Document Type

Journal Article


ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON'S novella The Ebb-Tide (l894) presents perhaps the most intensively elaborated and intensely anxious treatment of masculine identity and relations between men in an oeuvre enduringly preoccupied with these interimplicated issues. In its representations of fractured masculine subjectivities and a homosociality fraught with compounded aggressive and libidinal impulses, Stevenson's work may be located within a wide range of fictions that dramatize the late nineteenth-century "crisis" within masculinity. More specifically, in The Ebb-Tide, which is set in the colonized Pacific, an account of the instabilities of conventional masculinity overlaps with an account of the instabilities of the imperialist project. In this essay, I suggest The Ebb-Tide's representation of masculine crisis might be understood as a manifestation of what Christopher Lane has named "colonial jouissance." In his wide-ranging study of British colonialist literature of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Lane points to the frequent invocation of forces, located both outside and within the imperialist masculine subject, which simultaneously drive and threaten to dissipate the "labor and power" essential to the imperialist project: "an unremitting dread of external defiance and internal unmaking propelled Britain's drive for global mastery," Lane contends. The experience of cultural and environmental alterity made dangerously evident the fragility of a masculine subjectivity more readily naturalized at home, so that the colonial subject "was obliged ... to compete with a correponding impulse to self-dispossession whenever he bid for a country's possession." In The Ebb- Tide, I suggest, the Pacific setting enables extreme modes of "internal unmaking." The threat of self-dissolution that always shadowed the "aggressive self-mastery" of Victorian bourgeois masculinity is realized in the perverse energies of homoeroticism, hysteria, and masochism, and potently conveyed through persistent imagery of somatic trauma and dysfunction-of male bodies being ovenvhelmed by involuntary impulses. Along with this representation offailed self-discipline, a certain "external defiance" carried in the novella's representation of racial and classed differences between the male characters contributes to a critical perspective on imperialism and the forms of masculinity it elicited. However, while the novel both explicitly and inadvertently undermines certain orthodoxies and hierarchies integral to the imperialist project, it also often relies to a significant degree on these same structures in order to tell its story, suggesting a complex range of investments and disinvestments in imperialist ideology on Stevenson's part.