02 Jun Return of the Gaze in George Egerton’s “Now Spring Has Come” by Emery Stayzer
The Aestheticism movement of the nineteenth century emphasized pleasure and experience. However, it also perpetuated a gendered hierarchy between the spheres of men and women: men dominated the public while women faced confinement within the domestic. Male artists and flâneurs had the privilege of observing and “prescribing aesthetic value” to places, things, and people (Cameron 1). This aesthetic value became evident in representations of the ideal feminine muse, leading to the viewer vs. viewed dynamic, and relegating women to the position of passive muse for male observance. In her text Now Spring Has Come, George Egerton explores this dynamic through the perspective of an anonymous female protagonist who returns the narrative-framing gaze, engaging with desire and sexuality in a society defined by male experience. Drawing upon Laura Mulvey’s theory of the male gaze to analyze this text, I argue that Egerton’s speaker returns the gendered gaze and reclaims her agency as an active participant in the narrative. The speaker gazes back at the anonymous male character in protest of his scopophilic view of her, utilizing a scopophilic viewpoint of her own to reclaim her agency. She does so as a means of solidifying her active role in the narrative, despite his efforts to relegate her as passive. Similar to the New Woman archetype, who “refused to be contained by their culturally assigned gender roles,” the protagonist reverses both gender roles and the gaze as she actively seeks out her male suitor (Nelson 9). As the discovery of the male character’s novel is what motivates the speaker’s attraction to him, she returns the gaze traditionally placed upon the idealized female muse by male artists. Instead, the artistic medium of the novel facilitates the placement of the male character as passive muse for the female speaker’s observance. Finally, the anonymous female protagonist rejects the gaze of the impressionistic male artist who finds power in observing the female muse, by controlling representations of herself and her body. She achieves this through the fragmentation and detailed descriptions of her suitor’s body as well as her own, challenging “assumptions about who is the viewer and who is the viewed” (Henderson 206). Thus, Egerton’s protagonist in Now Spring Has Come returns the gaze of her male suitor and refutes her position as passive object for a man’s viewing pleasure.
Egerton’s protagonist returns the gaze of the male character by engaging in scopophilia. Mulvey defines scopophilia as “the erotic basis for pleasure in looking at another person as an object…it can become fixated into a perversion, producing obsessive voyeurs” (1957). The voyeuristic perspective produced by scopophilia reinforces the male gaze as it allows male subjects to look at women as sexual objects for their viewing pleasure. As the speaker in Now Spring Has Come reverses the gendered power dynamic perpetuated by the male gaze, she becomes the viewer instead of the viewed and reclaims her agency. By reversing the scopophilic viewpoint she objectifies the man’s body, restricting his ability to do the same to her. Upon their first meeting the speaker says, “The door opens, and I am satisfied. In the space of second’s gaze I meet what my soul has been waiting for” (Egerton 25). In this quotation, it is evident that the speaker becomes the voyeur as she looks at her male suitor as an object for her viewing pleasure. She explains that she is “satisfied” with his appearance, illustrating her sexual desire and agency as she makes judgements about his body. In contrast to the gendered divisions of the Victorian period, it is the woman who prescribes aesthetic value in this situation, instead of the man. Her engagement with scopophilia is also evident when she says, “I look into his soul through his eyes and…his soul comes to me as I would have it come to me” (28). The speaker not only owns the gaze but also expresses her control over how the man’s soul presents itself to her. She further objectifies him as she looks beyond the surface of his appearance and into his soul, highlighting her ownership of the gaze. In demonstrating her refusal to be passive, the protagonist takes possession of the gaze and secures an active role in their relationship.
