A Queer Reading of Call Me By Your Name: How Love and Friendship Converge Into an Everlasting Bond
Modern perceptions of sexuality have influenced how individuals apprehend their own identities which simultaneously prompts an awakening of new experiences and emotions. Call Me By Your Name, a beautiful tale of the budding romance between two young men, illustrates this concept by exploring the uncertainties pertaining to male companionship and the obsessive nature of love. However, audiences discover that André Aciman’s novel goes beyond homosexual identity and dissects humanity’s overall need for validation and intimacy. Looking at the novel through a queer lens, a critical theorist would argue that homosexual and heterosexual categories do not adequately represent the spectrum of human sexuality (Tyson 336). Although Call Me By Your Name contains overtly homoerotic conventions, the narrative illustrates the complex dynamics of sexual fluidity and the importance of friendship — ultimately rejecting the need for labels and conveying the sacred bond between Elio and Oliver.
While Aciman’s narrative often avoids labeling sexuality, homoeroticsm becomes a significant component to illustrate both the sexual freedom and suppression between the male protagonists. For example, Elio associates the setting with his frustration and repressed feelings towards Oliver.
“Today, the pain, the stroking, the thrill of someone new, the promise of so much bliss hovering a fingertip away, the fumbling around people I might misread… All these started the summer Oliver came into our house. They are embossed in every song that was a hit that summer, in every novel I read during and after his stay, on anything from the smell of rosemary on hot days to the frantic rattle of the cicadas in the afternoon” (10).
The tension between Elio and Oliver increases significantly and leads to various forms of intimacy — both alone and with each other. Taken place during the summer of 1983, Italy alone encapsulates the erotic and sensual nature of the characters. Images of the country’s sweltering heat and romance are symbolic in representing their need for sexual gratification and affection.
Regardless of the apparent sexual interactions between Elio and Oliver, the they are also personal with women and indicate an attraction for them. While most readers would infer that the protagonists would identify themselves as bisexual, Aciman omits this information for the purpose of highlighting the ambiguity of the their sexualities. Lois Tyson argues that “queer theory defines individual sexuality as a fluid, fragmented, dynamic collectivity of possible sexualities” (335). Through this lens, queer scholars assert that most individuals have the capacity engage in various forms of intimacy — no matter where they identify themselves on the sexual spectrum. Therefore, one of the many purposes of Call Me By Your Name is to generate an understanding of human nature: the general desire for sex, intimacy and companionship.
Elio demonstrates these aspects of queer theory in several instances throughout the narrative and is seduced by men and women alike. An example of this behavior can be seen when he masturbates with a peach following his sexual undertakings with Oliver, then Marzia. Elio states that he saw “that its reddened core reminded [him] not just of an anus but of a vagina” (146). Because he is aroused by male and female anatomy, the peach thus becomes a symbol of his dynamic sexual preferences. In addition, Elio is seduced when observing the rendezvous between Oliver and a local Italian girl: “Thinking of them together did not dismay me. It made me hard, even though I didn’t know if what aroused me was her naked body lying in the sun, his next to hers, or both of theirs together” (43). Eroticism in both scenes depict Elio’s desire for sex and illustrate the fluid nature of his sexuality. Although gender is often viewed as a common binary, queer criticism contends that gender is merely a social construction to place people in distinct categories — similarly to how sexual orientation is perceived by society at large.
The concept of sexual fluidity is strikingly apparent towards the end in of the novel. An eccentric poet speaks about grappling the newfound complexities of his sexual identity. During a vacation in Thailand, the poet is enthralled by the beauty of the country’s inhabitants and is seduced by their features. “I wanted to sleep with all of Thailand,” he recollects. “And all of Thailand, it turns out, was flirting with me. You couldn’t take a step without almost lurching into someone” (190). A particular confrontation he has with a hotel clerk emphasizes this desire: he observes that the man embodies equally feminine and masculine characteristics. Perhaps, this scene may be the author’s incentive in exploring the complications of gender identity.
As sexuality becomes an elaborate theme in Call Me By Your Name, gender simultaneously overlaps which presents further complexities. The poet identifies himself as a straight male. Yet, the clerk’s convoluted physical appearance entices him to act upon his non-binary sexual fantasies and leaves the poet confused — not only about his identity, but about the very essence of human nature itself. He calls this the San Clemente Syndrome: where humans are portrayed as complex creatures of habit. A Reddit user writes, “Our love and past history is built upon previous layers that we never got rid of, or just built upon it. These layers and layers make everyone of us who we are, and gives us complete and total uniqueness” (Reddit). Like Elio and Oliver’s relationship, the poet’s epiphany represents the essence of everlasting bonds — whether platonic or sexual in nature. The church that is linked to the San Clemente Syndrome is denoted as a metaphor for the protagonists’ own connection. Although they eventually go their separate ways, the church — or their love — stays within them throughout the course of their lives.
