Book Review · Feminism · Gender · Literature · Sexuality

Female Sexuality in Literature

Prior to the 1900’s ideas regarding sexuality, particularly female sexuality, were fairly restricted and taboo. Modes of sexuality that breached the norm such as homosexuality and sexual liberation amongst women were “viewed as deviant”[1] and if a woman promoted sexual self-confidence and assertiveness, they would be severely frowned upon. However, during the sexual revolution of the 1920s (a term devised by Austrian psychoanalyst Willhelm Reich) the outlook on sexuality, which stemmed from Christian values “slowly began to change as society became more permissive and accepting of sexual freedom”[2]. Promiscuity and premarital intercourse amongst females as well as their sexual attention to men began to increase greatly during the early twentieth century; women no longer feared the consequences of their supposed immoral behaviour and instead started to welcome their sexuality. It comes as no surprise that the repression of female sexuality would recur as a theme within works of literature, particularly those of female writers, who have often adopted disfavour towards male domination of their times.


Female author of the short story Prelude, Katherine Mansfield, illustrates a distinct fascination with matters of female identity and sexuality, shadowing her contemporary, Virginia Woolf. Her female characters are often represented as having a somewhat fragmented identity, implying that they are suffering with the struggle to assimilate their internal and external selves within a restricted male-dominated society. Her characters exist in a world where options for women were narrow; they could be daughters, wives and/or mothers, or perhaps renounced in a position of spinsterhood, which men have often adopted an “uncompromising and rather brutal attitude”[3] towards; the ever rising popularity of Freudian ideas regarding sexual repression labelled elderly virgins as unremittingly unsatisfied. Mansfield’s short story, Prelude, reflects her own understandings of consciousness as a woman – the acrimonious suffering of pregnancy and childbirth, fears of rape, and a loathing towards female compliance. The novel acts as an exploration of character rather than the plot itself and considers the complex densities of human emotion and relationships. Once the façade of the Burnell’s pleasant domestic life is stripped, undercurrents of hostility and discontent are unmistakeable.


Within Prelude, Mansfield presents the reader with characters of various ages and gender adopting responsibilities that society dictates to them. Her female protagonist, Linda, is fully aware of her battle to follow her function as a mother and wife, both roles she is unenthusiastic to accept. Being a woman whose decree to marry is ordained by society, there is no doubt that her marriage is, on the surface, a successful ritual. However, in spite of this, she is greatly despondent and constantly torn by her inner conflict and uncertainty. Her unhappiness mostly stems from the position forced upon her by marriage; she must endure sexual activity and bear children for her husband, whether she wants to or not. Being sexually intimate with her husband Stanley severely distresses Linda because his sexual energy and cravings terrify her. She fears the way he would “jump at her so, and bark so loudly”[4] and and she is unwilling to produce children with him. Even when he attempts to show her affection, “kissing the top of her head, her ears, her lips, her eyes”[5], she finds a reason to reject his efforts. Her hatred towards pregnancy and bitterness and apprehension towards male sexuality are presented, not just by her obvious physical dismissal, but also more vividly and symbolically; the aloe tree. To Linda, this is not just a plant but a representation of resilience to external pressures. Its unsightliness symbolises the way in which life can be brutal and unpleasant, “yet holding within itself the possibility of the rare flowering which justifies existence”[6]. Its sharp “cruel leaves”[7], which “nobody would dare to come near”[8], symbolise her desire to be independent and able to protect herself against men and the responsibilities she holds as a wife. Furthermore, they represent the idea that a woman must adopt an aggressive nature if they are ever going to be free from their monotonous domesticity. This plant is Linda’s only form of sustenance in satisfying her longing to be free of the sexual role imposed on her by marriage and she wishes she could be sexually dormant, like the tree.


Unlike Linda, Daphne du Maurier’s title character of Rebecca is represented as sexually promiscuous and “operates outside of the societal rules of the day.”[9] When deliberating her, Mrs. Danvers says “Love making was a game with her. Only a game”[10] which recognisably illustrates her views that sex was exuberating and inconsequential; the unambiguous reverse of Mansfield’s Linda. Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), who believed that human behaviour is motivated by urges and drives, proposed the psychoanalytic theory which suggests that “the sex drive was one of the most important forces in life”[11], an outlook that Rebecca adopts and demonstrates through her licentious behaviour. She emerges as a confident and alluring sexual desire and this sexual liberation is profoundly stressed by the stark contrast between her and the unnamed narrator who remains virginal and pure, and threatened by Rebecca’s extreme femininity. This distinction between the two female leads of the novel is what makes Rebecca more appealing to the reader; she is different and exciting and represents freedom whilst contravening societal conventions. This rejection of society’s idea of faultless femininity is what enrages her husband to the point that he has to murder her, as he is driven by his embodiment of the perfect model of his gender role. Rebecca provides a threat to the structure of his being by denying the limitations of the traditional roles of femininity. She is completely contrary not only to the unnamed narrator but to Mansfield’s Linda who unfortunately lacks any power and courage to change her situation. Linda can only find liberty in her imagination, frequently dreaming of birds, a symbol of freedom. This acts as the epitome for her rebellion towards the patriarchal society that her husband Stanley embodies, like Rebecca’s husband Max. However, the fact that this liberation is only in her mind emphasises that her desires can never be fulfilled. Without the tenacity and control, Linda must stay at her husband’s side, even if this means she lives an unhappy existence.


