Willa Cather, “My Antonia”

1918

Willa Cather’s novel explores immigrants and Americans settling in Black Hawk, Nebraska. The unusual frame narrative is that of Jim Burden, whom the unidentified narrator meets on a train and asks to tell Antonia Shimerda’s story. Jim, like Nick Carraway, has blind spots in his idealized, Georgic view of Antonia. We see his narrative, but also its flaws, its failure to cohere, its overdetermined symbolism.

The novel has an episodic/epiphanic structure at the start and end, almost like the land it describes, which “was not a country, but the material out of which a country is made.” In between, it has a more normative structure around Antonia’s extended adolescence and nascent sexuality. It is iterative, quotidian, and insists on a sense of routine even when the events it describes are too particular to have been repeated. It is a kind of double bildungsroman, in which Jim is the ascetic scholar and Antonia the earth mother.

Part of this is to explore the different positions for women – Antonia breeds at home, Tiny loses her toes making a fortune in Alaska, and Lena has a rags to riches story as a successful seamstress. The magic of “my Antonia” is a kind of incantation of the future of America, an embodiment of the frontier after its 1890 “end” according to the US government. The phrase is repeated by her father, Jim, the neighbor widow, and even Antonia herself, who calls her husband “my Anton,” having met the other half with whom she becomes a (re)productive (w)hole.

From Wikipedia:

  1. The Shimerdas – the longest book within the novel. It covers Jim’s early years spent on his grandparents’ farm, out on the prairie.
  2. The Hired Girls – the second longest section of the novel. It covers Jim’s time in town, when he spends time with Ántonia and the other country girls who work in town. Language, particularly descriptions, begin to become more sexualized, particularly concerning Ántonia and Lena.
  3. Lena Lingard – this chronicles Jim’s time at the university, and the period in which he becomes reacquainted with Lena Lingard.
  4. The Pioneer Woman’s Story – Jim visits the Harlings and hears about Ántonia’s fateful romance with Larry Donovan. This is the shortest book.
  5. Cuzak’s Boys – Jim goes to visit Ántonia and meets her new family, her children and husband.

 

Doris Lessing, “The Golden Notebook”

1962

The Golden Notebook, often considered one of the great works of second-wave feminism (though Lessing thought it came too early for that and claims she had no such agenda) tells the story of the writer Anna Wulf and her friend Molly Jacobs. Molly has been married to Richard, from whom she has Tommy. Anna has been married to Willi/Max (she met him while in Rhodesia in the 40s) and has a child, Janet, with him. She also has a long affair with Michael, who does not requite her love, and Saul, a brash American who opens her writing up to new levels, but ultimately disappears and gives way to the next man in line.

Much of the work is a treatise on various social issues, despite Lessing’s insistent claims that this was a “misreading” of the novel. Anna and Molly continually try to reintegrate themselves to Party life, only to find themselves disenchanted and leave again. It’s hard to consider it a misreading when all of this is so plainly spelled out at every turn (‘this is what women are experiencing today’), and this is where the wonderful novel is at its weakest. It engages in gender essentialism, national and political stereotypes (mostly about Americans, Brits, communists, and ‘liberals’), and overstatements of feeling and thought that verge onto D.H. Lawrence’s sometimes overblown “novel of ideas” style.

 

Indeed, the opening scene shows the two alone, discussing marriage, relationships, and themselves as “free women,” restaging the beginning of Lawrence’s Women in Love. In fact, The Golden Notebook restages modernism in a variety of ways. Anna’s concern with representing her bodily functions (unisex and particularly female) resonates with Joyce’s Ulysses, as does the Molly/Marion pair who have both been married to Richard. Richard, a real square and a businessman who cannot express emotion, is reminiscent of Richard Dalloway, and Anna’s surname (Wulf), as well as Molly’s (Jacobs [Room?] can be no accident. Instead of the 6 voices of The Waves, we have 6 parts of Anna and her life.

The splitting of the self that the novel insists on seems to stem from Woolf’s persistent attempts to represent the female splitting and gathering self in Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, as well as the passage in A Room of One’s Own where Woolf insists that to write as a woman is always to write multiply. Anna herself tells Tommy that she cannot write in one notebook because it would be an overwhelming chaos.

The novel has 6 component parts: the black, red, yellow, and blue notebooks, the golden notebook that tries to combine them, and the interspersed metanovel segments called “Free Women.” The four notebooks are in first-person by Anna (except the yellow one, where she is called Ella and Molly Julia). They each appear 4 times in the cycle, while the metanovel “Free Women” has 5 sections, and the golden notebook has just 1 section, which is the penultimate of the book and corresponds as a sort of “5th” occurrence of the other 4 notebooks, since it combines them.

The structure of the novel as repeating cycles seems to mimic both political waxings and wanings, the rhythm of everyday domestic life in motherhood, and the female body. Around the middle of the novel, Anna gets her period and continues to mention its inconveniences, pains, and awarenesses for several days’ worth of entries.

I’d like to think about this novel as an extension of the crisis of faith concerns in the works of Waugh, Greene, and Murdoch, but here the faith in question is, ironically, Marxism. I therefore want to experiment with aligning them with sections of the gospel and Eliot’s The Waste Land. The notebooks:

Black: Anna’s memories of her past in Rhodesia, as well as her record of finances (money/sources). (MARK: earliest source, travel, heroism, death) (Burial of the Dead – the difficulty of memory and prophecy, the struggle to express meaning.)

Red: Anna’s diary of her involvement in the Party. (MATTHEW: history, law, based on Mark, written to Jews) (A Game of Chess – sex as strategy, disappointment, disillusionment, concerned with matters of class and gender.)

