Feminist thinking is really rethinking, an examination of the way certain assumptions about women and the female character enter into the fundamental assumptions that organize all our thinking. For instance, assumptions such as the one that makes intuition and reason opposite terms parallel to female and male may have axiomatic force in our culture, but they are precisely what feminists need to question--or be reduced to checking the arithmetic, when the issue lies in the calculus.
Such radical skepticism is an ideal intellectual stance that can generate genuinely new understandings; that is, reconsideration of the relation between female and male can be a way to reconsider that between intuition and reason and ultimately between the whole set of such associated dichotomies: heart and head, nature and history. But it also creates unusual difficulties. Somewhat like Archimedes, who to lift the earth with his lever required someplace else on which to locate himself and his fulcrum, feminists questioning the presumptive order of both nature and history--and thus proposing to remove the ground from under their own feet-- would appear to need an alternative base. For as Archimedes had to stand somewhere, one has to assume something in order to reason at all. So if the very axioms of Western thought already incorporate the sexual teleology in question, it seems that, like the Greek philosopher, we have to find a standpoint off this world altogether.
Archimedes never did. However persuasively he established that the earth could be moved from its appointed place, he and the lever remained earthbound and the globe stayed where it was. His story may point another moral, however, just as it points to another science able to harness forces internally and apply energy from within. We could then conclude that what he really needed was a terrestrial fulcrum. My point here, similarly, will be that a terrestrial fulcrum, a standpoint from which we can see our conceptual universe whole but which nonetheless rests firmly on male ground, is what feminists really need. But perhaps because being at once on and off a world seems an improbable feat, the prevailing perspectives of feminist studies have located the scholar one place or the other.
Inside the world of orthodox and therefore male-oriented scholarship, a new category has appeared in the last decade, the category of women. Economics textbooks now draw us our own bell curves, histories of medieval Europe record the esoterica of convents and the stoning of adulterous wives, zoologists calibrate the orgasmic capacities of female chimpanzees. Indeed, whole books on "women in" and "women of" are fast filling in the erstwhile blanks of a questionnaire-one whose questions, however, remain unquestioned. They never asked before what the mother's occupation was, now they do. The meaning of "occupation," or for that matter of "mother," is generally not at issue.
It is precisely the issue, however, for the majority of feminist scholars who have taken what is essentially the opposite approach, rather than appending their findings to the existing literature, they generate a new one altogether in which women are not just another focus but the center of an investigation whose categories and terms are derived from the world of female experience. They respond to the Archimedean dilemma by creating an alternative context, a sort of female enclave apart from the universe of masculinist assumptions. Most "women's studies" have taken this approach and stressed the global, structural character of their separate issues. Women are no longer to be seen as floating in a man's world but as a coherent group, a context in themselves. The problem is that the issues and problems women define from the inside as global, men treat from the outside as insular. Thus, besides the exfoliation of reports on the state of women everywhere and a certain piety on the subject of pronouns, there is little indication of feminist impact on the universe of male discourse. The theoretical cores of the various disciplines remain essentially unchanged, their terms and methods are as always. As always, therefore, the intellectual arts bespeak a world dominated by men, a script that the occasional woman at a podium can hardly revise. Off in the enclaves of women's studies, our basic research lacks the contiguity to force a basic reconsideration of all research, and our encapsulated revisions appear inorganic (or can be made to appear inorganic) to the universal system they mean to address. Archimedes' problem was getting off the world, but ours might be getting back on.
For we have been, perhaps, too successful in constructing an alternative footing. Our world apart, our female intellectual community, becomes increasingly cut off even as it expands. If we have little control over being shunted aside, we may nonetheless render the isolation of women's scholarship more difficult. At least we ought not to accept it, as in a sense we do when we ourselves conflate feminist thought with thinking about women, when we remove ourselves and our lever off this man's world to study the history or the literature, the art or the anatomy of women alone. This essay is about devising a method for an alternative definition of women's studies as the investigation, from women's viewpoint, of everything, thereby finding a way to engage the dominant intellectual systems directly and organically: locating a feminist terrestrial fulcrum. Since feminist thinking is the thinking of an insurgent group that in the nature of things will never possess a world of its own, such engagement would appear a logical necessity.
Logical but also contradictory. To a degree, any analysis that rethinks the most basic assumptions of the thinking it examines is contradictory or at least contrary, for its aim is to question more than to explain and chart. From it we learn not so much the intricacies of how a particular mode of thinking works as the essential points to which it can be reduced. And nowhere is such an adversary rather than appreciative stance more problematical than it is in literary criticism. This is my specific subject here, the perils and uses of a feminist literary criticism that confronts the fundamental axioms of its parent discipline.
What makes feminist literary criticism especially contradictory is the peculiar nature of literature as distinct from the objects of either physical or social scientific study. Unlike these, literature is itself already an interpretation that it is the critic's task to decipher. It is certainly not news that the literary work is biased; indeed that is its value. Critical objectivity enters in only at a second level to provide a reliable reading, though even here many have argued that reading too is an exercise in creative interpretation. On the other hand, while biologists and historians will concede that certain a priori postulates affect their gathering of data, they always maintain that they have tried to correct for bias, attempting, insofar as this is ever possible, to discover the factual, undistorted truth. Therefore expositions of subjectivity are always both relevant and revelatory about the work of biologists and historians. But as a way of judging the literary work per se, exposing its bias is essentially beside the point. Not that literature, as the New Critics once persuaded us, transcends subjectivity or politics. Paradoxically, it is just because the fictional universe is wholly subjective and therefore ideological that the value of its ideology is almost irrelevant to its literary value. The latter instead depends on what might be thought of as the quality of the apologia, how successfully the work transforms ideology into ideal, into a myth that works to the extent precisely that it obscures its provenance. Disliking that provenance implies no literary judgment, for a work may be, from my standpoint, quite wrong and even wrongheaded about life and politics and still an extremely successful rendering of its contrary vision. Bad ideas, even ideas so bad that most of humanity rejects them, have been known to make very good literature.
I am not speaking here of what makes a work attractive or meaningful to its audience. The politics of a play, poem, or story may render it quite unreadable or, in the opposite case, enhance its value for particular people and situations. But this poses no critical issue, for what we like, we like and can justify that way; the problem, if we as feminists want to address our whole culture, is to deal with what we do not like but recognize as nonetheless valuable, serious, good. This is a crucial problem at the heart of feminism's wider relevance. No wonder we have tried to avoid it.
One way is to point out that "good" changes its definition according to time and place. This is true, but not true enough. Perhaps only because we participate in this culture even while criticizing it, we do (most of us) finally subscribe to a tradition of the good in art and philosophy that must sometimes be a political embarrassment--and what else could it be, given the entire history of both Western and Eastern civilizations and their often outright dependence on misogyny? Nor is it true enough, I believe, to argue that the really good writers and thinkers unconsciously and sometimes consciously rejected such misogyny. As couched in the analogous interpretation of Shylock as hero because Shakespeare could not really have been anti-Semitic, this argument amounts to second-guessing writers and their works in terms of a provincialism that seems especially hard to maintain in these linguistically and anthropologically conscious times. For such provincialism not only assumes that our view of things is universal and has always been the substance of reality but also that all other and prior representations were insubstantial. So when Shakespeare depicted bastards as scheming subversives, Jews as merchants of flesh, and women as hysterics, he meant none of it but was only using the local idiom. What he meant, thereby demonstrating his universality, was what we mean.
