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A Comparative Study of Themes in City of Night Based on Three Novels

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Masculinity & Sexuality in Mexican-American Novels

Homosexual love seems to be an impossible theme in the novels, City of Night by John Rechy and Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz. Both protagonists from these novels have different attitudes towards being gay, one is involved in homosexual acts but holds onto his heterosexual masculinity, making him seem different from a stereotypical gay man while the other resists and buries their feelings deep down until they no longer exist. Though, the unnamed protagonist in City of Night and Ari in Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe share the same inability of not being able to love another person, what sets these novels apart is the system of reality that plays between both protagonists, and the juggling themes such as masculinity, identity, love and homosexuality within the years 1960’s and 1980’s. Not only do these novels have different approaches to the protagonist’s sexuality, they also have different attitudes towards masculinity. In City of Night, masculinity is seen through the act of hustling. In Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, masculinity is seen through Ari’s expectations on what it means to be a man.

In City of Night, Rechy allows readers to get an inside look on how in order to be desired, a hustler needs to be manly. The inside look is showed through images of masculinity that are idealized between hustlers and buyers. The nameless protagonist gets his first awareness of this type of behavior when he is in a man’s apartment he met at Times Square. ““Do you read books?” he asked me sharply. “Yes,” I answered. “Then I’m sorry, I don’t want you anymore,” he said; “really masculine men don’t read!”” (pg.32). Not only do hustlers have to be young, good looking, and tough, they have to play illiterate too. The protagonist soon learns this and has to quickly adapt to that behavior. “And I would discover that to many of the street people a hustler became more attractive in direct relation to his seeming insensitivity-his “toughness.” I would wear that mask.” (pg.33)

The protagonists and other hustlers protect their masculinity by having the hustler and buyer relationship go only one way, in their mind, they are still heterosexuals. “Whatever a guy does with other guys, if he does it for money, that don’t make him queer. You’re still straight. It’s when you start doing it for free, with other young guys, that you start growing wings.” (p.40) The act is not considered homosexual because men are performing the act on them and also, they are getting paid for it. If it wasn’t for the money, they wouldn’t be in that position. They have to pretend their heterosexuality so others wouldn’t get the wrong “idea”. They would do this by either complaining that if it they didn’t need the money they would be with females, or by making sexual comments about women. “Standing on the street, Pete would always come on about the young girls that would breeze by like flowers, the wind lapping at their skirts coyly…” (pg.40) Not only are these men in denial of their sexuality, they are using their sexuality for business. Though, for the protagonist, it was a little bit more than that. “How impossibly difficult it seemed to explain to him that it was the mere proffering of the sexmoney that mattered; the unreciprocated sex: the manifestations that I was really wanted.” (pg. 348) The protagonist seemed to be attracted by the process of the sexual acts, not the ending result; the money. Also, by not reciprocating, a rule that he upholds, the protagonist feels more wanted which is a better and safer feeling than being loved. Loving someone reminds him of his mother and how her love was like “a stifling perfume…a devouring potentially choking thing” (pg. 347) and how his father’s love left a “scorching memory”. (pg.347) He grew up in a overwhelming type of love that resulted him in running away every time a man got close to him.

In Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, Benjamin Alire Sáenz writes Ari as a character who doesn’t know how to control and express his emotions. “I wanted to tell them that he had changed my life and that I would never be the same, not ever. And that somehow it felt like it was Dante who had saved my life and not the other way around. I wanted to tell them that he was the first human being aside from my mother who had ever made me want to talk about things that scared me. I wanted to tell them so many things and yet I didn’t have the words. So I just stupidly repeated myself. “Dante’s my friend.”” (pg. 308-309) Even though, his words showed a lot of emotion, he refused to allow himself to break and cry in front of Dante’s parents after they told him that their son was in love with him. He was still resisting. Readers also get glimpses of how his masculinity is often connected with violence. When his best friend Dante is jumped by a group of boys, Ari is quick to retaliate. He went around looking for those who were involved. “He took a swing at me. That was all I needed. I just went to it. His nose was bleeding. That didn’t stop me. It didn’t take long before he was on the ground. I was saying things to him, cussing at him. Everything was a blur and I just kept going at him.” (pg.314-315) This kind of hyper-masculinity act allows him to shelter his sexuality and shut down his feelings that would make him seem less than a man. But this behavior only allows the people around him to realize his true feelings for Dante.

Towards the end of the novel, his father helps him break that cycle and “stop running.” Ari’s father helps him comes to terms with his true sexual identity. He tells Ari his secrets about the war because he recognizes his own inner struggles and secrets with his sexuality. “Ari, the problem isn’t just that Dante’s in love with you. The real problem–for you, anyway–is that you’re in love with him” (pg.348) This scene plays a significant part in the novel because not often do readers get to see a father figure play a supportive role for their son’s coming out experience. Though, Ari, after realizing his love for Dante, still feels ashamed of his sexuality. ““I’m a guy. He’s a guy. It’s not the way things are supposed to be. Mom-”” (pg.349) His parents comfort him, wanting him to understand that he shouldn’t be ashamed of loving another man and he shouldn’t run from it either.

Though these novels might share similar themes like homosexuality, identity, and masculinity, their attitudes lead them to different journeys. Homosexual love seemed to only exist in short sections in the unnamed protagonist’s life while it turned into a possibility and was fully accepted into Ari’s world. The unnamed protagonist in City of Night resisted his sexuality and continued to run away, separating himself from the suffocation of it and anyone that got too affectionate towards him. Where as Ari in Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe turned his resistance of his sexauilty into acceptance. After analyzing these two novels, it is possible to image how masculinity is redefined when it is associated with homosexuality. Combining those two terms expresses other synonymous joined with them like beauty, violence, vulnerability, youth, and of course heterosexuality, lets readers see how far homosexuality and gay literature has come.

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A Comparative Study of Themes in City of Night based on Three Novels. (2019, January 28). GradesFixer. Retrieved October 19, 2021, from
“A Comparative Study of Themes in City of Night based on Three Novels.” GradesFixer, 28 Jan. 2019,
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