Slavery, Gender, and Representational Bias in Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon
The representation of the characters in Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon (1997) is predetermined by a gendered master-slave relation that is clearly expressed in the frame narrative. During a conversation between Wicks Cherrycoke and his sister’s family about the appropriate way of retelling history, Ethelmer, Wicks’s nephew, figures “History” (350) as a woman whose fate is in the hands of two implicitly male groups, each of whom has a different way of treating her. History can be treated as a female slave by those who represent “Power,” “Government,” or “Facts”: “She is too innocent, to be left within the reach of anyone in Power” (350). Or History can be treated as a beloved by those less concerned with hard facts who compel her to dress up in some indeterminate way (perhaps by neutralizing or swapping her gender) that hides her from such rational, factual “Power”: “She needs rather to be tended lovingly and honorably by fabulists and counterfeiters, Ballad-Mongers and Cranks of ev’ry Radius, Masters of Disguise to provide her the Costume, Toilette, and Bearing, and Speech nimble enough to keep her beyond the Desires, or even the Curiosity, of Government” (350). Ethelmer’s figure of History suggests that both “factual” and “fictional” genres violently entrap women within a cultural imaginary defined by men. Although Ethelmer appears to privilege his “lover’s approach” to history, this preference should not be taken as Pynchon’s own. The representation of history in Mason & Dixon combines both approaches, blending a fidelity to the historical Mason and Dixon and the period they lived in (the “Facts”) with a kind of camp theatrical role-playing, a “fabulist” invention with musical interludes and all the characters in costume (“Jolly Theatrickals about the Past” ). This combination of both approaches to history suggests that the point in common, the gendered master-slave relation in which history is a passive, subordinate female dominated by an active, heteronormative, and implicitly male master, is more important for Pynchon’s own fictional representation of history than either one of the approaches by itself. Yet the idea that such a gendered master-slave relation could underpin Pynchon’s representational strategy contravenes readers’ hopes of finding in Pynchon’s writing positive representations of progressive gender identities and sexualities.1
This chapter traces the effect of this gendered master-slave relation on Mason & Dixon’s representational strategies. Throughout, Pynchon uses a real social relation appropriate to the time of the novel, that of slaves and slaveholders, to thematize the relations of husbands and wives, friends, sexual partners, and the relation of the individual to power generally.2 This thematization means that relations between characters, whether of the same or different sex, tend to manifest a gendered master-slave relation that shows both genders to be fixed in a subservient position with regards to powerful and opaque institutions, identifiable with patriarchy, even though the identities of master and slave are fluidly swapped between them. Furthermore, the history of Mason and Dixon in which we meet these characters is ostensibly delivered by a narrator, Wicks Cherrycoke, who is both adhering to the facts and dressing them up with fantasy.3 Cherrycoke correlates with Ethelmer’s figure of History in his control of the story, and the implication is that even the frame narrative featuring Cherrycoke is subordinated to a greater masculine power that blends “fact and fancy” (351) and lies beyond representation entirely. Indeed, the effect of this masculine power on Mason & Dixon is evident in the way it promotes representations of patriarchally sanctioned masculinity while depictions of nonpatriarchally sanctioned femininity and nonnormative genders and sexualities are sidelined.
Whether this male power that controls the representation of history can be identified with Pynchon himself remains an open question, but critics have commented on the scarcity of characters with marginalized identities in Pynchon’s writing. As Kyle Smith writes: “It is one of Pynchon’s major purposes […] to uncompromisingly represent the fact that so many remain unrepresented, but, at times, it seems he stands perilously close to merely not representing the Other at all. This is both a very dangerous and a very brave strategy, which may need some space and time to prove its worth or, perhaps, its failure” (198n29). Stefan Mattessich claims that Pynchon has no choice but to embrace a form of writing that risks such failure: “For Pynchon […] one’s options do not extend to refusing discourse. One must take a stand on or within discourses in order to see how they subjugate, inscribe, and define bodies as subjects” (514). It is clear that scholars are not yet certain about the effects and consequences of this representational strategy. The danger for Pynchon’s writing is that, by framing the field of representation as entirely dominated by a power that lies outside of it, it cedes the ground to patriarchal power and marginalizes alternatives. This chapter suggests that Mason & Dixon knowingly underscores the limitations of representation under patriarchy but shows that patriarchy can be escaped through nonbinary gender identities that exist beyond representation.
