Sir Gawain in the closet of Knights?


When I first read the kiss scenes between Bertilak it was quite shocking. I did not expect any kind of homoerotic imagery such as provided by the kiss scenes, from a text that was written around the 14th century. Therefore, I appreciated Carolyn Dinshaw’s interpretation in the journal article, “A Kiss Is Just a Kiss: Heterosexuality and Its Consolations in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, which gave me the opportunity to think more deeply on the subject.  Dinshaw argues that the inclusion of the kiss scene between the two men was a way of reinforcing heteronormativity. The article helped me to understand how important sexuality is for identity during that period. Dinshaw asserts that, “there is good  late medieval evidence that sexual acts were fundamental to an individual subject’s sense of self and location in larger cultural structures (207). Thus, sexual acts helped one to create their identity. Does this then mean that one is without an identity of they do not engage in any sexual activities? I think that it would be more appropriate to consider this “sense of self” to be a sense of the sexual and desiring self. This seems to be about sexual identity.

With the background knowledge that heteronormativity and performance of gender roles were important to the maintenance of the social structures in the medieval era, I found that I do not quite agree with Dinshaw. I think that the text, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, uses the kiss scenes to subtly resist heteronormativity. The encounter between Gawain and the lady seemed to be a Biblical allusion to Joseph and Potiphar’s wife.  In both stories, there is a reversal in the stereotypical gender roles where the lady is doing the chasing and the man is being chased. The story from the Bible results in Joseph fully resisting the seduction of his master’s wife and being thrown into jail. However, in Sir Gawain, the lady who is also married to Bertilak, the “master” of the castle at which Gawain was staying, successfully steals a kiss from him. I think that this parallel is important in the discussion of sexual normativity because it breaks the conventions of a typical lady, who should allow herself to be the damsel that is pursued by the knight.

Another way in which the text may be showing a resistance rather than reinforcement of heteronormativity is through the fact the kisses are passed on more than once. It can be argued that Gawain wanted to restore his masculinity by allowing the lady to attempt to seduce him again. However, given that he is aware that he must give whatever he receives to a man, yet does not refuse the kiss of the lady, indicates that he was not repulsed by the kiss with Bertilak. In fact, Gawain could have found an excuse to not kiss the lady a second or third time, he could have also found a way to receive something else to give to Bertilak, but he did not. There is significance in the repetition of the action as well as the increase in the amount of times the actions is repeated. This also relates to sexual identity because Gawain is resistant of the lady yet willing toward the man, which may indicate that he is discovering his own preferences. This can be read as Gawain’s resistance of the norm.


3 thoughts on “Sir Gawain in the closet of Knights?”

  1. Hi Asheka! I think you bring up some very interesting points. I think that it’s super important to note that Gawain doesn’t mind giving the kisses Bertilak’s wife gave to him. There’s no resistance to it, not even the third time around. Maybe this does say something about Gawain and his preferences or even his sexual identity, despite the poem being written in the 14th century. I think a lot of conventions were broken in this work! Who knows, but I can definitely see your point. Thanks for sharing!

  2. I was recently talking to a cousin of mine about trying Jicama. It’s sort of a strange vegetable that tastes a bit like a mild apple, with the texture of a potato. She had never tried one, yet told me that she didn’t like the vegetable, just from the way it looked. I argued that she couldn’t judge the veggie until she had tried it. I agree to a certain degree that to know one’s self, one needs experiences to help us figure out what we are and what we aren’t. What we like and what we don’t. I think that the self is very tied to our experiences. That is not to say that we should try everything for the sake of knowing whether or not it is a part of us (I’ll take a pass on skydiving), but it is very possible to say that Sir Gawain was taking part in some self-discovery.
    While kissing “Bert” doesn’t mean that Gawain is a homosexual character, it can mean that he enjoyed homoerotic or homosensual activities. Or possibly, he just was a bit like my French-Moroccan cousins. As pointed out by Dinshaw, kisses were considered social at times.
    I love your point about the “reassertion of masculinity” by kissing the wife the next day, even though by the same logic, he would have to return the kiss. Was he subconsciously trying to find a way to get closer to Bertilak? I think another interesting question to ask is how Bertilak felt about being kissed by Gawain. He received them happily, it would seem, but could this just be “bros betting,” or was this a flirtation? I think it’s as ambiguous as ever, but I kind of like that. I can read Gawain as heterosexual, homosexual, or any combination in between or outside of these norms. Thanks for the fascinating read, Asheka! Be well, and see you soon!

  3. Asheka, you are brilliant!, and I wish I had written what you did. You bring up both questions and notices many of us (in this modern age, and perhaps in the past want to know. I, similiarly, am wanting to know more about Gawain’s and Bertalik’s feelings and (possible hidden) intent.

Comments are closed.