Charlotte Goodman (essay date 1981)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2212

SOURCE: Goodman, Charlotte. “Portraits of the Artiste Manqué by Three Women Novelists.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women's Studies 5, no. 3 (1981): 57-9.

[In the following essay, Goodman reviews three contemporary novels that employ the Artiste Manqué, a literary device in which the artist-protagonist's talents are sabotaged by weaknesses...

(The entire section contains 32986 words.)

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SOURCE: Goodman, Charlotte. “Portraits of the Artiste Manqué by Three Women Novelists.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women's Studies 5, no. 3 (1981): 57-9.

[In the following essay, Goodman reviews three contemporary novels that employ the Artiste Manqué, a literary device in which the artist-protagonist's talents are sabotaged by weaknesses in themselves or those close to them.]

As fiction became increasingly autobiographical in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, many novelists began to write about artist protagonists. Novels such as Henry James' The Tragic Muse, D. H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers, James Joyce's Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man, Mary Austin's A Woman of Genius, and Willa Cather's The Song of the Lark all trace the growth and development of artist protagonists and describe their struggles to free themselves from the restrictions imposed by their environments. Still other novels consider the careers of artistes manqués: those whose talents are undermined by their own psychological limitations or by the attitudes of their societies. Both Virginia Woolf in A Room of One's Own and, more recently, Tillie Olsen in Silences have pointed out that many would-be artists whose careers have been aborted are women. “We who write are survivors, Only's,” Olsen declares, noting that few indeed are the women who have been encouraged to pursue artistic careers and fortunate are those “in economic circumstances beyond the basic imperatives, thus affording some choice.”1 Since many women writers have been painfully aware of the insurmountable difficulties faced by women artists in a patriarchal society, it is not surprising that a number of women authors have chosen to explore the frustrations of the artiste manqué. In this paper I will look briefly at three fictional portraits of the artist written by women novelists: Rebecca Harding Davis' Life in the Iron Mills (1861); Edith Summers Kelley's Weeds (1923); and Harriette Arnow's The Dollmaker (1954). Though all three authors were essentially middle class in their orientation, they describe in their fiction working-class protagonists whose circumstances do not permit their artistic talents to flourish. In so doing, Davis, Kelley, and Arnow dramatize not only the deprivations of their proletarian protagonists but also the struggles of all artists, especially women, to practice their craft in a society inimical to their needs.

The protagonist of Davis' Life in the Iron Mills is Hugh Wolfe, a poor, barely articulate male foundry worker. During the rare free moments when he is not working to earn his meager living, Hugh sculpts human forms out of korl, the refuse from iron ore. In her perceptive biographical preface to the novel, Tillie Olsen draws a parallel between the experience of Davis and her fictional Hugh:

The thirty-year-old Rebecca who wrote … wrote in absolute identification with the thwarted, wasted lives … mighty hungers … unawakened power … circumstances that denied the use of capacities; imperfect, self-tutored art that could have only odd moments for its doing—as if these were her own. And they were, however differently embodied in the life of a daughter of the privileged class.2

Life in the Iron Mills is subtitled The Korl Woman, because Hugh Wolfe's own insatiable life hungers are embodied in the figure he sculpts of a woman laborer with “tense, rigid muscles, clutching hands, a wild, eager face, like that of a starving wolf's.”3 Lacking education, money, free time, encouragement, and an appreciative audience—all those conditions necessary if the artist is to flourish—Hugh nevertheless finds an outlet for his talents in the rough-hewn figures he is driven to create. In the yearning of Davis' sensitive protagonist for an environment which will nurture his artistic talent, one can detect Davis' own yearnings, and in the figure of the starving woman which Hugh creates one can discern Davis' own frustrated hungers.

Writing in 1861, Davis chose a male persona to dramatize her feelings about the thwarting of artistic talent. In the twentieth century, however, Edith Summers Kelley and Harriette Arnow adopt the point of view of female personae and show how one's domestic environment as well as one's socio-economic situation succeed in undermining the career of a would-be female artist. Though Davis' Hugh Wolfe is not free to develop his artistic potential, he does receive the adulation of a woman, a hunchbacked worker named Deborah who steals money in order to provide the means for him to escape from his squalid surroundings. In contrast, the female protagonists of Kelley and Arnow receive no positive encouragement from their loved ones and are completely defeated by the inexorable pressures of family life. While Davis suggests that an economic revolution may one day free the Hugh Wolfes from bondage, Kelley and Arnow emphasize both the economic factors and the limiting social roles which undermine the talents of their respective protagonists.

Judith Pippinger, in Edith Summers Kelley's Weeds, is an energetic, rebellious girl who grows up in rural Kentucky and later marries a tobacco sharecropper. Early in the novel, Kelley describes Judith's talent for drawing: instead of applying herself to her studies, in school

she munched apples, chewed slippery elm and sassafras, stared idly out of the window, bedeviled the child who sat in front of her, cut folded bits of paper into intricate designs or drew pictures on her slate, the desk, the seat, the floor, the back of the pinafore of the girl in front, any available space within reach.4

Like an amateur Daumier, Judith draws “comic, satirical, or derisive” portraits of people and animals, which show “great vigor and clarity of vision.”5 Undaunted by the adverse comments of her teacher, Judith persists in drawing on any available surface, explaining to her father, “I see things; an' when I see 'em, I want to draw 'em.”6

At key points in the novel, which traces Judith's decline from exuberant tomboy to depressed and overburdened mother, Kelley makes reference to Judith's penchant for artistic expression. In a scene describing the budding romance between Jerry Blackford and Judith, for example, Kelley mentions the picture which Judith draws on a whitewashed fencepost with the stub of green crayon she always carries in her pocket. Significantly, while Jerry is thinking about kissing the nape of her neck, Judith is admiring her own artistic handiwork. After she and Jerry are married, she pretends to like her sister's hand-made rag rugs but admits her own preference for drawing. “Mebee now I'm married, I'll take more interest in sewin' and makin' nice things for the house,” Judith says;7 however, she never succeeds in looking at domestic arts as anything but chores. Kelley shows her, instead, drawing in order to brighten the tedious days when she is shut indoors with a new baby. Recording the view from her kitchen window, Judith contrasts the “sweep of hilltop lining itself against the sky” with her confining sharecropper's shack in which she feels imprisoned “long gray day after long gray day,” plodding through the “dismal daily round of dishwashing, clothes-washing, cooking, sweeping, nursing, and diaper-changing.”8 When she is recuperating from the birth of her second child, she asks her sister to bring pencil and paper to her bed, and though her talents are appreciated neither by her family nor by the towns-people, she accumulates a little pile of drawings done on wrapping paper, which she hides away in the bottom drawer of her dresser. What might have blossomed into a vocation under more auspicious circumstances becomes for Judith a solitary hobby which she is able to turn to only during those rare moments when she is free of household responsibilities.

Another victim of the culture of poverty is Gertie Nevels, protagonist of Harriette Arnow's The Dollmaker. Like Davis and Kelley, Arnow describes what happens to the individual whose environment fails to nurture her creative talents. Always tucked away in Gertie's apron pocket is the knife which she uses to carve utilitarian brooms and axe handles; to whittle playthings for her five children; and, when time permits, to work at a figure of Christ she is carving out of a block of cherry wood which she brings with her from rural Kentucky to Detroit. Just as Judith Pippinger in Weeds deprecates her sister's domestic handicrafts, so Gertie finds repellent the innumerable examples of her mother's fancy work which fill every room in her parents' farmhouse. Gertie's mother, in turn, cannot abide her daughter's unfeminine whittling, considering it “almost a sin” in the girl.9 Although Gertie herself refers to the life-like hens and dolls she whittles in her spare time as “whittlen foolishness,”10 Arnow clearly establishes the fact that Gertie creates objects of genuine artistic merit, for throughout the novel various characters far more educated and knowledgeable than Gertie recognize the artistic value of the figures she carves.

While both Hugh Wolfe and Judith Pippinger never receive any monetary reward for their art, Gertie Nevels is destroyed by the very marketability of the objects she makes. During a period of financial hardship when her husband is out of work, Gertie is forced to make the ultimate sacrifice: she reluctantly decides to have her beautiful block of cherry wood cut into planks so that she can mass-produce jumping-jack dolls to sell in order to feed her family. Arnow repeatedly illustrates in The Dollmaker the ways in which both human and artistic values are corrupted by the crass commercialism of the city. The Nevels' cramped apartment in a Detroit housing development is overpriced; their children, subjected to pressures to conform to the mores of an urban public school, constantly beg their mother for money to buy the things that the other children have; and Gertie is advised by her husband to use a jigsaw instead of her knife to manufacture crude dolls in place of the exquisite ones she formerly carved by hand. Though her motives are noble—she betrays her artistic gift in order to preserve her family—Gertie takes on the role of Judas, selling her Christ for silver.

Images of entrapment abound in these three novels which portray so persuasively the manner in which human aspirations are thwarted and talents betrayed. Hugh Wolfe, filthy and ash-covered, has no choice but to labor in the inferno of the iron works in Davis' novel. Later, when he is arrested for the theft which Deborah has committed for his sake, he is sentenced to nineteen years in prison. Through the bars he enviously observes the people outside moving freely about. Judith Pippinger in Weeds, incarcerated in her sharecropper's shack, feels confined and depressed, and she is happy only when she can “escape into the open, where there was light, life, motion. …”11 Like Hugh, who literally is confined by ankle irons, Judith feels herself to be in “bondage,” for she cannot escape from the incessant demands of her household, which Kelley compares to “innumerable small restraining bands” that restrict Judith's freedom.12 And Gertie Nevels, a large woman, constantly bumps into the furniture in the tiny rooms of her Detroit flat, whose walls seem “scarce wider than her shoulders.”13 Just as Hugh looks longingly at the wide streets from the window of his cell, and Judith gazes despairingly out of her narrow kitchen window, so Gertie peers through the open door of her apartment, imagining that she sees a hill reminiscent of the hills of her native Kentucky but realizing suddenly that the “hill” actually is “a great pile of coal.”14 By employing these images of confinement, Davis, Kelley, and Arnow suggest that the artistic soul will wither when the body is entrapped.

If, as the saying goes, “artists are born and not made,” the three works I have described also make the case that even “born” artists cannot flourish in environments too poor and constricted to nurture the creative spirit. Although these protagonists all make use of whatever material is at hand to produce works of artistic merit, their output is meager and their talents generally are unappreciated. The endings of Life in the Iron Mills, Weeds, and The Dollmaker are unremittingly bleak: Hugh commits suicide, with the very piece of tin he had used to work on his sculpture; Judith becomes increasingly morose and bitterly concludes that there is “nothing to be gained by continually pulling at the leash”;15 and a depressed Gertie, forced to destroy her work of art in order to feed her family, thinks, “What was the good of trying to keep your own if when they grew up their days were like your own—changeovers and ugly painted dolls?”16 Hugh Wolfe, Judith Pippinger, and Gertie Nevels lack money and “rooms of their own,” as well as the training, the time, and the climate in which to create. These fictional characters are immortalized not by their own artistic creations but by the novelists who celebrate their talents and express their desperation. Perhaps Davis, Kelley, and Arnow were able to describe the plight of their artist protagonists so poignantly because as women artists in a patriarchal society they themselves felt so vulnerable.


  1. Tillie Olsen, Silences (New York: Delacorte Press, 1978), p. 22.

  2. Rebecca Harding Davis, Life in the Iron Mills (1861; rpt. Old Westbury, N.Y.: The Feminist Press, 1972), p. 69.

  3. Davis, p. 32.

  4. Edith Summers Kelley, Weeds (1923; rpt. Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1972), p. 25.

  5. Kelley, p. 25.

  6. Kelley, p. 26.

  7. Kelley, p. 122.

  8. Kelley, pp. 125-26.

  9. Harriette Arnow, The Dollmaker (New York: Avon Books, 1954), p. 68.

  10. Arnow, p. 155.

  11. Kelley, p. 116.

  12. Kelley, p. 158.

  13. Arnow, p. 172.

  14. Arnow, p. 171.

  15. Kelley, p. 330.

  16. Arnow, pp. 503-04.

Rachel Blau DuPlessis (essay date 1985)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9554

SOURCE: DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. “To ‘Bear My Mother's Name’: Künstlerromane by Female Writers.” In Tell Me a Riddle, edited by Tillie Olsen with an introduction by Deborah Silverton Rosenfelt, pp. 243-69. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1985.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1985, well-known feminist writer DuPlessis explores the nature of the feminist künstlerroman by examining several of the genre's more prominent examples from the last century.]

No song or poem will bear my mother's name. … Perhaps she was herself a poet—though only her daughter's name is signed to the poems that we know.

—Alice Walker, “In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens” (1974)

The love plot and Bildungs plot are fused in a particular fictional strategy, a figure emerging in a range of narratives from Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh to Margaret Atwood's Surfacing.1 And the central struggle between designated role and meaningful vocation is negotiated by different narrative tactics in nineteenth- and twentieth-century texts.2 The figure of a female artist encodes the conflict between any empowered woman and the barriers to her achievement.3 Using the female artist as a literary motif dramatizes and heightens the already-present contradiction in bourgeois ideology between the ideals of striving, improvement, and visible public works, and the feminine version of that formula: passivity, “accomplishments,” and invisible private acts.

For bourgeois women, torn between their class values and the subset of values historically affirmed for their gender caste, the figure of the female artist expressed the doubled experience of a dominant ideology that was supposed to be muted in them and that therefore became oppositional for their gender. Making a female character be a “woman of genius” sets in motion not only conventional notions of womanhood but also conventional romantic notions of the genius, the person apart, who, because unique and gifted, could be released from social ties and expectations.4 Genius theory is a particular exaggeration of bourgeois individualism, and its evocation increases the tension between middle-class women as a special group and the dominant assumptions of their class. Because it is precisely expression and the desire to refuse silence that are at issue in artistic creation, the contradiction between dominant and muted areas can also be played out in the motif of the imbedded artwork, another narrative marker of these Künstlerromane.

Aurora Leigh (1856) by Elizabeth Barrett Browning is the mid-century text of an emergent ideological formation, as Ruth Hall (1855), a sweet American book, is that of dominant sentiments. Aurora Leigh is a booklength narrative poem about the fusing of artist and woman, and the testing of values surrounding class and spiritual vision.5 In the final moments of this work, the artist Aurora accepts her suitor in marriage, having discovered that all her notable successes are compromised without affection.6

          Passioned to exalt
The artist's instinct in me at the cost
Of putting down the woman's, I forgot
No perfect artist is developed here
From any imperfect woman.


Aurora's expostulation of Love's primacy at the end of the work (“Art is much, but Love is more. / O Art, my Art, thou'rt much, but Love is more!” 381) is well separated from the even more powerful statements of her allegiance to art and her meditations on craft, in Books II and V, which describe the upsurge of her passionate inspiration as the “lava-lymph” (195).

                                                                      Never flinch,
But still, unscrupulously epic, catch
Upon the burning lava of a song
The full-veined, heaving, double-breasted Age:
That, when the next shall come, the men of that
May touch the impress with reverent hand, and say
“Behold,—behold the paps we all have sucked!”


Aurora Leigh is irrepressibly rich in imagery of volcanoes and breasts, of maternal power to nourish; and by evoking the physical female, the poem claims both biological and cultural authority to speak.7

Heterosexual love may have moral and ideological primacy in Aurora Leigh, as articulated at the end, but vocation, itself bound with maternal bliss and the power of love/hate relations among women, has textual primacy.8 Vocation, asserted early and often, is, moreover, stated in the critical context of a beady-eyed analysis of female education for domesticity, acquiescence, and superficiality. Aurora's choice of vocation is made against the will of her closest relatives, including Romney. She asserts female right to a profession not because of financial exigency or family crisis, but out of sheer desire and for the sake of sheer power. Her ecstatic commitment to the vocation of poet and her achievement tend to make valid the ideology of striving and success that she embodies, joining that set of values to female possibility.9

Between the beginning and the end, Romney and Aurora have exchanged roles, in a chiastic move that tends to make their marriage somewhat credible, despite the plot mechanism that has him involved with three women, representing three social classes and three female types. Aurora has seen the centrality of love, he the vitality of her art. While he had, in Book II, been the fountainhead of smugly discouraging statements about women as artists (“We get no Christ from you,—and verily / We shall not get a poet, in my mind,” 81), at the end he comes to recognize that her achievement was more vital than his in inducing the conversion experiences that are the real root of any social change. This readjustment takes shape in a distinct and punitive shock to his views. For Romney, like an escapee from Jane Eyre, is first rejected, like St. John Rivers, and then, like Rochester, blinded. This wounding of male heroes is, according to Elaine Showalter, a symbolic way of making them experience the passivity, dependency, and powerlessness associated with women's experiences of gender.10 And, as in Brontë's Shirley, the rebellious lower orders express, in unacceptable form, the rancor and hostility of all the powerless, women included. For Romney's blindness is direct punishment for his political theories. A mean-spirited, animalistic rebellion causes the accident that blinds him. The poor have been so brutalized that their souls are nasty, unawakened, unspiritual; their true awakening will be brought about only by poetry and God, not by politics.

Because he can no longer continue these handicapped reformist activities, the private sphere of love and the cosmic sphere of religion become the world in which all his needs can—must—be satisfied. So the man is made to live in the “separate sphere,” in the feminine culture of love and God. The creation of Romney's short-fall, his “castration” by the malicious verve of the unwashed masses, creates a power vacuum where the upper-class or upper-middle-class hero used to be. Aurora is then available to claim both masculine and feminine rewards—the hero's reward of success and the heroine's reward of marriage—in a rescripting of nineteenth-century motifs that joins romantic love to the public sphere of vocation.

Shine out for two, Aurora, and fulfil
My falling-short that must be! work for two,
As I, though thus restrained, for two, shall love!


Since Aurora had offered to sacrifice and to be used (381), what more aggrandizing way to fulfill her desire for abasement than to demand that she do twice as often and twice as intensely what she has already proven she can do very well. Being an artist is, at the end, reinterpreted as self-sacrifice for the woman, and thus is aligned with feminine ideology. This work, then, created a powerful reference point, but it did not change the nineteenth-century convention of representation that saw the price of artistic ambition as the loss of femininity.

Most of the nineteenth-century works with female artists as heroes observe the pieties, putting their final emphasis on the woman, not the genius; the narratives are lacerated with conflicts between femininity and ambition. There are works in which the only reason for an artistic vocation is the utterly desperate and melodramatic destitution of the main character—say a widow with young children, cast out from sanctimonious, petty family. Such is the case with Fanny Fern's Ruth Hall: A Domestic Tale of the Present Time, published (in America) a year before Aurora Leigh. In this work, when a child asks, “When I get to be a woman shall I write books, Momma?” the proper answer is clearly Ruth's “God forbid … no happy woman ever writes. From Harry's grave sprang Floy [her pen name].”11 This statement may be taken as the mid-century base line of attitudes, in which a woman's entry into public discourse elicits a shudder of self-disgust and is allowable only if it is undertaken in mourning and domesticity.

Self-realization and ambition as a female crime, and the absolute separation of love and vocation are also grimly coded into a moral tale by Rebecca Harding Davis.12 An older woman, Hetty, vividly discontented with the dullness and ordinary struggles of her life, is alienated from her new baby and from her husband. The focus of her discontent is her ambition to succeed in the public world with “fame and an accomplished deed in life” (10). The climax of this conflict comes in a sequence that we later learn is a hallucinatory dream of an artist's life. She is hissed on stage, sexually exposed, homeless, mistaken for a prostitute, and responsible for her husband's death from grief: surely an intense catalogue of punishments for the crime of ambition. This transposition of desire for vocation to shame and disgust is achieved by Davis's manipulation of the dual connotations of the artist as soul and body. At first her ambition is boldly justified as “the highest soul-utterance,” a “mission,” “a true action of the creative power,” but the sordid intervention of a “greasy” impresario refracts these spiritual claims and collapses them. There is no third or mediating way out of the paradox that the apparently romantic aspirations have a sordid reality, while humdrum domestic life is, instead, the real sphere of divine mission. Here, as in Aurora Leigh, class questions subtly shift the ground: the preindustrial farm in which all participate, the family work in unity and interdependence, is clearly better than the protocapitalist exploitation of artist/woman by impresario/man, a relationship all too suggestive of prostitute to pimp. Reunited with family, baby, and husband, Hetty thanks God that she was purged of selfishness, willful dreams, and her delusive claims to talent. “A woman has no better work in life than the one she has taken up: to make herself a visible Providence to her husband and child” (19). God is usefully recruited to bolster the solution. The public sphere is tempting but shallow; the transcendent “Self” without ties is desolate; the private sphere, rather than stultifying and “mawkish,” is a cozy and ennobling realm of human love (15, 8). The either/or ending of love versus vocation is created with a newly honed edge in this tale. Although it does offer a pointed vocabulary of critique, the narrative just as pointedly discredits it.