Yellow: Anna’s own novel about Ella and Julia. (LUKE: longest, most evangelical and poetic, emotional and metatextual) (The Fire Sermon – a cleansing but collapsing of society as we know it.)

Blue: Anna’s diary, largely made up of dreams and fantasies, as well as day-to-day conversations and occurrences. (JOHN: visionary, salvatory, erratic) (Death by Water – the mystical possibility of death and rejuvenation in one).

Golden: Anna’s attempt to bind the other 4 together. (The Holy Gospel as an imbricated text.) (What the Thunder Said – combining fragments against one’s ruin, trying to revivify spirituality and love.)

I think it’s worth considering how this presages the narrative levels in Byatt or many of the “hysterical realism” novels. It also seems to me the first venture into postmodernism, except maybe Naipaul. It certainly implants the fragmented subject firmly in the British literary tradition where it does not seem to have existed before – would also be worth comparing with Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49. 

Judith Butler, “Gender Trouble”

1990

1999 PREFACE:

It is in sexual practice that gender is destabilized because “policing gender is sometimes used as a way of securing heterosexuality” xii [Foucauldian?].

“The sexist claims that a woman only exhibits her womannes in the act of heterosexual coitus in which her subordination becomes her pleasure… a feminist view argues that gender should be overthrown, eliminated, or rendered fatally ambiguous precisely because it is always a sign of subordination for women” xiv.

While we assume that gender is “an interior essence that might be disclosed,” this is “an expectation that ends up producing the very phenomenon that it anticipates” xv. This Butler stages as “metalepsis, the way in which the anticipation of a gendered essence produces that which it posits as outside itself” xv. The notion of performativity Butler advances is “a repetition and a ritual… a culturally sustained temporal duration… the gendered stylization of the body” and “an hallucinatory effect of naturalized gestures” xv. This narrativization of performance also interests me in terms of duree. (Interestingly, Butler also asks us not to transpose the theory onto race unproblematically, but to consider what happens when it performativity tries to come to grips with race.)

In a way, this is an advocation of surface reading, for if we see a person in drag and take their assumed gender as the opposite of their performed one, we give the first one priority and call the second one “mere artifice, play, falsehood, and illusion” xxiii [Blade Runner]. Butler’s goal is to explore the vacillation of reading between categories as “the experience of the body in question” xxiv.

“To the extent that gender norms (ideal dimorphism, heterosexual complementarity of bodies, ideals and rule of proper and improper masculinity and femininity, many of which are underwritten by racial codes of purity and taboos against miscegenation) establish what will and will not be intelligibly human, what will and will not be considered to be ‘real,’ they establish the ontological field in which bodies may be given legitimate expression. If there is a positive normative task in Gender Trouble, it is to insist upon the extension of this legitimacy to bodies that have been regarded as false, unreal, and unintelligible. Drag is an example that is meant to establish that ‘reality’ is not as fixed as we generally assume it to be” xxv.

While this implies a history of symptomatic reading (the surface belies depth), it also values surface. It is neither pure surface, self-invention, language, or theatricality xxvi. “Those who are deemed ‘unreal’ nevertheless lay hold of the real” xxviii.

1990 PREFACE:

If woman is mystery for de Beauvoir, it might stem from the “trouble” Sartre locates in her ability to return the gaze xxx. For Butler, “power appeared to operate in the production of that very binary frame for thinking about gender” xxx. In a Foucauldian genaeological approach, Butler will look at gender as a set of effects, rather than causes.

“Gender is a kind of persistent impersonation that passes as the real. His/her performance destabilizes the very distinctions between the natural and the artificial, depth and surface, inner and outer through which discourse about genders almost always operates” xxxi.

1: SUBJECTS OF SEX/GENDER/DESIRE

Rather than feminism based in identity politics, which glosses over issues of race, class, ethnicity, sexuality, and individuality, Butler invites us to consider a coalitional feminism (rather than a universal basis on identity politics, which, as bell hooks suggests, already confronts issues of race) that would undermine the term “woman” and upset the patriarchal linguistic binary. In fact, gender is multiple and unstable 4.

The split between sex and gender is false for Butler, since both, and not just gender, are constructed: “gender is not to culture as sex is to nature; gender is also the discursive/cultural means by which ‘sexed nature’ or ‘a natural sex’ is produced and established as ‘prediscursive,’ prior to culture, a politically neutral surface on which culture acts” 10. If de Beauvoir sees men constructing their gender against woman’s lack and Irigaray holds that it is One phallogocentric gender that cancels woman altogether, Butler questions the idea of “being” a gender at all, as well as the necessity of being represented as such.

“Gender is a complexity whose totality is permanently deferred, never fully what it is at any given juncture in time. An open coalition, then, will affirm identities that are alternately instituted and relinquished according to the purposes at hand; it will be an open assemblage that permits of multiple convergences and divergences without obedience to a normative telos of definitional closure” 22 [Foucauldian, Deleuze & Guattari]

Gender, instead, is performative. “Intelligible” genders uphold “coherence and continuity among sex, gender, sexual practice, and desire 23.

“The identification of women with ‘sex,’ for Beauvoir as for Wittig, is a conflation of the category of women with the ostensibly sexualized features of their bodies and hence, a refusal to grant freedom and autonomy to women as it is purportedly enjoyed by men. Thus, the destruction of the category of sex would be the destruction of an attribute, sex, that has, through a misogynist gesture of synecdoche, come to take the place of the person, the self-determining cogito” 27 [Isherwood!]

