Queer temporalities: Waters’ The Night Watch


The Second World War provides an important historical backdrop to Sarah Waters’ (2006) novel, The Night Watch, as it relaxed the gender basis of employment and allowed lesbians to assume, not only masculine jobs but also masculinity itself. The novel demonstrates both intersections and departures in the lives of lesbians, gays, and heterosexuals to showcase the richness and complexity of queer gender identities. Waters’ use of anachronism, moreover, establishes the significance of historical backwardness to queer theories. In the “Introduction” of Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History, Love (2007, p.4) defines the process of “feeling backward” as going through the “archive of feeling,” a narrative of the “corporeal and psychic costs of homophobia.” Historical backwardness entails the “turn” to queerness in the past (Love, 2007, p.5), where Waters challenges the essentialist need for determining the origins of homosexuality, which is not present in heterosexuality (Alden, 2013). The paper examines the meaning and function of historical backwardness in The Night Watch, as it demonstrates the function of historic injury to the development of postmodern queer theories. Historic injury refers to the societal assault on homosexuality that created social negativity, or “dark representations” of same-sex relationships (Love, 2007, p.1; Walters, 1996, p.833). Waters uses literal historical backwardness to demonstrate queer experiences of social negativity, wherein the war causes the historical conditions, traumatic experiences, and contingent conditions which expand and particularise the meaning of being queer across homosexual and heteronormative codes.

Through the narrative structure of present-to-the-past, Waters (2006) employs anachronism as a literal way of exploring historical backwardness in postmodernist queer theory. Waters starts the novel in 1947, then goes back to the past to help readers make sense of the present. She introduces the main characters of Kay, Mickey, Duncan, Fraser, Helen, Julia, and Viv, a hodgepodge of queer sexualities who invert traditional heteronormative gender codes and expectations. From 1947, Waters goes back to 1944, then to 1941, trying to answer some, but not all, questions about the hows and whys of queer identities and relationships. For instance, Helen’s exact reason/s for coming out as a lesbian are unclear, though the war is an important contributing factor. In 1944, Kay visits Mickey and tells her she watches the second half of the movies first because the “people’s pasts” are “so much more interesting than their futures” (Waters, 2006, p.106). The past is particularly interesting for, in postmodernist, as well as modernist, queer theories, it helps reveal the causes of same-sex identities and relationships in the form of historical aetiological analysis (Love, 2007, p.5; Walters, 1996, p.836). Katharina Boehm (2011, p.237), in the article, “Historiography and the Material Imagination in the Novels of Sarah Waters,” calls it “postmodern historiographic metafiction,” which is derived from Hutcheon. Hutcheon determined historiographic metafiction as a genre that focuses on narrating the past through revealing history and fiction as both discourses- the signifying structures of human identities (Boehm, 2011, p.237). Anachronism in The Night Watch provides the literal temporal form to postmodern queer theories by emphasizing historical backwardness

Waters (2006) mixes history and fiction to deconstruct queer identity through historiographic metafiction. As examples of historical allusion, Natasha Alden (2013) determines references to the friends of Radclyffe Hall, who wrote the seminal lesbian novel, The Well of Loneliness. In the essay, “Possibility, Pleasure, and Peril: The Night Watch as a Very Literary History,” Alden (2013) refers to Hall’s friends, Mickey, a nickname for Naomi Jacob, and Marion Barbara Carstairs, who began a chauffeuring service by women after driving ambulances in World War I (Alden, 2013). Historical illusions help place The Night Watch in the wider context of lesbian history, while also establishing metafiction through re-imaging lesbian characters (Boehm, 2011; Alden, 2013). Mickey is a lesbian who questions femininity by asserting her masculinity, in the same way, Naomi Jacob has done in the past. Carstairs’ ambulance experience is similar to Kay’s. By turning to and using the past, Waters contributes to postmodernist queer theorizing through historiographic metafiction, specifically, exploring the actual and imagined lives of gays, lesbians, and non-conforming heterosexuals during and after World War II in Great Britain. Historiographic metafiction in the novel depicts the role of historical conditions in forming the context for the development of both queer identity and queer history.

