Feminism and Literature

Beyond Feminist Aesthetics: Feminist Literature and Social Change

by Rita Felski
Harvard University Press, 223 pp., $9.95 (paper)

Women, Class, and the Feminist Imagination: A Socialist-Feminist Reader

edited by Karen V. Hansen, edited by Ilene J. Philipson
Temple University Press, 624 pp., $19.95 (paper)

Feminism/Postmodernism

edited and with an introduction by Linda J. Nicholson
Routledge, 348 pp., $14.95 (paper)

No Man’s Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century Vol. I, The War of the Words Vol. II, Sexchanges

by Sandra Gilbert, by Susan Gubar
Yale University Press, Vol. II, 464 pp., $29.95

Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson

by Camille Paglia
Yale University Press, 718 pp., $35.00

The political, social, medical, and personal struggle for women’s equality has had many heroines in the practical world, but its ventures in the intellectual sphere have had uneven results. Of these the clearest successes seem to be in the fields of history and sociology, where newly retrieved information about women’s lives, interesting in itself, also has explanatory power. Explorations in my own subject, literary criticism, have seemed to me more dubious. It is not from any lack of sympathy for the practical and legal goals of the women’s movement that I have often felt disquiet in reading what used to be called “feminist criticism” or “feminist literary theory,” and is now sometimes called “feminist cultural analysis.” A number of new books in this vein, both good and bad, suggest some of the pitfalls and possible benefits of this work. I shall also look at a book diametrically opposed to feminist positions, but unsuccessful in its own counterclaims.

The feminist literary criticism that appeared in the Sixties and Seventies was frequently naive. It spent most of its energy describing how women were represented in literary works by both men and women writers. The male writers came off badly. Feminist literary critics wrote about literary characters as if they were real people (though sophisticated ideas about narrative since Aristotle would have suggested otherwise) and they predictably found women characters treated less sympathetically by men than they would like. They also wrote as though authors had a public duty to be ideologically correct on sex, race, and class (correctness being defined in contemporary terms), and could be criticized and patronized when they were not. This early school of feminist thought is still in full cry, and Milton remains the chief sinner among the poets, and Dickens perhaps the worst offender among nineteenth-century novelists. It is common, for instance, for feminists to refer to Milton’s “misogyny,” although in fact Milton was far ahead of his time in the respect, both spiritual and intellectual, he showed for woman as a moral agent (as in his treatment of Eve).

It did not seem to occur to feminists who complained about Dickens’s or Hardy’s or Lawrence’s fictional women to deplore the stiff, idealized, antagonistic, or calumniatory portraits of men by female novelists from Jane Austen to, say, Fay Weldon. What might twentieth-century men think of Mr. Darcy, Mr. Rochester, Casaubon, or Ladislaw as portraits of marriageable members of their sex? In truth, both men and women novelists give fictional embodiment to their own sexual fantasies when they sketch the opposite sex, and both tend to be more believable when portraying their own sex. “Masculinists” (were there any) would have a lot to complain about if they looked into the taxonomy of the male sex as depicted by women novelists, starting perhaps with Mrs. Stowe’s Simon Legree and Uncle Tom, and ending with Mary Gordon’s fathers and priests.

Early feminist critics also (vainly) attempted to prove that there was …

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Letters

Feminism and Literature: An Exchange August 16, 1990