The Unpredictable and the Incomprehensible: A Critical Unpacking of Hamlet’s Misogyny by Focussing on His ‘Ecophobia’

Ankita Sen

Ankita Sen

Abstract The paper proposes to read Hamlet’s antagonist attitude towards the female characters (namely, Gertrude and Ophelia) in the play through an ecocritical lens. Drawing on Simon C. Estok’s theoretical concept of ‘ecophobia’, the paper seeks to locate the root of Hamlet’s misogyny in his androcentrism. By inquiring into Hamlet’s feeling of intense dislike for both women and the natural world, the paper attempts to arrive at an ecocritical interpretation of his character. In context to Gertrude, the paper will focus on how Hamlet’s disgust becomes a common denominator through which the volatility of Gertrude’s sexual desire and the unpredictability of the environment is simultaneously addressed. In case of Ophelia, the paper will pay attention to her discourse to conceptualise Hamlet’s ecophobia in the face of the environmental incomprehensible.

Keywords ecophobia, female desire, unpredictable, incomprehensible, madness, patriarchy

Hamlet by William Shakespeare is a play that delves deep into a pervasively complex world of conspiracy, deception and moral ambiguity. Written somewhere between 1599 and 1601, the play has its titular character ricochet endlessly between haste and hesitation, with the past haunting him and the future immobilizing him. A few months after the death of his father, Hamlet returns home only to discover “something is rotten in the state of Denmark” (1.4.90). He is deeply disturbed by his mother’s hasty remarriage and this sense of disturbance is further escalated when he is visited by the ghost of his father. It claims to be the victim of a political conspiracy in which Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle, has usurped the throne by poisoning Hamlet’s father and seducing his mother. Unlike other Shakespearean tragedies Hamlet is neither packed with raging actions nor sweeping romances, but what it derives its strength from is an intense exploration of the psychological depth of its tragic hero. 

Besides many things, the use of melancholic monologues, layered characterisation and a problematic ethical standpoint, make this play a critic’s favourite. As a result, there is no dearth of research on it, Hamlet has been extensively and exhaustively looked at and explored from varied theoretical perspectives; ranging from the psychoanalytical to the phenomenological, from the feminist to ecocritical. This paper seeks to focus on one aspect of ecocriticism, namely ‘ecophobia’ to re-think Hamlet’s piquing misogyny in the play. Even at the cost of committing an anachronistic fallacy, it is tempting to trace a connection between Hamlet’s perception of women and his relationship with the natural world. The paper tries to read Hamlet’s disgust for the female sex through an exploration of his androcentric tendencies. By paralleling Gertrude and Ophelia with environmental unpredictability and environmental incomprehensibility, I try to offer an alternative understanding of Hamlet and his misogyny.  

Ecocriticism can serve as a vantage point for the emergence of a new approach in the field of Hamlet studies by laying bare the antagonistic underpinnings of Hamlet’s relation to nature, in juxtaposition to the female characters’ proclivity for all things natural. Both nature and women serve as deconstructive forces in the play that not only evidence the fault lines running through the structure of patriarchal domination, but also anticipate its disintegration. The natural world revolts Hamlet because he happens to see in it a manifestation of what he believes to be the ‘innate impurity’ of the female sex. Even a cursory reading of the play reveals that Hamlet’s evocation of imageries from the natural world is undercut, by his strong sense of disgust for it. The world for him is an “unweeded garden / That grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature” (1.2. 135-36); the bountiful earth is perceived by him as “a sterile promontory” while the very air he breathes is “nothing to [him] but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours” (2.2.299-03); the descending night impresses upon his psyche as “hell itself” that “breathes out / Contagion to this world” (3.2.395-97); and each one of Claudius’s “crimes broad blown” in their abject brazenness strikes Hamlet ironically, “as flush as May” (3.3.81). Likewise, Hamlet’s relationship with Gertrude is sustained by a similar sense of loathing. He deems her marriage with Claudius to be an exercise in desecration which unless atoned “will skin and film the ulcerous place / Whiles rank corruption, miming all within, / Infects unseen” (3.4.148-50); her assertion of desire and agency nauseates Hamlet to the point of envisioning her steeped “ in the rank sweat of an enseamed bed, / Stewed in corruption, honeying and making love / Over a nasty sty” (3.4.94-96); she is often regarded to be at the root of the nation’s moral bankruptcy, “Importing Denmark’s health, and England’s too, / With ho! Such bugs and goblins…” (5.2.21-22); and in case she fails to “Repent what’s past. Avoid what is to come;” the “compost on the weed” of her presumed vice will make the place “ranker” (3.4.151-53). 