Historical backwardness shows the war as a dominant cause of the historical conditions which affected queer identity and relationships. The war provided Kay the means to express her lesbian identity more openly without being judged too critically. As an ambulance driver for the London Auxiliary Ambulance Service, Kay experiences freedom from gender restrictions that only war could provide. In “How Do You Think We Get to Pottery Barn?” Leopold Lippert (2010) analyses the political conditions of queerness. In the case of Kay and other queer characters, the war provides a political means for queer representation through economic empowerment. It translates to the role of financial resources to allow women greater autonomy as individuals and as members of their gendered communities. Furthermore, Kay and other lesbians did not only take on masculine jobs, but also the symbolic power of masculinity, as their job enables them to become daring heroes, looking into destroyed houses and buildings to recover the injured and the dead. In “Contingency for Beginners,” of the book Lost Causes: Etiology, Queer Theory, and Narrative, Valerie Rohy (2015) argue war as etiology in queer narratives. War does not cause lesbianism per se but contributes to its culmination. The “suspension of social norms” (Rohy, 2015, p.172) enables Kay to become a man in physical and emotional ways, providing the hypothesis that a postmodern queerness theory includes corporeal and psychological freedoms. The war, nonetheless, restricts gender inversion for as it ended, social negativity returns. Kay enters a shop and a man asks her, “Don’t you know the war’s over?” (Waters, 2006, p.100). The war both frees and imprisons lesbians, creating a sense of backwardness in that they can only be ironically free during the time of chaos. The heteronormative society appears to say, gay identities are only acceptable during desperate, violent times.

A more direct way of how war can cause homosexuality is in the case of Helen, although Waters is not saying that war itself produced lesbianism, but rather, forms a decisive turn in Helen’s exploration of her queer identity. Before the war, Helen dates men, but during the war, after Kay rescues her from underneath the rubble, she falls in love with her savior. Kay cleans the dust off Helen’s face and wonders how “something so fresh and so unmarked could have emerged from so much chaos” (Waters, 2006, p.503). Her unmarked nature may refer to the awakening of her queerness. If before, Helen cannot express her lesbian nature, she is more capable of doing so due to the war that might have frightened her. Dying, she must have thought of how short life is, so she might as well live it according to her true identity. The ravages of war stir her towards her lesbian becoming. In “‘What Does It Feel Like to Be an Anachronism?’: Time in The Night Watch,” Kaye Mitchell argues that Waters narrates a postmodern awareness of how temporality culturally creates nature. Mitchell notes that being unmarked means a fresh beginning. Helen rises from the ashes of the past to reclaim herself- her queerness. This adds to postmodern queer theory by positing the historical etiology of queerness. Nevertheless, Helen is not free from the social negativity of her lesbian relationship. She becomes jealous enough to cut herself “like a miserable kind of emblem; would anyway be there, on the surface of her body, rather than corroding it from within” (Waters, 2006, p.153; emphasis in original). The cut is an emblem of her shame and depression. It signifies the historical injury of hiding her queer relationship for fear of its social negative effects. On the surface, the cut heals, but, in reality, the injury of being queer and not being able to express it fully corrodes her inside. Allison Miller (2013) describes the shame some lesbians feel in “Am I Normal? American Vernacular Psychology and the Tomboy Body.” During the twentieth century, some may see lesbianism as a form of aggressive feminism only, or a phase for demanding gender equality, but not an acceptable norm of being. Knowing this, Helen feels despair in her homosexual relationship. Cutting is a symptom of her depression, her inability to contain the pain of being considered a gender deviant in her society. The war pushes her to become who she is, yet it cannot heal her inner shame for being queer. Postmodern queer theory can expand by integrating the intersections between queerness etiology and queer social negativity.

