Larry McCaffery (essay date 1982)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7741

SOURCE: McCaffery, Larry. “Form, Formula, and Fantasy: Generative Structures in Contemporary Fiction.” In Bridges to Fantasy, edited by George E. Slusser, Eric S. Rabkin, and Robert Scholes, pp. 21-37. Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982.

[ In the following essay, McCaffery expounds on the “inadequacy of the concept of...

(The entire section contains 29733 words.)

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SOURCE: McCaffery, Larry. “Form, Formula, and Fantasy: Generative Structures in Contemporary Fiction.” In Bridges to Fantasy, edited by George E. Slusser, Eric S. Rabkin, and Robert Scholes, pp. 21-37. Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982.

[In the following essay, McCaffery expounds on the “inadequacy of the concept of fantasy” as it is currently defined as useful in understanding the “nature and purpose of much contemporary literature” identified with that label.]

It may be that men ceaselessly re-inject into narrative what they have known, what they have experienced; but if they do, at least it is in a form which has vanquished repetition and instituted the model of a process of becoming.

Roland Barthes, Image—Music—Text

The Poet, without being aware of it, moves in an order of possible relationships and transformations. … Here is the final and noblest game of skill and hazard, the wager against odds, number and calculation versus chance and probability.

Paul Valéry, Aesthetics


In “The Library of Babel” Jorge Luis Borges creates an image of writing and of the universe which haunts the contemporary literary imagination. The universe, Borges suggests, can be compared to an unthinkably large library filled with mysterious texts. The organizing principles underlying the library's structure of the books contained within it are rigidly determined: “Five shelves correspond to each of the walls of each hexagon; each shelf contains thirty-two books of a uniform format; each book is made up of four hundred and ten pages; each page, of forty lines; each line, of some eighty black letters” (the letters themselves consist of twenty-five orthographic symbols).1 The library contains one—but only one—of each combination of symbols that can be generated from this set of orthographic symbols, meaning that every possible book of this format is contained within the library somewhere. Thus, although the number of volumes contained in the library is not infinite (the library can be shown to contain precisely 25 1,312,000 volumes), for all practical purposes the combinatory possibilities are endless. Naturally, however, most of the books contained in this library appear to be nonsense, random arrangements of symbols which fail to produce any sense of order or pattern. These combinations, then, remain maddeningly inscrutable, useless from any practical sense, aesthetically displeasing to all but the most fervent Dadaists.

The allegory implicit in this tale is obvious: the universe, like Borges's library, is composed of a near-infinite number of elements which combine to create “shapes” that mankind attempts to decipher. From an ontological standpoint, all such combinations are equal, since all have been generated from precisely the same set of elements; but, because man has devised certain useful but arbitrary methods of imposing order upon the chaos—the methods of language, myth, game, mathematics, scientific and judicial laws, and so forth—various “constellational patterns” which assist man in navigating through life have gradually emerged. In his desire to uncover hidden patterns and meanings in the jumble around him, man is quite naturally tempted to hang on desperately to any sense of order that mysteriously emerges, lest it disappear once more into the flux. Still, one comforting thought that does arise from this view of the universe is the idea that, given the workings of eternity, other patterns, other meaningful sequences are bound to emerge if we are patient—sequences of greater beauty, of greater utility, of greater power to excite our senses and delight our aesthetic tastes than those we previously admired. In Italo Calvino's Castle of Crossed Destinies, a story which explores, in miniature, a similar view of the generative potential of life and literature, Faust provides a striking summary of this outlook:

The world does not exist … there is not an all, given all at once; there is a finite number of elements whose combinations are multiplied to billions of billions, and only a few of these find a form and a meaning and make their presence felt amid a meaningless, shapeless, dust cloud; like the seventy-eight cards of the tarot deck in whose juxtapositions sequences of stories appear and are then immediately undone.2

I shall return to Calvino's remarkable book near the end of my discussion, but for now let us consider the view that literature is a sort of generative game in which a limited number of elements, subjected to fixed rules of association, combine to produce literary texts. Yet, because writers who adhere to this model for the creation of literary forms are often labeled “fantasy” writers, perhaps we must first consider the relation of this generative structure to the various models currently proposed to define fantasy as a mode or genre. In the context of Borges's library, it is obvious that the “reality” against which fantasy, in the most naive sense, sets itself and exists by declaring itself other, is a referential category whose privileged ontological status is arbitrarily determined. Less obviously, but still patently referential, are the more sophisticated categories of recent theoreticians of the fantastic. In distinguishing between the “fantastic” and “fantasy,” W. R. Irwin states that it is the former which involves an opposition of the “anti-real … against an established real,” whereas the latter must be understood as a rhetorical strategy, a “game of the impossible” where “narrative sophistry” is deployed to make nonfact appear as fact.3 Yet, even on this level of game, the system of fantasy creation is still defined by reference to ontological absolutes: nonfact, impossibility. What I am proposing here—the substitution of a generative for a relational system—will, I hope, shed light on the inadequacy of the concept of fantasy as it currently exists as a tool to define the nature and purpose of much contemporary literature tagged with the label. Thus even where, as in the case of fantasy's most subtle commentators, the model proposed may seem generative, it may not actually be so. Eric S. Rabkin's system, for instance, based on the reversal of “ground rules” and narrative expectations, appears relativistic. And yet, in its exclusion of such categories as the “irrelevant,” it opens the way to a reinvestment of the relational model on a different plane. For, if we accept that all the works in Borges's library, however inscrutable to us and indifferent to our aesthetic codes (and Rabkin affirms that, “as Gestalt psychology teaches us, there is no narrative world, any more than there is a physical world, without a set of ground rules by which to perceive it”),4 then the statement that “the truly irrelevant has nothing to do with ground rules”—indeed the a priori assertion of a “true” irrelevance—merely reinstates an external “other” as privileged category, oddly enough as the “reality” against which fantasy now becomes the guarantor of narrative relevance. Our generative model, on the other hand, by recuperating the irrelevant, better describes the formulas and forms of such contemporary literature; more importantly, it also defines a mode of creation which, while appearing to be fantastic, may actually obviate the concept of fantasy along with that of realism by refusing all such privileged perspectives sanctioned by the humanist tradition, all limits which seek, in one subtle way or another, to restore the referential axis.

The hypothesis of literature as generative game, of course, is hardly unique to Borges or Calvino; it was explored almost a century ago by Mallarmé and Valéry and has been recently more systematically developed by such structuralist critics as Roland Barthes, Brémond, Greimas, Propp, and Todorov.5 Although the specifics of applications differ, these critics all agree with the idea that all narratives are expressed by means of a finite narrative code—a process characterized by the insistent, paradoxical interplay between the uniformity of the system and the variety of its specific manifestations.6 The full range of implications of this view of literature lie far beyond the scope of this paper, but, on a very basic level, the structuralist hypothesis strikes at the heart of the Romantic myth of the creator's producing an absolutely unique work as a result of certain inner motives and experiences to which he has absolute privilege.7 Just as the fact that all books have already been written in Borges' library makes all writing plagiaristic, so too does the idea that all discourse can be analyzed in terms of a finite number of elements suggest that all works are already implicit within the generative potential of its elements—it simply remains the project of writers to choose certain alternatives and explore them, for, as Valéry remarked, “Formally the novel is close to the dream; both can be defined by consideration of this curious property: all their deviations form part of them.8 In actual practice, of course, this reduction of literature to a sort of “verbal algebra” (in Borges's terms)9 does not automatically destroy the value or utility of artistic production, for not only does the potential number of narratives which can be generated by this process approach infinity, but obviously there also remain various means by which individual narratives can be judged. As Calvino explains in a recent essay, even though “the writer is already a writing machine,” this does not imply that all narratives are equal:

Yes, literature is a combinatory game which follows the possibilities implicit in its own material, independently of a personality of the author, but it is a game which at a certain point is invested with an unexpected significance and which puts into play something of supreme importance to the author and the society to which he belongs.10

The key phrase in Calvino's commentary is his contention that literary games are capable of possessing “an unexpected significance … something of supreme importance to the author and society.” for the question immediately arises as to how this process occurs. What “significance” do these literary narratives have and how is this significance transferred from the realm of a formal game to the real world? This question has been pondered by writers, scholars, and readers for centuries; it also has direct bearing on the more general issue of the relationship between any system of signs—such as is found in logic, mathematics, science, and the novel—and the outside world. In the case of the novel, the traditional emphasis on mimesis seemed to solve the problem: fiction could be “significant” to the extent that it “mirrored the world”; its truths resulted from the writer's ability verbally to recreate or imitate actual conditions in the world. Insofar as fiction successfully duplicated these conditions, it could reproduce the truth functions that existed in the world. Much the same case, we might recall, was made by Wittgenstein for logical propositions in the Tractatus: language, in the form of logical propositions, could lead man to truths about the world to the extent that the words contained in the propositions corresponded to (or “pictured,” to use Wittgenstein's famous analogy) elements in the world.

As is evident today, however, major problems arise if we accept this view of fiction or this view of language's general ability to picture reality. Eventually, Wittgenstein completely overhauled his view of language's functioning, and mimesis was shown to be merely a narrative convention. Indeed, it is no accident that Wittgenstein's later theory of language employs exactly the same metaphor—that is, language games—as Calvino uses in the passage cited above, for both suggest that the meaning of a given discourse, whether it be personal conversation, logical theorems, or a literary text, derives not from its correspondence with any state of affairs in the world, but from an ongoing dynamic transformation of basic elements on the basis of certain arbitrary but fixed rules. Roland Barthes explains the basic flaw in the mimetic view of narrative:

In all narrative imitation remains contingent. The function of narrative is not to ‘represent’, it is to constitute a spectacle still very enigmatic for us but in any case not of a mimetic order. The ‘reality’ of a sequence lies not in the ‘natural’ succession of the actions composing it but in the logic there exposed, risked, and satisfied. … Narrative does not show, does not imitate; the passion which may excite us in reading a novel is not that of a ‘vision’ (in actual fact, we do not ‘see’ anything). Rather it is that of meaning, that of a higher order of relation which also has its emotions, its hopes, its dangers, its triumphs. ‘What takes place’ in a narrative is from the referential (reality) point of view literally nothing; ‘what happens’ is language alone, the adventure of language, the unceasing celebration of its becoming.11

Obviously, the overthrow of such notions as mimesis, absolute truth (except in a tautological sense), and substance had a profound effect on all fields which relied, in one way or another, on narrative discourse—and, as Robert Coover recently commented, “Even a formula is a type of sentence.”12 This growing understanding of the way narrative principles functioned in various disciplines was very liberating: there no longer being any “higher truth” to appeal to, intellectuals in many fields were forced to examine the accepted paradigms from new perspectives. This self-reflexive examination of the processes and forms of disciplines, rather than of their content per se, is evident in the proliferation of metadisciplines, the dominance of linguistic analysis in philosophy, and the emergence of metafiction and the various structuralist applications.

The plight of fiction writers during this period of reevaluation is evident: people reading fiction, indeed, all people responding to coded systems, have traditionally preferred systems which masquerade as part of the natural world. As Roland Barthes puts it, “The reluctance to declare its codes characterizes bourgeois society and the mass culture issuing from it: both demand signs which do not look like signs.”13 If fiction loses its direct representational ability, where does its “significance” and “importance to the author and the society” reside? Closely related to this issue was the question of the viability of certain fictional conventions—elements like plot, character, causality, the use of mythic patterns, and so on. One of the most obvious results of this self-questioning process was the outburst of a certain type of highly self-conscious, nonrealistic fiction which Robert Scholes has designated as “fabulation.”14 Another development in the turn away from mimetic norms was a renewed interest in literary modes which had never claimed verisimilitude as their primary goal—modes such as science fiction, fairy tales, and mythological stories. A wide range of writers began to perceive that realistic fiction had been naively and rigidly structured on the basis of certain questionable, anthropocentric norms (chief among these is the view that the world and the people who inhabit it can be analyzed on the basis of causal, empircally determinable operations). But these principles are by no means revealed truths; they are merely conventions that have been greatly undermined as this century has moved forward. Consequently, it is not surprising that writers have been drawn to science fiction and other literary approaches which are, in Darko Suvin's terms, “a mapping of possible alternatives” to reality.15 In his Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, Suvin also suggests that science fiction's movement can be seen as shifting “from a basic direct model to an indirect model”16—a movement which, as I have indicated, is evident in all such “fabulation” as well. Suvin later admits that, although science fiction is defined by having the reality it describes be “interpretable only within the scientific or cognitive horizon,”17 the realm of literature is theoretically much larger:

But besides the “real” possibilities there exist also the much stricter—though also much wider—limits of “ideal” possibility, meaning any conceptual or thinkable possibility, the premises and/or consequences of which are not internally contradictory.18

If literature is viewed as a game, governed primarily by internal rules of consistency rather than by allegiance to outer laws or conditions, it becomes quite natural for writers to wish to explore literary games which can be played with fresher, more vital rules. One consequence of this spirit of formal exploration, evident in writers such as Barth, Coover, Hawkes, Pynchon, Delany, Zelazny, and Calvino, was a revival of interest in ancient mythic patterns and in prenovelistic fictional forms—older games, long ignored because of the popularity of the realistic novel, but which possessed fascinating, intricate rules all their own. At the same time, wholly original formal approaches were being pursued, and new myths and new patterns of perception were developed. In the remainder of this paper, I would like to examine briefly several representative works which illustrate these tendencies. Although these works are formally somewhat different, they all abandon realism in favor of more blatantly artificial approaches and thus convey a shared distrust of previous literary patterns and structures (a distrust which typically becomes a metafictional self-commentary within the text); more centrally, they all tend to approach prior literary forms, myths, and conventions purely as formal elements which can be freely manipulated to generate new shapes. I begin with Samuel R. Delany's Einstein Intersection, for here is an acknowledged classic of science fantasy which quite literally “deconstructs” its genre. In his novel Delany does not create a structure where “ground rules,” either those of our referentially verifiable world or those of an agreed-on set of narrative conventions, are reversed. Rather, he gives us a narrative where the generative patterns of the very referential system that determines this reality-fantasy axis are themselves explored. Significantly, Delany's “aliens” are seeking to become human by adopting the myriad and contradictory norms and codes which constitute that field of investigation Michel Foucault calls science humaine—that closed system of generative functions in which man has traded ontological status for a role as problematic element in an interacting set of “human” models. Delany's figures, then, are neither the victims of this world nor the masters of some other, fantasy realm, but rather energy in search of form.


Mythological patterns, like scientific paradigms, offer man a comprehensive, understandable image of the world around us, telling us what our universe looks like and where we belong in it. Yet, like all other systems for organizing our experience, myths possess the dangerous potential for controlling us. In The Einstein Intersection, Delany develops this view of the oppressive nature of myth as a means of exploring the more general issue of man's relationship to all prior patterns which have lost their freshness and utility. In the process the book becomes a metafictional inquiry into man and the fiction-making process itself, and exhibits the popular contemporary tendency to manipulate prior literary and mythic formulas in order to undercut the hold which their content might have on us.19

Set on earth in some undetermined future, The Einstein Intersection tells the story of young Lo Lobey's journey in search of the murderer of his beloved Friza. Lobey's race has arrived on Earth from some unspecified region in outer space after mankind's departure (either literally or metaphorically); they are currently trying to use our legends, myths, and stories as models from which to structure their own experiences on this alien planet. Their central problem, of course, is that mankind's patterns and myths are not necessarily appropriate for Lobey's race: not only have thousands of years passed since man left the earth but, more fundamentally, Lobey's race is not even human, thus making their appropriation of man's perceptual structures a problematic venture. As the Dove, a sort of futuristic reincarnation of Jean Harlowe, tells Lobey near the end of the novel, “We have tried to take their forms, their memories, their myths. But they don't fit. It's an illusion.”20 This opinion that past methods of ordering existence are inadequate to deal with present realities is expressed in one way or another by most of the figures encountered by Lobey on his odyssey. For example, Lobey's most important guide, Spider, explains to him the novel's key concept of “difference” as follows:

Some people walk under the sun and accept … change, others close their eyes, clap their hands to their ears and deny the world with their tongues. Most snicker, giggle, jeer and point when they think no one else is looking—that is how humans acted throughout their history. We have taken over their abandoned world, and something new is happening to the fragments, something we can't even define with mankind's leftover vocabulary. You must take its importance exactly as that: it is indefinable; you are involved in it; it is wonderful, fearful, deep, ineffable to your explanations, opaque to your efforts to see through it. …21

The response required of Lobey to this sense of the present moment's “difference” would appear to be obvious: he must abandon mankind's myths and other principles of organization and pursue his own vision, create new stories and legends which better serve his current needs. As the story concludes, this is what Lobey does, for he castrates cross-hung Green-Eye (the image of mankind's resurrection) and vows to leave Earth for the stars—a realm which he knows will be different. Along the way, however, Lobey must first work his way through various prior patterns and ways of dealing with things before he can break free of their constricting power. Thus Lobey's pursuit of “difference” is ironically portrayed as a series of archetypal reenactments of mythical and literary conventions: the pastoral journey-to-the-city convention, the initiation motif, the descent into the labyrinth, several ritualistic encounters with death and sexuality, and many others. The logic of this process is provided by phaedra, who explains, “You have to exhaust the old mazes before you can move into the new ones,” and by the Kid, who says, “We have to exhaust the past before we can finish with the present. We have to live out the human if we are to move on our own future.”22 The point here seems to be that the structural elements of mythic experience may retain a sense of validity even though their specific applications may no longer be useful. Myths, as Lévi-Strauss constantly points out, can be useful only insofar as they provide the basis for active regeneration of their arguments; to the extent that myths insist on an ontological equivalence with the real, they hinder our ability to use them. Thus, in a recent discussion of the role of myth in the modern novel, Eric Gould comments that

myths are hugh interlocking systems of transformational variants, exhibiting the same intentions to ask “ultimate” questions, and to answer them as factually as possible by referring to concrete events in the natural world, which are instigators rather than objects of myth. With a particular myth, we always deal with a hypothetically comprehensive narrative, a compromise text because the strength of that myth is its logical persistence to tend to a conclusion, to be a self-evident truth, even though we know that it cannot be a final statement.23

It is this potentially dangerous quality of myths “to tend to a conclusion, to be a self-evident truth” that Lobey is constantly warned against.

