Charlotte Spivack (essay date 1987)

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SOURCE: Spivack, Charlotte. “Fantasy and the Feminine.” In Merlin's Daughters: Contemporary Women Writers of Fantasy, pp. 3-16. New York, N.Y.: Greenwood Press, 1987.

[ In the following essay, Spivack provides a brief overview of fantasy literature and theory, focusing on ways in which women writers have modified the fantasy genre...

(The entire section contains 17185 words.)

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SOURCE: Spivack, Charlotte. “Fantasy and the Feminine.” In Merlin's Daughters: Contemporary Women Writers of Fantasy, pp. 3-16. New York, N.Y.: Greenwood Press, 1987.

[In the following essay, Spivack provides a brief overview of fantasy literature and theory, focusing on ways in which women writers have modified the fantasy genre to demonstrate self-fulfillment and the preservation of community.]

In spite of the pervasive critical ambivalence toward individual works of fantasy, the theory of fantasy literature has attracted much critical attention in recent years. Pioneering attempts to define the nature of “the fantastic” were Harvey Cox's The Feast of Fools (1969), which stressed the element of festive release in the impulse to fantasy, and Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre (1970, tr. 1973), which narrowly perceived fantasy as a moment of hesitation experienced in the presence of an apparently supernatural event.1 More recently, W. R. Irwin and Eric Rabkin have also dealt with fantasy theory, stressing respectively “the impossible” (The Game of the Impossible: A Rhetoric of Fantasy [1976]) and the reversal of the ground rules of narrative (The Fantastic in Literature [1976]).2 All of these studies are essentially concerned with “the fantastic” as an element in much of the world's literature rather than with a specific kind of literature that is popularly recognized as “fantasy.” Colin Manlove rightly noted that most definitions of fantasy are either too broad or too narrow, “too inclusive to be definite or too definite to include very much.”3 In Manlove's own attempt to delimit fantasy he defines it as “a fiction evoking wonder and containing a substantive and irreducible element of supernatural or impossible worlds.”4 I have argued elsewhere that the word “fantasy” is so diversely and diffusely used as to preclude definition, suggesting that a strictly literary genre or subgenre might usefully (and on solid historical and etymological grounds) be distinguished as “phantasy.”5 My own emphasis is on the psychological dimension of fantasy fiction, consonant with Ursula K. Le Guin's observation that fantasy deals with the journey to self-knowledge, speaking “to the unconscious, from the unconscious, in the language of the unconscious, symbol and archetype.”6

For this reason I must reject the notion of “the impossible” as a logical starting point for dealing with fantasy. To define fantasy in terms of the impossible is to define possibility in terms of scientific realism. The events in fantasy fiction may be physically impossible, but they are not psychologically impossible. Like the content of dreams, they have psychic validity. Contrast with realism may indeed be a helpful approach to fantasy but not based on the expectations of realism, i.e., whether a given event can or cannot happen in the physical world. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde may be a fantasy, but schizophrenia is a real phenomenon.

A better starting point is the recognition of the symbolic nature of fantasy as opposed to the representational nature of realism. Plato long ago distinguished between art produced by fantasy (a mental faculty) as symbolic and art produced by the imagination (a different mental faculty) as representative of images existing in the real world.7 In contemporary critical terminology, realistic fiction is essentially metonomy, the part signifying the whole. The story of a child growing up in a New York ghetto, for example, is paradigmatic of the lives of all urban minority children. Fantasy fiction, on the other hand, is essentially metaphor, based on implied resemblance between two basically unlike things. The fantasy quest for a magic talisman, for example, does not imply a whole of which it is a part, but rather it constitutes a totally symbolic action. The quest for an object symbolizes a quest for meaning on the nonmaterial level of experience. Similarly, magic as means to fulfill the quest serves as a symbolic action. The transformation of a person into a dragon is not paradigmatic of whole populations in the process of literal change to reptilian form. Instead, it functions as metaphor, indicating that a person who behaves monstrously is inwardly dragonish.

The two most central and significant symbols in most contemporary fantasy, through which both narrative form and thematic content are articulated, are the quest and magic. As Jane Mobley perceptively notes, “Magic is the informing principle in fantasy.”8 The quest—not surprising—implies a question. Just as the detective novel asks “Whodunit,” so the fantasy novel asks “What do I seek?” The former question is directed outward, the latter inward. The mode by which the detective novel answers its outward question is rational deduction from given evidence. The mode by which the fantasy quest is identified inwardly and fulfilled is magic. Whereas the conundrum of the mystery novel is literal, the quest in the fantasy novel is symbolic. It is a metaphor of the search for meaning, for identity.

Magic must also be viewed as metaphorical rather than literal. Mobley precisely defines magic as “a creative power capable of actualizing itself in form.”9 This actualization is transformational: Magic changes the appearance of things. Magic in fantasy functions as both impersonal force at work in the world and as personal directed use of power by a gifted individual. As Peter Beagle's bumbling magician Schmendrick (The Last Unicorn) puts it, everything is crouching in readiness to become something else. Magic as an elemental force in nature brings about changes: the cocoon turns into a butterfly. Magic in the individual is creativity. As Le Guin observes, “Wizardry is artistry.”10 The creative power of the imagination transforms reality by actualizing itself in form: notes into music, the alphabet into poetry, the child into a hero. In fantasy, then, magic serves as a metaphor of the creative power of the imagination. The fantasy fiction under consideration in this book may thus be perceived as an “enchanted quest,” an inner journey informed by magic.

This kind of fantasy is a modern, i.e., postmedieval genre. The Middle Ages did not develop fantasy as a separate form since the medieval mind perceived the world “with an all-inclusive awareness of simultaneous realities.”11 The medieval romance, the ancestor of fantasy, combined the mundane and the magical, the picaresque and the numinous, the physical and the supernatural. To an age that lovingly and repeatedly depicted the ascent of the Virgin to heaven, a flying dragon posed no problem in credibility. For the Middle Ages, however, the dynamic of magic was sacred. God the ultimate wizard was the source of all creative transformation that occurred vertically, down from and upward toward the divine. The secular movement of the Renaissance opened the possibility through science of horizontal transformation, in effect bringing about both fantasy and science fiction. Like Lord Dunsany's Elfland drifting away from the fields we know, the newly divided psyche of Western culture split off conscious from unconscious, rational from irrational, spirit from matter.12 Magic, no longer permeating the primary world, retreated to the secondary world of the imagination. In literature this split led to science fiction as the extrapolation of the rational and to fantasy as the extrapolation of the nonrational. Early science fiction experimented with voyages to the moon, while fantasy delved into the dark forest of the unconscious, home of the vampire and dragon. From a materialist perspective one might call the science-fiction speculation realistic—people have traveled to the moon—but although the vampire and dragon are not materially real, they are real elements in the psyche and as such are symbolic of human problems, projections, dreams, and nightmares.

The earliest fantasy in English, Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, offers a symbolic quest narrative in an imagined or secondary world where magic is operative. Each of its six books features a knight's quest for perfection in a given virtue, with the entire work, which was never finished, aimed at representing the total person perfect in all the moral virtues. (What do I seek? Moral perfection.) The dynamic of transformation is magic, but The Faerie Queene is a transcendental fantasy, with magic both vertical and horizontal, a product of intervention by supernatural powers as well as by wizards. A moral allegory as well as a fantasy, The Faerie Queene seeks to change the individual but otherwise functions conservatively to confirm the established value of its religious and political milieu. It is not, as many later fantasies were to be, subversive.

Fantasy over the next two centuries following Spenser will not concern us here, for in its escape from mimetic realism English popular literature for the most part diverged either into hyperrational science fiction or antirational Gothic. Horror fiction proliferated in the eighteenth century, with chilling tales of ghosts and monsters, haunted castles and decayed ruins, asserting a need for sexual and instinctual freedom through voicing the repressed and ghoulish underside of a society totally dedicated to rationality. Rosemary Jackson has demonstrated the connection between Gothic fantasy and cultural taboo in her study of fantasy as subversion from a psychoanalytical perspective.13

It is not until the nineteenth century that we see a resurgence in England of the Spenserian secondary-world model of fantasy fiction. William Morris, an ardent medievalist and social reformer, wrote several long fantasy novels structured as quests and moved by magic. Also in the nineteenth century a new religious focus was introduced into fantasy by George MacDonald, a devout Scottish minister. MacDonald's adult works Lilith and Phantastes (named for a character in Spenser) are transcendental fantasies positing a specifically Christian quest for rebirth.

Several fantasists in the twentieth century have continued the tradition of the transcendental mode, the most important being the Inklings: C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams. Williams's fantasies are overtly theological, set in the primary world which is spiritually invaded by supernatural forces. In one novel the Holy Grail reappears in rural England; in another the two protagonists are dead, returning to London to fulfill a spiritual mission. Lewis's Narnia stories for children and space trilogy for adults are symbolically Christian. Neither Aslan the Narnian lion nor Ransome the new Pendragon is Christ but both are metaphors of the self-sacrificial redeemer. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings is neither theological nor overtly Christian, but the morality of his Middle Earth is clearly symbolic of Christian dualism, with evil represented in terms of darkness and his wizard Gandalf reborn and garbed in white after his return from the dead. All three are transcendental fantasists with immortality as one goal of the quest and with magic emanating from above through supernatural intervention.

Several modern fantasists, including the Inklings, have also turned to the Arthurian mythos for the material of the fantasy quest. For most of these writers the Arthurian realm, although ostensibly medieval and European, is symbolically a secondary world not based on historical accuracy. One well-known example is T. H. White who in the opening volume of his four-novel series deliberately uses anachronisms to alienate his setting from realistic reader expectations, although he also incorporates authentic detail concerning medieval life on such matters as falconry and castle architecture. Since White's The Once and Future King Arthurian fantasy has proliferated so as to become a veritable subgenre.14 Five of the ten authors I discuss have written Arthurian fantasy.

Many fantasy writers have created wholly original secondary worlds. Of these the most phenomenally successful is J. R. R. Tolkien whose trilogy achieved a remarkable readership especially in this country in the 1960s. Much more than a mere best seller, The Lord of the Rings was a spiritual construct for our materialistic time, a powerfully evocative symbol of what seemed to be wrong and what should be done about it. For the younger generation who read it twenty times, who memorized genealogies and learned to write Elvish, it had the force of a sacred text. Tolkien is significant for introducing a new element into fantasy fiction, i.e., political subversion.15 Tolkien converted the quest to find something into a quest to destroy something. As metaphor Frodo's quest to destroy the ring of power signaled a protest against the establishment: antiwar, antitechnology, antipower politics. Those rational adults who viewed the Middle Earth mania as mere adolescent escapism missed the point of this devastatingly imaginative critique of our society. It is no coincidence that its popularity peaked during the Vietnam era. Since the force of its protest was symbolic rather than literal, its message was lost to the “realists.” Frodo is still not recognized for the significant twentieth-century hero that he is. This self-effacing hobbit undermines two major mythic role models of Western patriarchal society, Faust and Prometheus. Frodo is an anti-Faust, committed to destroying power, not in its manifestations but at its source, and an anti-Prometheus, distrustful of the potentially destructive uses of that stolen fire of technology. In this sense, although Tolkien's trilogy is notoriously lacking in female characters, the work exhibits decidedly “feminine” themes.