Another possible interpretation of war causing homosexuality is the queer producing the queer. When Kay sees Helen as “so fresh and so unmarked” (Waters, 2006, p.503), she could be referring to the latter’s heterosexuality. Helen is fresh as a heterosexual, but one who can be influenced to be queer. In the article, “Hemingway, Literalism, and Transgender Reading,” Rohy (2011, p.153) explore how Grace Hemingway, being an “aggressive feminist” and probably a lesbian, could have influenced her son, Ernest, and his transgender identity, when she dressed him up like a little girl. The etiology of queerness here is the queer producing the queer through social contact and constant influence (Rohy, 2011, p.153). Postmodern queer theorizing should consider how queer communities develop through socialization too. War introduces Helen to queer identities, which persuaded her, mostly psychologically, to be a lesbian herself. Vicinus (1992) agrees with the social construction of queerness in the essay, “‘They Wonder to Which Sex I Belong’: The Historical Roots of the Modern Lesbian Identity.” She refers to how lesbians would subscribe to specific gender scripts which typecast past and present lesbian identities (Vicinus, 1992, p.469). For instance, Kay wears men’s shoes and silver-cuffed masculine attire (Waters, 2006, p.5). She follows the butch stereotype. On the contrary, Helen and Julia dress like other women with their blouses and tweed skirts, as well as wearing make-up like ordinary women. Helen might see something manly about how Julia carries herself, but to the rest of the world, they could see her as tomboyish, but not necessarily a lesbian. In their relationship, Helen appears to be the “girl” with her streaks of jealousy that annoys her female “boyfriend.” They are in the typical butch-femme relationship. From being with Kay, then Julia, war has resulted in a queer company that may have had a huge impact on Helen’s queerness. These thoughts about the etiology of queerness point to the historical specificity and sociality of gay identities and relationships in postmodern queer theory. Historical events can cause expanding queer circles, which may invoke hidden or multiple (meaning not only heteronormative) sexual desires.

Duncan, however, presents a more nuanced depiction of war as causing queerness. On the one hand, war brings him to Mr. Mundy who exploits him through their pedophile relationship. Duncan remembers Mr. Mundy waiting and him entering the old man’s room, thinking of the picture over the bed: “a scene of an angel, safely leading children over a narrow, precipitous bridge” (Waters, 2006, p.162). Duncan would look at this picture until “it was over” (Waters, 2006, p.162). The angel could stand for the deceiving Mr. Mundy, the pedophile who takes advantage of the emotionally distraught Duncan, leading him to a dangerous bridge. These sexual experiences, nevertheless, create an emotional bond between Duncan and Mr. Mundy, which is why he takes care of the old man, even when he should not, being a kind of a victim. On the other hand, Waters shows that historical conditions are not the precursor of Duncan’s queerness. In 1941, she reveals Duncan is already gay through his close relationship with Alec. This is divulged through how he swiftly agrees to Alec’s proposition of committing suicide to avoid being drafted into the war. After Alec says he is going to kill himself, Duncan says: “I won’t let you do it on your own! … I told you, you’re not going to leave me” (Waters, 2006, p.492). He seriously considers dying than living without Alec. Rohy (2015, p.174) notes that war did not promote homosexuality for Duncan, instead “his homosexuality…is itself, arguably, the cause of [his] fate.” Duncan is already gay before the war, although this historical condition also affected his life through his sexuality. Because he is gay, he has been vulnerable to pedophiles like Mr. Mundy. Duncan’s nuanced homosexuality suggests an approach to postmodern queer theory that allows the integration of inner and external causations of queerness.

War generates the temporality for traumatic experiences which impact queerness too. Rohy (2015, p.174) talks about war as a traumatizing event, one that can invert or undermine one’s biological sexual identity. As Helen’s legs are trapped under rubble, Kay gives her a cigarette. A doctor also just injected Helen with morphine, so Kay tells Helen she may not remember what has happened anymore (Waters, 2006, p.501). Indeed, Helen forgets how she meets Kay, which suggests how traumatic it must have been for her to almost die and to see people dying around her. Nevertheless, Rohy (2015) is careful to suggest historical determinism. Instead, she could be referring to the literal backwardness attributed to homosexuality. Love (2007) notes the traumatic injury of being queer. The injury comes from a judgmental society that does not accept anything beyond traditional heterosexual identities and relations. Helen continues to bear the trauma of her sexuality by hiding it from the public. She feels intense shame because of how society maligns lesbians. For instance, their neighbors have an idea already that they (Helen and Julia) are lesbians, so that the man living below them yells to his wife she could “end up like those fucking eunuchs upstairs” (Waters, 2006, p.49). They are not people, but the “other,” the backward form of humanity. As a result, Helen has to pretend she is not a lesbian. Alan Sinfield (1991) describes this as keeping an act in “Private Lives/Public Theater: Noel Coward and the Politics of Homosexual Representation.” Helem has to hide her lesbianism for she is not prepared to cope with the negative social consequences of being openly queer. The temporality of queerness includes social negativity, suggesting that negativity can be a mediator of queer identity in postmodern queer theories. Those who can cope with negativity can be less stressed about their queerness, in the way Julia is. Julia does not seem to be as bothered by her queerness as Helen for she pursues a meaningful occupation as a writer. As a writer, she may cope better than those who have work they do not find fulfilling.