Lobey's journey, then, contains the seeds of a universal quest for an authentic personal vision freed from the outmoded constrictions of previous methods of organizing perceptions. Yet Lobey is also an artist figure as well as a quester whose machete plays music as well as it kills; thus his journey also portrays the difficulties contemporary artists always face in attempting to define their art in relation to artistic conventions of the past. When Lobey announces, “I'm tired of the old stories, their stories. We're not them; we're new, new to this world, this life,” he anticipates dozens of similarly phrased expressions of dissatisfaction voiced by authors and characters recently (for example, Barthelme's Snow White, who exclaims, “Oh I wish there were some words in the world that were not the words I always hear!”).24 The artistic issue is central to contemporary fiction: how to escape from stale conventions and exhausted story lines while yet acknowledging that certain fundamental patterns remain essential to the artist in defining our existence. The parameters of this conflict between the desire to seek the new, completely outside prior patterns and the belief that the new can only be defined in terms of the past are clearly delineated in an important conversation between Lobey and Spider:

[Lobey] “The stories give you a law to follow—”

“—that you can either break or obey.”

“They set you a goal—”

“—and you can either fail that goal, succeed, or surpass it.”

“Why?” I demanded, “Why can't you just ignore the old stories? … I can ignore those tales!”

“You're living in the real world now,” Spider said sadly. “It's come from something. It's going to something. Myths always lie in the most difficult places to ignore. They confound all family love and hate. You shy at them on entering or exiting any endeavor.”25

Since “myths always lie in the most difficult places to ignore,” it is not surprising that one of the most common structural approaches employed by contemporary writers is to adopt directly a mythic framework as an organizing method. However, various factors mitigate against the use of myth except in an ironic, highly self-conscious manner.26 Thus in most recent works which employ overtly mythic materials—Barth's Giles Goat Boy and Chimera, Barthelme's Snow White, Pynchon's works, Zelazny's Lord of Light, Steve Katz's Creamy and Delicious—there exists a central tension between the mythic framework's tendency to organize and rigidify its elements into teleological wholes and the ambiguous, fragmented nature of contemporary experience, which refuses to yield to formulas and patterns. The result is usually a sense that the textual elements are struggling against their roles, threatening to break out of the preset patterns in order to open us up to new constructive possibilities.

A good example of this tendency can be found in the “Mythologies” sections of Steve Katz's Creamy and Delicious, in which Katz, like Delany, aims at exploiting the transformational possibilities of myth. Katz, however, develops a more radical formal method of allowing prior mythic and literary materials to generate new fictional shapes. Roland Barthes has claimed that “the very end of myths is to immobilize the world; they must suggest and mimic a universal order which has fixated once and for all the hierarchy of possessions.”27 Katz, on the other hand, seeks to disrupt any sense of myth's universality, fixated order, and immobilizing power by introducing new and actively disruptive elements into the system. In each of his “Mythologies,” Katz begins by selecting a name which will be certain to evoke a rich series of associations from his audience. These names are “mythic” in the sense that they suggest specific story lines and clusters of other narrative elements. But in addition to the usual names (Faust, Achilles, Hermes, Goliath, Apollo), Katz devotes equal time to more recent mythological characters (Nancy and Sluggo, Wonder Woman, Plastic Man, Ghandi, and Nasser). Once the stories begin, however, Katz defiantly divorces the names from their traditional associations—as when Nancy and Sluggo are revealed to be a gay cowboy and a “terrible gulch-riding bandit,” respectively28—and goes about the business of creating pure narrative adventures. The “Faust” mythology, for example, begins:

Don't believe any of those stories you had to read in college about Faust, the big scientist who wanted to know all the shit in the world, so he turned on with the devil. Don't believe all that. It's big put-on, and maybe some of it is almost true, but none of it is really true, and if you fall for it you deserve to be pasted on the wall like a wall-paper pattern.29

The remainder of the story has nothing to do with the Faust legend; rather, it tells of Faust, a farmer “who loved girls better than he loved his daily chores,” his amorous adventures with one notorious Lulu, and a later encounter with a “befouled beauty” named Margaret. The Katzian Faust story, then, turns our expectations—which have been aroused by Katz's use of the coded signal “Faust”—upside down as he pursues a completely new story line. Since all received versions of the past have been fundamentally falsified in their transmission, Katz implies, the contemporary writer should feel free to invent whatever variations he chooses; indeed, Katz even suggests as the story concludes that “telling the truth” about Faust interferes with the storytelling impulse:

It is a bitch to really tell the truth about Faust, as you can guess. Even this story fudges a little bit. Faust couldn't have got his farm farmed ever if he carried on like this, even if he farmed like the devil. You can't seem to say anything about Faust without lying.30

If Katz is intent on defying all the mythic patterns, we might ask ourselves, why use the name at all? The answer appears to be that Katz uses the name purely as an arbitrary formal departure point—it immediately establishes a context of meaning and story structure which Katz can disrupt (thus creating a sort of dialogue with the earlier text) while freely inventing a narrative line all his own.

Another, more rigidly controlled generative approach to fiction can be found in various fictions collected by Robert Coover in Pricksongs and Descants. In most of these stories Coover is clearly interested in using prior literary and mythic material as formal elements which he can rearrange into new, harmonious designs. As the title of the collection suggests, one useful way to view many of these fictions is as variations or “counterpoints” (a “pricksong” or “descant”) to the basic line of the familiar mythic or literary “melody.” Several of these stories use the simple method of retelling familiar stories from unfamiliar points of view. For instance, in “The Brother” and “J's Marriage,” Coover takes biblical material which clearly is selected for its familiarity and its power to evoke a cluster of responses from us: he then creates a series of new revelations about this material by refocusing our angle of vision on it. In “The Brother,” the more successful of the stories, Coover tells the story of Noah's Ark, not from the perspective of the holy survivor of God's wrath, but from the point of view of one of the flood's victims—Noah's brother. From this angle Coover can capitalize on many dramatic ironies by presenting the frightened “other side's” position—a position we probably had never considered before. Told in an unpunctuated Joycean monologue that uses an incongruously modern-sounding idiom, the story quickly wins our affection for Noah's unnamed brother. Much of the early material in the story is comical: before the storm Noah is seen as a ludicruous, helpless figure, “him who couldn't never do nothin in a normal way just a hugh oversize fuzzyface boy.”31 We also see the bemused attitude of the brother and Noah's neighbors as they watch the building of the huge ark on the top of a hill and the not so amused reactions of Noah's wife to his activities. But because we know the eventual pattern of the events, our laughter is strained. After it begins to rain, the brother swallows his pride out of concern for his pregnant wife and runs to the ark to seek Noah's help. If our perspective of these events is not yet transformed, it surely is changed by Noah's cold refusal of aid. Since Coover has deliberately left out one element crucial to the biblical story—the biblical logic justifying Noah's actions—we are forced to view the situation from a purely human standpoint. The story ends with the narrator precariously perched at the top of a hill, soon to die, his wife already dead. The story is typical of the way contemporary writers are capitalizing on the forms of prior literary material while undercutting the hold their content has for us.

Coover achieves much the same effect with a different formal approach in a series of related fictions that I have elsewhere described as “cubist” in structure.32 In many ways the sensation created by these stories is similar to watching film rushes of the same scene shot from several different angles, with the “action” moving slowly forward because of so many retakes. Basically, Coover assembles all the elements of a familiar literary or mythic situation—the characters, setting, symbolic motifs, plot structure—and then starts the story on its way. But as soon as any pattern or design begins to assert itself, he stops the action, retraces his steps, and allows other plot lines to develop. The result is a sort of miniature version of Borges's famous hypothetical novel, The Garden of the Forking Paths, which was designed by its creator, Ts'ui Pen, to present all possible variations of a given fictional context.

A good example of this method can be found in “The Gingerbread House,” a tale which takes as its primary structural components the elements of the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale. Coover builds this story out of forty-two short sections, many of which are only one or two lines in length, to present a fragmented variety of possible outcomes to the story. In the process Coover allows parts of the original tale to mix freely with other possibilities rather than simply create a single alternative pattern, as he did with “The Brother.” Thus “The Gingerbread House” is a good example of the way Coover deliberately undercuts, reverses, obscures, and builds upon the familiar associations we may have brought to the story. For instance, Coover freely introduces plot or character elements which are extraneous or even contradictory to the original story (as with the appearance of an old man and a dove). At other times he suddenly switches the symbolic or allegoric implications that we are familiar with from the original: rather than having the black witch (who should represent evil, experience, the adult world) kill the dove (purity, grace), Coover has the young Hansel figure perform the task. Even the basic opposition between the two innocent children and the evil witch is undercut by a variety of hints that there is a willing sexual connection between them.

In addition to such manipulations and reversals, Coover also plants an overabundance of familiar images and symbols (doves, butterflies, flowers, colors, and so on), but deliberately refuses to allow them to link up and establish a single meaningful pattern. We probably notice, for example, that some sort of color imagery is being employed, since specific colors recur in section after section. But if we seek to establish a consistent “meaning” for this color imagery, we find our analysis is futile; like the whiteness of the whale in Moby-Dick or the white found in Poe's Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, the final “meaning” of certain colors is denied. If we approach Coover's story aware of the usual associations of “white”—“white suggests purity,” for example—we will feel on solid ground at the early mention of the girl's “white petticoats” and at the appearance of the “lustrous white dove,” for these are narrative codes that have assumed a conventional meaning over the years; but what are we to make of the witch's “ghostly white leg,” or the fact that the old man who takes the children to the witch has “white hair” and a “white jacket”?33 As the readers-critics we are placed in much the same position as Lobey in The Einstein Intersection as we attempt to apply previous patterns of meanings to new, fragmented, ambiguous material. And, of course, this is precisely Coover's intent: because the materials refuse to cohere or develop into single, mutually exclusive patterns, the reader is forced to acknowledge the possibility that all fictions, including the fiction we call reality, is composed of discrete elements which can be manipulated into a wide variety of shapes. The result is a structural emphasis on literature as a formal design rather than as an imitation of something exterior to itself—an emphasis which establishes the freedom of the artist, the exemplary fiction maker, to alter preexisting patterns whenever the old ones have lost their vitality and usefulness.

The last and most complex example of recent generative approaches to be discussed here is Italo Calvino's remarkable work, The Castle of Crossed Destinies. As with Coover's cubist stories, The Castle of Crossed Destinies unmasks literature as a kind of “combinatory game”34 whereby the author combines narrative elements into pleasing, often revealing shapes on the basis of certain “ironclad rules.”35 As Calvino explains it, his role as author is really that of “a juggler, or conjurer, who arranges on a stand at a fair a certain number of objects and, shifting them, connecting them, interchanging them, achieves a certain number of effects.”36 In both of the novellas which constitute the book, Calvino creates a framing story which brings together a group of travelers who find themselves unable to speak; being thus frozen in the mysterious, atemporal realm of literary generation—“suspended in a journey that had not ended nor was to begin”37—the travelers are forced to resort to telling their respective stories with the aid of tarot cards, which the narrator proceeds to interpret for us with the assistance of certain facial and bodily gestures displayed by the travelers. The tarot cards themselves are reproduced in the margin of the text, and, since there are only a limited number of cards (seventy-eight in all), the players are forced to construct their stories so as to intersect with cards that have been played earlier. Eventually the reader, together with the narrator, discovers that

the stories told them from left to right or from bottom to top can also be read from right to left or from top to bottom, and vice versa, bearing in mind that the same cards presented in a different order often change their meaning, and the same tarot is used at the same time by narrators who set forth from the four cardinal points.38

As with Coover's shuffling of literary elements into various possible narrative sequences, the structure of The Castle of Crossed Destinies implies that fiction arises from the transformational possibilities inherent in minimal narrative units being operated upon by fixed laws of association. The seventy-eight tarot cards can be compared to the “minimal units or fictional universals of narrative”39 that recent structuralist critics have postulated as lying at the basis of all fiction. In his afterword to the book, Calvino comments that the “tarots were a machine for constructing stories” and that “the game had a meaning only if governed by ironclad rules” at first appear to undercut the author's (and the reader's) freedom in relationship to the text.40 But as is suggested by the narrator's startling discovery that the stories can be read in different sequences, Calvino's text possesses the same freedom that all texts do: they can be read from an infinite number of perspectives, just as Borges's story “Pierre Menard” demonstrates. Thus new games with new rules and new meanings can always be imagined. Just as importantly, the possibility always exists for new combinations of the old material: when the castle's mistress-maidservant, the final storyteller of the first novella, finishes her tale of her new husband's betrayals, she redirects her attention:

And now she is setting a table for two, awaiting her husband's return and peering at every movement of the foliage of this wood, at every card drawn from this pack of tarots, every turn of events in this pattern of tales, until the end of the game is reached. Then her hands scatter the cards, shuffle the deck, and begin all over again.41

Her shuffling has effectively destroyed the existence of the previous stories, of course, but it also anticipates the laying out of new sequences, just as the shuffling of any deck of cards signals the conclusion to the previous structure of relationships, but also demonstrates the possibility that new combinations can be played out.

The Castle of Crossed Destinies, like The Einstein Intersection and the other generative narratives I have examined, also portrays the artist as the archetypal creator of vitalizing patterns. As Lo Lobey learned in his journey to the city, the raw materials of life may be limited, but their meanings are not; it is the artist's duty to recombine these meanings into patterns more suitable to the demands of the current age. Calvino's book clearly insists that the symbols which comprise narratives—and reality—are not isolated units with fixed meanings assigned to them. “Each new card placed on the table,” Calvino comments, “explains or corrects the meaning of the preceeding cards”;42 thus stories are built of elements which acquire meaning only as a result of their relationship with other elements in the narrative code. By extension, the entire process whereby meaning arises in the world is dependent on specific structures of meaning—games which produce meanings on the basis of certain coded sequences of interplay. As with each of the works examined, The Castle of Crossed Destinies demonstrates that fixed patterns are a sham, that meaning and truth make sense only within specific contexts, that the potential always exists for new combinations, new insights, new fictional patterns which can free us from exhausted perceptual systems. Appropriately, then, Calvino compares the role of the poet to that of the Jester, or Fool, who enlightens his master by ridiculing all venerated systems:

It is an ancient and wise custom at courts for the Fool or Jester or Poet to perform his task of upsetting and deriding the values of which the sovereign bases his own rule, to show him that every straight line conceals a crooked obverse, every finished product a jumble of ill-fitting parts, every logical discourse a blah-blah-blah.43

In conclusion I would like to suggest that, from the contemporary standpoint, the fiction writer or the poet, like all men, inhabits a realm which greatly resembles Borges's Library of Babel—a world in which all order is but a fragile sequence of combinations which emerges briefly from the torrent of chaos and then disappears. Still, such order does emerge in the best of our music, poems, and fictions, in the most satisfying scientific laws and mathematical systems, even in absurd but magnificently developed structures such as medieval scholasticism and the system employed by our nation to select presidential candidates. Yet to call this creation of order simply another form of fantasy is as misleading as it is impoverishing. For the generative structure I have described is the opposite both of the closed Tolkienesque mode of fantasy—where the “other” world created bears continuous metaphorical relationship to something we have absolutely and yet arbitrarily designated “our” world—and of the so-called open-ended extrapolations of science fiction earlier described by Darko Suvin, where apparently metonymic shifts from “real” to “ideal” possibilities still conceal a metaphoric relationship founded on closure by fiat, the positing of a real and an ideal. By redirecting our attention, however, to structures that remain genuinely open-ended, by reformulating our perceptions of previous narrative elements, writers such as Delany, Katz, Coover, and Calvino reward the reader with a view of the world as a narrative (that is, fictional) construct and publicly perform what Roland Barthes calls narrative's “adventure of language, the unceasing celebration of its coming.”44


  1. Jorge Luis Borges, “The Library of Babel,” Ficciones, no trans. (New York: Grove Pr., 1962), p. 80.

  2. Italo Calvino, The Castle of Crossed Destinies, trans. William Weaver (New York: Harcourt, 1979), p. 97.

  3. W. R. Irwin, The Game of the Impossible: A Rhetoric of Fantasy (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Pr., 1976), p. 9.

  4. Eric S. Rabkin, The Fantastic in Literature (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Pr., 1976), p. 15.

  5. See, for example, Vladimir Propp, Morphology of the Folktale (Austin: Univ. of Texas Pr., 1968); Roland Barthes, S/Z, trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1974); A. J. Greimas, Sémantique structurale (Paris: Larousse, 1966); Tzvetan Todorov, Grammaire du Décameron (The Hague: Mouton, 1969); and Claude Brémond, Logique du récit (Paris: Seuil, 1973).

  6. Tzvetan Todorov, Introduction à la littérature fantastic (Paris: Seuil, 1970); in English, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, trans. Richard Howard (Cleveland: Case Western Reserve Univ. Pr., 1973), p. 7. See also Propp's contrast of the “amazing multiformity, picturesqueness, and color” of the Russian folktale with “its no less striking uniformity, its repetition” (p. 21).

  7. JoAnn Cannon discusses this role of debunking the Romantic myth in her analysis of Calvino's Castle, “Literature as Combinatory Game: Italo Calvino's The Castle of Crossed Destinies.Critique 21, no 1 (1979): 88.

  8. Cited by Roland Barthes in “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative,” Image—Music—Text, trans. Stephan Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), p. 177.

  9. Jorge Luis Borges, Other Inquisitions, trans. Ruth L. C. Simms (Austin: Univ. of Texas Pr., 1964), p. 164; cited by Cannon, p. 88.

  10. Cited by Cannon, p. 88.

  11. Barthes, “Introduction,” pp. 123-24.

  12. “Interview with Robert Coover,” conducted by Larry McCaffery, to appear in the summer 1981 issue of Genre.

  13. Barthes, “Introduction,” p. 117.

  14. Robert Scholes, Fabulation and Metafiction (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Pr., 1979).

  15. Darko Suvin, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction (New Haven: Yale Univ. Pr., 1979), p. 12.

  16. Ibid., p. 12.

  17. Ibid., p. 67.

  18. Ibid., p. 66.

  19. In the dedication to Pricksongs and Descants (1969; reprint ed., New York: Plume, 1970), Robert Coover comments that “great narratives remain meaningful as a language-medium between generations, as a weapon against the fringe-areas of our consciousness, and as a mythic reinforcement of our tenuous grip on reality. The novelist uses familiar mythic or historical forms to combat the content of those forms” (pp. 78-79).

  20. Samuel R. Delany, The Einstein Intersection (1967; reprint ed., New York: Ace, 1973), p. 147.

  21. Ibid., p. 127.

  22. Ibid., pp. 39, 85.

  23. Eric Gould, “Condemned to Speak Excessively: Mythic Forms and James Joyce's Ulysses,Sub-Stance, 22 (1979): 71.

  24. Delany, p. 94; Donald Barthelme, Snow White (1967; reprint ed., New York: Bantam, 1968), p. 6.

  25. Delany, p. 132.

  26. As Robert Scholes has suggested, one of the problems faced by current writers who wish to use myth is precisely our increased self-consciousness about it. Scholes notes that “Once so much is known about myths and archetypes, they can no longer be used innocently. Even their connection to the unconscious finally becomes attenuated as the mythic materials are used more consciously” (p. 100).

