AbstractThis paper aims at analysingElaine Showalter’s seminal work “Feminist criticism in Wilderness”, by studyingthe various elements that make up the essay.
It addresses Showalter’s argumentsabout the lack of a strong theoretical foundation in feminist criticism; herdivision of the two modes of feminist criticism (feminist critique and gynocritics); and thedevelopment of the concept of gynocriticism with reference to the four modelsof difference.Keywords: Gynocriticism; FeministCritique; Literary Theory IntroductionThrough the years, the practiceof reading of any literary text has become a site in the struggle for change ingender relations that prevail in society. A reading that is feminist, aims atasking such rudimentary questions: how the text defines sexual questions, whatit 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 againstpatriarchy and sexism.
Feminist criticism has graduallyshifted its center from revisionary readings to a sustained investigation ofliterature by women. In her essay, “Feminist criticism in Wilderness” (1985),Elaine Showalter defines and explores the development of women centredcriticism, which chiefly evaluated the women’s writing as expression of women’sexperience. Dearth of atheoretical foundationElaineShowalter states that, “if, in 1981, feminist literary criticsare still wandering in the wilderness, we are in good company; for, as GeoffreyHartman says, all criticism is in the wilderness.
“(Showalter, 179-180) However, according to her, if one traces the literarytradition, there has been no theoretical basis in the feminist criticism and ithas been “an empirical orphan in the theoretical storm.”(Showalter, 180)Showalterbegins this essay by alluding to a dialogue by Carolyn Heilbrun and CatherineStimpson, in which they pointed out that there were two very identifiable polesin feminist literary criticism—one concentrating on the errors of thepast and the other focusing on the beauty of imagination. Both these aspectscontribute in removing the effects of ‘female servitude’that has existed in the society since ages. She also quotes Matthew Arnold tostate that criticism, as a process, has to pass through a stage of wildernessto reach at the desired standards. Analysingone of the reasons for this, so called, wilderness in feminist criticism, sheclarifies that the reason is lack of an exclusive theoretical framework. Feministcriticism is always seen in association with some other strategy and,therefore, fails to work consistently.
For instance, feminist criticssupporting Marxism treat feminist criticism differently than those opposingracism. Showalter continues to show that the critics seem to be still wanderingin the wilderness because there is still disinterestedness towards theformation 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 thisband of theoretical pioneers, since in the American literary tradition thewilderness has been an exclusively masculine domain. Yet between feministideology and the liberal ideal of disinterestedness lies the wilderness oftheory, which we too must make our home. (Showalter, 180)Anearly obstacle in establishment of the above mentioned theoretical frameworkwas the inability of many women to respond to the demand of openness requiredfor the success of feminist criticism. In some areas of society, women had beenlocked out and in the others, they had been locked in. They were restrictedfrom participating in certain social interactions and were forced toparticipate in the others. Thus, some believed that feminist criticism wasequivalent to an opposition to the established canons.
Showalterstates 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 “anxietyabout the isolation of feminist criticism from a critical community”(Showalter, 181). Feminist Critique andGynocriticsShowaltercategorizes two distinct modes of feminist criticism in her essay. The first mode,which is “ideological”, is concerned with the woman as readers. Within theparameters of this mode, lies the feminist readings of texts which arespecifically male-authored. The focus is on “images and stereotypes of women inliterature, the omissions and misconceptions about women in criticism, and women-assignin semiotic systems.” (Showalter, 182) This mode of criticism which waspracticed in the earliest years of feminist criticism concentrated on exposingthe misogyny of literary practice: the stereotyped images of women inliterature as angels or monsters, the literary abuse or textual harassment ofwomen in classic and popular as well as canonical texts.
Showalter calls thismode the “feminist critique”. According to her, such influential feminist textsfrom 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 forsuch critical approach. Leadingfeminist theorist Annette Kolodny argued against adopting a single theory andurged instead that feminist criticism maintain a “playfulpluralism.
” Showalter, however, rejects Kolodny’spluralism and in its place proposes this concept of “FeministCritique”. She believes that feminist criticism is revisionist, beingdependent on male creative theory, i.e.
the creative works and interpretationsproduced on the basis of male experience. Feminist critics try to analyse andrespond to male creative theory. This, however, needs to be changed to achieve afeminist criticism that is “women centred, independent andintellectually coherent”. (Showalter, 184)Thesecond mode of feminist criticism is the study of women as writers, and itssubjects are the “history, styles, themes, genres, andstructures of writing by women, the psychodynamics of female creativity; thetrajectory of the individual or collective female career; and the evolution andlaws of a female literary tradition…” (Showalter, 184) Feminist critics, disturbedby the sudden realization, that women had invariably been represented instereotypical ways by a literary heritage that claimed universality, turned towomen authors for alternative images of women.
As all literary theory istext-specific, feminist criticism in order to develop had to identify women’swriting as its distinctive text-milieu. Thus,the second mode of feminist criticism is concerned with women’swriting, specifically with writing as a mode of resistance. In what Showalterterms “gynocriticism”—the study of woman as writer—womenare invited to speak for themselves, even if they continue to do so from withina patriarchal paradigms.Gynocriticism and thefour modelsShowalterrecognizes that there is a struggle to find a terminology that can rescue the femininefrom its stereotypical associations with inferiority. Ecriture Feminine arguesthat phallocentrism validates male creativity and sees it as superior to femalecreativity.