Fantasy has flourished since Tolkien. At the moment it is burgeoning, with several new writers exemplifying the literary potential inherent in the genre. At this point I must return to my given subject, women fantasists. I must address the question of whether there is a distinctively feminine—or even feminist—fantasy or whether the top women writers of fantasy simply prove their ability to write superior versions of the traditional genre. I should also ask whether the genre itself is perhaps “feminine” as opposed to, at the extreme, hard-core “masculine” science fiction. I have already suggested that the women writers discussed here have indeed modified the genre in significant ways, as they have also influenced and changed science fiction. To varying degrees the work of these ten writers does represent a feminine revisioning of the fantasy quest and its heroes, the fantasy world and its occupants, and, above all, the meaning of magic at the heart of fantasy. This is not to say that all of these writers are feminists, nor is it to suggest that all of them are consciously committed to rejecting the models of past fantasy masterpieces. To a substantial degree, however, a feminine perspective on plot, character, theme, structure, and imagery is pervasive in the novels of these writers. Furthermore, as I hope to demonstrate, these writers are, unlike Spenser and rather more like Tolkien, only much more so, ultimately and profoundly subversive.

First let us look at the most obvious ways in which fantasy by female writers is different. The most immediately evident distinction is the choice of female protagonists. Andre Norton's Witch World series is about women; the trilogies of Ursula K. Le Guin and Patricia McKillip feature both female and male protagonists; Evangeline Walton, Vera Chapman, and Marion Zimmer Bradley all focus on female protagonists. Even more important than the mere choice of women as leading characters, however, is the concept of hero that underlies the choice. In much sword and sorcery written by women, for example, female heroes play conventional male roles as warriors. Their emphasis is on physical strength, courage, and aggressive behavior. In the fantasy novels the female protagonists also demonstrate physical courage and resourcefulness, but they are not committed to male goals. Whether warriors or wizards, and there are both, their aim is not power or domination, but rather self-fulfillment and protection of the community.

Furthermore, just as major women characters are often both masculine and feminine in their abilities, both expert with swords and devoted to peace, so male characters are also complex, with their aggressive natures modified by sensitivity. At the same time, those traditionally male traits of pride, sexual prowess, and desire for domination are often subjected to negative scrutiny. In short, the traditional roles of both men and women are reevaluated and recreated in these works. Probably the best examples of the modified male are found in the fantasies of Mary Stewart and Katharine Kurtz, which at first appear simply masculine in approach. Stewart's trilogy is devoted to the life of Merlin, the archetypal male wizard, but his intuitiveness, his sensitivity to nature, his minimizing of power, all seem feminine, permitting him in effect to function as the feminine side of his king. Kurtz's heroes in her two trilogies play traditional male roles, as warriors, priests, and politicians, but their conduct is by no means traditional. In her pseudomedieval fantasy world the male heroes exhibit traits usually associated with and often repressed as feminine.

Another overtly feminist strategy in these novels is the assumption of a female point of view on conventionally masculine subjects. Several women writers have turned to the Arthurian legend, which they have not dealt with in conventional ways. Instead, they offer a feminine perspective on the legendary events. Vera Chapman, for example, in her Arthurian trilogy, creates a new character to narrate part of the old story—King Arthur's daughter—and endows minor characters with strong personalities to narrate the rest—Bertilak's wife and Lynette. Both Marion Zimmer Bradley and Gillian Bradshaw retell events from the point of view of major female characters. Bradshaw makes Gwynhwyfar a first-person narrative voice, thereby reconceiving the role of the much maligned queen as a sympathetic woman. Bradley focuses on Morgan le Fay, recreating her role as a complex and positive character, far removed from the villainous part she plays in the original. Through these women narrators the events also shift in importance, with battles and politics losing emphasis in favor of human relationships and reactions.

A further narrative device favored by women fantasy writers is the circular as opposed to the linear plot.16 As Le Guin succinctly states it in her Earthsea trilogy, “To go is to return.”17 Both Le Guin and Patricia McKillip in their trilogies put an emphasis on the second half of the traditional quest, the return, culminating in rebirth. The paradigm of the mythic hero, followed at least in part by most fantasists, includes eight stages from miraculous birth and inspired childhood through a period of meditation, the undertaking of a quest, a literal or symbolic death, journey to the underworld, and ultimately rebirth and apotheosis. Most, however, concentrate on the first half, with emphasis on the climactic nature of the quest. This heroic outward movement, responding to the call to adventure, is aimed at establishing the ego, as Joseph Campbell and others have pointed out, but the total self is not achieved until after the symbolic death, descent, and rebirth, followed by a return to the starting place. Le Guin's and McKillip's heroes return to their place of birth, as does Mary Stewart's Merlin, whose final enchanted sleep takes place in the very cave wherein he was conceived.18

Another recurring feature in fantasy by women writers is the return to the matriarchal society of the ancient Celtic world. The traditional late medieval setting, with the panoply of chivalric knighthood, is rejected in favor of the very early or premedieval, before the worship of the goddess has given way to Christianity. The Grail as motif is thus often replaced by the sacred cauldron. Evangeline Walton's translation and adaptation of the Welsh epic The Mabinogion is a convincing depiction of life in ancient Dyved where the mother goddess was worshipped. Bradley also chooses a Celtic setting, with a plot stressing the conflict between the established matriarchy and the threatening new patriarchy introduced by Christianity. Andre Norton, on the other hand, creates her own original matriarchal society in her futuristic Witch World.

All of these techniques are clearly and readily apparent as feminist in focus: the emphasis on female protagonists, the preference for a matriarchal society as setting, the use of a circular rather than linear plot structure, and the assumption of a feminine point of view on subject matter traditionally presented from a male perspective. What more deeply distinguishes these fantasies by women writers is something much less obvious but ultimately much more significant. These works, which employ the fantasy quest as metaphor for the search for meaning through magic as metaphor for the transforming power of the creative imagination, are subtly but forcefully subversive of certain key concepts in the mainstream traditions of Western civilization. Much more than Tolkien, whose hobbits quietly prodded American youth into opposing the war in Vietnam, these fantasies are quietly undermining the foundations of capitalism, power politics, and Christian dualism. As Michael Butor points out in his study of the fairy tale, “[f]airyland is a criticism of ossified reality. It does not remain side by side with the latter; it reacts upon it; it suggests that we transform it, that we reinstate what is out of place.”19 Similarly, in the secondary worlds of fantasy the wizard's spell and the dragon's flame are metaphorically endeavoring to transform society in the direction of feminist values.

The first of these subversive motifs is the renunciation of the power principle in politics. As we have seen, Tolkien also introduces this theme but in a much more limited way. Frodo undertakes a quest to destroy the ring of power because the ring has been forged by a quintessentially evil figure. Power is the legitimate aim of other major figures representing the good. The aims of power-seeking are fulfilled in several ways that are positive in context: the dragon is slain, the war is fought and won, the king is restored to the throne. These goals are regarded as good ones. In contrast, in many of the fantasies written by women, the desire for power is denounced as a principle. It is not a matter of the good guys exerting power in order to crush the power-seeking of the bad guys. Instead, power-seeking as such is rejected. The goal in these quests is to not slay the dragon, to not take the treasure, to not seize the throne, to not dominate the Other.

In Andre Norton's Witch World, for example, the group of characters with potentially the greatest power is the Council of Witches. These gifted women have innate spiritual strength that enables them to perform magic. They use their skills in magic, however, only to negate or avert aggressive actions on the part of their power-hungry neighbors. The psychic power of these witches is superior to the steel weapons used by men. These wise women are committed to protecting their own free society and to maintaining the balance in nature. They use their magic to avert the threat of rape, war, and other forms of male domination, but when the threat is dispelled they do not establish their own political system. They retire to their own inner spiritual development. Their major antagonist is a technologically advanced society that they are forced to repel for the sake of remaining free. In so doing they do not adopt the technology that they see as a potentially dangerous base of tyrannical power.

Le Guin's Earthsea trilogy traces the career of a wizard from boyhood through maturity when he becomes an archmage. The major lesson he learns from his training is not to use the magical powers he possesses. Eager to perform impressive deeds of magic, he violates the stricture with disastrous consequences to himself and others. Through the course of the trilogy he gains maturity as he becomes able to manifest his wizardry through renouncing its usage except when absolutely necessary. He does not even kill the dragon but rather negotiates with it for future peaceful coexistence. The highest aim of wizardry is being, not doing.

The hero of McKillip's trilogy, Riddle of the Stars, is also faced with the challenge of accepting power, but he wishes to reject it from the start. The thoughtful, introspective type, he is part farmer, part student. His dearest wish is to marry his fiancée and settle down on his farm, spending his leisure in solving riddles, his favorite intellectual occupation. When he learns that it is his destiny to play an important role in the fate of the world, he desperately resists. Although the need to assume power is thrust upon him by the pressure of events, he never surrenders his desire for a quiet life of hard work and contemplation, without political involvement. He is by temperament what Le Guin's hero strives to become.

In her Arthurian trilogy, Gillian Bradshaw depicts the thrust for both military and political power as destructive of nature. More heroic than either the warriors or the leaders are the women who give birth, who heal, who suffer to maintain their families and households in the violent context of war and strife. Power comes and goes, passing through bloodstained hands, but the distaff world provides continuity through nurture. To the young mother whose husband is killed in battle the cause of empire is ill-conceived and meaningless. Even the death of King Arthur is shown to be the senseless result of a vain power struggle. What finally establishes Gawain as a member of the inner Arthurian circle is not his battle prowess, which he has demonstrated repeatedly to the point of madness, but rather his kindness to a fatally wounded soldier. Easing the pain of a dying man without any hope of reward or recognition is the highest kind of heroism.

In feminist fantasy, then, power for the sake of power is denounced in favor of living and letting live. The code of the warrior and the ruler is deglorified and exposed as negative and destructive, while the role of the wizard is exalted for its perceptive passivity.

A second subversive theme in fantasies by women writers is the vindication of mortality. Contrary to accepted tradition, immortality, whether assumed as a literal afterlife or sought as a lasting fame in this life, is not aspired to. As Le Guin's hero explains, “Death is the price we pay for our life” (FS, p. 180). Her trilogy offers a vehement protest against a misguided desire for immortality. The concluding novel concerns the need to free Earthsea from the malignant influence of a sorcerer who has opened the gate between life and death in order to gain immortality for himself and, with it, power over others. All of the light, the color, and the joy have left the world since movement between life and death has become possible. Magic no longer works, for the loss of distinction has killed the imagination. The living exist in a shadowy way, resembling the world of the dead, the Dry Land, for without death, life has no meaning.

