Tension between female creativity and femininity

Gubar and Gilbert , in their work, “Infection in the Sentence: The Woman Writer and the Anxiety of Authorship,” describe a tension between the ability of women to create art and what has been considered the social norm of femininity. They describe the eternal woman’s ill-fated past as one of both mental and physical sickness caused by the patriarchal socialization of women. They describe nineteenth century femininity as socially conditioned female illness, “…nineteenth-century culture seems to have actually admonished women to be ill. In other words the ‘female diseases’ from which Victorian women suffered were not always byproducts of their training in femininity; they were the goals of such training” (54). Given that the state of women was expected to be ill or frail (or alternatively ‘monsterous), it’s a wonder as how women could be expected to do much of anything – let alone participate in creative endeavors. They quote Sexton in saying that female art, “Has a ‘hidden’ but crucial tradition of uncontrollable madness” (56). This passage reminded me of A Room of One’s Own where Judith Shakespeare, if she existed, would have been considered mad and driven to literal madness, while her male counterpart would be, and was, considered a genius.

They also describe a phenomenon of interirorization of women that marks the struggle for women writers in artistic self-definition. Women writers are confined to be thought of in terms of their male counter parts. Gubar and Gilbert generally describe the writer’s burden as one in which, “…writers assimilate and then consciously or unconsciously affirm or deny the achievements of their predecessors, [which] is, of course, a central fact of literary history…” (46). Thus, there is an anxiety of authorship which is caused by the inability of one to escape the work of their predecessors.  Specifically for female writers, the authors describe this burden as producing an ultimatum, “Thus, as Virginia Woolf observed, the women writer seemed locked into a disconcerting double blind: she had to choose between admitting she was ‘only a woman’ or protesting that she was ‘as good as a man'” (64). Not only must women face a near debilitating anxiety of authorship, but they must also face the challenges of writing as a women (ie qualifying one’s writing according to the norms of the patriarchal socialization of women).

Can we really say that the challenges faced by Victorian women and of women today are much different? Many social pressures remain the same as well as the still unchanged fact that women do not have as great a history in art as men. How much can we really say has changed in the ability of women to produce knowledge?

The Anxiety of Authorship in Contemporary Literature

In Gilbert and Gubar’s “Infection in the Sentence: The Woman Writer and the Anxiety of Authorship,” they examine the affect of patriarchal literature on female writers. The foremost literary theorist on the psychology of literary history is Harold Bloom, who applied Freudian structures to literary genealogies, coining the phrase “anxiety of influence” to mean: “[the artist’s] fear that he is not his own creator and that the works of his predecessors, existing before and beyond him, assume essential priority over his own writings” (46). He continues to explain that a literary Oedipal struggle occurs because since “a man can only become a poet by somehow invalidating his poetic father” (47).

In Bloom’s exclusively male and patriarchal model of literary history, there is no explanation or consideration of female writers. His use of “he” and “father” are not interchangeable with “she” and “mother”, because the literary history of women is a very different and distinct course. The female writer has few, if any, predecessors, so she does not want to annihilate her “foremother” because she does not have one. Likewise, she does not want to annihilate her “forefather” because she does not have the relationship to him that the male artists do. She does not experience the “anxiety of influence” the way her male counterparts do; her precursors not only embody patriarchal authority, they “attempt to enclose her in definitions of her person and potential which, by reducing her to extreme stereotypes (angel, monster), drastically conflict with her own sense of her self” (48).  The female author is battling against her male precursor’s reading of her–she is not competing with him but instead struggling to break free of the limitations he created for her.

 Gilbert and Gubar describe women as experiencing an “anxiety of authorship”, which they define as “a radical fear that she cannot create, that because she can never become a ‘precursor’ the act of writing will isolate or destroy her” (49). Women are attempting to break into a patriarchal structure, within which they are already socialized and deemed inferior. Gilbert and Gubar say that contemporary female authors are free of these limitations and isolation that their eighteenth- and nineteenth-century foremothers faced.

However, I’m not sure if these struggles are completely done away with, particularly in regards to the patriarchal literary structure and extreme stereotypes. On the one hand, we do see a greater population of female writers (within certain genres, although this was discussed more in my previous post on Cixous) and a broader range of female characters, but on the other hand, even these characters still somewhat fit these “angel/monster” polarized identities. In contemporary literature, television and movie storylines, women are the “girl next door” or the “bitch”, the sweet girlfriend or the heartless mistress. Slowly, I think, women’s roles are becoming more complicated, more empowered—i.e., the popular Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen (don’t judge me, I just watched the movie this weekend so she’s the first one I can think of. P.S., it was amazing J ). But I think the fact that this is still pointed out as significant means that it is still considered different; strong female lead characters, ones that don’t fall into either of the two aforementioned categories, are still considered the Other. How far have we come from the initial challenges that female writers faced? Do you guys think that the patriarchal and male literary structure has been broadened and expanded to include enough accomplished female literary figures that women have “foremothers” to look to? And if so, do they experience the “anxiety of influence” that their male counterparts do?

