Abstract two modes of feminist criticism (feminist critique


This paper aims at analysing
Elaine Showalter’s seminal work “Feminist criticism in Wilderness”, by studying
the various elements that make up the essay. It addresses Showalter’s arguments
about the lack of a strong theoretical foundation in feminist criticism; her
division of the two modes of feminist criticism (feminist critique and gynocritics); and the
development of the concept of gynocriticism with reference to the four models
of difference.

Keywords: Gynocriticism; Feminist
Critique; Literary Theory











Through the years, the practice
of reading of any literary text has become a site in the struggle for change in
gender relations that prevail in society. A reading that is feminist, aims at
asking such rudimentary questions: how the text defines sexual questions, what
it says about gender relations and how it represents women. In other words,
feminist reading/criticism has come to be recognized as a political discourse:
a critical and theoretical practice committed to the struggle against
patriarchy and sexism.

Feminist criticism has gradually
shifted its center from revisionary readings to a sustained investigation of
literature by women. In her essay, “Feminist criticism in Wilderness” (1985),
Elaine Showalter defines and explores the development of women centred
criticism, which chiefly evaluated the women’s writing as expression of women’s









Dearth of a
theoretical foundation

Showalter states that, “if, in 1981, feminist literary critics
are still wandering in the wilderness, we are in good company; for, as Geoffrey
Hartman says, all criticism is in the wilderness.”
(Showalter, 179-180) However, according to her, if one traces the literary
tradition, there has been no theoretical basis in the feminist criticism and it
has been “an empirical orphan in the theoretical storm.”
(Showalter, 180)

begins this essay by alluding to a dialogue by Carolyn Heilbrun and Catherine
Stimpson, in which they pointed out that there were two very identifiable poles
in feminist literary criticism—one concentrating on the errors of the
past and the other focusing on the beauty of imagination. Both these aspects
contribute in removing the effects of ‘female servitude’
that has existed in the society since ages. She also quotes Matthew Arnold to
state that criticism, as a process, has to pass through a stage of wilderness
to reach at the desired standards.

one of the reasons for this, so called, wilderness in feminist criticism, she
clarifies that the reason is lack of an exclusive theoretical framework. Feminist
criticism is always seen in association with some other strategy and,
therefore, fails to work consistently. For instance, feminist critics
supporting Marxism treat feminist criticism differently than those opposing
racism. Showalter continues to show that the critics seem to be still wandering
in the wilderness because there is still disinterestedness towards the
formation of a theory of criticism. Moreover, the situation of criticism,
according to her, is still bound exclusively to the masculine domain:

Feminist critics may be startled to find ourselves in this
band of theoretical pioneers, since in the American literary tradition the
wilderness has been an exclusively masculine domain. Yet between feminist
ideology and the liberal ideal of disinterestedness lies the wilderness of
theory, which we too must make our home. (Showalter, 180)

early obstacle in establishment of the above mentioned theoretical framework
was the inability of many women to respond to the demand of openness required
for the success of feminist criticism. In some areas of society, women had been
locked out and in the others, they had been locked in. They were restricted
from participating in certain social interactions and were forced to
participate in the others. Thus, some believed that feminist criticism was
equivalent to an opposition to the established canons.

states that what seemed to be “a theoretical impasse”
(Showalter, 181) was actually an evolutionary phase. During this stage,
feminist criticism moved on from the stage of awakening to a stage marked by “anxiety
about the isolation of feminist criticism from a critical community”
(Showalter, 181).


Feminist Critique and

categorizes two distinct modes of feminist criticism in her essay. The first mode,
which is “ideological”, is concerned with the woman as readers. Within the
parameters of this mode, lies the feminist readings of texts which are
specifically male-authored. The focus is on “images and stereotypes of women in
literature, the omissions and misconceptions about women in criticism, and women-assign
in semiotic systems.” (Showalter, 182) This mode of criticism which was
practiced in the earliest years of feminist criticism concentrated on exposing
the misogyny of literary practice: the stereotyped images of women in
literature as angels or monsters, the literary abuse or textual harassment of
women in classic and popular as well as canonical texts. Showalter calls this
mode the “feminist critique”. According to her, such influential feminist texts
from the late sixties and early seventies, like Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, Ellen Moers’ Literary Women, and Mary Ellmann’s Thinking about Women, paved the way for
such critical approach.

