Hypocriticisms: Double Standards in Literature No. 5

Clipart depicting two women. Left, a woman is bent double and struggling under a huge stack of books. Right, a woman stands on her tiptoes to add another book to the top of the stack.

Welcome back to Hypocritisms, the series in which we list a few double standards we find in literature!

If you’ve ever read a book, you might have noticed that sometimes there are some double standards.  All kinds. It’s not limited to gender roles or sexuality. Just like in real life, you see discrimination for aspects like age, religion, justice/law, race/nationality, nepotism, and so on.

Now we’re moving on to Lord Alfred Tennyson, not to be confused with Lord Byron or Lorde with an E. My favorite verse in the entirety of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, which is basically his version of Arthurian romances, is “Pelleas and Ettarre.” Pelleas is a stalker, Ettarre is sort of Kate the Shrew character, but there’s a couple of salient passages where the misogyny really stands out.  

All right, so Pelleas follows Ettarre home, and lingers outside of her castle because she won’t let him in. Every time she looks out the window, it’s just him standing down there. It’s creepy. So every once in a while, Ettarre sends her three knights down to rough him up a bit, but he beats them because unfortunately he was also trained as a knight.

One fine day, Sir Gawain comes along and sees that it’s three against one, and he goes down to help. Pelleas says no, he’s okay, but when Gawain insists, they come up with a plan where they pretend that Gawain has murdered Pelleas, and Gawain goes in to make Ettarre fall in love with a supposedly now dead man. But first, Pelleas has to make sure that he can trust Gawain.  

So he asks Gawain: 

“Art thou not he whom men call light-of-love?” 

 “Ay,” said Gawain, “for women be so light.” 

Oh no he didn’t. (Even though Gawain totally made out with the lord of the manor in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.) He’s a dumbass, but I love him.  

After meeting Ettarre, Gawain sort of realizes that he sided with a stalker. Oops! He proceeds to sleep with Ettarre and betray Pelleas’ trust, which causes his fragile, young, male brain to snap, and he runs off into the wilderness. As one does.

(When you walk in on your parents making out. ID: Black and white depiction of Gawain and Ettarre cuddling (center) and behind them outside the tent Pelleas recoiling in disgust. Caption at bottom reads, “Sir Pelleas, looking in, saw Sir Gawaine stoop and kiss the Lady Ettard.”)

And way earlier in this poem, we get this gem: “Pelleas looked / Noble among noble, for he dreamed / His lady loved him, and he knew himself / Loved of the King [Arthur].” Key words: dreamed and knew. It suggests that feminine love is but an illusion, and that the masculine is what is real. This is also foreshadowing.

The most hilarious part of this? Tennyson meant it unironically.

You should really see my angry annotations in my physical copy of this poem.  I actually presented on the fragile masculinity in this poem at a conference!

What double standards do you see in Tennyson’s Idylls of the King?

-Leigh Ann

Published by modcasters

We’re a group of graduate students studying English Literature and Language on a mission to discuss literature, provide access to those on the deafness and/or blindness spectrum, and rock mustachios.

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