French feminist Hélène Cixous once wrote that “the question of sexual difference is dealt with by coupling it with the opposition: activity/passivity.” She, along with many other feminists, has argued that binary opposites can be gendered. Activity, she says, can be seen as a male characteristic while passivity is relegated to females. In Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s poem, “Jenny,” such a gendered structure is demonstrated. The unnamed male speaker is awake, actively analyzing the sleeping and, therefore, seemingly passive Jenny, who is a nineteenth century sex trade worker. In the poem, Jenny’s body is treated as a form of currency, through which the insatiable desires of men are carried out. The sleeping prostitute is the perfect figure to apply Cixous’ “activity/passivity” dichotomy, as she raises issues of consumption, not to mention that of the ever-present male gaze. In feminist theory, the male gaze is described as asymmetrical, in the sense that there is not even distribution of power amongst men and women. If we apply this description to Rossetti’s “Jenny,” it is difficult to dispute it. Since Jenny is asleep, she is unable to return the gaze of the unnamed male, which not only leaves her vulnerable in a physical sense, but also in the way in which we perceive her. As readers, we only see things from the male perspective because Jenny is not conscious to give us her own. However, Jenny’s sleep presents the reader with a bizarre type of resistance to the male gaze, in which she cannot be defined because she cannot be known or understood, especially while asleep. By examining Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “Jenny,” the literal and figurative components of the male gaze will demonstrate how men attempt to master women, but will also show how this particular attempt ultimately fails.
Just as Hélène Cixous argues, along the lines of dichotomies, “[t]he male sexual urge is thought of as active, aggressive, and spontaneous whilst female sexuality is defined in relation to the male, it is understood as weak, passive and responsive” (Nead 26). Right away, the figure of Jenny poses a threat to such distinct sexual categories, despite her state of unconsciousness for the duration of the poem, because she is a prostitute. Instead of passively awaiting the sexual desires of potential males, Jenny seeks them out herself, for her own means and ends. In her paper, “The Magdalen of Modern Times: The Mythology of the Fallen Woman in Pre-Raphaelite Painting,” Lynn Nead discusses the Victorian era as a time when sexuality was constantly being refined in order to accommodate acceptable modes of sexual behavior. She notes that there was a marked double standard amongst men and women, in which “sexual desire was regarded in the man as normal and unavoidable, but was seen in the woman as deviant and pathological” (26). Under these terms, Jenny, therefore, defies the cultural norm and resists being categorized, especially within the framework of Rossetti’s poem. Not only is she a prostitute, going against the cult of domesticity, but she is asleep. In “Jenny,” we do not see her fulfilling her sexual duties as a fallen woman or conforming to Victorian feminine ideals of the ‘angel in the house.’ By being asleep, Jenny resists the speaker’s ability to define and understand her, which is emphasized by his constant questioning. Throughout the poem, the speaker compares Jenny to an unreadable book. At Line 51, he says, “You know not what a book you seem, / Half-read by lightning in a dream! / How should you know, my Jenny?” The question can be interpreted in two ways. Either the speaker is saying that Jenny can not know, “what a book [she] seem[s]” because she is asleep, or he his wondering, himself, how he can possibly know her. As he relentlessly endeavours to “know” her, the speaker attempts to contrast Jenny with the ‘unfallen’ woman.
