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Theory of gender performativity

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 5700 words Published: 16th Jul 2019

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The theory of ‘Gender Performance’ or ‘Gender Performativity’ was first coined in Judith Butler’s 1990 book titled Gender Trouble. Butler’s theories on gender identity and gender performativity were based on the notion of destabilizing gender identities and categories. Butler’s work can be linked with J. L. Austin’s work on the notion of the performative, and ties into Derrida’s work on reiteration and repetition. She considered the definition of what is meant by the signifier ‘woman’, in relation to the post-structuralist position of examining signs and signifiers. This paper will examine how Butler’s gender performance theories originated in a wider context of the feminist movement and discourse; whereby Butler moved away from the essentialist and centralized ideology of feminism and went on to encompass ideas of ‘Queer Theory’. There is also a consideration of the effect and significance of the gender performativity in literary texts.

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The initial starting point for Butler’s work is that gender identity cannot be biologically determined. In Gender Trouble Butler initiated a reinterpretation of Simone de Beauvoir’s statement that “one is not born a woman, but rather becomes one” (de Beauvoir 1949 quot. In Barry p125). De Beauvoir distinguishes between gender and sex, whereby gender can be seen as a social creation centred on the ‘natural’ or biological differences of the sexes. Butler argues that:

“there is no recourse to a body that has not always already been interpreted by cultural meanings; hence, sex could not qualify as a pre discursive anatomical facticity. Indeed, sex, by definition, will be shown to have been gender all along”. (Butler 1990, p.8).

Butler also uses Foucault’s ideas on how the self-identity is constructed in order to develop the performative theories of gender, in which she argues that sex is not something stable and fixed, but should be considered as something which is open to fluidity. Butler sees body as a ‘prison’ of gender and sexuality in reference to Foucault’s chapter on “Docile Bodies” whereby “the body was in the grip of very strict powers, which imposed on it constraints, prohibitions or obligations” (Foucault 1975 p136), although there is some scope for resistance and malleability. Butler follows this in her work by arguing that society inscribes on our external physical bodies our internal gender and sexuality. This idea may also be a reference to Foucault’s work in Discipline and Punish, in that Butler is observing the physical form of the body as a personal ‘prison’ for individual identity. In the same way that Foucault’s work on “Panopticism” which enforces that prisoners are observed all the time (Foucault 1975 p227). Butler’s theories of gender performativity mean that our gender identities are performed or played out for observation by society.

Although there is an emphasis in Butler’s work on the manner in which discourses affect our behaviour: rather than gender performance being a role played and created by the individual creatively, gender performance is habitually continually acted and performed on a daily basis in everyday life. Although as she suggests in her examination of drag performance creativity can serve to subvert the performativity of the roles we are assigned to perform. Butler’s key ideas are therefore based on the notion that gender is not a simplified ‘role’ but a deep seated psyche playing out of identity and behaviour, there is also not casual link between sex, gender and sexuality. The performative gender roles are dependent upon repetition and re-iteration in creating identity, which in turn result in instability of the ‘gendered roles’ we are assigned.

Judith Butler’s work arose out of a wider context of feminism and the feminist movement, and must be considered within the political, theoretical and social debates of feminist discourse. The first wave of the feminist movement occurred between the 1800s and the 1950s and challenged the status of women but not the gender roles or sexualities of women in society. The second wave of feminism and the precursor for modern feminist literary theory occurred between the late 1960s and 1980s and asserted that gender roles and questions of sexuality needed to be examined in relation to both the personal and political spheres. This wave of feminism addressed questions of gender inequality, critiqued patriarchy and identified the problem of androcentrism and the assertion that sex or gender is an unchanging, fixed, and biological given. The question of gender identity was now considered to be socially constructed and historically contingent, and described by Henrietta Moore as part of a “symbolic construction or as social relationship” (Moore 1988: 13). A further examination of gender roles was provided by Gayle Rubin who investigated the role of gender and sex and stated that a ” “sex/gender system” is the set of arrangements by which a society transforms biological sexuality into products of human activity and in which those transformed needs are satisfied”(Rubin 1975:159). She further states that the “Sex/gender system” is a “social organization of sexuality and the reproduction of the conventions of sex and gender” (Rubin 1975:168).