Institutional heterosexuality has created this, since “gender can denote a unity of experience, of sex, gender, and desire, only when sex can be understood in some sense to necessitate gender” 30. [But where does that leave us now, since we can’t all drag and still get laid?] Another issue is language – Wittig claims it is only problematic in its applications, Irigaray in its content. Wittig ends up making polymorphous perversity a “telos” of human sexuality rather than its former state, however. “Woman itself is a term in process” 45.

 

Gender’s acts of “expression” constitute, rather than reflect, gender [vs. symptomatic reading! Here surface is content.] Both genders are open to resignification. This is where she calls for “gender trouble,” performance that troubles the binary: “a proliferation of precisely those constitutive categories that seek to keep gender in its place by posturing as the foundational illusions of identity” 46.

2: PROHIBITION, PSYCHOANALYSIS, AND THE PRODUCTION OF THE HETEROSEXUAL MATRIX

In this section, Butler challenges a utopian “pre-patriarchal” ideal as it appears in much feminist literature. Structuralist accounts, such as that of Levi-Strauss, depend on an idea of the transformation of sex into gender by means of the incest taboo, which creates a kinship structure around the exchange of women. Joan Riviere’s psychoanalytic approach claims femininity is a masquerade to hide masculine identification and lesbian desire. Finally, Freud’s theory on mourning and melancholia posits cathexis as identification, as the traits of a lost loved one are incorporated.

Butler challenges all three. In the case of incest, she argues that it is the presence of the taboo that incites incestuous desire. In Riviere, mimicry are the essence of gender, not an outward concealment of it. In Freud, we actually internalize the prohibited object via melancholia as we construct our own gender. This involves homosexual cathexis, but “heterosexual melancholy is culturally instituted as the price of stable gender identities.” Heterosexuality depends on homosexuality for its existence (is it Sontag who says this?). Approved heterosexuality and subversive homosexuality only exist after the law, which is generated and regulated via the incest taboo [Foucauldian]. “Not only does the taboo forbid and dictate sexuality in certain forms, but it inadvertently produces a variety of substitute desires and identities that are in no sense constrained in advance, except insofar as they are ‘substitutes’ in some sense” 103. Incest incites desire for the mother or father but also displaces that desire: “the notion of an ‘original’ sexuality forever repressed and forbidden thus becomes a production of the law which subsequently functions as its prohibition” 104.

3: SUBVERSIVE BODILY ACTS

In this section, Butler addresses Kristeva, Foucault, and Wittig. Recalling Kristeva’s argument that the feminine surfaces in language via the semiotic (vs the symbolic), Butler challenges the notion of writing and womanhood as reclamations of the body, but not homosexuality: “the unmediated cathexis of female homosexual desire leads unequivocally to psychosis” 117. On motherhood: “Kristeva conceptualizes this maternal instinct as having an ontological status prior to the paternal law, but she fails to consider the way in which that very law might well be the cause of the very desire it is said to repress.” In a Foucauldian argument, she claims that ideas of maternity themselves are products of discourse and power. “The female body that is freed from the shackles of the paternal law may well prove to be yet another incarnation of that law, posing as subversive but operating in the service of that law’s self-amplification and proliferation… If subversion is possible, it will be a subversion from within the terms of the law, through the possibilities that emerge when the law turns against itself and spawns unexpected permutations of itself” 127 [faceting!].

Butler examines the journals of the hermaphrodite Herculine who committed suicide when forced to live as a man. Prior to this, Herculine lived in “nonidentity.” Butler sees this idealism as a sort of “confessional” on Foucault’s part of his own (silent) homosexuality, since the idea contradicts what he argues for in History of Sexuality: namely, that there is no sex “prior” to power, and that sex is not a solution to discourse but part of it. “S/he is ‘outside’ the law, but the law maintains this ‘outside’ within itself… the law’s uncanny capacity to produce only those rebellions that it can guarantee will… defeat themselves” 144.

Sex is produced by compulsory heterosexuality – compulsory reproduction. Therefore, the binary of gender only exists in “the heterosexual matrix” and are naturalized there to conceal and reproduce it 150. Butler examines and agrees with Wittig’s formulation of lesbian sexuality. Wittig argues that women carry the burden of sex because they are always identified with/as sex. Thus sex is a way to designate the non-male by absence, and the synecdochic division of the body into parts (which we now feel is fact) fragments what is really a whole. “The body is itself a consequence of taboos that render that body discrete by virtue of its stable boundaries.” In lesbian sexuality, partners might multiply and proliferate signifying parts of the body. Lesbian sexuality must not posit itself all too radically outside heterosexuality, lest it consolidate that hegemony 174.

In the last part of the chapter, Butler asks why bodies are the surfaces on which gender is written. We enforce the boundaries of the body as a means of establishing taboo (thus AIDS being equated with anal sex – a threshold being crossed). Drag is a way to playfully exaggerate and undercut “original” gender.

“If gender attributes, however, are not expressive but performative, then these attributes effectively constitute the identity they are said to express or reveal. The distinction between expression and performativeness is crucial [since the former implies truth, but the latter implies there is no prior truth]… Genders can be neither true nor false, neither real nor apparent, neither original nor derived. As credible bearers of those attributes, however, genders can also be rendered thoroughly and radically incredible” 193.

It’s interesting to use the word incredible – unbelievable – here. It ties this to fiction and narrativization, which she has done all along. )It is also, again, a form of surface reading, at least insofar as it makes surfaces count.)