In addition to the romantic aspects of Elio and Oliver’s relationship, a motif of Call Me By Your Name is friendship. Tyson defines homosocial bonding as “the depiction of strong emotional ties between same-sex characters [which] can create a homosocial atmosphere that may be subtly or overtly homoerotic” (339). Initially, friendship to Elio is a barrier in contrast to an insinuation for romance: “But friendship, as defined by everyone, was alien, fallow stuff I cared nothing for” (30). One would infer that through this statement, Elio wanted to dive straight into sexual intimacy and avoid the “friend-zone.” Both men, however, build the foundations of their relationship through intellectual stimulation, humor and homosocial banter. Nevertheless, one of the driving forces of the novel is Elio’s tendency to overthink Oliver’s intentions. He questions whether he should act on his emotions and eventually confesses his feelings in order to obstruct this self-conflict.
Oliver piques Elio’s interest through their Judaism, which serves as a literal and figurative emblem of their sacred bond. Elio refers to his family as “Jews of discretion,” contradicting Oliver’s indifference in displaying his religion proudly around his neck.
“But it was the gold necklace and the Star of David with a golden mezuzah on his neck that told me here was something more compelling than anything I wanted from him, for it bound us and reminded me that, while everything else conspired to make us the two most dissimilar beings, this at least transcended all differences” (19).
Despite the apparent tension between the characters, Elio and Oliver form their relationship through shared religion. Aciman thus utilizes Judaism to highlight the men’s interconnectedness. “I began to feel we were not even two men, just two beings, I loved the egalitarianism of the moment. I loved feeling younger and older, human to human, man to man, Jew to Jew” (132). Throughout Call Me By Your Name, the simplicity of friendship is broken down and expanded upon. Friendship, to most individuals, is defined as a platonic connection between two individuals. To Oliver and Elio, the meaning of friendship is ambiguous in addition to their sexualities. They understand that their bond is marked by a strong devotion to each other through companionship and romance. In this way, Aciman is able to erase the defining lines between various manifestations of affection.
As their relationship progresses, the concept of friendship is established beyond attributes that are linked to casual alliances. Elio states, “What we had between us was the total transparency that exists among friends only. Perhaps we were friends first and lovers second. But then perhaps this is what lovers are” (157). Through this statement, friendship and love figuratively transpire into one — just as Elio and Oliver’s souls do. Aciman illustrates the intensity of their companionship with the narrative’s title alone: Call Me By Your Name alludes to the men’s loving pact on calling each other by their own names. According to David Clark, this intimate ritual is a reflection of Aristotle’s views on “true” friendship, “but it echoes down the intervening centuries in countless works of art and literature exploring the idea that the friend is an ‘other self,’ both a means to self-discovery and an ennobling end in itself” (Clark). Elio and Oliver transcend past an ordinary friendship and sexual experience. The two metaphorically become one being — a relationship that has shaped who they are, giving them great pain as well as immense joy. Revisiting Italy in the denouement reminds the protagonists that their love will remain inextinguishable for the remainder of their lives.
Queer theory essentially probes the complications between love and friendship. Furthermore, the notion of transgressive sexuality can be utilized to question the rules of traditional heterosexuality and thus open the door to sexualities of all kind. According to Tyson, transgressive sexuality can involve literary characters “leading double lives” (340). The relationship between Elio and Oliver becomes boundless, even after their affair ends. When they reunite twenty years later, Oliver recollects their everlasting connection — after marrying his wife and raising children: “Part of it — just part of it — was a coma, but I prefer to call it a parallel life. It sounds better. Problem is that most of us have — live, that is — more than two parallel lives” (240). In this case, Oliver’s “parallel life” is reliving his past relationship with Elio in the comfort of his own thoughts. Regardless of the duty he has as a father and husband, Elio remains a constant reminder of the unworldly bond that they share.
Although Call Me By Your Name explores the complications of homosexuality, the novel and film promote the notion of intensely loving another person without the palpable affirmation of labels. Within the scope of queer theory, Elio and Oliver’s attraction to women emphasizes their sexual fluidity. André Aciman also delves into the complex nature of friendship versus love which paradoxically converges as Elio and Oliver’s souls do. “You had a beautiful friendship. Maybe more than a friendship. Any I envy you,” Elio’s father articulates. Perhaps, his words represent humanity’s desire to experience such a compelling and rare bond — no matter who it may be with.
Aciman, André. Call Me By Your Name. London: Atlantic Books, 2007. Print.
Clark, David. “Call Me By Your Name — And Why Love and Friendship Were Better Understood in Premodern Terms.” The Conversation, 24 Jan. 2018. Web.
Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today. New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2006. Print.
Watermaester. “Re: Question About the San Clemente Syndrome Chapter” Reddit, 3 Mar. 2018. Accessed 14 March 2019. Web.