I want to suggest that we gain no benefit from either disclaiming the continuing value of the "great tradition" or reclaiming it as after all an expression of our own viewpoint. On the contrary, we lose by both. In the first instance, we isolate ourselves into irrelevance. In the second--denying, for example, that Shakespeare shared in the conventional prejudices about women--we deny by implication that there is anything necessarily different about a feminist outlook. Thus, discovering that the character of Ophelia will support a feminist interpretation may appear to be a political reading of Hamlet, but, in fact, by its exegetical approach it re-affirms the notion that the great traditions are all-encompassing and all-normative, the notion that subsumes women under the heading 'mankind."
It seems to me perfectly plausible, however, to see Shakespeare as working within his own ideology that defined bastards, Jews, and women as by nature deformed or inferior, and as understanding the contradictions of that ideology without rejecting its basic tenets--so that, from a feminist standpoint, he was a misogynist--and as being nonetheless a great poet. To be sure, greatness involves a critical penetration of conventions but not necessarily or even frequently a radical rejection of them. If, in his villains, Shakespeare revealed the human being beneath the type, his characterization may have been not a denial of the type but a recognition of the complexity of all identity. The kingly ambition of the bastard, the "white" conscience of the Moor, the father love of the Jew, the woman's manly heart: these complexities are expressed in the terms of the contemporary ideology, and in fact Shakespeare uses these terms the more tellingly for not challenging them at the root.
But the root is what feminists have to be concerned with: what it means not to be a good woman or a bad one but to be a woman at all. Moreover, if a great writer need not be radical, neither need a great radical writer be feminist--but so what? It was only recently that the great Romantic poets conned us into believing that to be a great poet was to tell the absolute truth, to be the One prophetic voice for all Mankind. As the philosophy of the Other, feminism has had to reject the very conception of such authority--which, by extension, should permit feminist critics to distinguish between appreciative and political readings.
We should begin, therefore, by acknowledging the separate wholeness of the literary subject, its distinct vision that need not be ours--what the formalists have told us and told us about: its integrity. We need to acknowledge, also, that to respect that integrity by not asking questions of the text that it does not ask itself, to ask the text what questions to ask, will produce the fullest, richest reading. To do justice to Shelley, you do not approach him as you do Swift. But doing justice can be a contrary business, and there are aspects of the text that, as Kate Millett demonstrated,1 a formalist explication actively obscures. If her intentionally tangential approach violated the terms of Henry Miller's work, for example, it also revealed aspects of the work that the terms had masked. But she would not claim, I think, that her excavation of Miller's underlying assumptions had not done damage to his architecture.
The contradiction between appreciation and political analysis is not peculiar to feminist readings, but those who encountered it in the past did not resolve it either. In fact, they too denied it, or tried to. Sartre, for instance, argued in What Is Literature? that a good novel could not propound fascism. But then he also recognized that "the appearance of the work of art is a new event which cannot be explained by anterior data."2 More recently, the Marxist Pierre Macherey has hung on the horns of the same dilemma by maintaining that the literary work is tied inextricably to the life that produces it, but, although not therefore "independent," it is nonetheless "autonomous" in being defined and structured by laws uniquely proper to it.3 (I cite Sartre and Macherey more or less at random among more or less left-wing critics because theirs is a situation somewhat like that of feminists, though less difficult, many would argue, in that they already have a voice of their own. Perhaps for that reason, the position of black critics in a world dominated by whites would more closely resemble that of women. But at any rate, the large category to which all these belong is that of the literary critic who is also and importantly a critic of her/his society, its political system, and its culture.)
My point is simply that there is no reason to deny the limits of ideological criticism, its reduction of texts that, however, it also illuminates in unique ways. As feminists at odds with our culture, we are at odds also with its literary traditions and need often to talk about texts in terms that the author did not use, may not have been aware of, and might indeed abhor. The trouble is that this necessity goes counter not only to our personal and professional commitment to all serious literature but also to our training as gentlemen and scholars, let alone as Americans, taught to value, above all, value-free scholarship.
Doubtless the possibility of maintaining thereby a sympathetic appreciative critical posture is one of the attractions of dealing only or mainly with women's writings. With such material, ironically, it is possible to avoid political judgment altogether, so that the same approach that for some represents the integration into their work of a political commitment to women can serve Patricia Meyer Spacks to make the point that "criticism need not be political to be aware."4 She means by this that she will be able to recognize and describe a distinct female culture without evaluating either it or its patriarchal context politically. Of course she understands that all vision is mediated, so that the very selection of texts in which to observe the female imagination is judgment of a kind. But it is not ideological or normative judgment; rather it is an "arbitrary decision" that "reflects the operations of [her] imagination," a personal point of view, a "particular sensibility" with no particular political outlook. The important thing is that her "perception of the problems in every case derived from her reading of the books; the books were not selected to depict preconceived problems."
Spacks seeks in this way to disavow any political bias; but even critics who have chosen a woman-centered approach precisely for its political implications reassure us about their analytical detachment. Ellen Moers stipulates in her preface to Literary Women that "the literary women themselves, their language, their concerns, have done the organizing of this book." At the same time she means the book to be "a celebration of the great women who have spoken for us all." Her choice of subject has thus been inspired by feminist thinking, but her approach remains supposedly neutral for she has served only as an informed amanuensis. The uncharacteristic naiveté of this stance is enforced, I think, by Moers's critical ambivalence-her wish, on the one hand, to serve a feminist purpose, and her sense, on the other, that to do so will compromise the study as criticism. So she strikes a stance that should enable her to be, like Spacks, aware but not political. Since in posing a question one already circumscribes the answer, such analytical neutrality is a phantom, however; nor was it even Spacks's goal. Her method of dealing with women separately but traditionally, treating their work as she would the opus of any mainstream school, suits her purpose, which is to define a feminine aesthetic transcending sexual politics. She actively wants to exclude political answers. Moers, seeking to discover the feminist in the feminine, is not as well served by that method; and Elaine Showalter's explicitly feminist study, A Literature of Their Own, suggests that a political criticism may require something like the methodological reverse.
Showalter wrote her book in the hope that it would inspire women to "take strength in their independence to act in the world" and begin to create an autonomous literary universe with a "female tradition" as its "center." Coming at the end of the book, these phrases provide a resonant conclusion, for she has shown women writing in search of a wholeness the world denies them and creating an art whose own wholeness seems a sure ground for future autonomy. But if, in an effort to flesh out this vision, one turns back to earlier discussions, one finds that there she has depicted not actual independence but action despite dependence-and not a self-defined female culture either, but a subculture born out of oppression and either stunted or victorious only at often-fatal cost. Women, she writes at the beginning of the book, form such a "subculture within the framework of a larger society," and "the female literary tradition comes from the still-evolving relationships between women writers and their society." In other words, the meaning of that tradition has been bound up in its dependence. Now, it seems to me that much of what Showalter wants to examine in her study, indeed much of what she does examine, resolves itself into the difference for writers between acting independently as men do and resisting dependence as women do. If her conclusion on the contrary conflates the two, it is because the approach she takes, essentially in common with Spacks and Moers, is not well suited to her more analytical goals.
