Post a comment. About the author: Elaine Showalter born January 21, is an American literary critic, feminist, and writer on cultural and social issues. She is one of the founders of feminist literary criticism in United States academia, developing the concept and practice of gynocritics. She is well known and respected in both academic and popular cultural fields. She has written and edited numerous books and articles focused on a variety of subjects, from feminist literary criticism to fashion, sometimes sparking widespread controversy, especially with her work on illnesses. Showalter has been a television critic for People magazine and a commentator on BBC radio and television.
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Toward a Feminist Poetics. Elaine Showalter. In , Leon Edel, the distinguished biographer of Henry James, contributed to a London symposium of essays by six male critics called Contemporary Approaches to English Studies.
Professor Edel presented his essay as a dramatized discussion between three literary scholars who stand arguing about art on the steps of the British Museum :. There was Criticus, a short , thick-bodied intellectual with spectacles, who clung to a pipe in his right hand.
There was Poeticus, who cultivated a Yeatsian forelock, but without the eyeglasses and the ribbon. He made his living by reviewing and had come to the B. Then there was Plutarchus, a.
They are still arguing when she comes out, twenty-one pages later. I suppose we should be grateful that at least one woman - let us call her Critica - makes an appearance in this gathering, even if she is not invited to join the debate. I imagine that she is a feminist critic-in fact, if I could afford to take taxis to the British Museum , I would think they had perhaps seen me - and it is pleasing to think that while the men stand gossiping in the sun, she is inside hard at work. But these are scant satisfactions when we realize that of all the approaches to English studies current in the s, feminist criticism is the most isolated and the least understood.
Members of English departments who can remember what Harold Bloom means by clinamen , and who know the difference between Tartu and Barthian semiotics, will remark that they are against feminist.
Those who have read it, often seem to have read through a glass darkly, superimposing their stereotypes on the critical texts. We ought to demand that such efforts be minimally distinguished by intellectual candor and some degree of precision.
This I have failed to discover in most feminist criticism. Indeed, his terminology is best understood as a form of intimidation, intended to force. The absence of a clearly articulated theory makes feminist criticism perpetually vulnerable to such attacks, and not even feminist critics seem to agree what it is that they mean to profess and defend. Too many literary abstractions which claim to be universal have in fact described only male perceptions, experiences; and options, and have falsified the social and personal contexts in which literature is produced and consumed.
What women have found hard to take in such male characters is their self deception, their pretense to objectivity, their emotion parading as reason.
These are social and cultural institutions whose survival depends upon the classification of disruptive and disturbing information as nondata. From this perspective, the academic demand for theory can only be heard as a threat to the feminist need for authenticity, and the visitor looking for a formula he or she can take away without personal encounter is not welcome.
They are afraid that if the theory is perfected, the movement will be dead. Traditionally women have been cast in the supporting rather than the starring roles of literary scholarship. In this essay, therefore, I would like to outline a brief taxonomy, if not a poetics, of feminist criticism, in the hope that it will serve as an introduction to a body of work which needs to be considered both as a major contribution to English studies and as part of an interdisciplinary effort to reconstruct the social , political, and cultural experience of women.
Feminist criticism can be divided into two distinct varieties. The first type is concerned with woman as reader - with woman as the consumer of male produced literature, and with the way in which the hypothesis of a female reader changes our apprehension of a given text, awakening us to the significance of its sexual codes.
I shall call this kind of analysis the feminist critique, and like other kinds of critique it is a historically grounded inquiry which probes the ideological assumptions of literary phenomena. Its subjects include the images and stereotypes of women in literature, the omissions of and misconceptions about women in criticism, and the fissures in male-constructed literary history. The second type of feminist criticism is concerned with woman as writer - with woman as the producer of textual meaning, with the history, themes, genres, and structures of literature by women.
Its subjects include the psychodynamics of female creativity; linguistics and the problem of a female language; the trajectory of the individual or collective female literary career; literary history; and, of course, studies of particular writers and works. The feminist critique is essentially political and polemical, with theoretical affiliations to Marxist sociology and aesthetics; gynocritics is more self-contained and experimental, with connections to other modes of new feminist.
The Feminist Critique: Hardy. In his study of Hardy, Irving Howe has praised the brilliance and power of this opening scene:. It is obvious that a woman, unless she has been indoctrinated into being very deeply identified indeed with male culture, will have a different experience of this scene.