feminist theorist Annette Kolodny argued against adopting a single theory and
urged instead that feminist criticism maintain a “playful
pluralism.” Showalter, however, rejects Kolodny’s
pluralism and in its place proposes this concept of “Feminist
Critique”. She believes that feminist criticism is revisionist, being
dependent on male creative theory, i.e. the creative works and interpretations
produced on the basis of male experience. Feminist critics try to analyse and
respond to male creative theory. This, however, needs to be changed to achieve a
feminist criticism that is “women centred, independent and
intellectually coherent”. (Showalter, 184)

second mode of feminist criticism is the study of women as writers, and its
subjects are the “history, styles, themes, genres, and
structures of writing by women, the psychodynamics of female creativity; the
trajectory of the individual or collective female career; and the evolution and
laws of a female literary tradition…” (Showalter, 184) Feminist critics, disturbed
by the sudden realization, that women had invariably been represented in
stereotypical ways by a literary heritage that claimed universality, turned to
women authors for alternative images of women. As all literary theory is
text-specific, feminist criticism in order to develop had to identify women’s
writing as its distinctive text-milieu.

the second mode of feminist criticism is concerned with women’s
writing, specifically with writing as a mode of resistance. In what Showalter
terms “gynocriticism”—the study of woman as writer—women
are invited to speak for themselves, even if they continue to do so from within
a patriarchal paradigms.

Gynocriticism and the
four models

recognizes that there is a struggle to find a terminology that can rescue the feminine
from its stereotypical associations with inferiority. Ecriture Feminine argues
that phallocentrism validates male creativity and sees it as superior to female
creativity. In her influential essay “The Laugh of the Medusa”,
the French feminist, Helene Cixous, encourages women to write from their
experience of womanhood. Cixous acknowledges and accepts the differences that
exist between men and women, and argues that it is because of this difference
that women need to learn to write in a different way.

does see feminist criticism as “an act of resistance to theory, a
confrontation with existing canons and judgments” (Showalter, 181). She also
refers to how Judith Fetterley in The
Resisting Reader mentions that feminist criticism has been characterized by
“a resistance to codification and a refusal to have its
parameters prematurely set.” (as quoted in Showalter, 181) However, this resistance, Showalter
believes, is not the one that can be most adequately done through creating a
new female language and writing.

describes four current models of difference taken up by many feminists around
the world: biological, linguistic, psychoanalytic and cultural. These models
are sequential with each being subsumed and enhanced by the one following.

first is the biological model of difference, which believes that “anatomy
is textuality” (Showalter, 187). Feminist criticism completely rejects the
attribution of literal biological inferiority preconceived by the Victorian society:

Victorian anthropologists believed that the frontal lobes of
the male brain were heavier and more developed than female lobes and thus that
women were inferior in intelligence. (Showalter, 187)         

criticism, therefore, generally stresses the significance of the body as a
source of imagery which influences women’s
writing. Thus, the study of biological imagery in women’s
writing is useful and important as long as one understands that factors other
than anatomy are involved in it. The difference of women’s
literary practice, therefore, must be sought, according to Nancy K. Miller, in “the
body of her writing and not the writing of her body.”
(as quoted in Showalter, 190)

the next model of feminist literary criticism, Showalter emphatically deals
with women’s writing in the context of language, i.e. the linguistic
model of women’s writing. Language as, Mary Daly and Julia Kristeva argue,
is not an intellectual luxury, but it is an essential part of struggle for
women’s liberation. In Showalter’s
essay, the linguistic approach and analysis enter the aura of feminist debate. Linguistic
and textual theories of women’s writing ask many questions about the
different use of language by men and women, sex differences in language in
terms of biology, socialization or culture, the creation of new language by
women etc.