Like theirs, her book is defined territorially as a description of the circumscribed world of women writers. A Literature of Their Own is thus "an attempt to fill in the terrain between [the Austen peaks, the Bronte cliffs, the Eliot range, and the Woolf hills] and to construct a more reliable map from which to explore the achievements of English women novelists." The trouble is that the map of an enclosed space describes only the territory inside the enclosure. Without knowing the surrounding geography, how are we to evaluate this woman's estate, whose bordering peaks we have measured anyway, not by any internal dimensions, but according to those of Mount Saint Dickens and craggy Hardy? Still less can one envision the circumscribed province as becoming independently global-hence probably the visionary vagueness of Showalter's ending. Instead of a territorial metaphor, her analysis of the world of women as a subculture suggests to me a more fluid imagery of interacting juxtapositions the point of which would be to represent not so much the territory as its defining borders. Indeed, the female territory might well be envisioned as one long border, and independence for women not as a separate country but as open access to the sea. I
Women (and perhaps some men not of the universal kind) must deal with their situation as a precondition for writing about it. They have to confront the assumptions that render them a kind of fiction in themselves in that they are defined by others, as components of the language and thought of others. It hardly matters at this prior stage what a woman wants to write; its political nature is implicit in the fact that it is she (a "she") who will do it. All women's writing would thus be congenitally defiant and universally characterized by the blasphemous argument it makes in coming into being. And this would mean that the autonomous individuality of a woman's story or poem is framed by engagement, the engagement of its denial of dependence. We might think of the form this necessary denial takes (however it is individually interpreted, whether conciliatory or assertive) as analogous to genre, in being an issue, not of content, but of the structural formulation of the work's relationship to the inherently formally patriarchal language which is the only language we have.
Heretofore, we have tended to treat the anterior act by which women writers create their creativity as part of their lives as purely psychological, whereas it is also a conceptual and linguistic act: the construction of an enabling relationship with a language that of itself would deny them the ability to use it creatively. This act is part of their work as well and organic to the literature that results. Since men (on the contrary) can assume a natural capacity for creation, they begin there, giving individual shape to an energy with which they are universally gifted. If it is possible, then, to analyze the writings of certain men independently--not those of all men, but only of those members of a society's ruling group whose identity in fact sets the universal norm--this is because their writings come into existence independent of prior individual acts. Women's literature begins to take its individual shape before it is properly literature, which suggests that we should analyze it inclusive of its independence.
In fact, the criticism of women writers has of late more and more focused on the preconditions of their writing as the inspiration not only of its content but also of its form. The writer's self-creation is the primary concern of Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's Madwoman in the Attic,7 whose very title identifies global (therefore mad) denial as the hot core of women's art. This impressive culmination of what I have called the territorial approach to feminist criticism does with it virtually everything that can be done. In the way of culminations, it delivers us then before a set of problems that cannot be entirely resolved in its terms but that Gilbert and Gubar have uncovered. My earlier questioning can thus become a question: What do we understand about the world, about the whole culture, from our new understanding of the woman's sphere within it? This question looks forward to a development of the study of women in a universal context, but it also has retrospective implications for what we have learned in the female context.
Gilbert and Gubar locate the female territory in its larger context and examine the borders along which the woman writer defined herself. Coming into being-an unnatural being, she must give birth to herself-the female artist commits a double murder. She kills "Milton's bogey" and the specter Virginia Woolf called the "angel in the house," the patriarch and his wife, returning then to an empty universe she will people in her own image. Blasphemy was not until the woman artist was, and the world of women writers is created in sin and extends to a horizon of eternal damnation. For all women must destroy in order to create.
Gilbert and Gubar argue with erudition and passion, and their projection of the woman writer has a definitive ring. It also has a familiar and perhaps a contradictory ring. The artist as mad defiant blasphemer claustrophobic deviant in a society that denies such a person soulroom is a Romantic image that not only applies also to men but does so in a way that is particularly invidious to women, even more stringently denying them their own identities than earlier ideologies did. That there be contradiction is only right, for when Blake hailed Satan as the hero of Paradise Lost, he cast heroism in a newly contradictory mold. Satan is archfiend and Promethean man, individualistic tyrant and revolutionary, architect and supreme wrecker of worlds. It should not be surprising that he is also at once the ultimate, the proto-exploiter of women, and a feminist model. But it does complicate things, as Gilbert and Gubar recognize: Mary Shelley found, in Milton, cosmic misogyny to forbid her creation-and also the model for her rebellion. But then, was her situation not just another version of the general Romantic plight, shared with her friends and relatives, poet-blasphemers all?
No, because she confronted a contradiction that superseded and preceded theirs; she was additionally torn and divided, forbidden to be Satan by Satan as well as by God, ambivalent about being ambivalent. If Satan was both demon and hero to the male poets, he offered women a third possibility, that of Byronic lover and master, therefore a prior choice: feminist assertion or feminine abandon. Here again, women had to act before they could act, choose before they could choose.
But it is just the prior choosing and acting that shape the difference between women's writing and men's that no study of only women's writing can depict. So, for instance, Gilbert and Gubar suggest that the monster in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein embodies in his peculiar horror a peculiarly female conception of blasphemy. It may well be, but I do not think we can tell by looking only at Frankenstein. At the least we need to go back and look at Satan again, not as a gloss already tending toward Frankenstein but as an independent term, an example of what sinful creation is--for a man. Then we need to know what it was for Mary Shelley's fellow Romantics. We might then see the extra dimension of' her travail, being able to recognize it because it was extra--outside the requirements of her work and modifying that work in a special way. To reverse the frame reference, if male critics have consistently missed the woman's aspect of Frankenstein, it may be only in part because they are not interested. Another reason could be that in itself the work appears as just another individual treatment of a common Romantic theme. Put simply, then, the issue of a feminist reading of Frankenstein is to distinguish its female version of Romanticism: an issue of relatedness and historicity. Women cannot write monologues; there must be two in the world for one woman to exist, and one of them has to be a man. l
So in The Madwoman in the Attic, building on Literary Women and A Literature of Their Own, feminist criticism has established the historical relativity of the gender definitions that organize this culture; the patriarchal universe that has always represented itself as absolute has been revealed as man-tailored to a masculine purpose. It is not nature we are looking at in the sexual politics of literature, but history: we know that now because women have rejected the natural order of ying and yang and lived to tell a different tale I have been arguing that, to read this tale, one needs ultimately to relate it to the myths of the culture it comments on. The converse is also true; in denying the normative universality of men's writing, feminist criticism historicizes it, rendering it precisely, as "men's writing." On the back cover of The Madwoman in the Attic Robert Scholes is quoted as having written that "in the future it will be embarrassing to teach Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, the Brontes, (George Eliot, Emily Dickinson, and their sisters without consulting this book." Not so embarrassing, one would like to add, as it should be to teach Samuel Richardson, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, Walt Whitman, and their brothers without consulting a feminist analysis.
Indeed, in suggesting here that women critics adopt a method of radical comparativism, I have in mind as one benefit the possibility of demonstrating thereby the contingency of the dominant male traditions as well. Comparison reverses the territorial image along with its contained methodology and projects instead, as the world of women, something like a long border. The confrontations along that border between, say, Portrait of a Lady and House of Mirth, two literary worlds created by two gods out of one thematic clay, can light up the outer and most encompassing parameters (perimeters) of both worlds, illuminating the philosophical grounds of the two cosmic models, "natures" that otherwise appear unimpeachably absolute. This border (this no-man's-land) might have provided Archimedes himself a standpoint. Through the disengagements, the distancings of comparative analyses, of focusing on the relations between situations rather than on the situations themselves, one might be able to generate the conceptual equivalent of getting off this world and seeing it from the outside. At the same time, comparison also involves engagement by requiring one to identify the specific qualities of each term. The overabstraction of future visions has often been the flip side of nonanalytical descriptions of the present viewed only in its own internal terms. To talk about then and now as focuses of relations may be a way of tempering both misty fantasies and myopic documentations.