In the story of Mason and Dixon as related by Wicks Cherrycoke, we find that all the characters are trapped in a master-slave relation with a higher, abstract, disembodied power. For example, both Mason and Dixon are subservient to the masters of the Royal Society, who Mason calls “the Elevated, the Chosen” (746). However, by drawing the boundary line between Pennsylvania and Maryland, Mason and Dixon begin to realize they are actively, if quasi-unconsciously, extending an even greater power, “some Engine whose higher Assembly and indeed Purpose they are never, except from infrequent Glimpses, quite able to make out” (683). They only become fully conscious of their own subjugation to this “Engine” when their boundary line between Pennsylvania and Maryland is as good as completed, but even then, its nature remains a mystery. The Royal Society is only one of a number of institutions (along with the East India Company, the Jesuits, the Dutch Company, and Lepton Castle) through which this higher power is distributed, and none of them fully align with its ultimate identity.
Although little can be known for certain about this power, it instantiates and promotes gendered master-slave relations, and this is clear from the fact that the institutions that represent it are united in perpetuating the subjugation of women—a subjugation that is both directly and indirectly violent. Subjugated male characters are limited to the group of slaves Dixon frees toward the end of the story and to the figure of Gershom, George Washington’s manservant, whose identity as a Jewish minstrel telling “Slave-and-Master Joaks” (284) complicates his other identity as an “African servant” (278).4 Indeed, although the novel is preoccupied with slavery, actual African slaves are largely absent as characters.5 Rather, it is women who are represented most prominently in slavery and servitude. The Company Brothel in Capetown, the Widows of Christ convent in Quebec, and the Ridotto in Lepton Castle are parts of a network of exploitation of female slaves, a violent exploitation that in many cases seems to spring from “hopeless desire for, revenge on, escape from some Woman” (151). There is a room in the Company Brothel where “Slave Women” (151) are locked in with a madman who often kills them. Women in the Widows of Christ have been abducted and forced into prostitution, murder, cannibalism, and religious sacrilege. At the Lepton Iron Plantation, Wade LeSpark sees women working silently and obediently and thinks that “this was how the world might be” (411). It is clear that the higher power that subjugates all the characters affects female characters disproportionately and so can be understood as a form of patriarchy.6
This does not imply that all male characters are masters, however, nor that all women are slaves (“Masters and Mistresses resume the abuse of their Slaves” ). As we have just seen, even Mason and Dixon are trapped by a fixed master-slave relation with an elusive patriarchal power, and any male character who tries to embody this power finds that he is still an expendable subordinate. For example, Mason’s failure to become astronomer royal reveals the extent to which he remains a servant of the Royal Society and not its master. Maskelyne comes closer to this power when he obtains the position of astronomer royal, but he is forced to test Harrison’s watch and potentially render his life’s work on the longitude tables useless. Higher-positioned male characters also fail to fully and consistently embody the power they represent. Lord Clive of the East India Company suffers from an opium addiction, and Lord Lepton, master of the Lepton Ironworks, was once indentured to an ironmaster. Even Zarpazo struggles to control his students and prevent them from exploring the forbidden feng shui. The masculinity of these characters seems to depend on obtaining positions of apparent power, and they largely believe themselves to be beneficiaries of the patriarchal order. Yet these characters remain subservient to power and suffer from their inability to fulfill the male role that patriarchy expects of them. Furthermore, the relative freedom of all male characters is shown to be under threat. The victorious Prussian cavalry at the Battle of Leuthen in 1757, which achieved new levels of military regimentation, its soldiers seeming like “rank’d Automata, executing perfect manoeuvres upon the unending German Plain” (659), is presented as heralding a future in which men will be enslaved to a degree comparable to that of women in the eighteenth century. Mason & Dixon takes place before such violent regimentation is imposed more broadly, but this postulated future reminds us that the current freedom of the male characters is relative.
