No Man's Land

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, the feminist team which has produced the fine The Madwoman in the Attic (1979) on women writers in the nineteenth century and The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women (1985), now turn their attention to twentieth century materials. When complete, No Man’s Land will comprise three volumes; the first installment, The War of the Words (1988), was “an overview of social, literary, and linguistic interactions between men and women” for the past century, focusing on the literal and figurative battle of the sexes begun by the first wave of feminism in the nineteenth century. The ambitiousness of this effort is exceeded only by the audacity of their thesis. Modernism, they argue, “is a product of [this) sexual battle,” and is at least in part “a reaction- formation against the rise of literary women.”

The title of the second volume, Sexchanges, is Gilbert and Gubar’s shorthand for changing definitions of sex and sex roles, as well as for literal, symbolic, and iconographic sex changes themselves. These cultural changes are followed through three phases: the “repudiation” of the “Victorian ideology of femininity” at the end of the nineteenth century; the “antiutopian skepticism” of writers such as Edith Wharton and Willa Cather toward a “crippling feminization of women”; and the “apocalyptic engendering of the new” fostered both by a visible lesbian community and by the traumas of World War I. The book, therefore, is divided into three sections, corresponding to these phases.

As was the case in the first volume, Gilbert and Gubar here continue to assume that history is knowable, and that texts have authors who are a part of material contexts. Certain well-known texts, therefore, are not privileged aesthetic or philosophic objects to be studied in a vacuum; each is seen as authored by a gendered human being. Individual narratives can be “conflate[d] and collate[d],” say Gilbert and Gubar, “so that they constitute one possible metastory, a story of stories about gender strife in this period.”

In support of their bold thesis, the authors marshal a huge amount of evidence, including not only belles lettres but also biography, journals, and correspondence, photographs, posters, and popular songs. They resurrect lost or little-known works (by both women and men), and do not fear to reread and interpret such standards as T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), and Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (1929).

The present book begins with an exhaustive analysis of H. Rider Haggard’s She (1887), the material used ranging far afield in both time and space. In analyzing the femme fatale in this best-selling fantasy, Gilbert and Gubar draw upon Greek mythology, the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Arthurian cycle, and the Romantics. She is also read in relation to the nineteenth century’s fascination with Egypt, archaeology, and mummification. In Gilbert and Gubar’s reading, Haggard dramatizes the idea that “women and colonized peoples were analogically a single group”—both were “the Other.”

The second chapter contrasts the “masculinist mythology” of She with two creations of the “New Woman,” Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm (1883) and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland (1915). These two authors, “the two major feminist-polemicists” of the period, “both sought to imagine a female primacy that transcended debilitating sex roles.” The two works, so different in many ways (Schreiner’s purports to be “realistic,” Gilman’s is a “utopian fantasy”), are both located “on the outskirts of civilization” (the South African veldt and a South American jungle). Both criticize traditional Christianity and its position on women, and, most important, valorize women’s biology, specifically, the power of the womb. Schreiner and Gilman, according to Gilbert and Gubar, “counter the paternal curse with a maternal blessing.”

Schreiner explored the relation of sexism to imperialism in Women and Labour (1911), which explained her concept of sexual parasitism. She argues that female idleness is possible only when there are slaves or subject classes, so that the dominant group has so many material goods “that mere physical toil on the part of its own female members has become unnecessary.” Schreiner also makes clear that the interdependence of the parasite and the host models the interdependence of the colony and its imperial parent; also, the male’s biological dependence on the female has this same parasitical nature.

The second chapter’s title, “Home Rule: The Colonies of the New...

(The entire section is 1971 words.)