Thus the work of a woman-whose proposal to be a writer in itself reveals that female identity is not naturally what it has been assumed to be-may be used comparatively as an external ground for seeing the dominant literature whole. Hers is so fundamental a denial that its outline outlines as well the assumption it confronts. And such comparison works in reverse, too, for juxtaposed with the masculinist assumption we can also see whole the feminist denial and trace its limits. Denial always runs the risk of merely shaping itself in the negative image of' what it rejects. If there is any danger that feminism may become trapped, either in winning for women the right to be men or in taking the opposite sentimental tack and celebrating the feminine identity of an oppressed past as ideal womanhood, these extremes can be better avoided when women's assumptions too can be seen down to their structural roots- from the other ground provided by men's writing.
Lest it appear that I am advocating a sort of comparison mongering, let me cite as a model, early blazing a path we have not followed very far, a study that on the surface is not at all comparative. Millett's Sexual Politics was all about comparison, however, about the abysses between standpoints, between where men stood to look at women and where women stood to be looked at. Facing these two at the book's starting point was Millett's construction of yet another lookout where a feminist might stand. As criticism per se, Sexual Politics may be flawed by its simplifying insistence on a single issue. But as ideological analysis, as model illuminator and ''deconstructor,'' it remains our most powerful work. It is somewhat puzzling that, since then, so little has been written about the dominant literary culture whose ideas and methods of dominance were Millett's major concerns. It may be that the critical shortcomings of so tangential an approach have been too worrisome. Certainly it is in reading the dominant "universal" literature that the contradictions of an ideological criticism become most acute. There are many ways of dealing with contradictions, however, of which only one is to try to resolve them. Another way amounts to joining a contradiction--engaging it not so much for the purpose of overcoming it as to tap its energy. To return one last time to the fulcrum image, a fulcrum is a point at which force is transmitted-the feminist fulcrum is not just any point in the culture where misogyny is manifested but one where misogyny is pivotal or crucial to the whole. The thing to look for in our studies, I believe, is the connection, the meshing of a definition of women and a definition of the world. And insofar as the former is deleterious, the connection will be contradictory; indeed, as the literary examples that follow suggest, one may recognize a point of connection by its contradictions. |It will turn out, or I will try to show, that contradictions just such as that between ethical and aesthetic that we have tried to resolve away lest they belie our argument frequently are our firmest and most fruitful grounds. The second part of this essay will attempt to illustrate this use of contradiction through the example of the American sentimental novel, a kind of women's writing in which the contradiction between ideology and criticism would appear well-nigh overwhelming.
The problem is all too easily stated: the sentimental novels that were best-sellers in America from the 1820s to the 1870s were written and read mostly by women, constituting an oasis of women's writing in an American tradition otherwise unusually exclusively male. But this oasis holds scant nourishment; in plain words, most of the women's writing is awful. What is a feminist critic to do with it? It is not that as a feminist she must praise women unthinkingly, but there is little point either in her just contributing more witty summaries of improbable plots and descriptions of impossible heroines to enliven the literary histories. There hardly needs a feminist come to tell us that E. D. E. N. Southworth's cautionary tales are a caution; and as to whether Susan Warner's Wide Wide World does set "an all-time record for frequency of references to tears and weeping," there are others already counting. We might do best, with Elizabeth Hardwick, to simply let it alone. In her collection of more or less unknown women's writings,10 Hardwick selected works that were commendable in their own rights and discarded most of what she read as "so bad I just had to laugh--I wasn't even disappointed. The tradition was just too awful in the nineteenth-century."
Still, there it is, the one area of American writing that women have dominated and defined ostensibly in their own image, and it turned out just as the fellows might have predicted. It is gallant but also a little ingenuous of Hardwick to point out that men's sentimental writing was just as bad. For Hawthorne, whose cri de coeur against the "damned mob of scribbling women" still resonates in the hearts of his countrymen, did not invent the association between sentimentality and women. The scribbling women themselves did, ascribing their powers to draw readers deep into murky plots and uplift them to heavenly visions to the special gifts of a feminine sensibility. If there is no question of celebrating in the sentimentalists "great women who have spoken for us all," it seems just as clear that they spoke as women to women, and that, if we are to criticize the place of women in this culture, we need to account for the very large place they occupied-and still do; the sentimental mode remains a major aspect of literary commerce, still mostly written and read by women.
Although at bottom either way presents the same contradiction between politics and criticism, the sentimental novel would seem, therefore, to flip the problems encountered in A Literature of Their Own, Literary Women, and The Madwoman in the Attic. The issue there was to uncover new aspects of works and writers that had more or less transcended the limitations of the patriarchal culture-or failed and found tragedy. Inspired by their example, one had nonetheless to temper admiration with critical distance. Here the difficulty lies instead in tempering rejection with a recognition of kinship, kinship one is somewhat hesitant to acknowledge in that it rests on a shared subordination in which the sentimental novel appears altogether complicitous. For the sentimentalists were prophets of compliance, to God the patriarch as to his viceroys on earth. Their stories are morality dramas featuring heroines prone at the start to react to unjust treatment by stamping their feet and weeping rebellious tears, but who learn better and in the end find happiness in "unquestioning submission to authority, whether of God or an earthly father figure or society in general." They also find some more substantial rewards, Mammon rising like a fairy godmother to bestow rich husbands and fine houses. Conformity is powerful, and Henry Nash Smith's explication of it all has a definitive clarity: "The surrender of inner freedom, the discipline of deviant impulses into rapturous conformity, and the consequent achievement of both worldly success and divine grace merge into a single mythical process, a cosmic success story.''11 If that success is ill-gotten by Smith's lights, it can only appear still more tainted to a feminist critic whose focus makes her acutely aware that the sweet sellout is a woman and the inner freedom of women her first sale. With overgrown conscience and shrunken libido, the sentimental heroine enumerating her blessings in the many rooms of her husband's mansion is the prototype of that deformed angel Virginia Woolf urged us to kill.
To kill within ourselves, that is. Thus we return to the recognition of kinship that makes it necessary to understand the sentimentalists not only the way critics generally have explained them but also as writers expressing a specifically female response to the patriarchal culture. This is a controversial venture that has resulted thus far in (roughly defined) two schools of thought. One of these starts from Hawthorne's charge that the popular novels usurped the place of serious literature. The title of Ann Douglas's Feminization of American Culture12 announces her thesis that the sentimentalists exploited a literary Gresham's law to debase the cultural currency with their feminine coin. But gold is at least hoarded, while this bad money devalued outright Hawthorne's and Melville's good. A tough, iconoclastic, and individualistic masculine high culture, the potential worthy successor of the tough Puritan ethos, was thus routed from the national arena by a conservative femininity that chained the arts to the corners of hearths and to church pews. Henceforth, and still today, a stultifying mass culture has emasculated the American imagination. Douglas does not blame women for this, for she sees them as themselves defined by their society. Even in the exploitation of their destructive power, she thinks, they meant well; nor would she wish for an equivalently simpleminded macho replacement to the feminized culture. But the implied alternative is nonetheless definitely masculine-in a good way, of course: strong, serious, and generously accepting of women who have abjured their feminine sensibilities. Not a hard thing to do, for if the choice is between Susan Warner and Melville, why were we not all born men?
