I’ve been mulling over the last chapter and have found myself engaged in a little thought-experiment. In the study of literature, we have the term hortus conclusus, meaning a walled garden. When reading novels, it’s one of those symbols that gets used again and again, so it’s something that I generally try to keep an eye out for.
In a general, non-gendered context, a walled garden is a safe place. It generally appears when there is a break in the action of a story, when things are calm and peaceful, either prior to the start of the conflict or as a respite (The Picture of Dorian Grey begins in a garden, reflecting the safeguarded purity of the titular character). In some instances, it can be a symbol of power – a garden is the human immitation of nature. Our ability to keep a garden, separating it from the weeds and thorns of the wilds, displays our power over nature (in Robinson Crusoe, one of the things that the main character does is cultivate a proper English garden on the island).
From a gendered perspective, and perhaps somewhat because of its association with the Virgin Mary, the walled garden is to woman what a cage is to birds. If women are associated with nature, the walled garden is nature that has been captured, cultivated, and arranged for aesthetic pleasure.
The image of the garden is quite a common theme in mythology. In The World of Myth, David Leeming groups the garden, the grove, and the cave together as sacred places associated with the archetypal Mother Goddess. They are the ordered universe amidst the chaos, the place of birth (whether physical birth or enlightment). Interestingly, he notes that the garden is often described as having a special tree in its centre, which symbolises the union of the male and the female (confused? It’s ’cause trees kinda look like penises!). Note that Eve, in telling the serpent what God had commanded regarding the tree, says “you must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden” (Gen. 3:3).
I find it interesting to look at the whole Eden episode in terms of gender. Certainly, through the whole Fall passage, Adam is a passive ragdoll who is given (Gen. 3:6) the fruit and then gets punished (Gen. 3:17-19). Other than being a tattle-tale, he doesn’t really do anything. Eve is the principle actor – so I find it interesting that she is acting in a garden (woman) in relation to a serpent and a tree (man – both look like penises). Her punishment is that she is separated from the garden (Leeming’s Mother Goddess stand-in). In other words, her “fall” separates her from archetypal woman-ness.
I’m definitely reaching here, but perhaps Eve’s crime was actually the touching of penises – the communion with a penis other than her husband’s (the serpent) and then the taking for herself of a third penis (the tree). Is her crime, symbolically, that she was expressing sexual power? It puts a suspicious perspective on her punishments, which all have to do with sex and reproduction. Following this line, woman becomes understood only in terms of sex; her moral alignment is measured by her level of sexual submission.