Disgust as a potent literary trope in Hamlet has been extensively studied by critics such as Wilson, Paglia, and Mack. For instance, Wilson claims that “the world of Hamlet is drenched in filth” (Wilson 111). He draws on the theories of Freud and Kristeva to show how Hamlet’s contact with literal and metaphorical filth allows him to project his guilt and shame through the expression of disgust. Maynard Mack, in his illuminating analysis of several aspects of the narrative space Hamlet inhabits, analyses upon the theme of disgust in context to infirmity and disease (Mack 58). He claims that Claudius is the polluting factor in the play, whose singular act of regicide is the “fatal centre from where the unwholesomeness spreads out till there is something rotten in all Denmark” (58). Camille Paglia traces the trajectory of Hamlet’s repugnance as it shifts from his “suicidal self-disgust”, to his “thoughts of the world” as a “rank and gross” place and culminates in his “lurid visualisation of his mother’s sex life amid rumpled ‘incestuous sheets’” by the end (Paglia 93-94). Her theorization of disgust is an attempt at rooting Hamlet’s desire for death in his propensity for acute self-condemnation. 

Hamlet’s fixation with filth is articulated through his sense of disgust that is simultaneously anti-environmental and misogynist in nature. This implies the intersectionality between gender and nature. An ecocritical investigation of the curious overlapping of these mutually exclusive discourses can help us read Hamlet as an essentially androcentric force in the text, that seeks to render both women and nature, passive. Thus, Hamlet’s disgust can be interpreted as a manifestation of what Simon C. Estok claims to be, the “ecophobic” tendencies of his character. To quote Estok, “Hamlet ecophobically condemns the natural world. This is a man whose strong concerns with purifying his social world result in a discursive putrefying of the natural world. (Simon 87-88). Coined by Estok back in 1995, the term ‘ecophobia’ “denote[s] fear and loathing of the environment in much the same way that the term ‘homophobia’ denotes fear and loathing of gays, lesbians, and bisexuals” (Estok 213). In the process of unpacking mankind’s ontological fear of the natural world, Estok elaborates on how such a fright is primarily based on our collective inability to predict the ways of nature. Although Estok’s essay does a commendable job in voicing out the ecophobic concerns in Hamlet yet it fails to see how the tragic hero’s contempt for the natural world is also an essentially gendered one.

