The Hermaphrodite

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
The Hermaphrodite
Author Julia Ward Howe
Original title "Laurence manuscript"
Country United States
Language English
Genre Novel
Publisher University of Nebraska Press
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardback)
Pages 208 pp
ISBN ISBN 0-8032-2415-X
OCLC 55085718
813/.4 22
LC Class PS2016 .H47 2004

The Hermaphrodite is an incomplete novel by Julia Ward Howe about a hermaphrodite raised as a male, but whose underlying gender ambiguity often creates havoc in his life. Its date of creation is uncertain; University of Idaho professor Gary Williams hypothesizes that it was probably written between 1846 and 1847.[1]

Plot introduction[edit]

The novel's protagonist, Laurence, is a hermaphrodite whose unsettled father, Paternus, decides to raise the child as a male, though "he" displays normative gender characteristics of both sexes. Laurence is sent off to college, where he excels in his studies, particularly the writing of poetry, a skill that inflames the passions of an older widow, Emma. Laurence, however, is not attracted to her, and even displays asexual tendencies. On the night of his graduation, Emma professes her love to him and, being told the truth of Laurence's hermaphroditism, goes into a deep state of shock, and subsequently dies.

Though it was Laurence who had stalled the consummation of their relationship, he nonetheless reacts emotionally, and returns home to his cold father. Here, Paternus displays the true level of repulsion he feels towards his child, as well as his regret that Laurence will never beget a male heir. He offers Laurence his inheritance in a premature bulk sum, if he allows Paternus to effectively disown him. Laurence vehemently rejects the offer, instead offering the money to his younger (and importantly gender-neutral) brother, Phil, with the hope that his brother will share his wealth upon their father's death.

Character of Laurence[edit]

Laurence (also called Laurent) lives most of his life as a man and then spends a period living as a woman. At the end of the story the secret is discovered, and some friends discuss the nature of Laurence's sex. Their observations are reflective of nineteenth-century views of gender:

A male friend Berto observes, "I recognize nothing distinctly feminine in the intellectual nature of Laurent, ... he is sometimes poetical and rhapsodical, but he reasons severely and logically, even as a man--he has moreover stern notions of duty which bend and fashion his life, instead of living fashioned by it, as is the case with women."

A female friend Briseida says, "I recognize in Laurent much that is strictly feminine, ... and in the name of the female sex, I claim her as one of us. Her modesty, her purity, her tenderness of heart belong only to woman .... It is true that she can reason better than most women, yet is she most herself when she feels, when she follows that instinctive, undoubting sense of inner truths which is only given to women and to angels."

A physician ("the Medicus"), as well as Berto and Briseida, also describe Laurence in terms of a unified gender:

  • "one presenting a beautiful physical development, and combining in the spiritual nature all that is most attractive in either sex."
  • "the poetic dream of the ancient sculptor, more beautiful, though less human, than either man or woman."
  • "I cannot pronounce Laurent either man or woman ... he is rather both than neither."
  • "a heavenly superhuman mystery, one undivided, integral soul, needing not to seek on earth its other moiety, needing only to adore the God above it, and to labour for its brethren around it."

It is this analysis which seems to prevail and conclude Laurence's story.[2]

Major themes[edit]

The text is unique, especially for the time period in which it was written. Its Romantic themes of self-discovery, sublimity in nature, and the tumultuous intersection between death and love combine with more modern investigations of asexuality and challenges to cultural patriarchy, to produce a story that is at once a reminder of a particular time in American history, and yet also a remarkably prophetic speculation about changes to come.

Background and publication history[edit]

The Hermaphrodite was never published in Howe's lifetime, nor was it titled by the author. Editor Gary Williams read the text, which he also calls the "Laurence manuscript", in the Houghton Library at Harvard in 1995. The manuscript is actually a series of fragments, and is missing large pieces. As such, the 2004 edition starts on the original's page two, is missing the original's pages 118 to 132, and contains a third segment that is composed "of several much shorter manuscript fragments, only one of which is numbered and some of which are different drafts of the same scene".[3]

From these disparate components, though, a recognizable (if not completely unified) narrative can be discerned.



  1. ^ Williams, ed., Gary; Julia Ward Howe (2004). The Hermaphrodite. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. p. x. 
  2. ^ Williams, pp. 194-196.
  3. ^ Williams, p. 163.


  • Williams, Gary, and Renee Bergland, eds. Philosophies of Sex: Critical Essays on The Hermaphrodite. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2012.
  • Howe, Julia Ward. The Hermaphrodite. Edited by Gary Williams. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004.
  • Williams, Gary. Hungry Heart: The Literary Emergence of Julia Ward Howe. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999.