Kate Chopin's The Awakening (1899) summarizes these nineteenth-century motifs, working them allusively, testing their limits, considering how they might be broken.13 The way the life of the artist can be mistaken for the life of the demimondaine, the way “the children” come in and are narratively presented, and an allusion to the sacredness of home ties by a woman suffering in childbed are motifs shared with Rebecca Harding Davis. The death of Edna Pontellier as an artist figure is a plain statement that the character rejects the binary, either/or convention of love versus vocation. However, the fact that her rejection of complicity takes the form of suicide attacks the binary division between selves only by the monism of obliteration. Chopin hints that there might be some socially plausible, if marginalized, third way open to Edna, who is too attached to her privileges of class (the dovecote, the smart set) and gender (her beauty) to pursue it. In this narrative the binary choice still has force, but not finality; the main character cannot experiment further and punishes herself for her mixture of ambition to transcend feminine norms and complicity with them by an act (swimming) that both celebrates and destroys that awakening. …

The Story of Avis (1877) by the prolific American writer Elizabeth Stuart Phelps takes up the challenge of Aurora Leigh to examine the relation of a woman to artistic vocation after the declaration of love and the marriage that conclude Browning's poem. This deft book is formed like a quilt of neatly fitted and boldly colored discourses—sentimental, realistic, and, of course, allegorical (the death of a bird [Latin: avis] given to her future husband for safekeeping).

Avis is another of the large-spirited and gifted artist heroes torn between human energy and feminine ideology. Phelps's version of a tragicomic wedlock plot will show that marriage and vocation should not be combined for women.

Success—for a woman—means absolute surrender, in whatever direction. Whether she paints a picture, or loves a man, there is no division of labor possible in her economy. To the attainment of any end worth living for, a symmetrical sacrifice of her nature is compulsory upon her. I do not say that this was meant to be so. I do not think we know what was meant for women. It is enough that it is so.14

Women are trained to a personality, formed by social constraints that compel an undivided commitment to one path; allusions to the psychological economy of romance makes change seem impossible. Avis argues that even a woman of genius cannot break the imposed pattern of sacrifice, of an either/or choice. Her future husband claims that a talented and dynamic woman painter, once married, would be able to create and housekeep in fair and equal balance. He is, not incidentally, feckless, although persuasive. The book is built to test their opposing propositions; Avis “wins” the argument by losing her art, a plot mechanism that recapitulates the double bind of femininity and vocation.

Shrewdly observed details of daily life in a household that does not compromise its bourgeois solidity make the novel a study in frustration.15 Not only the arrival of children but, in sharply executed scenes, their behavior—seductive tantrums outside the studio door—dramatizes the conflicts that daily impede the practice of her talent. Her paints grow dusty; domesticity encroaches constantly. Then the home itself falters: one child dies, the husband is invalided by tuberculosis, the marriage is an alienating stalemate. The author's attention shifts to the prevention of the spiritual and emotional divorce she has so cunningly suggested, as if Avis would be dishonored as a character if she could not recapture love or respect for her husband. With this shift of attention, the burden of the novel falls on the wedlock plot, and the Bildung of the female artist is put aside. But even her husband's death does not set Avis free. In a conservative scene of surrender, the character discovers that being married had “eaten into and eaten out the core of her life, left her a riddled, withered thing, spent and rent” (447). She can no longer create, for her genius has been used up in love; she is reduced to teaching art school. This mercantilist view of the psychic economy of women suggests that a fixed amount of energy exists in her life; what is spent is never replenished or recreated. Hence the either/or choice persists and controls the character.

The book ends by the generational displacement of the mother's ambition onto her daughter.16 The mother reads her child the story of the Quest for the Holy Grail, and we understand that while the first generation (Sir Lancelot) failed, the second, purer generation of seekers will achieve the quest. The thwarted mother bequeathes her ambition to the child, and that emergent daughter becomes, as we shall see, the main character of the twentieth-century Künstlerroman.17

Avis's two major art works embody the conflict between vocation and love. One is the catalyst for her marriage, a portrait of her future husband. The other is the sphinx, a work of a thwarted artist, encoding both the powers and failures of her genius.18 In the sphinx is depicted the muted, riddling, and inarticulate drive of woman artists in particular and of women in general, suggesting vocation and its erosion, potential speech and actual silencing, the whole “mutilated actuality” of her career (150).

In a number of works that center on female artists, characters from the conventional heterosexual love plot … make strong demands for conformity to exactingly interpreted feminine roles. Both lover and maternal figures compel the processes of silencing and thwart the preternatural articulateness of the female artists. In the nineteenth-century works, the husband or suitor is the major problem for the artistic career. The husband/suitor's concerted disapproval of the artist's vocation (Aurora Leigh, until the end), his lack of sustained understanding of the nature of her needs (The Story of Avis), his view of wife as bourgeois possession (The Awakening) and his controlling of her artistic and intellectual activity (as we shall see in “The Yellow Wallpaper”) are some of the motifs.

The major modulation from the nineteenth- to the twentieth-century Künstlerroman involves the position of heterosexual love and the couple within the narrative. The romance plot, which often turns into a stalemate, is displaced in twentieth-century narratives and replaced by a triangular plot of nurturance offered to an emergent daughter by a parental couple. Whenever the heterosexual bond remains central to the main character, she is usually a “thwarted mother” type of artist. Charlotte Perkins Gilman's “The Yellow Wallpaper” may be taken as a transitional work; the nurturing that the potential artist receives is a form of social and emotional control, repressive tolerance at its shrewdest. But Gilman's text is transitional because, instead of submitting to the complicity or battered resignation we see in works like The Story of Avis, Gilman's hero performs the act signaling a shift in female narrative politics, the critique of narrative and ideology by writing beyond the ending.

“The Yellow Wallpaper” is an obdurate account of the conflict between an artist's calling and external constraints, telling of the literal entrapment of a potential writer in the room in which she is suffering from a breakdown.19 Her journal of self-analysis (the work is constructed as a diary) is written furtively, under her husband's ban. The external controls on the woman's activity are very persistent, so her creative energy is baffled except for one completed document—the text we hold.

The room of her imprisonment epitomizes the doubled public and private power characteristic of the social pressures brought to bear on women. As the marital bedroom, it recalls love and trust; with its bars and fixed furniture, it mimics such impersonal corrective institutions as jails and asylums. In the double character of the husband/doctor, Gilman has expressed this nexus of patriarchal love, power, and force; he combines the professional authority of the physician with the legal and emotional authority of the husband.20 The cause of the character's worsening depression is written—and with the proper eyes can be read—in the yellow wallpaper of the sickroom and in the diary secretly kept by the woman.

The symptoms have a double impact, involving her fixation on the wallpaper and her decoding of it. In the inability of the trained professional to read her symptoms (but in his power to enforce his interpretation), in the ability of the untrained patient to understand the semiology of her illness (but her powerlessness to have her reading credited), Gilman has constructed a dramatic statement illustrating the difficulty of the muted group21 to “deny or reverse a universal assumption.”22 When the ill woman makes the climactic separation of the wallpaper's front pattern and its hidden female figure, she makes the crucial analytic distinction between a muted (“creeping”) woman and the “central, effective and dominant system of meanings” in her society.23 By making the wallpaper pattern represent the patterns of androcentric society, Gilman underscores the dailiness and omnipresence of the universal assumption of male dominance, its apparent banality and harmlessness—just one modest feature of home decor. But like any system of social and ideological dominance, it is pervasive, extensive, and saturating.24 All who live within this fixed pattern of institutions and values are affected by it, no matter what their social benefits or sufferings or how “careful” they are; Gilman reports that “the paper stained everything it touched” (27).

At the ending, depending on one's interpretive paradigm, two contradictory opinions about the main character can be held. The conflicting judgments are simultaneously present, as the narrator, tearing the wallpaper, tries to release her double, the muted subtext with its unsaid meanings. “Much Madness is divinest Sense” here. But from the standpoint of “Much Sense—the starkest Madness—” that is, from the perspective of normalcy, her statement demanding freedom for the muted meanings looks like irrationality and delusion.25 By an ending that calls attention to interpretive paradigms and powers, Gilman highlights the politics of narrative.

The autobiographical sources of this short story have been well-documented, from the breakdown itself to the infantalizing rest cure, prescribed by an eminent Philadelphia doctor.26 As Gilman was massaged and fattened, she could “Have but two hours' intellectual life a day. And never touch pen, brush or pencil as long as you live.” “The Yellow Wallpaper,” dramatizing the mental cruelty of that dependent inactivity, was written with an explicitly didactic purpose—“to reach Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, and convince him of the error of his ways.”27 It is less noted that the inspiration for this story parallels the provocation of The Story of Avis: a compensatory defense of a thwarted mother and a highly critical eye cast at the institution of heterosexual romance and marriage—in Gilman's case both the marriage of her parents and her own first marriage.28

The motif in which the maternal parent becomes the muse for the daughter has more than fictional status; we can trace it through the biographies of women authors from Virginia Woolf and H. D. to Alice Walker. In a Woolfean essay, Walker “thinks back,” tracing the sources of her art to the parent whose artistry is vital.

Whatever she planted grew as if by magic, and her fame as a grower of flowers spread over three counties. … And I remember people coming to my mother's yard to be given cuttings from her flowers; I hear again the praise showered on her because whatever rocky soil she landed on, she turned into a garden. A garden so brilliant with colors, so original in its design, so magnificent with life and creativity, that to this day people drive by our house in Georgia—perfect strangers and imperfect strangers—and ask to stand or walk among my mother's art.29

Judging from the evidence in Gilman, Phelps Ward, Woolf, and Walker, there seems to be a specific biographical drama that has entered and shaped Künstlerromane by women. Such a narrative is engaged with a maternal figure and, on a biographical level, is often compensatory for her losses (which may themselves be imaginatively heightened by being remembered by her child). The daughter becomes an artist to extend, reveal, and elaborate her mother's often thwarted talents. “No song or poem will bear my mother's name” (240). Still, “perhaps she was herself a poet,” summarizes Walker, “though only her daughter's name is signed to the poems that we know” (243).

The younger artist's future project as a creator lies in completing the fragmentary and potential work of the mother; the mother is the daughter's muse, but in more than a passive sense. For the mother is also an artist. She has written, sung, made, or created, but her work, because in unconventional media, is muted and unrecognized. The media in which she works are often the materials of “everyday use” (to borrow a phrase from Alice Walker), and her works are artisanal.30 The traditional notion of a muse is a figure who gives access to feeling or knowledge that she herself cannot formulate. In contrast, this maternal muse struggles with her condition to forge a work, usually one unique, unrepeatable work—an event, a gesture, an atmosphere—a work of synthesis and artistry that is consumed or used.

By entering and expressing herself in some more dominant art form (poem, not garden, painting, not cuisine, novel, not parlor piano playing) the daughter can make prominent the work both have achieved. Mother and daughter are thus collaborators, coauthors separated by a generation. Because only the daughter's work is perceived as art within conventional definitions, it will challenge these formulations of decorum, so the mother or muted parent too can be seen as the artist s/he was.31 This intellectual, aesthetic, and ethical defense of the mother becomes involved with the evocation of the preoedipal dyad, matrisexuality, or a bisexual oscillation deep in the gendering process. In these works, the female artist is given a way of looping back and reenacting childhood ties, to achieve not the culturally approved ending in heterosexual romance, but rather the reparenting necessary to her second birth as an artist.

In the nineteenth-century texts sampled here, heterosexual ties and the marriage relation come under considerable critical scrutiny, but no change in narrative modes occurs. In twentieth-century texts, the proportion of successful artist figures increases, by virtue of a keen change in the terms of the conflict between role and vocation. Instead of meaning marriage, motherhood, and housewifery, “role” comes to mean the filial completion of a thwarted parent's task. The daughter artist and the blocked, usually maternal, parent are, then, the central characters of twentieth-century women's Künstlerromane. The maternal or parental muse and the reparenting motifs are strategies that erode, transpose, and reject narratives of heterosexual love and romantic thralldom.

Precisely this is at stake in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, which concerns Lily Briscoe's long development, revealed through the interrupted process of completing her painting over the ten years in which the novel is set. The painting, a vivid formulation of the novel's themes in an imaginary plastic structure, is “about” a mother and child, Mrs. Ramsay and James, or even Lily herself, poised between strong opposing forces representing male and female—Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay. The creation of that dynamic poise has been the central aesthetic struggle for Lily.32

Because of her double and contradictory status, Mrs. Ramsay exists twice in Lily's painting, first as one of the two conventional sides that must be balanced, but then as the inspiration for the revelatory stroke in the middle. For Mrs. Ramsay is central to the two systems: she is the stereotypical feminine side of that dichotomy between male and female which will be superseded, yet at the same time she is the final line at the center of the painting: the dome of the mother-child dyad, the lighthouse of quest-love, the wedge-shaped mark of life infused with the void of oceanic death. …

By the midpoint of the novel, both of the traditional endings—marriage and death—have occurred, a sharp critical statement on Woolf's part that clears the ground of any rival solutions to Lily's plot. The third part of To the Lighthouse surpasses these classic resolutions, moving beyond the endings they propose, to brother-sister links, to male-female friendship, and, even more, to a vision that overwhelms all the binary systems on which the novel has been built. The final stroke, the placement of Lily's last line, an abstraction of the mother-child dyad wedged into the divided picture, makes her work emotionally complete and aesthetically unified. The either/or division between masculine and feminine reaches a both/and resolution in the art work of the female artist, who joins oedipal to preoedipal materials and expresses the hive, dome, and secret hieroglyphs of matrisexual passion.33 This synthesis of polarities is even recorded in Woolf's response to her text: on one hand she can characterize it as a “hard muscular book,” yet she can also see it as “soft and pliable, and I think deep. …”34

In the first part of the novel, Lily opts for the pure quest plot of artistic ambition. … Yet Lily cannot finish her painting, not because “women can't paint, women can't write”—Tansley's taunt and an external goad—but because she has split her formalist vision from her emotional life (238). Woolf further insists that Lily's painting can be completed only if she immerses herself in vulnerability, need, exposure, and grief, only through empathy—a set of feelings usually called womanly—and not through exclusive attention to aesthetics in a vacuum. The point is illustrated in the later scene with Mr. Ramsay, when “The sympathy she had not given him weighed her down. It made it difficult for her to paint” (254). In short, the painting can be achieved only through the fusion of love with quest.

The love here is not of the classic novelistic kind: Lily's helpful and genuine admiration for Mr. Ramsay's boots, saving him from yet another depressive attack, is hardly a prelude to their courtship. But love it is, alluding to familial love, friendly love, comradely ties, some “of those unclassified affections of which there are so many” (157). She helps him without dissolving into romantic thralldom or powerful self-abnegation, an important distinction from Mrs. Ramsay's way. Not only in offering affection to him but in admitting vulnerability to love and loss in herself, Lily is able to complete her painting. Thus love enables quest; quest is given meaning because of love. The two arcing and interconnected actions that complete the novel—Mr. Ramsay's sail across the bay with his children and Lily's completion of the painting—are both journeys that had been becalmed until love, grief, and need were admitted. …35

On the last page of Surfacing (1972) by Margaret Atwood, the narrator hovers between past and future, between her dead parents and her unborn child, between meretricious commercial art and the art she promises to make. Surfacing also shows an emergent daughter who focuses the heritage of both parents in order to bring herself to maturity. The man in the book, a woodsy impregnator, is set aside when his task is done. The art work is a ritual performance piece that the protagonist constructs in order to gain access to her parental, Canadian, mythic (especially matriarchal) roots. Through this performance ritual, she sloughs off the victimization and deadness of nationality and gender. Alone in the wilderness, the protagonist choreographs visions of her parents, dreams, and symbolic acts, like eating or not, into a unity both aesthetic and transformative. The ritual functions in this character's life much as Lily's painting did, closing the past and readying the self for the future. The liminal ending in which the narrator crosses over into love (for her unborn child) and achievement (her unborn art) mingles quest and love; the acceptance of female role—the pregnancy was deliberately sought—is, like the scenes of empathy in To the Lighthouse, the enabling act.36

Despite any use of the words “mother” and “daughter” to characterize the preoedipal implications of this reparenting, some of these figures are either displaced by some generations or are not the biological daughters of the mothers they seek. The generational displacement in the twentieth-century works covertly announces that the mother might be less than inspiring. Hence the mother may die in the story, as she does in Woolf and Tillie Olsen. In Christina Stead's novel The Man Who Loved Children (1940), the daughter artist Louie has even murdered Henny, her mother, with Henny's complicit understanding. Louie then emerges from her family, having broken the grip of the two embattled parents, escaping beyond the frame of the book in a liminal ending: “I have gone for a walk round the world.”37 The death or generational displacement of the mother in plots involving a daughter artist may be the writer's way of solving one form of the conflict between role and vocation, between the mutual costs, in Jane Flax's terms, of maternal nurturance and filial autonomy. The narrative death is a cold-blooded if necessary enabling act, which distinguishes the useful from the damaging in the maternal heritage. The useful part—empathy and symbiosis—is placed in the daughter's art work; the damaging part—envelopment and paralysis—lies buried in the grave.38

The doubled story in Tillie Olsen's “Tell Me a Riddle” is based on the complementary characters of artists who are thwarted and emergent, mother and daughter, dying and living. One major riddle—“How was it that soft reaching tendrils also became blows that knocked?”—refers in general to the ceaseless dialogue between possibility and betrayal that is carried on over a woman's lifetime, and in specific to the conflict between motherhood and Eva's political and artistic vocations.39 The lifelong impoverishment of Eva's complex spirit, a narrowing carried out in the private realm of family life as well as in the public, historical realm, with its failure of revolutionary hopes, has made her a rancorous old lady. Eva is deaf, deliberately, bitterly silent, and filled with hostility and resentment: a paradigmatically muted figure.

During the story, she and her husband leave their house, site of many contentions and thematic issues about the meaning of home and family, and visit three “daughters.” The first returns to the past, with her ghettoized emphasis on Jewish particularism; the second lives a life like her mother's, with its ever-present claims and pressures of children “intensely and now.” The third figure, the grandchild Jeannie, completes the pattern, offering future promise. Resembling the revolutionary woman who taught Eva to read more than fifty years before, Jeannie expresses a continuity between the battered ideals of the century's struggles and the unknown future in which these revolutionary possibilities might be realized.

At the last stage of her journey, with her death from cancer imminent, Eva becomes the point upon which past, present, and future converge. She recovers her long-repressed identity as “First mother, singing mother,” beginning her “incessant words,” which resemble the Sprechstimme of modernist musical style.40 Her suffering and her memories crack her open; her voicing makes a broken, poetic song-speech with a pedal-point of unanswerable riddles: “So strong for what? To rot not grow”: “Man … we'll destroy ourselves?” Like the pageant music in Woolf's Between the Acts, Eva's song is a communal one, and her individual person is like a conduit through which a collectivity chants: “night and day, asleep or awake … the songs and the phrases leaping.” In Eva's cantata of voices, memories, stories, bits of speeches and books, Olsen makes a manifesto of long-muted voices, a political and aesthetic statement of power from the apparently powerless, who sometimes can hear the music of human struggle and destiny.

The granddaughter Jeannie, a Visiting Nurse, only gradually emerges as an artist in the course of the story. For if Jeannie is a muse for Eva, the reverse is also true: the grandmother's vision will reorient the younger woman. In the sketch of her grandmother “coiled … like an ear,” Jeannie shows she has understood Eva's essence: sensitivity to the music of struggling humanity. Another of Jeannie's sketches, of her grandparents lying, hands “clasped, feeding each other,” makes the grandfather forgive Eva for her bitterness. Jeannie “remarries” them at their last moments together. So, like Eva's, her art is a moral and didactic act.