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Being queer is likewise traumatic for Duncan, which shows in his experiences of social negativity and regret. Similar to Helen, he hears vile gender slurs. For instance, Pamela’s husband calls him a “Little Lord Fauntleroy” or “Mary Pickford” (Waters, 2006, p.91). These are shameful names that are enough for Duncan to choose Mr. Mundy over living with his own family. Furthermore, social negativity gives Duncan psychological problems. As he drinks with Fraser in a pub, he thinks he sees a familiar couple, a man and a woman who mocked him for being gay. In his mind, he hears them saying: “Look at him…He thinks he’s all right, he does. He thinks he’s just like you and me” (Waters, 2006, p.95; emphasis in original). It demonstrates a break in his psyche, a psychological injury from years of feeling the pangs of his queerness. Postmodern queer theory can consider psychological fragmentation as a product of queer negativity. Duncan is sensitive to his queerness due to people making him feel inferior for being different. Furthermore, war can be a time of regretting queerness. Without the war, Alec would not be drafted and he would not consider killing himself. At the same time, Duncan promises to commit suicide too, but his father stops him, therefore creating regret as a survivor. As time goes on, he has lost the nerve to kill himself. Instead, he deals with regret through his fascination with old things. Duncan collects old things, and, one time, while with Fraser, he picks up a broken clay pipe.  He says: “There might have been a man here, three hundred years ago, smoking tobacco just like [Fraser]” (Waters, 2006, p.93). He wonders what his name could be and how they could be “torment[ed]” that they would never know his identity (Waters, 2006, p.93). Susan Collins (2015, p.74) would determine this as the meaningful intersection of spatiality, time, and non-normative sexuality in her book, Captivating Westerns: The Middle East in the American West. In this instance, Duncan uses the word “torment” which hints at how regretful he must be for not following Alec to the grave. His best friend is dead and he is tormented with the thought of not knowing how Alec would have turned up as an adult and how their relationship would have developed. Like the old clay pipe, Duncan is haunted with questions of what-ifs. The war has formed an agonizing life for him as a queer individual, thereby noting the role of historical conditions in traumatic queer experiences and broken self-worth.

Viv experiences a different kind of trauma because of the war more of the moral trauma of her queerness. Helen notices that Viv hardly opens up about her life. They both have dark secrets. As a parallel to the darkness of being gay, Viv harbors the darkness of being a mistress. During their picnic, Viv and Reggie drink from children’s beakers (Waters, 2006, p.64). This symbolizes the childishness of their illicit affair. As an adult, Viv should know better than destroy a marriage and a family. Reggie is unhappy with his wife, but it does not give Viv the moral justification to stay in a long-term extramarital relationship with him. On the way home, Viv becomes frantic as she sees Kay. She feels she has been discovered. Love (2007) notes the historical turn for queerness, and this is one of the turns for Viv. This moral turn creates anxiety. She feels ashamed of hiding, in the same way, that queer people hide their identities. Viv regrets what she has done, especially when Reggie leaves her during her abortion. These realizations of her queerness and its repercussions establish the idea that heterosexuals can suffer from gender-based depression too, another postmodern notion of queerness. The war is a context that drove the affair, yet it is Viv who continues it. Viv endures the moral trauma of her sexual difference, which produces anxiety and regret.

