Sexual freedom pertains to many aspects of one's life. We get bombarded with sexual images, ideas and discussions every day, and our degree of sexual liberation affects how we react to these stimuli. Sexuality can be quite a broad topic, but I will focus primarily on sexual orientation, pornography, and one's ability to choose when and with whom to engage in sexual activity. I consider myself very comfortable with my sexuality. Some of the novels that I hold closest to my heart have such a place because of their sexual undertones. By looking more deeply at the character's choices and feelings in these novels, I can gain a better understanding of my own choices and feelings. Esther in The Bell Jar is both restricted and freed; it saddens me to see her tied down by society's double standard. The Color Purple's Celie is initially restricted like Esther, until she finds freedom for herself. In 1984, Winston and Julia struggle to be liberated against a government that wants to suppress all sexual feelings. These are all novels about rebellion against someone else's sexual value system. They are novels about oppression, and freedom. The next two novels are uninhibited, not concerned with social values, and solely regarding individual freedom. They are Tropic of Cancer and On the Road.
Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar is a tale of Esther's psychological decline, suicide attempt, and slow recovery. It begins in New York City, where Esther introduces the reader to all of her unsatisfactory relationships with men. She starts with Buddy Willard, her college beau; Esther has received considerable pressure from all sides to marry Buddy, but she refuses when she finds out that Buddy isn't "pure." She decides she doesn't want to be "pure" anymore either, to even up the score with Buddy. In making that decision, Esther gets trapped by the double standard; she doesn't want to slot neatly into a virgin or a whore category, but she talks of her virginity like a weight that has dragged her down. Since this novel is set in the prudent and god fearing fifties, I can understand why there is such a stigma attached to being slotted into either of the two categories; women's liberation was in its very early stages, and so college girls wanted to get out and "do it" but society still hadn't embraced the idea of premarital sex. My problem with all of this is that modern girls still get caught in the double standard. If you don't have sex, you're a prude, a tease; if you do, you're a slut, a whore. I lost my virginity fairly young, and afterwards, some of my own friends condemned me for it. My brother, on the other hand, is presently slightly older than I was when I first had sex, and he is receiving considerable pressure to lose his. It is unfair that young women should be judged based on someone else's archaic moral code, and not their own personal value and belief system. Esther gets so hung up on the double standard that she can't figure out what she believes.
After her decision to lose her virginity, Esther has two more brief escapades in New York. First there is Constantin, of whom Esther says, "I decided I would let Constantin seduce me" (Plath 98) and then there is the brutal woman hater, Marco, who savagely attacks Esther and attempts to rape her. After taking her out to a garden at a country club, Marco shoves Esther onto the ground, and climbs on top of her, muttering in her ear, "Sluts, all sluts.... Yes or no, it is all the same" (Plath 122). This incident leads into Part Two of the novel, when Esther returns to her mother's suburban home and begins her rapid decline. In Part Three, Esther is bounced from one psychiatric ward to the next, until she gets settled in a private hospital. Esther discusses her fear of being stuck with a child with her psychiatrist, saying, "What I hate is the thought of being under a man's thumb.... A man doesn't have a worry in the world, while I've got a baby hanging over my head" (Plath 239). Her psychiatrist encourages Esther to go get fitted for a diaphragm. Esther goes, and as she climbs onto the exam table, she thinks to herself, "I am climbing to freedom, freedom from fear, freedom from marrying the wrong person, like Buddy Willard, just because of sex, freedom from the Florence Crittenden Homes where all the poor girls go who should have been fitted out like me, because what they did, they would do anyway, regardless" (Plath 251). This is a step in the right direction for Esther, although she admits that what she was doing was illegal. It is fantastic that Esther got up the nerve to go and get herself protected, because even though they didn't think about STDs so much, there was always the threat of ending up pregnant. After she gets her diaphragm, Esther begins the search for a man. She wants someone "intelligent, so [she] would respect him...someone quite experienced to make up for [her] lack of it.... Then, to be on the safe side, [she] wanted somebody [she] didn't know and wouldn't go on knowing -- a kind of impersonal priestlike official, as in the tales of tribal rites" (Plath 257). Esther finds her man -- Irwin, who is a twenty-four year old professor of mathematics. They go out for coffee, and dinner, and return to Irwin's home. She says, "It was only after seeing Irwin's study that I decided to seduce him" (Plath 254). After she loses her virginity, though, Esther begins hemorrhaging, and the experience becomes wholly unpleasant (Karolides 351). Esther's problems afterward are unfortunate, and it's a shame that things didn't work out better for her. I think it would have been better had Esther been involved steadily with the man she chose to be her first. This way, he may have been more sympathetic to her plight, and taken better care of her, leaving her with a sense that she would be protected, even when things went wrong. It is good to see Esther trying to liberate herself, though, even if she went about it wrong. It is spectacular that she went out and got herself a diaphragm to protect herself. Although Esther made a start, she still has a long way to go.