In her influential essay “The Laugh of the Medusa”,the French feminist, Helene Cixous, encourages women to write from theirexperience of womanhood. Cixous acknowledges and accepts the differences thatexist between men and women, and argues that it is because of this differencethat women need to learn to write in a different way. Showalterdoes see feminist criticism as “an act of resistance to theory, aconfrontation with existing canons and judgments” (Showalter, 181). She alsorefers to how Judith Fetterley in TheResisting Reader mentions that feminist criticism has been characterized by”a resistance to codification and a refusal to have itsparameters prematurely set.” (as quoted in Showalter, 181) However, this resistance, Showalterbelieves, is not the one that can be most adequately done through creating anew female language and writing.
Showalterdescribes four current models of difference taken up by many feminists aroundthe world: biological, linguistic, psychoanalytic and cultural. These modelsare sequential with each being subsumed and enhanced by the one following. Thefirst is the biological model of difference, which believes that “anatomyis textuality” (Showalter, 187).
Feminist criticism completely rejects theattribution of literal biological inferiority preconceived by the Victorian society:Victorian anthropologists believed that the frontal lobes ofthe male brain were heavier and more developed than female lobes and thus thatwomen were inferior in intelligence. (Showalter, 187) Bio-feministcriticism, therefore, generally stresses the significance of the body as asource of imagery which influences women’swriting. Thus, the study of biological imagery in women’swriting is useful and important as long as one understands that factors otherthan anatomy are involved in it. The difference of women’sliterary practice, therefore, must be sought, according to Nancy K.
Miller, in “thebody of her writing and not the writing of her body.”(as quoted in Showalter, 190)Inthe next model of feminist literary criticism, Showalter emphatically dealswith women’s writing in the context of language, i.e. the linguisticmodel 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 forwomen’s liberation. In Showalter’sessay, the linguistic approach and analysis enter the aura of feminist debate. Linguisticand textual theories of women’s writing ask many questions about thedifferent use of language by men and women, sex differences in language interms of biology, socialization or culture, the creation of new language bywomen etc.
American,French and British feminist critics have all drawn attention to thephilosophical, linguistic and practical problems of women’suse of language. Many critics have attacked on what Rich calls “theoppressor’s language,” a language sometimes criticized assexist, sometimes as abstract. As Nelly Furman explains: It is through the medium of language that we define andcategorize areas of difference and similarity, which in turn allow us tocomprehend the whole world around us. (Furman, The Study of Women and Language) Theadvocacy of a women’s language is thus a political gesturethat also carries tremendous emotional force. The appropriate task for feministcriticism she believes, is to concentrate on women’saccess to language on the available lexical range from which words can beselected on the ideological and cultural determinants of expression.
Showalter’spsychoanalytic model identifies gender difference in the psyche and also in theartistic process. Showalter asserts, “It incorporates the biological andlinguistic models of gender difference in a theory of the female psyche orself, shaped by the body, by the development of language and by sex-rolesocialization” (Showalter 193-194). Many feminists believe thatpsychoanalysis could become a powerful tool for literary criticism. Butfeminist criticism is based on Freudian or Post-Freudian psychoanalysis mustcontinually struggle with the problem of feminine disadvantage and lack. However,in The Madwoman in the Attic Gilbert and Gubar carry out a feminist revision ofHarold Bloom’s Oedipal model of literary history as a conflict betweenfathers and sons and accept the essential psychoanalytic definition of thewoman artist as displaced, disinherited and excluded.
In their view, the natureand “difference” of women’swriting lies in its troubled and even tormented relationship to femaleidentity: the woman writer experiences her own gender as “apainful obstacle or even a debilitating inadequacy.”Moreover, in “Emphasis Added,” Miller takes another approach to theproblem of negativity in psychoanalytic criticism. Her chief motive is toexpand Freud’s view of female creativity and to show how criticism ofwomen’s texts has frequently been unfair because it is accordingto Freudian expectations.ElaineShowalter’s cultural model incorporates ideas about women’sbody, language and psyche but interprets them in relation to the socialcontexts in which they occur.
The ways in which women conceptualize theirbodies and their sexual and reproductive functions are intricately linked totheir cultural environments. It places feminist concerns in social contexts,acknowledging class, racial, national and historical differences and determinantsamong women. It also offers a collective experience that unites women over timeand space–a binding force.
Women’sculture redefines women’s activities and goals from a womencentred point of view. Women’s culture refers to the broad-basedcommunality of values, institutions, relationships and methods ofcommunication. Some feminist historians have assigned the model of separatesphere and they have seen the movement from women’ssphere to women’s culture to women’s right activism as the resultingphases in the evolutionary political procedure.Much of the feminist literary criticism continues in our timesto be interpreted with the movement by political feminists for social, legaland cultural freedom and equality. (Abrams)Avery particular and enthusiastic analysis of female culture has been given bytwo Oxford anthropologists Shirley and Edwin Ardener.
They have tried toportray a model of women’s culture which is not limitedhistorically. Ardener’s in his essays “Beliefand the Problem of Women” (1972) and “TheProblem Revisited” (1975) suggests that women constitutea muted group, the boundaries of whose culture and reality overlap but are notwholly contained by the dominant (male) group. There is also a crescent of ywhich is outside the dominant boundary and therefore in Ardener’sview “the wild” being away from man’sinfluence. Forsome feminist critics, the “wild zone”or “female space” must be the address of genuinely womencentred criticism, theory and art.
French feminist critics would like to makethe wild zone the theoretical base of women’sdifference. Thus, according to Showalter, the difference of women’swriting can only be understood in terms of this complex and historically groundedcultural relation. Conclusion Showalter acknowledges thedifficulty of defining the unique difference of women’swriting as a slippery and demanding task in this essay.
She states thatgynocritics may never succeed in understanding the special differences of women’swriting, or realize a distinct female literary tradition. However, withgrounding in theory and historical research, Showalter sees gynocriticism as away to learn something solid, enduring, and real about the relation of women toliterary culture. Works Cited1.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.