  27. Roland Barthes, “Myth Today,” Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers (New York: Hill and Wang, 1972), p. 155.

  28. Steven Katz, Creamy and Delicious (New York: Random, 1970), p. 19.

  29. Ibid., p. 29.

  30. Ibid., pp. 32-33.

  31. Coover, p. 93.

  32. See Larry McCaffery, “Robert Coover's Cubist Fictions,” Par Rapport 1 (1978): 33-40.

  33. Coover, pp. 64, 65, 74, 62.

  34. Cannon's phrase.

  35. Calvino, p. 127.

  36. Ibid., p. 105.

  37. Ibid., p. 6.

  38. Ibid., p. 41. Although this passage refers to the operations of the first novella, “The Castle of Crossed Destinies,” an analogous process occurs in the second novella, “The Tavern of Crossed Destinies.”

  39. Cannon, p. 85.

  40. Calvino, p. 126.

  41. Ibid., p. 48.

  42. Ibid., p. 75.

  43. Ibid., p. 81.

  44. Barthes, Image—Music—Text, p. 124.

Nancy A. Walker (essay date 1990)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 14821

SOURCE: Walker, Nancy A. “Language, Irony, and Fantasy.” In Feminist Alternatives: Irony and Fantasy in the Contemporary Novel by Women, pp. 38-74. Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 1990.

[In the following essay, Walker identifies language and the means to expression as a central component of women's writing, further explaining that language has a special and interdependent relationship with such literary devices as fantasy and irony. According to Walker, fantasy and language are tied together in unique ways, and she illustrates this connection through an analysis of several works of fantasy by women writers.]

In Marge Piercy's Small Changes, Beth, one of the two central characters, dissolves in angry tears after an argument with Phil: “Oh, I wish I was better with words!” Beth views words as weapons in the battle for selfhood—a battle in which she, as a woman, is disadvantaged. She has difficulty arguing because “it's crossing taboos. You know, asserting myself, contradicting somebody. … I only want to use words as weapons because I'm tired of being beaten with them. Tired of being pushed around because I don't know how to push back.”1 In the Republic of Gilead in The Handmaid's Tale, language is all but forbidden because the ruling class recognizes the power of words as weapons that can free people from bondage. Piercy's 1973 novel is set in the 1960s, the turbulent decade in which Offred's mother was an active feminist; Atwood's 1986 novel is set in the late twentieth century after a fundamentalist revolution has repressed not just the women's movement but all expression of freedom and equality. In different ways these two novels suggest the centrality of language to the process of self-realization and the struggle for equality. In fact language—the ability to speak, to tell one's own story—is at the heart of the contemporary novel by women.

Both irony and fantasy, as narrative devices, are interdependent with language in specific, complex ways. Whereas on the simplest level irony is a verbal construction—the reader is invited to question the surface validity of a statement that an author or a character makes—deeper irony, of circumstance or attitude, requires that the author create a context in which ambiguity is tolerable, a linguistic fabric that signals a stance from which she (or he) will approach whatever reality is being depicted. When Atwood opens The Handmaid's Tale with the line, “We slept in what had once been the gymnasium,” she plunges the reader at once into a world of uncertainty in which everything—including language—will be, as Offred says repeatedly, a “reconstruction”: the essential method of irony.

Fantasy is tied to language in several ways, which I will suggest here and explore in more detail later. When authors or narrators in the contemporary women's novel revise the mythologies of their lives, they are in a very direct way addressing the language of those mythologies. When, for example, Gemma, in Words of Advice, says of the fairy tale that is her life story, “Princes, toads, princesses, beggar girls—we all have to place ourselves as best we can,” she is commenting on the use of language to dichotomize people into the favored and the unfavored.2 Alternatively, words and stories may free a woman to engage in fantasy that helps to empower her. In The Woman Warrior, the story the narrator's mother tells her of Fa Mu Lan allows her to dream of being a woman warrior rather than a wife or a slave. Fantasy may even be a way of avoiding the language of dominant discourse. Lesje, in Atwood's Life before Man (1979), has fantasies in which she is “wandering in prehistory,” able to “violate whatever official version of paleontological reality she chooses,”3 in order to escape from the male museum world she normally inhabits. As Margaret Homans points out, Lesje has failed to appropriate the male language of science: “it is clearly because she is a woman that she is denied access to the legitimate professional and intellectual satisfactions its native speakers should enjoy.”4

The issue of women's language is the subject of much contemporary debate, and it is an issue that has several dimensions. On the most basic level is the silencing and suppression of women's expression—terms taken from the titles of Tillie Olsen's Silences (1978) and Joanna Russ's How to Suppress Women's Writing (1983). Both Olsen and Russ describe the multiple barriers to women's writing over time: the conflicting demands of domestic responsibilities, the refusal of the literary establishment to take women's writing seriously, the consequent lack of models for young female writers—and so on in a vicious circle, causing women to feel insecure about their own voices. Such insecurity, as Olsen points out, has often kept women from writing honestly out of their own experience:

These pressures toward censorship, self-censorship; toward accepting, abiding by entrenched attitudes, thus falsifying one's own reality, range, vision, truth, voice, are extreme for women writers (indeed have much to do with the fear, the sense of powerlessness that pervades certain of our books, the “above all, amuse” tone of others). Not to be able to come to one's truth or not to use it in one's writing, even in telling the truth to have to “tell it slant,” robs one of drive, of conviction; limits potential stature; results in loss to literature and the comprehensions we seek in it.5

This uncertainty about one's own “truth” is reflected in the dual narratives of Jane Gray in Drabble's The Waterfall and Chloe in Weldon's Female Friends as they revise their lives, seeking an honest, coherent version.

Another, more complex aspect of women's use of language is the extent to which they can or should forge or reclaim a language of their own, free from the influence of male conceptualizing. Once, like Beth, having found the courage to speak up, what language do women use? How is their expression their own, as women? Alicia Ostriker, writing of American women poets in Stealing the Language, asks the same question: “Does there exist, as a subterranean current below the surface structure of male-oriented language, a specifically female language, a ‘mother tongue’?” The answer to this question, in Ostriker's view, awaits further research, but she argues that women have indeed been “thieves of language”:

What distinguishes these poets, I propose, is not the shared, exclusive langage des femmes desired by some but a vigorous and varied invasion of the sanctuaries of existing language, the treasuries where our meanings for “male” and “female” are themselves preserved. Where women write strongly as women, it is clear that their intention is to subvert and transform the life and literature they inherit.6

One of the ways that Ostriker believes women have transformed the literature they have inherited is by revising cultural mythologies, and this has been true in the novel as well as in poetry, in ways to which I have previously pointed: Violet Clay, the title character in Gail Godwin's novel, seeks to escape from the “Book of Old Plots” that would have her give up a potential career in art to be a homemaker. Gemma, in Words of Advice, sees her life as a constantly revised fairy tale. And The Handmaid's Tale is in some measure a rewriting of Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter: fundamentalist morality can mean that women are forced to be adulteresses just as it can punish them for adultery.

For some critics, such as Hélène Cixous, the langage des femmes not only exists, it is necessary for women's emancipation. Cixous maintains that women have been driven away from language just as they have been forced to deny their bodies, and she encourages full expression of the female experience as a powerful subversive force. Masculine language, Cixous believes, has been used for the oppression of women:

in a manner that's frightening since it's often hidden or adorned with the mystifying charms of fiction; that this locus has grossly exaggerated all the signs of sexual opposition (and not sexual difference), where woman has never her turn to speak—this being all the more serious and unpardonable in that writing is precisely the very possibility of change, the space that can serve as a springboard for subversive thought, the precursory movement of a transformation of social and cultural structures.7

For Cixous, as for many other feminist critics, language is tied intimately to gender: “Woman must write woman. And man, man” (877). Female writing is bound up in female biology, she maintains, because women have been taught to feel guilty about both, and the courage to claim and proclaim both language and biology is the first step toward “transformation.”

For many French feminist critics, language is seen as being in the control of men, with women left out, silenced. In Cixous' terms, language is a decisive and oppositional mechanism:

For as soon as we exist, we are born into language and language speaks (to) us, dictates its law, a law of death; it lays down its familial model, lays down its conjugal model, and even at the moment of uttering a sentence, admitting a notion of “being,” a question of being, an ontology, we are already seized by a kind of masculine desire, the desire that mobilizes philosophical discourse.8

For Cixous, the “desire” to enter into philosophical discourse is futile for women, because the discourse is conducted in a language that effectively silences them.

Linguist Deborah Cameron, however, comes to different conclusions about the power of male language. In Feminism and Linguistic Theory, Cameron argues against linguistic determinism—the concept that one group has the ability to fix meaning and thus deprive another group of access to the power of language: “Since language is a flexible and renewable resource, and since girls must come to grips with it as their socialisation proceeds, there is no reason in principle why language cannot express the experience of women to the same extent that it expresses the experience of men.”9 However, Cameron recognizes that language is closely tied to the power structures of a society, and that “the institutions that regulate language use in our own society, and indeed those of most societies, are deliberately oppressive to women” (145). When women themselves believe that their own use of language—their own talk—is important rather than trivial, Cameron believes that it will thereby become important, and can be a source of autonomy.

The differences between French and American feminist scholars' beliefs about the relationship between women and language—the former seeing women denied a language in which to express their experience, and the latter believing that women are capable of appropriating the dominant discourse for their own purposes—are summarized by Margaret Homans in a 1983 article that attempts to mediate between them. One way in which Homans bridges the philosophical gap is by pointing out that American women novelists themselves address women's exclusion from language as a theme in their fiction, thus providing thematic evidence of the French critics' position:

A woman novelist's ability to represent verbally her response to exclusion from the dominant discourse does not at all disprove the thesis that women's silence serves as the basis for the operation of language. Such an ability is constantly undermining itself: in the very act of asserting through capacious representation the adequacy of language, these novelists betray their anxieties about its sufficiency.10

Thus, even as American critics take the pragmatic and optimistic stance that women are able to take possession of language, as Cameron asserts, the texts of those who write in English proclaim that language is a central problem for women who seek to use it to overcome their oppression.

Yet a belief in the potential power of women's use of language is closely tied to the methods and goals of the women's movement. In both formal and informal ways, the movement has encouraged women to communicate, especially with each other, to understand their commonalities, to overcome isolation and silence. It is not surprising, then, that women's fiction of the period from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s demonstrates a central concern with language: the ability to use language, tell stories, describe experience, and revise mythologies. Language may be a weapon against male authority, as it is for Beth in Small Changes; it may be a way of ordering and giving meaning to experience, as it is in Female Friends and The Waterfall; it is above all a means of communication with other women.

At the same time, however, language is viewed in these novels and others as untrustworthy, and this is the central irony of its significance: even as women writers and their characters feel compelled to describe their experience, they are aware that language can be used to manipulate, that it can lie, as women themselves have been manipulated and lied to. Thus, in the midst of telling their stories, women express their awareness that the truth they seek to tell of is illusory, and that a fantasy could be as “real” as the observable facts of their lives. Indeed, the perception that language is arbitrary and mutable can be the first step toward liberation. When Beth, in Small Changes, overcomes her timidity about language, it is through her participation in a women's theater group in which the members learn together to use their voices as well as their bodies: “They were still learning how they felt and how to express it and create with it” (477).

As a significant issue in the contemporary novel by women, language is addressed in a number of ways that can be grouped in two general categories. One group includes challenges to male-dominated language, either by appropriating male discourse for women's purposes or by altering or subverting it. The second group of approaches is composed of those that emphasize women's exclusion from language—their silence. Writers who challenge the dominant discourse typically do so by employing some form of irony, whereas those who stress women's position outside that discourse are more apt to use fantasy as a concomitant narrative strategy. Both of these approaches and strategies may be combined in a single work, as they are, for example, in the three novels considered in the final part of this chapter: The Handmaid's Tale, The Woman Warrior, and The Color Purple. In each of these three novels, language is initially a silencing but ultimately a liberating phenomenon.

The initial step in negating the hegemony of oppressive language is to question its authority by making fun of it. Pointing to the absurdity of the official language of a culture is a method used commonly by members of oppressed groups; humor negates the power of hegemonic discourse quite simply by refusing to take that power seriously. Joanna Russ's The Female Man provides the clearest and most overt examples of this undercutting of male language and power, and at the same time makes explicit men's attempt to silence women. In fact, The Female Man extends into speculative fiction the attempts at silencing that Russ also describes in How to Suppress Women's Writing, but in her novel, the (fictional) women fight back effectively. An exchange late in the novel serves as a paradigm of both silencing and the subversion of that attempt. A man in Manland, in one of the four parallel universes in the novel, says to Jael, from the opposing camp of Womanland, “You're on my turf, you'll Goddamn well talk about what I Goddamn well talk about,” and Jael thinks to herself: “Let it pass. Control yourself. Hand them the victory in the Domination Sweepstakes and they usually forget whatever it is they were going to do anyway.”11

Throughout The Female Man the various narrators parody the language—especially the clichés—of male discourse. In the chapter titled “The Great Happiness Contest,” Russ records a paradigmatic exchange between wife and husband in which the latter reveals his need for domination:

Darling, why must you work part-time as a rug salesman?
Because I want to enter the marketplace and prove that in spite of my sex I can take a fruitful part in the life of the community and earn what our culture proposes as the sign and symbol of adult independence—namely money.
But darling, by the time we deduct the cost of a baby-sitter and nursery school, a higher tax bracket, and your box lunches from your pay, it actually costs us money for you to work. So you see, you aren't making money at all. You can't make money. Only I can make money. Stop working.
I won't. And I hate you.
But darling, why be irrational? It doesn't matter that you can't make money because I can make money. And after I've made it, I give it to you, because I love you. So you don't have to make money. Aren't you glad?
No. Why can't you stay home and take care of the baby? Why can't we deduct all those things from your pay? Why should I be glad because I can't earn a living? Why—
(with dignity): This argument is becoming degraded and ridiculous. I will leave you alone until loneliness, dependence, and a consciousness that I am very much displeased once again turn you into the sweet girl I married. There is no use in arguing with a woman.


The very stiltedness of the dialogue, especially the man's final comments, makes it seem absurd, but the reality of the exchange lies in the man's stereotypical assumption that women are dependent and irrational. Russ's technique is to allow the man's words to make overt his normally unspoken attitudes, and thus to make clear his sense of dominance—and finally to render that dominance itself as absurd and powerless as the strutting of a small bully.

In Russ's novel it is Janet, from the all-female planet While-away, who strikes at the heart of sexist language when she asserts that if the term “Mankind” is meant to include women (as it so clearly does not), then she will insist on being called a man rather than a woman. “For,” she says, “whoever heard of Java Woman and existential Woman and the values of Western Woman … ? … Stop hugging Moses' tablets to your chest, nitwit; you'll cave in” (140). Thus emerges the “female man” of the title. As Natalie Rosinsky says, “Shocking us into recognition of the absurdity of patriarchal law and so-called truth, Russ's humor enables the reader to distance herself from unexamined experience or belief, to become a healthy renegade.”12

In most other novels of this period, patriarchal language is attacked more subtly, using irony rather than parody. In both Female Friends and The Handmaid's Tale, Biblical language is mocked, altered, and called into question as a means of authority. Weldon's narrator comments on women's susceptibility to words: “reading significance into casual words, seeing love in calculated lust, seeing lust in innocent words.”13 Yet the young Chloe, growing up in the pub where her mother works, reads the Bible at night and instinctively questions its validity: “‘Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, when the evil days come not—’ But supposing they do?” (72). Atwood's Offred, who refers to the Bible as an “incendiary device”14 because, like other weapons, it is available only to the ruling-class men in Gilead, similarly questions Biblical statements or finds them inadequate. As part of the handmaids' training, they are required to recite Biblical passages that reinforce their submissiveness. After reciting a passage from the Beatitudes—“Blessed be those that mourn for they shall be comforted”—Offred undercuts the power of the utterance by thinking, “Nobody said when” (89). Writing of the emotional bondage of women with children, Weldon's Chloe herself rewrites the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the orphans, and the barren of body and mind” (205).

Weldon and Atwood also question the authority of patriarchal language by demonstrating that whatever its stated intention, it all comes from the same reservoir of male discourse. Religious and political dogma blend and become indistinguishable. Speaking of the enforced domesticity for women in the period following World War II—“women have to leave their jobs and return to the domestic dedication expected of all good women in peacetime”—Chloe says, “Hitler is not coming, and neither is God; there is to be neither punishment or salvation. There is, instead, a flurry of sexual activity which will land the schools between 1950 and 1960 with what is known as ‘The Bulge’” (114). In Atwood's Republic of Gilead, the birth-rate is dangerously low, which leads to the establishment of the class of handmaids, whose “domestic” duties are a degraded, obscene version of the “flurry of sexual activity” of which Chloe speaks. Biblical and Marxist teachings are blended and distorted in the effort to brainwash the handmaids: “From each, says the slogan, according to her ability; to each according to his needs. We recited that, three times, after dessert. It was from the Bible, or so they said. St. Paul again, in Acts” (117). Offred's ironic comment “or so they said” casts doubt on the authority of the statement, and forces the reader to note also the use of the pronouns “her” and “his” as yet another evidence of the oppression of women in Gilead.

Both suspicion of and domination by male discourse are consistent threads in Piercy's Small Changes. Beth, who begins the novel as a young woman wanting and living in the marriage plot, is nonetheless initially and increasingly resistant to received linguistic tradition. Even in the midst of her wedding, she listens to the jingle of an ice-cream truck rather than hearing the “magic words” of the ceremony: “Magic words that made things happen or go away, recipes like I Love You, and I'm Sorry, and I Pledge Allegiance, and God Bless Mommy and Daddy, and Will You Marry Me, and Fine, Thank You, and I Do” (21). Beth's perception that words are agents rather than merely symbols is what causes her to fear their use as weapons against her later in the novel, but this perception also frees her, for she is able to view the language of the dominant culture ironically, and ultimately to reject it altogether. Even very early in the novel, in the chapter ironically titled “The Happiest Day of a Woman's Life,” Beth recasts her sister Nancy's description of her wedding dress, “The train comes away,” in terms that suggest marriage as a potentially detachable burden: “That meant the thing that dragged could be taken off, with a little timely help” (12). Later, having escaped her marriage, Beth confronts Dorine's statement, “I feel sometimes as if I'll go through life and never belong to anyone,” with, “But you aren't a dog, why do you want to be owned?” (88). Beth's sense of freedom and selfhood is expressed late in the novel in a poem she writes:

Everything says no to me.
Everybody tells me no.
Only I say yes.
I have to say it again and again
like a singer
with only one song.
Yes, Beth! Yes, Beth! Yes, Beth!