Human creativity in its boldest and broadest senses inspires Eva's cantata. The collective strength and “zest” of voices at a community chorale break through her defenses. The stories of Chekhov and Balzac are high cultural sources; a Pan del Muerto—folk-art cookie for a dead child—comes from popular culture. “Like art,” this decorated cookie recalls the songs of Anon in Between the Acts, the moment “almost like a work of art” in To the Lighthouse, and “my mother's art” of the garden for Alice Walker. Like Woolf and Walker, Olsen obliterates the distinction between high culture and folk art in the array of Eva's sources.41 Yet while immersion in the human condition compels artistic expression, such an immersion also prevents it. Olsen's own career is a negotiation with this contradiction. She chooses to look for the unsaid, absent, or missing elements, constructing a literary and political stance “dark with silences” of the unspoken.42 Olsen has testified to the thematic and moral center provided by her recognition, like Woolf's in A Room of One's Own, of the social, material, and emotional circumstances that prevent, or give a certain twisted cast to, fruition and achievement.

If, in these women writers, the function of the artist with the tools of dominant culture is to embody muted experiences, then the figure of the female artist counters the modernist tradition of exile, alienation, and refusal of social roles—the non serviam of the classic artist hero, Stephen Dedalus. The woman writer creates the ethical role of the artist by making her imaginatively depict and try to change the life in which she is also immersed. This differentiates the figure in the female Künstlerromane from the fantasies of social untouchability or superiority that are prevalent in modernist depictions. These issues of change and stasis emerge in Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook (1962).43 A published writer of a book that she now regards with contempt, Anna Wulf can no longer “write,” but keeps four notebooks, separated explanations for the political and sexual strains that caused her professional stalemate. The major formal project of Lessing's book is to explore and surpass meretricious, abandoned, or incomplete stories, sometimes love plots, but also a whole novel called Free Women, in order to arrive at some precious dialectical “golden” amalgam, through which a more dynamic statement about history, politics, and personal relations can be articulated. …

Anna had argued endlessly that it is impossible to create art, since the only wholeness people exhibit occurs by virtue of pastiche and ersatz imitations of order. She learns that it is not art that should be rejected but a limiting conception of artistic order. Thus another kind of narrative must be invented—the multivocal, palimpsestic, personal, autobiographical, documentary, analytic, essayistic diary-novel. This is not the encyclopedic form of the authoritative summa but something that has switched the poles of authority—an encyclopedia with its categories unformed, its indices unmade, its alphabets unorganized, without fixed grids of judgment, exclusion, concision, or categorization. Anna has found that to write fiction as it was once written would constitute a premature resolution of conflict, confining contradictions rather than releasing them the length and breadth of the work. Narrative based on nostalgia, on manipulative transpositions, on small-minded, riskless reaches into the expressive are obsessively set forth and rejected. Thus the novel is an encyclopedia of the critique of narrative and hegemonic orders. …

The fictional art work, distinctively described in these works, has a poetics of domestic values—nurturance, community building, inclusiveness, empathetic care.44 The poetics of the fictional art work begins with its ethics, not its aesthetics; it has its source in human ties and its end in human change. The work is described as having a clear ethical function and is not severed from the personal or social needs that are its source—for example, the mourning or rage expressed by the characters. This art work can only be made with an immersion in personal vulnerability, a breakdown, or a breakthrough, as in Gilman, Lessing, and Atwood, or as an articulation of long-repressed grief or love, usually the experiences of a daughter in relation to parents, as in Woolf and Olsen.45 This saturation in buried, even taboo emotions, first resisted, then sought, and finally claimed, is the preferred process by which the fictional artist comes into her own. Since this art work annuls aesthetic distance and is based on vulnerability and need, it is very like “life.”46

But the work is not exclusively expressive in its poetics. While often begun in situations of psychic desperation, these works are not satisfied simply to confess this fact, or to transform the fictional artist through her knowledge. In contradistinction to purely expressive theories of art, here sincerity is valued because it clarifies the ethical and social bases of the experience. Expression, in the fictional art works, is informed with critical purpose. Anna Wulf's breakdown, the subject of her most dramatic and fructifying notebook, is a decisive rupture with the paradigms of intellectual and emotional order in which she once believed. Eva's cantata begins in hostile anger and ends with a vision of social and revolutionary hope. The hero of “The Yellow Wallpaper” resists the definitional grids that imprison her double in the wallpaper.

The depicted art work is charged with the conditions of its own creation. Maintaining self-reflexive emphasis on the process of creation, this art work is not presented as an artifact free from the stresses and limits of the time in which it was formed. Instead, it is both fabricated from and immersed in the temporal, social, and psychic conditions of muted female life that we are compelled to understand in reading the work: interruptions, blockage, long censorship, derision, self-hatred, internalized repression. Nor does the art work seek the status of a masterpiece or great work, which will be severed from its everyday connections, stored in a museum or gallery, published or sold. The imaginary art work takes its cue from the artisanal experience, in which the object is made for use and has its existence in the realm of necessity, as an expression of ties or needs. Art defined in this fashion is not a property dependent upon its market price and the level of rarity or specialness that it has attained. The fictional art work, drawing on the artisanal, not only expresses its connection with the parental or maternal handicrafter but also registers a protest against art as a salable commodity. The thing precious only because it is hoarded, saved, unconsumed is rejected. Instead, craft (gardening, cooking, storytelling, singing, quilting) and art (painting, sculpting, writing) are viewed as variant parts of one spectrum of human production. This pointed fusion of craft and high art makes a critical assessment of the value placed on activities elevated above the material and conflictual realm.47

The division between high and decorative arts is a historical construct, not a universal, and it can be linked to the view of the artist as a separated, isolated genius. By inserting the artist in a social group, the family—but a family reconceptualized so that parental and especially maternal ties are a nurturing source, not an impediment—and by structuring an ethics of emotional service, the idea of the artist as social outcast is contested.

So the fictional art works are carefully built to end what Theodor Adorno calls “the pure autonomy of mind” in the relation of art to culture. Culture—high bourgeois culture—“originates in the radical separation of mental and physical work. It is from this separation, the original sin, as it were, that culture draws its strength.”48 William Morris also points to the historical specificity of the moment when “the great and lesser arts” separate, the one to become “ingenious toys” for the rich, the other to become trivial and unintelligent.49 It is clear that the fusion of the artisanal and high art has been an analytic dream for radical thinkers. The ideological importance of this fusion for solving the narrative dilemma of role and vocation is apparent when one remembers the completely binary alternatives of the nineteenth-century texts—either domestic life or artistic life. The twentieth-century female Künstlerromane solve that binary opposition between work and domesticity by having the fictional art work function as a labor of love, a continuation of the artisanal impulse of a thwarted parent, an emotional gift for family, child, self, or others. This may or may not be realistic, but it is a compelling narrative solution to a prime contradiction. In their artist novels, women writers present a radical oppositional aesthetics criticizing dominance.


  1. Ed. note. In an introductory chapter, DuPlessis argues that prior to the twentieth century, gender ideologies are inscribed in two primary, sometimes overlapping, plots: the romance, or love plot, and the quest, or Bildung, involving the character's growth and development. Twentieth-century women's fiction writes multiple, complex plots displacing the conventional endings for women protagonists in either marriage or death. “Künstlerromane” means, literally, “artist-novels.” These are novels in which the artist's development is central.

  2. There are two parallel discussions of the Künstlerroman. Grace Stewart discusses mother-daughter ties as “often central to the novel of the artist as heroine,” but focuses on their negative character. A New Mythos: The Novel of the Artist as Heroine, 1877-1977 (St. Alban's, Vt.: Eden Press Women's Publications, Inc., 1979), p. 41. In another consideration of this topic, Susan Gubar argues that two scripts felt to have been absolute alternatives—artistic production and biological reproduction—are joined in twentieth-century women's Künstlerromane, allowing female images of creativity to dominate the works. “The Birth of the Artist as Heroine: (Re)production, the Künstlerroman Tradition, and the Fiction of Katherine Mansfield,” in The Representation of Women in Fiction, ed. Carolyn G. Heilbrun and Margaret R. Higonnet (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1983): pp. 19-59.

  3. A note on terminology. “Female artist” will refer only to the fictional figure; the person who invented the narrative is a woman writer. “Art work” will mean the imaginary text, painting, or performance described, the production of the female artist.

  4. Janet Wolff, The Social Production of Art (London: Macmillan Press, Ltd., 1981), p. 27.

  5. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh and Other Poems, introduced by Cora Kaplan (London: The Woman's Press, Ltd., 1978).

  6. Although, by its focus on closure, my interpretation emphasizes the relations of romance, this work, like Jane Eyre, has a powerful subtext of female love-hate relations among the women of all three social classes. Especially the tie between Marian Earle (“a monumental Madonna”) and Aurora is discussed by Nina Auerbach, Woman and the Demon: The Life of a Victorian Myth (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982), p. 151.

  7. Cora Kaplan is admirable on this point, as on many others in her introduction.

  8. In another reading, it is heterosexual romance that becomes a metaphor for creative identity. For Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi, Romney is first the interior, self-hating critic and then a “dramatic projection of … blind faith” in oneself.” “Aurora Leigh: The Vocation of the Woman Poet,” Victorian Poetry 19, 1 (Spring 1981): 48.

  9. But this was also a shocking affirmation, for it violated “the social and public silence of women after puberty which was central to the construction of femininity in the nineteenth century.” The Marxist Feminist Literature Collective, “Women's Writing: Jane Eyre, Shirley, Villette, Aurora Leigh,” in 1848: The Sociology of Literature, ed. Francis Barker (Colchester: University of Essex, 1978), p. 202.

  10. Elaine Showalter, A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1977), p. 152.

  11. Fanny Fern [Mrs. Sarah Payson (Willis) Parton], Ruth Hall: A Domestic Tale of the Present Time (New York: Mason Brothers, 1855), p. 333.

  12. Rebecca Harding Davis, “The Wife's Story,” The Atlantic Monthly XIV, 81 (July 1864): 1-19.

  13. Kate Chopin, The Awakening (New York: Capricorn Books, 1964).

  14. Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, The Story of Avis (Boston: James R. Osgood & Co., 1877), p. 126.

  15. Indeed, in a notable conduct book, a sister writer deplores Phelps's sympathetic depiction of Avis's dilemma, insisting that even an “emancipated schoolgirl” still needs practical knowledge of womanly, domestic tasks. With sharply selective citation, she makes Avis's complaints seem self-indulgent. Marion Harland, Eve's Daughters, or Common Sense for Maid, Wife and Mother (New York: J. R. Anderson and H. S. Allen, 1982), p. 326.

  16. The same kind of ending is visible in Rebecca Harding Davis, Earthen Pitchers (1873-74), which offers similar motifs: the ruining of female talent, the insensitive but ill husband (here he is blind), the heritage in the child.

  17. Phelps was presenting a compensatory analysis of her own family. Her exacting and punctilious father had, in her view, stifled the ambitions and spirit of her talented mother, a writer, whose name the eight-year-old Elizabeth took in tribute after her mother's untimely death. The bond between Avis and her daughter takes on an extra dimension in the biographical context, in which the author, a daughter, did feel she was completing her mother's thwarted work. For the biographical information, see Christine Stansell, “Elizabeth Stuart Phelps: A Study in Female Rebellion,” in Women: an Issue, ed. Lee Edwards, Mary Heath and Lisa Baskin (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1972): pp. 239-56. About this, Phelps wrote, “Her last book and her last baby came together, and killed her. She lived one of those rich and piteous lives such as only gifted women know; torn by the civil war of the dual nature which can be given to women only.” Cited from Phelps [Ward], Chapters from a Life, 1897, in the Afterword by Mari Jo Buhle and Florence Howe to The Silent Partner (1871) (Old Westbury: The Feminist Press, 1983), p. 362.

  18. Because Avis cites Aurora Leigh, it is likely that the subject of her painting was inspired by these lines in Barrett Browning: “Or perhaps again, / In order to discover the Muse—the Sphinx, / the melancholy desert must sweep round, / Behind you as before” (AL, 70).

  19. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper (1899) (New York: The Feminist Press, 1973).

  20. That powerful and loving doctor/lawgiver is a recurrent figure in women's writing, as in their lives, for he sums up the fascinated ambivalence of male culture toward the ambitious female as speaking subject: Freud and “Dora”; S. Weir Mitchell and Gilman; Otto Rank and Anaïs Nin; Freud and H. D. He recurs, transposed, in the Sir William Bradshaw—Septimus Smith tie in Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway.

  21. Ed. note. In anthropological thought, as brought into feminist literary criticism by Elaine Showalter, a “muted group” is a group silenced by its lack of access to social power.

  22. “That one sex should have monopolized all human activities, called them ‘man's work,’ and managed them as such, is what is meant by the phrase ‘Androcentric Culture.’” Referring to the difficulty of even naming “our androcentric culture” in a convincing way, Gilman remarks, “It is no easy matter to deny or reverse a universal assumption.” The Man-Made World, or, Our Androcentric Culture (New York: Charlton Company, 1911), pp. 25, 21.

  23. Raymond Williams, “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory,” New Left Review 82 (November-December 1973): 9.

  24. A veiled citation from ibid.

  25. The gloss is Emily Dickinson, 435. “Much Madness is divinest Sense—To a discerning Eye— / Much Sense—the starkest Madness— / 'Tis the Majority / In this, as All, prevail— / Assent—and you are same— / Demur—you're straightway dangerous— / And handled with a Chain—” The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1960), p. 209.

  26. As early motherhood and the strains of domesticity, added to a well-meaning but awkward marriage, overtaxed the ambitious Gilman and contributed to her breakdown, it was not more injunctions to domesticity and femininity that she needed. But this is what S. Weir Mitchell offered his female clients. Mitchell's treatment reflected nineteenth-century attitudes, inducing conformity with the duties of womanhood rather than exploring the conflict and anger within the individual. This point is made by Mary A. Hill, Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Making of a Radical Feminist, 1860-1896 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1980), p. 149. In S. Weir Mitchell's home city there is, near 16th on Walnut Street, a plaque commemorating his accomplishments as “physician, physiologist, poet, man of letters” adding, “He taught us the use of rest for the nervous.”

  27. Gilman, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: An Autobiography (1935) (New York: Harper and Row, 1975), pp. 96, 121.

  28. After her own first marriage, she sank into a profound depression, which lifted almost the instant she separated from that husband, but whose effects lasted in what she perceived as a compromise of her abilities. Earlier, Gilman has seen her parents' marriage as “a long-drawn, triple tragedy,” and said “mother's life was one of the most painfully thwarted I have ever known” (Living, p. 8). Her mother was a pianist who sold the instrument to pay her bills; again the thwarted mother as artist motivates the achievements of the daughter. Gilman felt that it was possible to combine marriage, motherhood, and vocation, but in her specific case, “it was not right.” This may stem from the self-denial and deprivation to which she subjected herself.

  29. Alice Walker, “In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens,” in In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983), p. 241.

  30. In Alice Walker's story “Everyday Use,” the maternal heritage of quilts belongs to the down-home daughter, who will use them and who has the skills to replenish the stock, not to the urban chic daughter, who, discovering her rural roots, wants to hang the quilts on the wall and alienate them into quaintness. The story is a revisionary telling of the Jacob-Esau story, in which the matriarch works to equalize the “portion” of both sisters, when the more favored quick child has schemed to take part of that heritage although she does not honor it.

  31. Where the writer is also concerned to show the artist completing the work of the thwarted father, the father will come from a historically marginalized, nondominant group. For example, in Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook, the parental couple is transposed to Mother Sugar, Anna's analyst, and Charlie Themba, a (correctly) paranoid African leader. This use of parental figures often involves a distinct rewriting or an idealization, for example, using characters who are surrogate parents or grandparents, generationally displaced, or otherwise reassembled.

  32. Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (1927) (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc., 1955).

  33. It is striking how, in Moments of Being, the maternal and the visionary moments are both expressed in the image of a translucent dome of light: the “globular, semi-transparent” early ecstatic sensations, the “arch of glass” that domed Paddington Station, burning and glowing with light. Moments of Being, ed. Jeanne Schulkind (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976), pp. 66, 93. So Mrs. Ramsey at that preoedipal moment of yearning (associated with both hieroglyphs and bees) ends as “the shape of a dome” (80).

  34. Virginia Woolf, A Writer's Diary, ed. Leonard Woolf (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1954), pp. 102, 105.

  35. How to achieve this ending was the subject of Woolf's entry on 5 September 1926, which interestingly reveals that in the original conception, Lily and her picture were secondary, and “summing up [Mr.] R's character” seemed to be primary. The shift from a patrifocal narrative to one focused on balance between the generations and on the daughter's vision of the mother serves as further evidence of the thesis of this chapter (Writer's Diary, p. 98).

  36. Margaret Atwood, Surfacing (Ontario: Paperjacks, 1973).

  37. Christina Stead, The Man Who Loved Children (New York: Avon Books, 1966), p. 491. The book contains an imbedded art work—Louie's play, in an invented language, which depicts to her father a distinct, bitter message about the tie between Snake Man and his daughter: “You are killing me” (378).

  38. See Jane Flax, “The Conflict Between Nurturance and Autonomy in Mother-Daughter Relationships and Within Feminism,” and Judith Kegan Gardiner, “A Wake for Mother: The Maternal Deathbed in Women's Fiction,” which discusses how “mothers in death embody the negative aspects of female personality and role,” both in Feminist Studies 4, 2 (June 1978): 171-89; 146-65.

  39. Tillie Olsen, “Tell Me a Riddle,” in Tell Me a Riddle (New York: Dell Publishing Company, 1960), p. 86.

  40. The term Sprechstimme (literally “speech voice”) is a distinctive form of writing for the voice in twentieth-century music. Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians defines it as a “kind of vocal declamation which partakes of the characteristics of both song and speech.”

  41. The same multiple populist inspiration, double artist figures, mother-daughter and father-daughter ties, and proliferating works of art occur in Margaret Laurence's The Diviners (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1974). By stories, ballads, and novels, the politically outcast Canadian strains—Celtic, French, and Indian—are synthesized and become oppositional to the powerful British minority.

  42. Tillie Olsen, Silences (New York: Delta, 1979).

  43. Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook (New York: Ballantine Books, 1968).

  44. In her analysis of artist novels, Gubar calls this “revisionary domestic mythology” (The Representation of Women in Fiction, p. 39).

  45. The particularly privileged mother-daughter connection for creative women was verified in Bell Gale Chevigny's “Daughters Writing: Toward a Theory of Women's Biography,” Feminist Studies 9, 1 (Spring 1983): 79-102.

  46. Judith Kegan Gardiner corroborates this connection between art and life, tracing it to fluid ego boundaries in women's psychological identity. “On Female Identity and Writing by Women,” Critical Inquiry 8, 2 (Winter 1981): 347-61. In considering stances plausible for a feminist poetics, Lawrence Lipking discusses several issues that this study has also put forth: the pressure on women of an injunction to silence, the personal, rather than objective, stake women have in analyses made of them, and therefore the lack of aesthetic distance and the attempt to build a poetics and a criticism based on affiliation, not authority. “Aristotle's Sister: A Poetics of Abandonment,” Critical Inquiry 10, 1 (September 1983): 61-81.

  47. Herbert Marcuse, “The Affirmative Character of Culture,” Negations: Essays in Critical Theory (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968), pp. 95-96. One might fruitfully compare the black aesthetic, as enunciated by Gwendolyn Brooks in her introduction to Jump Bad, an anthology of black poetry from Chicago. “These black writers do not care if you call their product Art or Peanuts. Artistic survival, appointment to Glory, appointment to Glory among the anointed elders, is neither their crevice [sic] nor creed. They give to the ghetto gut. Ghetto gut receives. Ghetto giver's gone.” Report from Part One (Detroit: Broadside Press, 1972), p. 195.

  48. Theodor W. Adorno, “Cultural Criticism and Society,” Prisms (London: Neville Spearman, 1967), p. 26.

  49. William Morris, “The Lesser Arts” (also given under the title “The Decorative Arts,” 1877), in The Political Writings of William Morris, ed. A. L. Morton (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1973), p. 32.

Ursula R. Mahlendorf (essay date 1985)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6162

SOURCE: Mahlendorf, Ursula R. “Kate Chopin's The Awakening1: Engulfment and Diffusion.” In The Wellsprings of Literary Creation: An Analysis of Male and Female “Artist Stories” from the German Romantics to American Writers of the Present, pp. 147-59. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1985.

[In the following essay, Mahlendorf considers how Kate Chopin's The Awakening was perhaps the first feminist künstlerroman and how the mother-figure is the possible antithesis of the artist-hero.]