Both genders are fixed in a subordinate position with regards to this elusive patriarchal power. However, Pynchon’s characters interact in ways that manifest fluid master-slave relations in which power flows between the characters, preventing any fixed hierarchy from establishing itself. Such fluidity occurs with both mixed-sex and same-sex relations. For men in heterosexual partnerships, giving up mastery appears to be a necessary prelude to reimagining masculine-feminine bonds. Tom Hynes, who beats his fiancée and kidnaps their baby, apologizes in a fashion (“Maybe I was young then,—maybe even, even foolish” ), is forgiven and ends up marrying happily. Peter Redzinger abandons his wife Luise to follow Christ but returns “chasten’d, even at times dejected” (480), and is accepted back. Rhodie Beck supports her husband through his affliction of turning into a were-beaver because he has reciprocated for her: “[Y]ou’ve seen ev’ry-thing I can turn into” (620). The narrative highlights penitent and broken men submitting to their female partners and implies that giving up mastery allows for a fluid exchange of power between them. These examples suggest that heterosexual partnership and marriage is not the scene of male mastery and female submission but a magical space in which “Love” (541) and unconditional female forgiveness rebalance the relationship between the sexes by challenging associations between mastery and masculinity and slavery and femininity.
The importance of renouncing mastery is highlighted by the focus on Charles Mason, a character who refuses fluid master-slave relations with the people closest to him. For example, Mason assumes the role of master with respect to Rebekah, insisting that they leave the town of Stroud and travel over the world, without considering whether this way of life is something that she desires. Rebekah suddenly dies in childbirth, and Mason’s responsibility for this is exposed when Austra, a slave, compares English wives to slaves that sell their babies. Mason protests that “in England, no one has the right to bid another to bear a child […]. Our Women are free” (65, emphasis in the original). Austra, however, insists on a correlation between slavery and English marriage: “White Wives are much alike […]. Many have there been, oblig’d to go on bearing children,—for no reason but the man’s pride. […] How is English Marriage any different from the Service I’m already in?” (65). Most wives, Austra argues, no matter how free in other respects, are enslaved to a system of reproduction that is imposed by a “man’s pride” without due concern for women’s well-being. She implies that Mason’s desire to have a child killed Rebekah. Later, Mason has gained enough perspective to realize that he may have enslaved Rebekah to his own sense of entitled mastery: “How could he allow that she [Rebekah] might have her own story?” (207–8).7 Although Mason’s ultimate return to England, his reconciliation with his son Doc Isaac (“the Boy he had gone to the other side of the Globe to avoid” ), and the disappearance of Rebekah’s ghost, suggest that Mason has gone some way toward accepting his complicity in her death and relinquishing his mastery, his dragging his family along unwillingly for his final trip to America indicates that old habits die hard.
Mason & Dixon, then, seems to value the renunciation of male mastery in favor of fluid relations between couples. However, it also exposes the limitations of this renunciation when it portrays the difficulties of escaping from subjugation experienced by female characters in mixed-sex relations. Wives, mothers, sisters, and homemakers, that is, women defined according to a determining male figure (husband, brother, father, partner), constitute a large number of the women in the novel. All of these women’s trajectories are predetermined by their status as the subsidiary figure in a partnership; for example, as the “White Wives” (65) that Austra likens to slaves. Mrs. Martha Washington, a “cheerful rather than happy” (280) wife, appears as a servant to her husband. Ma Oafery is stuck looking after her werewolf son Lud. Mrs. Price is trapped in an unhappy marriage to her husband and separates from him when they end up on different sides of the Mason-Dixon line. Mrs. Edgewise, a master cardsharp and hustler, experiences marriage as a “prolonged chastisement” (366). Thus even as Mason & Dixon trades in traditional gender stereotypes (the power of female forgiveness and the magical ability of female love to tame wild masculinity) as a way of sharing power between the genders, it is clear that women continue to be subjugated and disempowered. Mastery (particularly the decision to claim or dispense with it) often remains with the male, and female characters are not enfranchised into mastery themselves.
