No Man's Land

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2067

At the beginning of the long-awaited first volume of No Man’s Land: Volume I, The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century, Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar describe the problems they faced in producing a sequel to The Madwoman in the Attic (1979), their path-breaking study of nineteenth century women writers. “Comical colleagues ... insisted that it would be hard to construct ’Daughter of Madwoman’ or ’Madwoman Meets Abbott and Costello’ (or even ’Madwoman Meets the Lost Generation’),” Gilbert and Gubar recall in their preface. Their colleagues proved to be correct. As the study of British and American women writers progressed, it expanded into an investigation of works by men as well as by women, viewed in the social as well as the literary context of the last one hundred years. Eventually, the single-volume No Man’s Land that the collaborators had originally projected became three books, with volume 1, entitled The War of the Words, laying the groundwork for Sexchanges and Letters from the Front.

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In Sexchanges, Gilbert and Gubar plan to examine some precursors of modernism, offering close readings of works by, among others, H. Rider Haggard, Olive Schreiner, Willa Cather, and Edith Wharton. In Letters from the Front, they will discuss works by such feminist modernists and postmodernists as Virginia Woolf, Zora Neale Hurston, and H. D. The War of the Words is thus a transitional and pivotal book, broader and in some respects more complex than its predecessor and one infers, its successors. Written for an audience acquainted with literary history, this first volume of No Man’s Land draws on literary and nonliterary, canonical and noncanonical works to argue that the rise of the New Woman, the suffrage movement, and the increasing importance of women in the literary marketplace, far from being marginal historical events, have played major and previously overlooked roles in the development of modernist and postmodernist literature.

As the general title No Man’s Land and the titles of each volume suggest, Gilbert and Gubar use the motif of sexual warfare to present their sweeping revision of literary history. Throughout The War of the Words, literal and imaginary exchanges between such embattled pairs as Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes are made emblematic of larger, ongoing conflicts between women and men, conflicts that result from a “reaction-formation” on the part of male intellectuals to changes in the status of women in general and of literary women in particular. Reaction-formation, the label Sigmund Freud gave to ego-generated resistance against unacceptable pressures from the instincts—resistance that takes the form of anxiety—is one of many references to psychoanalytic theory that inform The War of the Words. Nevertheless, the orientation of The War of the Words is by no means narrowly or exclusively psychoanalytic; rather, Gilbert and Gubar use the tenets of several critical approaches, resting their analysis on the assumptions that “there is a knowable history” and that “texts are authored by people whose lives and minds are affected by the material conditions of that history,” especially gender.

Proceeding from these assumptions, the argument of The War of the Words, though at times complex, is never dogmatic. Supported throughout by elegant and ingenious readings of key texts, it is informed by the work of other scholars and theorists, and it is scrupulously documented. Like The Madwoman in the Attic, this volume features intriguing epigraphs and illustrations, including reproductions of paintings, posters, and cartoons. Best of all, Gilbert and Gubar’s collaborative method has produced prose that is filled with pleasures for eye and ear and that is, in a few remarkable passages, dense with puns, sometimes delightfully scandalous ones. This witty, allusive approach appropriately lightens the grim theme of warfare that unifies the book.

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The motif of sexual battle extends to the structure of Gilbert and Gubar’s argument. The first of the volume’s five chapters deals with “The Men’s Case,” the second with “The Women’s Cause,” the third with “Modernism and Masculinism,” the fourth with “The Female Affiliation Complex,” the fifth with literary men’s and women’s relationships to language; thus, the chapters themselves represent alternations of fire between opposing camps. The collaborators begin chapter 1, “The Battle of the Sexes: The Men’s Case,” with a detailed comparison of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s The Princess (1847) and W. S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan’s Princess Ida: Or, Castle Adamant (1884), using these works to explore cultural debate about “the woman question” and to demonstrate growing hostility to women’s advances and achievements in the last half of the nineteenth century. While changes in the status of women have not always appeared on lists of forces in the creation of modernism—such lists typically include the ideas of Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and Freud, the decline of religious faith, and World War I—Gilbert and Gubar use close readings to demonstrate that sexual antagonism and anxiety about the dissolution of patriarchal power mark works by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James and are prominent in such central modernist texts as Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier (1915) and D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love (1920). Citing characters such as Leopold Bloom, the Fisher King, Jake Barnes, and Joe Christmas, Gilbert and Gubar observe that male authors of this period are obsessed with emasculation and impotence, preoccupations that are not merely metaphorical but literal expressions of sexual anxiety as well. Gilbert and Gubar use such works as W. D. Snodgrass’ Heart’s Needle (1959), Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), and Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) to argue that in literature by post-modernist male writers, anxiety is evinced by “praising women for compliant sexiness while blaming them for prudish frigidity and castrating maternity,” with only black and homosexual writers offering even an ambivalent critique of the “heterosexual imperative.”

