Toward a New Mythology of Eve: Women, Men and Friendship in Victorian Literature As Seen Through Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent
Buckley, Linda H
O'Brien, William J
Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent (2017) is centered on friendship in all of its various forms in Victorian England. The epigraph to the novel comes from 16th century philosopher Michel de Montaigne’s essay “On Friendship.” Perry disputes Michel de Montaigne’s assertion that men and women cannot be friends. By doing so, Perry also subverts the standard tropes of the Victorian novel to rewrite the history of the “New Woman” and relations between men and women.Specifically, this thesis looks at: 1) the problem of heterosexual friendships in Western culture, 2) the importance of narrative—specifically the novel—to Western culture, 3) the role of the novel in the Victorian era and how women and friendships are treated in novels such as Jude the Obscure and Daniel Deronda, 4) how Perry challenges the notion that friendship between men and women requires a special taxonomy, and finally, 5) how Perry’s novel leads us to reexamine the role of Eve in Western culture.Based on a thorough, yet non-exhaustive review of related scholarly literature and a close reading of the novel, this paper helps show that literary treatments of Eve by biblical interpreters, philosophers and poets, such as Saint Augustine and John Milton, have been used to undermine Western concepts of women and their suitability for friendship. This thesis discusses how the Western foundational myth of a male Creator that creates via logos, or the word, rather than a female Creator that gives birth, has doomed women to inferiority. Unless our society can engage in a wide reexamination of Eve and restore her to, what biblical scholar Phyllis Trible considers to have been, God’s “crowning glory,” we will not effectively reset relations between men and women. Even for those who are not religious, the mythology of Adam, Eve and the fall from grace is ingrained in our collective psyche.Ultimately, this thesis aims to contribute to a deeper understanding of why Western journalists, authors, playwrights, bloggers, philosophers, psychologists and scientists repeatedly ask, “Can men and women be friends?” By providing a detailed analysis of The Essex Serpent, this thesis hopes to “flip” the question to examine: “Why can’t men and women be friends?” By asking the question differently perhaps we can encourage further explorations of how women are treated in Western mythology. In this way, scholars may be able to change the discourse that has emerged in this country around #MeToo, #TimesUp and the recent Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination hearings.Future analyses might broaden this discussion to include an analysis of how other biblical women have been treated in popular culture, to include the Virgin Mary. These analyses might also include a more exhaustive analysis of how friendships between men and women have evolved in narratives across historical eras. By re-examining the original texts and understanding how they have been interpreted within historical context, we can begin the process of adapting that narrative for our current context.
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