This work lay the foundations for the third wave of feminism which emerged in the late 1980s and is prevalent today. The modern and current feminist theory prefers to deconstruct and demystify gender roles and sexuality. Gender is socially constructed but also is socially constructed and historically contingent, and biological gender does not does not necessarily determine gender, while at the same time there is a recognition that not all cultures historically or culturally believe in the existence of only two genders. Rubin also anticipated the movement of the feminism towards “the elimination of the oppression of women…[through]…the elimination of obligatory sexualities and sex roles” (Rubin 1975:102). The traditional idea of gender and sexuality involve the idea of ‘heteronormativity’ which refers to a view of heterosexuality as normalized behaviour in a society. This is characterized by two binary notions of sex or gender as male and female, where heterosexuality is the natural and normal accepted view of sexuality. Gender is determined biologically and not an assigned role of identity and sexuality is normative and natural if it fits into the framework of heterosexuality.

Judith Butler presents her fundamental theories of gender as performative in Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, with the arguments that drag is performative and in its destabilization of the performative iterations of gender, drag performances can be construed as a political escape from the structures of gender binary oppositions. In her follow up work Bodies That Matter : On the Discursive Limits of Sex, Butler states that there should be no confusion that gender performativity is a qualified daily choice made by individuals. Here Butler argues that there is an iterability and repetition involved in gender performativity, which results in immense difficulty in trying to escape the constructions of naturalized restrictions of sex and gender through making conscious daily performative choices.

The question of gender performance is related to ideas of gender identity in society, whereby certain codes of behaviour are assigned according to gender. There is an initial essentialist view of social identity whereby gender is determined biologically and gender is an immutable and recognizable physical essence. However the concept of gender performance questions the essence of gender roles and identity as being determined by purely physical and biological factors. Instead gender identity is a performance or construction made up of behaviours and roles which are then assigned to a specific gender.

Gender then becomes a repetition of behaviours and acts, which are not natural or inevitable, are open to change and fluidity, and dependent on the context in which they are performed, and are part of a wider discourse of gender, sexuality and sex in society. Butler insists that :

“The reading of ‘performativity’ as wilful and arbitrary choice misses the point that the historicity of discourse and, in particular, the historicity of norms (the ‘chains’ of iteration invoked and dissimulated in the imperative utterance) constitute the power of discourse to enact what it names” (Butler 1990 187)

Gender performance is learned both consciously and ingrained unconsciously on the psyche of the individual, who is unaware that they are performing a gender role, but accept the gender identity assigned to them by their own behaviour or performance and which is again interpreted and repeated within the discourse of gender relations in a cultural and social context. A key element of gender performativity is the iteration of the act, “Performativity must be understood not as a singular or deliberate “act,” but, rather, as the reiterative and citational practice by which discourse produces the effects that it names” (Butler 1990 2). Butler’s stance is that gender performativity is a repetitive act which serves to perpetually reproduces itself:

“Sex is not an ideal construct which is forcibly materialized through time. It is not a simple fact or static condition of the body, but a process whereby regulatory norms materialize “sex” and achieve this materialization through a forcible reiteration of those norms” (Butler 1-2)

The subjectivity of the individual is produced through producing and creating these norms and as individuals are constantly reinforcing and recreating the norms that experienced.

Butler uses post structuralist theories and applies a feminist perspective to explore and theorize gender male and female gender roles. Butler combines the concept of gender identity with the concept of performativity from J. L Austin. Butler’s main points in relation to gender roles are founded in her assertion that gender identity is constructed and is effectively a form of performance or reiterated ‘acting out’, of what it means to be gendered either male or female. This gender performance means that people become tied in to a static or ‘normalized’ gender role which is culturally and socially defined as being a ‘normal ‘male or female. Butler finds the idea of ‘normal’ gender roles restrictive as she asserts that an individual’s gender behaviour or performance can have contradictory aspects, which result in instability in the gender performance. Butler asserts that the idea of ‘true gender’ is a difficult one, because the definition or qualities of gender are only part of a wider narrative that reinforces stereotypes and expectations of what it means to be male or female. She states that

“…words, acts, gestures, and desire produce the effect of an internal core or substance but produce this on the surface of the body, through the play of signifying absences that suggest, but never reveal, the organizing principle of identity as a cause. Such acts, gestures, enactments, generally construed, are performative in the sense that the essence of identity that they otherwise purport to express are fabrications manufactured and sustained through corporeal signs and other discursive means.” (Butler 1990 p.185.)