Susan Cooper's novels also incorporate the theme of rejecting immortality. She focuses on individual choice, presenting one character who opts for immortal life and one who refuses it. The unfortunate man who takes on the burden of immortality illustrates the dire consequences of everlasting life. He is a wanderer who has survived for centuries and longs to be freed from his endless existence. For him death will be a relief. The other character is a young man who discovers his identity as the son of King Arthur. Transposed to the modern age, he must choose between joining his legendary father in immortality or staying on the farm in Wales where he has been brought up by the rural couple whom he had thought were his parents. For him the immediate loving bonds of family are more important than the immortal role as Pendragon.

Evangeline Walton's handling of the same theme in her fantasy based on the Mabinogion shifts attention from the desire for immortality to the vindication of mortality. In the ancient Celtic world depicted in these works, desire for immortality on the part of an individual seems egoistically defiant of nature, for in the natural scheme of life all are reborn into higher levels of being. Death is therefore but a gateway to rebirth on a higher plane. The newly introduced Christian idea of eternal reward or punishment conflicts with belief in the goddess who claims both Time and Death as her children, and from whose womb will come rebirth as well as birth. The notion of an eternal afterlife imposes a moral structure on an inevitable natural process that is inherently evolutionary.

In dealing with Arthurian themes, both Bradshaw and Stewart stress acceptance of mortality in the context of the renewal of nature. Bradshaw's Gwynhwyfar will not accept the tale that Arthur will come again, preferring the consolation of spring, when life is naturally reborn. Stewart's Merlin retires to his cave, but not for an eternity.

A third subversive theme is the depolarization of values. Nothing has been more central to fiction in the Western world than the depiction of conflict between right and wrong, hero and villain. The clarity and vehemence of the conflict have pervaded popular literature in particular, because of its generally diminished regard for moral and aesthetic ambiguity. But even allowing for the greater ambiguity inherent in major fiction, the lines of force are even there clearly drawn: Raskolnikov was wrong to murder the pawnbroker; Scrooge should not have fired Bob Cratchett; Huck Finn was right to defend Jim, even at peril to his own soul. In the case of the women fantasy writers, however, these lines dissolve. One major example is the fiction of Le Guin, which is informed by Taoism in its moral structure. Unlike Christianity, Taoism rejects the polarization of opposites. Living well according to Taoism means living in harmony with nature, thereby maintaining a balance between natural opposites. In Earthsea good and evil do not exist as moral constructs, and light and dark are of equal value. Of the many elements held in binary suspension none is more basic than life and death, each of which requires the other.

In Norton's Witch World series, earthly standards of good and evil and moral judgments about reward and punishment become totally extrinsic and irrelevant on other planets. The hero of the first work is an army deserter in this world, but his humane sensitivity helps him become a savior in another. In McKillip's riddling world good and evil do not exist as concepts. By implication identity (more precisely, the search for identity) is valorized through the premium set on the ability to answer riddles, but truth remains the elusive ultimate riddle. In her narrative such modes of behavior as shape-changing function creatively or destructively, resisting ethical categorization. Furthermore, the omnipresent figure of Deth the harpist is both lauded and condemned, both accepted and rejected, emerging as a strong and essential presence but beyond moral judgment.

In the Arthurian and Celtic fantasies the depolarization of values is most evident in connection with sexuality. In the works of both Walton and Bradley sexuality is regarded as natural and blameless. In the absence of concepts of marriage, paternity, and legitimacy, the sexual act is free and fertility welcome. Sexual union is regarded as initiatory rather than possessive. Even incest is not prohibited, and Arthur's sense of guilt over the incestuous birth of Mordred is seen as a product of arbitrary Christian legalism.

In Bradshaw's Arthurian trilogy valorization is treated as a theme in itself. Her characters are concerned with the contrary forces of Dark and Light but find these opposites coexisting in every human being. Several who are devoted to serving the Light find themselves caught up in destructive behavior patterns that aid the Dark. Well-meaning characters perform actions that have negative consequences, but not out of malice or turpitude. Since things go both right and wrong in this world, moral blame is often essentially irrelevant. To condemn Gwynhwyfar's adultery as morally evil, then, is to misinterpret the act and misrepresent human reality.

The depolarization of values in feminist fantasy involves more than the rejection of moral dualism. One of the most profound and fundamental polarities is that of Self and Other. Much of human history has been characterized by political and religious intolerance of the Other. And in much literature male authors have posited the female as Other. Contrary to the long-established literary tradition of subduing or eliminating the Other as undesirable alien (or even of forcefully converting this alien presence, as in the case of Shylock), several women writers of fantasy direct their narratives toward acceptance of the Other, not merely dealienating it (and themselves) but actually integrating Self and Other.

Katharine Kurtz's double trilogy offers a striking illustration of this attitude. She is concerned with a gifted alien race, who are for centuries rejected as Other and mistreated for their giftedness. In these novels the perspective on discrimination is heightened through the fact that the difference—the Otherness—is one of superiority, not supposed inferiority. Fear motivates the prejudice of the establishment in the absence of any antisocial behavior on the part of those discriminated against. Andre Norton's novels concentrate on the integration of Otherness. In her elaborately imaginative other worlds, rational races exist in a multitude of forms. Wisdom of the scientific, philosophical, and mystical varieties exists in serpentine, winged, furred, and scaled as well as two-legged species. Similarly in McKillip's world, although the races are all human, the deeply engrained provincialism of the peoples from differing areas is unsullied by the aggressiveness of zenophobia. Otherness is an uncontested fact of life, a feature lending variety, amusement, and endless conversational possibilities.

Also implicit in depolarization is the rejection of transcendence in favor of immanence, a feature that sharply differentiates the fantasy worlds of the women writers from those of the Christian school, including the Inklings. One of the most elegantly detailed and pervasively immanent worlds is Le Guin's Earthsea. Although there is reference to a creator, clearly all is immanent within the creation. The highest wisdom available to the wizard is knowledge of the true names of things. These names are not imposed but derived, as the wizard finds Logos a process not unrelated to his own becoming. McKillip's world in its sly and subtle way is also an attack on transcendence. Much of her trilogy concerns the search for the so-called High One, who may or may not exist. Transcendence has been inherited in this world as an hypothesis but not wholly believed in and vulnerable to disproof. Here, as in Earthsea, understanding a thing is based on knowing its name, but here it is carried further to the point of transformation. Knowing about trees enables one ultimately to become a tree. Needless to say, tapping that deep-down sense of identity with trees in oneself is not easy.

Inherent in the theme of immanence is the stress on the importance of the natural environment. These fantasies are ecology-minded, often with an attendant bias against technology which is usually regarded as exploitative. Earthsea is totally without modern technology, and the heart of the ethical dictum is maintaining the balance in nature. In the Witch World, the enemies of nature as well as of human peace are the technological societies. In Walton's series the earth is worshipped as a manifestation of the mother goddess. To neglect the needs of the earth or to endanger its fruitfulness is to strike at the heart of life, all life. In Bradley's Celtic world the sacred places are those in nature. Worship must take place out of doors, not in a building, which is a human structure. Trees and waters are sacred. One social dimension of this attitude toward fecund nature is sexual permissiveness. Cutting down trees and prohibiting sex are both violations of nature.

In the fantasy fiction of contemporary women writers, then, certain patriarchal systems prevalent in our time are quietly being questioned, subverted, and revisioned. Far from being cute stories about unicorns written for juveniles, these mature, thought-provoking novels represent an intellectual and imaginative rebellion against the status quo. Through their prevailing metaphor of magic, they seek to transform society through the creative power of the imagination. The quest is a fantasy metaphor, but the transformation is a real goal. As Terry Eagleton points out, it “is not just that women should have equality of power and status with men; it is a questioning of all such power and status. It is not that the world will be better off with more female participation in it; it is that without the ‘feminization’ of human history, the world is unlikely to survive.”20


  1. Harvey Cox, The Feast of Fools (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1969; New York: Harper and Row, 1970); Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, trans. Richard Howard (Cleveland, Ohio: Case Western Reserve University, 1973).

  2. W. R. Irwin, The Game of the Impossible: The Rhetoric of Fantasy (Urbana: University of Illinois, 1976); Eric Rabkin, The Fantastic in Literature (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1976).

  3. Colin Manlove, “On the Nature of Fantasy,” in The Aesthetics of Fantasy Literature and Art, ed. Roger C. Schlobin (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame, 1982), p. 27.

  4. Ibid., p. 16. The definition appeared earlier in Colin Manlove, Modern Fantasy: Five Studies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975).

  5. Charlotte Spivack, “The Perilous Realm: Phantasy as Literature,” Centennial Review 25 (1981): 133-149

  6. Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Child and the Shadow,” in Language of the Night, p. 63.

  7. Plato's distinction between the faculties of fantasy and the imagination is considered in The Republic as well as in other dialogues.

  8. Jane Mobley, “Toward a Definition of Fantasy Fiction,” Extrapolation 15 (1974): 117-128.

  9. Ibid., p. 120.

  10. Ursula K. Le Guin, “Dreams Must Explain Themselves,” in Language of the Night, p. 53.

  11. Carolly Erickson, The Medieval Vision (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), p. 27.

  12. The split in Western consciousness during the late Renaissance has become commonplace among historians and critics. Probably its most famous formulation is T. S. Eliot's phrase “the dissociation of sensibility” applied to early seventeenth-century poetry.

  13. Rosemary Jackson, Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (London and New York: Methuen, 1981).

  14. For a comparative study of Arthurian fantasy see Raymond H. Thompson, The Return from Avalon (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985).

  15. In Modern Fantasy: Five Studies Manlove notes that Tolkien represented passive resistance and idealism for American youth during the Vietnam period.

  16. For an interesting study of the circular plot as used by a male writer, see Colin Manlove, “Circularity in Fantasy,” The Impulse to Fantasy (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University, 1983), pp. 70-92.

  17. The concept of “To go is to return” is not limited to Le Guin's fantasy but is also central to her major science-fiction novels, The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness.

  18. For a discussion of the feminist emphasis on the second half of the hero journey, see Linda Olds, Fully Human (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1981), pp. 179 ff.

  19. Butor is quoted in Jack Zipes, Breaking the Magic Spell (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1979; New York: Methuen, 1984), p. 30. Zipes also notes that the impulse to magic is “rooted in a historically explicable desire to overcome oppression and change society” (p. 30).

  20. Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), p. 150.

Lucie Armitt (essay date 2000)

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SOURCE: Armitt, Lucie. “The Grotesque Utopia: Joanna Russ, Jeanette Winterson, Angela Carter, Jane Palmer and Monique Wittig.” In Contemporary Women's Fiction and the Fantastic, pp. 15-38. London, Eng.: Macmillan, 2000.

[In the following essay, Armitt discusses the significance and use of utopian fantasy worlds in the writings of several women authors.]

