The Construction of Masculinity of the Criminal Other in Michelle Asantewa's Elijah
The novel, Elijah, by Michelle Yaa Asantewa is a literary examination of the additional struggles that Afro-Guyanese migrants like Eli Lovelace face when they are coming of age in a postmodernist multicultural metropolis. The novel does not fully confirm to the conventions of a bildungsroman since we do not follow his growth over a period of years. However, readers are able to psychologically penetrate the mind of Eli Lovelace when he experiences a major volta in his life during which he leaves the gang life behind him.
Moreover, the novel candidly focuses on the criminal landscape of the city of London, a melting pot of cultures and subcultures. Therefore, Elijah is not a run-of-the-mill postcolonial work since the protagonist is doubly othered; the criminal and racial other. Consequently, this novel has the dimensions of a detective novel in which readers have to deduce who was the culprit that committed the murder that establishes the exposition of the novel. Furthermore, an approach similar to that used by Alshiban in her essay, “Exploring Criminology in Literary Texts: Robert Browning – an Example” will be applied since this essay also seeks to expose the intimate connection between literature and criminology (Alshiban 57).
Firstly, Elijah is characterized as the ‘black sheep’ or outcast of the family when through free indirect discourse Asantewa allows Eli to confess that, “[h]e was always wrong” but “[c]ollectively they (his family) were always right; their voices always eagerly joined in conviction of his guilt” (27). This unhomed feeling is one of the factors that cause youths to rely more on peer groups. In Eli’s case, it was a street gang. Lindsey and Beach posit that “[t]he family provides the essential economic and emotional support to its members during all the events and inevitable crises” (396). Clearly, Eli Lovelace does not find the affection that he craves within his familial unit. As a matter of fact, the manner in which Eli claims to be treated by his family reveals that it is “preserving existing inequality and power relations in the broader society” (Lindsey and Beach 399). This statement is held true when Eli’s mother, Louisa, issues a warning to him about staying out at night by asking him if he wants to return to “Young Offenders” (30). Here Eli is labelled and he is also othered by his delinquent or deviant reputation which to some extent coerces him to continue being one of the “Cretch Crew” members (91). It is also because of his association with the before mentioned gang that he is paid a visit by PC Holmes and Detective Jackson in relation to the murder of the teenage boy at Bondly Estate. From the perspective of law enforcement officers, his label as a young offender also qualifies him as a potential offender or accomplice in any crimes related to the gang. In other words, Eli is being constructed as the offender, perpetrator and “victimological other” (Walklate 19).
Lindsey and Beach further state that adolescents are more susceptible to becoming very loyal to peer groups since “they can be themselves only when with their friends; they do not have to show deference to adults and can use the peer group to mock adult authority” (138). From a sociological perspective, it is logical that Eli would be drawn to the gang since he is surrounded by other persons his age who like him had a “value system at odds with mainstream culture” (Scott 179). This disparity between value systems is an inevitability owing to the fact that he belongs to the racial minority and is also living in another man’s land.
Furthermore, Eli Lovelace also finds that he and his fellow gangsters have another commonality, which was the feeling of alienation, which had disappeared when they joined the crew. Eli romanticizes the gang life by declaring that:
“Before the Crew there had been no family, no school, no one to talk to, listen to, bun with, to shot and grind with; no one to lovingly discipline or chastise, to encourage and really teach, to be inspired by, to care, love, understand, respect and accept them the way they wanted to be” (111).
Clearly, the Crew simply serves the role of a surrogate father. This deduction is further concretized when Eli admits that “most of the boys in the Crew didn’t even have the ghost father to give them something perceptible to explain the way they were or how they felt” (112). In other words, for most of the boys there was no man who was interested enough to help groom them into decent and proper men by understanding their bodies and their roles in societal development. There was no father or father-like figure to guide them into the “the Symbolic Order.” the Lacanian second developmental stage (Bressler 157).
