Carolyn Heilbrun Criticism

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Sara Hudson (review date spring 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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SOURCE: Hudson, Sara. Review of The Representation of Women in Fiction, edited by Carolyn Heilbrun and Margaret T. Higonnet. Southern Humanities Review 18, no. 2 (spring 1984): 185-88.

[In the following excerpt, Hudson considers the utility and readability of the critical essays collected in The Representation of Women in Fiction.]

The Representation of Women in Fiction is a collection of feminist criticism. In the first of a two-part Introduction, Carolyn Heilbrun celebrates the devotion of the 1981 meeting of the English Institute to a program on women in fiction which, she notes, marks a break in the traditional (marginal) role allotted to women on the past thirty-nine programs of the Institute. Three of the six essays in this collection were presented as Institute papers: “Fictional Consensus and Female Casualties,” by Elizabeth Ermarth; “The Birth of the Artist as Heroine: (Re)production, the Künstlerroman Tradition, and the Fiction of Katherine Mansfield,” by Susan Gubar; and “Writing (from) the Feminine: George Sand and the Novel of Female Pastoral,” by Nancy K. Miller. Of the remaining three essays, one was also presented as a paper, “Liberty, Sorority, Misogyny,” by Jane Marcus; the other two were written for this collection: “Herself Against Herself: The Clarification of Clara Middleton,” by J. Hillis Miller; and “Persuasion and the Promises of Love,” by Mary Poovey. There is one common ground on which the majority of these essays rest, and that is the nineteenth century, which has been thus far—and by far—the best of hunting grounds for feminist criticism, just as Virginia Woolf continues to be its most important ancestor. Woolf plays a part, more or less important, in three of the six essays.

In the second part of the Introduction, Margaret Higonnet analyzes the new literary history, which is being shaped “in part by feminist studies of the representation of women” and altered by the retrieval of a “past that had no status.” Making use of two major categories of feminist criticism proposed in part by Elaine Showalter (“Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness,” Critical Inquiry, Winter, 1981), Higonnet assigns the essays by Gubar, Marcus, and Poovey to the category of “historical revisionism.” The second category “emphasizes structural or semiotic modes of analysis.” The trendy essays in this category are certainly more difficult to take in, and some readers, myself included, will be grateful to Higonnet for providing a summary of each essay. Even so, there may be trouble, as the following portion of Higonnet's account of Nancy Miller's essay makes (un)clear:

Women's figures help define and (dis)integrate the multiple heterogeneous structures that we call literary texts. The richness of these relationships is suggested by Nancy Miller's essay deciphering George Sand's Valentine and exploiting topological and stylistic analysis along lines that bear comparison to Gaston Bachelard and Mikhail Bakhtin, as well as Michael Riffaterre. … One question raised by defining woman as a function within a system of signs is whether we are dealing with signifier, signified, or both. An evacuation of identity appears to be one consequence of seeing woman as Otherness, altérité. She may be given positive value as the mystery of the ineffable and the néant that permits affirmation of (masculine) being, or she may retain the negative value of a mere empty void. The ambivalence of woman as signifier can be taken as the basso continuo of our topic.

And for a flavor of the essay itself, consider this sample, or rather, imagine listening to it:

This passage permits us, I think, to differentiate among three chronotopic valorizations of desire in a sexual and textual economy: masculinist (in its extreme, libertine) discourse, which valorizes the time of possession (and possession as penetration); feminizing discourse, which seeks a loving negotiation with the feminine (Saint-Preux enamored in the hour after;...

(The entire section is 40,048 words.)