Friday, April 27, 2012

Sylvia Plath--The Bell Jar (1971)

This posthumously published novel is a roman à clef which follows the descent of Esther Greenwood from promising young journalism student through her depression, suicide attempts, shock treatments, and ends with her entering her interview to possibly leave the hospital.  It was first published in England in 1963 under a pseudonym; it wasn’t published in the United States until 1971, though, against the wishes of Plath’s mother. 
It opens with Greenwood in a women’s hotel in New York City, working as an intern for a series of women’s magazines.  In this pre-feminist period, Esther Greenwood struggles to forge an identity in college and in her internship, with her female friends and the men she dates and encounters.  Throughout, she resists the expectations of marriage and motherhood, despite the best intentions of her neighbors and friends.  While the general trend is one of descent, as Esther’s depression and suicidal tendencies increase over much of the novel, there are potentially proto-feminist, potentially hopeful moments in the novel.  Perhaps most hopeful is her psychiatrist’s prescription of a diaphragm for her, which allows Esther to lose her virginity, virginity and sex being one of the ways in which Ester feels powerless in the marriage economy. 
Many reviewers complain about Plath’s immaturity in this novel.  And certainly, reading it for the first time since I was eighteen, there are many places where I see my eighteen-year-old self feeling connection—Plath’s despair that her ability to make straight As will no longer serve her in the real world was one which I quite identified with, along with her desire to rest after being a dutiful daughter.  However, at this point, I see it primarily as a period piece—an important one—telling a tragic story of one woman’s mental illness.  It’s impossible to read this without being influenced by Plath’s own story, even though the novel itself seems to end on a hopeful note, knowing of Plath’s own suicide makes it nearly impossible for me to completely believe in that hopefulness. 
What is hopeful, however, is the proto-feminism apparent in the novel.  While Esther’s first psychiatrist orders terrifyingly dangerous shock treatments and treats her in a quite condescending manner, her subsequent female doctor is much more sensitive to her experiences, and ensures that her subsequent therapy and shock treatments are not painful, but are therapeutic.  Throughout the novel, Esther encounters tentative forms of healing sisterhood, whether in the women’s hotel after food poisoning or in the mental hospital with her fellow inmates and female doctor.  This for me is the takeaway, the protofeminism possibilities which Plath imagines in the novel.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Kathryn R. Kent--Making Girls Into Women: American Women's Writing and the Rise of Lesbian Identity (2008)

Starting with the line from Little Women, in which Jo proclaims, “Mothers are the best lovers in the whole world, but I’d like to try all kinds,” Kathryn Kent looks at how the changing women’s culture at the turn of the century allowed for a new kind of emergent lesbian subjectivity.  Using authors such as Alcott, Gertrude Stein, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, Harriet Beecher Stowe, as well as the Girl Scout Handbook, Kent claims that these texts illustrate how a new semi-public, semi-private modality of space provided by scouting, boarding school, and similar entities allowed for a new kind of female-female bonding, an alternatively queer maternal one.
These texts reflect the growth of commodity capitalism in America, which was reflected in the urge for taxonomy and categorization at the time.  For example, Kent points out how the rise of the department store and catalogue “organizes or teaches consumers a specific kind of consumption.”  In addition to the kind of sexological categorization which was occurring at the time, Kent shows how commodity capitalism “demonstrate[s] another kind of codification of gender and sexuality occurred at the turn of the century: there are newly gendered ‘needs’ and ‘desires’ that are supposed to reflect the binary gender oppositions of compulsory heterosexuality.”  Importantly, “the domestic sphere serves within this system as a site for the production and reproduction, through consumption and display, of these norms” (149).  By showing the similarities between the category-driven subject-formation of the Girl Scout handbooks and novels of the 1920s (for example, she looks at the second edition of Scouting for Girls was published in 1920) and Djuna Barnes’s 1928 Ladies Almanack.  Kent identifies that, “In ways analogous to the Girl Scouts, the Almanack explicitly connects theories of mass production with the production of sexual subjectivity and also sees reading as a form of erotic recruitment” (126)—an observation which I have seen confirmed many times in literature, especially from this time period (including work by Virginia Woolf, in Radclyffe Hall, and even, I would argue, Quentin Crisp’s “Crisperanto”).
Much of this book works to critique and reconfigure the traditional oedipal configuration.  According to Kent, the “limits of the oedipal trajectory” include the inability to “view identification and desire and compatible” (101).  In other words, traditional oedipal understandings of desire do not take into account that one can both with to be as well as wish to be with another; identification and desire are not mutually exclusive.  This observation opens up entirely new ways of reading not only these texts of Sapphic modernism, but also more generally readings of romance fiction and even pornography.  In her discussion of the “pleasures of influence” between Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop, for example, she identifies what she refers to as a “queer erotics of relation, or what I term ‘invitation,’ an erotics not based in subsuming the difference of the ‘other,’ but in preserving it” (210).  In looking at Moore and Bishop relative to such “queer erotics,” Kent is able to tie this dynamic to both their individual relationship as well as its connection to a larger dynamic of nationhood: “in moving from Moore to Bishop we shift from what I have argued the problems of the erotics of identification—the fact that such identification is often inseparable form other forms of imperial recruitment—to an erotics that tries to resist this impulse to reform the ‘other’ or the self” (210).  Again, subject-formation illuminates the fuzzy interstices of the public and the private.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Alice Walker--The Color Purple (1982)

