Chapter one of The Safe Sea of Women by Bonnie Zimmerman is about how lesbian culture shapes the novels we write. What I found most interesting is her discussion of myths. Zimmerman defines myths in a full paragraph, using some wording taken from Mircea Eliade’s writing. Here are some of the elements of myths:
- Myths are sacred stories
- They illustrate what primarily concerns a society
- They explain features of the society and they tell a society who they are and how to be
- They construct the meaning of our lives
Zimmerman pointed out some of the myths that have been presented in lesbian novels. For example, in The Well of Loneliness, the Christian myth of origin is retold in the character of Stephen Gordon. As Zimmerman writes,
“Sinning against both heaven and earth, Stephen Gordon is barred from her ancestral home by the avenging angel, her own mother. She becomes first an exile and wanderer until, through love and suffering, she is redeemed, even becoming a veritable Christ-figure” (p30).
I read The Well of Loneliness recently, and I certainly noticed the reverence that the protagonist felt toward her family’s home, and the loneliness she felt when she was banished, but I didn’t connect this to the Christian myth. Now that I’ve seen it, it’s definitely obvious and effective. Gordon’s childhood home, Morton, is like the Garden of Eden from which she has been expelled for her sins, and she is left to wander around in misery until her death. She tries to redeem herself by pushing away her lover in the hopes that her act of martyrdom will give Mary a better life with a man. Although I wouldn’t necessarily compare this to Christ, there is an element of sacrifice and redemption.
Important to the Christian origin myth is the idea of eating an apple and thus becoming a sinner and being exiled from the Garden. Writers don’t have to stick with the idea of homosexuality as sin, however. Zimmerman refers to a novel called Angel Dance in which the Fall was engineered by Eve as a way of leaving Adam. Some writers have presented lesbian origin myths in which women are in a heavenly state of harmony with each other until something begins to divide them. Early matriarchal societies provide an excellent setting for such a lesbian-centric Garden of Eden.
I’m pondering the idea of “eating the apple” being similar to the moment of realizing one’s sexual orientation. The young child is innocent of such things, and at some point along the way she realizes who she’s attracted to. The first romance is the moment of “tasting the forbidden fruit,” and after that comes exile from the comfort and normalcy of childhood, and a journey through uncertainty. The question that the lesbian writer has to answer after that is “What does paradise look like when she finally finds it?” The “paradise” that lesbian writers describe will likely be the joy of settling down with one’s true love, or finding a vibrant lesbian community, or both.
A common storyline in any fiction is the hero and his quest.
“The lesbian hero, a stranger in the strange land of heterosexuality, sets out on a difficult adventure that eventually brings her home to her lesbian self and the lesbian community” (p31).
In this way, the lesbian-hero-on-a-quest theme is the opposite of the exile from the garden: instead of being born in a seemingly perfect world and falling out of it through sin, the lesbian hero is born in a hostile world and journeys toward a better one.
As a person who is interested in myths and fairy tales, this idea really resonates with me. I love a good hero story and I love a quest, and if that quest results in the paradise of happy lesbian love then it’s all the more rewarding.
Some of the lesbian novels I’ve read lately have presented characters who are on a journey during which they help other women they meet along the way. It’s particularly gratifying to see a character whose journey toward lesbianism lifts up other women around her.
As I read further into The Safe Sea of Women I keep finding more reasons why I’m really glad I stumbled upon this book. I was actually in a bookstore looking for The Well of Loneliness and I happened to discover this one while browsing the lesbian section. The Goddess must have planted it there for me and then led me to it!
The thoughts I’m having now about my work-in-progress are related to what lesbian myths I want to create with my story, and what other characters can be helped and uplifted as a result of my characters’ quest toward lesbian love.
What a delight!