I quote Howe first to indicate how the fantasies of the male critic distort the text; for Hardy tells us very little about the relationship of Michael and Susan Henchard, and what we see in the ear1y scenes does not suggest that she is drooping, complaining, or passive. Her role, however, is a passive one; severely constrained by her womanhood, and further burdened by her child, there is no way that she can wrest a second chance out of life.
She cannot master events, but only accommodate herself to them. What Howe, like other male critics of Hardy, conveniently overlooks about the novel is that Henchard sells not only his wife but his child, a child who can only be female.
Patriarchal societies do not readily sell their sons , but their daughters are all for sale sooner or later. Hardy wished to make the sale of the daughter emphatic and central ; in early drafts of the novel Henchard has two daughters and sells only one, but Hardy revised to make it clearer that Henchard is symbolically selling his entire share in the world of women.
Having severed his bonds with this female community of love and loyalty, Henchard has chosen to live in the male community, to define his human relationships by the male code of paternity, money, and legal contract. His tragedy lies in realizing the inadequacy of this system, and in his inability to repossess the loving bonds he comes desperately to need.
Like the other women in the book, she is governed by her own heart-man-made laws are not important to her until she is taught by Henchard himself to value legality, paternity, external definitions, and thus in the end to reject him. As we see in this analysis, one of the problems of the feminist critique is that it is male-oriented. If we study stereotypes of women, the sexism of male critics, and the limited roles women play in literary history, we are not learning what women have felt and experienced, but only what men have thought women should be.
In some fields of specialization, this may require a long apprenticeship to the male theoretician, whether he be Althusser, Barthes, Macherey, or Lacan; and then an application of the theory of signs or myths or the unconscious to male texts or films. The temporal and intellectual investment one makes in such a process increases resistance to questioning it, and to seeing its historical and ideological boundaries.
Bede , and the heroines who make careers out of betrayal, like Hester Prynne. This comes dangerously dose to a celebration of the. Gynocritics and Female Culture. Gynocritics begins at the point when we free ourselves from the linear absolutes of male literary history, stop trying to fit women between the lines of the male tradition, and focus instead on the newly visible world of female culture. Anthropologists study the female subculture in the relationships between women, as mothers, daughters, sisters, and friends; in sexuality, reproduction, and ideas about the body; and in rites of initiation and passage, purification ceremonies, myths, and taboos.
Michelle Rosaldo writes in Woman, Culture, and Society :. The very symbolic and social conceptions that appear to set women apart and to circumscribe their activities may be used by women as a basis for female solidarity and worth.
When men live apart from women, they in fact cannot control them, and unwittingly they may provide them with the symbols and social resources on which to build a society of their own. Historical and literary studies like these, based on English women, are badly needed; and the manuscript and archival sources for them are both abundant and untouched.
Gynocritics must also take into account the different velocities and curves of. When we understand how susceptible women writers have always been to the aesthetic standards and values of the male tradition, and to male approval and validation, we can appreciate the complexity of a marriage between artists. Such a union has almost invariably meant internal conflicts, self-effacement, and finally obliteration for the woman, except in the rare cases.
There is a sense in which she wants him to be the better artist. At the beginning of the decade she was more famous than he; then she notes with pride a review in France which praises him more; his work on Men and Women goes well; her work on Aurora Leigh goes badly she had a young child and was recovering from the most serious of her four miscarriages.
In she writes to a woman friend:. I am behind hand with my poem… Robert swears he shall have his book ready in spite of everything for print when we shall be in London for the purpose, but, as for mine, it must wait for the next spring I begin to see clearly. Also it may be better not to bring out the two works together. Protesting against the protected unconscious lives of middle-class Victorian women, Nightingale demanded the restoration of their suffering:.
Give us back our suffering, we cry to Heaven in our hearts -suffering rather than indifferentism-for out of suffering may come the cure. Better to have pain than paralysis: A hundred struggle and drown in the breakers. One discovers a new world.
To waken from the drugged, pleasant sleep of Victorian womanhood was agonizing; in fiction it is much more likely to end in drowning than in discovery. According to Dame Rebecca West, unhappiness is still the keynote of contemporary fiction by English women.
Garishly dressed in a purposely bought outfit of clashing purple, green, and white - the colors of the suffragettes and the colors of the school uniform in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie - Lise goes in search of her killer, lures him to a park, gives him the knife.