In struggling to read the unreadable book, that is Jenny, the speaker finds himself comparing her with his cousin, Nell. In keeping with the typical Victorian ideals of the time, he turns his gaze to Nell, describing her as full of truth and honour, “the girl [he’s] proudest of” (Rossetti 812). However, the most important part of his analysis, which is repeated twice, is revealed when he says “Of the same lump (as it is said) / For honour and dishonour made, / Two sister vessels” (812). The speaker suggests that there is something common, something “kindred” between Jenny and Nell, which is where the central problem of defining Jenny lies (812). How can he tell the difference between the ‘fallen’ and the ‘unfallen’ woman? Can his gaze, that defines all women as erotic objects, really distinguish between those women who are ideological conformists and those who are sexually deviant? The implied answer, provided by Rossetti, is no. The speaker cannot possibly separate the two women because there are limits to the power of his gaze. After all, it is only a gaze, and one must never judge a book by its cover. The anxiety exists, for the speaker, around the issue that Jenny and Nell are, in fact, quite similar, having been produced of the same lump of clay. At one point, he even entertains the idea that Nell, too, has sexual desire and autonomy, stating, at line 190, that she is “fond of love.” Just as Cixous’ identified binary opposition of “activity/passivity” holds little weight with Jenny’s character, the Victorian tendency to create “fallen/pure” dichotomies amongst women proves unsuccessful for the speaker. Eventually, the speaker admits his defeat and understands that Jenny’s life is but “[a] dark path [he] can [only] strive to clear” (Rossetti 815). He realizes that she, along with the pure and chaste women of his society, are like “riddle[s] that one shrinks / To challenge from the scornful sphinx” (813). In other words, the double standard which saw “sexual desire … in the woman as deviant and pathological,” applies to all women, including his beloved cousin Nell, leaving deviant and pure women indecipherable (Nead 26). Rossetti seems to suggest, here, that there is no answer to the riddle because there is no riddle at all. Despite his pre-Raphaelite tendencies to idealize women in art, Rossetti offers a highly forward-looking model for womankind in “Jenny.” He creates a kind of sisterhood for the ‘fallen’ and ‘unfallen’ woman by equating them and revealing their similarities, which greatly outweigh their differences.
Strangely enough, however, Jenny’s ultimate defensive weapon is her sleep. Traditionally, sleep is regarded as the most passive of actions, and understandably so. For example, in her analysis of the fairytale, Hélène Cixous writes the following, regarding the sleeping woman: “The beauties are sleeping, waiting for princes to come and awaken them, in their beds, in their glass coffins, in their childhood forests, as if dead. Beautiful, but passive; therefore desirable; from them emanates all mystery” (66). In “Jenny,” her passivity, in fact, generates her power over the speaker. She is, indeed, a mystery to him and remains so, but that is his dilemma. He wants to know and understand her, to part “the pages of her brain,” but he cannot because she is unconscious (Rossetti 812). She cannot validate or refute anything he says, which makes his conjecture look like nothing more than speculation. Like any first-person, dramatic monologue, we have to ask ourselves if we can trust the speaker. More importantly, we have to ask ourselves if he can trust himself. After all, despite his numerous attempts to interpret and read Jenny through his gaze, he eventually recognizes her as a closed book. By saying nothing at all, Jenny refuses to be defined, leaving the speaker with a fruitless task. Thus, Jenny’s fatigue grants her the upper hand in the end, despite the traditional inclination to associate sleep with passivity.
Through his constant gazing and surmising, the speaker eventually realizes his cause is lost. By not returning her client’s gaze, Jenny proves that she has a great deal of agency in portraying herself the way she wishes to be perceived. As for the audience, the speaker’s arguments, which often come full circle, make him appear less qualified to pass judgment. If he can’t distinguish between the common prostitute and the chaste housewife, why should any of the rest of us? Does the distinction really matter anyway? For those of the Victorian era, the answer to the latter question would undoubtedly be yes, but that just goes to show how trivial and unrealistic most ideals are in the first place. If every woman conformed to the Victorian ideal of femininity, then she would no longer be ideal, for desires are insatiable, that is, never fulfilled. Once one ideal is reached, another is produced to accommodate for “persistent definition and re-definition of acceptable sexual behaviour” (Nead 26). Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “Jenny” offers us a woman who defies this need for definition and categories, proving that the gaze, powerful as it may seem, is often rendered useless. Instead she shows us, as Confucius once said, that “[s]ilence is the true friend that never betrays.”