Celie, from The Color Purple by Alice Walker, is a black woman in the South, who was sexually abused by her stepfather and forced into an abusive marriage. Celie develops a crush on her husband's mistress, a singer named Sugar Avery. She has no real feelings for her husband; she says, "Only time I feel something stirrin down there is when I think about Shug" (Walker 64). When Sugar gets sick, Celie's husband insists that she move into their home, where Celie cares for her. At one point, Celie is giving Shug a bath, and she says, "First time I got the full sight of Shug Avery long black body with it black plum nipples, look like her mouth, I though I had turned into a man" (Walker 51). This is such a great quote because it is the beginning of Celie's realization of all of her dreams of Shug, and also, because it is very telling. You realize that women were not expected to have sexual feelings, which is unfortunate. Over the course of time, Celie and Sugar develop a close friendship, which eventually turns sexual. Celie leaves her husband to live with Sugar. I was thrilled for Celie when she and Sugar finally took that final step in their relationship. I wish Celie would have been encouraged more to explore her sexuality, and she hadn't needed Shug to intervene and encourage her to find her freedom. The fact that Celie made it at all is encouraging, though. Celie has never experienced pleasure during sex, and she talks to Shug about it, because Shug enjoys it immensely. Shug tells Celie about her clitoris, in some less scientific terms, and tells her to go look in a mirror, and find it. Celie is embarrassed to go look at her genitalia, and Shug says, "What, to shame to go off and look at yourself? And you look so cute too...all dressed up...smelling good and everything, but scared to look at your own pussy" (Walker 82). After this, I had immense respect for Sugar. She touted masturbation long before anyone would ever accept that it was natural and normal. While The Color Purple starts off on a down note, you watch Celie make a complete turn around, and it is thrilling to watch her get to know herself, and allow herself to be with a woman.
Although Celie and Esther rebelled from their sexual constraints with a certain amount of success, Winston and Julia's rebellion in 1984 could be considered an utter failure. 1984 is set in a world of the future in which a totalitarian government monitors and controls every aspect of each citizen's life. The Party tried to "...remove all pleasure from the sexual act....Eroticism was the enemy, inside marriage as well as outside it. Sexual intercourse was to be looked on as a slightly disgusting minor operation, like having an enema" (Orwell 57). The Party feared that if they allowed people to love each other, they might perhaps substitute that love for love to the Party and Big Brother. Winston notes that "the sexual act, successfully performed, was rebellion. Desire was thoughtcrime" (Orwell 59). Winston fantasizes about sex with Julia, who he thought was "young and pretty and sexless" (Orwell17). He dreams about raping her, and dreams that she has sex with him in an open field, which he calls the Golden County. She approaches him, and arranges a secret meeting between the two of them. It turns out that Julia has been rebelling against the Party all along, and having multiple affairs with numerous Party members, which Winston said much earlier in the book was an "unforgivable crime" and that it was "difficult to imagine any such thing happening" (Orwell 57). Winston and Julia continue their affair; it is a way for them to rebel. Winston wants to see the Party destroyed, and sex with Julia is not only enjoyable for him, but a means by which he can undermine all that the Party stands for. Winston, however, wants to rebel in bigger ways; Julia is content to simply continue her affair with Winston. He is puzzled by this, and tells her, "You're only a rebel from the waist downwards" (Orwell 129). Everything came back to sexuality for Julia (Orwell 110). Winston and Julia are eventually caught, and put through mind numbing torture, which hollows them both out, and refills them with nothing but blind love for Big Brother and the Party. For the short while that they were able to maintain their relationship, Winston's health improved, they were both happier, and Winston had something to look forward to. He didn't drink as much, and he didn't spend so much time brooding over the injustice and hypocrisy of the Party. Sex is healthy, and normal, and trying to suppress someone else's or your own sexuality will only end in ugliness. First, you will not succeed. Second, since sex is healthy, and normal, forcibly abstaining, or engaging in sex will prove to be harmful for all parties involved, not just physically, but emotionally as well.
The Bell Jar, The Color Purple, and 1984 all had one common trait: someone was experiencing sexual oppression, and they tried to rebel, however effectively or fruitlessly. In Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer and Jack Kerouac's On the Road, the main characters didn't concern themselves so much with societal pressures to be abstinent. Both books are extremely similar: they were written about 10 years apart, Miller in the late 1930s, and Kerouac in the late 1940s; Miller travels to Paris, and the book tracks his sexual exploits for a portion of his stay, as well as tracking his extensive use of alcohol, work, and friendships; Kerouac travels back and forth across the states, ending in Mexico, and the book tracks his sexual exploits, his use of alcohol and marijuana, work, and frienships. Kerouac and Miller seem to have similar writing styles, and ideas about life; however, Miller is far more obscene and promiscuous than Kerouac. Kerouac seeks a soulmate, while Miller seeks a night of reverie.
