Who gets to calculate sex? When is sex reckless? Which voices does modernism prioritize to talk about sex?

 

Calculation and recklessness are useful perspectives for students to think critically about modernist literature. Over the course of the semester, I have learned that calculation and recklessness describe more than post-facto characterizations of character’s actions. Instead, these terms are better conceived of as rough frameworks to understand how characters respond to the situations that they experience as well as the writing styles that authors intentionally use to share these stories. I’ve paid attention to the complicated role of women, often operating under suppression of voice and agency, in many of the texts we’ve read. In Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, Antoinette’s calculated intimacy with Mr. Rochester demonstrates her dependence on her husband as a married Creole woman in postcolonial Jamaica. Beli, of Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, pursues promiscuity as a way to gain life experience through a practice of calculated recklessness. Unlike these two figures, Leda of W. B. Yeats’s poem Leda and the Swan is unable to calculate or act recklessly in this portrait of rape. Though I reject the association of rape with sex, this poem relates to the previous texts as an illustration of gendered power imbalance in modernist poetry. How, when, and the choice (or lack thereof) to engage with sexuality is thus a central theme of women’s experiences in Rhys’, Díaz’s, and Yeats’ modernist literature. All of these pieces, too, share unreliable or limited narrators: Antoinette’s memory is incomplete, Yunior’s retelling of Beli’s life is researched but ultimately second-hand, and Yeats’ omniscient narrator only bothers to guess about Leda’s experience. These unreliable or incomplete narrative approaches reflect the calculated and reckless sex they discuss, and further reveal the complicated struggle to find and assert identity amidst the power imbalances inherent in women’s sexual relationships.

On this website are pages for each of the works I have analyzed, as well as a page for feedback. I invite readers to think critically about the works I discuss, as well as my role as a White man analyzing literature from a feminist perspective.