Walker’s third novel, The Color Purple won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for literature.  An epistolary novel, it consists of letters written by Celie—first to God, then to her sister Nettie—and her sister Nettie to Celie.  In it, Celie tells of her sexual abuse by her father (or stepfather, as she later discovers), her marriage to Mr. _______, who marries her to find a caretaker for his children while he moons over his true love, the singer Shug Avery, and Celie’s own sexual awakening with Shug.  Meanwhile, Nettie also escapes from their family, and winds up going to Africa with Samuel and Corinne and their two adopted children (who are actually Celie’s offspring, the product of her stepfather’s rape).  The novel ends with an emotional reunion between the sisters and their families.
From the beginning of the novel, Celie is described as “ugly”: her Pa, when trying to convince Mr. _______ to take her off his hands by marrying her, tells him frankly that “She ugly.”  Though Mr. _____ is more interested in Celie’s sister Nettie, their Pa is determined to marry of Celie first: “She ugly.  Don’t even look like she kin to Nettie.  But she’ll make the better wife.  She ain’t smart either, and I’ll just be fair, you have to watch her or she’ll give away everything you own.  But she can work like a man” (18).  At this point, Celie has already described her frequent rape by her Pa, and that she’s already born two of his children (which he has killed).  This knowledge of her molestation provides an odd context for her Pa’s characterization of her as ugly, a description which implies a certain kind of de-feminization of Celie, as her Pa describes her as able to work “like a man.”  And again, when Celie first sees Shug Avery, Shug’s first reaction to Celie (Shug herself being sickly and described in unattractive terms: “Under all that powder her face black as Harpo.  She got a long pointed nose and big fleshy mouth.  Lips look like black plum.  Eyes big, glossy.  Feverish.  And mean” (50)) is to confirm Celie’s ugliness: “She looked me over from head to foot.  Then she cackle.  Sound like a death rattle.  You sure is ugly, she say, like she ain’t believed it” (50). 
Importantly, though, at this point we still don’t know much about Celie’s appearance; when she tries to change her dress before Shug arrives, she admits that, “a new dress won’t help none with my notty head and dusty headrag, my old everyday shoes and the way I smell” (49).  Toward the end of the novel, Celie looks in the mirror and sees, “My hair is short and kinky because I don’t straighten it anymore.  Once Shug say she love it no need to.  My body just any woman’s body going through the changes of age.  Nothing special here for nobody to love.  No honey colored curly hair, no cuteness.  Nothing young and fresh” (229).  Despite her characterization as “ugly” by other characters, Celie herself sees nothing incredibly out of the ordinary in her physical appearance.  So, even though Walker gives physical descriptions of other characters, Celie’s characterization of “ugly” seems primarily based on her clothing and ability to work “like a man,” perhaps characterizations which to a certain extent mark her as failing to conform to expected gender norms.  When combined with her own attraction to women, it seems as if the characterization of “ugly” is more related to her sexual and gender noncomformity than any particularly marked or noticeable physical characteristics.  It is her gender noncomformity which people read on her body.
When Celie is talking to Sofia (her stepson Harpo’s wife), Sofia tells her, “The Lord don’t like ugly,” to which Celie replies, “And he ain’t stuck on pretty” (46).  This exchange then “open[s] the way for our talk to turn another way,” and they’re able to share more with each other.  In this early work, Walker seems to be anticipating the middle way of the Buddhism about which she would write much more explicitly in years to come.  Though Walker has been criticized for her portrayal of the black men in this novel, for creating unflattering portraits of violent men who rape and beat their children, I think that such a reading is missing what I read as an important dynamic quality to these characters.  By the end of the novel, Mr. _______ has changed enough that he and Celie become friends: partly united through their joint love of Shug, but also through Mr. ______’s maturity and realization of his past wrongs.  Celie’s Pa dies and leaves his house to her; while as a reader, this gesture is not enough to make me forgive him for his abuse of Celie, it is more than I had expected of him. 

