And now for the
thrilling conclusion to my consideration of the virgin Enjolras, in which I talk about how his virginity might realistically impact his characterization beyond the overt symbolism the narrative voice and the Christian veneration of chastity afford it. This post won’t be nearly as long as the last, because this subject can rapidly head into the realm of conjecture and headcanon - entertaining to explore, but not very firmly based in the text.
- Angel on the Barricades, Part 1
- Angel on the Barricades, Part 2
- Angel on the Barricades, Part 3
- Looking at You Looking at Patria, Part 1
- Looking at You Looking at Patria, Part 2
- The Ambiguously 20-Something-Year-Old Virgin, Part 1
The Silence Behind Enjolras’s (Lack of) Virgin Anxiety
I first became interested in the queer dynamics of virginity in my analyses of Quentin Compson of The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom! because one of the multitude of reasons that he commits suicide is his anxiety over the fact that he is still a virgin and his beloved - and unmarried - sister Caddy isn’t. Faulkner is writing over a half century after Les Mis, but as I mentioned last time the denigration of male virginity is hardly a 20th or even 19th century phenomenon. One of the many nuggets of nihilistic wisdom that Quentin receives from his father is that “purity is a negative state and therefore contrary to nature,” emphasizing that, for men especially, virginity constitutes a lack of something - the knowledge that comes with sexual experience.
Even though we still speak of losing one’s virginity, the cultural double standard praises a man’s first sexual experience as something gained. A writer fetishizing a male virgin is therefore doubly jarring, because it’s not only an appropriation of a trope most commonly associated with idealized womanhood but also providing praise for what is ordinarily perceived as a shortcoming. There’s an impulse to read positively portrayed male virgins as feminized, because with the power of centuries-old cultural associations being what it is, feminization is easier than a redefinition of chastity as a sexless virtue.
It’s obvious that Enjolras has no such angst regarding his virginity, but unlike the religiously-grounded male virgins I brought up last time he has no explicit reason for being chaste (not counting meta-textual reasons). Furthermore, he’s not like Valjean or Javert living in near-isolation, or near-friendless like poor awkward Marius. How does his virginity pass without comment from any other character? The simplest conjecture is simply that no one else knows. Even Lesgles, the only person to directly Enjolras’s sexuality in any way whatsoever, likens his state to “veuvage" ("widow(er)hood") which does at least carry the (joking) implication of sexual activity at some point in the past. Though it’s not at all Hugo’s priority and might in fact threaten the symbolism of Enjolras’s purity, one would realistically expect at least a few of the Amis to remark upon the subject were they aware that Enjolras was a virgin: Lesgles, who as noted is snarky about everything; Coufeyrac, whose behavior toward Marius suggests that he takes a good-natured interest in the sex lives of his friends; or Grantaire, who has his own personal interest in Enjolras’s sexuality. The situation is unlike Galahad’s and similar characters - Enjolras is a fetishized (and therefore feminized) male virgin in a fairly realistic novel setting constantly surrounded by a group of his male peers who seem unrealistically unconcerned with his lack of sexual experience.
As this is the last general post in this series before I spend the rest of it looking at a specific relationship in-depth (E/R, what else?), I may conjecture here that, based on everything covered in these posts, the Amis may subconsciously regard Enjolras as feminine, because his possession of assorted positive “feminine” traits that may otherwise appear to conflict with his masculinity and with his status as leader are not the objects of confusion or ridicule that one would expect. Perhaps they’ve grown comfortable with the thought that Enjolras doesn’t adhere to the conventions of masculinity and consciously exists in some gray area between genders. Difficult as that would be to conceptualize in the 1820s-30s, does he really stand out all that much in the context of the general queerness of Les Amis?
Did I say this was going to be a shorter post? Pfft, “short.” I hardly know the meaning of the term. Next time, yet another look at E/R, this time in the conjunction of pederasty and courtly love. Now that I’ve written three long posts in as many nights, I think I’m going to go collapse somewhere off Tumblr for a week or so.