Feminist Literary Criticism Critical Essays

American vs. French Criticism

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature, Critical Edition)

Applying the methodology of sociohistorical criticism, the gynocritic assumes that female experience is an objective reality that can be discovered by way of interpreting female authors and characters, and it is with the insistence of American feminism on the transparency of literature that French feminist theory, which sees identity as fluid and unstable, most disagrees. Deconstructionist and psychoanalytical in their approaches, the most influential French feminist critics writing on American feminism—such as Hélène Cixous, author of “The Laugh of the Medusa” (1975); Luce Irigaray, author of Ce Sexe qui n’en est pas un (1979; This Sex Which Is Not One, 1985); and Julia Kristeva, author of Semeiotike and Polylogue (1969, 1977; Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature, 1980)—take their cue from the theories of Jacques Lacan and focus on language. Noting that women take the negative position as “other” in language where the masculine is the norm, the French analyze and produce écriture féminine (feminine writing) and see it as the greatest threat to patriarchy, in that feminine writing disrupts meaning and challenges symbolic order.

Since French feminists, unlike their American counterparts, have not been concerned with uncovering women’s literary heritage, they have not produced a body of feminist literary criticism, nor have they been especially interested in debunking the patriarchal canon of “great” writers. Their influence on American feminist criticism is increasingly strong, nevertheless, especially as American feminist critics adopt psychoanalytical methodologies to augment sociohistorical readings, as does Annis Pratt in Archetypal Patterns in Women’s Fiction (1981), which applies Jungian archetypes to a variety of women’s literature.