The Willows by Algernon Blackwood

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This is a different interpretation of Algernon Blackwood’s The Willows through the perspective of veiled homosexuality during the Victorian/Edwardian eras. Though technically published during the Edwardian period in 1907, the Edwardian period largely carried over Victorian-era views on homosexuality, which revolved around keeping homosexuality a secret to maintain societal acceptance. When you consider Algernon Blackwood’s upbringing of growing up during the Victorian era in a strict, Calvinistic family, it is unlikely he would have acknowledged any homosexual tendencies if he had them as a survival mechanism, because to do so likely would have resulted in being disowned and ostracized. That I found, Algernon Blackwood’s sexuality has not been discussed outside of him being a loner who never married. However, the homoeroticism of his writing has been discussed in various critiques.

It was not uncommon for Victorian-era writers to write about homosexuality using veiled or coded references, specifically in gothic/supernatural stories (e.g., Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde). The homoerotic elements in The Willows, when analyzed through the lens of Victorian societal norms regarding homosexuality, changed the meaning of Blackwood’s story for me.

The image that stuck with me came from this line: “our little bit of green canvas,” in reference to the characters’ tent. From what I have found, canvas tents from that era were overwhelmingly unbleached cotton. They would not likely have been green. Also of note, is that Blackwood repeatedly used the same colors symbolically (red, white, silver, yellow, black, gray, blue, and crimson) throughout the story; however, the use of green was limited to one previous reference “waves of leaves instead of waves of water, green swells like the sea,” and the limited use of green seems significant as a result. During the Victorian era, gay men specifically wore green as a veiled communication of their homosexuality, as with Oscar Wilde wearing a green carnation.

When examined from this angle, the supernatural events that occurred in the story can be viewed as an allegorical subtext of being confronted with one’s homosexuality. And, ultimately, the characters’ survival of the supernatural events an allegorical subtext of avoiding societal nonacceptance/shunning by denying their natures and focusing their thoughts on the familiarity and comfort of acceptable Victorian-era norms.

In reference to Victorian society:. At one point the Swede says, “‘There are things about us, I'm sure, that make for disorder, disintegration, destruction, our destruction,’ he said once, while the fire blazed between us. ‘We've strayed out of a safe line somewhere.’”

Going outside of societal norms:. “We had ‘strayed,’ as the Swede put it, into some region or some set of conditions where the risks were great, yet unintelligible to us; where the frontiers of some unknown world lay close about us.”

Shunned:. “As the final result of too long a sojourn here, we should be carried over the border and deprived of what we called ‘our lives,’ yet by mental, not physical, processes.”

Societal death:. "’Death, according to one's belief, means either annihilation or release from the limitations of the senses, but it involves no change of character. You don't suddenly alter just because the body's gone. But this means a radical alteration, a complete change, a horrible loss of oneself by substitution—far worse than death, and not even annihilation.’”

Societal Survival:. “‘Now listen,’ he said. ‘The only thing for us to do is to go on as though nothing had happened, follow our usual habits, go to bed, and so forth; pretend we feel nothing and notice nothing. It is a question wholly of the mind, and the less we think about them the better our chance of escape. Above all, don't think, for what you think happens!’”

Awareness of what survival requires:. “Then something happened, something unimportant apparently, as the way is when the nerves are in a very great state of tension, and this small thing for a brief space gave me an entirely different point of view. I chanced to look down at my sand-shoe—the sort we used for the canoe—and something to do with the hole at the toe suddenly recalled to me the London shop where I had bought them, the difficulty the man had in fitting me, and other details of the uninteresting but practical operation. At once, in its train, followed a wholesome view of the modern skeptical world I was accustomed to move in at home. I thought of roast beef, and ale, motor-cars, policemen, brass bands, and a dozen other things that proclaimed the soul of ordinariness or utility. The effect was immediate and astonishing even to myself.”

Source: reddit post


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