The married woman, no matter what class, is conveyed in Mansfield’s Prelude as victimised by functioning as their husband’s sexual objects and general property. She brings to the forefront the conventional suppression of the married woman and expresses her frustration towards their submissive social, sexual and economic role which they have no choice but to conform to. Linda is expected to carry duties of a conscientious mother, a compliant wife and a diligent house-wife but she loathes these roles and intends to escape from them. This is particularly evident when “a strange little laugh flew from her lips”[12] after she decides to leave her children behind at the very beginning of the novel because she “could not possibly have held a lump of a child”[13] on her lap during the journey. This is not they only instance when she refers to her children in such a way. Later in the novel she says “I have had three great lumps of children already”[14] implying that they greatly irritate her rather than provide her with any parental joy. Pleasure derives in Linda from her heartlessness towards her children, proving her distaste towards being a mother. Similarly, by committing adultery, Du Maurier’s Rebecca also flouts her role as a dutiful woman and is said to have “despised all men”[15], not only drawing on her loveless marriage but prompting interrogations into her sexuality. The possibility that Rebecca is bisexual and the object of same sex desire disrupts “the patriarchal order, as revealed by the tensions and contradictions in its exploration of perverse female desire”[16] and particularly threatens Max’s power. Her debauchery and infidelity jeopardises his public veneer of a harmonious matrimony between the two, so he eradicates her.


“Feminism has made great cultural and political strides”[17] and has changed societal disposition and sexual activities. Females of the twentieth century started to adopt a lustful and wanton attitude and were beginning to grow in sexual confidence. Both Rebecca and Prelude are novels which explore these ideas surrounding female sexuality and the model archetypes for how women should behave within a society that promoted strict gender roles. Rebecca embraces sexual liberation whereas Linda fears it, showing how complex and extensive the female consciousness can be. Where Rebecca rebels against her expected role by acting in a promiscuous manner and committing adultery, Linda is more unruly in her aversion towards sex and producing children. But although these two female characters differ in their contrasting attitudes towards sex and sexuality, Katherine Mansfield and Daphne du Maurier both successfully represent defiance to societal expectation and, more specifically, male domination.

[1] Khanna, Renu & Price, Janet, Female Sexuality, Regulation and Resistance,p.29

[2] Carroll, Janell, Sexuality Now: Embracing Diversity, 2012, p.20

[3] Hamilton, Cicely, Marriage as a Trade; excerpt in Lesley Hall’s Outspoken Women: an anthology of women’s writing on sex, 1870-1969, 2003, (Routledge) p. 54

[4] Mansfield, Katherine, Prelude; excerpt in Katherine Mansfield’s Selected Stories ed by Vincent O’Sullivan, A Norton Critical Edn, 2006 (W. W. Norton & Company Inc) p.111

[5] Mansfield, Katherine, Prelude; excerpt in Katherine Mansfield’s Selected Stories ed by Vincent O’Sullivan, A Norton Critical Edn, 2006 (W. W. Norton & Company Inc) p.99

[6] Hanson, C, Katherine Mansfield and Symbolism: the “artists method” in Prelude, 1981, (Journal of Commonwealth Literature) p.34

[7] Mansfield, Katherine, Prelude; excerpt in Katherine Mansfield’s Selected Stories ed by Vincent O’Sullivan, A Norton Critical Edn, 2006 (W. W. Norton & Company Inc) p.96

[8] Mansfield, Katherine, Prelude; excerpt in Katherine Mansfield’s Selected Stories ed by Vincent O’Sullivan, A Norton Critical Edn, 2006 (W. W. Norton & Company Inc) p.111

[9] Dever, Samantha, A Feminist Double-Take: The Seductive Nature of Rebecca

[10] Du Maurier, Daphne, Rebecca, 2003 (Virago Press) p.382

[11] Carroll, Janell, Sexuality Now: Embracing Diversity, 2012, p.28

[12] Mansfield, Katherine, Prelude; excerpt in Katherine Mansfield’s Selected Stories ed by Vincent O’Sullivan, A Norton Critical Edn, 2006 (W. W. Norton & Company Inc) p.79

[13] Mansfield, Katherine, Prelude; excerpt in Katherine Mansfield’s Selected Stories ed by Vincent O’Sullivan, A Norton Critical Edn, 2006 (W. W. Norton & Company Inc) p.79

[14] Mansfield, Katherine, Prelude; excerpt in Katherine Mansfield’s Selected Stories ed by Vincent O’Sullivan, A Norton Critical Edn, 2006 (W. W. Norton & Company Inc) p. 111

[15] Du Maurier, Daphne, Rebecca, 2003 (Virago Press) p.382

[16] Corber, Robert J, Cold War Femme: Lesbianism, National Identity and Hollywood Cinema, 2011, (Duke University Press)

[17] Carroll, Janell, Sexuality Now: Embracing Diversity, 2012, p.22



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s