Sheila Liming, “Romancing the Interstitial: Howe, Balzac, and Nineteenth-Century Legacies of Sexual Indeterminacy” (pp. 311–337)
This essay links Julia Ward Howe’s infamous “lost” text, The Hermphrodite (first published in 2004), with Honoré de Balzac’s Sarrasine (1830), arguing that Howe rewrites Balzac’s figure of the “tragic hermaphrodite” with the intention of protesting nineteenth-century American assumptions regarding innate sexual difference. The Hermaphrodite tells the story of Laurence, a deeply contemplative, intelligent person whose sexual identity is disputed, but Howe never employs the term “hermaphrodite” outright. This situation encourages readers to judge Laurence’s hermaphroditism by his behavior and actions in the novel, not his biology, and this is furthermore consistent with the way the term “hermaphrodite” was used and understood by mid-nineteenth-century Americans. As such, this essay examines the claims that Howe makes about the social machinery of gender in The Hermaphrodite, arguing that while Laurence has much in common with Balzac’s Sarrasine, Howe uses her protagonist as a means of revising outdated arguments about biological “truth.” Howe’s Laurence revisits and updates nineteenth-century considerations of the aesthetic androgyne in the service of a modern, political agenda concerning sexual demarcation and difference.