Elaine Tuttle Hansen identifies Piercy's approach to language in Small Changes when she states that “Piercy expresses her mistrust of language but does not advocate or sentimentalize silence on the part of women. While women need to seek alternatives and to reject language and literature when they are used to keep women in their place, they cannot allow themselves to be muted; inarticulateness is not a useful weapon.”15

Kate Brown, in Doris Lessing's The Summer before the Dark (1973), is, like Beth, conscious that conventional phrases are just that—conventions—and not prescriptions for how one must think or feel. At the beginning of the novel she is “trying on” words and phrases “like so many dresses off a rack”—phrases “as worn as nursery rhymes.” And indeed they are nursery rhymes for women: “Growing up is bound to be painful! … Marriage is a compromise. … I am not as young as I once was.” Kate perceives that such phrases rarely reflect actual feelings, yet have become the common currency of habit:

Such power do these phrases have, all issued for use as it might be by a particularly efficient advertising campaign, that it is probable many people go on repeating Youth is the best time of your life or Love is a woman's whole existence until they actually catch sight of themselves in a mirror while they are saying something of the kind, or are quick enough to catch the reaction on a friend's face.16

Kate's acknowledgment at this point that people—women—are capable of recognizing the insincerity of their own formulaic utterances is magnified later in the novel when she and her friend Mary are driven to helpless laughter by the jargon referent to homemaking. Each has been patronizingly advised by a child's teacher about the child's “normal” adjustment: “The phrases followed each other: well-adjusted, typical, normal, integrated, secure, normative” (149); subsequently, even the words “wife, husband, man, woman” begin to seem to the two women hilarious clichés, and Lessing notes that “it was a ritual, like the stag parties of suburban men in which everything their normal lives are dedicated to upholding is spat upon, insulted, belittled” (150).

A second way in which women writers deal with male discourse is to appropriate it—to use, as authors and narrators, the language of the dominant culture in order to demonstrate an altered relationship with it. Joanne Frye has identified the novel as “peculiarly susceptible to feminist concern for cultural change”: “its capacity to ‘represent’ the shared experience of women's lives—‘differenced’ as women experience it, whatever its explanation or cause—while simultaneously resisting external definitions of those lives as they have been encoded within male-dominated expectations.”17 Appropriation of male discourse is the most problematic of the ways in which women deal with it. Lesje, in Life before Man, is an example of one caught in the paradox of male-defined female roles and her own professional life in the male-dominated field of paleontology. As Homans points out, Lesje uses the language of science without being a part of its creation; her creative participation in prehistory exists in fantasies, not in reality. Even her pregnancy is an act of vengeance and desperation—a way to solidify her relationship with Nate and remain in the “marriage plot.” Miriam, in Small Changes, does appropriate successfully the language of male professional discourse as a computer scientist, but she gives up her professional aspirations in order to remain, like Lesje, in the marriage plot. Beth, in the same novel, does not fail to appropriate male discourse, as she initially wishes to do, but chooses instead to express herself specifically as a woman in her women's theater group.

Other female characters, however, do use words as weapons. In Walker's The Color Purple, the turning point in Celie's struggle for self-esteem comes when she is finally able to talk back to Mr.____, the husband who has degraded her and hidden the letters her sister Nettie has written to her over the years. With the support of Shug Avery, Celie finds her voice when Mr.____ says that she will go to Memphis with Shug “over my dead body.” The log jam of Celie's resentment breaks at that moment: “You a lowdown dog is what's wrong, I say. It's time to leave you and enter into the Creation. And your dead body just the welcome mat I need.” Shocked at Celie's freely spoken resolve, Mr.____ is effectively silenced, reversing the pattern of male dominance that he has enjoyed for so long: “Mr.____ start to sputter. ButButButButBut. Sound like some kind of motor.”18 The image of Mr.____ as a piece of machinery emphasizes Celie's human transcendence over him.

Perhaps the most common and effective method by which women writers have addressed male discourse is by revising the mythologies it has promulgated. The various myths and stories that have been used as paradigms for success, heroism, and male-female relationships are perceived with skeptical irony by these authors. The efficacy of romantic love is a staple of the traditional fairy tale that is frequently deconstructed in these works. For example, shortly after Celie has confronted Mr.____ on his own terms, he asks her about her rejection of him and her preference for Shug Avery:

He say, Celie, tell me the truth. You don't like me cause I'm a man? I blow my nose. Take off they pants, I say, and men look like frogs to me. No matter how you kiss 'em, as far as I'm concern, frogs is what they stay.


By refusing to accept the role of princess, who can turn the frog into a prince, Celie refuses to identify herself as the nurturer and savior of men. Fairy tales and their revision permeate Weldon's Words of Advice. Not only is the story of her life that Gemma tells Elsa a constantly revised fairy tale, but Elsa's naive romantic view of herself—fed by fairy tales—is finally replaced by a more mature view at the end of the novel. Gemma, having lost a finger, married the frog rather than the prince, and developed a psychosomatic inability to walk, needs to recreate her life as a different fairy tale. When at the end of the novel Gemma's husband, Hamish, tells Elsa that Gemma's story has been a fabrication, Gemma responds in a passage that posits the human need for illusion:

“One story or another, Hamish,” she says. “What's the difference? It is all the same. It's the one-way journey we all make from ignorance to knowledge, from innocence to experience. We must all make it; there is no escape. It's just that love and romance and illusion and hope are etched so deeply into all our hearts that they can never quite be wiped away. They stay around to torment us with thoughts of what might have been.”


Gemma recasts her life as a fairy tale in order to lessen the power that romance and illusion have over her; at the same time, she suggests that all our stories are fictitious—“One story or another … what's the difference?” By the end of Words of Advice, Gemma has taken the trip from “ignorance to knowledge” and is able to walk; and Elsa is home having cocoa with her brothers and sisters, ready to embark anew upon her adult life.

Moving from ignorance to knowledge frequently involves disentangling oneself from one or more mythologies. Jane Gray, in The Waterfall, has to come to terms with the fact that her life is not a novel by Thomas Hardy or George Eliot, and must write her own text. The earliest mythology that Jane must free herself from is her family's concept of respectability, composed of beliefs “in the God of the Church of England, … in monogamy, in marrying for love, in free will, in the possibility of moderation of the passions, in the virtues of reason and civilization.”19 When she marries Malcolm, she is still in the clutches of these myths; a “doomed romantic” (91), she believes it is love at first sight when she hears Malcolm sing Thomas Campion's lyrics. Like Gemma a believer in the power of “romance and illusion and hope,” Jane later places the blame for her mistake on the literature that perpetuates such ideas: “I blame Campion, I blame the poets, I blame Shakespeare for that farcical moment in Romeo and Juliet when he sees her at the dance, from far off, and says, I'll have her, because she is the one that will kill me” (92). A central irony of The Waterfall is that Jane does not, in fact, die of love the way that Juliet, Sue Bridehead, and Maggie Tulliver do. In the automobile accident the couple has when stealing away for an illicit weekend, her lover, James, is injured, but Jane walks away with only scratches. Indeed, Jane's guilt and wonder at her escape from both respectability and the old plots cause her to narrate and revise her story. At the end of the novel she revises a twentieth-century mythology—that birth-control pills are liberating and safe—by reporting that use of the pills has caused a blood clot in her leg. The Jane who feels guilty about her happiness with James is glad to have this small price to pay for it—“I prefer to suffer, I think” (256)—yet as she has so ironically shown the reader, her suffering is scarcely equal to her happiness.

However haunted Jane Gray may be by the old mythologies, she sees clearly the dangerous illusions they can foster in women's minds, and by writing of her own fulfillment outside these mythologies, she writes a truly female text in which the sensual pleasures of the female body—childbirth, orgasm—are celebrated as not only natural but also the wellsprings of female creativity. The character Jane is a poet; in The Waterfall she is the first-person reviser and shaper of her own story, so that woman and writer are finally identical. As Ellen Cronan Rose has written, “Jane's task as woman and as artist is the same: to acknowledge the existence within her self of the Other and not simply to reconcile but to encompass that division.”20 The woman artist, especially in the period from the 1960s to the 1980s, rejects a belief in stability and certainty—in the creation of art as well as in the middle-class respectability of Jane's parents. As Joanne Creighton comments, “Jane has discovered intuitively what post-structuralists have postulated, that reality is necessarily mediated through language and that different ‘codes’ create different discourses.”21 Creighton points to one of the passages in which Jane questions the “accuracy” of her own text:

the ways of regarding an event, so different, don't add up to a whole; they are mutually exclusive: the social view, the sexual view, the circumstantial view, the moral view, these visions contradict each other; they do not supplement one another, they cancel each other out, they destroy one another.


This passage is remarkably similar to one in The Handmaid's Tale in which Offred is reminding us once again that what she is telling us is a “reconstruction”:

It's impossible to say a thing exactly the way it was, because what you say can never be exact, you always have to leave something out, there are too many parts, sides, crosscurrents, nuances; too many gestures, which could mean this or that, too many shapes which can never be fully described, too many flavors, in the air or on the tongue, half-colors, too many.


Rose points to the postscript of The Waterfall as “a triumph of feminine form,” because of both its irony and its refusal to make a “final formulation”: “The last dramatic, heroic, ‘masculine’ statement—‘I prefer to suffer’—is followed by the feminine ending, ‘I think’” (66). But more than this, Drabble undercuts the suffering of the romantic, mythological heroine with the revisionist stance of the ironist.

As Jane Gray uses her skills as a writer to bring her life into clearer focus and free herself from the old mythologies, so Violet Clay, title character in Godwin's novel, must learn to take herself seriously as an artist and disentangle herself from the myths and stories she has both inherited and created. Violet, like Jane, is able to see herself ironically, revising her own history as she inhabits the present. Violet's grandmother, who had hoped to be a pianist, instead became trapped in the marriage plot and gave up her career. As she tells Violet, she was seduced away from Carnegie Hall by “a subversive, tempting picture”:

The picture was of that lady so feted in our day—her praises were sung in every women's magazine—the accomplished wife and mother who turns her gifts to the enhancement of Home. I saw myself, safe and rich and beautiful, seated at a nine-foot grand in Charles's ancestral home, playing the G Minor Ballade by Chopin, followed by Mozart's sonata with the Turkish Rondo, to a select cultural gathering, after which my two beautiful children would be led in by the servants to say good night.22

Such a romantic vision did not materialize, and Violet's grandmother tells Violet her story as a cautionary tale; but Violet insists that she will not make the same mistake: “Don't worry. I have my own plans” (38). However, Violet not only marries rather than going to New York to pursue her career; when she finally leaves her marriage and makes the move, she remains caught in a romanticized image of herself as a victim of circumstance until her uncle's suicide forces her to begin to disengage from the fantasies she has so carefully constructed. As an illustrator of Gothic romances, Violet assumes that she is superior to her material, but like the Gothic heroine, she is waiting to be rescued rather than creating her own future. In order to free herself from the myth of “The Young Woman as Artist” (26), she has to confront her uncle Ambrose's failure as a novelist and hence the potential of her own. Violet's first successful painting is titled “Suspended Woman,” which aptly characterizes Violet's situation at the end of the novel: having rejected the “Book of Old Plots,” she is poised to begin life on her own terms.23

In mocking, appropriating, and revising the language and the stories of a culture that has at the very least discouraged women's participation in its dominant discourse, the contemporary woman novelist creates fiction that is fundamentally ironic in its intent. That is, by questioning the formulations of self and experience that are imposed on women rather than arising from their own perceptions, the writer creates what Lilian Furst calls “an inquiring mode that exploits discrepancies, challenges assumptions and reflects equivocations, but that does not presume to hold out answers.”24 The absence of clear answers both mirrors the historical period during which these novels were written and creates fictions that are not conclusive, because conclusions, like traditional mythologies, do not allow growth and evolution. When these novelists focus on ways in which women are silenced and excluded, the possibility of change takes the form of fantasy. Some forms of fantasy are positive and enabling, such as Kingston's dream of the “woman warrior”; others, like the dystopian vision of The Handmaid's Tale, are horrific; all, however, arise from a need for alternative realities. Fantasy theorists frequently note the function of fantasy as a critique of existing norms and structures, challenging not merely facts, but also assumptions. William Irvin, for example, states that “conventions as to factual possibility and impossibility are not the only kind that fantasies deny. There are also beliefs, interpretations, and understandings seemingly based on facts and widely enough accepted to have the status of convention.”25 The use of fantasy in women's fiction is a way of exploring and challenging assumptions about women's lives.

Metaphoric of the silencing of women is the fact that characters in these novels frequently lack names, or have more than one name for more than one identity. The power of names to define women's status and role came into sharp focus during the 1960s and 1970s as feminists sought not only to rid English of sexist and exclusionary terminology (Janet's diatribe against the word “mankind” in The Female Man reflects this concern), but also to make clear that such terms as “girl” and “little woman” are demeaning. The fact that women traditionally assume first the names of their fathers and then the names of their husbands means that they go through life without named identities of their own, but instead with names that indicate their status as objects: daughter, wife.26 The most extreme example of relational naming is “Offred” in The Handmaid's Tale: not even a name, this is a tag that the narrator wears to signify that she is the handmaid “of Fred.”27 Significantly, the researchers who report in the “Historical Notes” section of the novel can attempt to discover Offred's identity only by determining which “Fred” her Commander was, and their efforts are inconclusive.

Margaret Atwood's narrator in Surfacing is not only nameless, but also obsessed by language and a search for identity—a search that allows her to cast off the fantasies she has constructed about her own life and enter into a primitive world of the imagination in which language is secondary to feeling. By limiting the narrative perspective to that of the unnamed narrator, Atwood allows us only gradually to understand—as the narrator herself confronts it—that she has imaginatively transformed an affair with a married man and the abortion of a child into marriage, childbirth, and divorce. The narrator clearly feels the power of language, and regards naming as a limiting, restrictive act. Of the child she pretends to have borne, she says early in the novel, “I never identified it as mine; I didn't name it before it was born even, the way you're supposed to.”28 The act of getting married, she thinks, ruined the relationship with her “husband”: “We committed that paper act. I still don't see why signing a name should make any difference but he began to expect things, he wanted to be pleased” (47). Language is “everything you do” (153), and it “divides us into fragments” (172). The major obstacle the narrator confronts in trying to come to terms with her life and her fantasies is the split between mind and body, between the rational and the intuitive. Midway through the novel she comments that “the trouble is all in the knob at the top of our bodies”: “I'm not against the body or the head either: only the neck, which creates the illusion that they are separate. The language is wrong, it shouldn't have different words for them” (91). At the end of the novel, on the verge of accepting Joe because he is “only half formed,” she still distrusts language: “For us it's necessary, the intercession of words; and we will probably fail, sooner or later, more or less painfully” (224).

Atwood's narrator resists naming, but the narrator's aunt in The Woman Warrior has, in the eyes of her Chinese family, lost the right to her name because she has become pregnant and committed suicide. The “no name woman” has been effectively expunged from family history, so that the narrator must flesh out her mother's sparse, confidential story with her own imaginings as she tries to come to terms with the Chinese heritage that silences her. The narrator's Chinese and American identities are at war as she matures; nor can she reconcile her mother's life as a doctor in China and her timid, unadventurous manner in America. The reconciliation between mother and daughter takes place when the narrator's mother calls her by her childhood nickname, “Little Dog”: “a name to fool the gods. I am really a Dragon, as she is a Dragon, both of us born in dragon years.”29

Just as Kingston's narrator, having heard the stories of Fa Mu Lan, has her fantasy of being the woman warrior, so the adolescent Miriam, in Small Changes, creates a fantasy self. Having discovered that the best parts in most plots are reserved for men, Miriam makes up stories in which she is Tamar De Luria, an anthropologist who has defended a primitive tribe from white colonialists and in return has been taught their secrets. Like Kingston's woman warrior, Tamar has both male and female characteristics: “Tamar could track people and walk so silently she never broke a twig and climb trees like a cat and scamper over buildings and fight as well as a man” (97-98). Yet “when Tamar danced, men fell in love with her” (98). As the woman warrior sends her infant son home with her husband while she finishes her conquest, so Tamar remains dedicated to the tribe that has taught her its secrets: “Because she never knew when a message would come from her island saying that her people were in danger again and she must return to save them, she could never marry” (98). In these fantasies, triggered by other stories, the female characters take on an autonomy that, as they are aware, is normally reserved for men, and escape, imaginatively and temporarily, the scripts that have been written for them as women. Similarly, Lesje, in Life before Man, uses her fantasies of prehistory to take control as she cannot do in her professional life. She is a scribe, a copyist of the language of paleontology, not a researcher who creates the language that she copies onto tags in the museum. In her daydreams, however, Lesje “allows herself to violate shamelessly whatever official version of paleontological reality she chooses”:

She mixes eras, adds colors: why not a metallic blue stegosaurus with red and yellow dots instead of the dull greys and browns postulated by the experts? Of which she, in a minor way, is one. Across the flanks of the camptosaurs pastel flushes of color come and go, reddish pink, purple, light pink, reflecting emotions like the contracting and expanding chromatophores in the skins of octopuses.


Fitting neither into the world of her male profession—except as a “minor” expert—nor into the world of women, Lesje wants to merge the two by bringing the colors of emotion into the dry world of her science.