That choice, however, is just the problem, its traditional limits generated by the Archimedean bind of trying to think about new issues in the old terms, when those terms do not merely ignore the new issues but deny them actively and thus force one instead into the old ways, offering choices only among them. The terms here are masculine and feminine as they participate in clusters of value that interpret American history and culture. It has been generally understood among cultural and social historians that the creative force in America is individualistic, active . . . masculine. Perhaps to a fault: Quentin Anderson would have liked the American self less imperially antisocial,l3 and before him Leslie Fiedler worried that its exclusive masculinity excluded heterosexual erotic love. These analysts of American individualism do not necessarily come to judge it the same way, but they define it alike and alike therefore project as its logical opposition conformity, passive compliance, familialism . . . femininity. Huck Finn and Aunt Polly. The critical literature has until now mostly concentrated on Huck Finn, and The Feminization of American Culture completes the picture by focusing on Aunt Polly.
In the sense that its features are composed from real facts, "Aunt Polly" may well be a true picture. But her position in the composite American portrait, opposed in her trite conventionality to "his" rugged individualism, is not a function of facts alone but also of an interpretive scheme secured by a set of parallel dichotomies that vouch for one another: Aunt Polly is to Huck as feminine is to masculine; feminine is to masculine as Aunt Polly is to Huck. Only if we pull these apart will we be able to question the separate validity of either.
Potentially even more radically, Nina Baym sets out to reconsider the component terms of the generally accepted dichotomy in the nineteenth century between female conformity and manly individualism, between female social conservatism and masculine rebellion. Representing the other school of thought about sentimentalism, this one in line with recent historical reconsideration of such ridiculed women's movements as temperance and revivalism, she argues that the women novelists too had their reasons. She answers Smith's accusation that the novels' "cosmic success story" pointed an arch-conservative moral by suggesting that for disenfranchised and property-deprived women to acquire wealth, social status, and some measure of control over their domestic environment could be considered a radical achievement, as ruling a husband by virtue of virtue might amount to subversion. As she sees it, "The issue [for the women in the novels] is power and how to live without it." They do not run their society and never hope to, so, short of revolution, no direct action can be taken. Even from their state of total dependence, however, these women can rise to take practical charge of their lives and acquire a significant measure of power by implementing the conservative roles to which the patriarchal society has relegated them. In this light, what Smith terms their "ethos of conformity" takes on another aspect and almost becomes a force for change, all depending on how you look at it.
Which is precisely the problem of this essay, emerging here with unusual clarity because both Smith and Baym approach the material ideologically. Even their descriptions, let alone their interpretations show the effects of divergent standpoints. Consider how each summarizes the typical sentimental plot. Smith reports that Wide Wide World is the tale of "an orphan exposed to poverty and psychological hardships who finally attains economic security and high social status through marriage."16 Baym reads the same novel as "the story of a young girl who is deprived of the supports she had rightly or wrongly depended on to sustain her throughout life and is faced with the necessity of winning her own way in the world" (p. 19). The second account stresses the role of the girl herself in defining her situation, so that the crux of her story becomes her passage from passivity to active engagement. On the contrary, with an eye to her environment and its use of her, Smith posits her as passive throughout, "exposed" at first, in the end married. Clearly this is not a matter of right or wrong readings but of a politics of vision.
It is as a discussion of the politics of vision that Woman's Fiction is perhaps most valuable. Baym has set out to see the novels from a different perspective, and indeed they look different. The impossible piety of the heroine, for instance, Baym views as an assertion of her moral strength against those who consider her an empty vessel, lacking ego and understanding and in need of constant supervision. Typically the heroine starts out sharing this view, taking herself very lightly and looking to the world to coddle and protect her. With each pious stand she takes over the course of the novel, she becomes more self-reliant, until by the end she has "developed a strong conviction of her own worth" (p. 19) and becomes a model for female self-respect. Thus, the heroine's culminating righteousness and its concomitant rewards, that from one viewpoint prove the opportunistic virtues of submission, indicate to Baym a new and quite rare emergence of female power manifested in the avalanche of good things with which the story ends. To Smith those cornucopia endings are the payoff for mindless acquiescence, sweets for the sweet ruining the nation's palate for stronger meat. For Douglas they are a banquet celebrating the women's takeover; a starving Melville is locked out. But for Baym the comfort in which the heroine rests at last is her hard-earned just reward, the sentimental cult of domesticity representing a pragmatic feminism aimed primarily at establishing a place for women under their own rule.
In that spirit, she sees a more grown-up kind of sense than do most critics in the novels' prudishness, pointing out that, when they were written, the Richardsonian model they otherwise followed had become a tale of seduction. The women novelists, she suggests, were "unwilling to accept . . . a concept of woman as inevitable sexual prey" (p. 26); in a world where sexual politics hardly offered women a democratic choice, they preferred to eschew sex altogether rather than be raped. Here again, point of view is all. One recalls that Fiedler had a more ominous reading. According to him, the middle-class ladies who wrote the sentimental fiction had "grown too genteel for sex" but, being female, they still yearned "to see women portrayed as abused and suffering, and the male as crushed and submissive in the end"17 so they desexed their heroes by causing them to love exceptionally good girls with whom sex was unthinkable.
Without sharing Fiedler's alarm over the state of American manhood, one has to concede that the sentimental novel, with its ethereal heroines and staunchly buttoned heroes, was indeed of a rarefied spirituality. That its typical plot traced, instead of physical seduction, the moral regeneration and all-around strengthening of erstwhile helpless women would appear all to the good; it is surely an improvement for women to cease being portrayed as inevitable victims. But the fact is that the sentimental heroines, perhaps rich as models, are rather poor as characters. Those inner possibilities they discover in becoming selfsufficient seem paradoxically to quench any interior life, so that we nod in both senses of the word when such a heroine "looks to marry a man who is strong, stable and safe." For, "she is canny in her judgment of men, and generally immune to the appeal of a dissolute suitor. When she feels such attraction, she resists it" (p. 41). Quite right, except we actually wish she would not: do we then regret the fragile fair who fell instantly and irrevocably m an earlier literature, or the "graceful deaths that created remorse in all one's tormentors" (p. 25) and in the story some sparks of life?
Baym is well aware of the problem and offers two possible analyses. In the first place, she says, the women novelists never claimed to be writing great literature. They thought of "authorship as a profession rather than a calling, as work and not art. Often the women deliberately and even proudly disavowed membership in an artistic fraternity." So they intentionally traded art for ideology, a matter of political rather than critical significance. "Yet," she adds (and here she is worth quoting at length because she has articulated clearly and forcefully a view that is important in feminist criticism),
I cannot avoid the belief that "purely" literary criteria, as they have been employed to identify the best American works, have inevitably had a bias in favor of things male-in favor, say of whaling ships rather than the sewing circle as a symbol of the human community in favor of satires on domineering mothers, shrewish wives, or betraying mistresses rather than tyrannical fathers, abusive husbands or philandering suitors; displaying an exquisite compassion for the crises of the adolescent male, but altogether impatient with the parallel crises of the female. While not claiming literary greatness for any of the novels introduced in this study, I would like at least to begin to correct such a bias by taking their content seriously. And it is time, perhaps-though this task lies outside my scope here--to reexamine the grounds upon which certain hallowed American classics have been called great. [Pp. 14-15]
On the surface this is an attractive position, and, indeed, much of it is unquestionably valid; but it will not bear a close analysis. She is having it both ways, admitting the artistic limitations of the women's fiction ("I have not unearthed a forgotten Jane Austen or George Eliot, or hit upon even one novel that I would propose to set alongside The Scarlet Letter" [p. 14]) and at the same time denying the validity of the criteria that measure those limitations; disclaiming any ambition to reorder the literary canon, and, on second thought, challenging the canon after all-or rather challenging not the canon itself but the grounds for its selection.