Emphasizing place and time, war is an important context for exploring the ravages of social negativity. Before Helen cuts herself, she looks at a mirror and sees a “perfectly reasonable and calm” countenance (Waters, 2006, p.154). It is as if she knows she can and she deserves the self-harm; queerness deserves repeated punishment in the form of repeated cuts. Kadji Amin (2016, p.173) stresses that the concept of queer has its affective dimension in the essay, “Haunted by the 1990s: Queer Theory’s Affective Histories.” Kadji Amin (2016, p.181) argues that being queer is not slick, according to Sara Ahmed, but “sticky through repetition” where repeated use “becomes intrinsic; it becomes a form of signing” (2004, p.91; emphasis in original). Helen’s queerness sticks to her, from her relationship with Kay to Julia. Nonetheless, Helen fears being caught by society. She tries to be content with the brushing of her skin with Julia’s toes and knees, for instance, in public. She relishes her love for Julia, yet she is caught in a psychological quandary. Helen is queer, but she cannot be a more open lesbian for she cannot deal with the social repercussions of her lesbianism, such as losing her job or being hurt or killed by anti-gay fanatics. Social negativity in the time of war produces anxiety, making her feel dissatisfied both with herself and her lesbian relationships. She doubts herself, so she feels insecure about Julia’s love. Furthermore, Helen cannot completely enjoy her lesbian relationship with all the hiding. The backwardness of queerness makes her thoroughly unhappy. Place, time, and emotions are important interacting factors in postmodern queer theories.

War likewise demonstrates the contingency of queerness, including its generality. Being queer is not automatically being gay. Viv is queer for she engages in an extra-marital relationship. Reggie gives her two cans of meat after their tryst and she feels “suddenly furious” and tells him to give the food to his wife (Waters, 2006, p.154). She feels the shame of her queerness, especially when she knows food is scarce during this time, and if anyone needs food more, it would be the wife and children of the man she was sleeping with. Mitchell (2013) explains how the war creates breaks in heteronormative identities. Viv does not just undermine marriage as a social institution, she also breaks her maternal identity when she decides to have an abortion. The shame of having a child out of wedlock is greater than the sin of killing a helpless, unborn human being. The postmodern queer theory explores the inclusion of anti-heteronormative codes in queerness too.

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Queerness has its particularities which are contingent on historical conditions. Kay thinks about her temporal conditions, her present identity as a “person whose clocks and wristwatches have stopped, and who tells the time, instead, by the particular kind of cripple arriving at her landlord’s door” (Waters, 2006, p.3). Mitchell (2013) describes this as operating outside heteronormative temporality due to nostalgia and the gap between the ideal and present self. Kay misses Helen, who already left her for Julia. Broken-hearted, Kay feels empty. She feels the gap between her ideal self, where she feels she has a meaningful role in society as an ambulance driver and her present empty self. Kay thinks that the boy who visits the clinic might be right in seeing her as a ghost for “she might be becoming part of the faded fabric of the house, dissolving into the gloom which gathered, like dust, in its crazy angles” (Waters, 2006, p.4). The gloom is particular to her sense of meaninglessness in her life. She exists and moves, but she is not living. She feels herself fading like an object, instead of growing as a human being should. Kay dissolves into the gloom like dust, which fits the literal dustiness that war creates in bombed-out communities. The dust has crazy angles because it lacks structure. The wind blows it anywhere as it pleases. Kay feels she has lost her autonomy. The particularity of losing autonomy can be an independent factor that can result in a broken queer identity, which can add to postmodern queer theorizing on the continuum and evolution of queer selves.