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Butler states that although bodies are initially of indeterminate gender and are destabilized further in the performativity of gender, as well as by other categories of race, class and sexuality, which only serve to further destabilize the performative. Gender identity is therefore constructed as a fluid performance and not an essential essence of being. Under this construction, identity is free-floating and not connected to an “essence”, but instead to a performance. The acts which are performed, are according to Butler, indicative of a wider social performance of behaviour in society and culture, which is not recognized as being a ‘performance’. Rather these acts, performances and behaviours are so entrenched in the psyche of the individual that they are regarded as ‘natural’ both to the individual concerned and in their appearance to society. She states that “Performativity is neither free play nor theatrical self-presentation; nor can it be simply equated with performance” (Butler1990 95). Butler argues that gender is performative, and that no identity actually exists behind the acts that are supposedly expressing gender. These acts only serve to constitute an illusion of a stable gender identity rather than expressing it.

In her essay “Imitation and Gender Insubordination” Butler states that she doesn’t want to be labelled as a ‘lesbian’ theorist, although she at the time she realises that labels are important. Nevertheless she insists that the ‘fixitivity’ of categories must be challenged and that no category captures a person’s identity; she goes on to say that if a signifier labels a person as ‘woman/black/lesbian’ this still doesn’t have sufficient meaning to give a definitive account of a person’s identity (Salih 2004 119). This essay is Butler’s reaction to the political and social effects of women’s liberation and gay liberation, and in it she presents her ideas for a new version of her own identity, in challenging the essentialism of gay politics. She begins by stating that identity categories should be regarded as “efficacious phantasm” (Salih 2004 p120) as they are superficial and problematic because they are too rigid and restrictive (Salih 2004 121). Butler wants identity to be both unified and fluid, and she promotes the idea that gender is performative and can subvert and challenge notions of self-identity and gender roles, nevertheless gender is “troublesome” (Salih 2004 p120). The piece is paradoxical in that Butler is performing a gender identity and the same time deconstructing her lesbian identity, in the course of writing the paper. She is also challenges the notion of ‘theory’ in a similar manner to Adorno’s critique of ideological societies (Butler 1990 p121). Butler reacts to criticism of being ‘high theory’ and not engaging with real life experience of homophobia, however she states that theory is practical and practice is theoretically informed. She prefers the idea of a subject who is free of categorisation and labels such as lesbian and raises the question of whether a sexuality can ever be ‘achieved’ once it is defined or signified by a label (Butler 1990 p122). For Butler the subject or the “I” cannot be a totalisation of identity, and this raises the further question of what is a lesbian identity? All lesbians cannot share the same characteristics in the same way that all heterosexuals don’t all share the same characteristics therefore the term lesbian may be a signifier but what it signifies is never defined.

She also challenges the whole process and discourse of “coming out” as a lesbian, because this implies that there is a place or “closet” to come out from, and states that “outness can only produce a new opacity; and the closet produces the promises of a disclosure that can, by definition never come” (Butler 1990 p123). The act of gay liberation may be signified in the ‘coming out of the closet’, but questions arise in that ‘coming out’ means that you’re ‘in’ at some point, and further more what are you coming out of, and what are you going into? The coming out of closet reinforces the existence of the ‘closet’. Although the act of ‘coming out’ becomes a collective act of homosexuality discourse, challenging the ‘normative’ primary collective discourse of heterosexuality; for Butler the ‘coming out’ of the closet means to lose one totalisation of identity to simply take on another form of totalising elements of identity.

She also suggests that there is a mysteriousness to sexuality which cannot be revealed or captured in language. Butler says that anyone speaking or writing can use the signifier “I” but the meaning of the “I” is out of the control of the subject and in the understanding of the receiver. She uses binary oppositions to explain that it is heterosexuality which defines the understanding of the other supplementary term homosexuality; however this is only in relation to a homophobic discourse whereby heterosexuality is privileged as binary and homosexuality is the derived or supplementary term. Butler says it is necessary to turn it around or invert the binary oppositions and make homosexuality the primary signifier and heterosexuality the supplementary term (Butler 1990 p123). Although Butler recognises the need to have signifying terms and labels in a political sense, she doesn’t believe they are positive in the long term, as she would rather have the fluidity and destability of no categories and labels to define sexuality (Butler 1990 p123).

