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No Man's Land Summary

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

No Man’s Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century, an ambitious three-volume series by the most influential feminist literary critics of their generation, addresses the changing identities of female and male writers of the twentieth century. In particular, Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar analyze the literature and literary movements of the century as products of a war between the sexes. As the series title suggests, as women gained power, beginning in the late nineteenth century, through the women’s movement, and as women discovered new identities for themselves, men experienced a corresponding sense of emasculation, perceiving themselves as “no-men.”

In volume 1, The War of the Words, Gilbert and Gubar describe the ways that literary modernism, the prevailing style of the 1920’s and 1930’s, differs in the works of male and female writers, grounding their arguments in analysis of social and cultural events. They conclude that modernism and avant-garde writing are the result of a sexual battle between men and women. Modernism has traditionally been considered largely a male movement; Gilbert and Gubar credit women writers with a greater role in its development than most previous critics do.

Volume 2, Sexchanges, argues that, as sex roles change, the sexes battle, resulting in changes in what is perceived as erotic. Definitions of sex and sex roles evolved through three phases: rejection and revision of Victorian feminine ideals; antiutopian skepticism about the feminization of women; and “the virtually apocalyptic engendering of the new,” perhaps most strongly influenced by the realization that while sex is biological, gender is an artifice, not a natural condition.

Volume 3, Letters from the Front analyzes works by women that seem particularly to express the psychological effect of social change. The discussions focus on the notion of the “family plot,” referring to the changing structure of the family, the changing notion of narrative, and burial of the idea that the family has a single or static structure.

The three monumental volumes discuss works by numerous major and minor women writers. Americans receiving especially in-depth treatment include Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Marianne Moore, and Sylvia Plath. Gilbert and Gubar also trace ongoing traditions of black and lesbian women’s writing. The analyses consistently focus on the social and historical forces that shape identity and self-perception.