Of Plants and Sex: Elizabeth Gilbert’s Latest Novel

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“It puzzles me,” wrote Anonymous, in his introduction, “that we are all bequeathed at birth with the most marvelous bodily pricks and holes, which the youngest child knows are objects of pure delight, but which we must pretend in the name of civilization are abominations–never to be touched, never to be shared, never to be enjoyed! Yet why should we not explore these gifts of the body, both in ourselves and in our fellows? It is only our minds that prevent us from such enchantments, only our artificial sense of ‘civilization’ that forbids such simple entertainments…What follows in these pages, respected reader, is an honest accounting of my lifetime of erotic adventure, which some may call foul, but which I have pursued happily–and I believe harmlessly–since my youth. If I were a religious man, trapped with the bondage of shame, I might call this book a confession. But I do not subscribe to sensual shame, and my investigations have shown me that many human groupings across the world also do not subscribe to shame in regard to the sensual act. I have come to believe that an absence of such shame may be, indeed, our natural state as a human species–a state that our civilization has sadly warped. For that reason, I do not confess my unusual history, but merely disclose it. I hope and trust that my disclosures will be read as a guide as a diversion, not only for gentlemen but also for venturous and educated ladies.”

What a delightful paragraph to stumble upon in a novel, the topic of which I surely thought was the study of plants! I am often so consumed by issues of gender and sexuality as they occur in the news and contemporary politics that I rarely take a moment to delve into a more literary and historical exploration of gender. However this seemingly innocuous Elizabeth Gilbert novel, The Signature of All Things, is rife with the numerous complications that sex and sexuality may have posed for both women and men living during the 19th century.

The tale is of a botanist magnate settled in Philadelphia in the early 1800’s, but more notably features his homely and brilliant botanist daughter, Alma Whittaker, and the many struggles that her advanced intelligence and isolation presented her as a woman of that time. The above passage derives from a salacious book the teen-aged Alma stumbles upon while indexing her father’s rare collection of botanical books. Below, her reaction to this first encounter of sex that does not involve the stamen and pistil.

Alma opened the book again, and read for another hour, overcome by stimulus, doubt, and havoc. Her conscience tugged at her skirt hems, pleading with her to stop, but she could not make herself stop. What she discovered in these pages made her feel vexed, frothy, and breathless. When she thought she might actually faint from the tangled stalks of imagination that were now waving throughout her head, she slammed shut the book at last, and locked it back into the innocuous trunk from which it had come.

The book goes on to introduce a number of various struggles that Alma will face throughout her life, including consummation in the marital bed, masturbation, and homosexuality. A trip into the nineteenth century missions dotting the Tahitian islands brings up touchy questions of colonialism, racism, and, as Anonymous proposes, the question of what exactly may be “our natural state as a human species” with regards to sex and sexuality. A fine read for a literary, gender studies, naturalist nerd!


-Caterina Gironda, Southern Editor



Feature Image: Plant Sex, from nathangibbs.com

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