There is much reason to reconsider these grounds, and such reconsideration should be one aim of an aggressive feminist criticism. But it has little to do with the problem at hand--the low quality of the women's fiction--that no reconsideration will raise. True, whaling voyages are generally taken more seriously than sewing circles, but it is also true that Melville's treatment of the whale hunt is a more serious affair than the sentimentalists' treatment of sewing circles. And the latter, when treated in the larger terms of the former, do get recognized-for example, Penelope weaving the shroud for Ulysses surrounded by her suitors, or, for that matter, the opening scene of Middlemarch in which two young girls quibble over baubles, situations whose resonance not even the most misogynist reader misses.
The first part of the explanation, that the women did not take themselves seriously, seems more promising. Baym tells us that they "were expected to write specifically for their own sex and within the tradition of their woman's culture rather than within the Great Tradition"; certainly, "they never presented themselves as followers in the footsteps of Milton or Spenser, seekers after literary immortality, or competitors with the male authors of their own time who were aiming at greatness" (p. 178). With this we come closer to the writing itself and therefore to the sources of its intrinsic success or failure. I want to stress intrinsic here as a way of recalling the distinction between a work as politics-its external significance-and as art. So when seeking to explain the intrinsic failures of the sentimentalists, one needs to look beyond their politics, beyond their relationships with publishers, critics, or audiences, to their relationship to writing as such. Melville wrote without the support of publishers, critics, and audiences-indeed, despite their active discouragement-so those cannot be the crucial elements. He did, however, have himself, he took himself seriously; as Whitman might have said, he assumed himself.
Now, no woman can assume herself because she has yet to create herself, and this the sentimentalists, acceding to their society's definition, did not do. To the extent that they began by taking the basic order of things as given, they forswore any claim on the primary vision of art18 and saw themselves instead as interpreters of the established ethos, its guardians, or even, where needed, its restorers. My point is that, for all their virtual monopoly of the literary marketplace, the women novelists, being themselves conceived by others, were conceptually totally dependent. This means dependent on Melville himself and on the dominant culture of which he, but not they, was a full, albeit an alienated or even a reviled, member. His novel in the sentimental mode could take on sentimentalism because he had an alternative world on which to stand: himself. And although no one would wish on a friendly author the travail that brought forth Pierre, there it is nonetheless, the perfect example of what no woman novelist conceiving of herself not as an artist or maker but as a "professional"-- read practitioner, implementor, transmitter, follower of a craft--could ever have written. Pierre does not know how to be acquiescently sentimental, it can only be about sentimentalism. The issue is self-consciousness, and in self-consciousness, it is self. With the example of Melville, we might then reconsider the relationship of the rebel to conventions. The rebel has his conventional definition too-that is, his is one possible interpretation of the conventions-so that he stands fully formed within the culture, at a leading edge. On the other hand, in this society women stand outside any of the definitions of complete being; hence perhaps the appeal to them of a literature of conformity and inclusion--and the extraordinary difficulty, but for the extraordinary few, of serious writing.
Indeed, Baym's defense of the women novelists, like that generally of the lesser achievement of women in any art, seems to me finally unnecessary. If history has treated women badly, it is entirely to be expected that a reduced or distorted female culture, one that is variously discouraged, embittered, obsessively parochial, or self-abnegating, will show it. There is little point then in claiming more than exists or in looking to past achievement as evidence of future promise: at this stage of history, we have the right, I think, simply to assert the promise.
If there is no cause for defensiveness, moreover, it does have its cost. In the case of the sentimental novel, for instance, too much apologia can obscure the hard question Baym implies but does not quite articulate, to wit, why are the ways in which the sentimental novel asserts that women can succeed precisely the ways that it fails as literature? Is its ideological success tied to its artistic failure? Is its lack of persuasiveness as art in some way the result of the strong ideological argument it makes for female independence? The issue, it seems, is not merely neglecting art for the sake of politics but actively sacrificing it. Which brings the discussion back to the Douglas thesis that since the sentimentalists universalized (Americanized) a debased feminine culture, the more powerful the women (authors and heroines both), the worse the literature and thereby the consequences for the whole culture. The great appeal of this argument is that it confronts squarely the painful contradiction of women becoming powerful not by overcoming but by exploiting their impotence.
I would like to suggest another possible explanation. The contradiction between the art and the politics of the sentimental novel arises, not surprisingly, at the point where the novelists confronted the tradition in which they were working and, for political reasons, rejected it formally: when they refused to perpetuate the image of the seduced and abandoned heroine and substituted in her stead the good girl who holds out to the happy (bitter or boring) end. The parent tradition is that of the novel of sensibility as it was defined in Clarissa. But before Clarissa, Richardson wrote Pamela, probably the prototype of the female "cosmic success story." Pamela begins powerless and ends up in charge, rewarded for her tenacious virtue (or her virtuous tenacity) by a commodious house, a husband, and all those same comforts of upper middle-class life that crowned the goodness of America's sentimental heroines. Indeed, Pamela had helped set up their new world, being the first novel actually printed here-by Benjamin Franklin, who understood both romance and commerce and knew how well they could work together. So did Pamela, of course, a superb pragmatist who not only foils a seducer but also turns him into a very nice husband. She is perhaps not so finely tuned or morally nice as her sentimental descendants, but she is quite as careful and controlled, as certain of her values, as unwilling to be victimized--and ultimately as triumphant. In contrast, Clarissa is helplessly enamored, seduced, destroyed. She is also the more interesting character and Clarissa the more complex story-can it be that weak victimized women make for better novels?
In the first part of this discussion, I made the point that the madness into which women artists are characterized as driven by social constraints needs to be compared with the similar state often attributed to male artists. The same need arises here, for male protagonists too are generally defeated, and, of course, Clarissa's seducer Lovelace dies along with her. But he is neither weak (in the helpless sense that she is) nor victimized; nor (to name doomed heroes at random) is Stendhal's Julien Sorel or Melville's Pierre. There is certainly no surprise in the contrast as such; we expect male characters to be stronger than female. The juxtaposition, however, may be suggesting something not already so evident: that as the distinctive individual identity of a male character typically is generated by his defiance, so that of a female character seems to come from her vulnerability, which thus would be organic to the heroine as a novelistic construct.
It seems reasonable to suppose that the novel, envisioning the encounter of the individual with his world in the modern idiom, posits as one of its structuring assumptions (an assumption that transcends the merely thematic, to function formally) the special form that sexual hierarchy has taken in modern times. The novel, we know, is organically individualistic: even when it deals with several equally important individuals, or attacks individualism itself, it is always about the unitary self versus the others. Moreover, it is about the generation, the becoming, of that self. I want to suggest that this process may be so defined as to require a definition of female characters that effectively precludes their becoming autonomous, so that indeed they would do so at the risk of the novel's artistic life.
Pamela represents the advent of a new form to deal with such new problems of the modern era as the transformation of the family and the newly dynamic mode of social mobility. Pamela works these out very well for its heroine, but there is something wrong in the resolution. Pamela's triumph means the defeat of Mr. B., who in his chastened state can hardly be the enterprising, potent entrepreneur that the rising middle class needs him to be. Her individualism has evolved at the cost of his; later Freud would develop a special term for such misadventures, but Richardson must already have known that this was not the way it should be. At any rate, he resolved this difficulty in his next work simply by raising the social status of his heroine. Since she was a servant, Pamela's quest for independent selfhood necessarily took a public form. To affirm her value and remain in possession of her self, Pamela had to assert her equality publicly; to claim herself, she had, in effect, to claim power. But as an established member of the powerful class, Clarissa is in full possession of its perquisites, notably that of being taken as honorably marriageable by the lords of her world. Though it is true that her family's greed for yet more wealth and status precipitates her crisis, the problems she faces are really not those of upward mobility. Standing at the other end of that process, she is profoundly unhappy with its results and with the internal workings of her society. Her story is about the conflict within, the problems that arise inside the middle-class world; and its marvelously suited theater for exploring these is the self within.