Those women who, like Kingston's narrator, are not part of mainstream culture by virtue of their racial or ethnic backgrounds are more easily and effectively silenced. Kingston's narrator describes at length her refusal to speak during kindergarten and grade school, and links it to the fact that she is Chinese and female: “The other Chinese girls did not talk either, so I knew the silence had to do with being a Chinese girl” (193). Another form that her silence takes is her habit during these years of covering her school paintings with a layer of black paint. Neither her teachers nor her parents understand that in the child's imagination the black paint represents stage curtains behind which her painting waits to be gloriously unveiled. At home, the girl “spread them out (so black and full of possibilities) and pretended the curtains were swinging open, flying up, one after another, sunlight underneath, mighty operas” (192). Celie, in The Color Purple, is, like Kingston's narrator, abjured to be silent at the very start of the novel: “You better not never tell nobody but God” (11). Taking this warning literally, she begins, at the age of fourteen, writing letters to God, telling her story to the only one she believes can understand it. In Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time, Consuelo, as a Mexican-American woman living in New York, is at the bottom of the socio-economic scale, a fact that makes it easy for those in control to interpret her despair and rage as madness, and to silence her with drugs. When Geraldo commits her to Bellevue, no one asks to hear her side of the story: “So far no one had heard a word she said, which of course was not unusual.”30 Yet it is Consuelo who is selected for contact by Luciente, from a utopian culture in 2137, who tells her that she is “an unusual person. Your mind is unusual. You're what we call a catcher, a receptive” (41). Considered merely a dangerous psychotic by those who would keep her locked up and drugged, Connie is a sensitive woman who is capable of entering into an alternate reality.31

In Lessing's The Four-Gated City, the authority of the psychiatric establishment is also challenged, this time by Martha Quest's rejection of it to pursue her own self-examination through empathic union with Lynda. Using both fantasy and irony, Lessing suggests that women's silence is alleviated not by remote institutions but by intimate and intuitive fantasy. The ironically named Dr. Lamb, Lynda's psychiatrist, represents the power of hegemonic culture to label, categorize, and therefore silence those who do not conform to preconceived standards of “normality.” Lynda mocks this practice when she tells Martha the joke among psychiatric hospital patients of the “nothing-but”:

You know, it's that point when they get all pleased because they can say: you're nothing but—whatever it is. They've taken weeks and weeks to get to that point, you know, and it's. You're nothing but Electra. You know, that girl who killed her mother? … It's nothing but you want to sleep with your father. Nothing-but your brother. … I'm nothing-but a depression.32

By recognizing the dehumanizing effect of the “nothing-but” labeling, Lynda and Martha can prepare for the joint exploration of “their dreams, their slips of the tongue, their fantasies” (372) that leads Martha to self-realization. As Elizabeth Abel has pointed out, the contrast between Martha's relationships with Dr. Lamb and Mark, and the one with Lynda, points up the sharp difference between scientific objectivity and hierarchy on the one hand, and fluidity and openness on the other. When Martha enters imaginatively into Lynda's world of madness, she “takes the risk of throwing off her rational guard, thereby uncovering a portion of herself”:

The union achieved by Martha and Lynda becomes an emblem of the breakthrough essential to human survival, the transformation of the brain from “a machine which works in division” to the unified and unifying organism invoked by the Sufi tale that forms the dedication of the novel.33

In the midst of hers and Lynda's explorations of madness and sanity, Martha articulates the connection between madness and expression, the breaking of silence, when she speaks of their not having words to describe the process they are going through:

Perhaps it was because if society is so organized, or rather has so grown, that it will not admit what one knows to be true, will not admit it, that is, except as it comes out perverted, through madness, then it is through madness and its variants it must be sought after.


Madness and its “variants”—dreams, daydreams, and fantasies—become subversive ways of overcoming exclusion and silence. “What one knows to be true” but cannot express because it will not be understood or accepted in light of one's marginal position in society emerges in fantasy. Contemporary women novelists use various forms of fantasy to show women attempting to take control of circumstances from which they are excluded, to express what would otherwise be inexpressible. Violet Clay and the Surfacing narrator must extricate themselves from fantasies they have devised to avoid confronting painful realities, but to do so they must dream other selves and relations. Kingston's “woman warrior” fantasy, like Martha Quest's approach to madness, is in itself enabling, allowing the woman access to an alternate reality that permits a more complete identity.

In The Color Purple, The Woman Warrior, and The Handmaid's Tale, the central characters are initially silenced by their cultures, but each eventually works her way to freedom through language. The central irony in all three texts is that the very thing that is denied these women—the freedom to speak up, speak out, be heard—becomes the medium through which they define themselves. Celie's letters to God and Nettie, the woman warrior's memoirs, and Offred's voice on cassette tapes all serve as records of an emergence from silence, both in terms of the way in which they relate to others and in the fact of the written record itself. Forms of fantasy work in various ways in these novels: Celie dreams of an eventual reconciliation with Nettie, the Woman Warrior narrator imagines herself as a powerful avenger, and Offred dreams of a past in which she had choices while inhabiting a speculative future that is itself the fantasy of the author. Each is aware that her present reality is oppressive, denying her individuality and her autonomy.

In Alice Walker's 1976 novel Meridian, she tells the story of the slave woman Louvinie, whose master cuts out her tongue because one of her frightening stories is presumed to have killed his weak-hearted son. Louvinie had been raised in a family of storytellers in West Africa; the loss of her tongue is equivalent to the loss of her spirit: “Without one's tongue in one's mouth or in a special spot of one's choosing, the singer in one's soul was lost forever to grunt and snort through eternity like a pig.”34 Celie, in The Color Purple, is silenced by both physical brutality and admonition. Raped by the man she assumes to be her father and warned by him, “You better not never tell nobody but God” (11), Celie keeps her silence in the face of those who oppress her until emboldened by her relationship with Shug Avery. But all the while, in her letters to God and Nettie, she develops her own voice as her own storyteller.

The issue of names, here as in other novels, is a crucial narrative element. Names are closely tied to identity, and the claiming or conferring of a name is an indication of selfhood. Celie's letters to God are unsigned; during the period before she begins writing to Nettie, she feels that she is no one, has no particular identity. Shug effectively returns Celie's name to her when she names a song for her:

          Then I hear my name.
          Shug saying Celie. Miss Celie. And I look up where she at.
          She say my name again. She say this song I'm bout to sing is call
Miss Celie's song. …
          First time somebody made something and name it after me.


Late in the novel, having achieved a measure of emotional and economic independence, Celie signs a letter to Nettie in a manner that shows she has both a name and a place:

Your Sister, Celie
Folkspants, Unlimited.
Sugar Avery Drive
Memphis, Tennessee


Similarly, Mary Agnes attempts to and finally succeeds in emerging from her nickname, “Squeak.” Her real name is a badge of her personhood and dignity. When her uncle, with whom she tries to intercede on behalf of Sofia, rapes her, Harpo is sympathetic and tells “Squeak” that he loves her; but she refuses to be demeaned by both the rape and her nickname: “She stand up. My name Mary Agnes, she say” (95). Later, in the same scene in which Celie finds her voice to talk back to Mr.____, Mary Agnes wins this battle for her own name and identity. When she announces that she, too, wants to go to Memphis to pursue a singing career, Harpo initially reacts as had Mr.____ to Celie: “Listen Squeak, say Harpo. You can't go to Memphis. That's all there is to it”:

          Mary Agnes, say Squeak.
          Squeak, Mary Agnes, what difference do it make?
          It make a lot, say Squeak. When I was Mary Agnes I could sing in


Harpo has not recognized until now the power of names; but the next time he addresses her, it is as Mary Agnes.

One of the most subtle and ironic instances of naming in The Color Purple involves the relationship between Celie and her husband. Having been forced to marry him, Celie seldom thinks of him with any affection or intimacy, as reflected in the fact that she always refers to him as “Mr.____,” without even a last name. The distance between them is magnified when he brings the ill Shug Avery, who has been his mistress, home for Celie to care for. Shug addresses him as Albert, and Celie writes, “Who Albert, I wonder. Then I remember Albert Mr.____ first name” (51). Yet it is Shug, loved by both Celie and Albert, who fosters whatever tender feelings the couple are able to have for one another. When Albert's father visits and taunts Celie—“Not many women let they husband whore lay up in they house”—they are united in their defense of Shug: “Mr.____ look up at me, our eyes meet. This the closest us ever felt” (59). Near the end of the novel, Celie and Albert are drawn together by Shug's departure, and he puts his arms around her with tenderness. As they sew together, Celie thinks, “He not such a bad looking man, you know, when you come right down to it. And now it do begin to look like he got a lot of feeling hind his face” (239). In her last letter to God, Celie refers to him as Albert, a fact that marks not only her sense of confidence, but also Albert's new understanding of love that allows her to grant him an identity.

Celie's initial silence is a continual reference point in her letters to God. When Albert's sister urges her to fight for a decent way of life, she writes, “I don't say nothing” (29). When Albert comes home from seeing Shug, Celie has “a million question,” but she does not ask them: “I pray for strength, bite the insides of my jaws” (34). When rumors begin to circulate about Shug's illness, “I want to ast, but don't” (48). First meeting Shug, Celie wants desperately to welcome her to the house, but “I don't say nothing. It not my house” (50). Yet in her letters to God and later to Nettie, Celie not only breaks her silence, but creates a vivid tapestry of her life that shows her to be a sensitive, perceptive woman who sees the ironies of her own experience. By using the epistolary form, Walker allows Celie the freedom to shape her existence in vivid, expressive prose. The changes in Celie's style during the course of the novel reflect her growing sense of worth. In the earliest letters her writing is inhibited and cryptic, but as writing increasingly becomes a mode of ordering her experience, her style becomes more fluid and scenic; in short, Celie becomes the novelist of her own life. One evidence of this is that she guards her dialectical speech. In Memphis, Darlene attempts to correct Celie's grammar, but Celie resists: “Pretty soon it feel like I can't think. My mind run up on a thought, git confuse, run back and sort of lay down” (193). Her resistance to changing her language is essentially rooted in her common-sense integrity: “Look like to me only a fool would want you to talk in a way that feel peculiar to your mind” (194). As Elizabeth Fifer puts it, “By using dialect, the only language she knows, when all public communication is forbidden, she discovers and exploits a powerful tool in her development of awareness through self-expression.”35

Significantly, Celie gains strength and confidence from a community of women: the resilient Sofia, the loving Shug Avery, and her sister Nettie with whom she dreams of being reunited. Shug is the agent by which Celie's dreams are realized. She awakens Celie to her own sexuality, finds the letters from Nettie that Albert has hidden, and makes possible the pants-making business that gives Celie economic independence. Yet it is ultimately Celie's taking control of language that allows her to put her life together. When she refuses to let Albert stop her from going to Memphis with Shug, she effectively reverses the balance of power in their relationship, becoming the one who teaches him—about sewing, about the larger world, and about love. Having dealt with the sexual oppression in her life, she ultimately addresses racism by using what she has learned from Nettie's letters. Revising the Genesis story according to the Olinka tribe's beliefs, Celie proposes to Albert that the first human beings were black, and that they considered the occasional white child that was born an aberration. “So really Adam wasn't even the first white man. He was just the first one the people didn't kill” (239). When she has achieved her own identity, Celie is in harmony with the natural world, and language seems to be supplied by agencies outside herself. Cursing Albert for his history of meanness, Celie muses, “Look like when I open my mouth the air rush in and shape words” (187).

By questioning the authority of received tradition and her own oppressor, Celie demonstrates her freedom from arbitrary justification for sexual and racial oppression. In significant ways, her life begins anew. Her last letter is addressed not merely to God, but to the entire “Creation” she has told Albert she wishes to enter: “Dear stars, dear trees, dear sky, dear peoples. Dear Everything” (249). Celie and Nettie, reunited, appropriately, on Independence Day, “totter toward one nother like us use to do when us was babies” (250), and this last letter ends with a declaration of youth and hope: “I think this the youngest us ever felt” (251).

Kingston's novel, like Walker's, opens with an admonition to silence: “‘You must not tell anyone,’ my mother said, ‘what I am about to tell you’” (3). This highly autobiographical work also shares with The Color Purple a focus on cultural marginality: both Celie and Kingston's narrator—the latter a first-generation Chinese-American woman—are excluded from the language of the dominant culture by their racial and ethnic origins. King-Kok Cheung wisely cautions against readers or critics taking these two texts as representative of the authors' respective cultures, pointing out that Walker and Kingston are imaginative writers rather than cultural historians. Further, Cheung reminds us that the sources of sexism and silence are quite different in the cultures from which their authors come:

[B]lack silences, deepened by the history of slavery, are not the same as Chinese American silences, which were reinforced by anti-Asian immigration laws. Celie's repression is much more violent and brutal than Maxine's, and her resources are at the beginning much more limited. Celie expresses herself tentatively at first because she lacks schooling; it is in school that Maxine becomes totally incommunicative (because she has to learn a second language).

But Cheung agrees that language becomes for both characters an empowering force, and that “gender and ethnicity—inhibitive forces when these texts open—eventually become the sources of personal and stylistic strengths.”36

Celie's husband Albert, angered by her defiance of him, attempts to reduce her to nothingness: “You black, you pore, you ugly, you a woman. Goddam, he say, you nothing at all” (187). Kingston's narrator experiences a similar humiliation when her parents reflect the traditional Chinese belief that girls are worthless: “Better to raise geese than girls” (54). Both Walker and Kingston also avoid traditional linear narrative. Celie's and Nettie's letters to each other are hidden and misdirected, so that they do not follow a pattern of response and exchange, and Walker leaves it to the reader to fill in the gaps between the episodes Celie narrates. The five sections of The Woman Warrior are free-standing narratives that overlap and enrich each other rather than following a clear narrative continuum.

Yet Celie's progress toward freedom from oppression unfolds as a steady, gradual process, mirrored in the increasingly confident style in which she writes and in the actions and attitudes she records. Kingston's work, on the other hand, is what Suzanne Juhasz has called “circumstantial, complex, and contextual”: “In their form, women's lives tend to be like the stories they tell: they show less a pattern of linear development toward some clear goal than one of repetitious, cumulative, cyclical structure,” which is similar to Hélène Cixous's description of a “feminine text” as one that “is always endless, without ending: there's no closure, it doesn't stop. … [A] feminine text goes on and on and, at a certain moment the volume comes to an end but the writing continues.”37 As part of this unfinished circularity, Kingston constantly alters the form of her narrative, which makes it difficult to classify as fiction or autobiography.38 Roberta Rubenstein has identified the five major sections of the book as follows:

The first three of the five major divisions of The Woman Warrior might be viewed respectively as a morality tale, a fairy-tale epic, and a series of “ghost stories” and adventures completed by the reconciliation between mother and daughter. The fourth section, “At the Western Palace,” is a tragedy, and the final one, “Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe,” is a combination of confession and legend.39

While such identifications should be viewed as suggestive rather than fixed, Rubenstein's comments indicate the complexity of The Woman Warrior's formal characteristics.

Language, irony, and fantasy are interdependent in The Woman Warrior, for it is the multiple ironies of her life that the narrator must resolve, and it is through fantasy that she finds the language to do so. Two sets of related ironic circumstances affect the narrator's life. Juhasz identifies one set of ironies when she states that The Woman Warrior “is about trying to be an American, when you are the child of Chinese emigrants; trying to be a woman, when you have been taught that men are all that matters; trying to be a writer, when you have been afraid to speak out loud at all.”40 All of these paradoxes serve initially to silence the narrator. As her aunt, the “no name woman,” “gave silent birth” (13), so the young narrator is silent in school—a Chinese girl among Americans. “It was when I found out I had to talk in school that school became a misery, that the silence became a misery” (193). Because she is uncertain of either her Chinese or her American identity, she retreats into silence in the face of “Chinese communication,” which is “loud, public” (13). Even as an adult, though she is “getting better,” the narrator notes that “a telephone call makes my throat bleed and takes up that day's courage” (191).

Speaking of the work of Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker, Margaret Homans has noted that these writers “differentiate between the linguistic exile they experience as minorities and that which they experience as women,”41 and so does Kingston. In the public, “American” world of school, her ethnic identity, not her gender, silences her; but at home in the immigrant community, girls are by tradition considered useless: “When one of my parents or the emigrant villagers said, ‘feeding girls is like feeding cowbirds,’ I would thrash on the floor and scream so hard I couldn't talk” (54). Her inarticulate rage brings the response that she is a “bad girl,” which the narrator suggests might be an advantage: “Isn't a bad girl almost a boy?” (56).42 Since she cannot transform herself into a boy, she fantasizes being a woman warrior, and through relating such fantasies, emerges from her silence.

The second set of ironies—and the one that eventually gives Kingston's narrator her language—consists of multiple versions of “truth” that relate to her history, her identity as a Chinese-American woman, and her role as a writer. Confronted at every turn by contradictions, the narrator must, like the reader of an ironic text, formulate her own version of reality. When the narrator reaches puberty, her mother tells her the story of her aunt in China, who disgraced the family not only by bearing an illegitimate child, but also by drowning herself in the family well. The story is, as Rubenstein says, a “morality tale,” meant to warn the young girl about sexuality and family honor; yet she is simultaneously admonished never to tell it to anyone else—to deny, in fact, the existence of the aunt:

“Don't tell anyone you had an aunt. Your father does not want to hear her name. She has never been born.” I have believed that sex was unspeakable and words so strong and fathers so frail that “aunt” would do my father mysterious harm.


The story of the “No Name Woman,” who both existed and did not exist, introduces Kingston's narrator to the power of both language and silence.

As she must revise and recreate the story of her aunt, so the narrator must reconcile the story of her mother's heroic actions as a woman doctor in China with her docile, hard-working American presence. Brave Orchid, who rid her medical school of ghosts and delivered babies in pigpens, is in America a woman surrounded by ghosts, who tells her daughters that they are not worth feeding. The confusion of her mother's two selves mirrors the split between a Chinese identity and an American identity: “Those of us in the first American generations have had to figure out how the invisible world the emigrants built around our childhoods fits in solid America” (6). Yet it is the stories of this “invisible world”—her mother's “talk-story”—that ultimately allows the narrator to create herself by telling her own story. As Rubenstein puts it, “Rejecting her mother's entrapment in a culture that devalues females, yet identifying with Brave Orchid's talent—and in tribute to her—Kingston became a storyteller, committed to giving expression to the muted females of her culture” (179-80).

However, it is not only members of Chinese-American culture for whom Kingston's narrator speaks up. As difficult as speech remains for her, she tells her employer at an art supply store that she does not like his calling a color “nigger yellow”; her voice is a “bad, small-person's voice that makes no impact,” but she nonetheless says the words (57). Later, she loses a job when she confronts an employer with the fact that the restaurant he has chosen for a banquet is being picketed by members of naacp and core: “‘I refuse to type these invitations,’ I whispered, voice unreliable” (58). As unreliable and ineffectual as her spoken voice may be, however, Kingston's written language uses myth, fantasy, and memory to penetrate the ironies of identity and avoid the madness that overtakes Moon Orchid when she arrives from China to find her husband remarried and thoroughly Americanized. In the final section of The Woman Warrior, “A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe,” the narrator says, “I thought talking and not talking made the difference between sanity and insanity. Insane people were the ones who couldn't explain themselves” (216). The closest the narrator comes to madness is the eighteen-month “mysterious illness” she suffers after physically and emotionally abusing a young Chinese girl who refuses to speak. Having gone to the extreme of castigating someone so like her younger self, she retreats from life to stay in bed: “It was the best year and a half of my life” (212).