Yet again: Biology vs Society

In a “bringing-it-full-circle” kind of way, the readings for today made me think about biology and the historical and still present primacy of biology in light of social roles. The entire premise of the Gubar and Gilbert article was fascinating but reinforced the importance of the physical body. Exploring how the social strata manifested itself in a physical ailment in a woman is an alarming and supported concept but places the body and bodily reactions as more important than emotional or psychological reactions to the world. (A slightly tangential extension of the pervasive attitude can be seen in a general stigma against mental health.)  As a reader I found myself intrigued and compelled by the arguments but wonder to what degree this delegitimizes distress or discomfort that does not present itself in a physical means or even typically-presenting mental illness.

I felt this concept was particularly interesting in that the reading was paired with a work of fiction.  I suppose the justification for valuing the physical over the mental or emotional is that it is tangible, visible, and able to be accurately measured, whereas the psyche requires the intermediary of language which makes people fearful to trust its validity. I do not aim to debate this argument in this forum, but instead to point out that in a work of fiction we are given the luxury of complete trust in both the physical and psychic realities of characters. With an omniscient narrator, like we get with Monsieur Venus, there is no doubt as to the internal state of the characters as the text is gospel. It is not to be questioned that Raoule identifies with a male self that is in conflict with her physical body.

The gendered-nature of the conflicts of Raoule and Gubar and Gilbert’s female writers are different though, in that Raoule’s conflict lies fundamentally in biology whereas the writers’ lies in gendered social power structures. Raoule and the female writers discussed by Gubar and Gilbert are all capable and effective at performing gender and assuming masculine roles, yet they are unable to attain their desired ends.  Social strides have been made for conflicts like Raoule’s, A modern day Raoule could pursue sexual reassignment surgery and hormones, but progress is slower or less visible for modern female authors who still struggle to reconcile their female selves with the structure and history. Here again, we see that problems with a biological or physical basis are more easily addressed than an intangible, though very real, social ideology.

The Relationship Between Marie and Raoule

Throughout the text, the relationship between Raoule and Marie proves very intriguing. At the beginning of the novel, Raoule originally meets Jacques only because she is looking for Marie and Jacques explains that he must work because Marie cannot. By the end of their first conversation, Raoule has begun to develop strong feelings for Jacques. As Raoule begins supporting Jacques and Marie, Marie makes sure to remind Jacques it is because of his body, not his paintings (Rachilde, 30). Her dislike of Raoule is also noted: “When she though of that high and mighty woman, all the scenes of vice she had lived through rose like unhealthy fumes to her head” (Rachilde, 31). While Jacques immediately expresses praise and gratitude for Raoule’s kindness, Marie remains reserved and cynical.

While Marie dislikes Raoule, she is conscious of how she acts in her presence as Raoule holds both economic and social power over Marie. Marie releases her pent up anger by criticizing Jacques instead. However, even as she criticizes him, Marie must rely on Jacques and Jacques staying in Raoule’s favor for her own survival. I found it especially interesting when Raoule goes to visit Jacques and find out Marie is a prostitute. Raoule is dressed in discreet, androgynous clothing and Marie, mistaking Raoule for a man, makes a pass at Raoule in the hopes of securing a customer. Raoule realizes it is Marie and immediately displays her anger and outrage. As Marie explains her case to Jacques, she cries, “That hussy you love backward beat me up, on the pretext I was soliciting at her door. We are not in our gown home here, it seems” (Rachilde, 104).

This exchange fascinated me because it highlights the economic disparity between Marie and Raoule. Though they are both women, Raoule’s economic status allows her to buy-off Jacques and his love while Marie must prostitute herself out for money. Additionally, by supporting the household in which Jacques and Marie live, Raoule holds a power over Marie. By refusing to allow Marie to be a prostitute, Raoule takes away her economic stability and independence, a common occurrence for women throughout history. By forcing Marie to remain dependent on her money and charity, Raoule forces Marie to remain dependent on Jacques, as he is Raoule’s favorite. Though Marie is more clever and street smart than Jacques, she falls in a situation of dependence on a male (her brother rather than a husband) because of Raoule. Could this forced economic dependency be the reason for Marie’s hatred of Raoule? Does this hatred have anything to do with money? How can this relationship be defined and what does that mean for the story?

Modern Day Canon




So these are some blogs about the modern literary canon: one list of suggested modern books and two about multiculturalism/gender in the canon. (Note, these are not super in-depth articles or anything–just three of the links on the first pages of results for “modern day literary canon.”)

I mainly wanted to write this post to ask what you all thought modern day canon would look like/in fifty or a hundred years, what would people still be reading?