Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Adrienne Rich’s On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978 is a collection of twenty-two essays, some of which appeared earlier in such journals as Chrysalis: A Magazine of Women’s Culture, Parnassus: Poetry in Review, and Heresies: A Feminist Magazine of Art and Politics. Others have served as introductions to books, and a few are previously unpublished talks. In a 1979 review of the work, literary critic Ellen Moers noted a misleading title, given its hint of “whining and whimpering,” believing that Feminism, Pedagogy, and Literature would have more aptly described the content.

The essays deal with such matters as child care, consciousness-raising, tokenism, women’s studies programs, male psychiatrists, motherhood, lesbianism, black feminism, abortion, sexual harassment on the job, woman beating, equal pay, pornography, and the rights of lesbian mothers. Rich makes a strong argument for a woman-centered university where female teachers would not need to seek male mentor approval, or the female student teacher/father approval. She devotes whole segments to Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre (1847); writers Anne Bradstreet, Emily Dickinson, Anne Sexton, and Eleanor Ross Taylor; and the war in Vietnam.

In these essays, Rich associates women with victimhood, men with violence, and heterosexuality with rape. She tends toward a romantic vision of a female-dominated...

(The entire section is 470 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Adrienne Rich has had considerable impact on the women’s movement. She is a prolific writer, and hers was the first forceful voice of lesbian-feminism. Critics agree that, though her biases sometimes deflect her message, she deserves serious attention. She raises questions, poses dilemmas, and enlightens. She forces both a looking inward and a looking outward. She addresses problems that affect all people.

Rich has received widespread literary recognition. She won the Ridgely Torrence Memorial Award of the Poetry Society of America in 1955, the Grace Thayer Bradley Award of Friends of Literature in 1956, the National Institute of Arts and Letters award for poetry in 1961, the Bess Hokin Prize of Poetry magazine in 1963, the Eunice Teitjens Memorial Prize of Poetry magazine in 1968, a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1970, the Shelley Memorial Award of the Poetry Society of America in 1971, and in 1974 the coveted National Book Award for her poetry collection Diving into the Wreck (1973). She refused to accept this last award as an individual, in protest of the token role to which women of the time were relegated, taking it instead in honor of all women. Her other prose works include Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1976) and Blood, Bread, and Poetry: Selected Prose 1979-1985 (1986). Critics have noted that, though some of her themes are derivative, having been well covered in other feminist tracts, she conveys the message with the grace of a poet.

On Lies, Secrets, and Silence

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

ph_0111201274-Rich.jpg Adrienne Rich Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Among the growing ranks of radical feminist poets, Adrienne Rich is probably the best-known and most eloquent. Speaking for their cause, in the Foreword to this book she cites Susan B. Anthony’s impatient cry, “How shall we ever make the world intelligent on our movement?” Then in a collection of essays and notes spanning more than a decade, Rich furnishes material with which that world might begin to educate itself. She probes issues (“secrets”) that are most often relegated to “silence” and covered by “lies”: among them, women loving women, fallacies in the assumption that conventional marriage is a worthy base for society, lesbian motherhood—and always, at least implicitly, the wrongs done to women and to the quality of life by the dominant patriarchal system.

It is no doubt true that some potential readers will reject the book out of hand because of the author’s expressed sexual preference. She is aware of that; as she notes, the word “lesbian” has powerful reverberations, often striking fear, disgust, and even hatred in its hearers. Yet her book has been hailed by such women as Tillie Olsen and Mary Daly (vide the paperback cover); Rich writes urgently, and she is well worth attending.

In fact, On Lies, Secrets, and Silence contains much more than militant feminism. It is autobiography and women’s history, it is a critique of the educational system, and it is literary criticism. Before considering these several topics, however, a familiarity with Rich’s life up to the earliest of the essays—1966—is important, since the author’s evolution as a poet and as a feminist is pertinent to the new volume. Born in 1929, Rich began writing poems as a child, encouraged by her earliest ideal audience, her father. Her reading in his library was of the “standard” nineteenth century male poets. At Radcliffe she published her first volume, A Change of World, chosen by W. H. Auden for the Yale Younger Poets Award. Her models had become twentieth century male poets; only latently is there evidence in these poems of her later directions. After a Guggenheim Fellowship in Europe, she married a Harvard professor, and by age thirty she was the mother of three children.