Up to this point of our inquiry, we have examined the patterns of creativity which authors from the Romantics to Franz Kafka ascribe to the heroes of their narratives about artists. Upon these heroes they project fears and wishes which concern their own creativity. The problem often involves their own survival as creative persons and the work turned into a self exploration. Often they attribute to their heroes their own aesthetic practices and theories. The recurrent pattern is that of the quest as Harry Slochower has described it in his Mythopoesis.2 On the quest, the artist's creative process is activated by sudden, illuminating breakthroughs, experiences which contain elements of the heroes' unresolved self or oedipal problems. These breakthrough experiences open the floodgates of the primary process, unsettle the protagonist, and by casting him into a different environment, mood, time or cast of characters, nearly shatter his self integration. The experience is mysterious, usually misunderstood, sometimes terrifying and sometimes intensely pleasurable, always startling. All artists deal with these experiences by treating some aspect of them in their art. Why authors deal thus with the return of the repressed, what ego resources they mobilize, what histories they assign to different heroes, etc., all these factors vary. But there is always a basic pattern of an oedipal (or pseudo-oedipal) conflict in which a mother figure is the inspiring muse and in which a prohibiting father figure's blessing needs to be won by the creative labor.

When we consider artist stories by women writers about women artists we should expect to find a similar pattern.3 The nuclear oedipal problem, however, should be of the female oedipal constellation. As we should expect, it is not simply a reversal of the male pattern.4 There is, to be sure, a fatherly muse (e.g. George Sand's Corambe).5 And the relationship to the father is essential for the woman's identification with intellectual-spiritual goals and often the girl's only access to the education needed for artistic pursuits. Based on the rough life history of 213 women writers, Elaine Showalter in A Literature of Their Own, from a sociological perspective, comes to a similar conclusion: “A factor that recurs with remarkable frequency in the background of these women (writers) is the identification with, and dependence upon, the father; and either the loss of, or alienation from, the mother.”6 And, to be sure the crucial, complex, and doubly dangerous relationship in the woman artist stories is that to the mother figure/mother figures. It is on the problem of the mother figures in Kate Chopin's The Awakening that I wish to concentrate.


In looking at the work of some ninety women authors in the major Western literatures, I found only a few artist stories, almost all written in this century about performing artists. Up to the present generation of German women writers, no women artist stories were written in German speaking countries. Why are there so few woman artist stories and why only of performing artists? The artist story depends on a publicly recognized professional ego identity—that of poet, painter, composer, etc. Such a public identity was closed to women till the turn of the century when the feminists made possible a publicized female identity. Moreover, the artist story deals with an intensely self-conscious ego, requires an “engagement with feeling and a cultivation of the ego.”7 Women, especially German women up to the present, were required by the culture to negate their individuality. As Kate Chopin puts it ironically, by training women “esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals” (10). The feminist writers, who did not thus negate their egos and who had sufficient self-consciousness (e.g. George Sand or George Eliot) probably neither could nor would expose the precious identity and undermine it by the harrowing self-doubt and threat of disintegration a writer faces in writing an artist story. Kate Chopin's Awakening, on many other accounts an astonishing work, is a first and most remarkable sample of the woman artist story. The coincidence of two factors may be responsible for the genre's first appearance on the American literary scene. The feminist movement was strongest in the United States during its earliest phases because of the decisive role women played in frontier society. By need the frontier woman had to develop a strong identity. In addition, in the 1880s literary life of St. Louis (as in literary America elsewhere) the tradition of the self-conscious, tormented artist of German Romanticism in its Nietzschean transformation found enough resonance to stimulate discussion of the problem of art versus life. Kate Chopin brought a further qualification to an occupation with the genre in that her French mother's family mediated the tradition of late 18th century intellectual feminism to her.8

Chopin indicates by the very name of her protagonist, Edna, i.e., Hebrew for rejuvenation, that the heroine experiences a regressive and revitalizing process. Her last name Pontellier (pons = bridge), is an echo of Nietzsche (man as a bridge to the overman), and suggests there is also a forward development. Edna's awakening takes place as she spends her summer vacation at the Gulf coast with her two small sons, a company of Creole friends, and her New Orleans businessman husband, who visits for weekends. Edna's awakening is, in Chopin's words, a realization of “her position in the universe as a human being” (14-15), a sensuous, emotional, and spiritual rejuvenation at age twenty-eight. The awakening leads her into a fantasy love of young Robert Lebrun, into a questioning of her role as wife, mother, and mistress of a bourgeois household, into exploring an identity of her own as an artist by studying painting, into a casual love-affair, and finally into a separation from husband, children and family. Her attempt at self-realization fails when she drowns herself by swimming out to sea.


Throughout the narrative Edna associates with two other women. The first is a professional pianist, Mademoiselle Reisz, whose name means charm or tear, an artist whose performance arouses “a fever of enthusiasm” (27) and whose likeness to the Romantic conception of the artist as child is ironically indicated by her diminutive size and by her fondness for chocolates. She is no longer young, “a disagreeable little woman” (26), misshapen, graceless, with no taste in dress and with an artificial bunch of violets always pinned to her hair. For Edna, the author, or any woman, she is no ego ideal but an ego horror. Nevertheless, she is the mistress of the artist's dilemma, the successful artist who is so frequently a counter figure to the failing artist hero of artist stories.

Adele Ratignolle is the second woman, who is the mother woman Edna is not. Her name meaning “root—source” indicates that she plays an important role in Edna's awakening as root, source and mother figure. Chopin portrays her ironically as a “sensuous Madonna” (13) with “spun-gold hair, … blue eyes, … lips that pouted, … a little stout” (10). Edna's interaction with both women is essential to an insight into the sources and the failure of her attempt at human and artistic growth.9 The splitting of the mother figure into two aspects of the maternal reveals Edna's ambivalence to mothers and corresponds to a male artist's characteristic split of the father image into a good and a bad father. Mademoiselle Reisz is a phallic mother who entices Edna into a fantasy, while Madame Ratignolle is the constraining mother.

Through two pregnancies and painful childbirths, through the daily and poor managing of a prosperous household, Edna's life has been a comfortable, somnambulist conformity to middle class southern mores, in the manner of Madame Bovary. During adolescence, to be sure, she indulged in fantasies of passionate love for unobtainable heroes, but at her marriage she resigned them, finding refuge from their “excessive and fictitious warmth” (20), in her fondness for her husband and in a dignified place in reality. Her husband, addicted to club and business, has not insisted on closeness with her and neither have her children.

Edna's reserve gradually breaks down during that relaxed summer at the shores of the gulf in the society of the Creoles with their “entire absence of prudery,” their “freedom of expression” about matters of affection and sex, in their being “like one large family” (11). The relaxation of limits, the oceanic fusion with others and with nature, dominates the first section of the narrative in the ever present image of and allusions to the sea: “The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander. … The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace” (15). The personification (touch, embrace) makes the sea into an all-mother. At this point of the narrative Edna is undifferentiated, vague, uncertain of her feelings, and ambivalent about what is happening to her. Expressions like “she could not have told why” (14) or she “never knew precisely what to make of it” (13) are characteristic of her.

Edna seeks for a center in all this vagueness and confusion (which we might liken to an infantile stage of undifferentiatedness) and finds it in the motherly and solid Madame Ratignolle who protects her (the incident where she warns Robert), who teaches her (the incident where she shows her how to sew for the children), who listens to her confessions (the incident where she reveals her childhood world to the older woman), and who is the subject of her first attempt to express herself artistically (the incident where she paints Adele's picture). How little Edna can differentiate herself from the mother figure appears in her failure to achieve a likeness, for to make a portrait of someone means after all to see the other as other. Edna, despite “natural aptitude” and “a certain ease and freedom” with which she handles the brushes (13), cannot produce a recognizable likeness of Adele. However, the intimacy with Madame Ratignolle over painting and confession, “the subtle bond” between the two women, “which we might as well call love” (15) increases Edna's openness and diffusion. At this point in the narrative it is only in connection with the sea that this openness appears as a source of danger. In the sea the soul can “lose itself … in abysses of solitude” (15).

The opening up begun by environment and by her love for Madame Ratignolle is completed by Mademoiselle Reisz who, one evening, plays some Chopin preludes for Edna. It is surely not mere chance that the author attributes the final breakthrough experience to the good offices of her namesake composer. Edna's previous experience of music has been visual, conventional allegories of emotion (that is secondary process elaborations); Mademoiselle's music tears away the veil of images, Schopenhauer's veil of Maja, and opens her to primary process: “the very passions themselves were aroused within her soul;” and now note the language which describes the music's action on her, “swaying it, lashing it, as the waves daily beat upon her splendid body” (27). Her awakened emotions and the waves of the sea fuse, and it is therefore not surprising that she, who all through the summer could not learn to swim because a “certain ungovernable dread hung about her when in the water” (28) at that evening's swimming party can trust the element, can swim and “control the working of her body and her soul” (28) in the water.10

Edna uses her newly found mastery in the element in a way which remains characteristic for her. Rather than stay with the group of friends cavorting in the water, she scorns their closeness. She wishes to swim to “where no woman had swum before” (28). This means Edna uses her newly found mastery and control over her body to get away from closeness with others. And she directs herself to achievement (where no woman had swum before). It is not in competition with males; her achievement is to move her away from the others who represent the family and ultimately the mother. While in the maternal element, she exploits the element to affirm herself. The case of Mademoiselle Reisz' use of art shows us that this, for the woman artist, is the successful and productive way of managing the maternal element.


Edna diverts the energy released by her awakening into a quest for a lover, but her love for Robert quickly turns into fantasy in the Edenic dreamlike adventures of their day together after the awakening. Moreover, as his last name Lebrun indicates, with its echo of the 17th century French court painter Charles le Brun, Robert is the artistic alter ego of Edna, the representation of her artistic interest and of little importance as a character in his own right. When Robert leaves for Mexico, Edna's artistic inclination becomes independent of him and flourishes. She returns to town where she employs her energies in an exploration of her position, of her talents, and of her environment. Her earlier dabbling in sketching becomes an attempt at self-definition but also a search for and gratification of a fusion experience. It becomes an activity which parallels her swimming and is spoken of in similar language. Her artistic experience contrasts with Mademoiselle Reisz' professionalism on the one hand and with Adele Ratignolle's amateur piano practice “on account of the children” (25) on the other. Like other artist heroes, Edna is unaware that her attempts to paint like her other explorations are undertaken to make egosyntonic the emotions and sensuousness released by the awakening experience. Edna shares with Mademoiselle Reisz and with other artist figures a restlessness, intrusiveness, love of motion (physical, emotional, and intellectual) which contrasts sharply with Madame Ratignolle's placidity, and domesticity. To appreciate the difference between Edna and Mademoiselle Reisz, let us examine how the professional artist uses her artistic gift.

From the beginning of their acquaintance, Mademoiselle Reisz has played for Edna at Robert's invitation. It is to feel in touch with Robert, therefore, that Edna goes to see the pianist in town. Mademoiselle Reisz deliberately fuels the passion of the lovers. Her play with and for Edna during Edna's visits to her studio is a fine example of skill in artistic seduction and of symbolic fusion with the seduced. Let us observe the sequence in which she arranges her “play.” She raises Edna's expectations about a letter she has received from Robert, hinting that the letter is all about her, yet refusing to show it. She prepares her performance by mentioning that Robert likes her rendering of Chopin's Impromptu and has asked her to play it for Edna. She flatters Edna, wins her trust and solicits a confession, challenges the confession and then hands the letter over and begins to play. She settles into the performance with improvisations of her own, glides into Chopin, melts the Impromptu “with its soulful and poignant longing” into “the quivering love notes of Isolde's song” (64), and fades back into the Chopin and rounds out with her own improvisation. Her success at emotional manipulation is confirmed for her by the tear-stained letter she finds after Edna's leaving and by Edna's return visits. Mademoiselle Reisz feeds on the lovers' fantasy, makes herself part of it by her music, and manipulates it and them.

Both Edna and Mademoiselle Reisz seek a symbolic fusion experience; Reisz, however, asserts herself in it. The difference between them appears in their respective attitudes to sea and water. Edna loves to swim once she has mastered the skill; Mademoiselle Reisz never goes to bathe all summer. Reisz has, as the narrator jokingly comments, “the natural aversion for water … believed to accompany the artistic temperament” (48). Mademoiselle Reisz, however, does use water; she uses it for boiling the chocolate with which she regales herself and Edna. But she would not dream (especially not dream) of swimming in it. The artist knows that she needs extraordinary ego resources to help her maintain mastery in the coveted fusion experience; such resources as self-assertiveness, honesty about her own (and others') motives and what she calls “the courageous soul” (63). But the artist must also have such defenses as Mademoiselle's self-limitation. She, after all, exposes herself to very limited experience—to emotional stimulation from Robert and Edna only, and that in small doses. Hers is an economical passion which she administers in narrow confines indeed while Edna's, appropriately symbolized by bird flight and sea image, is unlimited. Mademoiselle Reisz knowing the risks Edna takes, appreciates the difference between them when she says in warning, the “bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings” (82). Edna cannot profit from Mademoiselle Reisz' insight because she can neither respect nor emulate her. In fact, Edna lacks a positive, purposeful human influence.

A word needs to be said of the relationships to her parents which Chopin attributes to Edna, a history which is admirably consistent with Edna's psychological liabilities. Edna is the second of three daughters whose mother died when she was quite small. Her older sister assumed the role of the mother and must have restrained her sisters in the narrow, traditional female role. She was, unable to provide her younger siblings with the warmth they needed (Edna's reserve derives from lack of mothering) and with the guidance they required (Edna's constant fighting with her younger sister speaks for lack of adult control over the children). Edna is a person still much in need of mothering and hence finds it impossible to care consistently for her own children. This need makes her susceptible to the domination of mother figures; it inspires her with a strong yearning for and yet simultaneous fear of human closeness. Edna's father was not able to compensate his daughters for their loss. He is a contradictory person. Though a stern Presbyterian, he is self-indulgent (his toddies), and interested in appearances only (his padded shoulders). Though he supports Edna's artistic inclination (it confirms his excellence as a father), he has not provided her with consistent and disciplined purpose. As appears from his gambling at the races and the resulting loss of his Kentucky farm lands, he has his own fantasy under poor control and can therefore not provide Edna with a sufficiently strong drive toward self-control and mastery.


What is it then, in the events of the story, that is responsible for Edna's inability to deal with the awakening experience? Let us return to the beginning of Edna's awakening and her relationship to the maternal Madame Ratignolle, of whom, by the way, she sees more in the novel than of any other character (nine times to Robert's eight). The themes of Madame's pregnancy and impending delivery dominate the novel as much as Edna's self-realization. The growth of the child in the womb is paralleled by the increase in Edna's sense of self, independence and expressiveness. The birth of the child coincides with the death of Edna's self. Just before the birth, Edna seemingly is at the height of her powers; she has won Robert (her initiative), she has won commissions for paintings (103), and she has claimed the right to her own person. “I give myself where I choose” (107), she tells Robert. Nevertheless, in actuality she has grown increasingly isolated, with the departure of her father, her husband and her children. She is therefore all the more sensitive and exposed to the only tie with reality which she has, namely with Madame Ratignolle. Kate Chopin depicts with fine psychological perceptiveness this gradual loss of anchoring in the social reality which is characteristic of the life experience of a suicide.

Edna is tied to Madame Ratignolle. How strongly so appears from her immediate response to the latter's call to be with her during the impending delivery of her fourth child. Edna goes, even though she is called from a long awaited meeting with Robert, a meeting she does not want to leave. Once at the Ratignolle's she feels useless, even in the way, yet she does not return to Robert. And a long and torturous delivery it is. Unlike Madame Ratignolle who obviously luxuriates in her pregnancies, Edna, having been unawakened emotionally during her marriage, has not felt the union and fusion experience of conception and pregnancy, has not felt biological creativity, nor the joy over a child born. She has only experienced, during her deliveries, pain, stupor, anesthesia, and an awakening to an alien life to be cared for. She states her detachment candidly. A “new life … added to the great unnumbered multitude of souls that come and go” (109), she muses about the children she has given life to. Madame Ratignolle insists all through the delivery that Edna stay. We know from a conversation of the two women on the preceding day, that Madame disapproves of Edna's bid for freedom and wishes to recall her to her duty. Her making Edna stay through the birth ordeal and her twice repeated, “Think of the children” (109) at its end are intended as an object lesson to Edna, an object lesson that says to Edna: This is what it means to be a woman: pain and suffering and sacrifice for the children. This at least is how Edna understands it when she accepts the lesson “like a death wound” (110).

To experience birth is, of course, in a sense to experience the original trauma of rejection and separation. It is in this sense that Edna experiences Madame Ratignolle's words: they are a total rejection of the artist Edna has become and wants to be. Given Edna's experience of childbearing, unrewarding as it has been, Madame's having her watch the “scene [of] torture” (109) and then condemn her to that role amounts to a deathblow. Edna loses, at the Ratignolle childbirth, the mother who was the source of her awakening. With having renounced her children earlier and with Robert (who represents her art) being gone when she returns to her own quarters, Edna is left without recourse to deal with her death wound. Hence her lapse into shock, for during the last pages of the novella she has ceased to feel. She retreats ever deeper into fantasy, into a fantasy in which the ocean represents the unlimited and unlimiting mother (hence the narrator's repetition of the earlier sentence evoking the enticement of the element, the “touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace,” 113). Lost in this fantasy, Edna does not feel the cold of the water but only the “soft embrace” she wishes to feel.

There is, of course, and that is much like in other artist stories, a third artist in the story, namely the author-narrator. Her perspective is omniscient. She is a distinct character, who tells of her sympathies (they are with Edna), who expends her irony on all characters, and who identifies mostly with Edna. The narrator is conscious of the literary tradition of the artist story, of Schopenhauer, Wagner, and Nietzsche,11 of contemporary feminism, of the historical situation of the Reconstructionist South.12 But above all, she is in complete control of her craft. Since she contains both artists of the story, she triumphs over the limitations of the one and the tragic downfall of the other.


Kate Chopin's own situation as an artist was like Edna's and yet very different. Like Edna, Kate was married and had children. Unlike Edna, Kate Chopin was a resourceful person, taking to writing after her husband's death with the intent to supplement family income and to counteract depression.13 Unlike Edna, Kate had a strong and positive father identification, with a father who died when she was a precocious five year old. The memory of her father was kept alive by the kind of instruction in literature and thought which she was given by her French maternal great-grandmother. Like Edna, Kate Chopin, during the years of her marriage, concentrated on the life of her family. Unlike Edna, Kate maintained a strong and steady commitment to intellectual activities and writing. Devotion to school, to writing and to intellectual pursuits freed Kate from the depressions she suffered in her teens after the loss of her great-grandmother and her favorite brother. In her thirties, after the deaths of her husband and her mother, she once again turned to writing, participated in the intellectual life of St. Louis, and published steadily. During the 1890's she built up a considerable reputation as an author and there is in her stories from 1889-1899 a gradual gain in narrative mastery and in boldness of theme. Increasingly she wrote from a frank, sensual and even sexual female perspective. At its publication in 1899, The Awakening, with its outspoken and sympathetic portrayal of a woman's relinquishment of her role as mother and wife to develop herself as an artist, met with general condemnation as being morbid and obscene. Personal rejection by friends and acquaintances added to the injury. Nevertheless, Kate Chopin continued with some writing but—and this is the shame—it was writing with the spirit gone out of it, a few stories for adolescent girls' magazines like “Charlie.” Early and repeated loss made Kate Chopin sensitive to the rejection of her reading public. The severity of their judgment silenced her independent voice.14 She died a few years later, in 1905, at fifty-two, of a brain hemorrhage. In a sense, Kate Chopin's readers did to her (even though less dramatically) what Madame Ratignolle did to Edna.


