Why does Gumbril feel he needs to wear a fake beard to be ‘The Complete Man’?
In Antic Hay, Gumbril feels inadequate in his own body. He feels restricted and unconfident, unable to express his true thoughts. When he sports a fake beard, however, he becomes what he calls “The Complete Man”. With the beard, he feels “serenely strong and safe”: without it, he feels not just less confident, but emasculated, an incomplete man (p. 143). But why does Gumbril choose fake facial hair to disguise himself with? Why not just a hat, or scarf?
Facial hair was important to men in the early twentieth century because events such as the First World War caused a crisis of masculinity in society. In his article ‘Mustaches and Masculine Codes in Early Twentieth-Century America’, Christopher Oldstone Moore explains that at this time, to have facial hair was to be a strong-minded, independent man. To be clean-shaven, on the other hand, was merely to be reliable and trustworthy, rather than assertive – a passive character compared to the moustached-man. In this way Gumbril’s beard holds a “performative function”, to disguise his insecurities and allow him to exude confidence. He can put on and remove the beard just as easily as a hat, but the beard acts as a uniquely masculine disguise for Gumbril’s lack of confidence.
The loss of men after the First World War was enormous. Not only was society as a whole emasculated by the loss of so many men, but also many of those who did come back felt emasculated by their injuries. The facially disfigured particularly suffered from this, as many could no longer grow facial hair, leaving them to feel somewhat feminine. Suicide rates of the facially disfigured were high; apparently some could not live knowing they would never regain their masculinity.
Additionally, as technology developed, surgical reconstructions became more than just recreating necessary features to enable the body to function again. Surgeons also attempted to recreate the soldier’s face as it had been before the war, highlighting the importance of appearance at this time. If they regained their appearance, perhaps they could regain their masculinity as well. This reinforces the idea that masculinity is a social construct; at this time a man had to have a masculine exterior to function as a man in society.
If you read the novel in this context, you can see why Gumbril felt so secure beneath his fake beard, and so insecure without it. Naturally gentle, courteous and patient, Gumbril’s personality could be considered rather feminine. He is so intimidated by confrontation that he cannot even leave the house without his beard. For example, he avoids visiting Mr Boldero in person until he can wear the beard and become “The Complete Man”. With his beard, he feels invincible: without it he feels invisible.
Though it is only a small alteration of his body, the beard affects his state of mind most of all. Wearing the beard Gumbril is physically more forceful, he speaks assertively and bangs his fists on the table. Mr Boldero even considers him a “dangerous-looking fellow” (p 142-143). Apparently men could only act masculine if they felt masculine, but they only felt masculine if they looked masculine, and for Gumbril, a fake beard did the trick.
2nd Year Undergraduate
Member of the ‘Twentieth Century Literature and Science: Remaking the Body’ module