Egerton’s speaker also initiates the return of the gaze by actively seeking out the male character. After reading his novel, the speaker says, “I was consumed with a desire to see and know the author…I have a will of my own, so I set to work to find him” (Egerton 23). Her word choice demonstrates the active role she plays in the narrative as she works to get in contact with the man, as well as her sexual desire towards him. The protagonist’s willful assertion highlights her agency and refusal of passivity. Mulvey explains that the male gaze creates “a world ordered by sexual imbalance, [in which] the pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female” (1959). In other words, the male gaze portrays women as passive objects for male pleasure. However, this is not the case for Egerton’s protagonist. Instead, she initiates contact with the male character and positions him as her muse, as his writing inspires her on an emotional level and facilitates her attraction. When she finds his novel in the bookstore, the owner cautions her against reading it, as “it is a very bad book…one of the modern realistic school, a tendenz roman” (Egerton 23). Despite the disapproval she receives from the bookseller, the speaker makes her own choice without consulting a chaperone, rebelling against decorum expected of women in this period (Allen 256). In doing so, she projects her gaze onto the male character and solidifies her role as an active participant in the narrative. The speaker obtains agency in returning the gaze of the male character due to her “self-reliance and power of initiation” (Winchester 176). By actively seeking him out, the narrator reverses the male gaze onto her suitor and confirms her authority in the power dynamic of their relationship.
Furthermore, the protagonist controls representations of her physical appearance as she returns the gaze through a process of bodily fragmentation. The male gaze results in a level of voyeuristic control that leads to fragmentation of the female body (Mulvey 1958). In this text, the speaker directs voyeuristic control and fragmentation towards the male character, challenging the dynamic of man as viewer and women as viewed. She describes his body in segments: “His hands, for instance, are great labourer’s hands, freckled too; I don’t like his gait either, indeed a dozen things…a great joyous boyish laugh with a deep musical note in it. He has a deferential manner and a very caressing smile; a trick, too, of throwing back his head and tossing his crest of hair” (Egerton 25-6). By fragmenting his body, the speaker reflects the male gaze back onto her suitor. She asserts her dominant gaze by discussing his body based on her subjective view, eroticizing the elements she likes and condemning those she does not. Additionally, by pointing out the parts of his body that she does not like, the speaker establishes her ability to prescribe his body with aesthetic value. As expressed in the introduction of this paper, prescribing aesthetic value was a privilege typically wielded by men within this period. However, in this text, the speaker has “been herself expanding” instead of submitting to the male gaze, drawing parallels with the New Woman archetype (Ouida 155). In constructing him based on her subjective view, Egerton’s protagonist positions herself as the viewer who inflicts her gaze upon the male character and designates him as passive muse for female viewing pleasure.
As the speaker controls representations of her own character, she rejects the impressionistic gaze of the male artist and objectification from the male gaze as a whole. For instance, before departing on the steamer the speaker states, “Would I give him a portrait of myself? Yes, I would get one specially done” (Egerton 27). This quotation illustrates that the speaker holds the power in determining the artistic representation of her body. She is in control. By expressing that she “would get one specially done,” (27) the speaker also suggests that she will not allow the male character to create an image of her from his subjective view. She will provide him with a portrait based on her own self-construction, dissolving his power to objectify her. The artist’s lack of control in this situation disrupts his ability to subordinate the muse, as well as his projection of meaning onto her body (Henderson 202). The speaker achieves a reversal of power and return of the gaze by eliminating the man’s confinement of her as a passive object. The giving of a portrait also suggests a level of voyeurism, as the image looks back at the viewer from the canvas. As Mulvey explains, the male gaze is comprised of a division of labour, where women are defined by their “to-be-looked-at-ness,” and men are the bearers of the gaze (1959). In Egerton’s text, the speaker reverses this division of labour by looking back at the man from her portrait. That is to say, although the speaker provides her suitor with the portrait so that he can look at her, she returns his gaze by controlling the depiction of her body in the portrait. She also returns the gaze as her image looks back at the man from within the frame. By controlling the artistic representation of her body and gazing back at the male character both literally and figuratively, the speaker asserts her agency. She also maintains control of her representation as she refuses to internalize the male character’s attempts to relegate her as passive. After he comments on her thin body, pale face, and lack of “buoyant childishness that was so attractive,” the speaker analyzes him in return: “I wanted to sift this thing thoroughly to get clear into my head what ground I was standing on. So I let him [kiss me]. They were merely lip kisses; his spirit did not come to mine, and I was simply analysing them” (31). As she returns his analytical gaze, the protagonist externalizes her agency and refuses to accept belittlement from the male character. The speaker’s resistance in this exemplar is similar to that of the New Woman, who believes that “man merely made himself a nuisance with his opinion and advice” (Ouida 154). The protagonist is once again the viewer as she looks back at the man and critiques him, maintaining agency over her own representation.