Let us provisionally note some differences between artist stories by male writers and Kate Chopin. Different roles are played by parental figures in the quest. For male heroes, the key incident of the story is an offense against the male authority figure. The heroine, in contrast, is constrained by a female authority figure, or caused to regress. There is greater preoccupation by the woman artist with fusion and symbolic fusion experience; this is what the female artist seeks in creativity and this is what she seeks to master. There is greater danger to the woman artist of passivity and regression. As we have seen at the beginning of our essay, the heroine begins (for Kate Chopin) with a weak ego and sense of self. She is easily tempted into fantasy and unreality (via Mademoiselle Reisz), or her ego's drive to self-realization, its self-directed forward drive, is easily curtailed as it is by Madame Ratignolle, and the ego driven back to earlier preoedipal stages.15 Without internal and external checks against the backward regressive movement initiated by the constraining mother, the constraining mother becomes the engulfing mother. Under her dominion, form, expression, art, consciousness and self are dissolved and in her as oceanic mother life itself ceases. There is another difference; the male artist also seeks fusion experience with the maternal element but he sees it his main task to gain mastery over and to differentiate himself from a father. And his work of art is a symbolic recompense, an atonement to the father for his desire for merging. The woman's work of art as seen by Chopin is neither an atonement nor a recompense. It is an attempt to transcend the fusion experience and therefore its dangers by embodying it in form and by expressing it; it is an attempt to transcend the constraining and engulfing mother. The dangers which men and women writers encounter in their quest are different. The male artist encounters a violent father figure who threatens to punish his transgression violently and who sets clear and decisive limits. As punishing superego, the threatening father can and often does destroy the artist son. The constraining mother of the woman artist story is the equivalent of the threatening father but her anger at the daughter's striving is not overtly violent nor are the limits she sets clearly defined. Her diffuse anger leads to silence, negation of self, depression. Finally, in transcending the fusion experience the artist-son is helped by his identification with the father as representative of mastery, achievement in reality, forward direction. This identification is supported by both parents and the culture. A woman artist also needs identification with a representative of mastery to transcend the fusion experience, but it is an identification which neither the mother nor the culture easily tolerates. Yet this is what she needs if she is to deal successfully as an artist with her artistic capacity for diffusion of ego boundaries. She fails as an artist, as Edna does, if she does not have such an identification and support. To have such a strong and positive father identification and to seek such support even in adult life from older males was Kate Chopin's own androgynous solution to the woman artist dilemma. Mademoiselle Reisz', the phallic woman's solution, is another, less attractive possibility for safety from the engulfing mother; it is bought at the price of severe self-limitation and restriction of life. There are of course other possibilities of dealing with artistic experience by women and we will develop these from the analysis of another more recent woman artist story, Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar. The existence of mother-daughter teams of artists like Mary Woolstonecraft-Shelley and Mary Shelley or like Sophie de la Roche who raised Bettina Brentano makes us hope that mothers who do not restrain their daughters from spiritual explorations do not hold the terror of the engulfing mother.


  1. The text will be quoted from Kate Chopin: The Awakening. An Authoritative Text. Contexts. Criticism. Edited by Margaret Culley (New York: Norton, 1976). This edition also provides a fine sampling of the most important criticism of the work, of its contexts, and of contemporary reaction to it.

  2. Harry Slochower, Mythopoesis: Mythic Patterns in the Literary Classics (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1970), cf. Introduction, 22 ff.

  3. Chopin's novella is the earliest in which a woman portrays herself as a woman artist. I found no examples of the woman artist story in German literature up to Christa Wolf's A Model Childhood, (1976). When I speak of women writers, I speak of Western women writers. Linda Huff, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman: The Writer as Heroine in American Literature (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1983), though citing a few earlier but artistically poorer examples, also finds the woman artist story rare.

  4. On the female oedipal situation, cf. Juliet Mitchel's Psychoanalysis and Feminism (New York: Vintage Books, 1975), Part I. Despite its simplified approach the book is helpful. On very early gender differentiation and its effect on later development cf. Herman Roiphe and Eleanor Galenson, Infantile Origins of Sexual Identity (New York: International Universities Press, 1981).

  5. George Sand's invention of a protective god figure finds its equivalent in the father gods of Lou Andreas Salomé, cf. Frau Lou: Nietzsche's Wayward Disciple, by Rudolph Binion (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968). In Willa Cather's novella “Flavia's Artists,” (1904), the industrialist husband of the mother figure Flavia plays the fatherly muse to the story's young heroine. In Kate Chopin's own life, her Austrian physician, Dr. Kolbenheyer, fulfilled the role of the fatherly muse, encouraging her to follow a writing career. Some feminists, Huff op. cit. dispute the male muse, seeing men as enemies to female self-development.

  6. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977), 61. Unfortunately, exact life histories of women writers are even more difficult to ascertain than they are for male writers. Of the 86 women writers I checked, the professions of their fathers were given for 55; they were all in either intellectual professions, or in occupations which allowed for intellectual interests. The implication made by the biographers was that the father provided the intellectual orientation and, before the availability of advanced education for women, the formal training of the women writers. In eleven cases out of the 86, the biographers state specifically that the relationship to the father was close. In most of the other biographies such closeness is implied. The mother's role in the life of the writer is remarked on in 15 cases; it is a complex relationship in all fifteen. Anne Sutherland Harris and Linda Nochlin in Women Artists: 1550-1950, Los Angeles County Museum of Art (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1976), point to a similar role of the father for women painters, whose painter fathers till the advent of the 20th century provided the only access to the craft. Ellen Moers, in Literary Women (New York: Doubleday, 1976) while also interested in the father's role, comments on the conflict with the mother—and increasingly on conflicts with brothers. Matina S. Horner, “Femininity and Successful Achievement: A Basic Inconsistency,” in Feminine Personality and Conflict, ed. by J. M. Bardwick et al. (Bermont, Cal.: Brooks/Cole Publishing, 1970), 45-74 summarizes the research on woman's internalized achievement restraints.

  7. Elaine Showalter, A Literature of Their Own, 22.

  8. The criticism dealing with The Awakening stressed the Flaubertian influence on the work (which is there) and hence overlooked that of German Romanticism. Kate Chopin read German with ease and, during her excellent high school education, read such authors as Goethe and E. T. A. Hoffmann in the original. Dr. Kolbenheyer, who was Austrian and who rekindled her intellectual interests after her husband's death, must have reawakened the early familiarity with German literature. He, in any case, introduced her to Schopenhauer and, no doubt, Nietzsche.

  9. Critical studies of the novella concentrate on Edna's male relationships and see her death in terms of them and/or the social situation. Cynthia Griffin Wolff's “Thanatos and Eros,” in Kate Chopin: The Awakening, op. cit., 206-217, delineates well Edna's regressive development and like Anne Goodwyn Jones' excellent Tomorrow is Another Day: Women Writers in the South, 1859-1936 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981) sees the other two women as alternative portraits to Edna. Wolff, neglecting the artist theme, belongs to the critics who regard Edna a failure, while Huff (op. cit.) and Jones find her a serious artist who, because of the incompatability of mother and artist roles, sacrifices herself (!) for her children.

  10. Culley's edition misprints this passage which we have corrected following page 908 of The Complete Works of Kate Chopin, II, ed. by Per Seyersted (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969).

  11. In his biography of Kate Chopin, Per Seyersted mentions the influence of Schopenhauer and Wagner but not of German romanticism, cf. Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969). The effect of Mademoiselle Reisz's music on Edna recalls Schopenhauer's theories, e.g., “She saw no pictures of solitude, of hope, of longing, or of despair. But the very passions themselves were aroused” (Chopin, 27). Schopenhauer: “music … expresses … the inner nature, the in-itself of all phenomena, … not … this or that particular and definite joy, … sorrow, or pain, … but joy, sorrow, pain, … themselves.” The World as Will and Idea, Vol. I, translated by R. B. Haldane and J. Kemp (New York: Routledge & Kegan, 1948), 338. The artist's yearning to escape suffering temporarily in his submersion in artistic work is Schopenhauerian. In making Edna a painter Kate Chopin goes her own way. The influence of Wagner is not merely indicated by Mademoiselle Reisz' use of the Isolde motif but it is structural. Kate Chopin, a few years before Thomas Mann, adopts the leitmotif to literature in repeating throughout the novella key sentences (e.g., “the voice of the sea”), images (the bird image), and phrases which characterize (e.g., Mademoiselle Reisz' bunch of violets). The Nietzsche influence appears in the theme of transcendence, self-liberation through art, and rebirth; with bridge, bird, serpent imagery the Awakening reflects Zarathustra.

  12. Chopin gives a consistent political social allegory. The three males Edna associates with represent important social trends of the times. Mr. Pontellier, off to New York and Wall Street represents the new successful south; Robert with his business quest to Mexico is the unsuccessful new south; Arobin, the dandy, is the decadent south. It is precisely these consistently worked out details (of which we have given only a few examples) which demonstrate the high quality of her craftmanship.

  13. Per Seyersted, Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography, op. cit. 48-49.

  14. Her output up to the publication of The Awakening steadily increased in quantity and frank sensuousness (e.g. “The Storm”). Following the uproar over the novel, she “never talked to her close friends about the issue; she simply wrote less fiction, and wrote less surely.” Jones, op. cit., 139.

  15. Huff, op. cit., 3-10, deriving a stereotyped male artist from Maurice Beebe, Ivory Towers and Sacred Founts: The Artist Hero in Fiction from Goethe to Joyce (New York: New York State University Press, 1964) who is “sensitive, dreamy, passive,” finds that the women artist by contrast is active, stalwart, spirited, and fearless. Both critics overlook that male and female artist figures when creating are active and self assertive, when failing at their tasks become passive, tormented, lost.

Leslie Kathleen Hankins (essay date fall 1991)

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SOURCE: Hankins, Leslie Kathleen. “Alas, Alack! or A Lass, a Lack? Quarrels of Gender and Genre in the Revisionist Künstlerroman1: Eudora Welty's The Golden Apples.Mississippi Quarterly 44, no. 4 (fall 1991): 391-409.

[In the following essay, Hankins tries to come to a clear definition of the female künstlerroman through an analysis of Eudora Welty's The Golden Apples.]

All of Eudora Welty's writings interrogate the possibilities of art. Delta Wedding, The Golden Apples, and The Optimist's Daughter, probing again and again the complex web of relationships between women and art, would seem to fall naturally into the Künstlerroman genre of novels about the artist and art. But an odd thing happens on the way to the genre—the path turns into an obstacle course. Why? Critics' difficulties identifying the artist figures in these texts hint at the problem.2 Why aren't the women in these novels—Virgie, Laura, Laurel, Cassie, or Miss Eckhart—as easily recognized as artist figures as Stephen and Eugene, the protagonists of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Look Homeward, Angel? Is there a necessary cluster of traits required to label artists, a special something which these women lack? Do Welty's texts fail to fit into the Künstlerroman genre? Why? Are they flawed? Critical efforts to place Welty's texts within the Künstlerroman genre or to set the works outside the genre may miss the point.3 To break free from this critical cul-de-sac, we need to re-orient radically to consider why and how Welty poses problems about the women artist figures and thereby critiques the Künstlerroman tradition itself. Rather than reading Welty's novels as either contained by or in opposition to the genre, one may examine ways her texts rewrite the genre by challenging its margins and omissions.4 A close reading of The Golden Apples through the lens of revisionist genre theory situates Welty's reworking of the Künstlerroman within a broader debate. Welty's texts form strands in the network of revisionist writings which challenge the male-defined genres of literary tradition. Often, by placing texts on the boundary of a genre and dramatically flaunting that marginal status, revisionist writers engage, mirror, revise, or refute the traditions with which they grapple. Dynamic sites of repression and transformation, such revisionist texts interact with a genre through strategies of repression, imitation, carnivalization, and intersection.

An historically informed, gender-conscious perspective on the Künstlerroman genre raises questions about the fit of the male Künstlerroman to the female form.5 The site of gender is a key point from which to launch a critique of the Künstlerroman genre, which has excluded not only women artists but also traditionally women's arts and other collective arts. Does the traditional Künstlerroman reflect the struggles of the artist figure regardless of gender, or are the conventions principally reflections of male-gendered experience? Are even the white Western middle-class male and female Künstlerromane simply mirror images with a few anatomical differences? At times the disjunction between the prescriptions of the male Künstlerroman tradition and the female forms has been presented as the failure of the female Künstlerroman to measure up, to reach completion. Even feminist critics have complained that there have been too few fully realized women artist figures in female Künstlerromane and suggest that this is a lack due to a failure of nerve or of imagination, to female modesty or fear of success. Carolyn Heilbrun faulted the female Künstlerroman in “The Failure of Imagination” when she criticized women writers because “with remarkably few exceptions, women writers do not imagine women characters with even the autonomy they themselves have achieved.”6 We might ask, however, if this perceived “lack” is due to the acceptance of the male form as the norm, with the expectation that the artist fit the type of the autonomous individual who is identified by the art product. We might probe deeper and ask “Is this lack a lack?” Is this a lack, or a difference? It will not be the first time feminists have pondered whether difference must be synonymous with lack, lack with castration, loss, and failure! Recognizing and interrogating this difference without placing it into a hierarchy, we may move beyond the Künstlerroman genre as a male form to consider different options for the novel about art and life. If there is a marked lack of strong, productive artist heroine figures, even in the works of women writers like Woolf, Welty, or Porter who themselves qualified as successful artists, this intriguing absence may be read in different ways, each of which sheds some light on the Künstlerroman tradition as a gender-marked and historically based phenomenon. Interrogating this absence, this gap in the female Künstlerroman tradition, is a revisionist critical project which allows us to re-view and revise the genre as a whole.

One challenging way to read the “absence” is to look for textual elements or reading postures which might render invisible the female artist figures. For example, one plot deviation, an alternative quest pattern in many female Künstlerromane, may render the woman artist invisible to the critic seeking a particular artist-hero with a traditionally male quest pattern. As the main theme of the Künstlerroman has been the artist's negotiation of the collisions between art and life, the gender identity of the artist would be a major variable. Historically, the male artist's quest was to choose his artistic vocation, yet the female artist in the nineteenth and early twentieth century usually had to undergo an additional preliminary interrogation of gender-identity even to choose to have a vocation outside of the domestic sphere. The question “Will I be an artist or a banker?” is a much different question from “Will I be an artist or a woman?” and it is the latter question which haunts aspiring women artists from Lily Briscoe in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse to those in Welty's work.7 The portrait of the artist as a young woman in the early twentieth century was, then, often first a study of gender roles in conflict. Because the quest to radically re-evaluate her relation to women's traditional world had to be accomplished before or during the quest for her artistic identity, the woman's quest might seem drawn out. A difficulty in recognizing the female artist may be due to her convoluted progress as she negotiated duelling quests, unlike the male protagonist who moved in a fairly single-minded linear progression in the traditional Künstlerroman.

Yet another obscuring element in the female Künstlerroman may be the way the artistic quest is sometimes expressed through an obsession with the mother or maternity, for those fascinations are often misread as biographical traces of mother fixations or the writer's desire to bear children. The female Künstlerroman often evaluates maternity more thoroughly than the Künstlerroman of male artists; the relationship of the female artist to the maternal is a source of contradiction and collision, for she may combine the desire for the mother's unconditional love (“I want to have that”) with the critical addition of the question “Do I want to be that?” In addition, as Rachel Blau DuPlessis argues, the daughter may feel compelled to finish the incomplete or frustrated artwork of the mother. The importance of the maternal nexus is apparent in the frequency with which female texts figure forth the aspiring artist as the motherless daughter. In some Künstlerromane the death of the mother or mother figure delivers the female child from smothering or seductive matriarchal tyranny. Recall Woolf's confession of “killing the Angel in the House” as an act of self-defense required by the woman writer escaping the Victorian legacy.8 The popularity of this fictional matricide emphasizes the mother-daughter knot as a highly charged one for women artists in Künstlerromane. Does the absence of the mother indicate hostility toward the maternal? Does it enable the artist to express her longing for the maternal sphere through grief without forcing her to relinquish her option to choose another sphere to occupy? Does it simply allow her freer choice? Such questions resonate through the texts of female artist figures.

Ageism may also blind critics to the female artist figures; in the female Künstlerroman art often begins at forty. Lily Briscoe is around forty when she adds the final stroke to her painting in To the Lighthouse and thinks “I have had my vision” and Virgie Rainey is in her forties poised on the stile at the end of The Golden Apples. Likewise, in The Optimist's Daughter, Laurel McKelva Hand is on the brink of her new beginning past the usual age of the male protagonist. These women artists are late-bloomers by male standards, for their male counterparts, such as Stephen Dedalus or Eugene Gant, ordinarily reach the threshold of their artistic vocation in their early twenties. Perhaps because the patterns of the male Künstlerroman have been accepted as the norm, the different timing of women artists has been viewed as prolonged adolescence or arrested development, and the women artist figures misjudged as failures.

The search for one artist may keep critics from identifying these texts as part of the Künstlerroman tradition. Traditionally, the Künstlerroman traced the development of the individual artist and culminated in the achievement of the artwork, which was either actualized in the text or suggested at the closure. The artist's signature was the bottom line of such a Künstlerroman; bourgeois art and criticism's preoccupation with the individual subject and art product was apparent in this elaborate game of pin the tale on the artist. Is it surprising that the central movement of Künstlerroman genre theory paralleled the central plot of the traditional Künstlerroman? The critic sought the artist figure and artefact, just as the artist sought artistic identity and creation. As relics of Romanticism and bourgeois culture, we have assumed the artist as the central figure of art and the necessity of a product, an artwork, in order to identify and label this artist. But this traditional critical paradigm poses questions. Challenging the split between artist and community, art and life, individual and collective, fine art and folk art, and process and product allows us to question the Künstlerroman, to view the tradition within a historical and cultural frame. If we de-center or de-throne the solitary artist we may learn to hear more than a monologue in the Künstlerroman. In a revisionist Künstlerroman, the voice of one self-obsessed artist figure may be replaced by a polyphony of voices. The shift in emphasis from the work of art as product and the individual artist as subject is not necessarily a sign of failure; perhaps the point is to re-define the artist, to re-negotiate the role of art in the context of a whole life,9 placing the artist within culture, rather than limiting the artist to solitude in an ivory tower. Such a revisionist Künstlerroman asks new questions. Need the Künstlerroman be a solo act? May the artist function be a collective one? If the dedicated teachers in Welty's work carry aesthetic knowledge and are sources of wisdom and beauty, are they artist figures? Are the women who weave visions, make cakes and sew quilts in the domestic sphere artists? The artistic consciousness in Delta Wedding is fragmented among several characters, including the visionary mother Ellen, the sensitive Shelley, the enigmatic George and the voyeur Laura, so a search for one individual artist figure poses problems. In The Golden Apples, Cassie, Virgie and Miss Eckhart disrupt the critics' search for a solitary artist figure.

The emphasis in Welty's Künstlerroman is often on artistic process rather than on product, and on relation rather than identity. For these works the moving picture of the artist(s) and the culture in dynamic interaction is more important than the static portrait of one artist figure. Such texts force us to rethink the Künstlerroman, to imagine a revisionist Künstlerroman not as a journey or quest, as those concepts are linear and valorize closure, but as the drama of spatial relation and relationship, playing with centering, de-centering, stabilizing, de-stabilizing, and spatial orientation in many forms. The interplay between art and artist figures may be a spatial drama as well as a temporal one—mapping how one places oneself in relation, in relations, dimensionally, socially, and spatially. Eudora Welty's term “confluence” is not a static term, but a term for moving and joining; she places emphasis on the context of art as a dialectic of shifting perspective and orientation. In The Golden Apples, the drama of orientation between the artist figures of Virgie, Cassie, and Miss Eckhart reshapes the Künstlerroman genre as a process of relating. How we as critics read the thresholds and relationships determines how we site The Golden Apples—as a failed female Künstlerroman? as an anti-Künstlerroman? or as a revisionist Künstlerroman? Interrogating the threshold sites, then, provides insights into the convoluted relationship between Welty's texts and the genre and into the quarrels of genre and gender in the Künstlerroman tradition as a whole. We may read The Golden Apples as challenging the Künstlerroman tradition by its threshold status as an anti-Künstlerroman and revisionist Künstlerroman.

Reading the revisionist Künstlerroman as a process of witnessing and relation illuminates the many figures in the work of Welty who are on the see-saw, the joggling board or playing the circle game, striking the balance between life and art in a dynamic relating. As boundary figures, Welty's artist figures enact her rewriting of the Künstlerroman genre by occupying its margins and challenging its omissions. Welty's female artist figures come to life on the thresholds as witnesses, investigators, rapt seekers, examining domestic models as well as artistic ones. Such figures occupy borderlines between the domestic sphere of the family and an outside chaos. Threshold figures who link dichotomies, like Laurel McKelva Hand, the widowed bride in The Optimist's Daughter, and Laura McRaven, the motherless daughter in Delta Wedding, function as complex sites for social/textual boundary tensions. Such marginal borderlines are tense and dynamic sites, as the energies of centripetal and centrifugal force act together on the figures. Some of the women, such as the glimmering girl in the wood in Delta Wedding or Miss Eckhart in The Golden Apples, are pulled outside the circle into chaos and destroyed, and others, such as Cassie Morrison in The Golden Apples, become caged within the stifling constructs of society. Balancing between the role of insider and outsider, prisoner and outlaw, is one balancing act of the artist figure in Welty's work.

