The Eunuch

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The eunuch is a figure with a diverse history, spanning centuries, crossing religious boundaries and dwelling within the borders of countless countries. As castrated humans, typically males, eunuchs emerge frequently in Eastern and Western culture as servants, religious figures, guardians and even singers, having been purposely maimed at a young age. In many instances, eunuchs appear as staples of Western representation of Eastern cultures, oftentimes as servants of royalty and protectors of prized women. In such cases, they introduce a critical power dynamic between leader and servant, power and powerlessness. Their obvious lack necessarily renders them submissive to whole, able-bodied men and thus deems them ideal servants. The sexual nature of this lack calls into question gender dynamics, since that power is inextricably linked to male genitalia specifically. In a very obvious way, eunuchs are physically freaks: they lack the necessary body parts that essentially define their gender, deeming them human, but not quite. From the standpoint of freak as an exhibition, there are modern situations in which eunuchs have put themselves up on display, much like the freaks from circus sideshows, ultimately allowing eunuchs and castration to redefine queer politics as well as the image of cultures that allow elective self-mutilation.

Sources:

Liu, Alan. “Toward a Theory of Common Sense: Beckford’s Vathek and Johnson’s Rasselas.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 26.2 (1984): 183-217. University of Texas Press. Web. 20 Nov. 2013.  <http://www.jstor.org/stable/40754752&gt;.

Lowe, Lisa. “Rereadings in Orientalism: Oriental Inventions and Inventions of the Orient in Montesquieu’s “Lettres persanes”.” Cultural Critique 15 (1990): 115-143. University of Minnesota Press. Web. 20 Nov. 2013. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/1354182&gt;.

Senelick, Laurence. “Enlightened by Morphodites: Narratives of the Fairground Half-and-Half.” American Studies 44.3 (1999): 357-78. Universitatsverlag. Web. 27 Nov. 2013. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/41157478&gt;.

Weber, Brenda R. “Masculinity, American Modernity, and Body Modification: A Feminist Reading of American Eunuchs.” Signs 38.3 (2013): 671-694. The University of Chicago Press. Web. 20 Nov. 2013. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/668552&gt;.

Yeazell, Ruth Bernard. Harems of the Mind: Passages of Western Art and Literature. New Haven: Yale UP, 2000. Print.

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3 responses to “The Eunuch

  1. I have always been intrigued by the idea of Eunuchs. They were “maiden protectors” in Chinese history as well. Their castration process is extremely cruel and unnatural to me.

  2. I enjoyed this post a great deal. I found your selection of the eunuch as a freak really interesting because they defy normal conceptions of freakery. The freak is usually defined as such because aesthetically, visually, something is wrong – either he/she is deformed or bearing something that clearly marks them as the other. As their castration is not viewed daily, their freakery can be masked. Despite this inability to see their “obvious lack” as you say, society clearly marked them as a separate social class rendering them incapable of ever fully fitting in. I also think your discussion of gender dynamics is compelling. It is clear that the castration of eunuchs shifted conventional gender roles placing women in the superior position and eunuchs essentially as their slaves.

  3. Excellent post! We might also think about how the eunuch, in his undermining of traditional gender dynamics, might overturn the role of the family (we see monstrosity rupturing the conventional, familial structure in both 28 Weeks Later and Le Fanu’s Carmilla, which we discussed both in lecture and recitation). Might we consider the harem, then, a queered or “monstrous” replication of family life?

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