Hélène Cixous Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Hélène Cixous 1937–

Algerian-born French theorist, novelist, short story writer, essayist, nonfiction writer, dramatist, screenwriter, and librettist.

The following entry presents criticism on Cixous's critical works through 1992.

A major figure in contemporary feminist critical theory, Cixous is known for works that analyze and attempt to counter Western culture's traditional concepts of male and female. A proponent of écriture féminine, or feminine writing, Cixous strives in all of her works to establish a uniquely feminine perspective, both as a kind of corrective to what she and many feminist theorists view as the traditionally masculine character of Western discourse and as a methodology with which to critique that discourse. In the United States, Cixous's best known work is La jeune née (1975; The Newly Born Woman), which is recognized as being markedly influenced by the writings of Jacques Derrida, the French philosopher and founder of the critical method known as deconstructionism; Jacques Lacan, the French psychoanalyst and philosopher who proposed a linguistic theory of the unconscious; and Sigmund Freud, the originator of psychoanalysis. Concerning Cixous's significance to contemporary thought, Morag Shiach has noted: "Her essays on writing and sexual difference have been a crucial point of reference for feminist theorists and critics, and her insistence on the transformative and broadly political dimensions of writing has constituted an important challenge to the unfocused aestheticism of much of literary studies."

Biographical Information

Cixous was born in Oran, Algeria. Her father, who was of French-colonial background, was a physician, and her mother, of Austro-German heritage, was a midwife. Members of her family were Sephardic Jews, and Cixous grew up with a sense of kinship with persecuted groups. Her father died when she was very young, an event some critics suggest informs her writing. In her teens, Cixous read myths, the German Romantics (including Heinrich von Kleist), and English literature, especially the writings of William Shakespeare. Cixous moved to France in her late teens, where she earned an agrégation d'anglais degree in 1959 and became a docteur dès letters in 1968. She was a founder of the University of Paris VIII-Vincennes, a liberal school offering an alternative to traditional education, and the Centre de Recherches en Etudes Féminines in 1974. She also cofounded, with Gérard Genette and Tzvetan Todorov, the prestigious literary and critical journal Poétique in 1968. Cixous has taught at various universities in France, including the University of Paris, the Sorbonne, and the University of Bordeaux; she has also been a visiting professor at such institutions as Yale University, Columbia University, and Dartmouth College.

Major Works

Cixous's first published work of criticism was her doctoral thesis, L'Exil de James Joyce (1968; The Exile of James Joyce). In this work she examines Joyce's experimental literary techniques and the ways in which they express his belief in the mutually influential relationship between linguistic and mental structures. She criticizes Joyce, however, for emphasizing a connection between guilt and death; she argues that this leads to the unnecessary paradox, detectable in all of his works, that one must "lose" in order to "gain," kill in order to live. In Prénoms de personne (1974), a collection of essays, Cixous presents psychoanalytic analyses of literary texts by Freud, August Heinrich Hoffmann, Kleist, Edgar Allan Poe, and Joyce. These essays deal variously with the concept of the "unified subject," or the individual's sense of being or "possessing" a distinct, whole personality. In 1975 Cixous published "Le rire de la Méduse" (1975; "The Laugh of the Medusa"), a well-known essay that examines Freud's concept of castration anxiety. Freud argued that this anxiety stems from a fear of female genitalia, perceived by males at a subconscious level as the result of castration—the female body understood subconsciously as "lacking" a phallus. Freud suggested that the mythical story of Medusa, in which people turn to stone when they look at the snake-entwined head of the Gorgon, could be read as addressing this psychoanalytic fear. In "The Laugh of the Medusa" Cixous argues, following many theorists, that this masculine view of women as "lacking" has broad social and political implications and manifestations. The Newly Born Woman consists of three parts: Catherine Clément's essay "The Guilty One," Cixous's "Sorties," and "Exchange," a dialogue between the two authors in which they discuss the similarities and differences in their views on women and writing. Through their readings of various historical, literary, and psychoanalytical texts, the two explore the role played by language in determining women's secondary place in society. They go on to propose that Western culture's repressive language must be replaced with a language of liberation. Elizabeth Wright has noted that "the general thesis of this book is that if women are going to take part in history they must write themselves into it." La venue à l'écriture (1977), coauthored with Annie Leclerc and Madeleine Gagnon, further evinces Cixous's preoccupations with language, psychoanalysis, and feminine pleasure. According to Verena Andermatt Conley, in this work Cixous "traces the origin of women's writing to the mother's voice and body." "Coming to Writing," and Other Essays (1991) collects translations of a number of Cixous's critical works written between 1976 and 1989, including "Clarice Lispector: An Approach," "Tancredi Continues," and the title essay, which is a translation of La venue à l'écriture.