Friday, April 13, 2012

Eds. Anne Goodwyn Jones and Susan V. Donaldson--Haunted Bodies: Gender and Southern Texts (1997)

This 1997 (518 page!) collection of essays posits that gender “may be as important an analytic category for making sense of the South as race itself traditionally has been acknowledged to be” (16).  They propose an intersectional analysis which takes into account the connections between “whiteness and blackness, masculinity and femininity, domination and subordination” (16).  From this comes Anne Goodwyn Jones’s question,
If Charles Chesnutt and Faulkner can be seen at least tentatively as writing within a thematic set by Douglass, who rewrites Jacobs’s story?  For reasons about which it would be interesting to wonder, the story seems to have been taken up more by white writers than by African-American southern women like Alice Walker and Gloria Naylor.  I am thinking of Katherine Anne Porter, for example, whose version of Harriet Jacobs in “The Old Order,” Nanny, stays with her mistress after the war by finally transforms herself in a free and independent “aged Bantu woman”; of Willa Cather’s Sapphira and the Slave Girl, another story of mastery, sexuality, and escape; of Ellen Douglas in her remarkable work about contemporary white mistresses and black maids, Can’t Quit You, Baby. (“Engendered in the South: Blood and Irony in Douglass and Jacobs” 216)
Jones’s observation about this writing is influencing my own ideas of the scope within which I want to write my dissertation.
One highlight early on for me is David Leverenz’s “Poe and Gentry Virginia: Provincial Gentleman, Textual Aristocrat, Man of the Crowd” (79-108).  Leverenz uses Bordieau’s ideas of cultural capital to look at Poe’s exaggerated and parodic portrayal of the southern aristocracy, what he identifies as Poe’s “play[ing] a trixster role at the alienated margin of gentry culture” (100).  Relevant to my work is his brief discussion of Poe’s short fiction versus what is generally accepted as his failed attempt at longer narrative: “What can be riveting or shocking in the short story seems nihilistic and capricious in the novel” (100).  Though he is talking about Poe, I think this idea might be applied to the idea of the southern gothic in general, especially to the work of Flannery O’Connor.  Many people claim that O’Connor’s best work is her short fiction, rather than her novels—however, I think it may instead be a lack of comfort with the kind of nihilism which Leverenz identifies here.  This fits into my reading of Wise Blood, where the kind of shocking imagery which might be a central image in a short story instead appears over and over in the novel, creating a larger sense of nihilism which undergirds Hazel Motes’s own vision of a masculine, nihilistic Christianity. 
The collection also contains Patricia Yaeger’s “Beyond the Hummingbird: Southern Women Writers and the Southern Gargantua” (287-318). Anticipating her brilliant Dirt and Desire, this essay looks specifically at the figure of the gargantuan woman in southern women’s writing.  More generally, though, her essay asks “what it might mean to have one’s body ‘at the core’ of the South’s self-definition” (292).  In her discussion of the ideal miniaturized body of the white southern woman, she identifies the fact that “the small compass of the ideal white woman’s body is oddly at war with its epic stature in minds of white men; this fragile white body, slim as a reed and graceful as a sylph, becomes pivotal in each crucial task of bodily discipline” (293).  Importantly, though, she goes on to claim that,
What is most remarkable about southern women’s fiction is the way in which it refuses such discipline.  When the grotesque body marches onto the page, the ideology that controls southern bodies explodes in the most unexpected of ways.  Southern women’s writing is filled with bizarre somatic images that seem unnecessarily cruel or out of control, and yet this cruelty has a function: it gears at the social fabric and leaves it in shreds. (293)
Further, Yaeger claims that the gargantuan bodies specifically “invoke the messiness and hubris of history itself” (294).  In particular, she sees written on the southern female body what Jacquelyn Dowd Hall has named the “southern rape complex”:
This ‘complex,’ with its triumphant protection of white women, its calculated fear of black men, its ignorance of the abuses of black women, is an instrument of sexual and racial suppression scapegoating those players in the southern game who challenge the established order.  Just as ‘lynching served to dramatize hierarchies among men,’ so stories of female victimization encourage white women to depend upon white men. (298)
However, Yaeger notes that characters in this work do not remain within this dimension; rather, their gargantuan bodies allowed for ways out of these limited identities: “the gargantuan body both maps its own limits and refuses to stay within boundaries, to serve asked for ends” (299).  More importantly, these characters “remind[s] us of the relative difficulty—for women, for people of color—of such public refusals” (301).
The rest of the collection contains a variety of perspectives and objects of focus regarding gender and southern literature, from the eighteenth century to the present day.  The authors see so much of present-day understandings of gender in the South still as rooted in the patriarchy and paternalism of the nineteenth century southern plantation, in the ways that it institutionalized structures of race, class, and gender.  Further, it set up a system of who was allowed to speak for whom, silencing most voices which did not fit the image of the ruling class.  Many of the authors in this collection address these silences (or attempts to silence, or reactions to those who do not remain silent) and the significance of southern texts which give voice to those who are expected to remain silent.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Ernest Hemingway--The Sun Also Rises (1926)