That, in the s, Mr. Right turns out to be Mr. Goodbar is not the sudden product of urban violence but a latent truth fiction exposes. To label the violence or self-destructiveness of these painful novels as neurotic expressions of a personal pathology, as many reviewers have done, is to ignore, Annette Kolodny suggests,. Although the reclamation of suffering is the beginning, its purpose is to discover the new world.
This newer writing relates the pain of transformation to history. In her recent book, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution , Rich challenges the alienation from and rejection of the mother that daughters have learned under patriarchy.
As the death of the father has always been an archetypal rite of passage for the Western hero, now the death of the mother as witnessed and transcended by the daughter has become one of the most profound occasions of female literature.
In analyzing these purposeful awakenings, these reinvigorated mythologies of female culture, feminist criticism finds its most challenging, inspiriting, and appropriate task. When Victorian reviewers like G. Lewes, Richard Hutton, and Richard Simpson began to ask what the literature of women might mean and what it might become, they focused on the educational, experiential, and biological handicaps of the woman novelist, and this was also how most women conceptualized their situation.
In the United States , the popular novelist Fanny Fern understood that women had been granted access to the novel as a sort of repressive desublimation, a harmless channel for frustrations and drives that might otherwise threaten the family, the church, and the state. Fern recommended that women write as. Look around, and see innumerable women, to whose barren and loveless lives this would be improvement and solace, and I say to them; write!
It will be a safe outlet for thoughts and feelings that maybe the nearest friend you have has never dreamed had place in your heart and brain. One of these days, when that diary is found, when the hand that penned it shall be dust, with what amazement and remorse will many a husband or father exclaim, I never knew my wife or my child until this moment.
Elizabeth Robins, the first president of the league, a novelist and actress who had starred in early English productions of Ibsen, argued in that no woman writer had ever been free to explore female consciousness:. The realization that she had access to a rich and as yet unrifled storehouse may have crossed her mind, but there were cogent reasons for concealing her knowledge. With that wariness of ages which has come to be instinct, she. Contrary to the popular impression, to say in print what she thinks is the last thing the woman-novelist or journalist is so rash as to attempt.
There even more than elsewhere unless she is reckless she must wear the aspect that shall. Her publishers are not women. One of the most fervent beliefs of the Women Writers Suffrage League was that the terra incognita of the female psyche would find unique literary expression once women had overthrown male domination.
Feminine, Feminist, Female. All of these themes have been important to feminist literary criticism in the. Before we can even begin to ask how the literature of women would be different and special, we need to reconstruct its past, to rediscover the scores of women novelists, poets, and dramatists whose work has been obscured by time, and to establish the continuity of the female tradition from decade to decade, rather than from Great Woman to Great Woman.
As we re-create the chain of writers in this tradition, the patterns of influence and response from one generation to the next, we can also begin to challenge the periodicity of orthodox literary history and its enshrined canons of achievement.
Twentieth-Century Literary Theory pp Cite as. Feminist criticism can be divided into two distinct varieties. The first type is concerned with woman as reader — with woman as the consumer of male-produced literature, and with the way in which the hypothesis of a female reader changes our apprehension of a given text, awakening us to the significance of its sexual codes. I shall call this kind of analysis the feminist critique , and like other kinds of critique it is a historically grounded inquiry which probes the ideological assumptions of literary phenomena. Its subjects include the images and stereotypes of women in literature, the omissions and misconceptions about women in criticism, and the fissures in male-constructed literary history. It is also concerned with the exploitation and manipulation of the female audience, especially in popular culture and film; and with the analysis of woman-as-sign in semiotic systems.
Elaine Showalter: ‘Towards a Feminist Poetics’
Towards A Feminist poetics. Elaine Showalter is one of the most well-known names in the field of criticism, in general, and Feminist criticism, in particular. Like most of her other major works, in this essay she tries to analyze the field of feminist criticism from different points of views and suggests some changes required to make the field more effective. In this essay, she discusses:.
Elaine Showalter born January 21,  is an American literary critic , feminist , and writer on cultural and social issues. She is one of the founders of feminist literary criticism in United States academia , developing the concept and practice of gynocritics , a term describing the study of "women as writers". Best known in academic and popular cultural fields,  she has written and edited numerous books and articles focused on a variety of subjects, from feminist literary criticism to fashion, sometimes sparking widespread controversy, especially with her work on illnesses. Showalter has been a television critic for People magazine and a commentator on BBC radio and television.
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