Critical Reception

Reaction to Cixous's critical works has been mixed. Many critics have praised her attempts to revolutionize traditional beliefs about women and writing. Others, however, have castigated what they consider the contradictoriness of her work and her intentional resistance to analysis. Toril Moi has stated: "Her style is often intensely metaphorical, poetic and explicitly anti-theoretical, and her central images create a dense web of signifiers that offers no obvious edge to seize hold of for the analytically minded critic." Some reviewers also suggest that Cixous's attempts to redefine gender differences reduces women to what one critic has called an "anatomical essence," and that her works are, in fact, antifeminist. Others argue, like Moi, that Cixous's work is expansive rather than reductive and "seems to displace the whole problem of women and writing away from an empiricist emphasis on the sex of the author towards an analysis of the articulations of sexuality and desire within literary text itself." Most critics, however, praise Cixous's belief that the creation of a new language is, as stated by Nicole Irving, "a precondition of a new reality." Cixous herself has asserted: "Writing is the very possibility of change, the space from which a subversive thought can spring forth, the forward runner in any movement to change social and cultural strategies."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Le prénom de Dieu (short stories) 1967
L'exil de James Joyce ou l'art du remplacement [The Exile of James Joyce or the Art of Replacement] (doctoral thesis) 1968
Dedans [Inside] (novel) 1969
Les commencements (novel) 1970
Le troisième corps (novel) 1970
Un vrai jardin (short fiction) 1971
Neutre (novel) 1972
La pupille (drama) 1972
Tombe (novel) 1972
Portrait du soleil (novel) 1974
Prénoms de personne (essays) 1974
La jeune née [The Newly Born Woman] [with Catherine Clément] (essays) 1975
Un K. incompréhensible: Pierre Goldman (nonfiction)...

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Robert Boyle (review date Spring 1974)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "James Joyce," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 15, No. 2, Spring, 1974, pp. 262-70.

[In the following excerpt from a review in which he examines a number of books on the work of James Joyce, Boyle offers a negative assessment of The Exile of James Joyce. He states that while it reflects "intelligence and industry," this study is an "ugly failure and will appear more so as time reveals its flimsy biases and its prejudicial aims."]

The most massive single volume of Joycean criticism of the last few years, recently translated [as The Exile of James Joyce], is Helene Cixous' publication of what was, I suppose, the logorrheic dissertation which helped...

(The entire section is 974 words.)

Brian Duren (essay date 1981)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Cixous' Exorbitant Texts," in Sub-Stance, No. 32, 1981, pp. 39-51.

[Duren is an American educator. In the essay below, he notes that Cixous, in such works as La jeune née and Prénoms de personne, attempts to undermine and subvert traditional notions of literature and language.]

Quelque chose d'exorbité, de sourd à la réprobation d'autrui, élève au sublime ces poèmes et ces figures de couleur violente.

(Georges Bataille, "William Blake")

… often I have wondered whether, taking a large view, philosophy has not been merely an interpretation of the body and...

(The entire section is 6539 words.)

Annette Kuhn (essay date Autumn 1981)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Introduction to Hélène Cixous's 'Castration or Decapitation?'" in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Vol. 7, No. 1, Autumn, 1981, pp. 36-40.

[Kuhn is an English critic and educator who has written or edited numerous works on feminism, including The Power of the Image: Essays on Representation and Sexuality (1985) and The Feminist Companion Guide to Cinema (1990). In the essay below, she provides background information on Cixous and places her essay "Castration or Decapitation?" in the context of linguistic theory. Kuhn also notes that while Cixous simply attacks male-centered theories of language in this essay, her later works offer an alternative...

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Hélène Cixous with Verena Andermatt Conley (interview date January 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: An interview in Hélène Cixous: Writing the Feminine, University of Nebraska Press, 1984, pp. 129-61.

[Conley is a Swiss-born critic and educator. In the interview below, which was conducted in January 1982, Cixous discusses such topics as her concept of écriture féminine (or feminine writing), the role of women in society, the use of myths and dreams in her works, and her development as a writer.]

[Cixous]: The preliminary question is that of a "feminine writing," itself a dangerous and stylish expression full of traps, which leads to all kinds of confusions. True, it is simple to say "feminine writing." The use of the word "feminine"—I believe I...

(The entire section is 12426 words.)

Toril Moi (essay date 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Hélène Cixous: An Imaginary Utopia," in Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory, Methuen, 1985, pp. 102-26.

[Moi is an American educator and critic who has written extensively about various issues in literature, film, and feminist critical theory. In the essay below, she provides an overview of Cixous's fundamental tenets, stating that despite flaws in her works they "nevertheless [constitute] an invigorating utopian evocation of the imaginative powers of women."]

