While most other Scandinavian writers were busy discussing societal problems and women’s rights in novels with a purpose around 1880, Danish Herman Bang questioned gender identity itself in his debut novel ‘Haabløse Slægter’. Contrarily to the works of for example Strindberg, ‘Haabløse Slægter’ radically deconstructs the binary gender scale, which formed the base for emergent discourse at the time. Bang questions, negotiates and redefines gender boundaries in a more sophisticated way than any of his contemporaries did.
Using Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity and Michel Foucault’s writings on homosexuality, I demonstrate how Bang’s novel undermines the notion of stable gender identity by representing characters that take on the conventional traits of either gender, transgressing the gender boundaries. The main characters are difficult to pin down as entirely belonging to a specific gender. Displaying a wide range of traits, desires and behaviours belonging to both genders, they cannot be identified as truly belonging to just one. They constantly transgress and trespass the gender boundaries, refusing to be properly labelled.
As gender was seen as innate at the time, all efforts to avoid the binary gender scale and escape ‘the gender script’ would have been seen as monstrous. Still, this is exactly what some of the characters in ‘Haabløse Slægter’ do.
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