By returning to the narrator's childhood, the final section of The Woman Warrior underscores the circularity of the search for truth in the midst of ironic paradox and contradiction. Fittingly, the book ends with a “talk-story” begun by the mother and finished by the daughter. The mother tells of her own mother outwitting bandits by having the family take everything they owned with them when they went to the theater. The narrator completes the story by imagining that at the theater her grandmother has heard the songs of Ts'ai Yen, a female second-century poet who brought songs to China from her barbarian captivity. Both parts of the story speak to the transforming power of fantasy and language. The narrator's grandmother decides that “our family was immune to harm as long as they went to plays” (241); and the narrator reports that Ts'ai Yen's “Eighteen Stanzas for a Barbarian Reed Pipe” was adopted by the Chinese because “it translated well” (243), the statement that concludes the book and testifies to the narrator's translation of her own experience into a meaningful whole.

If The Color Purple and The Woman Warrior show women emerging from silence into language as part of their authors' feminist desire for women to claim autonomy, Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale posits a future culture in which such feminist dreams have been replaced by a fundamentalist patriarchy that divides women into rigid categories based on function: Wives, Marthas (servants), Econowives, Handmaids (surrogate mothers for the children of Commanders and their Wives), Aunts (who train the Handmaids), and Unwomen—those from whom language has removed gender because they are unfitted for any other category. Atwood's dystopian novel—which has been called a “futuristic feminist nightmare” and a “science-fiction fable”43—is in significant ways a cautionary tale: a message from the future to those of us in the present who may be able to prevent the Republic of Gilead from coming to pass.44 Six years before The Handmaid's Tale was published, Atwood commented on the writing of fiction in a way that seems to anticipate the novel:

What kind of world shall you describe for your readers? The one you can see around you, or the better one you can imagine? If only the latter, you'll be unrealistic; if only the former, despairing. But it is by the better world we can imagine that we judge the world we have. If we cease to judge this world, we may find ourselves, very quickly, in one which is infinitely worse.45

The element of contrast between one reality and another that Atwood suggests here is the method of irony.

Indeed, in addition to being a fantasy, The Handmaid's Tale is essentially an ironic text in a more fundamental way than are most other works considered here. At every point Atwood invites the reader to question the validity of the narrative. Not only is Offred an unreliable narrator, in the sense that she is enmeshed in the experience she describes and has an imperfect understanding of the culture that controls her, but she constantly reminds the reader that her story is a “reconstruction.” Early in the novel, remembering the horror of having her five-year-old daughter taken from her, Offred speaks of the “truth” of her story:

I would like to believe that this is a story I'm telling. I need to believe it. I must believe it. Those who believe that such stories are only stories have a better chance.

If it's a story I'm telling, then I have control over the ending. Then there will be an ending, to the story, and real life will come after it. I can pick up where I left off.

It isn't a story I'm telling.

It's also a story I'm telling in my head, as I go along.

Tell, rather than write, because I have nothing to write with and writing is in any case forbidden. But if it's a story, even in my head, I must be telling it to someone. You don't tell a story only to yourself. There's always someone else.

Even when there is no one. …

I'll pretend you can hear me.

But it's no good, because I know you can't.


In this deceptively simple passage, Offred addresses the relative “truths” of our actual experiences and the stories we tell ourselves about them, the prohibition of language in Gilead, and the storyteller's need for an audience.

Later, Offred announces, “This is a reconstruction. All of it is a reconstruction.” If she ever escapes to tell her story, she realizes that will be a reconstruction also, “at yet another remove.” And, as the author of her own story, she understands the limitations of language in conveying experience: “It's impossible to say a thing exactly the way it was, because what you say can never be exact …” (134). Having announced that language cannot tell the whole truth, Offred begins to alter her story deliberately. When her Commander asks her to kiss him, she imagines stabbing him while she does so: “I think about the blood coming out of him, hot as soup, sexual, over my hands.” But she immediately corrects herself:

In fact I don't think about anything of the kind. I put it in only afterwards. Maybe I should have thought about that, at the time, but I didn't. As I said, this is a reconstruction. … He was so sad.

That is a reconstruction, too.


Later, after three paragraphs describing her first sexual encounter with Nick, the Commander's chauffeur, Offred begins again: “I made that up. It didn't happen that way. Here is what happened” (261). By constantly inviting the reader to question what she says, Offred compels the reader to participate in the process of irony by questioning and revising the language of the text.

Atwood creates the ironic framework in other ways, as well. Offred tells most of her story in the present tense, giving it the immediacy of direct experience; she speaks as one imprisoned, remembering the past but knowing no future beyond the present moment. Yet the reader learns in the “Historical Notes” coda that Offred's “manuscript” was itself reconstructed from voice recordings on cassette tapes found in an Army surplus footlocker in what had been Bangor, Maine. The “soi-disant manuscript” was thus recorded after Offred's escape on the “Underground Female-road,” rather than at the time of her life as a handmaid. To further cast doubt on the authenticity of Offred's story, Atwood has Professor Pieixoto note that the tapes were in no particular order, so that he and his associate have guessed at their proper sequence: “all such arrangements are based on some guesswork and are to be regarded as approximate” (302). Not only the order, but also the language of Offred's narrative is made dubious by Pieixoto's comment about “the difficulties posed by accent, obscure referents, and archaisms” (302). Atwood thus not only deepens the irony of Offred's text, but also comments on the nature of “truth.”

The exclusion from language that Celie and Kingston's narrator suffer is, in The Handmaid's Tale, magnified and made part of the repressive culture of Gilead. Women—even the Aunts—are denied books, paper, pens; only the Commanders may read even the Bible, and the shops are identified by pictures rather than by names: “they decided that even the names of shops were too much temptation for us” (25). In a society governed by The Word, words are themselves forbidden. Because biblical language is used for oppression rather than for redemption, hymns with the word “free” in them are banned, as are popular songs, and biblical language is altered and mixed with political slogans. Like Celie in The Color Purple deciding that God “must be sleep” (163), Offred attempts her own version of the Lord's Prayer, but finally concludes, “I feel as if I'm talking to a wall” (195).

Yet perhaps because of the prohibition of language, Offred, who had previously worked in a library, is fascinated by words, by puns and word-play. Waiting for the household to assemble for the evening Bible-reading, Offred thinks: “The Commander is the head of the household. The house is what he holds. To have and to hold, till death do us part. The hold of a ship. Hollow” (81). By such word associations, she exposes the hollowness of the concepts of home and family in Gilead. When Offred plays with word associations while remembering the past, she points up the contrast between freedom and oppression for women. Passing what was once a movie theater that had Humphrey Bogart festivals, she thinks of Lauren Bacall and Katharine Hepburn, “women on their own, making up their minds”: “They wore blouses with buttons down the front that suggested the possibilities of the word undone. These women could be undone; or not. They seemed to be able to choose. We seemed to be able to choose, then” (25). Later, remembering how she had loved books, Offred thinks of her job in the library:

It's strange, now, to think of having a job. Job. It's a funny word. It's a job for a man. Do a jobbie, they'd say to children when they were being toilet trained. Or of dogs: he did a job on the carpet. You were supposed to hit them with rolled-up newspapers, my mother said. I can remember when there were newspapers, though I never had a dog, only cats.

The Book of Job.


The word “job” leads Offred inevitably back to newspapers and books, and the Book of Job is a fitting metaphor for the suffering she endures in Gilead.

The story of Job, however, is a story of survival, and language enables Offred to survive. Telling her story is, in Rubenstein's words, “the self-generated act that opposes the obligations of procreation” (103). By creating an ironic fantasy, Atwood doubly compels the reader to participate in the creation of meaning. It is, finally, in the interaction between writer and reader, between reader and narrator, that the meaning of The Handmaid's Tale exists and that Offred triumphs as the author of her own story. Linda Hutcheon, writing about the shift from the lyrical to the narrative mode in Atwood's fiction, has suggested that although writing “can only employ the static counters of language, [it] is capable of being resurrected in the equally dynamic process of reading, the bringing to life of the dead black marks on the white page.”46 Atwood herself feels strongly about the interaction among writer, text, and reader, and has described the writer as one who says, “There is a story I have to tell you, there is something you need to know”:

All writers play Ancient Mariner at times to the reader's Wedding Guest, hoping that they are holding the reader with their glittering eye, at least long enough so he'll turn the next page. The tale the Mariner tells is partly about himself, true, but it's partly about the universe and partly about something the Wedding Guest needs to know; or at least, that's what the story tells us.47

Officially denied language in Gilead, Offred escapes to tell her story, however “reconstructed,” and tells us something we need to know about the human capacity for survival.


  1. Marge Piercy, Small Changes (New York: Doubleday, 1973), 266-67.

  2. Fay Weldon, Words of Advice (1977; reprint, New York: Ballantine, 1978), 20. Gemma's statement is also an example of irony, as is the entire story she tells.

  3. Margaret Atwood, Life before Man (1979; reprint, New York: Ballantine, 1987), 12-13.

  4. Margaret Homans, “‘Her Very Own Howl’: The Ambiguities of Representation in Recent Women's Fiction,” Signs 9, no. 2 (Winter 1983): 196.

  5. Tillie Olsen, Silences (New York: Delacorte, 1978), 42-43.

  6. Alicia Suskin Ostriker, Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women's Poetry in America (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986), 211.

  7. Hélène Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen, Signs 1, no. 4 (Summer 1976): 879.

  8. Hélène Cixous, “Castration or Decapitation?” trans. Annette Kuhn, Signs 7, no. 1 (Autumn 1981): 45.

  9. Deborah Cameron, Feminism and Linguistic Theory (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1985), 144. Cameron is here arguing specifically against the theories of Saussure and Whorf, which maintain, respectively, that the meaning of language is absolute and therefore outside the control of an individual language user, and that language is a “mode of action that interpenetrates with experience to the extent that words are things” (97).

  10. Homans, “‘Her Very Own Howl,’” 191.

  11. Joanna Russ, The Female Man (1975; reprint, London: The Women's Press, 1985), 174-75.

  12. Natalie M. Rosinsky, “A Female Man? The ‘Medusan’ Humor of Joanna Russ,” Extrapolation 23, no. 1 (1982): 32.

  13. Fay Weldon, Female Friends (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1974), 108.

  14. Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986), 87.

  15. Elaine Tuttle Hansen, “The Double Narrative Structure of Small Changes,” in Contemporary American Women Writers: Narrative Strategies, ed. Catherine Rainwater and William J. Scheick (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1985), 213. I am indebted to this essay for its clear, succinct analysis of the way in which Piercy approaches both language and narrative structure in the novel.

  16. Doris Lessing, The Summer before the Dark (1973; reprint, New York: Bantam, 1974).

  17. Joanne S. Frye, Living Stories, Telling Lives: Women and the Novel in Contemporary Experience (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1986), 18.

  18. Alice Walker, The Color Purple (1982; reprint, New York: Washington Square Press, 1983), 181.

  19. Margaret Drabble, The Waterfall (1969; reprint, New York: Fawcett, 1977), 51.

  20. Ellen Cronan Rose, The Novels of Margaret Drabble: Equivocal Forms (Totowa, N.J.: Barnes and Noble, 1980), 61.

  21. Joanne V. Creighton, Margaret Drabble (London: Methuen, 1985), 63.

  22. Gail Godwin, Violet Clay (1978; reprint, New York: Warner Books, 1979), 39-40.

  23. In Living Stories, Telling Lives, Joanne Frye analyzes the way in which Godwin uses the narration of Violet's own story as a means of uniting the two selves of woman and artist (111-39). I would extend Frye's excellent study of the novel by pointing out that a major way in which Godwin accomplishes this narrative strategy is by using ironic discourse, much as Weldon does in Female Friends and Drabble does in The Waterfall, to allow her character to step out of and thus revise her own story.

  24. Lilian R. Furst, Fictions of Romantic Irony (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984), 9.

  25. William Robert Irvin, The Game of the Impossible: A Rhetoric of Fantasy (Urbana: University of Illinois press, 1976), 61-62.

  26. For analyses of feminist attitudes toward naming, see Nancy M. Henley, “This New Species That Seeks a New Language: On Sexism in Language and Language Change,” and Nan Van Den Bergh, “Renaming: Vehicle for Empowerment,” both in Women and Language in Transition, ed. Joyce Penfield (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987).

  27. One reviewer of the novel stated that “The real meaning of Offred … is Afraid; though since it is not her real name, she is also Not Afraid” (Patrick Parrinder in the London Review of Books, 20 March 1986; quoted in Carol Ann Howells, Private and Fictional Words: Canadian Women Novelists of the 1970s and 1980s [London: Methuen, 1987], 58-59.) Roberta Rubenstein suggests that the name “encodes her indentured sexuality: both ‘offered’ and the property ‘of-Fred.’” (Boundaries of the Self: Gender, Culture, Fiction [Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987], 109.)

  28. Margaret Atwood, Surfacing (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972), 39.

  29. Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts (1976; reprint, New York: Vintage, 1977), 127.

  30. Marge Piercy, Woman on the Edge of Time (1976; reprint, New York: Fawcett Crest, 1977), 17.

  31. The issue of whether Piercy means for this to be an actual utopia or the product of Consuelo's hallucinations has sparked lively controversy among critics, as I will discuss in a later chapter. See, e.g., Sheila Delaney, “Ambivalence in Utopia: The American Feminist Utopias of Charlotte P. Gilman and Marge Piercy,” in Writing Woman: Women Writers and Women in Literature, Medieval to Modern (New York: Shocken Books, 1983), 157-80; Margaret Atwood, “Marge Piercy: Woman on the Edge of Time, Living in the Open,” in Second Words: Selected Critical Prose (Boston: Beacon Press, 1984), 272-78.

  32. Doris Lessing, The Four-Gated City. (1969; reprint, New York: Bantam, 1970), 224.

  33. Elizabeth Abel, “(E)Merging Identities: The Dynamics of Female Friendship in Contemporary Fiction by Women,” Signs 6, no. 3 (Spring 1981):419.

  34. Alice Walker, Meridian (1976; reprint, New York: Washington Square Press, 1977), 44.

  35. Elizabeth Fifer, “The Dialect and Letters of The Color Purple,” in Contemporary American Women Writers: Narrative Strategies, ed. Catherine Rainwater and William J. Scheick (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1985), 158. Fifer also points to the irony of the fact that Nettie, better educated than Celie, writes in a standard English that Celie does not speak, so that it is Nettie's letters that must be “translated” when Celie finally finds them.

  36. King-Kok Cheung, “‘Don't Tell’: Imposed Silences in The Color Purple and The Woman Warrior,PMLA 103, no. 2 (March 1988): 162-63.

  37. Suzanne Juhasz, “Towards a Theory of Form in Feminist Autobiography: Kate Millett's Flying and Sita; Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior,” in Women's Autobiography: Essays in Criticism, ed. Estelle C. Jelinek (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980), 223; and Hélène Cixous, “Castration or Decapitation?” 53.

  38. Most critics approach The Woman Warrior as an autobiography, and there are surely bases for its experience in Kingston's own life as a Chinese-American woman. Kingston herself, however, has called the book “five interlocking short stories” (discussion at the University of Missouri-Columbia, 9 March 1988). Mere classification of a work should of course not be the goal of the literary critic; what is significant is, as I pointed out in the introductory chapter, that the line between fiction and autobiography is blurred in works by contemporary women authors. See chap. 2, “Politics, Literary Form, and a Feminist Poetics of the Novel,” in Joanne Frye's Living Stories, Telling Lives.

  39. Rubenstein, Boundaries of the Self, 176.

  40. Juhasz, “Towards a Theory of Form in Feminist Autobiography,” 231. In a Belles Lettres interview, Kingston has expressed her own fears about publishing The Woman Warrior: “At first I said to myself, ‘I must write this.’ Then I tried to fool myself by thinking that I didn't have to publish it. I even started thinking that the work could be published after my death, and then everything would be fine. All of that was fooling myself so that I could keep going. Then I did publish it, thinking that it was only in English and therefore my parents and most of their friends would not be able to read it. When it was published in Chinese, I felt very much afraid. Some people read one chapter and didn't continue, feeling that it was too horrible. So they never saw that in The Woman Warrior there is a reconciliation of beauty” (Angeles Carabi, “Special Eyes: The Chinese-American World of Maxine Hong Kingston,” Belles Lettres [Winter 1989]: 11).

  41. Homans, “‘Her Very Own Howl,’” 198.

  42. This comment echoes Miriam, in Piercy's Small Changes, who, realizing that “women were supposed to be dull and good,” decides that she would rather, like men, be “bad and exciting” ([Greenwich, Conn.: Fawcett, 1973], 97).

  43. Rubenstein, Boundaries of the Self, 77; and Howells, Private and Fictional Words, 63.

  44. In this respect, Atwood uses a technique similar to that of Marge Piercy in Woman on the Edge of Time: one of the visits that Consuelo makes to the future is not to the utopia to which Luciente has invited her, but rather to a dystopia that could be a natural result of current tendencies.

  45. Margaret Atwood, “Witches,” in Second Words, 333 (italics mine).

  46. Linda Hutcheon, “From Poetic to Narrative Structures: The Novels of Margaret Atwood,” in Margaret Atwood: Language, Text, and System, ed. Sherrill E. Grace and Lorraine Weir (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1983), 17.

  47. Margaret Atwood, “An End to Audience?” in Second Words, 348.

Theo L. D'Haen (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: D'Haen, Theo L. “Magical Realism and Postmodernism: Decentering Privileged Centers.” In Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community, edited by Lois Parkinson Zamora and Wendy B. Faris, pp. 191-208. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, D'Haen defines the origins of magical realism and postmodernism in literature, examining the use of the former in the works of Salman Rushdie and Angela Carter. D'Haen proposes that elements of magical realism and fantasy are often used by writers who are writing from a non-centric point of view.]