Her writing continued during the decade of the “silent 1950’s”—silent for women. But depression plagued her, by her own account, for increasingly she felt herself a failed poet and a failed woman, unable to find a workable synthesis of her two roles. In the turbulent 1960’s, however, after a process of self-searching and redefinition, she found her own voice and began to seek and claim kinship—no longer with Auden and Yeats, but with literary forebears such as Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf. To read Rich’s poetry chronologically is to trace her intellectual and emotional evolution from what Auden complimented her on—her good manners, detachment, and formal skill—to the outspoken, free, impassioned woman’s voice of The Dream of a Common Language (1978).

Rich’s turn toward feminism began with a search for a selfhood undefined by such roles as “wife,” “mother,” and even “good-mannered poet.” She came to hope for a change in the attitudes of both men and women toward one another and toward themselves. She hoped for freedom from repressive stereotyping, hoped that men would learn to acknowledge what for a time she believed to be “the ghostly woman” in all males; further, she hoped that women could learn their own powers and cease being defined and repressed by the patriarchal system. Even as late as the earlier essays in the present volume, she retained this androgynous ideal. As the essays with her accompanying commentaries reveal, however, her hope for what she sees as an urgent need for total restructuring of society has now come to rest almost altogether with women.

In order to carry the story of her evolution to the present, Rich arranges these essays chronologically, not deleting opinions she has abandoned, but remarking on them. Thus the book reveals a continuing self-assessment as well as a clear picture of the world as she perceives it.

Rather than deal separately with the essays on social criticism, however, one may draw on them as a group to see Rich’s main concerns: “Vietnam and Sexual Violence,” “Motherhood in Bondage,” “Conditions for Work,” and “Husband-Right and Father-Right,” among others. Central to her thought is her view of the patriarchy, which she defines as a system “dominated by violent and passive-aggressive men, and by male institutions dispensing violence”; it is a “culture which endorses sadomasochistic male homosexual and heterosexual behavior, violent pornography, and forcible sterilization.” It has made women passive victims of guilt, self-doubt, rape, and pacifying drugs; it has denied them intellectual prowess, expurgated them from the established canons of literature and art, and caricatured their efforts at self-determination. It is the patriarchy that makes the traditional family (father the head, wife and children his adjuncts) the socially accepted norm and that has created institutions (educational, economic, domestic) to perpetuate female subservience. It leads to “war, exploitation, greed for power, and ravagement of the nonhuman living world.” In short, “a patriarchal society is dangerous for humanity.”

Yet within this system, it is the women who have been the menders, the healers, the nurturers; their domain, despite the system, has been “world-protection, world-preservation, world-repair.” Rich’s picture of the world produces an unequivocal demand for change in all aspects of society; she sees as absolute necessity that women “gain control of our bodies and our lives for our selves and others.” Yet who will be the agents to work such profound reordering? “A militant and pluralistic lesbian/feminine movement is potentially the greatest force in the...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Erkkila, Betsy. The Wicked Sisters: Women Poets, Literary History, and Discord. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. A chapter entitled “Adrienne Rich, Emily Dickinson, and the Limits of Sisterhood” provides an astute analysis of the place of Rich in the feminist movement from the 1960’s to the 1990’s.

Hooks, Bell. Feminist Theory from Margin to Center. Boston: South End Press, 1984. A work that further defines and expands feminism, reflecting the outcome of the split in the late 1970’s into particular agendas. As Hooks says, “The vision of Sisterhood evoked by women’s liberationists was based on the idea of common oppression [but that] was a false and corrupt platform. . . . Women are divided by sexist attitudes, racism, class privilege, and a host of other prejudices.”

Michie, Helena. The Flesh Made Word: Female Figures and Women’s Bodies. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. An examination of the Victorian portrayal of female bodies in art, poems, novels, and popular publications, such as sex manuals and etiquette books. This short volume also provides a new reading of the works of Adrienne Rich, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Audre Lorde, and many others.

Moers, Ellen. Literary Women. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1976. Considered a classic, this is a good place to start a serious study of feminist criticism. Includes discussions of Jane Austen, George Sand, Colette, Simone Weil, and Virginia Woolf.

Rich, Adrienne. Blood, Bread, and Poetry: Selected Prose 1979-1985. New York: W. W. Norton, 1986. Rich’s writings reflect her growth as she defines and redefines herself. She is always evolving, and these later writings sometimes negate or undo earlier ones.