Women in the play are just as unpredictable as nature itself and consequently, a constant source of challenge and fear to the patriarchal power structure. To quote Hamlet, “O most pernicious woman! O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain! […] That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain. At least I am sure it may be so in Denmark” (1.5.105-08). Proclamations such as this abound in the narrative and are primarily suggestive of Hamlet’s conception of women as ontologically erratic and volatile creatures with a natural predilection for tricking men. Nine out of ten times a male character elaborates on the theme of deception and duplicity, he takes recourse to misogyny. For example, Claudius likens his act of lying to that of a “harlot” applying colours on her face; “The harlot’s cheek, beautified with plastering art, / Is not more ugly to the thing that helps it / Than is my deed to my most painted word. O heavy burden!” (3.1.51-54); Hamlet pondering on the futility of physical appearances with Yorick’s skull in his hand philosophises, “Now get to my lady’s chamber and tell her, let her paint an inch / thick, to this favour she must come. Make her laugh at that” (5.1.189-92). In a way, besides foregrounding the play’s thematic preoccupation with the disjunction between appearance and reality, the recurrent references to this ‘feminine’ art of using cosmetics also underscore its bionomic concerns. Man’s inability to read the signs of nature and foresee environmental changes alongside his fear of being victimized by ecological disharmonies causes him to distrust nature and loathe it. Likewise, a failure on part of men like Claudius and Hamlet to reconcile with the existence and assertion of female sexuality is integral to their understanding of women. Elsewhere, in his reading of The Winter’s Tale Estok argues that in Shakespearean plays the dichotomy between good and evil is often played out in terms of the equation female characters share with nature. To quote him, “the environment is a viscous space of bears and wolves, or else a beautiful place of fertility and abundance; women are liars, shrews, and lechers all, or else they are chaste, guiltless, or otherwise guileless” (93). In the fictional world of Hamlet, both nature and women are rendered passive and loathsome because its tragic hero is unable to decipher either.

The symbolic refusal of Gertrude to be categorized by Hamlet’s extremely parochial and masculinist perceptions of gender roles causes him to blaspheme the entire female sex: “Frailty, thy name is woman” proclaims he, quite early on in the play (1.2). Estok contends “theorizing ecophobia means recognizing the importance of control” humanity has over the natural world (5). According to him, “Human history is often a history of controlling the natural environment” and the prospect of ever losing that control instils in humans a sense of fear. Every time environmental unpredictability is foregrounded through some natural disaster, mankind’s presupposed superiority over nature suffers a crisis and it ends up painting “Nature [as] the hateful object in need of control, the loathed and feared thing that can only result in tragedy if left uncontrolled” (6). Likewise, Gertrude stands for an open signifier in Hamlet’s phallocentric system of symbolisation. He simply cannot fathom how after having a husband comparable to Hyperion himself, could she possibly stoop so low as to take Claudius for her man, who is no better than a satyr, “Look you now what follows: here is your husband [Claudius] like a mildewed ear, blasting his wholesome brother. Have you eyes? Could you on this fair mountain leave to feed and batten on this moor? (3.4. 71-74). The presence of Gertrude’s gendered and sexualised body which simultaneously desires and evokes desire upsets Hamlet at an existential level. At this point, one can draw a parallel between the environmental unpredictability and the idea of women as non-interpretable, ever-evolving entities, since both are equally potent in subverting the patriarchal power structure. In context to his inability to come to terms with this multifaceted, indefinable, indeterminate and unpredictable world of female desires Hamlet notes “I have heard of your paintings well enough. God hath given you one face and you make yourselves another [...] it hath made me mad” (3.1.143-48). 

Estok traces Hamlet’s persistent perception of the natural world as a rotten, filthy place to his androcentric anxieties in face of the environmental unpredictability. To quote Estok, “What makes rot of such concern to theories about ecophobia is—among other things—its imagined unpredictability, its willy-nilly transgressions and blurring of borders, and its perceived alliance with an antagonistic nature” (87). This nexus of disgust and ecophobia is also played out within the corporeal limits of the female body. As the narrative progresses, we realise that Hamlet perceives the female body as a site of proliferating pollution. In one of the most critically acclaimed scenes of the play, Hamlet asks Ophelia: “Get thee to a nunnery, why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?” (3.1.121-22). The dialogue highlights how a patriarchal mode of contemplation culturally encodes the womb as a polluting source which if left ungoverned will contaminate the entire human race. The rhizomatic dispersion of foulness from the infectious centre of Gertrude’s “nasty sty” to the rest of Denmark, becomes a potent imagery for a contagious disease that has fed on mankind, rendering it sick to the core. In one of Hamlet’s ribald soliloquies concerning Gertrude’s re-marriage with Claudius, she is portrayed as an embodiment of disease: “Why, she would hang on him as if increase of appetite has grown by what it fed on” (1.2. 143-145). As can be inferred, the multiple ruptures in the structure of womanhood as constructed and appropriated by phallocentric discourses are primarily channelled through fear, paranoia, anxiety and disgust in the play. The reading of Gertrude’s character in this light exposes how the easy susceptibility of a gendered body to patriarchal invasion invests it with the dual connotations of both a disease-producing agent and the disease itself. This interstitial state of being suspended between categories that threaten to destabilize distinctions, is perhaps what makes female bodies such apt sites of pollution in the popular imagination. 