Because the term “magic” or “magical realism” has persisted for over half a century but is not yet entirely current, it is useful to trace its origins and use briefly before situating the mode with regard to postmodernism.1 Most commentators agree that it originated with the German art critic Franz Roh, who in 1925 coined the word to, and here I am quoting the Oxford Dictionary of Art, “describe the aspect of Neue Sachlichkeit characterized by sharp-focus detail … in later criticism the term has been used to cover various types of painting in which objects are depicted with photographic naturalism but which because of paradoxical elements or strange juxtapositions convey a feeling of unreality, infusing the ordinary with a sense of mystery.”2Mutatis mutandis, I will take the same definition to apply to the literary movement of the same name.3 From the example the Oxford Dictionary of Art offers, namely, the paintings of the Belgian René Magritte, the relevance of the term to surrealism and its environment can be deduced. It is also in this environment, and more specifically with Miguel Angel Asturias and Alejo Carpentier, who both frequented Surrealist circles,4 that Jean Franco, in her An Introduction to Spanish-American Literature,5 situates the emergence of that particular Latin-American prose most commentators include under the rubric of magic realism. Both Asturias and Carpentier discussed the idea of magic realism in their own works, linking it explicitly to surrealism, Asturias using the very word “réalisme magique” in a 1962 interview in Les Lettres Françaises, while Carpentier chose to rechristen it in his influential essay “De lo real maravilloso americano,” originally prefacing El reino de este mundo and collected in his 1967 volume Tientos y diferencias.6 It should immediately be stated, though, that even before it was generally applied to Latin American literature the term had already been used with regard to particular tendencies or movements in German-Austrian and Flemish literature.7 In fact, although Brotherston, referring to earlier publications by Angel Flores and Luis Leal, noted in 1977 that the term was firmly established well before the 1960s,8 Franco in her 1969 Introduction apparently found it necessary to apologize for her use of it in a note stating that “this term has recently been coined to categorise novels which use myth and legend” (p. 374), and in her slightly earlier The Modern Culture of Latin America (1967), she had not used the term.9 However, in her 1973 Spanish American Literature since Independence she freely and unreservedly uses Carpentier's “real maravilloso,” at least if I am to go by the 1987 edition of the Spanish translation of that book.10 So does Cedomil Goic in his 1972 Historia de la novela hispanoamericana, though he prefers the term “superrealismo” for the entire tendency of which he sees Carpentier's “real maravilloso” forming only a part.11 In the intervening years, of course, the appearance of Gabriel García Márquez's Cien años de soledad (1967)—and within its wake the worldwide attention given to the so-called Latin-American boom, much of which fits the category we are here concerned with—had ensured the international literary-critical success of the term “magic realism” also in non-Spanish critical writing, though still with almost exclusive reference to contemporary Spanish American fiction.12

Like magic realism, the term “postmodernism,” though even now it may seem new to some, goes back several decades, as has been amply illustrated by Michael Köhler and Hans Bertens in their survey articles of 1977 and 1986, respectively.13 Again like magic realism, the term “postmodernism” has gained wide recognition and acceptance only since the 1960s, and particularly so in the 80s in which it has come to stand for a general movement in the arts, and even in forms of behavior and daily life.14 From a literary-critical perspective, particularly with regard to prose—the genre which has figured most prominently in recent literary discussions of post-modernism—the term primarily stands for a combination of those technically innovative qualities most highly regarded by contemporary critical movements such as poststructuralism. Drawing on discussions by Douwe Fokkema, Allen Thiher, Linda Hutcheon, Brian McHale, Ihab Hassan, David Lodge, Alan Wilde, and others, and simplifying matters a great deal, I would argue that the following features are generally regarded as marking postmodernism: self-reflexiveness, metafiction, eclecticism, redundancy, multiplicity, discontinuity, intertextuality, parody, the dissolution of character and narrative instance, the erasure of boundaries, and the destabilization of the reader.15 Most commentators seem to agree that the very term “postmodernism” originated in the 1930s in Latin America, with the critic Federico de Onís, and was reinvented or reused, covering different fields and carrying different meanings, throughout the 40s and 50s both in Europe and the United States. Yet, most commentators would also agree that in its present meaning and with its present scope the term gained acceptance primarily with reference to American, that is, U.S., prose fiction.

In the period in which “postmodernism” and “magic realism” gained their present meanings, then, their use was restricted, respectively, to North- and South-American prose developments. Only recently, and primarily since the early 80s, have these terms allowed for spillage into other linguistic or geographical areas. However, I think few would deny that since they have started doing so they have come to divide not just the New, but also the Old World between them. They now seem almost the only shorthands available to categorize contemporary developments in Western fiction. Increasingly, though, it has proved difficult to distinguish the categories covered by these terms clearly. “Postmodernism” has been undeniably the more successful term to cover developments in other technically sophisticated Western literatures. Often, this has not happened without considerable hesitation, as witnessed by the ongoing discussion with regard to the French nouveau roman and nouveau nouveau roman. Still, Günter Grass, Thomas Bernhard, Peter Handke, Italo Calvino, John Fowles, Angela Carter, John Banville, and Michel Tournier, as well as Dutch authors Willem Brakman and Louis Ferron, all of whom during the 60s and 70s were considered by some as highly idiosyncratic authors, or representatives of purely national movements or tendencies, during the 80s have increasingly come to be annexed by postmodernism.16 Indeed, on the basis of the catalog of features I listed before, such inclusion seems fully warranted. Yet, judging from the definition I quoted at the beginning of this essay, it would be hard to deny that much of the work of many of these authors might just as easily be categorized as magic realist. This, in fact, is what has been happening. Richard Todd, in an essay called “Convention and Innovation in British Fiction 1981-1984: The Contemporaneity of Magic Realism,” discusses Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus, Salman Rushdie's Shame, and D. M. Thomas' The White Hotel.17 He sees these novels as challenging, in a magic realist way, both the earlier modes of historical and documentary realism prevalent in post-War British fiction and the more conventional forms of romance. At the same time, though, he sees these novels as achieving their magic realist program by way of the very same techniques usually singled out as marking postmodernism. Geert Lernout, in an essay on “Postmodernist Fiction in Canada,” claims that “what is postmodern in the rest of the world used to be called magic realist in South America and still goes by that name in Canada.”18 His list of Canadian magic realists includes Robert Kroetsch, Jack Hodgins, Timothy Findley, and Rudy Wiebe, all of whom he considers to be writing in a tradition that would also include Borges, Grass, Nabokov, Rushdie, and Calvino, but that would exclude Beckett, Robbe-Grillet, and Ricardou. All of these authors are postmodernists, he concludes, but “maybe we do need a more specific term for the first kind of postmodernist works than ‘meta-fiction’ or ‘surfiction,’ and ‘magic realism’ may in the end not be all that bad” (140). It would seem, then, as if in international critical parlance a consensus is emerging in which a hierarchical relation is established between postmodernism and magic realism, whereby the latter comes to denote a particular strain of the contemporary movement covered by the former. Such, for instance, is already the attitude taken by two late 80s survey works on postmodern writing: Brian McHale's Postmodernist Fiction (1987) and Linda Hutcheon's A Poetics of Postmodernism (1988).

Looking at it from the other side, from that of Spanish American literature, a similar development can be deduced from a recent article by Julio Ortega on “Postmodernism in Latin America,” in which he considers the work of a number of authors who until recently would have been discussed almost exclusively within a magic realist framework.19 Obviously, to anyone even minimally acquainted with the narrative pyrotechnics of a García Márquez, a Cortázar, a Fuentes, a Donoso, or the early Vargas Llosa, this possibility will have suggested itself immediately from the catalog of features I listed earlier as distinguishing postmodernism. If magic realism, then, seems firmly established as part of postmodernism, the question remains as to what part it plays in this larger current or movement, and where and why.

Carlos Fuentes, in an article in which he describes how he came to write about Mexico the way he does, says that one of the first things he learned—from Octavio Paz—is that “there were no privileged centers of culture, race, politics.”20 It is precisely the notion of the ex-centric, in the sense of speaking from the margin, from a place “other” than “the” or “a” center, that seems to me an essential feature of that strain of postmodernism we call magic realism. In literary-critical terms, this ex-centricity can in the first instance be described as a voluntary act of breaking away from the discourse perceived as central to the line of technical experimentation starting with realism and running via naturalism and modernism to the kind of postmodernism Lernout assigned to his second group of authors, the “metafictionists” or “surfictionists” à la Beckett, Robbe-Grillet or Ricardou. Even though these various movements may have thought of themselves as critical or subversive of one another, and of the respective societies they stemmed from, their issuing from “privileged centers” made their discourse suspect to those marginalized—geographically, socially, economically—by these same societies. To write ex-centrically, then, or from the margin, implies dis-placing this discourse. My argument is that magic realist writing achieves this end by first appropriating the techniques of the “centr”-al line and then using these, not as in the case of these central movements, “realistically,” that is, to duplicate existing reality as perceived by the theoretical or philosophical tenets underlying said movements, but rather to create an alternative world correcting so-called existing reality, and thus to right the wrongs this “reality” depends upon. Magic realism thus reveals itself as a ruse to invade and take over dominant discourse(s). It is a way of access to the main body of “Western” literature for authors not sharing in, or not writing from the perspective of, the privileged centers of this literature for reasons of language, class, race, or gender, and yet avoiding epigonism by avoiding the adoption of views of the hegemonic forces together with their discourse. Alternatively, it is a means for writers coming from the privileged centers of literature to dissociate themselves from their own discourses of power, and to speak on behalf of the ex-centric and un-privileged (with the risk of being judged “patronizing” by those on whose behalf such writers seek to speak).

That magic realism implicitly proposes this decentering, and that it does so also in other literatures than Spanish American ones, I will try and illustrate with regard to some recent English language novels that all single out some “privileged center” as embodied in traditional literary discourse, and then, via postmodernist and magic realist means, “dis-place” it. I will deal in some detail with J. M. Coetzee's Foe (1986), and then briefly touch upon John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969), Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children (1981), and Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus (1984).21

Foe, in typical postmodern fashion, is a rewrite of an English “classic”: Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. In the autobiographical tale of its protagonist, Robinson Crusoe literally is the story of white male Western colonialism, and thus serves an important symbolic function in the West's cultural conception of itself and its world: it is the epic of that hero of middle-class ideology, homo economicus.22 Coetzee's novel is not told from the perspective of Robinson Crusoe but from that of Susan Barton, a woman shipwrecked on Crusoe's island. She tells Crusoe's story to the hack writer and journalist Foe, hoping to sell it. He is only moderately interested in her story of a morose, surly, and inept old man, uneasily and uncomfortably living on his island with an unruly and disgruntled slave. He is more interested in Susan's own past, and especially in her sexual experiences. Of course, we know that Defoe's Robinson Crusoe presents us with a totally different Crusoe and Friday, and makes no mention of a woman. As Susan's story, in Coetzee's text, is presented as the authentic or true version of Defoe's subsequent fiction, we are asked to conclude that the English author removed Susan from the story and reimagined Crusoe and Friday for commercial purposes, thus adapting it to his public ideological expectations.

Looking at it from the opposite end, of course, the question is why Coetzee added Susan Barton to the classic story, and why he had her give her view of Crusoe, Friday, and Foe. Here, a passage from the end of part three of Foe can prove helpful. Friday is, literally, dumb: his tongue has been cut out. As Susan realizes that Friday's story is central to whatever happened on the island, she agrees to Foe's proposal that she teach Friday to write. Her efforts remain largely unrewarded. Still, at the end of part three Friday is able to write a whole page of “o”s. Foe comments that next day she has to teach him the “a”. This passage can be explained in two ways. First, the “o” can be read as zero. Friday is thus made out to be functionally illiterate in eighteenth-century English society. Alternatively, the “o” can be read as the Greek omega, and thus as a very pointed comment on the civilization landed.23 As far as he is concerned, this civilization is a “reverse” one that approaches things from the wrong end. Wittingly or unwittingly, Friday is condemned to remain outside the pale of white civilization in which, as Michel Foucault has argued, language is power.24 And Robinson Crusoe, as intimated earlier, is a linguistic codification of the complex of metanarratives legitimizing Western middle-class society. Now we can also understand the symbolism of Friday's cut-out tongue: the civilization that Crusoe embodies literally reduces all who do not speak its discourse to silence. To learn to write starting with the “a” or alpha of Foe's alphabet would then mean that Friday should adopt the discourse, and the corresponding worldview, of white colonial civilization. Mutatis mutandis the same thing holds for Susan Barton. She, of course, is not illiterate. Both orally and in writing, she can tell her own story, and she does so in Foe. Yet, history—in first instance literary history, but by implication also history in general—has written her out of the story. Thus, she fares even worse than Friday who, in the story sanctioned by history, was at least allowed to linger on as a minor character. Consider the title of the book. “Foe” means “adversary,” or even “enemy,” and it is clear that the implied author of the fiction that will result from Susan Barton's true story (always in the context of Foe, of course), namely, Robinson Crusoe, is both her and Friday's enemy, according to the dictates of a society that evaluated human beings in terms of their economic value, and for which blacks, Indians, and members of non-European races were useful as slaves, but for which women held no economic interest whatever.

Irony, of course, has it that “Foe” is the name of the author we know as “Defoe,” and that he, along with Samuel Richardson, was the first commercial writer in English literary history.25 If Robinson Crusoe, then, turns out to be an ideological rewrite of a very different and much more untractable reality, the name “Defoe” turns out to be fully as much an ideological rewrite, itself an objective correlative for the commercial ideology of capitalism. By opting for the real name of the writer of Robinson Crusoe as the title for his own rewrite, Coetzee indicates that he is not so much concerned with the figure of “Robinson Crusoe” but rather with the eponymous book as linguistic codification of a particular privileged center's worldview. Obviously, it cannot be a coincidence that it is a white male South African, of Afrikaner stock, that writes both woman and the negro back into this story. His Foe is a linguistic reaction to the likewise linguistic codification of an ideology that lies at the very basis of his own country's origins and way of life. From his own wilfully ex-centric vantage point, he invades, subverts, and corrects that codification, and hence its underlying ideology. To now circle back to my original argument: the only way for Coetzee to write woman, and via her the negro, back into the classic story is by means of magic realist devices. Especially the fourth and last section of Foe is revealing in this respect: as the privileged center discourse leaves no room for a “realistic” insertion of those that history—always speaking the language of the victors and rulers—has denied a voice, such an act of recuperation can only happen by magic or fantastic or unrealistic means.

Similar arguments could be developed with regard to the other three novels I wish to analyze briefly. The French Lieutenant's Woman situates itself in the context of nineteenth-century English realism. As Fowles himself has stated, the novel is a partial rewrite of Hardy's A Pair of Blue Eyes, and takes as its starting point what was marginal and ex-centric to the nineteenth-century English novel: sexuality, and particularly female sexuality.26 The book appeals to the realist tradition in its form, style, and tone, but at the same time undermines that tradition in the way it handles its characters, and by its metafictional use of the narrator's voice. In combination with the multiple endings to the novel, these elements face the reader with his own freedom as reader, complementary to the freedom the female protagonist—the “French Lieutenant's Woman” from the title—claims for herself, and which is totally opposite to the determinism implicit in Hardy's already almost naturalistic view.27 Important to my argument is that the multiple endings, upon which the effect of the book to a large extent hinges, are accounted for in a magic realist way, via the intervention of Fowles' “foppish impresario.”28 This impresario—obviously a double for Fowles himself—is present throughout the novel as observer and meta-fictional commentator. When in the penultimate chapter the story has reached a “realistic” happy end in line with the meliorative intentions of many English and American (William Dean Howells, for instance) realists, the impresario appears and puts back the hands of his watch, and thereby also the narrative time of the novel. This allows for an alternative ending, highlighting the existentialist freedom-theme of the novel, and forcing the reader to make his own decision as to which ending he prefers, facing him with his own freedom.

Rushdie's Midnight's Children both invokes and subverts the typically English tradition of the colonial novel as written by Kipling or Forster (however divergent in other respects these two authors may be). In this tradition the white man's view of the land, and of its inhabitants, holds a central position. Colonial nature and society thus assume the role of the “other,” the exotic, the strange. At variance with this tradition, in Rushdie's novel the focus lies with the Indians themselves, and with their views of their country and society. From this perspective, the exotic becomes something the West has projected upon India.29 Here it is the Westerner who becomes “other.” Magic, which in the colonial novel often functions as the sign of the otherness of non-Western society and civilization,30 with Rushdie becomes daily reality, and hence magic realism in the sense of Carpentier's lo real maravilloso: indigenous magic. All together, the children born in India at the very moment the country gained its independence from England, communicating with each other in such a magic realist way, literally give voice to an entire subcontinent; a proper voice this time, as the subjects of their own story and not as the objects of an English colonial novel.

Finally, we notice something similar in Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus. In the first few lines of this novel the Greek myth of Leda and the swan is alluded to. Indirectly, the rape of Leda by Zeus engendered the oldest Western work of literature known to us: Homer's Iliad. Throughout the book, this myth, in the various guises it received in the course of literary history, is referred to again and again. At the end of Nights at the Circus, though, in contrast to the original myth, the woman in the guise of a “swan” will gently—though passionately—make love to the male protagonist. The outcome of this act remains to be seen, but we may speculate that it will be very different from what happened “the other time”: whereas Homer founded a male line in Western literature, Carter offers us a rewrite of Homer that redefines the future of humanity from a feminist ideology. And once again, such a rewrite only proves possible with the help of magic realist means: the female protagonist, “Fevvers,” is a “bird,” not just metaphorically but also literally. And the novel is replete with magic realism in its numerous manipulations of time, place, scenery, and character. To give just one example: during a visit to his palace in St. Petersburg, the Grand Duke shows Fevvers his collection of toy eggs containing all sorts of miniatures. Fevvers is invited to choose one egg as a present, obviously in return for sexual favors. She is tempted to choose a miniature train, but the Duke tells her the next egg is meant for her. This egg contains a gilded, but empty cage. Fevvers, who has been trying to keep the Duke from physically engaging her by instead caressing his male member, realizes she is about to be trapped:

The bitter knowledge she'd been fooled spurred Fevvers into action. She dropped the toy train on the Isfahan runner—mercifully, it landed on its wheels—as, with a grunt and whistle of expelled breath, the Grand Duke ejaculated.

In those few seconds of his lapse of consciousness, Fevvers ran helter-skelter down the platform, opened the door of the first-class compartment and clambered aboard.

“Look what a mess he's made of your dress, the pig,” said Lizzie.


Obviously, it is not a coincidence that the three novels I have briefly discussed here argue the emancipation of those categories—women and non-Western peoples—that were also central to Foe. It is precisely these categories that were traditionally excluded from the “privileged centers” of culture, race, and gender, and therefore from the operative discourses of power. Not for nothing Carter refers to feminism in terms of “decolonization.”

If we account for magic realism's function within postmodernism along these lines, this might also furnish us with a possible explanation for the pioneering role of Spanish American literature in this mode. During the period under consideration Latin America was perhaps the continent most ex-centric to the “privileged centers” of power. At the same time, though, it was nominally independent enough early enough to utter its “other”-ness in the way I have suggested above. Or perhaps it might be more accurate to say that precisely the discrepancy between its nominal independence and its continuing cultural dependence exacerbated the feeling of ex-centricity of many Latin American authors, and thus alerted them to the problematics of centers and margins in literature, and hence to the possibilities of magic realism, at an earlier stage than authors from other continents or countries, or from other groups, races, or genders.31 Still, these would follow soon enough, as often as not specifically appealing to Latin American examples, as Rushdie does to García Márquez.