And once the old world has turned on its axle so that the new dawn can dawn, then, ah, then! all the women will have wings …1

Fictional utopias can be deceptively unsatisfactory. Elsewhere I have even claimed they may be threatened by redundancy, being “among the most rigid (and rigidly reductive) of generically bound forms”.2 Literary fantasy in general has always had to negotiate the establishment's determination to trivialize it as mere narrative formula. While increasingly successful challenges to these attitudes are mounted by such magic realist writers as Allende, Carter, Márquez and Rushdie, utopia still tends to carry a reductive stigma. Nevertheless, readers and writers of fantastic fiction continue to return to that space with an almost melancholic constancy, always looking to find a “shared identification with the trajectory of the ‘beyond’”.3 One might adopt, as a definition of that impulse, Susan Stewart's term “longing”, for, as she affirms, the word not only refers to an exaggeration or unnatural overstepping (the elongation) of the limits and limitations of the real, but also a sense of ongoing, “yearning desire”,4 this surely being the presiding motivation behind these texts. In a conventional utopia we are confronted by a closed text and reduced parameters. But, as Stewart's definition implies, “longing” has a more sustained dynamic that requires the ongoing textual interrogation of boundaries. In narratives that employ utopia as a destabilizing series of glimpses, or as a means of opening up a chink of light onto the unknown and unknowable beyond, we often find more interesting textual gaps, absences, lacunae: invitations that forbid as much as they instill desire.

During the 1970s and '80s, a noticeable increase in the publication of feminist utopias accompanied the more general expansion in the availability of women's writing. The reason for this disproportionate interest in the utopic seems predominantly political rather than literary, as feminism's strength has always relied on a sustained belief that the “not-yet” can and must become the here and now. Angelika Bammer's in-depth study of 1970's feminism sets utopianism at its core: “to the extent that feminism was—and is—based on the principle of women's liberation … it was—and is—not only revolutionary but radically utopian”.5 But the strength of Bammer's work is that she refuses to restrict this utopian impulse to that set of texts which satisfy themselves with closed narrative visions. Instead she defines utopia as “partial vision”, a concept in process. This is an important shift in understanding for, however radical the political vision of the “closed” feminist utopia, women's writing is often at its most transformative (read influential) when looking to transform its own narrative structures similarly. In the process such texts take on a “riskier” dynamic, in that they positively invite disruption rather than close off dissenting voices. In refusing to shut up, they invite readers in, desiring us to enter into the discursive spaces they leave. Such texts will never be guilty of putting words in our mouths; on the contrary, they leave us to do that to them.

These lacunae embody the crux of my title: the oxymoron which couples utopianism with the grotesque. Like the gaping mouth defined as one of its central images, the grotesque body has collective as much as individual significance, being an anti-establishment carnival force which, in its excesses, forms the epitome of all that most threatens order. According to Mary Russo the grotesque is therefore a crucial asset to contemporary feminism. As “nice” women, she warns, we have no voice at all; instead we must look to construct a female body politic which is “heterogeneous, strange, polychromatic, ragged, conflictual, incomplete, in motion and at risk”.6 The same might be said for the structures and preoccupations of a new, more radical, literary utopia which likewise eschews squeaky-clean lines and accommodates more thoroughly that which “revolts”. Silvia Bovenschen has noted that the movement towards a new feminist aesthetics requires a dynamic relationship between “… conquering and reclaiming, appropriating and formulating, as well as forgetting and subverting” established forms.7 This seems a useful strategy to adopt in rethinking feminist utopia.


If oxymoron is the defining term of the grotesque utopia then it is rarely more clearly marked out in political terms than in Joanna Russ's novel The Female Man (1975). Russ shows us four main protagonists: Jeannine, Joanna, Janet and (Alice) Jael all linked by a single subjectivity at the same time as having autonomous existence. Their relationship to each other is akin to that of identical twins, except for the small fact that they are not identical. In that sense they operate as a collectively grotesque being. It is Joanna who is attributed with the contentiously defining label “female man”. Far from being hermaphrodite, Joanna is totally womanly, but a woman who refuses to be defined as:

… mirror and honeypot, servant and judge … the vagina dentata and the stuffed teddy-bear … This until you're forty-five, ladies, after which you vanish into thin air … leaving behind only a disgusting grossness and a subtle poison that automatically infects every man under twenty-one.8

What Joanna articulates here is a loss of faith in society rethinking its view of women. Instead she rethinks her own identity in what we recognize to be grotesquely utopian terms, the grotesque element being the fee paid for the (social) transformation:

I'll tell you how I turned into a man.

First I had to turn into a woman.

For a long time I had been neuter, not a woman at all but One of the Boys … Of course there's a certain disembodiment involved … But it's necessary to my job and I like my job … I'm not a woman; I'm a man. I'm a man with a woman's face. Everybody says so.

[FM, [The Female Man] 133-4]

Alarm bells ring as Joanna articulates a state of transformation that takes her from honorary male status to pseudo-male status, all in the name of learning how to become a woman! At best Joanna's identity is self-contradictory at worst it seems self-defeating, but as Donna J. Haraway observes, Russ's model of the female man “is not an unmarked feminist utopian solution”; like the innovative narrative form of the text out of which “she” emerges, it is one which “fracture[s] … figural expectations”9 and, in the process, opens up new interrogations of formerly closed modes of writing.

A different and more appealing dynamic is at work in Carter's Nights at the Circus (1984) and Winterson's Sexing the Cherry (1989), although a similar mode of hybridity is established and, in the case of Winterson's novel, becomes so via a similarly deconstructive narrative framework. For both central protagonists, Fevvers and Dogwoman respectively, a precarious balance is effected between living legend and sordid freak, the fantastic and its relationship to the real being the pivot upon which this balance swings. Both characters, in their different ways, interrogate pro- and anti-feminist readings of the female body and its inevitable relationship with the body politic, an interrogative strategy which, as in Russ's novel, is inherent in their very names. On a purely mimetic level Dogwoman gains her name because she keeps dogs, but this does not account for the name's textual significance. Instead the term “Dog-woman” situates her, again like Russ's Joanna, as a grotesque hybrid challenging the accepted parameters of “normal” womanhood while, in this case, simultaneously playing with the pejorative sexual connotations of the word “dog”. Fevvers's name works similarly, prioritizing her wings (the very element that detracts from her “womanly”/human status) over all other aspects of her body, while reminding us that, to men, she is still a “bird”. Both characters are “larger than life”, a feature in itself synonymous with challenging patriarchal norms. Both, like Joanna, find that this legendary status involves an element of unwomanly identification. As Jordan notices, “If you're a hero you can be an idiot, behave badly, ruin your personal life, have any number of mistresses and talk about yourself all the time”.10 If you are a heroine such behaviour is not heroic but monstrous, heroism not being the domain of the heroine. Her role is to be passively desired and adored, in other words perfected: dead even when saved. Ironically, it is not Dogwoman herself who articulates the full significance of her own huge dimensions, but her twentieth-century double who, referring to her own childhood fat, explains:

… I wasn't fat because I was greedy; I hardly ate at all. I was fat because I wanted to be bigger than all the things that were bigger than me … It seems obvious, doesn't it, that someone who is ignored and overlooked will expand to the point where they have to be noticed, even if the noticing is fear and disgust.

[SC, [Sexing the Cherry] 141]

Though this character is living proof that “It's one of the mysteries of matter, that fat appears and then disappears again, and all you have to say it ever was are a few stretchmarks and some outsize clothes” [SC, 142], patriarchal society takes a very dim view of this type of female visibility. As Naomi Wolf observes, “female fat is the subject of public passion … A cultural fixation on female thinness is not an obsession with female beauty but an obsession with female obedience”.11

Ironically, even when obedient (or at least obliging), patriarchy never succeeds in getting the upper hand over Dogwoman, as the following amusing anecdote demonstrates:

A man accosted me on [the] way to Wimbledon and asked me if I should like to see him.

“I see you well enough, sir,” I replied.

“Not all of me,” said he, and unbuttoned himself to show a thing much like a pea-pod.

“Touch it and it will grow,” he assured me … “Put it in your mouth … as you would a delicious thing to eat.”

I like to broaden my mind when I can and I did as he suggested, swallowing it up entirely and biting it off with a snap.

As I did so my eager fellow increased his swooning to the point of fainting away, and I, feeling both astonished by his rapture and disgusted by the leathery thing filling up my mouth, spat out what I had not eated and gave it to one of my dogs.

[SC, 40-1]

It is the endearing combination of sexual naivety and outrageous comedy that makes Sexing the Cherry a totally delightful, even inspirational text. Set in the seventeenth century, in the period dealing with the English Civil War and Interregnum, Dogwoman is an early-modern urban guerilla, who fights for the Royalists in opposition to Cromwell. And yet it is this political affiliation that Lynne Pearce finds distasteful, denying that Dogwoman is a carnivalesque, excessive, womanly hero, instead sticking at the point of her counter-revolutionary identification, a point which, in Pearce's opinion, prevents her from taking on any benefit for feminists. If, she claims, Dogwoman is “associated with the preservation of the constitutional status quo”, then ultimately she must fight for, not against, patriarchy.12 Politically, Pearce is correct in her reading of Dogwoman's relationship with the State, but wrong, in my opinion, to see Dogwoman as an upholder of patriarchy. She is also, of course, refusing to enter into the spirit of the joke, a joke that is very much anti-patriarchal, as scenes like the following show:

… Firebrace set up such a farting and laughing that I feared he would explode before I had time to dismember him.

I ran straight at the guards, broke the arms of the first, ruptured the second and gave the third a kick in the head that knocked him out at once … another took his musket and fired me straight in the chest. I fell over, killing the man who was poised behind me, and plucked the musket ball out of my cleavage. I was in a rage then. “You are no gentleman to spoil a poor woman's dress, and my best dress at that.”

[SC, 69]

What we are given here, in effect, is a wonderful parody of all those masculinist wish-fulfilment narratives in which the central male character, surrounded, shot at and attacked from all sides, emerges unscathed without even having to pass a comb through his hair. Apparently emulating such ridiculous heroics, in effect she subverts them by “sending herself up”. Yes, Dogwoman fights for the King against the puritans, yes she is outrageous, dangerous, volatile and excessive, but she is a woman fully aware of being a woman, taking men on at their own vile and offensive games and beating them to a pulp in the process. Of course there is nothing “nice” or politically correct about it, but why would that change if she fought for the other side? Dogwoman, though purportedly fighting for the King, actually fights for herself, and for those readers sympathetic to her she seems to be fighting for us too, bearing in mind that the enemy is patriarchy, in either guise. Nor does her problematic political affiliation prevent her from being defined in carnivalesque terms, unless we take an extremely idealising reading of the politicization of carnival. As Allon White, among others, warns critics too keen to stress the supposedly liberating view of such forces of rebellion:

… there is a mechanism in traditional carnival which may be identified as ‘displaced abjection’ … [and which] occurs when an oppressed group uses carnival to invert its own low position with respect to another even weaker group, often women or ethnic minorities. The people who celebrated carnival tended to displace their own abjection onto those other groups …13

The paradox is that if Dogwoman was “worthy” she would not be grotesque, and if she was not grotesque she could not be fantastic. Dogwoman victimizes others in a horrifying and ruthless manner, but does so in a way that makes us laugh and, in the process, question why we laugh. The humour is, in that sense, ideologically interrogative:

… I have the Clap and my flesh is rotting beneath me. If I were to stand up, sir, you would see a river of pus run across these flags. The Rule of Saints cannot begin in pus … It is the stench of a three days' dead dog and not for the noses of the tender.