Out of all the male characters, Dixon, as the subservient partner to Mason, is most capable of establishing more equal mixed-sex relations. Where Mason courts the elusive power of the Royal Society, Dixon seeks “routes of Escape, pockets of Safety,—Markets that never answer to the Company” (69). He finds one such space in the Malay Quarter in Capetown to which he makes frequent nighttime visits, pursuing an “unconceal’d attraction to the Malays and the Black slaves,—their Food, their Appearance, their Music, and so, it must be obvious, their desires to be deliver’d out of oppression” (61). Dixon’s activities in such spaces lead him away from master-slave relations (such as he might find himself embroiled with if he engaged the Vroom daughters or Austra) and toward multiple relations with women that we might presume are based on mutual desire rather than love. However, it is unclear whether Dixon avoids subjugating the women he patronizes. It is not directly stated whether his nightly visits “up in the Malay quarter, inspecting some harem of his own” (147), “rollicking with your Malays and Pygmies” (67) in “Lustful Adventure” (70), actually involve sex, although the language implies that they do. Although “it must be obvious” that Dixon wants to help the Malays out of their oppression, he appears to be a “john” visiting prostitutes, and so his attempt to escape from master-slave relations is perhaps no more successful than Mason’s. However, the displacement of any direct representation of Dixon’s encounters onto his passion for spicy Malay cuisine, which allegedly encourages “Lust that crosses racial barriers” (62), suggests that there might be something between Dixon and the Malays that genuinely escapes the master-slave relations of direct representation.
Mason & Dixon also represents gendered master-slave relations in same-sex relations. One might assume that same-sex relations would counteract the association between masculinity and mastery and femininity and slavery that underpins representation in Mason & Dixon. Certainly, there are same-sex relations in the novel that go further than mixed-sex relations in equalizing master-slave relations and even offer the possibility of nonheteronormative sexualities. However, the representation of these possibilities is limited. The most prominent male same-sex pairing is, of course, Mason and Dixon themselves. They agree that between them, Mason is the “Master” (72) and Dixon is the “Second” (72), but their relationship is characterized by tensions about this hierarchy. Dixon’s visiting Lancaster Jail disguised as Mason makes it clear that subordinate members of a same-sex pair can switch positions and start performing as masters. Furthermore, Mason gradually renounces his mastery over Dixon, and they develop an affection and respect for each other, which goes further than the qualified equality available in mixed-sex relations but still has its limits. As Wicks comments, “Love is simply not in the cards. So must they pursue other projects […]. Mason and Dixon could not cross the perilous Boundaries between themselves” (689). Wicks raises the possibility that their supersession of master-slave relations is incomplete due to patriarchal limits on homosocial affection.8 Indeed, the persistently jokey tone of references to homosexuality between them—Mason’s affection for Dixon being “comparable to that occurring between Public-School students in England” (697) and Dixon’s comment, after an argument, about “[c]alling off the Wedding, again” (70)—indicates the characters’, and perhaps the novel’s, anxiety about transgressing those patriarchal limits.