In thus locating itself inside the life of its dominant class, the novel only followed suit after older genres. But what is peculiar to this genre is that it locates the internal problems of its society still deeper inside, inside the self. Richardson's earlier novel had retained an older conception more like that of Defoe, identifying the self externally-hence Pamela's interpretation of romance as commerce. Clarissa, on the contrary, now treats commerce in the terms of romance. Pamela had projected her inner world outward and identified her growth as a character with the extension of her power. But this approach tends to vitiate the distinction between the private self and the world out there that is the powerful crux of middle-class identity. Clarissa takes that distinction as its theme, and the locale of the novel henceforth is the interior life. I want to propose the thesis that this interior life, whether lived by man or woman, is female, so that women characters define themselves and have power only in this realm. Androgyny, in the novel, is a male trait enabling men to act from their male side and feel from their female side.
One common feminist notion is that the patriarchal society suppresses the interior lives of women. In literature, at least this does not seem altogether true, for indeed the interior lives of female characters are the novel's mainstay. Instead, it is women's ability to act in the public domain that novels suppress, and again Richardson may have shown the way. Pamela developed its heroine by reducing its hero (in conventional terms). This compensation was, in fact, inevitable as long as the characters defined themselves the same way, by using and expanding the individualistic potency of the self. Since by this scheme Pamela would be less of a person and a character if she were less active, she had to compete with Mr. B. to the detriment of one of them-to the detriment also of conjugal hierarchy and beyond that, of their society, whose resulting universal competitiveness must become dangerously atomizing and possibly centrifugal. In a middle-class society, however, the family unit is meant to generate coherence, in that the home provides both a base and a terminus for the competitive activity of the marketplace. The selfreliant man necessarily subsumes his family, chief among them his wife, to his own identity; it is in the middle-class society above all that a man's home is his castle. But how can this subsuming be accomplished without denying identity to women altogether and thus seriously undermining their potency as helpmates as well? The problem lies in retaining this potency, that can come only from individualism, without suffering the consequences of its realization in individualistic competition. Tocqueville particularly admired the way this problem had been resolved in America. Women in the New World were free, strong, and independent, but they voluntarily stayed home. In other words, their autonomy was realized by being freely abandoned, after which, of course, they ceased to exist as characters-witness their virtual absence from the American novel.
The European novelist, at least the English and the French, either less sanguine about the natural goodness of middle-class values or more embattled with older norms, saw that this voluntary subjugation could be problematical. If women too are people, and people are individualists, might they not rebel? If they succeeded in this, social order would crumble; indeed, they could not succeed because they did not have the power. But the possibility, arising from the most basic terms of middle-class thought and also doomed by the very prevalence of that thought, emerged as the central drama of the modern imagination. It is precisely the drama of the suppressed self, the self who assumes the universal duty of self-realization but finds its individual model in absolute conflict with society. Then as it becomes the more heroically individualistic, the more self-realized, the more it pushes toward inevitable doom. If there is a tragic dimension to the novel, it is here in the doomed encounter between the female self and the middle-class world. This is the encounter Gilbert and Gubar have observed and attributed, too exclusively I think, to women. The lack of a comparative dimension can tend to obscure the distinction between representation and reality, to fuse them so that the female self simply is woman, if woman maligned. But, as Flaubert might have pointed out, many a male novelist has represented at least part of himself as female.
Which is not to suggest that European novelists were champions of women's rights. Their interest lay rather in the metaphorical potential of the female situation to represent the great Problem of modern society, the reconciliation of the private and the public realms, once the cornerstone of the new social and economic order has been laid in their alienation. Such reconciliation is problematical in that the self, granted its freedom, may not willingly accept social control; it may insist on its separate and other privacy, on the integrity of its interior vision. Clarissa wants to be and do otherwise than her world permits, and with that impulse, her inner self comes into view. It grows as she becomes less and less able to project her will, or rather as the incursions against her private self become more ferocious. Who, and what, Clarissa is finally is that private world.
I want to stress that in championing her alienated private self, the novel is not taking the side of real women, or even of female characters as female. Recent praise of Clarissa as a feminist document, or vindications of its heroine's behavior against her patriarchal oppressors, have not dealt clearly enough with the fact that her creator was a patriarch. Nonetheless he envisioned his heroine in terms with which feminists may sympathize, it is, I believe, because he viewed her as representing not really woman but the interior self, the female interior self in all men-in all men, but especially developed perhaps in writers, whose external role in this society is particularly incommensurate with their vision, who create new worlds but earn sparse recognition or often outright scorn in this one.
It is in this sense, I think, that Emma Bovary was Flaubert, or Anna Karenina, Tolstoy, or Isabel Archer, James. But the way Dorothea Brooke was George Eliot reveals the edge of this common identification between author and heroine, for Eliot, though herself a successful woman, cannot envision Dorothea as equally so.19 One might suppose that she at least could have imagined her heroine, if not triumphant like Julien Sorel, acting out her doom rather than accepting it. It is one thing for male novelists to assume that women are incapable of effective action, but that women do so as well is more disturbing. I am suggesting that George Eliot was compelled by the form of her story to tell it as she did, that the novel as a genre precludes androgynously heroic women while and indeed because it demands androgynous heroes. In other words, the novel demands that the hero have an interior life and that this interior life be metaphorically female. The exterior life, on the other hand, is just as ineluctably male (and the novel has its share of active many women). These identifications are not consciously made as being convenient or realistic, in which case they would be vulnerable to conscious change. They are assumed, built into the genre as organic and natural; for, if action were either male or female, we would be back with the potentially castrating Pamela. She, however, bent her considerable force to enter the middle class, endorsing its values wholeheartedly. A similarly active Clarissa, an effective and militant Dorothea, must threaten the entire order of things.
The novel is critical, it examines and even approves the rebellions of Clarissa and Dorothea, but only after signaling its more basic acceptance of an order it locates, beyond political attack, in nature itself. Julien Sorel's alienation, however Napoleonic his aspirations, is associated throughout with the female part of his character; his sensitivity, his inability to accept the life and values his father offers him, these are repeatedly described as feminine traits, and the final act that destroys him bespeaks his feminine nature, much to the dismay of his male friends. In the mirror world of this and other novels, femaleness is not conservative but potentially revolutionary. At the same time, it is by cultural definition incapable of active fulfillment. In taking woman as metaphor for the interior life, then, and-far from suppressing her-expanding hers almost to the exclusion of any other life, the novel both claimed its interior, individualistic, alienated territory and placed the limits of that territory within the structures of the middle-class world it serves. George Eliot could have made Dorothea strong only by challenging these structures or by accepting them and depicting her as manly, thereby telling another story, perhaps The Bostonians. And no more than this latter would that story have challenged the conventional notions of feminine and masculine.