During this phase, “gender identity” is learnt and the “father comes to represent cultural norms and laws” (Bressler 157). A possible consequence of not properly “completing the Symbolic Order” (Bressler 158) is the disregard of laws and inversion of established norms; deviant behaviour. Therefore, the absence of the father figure or the presence of “ghost fathers” or absentee fathers, as well as, “men around their mothers’ skirts who despised them whilst vaguely expressing some kind of fucked up form of affection for their mothers” (111-112) can lead to criminality and deviance being the primary vehicle through which masculinity is constructed.
Additionally, the desire to belong to a subculture which was antithetical to mainstream culture is arguably one of the factors that contributed to Elijah’s joining the Cretch Crew. John Scott posits that subcultures are simply “subdivisions of a national culture” but points out that “[t]he prefix ‘sub’ highlights the ways that the groups [. . .] tend to be subordinate, subversive or subterranean and are thereby viewed as beneath, but still within, a dominant or mainstream culture” (178) [my ellipsis]. Eli is familiar with subversive ideas about the English Government from his Uncle Joseph. For instance, his Uncle refers to the welfare system as a “welfarce system” (110) to connote the falsity of the system since it pretends to genuinely assist the impoverished citizens of the country. He even goes further to compare the systems put in place by the government to slavery and a modern remnant of colonial machinery of the past when he states that “[y]ou can only be slave to a system that knows how weak you are” (110).
Taking into consideration that Eli Lovelace is still a student, it is only logical that he would rebel against the state system or apparatus that he is most familiar with, school. Althusser identifies schools as the “educational ISA” (1489) and postulates that the school is considered an Ideological State Apparatus (ISA) since it functions “massively and predominantly by ideology” and “secondarily by repression” (1490). Similarly, Eli and the others members of his gang view school as being an institution that propels the “dominant middle-class values that discriminate against them” (Scott 179). It is for this reason that Eli speaking for the collective states that “teachers could never claim their respect […]; they weren’t in the uniforms but teachers were in truth to them like community police” (112). This comparison between teachers and the police powerfully renders the Crews perception of the adult figures of authority which are associated with State institutions of school and law enforcement as being oppressive since they both require obedience to the established rules of the society. Both the teachers and the police fail to gain the respect of the gang members because they are seen as weak since they reinforce rather than oppose the structural trappings of society.
Therefore, it is a plausible deduction that the adjectival phrases used to describe them are also representative of the State on a whole. According to Eli, “they weren’t smart, they weren’t fair, they weren’t genuine, they could never understand the Crew” (112). The system was not seen as being smart or fair because there was inequality within society and the development of the gang subculture is a coping mechanism and an end product of the perceived inequality within society. Moreover, the system and its state policies were not deemed as genuine because they reduced citizens to a collection of number and taxes forcing citizens to ascribe to an established model to create the ideal citizens not taking individualism into consideration. It is for this reason that the teachers and police who represent the apparatus of state machine could not empathize with the members of the gang since they cannot support individualism only conformation to the collective ideology of State.
Furthermore, this resistance against the ideology of State is one of the determining factors of the masculinity of criminality. The masculine criminal must assert his individuality by resisting and reacting against the figures of authority which represent the ideals of the government. The character Proff is presented as the source of another defamatory declaration against the state when he calls his former school a “bugger-batty institution” (12). Here Proff is feminizing the educational state apparatus and in so doing, he is subtly suggesting that everyone who conforms to the regulations and expected demeanours of the school is effeminate. In other words, being a model student who follows all the rules is an example of an emasculated male. On the other hand, Uncle Joseph is also suggesting that a masculine male is one who is rebellious against the accepted norms of the school system. Eli Lovelace also shares these sentiments since he admits that his English teacher, Mr Christopher, who always tried to encourage him and show interest in him and who he admired for being strict but fair, was rumoured to be gay (51). This subtly suggests that Mr Christopher is seen as being effeminate which does challenge his status as a masculine male. It is also important to note that Eli, although he respected Mr Christopher, states that he was interested in trusting him but he was someone “he believed trusted him” (52).