4: CONCLUSION: FROM PARODY TO POLITICS

Butler tries to imagine a feminism free of the binary – the us/them or object/subject divide, as many feminists have thought before, is itself problematic and hegemonic. The subject is formed by repetition as signification (think of Stein!) Drag and other forms of parody destabilize and make apparent hidden assumptions about the “ontological locales” of gender (like Adorno on Beckett!) Butler hopes to have demonstrated how “the signifying practices that enable this metaleptic misdescription remain outside the purview of a feminist critique of gender relations” 202. We have no choice but to repeat the terms – the question is how or “to repeat, and, through a radical proliferation of gender, to displace the very gender norms that enable the repetition itself” 203 [how multiple is gender already, before this, I wonder?] Feminism’s foundationalist frame “presumes, fixes, and constrains the very ‘subjects’ that it hopes to represent and liberate,” in an “internal paradox” 203. The task is to “redescribe those possibilities as they already exist,” but in “unintelligible and impossible domains” 203. Gender’s “present proliferation might then become articulable within the discourses that establish intelligible cultural life, confounding the very binarism of sex, and exposing its fundamental unnaturalness” 203.

Betty Friedan, “The Feminine Mystique”

1963

Betty Friedan’s book, released in 1963, is often credited as a catalyst for second-wave American feminism. Almost 15 years after de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, Friedan approaches the problem of sexism through the lens of midcentury American consumer culture: television, advertising, education, pop psychoanalysis, and housewifery. In a wonderfully 50s moment, she concludes the book by asserting that

“the energy locked up in these obsolete masculine and feminine roles is the social equivalent of the physical energy locked up in the realm of E=MC2 – the force that unleashed the holocaust of Hiroshima. I believe the locked-up sexual energies have helped to fuel, more than anyone realizes, the terrible violence erupting in the nation and the world during these past ten years. If I am right, the sex-role revolution will liberate these energies from the service of death and will make it really possible for men and women to ‘make love, not war'” 532.

Of course this did not occur (Linda Williams investigates the inefficacy of the ‘make love, not war’ slogan in Screening Sex), but Friedan’s text may well have helped to unleash a sexual revolution whose effects were indeed far-ranging. Friedan’s setting is a 1950s America where girls dye their hair blonde and eat chalk to appeal to men, where women break down if they cannot breastfeed because their identities are so bound to young motherhood 59. Friedan identifies women as the victims of their own consumer power, the endlessness of which constantly promises fulfillment and never delivers, producing instead “the problem that has no name” 57. The popularity of psychoanalysis “cracked the door” into the potentially unhappy lives of housewives and the anxiety of unmarried women, too.

The world of images offered to women are fluffy, crammed with color, food, fashion, and sexual pursuit of men, but “where is the world of thought and ideas, the life of the mind and spirit?” 83. In part, it is sublimated into housewifery, as magazine headlines like “Cooking is Poetry to Me” and “The Business of Running a Home” suggest 93. While the heroines of the 30s were strong, young, and gay, those of postwar America are gender-circumscribed and vapid.

“The feminine mystique says that the highest value and the only commitment for women is the fulfillment of their own femininity… so mysterious and intuitive and close to the creation and origin of life that man-made science may never be able to understand it… The mistake, says the mystique, the root of women’s troubles in the past is that women envied men, women tried to be like men, instead of accepting their own nature, which can find fulfillment only in sexual passivity, male domination, and nurturing maternal love” 92.

The madonna/whore complex is reinscribed as the mother/career girl divide 95. Even female writers and editors contributed to the problem out of a sense of guilt and loss 109.

Friedan claims that this is the result of the “troubles of the image-makers” trapped in the “frantic race” of capitalism, which “force[s] the men who make the images to see women only as thing-buyers” 119. In making women mindless and bored, consumer society is also having more trouble selling to them. This push to sell means that the manipulators are guilty of using their insights to sell women things which, no matter how ingenious, will never satisfy… They are guilty of persuading housewives to stay at home, mesmerized in front of a television set” 326. (One of the most insidious ads she cites, the famous Clairol “Does she or doesn’t she?” was actually written by a woman, Shirley Polykoff.) Women are told that they are running a business, for which they must continue to buy specialized supplies. They stretch housework that should take a few hours to great lengths of time, since their sense of self rests on the illusion that they are needed at home, working full-time.

Friedan also critiques Freud for what she feels is his misogyny – his relegation of women as inferior beings complementary to men (the One, etc.). She also holds that directing all of women’s desire to sexuality and homemaking has bred a generation of sexually potent but frustrated women. If sex is the only thing left to make women “feel alive,” what happens then? (She mentions Lolita on 383- the redirection of male energy to less demanding sex objects than wives, who now expect too much from sex.) Thus, she theorizes (it sounds as nuts now as her concluding paragraph) that women are oversexed, men are cheating, and boys are homosexuals because of the pent-up energies of housewives 385. Friedan’s concern is with the children who then go on to marry young and have children: “the tragedy of children acting out the sexual phantasies of their housewife-mothers” as “one sign of the progressive dehumanization that is taking place” 392.

In the hyperbolically titled “The Comfortable Concentration Camp,” Friedan explores the problems of the arrested development of these young women – they are weak, undereducated, and lack a sense of self, which they have sacrificed to the family and to consumer ideology. She ends by advocating that colleges and places of work accommodate maternity leave, hire pregnant women, etc. In a society where women are functional and intellectual equals,

“The split image will be healed, and daughters will not face that jumping-off point at twenty-one or forty-one… they will not have to ‘beat themselves down’ to be feminine; they can stretch and stretch until their own efforts will tell them who they are… And when women do not need to live through their husbands and children, men will not fear the love and strength of women, nor need another’s weakness to prove their own masculinity… the time is at hand when the voices of the feminine mystique can no longer drown out the inner voice that is driving women on to become complete” 512.

