A Fluidity of Meaning – The Subversions of Pre-Raphaelite Gender in William Holman Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience

Alex Round read English Literature and Language at Birmingham City University. She is currently an MRes humanities student at Newman University and an aspiring PhD candidate in Pre-Raphaelite Studies. Alex’s research concerns Pre-Raphaelitism art and literature, as well as Gothic literature and prose and poetry of the nineteenth century. She blogs at: https://preraphgirlgang.wordpress.com/ and can be contacted at: alexround@hotmail.co.uk

It is conceivable to align the concepts of masculinity and femininity with the Pre-Raphaelite movement, founded by a heptad of ‘brothers’ whose work has been the focal point of academic discussion. Drawing inspiration from literary and visual art, their controversial work focused on artistic solipsism and the sexual longing of its protagonists in defiant opposition to the utilitarian schoolings that pervaded Victorian ideology. The notion of masculinity it has been said, is normalized through the concept of a brotherhood and the works in which they have produced (Yeates & Trowbridge, 2017, p1). There is meticulous detail on the sexual pining of the female subjects, illustrated by their brooding expressions and whimsical aesthetic, whereas their male subjects are often characterized by an outrageous machismo. This blog post examines the subversion of the patriarchal institutions that pervaded the nineteenth century and the undermining of the restrictions that gender has long enforced. First, the essay will address the societal expectations of the period and the issues that surround gender as a construct of identity. Secondly, key theorists of sexual desire and gender will be introduced: Jacques Lacan and Judith Butler. Lacan primarily proposes that sexual desire is separate to identity, and that the two genders desire what each one sexually lacks and yearns for. Butler disregards Lacan’s heteronormative thought, as she perceives heteronormativity as a derogatory term that suggests that gender should follow a heterosexual performative script that must be pertained to achieve societal acceptance. This essay will then turn to discussing William Holman Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience (1853) and how the brotherhood and its excluded sisters implicitly and explicitly interrogate heteronormative ideals that greatly influenced the Victorian social sphere.

The woman ultimately shows defiance against societal expectations by expressing her sexual curiosity towards the opposite sex. The mistress ‘embodies the paradox that denied the middle class women sexuality at the time as it pruriently promoted its existence’ (Pearce, 1992, p37). This suggests that society only prompted Victorian women to embrace their sexual desires rather than condemn them, as nineteenth-century society anticipated. Yet, it is the Victorian equation of ‘female sexuality equals death’ (Thornwell, 1856, p146) that proves as the mistress’ ‘punishment’, as it strips the woman of her social nobility. Hunt portrays the liaison of the seducer and the half-dressed girl in a ‘maison de convenance’ as a cruel reminder of the social hierarchy that society enforced.Holman Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience depicts a contemporary subject and integrated symbolism that remains true to the Pre-Raphaelite style. The painting’s symbolic elements sparked wide outrage, due to its depiction of a noble man secretly liaising with his new mistress in a gaudy room. Its immoral subject overshadowed the spiritual aspect of the painting. The idealized image of the Victorian woman is supposed to lack any sexual initiative, yet the female subject embodies the concept of the fallen Victorian woman. A ‘fallen’ woman refers to the irrevocable loss of innocence; a woman’s identity was indisputably intertwined with her sexual status.



William Holman Hunt, The Awakening Conscience, 1851, Tate Gallery (London)


However, Hunt despite his intentions, presents the girl’s seducer as the ironically unintended means of her redemption. In singing and playing Moore’s ‘Oft in the Stilly Night’ with her during their meeting, the man inadvertently awakens her childhood memories. This in turn sparks the sudden realization within this woman who promptly breaks away from her lover having realized the error of her ways. Hunt states that ‘the woman escapes from the gilded cage with a startled holy reserve, while her shallow companion still sings on, ignorantly intensifying her repentant purpose’ (Andres, 2005, p39). The mere fact that Hunt paints his seducer with a brash expression reinforces the idea that this man is not concerned about his mistress’ spiritual awakening and more concerned about the continuation of his seedy pleasure. Jan Marsh comments on the parallels found between Hunt and his male subject’s liaisons with their respective lovers. In fact, Marsh argues that Hunt is as guilty as the man in The Awakening Conscience:

He (Hunt) was the agent of her temptation who was not himself to be blamed…; he failed to perceive that the implications of her offer to educate Annie were identical to those of an immoralist who bought and paid for women in order that they should do as he desired (Marsh, 61, 99, p228).