[SC, 72-3]14

In essence, though a scapegoater of other people, it is Dogwoman who takes on definition as the a priori site of abjection, within which “looms … one of those violent, dark revolts of being … ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable”15. This is one of the key qualities she shares with Carter's protagonist Fevvers in Nights at the Circus, as illustrated when Fevvers, pouring a glass of champagne, is described as “topp[ing] herself up with such a lavish hand that foam spilled into her pot of dry rouge, there to hiss and splutter in a bloody froth” [NC, 12—my emphasis]. It is as if, confronted by Walser's fearful but fascinated gaze, Fevvers's own juices bubble over, unable to withstand containment by her skin. “Queen of ambiguities, goddess of in-between states” [NC, 81], Fevvers is repeatedly equated with abject processes, not least because her major point of definition is through her wings: that part of her body which is neither inside nor outside, neither self nor Other: “On the edge of non-existence and hallucination, of a reality that, if I acknowledge it, annihilates me”.16

While Dogwoman offers us swashbuckling excess, Fevvers treats us to a series of music-hall routines, regaling Walser with her outlandish tall tales, not afraid to use her body as both butt-end of the joke and its pièce-de-résistance. By the end of the text, still telling her tale in the first-person but now aimed at an unspecified “anyone who will listen”, Fevvers delivers the story of her long-awaited delight at finding Walser alive with all the camp shamelessness of the stand-up comedienne:

I spread. In the emotion of the moment I spread. I spread hard enough, fast enough to bust the stitching of my bearskin jacket. I spread; bust my jacket; and out shot my you-know-whats.

The Escapee's mouth dropped open, which is a risky thing to happen in this climate, your lungs can freeze. The old man fell on his knees and crossed himself, curiously … I forgot my wing was broken … with the aid of the other, I fluttered lopsidedly a few yards more, until I could no longer sustain myself aloft upon it and crash-landed on my face in a snowdrift as the woodsmen kicked up their mounts and fled. …

[NC, 251]

Inevitably, what augments the humorous tones of this passage is not just the indecorous crash-landing, but also the smutty humour of the phrase “my you-know-whats”. In the act of a “normal” comedienne this would be a joke related to breasts and sexual display, and Fevvers carries the double entendre along for good measure. But this returns us to Russ's grotesque “female man”, because the voice Carter uses here, ventriloquized through this larger than life woman, is less evocative of a Victoria Wood or a Julie Walters than it is resonant of a female impersonator such as Lily Savage. No wonder Walser contemplates “Is she really a man?” [NC, 35].

It is perhaps this implied yet ultimately rejected gender ambiguity that explains Walser's simultaneous intoxication and repulsion:

… she stretched herself suddenly and hugely … As she raised her arms, Walser, confronted by stubbled, thickly powdered armpits, felt faint … A seismic erotic disturbance convulsed him—unless it was their damn' champagne … If he got out of her room … away from her presence … if he could fill his lungs just the one time with air that was not choking with “essence of Fevvers”, then he might recover his sense of proportion.

[NC, 52]

It is significant that the physical effect Fevvers has upon him is so closely linked to whether or not he perceives her as a fantasy or everyday being. Left alone with her while Lizzie goes out for some food, Walser sees her as a “giantess” [NC, 51] who might devour him sexually, yawning “not as a tired girl yawns … [but] with prodigious energy, opening up a crimson maw the size of that of a basking shark” [NC, 52]. Two chapters further on, however, she has retreated back into her “everyday” guise, this time yawning “not like a whale, not like a lioness, but like a girl who has stayed up too long” [NC, 87]. Much has been made of Fevvers's utopian potential, not least by Ricarda Schmidt, who reads Fevvers at face value in her claim to be the epitome of “the New Woman” so prevalent in the 1890s, the temporal setting for Carter's text. Certainly Fevvers's social significance as representative of the female grotesque is one which links her to this contemporaneous figure. As Elaine Showalter observes:

As women sought opportunities … [beyond] marriage, medicine and science warned that such ambitions would lead to sickness, freakishness, sterility and racial degeneration. In France, the femme nouvelle was often caricatured as a cerveline, a dried-up pedant with an oversized head … or a masculine hommesse.17

Paradoxically, it may actually be this trend which explains why Fevvers, though anatomically deviant, proves disappointingly conformist in social terms in the end. This proves the validity of Anne Fernihough's astute observation, that “With a body that is always the centre of attention, prominent yet at the same time elusive and enigmatical, Fevvers is an exaggerated version of woman as posited by late-nineteenth-century doctors, sexologists and psychoanalysts.”18 Linda Ruth Williams goes further still, discussing Fevvers as an embodiment of woman as (Freud's) enigma, not least in the fact that she perceives, in her narrative relationship with Walser, Freud's own story of the castration complex. Rehearsing one of Fevvers's slogans, “Seeing is believing”, Williams places Walser in the same category as Freud, “writ[ing] of men who see the impossible”,19 namely that which cannot be seen because there is no-thing to see. Fevvers, then, confronts Walser with his own emasculation, a point Mary Russo also seems to accept in reminding us of his observation, at one point, that “Fevvers really needs a tail”.20 But I wish to add a further ironic twist to this argument, in that Walser's detective-style analysis is actually far less interested in the phallus and its absence than he is in the presence or absence of the omphalos (navel), that site in which Walser believes Fevvers's truth will cohere, for “The oviparous species are not, by definition, nourished by the placenta” [NC, 18]. In her folds of fleshly excess lies the secret to such originary mythologies, beginnings and endings being the crux of the larger global concerns, centring on the dawning of a new century. It is with this proviso that I embrace Paulina Palmer's more cagey reading of Nights at the Circus, which likewise acknowledges and welcomes its utopian potential, but recognises along with it a healthy dose of antithesis in the form of what she calls “the analytic and the ‘demythologising’”.21 Fevvers's increasing normalisation during the course of Nights at the Circus matches what Mary Russo sees as Anglo-American feminism's own normalizing tendencies towards the end of the twentieth century, in contrast to the activism by which it has been characterized in other decades. Still, for all that, just like Fevvers we cling to the possibility of utopia, “fl[ying] in the face of much evidence to the contrary”.22 As we have seen, none of the authors discussed in this chapter write utopias in their static, perfected sense, instead they scan the sky-line for what Louis Marin claims to be the epitome of the utopian trajectory, namely the dialectic set up between “frontier”, “limit” and “horizon” and their respective relationships to “travel”, “Utopia” and “infinity”.23


According to Marin global exploration holds the key to this etymological shift, and he points out that whereas, in the thirteenth century, the term “horizon” implied a finite end, by the eighteenth it had taken on a type of topographical significance in which it had become just another part of the landscape. Linking it later with the Romantic fascination for mountains and the sublime, Marin concludes that “higher and higher view-points” allowed the final step of the transformation in the term “horizon” away from a marker of limits towards “infinity”. Sexing the Cherry intersects with Marin's historicist reading at the point at which the horizon is taking on the realizable dimension of a landmark and, in the process:

… as edge of the world, joins on to another edge, that of the other world, and on this limit between the two, a space, a gap is opened up, which belongs neither to the one nor the other, a gap between the interior space which is enclosed by the routes of travels, the terrae cognitae, and the unknown outer space: this is the indiscernible gap which is the imaginary site of the voyage.24

It is the utopian aspects of this text that enable characters like Winterson's Fortunata to anticipate the next historical move in the chain leading endlessly upwards into infinity. Inhabiting an unspecified location known only as “a remote place” [SC, 76], it is there she teaches pupils that “Through the body, the body is conquered” [SC, 76]. Jordan's inability to take possession of her in the manner that Walser does Fevvers means that his compulsive desires always drive him on further towards an end that has no end:

Curiously, the further I have pursued my voyages the more distant they have become … I begin, and straight away a hundred alternative routes present themselves … Every time I try to narrow down my intent I expand it … The Buddhists say there are 149 ways to God. I'm not looking for God, only for myself … Perhaps I'm missing the point—perhaps whilst looking for someone else you might come across yourself unexpectedly, in a garden somewhere …

[SC, 115-6]

Jordan's search for Fortunata epitomizes what Stewart sees as the definition of longing: “Nostalgia is a sadness without an object … it remains behind … the past it seeks has never existed except as a narrative … [It] continually threatens to reproduce itself as a felt lack”.25 That Fortunata is simultaneously autonomous and a reproduction of his desires is clear from the manner in which they double up in the text. The narrative opens with the words “My name is Jordan. This is the first thing I saw”, before opening out onto an apparition of the self as a ghosted double image: “I began to walk with my hands stretched out in front of me, as do those troubled in sleep, and in this way, for the first time, I traced the lineaments of my own face opposite me” [SC, 1-2]. It is much later that Fortunata reveals herself in the guise of Jordan's echo: “My name is Fortunata … This is the first thing I saw” [SC, 104]. Only gradually do we realize that Fortunata also has another double in the text in the form of the equally fleeting glimpse we are given of Dogwoman's own mother, described as both short-lived and “so light that she dared not go out in a wind, [but] could swing me on her back and carry me for miles” [SC, 21]. As so often in contemporary women's fiction, the mother is a space of longing and loss. Jordan is a foundling, adopted by Dogwoman, a characteristic that also impels his insatiable search for the lost woman who is also his other self. Instead of the birth canal, therefore, Jordan conceives his own origins as “The shining water and the size of the world” and the goal of his journeys to be “always the same place I return to, and that one place not the most beautiful …” [SC, 11]. This re-encoded reading of the mother's genitalia is entirely in keeping with Hélène Cixous's own utopian reading of The Voice of the Mother, the source, as she sees it, of écriture féminine: “There is almost nothing left of the sea but a word without water … But a clarice voice only has to say: the sea, the sea, for my keel to split open, the sea is calling me, sea! calling me, waters!”26 Similarly, when Jordan compares his life to a secret letter “… written in milk … squashed between the facts … [SC, 2], he again forges an image of Cixous's Medusa who, writing “… in white ink”,27 laughs in a similarly Medusan style to Dogwoman.

