The Passion of Stephen

In Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, Christianity takes a central role in the novel, which is not surprising considering the author’s lifelong affinity for the Catholic Church. It makes sense, then, that much of the novel is written to mimic the New Testament, especially the trajectory of a long-suffering Christ-like figure. Stephen herself is quite similar to the figure of Jesus Christ, representative of a messiah figure who is responsible for being a vessel through which her followers can find salvation. And just like the New Testament becomes a gospel of religious salvation, The Well of Loneliness becomes a gospel of inversion, almost giving legitimacy to the forsaken identity in the same way the Bible gave legitimacy to Christianity.

The beginning of the novel is written like the dawn of Christ’s life. Hall describes Stephen’s familial lineage and her birth which, like that of Christ, is on Christmas Eve. She goes on to describe Stephen’s early years. And just as in the New Testament, where the Christ child is characterized as wise beyond his years and therefore different from others, so too Stephen senses that she is not the same as others. One such way can be seen in the selfless devotion and need to save her beloved house servant Collins from her housemaid’s knees. Engaging in mortification, Stephen begins to force her knees to the ground, sometimes for hours, in order to prove her unmitigated devotion to Collins. She exclaims to Collins, “You see, I wanted to share your suffering. I’ve prayed quite a lot, but Jesus won’t listen, so I’ve got to get housemaid’s knee on my own way—I can’t wait any longer for Jesus!” (P. 23) The episode becomes a crucifixion of sorts; Stephen seeks to absolve Collins of suffering by transferring the pain of housemaid’s knees to her.

The theme of sacrifice is a significant and recurring one in the novel. Similar to her sacrificial dedication to Collins, Stephen goes on to sacrifice her relationship with Mary, even going so far as to drive her into a heterosexual relationship, in order to save her from a life of misery and pain. This sacrifice becomes the climax to an already lived life of martyrdom. This is supported by her friend Valerie, who, when confronted with Stephen’s sacrifice, declares, “Being what you are, I suppose you can’t—you were made for a martyr!” (P. 434)

After this sacrifice, the novel ends with Stephen acting as a vessel through which the damned—inverts, gays and lesbians—can supplicate mercy from an omnipotent God. Stephen is taken over by the speaking spirits of gays, lesbians, and inverts, some who have died and some who remain alive, and the spirits use her in order to call for an end to injustice and persecution. They holler, “God… we believe; we have told You we believe… We have not denied You, then rise up and defend us. Acknowledge us, oh God, before the whole world. Give us also the right to our existence!” (P. 437)

–VCA

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Filed under Week 5: Kuzmin, Radclyffe Hall

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