Cameron McFarlane. The Sodomite in Fiction and Satire: 1660-1750. New York: Columbia UP, 1997. ix+216 pp. ISBN 0 231 108 94X Cloth, 0 231 108 958 Paper.
Andrew P. Williams
North Carolina Central University

Williams, Andrew P. "Review of The Sodomite in Fiction and Satire." Early Modern Literary Studies 6.2 (September, 2000): 12.1-5<URL:

  1. In The Sodomite in Fiction and Satire: 1660-1750, Cameron McFarlane steps back from the critical impetus that has characterized much of early modern gay studies; namely, the confirmation of a gay history and the affirmation of an independent gay identity, in favor of concentrating on the ways in which sodomy and the sodomite "were made to signify" in the century following the restoration of Charles II. (4). McFarlane, however, is quick to point out that this analysis of signification is made problematic by the fact that historically, sodomy has been relegated to the periphery of signification; it is that "which cannot be named" (24). How do we discover what something "means" when we cannot even utter its name? Such is the question posed by McFarlane as he demonstrates the significance of what he calls "sodomitical practices" as both a trope for political and social transgression, as well as a discursive site for "unnameable" sexual desires.

  2. The first two chapters of The Sodomite in Fiction and Satire, "Sodomitical Practices" and "The Sodomitical State," situate the figure of the sodomite as less of a sexualized figure, and more of a convenient satirical metaphor for what McFarlane calls "cultural incoherence" (33). While McFarlane goes to great lengths to acknowledge that the discussion of the sodomite cannot fully exclude sexuality, he is equally adamant in pointing out that the significance, or meaning, of the sodomite's role within Restoration culture and society, cannot be understood exclusively in sexual terms. By reading the role of the sodomite within the context of a series of dualities: Manliness/Effeminacy, Tyranny/Slavery, Order/Chaos, McFarlane demonstrates that the significance of the sodomite often lies in his figurative role as a personification of cultural "otherness" where states of cultural crisis and disruption become "displaced" onto the figure of the sodomite. Specifically, through the analysis of Sodom: or The Quintessence of Debauchery (1672-73) and Love Letters Between a certain late Nobleman and the famous Mr. Wilson (1723), McFarlane argues that the primary locus of "meaning" for the sodomite can be found in his role as a figurative representation of a host of cultural anxieties, and not as a prefiguration of contemporary gay identity: "To read sodomitical practices as descriptive of a proto-modern 'homosexual identity,' then, is to misread them" (105).

  3. While McFarlane's reading of early modern texts, especially Love Letters, often differs from other queer theorists, the third and fourth chapters of The Sodomite in Fiction and Satire return to the familiar territory of masculine sexual desire, both conscious and subconscious, stated and unstated, that has proven fertile ground for contemporary gay scholarship. Through close readings of Smollet's The Adventures of Roderick Random and The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle, An Account of the Proceedings Against Capt. Rigby (1698), and John Cleland's Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, McFarlane illustrates how the "unnameable" sin of sodomy and the accompanying fields of male desire and pleasure could be articulated and understood. By focusing on the explicit projection of disgust concerning sodomy and the sodomite in these texts, McFarlane is able to show the counterpoint; namely, how these texts also reveal an implicit cultural fascination with the sodomite and "the act that cannot be named" which "seems to render the sodomite at once an overt locus of disgust and a covert locus of desire" (116).

  4. McFarlane's chapter on Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure elucidates this point through an extremely insightful reading of Cleland's novel. Taking as a starting point the relatively short scene of Fanny spying on the two young "sparks romping and pulling one another about," McFarlane reveals the simultaneous poles of repulsion and fascination the sodomites instill within Fanny as she is compelled to witness their behavior, going so far as to pierce a hole in the fabric of the curtain which divides the room. However, McFarlane does not treat this scene merely as incidental; he uses it as an analogy for the vicarious sodomitical pleasure the primarily male readership of the novel would experience through the act of reading. McFarlane proposes that, while the male readership would share Fanny's disgust with the overt sodomitical behavior, it would covertly derive homoerotic pleasure from Fanny's numerous descriptions of the male body and various sexual dalliances with men. By insisting that the reader understand Cleland's novel within this context, McFarlane brings to the forefront important issues of narrative representation and gender identification beyond the traditional scope of gay studies, that would force future critics of early modern literature to address the issue of spectacle and visuality beyond the scope of "the male gaze."

  5. The only weakness to Cameron McFarlane's The Sodomite in Fiction and Satire: 1660-1750 is the short concluding chapter, an analysis of the rape scene in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction. While the chapter makes some interesting points about the contemporary reconfiguration of centuries-old anxieties concerning sodomitical practices, its inclusion seems out of place considering the book's narrow historical focus. This, however, is a minor drawback in an otherwise important addition to the field of early modern literary studies.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2000-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).