The concept of desire and natural sexual relations are informed by gendered discourse. According to Lacan’s ‘Mirror Stage’ theory, the woman’s mirror reflection represents the woman’s possibility of redemption, indicated by the ray of light in the foreground. The reflection that the mistress sees, or in Lacanian terms, her ego ideal, is what she could aspire to be if she were to abandon her affiliation with her lover. Lacan writes that the ‘specular image seems to be the threshold of the visible world, the mirrored disposition of the image of one’s own body in hallucinations and dreams… we take note of the role of the mirror apparatus in the appearance of doubles, psychical realities manifest themselves that are more heterogeneous’ (Lacan, 1964, p77). The image she sees, is a hallucination of her ego ideal- an image of her perfect self which the ego should aspire to.  Despite the mistress’ social status in comparison to her lover, her moment of realization shifts the power dynamic between the two. She appears as the powerful figure, rising both literally and symbolically, whilst her lover remains seated beneath her. Her desires are fixated elsewhere, thus de-masculinizing the lover who ultimately realizes he is no longer the object of the woman’s desire, replaced by her ego ideal. According to Lacan’s concept ‘Objet petit a’, the object which in this case is the lover representing the woman’s desire, as the man is or at least was the illusion of the woman’s full jouissance. However, ‘what the subject desires is not the object, but the objet a, the element in the object that the subject believes to satisfy its desire.’ (Pirskanen, 2008, p5) The objet a in the man is his power and authority as a masculine ideal.  Once the woman understands that she has the possibility of commanding her own authority, the object of her desire changes to that of her ego ideal. Thus her desire for self-redemption drives her to abandon her lover entirely. Because of the man’s loss of authoritarian control over his mistress, it suggests that the man has been stripped of his masculinity and hence does not meet the expectations of the masculine ideal. Therefore, Hunt implicitly de-masculinizes the man by subverting the gender roles, and providing his female subject with the liberty to acquire power on her own. This supports Butler’s notion that one can alter the performative script for gender which has the potential to subvert traditional discourse:

‘If it is successful, it will deconstruct the substantive appearance of gender… within the compulsory frames set by the various forces that police the social appearance of gender.’ (Butler, 1990, 1999, pp. 43-44)

The actions performed by the male and female subject challenge the ‘various forces’ that police them. They subvert the principles of the gendered performative script that Butler claims that society enforces.

Nevertheless, Butler disagrees with Lacan’s perception that her ego ideal is what the woman should aspire to become. Despite the woman fixating her desire on her redemption rather than her seducer, her new desires have been tainted by the idea that her identity should be based on the traits she is expected to perform as a Victorian woman. Butler continues her discussion on the heterosexual matrix, commenting that women’s performative scripts are influenced by social systems and that ‘those who fail to do their gender right are regularly punished’ (Butler, 1999, p. 522). The social stigmatization of the likes of the mistress and gender performance do not exist by chance. Although the woman is aspiring to break away from the social stigmatization that devalues her, what she wants to aspire to achieve is nothing more the gendered script that is expected of her to perform, and not in any means subverting the script.

Both Lacan and Butler discuss the social positions of gender and compare it to terms of normalcy. Lacan bases his ideas on the heteronormative structure of desire and gender. But as the painting has demonstrated, his theories only confuse the traditional conceptions of gender and subvert them. Butler notions directly interrogate these conceptions- not only challenging the societal restrictions surrounding the mistress, but the symbolism within the painting that proves spiritually restrictive.


Works Cited

Andres, S (2005) The Pre-Raphaelite Art of the Victorian Novel: Narrative Challenges to Visual Gendered Boundaries, Ohio: OUP

Butler, J (1999) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, London: Routledge

De Beauvoir, S (2014) The Second Sex, London: Random House

Lacan, J (1964) Le Seminaire. Livre XI. Les quatre concepts fondamentaux de psychanalyse, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, Paris: Seuil,1973

Marsh, J (1995) ‘Epistolary Relations: The Correspondence of Christina Rossetti and D.G. Rossetti’ Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies, Vol 4 [Online] Available at: http://jprs.apps01.yorku.ca/journal/volume-4-spring-1995/ [Accessed 02/12/19]

Pearce, L (1992) ‘Woman/Image/Text: Readings in Pre-Raphaelite Art and Literature’, Journal of Pre- Raphaelite Studies, Vol 1-2, Arizona: ASU

Pirskanen, J. (2008). The Other and the Real. How does Judith Butler’s Theorizing of the Subject and Contingency Differ from the New Lacanian Thought? [online] Queer Scope Articles. Available at: https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/The-Other-and-the-Real.-How-Does-Judith-Butler%E2%80%99s-of-Pirskainen/0bb8143c47f464b0254f8cd76009767616589fc7 [Accessed 15 Dec. 2019]

Thornwell, E (1856) The Lady’s Guide to Perfect Gentility: In Manners, Dress and Conversation, New York: Derby & Jackson

Yeates, A & Trowbridge, S. (2017) Pre-Raphaelite Masculinities: Constructions of Masculinity in Art and Literature. London: Routledge




One response to “A Fluidity of Meaning – The Subversions of Pre-Raphaelite Gender in William Holman Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience

  1. Pingback: A big thank you to BAVS https://victorianist.wordpress.com/ for publishing my work ‘A FLUIDITY OF MEANING – THE SUBVERSIONS OF PRE-RAPHAELITE GENDER IN WILLIAM HOLMAN HUNT’S THE AWAKENING CONSCIENCE’ – Pre-Raph girl gang·

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