In the work of Monique Wittig, we find a similar preoccupation with the nature of origins and their relationship to self-definition. Here, though, as the title of her second novel Les Guérillères (1969) makes clear, such originary identities are always seen as collective in nature and can again be specifically related to Russo's grotesque female body-politic. The journeys undertaken in this text function as metaphors for the development of the women's movement, in the literal, mobile sense of the word, but in psychoanalytic terms, we might see in this recurrent patterning Lacan's infantile and extra-uterine Imaginary Realm, defined by and bounded by the outer limits of the anatomy, but experienced as a boundless but unattainable space of originary bliss. Where Jordan's search for origins begins on the bank of the Thames, here Wittig's characters peer into another reflective surface:

What was the beginning? they say. They say that in the beginning … [t]hey open their mouths to bleat or to say something but no sound emerges … They move over the smooth shining surface. Their movements are translation, gliding. They are dazed by the reflections over which they pass … Vertically and horizontally, it is the same mirror … the same brilliance that nowhere holds them fast. They advance, there is no front, there is no rear. They move on, there is no future, there is no past … They are prisoners of the mirror.28

Here we find these questing travellers acting out our own passage from the Lacanian Imaginary Realm into the Symbolic Order, pausing here at the precise moment of engagement with the Mirror Stage. This is that transitional point of our subjective development that first brings us face to face with the self in the guise of the reflected other, a moment that again brings us into an awareness of presentness as lack and the past as a utopian but unrealizable world.29 The use of tenses in this passage is particularly worthy of attention. Starting with the past (which implies a “post-lapsarian” location in the Symbolic Order, futilely trying to reaccess the Imaginary Realm), we quickly shift into the present. The passage therefore functions as a physical revisiting, not a cognitive reflection. We, as readers, seem to feel the “smooth shining surface” of the mirrored sheet in contact with our skin, imagine the language of the body in movement as a “translation” between surfaces, and accept that the boundaries of time and space have lost their delimiting definitions. Existing in a state prior to what Luce Irigaray perceives as the one-to-one relationship between subjectivity and the unified phallic “I” of patriarchy (which, as we saw in the Introduction, is how she conceives of the Symbolic Order in gendered terms), this is a vision of collective utopia for the female body politic.

Again, Les Guérillères does not fall into the trap of an unproblematic progression into a limited utopic horizon. Its allegorical structure is deeply complex, explicitly polemic, and prophetically details the ongoing but determined struggle in which feminism will remain engaged during the 1980s and 1990s. Later in the text the women, standing in huge numbers alongside the lake shores, peer into watery depths which are rippled, rather than smooth, finding their multiple reproductions “all identical, [but] all distorted” [LG, (Les Guérillères,) 69]. What is anticipated here is Russo's metaphor of “fun-house mirrors” which, in challenging the clean lines of passive female beauty, offers up a fantastic and destabilized vision of positive resistance to what we have seen to be patriarchy's neutralizing and normalizing codes. The result for Russo is access to a series of unfixed subject positions which, as a collective “mutant anatomy”, offers “an extra exit, a different way out”, potentially enabling women to break free from the shackles inherent in Wittig's term “prisoners of the mirror”.30

Throughout Wittig's work, both fictional and non-fictional, the greatest concern is with how to employ utopia as a means of freeing women from the biological shackles of maternity. To that extent her use of narrative journeys often forces women to cross and re-cross a variety of waters, confronting them with the abject excesses of birthing, but only so that they might be empowered to move on beyond them. This sense of opening out or crossing limits is how Cixous perceives a fully-fledged female sexuality in general: “the adventure of such and such a drive … trips, crossings, trudges …”;31 but Wittig takes a differing perspective, emphasizing the need to separate female sexuality away from the mother in order to give her autonomous definition. Hence, in her fourth novel Across the Acheron (1987), her protagonist, also called Wittig, underlines her horror for “anything to do with grottoes, cellars, subterranean passages, trenches”.32 Wittig's sustained exploration of how to reconceive the female genitalia in ways that disconnect them from their status as reproductive apparatus anticipates the work of another feminist thinker, Luce Irigaray, whose work has much in common with Wittig's, not least in her superimposition of a type of crosscurrents metaphor upon the female anatomy. Women's lips, she claims,

… adopt a cross-like shape that is the prototype of the crossroads, thus representing both inter and enter, for the lips of the mouth and the lips of the female sex do not point in the same direction … those “down below” are vertical.33

Wittig's situation of feminism upon a number of similar crossing-points is inferred by the title Across the Acheron. These crossroads provide positive opportunities for change as much as they do problematic dilemmas, as is made clear from the nature of the character Wittig's quest. Beginning in confusion, “what crossing? There's no river here. There's no sea” [AA, (Across the Acheron,) 8], this protagonist has to learn that the crossing in question refers, in utopian terms, to a movement set up between two figurative planes which, like the double-face of a sheet of paper, one side filled, one side blank, reveals a palimpsest of possibility underlying the here and now. As her guide, Manastabal, informs her, “There's nothing where we are going, Wittig, at least nothing you don't know already … I'm taking you to see what can be seen anywhere in broad daylight.” [AA, 8]

We may be forgiven for dismissing Manastabal's words, for many of the magical creatures Wittig meets on her way are anything but “what can be seen anywhere”—at least from a realist perspective. These creatures reflect the author Wittig's belief (a belief we have found already embodied by Russ's female man, Winterson's Dogwoman and Carter's Fevvers) that, under patriarchy, “woman” can only exist as a hybridized construct unfamiliar, perhaps grotesque, by Anglo-American feminist standards. As she claims in her essay, “One Is Not Born a Woman”, women's socially perceived status is either that of “a group of men considered as materially specific in their bodies”, or a “creature, intermediate between male and eunuch, which is described as feminine”.34 Therefore, as if to epitomize this state Wittig confronts us with a series of transitional grotesque creatures such as the bicephalics, who are, at first, as seemingly resistant to the laws of physics as Fortunata, the protagonist Wittig finding them distorting her own gaze as her “vision [becomes] confused and multiplies every object I see” [AA, 71]. Janus-faced, these creatures seem to epitomize the sense of possibility that a grotesque utopia offers, looking simultaneously:

… forward and backward, their bodies following a direction sometimes dorsal, sometimes frontal … their arms and legs [being] bent at will either forward or backward, since their elbows and knees are reversible … [and their heads being] two in one, one turned towards the past, the other towards the future.

[AA, 71]

More positive, nevertheless, are the implications inherent in this peripherally transgressive stance. Teetering on limits, inhabiting “the tangent Hell/Limbo”, though their chances of reaching Paradise, at least under patriarchy, are slim their bodies act out the real, expansionist possibilities of reversing this trend and taking possession of their own futures. Living already under a spectrum of natural light which “lin[es] fragments of sky with silvery flashes” [AA, 71], the potential for a utopian reawakening is there. The issue, for Wittig, always resides in collectivity.

In contrast to the oscillations and multiple axes of the bicephalics are the “two-dimensional” women encountered earlier on in the text who, as a result of physical, social and economic limitations, “look as flat as boards, passing and walking sideways, pivoting in order to present only a flat surface … They make use of everything to avoid a collision: walls, wide entrances, sewer openings” [AA, 51]. Analogous to playing cards, these figures are invisible to those whom Wittig refers to as inhabiting “the third dimension” [AA, 50] and who are described by using masculine pronouns. Rapidly effacing themselves by diving flat on the floor or “crush[ing] themselves against the first available doorpost” [AA, 50], these creatures are unlike the bicephalics in being all too recognisable and in expending what little energy or motivation they have by “jostl[ing] only among themselves” [AA, 50]. These are women whose invisibility is social rather than literal and who bow before the face of patriarchy in their midst. They are also perhaps reminiscent of those women whom Kim Chernin has seen to be:

… practicing genocide against themselves, waging a violent war against their female body precisely because there are no indications that the female body has been invited to enter culture … instead [we find] a sustained social coercion to reduce the body, to make it smaller than nature intended it to be and perhaps to destroy it altogether as we move out of the home and into the world.35

Of course female invisibility need not always be the friend of patriarchy, sometimes it operates as subversive stealth. Dogwoman, despite her mighty form, delights in the fact that, under cover of darkness, she becomes “invisible … I, who must turn sideways through any door” [SC, 8]; the difference, as always, resides in the context. As Patricia Parker argues, “Changes in the semiotics of body size are subtly tied to other economies and exigencies of representation, including those linked to the shifting figure of the body politic …”.36 This brings us to the ideology of a generically enclosed utopia such as Jane Palmer's novel The Watcher.


Palmer's novel is a work of speculative fiction which makes as much use of grotesque female creatures as does Across the Acheron and demonstrates the innately transformative power of female subjectivity by giving us a character called Gabrielle who, though appearing in the realist sections of the novel as a young, assertively inquisitive woman, is also, in the futurist elements of the text, a metamorphic creature known as the Star Dancer, “a ghostly butterfly … sucking power from the [energy] pool like nectar from a blossom”.37 According to Russo, metaphors of aerialism and flight are key metaphors of female possibility, operating as resistance to being tied down. In her terms such imagery can even reverse reductive put-downs of women, operating as a fantastic prosthetic application which, if “put on … with a vengeance suggests the power of taking it off” (and presumably, in aerial terms, of take-off).38 In The Watcher, prior to our first encounter with Gabrielle/the Star Dancer, the opening of the text introduces us to a species called the Ojalie, represented by three creatures in dialogue with one another: Opu, Annac and Anaru. Feminine in gender, what is particularly notable about them, placing them in a very different category from Wittig's creatures, is their fascination with themselves as the culmination of the evolutionary chain, a chain that infers that utopia (at least in its anatomical guise) has been attained. But what at first seems a reductively closed text is opened up to dissent by Palmer's use of wry humour. The Ojalie are parodic in their narcissism, and hence continually undermined in their belief in the attainment of perfection. Again these are creatures capable of flight, being more bird-like than Fevvers in having not only “long wings”, but also a “blunt beak” [TW, (The Watcher,) 1]. Lacking bowels, however, the Ojalie have simply “a small mouth leading to a narrow tract and bladder designed to deal only with liquid” [TW, 1-2] and “Their pelvic girdles [are] so wide they [are] unable to walk very well, but their wings more than compensated for this” [TW, 2]. They are, in other words, ugly and ungainly creatures whose aerialism has lost its status as superlative mobility and become a reductive loss of the legs. More disturbingly still, with their wide pelvis and incompetent legs they actually seem more of an extreme form of passive femininity than a (r)evolutionary new form of the female grotesque.

Challenging the common identification of the grotesque with the “low”, Russo speaks of aerialism introducing a “principle of turbulence” into the equation, which will not only shake up patriarchy but also continue to stir up the female body politic.39 Take, for example, The Female Man, in which references to women in flight occur repeatedly, if fleetingly, as in the case of Etsuko Belin, a superior of Janet's, who is depicted piloting a glider, “stretched cruciform … seeing fifteen hundred feet below her the rising sun of Whileaway reflected in the glacial-scaur lakes of Mount Strom” [FM, 17]; or the first moment of teleportation, when the police officer who swops chronotopes with Janet perceives her only as “a flying machine with no wings but a skirt of dust and air” [FM, 5]. Later, we see this ability to transcend the laws of gravity and temporality forms a clear foundation for characters' own fantasies: “At this point Joanna the Grate swoops down on bat's wings, lays He low with one mighty swatt, and elevates She and Dog to the constellation of Victoria Femina, where they sparkle forever” [FM, 118].

We have seen that, in Sexing the Cherry, aerialism is largely associated with Fortunata, who “flew from the altar like a bird from a snare and walked a tightrope between the steeple of the church and the mast of a ship weighing anchor in the bay” [SC, 61] and who, like Wittig's freedom fighters, then teaches others to succeed in taking flight, before “releas[ing them] like butterflies over a flowering world” [SC, 76]. In Wittig's work butterflies are also connected with fighting, taking shape as gigantic warriors, each of whose

… suctorial proboscis … though rolled up on itself, seems able to transform itself into a redoubtable weapon if needs be. As it unfolds its wings … they beat in silken fashion … At a given moment it descends … Its proboscis is unwound like a lasso and, without pouncing down … without arresting its flight, it encircles the waist of a swordswoman and lifts her fully armed into the air.