This ambiguous relationship that exist between Eli and Mr Christopher is a symbol of the Crew’s relationship with the white ideology of the State which could not understand their situations. Absolute adherence to the State would result in the transformation into an effeminate male. Therefore, ambiguity was the surest method to sustain one’s masculinity in tack. Moreover, the element of criminality is a method through which one’s maleness is asserted and embraced.
The Crew othered their non-criminal male counterparts by calling them “neeks or chumps” (113). Neeks and chumps were different from those who lived by the Code because they lived up to “what they knew their mothers, teachers, aunts, grandparents and ghost fathers wanted them to be” (113). Readers are further informed that “[n]eeks worked within the system and wanted what they were told to want,” “went willingly alone to church” and “agreed with teachers” (113). This seemingly simplistic and immature rant that soliloquys the thoughts of a gangster mirrors the provocative philosophical ponderings of Althusser who contended that “the category of the subject is only constitutive of all ideology insofar as all ideology has the function (which defines it) of ‘constituting’ concrete individuals as subjects” (1503). A subject essentially is an individual who abides by a particular ideology usually advocated by the State through major social institutions but the individual is often unaware that they are subjected to an ideology.
Eli and the other members of the Cretch Crew have come to realize the subjection that is inevitable within society and attempt to invert it through the joining of the gang subculture in which the streets become “a place to escape from” societal expectations (113). Through the use of free indirect speech, Eli ironically claims that “[n]eeks and chumps were people no one in the Crew wanted to be; in fact they couldn’t stand the frightened little fuckers chumps were” (113) when in reality, they were scared of also becoming part of the progressive machinery for the development of society, hence, the need to use the streets and the Crew as an “escape” (113). Here, Eli and the other gang members are posed as hypocrites since they were ruled by a redundant fear, the fear of their own futures within the structure of society.
Thus, the Crew distinguished themselves from the neeks and chumps by engaging in deviant and criminal behaviour. Deviance may be defined as “behaviour, demeanour, attitudes, beliefs and styles which break the norms, rules, ethics and expectations of a society” (53). Since subcultures are seen as “symbolic representations of social contradictions” (Scott 180), they are often involved in delinquency, deviant and antisocial behaviour. One of the distinctive deviant behaviours exhibited by males of the gang is smoking weed. Moreover, it is important to note that readers are told that “neeks smoked fags- for fun- but none touched weed, couldn’t mimic the manliness of that cool art” (113). Clearly, the Crew is perceived to advocate a superior version of manliness and masculinity than the “over-pampered mummies boys” (113). The obsession with smoking weed in the gang was two-fold. First of all, it allowed the gang members to feel as if they were individualistic and rebelling against the seemingly “rhythmless” life that society offered them (113). Secondly, it helped them to escape from their reality of social expectations and the “failure” that “was always before them, predicted, and inevitable” (57). Over all, this deviant behaviour which was signature of the Cretch Crew was an escape from their fear and it was their fear that made their predicted failure inevitable.