Queerness, nonetheless, shows generalities in negative experiences during the war. Duncan and Helen are both overly self-conscious about hiding their queerness. Their backwardness reflects in their inability to cope with their queer identity. Furthermore, Viv also feels the need to hide her queerness. She feels shame in the same way Duncan does. Their experiences indicate that gender is fluid and exists in a continuum, as in postmodern queer thinking. In the interview, “‘Ladies in Peril’: Sarah Waters on Neo-Victorian Narrative Celebrations and why She Stopped Writing About the Victorian Era,” Waters (2008) asserts that gender is a process and queer people are not always fixed individuals: “…they’re not fixed, and gender’s never fixed, and how we feel about women changes all the time, and how we feel about sex and sexuality and class, these things change all the time.” She talks about the randomness of gender, as well as other factors influencing identity, a postmodernist understanding of “becoming.” As time and places change, the notion and expressions of gender can evolve too. Suzanna Danuta Walters (1996) agrees with the subjectivity of queerness in her essay, “From Here to Queer: Radical Feminism, Postmodernism, And the Lesbian Menace (Or, Why Can’t a Woman Be More like a Fag?)” Walters (1996, p.837) asserts that “the indeterminacy… is precisely what gives it its power: queer is many things to many people, irreducible, undefinable, enigmatic…the perfect postmodern trope…the epitome of knowing ambiguity.” Queer can also be general in its complexity.

Furthermore, queer can be similar in negativity, in the darkness of being different. Kay reads an excerpt from The Invisible Man:

the full disadvantage of my condition. I had no shelter— no covering— to get clothing was to forgo all my advantage, to make of myself a strange and terrible thing. I was fasting; for to eat, to fill myself with unassimilated matter would be to become grotesquely visible again. (as cited in Waters, 2006, p.102).

The queers in the novel share the same experience of invisibility. They take off or hide what could be seen as openly gay, thus, hollowing themselves of their real nature. The more they hide, the more they fast. If they fill themselves, such as wear men’s clothing and act masculine, they will be visible and under social attack. Moreover, Waters creates omissions to depict how many queers hide their identities. Alden (2013, p.81) stresses that Waters removes important feelings about gayness to underscore them even more. By not showing sexology and other deeper queer emotions, Waters literally hides what queer people may also hide, thereby pushing readers to interpret between the lines and appreciate the depth of historical injury to queer people. These generalities to queerness are all set in the time of war, underlining how the past affects queer individuals and communities, which is important to determining social dynamics in postmodern queer theories.

The future of queerness is likewise connected to the war in the past. Waters does not explore the future anymore, not because it is unimportant, but because the past strongly drives future directions for queer identities and relationships. Duncan tells Mr. Mundy how he tries to look forward to his future after prison but “that’s like a wall, too” (Waters, 2006, p.340). He cannot see beyond for he continues to carry the wounds from his past. Duncan cannot believe Alec is in a better place, as he thinks of Alec’s shame for his bad teeth, so he hardly smiles (Waters, 2006, p.341). This shame is not about the teeth alone, but knowing one’s difference, the oddity that makes them aware of their inferiority. They are not truly inferior, however, but made inferior through social conceptions about queerness. Sam McBean (2016, p.11), in the book, Feminism’s Queer Temporalities, talks about the ambiguity of the future for the queer, where queer people both resist and seek to shape the future. The queer is the future as it offers new modes of becoming and relationships to heteronormative codes (McBean, 2016, p.11). Nevertheless, the queer also resists the future. McBean (2016, p.12) cites Edelman who believes that queerness constantly rejects future social normalization efforts. He suggests that the future society may accept queerness, but only within new social boundaries. Instead of submitting to new social walls, McBean (2016, p.12) considers the possibility of using the past to never conform to the future. The Night Watch depicts the lasting effects of the past on the future developments of queer postmodern theories and identities.

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The Night Watch explores the function of historic injury to the development of postmodern queer theory through the context of World War II. Waters uses literal historical backwardness to determine queer experiences of social negativity, wherein the war produces the historical conditions which influence queer identity and relationships. War likewise creates traumatic experiences which contribute to queerness. Finally, war emphasizes contingent conditions that expand and particularise the meaning of being queer across heteronormative codes. Duncan, Kay, Helen, and Julia are queer people who experience the general and particular turns of gender backwardness. Viv is also queer because she opposes heteronormative codes with her extra-marital affair and abortion. These characters demonstrate the complexity of postmodern queer theorizing that includes fragmentations and diversions from both homosexual and heterosexual scripts. The Night Watch notes the proverbial observation of how night and day collide, making gender open to continuously fluid interpretations and re-imaginations.

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