Mary Douglas in Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (1966) argues that the idea of pollution can be explored in a cultural context to understand how boundaries are shaped and sustained between different communities (120). Estok cites her in his claim that, “The polluting person is always in the wrong” and likewise the space s(he) inhabits is labelled as filthy and exclusive (114). In line of this contention, it becomes clear that Gertrude’s actions in the narrative are always already predicated on her identity as an outsider and Other. In the text, she is framed as an ontologically impure creature who by default happens to be a wrongdoer. Ironically, even Gertrude at some points seems to indulge Hamlet in his misogynistic theories about women. For instance, when Hamlet holds her guilty of committing a mortal sin, she confesses “Thou turnest mine eyes into my very soul, / And there I see such black and grained spots / As will not leave their tinct” (3.4.90-92). This is a very convenient move on part of patriarchy because it renders reductive the question of Gertrude’s agency in the entire narrative. If her status as a ‘pollutant’ is biologically sanctioned by her sexual orientation as argued by Hamlet, the possibility of ever reading Gertrude’s actions as a feminist assertion of her right to libidinal gratification is already negated. Likewise, Hamlet’s tendency to vilify the natural world at the cost of promoting androcentrism can also be read as an act of denying nature its agency. To quote Estok, man’s relationship with nature is one “of first imagining agency and intent in nature and then quashing that imagined agency and intent” to assert his superiority (6). Similarly, in Hamlet’s vision, nature exists not as an actant force, but as a passive response to the human condition. His inability to break away from the typically humanistic inclination to look at and think of things with the self at the centre prevents him from noticing the agency of nature in human lives: But I have that within which passes show/ These but the trappings and the suits of woe”, says he (1.2. 85-86). In his study of The Winter’s Tale, Estok has encapsulated the discussions on agency, women and nature by arguing:

If nature is made to resemble people in the psychology that is ascribed to it, we do not see pain or suffering similarly ascribed to nature. When it suits the play to anthropomorphize, it anthropomorphizes. Nature may be manipulated and exploited (cross- breeding is the chief example in this play), but it does not suffer or complain. Not so, for people who are manipulated and exploited (Estok 96). 

What tempts one to insert an ecophobic angle in the discursive relationship between pollutants and the female body, is how both tend to encroach on boundaries set by man. Just as the body is vulnerable to patriarchal impregnation from outside, similarly the state of balance in ecology can be usurped via potentially impregnating agents like pollutants. Such a reading upturns the masculinist/androcentric claims that women/nature are hostile opponents of man/civilization by implying that it is patriarchy that pollutes. By the end of the play we realise that little of the rottenness of Denmark derives from either women or nature, rather it is the male characters’ anxieties about maintaining power within a corrupt political elite that is projected on women and nature.  

Hamlet’s ecophobia can also be analysed from the perspective of his relationship with his conscious object of desire in the play, i.e., Ophelia. Although she occupies an almost peripheral space in the narrative yet her presence and subsequently her absence, play significant roles in determining the tragic import of the play. Although with the pre-Raphaelites Ophelia did emerge as a potent cultural trope in the 19th century, her resurrection was restricted essentially to the realms of aesthetics and she did not transcend into the field of Shakespearean criticism. Unlike the sustaining focus on her visual presence in the play, she as a literary figure is mostly rendered invisible within the critical domain. In many ways, the male interventions exclude Ophelia from the central actions of the play alongside determining her material fate. She is manipulated by Hamlet, dictated on her virtue by both her father and brother, and exploited as a device to stay in the King’s favour by Polonius. Deprived therefore of thought, autonomy over her sexuality and finally even language, afraid of her relations, her love and life, she is driven to madness.