Deviant sexual behaviour is another kind of deviance that is central in the construction of masculinity within the Crew. The concept of masculinity was developed by sociologist to allow men to be studied as gendered subjects in the structure of society in order to better analyse the link between patriarchy and feminism (Scott 98). Sexuality is a major component of gender identity. Heterosexual men reinforce their masculinity through the act of coitus since it is the very act of having sex with a woman that creates heterosexuality in males. Eli expresses his desire for Candace’s body when he declares “[h]e needed to smell her. To be inside her, feeling warm and comforted” (39). Hence, Eli uses sex as a form of comfort or an escape. He uses it as a means through which to experience a temporary euphoria that allows him to forget about the expectations he is running away from. His best friend Foots may have also used Candace’s body for the purpose of coping with the guilt of committing the murder with which the novel opens. Hootie in his essay, “The Apprehensive and Suppressed Soul of the Fallen Woman in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles” contends that “both Alec d’Urberville and Angel Clare find their self-conception of masculinity endangered by their desire for Tess” (633). The same can be argued in the case of Eli Lovelace and Foots who both find their constructions of masculinity threatened by their sensual desire to possess Candace’s body. Moreover, like Alex and Angel, they are only confronted with the “precarious status of the masculine identity they have constructed” when they are aware of each other’s existence as rivals (Hooti 633). It is because they become aware of the extent to which their heterosexual masculinity is hinged on the possession of Candace’s body. Nevertheless, the possession of female body through sex is another aspect of the construction of the masculinity of the criminal other.
The rivalry escalated into another form of deviance which is characteristic of gangs - violence. Foots and Eli get into a fight at Candace’s house after Eli realizes that his suspicions that Candace was cheating on him with Foots were valid. Eli is victorious in the fight whilst Foots, having lost the fight feels emasculated. It is important to note that Foots had felt like the superior masculine male because he had not only taken full possession Candace, after Eli left for Guyana, but she was also believed to be pregnant for him. When he loses the fight, however, Foots feels doubly emasculated especially since he had suffered this humiliation in front of Candace; and as though he had failed in his role as a protector.
Foots decides to get even with Eli as means to rejuvenate his sense of masculinity. This is the instance where the gun comes into play in the novel. Foots uses a gun to threaten and eventually kill Eli. Harcourt contends that one of registers of the language of guns is one of “action/protection” in which “male youths associate guns with the need for protection and desire to live a risky, dangerous, active life – to live in the fast lane” (10). He also declares brandishing a gun provides youths with a sense of power and authority (Harcourt 10). Foots knows that he cannot beat Eli in hand-to-hand combat so he uses a gun. A gun will strike fear into his heart and force him to give Foots the respect that he thinks he deserves. Further, since Eli beat Foots in a fight in front of Candace proving his superiority as a rival, which means that he would always be a threat to Foots position in the gang and his relationship with Candace. As a consequence, Eli, who had been Foots’s protector when they were in Kindergarten, must be eliminated for Foots to assume his position. Therefore, the masculinity of criminality is constructed in Elijah through the respect and use of the gun and engaging in risk-taking. Dangerous living is what creates the manliness of a criminal.
In conclusion, the criminal other constructed masculinity different from their non-criminal male counterparts. It can be deduced from the evidence provided that criminal-masculinity can be constructed through peer groups, rebellion, deviance, violence and gun-carrying. Asantewa’s Elijah is a provocative examination of the construction of gender based on criminality. It not only allows readers to view the criminal other in a different light but it also exposes the merit of examining criminological principles through a gendered lens. Above all, it is vital that readers remember that Eli and Foots’s end was a tragic one since “[b]oth boys went down facing one another equidistantly, blood pooling towards blood” (338). A pool of blood is often the consequence of a macho-criminal masculinity in which one is a rebel for no apparent reason other wanting to be a part of the gang. Asantewa’s Elijah accounts a didactic tragic tale reflecting our generation.
Scott Ting-A-Kee teaches English at St. Joseph’s High School which is one of the senior secondary schools in Guyana. He is a graduate of the University of Guyana and holds a Bachelor’s of Arts Degree in English with an emphasis in English Literature. He has a passion for Feminist Literature, Postcolonial Literature (especially Caribbean and South-East Asian literature), English Literature classics, American Literature and literary theory and criticism. Mr Ting-A-Kee is also intrigued by the link between literature and adjacent areas such as psychology, psychoanalysis, sociology, postcolonial studies, criminology and literary and cultural disability studies. Finally, he is also enamoured with the history, oral tradition and literature of China, Japan and Republic of Korea.
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