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Our Aromatic Uncle

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Submitted By jpariseau
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The Victorian society of the nineteenth-century was a period marked by sensationalism and superficiality but also by the emergence of a new kind of novel and short story that expressed ideas about subjects that were normally taboo or avoided in this society. A year before his death in 1896, Henry Cuyler Bunner wrote the short story “Our Aromatic Uncle” which presents an unreliable narrator and very strong allusions to same-sex love . This essay will analyze the homosexual subtext in Bunner’s short story. This text will explore how the phrase popularized by Oscar Wild “the love that dares not speak its name” express itself as well as on what and how same-sex love is displaced in the short story. To analyze the homosexual subtext, this essay will also examine what discrepancies can be observed in Bunner’s story and how they lead the reader to question the reliability of the narrator. First of all, the short story, written by Bunner in 1895, presents the story of a judge’s son and a butcher-boy who leave the United States to go to China. The only contact David, the judge’s son, has had with his family is short and brief letters that he sent few times per year along with some gifts that had all a particular aroma prior to his death. However, further in the story we can realize that the letters as well as the gifts have not been sent by David but by the butcher-boy, Tommy Biggs. This aspect brings the reader to some interrogations regarding the actual relation between David and Tommy. We can read in Bunner’s story that “the butcher-boy worshipped him with the deepest and most fervent adoration” (203). By this statement, made by the narrator, we can understand that the feelings of Tommy Biggs toward David have been a lot more that comradeship or even strong friendship. The use of the words “adoration” and “admiration” probably suggests a very strong feeling of love from the little butcher-boy toward the judge’s son (Bunner 203). Another really good example that Tommy really put David on a pedestal occurs when the narrator mentions “to the butcher-boy it did not seem right in the nature of things that anything should displease the judge’s son” (204). We can conclude that Tommy has not the kind behavior somebody usually has with a person who is a friend or even a best friend. This admiration and adoration is a kind of behavior that we sometime see when one person in a couple is in complete admiration with his beloved one. Finally, we can certainly agree that Bunner illustrated, in "Our Aromatic Uncle", the love of a man for another but he definitely portrayed it indirectly since same-sex love between two individuals was taboo and not socially accepted in Victorian society. Second of all, this story written at the end of the nineteenth-century can be summarized in one very short sentence popularized by Oscar Wilde. Wilde used and popularized the short phrase “the love that dares not speak its name”. It is totally obvious that this statement talks about homosexuality and same-sex love at a time where it was unconventional and not generally accepted by the society. It also expresses the feelings of shame and guiltiness homosexual people can had in Victorian society and even nowadays. This popular sentence can easily be linked to the short story written by Bunner because there is, in “Our Aromatic Uncle”, very strong allusions to homosexuality without ever using this kind of term to describe the relation between Tommy and David. It is really interesting to see how the author successfully carries to the reader this perception of same-sex love without using the exact name of this “strange” relation. Some other clues in the story let also the reader believe that Tommy has never officially declared his love to David. We can read at the end of Bunner’s story that the little butcher-boy “ran away to sea to be body-guard, servant and friend to the splendid, showy, selfish youth [David] whom he worshipped; whose heartlessness he cloaked for many a long year, who lived upon his bounty, and who died in his arms, nursed with a tenderness surpassing that of a brother” (212). This description definitely shows that the unconditional love of Tommy for David has never been expressed loud and clear and this can, without a doubt, be related to “the love that dares not speak its name”. To conclude, some passages also let the reader believe that David had probably not the same kind of feeling for Tommy. The old gentleman explains to the narrator that David had no money, that he drank a lot and that he had relations with ladies (211). Third of all, as same-sex love is not clearly expressed in the text, we can definitely argue that Bunner displaces the various clear terms about homosexuality on admiration and adoration. The fact that this story was written during the Victorian period might have played a major role in this displacement. By displacing same-sex love on adoration and admiration without truly mentioning homosexuality, Bunner leaves the reader with the choice of how the story should be interpreted. Bunner was then able to write about a subject that was taboo at that time. Depending on the interpretation of the reader, another demonstration of the same-sex love and its displacement in this short story might be the fact that Tommy write and send gift to David’s family to be sure that his family is proud and admires him almost as much as Tommy adores him. Another aspect that the author uses to suggest that things are not what they seem is the actual position of Uncle David in the family. The narrator always refers to him as an uncle and Tommy refers to the narrator and his wife as nephew and niece. However, the wife’s father is the judge and the judge is also David’s father. The narrator even contradicts himself when he explains that the judge’s son, his wife’s uncle, ran away to sea (Bunner 204). Moreover, the “certain Aunt Lucretia” is described as being the sister of the “Aromatic Uncle” (Bunner 208). There is, at that point, a really important discrepancy in the family structure which leads the reader to question if the narrator is reliable or not. In fact, if Aunt Lucretia and Uncle David are brother and sister and they have the same parents as the narrator’s wife, then they are all brothers and sisters. We can then conclude that the narrator is not reliable and that everything in Bunner’s short story is almost certainly not as it seems.

Finally, Henry Cuyler Bunner successfully wrote, with “Our Aromatic Uncle”, a short story about same-sex love between two individuals at a time when homosexuality was not socially accepted in the society and was considered as a taboo subject. By writing a story full of allusions, displacements and contradictions, Bunner is able to carry his message to the reader by offering them a short story that is free to interpretation and which does not directly go beyond Victorian conventions. It is definitely through interpretation of the story that Bunner cleverly brings his readers one step further and make them cross the social norms of the nineteenth-century.

Bunner, Henry Cuyler. "Our Aromatic Uncle." Glances Backward: An Anthology of American Homosexual Writing, 1830-1920. Ed. James Gifford. Ontario, Canada: Broadview Press, 2007. 202-212. Print.…...

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