The second chapter, entitled, “Fighting for Life: The Women’s Cause,” is also structured chronologically. Here Gilbert and Gubar explain that the responses of women writers to the sexual battle are more complex and wide-ranging than male writers’. Not only anger and rebellion but also guilt and vulnerability, not only ecstatic fantasies of triumph but also frightening dreams of destruction and loss appear in literature by the premodernist, modernist, and postmodernist women of letters whose works Gilbert and Gubar examine. Because of the politics of canon formation, many of the works discussed in this chapter are less familiar than the canonical texts discussed in the chapters on male writers. While Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929) has become well-known, stories such as Rebecca West’s “Indissoluble Matrimony” (1914) and Carson McCullers’ “Ballad of the Sad Café” (1943) are among the noncanonical works that reveal the subtleties and apparent contradictions in women writers’ participation in the war of the words. One of the most interesting points Gilbert and Gubar make in this chapter is that in feministmodernist fiction, male characters may be weak by design because “in the absence of male potency, the presence of victorious females becomes imaginable”; in other words, what has been viewed as an inadequacy in women’s writing—the “inability” to draw strong male characters—is reinterpreted as intentional and legitimate.

Chapter 3, with its readings of works by Thomas Hardy, James Joyce, Robert Lowell, Norman Mailer, LeRoi Jones, and others, presents in further detail Gilbert and Gubar’s challenge to accepted notions about the forces motivating modernism. Entitled “Tradition and the Female Talent: Modernism and Masculinism,” the chapter argues that the growing prominence of women on the literary scene produced in male authors a “fertile rage” which “fuel[ed] the innovations of the avant garde in order to ward off the onslaughts of women” and which required the formation of a literary canon that would not include texts by women. Among the most important documents in this effort was T. S. Eliot’s 1919 essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” in which, as Gilbert and Gubar read it, “women are implicitly devalued and the Romantics are in some sense feminized.” An effect of the absence of women from the canon is that the war between literary women and men cannot be easily detected unless one considers noncanonical works. Thus, an important consequence of feminist challenges to the canon—challenges in which Gilbert and Gubar have themselves participated with their Norton Anthology of Literature by Women (1985)—has been to make possible the very sort of analysis which No Man’s Land undertakes. In addition to erasing women’s achievements, other strategies employed by male writers anxious and angry about “scribbling sibling rivalry” have included literary maligning of women, both in general and in particular, and “appropriating [women’s] words in order to usurp or trivialize their language.” Gilbert and Gubar explain each of these strategies with reference to specific literary figures and texts.

What have been the reactions of women of letters to modernist and postmodernist masculinism and to their new circumstance of having visible and powerful literary foremothers? Gilbert and Gubar address this question in chapter 4, “’Forward into the Past’: The Female Affiliation Complex.” As the title suggests, there are two points of departure for this chapter. In addition to Freud’s 1931 analysis of “Female Sexuality,” which Gilbert and Gubar critique and revise so that it applies to female literary activity, May Sarton’s tribute to Woolf, a poem entitled “Letter from Chicago,” is quoted in the chapter title and alluded to throughout. Moving between these two works and presenting readings of many other works by women, Gilbert and Gubar explore the complicated ramifications of a “paradigm of ambivalent affiliation, a construct which dramatizes women’s intertwined attitudes of anxiety and exuberance about creativity.” To oversimplify their analysis, there are four possibilities for affiliation expressed in the literature produced by women during the past century: the turn toward the father, literary frigidity, the masculinity complex, and female autonomy. Each of these possibilities is discussed in turn, with specific references to such works as Margaret Oliphant’s “The Library Window,” Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (1928), and Woolf’s The Waves (1931). Gilbert and Gubar then examine Woolf’s protofeminist criticism, as well as biographies, tributes, parodies, allusive texts, and lyric poetry by a number of other women writers, to illuminate the complexities of female affiliation and of antagonism from and toward literary males.

While the first four chapters of The War of the Words deal primarily with literature, chapter 5, “Sexual Linguistics: Women’s Sentence, Men’s Sentencing,” investigates ideas and attitudes toward language. Here Gilbert and Gubar consider the empirical work of sociolinguists, the theories about écriture féminine proposed by such French feminists as Hélène Cixous and Julia Kristeva, and the union of structural linguistics with classical psychoanalytic theory put forward by Jacques Lacan, as background for a discussion of noms de plume and writers’ “fantasies about names, letters, and language.” Not surprisingly, Gilbert and Gubar align themselves more closely to Nancy Chodorow (in The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender, 1978) than to Lacan in stating the view,if the primary moment of symbolization occurs when the child identifies difference with distance from the mother, it is not only the presence of the mother’s words that teaches the child words, but also the absence of the mother’s flesh that requires the child to acquire words.

This position allows the collaborators to raise the possibility that “the idea that language is in its essence or nature patriarchal” is “a reaction-formation against the linguistic (as well as the biological) primacy of the mother.”

Rhetorically marked by questions and conditional constructions, the fifth chapter is more speculative than the others, its transitions more difficult to follow, its ideas less convincingly supported by close readings. Yet if in one way Gilbert and Gubar seem here to loosen their firm hold on their argument, in another the open-ended quality of this final chapter seems completely appropriate for a conclusion that is in fact a bridge to two forthcoming volumes. Sexchanges and Letters from the Front promise to compensate for the slight unevenness of The War of the Words, for the fleeting moments of superficiality that are the occasional cost of Gilbert and Gubar’s dazzling breadth. Like The Madwoman in the Attic, volume 1 of No Man’s Land is a brilliant, provocative, and important book, essential reading for students of literature and social history and for anyone fascinated by the relations between women and men.