The female protagonist achieves additional control over her representation as she retrospectively critiques her own body, rejecting the male gaze and turning it back upon her suitor. As she is waiting to meet him for the first time, she says “I wait with an odd feeling that I am outside myself, watching myself as it were. I can see the very childishness of my figure, the too slight hips and bust, the flash of rings on my fingers” (Egerton 25). Through the critique of her body, the speaker reclaims her agency as she eliminates the man’s power to eroticize her body. She describes herself as “childish” and lacking curves, which differs from the ideal impressionistic muse that the male gaze imparts on its subjects. The speaker also maintains her level of power as retrospection allows her to critique her body from her own perspective, as well as from the perspective of men (Henderson 206). The text demonstrates this when the protagonist says she “tried to fancy how he saw me” (Egerton 26). As she examines herself from both perspectives, the speaker understands her body as more than a sexualized object that is passive for male pleasure. In reference to the New Woman, Boyd Winchester writes that a “man loves only what pleases him,” (178) suggesting that the goal of the protagonist aligns with those of the New Woman: sexual and bodily freedom outside of the domestic sphere. To rephrase, the speaker critiques her body in a way that removes power from the male character, as he is unable to sexually objectify her. As her body changes upon their second meeting and no longer fits his idealized image, the speaker highlights the oppressive nature of the male gaze: “he thought of me as a dream lady with dainty hands, idealized me – and wrote to that dream creature” (Egerton 31). The speaker is therefore successful in turning the gaze back upon the male character as she addresses his oppressive idealization, demonstrating that her body does not exist for the viewing pleasure of men. Instead, she an active participant in society who “make[s] her own choice[s] and guide[s] her life in the way that seems good to her” (Allen 257). She is her own woman, a body who does not exist to fulfill the desires of the male gaze; in fact, a body who exists in spite of it.
The concluding line of Egerton’s text questions the prevalence of the male gaze in Victorian society and highlights its confinement of women. The speaker asks, “Do you really think that crinolines will be worn?” (Egerton 33). Crinolines refer to the rigid petticoat that women of this period wore underneath their skirts to provide them with a more attractive shape or appearance (“Crinolines”). The speaker’s incredulous intonation when she asks this question illustrates the discomfort around the garments themselves and is symbolic of her discomfort in a society defined by the male gaze. Lisa Hager explains that “when Egerton’s female characters have the most agency to choose what sort of life they want to lead…they remain inside the system that they seek to challenge” (5). Hence, the speaker remains within her relationship with the male suitor in order to successfully return the gendered gaze. Concluding the text with an emphasis on the speaker’s indignant self-determination suggests that she desires something more for herself, perhaps a future where women have agency and do not face confinement as passive objects for male observance. In Now Spring Has Come, Egerton’s protagonist questions the male gaze and reflects it back onto her suitor, resisting passivity and reversing gendered power dynamics.
Ultimately, Egerton’s protagonist disrupts the power dynamic of the male gaze and repositions herself as an active participant in society instead of the passive muse for sexual objectification. By engaging in scopophilia, the speaker reverses the gendered gaze to reclaim her agency as she looks back at her suitor. As she initiates contact and pursues a relationship with the male character, she relegates him to the passive muse for her enjoyment, reversing gender and power dynamics that position the man as viewer. In fragmenting the male body and disrupting the viewer vs. viewed dynamic, the protagonist rejects the gaze from the impressionistic male artist and gains control of her own representation. Despite its obvious connections with New Woman literature, Egerton’s text also addresses issues of gender inequality, illustrating how Mulvey’s ideas about the male gaze extend beyond the context of cinema. The male gaze is universal and continues to fragment the bodies of women, restricting them to the role of a passive muse for male pleasure.
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