            This novel follows journalist Jake Barnes in his adventures around the Left Bank of Paris in the 1920s and Pamplona during the bullfights.  He describes the days and nights of British and American expatriates around these cities, drinking and falling for and out with each other.  As a paragraph toward the end of the novel sums up: “That was it.  Send a girl off with one man.  Introduce her to another to go off with him.  No go and bring her back.  And sign the wire with love.  That was it all right.  I went in to lunch” (243).  The escapades of this “Lost Generation,” as Gertrude Stein called them, are perhaps best characterized by Jake’s friend Mike, who says, “This is all awfully amusing, but it’s not too pleasant” (207).  And certainly, the events of the novel are in fact quite amusing, but certainly not pleasant for those involved in them.
            The central conflict in the novel centers around Jake’s love for Lady Brett Ashley and his never explained war wound which has left him impotent.  Lady Brett is twice-divorced, and throughout the novel dates Jake, her fiancée Mike, and Jake’s friend Robert Cohn.  Jake and his friend Bill leave the Paris nightlife for a week of fishing in Spain, a rather idyllic existence which is soon interrupted by the arrival of their compatriots from Paris, who join them for the running of the bulls.  Jealous tension soon builds around Brett, who becomes interested in the bullfighter Romero, whom Robert Cohn beats up in a drunken, jealous fit.  The novel ends in the aftermath of the fiesta, with Brett summoning Jake to Madrid after Romero has left her: Brett imagines the two of them as a couple, an idea to which Jake responds, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” (251).  The romance of what might have been, rather than actually was, is the primary theme of the novel, a theme which is emphasized by Hemingway’s spare, yet evocative, prose.