I copy the Wikipedia summary below to save myself some of the structural summarizing of this long and detailed text:

Chapter 1: Friedan points out that the average age of marriage was dropping and the birthrate was increasing for women throughout the 1950s, yet the widespread unhappiness of women persisted, although American culture insisted that fulfillment for women could be found in marriage and housewifery; this chapter concludes by declaring, “We can no longer ignore that voice within women that says: ‘I want something more than my husband and my children and my home.'”

Chapter 2: Friedan shows that the editorial decisions concerning women’s magazines were being made mostly by men, who insisted on stories and articles that showed women as either happy housewives or unhappy, neurotic careerists, thus creating the “feminine mystique”—the idea that women were naturally fulfilled by devoting their lives to being housewives and mothers. Friedan notes that this is in contrast to the 1930s, at which time women’s magazines often featured confident and independent heroines, many of whom were involved in careers.

Chapter 3: Friedan recalls her own decision to conform to society’s expectations by giving up her promising career in psychology to raise children, and shows that other young women still struggled with the same kind of decision. Many women dropped out of school early to marry, afraid that if they waited too long or became too educated, they would not be able to attract a husband.

Chapter 4: Friedan discusses early American feminists and how they fought against the assumption that the proper role of a woman was to be solely a wife and mother. She notes that they secured important rights for women, including education, the right to pursue a career, and the right to vote.

Chapter 5: Friedan, who had a degree in psychology, criticizes Sigmund Freud (whose ideas were very influential in America at the time of her book’s publication). She notes that Freud saw women as childlike and as destined to be housewives, once pointing out that Freud wrote, “I believe that all reforming action in law and education would break down in front of the fact that, long before the age at which a man can earn a position in society, Nature has determined woman’s destiny through beauty, charm, and sweetness. Law and custom have much to give women that has been withheld from them, but the position of women will surely be what it is: in youth an adored darling and in mature years a loved wife.” Friedan also points out that Freud’s unproven concept of “penis envy” had been used to label women who wanted careers as neurotic, and that the popularity of Freud’s work and ideas elevated the “feminine mystique” of female fulfillment in housewifery into a “scientific religion” that most women were not educated enough to criticize. [vs. Barbara Johnson’s argument]

Chapter 6: Friedan criticizes functionalism, which attempted to make the social sciences more credible by studying the institutions of society as if they were parts of a social body, as in biology. Institutions were studied in terms of their function in society, and women were confined to their sexual biological roles as housewives and mothers as well as being told that doing otherwise would upset the social balance. Friedan points out that this is unproven and that Margaret Mead, a prominent functionalist, had a flourishing career as an anthropologist.

Chapter 7: Friedan discusses the change in women’s education from the 1940s to the early 1960s, in which many women’s schools concentrated on non-challenging classes that focused mostly on marriage, family, and other subjects deemed suitable for women, as educators influenced by functionalism felt that too much education would spoil women’s femininity and capacity for sexual fulfillment. Friedan says that this change in education arrested girls in their emotional development at a young age, because they never had to face the painful identity crisis and subsequent maturation that comes from dealing with many adult challenges.

Chapter 8: Friedan notes that the uncertainties and fears during World War II and the Cold War made Americans long for the comfort of home, so they tried to create an idealized home life with father as the breadwinner and mother as the housewife. Friedan notes that this was helped along by the fact that many of the women who worked during the war filling jobs previously filled by men faced dismissal, discrimination, or hostility when the men returned, and that educators blamed over-educated, career-focused mothers for the maladjustment of soldiers in World War II. Yet as Friedan shows, later studies found that overbearing mothers, not careerists, were the ones who raised maladjusted children.

Chapter 9: Friedan shows that advertisers tried to encourage housewives to think of themselves as professionals who needed many specialized products in order to do their jobs, while discouraging housewives from having actual careers, since that would mean they would not spend as much time and effort on housework and therefore would not buy as many household products, cutting into advertisers’ profits.

Chapter 10: Friedan interviews several full-time housewives, finding that although they are not fulfilled by their housework, they are all extremely busy with it. She postulates that these women unconsciously stretch their home duties to fill the time available, because the feminine mystique has taught women that this is their role, and if they ever complete their tasks they will become unneeded.

Chapter 11: Friedan notes that many housewives have sought fulfillment in sex, unable to find it in housework and children; Friedan notes that sex cannot fulfill all of a person’s needs, and that attempts to make it do so often drive married women to have affairs or drive their husbands away as they become obsessed with sex.

Chapter 12: Friedan discusses the fact that many children have lost interest in life or emotional growth, attributing the change to the mother’s own lack of fulfillment, a side effect of the feminine mystique. When the mother lacks a self, Friedan notes, she often tries to live through her children, causing the children to lose their own sense of themselves as separate human beings with their own lives.

Chapter 13: Friedan discusses Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and notes that women have been trapped at the basic, physiological level, expected to find their identity through their sexual role alone. Friedan says that women need meaningful work just as men do to achieve self-actualization, the highest level on the hierarchy of needs.

Chapter 14: In the final chapter of The Feminine Mystique, Friedan discusses several case studies of women who have begun to go against the feminine mystique. She also advocates a new life plan for her women readers, including not viewing housework as a career, not trying to find total fulfillment through marriage and motherhood alone, and finding meaningful work that uses their full mental capacity. She discusses the conflicts that some women may face in this journey to self-actualization, including their own fears and resistance from others. For each conflict, Friedan offers examples of women who have overcome it. Friedan ends her book by promoting education and meaningful work as the ultimate method by which American women can avoid becoming trapped in the feminine mystique, calling for a drastic rethinking of what it means to be feminine, and offering several educational and occupational suggestions.

Shoshanna Felman, “What Does A Woman Want?”