In the next part of the essay examines the performance of drag artists and states that the social constructions of gender are seen in drag performances. She explores the ideological construction of all gender roles, and rejects the view of drag as copy or imitation of true gender identity. She analyzes drag performances to explain how the gender performativity used by drag artists are not a subversion of the normative gender roles as they initially appear to be. Although drag performances are superficially a presentation of gender binaries, it is more useful to construe the drag act a hyper-masculine or hyper-feminine gender performance. This then raises questions as to what is ‘normal’ for any given gender and undermines the binary oppositions set up for gender roles. Instead Butler asserts that drag exposes the truth that there is no such thing as gender and all gender roles are imitations of an ‘idealised fantasy’ of superficial ‘normative’ gender roles. The performance of the drag act and the extreme carnivvelesque nature of drag roles, illustrates how masculine/feminine gender performances are culturally defined attributes, and not tied to physical bodies. Butler states: “There is no proper gender, a gender proper to one sex rather than another, which is in some sense that sex’s cultural property…there is no original or primary gender that drag imitates, but gender is a kind of imitation for which there is nor original…” ((Butler 1990 p127).

She also asserts that drag should not be exemplified as a deliberate subjective gender identity. She states that an individual in drag is not ‘one’ prior to gender performance, who then decides to adopt the ‘wardrobe’ of a particular gender; as such drag is not an ‘honest expression’ of the performer’s intent. She concludes the essay in her assertion that the terms ‘heterosexual’ and ‘homosexual’ are constructions, and illustrates this in reference to Aretha Franklin singing “You make me feel like a natural woman”. Butler challenges the notion of what constitutes a ‘natural’ woman and the suggestion that this can only be construed in the completion of binary opposition in that one can only feel like a ‘natural woman’ if it is in relation to a man (Butler 1990 p128). Because Aretha wants to feel ‘like’ a natural woman, this implies that she wants to be ‘like’ a heterosexual woman; it also means that the feeling is a repeat of something, or copied from what a ‘real’ woman should be (Butler 1990 p133). Butler concludes the essay by saying that gender produces performance of gender identity but that nothing is essential or on the inside, everything is on the surface and external and in the signs of gender performance (Butler 1990 p135).

The performativity of gender can be examined through the notion that all gender roles are constructions which are performances being played out by an individual, and which are then either upheld or refuted by society. These gender ‘performances’ utilize and reenact the definition of what it means to be gendered male or female, and the gender identities are reinforced by the reiteration of the behaviour of the gender. This means that because the performance of the gender role is repeated it becomes a recognizable behaviour of that particular gender as part of a wider societal discourse. However Butler also states that the performances of the gender roles are open to interpretation and may not be exact copying, a process which she terms as ‘slippage’. She is also concerned with the authenticity of these gender performances which can be changed, becoming exaggerated and fictional; they are nevertheless incorporated into wider social and cultural context as being natural and universal as true and legitimate gender roles. The fact that the performances can be reenacted and repeated by a multiple of different individuals means that they become a powerful and recognizable mode of behaviour, with recognizable qualities assigned to a particular gender.

