embracing maternal identification.” Gurfinkel’s reading is impressive and wide reaching, and her assemblage of it leads her to state that her “main goal here … is to draw attention to the negative Oedipus complex and its potential for resignifying patriarchy as a more flexible, inclusive term, reflective of the many existing possibilities of masculinity, male homosociality, and father-son relationships.” This chapter will be useful to any reader of Gurfinkel’s book: readers familiar with psychoanalytic discourse, queer theory, and masculinity can treat it as a refresher course and also learn what will be the book’s focus; readers unfamiliar with these discourses are offered an understandable survey to assist them to grapple with the rest of the book; and readers interested in learning more about these discourses will find it an excellent reading list to get them started.
Gurfinkel’s chapter on queer patriarchy in Anthony Trollope’s The Prime Minister and Doctor Thorne is a valuable contribution both to the growing body of work on Trollope and gender, and to the ongoing task of defining the English gentleman. Focusing on father-son pairs both among the gentry and among self-made men, Gurfinkel argues that while the latter “stand not only for the economic and political aspirations of the middle class, but also for a more rigidly dichotomized bourgeois masculinity, the...