1993

Felman wonders whether feminists can reclaim Freud’s famous question in a letter to Marie Bonaparte: “What does a woman want?” The question is always male – a bemusement in the face of women’s resistance to their place in patriarchy, but can it be reclaimed? If so, what are its affordances? In examining the male texts of Balzac and Freud, Felman sees a common fascination with female resistance – to be appropriated, interpreted, or recognized.

Felman tells the story of how Simone de Beauvoir began The Second Sex not as a feminist, but as a woman situating herself, first through the eyes of others, then through her own eyes. de Beauvoir tells Sartre that she became a feminist less through writing than through the existence of her book in a community of women around the world. This idea of becoming a woman, becoming a feminist, is vital to Johnson. It is also, as Rich says, a re-vision of the past.

Felman’s chapter on Freud begins with Juliet Mitchell’s argument that Freudian psychoanalysis is not sexist. Felman agrees that psychoanalysis has a number of useful valences for feminist reflection, but does not think Freud is immune from mistakes and oversights that can be critiqued through a feminist lens. Ultimately, she argues that femininity is “the navel of psychoanalysis: a nodal point of significant resistance in the text of the ongoing psychoanalytic dream of understanding; a navel that, though ‘unplumbable,’ is also positively… [the] ‘point of contact with the unknown’… dynamic play… with its own self-difference” 120.

In the final chapter, Felman considers Woolf, de Beauvoir, and Rich as “autobiographers.” She begins by claiming the Interpretation of Dreams as Freud’s own autobiography. Freud’s value is of “a structure of address inclusive of its otherness,” but she begins to turn in her own autobiographical consideration away from men entirely. Like Woolf, she attempts to correct this: she is speaking to women with the knowledge that she is being overheard – she wants to make room for men, too (like A Room of One’s Own). Rich first accuses Woolf of an oversight in this sense. Felman encourages us to “read autobiographically,” “giving testimony to the unsuspected, unexpected ‘feminine resistance’ in the text” 133. It is a practice of “experiencing this feminine resistance as a joint effect of interaction among literature, autobiography, and theory, insofar as all three modes resist, precisely, one another” 133. Thus we must read ourselves with theory’s tools as a resistance to theory – a similar formulation as art and autonomy for Adorno.

Felman points out that in Rich’s famous poem, “Diving Into the Wreck,” the speaker says, “I am he, I am she,” breaking down the very binary that Rich uses to resist Woolf’s address. The poetry is “autobiography and resistance to autobiography,” as Woolf’s is as well, and as Felman notes, de Beauvoir’s too. Woolf’s way to autobiography is via the detour of fiction – she cannot be named in A Room of One’s Own – she is “Mary Beton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael or by any name you please.” (This indeterminacy is also like Rich.) Thus Woolf births her own autobiographer – Mary – who allows her to look back to her mother and mother’s mother and Judith Shakespeare, and forward to the future as well. The “splitting of consicousness” she describes, also characteristic of Emily Dickinson and Doris Lessing, is genealogical as well as personal, then. The real child of Woolf’s autobiography is the “writer’s certainty” that things will be better in 100 years.

bell hooks, “Ain’t I a Woman”

1981

hooks’ text takes its title from a speech given in 1851 by Sojourner Truth. hooks explains the way in which the convergence of racism and sexism placed black women on the bottom of the social ladder in every sense (think Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God). By disentangling race and gender, hooks’ text opens onto an important critical turn in identity politics. hooks begins with slavery, exploring how its tropes and stereotypes survive to this day (for example, the way the division of woman into madonna/whore is often drawn along white/black racial lines, displacing the negative quality onto black women alone).

hooks notes that scholarship has talked about slavery as though it only had psychic effects on black men, emasculating them. Instead, hooks argues that slavery masculinized black women by forcing them to do hard labor like men. Furthermore, she points out that while white men raped black women, so did black men – they were not their advocates, but often also their aggressors in a social world where family ties were severed by slave owners. Both were involved in the dehumanizing practices of “breeding” that characterized enforced sexual culture in slavery. “By completely accepting the female role as defined by patriarchy, enslaved black women embraced and upheld an oppressive sexist social order and became (along with their white sisters) both accomplices in the crimes perpetrated against women and the victims of those crimes” 49.

While the black power and civil rights movements were largely patriarchal, asking black women to erase their gender in the service of black male interests, white feminism was not concerned to articulate the needs of poor women and women of color. White feminists overlook the rape of black women as stemming from the image of their sexual “availability” in ways that are different from white women. Relatedly, white women who marry black men are seen as open minded, moving against a history of stereotypical “rape” of white women by black men, whereas black women suffer from both communities when they marry a white man, seen as allying themselves with a traitor. The two stereotypes available to black women are mammy and Sapphire – the first desexualized and maternal and happy, the other seductive, evil, and cunning. Both are characterized by the fear of appearing vulnerable (“available”).

hooks concludes her text by arguing not that black women should distance themselves from feminism because it is racist, but that feminism should distance itself from racism. Black women should reclaim the pioneering tradition of 19th century black feminists like Sojourner Truth for the problems of today.

Virginia Woolf, “A Room of One’s Own”

1929

Woolf begins her treatise, as she does so many of her novels, in medias res: “But, you may say, we asked you to speak about women and fiction – what has that got to do with a room of one’s own?” 3. The answer, for Woolf, is quite simple – in order for women to write, they must have the material conditions to write – 500 a year and a room of their own to write in. As in “Modern Fiction,” she says, “I give you my thoughts as they came to me” 7.

She records the horror she caused at a university by being off the garden path. She is refused from the library because she has no letter of entry. She records the evening meal for the men, with rich wines and puddings,

“And thus by degrees was lit, halfway down the spine, which is the seat of the soul, not that hard little electric light which we call brilliance, as it pops in and out upon our lips, but the more profound, subtle and subterranean glow, which is the rich yellow flame of rational intercourse. No need to hurry. No need to sparkle. No need to be anybody but oneself… how good life seemed” 11.