Laertes defines Ophelia’s discourse as “A document in madness: thoughts and remembrance fitted” as she goes on listing names of flowers hardly making any sense (4.5.178-179). This particular scene has played a pivotal role in the tradition of ecocritical reading of Ophelia’s character. Bridget Gellert Lyons reads the flower symbolism as an articulation of the disjunction between the vitality of natural wilderness and the sterility of urbanised civilisation. To quote her, the flora imagery establishes a “difference between […] an ordered world of shared symbolic meanings and the murky world of intrigue and mental disorder that exists in Denmark; between a mythical world of natural fertility and innocence, and an urban or courtly world of deception and calculation” (63). Rebecca Laroche de-codes the flora imagery by charting out the medicinal properties of the flowers mentioned in Hamlet to seek an alternative ending to the play. She argues that Ophelia’s flowers hold the promise of an antidote to the “poison” that has permeated Denmark. To quote her, “Ophelia belongs to another, perhaps more simple, herb-filled world, in which plants can restore one’s stability of mind and can ease pain and are not used for, but are rather used against, poisoning” (220). Although Martha C. Ronk interprets the flowers as symbolic of Ophelia’s functioning sexuality and susceptibility to physical violation by aligning her arguments with Freudian theories on the libido and the ‘Thanatos’, at one point she notes: “Within the play itself her [Ophelia’s] iconography is contradictory as she appears both as the goddess of nature and a debased version of the same” (24). Reina ANAMOTO’s work can be referred to as an insightful investigation of Ophelia’s psyche through an exposition of the traditional Elizabethan meanings behind each flower she mentions. But most of the ecocritical studies of her character focus on the interplay between nature and the female experiential reality. But since my argument is centred around Hamlet and his ecophobia, I have tried to trace the elements of the environment in the incoherence, incomprehensibility, inconsistency, and confusion of her discourse, because language happens to be a significant ground on which androcentrism differentiates itself from environmentalism.

Language, therefore, becomes a tool in the hands of androcentric forces to consolidate their power over the natural world. Hamlet takes pride in man’s ability to yield linguistic authority as opposed to other non-human animals. This, he believes gives man an upper hand in his relationship with nature. To quote him, “What is a man, / Is his chief good and market of his time / Be but to sleep and feed? / A beast, no more. / Sure He hath made us with such large discourse [...] That capability and godlike reason / To fust in us unused” (4.4.32-39). In this context, if we focus on the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia then we can gain further insight into his ecophobia. For a man like Hamlet whose virility resides in language, the subjects of his domination, i.e., women and the environment must ideally lack a voice. But Ophelia as an embodiment of nature itself threatens to unhinge Hamlet’s language control by simply escaping symbolisation. Intended or otherwise, there is a lack of communication between them: “You jig and amble, and you lisp. You nickname God’s creatures and make your wantonness your ignorance” says Hamlet of Ophelia and further adds “Go to, I’ll no more on’t. It hath made me mad” (3.1.145-148). He is clearly exasperated and seems too eager to terminate the conversation. This is interesting given how Hamlet needs little encouragement to indulge in verbosity. Perhaps Ophelia stands for the incomprehensibility innate in natural phenomena and consequently is a factor responsible for aggravating Hamlet’s ecophobia. Ecocritical readings have often elaborated on the human tendency to enter into a hostile relationship with nature only to seek in it an idealisation of the self. A similar possibility occurs in the play when one realises that whatever Hamlet aspires to be, Ophelia already is. Whether it is his dissembling madness, desiring to become incomprehensible or wishing to die, Ophelia without even trying to, accomplishes all three of these.