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then … I contradict myself;
I am large … I contain multitudes.

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Mary Libertin (review date July-August 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Challenging the Language," in Belles Lettres: A Review of Books by Women, Vol. 2, No. 6, July-August, 1987, pp. 11, 14.

[In the following excerpt, Libertin provides a favorable review of The Newly Born Woman.]

Those who are unfamiliar with Hélène Cixous's "Laugh of the Medusa" or with the excerpts from "Sorties" in Signs or in Marks and de Courtivron's New French Feminisms will want to read her complete essay, in addition to Catherine Clément's essay, "The Guilty One," along with their concluding dialogue, "Exchange," in the translation of this 1975 feminist classic, La Jeune Née (The Newly Born Woman). This book contains an...

(The entire section is 500 words.)

R. R. (review date 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Newly Born Woman, in Poetics Today, Vol. 9, No. 3, 1988, pp. 670-71.

[In the positive review below, the critic discusses the central themes of The Newly Born Woman.]

[The Newly Born Woman] represents the new French feminist theoretical movement today. Its authors explore through readings of historical, literary and psychoanalytic accounts, what is hidden and repressed in culture, veiled structures of language and society that have determined the woman's place in society and culture. In part one of the book, "The Guilty One," Clement provides an analysis of "images of women," especially images of the sorceress and the hysteric, as...

(The entire section is 434 words.)

Elizabeth Wright and Dianne Chisholm (review date April 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Newly Born Woman, in The Modern Language Review, Vol. 84, No. 2, April, 1989, pp. 418-19.

[Below, Wright and Chisholm offer a favorable assessment of The Newly Born Woman, stating that "this is an important book, which transgresses the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction, poetry and prose."]

The general thesis of [The Newly Born Woman] is that if women are going to take part in history they must write themselves into it. One of the ways of entering this arena as subjects speaking for themselves is to write their story. The problem is that the dominant culture is masculine, and since they cannot create stories out of...

(The entire section is 793 words.)

Deborah Jenson (essay date 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Coming to Reading Hélène Cixous," in "Coming to Writing," and Other Essays, Harvard University Press, 1991, pp. 183-96.

[Jenson edited "Coming to Writing," and Other Essays and contributed to it the essay excerpted below. In the following, she provides a thematic and stylistic overview of Cixous's works collected in the volume.]

In Hélène Cixous's 1976 essay "Coming to Writing," a remarkable "capitalist-realist superuncle," an "Anti-other in papaperson," rehashes the sober facts of the narrator's failure to allow herself to be captured within a recognizable literary tradition: "We think you're here," he says, "and you're there. One day we tell...

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Morag Shiach (essay date 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Politics and Writing," in Hélène Cixous: A Politics of Writing, Routledge, 1991, pp. 6-37.

[In the following excerpt, Shiach analyzes the development of Cixous's ideas about the relationships between writing, subjectivity, sexuality, and social change.]

(The entire section is 11636 words.)

Wendy Steiner (review date 31 January 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "From Narcissism to Seduction," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4635, January 31, 1992, p. 24.

[Steiner is a Canadian-born American critic and educator who has written works on such authors as Gertrude Stein and Roman Jakobson. In the review below, she offers mixed assessments of "Coming to Writing," and Other Essays and Readings. Steiner concludes that "Cixous embodies a paradox…. [She] represents a radical contemporaneity … but aesthetically she belongs in the early twentieth century."]

Ten years ago, Hélène Cixous, Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigaray were names to conjure with. Today, at least in France, "Feminism, like Marxism,...

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Peter Baker (review date June-July 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Discourses That Enact Their Subjects," in The American Book Review, Vol. 14, No. 2, June-July, 1992, p. 16.

[In the following excerpt, Baker offers a positive review of "Coming to Writing," and Other Essays. He states that while Cixous's works can be difficult and that readers must come to her writing with "a certain openness," she "may be the theorist who most clearly opens the way for a writerly kind of feminist thinking."]

That a discourse can or even should enact what it describes, or be like what it is about, is one of the discoveries claimed (and, of course, immediately therefore disputed) by various feminisms. I am one who thinks a certain credit...

(The entire section is 817 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Crowler, Diane Griffin. "Amazons and Mothers? Monique Wittig, Hélène Cixous and Theories of Women's Writing." Contemporary Literature 24, No. 2 (Summer 1983): 117-44.

Compares Cixous's feminist theories with Monique Wittig's, stating that "these two conceptions of how to write women's experience reveal a profound division which extends far beyond the literary realm."

Klobucka, Anna. "Hélène Cixous and the Hour of Clarice Lispector." Sub-Stance, No. 73 (1994): 41-62.

Discusses the relationship between Cixous's works and those of Brazilian novelist and short...

(The entire section is 381 words.)