[AA, 60-1]

Such aerial forms also appear in Les Guérillères, the labial analogy provided by the silken wings obviously rendering this image appropriate as an analogy for the various crossing-points these writers associate with female identity and its connections with fantastic possibility. In this novel she further develops the auspices of the grotesque, creating a new species of woman who amalgamates aerialism with spinsterhood, as if to show just how threatening anti-conventional feminine forms can be:

Spinning-glands are at work on each of their limbs. From their many orifices there emerge thick barely visible filaments that meet and fuse together … giv[ing] the women a sort of wing on either side of their body. When they resemble giant bats with transparent wings, one of them comes up and, taking a kind of scissors from her belt, hastily divides the two great flaps of silk.

[LG, 132]

It is at this point that we come to the crucial aerial form in Across the Acheron, a reconceived reading of the angel motif. Here Wittig exorcizes the oppressive associations the angel takes on in nineteenth-century literature, or in Russ's vision of Jeannine, the docile character whose perceptions of utopia are always linked to genre romance. In both of these cases femininity has been associated with the “angel of the house”, the idealized wife and mother who turns out to be little more than a passive tool of patriarchy.40 Wittig's use of the angel once again links up with the theories of Irigaray, who steps into the realm of fantasy herself in utilizing the angel as one of the primary signifiers by which we might rethink sexual difference. As an icon whose flight plays fast and loose with a variety of cross-currents (“horizontal and vertical, terrestrial and celestial”) and whose form transcends traditional gender identities (angels traditionally being read as androgynous), the angel is a perfect symbol for the construction of a new, utopic reading of woman. Its full potential, she claims, is harnessed by means of an “envelope” which, in locking away secrets within a series of folds and, more actively, embracing the other from within the boundaries of the self, gives coherence to the feminine on its own terms. Being, for Irigaray, a “figurative version of a sexual being not yet incarnate”, in Wittig's work the angel opens up a space-between, a zone of fantasy perfect for expressing this search for a utopian reconception of fantastic femininity.41

In contrast to their sexless nineteenth-century “sisters”, Wittig's angels are defined by the “low” vulvic parts of the woman's anatomy [AA, 18]. But Wittig is not the first contemporary feminist to make these connections, or pick up on their age-old resistance to spatio-temporal limits and the accompanying defiance of all mimetic constraints. Russo refers us as far back in time as St Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), whose philosophy claimed that the motion of angels “can be as continuous or as discontinuous as it wishes. And thus an angel can be in one instant in one place and at another instant in another place, not existing at any intermediate time”.42 Again we find the angels' fantastic space of oscillation Irigaray circumscribes through the term “envelope”. Simultaneously hybridizing the static nominal and active verb forms of this term, she produces a metonymic reference to labial folds which pleasurably embrace/envelope the self while also more threateningly engulfing the other. As much messengers as freedom fighters, this angelic presence opens up the afore-mentioned space-between, a zone of fantasy turbulent to patriarchy and its interactions with women. This may even open up the way for a more positive reading of Palmer's unappealing Ojalie; after all they are winged and transcendent and forced into a confrontation with a creature angelically named “Gabrielle”. Irrespective of the form all these grotesque manifestations take, these writers advocate a new, sublime vision of the grotesque which, in replacing the discredited fairy of flighty femininity, gives rise to “the figurative version of a sexual being not yet incarnate”. In the process Wittig manages to reverse what Bown sees as the usual aerial pattern of “representing something difficult or unbearable [feminine sexuality] as something small, sweet, and harmless”.43 Her work also anticipates the cautionary note Russo adopts in her reading of contemporary Anglo-American feminism. Never, Russo asserts, will we overcome the tyrannies of a patriarchy hell-bent on reading us as monstrous simply by appealing to its better nature.

In Literary Fat Ladies, Parker takes a similar political stance to Russo, also focusing upon the grotesque as a mode of deconstructive femininity but here looking in detail at the imagery of the mouth as a displaced gendered metaphor for female sexual assertiveness. For both Irigaray and Cixous, it is the oral aspect of writing that is most crucial, allowing woman to visually “speak” herself. Parker takes a similar line, seeing in the dilated form of the woman's grotesque voice/text, the manifestation of what patriarchy most fears: “uncontrollable female sexuality, a woman speaking in public, and a woman usurping her proper place …”. She continues:

One of the chief concerns of the tradition that portrays women as unflappable talkers is how to master or contain such feminine mouthing … [which] is not only in this misogynist tradition the representative of the infuriating opposite of silence but … inseparable from the vice opposed to the corresponding virtue of Chastity, as both are ranged against Obedience.44

Reminding ourselves of Wolf's recognition that the passion evoked by the expansive woman's body is tantamount to “an obsession with female obedience”, we recognize that just as the dangerous harridan is prevented from expressing herself through her unrestrained body, so the dangerous female fantasist must be prevented from expressing herself through the unrestrained body of her text: “The supposed copiousness of the female tongue … has its textual counterpart in the danger of losing the thread of a discourse and never being able to finish what was begun …”45 In articulating this strength, Parker illuminates a difficulty faced by the character Wittig in Across the Acheron as she is accompanied on her travels by her guide, Manastabal. Faced by the hostility of a gale-force wind, Manastabal turns to face Wittig, who “can see from her lips that she is making a whistling sound, but I can't hear it” [AA, 7]. This sets a tone for the treatment of female articulations throughout the text, dialogue becoming parenthetical as brackets replace speech-marks, woman's language becoming as muted as her body as serial mutilation takes its eventual toll. Not surprisingly, for most of the text orality becomes a central signifier both of absolute pain and absolute pleasure, finally culminating in “The Great Gorge” section. This section, as the title suggests, simultaneously describes the chasm that exists between the status of men and women in this novel and a description of the men's orgiastic, bulimic feasting which leaves starving women to stand and watch:

… unsteady on their feet, tears running down their cheeks and saliva dripping imperceptibly from mouth to chin … A long, low, hoarse wailing rises from the crowd of them as they are made to leave the Gorge Palace, some choking with hunger.

[AA, 112]

What Wittig offers us here is an allegorical reading of the many ways in which patriarchy robs women of oral pleasure, not just in shutting us up by threats of monstrosity, but in denying so many women that basic pleasure that comes from food. As Chernin rightly observes, “The food obsessions of contemporary women are a deadly serious affair precisely because of the imperative need for female transformation expressed through them”.46 Not surprisingly, then, having withstood the “Great Gorge”, utopia fulfils all those denials in the form of “baskets and bowls of fruit … cherries, strawberries, raspberries, apricots, peaches, plums, tomatoes, avocados, green melons, cantaloups, water-melons, lemons, pawpaws, pineapples and coconuts” [AA, 119]. Much is made of the fact that Across the Acheron adopts a shocking and at times dystopian vision even though it searches out utopia in the end. But, to reiterate, the route to utopia is neither easy nor clear-cut and, like Russo, Wittig recognises the need to jolt us out of our complacent willingness to accept what some may see as the “good enough” point 1980s and 1990s feminism has reached.

Intriguingly, Eden is a space that haunts several of these texts even though, with the exception of Winterson's, Judeo-Christian mythology is anathema to all. Even in The Female Man, Jael's own questing past, described as a series of metamorphic transformations across time and space, includes her own Dogwoman-style contest with a serpent, as she dresses herself up as a heraldic knight, “sav[ing] the King's life once by pinning to the festive Kingly board a pretty little hamadryad somebody had imported … to kill His Majesty” [FM, 189] and, a couple of pages later, revealing to her most loyal retainer the “marks of Eve” [FM, 191] in her body that differentiate her from him. Feminist theorists are also among those writers whom Eden continues to haunt, even in these cynical postmodern times. Cixous, for example, maps Eden as the eternal source, space and place of écriture féminine, “from which [women] have been driven away as violently as from their bodies”.47

More recently Nicole Ward Jouve has returned to this space, seeing the “Female Genesis” in terms not dissimilar to Cixous's own. Reconceiving the Biblical phrase “Male and Female Made (S)He Them”, Ward Jouve notes that since the cultural adoption of the Genesis myth, “Man has been the universal category. Woman the endless problem.” In a sense this is the dilemma the female grotesque addresses as it begins its search for new and outlandish configurations of the woman's body as the space and place from which a new, renewing utopia will emerge. It is, Ward Jouve claims, with the simple insertion of the “(S)” in her own essay's title that disruption is effected from within the hegemony, being the site not just of the banished, deviant Eve, but also the “female knower, the female creator … [who] mutates as contexts and civilizations mutate”.48

The importance of the grotesque utopia is that it always resists its own easy options. We rebel against the characters and creatures of this chapter even as we are invigorated, delighted and appalled by their appeal. If our journey is to move forward rather than backwards into the unknown territory of a new millennium, we must not lose sight of the fact that the struggle against patriarchy may sometimes get ugly. All of these novels reach out towards a new understanding of utopia which envelopes the grotesque. In the process they collectively carve out a fictive zone which reaches out into the beyond, including the unknowable beyond, while engaging with the unsatisfactory here and now of perceived liberation.


The utopian novel in its paradigmatic sense might be said to take a single chronotope and sever it cleanly from all others, permitting no two-way traffic with competing or overlapping chronotopes to provide an hermetically sealed society. The chronotope is, in its simplest terms, a fictive spatio-temporal framework. At its most formulaic it might, say in the context of the gothic, crime fiction, the classical quest narrative, be summed up as a nineteenth-century haunted castle, a contemporary metropolis and an ancient Greek citadel respectively. In the context of the traditional utopia what, precisely, it would comprise cannot be stated, but its mono-dimensionality would be structurally assured. Except, of course in the context of the grotesque utopia, set out above. Here, in the ragged lacunae and discursive spaces erupting from within the body of the text one expects the simultaneous existence of multiple, competing, even contradictory chronotopes. Mikhail Bakhtin broke new ground in arguing that all works of literature contain not one but many intermeshing chronotopes and that these minor chronotopes can often either be related to an individual character who may carry a particular chronotope with her/him (the chronotope of the villain/ess, the adventurer, the lover), or expected scenarios, among the most significant of which Bakhtin lists the “chronotope of the road” and its closely related motif of “meeting” in which, he affirms, “the unity of time and space markers is exhibited with exceptional precision and clarity … it is a rare work that does not contain a variation of this motif”.49 It is in the complex dialogic interrelationship between chronotopes that the depth of plot and counter-plot emerge.

One of the problems I have with utilizing the chronotope too slavishly is that it leads to an intrinsically generic approach to fantasy which, as I have already argued, is a restrictive, even reductive, reading of the fantastic. As Bakhtin acknowledges, “The chronotope in literature has an intrinsic generic significance. It can even be said it is precisely the chronotope that defines genre.”50 My usage of the chronotope, then, takes no account of it as a classificatory system for texts, but looks at its relevance to what is surely the polychronotopic structure of the grotesque utopia as explored within contemporary women's fiction. This brings us on to Lynne Pearce's primary project in Reading Dialogics, in which Pearce selects Sexing the Cherry as one of the novels upon which to focus her challenge to what she perceives to be Bakhtin's own gender-blindness in his reading of the term.

