Enlightenment Utopias, Fall 2014

literary thought experiments of the 17th and 18th centuries

Discussion Questions for Sarah Scott’s Millennium Hall

by Amber Chiac

1) The women of Millennium Hall are obsessed with cleanliness, purity and virtue. The women’s clothes are described as having “the same neatness and the same “cleanliness.” The girls’ clothes are described as “extremely white and clean” (13). Even the architecture is depicted as “perfectly clean.” For instance, the narrator describes the chairs as made of “wood as white as possible” and states that “perhaps there was never a garden so neat” (141). One of the peasant women tells the narrator, “there never passes a day that one or other of the ladies does not come and look all over the house… [it is] all for our own good, for we cannot be healthy if we are not clean and neat” (19). Is there a connection between cleanliness, orderliness, rationality and control? How might this be related to traditional views of the female body (and the disabled body) as dirty, leaky, chaotic, contaminated and existing within the realm of nature? How does Scott alter the god/man/woman hierarchy by presenting woman as logical, clean, contained and passionless? How is this related to the fact that Millennium Hall is a “reversal” of the traditional conduct book and a “concrete” rather than an “abstract” utopia?

2) Building off the last question, why does Miss Maynard know everything about the women of the house? Is there privacy at Millennium Hall? The biographies of the women are riddled with deception and betrayal but such vices do not seem to exist at Millennium Hall. Do the women renounce privacy in order to live a peaceful existence? Or are women so pure in the company of other women that privacy is unnecessary?

3) According to Wilson’s introduction, some critics have noted an “undercurrent of lesbianism” in A Description of Millennium Hall.  In her article, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” Adrienne Rich conceptualizes lesbianism as involving much more than only sexual relations. Rich suggests we use the tools of “re-vision” and the “lesbian continuum” to detect homoeroticism in places where it did not or could not find articulation. Keeping this in mind, let’s examine the following:

The women of Millennium Hall sincerely care about men but they never really “fall in love” with them. The female characters never feel the passion or the lust that the male characters feel. In the novel, men have more to gain from heterosexual relationships than women do. Heterosexual relationships render female characters poor, stupid and sad while female friendships bring them peace, enlightenment and happiness. One could argue that the closest thing to a genuine love story in the text is the friendship between Miss Morgan & Miss Mancel. Miss Maynard describes their friendship as one that brings the women “infinite joy” (105) and suggests that they were reunited by providence. Their friendship is sometimes described in erotic terms. Referring to Miss Morgan and Miss Mancel, Miss Maynard says, “who from their childhood have been so connected, that I could not, if I would, disunite them in my relation; and it would be almost a sin to endeavor to separate them even in idea. (76) Scott clearly naturalizes same-sex intimacy between women and may be suggesting that it is godlier than heterosexual intimacy.

There is no normative concept of family at Millennium Hall. As Johns states, “form follows function” at Millennium Hall: “there is no master plan” and women “tackle each problem and project according to the needs and circumstances of the moment” (14). Scott subverts the traditional family structure and the institution of heterosexual marriage on the ground of irrationality. For instance, Miss Mancel and Miss Morgan act as mothers to the inhabitants of Millennium Hall and this turns out to be a particularly rational and effective mode of domestic/economic organization.

4) Millennium Hall is populated entirely by women except Mr. D’vora (when he was alive) and some “disabled” men. Miss Maynard describes Mr. D’vora as “a man of great understanding” and a man with an “incomparable heart.” Speaking of Mr. D’vora, she says, “misfortunes had softened common humanity into a most tender disposition” (44). One of the disabled men that live in the hall is described as having led a “wretched life…in the hands of one of those monster-mongers” and as having an “extreme weakness of body” (73). Why did Scott choose to include these men in the story? Is she saying that victimized men are akin to women? What does this suggest about Scott’s representation of women as exceptionally (essentially?) empathic and benevolent?

5) What aspects of this novel are prescient of contemporary feminist practices and ideas? What aspects are regressive?

In this novel, Scott critiques systematic oppression through richly detailed biographical information about each of the women who founded Millennium Hall. This supports the feminist epistemological approach of privileging partial perspective and demonstrates that the personal is political. Scott illuminates the ways in which “the social contract obscures the sexual contract on which it depends” (Johns, 92). Female emancipation is associated with the empowerment of other marginalized people, such as the poor, the sick, the disabled and people of color (the latter in The History of Sir George Ellison). However, Millennium Hall is not an equalitarian community: there is a firm class hierarchy and the disabled inhabitants are kept in an enclosure and referred to as “monsters” and as “wretched.”

Scott depicts men and women in very essentialist terms. Miss Maynard declares, “Every thing to me loses its charm when it is put out of the station wherein nature, or to speak more properly, the all-wise Creator has placed it.” Women in this novel have no sexual agency and their worth is based primarily on their “virtue.” Their happiness and wellbeing is important but only because it renders them good Christians. Women are still subservient but instead of being subservient to men, they are equal with men in their subservience to god.