French and British feminist critics have all drawn attention to the
philosophical, linguistic and practical problems of women’s
use of language. Many critics have attacked on what Rich calls “the
oppressor’s language,” a language sometimes criticized as
sexist, sometimes as abstract. As Nelly Furman explains:

It is through the medium of language that we define and
categorize areas of difference and similarity, which in turn allow us to
comprehend the whole world around us. (Furman, The Study of Women and Language)

advocacy of a women’s language is thus a political gesture
that also carries tremendous emotional force. The appropriate task for feminist
criticism she believes, is to concentrate on women’s
access to language on the available lexical range from which words can be
selected on the ideological and cultural determinants of expression. Showalter’s
psychoanalytic model identifies gender difference in the psyche and also in the
artistic process. Showalter asserts, “It incorporates the biological and
linguistic models of gender difference in a theory of the female psyche or
self, shaped by the body, by the development of language and by sex-role
socialization” (Showalter 193-194). Many feminists believe that
psychoanalysis could become a powerful tool for literary criticism. But
feminist criticism is based on Freudian or Post-Freudian psychoanalysis must
continually struggle with the problem of feminine disadvantage and lack.

in The Madwoman in the Attic Gilbert and Gubar carry out a feminist revision of
Harold Bloom’s Oedipal model of literary history as a conflict between
fathers and sons and accept the essential psychoanalytic definition of the
woman artist as displaced, disinherited and excluded. In their view, the nature
and “difference” of women’s
writing lies in its troubled and even tormented relationship to female
identity: the woman writer experiences her own gender as “a
painful obstacle or even a debilitating inadequacy.”
Moreover, in “Emphasis Added,” Miller takes another approach to the
problem of negativity in psychoanalytic criticism. Her chief motive is to
expand Freud’s view of female creativity and to show how criticism of
women’s texts has frequently been unfair because it is according
to Freudian expectations.

Showalter’s cultural model incorporates ideas about women’s
body, language and psyche but interprets them in relation to the social
contexts in which they occur. The ways in which women conceptualize their
bodies and their sexual and reproductive functions are intricately linked to
their cultural environments. It places feminist concerns in social contexts,
acknowledging class, racial, national and historical differences and determinants
among women. It also offers a collective experience that unites women over time
and space–a binding force.

culture redefines women’s activities and goals from a women
centred point of view. Women’s culture refers to the broad-based
communality of values, institutions, relationships and methods of
communication. Some feminist historians have assigned the model of separate
sphere and they have seen the movement from women’s
sphere to women’s culture to women’s right activism as the resulting
phases in the evolutionary political procedure.

Much of the feminist literary criticism continues in our times
to be interpreted with the movement by political feminists for social, legal
and cultural freedom and equality. (Abrams)

very particular and enthusiastic analysis of female culture has been given by
two Oxford anthropologists Shirley and Edwin Ardener. They have tried to
portray a model of women’s culture which is not limited
historically. Ardener’s in his essays “Belief
and the Problem of Women” (1972) and “The
Problem Revisited” (1975) suggests that women constitute
a muted group, the boundaries of whose culture and reality overlap but are not
wholly contained by the dominant (male) group. There is also a crescent of y
which is outside the dominant boundary and therefore in Ardener’s
view “the wild” being away from man’s

some feminist critics, the “wild zone”
or “female space” must be the address of genuinely women
centred criticism, theory and art. French feminist critics would like to make
the wild zone the theoretical base of women’s
difference. Thus, according to Showalter, the difference of women’s
writing can only be understood in terms of this complex and historically grounded
cultural relation.



            Showalter acknowledges the
difficulty of defining the unique difference of women’s
writing as a slippery and demanding task in this essay. She states that
gynocritics may never succeed in understanding the special differences of women’s
writing, or realize a distinct female literary tradition. However, with
grounding in theory and historical research, Showalter sees gynocriticism as a
way to learn something solid, enduring, and real about the relation of women to
literary culture.













Works Cited

Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 7th ed. 1999. PDF.

2. Showalter,
Elaine. “Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 8, no.
2, 1981, pp. 179–205. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1343159.

3. Rani,
Savita. “Elaine Showalter’s Feminist Criticism in The Wilderness: A Critique”.
2013. Web.