Nevertheless, Mason and Dixon’s friendship is the most intimate male same-sex relation represented in Mason & Dixon. Other relations of this kind fail to vex the master-slave dynamic. Indeed, they accentuate it. For example, in the group relations of the all-male crew of the Seahorse and the largely male crew participating in the drawing of the boundary line, Pynchon represents a rowdy male camaraderie characterized by fluid master-slave hierarchies between its members. Because most of the male characters identify with a patriarchy that subjugates them, men compete in their relations with other men for status and power through the assertion of a hypermasculinity and the promotion of heteronormative ideas of the body, gender, and sexual desire. Among the drunken antics and lascivious cavorting of the crew of the Seahorse is the playing of a trick that makes sailors “bend down […], becoming thereupon subject to Posterior Assault” (53). And Moses Barnes, part of the line crew, advises Mr. McNutley to “[g]row Titts […] and learn to talk for an Hour without taking a Breath,” so that maybe as McNutley’s wife “grows more daz’d with her Pregnancy, she’ll mistake ye for another Woman, taking from it what comfort she may” (455). The ribald tone of these comments suggests the anxiety of male-only communities over other genders and sexualities. Although these fluid male heterosexual groupings are clearly preferable to the regimented organization of the Prussian cavalry, they neutralize any political force male same-sex relations could have in upsetting the overarching master-slave logic and instead reflect the internalization of the patriarchal desire to coerce and co-opt other sexual and gender identities that turns those other identities into objects of male heterosexual mockery.9
When we turn to female same-sex relations, we find that groups of women, equivalent to the bawdy line crew, are entirely controlled and silenced by organizations like the East India Company and Lepton Castle. Meanwhile, female couples appear infrequently, and although these relationships go further toward equality and even love than Mason and Dixon’s does, none of them present a serious challenge to the general predominance of master-slave relations. Conversations between female characters revolve around boys, sexuality, marriage, and their own bodies, as if women have no other identity to perform to each other than that which is enmeshed with patriarchy. The Vroom sisters are defined by their blond hair and their obsession with local boys. Dixon’s mother, Mary Hunter, and her daughter Elizabeth talk about how to handle husbands (namely, by playing tricks on them) and how Elizabeth should negotiate her attachment to “the Raylton lad” (240). Rebekah and Miss Bradley talk only of boys and weddings. Mitzi Redzinger’s only point of discussion with her mother concerns how she wants to wear her hair in such a way that boys can see it. It is clear that these female characters have internalized patriarchal values as their own and so continue within same-sex relations to perform identities that have been shaped by them (heteronormativity, an identification between the female body and female identity, an emphasis on beauty and finding a husband). Even though master-slave relations are barely present between these female characters, they are still subordinated to an external master whose presence is felt in their interactions.
Only in a few cases are female same-sex relations able to escape from patriarchal power, and when they do love and nonheteronormative sexualities become possible. The lesbian relationship between Eliza Fields and Zsuzsa Szabó involves a kind of affection that precludes any master-slave dynamic between them: “Zsuzsa striding in and embracing her co-adventuress-to-be from behind. They smile and stretch, glowing” (540). Furthermore, Eliza and Zsuzsa’s joint rejection of heteronormativity permits alterations in gender performance. Zsuzsa is a masculine woman who rides on an Arab horse and dresses in a Hussar uniform (a “Lady in breeches” ). Eliza at one time dresses as an Indian boy with a shaved head. However, whether Eliza and Zsuzsa’s loving relationship genuinely represents an escape from the master-slave logic remains in doubt. They have both had traumatizing experiences with patriarchy—Eliza through her time as one of Father Zarpazo’s Viudas de Cristo, Zsuzsa in witnessing the Battle of Leuthen—and these experiences seem to define them. Zsuzsa’s unorthodox gender and sexual identity has emerged in reaction to patriarchal control, and Eliza dresses as an Indian boy to escape from the convent in Quebec. Furthermore, lesbian relations in themselves are not a sign that characters have escaped from the influence of patriarchal mastery. Johanna Vroom’s sapphically forcing female slaves to lick pomegranate juice off her hand and Lady Lepton’s seduction of the chambermaid show same-sex desires reinstituting a sadistic master-slave binary that mimics the power fantasies of patriarchy. In the absence of any comparable representation of male homosexuality, the use of lesbianism to portray a positive space that is not shaped by master-slave relations hints at the continuing presence of a male gaze that finds lesbianism titillating.
Mixed- and same-sex relations, then, offer the possibility of an affection that allows for greater equality, but in practice, such relations do not fundamentally alter the reigning association between masculinity and mastery and between femininity and slavery. This is because mixed- and same-sex relations in this novel are biased by a patriarchal power that emphasizes masculinity and heteronormativity and deprioritizes nonpatriarchally sanctioned femininity and nonnormative genders and sexualities. Although the friendship of Mason and Dixon exhibits a kind of equality, male same-sex relations are generally patriarchal and heteronormative and represented noncritically. Mixed-sex relations in which the man renounces mastery and the woman forgives him escape patriarchy, but this escape is undermined by the other aspects of the female experience of mixed-sex relations (Austra’s comment that all wives are slaves). In the absence of direct narratorial comment, it is unclear whether the positive effects of male renunciation are sufficient in light of the presentation of unhappy wives. In any case, no mixed- or same-sex couple is shown to have escaped fully from patriarchy. And other potential spaces of escape—Dixon’s acquaintances in the Malay Quarter, female group relations, lesbianism—have been compromised by a patriarchal representative power, and at times, even co-opted into supporting it.
