His Other Half Critical Essays

Wendy Lesser


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Woman-as-mother organizes chapter 2, in which Lesser discusses the work of Charles Dickens, D. H. Lawrence, and two of her contemporaries, Peter Handke and Harold Brodkey. For Lesser, it is through the exploration of autobiographical material, in which the death of the mother and the growth of the writer become intertwined, that these authors are able to free themselves as artists.

The painter Edgar Degas and the novelist George Gissing focus on woman alone. Degas’ nudes, sometimes seen as evidence of misogyny, rather reflect his perception of woman as the hero of modern life. Not at all voyeuristic, these works articulate a definition of privacy. Their implications are finally utopian: They suggest an imaginary place in which a willingness to leave the other alone is somehow combined with an identification with the other’s body to the point of feeling it as one’s own.

George Gissing provides Lesser with her second example of an artist who focuses on woman alone. Lesser singles out for special attention The Odd Women (1893), a book so much in the spirit of feminism that, had it been written by a woman, it might be considered too polemical. Gissing transcends the familiar masculine-feminine opposition, urging both men and women to be womanly (by which he means “tender”) not womanish (by which he means “weak”). In spite of his feminist values, however, Gissing implies that class is finally a more damning limitation than gender, an insight Lesser seems to endorse.

Woman as opponent in the sexual battle informs the next two chapters. Lesser’s chapter on Henry James, while discussing several of his novels, emphasizes The Bostonians (1885-1886), a novel by which many feminists feel violated. In The Bostonians, the lesbian feminist Olive Chancellor loses the woman she loves to Basil Ransom, a man readers often perceive as an...

(The entire section is 777 words.)