She compares this to the women’s meal, at which the scholar Jane Harris is in attendance. Everything is plain – broth, beef and potatoes, and dry biscuits, no wine. “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well,” she insists 18. Women do not individually or as intellectual groups have the tradition of “luxury and privacy and space” that men do 24. Though men write many books about women, women do not write about men. She feels “humiliated” by the titles and categorizing topics available to describe women.

“Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size” 35 [think about Lacan’s mirror, the film screen, suture, realism, etc!] 35.

“Mirrors are essential to all violent and heroic action” 36.

Woolf abolishes anger from herself, and says (like Eliot would of self-effacement in “Tradition and the Individual Talent”), that one must purify oneself of anger and resentment to write. Charlotte Bronte falls victim to this, Woolf claims, which we see in her writing. She seeks a Kantian disinterestedness: “freedom to think of things in themselves” 39.

Of the vote and money Woolf has inherited, money is unquestionably more helpful, she says. She imagines a world where women can take any occupation, once “womanhood has ceased to be a protected occupation” 40.

“In a hundred years, I thought… women will have ceased to be the protected sex. Logically they will take part in all the activities and exertions that were once denied them. The nursemaid will heave coal. The shopwoman will drive an engine. All assumptions founded on the facts observed when women were the protected sex will have disappeared” 40.

Woolf tries to imagine the conditions of women, beginning in the Elizabethan era. Why did women write nothing in the age of so many great male writers?

“Fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners” 41.

Woolf points out that in literature, woman is central, whereas practically, she is insignificant to society:

“If woman had no existence save in the fiction written by men, one would imagine her a person of the utmost importance; very various; heroic and mean; splendid and sordid; infinitely beautiful and hideous in the extreme; as great as a man, some think even greater. But this is woman in fiction” 43.

Woolf uses the power of fiction to begin to imagine woman as more than “a vessel.” This she plays out by imagining a sister for Shakespeare: Judith. She would try to write against the obstacles of domestic labor and a lack of education. Eventually she would become pregnant and commit suicide, Woolf imagines:

“It would have been impossible, completely and entirely, for any woman to have written the plays of Shakespeare in the age of Shakespeare” 46.

“Genius like Shakespeare’s is not born among labouring, uneducated, servile people” 49.

Woolf also claims women are less likely to want to impose their values on others, as is the colonial fashion 50. But society will not pay for what it does not want. It will question and suppress women’s writing. It will suggest that the most intelligent woman is inferior to the average man. She considers women like Dorothy Osborne, who never wrote anything but letters, thinking it was outside their domain.

In the late 18th century, however, “middle-class women began to write” for profit 65. Austen she places above Bronte, who was undoubtedly a genius, because her writing is emptied out of anger and hate 68. Again she discusses a mirror:

“If one shuts one’s eyes and thinks of the novel as a whole, it would seem to be a creation owning a certain looking-glass likeness to life, though of course with simplifications and distortions innumerable. At any rate, it is a structure leaving a shape on the mind’s eye, built now in squares, now pagoda-shaped, now throwing out wings and arcades, now solidly compact and domed… This shape, I thought, starts in one the kind of emotion that is appropriate to it… the shape is not made by the relation of stone to stone, but by the relation of human being to human being” 71.

“A book is not made of sentences laid end to end, but of sentences built, if an image helps, into arcades or domes” 77.

Woolf holds to some gender essentialism akin to that of de Beauvoir:

“For we think through our mothers if we are women” 76.

“The book has somehow to be adapted to the body, and at a venture one would say that women’s books should be shorter, more concentrated than those of men, and framed so that they do not need long hours of steady and uninterrupted work. For interruptions there always will be. Again, the nerves that feed the brain would seem to differ in men and women”78.

“Let us admit in the privacy of our own society that these things sometimes happen. Sometimes women do like women” 82. / “If Chloe likes Olivia and Mary Carmichael knows how to express it, she will light a torch in that vast chamber where nobody has yet been” 84.

“A man is terribly hampered and partial in his knowledge of women, as a woman in her knowledge of men” 83.

There is no history of women by women to corroborate this, however. The strength of Mary Carmichael’s writing, which has “broken up Jane Austen’s sentence,” is that

“she wrote as a woman, but as a woman who has forgotten that she is a woman, so that her pages were full of that curious sexual quality which comes only when sex is unconscious of itself… she was not a skimmer of surfaces merely, but had looked beneath into the depths” 93.

“What does one mean by the unity of the mind, I pondered… if one is a woman one is often surprised by a sudden splitting of of consciousness… when from being the natural inheritor of civilization, she becoems, on the contrary, outside of it, alien and critical” 97.

“Intellectual freedom depends on material things” 108.

“For the reading of [great] books seems to perform a curious couching operation on the senses; one sees more intensely afterwards; the world seems bared of its covering and given an intenser life” 110.

It is because of this that the efforts to write the Judith Shakespeare within us are worth the effort, Woolf concludes.

Katherine Mansfield: Stories

Mansfield’s stories are remarkable for their clarity of image, their stirrings of stream of consciousness, and the way in which they resonate with the work of Virginia Woolf.

“PRELUDE,” 1918

Lottie and Kezia are moving away. Kezia is startled when she goes back into the house to get something. Aunt Beryl and the grandmother put Lottie, Kezia, and Isabel to bed together. The grandmother washes dishes and recalls Beryl being stung by red ants when they lived in Tasmania. The children play at being grown-ups. Kezia tells her cousin to “put head back on” the duck he has decapitated. They eat the duck for tea. The story ends with Beryl writing a letter to her ‘nan’ saying she is bored and false in the country. Kezia calls her to dinner and marvels that a jar of cream that flies off the dresser does not break.