To understand how this happens, we can turn to the comments made by Patsy, a member of the Sons of Liberty, who claims that political “Representation must extend beyond simple Agentry […] unto at least Mr. Garrick, who in ‘representing’ a rôle, becomes the character, as by some transfer of Soul” (405). According to Patsy, performance isn’t merely the adoption of a contingent, arbitrary, or circumstantial identity but a kind of transformation that produces a new identity. So, from the point of view of representing fact and fiction, the “essential” femininity of Ethelmer’s female History is a kind of aggregate mass of historical potentiality, which disappears when it is presented as being factual under “Power” or fictive under a “fabulist.”10 Femininity, meaning a freedom from all master-slave relations, may be “essential,” but it genuinely disappears under the disguise imposed by a “fabulist” or, at most, occasionally “peeps out” from behind that disguise.
We can see this disappearance of underlying identities in the gender representations of female and male characters. Under the pressure of patriarchal power, women are forced into patriarchally sanctioned roles. For example, practically all the women in the novel not portrayed as wives and homemakers are “wenches” (330), “doxies” (273), “Milk-maids” (459), and the like, women whose identities are dependent on their bodies and men’s attraction to them. However, these identities are depicted as being merely performances. The “lasses” are playing at being milkmaids, “‘Coy Milk-maids’ being a Game courtly as any back in the Metropolis” (464). The courtesan Florinda has “Experience upon the Stage” (114): rather than expressing her real desires, “she has decided to get in a bit of exercise, in that endless Refining which the Crafts of Coquetry demand, using Mason as a sort of Practice-Dummy” (114). Performances in which the female body is synonymous with female identity play into patriarchally sanctioned roles for women and clearly fail to reflect women’s underlying self-conceptions. Although the actual identities of many of these women, as well as their reasons for adopting “disguises,” are not always apparent, smart, capable women appear to be hiding under at least some of these facades. Molly and Dolly are revealed to be Ben Franklin’s assistants, and Molly has surveyor skills. Dark Hepsie’s aged appearance turns out to be a laborious pretense: “[B]eneath her layers of careful Decrepitude,” there was “a shockingly young Woman hard at work” (26). Their lack of choice in assuming their “disguises” may be suggested by the fact that women performing identities that violate patriarchal codes (for example, Zsuzsa Szabó) are conspicuous by their rarity.
Furthermore, in the rare moments when the minds of female characters are represented through free indirect discourse, it is revealed that they have assumed patriarchally sanctioned female roles. Mitzi’s thoughts in an interior monologue, for instance, are entirely focused on her body’s changes: “Breasts, hips, Fluxes, odd Swoons” (387). Female interiority (at least, as it is related by the narrator Wicks Cherrycoke) offers little sanctuary from the patriarchal control of desire, gender performance, and the association of body and self. The performance of a patriarchally sanctioned femininity, rather than reserving and protecting an underlying identity, produces the desires that are expected of such “wenches” (330) and “doxies” (273); it even produces the desire to submit to the worst excesses of masterful masculinity. Austra, a veteran of the Capetown Company Brothel, the Widows of Christ in Quebec, and the Lepton Ridotto asks, “Who says Slavery’s so terrible, hey?” (427). Eliza Fields feels a strong pull toward the torture she would receive in the dark dungeon of the Widows of Christ: “a mysterious Space she has more than curiously long’d to enter …” (534). The Vroom girls dream of their own confinement by the “unchallengeable Love of a Tyrant” (155).
