Introduction (Critical Survey of Poetry: Topical Essays)
Any survey of feminist criticism will most likely be fraught with difficulties, the most serious of which is the attempt to avoid reductionism. This introduction to feminist criticism attempts to identify key figures, central concerns, and general movements. Such an attempt is a strategic move to organize a vital and growing body of work into some sort of scheme that can be collated and presented. Despite the existence of American, French, and British feminisms, for example, no such clear-cut schools or movements exist in a fixed way. The various writers included in this essay, and the various trends and movements discussed, share many positions and disagree on many important points. Such agreements and disagreements have less to do with nationality than with the rapid changes occurring in feminist criticism.
Three general perspectives on feminism are summarized here, as reflected in the work of American, French, and British writers. The work of two pivotal feminist writers, Simone de Beauvoir and Virginia Woolf, is discussed at some length, and there is also an attempt to isolate a few general trends and issues within the feminist movement.
Feminism has diverse goals, many of which overlap in the work of individual writers. This work is filled with pitfalls and temptations: Because women are participants in their cultures, the thinking (and writing) of women cannot be separated from the methods of the cultures in which they live, nor can women be separated from their races or sexual orientations. Furthermore, feminist criticism may be combined with other methods of criticism, such as deconstruction, psychoanalytic criticism, and Marxist criticism. Generally, however, feminist writers are concerned with the political, social, and cultural equality of women and with researching the effects of gender upon writing—determining how the writing of women differs from the writing of men.
History (Critical Survey of Poetry: Topical Essays)
Feminist criticism owes much to the work of French philosopher and critic Beauvoir and to English writer and critic Woolf, two founders of contemporary feminist thought. Beauvoir, whose best-known and perhaps most important work is Le Deuxième Sexe (1949; The Second Sex, 1953), explored the many ways in which women are defined and limited in relation to men. Such limiting, Beauvoir contends, cannot be avoided in a male-dominated culture; even women perceived as independent are still negatively affected by the ideas and the relations of male society. Western society in general, for Beauvoir, is patriarchal and denies freedom of expression to women. In this patriarchal society, women become Others, viewed not as they are but as projections of male needs and subordinate to male expectations. Her approach tends toward a Marxist model in identifying an economic and political limiting of women with sexism in literature. Beauvoir finds in literature reflections of a more general socioeconomic oppression of women. Her approach emphasizes art’s mimetic quality: Through its powers of reflection, art yields valuable insights into the sexism that is culturally prevalent.
The otherness examined by Beauvoir and other feminist writers is a condition of women, so that the characteristic of identity for women is separation. Constituted through a male gaze, the feminine exists as something that is inexpressible. Women function as objects of the male gaze. Therefore, women’s bodies are vehicles for ambivalent feelings toward the mother. These...
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