There is a third possibility for the novel, which is to return to Pamela and close down the alienated interior realm by having Dorothea act not out of internal impulses but in response to social dictates. This is what the sentimental novel does, its heroines realizing themselves in society actively but in full accord with its values and imperatives. This solution to the subversive threat posed by female individualism amounts to reversing the Richardsonian development from Pamela to Clarissa. We have a precise representation of that reversal-wrought, one is tempted to think, in deference to the greater solidity of the middle-class ethic in this country-in the first American novel, Charlotte Temple ( 1791). Its author, Susanna Rowson, copies the contemporary fashion of Clarissa-like stories but then, apparently thinking the better of such downbeat endings, tacks on a Pamela conclusion. Charlotte Temple, the disastrously fragile English heroine of the story, is carried off by a soldier en route to America; no sooner carried off than pregnant, no sooner pregnant than abandoned, no sooner abandoned than wandering the icy roads in winter in slippers and a thin shawl. She is charitably taken in to a hospitable fireside only to pass away, leaving an innocent babe and much remorse all around. At this point, however, with one perfectly satisfactory ending in place, Susanna Rowson adds a second.
While neglecting Charlotte, her faithless lover Montraville has fallen in love with New York's most desirable belle, Julia Franklin, an orphaned heiress who is "the very reverse of Charlotte Temple." Julia is strong, healthy, and of independent means and spirit. Her guardian entertains "too high an opinion of her prudence to scrutinize her actions so much as would have been necessary with many young ladies who were not blest with her discretion." Though Montraville has behaved badly toward the hapless Charlotte, he seems to be capable of a New World redemption. Overcome by guilt at Charlotte's death, he fights a duel to avenge her honor and is dangerously wounded but, more fortunate than Lovelace, is nursed back to health by the discreet Julia. A representative of the new American womanhood, far too sensible to be tempted by rakes, far too clear about the uses of romantic love ever to separate it from marriage, Julia has accomplished the "Pamela" reform. She marries Montraville, and he becomes one of New York's most upright (and affluent) citizens, the fallen seducer risen a husband through the ministrations of a woman who is not merely good but also strong-strong, of course, in being all that she should be. Thus in Julia Franklin the private and the public selves are one, and the novel, with no relation between them to explore and therefore no way or need to envision the private, comes to a speedy end. About Charlotte a far better novel could have and has been written, but about Julia really nothing but exemplary tales for young girls and their spinster aunts. Pioneer mother of sentimental heroines, she deeds them an ability to take care of themselves (by taking care) that Baym rightly applauds from a feminist viewpoint but that effectively does them in as literature. This implies a possibility no less drastic than that the novel, evolved to deal with the psychological and emotional issues of a patriarchal society, may not permit a feminist interpretation.!
The possibility that an impotent feminine sensibility is a basic structure of the novel, representing one of the important ways that the novel embodies the basic structures of this society, would suggest more generally that the achievement of female autonomy must have radical implications not only politically but also for the very forms and categories of all our thinking. Yet as students of this thinking, we are not only implicated in it but many of us committed to much of it. Literary criticism especially, because it addresses the best this thinking has produced, exposes this paradox in all its painful complexity-while also revealing the extraordinary possibility of our seeing the old world from a genuinely new perspective.
This analysis of novelistic form has been speculative, of course, a way of setting the issues of women's writing in the context of the whole literature in order to illustrate the uses of a comparative viewpoint as an alternative footing at the critical distance needed for re-vision. It has also been an exercise in joining rather than avoiding the contradiction between ideological and appreciative criticism on the supposition that the crucial issues manifest themselves precisely at the points of contradiction. As a method this has further implications I cannot pursue here. Let me suggest only that to focus on points of contradiction as the places where we can see the whole structure of our world most clearly implies the immanent relativity of all perception and knowledge. Thus, what appears first as a methodological contradiction, then becomes a subject in itself, seems finally to be shaping something like a new epistemology. But then, it is only right that feminism, as rethinking, rethink thinking itself.
Humanities Division State University of New York College at Purchase
1. Kate Millett, Sexual Politics (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., 1970). Return To Text.
2. Jean-Paul Sartre, What Is Literature? (New York: Harper Colophon, 1965), p. 40; emphasis in original.Return To Text.
3. Pierre Macherey, Pour une theorie de la production litteraire (Paris: Librairie Francois Maspero, 1966), pp. 66-68.Return To Text.
4. Patricia Meyer Spacks, The Female Imagination (New York: Avon Books, 1976), pp. 5, 6.Return To Text.
5. Ellen Moers, Literary Women: The Great Writers (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., 1976), p. xvi.Return To Text.
6. Elaine Showalter, A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Bronte to Lessing (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1977), pp. 319, 11-12. Return To Text.
7. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979). The chapter referred to at some length in this discussion is chap. 7, "Horror's Twin: Mary Shelley's Monstrous Eve." Return To Text.
8. I want to cite two works, one recently published and one in progress, that do deal with the traditions of male writing. Judith Fetterley in The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978) writes that women should "resist the view of themselves presented in literature by refusing to believe what they read, and by arguing with it, begin to exorcise the male ideas and attitudes they have absorbed." Lee Edwards in her forthcoming Labors of Psyche: Female Heroism and Fictional Form expresses the somewhat different but related purpose of reclaiming language and mythology for women. My objections to both these approaches will be clear from the essay. Let me add here only that I also find them nonetheless extremely suggestive and often persuasive.Return To Text.
9. Henry Nash Smith, "The Scribbling Women and the Cosmic Success Story," Critical Inquiry 1, no. I (September 1974): 49-70.Return To Text.
10. Elizabeth Hardwick, Rediscovered Fiction by American Women (New York: Arno Press, 1978). Return To Text.
11. Smith, p. 51. Return To Text.
12. Ann Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture (New York: Avon Books, 1978). Return To Text.
13. Quentin Anderson, The Imperial Self (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1971). Return To Text.
14. Leslie Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel (New York: Delta Books, 1966). Return To Text.
15. Nina Baym, Woman's Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women, 1820-1870 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1978). Page numbers indicated in text. Return To Text.
16. Smith, p. 49. Return To Text.
17. Fiedler, pp. 259-60. Return To Text.
18. am aware that this analysis assumes a modern psychology of art, that "creation" has not always been the artist's mission, or tacit acceptance of the established ethos considered fatal. But we are here speaking of the nineteenth century, not of all time; and writers who did not challenge their society's values would also not have questioned its fundamental construction of artistic identity as individualistic and as authentically creative. Return To Text.
19. For an illuminating discussion of this phenomenon-of women novelists being unable to imagine female characters as strong as themselves-see Carolyn Heilbrun, "Women Writers and Female Characters: The Failure of Imagination," in Reinventing Womanhood (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1979), pp. 71-92. Return To Text.
For their numerous helpful suggestions and suggestive objections, I am grateful to Sacvan Bercovitch, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Carolyn Heilbrun, Evelyn Keller, Helene Moglen, Sara Ruddick, Catharine Stimpson, and Marilyn Young.Return To Text.
Jehlen, Myra. "Archimedes and the Paradox of Feminist Criticism." Signs 6 (1981): 575-601. Return To Text.
EDITORS' NOTE: Perhaps the most difficult but also the most valuable and invigorating work of feminist scholarship comes in lifting oneself on one's own intellectual shoulders to peer down at the cultural forces that have shaped the consciousness of both women and men. In this essay Myra Jehlen, acting as an investigator rather than as a transmitter of culture, shows a spirit akin to that of the Quebecois writers described elsewhere in this issue by Karen Gould: theirs is a common struggle to see through old mental constructs as the first stage in forming new ones.
[Signs Journal of Women in Culture and Society 1981, vol. 6, no. 4] C) 1981 by The University of Chicago. 0097-9740/81/0604-OOOl$01.00
Scanned, copy-edited, spell-checked, and tagged by Michael R. H. Owens, The University of Virginia, 11/10/95.