When we turn to the men in Mason & Dixon, we find that male characters also perform their genders under the influence of a subordinating patriarchy. For example, we first meet Captain Zhang when he is a servant of his nemesis, the Jesuit priest Father Zarpazo. Even after Zhang has escaped from him, he remains haunted by his prior subjugation by Zarpazo and finds Zarpazo’s face appearing when he experiences heterosexual desire: “Tho’ any sight of [Eliza], even at a distance, begin in Delight, soon enough shall his evil features emerge from, and replace, those belov’d ones … yet do I desire … not him, never him … yet … given such Terms, to desire her, clearly, I must transcend all Shame” (631, emphasis in the original). Zhang’s heterosexual desire for Eliza is thwarted by a homosexual desire to again submit to Zarpazo; when he thinks that Zarpazo has come to the camp, Zhang goes “half insane” (545) and to protect himself dresses up as his enemy in a costume that is notably feminine (a “man in skirts” ). Zhang’s experience with Zarpazo has affected his desire and his gender performance. His adoption of Zarpazo’s guise is a desperate attempt to control the patriarchal force (“Sha […], Bad Energy” ) enslaving him.
Another male character who comes close to abandoning a patriarchally sanctioned masculinity is Philip Dimdown. Dimdown is a printer of broadsides against the British authorities but dresses as a “macaroni” (a form of eighteenth-century dandy, described during the period as “a kind of animal, neither male nor female, a thing of the neuter gender”) to disguise his political activities.11 Dimdown’s macaronism expresses something of his true self (“I was probably indulging Fop Sentiments long kept under, unknown even to myself” ), but unlike Zsuzsa, his political activities do not lead to a more lasting gender alteration. Dimdown later abandons the disguise of his own volition for a normative gender performance that communicates his heterosexuality, suggesting that his “Fop Sentiments” are only allowed brief and strategic indulgence and that his political identity is not dependent on any nonnormative gender identity.
Indeed, Zhang and Dimdown are practically the only male characters who register that gender performance is the naturalized product of patriarchy. This sense is absent in the performances of most of the male characters, even Dixon’s. Male characters are generally represented as possessing an essential masculinity, a stable “natural” identity, that cannot be altered and that is not troubled by alternative identity performances. Although male characters are continually enacting forms of behavior and adopting costumes and disguises that misrepresent their underlying identities, they do so strategically, consciously, and voluntarily in particular moments. Dixon is identified by his military redcoat, which he wears “upon the theory that a Representation of Authority, whose extent no one is quite sure of, may act as a deterrent to Personal Assault” (49). Captain Grant of the Seahorse has developed a technique of “pretending to be insane, thus deriving an Advantage over any unsure as to which side of Reason he may actually stand upon” (51, emphasis in the original). Wicks Cherrycoke is advised by Captain Grant that being a cleric in Capetown is dangerous, and Dixon suggests “[t]ha could pretend to be an Astronomer” (85). The masculinity of these characters is not interrupted by these performances of false identity. Even when Mason and Dixon are represented through free indirect discourse, there is no obvious distinction between their internal masculinity and that of their performances. If it is the case that “in ‘representing’ a rôle, [one] becomes the character, as by some transfer of Soul” (405), then it is clear that men in this novel have naturalized their patriarchally sanctioned performances to a greater extent than women and that male political radicals like Zhang and Dimdown are unable to synchronize their political radicalism with nonnormative genders and sexualities to the same degree as Zsuzsa and Eliza.
