10 Famous Works of Literature With Queer Subtexts


Yesterday at Salon, Caleb Crain, author of the highly praised novel Necessary Errors, talked a bit about being a gay novelist and the effects non-heterosexual subject matter has on the chances for a novel’s publication. In response to a question about needing a “gay canon” of literature, Crain said, “The straight canon is very gay… I don’t read somebody because they’re a gay writer. I read them because they’re a good writer.” It’s true that it seems silly and reductive to insist on setting gay writers apart from their straight cohort (although doing so can help raise awareness that they do, in fact, exist), especially since there’s enough queer subtext in popular literature already. Just have a look at these ten obvious examples.

The Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling

Yes, we all know that J. K. Rowling waited conveniently until the publication of her most recent book to reveal, perhaps too enthusiastically, that Albus Dumbledore was gay. I never bought it, considering there was no textual evidence for it. But plenty of other queer conspiracy theorists have read into many other aspects of the books’ details. For example: Harry literally comes out of the closet in which he lives when he’s 11 and learns that he can make magic things happen.

The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton

There’s nary a speaking woman in S. E. Hinton’s classic about rough-and-tumble teenage delinquents in 1960s Tulsa, and while the book is frequently banned considering all the violence, bad language, and underage smoking and drinking, the homoerotic undertones of those boys’ bromances have definitely evaded plenty of readers.

Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith was no stranger to homosexual overtones — her antihero Tom Ripley was, essentially, a gay monster, and she even dipped her toe into the lesbian bildungsroman genre — but her thriller Strangers on a Train was a bit more subtle in its depiction of one man’s murderous obsession with another.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Daphne du Marier’s classic melodramatic thriller features perhaps the most terrifying maid of all time, Mrs. Danvers, who is so obsessed with her former employer, the titular Rebecca de Winter, that one can’t help but read a bit into the way she gently strokes her perfectly kept nightclothes across her face.

Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

As this essay points out, it’s hard to claim that Fight Club has a gay subtext, as there is nothing particularly subtle about its homoeroticism. The opening scene involves Tyler Durden inserting the phallic image of a gun into the Narrator’s mouth, there’s the castrated Big Bob with his oversized breasts, as well as the sexual sharing of Marla by doppelgängers (spoiler alert, I guess) Tyler and the Narrator. The symbolism of Tyler splicing scenes from hardcore porn is a pretty good metaphor for Chuck Palahniuk tricking the macho literary audience into loving a pretty queer novel.

Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman

Noted homosexual Walt Whitman included several turns of phrase in his collection of poetry devoted to the love of the male form, and lines like, “O how shall I warble myself for the dead one there I loved? / And how shall I deck my song for the large sweet soul that has gone? / And what shall my perfume be for the grave of him I love?” from “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” — his ode to the Civil War’s dead, particularly Abraham Lincoln — is just the tip of the fey iceberg.

Billy Budd by Herman Melville

Let’s just take a look at this passage from Melville’s novella, via Dana Sliva’s paper “Exploring Homoeroticism in Herman Melville’s Novella Billy Budd, Sailor,” which explains it all:

Claggart, the master-at-arms, official rattan in hand, happened to be passing along…Stepping over [the soup], he was proceeding on his way without comment, since the matter was nothing to take notice of under the circumstances, when he happened to observe who it was that had done the spilling…Pausing, he was about to ejaculate something hasty at the sailor, but checked himself, and pointing down to the streaming soup, playfully tapped him from behind with his rattan, saying in a low musical voice peculiar to him at times, ‘Handsomely done, my lad! And handsome is as handsome did it, too!’

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

Melville’s great opus about one man’s relentless pursuit of a giant white whale has enough references to “sperm” to make any high schooler (or, let’s be honest, grown-ass adult) giggle under the auspices of a Freudian reading. And then there’s the fact of Ishmael and Queequeg spooning in bed together.

Women in Love by D. H. Lawrence

Sure, the women of the title — the unfortunately named Ursula and Gudrun Brangwen — are indeed in love with the typically brooding Englishmen, but one cannot possibly deny the homosexual overtones in the nude wrestling in which Rupert Birkin and Gerald Crich gleefully take part.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Oh, come on. Nick Carraway totally had a boner for Jay Gatsby.