6) Who is the intended audience of this novel? To answer this question we should examine why the women decided to create Millennium Hall. What was the major motivating factor? To passively escape the influence of evil men or to actively set up an experimental community with other women?

The obvious answer is that this novel was written for men. The novel ends with Lamont (described by the narrator as a “coxcomb”) reading the New Testament. He tells Miss Maynard that he is “convinced by the conduct of the ladies of this house that their religion must be the true one” and his thoughts are “engaged in a scheme to imitate them on a smaller scale” (191). In Sir George Ellison, the narrator goes on to implement the principals of Millennium Hall in his slave plantation.

Another possible answer is that the text is written for women. When Lady Emilia explains to Lord Robert that Miss Selvyn does not wish to marry him, she says Miss Selvyn is “so entirely happy in her present situation, nothing in the world should induce her to change it.” When Lord Robert inquires as to whether Miss Selvyn has “any particular objection to him,” she “shrewd the uselessness of this question, since the reason of her refusing the honor he intended her, would have made her reject the addresses of every man in the world” (ebook, 207). Scott chose a woman (Lady Barbra Montague) as her life partner and she wanted her readers to know this was a viable and pious option for them as well. Scott advocates consciousness-raising among women and valorizes the virtuousness of female friendship.

Utopian Narration

by Amber Chiac

“There must always be a certain effect of hardness and thinness about Utopian speculation. Their common fault is to be comprehensively jejune. That which is the blood and warmth and reality of life is largely absent; there are no individuals, but only generalized people” (Wells, quoted in Ferns, 9-10).

For my final paper, I am interested in exploring the implications of the seventeenth and eighteenth century utopian narrative paradigm. One similarity among all the utopian narrators we’ve encountered throughout the semester is their lack of psychological complexity. The utopian story is always communicated scientifically or poetically but never with personalization. The narrator functions mainly as a mouthpiece to convey the utopian elements of society from a universal standpoint and the nuances of his/her character are unknown/irrelevant. Some questions are: Why are readers not supposed to psychologize the narrators of these utopian texts? What impact does it have when readers attempt to psychologize them? What are the ideological implications of this narrative mode?

I think there is a connection between the flat one-dimensional narrative style and the theme of nowhereness in utopian texts. I am thinking of Haraway’s argument about objectivity and the “god trick,” which is the “gaze from no where.” The “gaze from nowhere” represents the enlightenment ideal of disembodiment and transcendence, and is particularly masculine. This seems well suited to the utopian narrator who is predominantly male, and to utopia itself, which is imagined as universally desirable. This universalism, or what Wells calls “meta-utopia” opens readers to “multiple and contradictory readings” (Ferns, 9). This keeps texts open and ambiguous and allows authors to mask their intentions. This would have been especially important during the 17th/18th century because of the possibility of political and religious prosecution.

Utopias tend to have a dream-like quality and to be ahistorical (perhaps this has something to do with a utopian dream of immortality?). For example, there is always very scant information conveyed about the formation of utopian islands. This absence may suggest “a reluctance to confront the nature of the relation between the real world and the utopian dream” (Ferns, 27). Ferns argues that a sense of time is lost in utopian narratives because the utopian encounter is always positioned in the past. Since the traveller is always recounting his time in utopia, he is always detached from the experience. Also, because this experience is over, utopia is presented to readers as “whole, static,” and “complete.” Due to this “elimination of time,” there is no sense of “process” (21). In a book called Narrating Utopia, Chris Ferns describes the narrative consequences of this:

In a context where time and historical causation have lost all meaning, the concept of individual character likewise becomes meaningless. Where the birth, life, death of the individual make no difference, individual distinguishing characteristics become insignificant; in narrative terms this tends to result in the replacement of the individual by that more durable construct, the typical citizen (p. 21).

There is a lot of good information in this book but I am struggling to find other sources. Perhaps I could use Bahktin or Foucault to elaborate on these concepts. During my research, I came across Foucault’s work on heterotopias. He uses the mirror as a metaphor for utopia – as a place where one simultaneously exists and does not exist. It is like utopia because what one sees in the mirror does not really exist but it is also heterotopia because it changes the way one relates to his or her image. Looking in the mirror “you find yourself missing in the place that you are.” I think this could be relevant to my project but I need to do more research!

That’s all I have so far. Please let me know if you think there is anything worth pursuing here : )

Secondary Source for Gulliver’s Travels: The Sexual Politics of Microscopy in Brobdingnag

by Amber Chiac

Secondary Source:

Armintor, Deborah N. “The Sexual Politics of Microscopy in Brobdingnag.” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 47.3 (2007): 619-640. Web. <https://www.press.jhu.edu/timeline/sel/Armintor_2007.pdf>.