That Pynchon does equate political radicalism with nonnormative genders and sexualities is evident in his gestures toward a more complete escape from patriarchy and master-slave relations in a space that is figured as being beyond representation, a retreating magical world referred to as the “subjunctive” (345).12 It is glimpsed from a distance throughout the novel, as when the narrator refers with approval to “Sylphs of mixed race, mixed gender” (81) in Capetown, the “independents, brave girls and boys who are young enough to enjoy the danger of going up against the Compagnie” (81). These young people disappear into spaces where they seem to transgress the romantic and erotic divisions between white and black, slave and free, male and female, divisions instituted by the “sex industry in Cape Town” and the Dutch Company “seeking as ever total control” (81). The subjunctive, then, appears to be a space in which nonnormative genders and sexualities, hinted at by Zsuzsa Szabó, Eliza Fields and Captain Zhang, find fuller expression. The subjunctive even holds out the possibility of nonbinary gender identities, including a third gender aligned with inanimate life (“of Genders they have three,—Male, Female, and the Third Sex no one talks about,—Dead” ), one instance being Vaucanson’s “mechanickal Duck,” an automaton that comes to life through the addition of female sex organs and “the kiss of … l’Amour” (373, emphasis in the original) and that desires another ungendered automaton duck as its partner: “The other, being yet sexually unmodified, is neither,—or, if you like, both” (377).13
However, by conceiving of alternative and nonbinary genders and sexualities as belonging to a “subjunctive” realm beyond representation, the narrative cedes the ground to patriarchal discourse and assigns alternative gender identities a marginal status. The nonbinary and nonnormative genders and sexualities of the subjunctive are never fully explored in the novel. Nor are clichés pertaining to the renunciation of male mastery and the magical powers of unconditional female forgiveness sufficiently challenged. Yet the very presence of the subjunctive argues that Pynchon’s text is well aware of its own representational bias. Indeed, how can we explain the expressions of discontent from the wives concerning married life, Austra’s comment that “White Wives” are “slaves,” the gendered representation of the female slavery of the East India Company, Lepton Castle, and so on, and the smart women visible under patriarchally sanctioned gender performances, except as criticisms of a patriarchal force that does violence both to the characters and, as implied through Ethelmer’s figure of History, the text itself? History’s underlying “essential” femininity is aligned with the “subjunctive”; it is full of possibility but is corralled through a relationship with an external patriarchal force that reduces gender to a binary of “the Feminine and the Masculine” (551), naturalizes gender performance, identifies the female body with female identity, represses nonnormative genders and sexualities, and produces a desire for slavery and self-destruction. Rather than fantasizing a miraculous escape into a world of nonnormative gender and sexual identities, Pynchon creates a space of “fluid Identity” (469) in which the various effects of this patriarchal bias on the gender presentations of women and men are depicted and in which spaces of emancipation and escape are receding and only glimpsed briefly. History may be shaped by the fabulist to protect it from “Power,” but it can never quite be safe, since its femininity, its subjunctivity, continues to peep out from under the disguise.
1. On Ethelmer’s figure of History, see Schaub 192–93, and McHale 48. On the contemporary construction of gender as performance in the context of power relations, see Foucault and Butler. For an account of the modern biopolitics of gender, see Repo.
2. Other conceptualizations of master-slave relations are possible. Hegelian-inspired criticism offers a theory of master-slave relations, and Harris mentions the “Colonizer/Colonized, Screwer/Screwee, Tyrant/Slave binary” (211).
3. For Cherrycoke’s role as narrator, see Dewey.
4. For more on Gershom’s hybrid ethnic identity and his comic manipulation of master-slave roles, see Heon.
5. Cherrycoke himself upbraids LeSpark for omitting mention of African slaves in his account of the work done at Lepton Castle. Smith briefly comments on this (191–92).
6. On slavery, see Hill 127, 137–39, and Baker 172–73, and for specifically sexualized female slavery, see Hill 142–44, Sears 114–16, and Harris 203.
7. On the relationship between Rebekah’s ghost and slavery, see Punday 271–72.
8. On their failure to become real friends, see Wallhead. On the homosexuality of their relationship, see Sears.
9. For the representation of communities in Mason & Dixon, see Hill 135–37.
10. On issues of Pynchonian realism and representation see Hill 127–33, 154; for a different approach to representation involving cartography, see McLaughlin.
11. Oxford Magazine June 1770, as quoted under the second definition of “macaroni” in the OED.
12. On the subjunctive, see McHale. Note, however, that McHale does not consider how gender might appear in the subjunctive. For how slavery is abolished in the subjunctive, see Thill 73–74.
13. For more on Vaucanson’s Duck, see Collingnon, Berressem, and Saar and Skirke. Fitzpatrick discusses the representation of mechanical life and gender with regard to the character of V. For hybrid identities and composite beings, see Hinds.
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