Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 700
The first section of volume 1 begins with an admonition by D. H. Lawrence: “Fight for your life, men. Fight your wife out of her own self-conscious preoccupation with herself. Batter her out of it till she’s stunned.” The authors then turn to standard texts to cull other battle imagery and evidence of gender antagonism. While mid-Victorian stories by writers of both sexes show women in defeat, turn-of-the-century tales of what would happen if women gained power abound: Hordes of Amazons and Titans make men into sex slaves or eradicate them altogether. These tales of killing, of humiliation, of societies ruled by women who revel in the destruction of men, are balanced by more traditional ones of men pillaging and raping.
Gilbert and Gubar explain that as more women entered the world of literature, a field formerly dominated by men, they met with resistance from those who thought that they might be taking away work rightfully belonging to men. Sometimes their successes were discounted as being spawned by a readership mainly consisting of inconsequential women of leisure. Nathaniel Hawthorne called them a “damned mob of scribbl[ers].” Later, twentieth century misogyny may have grown from the position in which many male writers found themselves. Some were dependent upon women patrons who subsidized their work or female editors who evaluated their work, exercising the power to cut or reject.
This increasingly hostile climate was intensified by fears engendered by the suffrage movement. To many men of letters, the emancipation of women heralded a feminine takeover. Text upon text in this period dealt with “the Woman Question.” Victorian moralist Nicholas Francis Cooke observed in 1870 that “this matter of ‘Women’s Rights’ ” will result in woman becoming “rapidly unsexed and degraded . . .; she will cease to be the gentle mother, and become the Amazonian brawler.” In Geschlecht und Charakter (1903; Sex and Character, 1906), Otto Weininger noted that “Women have no existence and no essence; they are not, they are nothing. . . . Woman has no share in ontological reality.”
These assumptions were most widely challenged at the beginning of the twentieth century, a period marked by upheaval and change. Women, initially excluded from higher education, now founded their own colleges and eventually gained access to male institutions and to greater intellectual autonomy. Advances in birth control methods gave them a freedom they had not known before. Then, with the advent of World War I in 1914, opportunities for meaningful employment expanded.
Large numbers of women entered a workforce vacated by men called to battle. For these men, who had gone to war with visions of a swift conflict followed by a victorious return, the grim realities of trench warfare, the protracted horror of death and decay, created resentment—of the older generation that had created the war and the women who had replaced them so easily in the factories. The women did flourish, to the point that some treated the prospect of the end of the war and return to domestic life as a sad occasion.
The war, a liberating experience for women, served to enslave many men who were unable to forget what they had seen, to forgive what they had endured. Some experienced severe shell shock, one doctor noting that combat survivors on occasion displayed symptoms formerly thought of as female maladies.
In the postwar period, a literature of impotency, of emasculation emerged. Male characters were literally or figuratively castrated, made weak by war or women or circumstances. Citing an Emily Dickinson poem, “I rose—because He sank—,” Gilbert and Gubar note that women writers of this period seem curiously strengthened, as though they were free to rise only if their men “sank.” Their female characters, however, often turned guilt at being empowered into a kind of punishment. They enjoyed a moment of power but suffered sad consequences. Emancipation and equality did not come easily.
The volumes of No Man’s Land are interlaced with humor, at times a punning and wordplay that some critics find annoying and forced. Nevertheless, Gilbert and Gubar’s conversational tone helps to make their work readable and accessible to both scholar and layperson. Their discussions of the early masters of the canon will change the reading of these artists henceforth.