Butler’s theories of gender performance can be used to examine literary representations of gender roles. Helen Zahevi’s Dirty Weekend there is a representation of the fluidity of gender performativity. The main female character Bella begins the novel as a ‘weak’ victimized’ female character, who through the course of the narrative defies and challenges the gender role of the female victim which is assigned to her by wider society. She is often referred to as “a Bella” (Zahevi 1991 p118), whereby she is somehow representative of all such ‘types of women’; these women are identified as passive, weak, docile, and identifiable as the “sort of women” that are ignored or abused by men and society in general. The character of Bella undergoes a transformation where although physically on the outside she remains the same, internally she discards the role of a docile weak female gendered victim of stalking, abuse and sexual violence, and progresses to adopt a new role of the violent ‘male gendered’ avenger. Whereas the female Bella shirks away from violence and “stays a away from pain”, once she adopts the gender role of the male avenger she is not afraid of violence and is ready to accept a little pain if it means she will exact revenge and punishment on the male aggressors and transgressors of her female gendered self. At the same time she is willing to adopt key aspects of her female identity which she takes on a sort of ‘drag’ act in wearing a ‘seductive’ the red dress and high heels late out at night in search of her first victim(Zahevi 1991 p93). She is willing to sit in a bar and wants a stranger (Norman) buy her a drink(Zahevi 1991 p95), even when she is purchasing a gun she wants to have the Mr Brown to buy her the drink, simply because as a female she likes to have a drink bought for her in a bar by a man, because, “She likes it when they buy her things. To make them pay is a woman’s way.” (Zahevi 1991 p83) . The key turning point in the novel occurs when Bella visits an Iranian clairvoyant Nimrod, and during the course of the exchange between them, Bella shows the first signs of aggression and resistance to being identified as a female victim. He recognises the ‘lack’ in ‘female Bella’ and hands her a flick-knife; this is symbolic of Bella taking possession of the male phallus. When he asks her “Does it feel good?” (Zahevi 1991 p38) there are deliberate sexual undertones to the conversation; by holding the knife in her hand Bella’s repressed urges for avenging the abuse she has endured as a female come to the surface and she retorts to Nimrod with harsh, aggressive and even racist abuse. During the course of the conversation Bella sheds the identity of the female victim and takes on the male aggression and anger which she most fears – so much so that she then becomes the abuser and Nimrod becomes her victim, albeit of verbal (and not physical) abuse(Zahevi 1991 p36-38). Yet at the same time, towards the end of the conversation Bella reveals that this is not “really what she is like” (Zahevi 1991 p38) as she has been brought up with good manners and is generally polite to most of the people most of the time. Another key scene is the first murder of the academic Norman in the hotel, here Bella stands on the hotel balcony and listens to drunken male louts passing in the street. As she stands on the balcony, she imagines and fantasises what it would be like to possess a penis, and is absorbed in what she imagines as the potential power of the phallus, and imagines the shift in gender power relations if she were able to urinate on the men passing below her. At the end of the scene Bella recognises the duality of her new and old gender performance and identity, when she refers to her polite nature, good manners and general ‘niceness’ as girls are ‘”nice” (Zahevi 1991 p 117. Bella used to be nice, but she is no longer prepared to adopt and perform the female gender roles, as she is no longer prepared to be abused or victimised. The new Bella is fluid in her gender performativity and adopts elements of feminine ‘naivety’ externally while experiencing ‘masculine’ anger and aggression internally.

The fluidity of gender performativity can enable the gender assigned to a character to be undetermined throughout the course of a novel as in Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body. Here the gender of the narrator is obtuse and undisclosed all the way through the novel. At times the narrator displays a typically male gendered role in a the lack of emotional commitment to past partners, promiscuity with both male and female partners, and is violent towards a female partner Jacqueline (Winterson 1992 p86) and towards Louise’s husband Elgin (Winterson 1992p170) There is a fluidity in the gender of the narrator which is dependent on the ‘mood’ of the narrator/character and how they are feeling towards a partner at the time. For example with Louise the main object of the narrator’s desire and love, the narrator can be positioned as a female in the emotional turmoil and angst that they are experiencing. At the same time the search for resolution to Louise’s cancer and the ‘quest’ to understand the physicality and demise of the female body in the section titled “The Skelton” (Winterson 1992 p127), can be taken from either a male or female perspective. As a male gendered narrator this could be taken as a yearning to understand the alien female body of his lover which is turning against itself through the nature of the disease. In the same vein, the female gendered narrator can be taken as searching for resolution and deeper understanding of the cancer disease in relation to both Louise’s cancer, and in the context of the narrator understanding their own female form which has become alien to ‘her’. The choice of cancer as the disease becomes significant because it is a disease which ‘turns the body against itself’, in the same way the absence of a gender for the narrator is a ‘turning against’ the natural order of binary male/gender roles in society. Everyone must be man or woman, and the lack of ‘gender’ or the fluidity of the performance of the character’s gender roles all lead up to the point where the object of their love and infatuation must be destroyed or endangered in order to ‘make sense’ of the world.