In her 1935 essay “The Microscope and English Imagination,” Marjorie Nicolson argues that in “A Voyage To Brobdingnag,” Gulliver acts as a microscopist, a curious scientist equipped with superior vision in an unknown world. In “The Sexual Politics of Microscopy in Brobdingnag,” Armintor counters that argument by suggesting that Gulliver is not a microscopist but a female-owned “seeing object” that undergoes a three-stage degeneration from “microscopist to miniature microscope to miniature woman-owned microscope and finally to a woman-owned miniature microscope-cum-sexual prop.” She argues that this degeneration mirrors eighteenth-century English anxieties surrounding the “feminization” and commodification of the microscope and the development of “un(re)productive” female sexual toys.

The microscope was invented circa 1600 and in 1665 the prominent scientist Robert Hooke proclaimed, “by the help of microscopes, there is nothing so small as to escape our inquiry” (Armintor, 622). The microscope failed to live up to Hooke’s prediction. In 1680 the Royal Society expressed disappointment over its failure to observe atoms. In 1691 in a speech about the future of microscopes, Hooke describes the microscope’s fall from prestigious instrument of science to tiny popular commodity. He says, “I hear of none that make any other Use of that Instrument, but for Diversion and Pastime and by that reason it is become a portable Instrument, and easy to be carried in one’s pocket.” Hooke is referring to “pocket-microscopes,” which were popular among middle and upper class women and used for both scientific discovery and aesthetic purposes. The once productive and respectable microscope had been “reduced to a mere toy, a literal and metaphorical shrinkage that was, for Hooke, a symbolic castration” (Armintor, 624).

In her article, Nicolson cites Gulliver’s dissection of the wasp and his contribution to Gresham College as evidence that Gulliver is an inquisitive scientific observer but Armintor points out that Gulliver is only able to inspect the insect because his female owner places him in the its vicinity. Like a microscope, Gulliver’s vision is dictated by his female-owners and he is carried around in a “travelling-closet” akin to a carrying case. Also, during this time period, the coach window functioned as a “framed spectacle” for women to showcase their commodities. Gulliver often rode around on Glumdalclitch’s lap in her “open sedan” and recounts that spectators crowded around the car to observe him. According to Armintor, the open sedan does not make a commodity of Glumdalclitch but of the imprisoned Gulliver: her tiny male accessory, an “enlightened man of science turned observing object and object observed” (629).

When Gulliver observes lice crawling on the beggar’s body, he says, “I could see distinctly the limbs of these vermin with my naked eye, much better than those of an European louse through a microscope” and “I should have been curious enough to dissect one of them, if I had proper instruments (which I unluckily left behind me in the ship) although indeed the sight was so nauseous, that it perfectly turned my stomach” (151). Gulliver responds to what he sees in a purely sensory way. Gulliver is emasculated (deprived of his tools), a slave to his magnified vision and objectified by Glumdalclitch and is therefore unable to move from what John Locke calls “perception” (sensory) to “reflection” (intellectual) (630). He misses the “larger picture” and cannot make the connection between his predicament and the predicament of the beggar. Gulliver symbolizes the “enlightened Englishman’s metaphorical reduction to the position of a pocket microscope—a hyper-perceptive but astonishingly unreflective female commodity” (631).

The theme of female consumption is also evident in Swift’s depiction of the queen’s gluttonous appetite and grotesque way of eating and most pointedly in his depiction of Gulliver as a sexual device. When Gulliver is given to the queen’s maids of honor, he recalls that the “ prettiest giantess would sometimes set me astride upon one of her nipples, with many other tricks, wherein the reader will excuse me for not being over particular. But, I was so much displeased, that I entreated Glumdalclitch to contrive some excuse for not seeing that young lady any more” (158). Armintor calls this “the ultimate act of female consumption”— “rendering Gulliver’s own genitalia both physically and symbolically insignificant” (634). Afterward, Gulliver says, “what gave me most uneasiness among these maids of honor… was to see them use me…like a creature who had no sort of consequence” (p. 158). If Gulliver were being used as a sexual prop, his vision would have been restricted to the inside of female genitalia:“an image blown up to abstraction and at the expense of the bigger picture” (634). According to Armintor Swift would probably have been familiar with the Rorschachian image of a magnified fly’s eyes from Hooke’s book Micrographia published in 1665. Armintor links this imagery to earlier incidents in Brobdingnag when Gulliver observes flies.

Armintor’s argument is that Gulliver represents “enlightened Englishmen in the age of pocket microscopy and their imagined degeneration from male giant-among-the- dwarfs” to a tiny objectified commodity controlled by “scientifically and sexually curious female consumers” (634). In “A Voyage to Brobdingnag,” Swift reveals the “gynophobia latent in Enlightenment science’s aversion to the new consumerism”(626) and “satirizes the misogyny behind ‘enlightened’ English masculinity and the castration threat it projects onto the new female consumer who is imagined to have abused and belittled both the microscope and the phallus by wresting them from their original and rightful (male) owners” (635).

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