As a boundary figure, Virgie Rainey of The Golden Apples is both within and without the community of Morgana. Like the widowed bride or the motherless daughter, Virgie Rainey is on the verge. Verge. Rain. Rein. Reign. Virgin Queen. Not a virgin. Not reigning. Not to be reined. She is the woman with a past, unbridled, unbrid(e)led, defined by her absence, her lack, her losses, and her silence. The outlaw, the border figure, the witness, sitting on the stile, the threshold, the boundary, Virgie is the experienced unmarried woman; she is at the end without family, both in the sense of lacking and in the sense of outside. The final scene of “The Wanderers,” which is the final scene of the text, places Virgie on the threshold, on the stile in the public square, poised between forces. At the end Virgie occupies a boundary site which holds immense forces in check. Free from family, home, and past, and smiling in the gentle fructifying rain, she is an enigmatic threshold figure:

Then she and the old beggar woman, the old black thief, were there alone and together in the shelter of the big public tree, listening to the magical percussion, the world beating in their ears. They heard through the falling rain the running of the horse and bear, the stroke of the leopard, the dragon's crusty slither, and the glimmer and the trumpet of the swan.10

The significance of this ending may be debated, for the compelling threshold invites different readings.11 Are Virgie and the black woman silenced spectators of the male symbolic order from which they are excluded? Are they eavesdroppers of the male artistic performance, limited finally to marginal and spectator status? The threshold may be read as such an ending, or read as a beginning. If the final image is read as a threshold facing forward, one may project onto Virgie the artist figure of the traditional Künstlerroman who has followed the quest and is poised at the end prepared to create, to embrace art. Poised on the enigma, the text leaves the reader on the threshold.


Welty's multi-faceted female Künstlerroman both suggests Virgie as the traditional artist figure and undercuts that figure, rejecting the traditional artist narrative as a lie. Interrogating the final threshold from this different perspective and reading the text as an anti-Künstlerroman unveils a carefully coded protest against the patriarchal culture industry, as Patricia Yaeger suggests,12 for at the end the black woman and the unbridled white woman sit on the stile under the big public tree and witness the patriarchal-art hit parade. Reading The Golden Apples as an anti-Künstlerroman, we may trace the reversal of the genre in the silencing of Virgie Rainey, in the suppression of her art, by reading her story as that of the “un-making of the artist.” That text foregrounds the social and economic ideologies which inscribe the narrative of Virgie, the quintessential boundary figure. She is identified by her position on the border, on the social periphery. Defined by the modes of social control of which she is often oblivious, Virgie does not operate in a vacuum or in an autonomous space; she is fenced, bordered, and limited by the economic, social, and cultural networks which hem her in.

Miss Eckhart, like the critic, like the reader, filtering experience through Romantic presuppositions, wishes to assign to Virgie the role of the artist, the genius, to turn the text of Virgie into a Künstlerroman in the traditional style. She lends Virgie books, gives her free lessons, gives her the Beethoven, and love. But Welty's text ruthlessly undercuts this Romantic conception of the artist:

Virgie would be heard from in the world, playing that, Miss Eckhart said, revealing to children with one ardent cry her lack of knowledge of the world. How could Virgie be heard from in the world? And “the world”! Where did Miss Eckhart think she was now? Virgie Rainey, she repeated over and over, had a gift, and she must go away from Morgana. From them all. From her studio. In the world, she must study and practice her music for the rest of her life. In repeating all this, Miss Eckhart suffered.

(p. 60)

Virgie's life belies the Romantic narrative, for Welty places it within a social context and the social apparatus is clearly delineated; the economic narrative might be titled “the thwarting of the artist as a young working-class woman”:

Cassie herself was well applauded when she played a piece. The recital audience always clapped more loudly for her than they did for Virgie; but then they clapped more loudly still for little Jinny Love Stark. It was Cassie who was awarded the Presbyterian Church's music scholarship that year to go to college—not Virgie. It made Cassie feel “natural”; winning the scholarship over Virgie did not surprise her too much. The only reason for that which she put into words, to be self-effacing, was that the Raineys were Methodists; and yet she did not, basically, understand a slight.

(p. 64)

The “natural” feeling Cassie has about the social class distinctions illustrates the “natural” way individuals translate ideology into myth.13 “Perhaps nobody wanted Virgie Rainey to be anything in Morgana any more than they had wanted Miss Eckhart to be, and they were the two of them still linked together by people's saying that. How much might depend on people's being linked together?” (p. 63). Virgie's “failure” to incarnate the Romantic artist-function is not portrayed simply as a private failure, but as an inevitable part of the social and cultural context. The awarding of the music scholarship is a class act, and Miss Eckhart's consolation prize to Virgie of the butterfly pin with a clasp which isn't functional indicates the ineffectuality of the Romantic artist master narrative when confronted with the economic master narrative.

Virgie's efforts to break through the barriers which define and control her are doomed, as her childish rebellion illustrates:

School did not lessen Virgie's vitality; once on a rainy day when recess was held in the basement she said she was going to butt her brains out against the wall, and the teacher, old Mrs. McGillicuddy, had said, “Beat them out, then,” and she had really tried. The rest of the fourth grade stood around expectant and admiring, the smell of open thermos bottles sweetly heavy in the close air.

(p. 43)

Virgie's rebellion is apparent in her fighting with the boys, and her “airs of wildness” but she never seems to effectively locate the target for her energy and anger, never locating the cage that bars her way. Her sexual acting out and other gestures which turn her passion into a self-destructive force misplace the site of struggle. Even in her forties she milks the cows passionately “as if she would hunt, hunt, hunt daily for the blindness that lay inside the beast, inside where she could have a real and living wall for beating on, a solid prison to get out of, the most real stupidity of the flesh, a mindless and careless and calling body, to respond flesh for flesh, anguish for anguish” (p. 266). Virgie's repressed struggle with the codes of the world around her is not spoken, not presented through intense subjective narration, but revealed in understated ways, as when her mother observes, “There's nothing Virgie Rainey loves better than struggling against a real hard plaid” (p. 234).

Another intense site of struggle is the scene of the mother's funeral, for the death of the mother is a repeated and loaded motif in Welty's fiction which signals a complex re-negotiation of the boundaries and relations between self and community. The house of death and the house emptying of family ties are highly charged in Welty's fiction: “Always in a house of death, Virgie was thinking, all the stories become evident, show forth from the person, become a part of the public domain. Not the dead's story, but the living's” (p. 238). Rituals surrounding the funeral emphasize Virgie's position as outlaw in the community as she is bullied by the grief police: “They pulled harder, still smiling but in silence, and Virgie pulled back. ‘Don't touch me’” (p. 241).

Virgie's identity as the non-artist may be traced in the omissions, in the absences. If the cultural codes suggest that a hymen is necessary, the absence of one becomes invested with meaning, and if the codes require a mate, lover, or spouse in order for women to have value, the absence of such a figure becomes a magnetized place in the text. Virgie is defined by the presence of absence; she has no hymen, no spouse, no art and finally, no family. Her life is traced by the absences—her absence from Morgana, the loss of her brother, the loss of her mother, the loss of the music scholarship, the giving up of music, and the silence. Virgie is the “woman with a past” and though that past is a gap in the text never filled, a blank page, it resonates through the text as an enigma never revealed, but tantalizingly displayed. Gossip and innuendo trace some site of pain and repression, but do not bare it: “Virgie had felt a moment in life after which nobody could see through her—felt it young” (p. 264). Virgie refers to that moment but never specifies what the “worst trouble” was: “Juba, when I was in my worst trouble, I scared everybody off, did you know that? Now I'm not scary any more” (p. 269). The text's silence on Virgie's past, her subjective experience, is compelling. Though Virgie dominates The Golden Apples, she remains enigmatic. Spilling over with energy, on the verge of life, she is never given a voice, never allowed to tell her story. Her narrative is one of interruption and repression and the text conspires to keep her in subliminal status. The textual strategy of describing Virgie from outside effectively barricades off her thoughts in “June Recital.” Highlighting Virgie's silence, the text omits her reaction to the important events of the pigs' destruction of the piano, the awarding of the scholarship to Cassie, Victor's death, and Virgie's absence from Morgana. In “June Recital” Virgie's silencing is strategically reinforced by Cassie's use of indirect speech to report Virgie's words and through Cassie's presentation of a vignette: “Virgie told on Mr. Voight too, but she had nobody to believe her, and so Miss Eckhart did not lose any pupils by that. Virgie did not know how to tell anything” (p. 49). Virgie's silence is again emphasized in the detail “But that didn't make Virgie say she loved Miss Eckhart” (p. 64), and in Cassie's description of the encounter between Virgie and Miss Eckhart: “They were deliberately terrible. They looked at each other and neither wished to speak. They did not even horrify each other. No one could touch them now, either” (p. 96). The text of The Golden Apples suggests the outline of Virgie's narrative through gaps, ruptures, interruptions, silence between the lines, or in an echo. It is in the silence and the process of silencing that Virgie's story is inscribed. Like the dying notes of the trace of her “Für Elise” signature, the absence of her narrative resonates throughout the text.


The Golden Apples may be read as the silencing of the artist as a young woman, as Virgie's artistic energy is sublimated or warped into self-destructive sexual energy and denial. Is the silencing of Virgie the final note of the text, however? Is this silencing completely negative? As Tillie Olsen suggests in her monumental work Silences, there are silences which are fertile and those which are deadly. Which is Welty suggesting here? It somewhat depends on whether as readers we impose the anti-Künstlerroman reading or the revisionist Künstlerroman reading. Susan Gubar's essay “‘The Blank Page’ and the Issues of Female Creativity”14 is useful for reading the silence in The Golden Apples and for examining the reversal of the Künstlerroman plot, for Virgie's story involves the silencing and denial of her musical gift. The recital on the threshold of puberty illustrates Gubar's point about female anatomy and female creativity that “one of the primary and most resonant metaphors provided by the female body is blood, and cultural forms of creativity are often experienced as a painful wounding” (p. 248). In “June Recital” this metaphor is enacted:

But recital night was Virgie's night, whatever else it was. The time Virgie Rainey was most wonderful in her life, to Cassie, was when she came out—her turn was just before the quartet—wearing a Christmas-red satin band in her hair with rosettes over the ears, held on by a new elastic across the back; she had a red sash drawn around under the arms of a starched white swiss dress. She was thirteen. She played the Fantasia on Beethoven's Ruins of Athens, and when she finished and got up and made her bow, the red of the sash was all over the front of her waist, she was wet and stained as if she had been stabbed in the heart, and a delicious and enviable sweat ran down from her forehead and cheeks and she licked it in with her tongue.

(pp. 73-74)

The image of Virgie, sweaty and bloodstained, creative, suggests the joining together of the erotic and artistic. The text refuses to tell why Virgie subsequently quit taking her free music lessons, though it suggests her brother's death and her fourteenth birthday as being somehow related to the cessation. The mystery surrounding Virgie's abandonment of music and initiation into sexual behavior may be illuminated by Gubar's claim that:

if artistic creativity is linked to biological creativity, the terror of inspiration for women is experienced quite literally as the terror of being entered, deflowered, possessed, taken, had, broken, ravished—all words which illustrate the pain of the passive self whose boundaries are being violated.

(p. 256)

In light of this thesis, we may consider another bloody artwork, Miss Eckhart's picture of Perseus slaying the Medusa and Virgie's final feeling that “she must believe in the Medusa equally with Perseus” (p. 275). Virgie's final vision might be read, then, as promising some healing of the creativity/wounding split: “In Virgie's reach of memory a melody softly lifted, lifted of itself. Every time Perseus struck off the Medusa's head, there was the beat of time, and the melody. Endless the Medusa, and Perseus endless” (p. 276).

How do we read Virgie on the final threshold? Is Virgie erased as an artist figure or repressed? If repressed, is there hope for the “return of the repressed”—for some return of Virgie to artistic creation or performance? Welty's text might be read as suggesting that Virgie's buried life waits, like Miss Eckhart's, for a sudden storm and a captive audience:

Coming from Miss Eckhart, the music made all the pupils uneasy, almost alarmed; something had burst out, unwanted, exciting, from the wrong person's life. This was some brilliant thing too splendid for Miss Eckhart, piercing and striking the air around her the way a Christmas firework might almost jump out of the hand that was, each year, inexperienced anew.

It was when Miss Eckhart was young that she had learned this piece, Cassie divined. Then she had almost forgotten it. But it took only a summer rain to start it again; she had been pricked and the music came like the red blood under the scab of a forgotten fall.

(pp. 56-57)

Recalling Gubar's image of artistic wounding of the female artist, one could read Virgie's wounding as enabling. In many of her writings about art, Welty uses similar tropes to express the aesthetic experience. The references to Miss Eckhart's rape, the suggestive phrasing that “she had been pricked” (my emphasis) and the association of the gush of artistry, the music, as effusion from a wound, a scab, ties in well with Gubar's thesis. Though the image and the masochistic self-destructive qualities it seems to encode into women's creativity are disturbing, such an analysis enables us to read Virgie on the final threshold as a woman on the brink of art.


Another revisionist reading allows different patterns to emerge. If we read the text as a revisionist female Künstlerroman of relating, Cassie, Virgie, and Miss Eckhart form a powerful triad of shifting relations, a constellation of women artist figures relating to each other and to the community. The triad is vital to the text's relation to the Künstlerroman tradition, for it highlights the balancing act between artist figures, art, life, and community. Welty's revisionist Künstlerroman may be read as the drama of women balancing and orienting themselves to art, to boundaries, and to life. Situating Virgie in relation to Cassie Morrison and Miss Eckhart clarifies her position as a boundary figure. If Virgie's art and story are repressed, the text of The Golden Apples makes clear which social and cultural forces are the active agents of repression; Cassie Morrison alternately serves as the spokesperson for those forces and as the witness to their power, while Miss Eckhart serves as the scapegoat exemplar of what the unchecked forces can do to a resisting female. Virgie, at the center of the two stories “June Recital” and “The Wanderers,” in each plays both a leading role in the community rituals of the recital and the funeral, and also the role of the outlaw. She is an insider/outsider. Though Virgie wanders from the circle or strays beyond its limits, the community still includes her, if only through its petty tyrannies. Virgie wanders, but Miss Eckhart “broke out of the circle” (p. 54) and she is pushed out of the community: “Then one day, Miss Eckhart had to move out” (p. 65). The community abandons Miss Eckhart, rejecting her for various reasons, for her victimization by rape and for her differences. Patricia Yaeger's suggestive essay is brilliant in its treatment of Miss Eckhart, as she notes that “the Morgana community acts together, man and woman, to prevent feminine acts of Prometheanism” (p. 968) but Yaeger overlooks the pivotal role of Cassie Morrison. Cassie's placement within the community and her orientation toward Virgie and Miss Eckhart is foregrounded by the text, and must be factored into any discussion, for Cassie's role as a connector reaching out to Virgie and keeping her attached to the community is vital to Welty's balancing act. Though “June Recital” is largely focalized through Cassie, “The Wanderers” is focalized through Virgie; that shift of orientation is important.

If Miss Eckhart is an outcast, Cassie is an “incast” or in caste, for she has chosen to place herself within the rigid system of social norms. Cassie is very much the “captive audience” of Virgie and Miss Eckhart, captivated by their art and unbounded qualities, but self-bound by ties to the social enclosures. Her relation to Virgie and Miss Eckhart reveals her own placement as well as theirs. Though Cassie idolizes Virgie, she, unlike Virgie, has so deeply internalized the community mores that her responses to life are filtered through the cultural codes. The community severely punishes those it brands different or Other, and Cassie hesitantly colludes: “she thought that somewhere, even up to the last, there could have been for Miss Eckhart a little opening wedge—a crack in the door. … But if I had been the one to see it open, she thought slowly, I might have slammed it tight for ever. I might” (pp. 66-67). Conformity is presented as Cassie's dominant trait when the reader is introduced to her; like a Pavlovian subject, Cassie parrots the response triggered by the opening phrases of “Für Elise”: “Virgie Rainey, danke schoen” (p. 34). Unlike Loch, who quite literally goes out on a limb to see more, Cassie purposefully creates barricades behind which to hide. Self-enclosed and limited, Cassie is introduced barricaded in her room with a sign which signals collusion with her own entrapment: “‘Everybody stay out!!!’ said an envelope pinned to her door, signed with skull and crossbones” (p. 36).

Cassie responds to Miss Eckhart's passionate rendition of music by shrinking from it, choosing to create a barrier by remembering the violated barrier, the rape in Miss Eckhart's past:

The music was too much for Cassie Morrison. It lay at the very heart of the stormy morning—there was something almost too violent about a storm in the morning. She stood back in the room with her whole body averted as if to ward off blows from Miss Eckhart's strong left hand, her eyes on the faintly winking circle of the safe in the wall. She began to think of an incident that had happened to Miss Eckhart instead of about the music she was playing; that was one way.

(p. 57)

It is noteworthy that it is Cassie who sees art as fearful and wounding, as it was Cassie who described Virgie as bloodstained and sweaty after her recital performance, for Cassie's fears entrap her and shape her response to art. She shifts her attention from the passionate music played by a woman to the punishments for women who do not limit their activities to the patriarchal system's rigid code of behavior for females. Cassie turns from thoughts of artistic wounding to stories of rape: “She [Miss Eckhart] had been walking by herself after dark; nobody had told her any better” (p. 57). Cassie's linking of women's art with punishment and fear tie her to the patriarchal system; as her fantasies reveal, she dreads being swept outside the barriers she experiences as protective: “Cassie saw herself without even facing the mirror, for her small, solemn, unprotected figure was emerging staring-clear inside her mind. There she was now, standing scared at the window … she stood there pathetic—homeless-looking—horrible. Like a wave, the gathering past came right up to her. Next time it would be too high” (p. 37).

What do Miss Eckhart and Virgie represent to Cassie? Perhaps they suggest the options of women outside the patriarchal system as those options are colored by her fears: “Both Miss Eckhart and Virgie Rainey were human beings terribly at large, roaming on the face of the earth. And there were others of them—human beings, roaming, like lost beasts” (p. 96). This vision is through Cassie's fearfully homebound perception, for it is she who chooses to view the two as “deliberately terrible” and “human beings terribly at large, roaming on the face of the earth.” We must recognize this perspective on Virgie and Miss Eckhart as Cassie's and as revealing her collusion with the self-limiting patriarchal codes, or we mis-read the lines as an undistorted or objective placement of Virgie and Miss Eckhart. Yaeger makes this error when she notes, “Instead of discovering a point of intersection with ‘the other’ that lends Yeats's wanderer an extraordinary imaginative power, Virgie and Miss Eckhart seem like ‘lost beasts,’ metaphors in search of a human dimension” (p. 970). When viewed apart from Cassie's captive-bound perspective, Virgie and Miss Eckhart are not occupying the same site in relation to the community; their placements form the quite distinct points of a triangle, with Cassie within the circle prescribing the limits of society, Miss Eckhart at a point outside the circle, and Virgie on the boundary of the circle. Virgie is finally in control of her position on the boundary site, whereas Miss Eckhart is cast out and Cassie Morrison is entrapped. Cassie's distorted perspective ignores the depth of field, and ellides the two points into one outside position—but Cassie's perspective is challenged by the text.

Cassie repeatedly focuses on Virgie's break from the oppressive circle; just as she unsuccessfully tried to hold on to her mother to keep her from being lost, she is obsessed with Virgie's spatial orientation to the community and tries to pull her back into the community. The two cars in dialogic play suggest Cassie's attempt to herd the lost sheep back into the fold:

She [Virgie] drove through Morgana, hearing a horn blow from another car; it was Cassie Morrison. Cassie called out, driving abreast. …

They called from car to car, running parallel along the road with the loose gravel from the unpaved part knocking loudly, bounced from one car to the other. …

Cassie's voice, growing louder, grew at the same time more anxious and more reverent. She was not hurt, not suspecting, only anxious. But it was for Cassie that Virgie had turned her car toward town, to not let her see. …

Virgie, and Cassie too, circled the cemetery and drove back the length of Morgana. Then, “Where are you going? Are you going somewhere, Virgie?” …

Virgie lifted her hand, and the girls waved.