“BLISS,” 1920

Bertha Young’s consciousness unfolds over the course of a dinner party she throws with her husband Harry. She starts out filled with bliss, as though she had “swallowed” part of the afternoon – she plays with her baby and looks at “a tall, slender pear tree in fullest, richest bloom” in the garden. In attendance are the Knights, as well as the implicitly gay Eddie and the fascinating Pearl Fulton. She thinks Harry is rude to her, and hers is the only perspective we have as readers. She thinks again of the pear tree, which “would be silver in the light of poor dear Eddie’s moon.” Bertha tries to locate her interest in Pearl, which is at the fringes of desire, but ultimately realizes that she shares with Pearl an attraction to Harry. She realizes they are having an affair when she walks into the hallway and sees her husband take Pearl in his arms. She “laid her moonbeam fingers on his cheeks and smiled her sleepy smile.” As she leaves, Pearl mutters, “Your lovely pear tree!” “Bertha simply ran over to the long windows… But the pear tree was as lovely as ever and as full of flower and as still.”

“GARDEN PARTY,” 1922

The in medias res beginning of the story, “And after all the weather was ideal,” reminds me so much of Mrs. Dalloway. The similarities continue as we watch Laura and Jose Sheridan and their mother prepare for a garden party, which is nearly interrupted by a death (recall Clarissa!). The sensations of the house, where all the doors and windows feel open, and there are an abundance of fragrant cut lilies, also remind me of Mrs. Dalloway. When the Sheridans learn that a man from the cottages at the edge of the property has died, Laura wants to call off the party. Mrs. Sheridan considers this “extravagant.” She sends Laura to the cottages with leftovers afterwards. Laura is taken with the beauty of the young man, who seems to be peacefully sleeping. The story ends with her musing, “Isn’t life…” to which her brother says, “Isn’t it, darling?”

“AT THE BAY,” 1922

This story seems almost like the bits of The Waves that begin each section with a time of day and the sea. It is told in one day, like the structure of that novel (which imagines each stage of life as a time of day), and involves the same characters as “Prelude.” It begins with Stanley swimming in the sea, tracks Kezia, Isabel, and Lottie playing, Linda remembering, and Beryl fretting over growing old alone. It ends with a cloud floating across the moon, and then “All was still.” The way the story draws attention to the objective world is also like To the Lighthouse. 

 

Jennifer Hayward, “Consuming Pleasures”

2009

Jennifer Hayward’s treatise on “active audiences” and serial fictions moves from Dickens to melodrama to soap operas in its scope. Hayward highlights the “low” quality of her texts: “Again we see the serial audience equated both with femininity and immaturity, and the texts themselves with pernicious social influences” 7. Yet she urges against using the master’s tools to undo the master’s house [is this really what hooks meant by that phrase?] – that is, she cautions against arguing for the uniqueness or exceptional value of some of these texts above others. Instead, she wants to consider them as potentially collaborative spaces that incorporate many characters and marginalized figures [Woloch]. “It is time to stop mourning a lost authenticity and start acknowledging – and working to increase – the real power that audiences can have over mass culture” 20. (I would like to compare this to Lauren Berlant’s use of Benedict Anderson’s “imagined communities” in The Female Complaint).

Hayward’s emphasis on the self-effacing nature of the serial is clear – Dickens, comic strips, and soap operas are not meant for preservation. (I will have to argue differently for postmodern novels and serial TV.) She flirts with the double-edged sword of gender essentialism in this chapter: “Critics such as Tania Modleski and Robert C. Allen have seen soaps’ decentered narratives and refusal of closure as reflecting essential differences between male and female ways of knowing and experience of temporality… obstacles between desire and fulfillment” 141. However, “the trope of refusal of closure reflects the material conditions of generic development” in the soap, and we should stop before we diachronically represent all female production in a certain vein 141. What she focuses on is the fact that most soaps are still focused on women and written by women, and that women still collaboratively read, write, and respond to them 143. She concludes:

“Serial producers and consumers actively appropriate what has long been perceived as a junk genre and recycle it, transforming it to satisfy audience desire for a collaborative narrative experience. Because of their continued accountability to consumers, inscribing responsiveness to audiences within the production process, serials may offer cultural models for material transformation, models that come not from the directives of academic critics, not from marginal pockets of cultural resistance, but from within mass culture itself as a result of the influence of fans’ voices over time… a past that allows a viable future” 196.

 

Harold Pinter, “The Birthday Party”

1957

Meg, married to Petey, runs a boarding house, where Stanley is the only tenant. Meg seems mentally incapacitated somehow – all her dialogue is repetitive and redundant, circling around the same blind attempt at optimism in the face of the men’s dismissal of her daily routines. We learn it is Stanley’s birthday. In honor of his past as a pianist (this is debatable), Meg has purchased him a child’s drum. Two men, McCann and Goldberg, show up to take Stanley away to Monty. It’s interesting that their names are Scottish and Jewish, and seem also to mimic American names associated with Madison Ave. advertising and Hollywood. The seaside location is a picture of a secondary, suburban, Cold War Britain. Meg decides with them to host a birthday party for Stanley, which ends as he attacks Meg and tries to rape the neighbor, Lulu. The two men interrogate Stanley until he breaks the next day, taking him away despite some weak protests from Petey. Meg comes home from the market and notices that the car is gone, but ends the play not knowing the truth about Stanley. It would be interesting to compare to Jeanne Dielman.