This brings me to a final point. García Márquez himself frequently mentioned Faulkner as his example. The Southerner Faulkner is undoubtedly one of the most ex-centric, in the sense we have here given to that word, of American authors. Of late, of course, Faulkner has been claimed for postmodernism. Should we now also start calling him a magic realist? The very fact that this notion probably strikes most of us as extravagant still might well say more about the resistance of American scholarship to applying this particular term to American literature than about that literature itself. And this regardless of the fact that John Barth, many of whose texts would surely qualify as magic realist, has expressed unreserved admiration for Borges, and for a number of Latin American magic realist authors. In “The Literature of Replenishment” he proclaims Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude his supreme example of postmodernism: “the synthesis of straightforwardness and artifice, realism and magic and myth”; yet this article, and its equally famous predecessor “The Literature of Exhaustion,” are invariably only adduced to buttress the use of the term postmodern.32 The reason why U.S. scholarship seems most resistant to applying the term magic realism to its own literary products is perhaps that the United States has been the most “privileged center” of all in our postwar world. The preference U.S. scholarship shows for the term “postmodernism” emphasizes to an almost extravagant degree the technical side of literary achievements, at the same time often insisting on the play-character of the text. Of course, this is one way of defusing the possible political repercussions or implications of contemporary texts. Ironically, Marxist and neo-humanitarian critics, inside and outside the United States, here find a common ground to decry postmodernism: for its supposed lack of ethical or materialist concern.33 However, by stubbornly restricting the term to a geographically limited segment of literature and by moreover exclusively fixating upon one aspect of this literature, these critics fail to see that the really significant resistance within the international postmodern movement is being put up by magic realism. In their blindness, in fact, they fall victim to the same kind of “privileged center” ideology that they claim to combat: a rare case of bad faith indeed!

To my mind, then, the cutting edge of postmodernism is magic realism. As Douwe Fokkema remarks, the postmodernist device of “permutation”—which he circumscribes as “permutation of possible and impossible, relevant and irrelevant, true and false, reality and parody, metaphor and literal meaning”—is “probably the most subversive one with regard to earlier conventions.”34 Significantly, it is also this device that is central to the definition of magic realism I quoted at the very beginning of this article. And obviously, I would see the subversion being worked here as not just reflecting upon earlier conventions, but also upon the metanarratives or ideologies these conventions uphold. In this, I feel supported by most of the critics I have hitherto had occasion to mention. Todd sees the three magic realist novels he discusses, Nights at the Circus, Rushdie's Shame, and D. M. Thomas' The White Hotel, as respectively putting forth a feminist program and showing up the ill effects of political and psychological repression. Linda Hutcheon, in her A Poetics of Postmodernism, devotes an entire chapter to “Decentering the Postmodern: The Ex-Centric,” claiming that “the theory and practice of postmodern art has shown ways of making the different, the off-center, into the vehicle for aesthetic and even political consciousness-raising” (73). And in her more recent The Canadian Postmodern: A Study of Contemporary English-Canadian Fiction, she insists at length upon the ex-centricity of Canadian literature, stating that “[Canada's] history is one of defining itself against centres,” and linking the Canadian experience to that of repressed “minorities,” approvingly quoting Susan Swan's The Biggest Modern Woman of the World (1983) as saying that “to be from the Canadas is to feel as women feel—cut off from the base of power.”35 For her too, “the ex-centrics, be they Canadians, women, or both, … subvert the authority of language,” and—echoing Angela Carter—“not surprisingly, language has been called the major issue in the general history of colonisation, whether in terms of gender or nationality” (p. 7). Speaking of magic realism as “an internalized challenge to realism offered by Latin American fiction,” she argues that “this kind of realism was less a rejection of the realist conventions than a contamination of them with fantasy and with the conventions of an oral story-telling tradition” (208). As Canadian heirs to Gabriel García Márquez she mentions Robert Kroetsch, Susan Swan, Jack Hodgins, and Michael Ondaatje. Elsewhere I have argued a similarly “subversive” case for Timothy Findley,36 and, shifting from Canada to Europe, and particularly to Ireland, for John Banville and Desmond Hogan.37 Even earlier, Wendy Faris had linked magical realism, postmodernism, and emergent literatures in a paper she presented at the 1985 ICLA Conference in Paris.38 Unfortunately, the proceedings of that conference remain unpublished.

Elsewhere too, I have also argued for the aesthetic consciousness-raising function of all of postmodernism;39 here, obviously, I would specifically argue for the political consciousness-raising powers of magic realism within postmodernism. With Julio Ortega, I discover in the great novels of Rulfo, Arguedas, García Márquez, Cabrera Infante, Fuentes and Lezama Lima, a

Latin American groundtone reveals itself as an artistic and cultural practice that re-shapes the traditional models and the need for innovation into new, unique, and powerful articulations of historical necessities, into penetrating statements of critical and political convictions. These novels have their roots in the common scene of International Modernism, while at the same time confronting it with its own needs, problematizing it, and parodying it. They likewise go beyond existing definitions and frameworks by giving their postmodernity an even more critical accentuation, voicing yet new aesthetic needs and social revindications.40

From the list of authors Ortega offers, and to which many other names could be added, foremost among them that of the Vargas Llosa of La casa verde (1965), Conversación en La Catedral (1969), and La guerra del fin del mundo (1981), it is clear that this Latin American groundtone of an artistic and cultural practice voicing aesthetic needs and social revindications is also a magic realist one. And this groundtone, it seems to me, is also there in magic realist works by non-Latin American writers.

In order to come full circle, to my opening remarks: magic realism, as I have now discussed it, in its artistic and cultural-political practice, is clearly continuing in the tracks of its earliest progenitor, surrealism. As such it also marks the inclusion, in the discussion about postmodernism, of that “half” that Helmut Lethen still relatively recently regretted as having been excluded from earlier theoretical discussions of this phenomenon by Anglo-American critics, namely, the complementary heritage of the continental European avant-garde.41 The exclusive attention given to Anglo-American modernism is in itself an indication of “privileged center” discourse. In this respect, then, merely to talk of magic realism in relation to postmodernism is to contribute to decentering that privileged discourse.


  1. For what is probably still the most comprehensive survey, see Jean Weisgerber, “La Locution et le concept,” in Le Réalisme magique: roman, peinture et cinéma, ed. Jean Weisgerber (Lausanne: L'Age d'Homme, 1987), pp. 11-32.

  2. The Oxford Dictionary of Art, ed. Ian Chivers, Harold Osborne, and Dennis Farr (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 305.

  3. The clearest discussion of the precise nature of magic realism in literature is probably to be found in Amaryll Chanady's Magic Realism and the Fantastic: Resolved versus Unresolved Antinomy (New York and London: Garland, 1985). See also her essay in this volume.

  4. See Joaquín Soler Serrano's interview with Alejo Carpentier in Escritores a fondo (Barcelona: Editorial Planeta, 1986), in which the latter (p. 156) remarks upon his friendship with Robert Desnos, the surrealist poet who in his works combined dream and reality, and where he states that (p. 163) “I began to see America via the Surrealist movement. I saw that the Surrealists searched in their daily lives for marvelous things that were very hard for them to find, and that sometimes they used tricks, very often collecting different things in order to create a prefabricated marvelous reality. And there, in Paris, I realized that we really had all those marvelous things in America, and I began to take account of Latin America and of the baroque phenomenon.” Finally, Carpentier's Tientos y diferencias (Montevideo: Arca, 1967), contains two previously unpublished texts by Desnos in an appendix.

  5. Jean Franco, An Introduction to Spanish American Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), pp. 309-19.

  6. See, in this respect, also Donald L. Shaw, Nueva narrativa hispanoamericana (Madrid: Cátedra, 1981), pp. 18-19. Carpentier's essay is translated by Tanya Huntington and Lois Parkinson Zamora in this volume.

  7. See Weisgerber, Le Réalisme magique, and also Michael Scheffel, Magischer Realismus: Die Geschichte eines Begriffes und ein Versuch seiner Bestimmung, Stauffenburg Colloquium Band 16 (Tübingen: Stauffenburg Verlag, 1990).

  8. See Gordon Brotherston, The Emergence of the Latin American Novel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), p. 15, and the footnote references to essays by Angel Flores and Luis Leal (reprinted in this volume).

  9. Jean Franco, The Modern Culture of Latin America: Society and the Artist (London: Pall Mall Press, 1967).

  10. Jean Franco, Spanish American Literature since Independence (London: Ernest Benn, 1973).

  11. Cedomil Goic, Historia de la novela hispanoamaricana (Valparaiso, Chile: Ediciones Universitarias de Valparaiso, 1972).

  12. In this respect the date—1972—of José Donoso's Historia personal del “boom” (Barcelona: Anagrama) is instructive.

  13. Michael Köhler, “‘Postmodernismus: Ein begriffsgeschichtlicher’ überblick,” in Amerikastudien 22:8-18; and Hans Bertens, “The Postmodern Weltanschauung and its Relation with Modernism: An Introductory Survey,” in Approaching Postmodernism, ed. Douwe Fokkema and Hans Bertens, Utrecht Publications in General and Comparative Literature, vol. 21 (Amsterdam/Philadephia: John Benjamins, 1986), 9-51.

  14. To cite just some of the more recent and ambitious attempts: Steven Connor, Postmodernist Culture: An Introduction to Theories of the Contemporary (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989); David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Inquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989); Scott Lash, Sociology of Postmodernism (London: Routledge, 1990); Mike Featherstone, Consumer Culture & Postmodernism (London: SAGE, 1991); Barry Smart, Modern Conditions, Postmodern Controversies (London: Routledge, 1992); Steven Connor, Theory and Cultural Value (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1993); and, of course, the many analyses inspired by Fredric Jameson's 1984 essay “Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” now collected in the 1991 Duke University Press volume with the same title.

  15. Obviously, as the catalog of works on postmodernism is by now almost endless and growing every day, I can list only some of the better known works here: Ihab Hassan, The Dismemberment of Orpheus: Toward a Postmodern Literature (1971; New York: Oxford University Press, 1982); Paracriticisms: Seven Speculations of the Times (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1975); The Right Promethean Fire: Imagination, Science, and Cultural Change (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1980); The Postmodern Turn: Essays in Postmodern Theory and Culture (Ohio State University Press, 1987); David Lodge, The Modes of Modern Writing: Metaphor, Metonymy, and the Typology of Modern Literature (London: Arnold, 1977); Alan Wilde, Horizons of Assent: Modernism, Postmodernism, and the Ironic Imagination (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981); Douwe Fokkema, Literary History, Modernism, and Postmodernism (Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1984); Allen Thiher, Words in Reflection: Modern Language Theory and Postmodern Fiction (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984); Douwe Fokkema and Hans Bertens, eds., Approaching Postmodernism (Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1986); Brian McHale, Postmodernist Fiction (New York: Methuen, 1987); Matei Calinescu and Douwe Fokkema, ed., Exploring Postmodernism (Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1987); Linda Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction (New York: Routledge, 1988); Marguerite Alexander, Flights from Realism: Themes and Strategies in Postmodernist British and American Fiction (London: Edward Arnold, 1990); Alison Lee, Realism and Power: Postmodern British Fiction (London: Routledge, 1990); Jerry A. Varsava, Contingent Meanings: Postmodern Fiction, Mimesis, and the Reader (Tallahassee: Florida State University Press, 1990); Brenda Marshall, Teaching the Postmodern: Fiction and Theory (New York: Routledge, 1992).

  16. For instance, see Elrud Ibsch, “From Hypothesis to Korrektur: Refutation as a Component of Postmodernist Discourse,” in Approaching Postmodernism, ed. Fokkema and Bertens, pp. 119-33; Ulla Musarra, “Duplication and Multiplication: Postmodernist Devices in the Novels of Italo Calvino,” ibid., pp. 135-55; Hans Bertens, “Postmodern Characterization and the Intrusion of Language,” in Exploring Postmodernism, ed. Matei Calinescu and Douwe Fokkema, pp. 139-59; Jerome Klinkowitz and James Knowlton, Peter Handke and the Postmodern Transformation: The Goalie's Journey Home (Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 1983); Theo D'haen, Text to Reader: A Communicative Approach to Fowles, Barth, Cortázar, and Boon (Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1983); Theo D'haen, “Popular Genre Conventions in Post-modern Fiction: The Case of the Western,” in Exploring Postmodernism, ed. Calinescu and Fokkema, pp. 161-73; Alfred Hornung, “Reading One/Self: Samuel Beckett, Thomas Bernhard, Peter Handke, John Barth, Alain Robbe-Grillet,” ibid., pp. 175-97; Hans Bertens and Theo D'haen, Het postmodernisme in de literatuur (Amsterdam: De Arbeiderspers, 1988).

  17. Richard Todd, “Convention and Innovation in British Literature 1981-84: The Contemporaneity of Magic Realism,” Convention and Innovation in Literature, ed. Theo D'haen, Rainer Grübel, and Helmut Lethen, Utrecht Publications in General and Comparative Literature 24 (Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1989), pp. 361-88.

  18. Geert Lernout, “Postmodernist Fiction in Canada,” in Postmodern Studies 1: Postmodern Fiction in Europe and the Americas, Theo D'haen and Hans Bertens, ed. (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1988), pp. 127-41. This quote p. 129. Lernout here also draws on an article by Geoff Hancock in Canadian Forum 65 (March, 1986): pp. 23-35.

  19. Julio Ortega, “Postmodernism in Latin America,” in Postmodern Studies 1: Postmodern Fiction in Europe and the Americas, ed. D'haen and Bertens, pp. 193-208.

  20. Carlos Fuentes, “Discovering Mexico,” Wilson Quarterly (Autumn 1988): 148-59; this quote p. 157.

  21. J. M. Coetzee, Foe (London: Jonathan Cape, 1986); John Fowles, The French Lieutenant's Woman (London: Jonathan Cape, 1969); Salman Rushdie, Midnight's Children (London: Picador, 1981); Angela Carter, Nights at the Circus (London: Picador, 1984).

  22. For the classic statement of this position, see Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel (1957; London: Penguin, 1963), pp. 65-88.

  23. Of course, it can be explained in many more ways—as the editors of the present volume kindly pointed out to me, Susan might here be trying to teach Friday to write the body in a feminine mode. Obviously, the explanations I focus upon are those that fit my line of argument—though I think that to interpret this passage along the lines suggested by Faris and Zamora might well go to strengthen my own conclusions.

  24. Michel Foucault, Les mots et les choses (Paris: Gallimard, 1966); and L'archéologie du savoir (Paris: Gallimard, 1969).

  25. See Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel, pp. 54-61.

  26. John Fowles, “Notes to an Unfinished Novel,” in The Novel Today: Contemporary Writers on Modern Fiction, ed. Malcolm Bradbury (1969; Glasgow: Fontana/Collins, 1977), pp. 136-50.

  27. See D'haen, Text to Reader, pp. 25-42.

  28. It would take me too far to argue the point in detail, but the idea of magical manipulation of time and plot is central to all of Fowles' work; see also Malcolm Bradbury, “The Novelist as Impresario: John Fowles and his Magus,” in Possibilities: Essays on the State of the Novel (London: Oxford University Press, 1973), pp. 256-71.

  29. For a comparable approach, but from a scholarly stance, see Edward Said's celebrated, but also much debated, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978); for a discussion of Rushdie's work from a “Saidian” perspective, see Aleid Fokkema, “Indianness and Englishness: Aspects of a Literary and Critical Discourse,” Master's thesis, University of Utrecht, 1985.

  30. And this not just in English literature. See, for example, the Dutch author Louis Couperus' powerful De stille kracht (1900), translated by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos as The Hidden Force (London: Jonathan Cape, 1922), and recently (1985) reissued, revised, and edited, and with an introduction and notes by E. M. Beekman, in the latter's superb twelve-volume series of Dutch colonial literature classics, the Library of the Indies, published by the University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst.

  31. Of course, there may have been other reasons as well—such as strong indigenous narrative traditions, next to narratives of discovery and exploration, all of which to a greater or lesser extent stressed the strangeness, the wonder, of the Latin American reality.

  32. John Barth, “The Literature of Exhaustion” and “The Literature of Replenishment,” both of which appeared originally in the Atlantic Monthly (in 1967 and 1980, respectively), have now been collected, together with Barth's other discursive writing, in The Friday Book: Essays and Other Non-Fiction (New York: Putnam, 1984), pp. 62-76 and 193-206. This quote p. 204.

  33. See, for instance, Charles Newman, The Post-Modern Aura: The Act of Fiction in an Age of Inflation (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1985); and articles by Fredric Jameson, for example, “Postmodernism and Consumer Society,” in The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, ed. Hal Foster (Port Townsend, Wash.: Bay Press, 1983), pp. 1111-25; and, of course, Jameson's “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” cited above.

  34. Douwe Fokkema, “The Semantic and Syntactic Organization of Postmodernist Texts,” Approaching Postmodernism, ed. Fokkema and Bertens, p. 95.

  35. Linda Hutcheon, The Canadian Postmodern: A Study of Contemporary English-Canadian Fiction (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), pp. 4 and 120, respectively.

  36. Theo D'haen, “Timothy Findley, Magic Realism and the Canadian Postmodern,” in Multiple Voices: Recent Canadian Fiction, Proceedings of the Fourth International Symposium of the Brussels Centre for Canadian Studies, 29 November-1 December 1989 (Sydney/Mundelstrup/Coventry: Dangaroo Press, 1990), pp. 217-33. I have used some paragraphs from the Findley essay in the present article and also in the Irish Regionalism paper mentioned in the next note.

  37. Theo D'haen, “Irish Regionalism, Magic Realism and Postmodernism,” paper delivered at the 1990 meeting of the International Association for the Study of Anglo-Irish Literature in Kyoto and to be published in the proceedings; also in British Postmodern Fiction, ed. Theo D'haen and Hans Bertens, Postmodern Studies, vol. 7 (Amsterdam/Antwerp: Rodopi/Restant, forthcoming).

  38. Wendy B. Faris, “Replenishment from the Peripheries: Magical Realism, Emergent Literatures, and Postmodernism”; cf. for instance the following passage: “In any case, a strong replenishing impulse seems to come from the outer edges of Western literature toward the center rather than the other way around. A postmodern poetics may now demand a geographical as well as a conceptual decentering of literary culture, a recognition of the force of marginality as an ideological and an aesthetic phenomenon” (Unpublished manuscript, p. 3).

  39. See Theo D'haen, Text to Reader.

  40. D'haen and Bertens, eds., Postmodern Fiction in Europe and the Americas, p. 206.

  41. Helmut Lethen, “Modernism Cut in Half: The Exclusion of the Avant-garde and the Debate on Postmodernism,” in Approaching Postmodernism, ed. Fokkema and Bertens, pp. 233-38.

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