Queer Sexuality of “The Mermaid”


The voice of “The Mermaid” is a young female mermaid that appears to contemplate loneliness and long for love, mostly out of her own vanity. In the second stanza she is represented by a beautiful fountain and she describes a “great sea-snake” which seeks her “around the hall.” These lines create a metaphor for sex in which the sea-snake is a phallic object that represents the male positive and the hall represents the female negative. The sea snake being stopped at the gate is the mermaid’s rejection of the men that offer themselves to her for marriage, and they “feel their immortality die.” Tennyson may use mermaids and mermen to tell a story or love, sexuality, and lust because they are not human and therefore they may not have to fall within the acceptable expressions of human sexuality, although he is still discrete. The idea of immortality could suggest that the mer-people are more likely to experience multiple sexual relationships because they are not bounded by the concept of ‘till death do us part’ in the institution of marriage within human society.

The mermaid relies on her beauty to attract mermen and she is very flirtatious. She tells of her time playing with the mermen and running to and fro and playing hide and seek. She purposefully attracts these men and seems to use them for her entertainment even though she knows she does not love them and will not marry them. This seems to suggest that she is not engaging in simple innocent games with the mermen, but perhaps engaging in what could be regarded as early stages of courtship or even sexual activities. She knows they will flatter her, which satisfies her vanity and her need to be admired. Yet, she chooses to marry the king of the mermen. Even though she does possess a love that she wishes to reserve for one individual, the act of engaging other mermen for personal satisfaction with no intention of reciprocation indicates a version of the femme fatale. The mermaid does not literally kill or trap the mermen, but she does intentionally take advantage of them and allow them to suffer to love her. In the end, the mermaid even suggests that all of those above her look down for the love of her which may include human men sailing above her. This is consistent with the legends of sirens which attract human men and lead them to their deaths. This poem creates ideas of love and sexuality that on the surface may parallel Victorian traditions of marriage, but the mermaid holds far more power over her sexuality and her marital relations than most Victorian women could exercise.

Women and Pets as Domestic Objects

The print “Fannie’s Pets” captured my eye as it appears to be one of the most dynamic prints in the way the subjects appear to be moving, and who doesn’t adore the cute animals? The print features a woman outside, perhaps in a small garden, interacting with many species of birds: parakeets, ducks, a rooster, a peacock, etc. The light shines upon her and the animals so the audience’s attention immediately is drawn to those subjects. Behind the woman, on the left of the print, is a man crouched down in the dark, observing her.

This print brings to mind the role of Count Fosco in The Woman in White and his interaction with women and animals. The woman in the print seems to be interacting with the animals very naturally, while Count Fosco’s interactions with his pets are very strategic due to his training of them. He gives his pets treats when they perform to his satisfaction. He goes as far to call his birds his “children” (270). Count Fosco also gives his wife treats as she gives him his cigarettes which seems to parallel his treatment of his pets. He does not seem to have much of a sense of humanity or intimacy, instead his wife and his pets are objects of enjoyment and entertainment who are rewarded for how they serve him.

“Fannie’s Pets” creates a discourse with The Woman in White that shows the roles of women and domesticated animals to be more similar than different under the observation and manipulation of a Victorian Man. From the male view (assuming the audience takes on the viewership of a man or uses the man in the work itself), the main subject of the print is a woman and her pets and their values are both in their inherent beauty and entertainment-value. When the image is read through the lens created by The Woman in White, the woman and her pets are just objects to be manipulated and observed for enjoyment. There is further symbolism in the image of the birds flying and grabbing the garments of the woman, and while it might be a playful action, it seems to also represent freedom. Birds have the ability to fly away and the woman does not. Yet, this brings light to the captivating qualities that Count Fosco has over women and his manipulative nature towards his pets and women which really leave no opportunity for freedom.

The Similarities are the Key

“If we had loved her less dearly, if the instinct implanted in us by that love had not been far more certain than any exercise of reasoning, far keener than any process of observation, even we might have hesitated, on first seeing her” (Collins 433). The main functions of the similarities in the looks of Anne Catherick and Laura Fairlie have finally been revealed for the most part through this passage. Anne and Laura share similar features because they are likely related, and this feature functions in the plot as both a target for deception by Sir Glyde and Count Fosco, and as an opportunity for love and heroism by Walter Hartright.

The similarities between Anne and Laura allow for Anne to die and to be “mistaken” as Laura, so that Laura is declared dead and the real Laura is believed to be Anne. Walter refers to the similarities between Anne and Laura as the “fatal resemblance” (433). He views the mistake of Laura’s identity as a figurative death of the Laura that he knew. Lady Glyde is gone, and life in an asylum has changed Laura. Laura is no longer herself, she in some ways has taken on both the literal and figurative identity of Anne. She is believed to be Anne, and for that reason, she begins to fulfill Anne’s role as primarily a weak, seemingly child-like patient.

The fatal resemblance that has led to Laura’s dark new fate also allows for Walter to truly profess his love for her as he and Marian are the only ones who recognize Laura, and the only ones who want to reveal her true identity and discover the truth behind the mistake. This is the opportunity for Walter Hartright to be a hero of sorts and to attempt to get his lady-love back instead of being perpetually stuck in a pseudo family created by himself, Marian, and the newly child-like Laura.

How Does a Victorian Man React to Seemingly Identical Women?

Upon my first time reading The Woman in White, I had an expectation for the interaction of male and female characters and I made certain assumptions about female characters being portrayed through the male gaze. I was surprised by Walter Hartright’s first interaction with the Woman in white who later appears to be Anne Catherick. Walter explains “There was nothing wild, nothing immodest in her manner; it was quiet and self-controlled, a little melancholy and a little touched by suspicion; not exactly the manner or a lady, and at the same time, not the manner of a woman in the humblest rank of life” (Collins 24). Walter did make simple evaluations as he describes what he saw that night. Yet, when I expected him to make significant judgements of this woman, he seemed to refrain. This seemed like an opportunity for a Victorian man to admire the pure white garments even if he did not find the woman particularly pretty, or even to assert that the circumstances create a ghostly presence. Such judgements are completely lacking from Walter’s account of the interaction and his thoughts at the time. To me, this seemed strange on its own, but it becomes more questionable once Walter meets and describes Laura Fairlie.

Once Walter falls in love with Laura Fairlie (which seems to occur pretty quickly upon meeting) who bears a noticeable resemblance to Anne Catherick, I began to question the differences in their meeting and interactions. Walter goes into great detail about Laura’s looks and personality: how lovely and gentle she is (51). He quickly concludes he is in love with her. The idea that this man can have completely different reactions and completely different relationships with almost identical women even after meeting them only once or twice creates some burning questions for me: how and why? Based on Walter’s limited account of what happened, I have to consider a few likely possibilities. The circumstances of Walter meeting Anne as the woman in white are so unconventional that Walter distances himself from the occurrence, there is a stigma against possible mental illness that keeps Walter from becoming close with Anne, or Walter is simply choosing the woman that he concludes could be a more beneficial match. All seem possible; continuing to read from different perspectives may shed more light on why Walter gravitates strongly towards one woman and has less significant impressions of the other.