“You'll go away like Loch,” Cassie called from the steps. “A life of your own, away—I'm so glad for people like you and Loch, I am really.”

(pp. 271-272)

Cassie's last cry suggests a benediction, as Virgie gently extricates herself from Cassie's benign but limiting control.

The text of The Golden Apples reveals the dangers of paralysis and rigidity of the “in caste” position of the character who glides through life avoiding art and life. Virgie is the figure who casts off from the shores of Morgana, and, though she returns, she is somewhat free; she has cast off the social norms, the fear of life, the interdictions. The text does not downplay the dangers of the dare; the fate of the outcast Miss Eckhart is documented with lucidity. To Cassie, however, only the horror is palpable, and not the possibilities and potential energy of life on the boundaries. Welty's revisionist Künstlerroman is the drama of women balancing and orienting themselves to art, to boundaries, to life. The threshold figures, like Virgie, are those who balance between the outcast/outlaw position of the damned and the fearful self-enclosed and enclosing position of characters who avoid the site of boundaries. The preferable site for Welty seems to be on the boundary between inside and outside. This vital image is reinscribed repeatedly through dramas of orientation of the individual in space, as when the departure of the mourners initiates a rite of passage for Virgie, changing her relation to the community barriers: “As they went, they seemed to drag some mythical gates and barriers away from her view. She looked at the lighted distance, the little last crescent of hills before the country of the river, and the fields. The world shimmered” (p. 247). The departure of the enforcers of the social codes allows Virgie the threshold experience of naked immersion in the river: “She hung suspended in the Big Black River as she would know to hang suspended in felicity” (p. 249). Assuming this aesthetic posture—receptive to art, to life—Virgie challenges oppositional thinking and holds open the boundaries:

Virgie never saw it differently, never doubted that all the opposites on earth were close together, love close to hate, living to dying; but of them all, hope and despair were the closest blood—unrecognizable one from the other sometimes, making moments double upon themselves, and in the doubling double again, amending but never taking back.

(p. 265)

We may read Virgie Rainey as empowered by her position on the periphery at the end, choosing her fresh orientation. Sitting on the stile in the public square, sheltered, her placement illustrates her repudiation of the placement of both Cassie and Miss Eckhart:

Occasional drops of rain fell on Virgie's hair … As if her own modesty could also fall upon her now, freely and coolly, outside herself and on the everywhere, she sat a little longer on the stile. …

Then she and the old beggar woman, the old black thief, were there alone and together in the shelter of the big public tree, listening to the magical percussion, the world beating in their ears.

(p. 275-276)

Reading the final threshold as a culmination of the revisionist Künstlerroman of relating, the placement of Virgie and the old black woman is energizing and enabling. Such a perspective, ripe for a new art, may also be read as a call for a new type of Künstlerroman genre which includes race and gender within its collective reach and which does not require a solo artist figure and an artistic product as commodity. Whether we read The Golden Apples as an anti-Künstlerroman or as a revisionist Künstlerroman—or as both held in dialectical tension—such readings envision new traditions. Eudora Welty's engagement with the anti-Künstlerroman etches with acid the thwarting of the artist as a young working-class woman and yet her indictment clears a space for energetic renewal rather than paralysing despair for it promises a new orientation to art. Challenging the lies of the Künstlerroman tradition by exposing its gender, race and class barriers and limitations, Welty's text points to new open boundaries. Her revisionist Künstlerroman suggests liminal spaces for art and life which are as dynamic and dramatic as The Golden Apples' final threshold collectively occupied by the black and white women in the public sphere, poised. The thief and the outcast, they will take what they wish from the old system and put it to use; this is precisely what revisionist readings of The Golden Apples reclaim for a renewed Künstlerroman genre.


  1. The familiar dilemma of gender and terminology enters here. In German, art is die Kunst, the term for the male artist der Künstler, and that for the female artist die Künstlerin. The Künstlerroman genre, then, suggests the male line. To distinguish the female artist-novel we could use the term Künstlerinroman. To suggest a revised genre which would include male and female artist novels, rather than using the term Künstlerroman, which subsumes the female within the generic male term, I toyed with the construction Künstler(in)roman. Though it was obviously not ideal, it served to highlight the problems. However, it required mental gymnastics to follow the Germanic genderplay of the adaptations and still follow my argument. As my project argues for shifting the emphasis from the individual artist, I invite new terms for the whole endeavor, such as the term Kunst-roman or, in English, art-novel or novel about art, to shift the focus from a gendered artist to a novel about the relationships of art. My provisional terminology here is to use Künstlerroman when referring to the tradition, and adjectives such as male, female, and revisionist to qualify that tradition.

  2. Critics such as Louis D. Rubin, Jr., debate about the artistic role of women figures in Welty's fiction from Delta Wedding to The Golden Apples and The Optimist's Daughter. Labeling these figures using qualifying terms, such as artist manqué or artist-teacher, suggests that they are not quite the “real thing.”

  3. Is genre gendered? Is there a male or female Künstlerroman? To argue that there may be a “female Künstlerroman” invites charges of essentialism, but I do not mean that there is one prescriptive essential female Künstlerroman which transcends race, class, nationality and ethnicity. Rather, gender shapes genre because specific cultural and historical contexts differentiate the relationships of males and females to art, and those factors shape the Künstlerroman which they will produce.

  4. Because the Künstlerroman tradition reflects a white male Western and middle-class orientation, a particular ideological perspective is apparent in its assumptions about the artist, about what is and what is not art, the separation of high and low culture, the privileged position of signature over anonymity, and the devaluing of folk and domestic arts and tales. Questioning those criteria is a prerequisite to challenging the genre, for critical constructs used to define and examine the Künstlerroman display the same ethnocentrism, androcentricism and class bias in their “universal” norms as the genre itself.

  5. Clearly race and class problematize the conventions of the Künstlerroman, but do the traditional conventions of the Künstlerroman tradition even fit the Künstlerroman of a white middle-class woman? Do the patterns and conventions of the male Künstlerroman fit the developmental process of the female artist as it has historically evolved in Western culture? Does the tradition document the struggles of some archetypal and universal figure or are the conventions reflections of the male experience only? The tradition figures forth the artist as one who is born and not made and weaves around that artist a magical childhood full of “markings” or signs. Similarly, the critical tradition charts and discusses the “journey” or the “quest” of the artist, the “evolution” or development of the artist, and the “rites of passage” as if there were an inevitable sacred progression. Such studies focus on the “portrait” of the artist, foregrounding the artist figure as a magic figure against the ahistorical backdrop of the social scenario, rather than as a part of a complex dynamic of economic, political, and cultural forces. These metaphors and cliches require individualism, linear development, and the monologic voice as they presuppose the bourgeois subjective individualism of the artist-function. Class traces in the Künstlerroman tradition have particular resonance for women, for, as Rachel Blau DuPlessis notes, “Genius theory is a particular exaggeration of bourgeois individualism, and its evocation increases the tension between middle-class women as a special group and the dominant assumptions of their class” (“To ‘bear my mother's name’: Künstlerroman by Woman Writers,” in Writing Beyond the Ending [Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985], p. 85).

  6. Carolyn Heilbrun, Reinventing Womanhood (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1977), p. 71.

  7. The woman artist's quest is often presented through the microcosm of the artist figure negotiating complex relationships with her parents as the symbols of the larger spheres to which she must re-orient. Critics misread the works as purely personal or therapeutic efforts of the writer or narrator to come to terms with her parents, rather than as records of the dynamics of the developing artist.

  8. Woolf wrote about “killing the Angel in the House” in “Professions for Women” collected in The Death of the Moth. The finished essay is based on a speech she gave on January 21, 1931; the very engaging and much longer typescript for the speech is published in The Pargiters.

  9. The figure of Laurel in The Optimist's Daughter may serve as a cipher for some of the issues of the female Künstlerroman; the art with which she is associated, fabric design, is not considered high art.

  10. Eudora Welty, The Golden Apples (New York and London: Harvest/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977), p. 277.

  11. The topic of spectator status opens key critical questions. Feminist theoretical debate (particularly in film theory) probes the complexity of the spectator position. The power dynamics of the spectator position are particularly intriguing; being required to adopt the spectator position of a different group (i.e., for a woman to have to read like a man or to see through the male gaze) renders one powerless. Recognizing that distortion and moving to assume the position of a female subject as spectator is empowering. One could argue that at the end Virgie has moved from the position of spectacle to that of conscious subject as spectator. Would the next move be to the position of the active subject?

  12. See Patricia S. Yaeger, “‘Because a Fire was in my Head’: Eudora Welty and the Dialogic Imagination,” PMLA, 99 (October 1984), 955-973.

  13. Barthes in Mythologies, as well as cultural critics from Benjamin to Daly and Foucault, probe such naturalizing of ideology.

  14. Critical Inquiry, 8 (Winter 1981).

Roberta Sellinger Trites (essay date 1997)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6701

SOURCE: Trites, Roberta Sellinger. “Re/Constructing the Female Writer: Subjectivity in the Feminist Künstlerroman.” In Waking Sleeping Beauty: Feminist Voices in Children's Literature, pp. 63-79. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Trites evaluates a sub-genre of the children's künstlerroman—the feminist children's book künstlerroman—where the protagonist is a child developing self-identity through her desire to become a writer.]

Margaret Mahy's The Tricksters examines what it means to one girl that she is a writer; so does Patricia MacLachlan's Cassie Binegar. Both of these novels depict a girl who claims the subject position by learning to use her voice, but significantly, each character learns to use her voice not only as a matter of speaking but also as a matter of writing. Because writing and re-visioning have so much potential to help people understand their agency, quite a few feminist children's novels explore what it means for children to write. The resulting novels seek to explore how children write, why they write, and what they gain as individuals during the process.

One step in understanding such novels is to understand the conventions of the Bildungsroman, the novel of development, and of the Künstlerroman, the novel of artistic development. In the introduction to The Voyage In: Fictions of Female Development, Elizabeth Abel, Marianne Hirsch, and Elizabeth Langland note the traditions of the female Bildungsroman. Historically, the female protagonist's growth is less direct than her male counterpart's; the independence that maturation dictates for male characters is often hampered for females by the heroine's belief that she can only develop to her fullest potential if she is intimately involved in relationships with other people. As a result, many female Bildungsromane focus on the character's development as a function of the interpersonal relationships she maintains (Abel, Hirsch, and Langland 11). Annis Pratt demonstrates how often the so-called growth of the hero of a female Bildungsroman is marked by her retreating from life rather than becoming fully involved in it (36).

As a specialized form of the Bildungsroman, the Künstlerroman is a novel of development, but the development deals specifically with the growth of the artist. In a number of traditional female Künstlerromane, the heroine's self-identification as an artist is either balanced or negated by a love relationship. For example, Jo March gives up her perception of herself as primarily a novelist to marry Professor Bhaer. Judy Abbott “suppose[s] I could keep on being a writer even if I did marry” near the end of Daddy-Long-Legs, but since she never mentions writing as a career again, her supposition is unconvincing (181-82). In Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943), Francie Nolan makes a pact with God that she will not write anymore if her mother will survive a serious illness. Francie later realizes that she need not necessarily sacrifice her writing forever, but she clearly does not perceive herself primarily as a writer by the novel's end. She concentrates more on going to college and getting married than on writing.

But within the genre of the children's Künstlerroman exists a subgenre, the feminist Künstlerroman, which demonstrates the growth of a child whose identity is consistently formed by her desire to be a writer. Different from books like Lois Lowry's Anastasia Krupnik (1979), wherein writing is only one of the protagonist's myriad activities, the protagonist of the feminist children's Künstlerroman is a writer whose writing is her entire being. Furthermore, she never sacrifices her writing for the sake of a love relationship. In “Portrait of the Young Writer in Children's Fiction” (1977), Francis Molson briefly surveys a collection of children's novels about developing writers, including Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy (1964), Irene Hunt's Up a Road Slowly (1968), Jean Little's Look through My Window, Eleanor Cameron's A Room Made of Windows (1971), and Mollie Hunter's A Sound of Chariots (1972). Never once does Molson make note of the fact that the young writers of his survey are all female. That so many children's novels involve girls learning about the power of language indicates, however, that the genre is a powerful forum for feminist writers.

Harriet the Spy and A Sound of Chariots both exemplify the characteristics of the feminist Künstlerroman. The protagonists of these novels accept language as primary to their self-creation, and they live through words, ultimately recognizing that they are powerless without them. In this regard, both of these novels are a study in the use of textual subjectivity, for as each of these girls recognizes the primacy of language in her life, she achieves an understanding of the matrices of subject positions she occupies as a writer, a female, a family member, and a friend. Most important, each of these girls learns to “write her self,” to “put herself into the text—as into the world and into history—by her own movement” (Cixous, “Laugh of the Medusa” 875). Each of these feminist writers changes her perception of herself and her world by writing.

Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy is the prototypical feminist children's Künstlerroman largely because Harriet is one of the earliest characters to experience a number of the genre's conventions. First, Harriet defines herself as different from other people. She clings to her individualism by wearing androgynous clothing, by eating tomato sandwiches, and by rejecting such signs of social conformity as dance class and bridge club. She also separates herself from other people by spying on them, that is, by putting herself in the subject position and them in the object position. Something of a Peeping Tom, Harriet watches people through windows and cracked doors and then writes down what she has observed because, as she tells a friend, “I've seen them and I want to remember them” (11). Harriet recognizes that words make her memories permanent. Language thus has great power for her because it is only through words that she can perceive her own past.

Harriet does not necessarily intend to objectify people when she is trying to affix them in her memory, but she nevertheless does. She dons her father's eyeglasses, which could be interpreted as the symbolic spectacles of the patriarchy, before she goes to spy on people, and she sits in judgment of them as she peers through the lenses. She calls Mrs. Plumber “Boring” (45) and Franca Dei Santi “Dull” (57). Of the Robinsons she writes: “Some People Think they're Perfect but … I'm Glad I'm not Perfect—I'd be Bored to Death. Besides if they're so Great why do they just Sit there all Day Staring at Nothing? They could be Crazy and not even Know it” (68). Harriet has little empathy for these people because she sees them as little more than fodder (objects) with which she can feed her own thoughts and writings.

Harriet, however, defines writing as absolutely crucial to her self-expression. When the notebook in which she records all her thoughts is taken from her, she feels completely powerless: “Without a notebook she couldn't spy, she couldn't take notes, she couldn't play Town, she couldn't do anything. She was afraid to go and buy another one, and for once she didn't feel like reading” (257). As Francis Molson notes, Harriet feels that “words can give external shape” to her imaginative processes (“Another Look” 964), so without her notebooks she feels alienated from her own creativity. Molson adds, “Surely one of the book's strengths is its depiction of Harriet's awareness that she can fully know only when she can verbalize her thoughts” (“Another Look” 965). As is common for the protagonist of the feminist children's Künstlerroman, Harriet fully understands how powerful language is only when she analyzes her own need to write.

Another convention of the feminist Künstlerroman that Harriet experiences is a disruption of her home life that causes her great grief. Harriet mourns deeply when her nanny, Ole Golly, leaves to get married. In Harriet's case, the grief she feels coincides with ostracism from her community; such ostracism is also a convention of the feminist children's Künstlerroman. For Harriet, the rejection of her community occurs shortly after Ole Golly's departure when Harriet's classmates read her private notebooks and begin to shun her. As a result of feeling so isolated from other people, Harriet exhibits yet another convention of the feminist child writer: she learns to shift her subject position.

That Harriet needs to learn to shift her subjectivity is clearly outlined in the novel. For example, early in the narrative Harriet wonders how lonely she would be flying around space if the universe blows up. Harriet does not perceive that she, too, would be destroyed along with everyone else (79). Later, Harriet egocentrically assumes that Mr. Waldenstein will move in with Ole Golly in the bedroom next to Harriet's after they get married (97). Ironically, Harriet accuses her mother of not thinking “about other people much” (102). Harriet certainly thinks of other people, but only as the objects of her spying; at this point in the novel she is incapable of even temporarily imagining their subject positions.

But eventually Harriet develops the ability to see herself as other people might. As part of the persecution she receives at the hands of her classmates, someone spills ink all over Harriet. The scene takes on the significance of being a ritual baptism, for after Harriet is washed in the metaphorical waters of her chosen profession, she has the epiphany that enables her to switch subject positions. Significantly, she actually employs linguistics to define this switch. When she realizes that her classmates have named the secret club they have formed The Spy Catcher Club, she thinks, “So it was she, Harriet, that they were talking about. She was her. How odd, she thought, to think of yourself as her” (223). Harriet initially identifies herself with grammatical correctness by using the nominative pronoun that the verb “to be” requires. But then she ungrammatically shifts her self-identification to the objective pronoun: “She was her.” Far from being a simple lapse of grammar, the change in pronoun case signifies the first time that Harriet is capable of perceiving herself as other people do and as she has perceived other people: in the object position.

Shortly after this experience, the text articulates an aesthetic philosophy which can guide Harriet. This articulation, itself a convention of the feminist children's Künstlerroman, triggers another convention of novels about feminist child writers when Harriet transforms her private writing into public writing. As with many feminist Künstlerromane, the aesthetic philosophy is inspired by a mentor.1 Ole Golly writes to Harriet and tells her, “If you are ever going to be a writer it is time you got cracking. You are eleven years old and haven't written a thing but notes” (275). Ole Golly quotes John Keats on truth and beauty to remind Harriet that as an art form, writing is a way to create beauty and express truths.2 Then, in a classic moment of self-contradiction, Ole Golly tells Harriet that sometimes she is going to have to lie about her writing. Ole Golly justifies her advice: “Remember that writing is to put love in the world, not to use against your friends. But to yourself you must always tell the truth” (276). The greatest weakness in Harriet the Spy is in this statement of the text's aesthetic philosophy. Ole Golly's advice is little more than the classic feminine reversion to deceit to survive in the patriarchal world. Nevertheless, the advice—traditional as it is—gives Harriet the ability to share her writing with other people. She writes a story that she sends to the New Yorker, and then she begins to write for her school newspaper.

This act marks the final and most crucial stage of the feminist children's Künstlerroman. In traditional male Künstlerromane such as Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the writer rejects his community and decides to pursue his art isolated from the sullying influence of a philistine world. In the traditional female Künstlerroman, however, the female writer often gives up her primary identity as a writer: to wit, Jo March perceives her roles as wife, mother, and headmistress as more important than her role as a writer by the end of Little Women. Thus, as Marianne Hirsch notes, male heroes in nineteenth-century Künstlerromane find a salvation in art that helps them avoid the female's almost mandated death, for pursuing art is rarely a resolution that female characters could pursue during that era (“Spiritual Bildung” 28). For male protagonists, the Künstlerroman establishes imagination and the inward life as a “solution” to the struggles he experiences, but for nineteenth-century female protagonists, focusing inward results only in stultification (Hirsch, “Spiritual Bildung” 46-47).

Like Harriet the Spy, Jo March has perceived herself as outside her culture. She has experienced the domestic grief of Beth's death, she has gone public with her writing, and she has learned to shift her subject position when she (unfortunately) perceives herself through Professor Bhaer's eyes. She even views herself through his “moral spectacles” in much the same way that Harriet wears her father's glasses: “Being a little shortsighted, Mr. Bhaer sometimes used eye-glasses, and Jo had tried them once, smiling to see how they magnified the fine print of her book; now she seemed to have got on the Professor's mental or moral spectacles also, for the faults of these poor stories glared at her dreadfully and filled her with dismay” (Little Women 322). Nevertheless, despite undergoing many of the stages of the feminist Künstlerroman that Harriet experiences, eventually Jo ceases to identify herself primarily as a writer.3 As Hirsch notes of many nineteenth-century novels by women, art is ultimately not a solution for Jo as a female protagonist (“Spiritual Bildung” 28).

Investigating the nuances of the Künstlerroman within children's literature, Jan Alberghene observes that in American children's books, artists often learn to place their community before their art. Many child characters in such novels decide that their community is more important than their individual need for artistic expression (From Alcott 1). But the feminist children's Künstlerroman modifies the paradigmatic endings of the (adult) male, the (adult) female, and the children's Künstlerroman. As in the typical children's Künstlerroman, the feminist protagonist reconciles herself to her community, but with this significant difference: she insists on maintaining her primary identity as a writer, as the protagonist of a traditional male Künstlerroman does and as the protagonist of a traditional female Künstlerroman does not.