In her analysis of Winterson's novel Pearce isolates a series of key chronotopes, which she itemizes in the following manner: “two ‘historical presents’, 1630-66 and 1990; the ‘enchanted cities’ inhabited by Fortunata and her sisters and ‘visited’ by Jordan; and the sea voyages undertaken by Jordan and Nicholas Jordan”. At the same time, she observes, these discrete units are further complicated by all of the characters, across chronotopes, simultaneously co-existing in the chronotope of “romantic love”. Pearce's overall task at this stage of her argument is to demonstrate, as she succeeds in doing, that individual chronotopes in a text such as Sexing the Cherry, cannot be parcelled up in any neat manner. Instead, she continues:

Since Jordan's sea journeys are the means by which he arrives at his “enchanted cities”, should they not be regarded as part of the same continuum rather than a discrete chronotope? Alternatively, perhaps they should be classified as simply part of the time-space belonging to the historical present of seventeenth-century England.51

Thus far Pearce's reading of the polychronotopic novel is in perfect synchrony with my own. Where we start to come adrift from each other is in our respective readings of the role played by the fantastic in Winterson's novel. Pearce, rather like Bakhtin himself, is noticeably suspicious of anti-realist modes of writing. For Bakhtin, the one exception to this reservation is that of the folktale, which he applauds for maintaining its mimetic relationship with the spatio-temporality of the everyday: “[T]he fantastic in folklore is a realistic fantastic … it does not stitch together rents in that world with anything that is idealistic or other-worldly …”. Pearce's own ideological mistrust of the fantastic is manifest from her uncertainty about what she sees as the “utopian” stance on dialogics taken by Robert Stam and Barry Rutland for reading polyphony in an intrinsically democratic manner (many voices contributing to the ensuring of multiple viewpoints), through to the detail of her reading of the role played by the fantastic in Sexing the Cherry.52

Pearce's stance on the work of Jeanette Winterson is, by her own admission, that of the disappointed zealot. An early advocate of Winterson's writing in the case of her first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985), Pearce has become increasingly disappointed with what she believes to be, in Winterson's later novels, a determination to explore the universality of the chronotope of romantic love at the expense of what she would prefer to see: greater attention paid to the material realities and difficulties of living out lesbian desire within a largely hostile and heterosexist patriarchy. In fact, on occasions Pearce cites the fantastic as the root-cause of what she reads as dubious ideology in Sexing the Cherry: “It could be argued that it is by removing her characters to the realms of fantasy … that Winterson has left behind the question of what it is to be a woman and/or a lesbian in any more material sense.” In contrast to her disappointment with Sexing the Cherry is the enthusiasm with which Pearce embraces Toni Morrison's Beloved (1987), a novel which we will look at in more detail in Chapters 3 and 4. For the time being it is sufficient to note that, for Pearce, Beloved is everything Sexing the Cherry is not, right down to its oppositional ideological stance: “where [Morrison] rewrites nineteenth-century American history from the perspective of the slave, Winterson writes seventeenth-century British history from the perspective of the colonizer”. In fact Pearce goes further, charging Winterson's novel with being ideologically duplicitous on the very issues Morrison chooses to foreground: “Although [Sexing the Cherry] designates its male characters ‘explorers’ whose sole quest is the discovery of exotic fruits, we know that the most rapidly expanding trade at that time was not in pineapples or bananas but in slavery”. Though this is a succinct summary of contrasting ideologies in the two novels, it does not do full justice either to Winterson's overall narrative concerns or to what I have already argued to be its profound political significance in feminist terms, not least because Pearce criticises its inspirational qualities for being inspirational. When, instead, she praises Morrison's novel on the grounds that “most of the characters are even more wary of the future than they are of the past, and would never trust that a leap into the unknown would bring them happiness”, she seems to be suggesting that any novel that deliberately sets out to look positively towards future possibilities should be brought back down to earth for being “unrealistic”.53

Pearce's argument regarding Beloved is convincing and informative and of course it is fitting that a novel about the brutal horrors of slavery should prioritize “grim materiality” over flights of fancy. But that is a very different issue from condemning another novel for taking a utopian (even a grotesque utopian) stance. Further developing this discussion of the ideological basis of the chronotope, its very definition (“the representation of time/space in the literary text”) and, in Bakhtin's own words, their “intrinsic connectedness”54 surely implies, in itself, that those works of fantasy and the fantastic in which time and/or space-travel play a central role must have an important contribution to make in the utilization of the chronotope for specifically feminist ideological purposes. In Chapter 2 I set out to demonstrate the significance such fantastic texts have upon the material reality of women, continuing my discussion of Russ's The Female Man in conjunction with Octavia Butler's Kindred (1979), Fay Weldon's The Cloning of Joanna May (1989) and Marge Piercy's Body of Glass (1991).


  1. Angela Carter, Nights at the Circus (London: Picador, 1984), 285. Subsequent quotations are referenced within the main body of the text, accompanied by the abbreviation NC.

  2. Lucie Armitt, Theorising the Fantastic (London: Arnold, 1996), 183.

  3. Ibid., 184.

  4. Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), ix.

  5. Angelika Bammer, Partial Visions: Feminism and Utopianism in the 1970s (New York: Routledge, 1991), 2.

  6. Mary Russo, The Female Grotesque: Risk, Excess and Modernity (New York: Routledge, 1994), vii.

  7. Silvia Bovenschen, “Is There a Feminist Aesthetic?”, in Gisela Ecker (ed.), Feminist Aesthetics (London: The Women's Press, 1985), 47.

  8. Joanna Russ, The Female Man (London: The Women's Press, 1985), 134. Subsequent quotations are referenced within the main body of the text, accompanied by the abbreviation FM.

  9. Donna J. Haraway, Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouse™: Feminism and TechnoScience (New York: Routledge, 1997), 70 and 75.

  10. Jeanette Winterson, Sexing the Cherry (London: Bloomsbury, 1989), 133. Subsequent quotations are referenced within the main body of the text, accompanied by the abbreviation SC.

  11. Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth (London: Chatto and Windus, 1990), 153.

  12. Lynne Pearce, Reading Dialogics (London: Edward Arnold, 1994), 178.

  13. Allon White, “Pigs and Pierrots: The Politics of Transgression in Modern Fiction”, Raritan, 2 (Fall 1981), 67.

  14. Note, here, that this scene of “revolting” female display is similar to that involving two young, beautiful French prostitutes who, during the French Revolution, stood at the barricades, taunting the National Guard by raising their dress to the waist, baring their genitalia and challenging the authorities, “Cowards! Fire, if you dare, at the belly of a woman!”. In the historical account, both are shot dead, an event analysed in Freudian terms by Neil Hertz in “Medusa's Head: Male Hysteria under Political Pressure”, Representations, 4 (Fall 1983), 27-54. In Sexing the Cherry, identical dynamics are employed, except that here the grotesque Dogwoman succeeds where the beautiful French prostitutes fail.

  15. Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), 1.

  16. Ibid., 2.

  17. Ricarda Schmidt, “The Journey of the Subject in Angela Carter's Fiction”, Textual Practice, 3 (Spring 1989), 56-76. Elaine Showalter, Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin-de-Siècle (London: Bloomsbury, 1991), 39.

  18. Anne Fernihough, “‘Is She Fact or Is She Fiction?’ Angela Carter and the Enigma of Woman”, Textual Practice 11 (1997), 90.

  19. Linda Ruth Williams, Critical Desire: Psychoanalysis and the Literary Subject (London: Edward Arnold, 1995), 97.

  20. Russo, The Female Grotesque, 172.

  21. Paulina Palmer, “From ‘Coded Mannequin’ to Bird Woman: Angela Carter's Magic Flight”, in Sue Roe (ed.), Women Reading Women's Writing (Brighton: Harvester, 1987), 180.

  22. Russo, The Female Grotesque, ix.

  23. Louis Marin, “The Frontiers of Utopia”, in Krishan Kumar and Stephen Bann (eds), Utopias and the Millennium (London: Reaktion Books, 1993), 7.

  24. Marin, “Frontiers of Utopia”, 7 and 15.

  25. Stewart, On Longing, 23.

  26. Hélène Cixous, “L'Approche de Clarice Lispector”, extract translated by Toril Moi, in Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory (London: Methuen, 1985), 115.

  27. Hélène Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa”, trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen, in Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron (eds), New French Feminisms: An Anthology (Brighton: Harvester, 1981), 251.

  28. Monique Wittig, Les Guérillères, trans. David Le Vay (Boston: Beacon Press, 1985), 30-1. Subsequent quotations are referenced within the main body of the text, accompanied by the abbreviation LG.

  29. These ideas are developed in full in Jacques Lacan, Ecrits: A Selection, trans. A. Sheridan (London: Tavistock, 1977).

  30. Russo, The Female Grotesque, 86 and 127.

  31. Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa”, 256.

  32. Monique Wittig, Across the Acheron, trans. David Le Vay (London: Peter Owen 1987), 105. Subsequent quotations are referenced within the main body of the text, accompanied by the abbreviation AA.

  33. Luce Irigaray, “Sexual Difference”, in Margaret Whitford, ed., The Irigaray Reader (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991), 174-5.

  34. Monique Wittig, “One Is Not Born a Woman”, Feminist Issues, 1 (1981), 47.

  35. Kim Chernin, The Hungry Self: Women, Eating and Identity (New York: Times Books, 1985), 186.

  36. Patricia Parker, Literary Fat Ladies: Rhetoric, Gender, Property (London: Methuen, 1987), 33.

  37. Jane Palmer, The Watcher (London: The Women's Press, 1986), 6. Subsequent quotations are referenced within the main body of the text, accompanied by the abbreviation TW.

  38. Russo, The Female Grotesque, 70.

  39. Ibid., 29.

  40. For a fuller discussion of this concept see Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984).

  41. See Irigaray, “Sexual Difference”, 173.

  42. Russo, The Female Grotesque, 176.

  43. Irigaray, “Sexual Difference”, 173. See also Nicola Bown, “‘There are Fairies at the Bottom of our Garden’: Fairies, Fantasy and Photography”, Textual Practice 10 (Spring 1996), 73.

  44. Patricia Parker, Literary Fat Ladies, 106 and 26.

  45. Ibid., 26.

  46. Chernin, The Hungry Self, 184.

  47. Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa”, 245.

  48. Nicole Ward Jouve, Female Genesis: Creativity, Self and Gender (New York: St Martin's Press, 1998), 2 and 3.

  49. Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M. M. Bakhtin, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), 98.

  50. Ibid, 84-5.

  51. Pearce, Reading Dialogics, 177.

  52. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, 150. Pearce, Reading Dialogics, 14.

  53. Pearce, Reading Dialogics, 174, 59 and 194.

  54. Pearce, Reading Dialogics, 18 and Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, 84.

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Criticism: Major Writers


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