Patricia Duncker’s novel Hallucinating Foucault is a presentation of gender performativity and queer theory. Initially as in Winterson’s novel we are unsure of the gender of the narrator, as he/she is only signified as ‘the narrator’ or the ‘reader’ throughout the novel. It is only about eighteen pages into the novel when the narrator is invited to a meal with the Germanist’s father that there is any reference to the gender of the narrator. Although this scene indentifies the narrator as male in the discussion of whether he should wear the ultimate phallic symbol of clothing, the tie (Duncker 1996 p18), markedly the narrator does not own a tie, and could be symbolic of the narrator lacking the phallus. At the meal the father flirts with the ‘boy’ narrator (Duncker 1996 p19), there was in my own personal experience of the text room for interpretation of the narrator as a female. The character of the Germanist and the relationship with the narrator, still allows for the reader even at this point to position the narrator as female and part of a lesbian relationship, where the narrator is playing at being male in order to please the Germanist. There are numerous other instances of gender performativity which challenge the role and nature of gender identity in the characterisation of the main protagonists in the key characters of the Germanist, the Narrator and Paul Michel; where we can consider the key ideas of gender performativity and homosexual ‘subcultures’. Paul Michel is described as ‘beautiful’ in his younger days and as a homosexual man he is reluctant to take on the mantle of the ‘establishment of the gay movement’ and “he cherished the role of the sexual outlaw, monster, pervert” (Duncker 1996 p28). For Michel his homosexuality is a space for rebellion and he wants to rebel against the ‘institutionalisation’ of homosexuality, in the same way that Butler is expresses unease about the restrictiveness of ‘Gay liberation’ as a movement.

The key female character of the Germanist is crucial as a facilitator to all the other characters, to the plot, and is essential in the gender performativity of the novel. She is the only significant female character and yet is not a ‘sympathetic’ character that can be identified with, and is complicated to understand and empathise with initially. The complications of the gender performativity of the Germanist lie in a number of factors of the expectations of her as a lead female character such as when the Narrator says “Never before had I been told to take my trousers off while the woman watched” (Duncker 1996 p12). In naming her character as the ‘Germanist’ Duncker signifies a harshness and coldness; this ‘coldness’ and is reinforced in the ‘cold’ relationship of the Germanist with us as readers and with the narrator with whom she has an atypical male/female love affair (Duncker 1996 p17). The narrator leaves the heterosexual relationship he is having with the Germanist and travels South to the warmth of Southern France to experience overwhelming intense love and emotion in his homosexual relationship with Paul Michel.

The Germanist is constantly described as having a “hard, bony body” (Duncker 1996 p23) and “scrawny arms” (Duncker 1996 p40), and physically almost like a pubescent boy, which raises the question of the attraction of the narrator to her as an atypical example of femininity. In fact in her initial encounter with Paul Michel as a child, Michel ‘misrecognises’ her as a ‘feminised’ boy with a mop of “brushed curls” (Duncker 1996 p164), Michel ‘falls in love with the boy’ he imagines her to be as a child and says “I had certainly been deceived in her sex” (Duncker 1996 p164). The coldness and aloofness of the Germanist as an adult female are not symbolic of femininity, and her attitude towards sex with narrator where she takes on the male role are also challenging to the narrator’s expectations of a ‘girlfriend’. More significantly her comment in the lift to the Narrator when she says “I left my womb at the bottom of the shaft” in front of the young black man (Duncker 1996 p40), carries sexual overtones, is flirtatious, yet at the same time illustrates her desire to shed her ‘female’ gendered self . The Germanist has an absent mother, and ‘two fathers’ and is perfectly adapted and content with this, which implies a rejection of the biological and female gender roles of the mother. In her relationship with her father the Germanist regresses into ‘girlish’ behaviour (Duncker 1996 p18). The narrator’s flatmate Mike is “mightily intimidated” and uneasy in her company (Duncker 1996 p23), doesn’t like her, and feels uncomfortable around her, which could be construed as her lack of coherence in her gender performance as a ‘typical’ girlfriend fitting into stereotypical female gender roles. Of course if the narrator is gendered as a female at this point, then the flatmate’s unease can be explained as sexual jealousy towards the lesbian relationship between the narrator and the Germanist.


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