Thus, at the end of Harriet the Spy, Harriet reconciles herself to her friends and identifies with them in a traditionally female act of empathy. In the final pages, she sees her closest friends, Janie and Sport, approaching her in the park, and she thinks:

They were so far away that they looked like dolls. They made her think of the way she imagined the people when she played Town. Somehow this way she could see them better than she ever had before. She looked at them each carefully in the longish time it took them to reach her. She made herself walk in Sport's shoes, feeling the holes in his socks rub against his ankles. She pretended she had an itchy nose when Janie put one abstracted hand up to scratch. She felt what it would feel like to have freckles and yellow hair like Janie, then funny ears and skinny shoulders like Sport.


Harriet has certainly learned to shift her subject position and to do what it takes to reconcile herself with her culture. But more important, she still identifies herself as a writer. One of the final sentences in the book is something Harriet writes in her journal: “Now that Things are Back to Normal I can get Some Real Work done” (298). The final sentences, “She slammed the book and stood up. All three of them turned then and walked along the river” (298), show that Harriet has learned to work within her community without sacrificing her art.

Lissa Paul calls Harriet the Spy “a successful female künstlerroman” because a “double feminist trick is in play”: Harriet “tricks” her classmates into accepting her journals as fiction when she writes them up for the school paper, and Fitzhugh “tricks critics” into approving of the text's duplicitous morality (“Feminist Writer” 67). Paul defines the following as feminist conventions at work in Harriet the Spy: Harriet “prefers a small-scale form of writing (the private notebook); she juggles her role in society (her popularity with her classmates) with her role as a writer (which demands selfishness); she is concerned with being truthful, but ultimately discovers that that necessitates lying; and she finds that domestic gossip constitutes a valid form of fiction” (67). I would argue that the “small-scale form” of Harriet's writing has as much to do with her being a child as her being female and that the juggling act between the writer's social and artistic roles is a concern in most Künstlerromane, regardless of the protagonist's gender. And while Paul's assessment of Harriet's deceit as a female survival tactic is accurate, I hesitate to label this duplicity “feminist.” I think, instead, Harriet is accepting a traditional gender role. What seems to me to be more feminist about the text is Harriet's refusal to give up her identity as writer. No matter how much pressure her parents, teachers, and friends exert on her, as the novel ends she is still triumphantly a writer.

Mollie Hunter's A Sound of Chariots, a largely autobiographical Künstlerroman, also demonstrates many of the conventions of the feminist children's Künstlerroman, despite a historical setting that might initially seem to preclude an articulation of feminist values.4 Bridie McShane is a young girl in post-World War I Scotland who uses writing to come to terms with her father's death. Unlike Harriet the Spy, which gradually builds toward the disequilibrium of grief that Ole Golly's departure causes Harriet, A Sound of Chariots opens with the death that causes the protagonist's acute sense of alienation. Thus, the entire novel is about Bridie's attempts to reconcile herself to her community while she develops artistically. Writing proves to be the means through which she effects this reconciliation.

Bridie perceives herself as a writer before her father ever dies; in fact, it is he who suggests that she might one day write a book (61). Because of his belief in her, she proudly proclaims, “I'm going to be an authoress!” (81). Her proclamation leads her sisters to mock her: “Author-ass! Author-ass!” (81). Her love of language makes her different from her sisters, and this difference is the source of their ostracism. Not only does she feel no sense of community with them, but she also even labels them “the Others” to confirm her own subject position by objectifying them.

Despite her sisters' teasing, Bridie loves words, “for the sound and the feel of them and the marvelous way they allowed her to unlock ideas from her mind” (82). Her metaphor for the writing experience is to describe herself as being like a prompter at a play: “The difference was that the copy she had was being written out while the play went on, and it was not she who prompted the actors. When she was stuck for a word, they prompted her” (84). Her understanding of language is both passive and postmodern: language exists as an exterior force that constructs who she is and what she writes. Yet Bridie's father has told her that “everyone's entitled to a private place in the mind” (111). She may be constructed by language, but she is, nevertheless and indisputably, an individual.

Although Bridie has established an identity for herself as a writer before her father's death, she does not fully understand the power that language can give her until she seeks a means to reconcile the subject/object split that she experiences as a result of her grief for her father. Bridie has been her father's favorite child, so his death devastates the nine-year-old girl. Although she has valued her mother's affection, it is her father's approbation that means the most to her. In the final outing before his death, while gazing at a photograph of herself, Bridie sees how much she physically resembles her father. The resulting feeling of connection she feels with him gives her great pleasure (114). But after he dies, she feels even more isolated from her community than she has before: “Everything seemed slower and quieter than it had been before and nothing that happened seemed to connect directly with her” (119).

Moreover, she experiences an increasing sense of terror as she recognizes her own mortality. She has a recurring nightmare in which she experiences herself as a fragmented body:

The nightmare … always took the same form. All the men in their street—the blind men, the legless, the armless ones—were standing in a silent, motionless group outside the wooden fence surrounding the little graveyard in front of the church. They were all looking in the same direction. … The something they were gazing at was a dismembered body. She could see all the different parts of it, each lying in the pool of its own blood, and as she watched she saw that each of the dismembered limbs was moving as if it was still alive. Then she became aware that the sound she could hear was the head crying feebly aloud, and with a rush of pity she realized that the body was alive and that its separated head was crying desperately for help.

None of the cripples moved to help it. She cried urgently to them, “It's still alive! Help it, please help it!” But the group of misshapen men, as if they had not heard her, continued to stand there as silent and motionless as some grotesque waxworks show.

She had to help it. It was impossible to leave the poor thing there, crying out like that. She crept towards it. The head turned and looked at her. She saw her own face and realized that the thing was herself.


A powerful evocation of the fragmented self, this passage's depiction of corporeal dismemberment is not unlike some of the imagery Margaret Atwood employs in The Edible Woman (1969) and Surfacing (1972) to represent women's fragmentation in modern culture. Although initially in the dream Bridie feels that she has some agency, for it is she who must help the fragmented body, when Bridie sees herself not only in the object position of the veterans' gazes but as an actual object, a “thing,” she loses that sense of her own agency and becomes immobilized.

This sense of powerlessness comes from her fear of death, her recognition that if death “could happen to [her father], it could happen to her!” (133). The passage that leads to this recognition emphasizes the importance of Bridie's subject position. As she and her brother and sisters prepare to bury a rabbit that has died, “She saw that Moira and Aileen and William looked very solemn and that Nell had an earnest, uplifted expression on her face. But close as they all were to her, she had the curious impression that they were tiny and faraway as if she was seeing them through the wrong end of the telescope” (131, emphasis added). Bridie runs away from “the Others” because she fears she is going blind, and she ends up standing in the lane, where she recognizes her own mortality. But her anagnorisis, that is, her moment of self-recognition, has been clearly predicated on shifting her subject position; her blindness is replaced by a confusing vision of herself as both subject and object.

Bridie experiences this anagnorisis in terms as visceral as her nightmares have been. “In panic revulsion from the thought she jerked upright as if she could pull herself physically away from it,” but she scrapes her hand across some brier-rose thorns (133). As she watches the blood that oozes from the scratches, she thinks: “This was her life, these shiny red drops welling from her skin, and with the inescapable fact that she would die some day still beating in her brain she was suddenly seeing them with an acuteness of vision that made it seem as if a skin had been peeled from her eyes” (133). Bridie is experiencing a subject split: is she object/blood or is she subject/vision?

This split is exacerbated when Bridie goes to pick violets for her mother's birthday. Bridie has been overwhelmed by her mother's grief and hopes that the flowers will comfort the grieving woman. The girl climbs over a stone fence to get to the bank where the flowers grow and lands in a pile of lambs' tails that a shepherd has recently shorn. Bridie is repulsed at the “blood and bits of bodies” (156); this dismemberment scene seems to be an enactment of her nightmare. But Bridie grows because of this virtual immersion in corporality. She has literally bathed herself in the blood of the lamb; the paschal image is reinforced when she shares red wine and bread with the shepherd's wife, who tries to calm the hysterical girl. And after sharing this female communion, Bridie can finally separate herself from her mother's grief:

She didn't care about her mother now because she just couldn't bear any more horrifying things to happen. She was finished with her mother's grief now, finished with it. She wouldn't think about it ever again. She couldn't bear to think of it or the thing she had dreaded would come true again. The nightmare of the body in the churchyard would come smothering down on her in broad daylight like it had when her face had been pressed down into the blood and bits of bodies and she would scream and scream and scream till her head exploded in screaming.


The blood imagery prefigures Bridie's menarche, which is a vital stage in her maturation (228-29), but Bridie's recognition of herself as separate from her mother is an even more crucial stage in her artistic development. She is beginning to recognize that her interior world is the source of her own agency.

Bridie's employer, Mr. Purves, cautions Bridie: “You think too much and you see too much and it's all there in your face” (180). This “revelation” causes Bridie to lead what she considers a double life; she learns to act like “an empty-headed chatterbox” to conceal that “underneath this there was the other part of her mind, like another person watching all her antics and observing the effect they had” (182-83). Bridie is still living in the subject/object split, viewing herself dispassionately but still significantly engaged in the act of viewing. She intentionally uses the double position that this split affords her as a way to separate herself from her fear of “Time's wingèd chariot hurrying near” (194). When she engages her subjectivity to view herself in the object position, she feels victorious: “As if she was on a different plane then, another level of living entirely from the moment as it existed for those taking part in it, she would see it suddenly projected with a strange, objective clarity in front of her. And with a thrill of triumph she would know that she had snatched yet another moment from the wasteful stream of living running past her; another moment of time had been caught and petrified forever in her memory” (215). Like Harriet, Bridie considers memory a form of self-definition, and like Harriet, she recognizes that memory is language-bound.

Bridie's capacity to understand herself with a double vision ultimately becomes the aesthetic philosophy that underpins A Sound of Chariots. The text insists that a writer must be someone who both lives in the world and who removes herself from it to view it objectively. This doubleness turns the novel into a triumphant admixture of the traditional male Künstlerroman and the feminist children's Künstlerroman: the writer should be simultaneously detached from and immersed in her community.

Grace Stewart notes that this sense of double vision is a convention in the Künstlerroman, but she argues, “Whereas the man feels split between personal and social being, the woman experiences that split and the separation of sexual and personal identity” (175). Bridie does seem to have difficulty with her sexual identity. Her fondest early memories include being her father's favorite child because she is a tomboy, and later she rejects menstruation, declaring, “I won't have it! I won't let it happen to me!” (227). Stewart notes that in many Künstlerromane written by women, birds are mutilated in some way or another (177). As an image of artistic freedom, birds show the destruction of the female artist. Yet in A Sound of Chariots it is not birds who are shown to be destroyed; instead, it is a rabbit, a traditional symbol of female fertility, that is dead. When linked with Bridie's androgyny, the dead rabbit indicates the girl's rejection of one traditional role of the female subject: that of procreator.

Like Harriet, Bridie has a mentor, her English teacher, Dr. McIntyre, who directly advises her about what it means to be a writer. He calls Bridie “a poet-in-embryo” and chants her name over and over (219) in a passage that Sarah Smedman identifies as “a kind of ritualistic calling her forth to and priestly confirmation of her sacred vocation” (137). Dr. McIntyre also reinforces the double aesthetics of A Sound of Chariots when he tells Bridie that experience “can only be constructive if the subject of it succeeds in building outwards from it. Otherwise, there is only a self-destructive burrowing-inwards, a futile self-consumption of intellect that is the antithesis of creativeness. For creativeness, my child, is all outgoing. It is experience absorbed and put forth again in a finer form” (220). Here McIntyre seems to be counseling Bridie to write for other people, as Ole Golly might say, “To put love in the world” (Fitzhugh 276). But later, McIntyre reminds Bridie that “you always will be alone. … Alone in your mind, that is, for you have chosen the loneliest of all vocations—or rather, I should say, it has chosen you” (237). This time, McIntyre articulates the masculine mythos of the poet as removed from any community. Note, however, that McIntyre's metaphor places Bridie in the object position: poetry has chosen her rather than her choosing to be a poet. The metaphor implies the primacy of language: language constructs the subject rather than the subject constructing language.

McIntyre's most compelling advice to Bridie is for her to “live” for her father: “Don't let your talent die because he is dead. Let it flower from his death and speak for both of you!” (238). McIntyre's advice is not the paternal advice that it initially might seem to be; it is not an insistence that Bridie become her father, for she interprets it to mean that she should use her memory of her father and the pain she has felt as the inspiration to become the writer she wants to be. Although grief has caused her to feel alienated from other people, it has also provided her with the inspiration to write, and through writing, she finally feels reconnected to the world. For example, by the end of the novel, Bridie has learned to work with her sisters at communal tasks (165), and she has openly acknowledged her acceptance of her mother and the pride she feels for her (213, 239). These reconciliations mark Bridie's readiness to move to a larger community where she can work and send her wages home to help support her family. Thus, ironically, Bridie takes her place in the community by leaving it.

In the novel's final image, Bridie rides a tram to her new home in Edinburgh. She describes seeing “a great vase of full-blown roses, white roses looking with soft, ghostly faces at her out of the purple-black darkness of the empty room behind them” (242). She has left the familiar community of her childhood home, so in a sense she is like the roses, which have reached maturity but bloom removed from their community. She feels herself to be a “galleon plunging through perilous seas,” but her guiding star will be the poetry she will write. And she has maintained her self-image of herself as a writer. The final lines in the text assert that all she will need to write is “a little light, a little time” (242); all she will need is a room of her own. The ramifications for feminism are important. Bridie clearly feels herself at one with language. So, for that matter, does Harriet. In fact, the only way these girls know how to define themselves is through language. Through language and in writing, they accept their own subjectivities, gaining a voice and rejecting the silencing that their cultures seem to expect of them.

The protagonist of the feminist children's Künstlerroman need not necessarily be female. For example, Beverly Cleary's Dear Mr. Henshaw displays a number of the genre's conventions, even though the androgynously named protagonist, Leigh Botts, is male. He suffers from the grief caused by his parents' divorce; he feels like an outsider because his mother and he moved after the divorce; he feels ostracized because someone steals the best part of his lunch every day. He has a mentor, the children's author, Mr. Henshaw, who inspires him to write, although it is actually Leigh's mother who articulates the text's aesthetic philosophy after she reads a letter from Mr. Henshaw. Leigh writes to tell Mr. Henshaw his mother's advice: “She says … I should read, look, listen, think and write” (14). Leigh goes public with his writing when his school sponsors a writing contest. He has a moment of self-recognition when his writing is validated by a woman who is a published author. She calls him an “author,” and she tells him he writes well because “you wrote like you, and you did not try to imitate someone else” (118, 119-20). By the end of the novel, Leigh has accepted himself as a writer and has been accepted into his community. If his self-acceptance seems more inevitable than Harriet's or Bridie's has, perhaps that is because he is a male in a culture where assuming the role of writer has been more easily granted to men than women, but the novel is still more feminist than not in its workings.5

Not every novel written in the last thirty years about a child writer qualifies as a feminist children's Künstlerroman, however. Sheila Greenwald has written a number of novels that involve girls who are developing their talents at writing, most notably It All Began with Jane Eyre: Or, the Secret Life of Franny Dillman (1980) and the books in her Rosy Cole series. Greenwald's books are humorous and her protagonists are spunky, but they use their writing talents primarily as a way to get involved in romantic relationships. Franny Dillman's greatest achievement does not seem to be the book she's written; it's that she's finally been noticed by a boy. Ditto for Rosy Cole in Rosy's Romance (1989).

Even books as disparate as Ellen Conford's Jenny Archer, Author (1989) and Barbara Wersba's Love Is the Crooked Thing (1987) are not this obvious. Although written for quite a young reading audience, Jenny Archer learns the difference between creating fiction and nonfiction, and she finds her imaginative creativity affirmed. Similarly, although the protagonist of the young adult novel Love Is the Crooked Thing initially worries more about her relationship with her boyfriend than anything, eventually she realizes that her writing matters more to her than he does. While neither Conford's nor Wersba's book develops a protagonist who learns to “write herself,” as Cixous would say, their books display more of the conventions of the feminist children's Künstlerroman than Greenwald's books do.

While Michael Cadden was a graduate student in one of my seminars, he pointed out that the biggest difference between traditional and feminist children's Künstlerromane is that in the feminist ones, the texts end before the child protagonist grows up and “gets boring,” as he put it; that is, the novel ends before the protagonist enters the typical gender-encoded roles of courtship. Annis Pratt refers to this pattern as “dwarfing” or “dulling a hero's initiative and restraining her maturation” (41). Jo March in Little Women, Judy Abbott in Daddy-Long-Legs, Francie Nolan in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Julie Bishop in Up a Road Slowly, and Julia Redfern in The Private Worlds of Julia Redfern (1988) all end up as young adults preoccupied by love interests; they lose the sense of autonomy that has made them interesting characters in the first place.

That Eleanor Cameron's Julia Redfern series ends with Julia's immersion in a romantic relationship seems particularly disappointing. After all, she is a girl who, like Bridie McShane, recognizes the interiority of the writing process:

As I'm writing, I'm hearing and seeing it all—the story—and it's like a play, because there's the dialogue and you're listening inside your head to just how a person would say something. You have to hear the tone and the way of saying and the rhythm, just as you do onstage when you're rehearsing your lines. And you're seeing it all happen. If you can't, how could you know what each character is doing every moment, in relation to the others, just how they're sitting or standing or turning and moving off the stage of your scene.

(The Private Worlds 194)

The process makes Julia feel powerful: she is the creator of whole worlds. And like Harriet, Julia recognizes herself as a writer when she is quite young (That Julia Redfern 15-17); she even publishes at an early age (A Room Made of Windows 267). But in having the luxury of developing a character over the course of five novels, Cameron transforms Julia from a rebellious child artist into a fairly predictable lovelorn adolescent. Although Julia does not give up her identity as a writer (which is what keeps the series from being nonfeminist), by the end of the final volume of the series, when Julia feels “unaccountably joyous and hopeful” (218), her hopes are directed not toward her writing ambitions but toward her boyfriend's return (which is what keeps the series from being strongly feminist, either).

Feminist children's Künstlerromane demonstrate protagonists who recognize their agency because of their writing. Novels in the genre share a number of characteristics, but the most important is the character's immersion in language that allows her to emerge as an artist who participates in her community without sacrificing her art. Her art and her voice are one. The protagonist of the feminist children's Künstlerroman transcends the obstacles that confront her and emerges a fledgling artist.


  1. One significant problem that Jo March faces is this lack of an encouraging mentor; her mentor figure, Professor Bhaer, actually discourages her writing. Beverly Lyon Clark catalogs the “devaluation” of writing that occurs throughout the novel (90).

  2. Lissa Paul asserts that “Ole Golly usually doesn't quite understand what she reads. She quotes a lot, but can't explain the quotations” (“Feminist Writers” 67-68). Nevertheless, although Ole Golly can't fully explain Dostoievsky (as Francis Molson has noted [“Another Look” 966]), the complete appropriateness of Ole Golly's use of Keats indicates that she does, in fact, understand this particular quotation and that she is intentionally and accurately applying it to a pertinent context.

  3. Paul points out that Alcott achieves, in a sense, a sort of subversive victory with Little Women in that even though Jo gives up her identity as writer, it is still Jo-the-writer, the rebellious character of the first two thirds of the book, who remains alive in readers' memories (“Coming Second,” chap. 8). On the other hand, Estes and Lant call the ending of Little Women a “spiritual murder” (103), a “desperate mutilation” of both Jo and the text itself (116), as Alcott grafts onto Jo Beth's compliant characteristics to transform the rebellious young writer into the image of Victorian domesticity.

  4. In her acceptance speech of the 1992 Phoenix award at the Nineteenth International Children's Literature Association Conference in Hartford, Connecticut, Hunter stated that everything that happened in Sound of Chariots really happened to her when she was a child.

  5. Note, too, that Leigh's mother struggles and succeeds at building a life for herself and her son after her divorce. She does not perceive herself as a victim because the divorce has been her choice.

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Criticism: Overviews And General Studies


Criticism: Minority KüNstlerroman