Although Tropic of Cancer was published in 1934, it was banned for thirty years in the states. The novel contains graphic depictions of Miller's sex life. Miller also freely uses obscenities, not only relating to sexual incidents, but in general conversation (Karolides 324). In the opening pages of the novel, Miller writes a passage to a woman named Tania, saying, "I shoot hot bolts into you, Tania, I make your ovaries incandescent" (Miller 5). He goes on to say, "I am [screwing] you, Tania, so that you'll stay [screwed]" (Miller 6). Miller does not concern himself with religious or societal beliefs in sexuality. He says, "I have found God, but he is insufficient. I am only spiritually dead. Physically, I am alive. Morally I am free" (Miler 98-9). I don't nescessarily think that everyone should renounce their faith in God, but I certainly feel that everyone should be morally free; free to establish their own moral code and not have to adhere to someone else's belief system. I have almost always been morally free; I have my own standards for myself, which are right for me; I can't impose them on anyone else, and I try not to criticize others who are more or less liberal than I am. I can't hold anyone else to my personal code of conduct. It helps me to sleep at night, and that's all that matters.
While Miller is completely honest, and no holds barred, Kerouac is a little more restrained. He uses very little obscenity (you can barely get through a page of Miller without encountering a four-letter-word), and he isn't completely straightforward. You need to get some background and read between the lines a little to get the entire drift of Kerouac's book. On the Road is a thinly veiled autobiography; the names have been changed, and some of the facts were a little off. The character of Kerouac is Sal Paradise, Neal Cassady is Dean Moriarty, and Allen Ginsberg is Carlo Marx. On the Road is often considered the prose piece to go with Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems. In reading portions of Howl, I found that Ginsberg made numerous distinct references to homosexual oral and anal sex that he had during his time in California, while Kerouac was on the road. When Sal Paradise arrived in California, he said, "I was the only guy without a girl. I asked everybody, 'Where's Dean?' They made smiling negative answers." Finally, Sal is able to track down Carlo Marx, who explains to Sal that Dean is juggling two girls, "they being Marylou, his first wife, who waited for him in a hotel room, and Camille, a new girlfriend, who waited for him in a hotel room." Carlo tells Sal, "Between the two of them he rushes to me for our own unfinished business" (Kerouac 41). Although he won't come right out and say that Carlo and Dean were sexually involved, one can easily infer that by closely examining the text.
On the Road is split into five parts, the first four are several chapters each outlining different legs of Sal's journey, like a great pendulum, from east to west and west to east. The final part is a single chapter is which Sal has finally settled in New York, and he bumps into Dean, and they go their separate ways. All along the different trips, Dean and Sal consort with numerous girls. In part one, while Sal is riding a bus to Los Angeles, he "saw the cutest little Mexican girl...her breasts stuck out straight and true; her little flanks looked delicious; her hair was long and lustrous black....I waited till she looked at me, with a sad little sidelook of love, and I got right up and leaned over her. 'May I sit with you, miss?' 'If you wish.' And this I did" (Kerouac 82). They go off together for a while, and part ways when Sal realizes that he can't possibly support her. While together, they made each other incredibly happy. Sal says, "I ached all over for her....Her little shoulders drove me mad; I hugged her and hugged her. And she loved it" (Kerouac 82-3). Later on, in part four, Dean and Sal trip off to Mexico together. They meet Victor, a Mexican boy to shows them where a whorehouse is. Sal says, "With Venezuela writhing and suffering in my arms, I had a longing to take her in the back and undress her and only talk to her -- this I told my self. I was delirious with want of her and the other little dark girl" (Kerouac 288). After the alcohol and marijuana wear off a little, Sal realized, "I was in Mexico after all and not in a pornographic hasheesh daydream in heaven" (Kerouac 289). Sal and Dean were unrestricted in reality, but when they went to press, Kerouac felt it best to keep some of the truth out of public view. They had sex when they wanted to, if they found a willing girl, and weren't held back.
I feel that morality is very personal. I don't appreciate being slapped with labels because of my choices. I have made some that I grew to regret, but they were my choices. I just recently realized what made the difference between acceptable and unacceptable sex for me. Some of the characters in these novels rebelled against a moral code that was not right for them; some of them were doing their own thing all along. In any case, they all bumbled along, and tried to do what would make themselves happy without too much upset, and I respect them all for that. I'll leave you with a favorite quote of mine from On the Road: "Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together. Spohistication demands that they submit to sex immediately without proper preliminary talk. Not courting talk -- real straight talk about souls, for life is holy and every moment is precious" (Kerouac 58).