David Laird notes in his analysis of Leontes from The Winter’s Tale, “To control language, to exercise the power to name, categorize, and classify is an essential weapon in the arsenal of things Leontes uses to control his world” (27) and the same can be said of Hamlet. Thus, when Ophelia faces him with a discourse where there is infinite scope for meaning to proliferate in absolute ambiguity, his fear of the unknown is blown out of proportion. Unlike the complex multi-voiced import of Hamlet’s speeches which is performative, in the case of Ophelia’s it is ontological. This is made quite clear in the following exchange between them: OPHELIA you are as good as a chorus, my lord / HAMLET I could interpret between you and your love, if I could see the puppets dallying” (3.2.254-56). The word “chorus” is noteworthy because it draws attention to Hamlet’s discourse as not only rhetorical but also theatrically designed. Here we see a precarious patriarchal discourse trying in vain to hold its ground against the disruptions of a non-phallocentric linguistic force. Bruce Boehrer in his book Shakespeare Among the Animals: Nature and Society In the Drama of Early Modern England (2002) has argued extensively against what he calls the ‘absolute anthropomorphism’ of Hamlet. To quote him, “this sense of human superiority, founded in the capacities for reason and speech, helps frame the natural world as a consumable asset: in effect as human property, to be employed for the human community’s convenience and advantage” (14). 

In conclusion, it is important to understand that doing ecocriticism with Shakespeare is firstly and foremost an anachronistic move. There are several limitations to such a reading some of which have been quite rightly pointed out by Greg Garrad. He argued in his seminar on “Green Shakespeares” (2005), that most of the Bard’s plays are not overtly concerned with the natural world or non-human animals and secondly, there were hardly any environmental issues affecting the ecological balance in his times unlike ours, that could have influenced Shakespeare. Estok has countered the latter part of the argument by citing the perils of air pollution that Elizabethan England had suffered for a long time. It is keeping these shortcomings in mind, that I have tried to zoom in on some selected scenes in the play concerning Hamlet, Gertrude and Ophelia to understand if an intersectional reading between female oppression, anti-environmentalism and the functioning of oppressive patriarchal power structures is possible. In the case of Gertrude, I have focussed on how the experiential trope of disgust as a response to Gertrude’s assertion of sexuality can be interpreted as Hamlet’s ecophobia. While with Ophelia, I have paid attention to her discourse to conceptualise Hamlet’s ecophobia in the face of the environmental incomprehensible. 


Works cited

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Boeherer, Bruce. “How to Do Things with Animals”. Shakespeare Among the Animals: Nature and Society in the Drama of Early Modern England. Palgrave Macmillan, 2002, pp. 1-40. JSTOR, https://libgen.is/book/index.php?md5=EF123359EB8D5192CBE454461AAFF827. Accessed 28 Nov 2022.

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Laroche, Rebecca. “Ophelia’s Plants and the Death of the Violets”. Ecocritical Shakespeare, edited by Lynne Bruckner and Dan Brayton, Ashgate, 2011, pp. 211-220. Library Genesis, https://libgen.is/book/index.php?md5=1C33ED9320DDD0285EF40BEA59CB2411. Accessed 30 Nov. 2022.

Lyons, Bridget Gellert. “The Iconography of Ophelia”. ELH, vol. 44, no. 1, John Hopkins UP, 1977, pp. 60-74. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/2872526. Accessed 30 Nov 2022.

Mack, Maynard. “The World of Hamlet”. Tragic Themes in Western Literature, edited by Cleanth Brooks, Yale UP, 1955, pp. 58.

Paglia, Camille. Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, Vintage, 1990. Library Genesis, https://libgen.is/book/index.php?md5=C01D5364E0190606A4EDB2E269543AD4. Accessed 02 Dec 2022.

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Wilson, Robert Rawdon. “Its Lair: The Representation of Filth”. The Hydra’s Tale: Imagining Disgust, U of Alberta P, 2002, pp. 83-132. Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/hydrastaleimagin00wils/page/420/mode/2up. Accessed 28 Nov 2022.

 

Bio: Ankita Sen is interested in popular culture (cinema and web-series), contemporary feminist fictions, culinary culture in literature and gender studies.

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