No Man's Land

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1971

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 Woman,” refers to a British suffragist slogan, “No Votes for Women—No Home Rule!,” equating the Irish struggle with the Woman Question. The slogan was part of the strategy of making the party in power responsible for granting women the vote. The punning double meaning of “home rule” adds irony to the fact that the militant suffragists learned their most violent and effective tactics directly from the Irish nationalists—destruction of property, arson, and assault.

Although Edith Wharton denigrated most women writers (among them Charlotte Bronte and Virginia Woolf) and spoke of herself as a “self-made man,” nevertheless, assert Gilbert and Gubar, her major works “constitute the most searching . . feminist analysis of the construction of ’femininity’ produced by any novelist in this century.” Works such as The House of Mirth (1905) and The Age of Innocence (1920) detail “the process by which women are socialized as prisoners of sex.” In Wharton’s view there is no way out, neither through the redemption of women’s separate sphere nor through the solidarity of the “New Woman.” Indeed, Wharton’s fiction is as despairing of the social scene as is Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study in the Evolution of Institutions (1899)—a work, say the authors, which Wharton’s novels may be said to gloss. For her part, Willa Cather disliked “sex consciousness” and was suspicious of both the suffrage movement and the female literary tradition. Still, she created her own myths of the frontier, a “virtual no man’s land” where the female principle is primary, “a time in history,” say Gilbert and Gubar, “when women were economically productive and socially central.” Characters such as Antonia in My Antonia (1918), in doing heavy farm work and dressing in male clothing, show “the fluid boundaries between male and female roles on the frontier.” The best part of the book is its last section, the chapters positing a lesbian feminist modernist sensibility, juxtaposing male and female reactions to the Great War, and exploring the metaphor of cross-dressing and transvestism for the fluidity of gender and gender construction in this period.

In the first of these, “‘She Meant What I Said’: Lesbian Double Talk,” Gilbert and Gubar explore the first generation of self-conscious lesbian writers, in particular Radclyffe Hall, Renee Vivien, and Gertrude Stein. Each of these writers contributed to the making of a distinctively lesbian modernism by posing her own solution to the problem of the lesbian expatriate. “Lesbianism itself was imagined as a perpetual, ontological expatriation,” since the norm (one’s native land) was equated with heterosexuality. Hall’s solution in The Well of Loneliness (1928) proposed the artist-as-savior; Stephen Gordon comes to understand her responsibility to speak for others like herself: “Our name is legion—you dare not disown us!” Renee Vivien’s answer was to re-create a mythology of female desire based on the life and work of the Greek poet Sappho. Stein rejected not only these solutions but the whole Western literary tradition as well. She set out to create her own language, opposing all precursors. It was, say Gilbert and Gubar, an idiosyncratic “twentieth-century aesthetic of solipsism,” even though it was created out of a collaboration with her lifelong partner, lover, muse, cook, secretary, nurse, and alter-ego, Alice B. Toklas. In one of the more controversial sections of the book, Gilbert and Gubar make a strong case for The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933) having been written not by Stein but by Toklas herself. They base their argument on literary style, contending that the style of the autobiography is like that of The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book (1954) and unlike any other Stein writings. Additionally, it was published without an author’s name, but with a photograph of Stein and Toklas as the frontispiece. The chapter entitled “Soldier’s Heart: Literary Men, Literary Women, and the Great War” contrasts male and female responses to World War I, taking as its metaphor the phenomenon of shell shock, also called “soldier’s heart.” Women during the war were ecstatic at the opportunity to be active and to make a difference, whereas men experienced survivor’s guilt, despair, and disillusionment—and antagonism toward women. A photograph of male amputees is juxtaposed in the book to pictures of women war workers. Describing the female photographs, the authors say, “Liberated from parlors and petticoats alike, trousered ’war girls’ beam as they shovel coal, shoe horses, fight fires, drive buses, chop down trees, make shells, dig graves.” The chapter also uses recruiting posters, popular songs and stories, and works by Hemingway, Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, and William Butler Yeats to illustrate the sexual antagonism that the Great War unleashed. Alternatively, works by Virginia Woolf, Vera Brittain, Raddyffe Hall, and Katherine Anne Porter (among others) show the war as a time for a freeing of women’s passionate energies.

The last chapter, “Cross-Dressing and Re-Dressing: Transvestism as Metaphor;” follows the “trope” of transvestism and transsexualism to round out the book’s theme. Both literary men and women had to confront the fluidity of sex roles and definitions of sexuality. Male modernists, such as Joyce, used the image of the transvestite to gain male mastery and reinforce traditional roles, as in the Circe episode in Ulysses, when Leopold Bloom is “revitalized” by the process of becoming, for a time, a “phallic woman.” Female modernists, on the other hand, sought to “defy the conflation of sex roles and sex organs by writing fantasies about sex change, as Woolf did in Orlando (1928); by experimenting with dressing in male attire (Gertrude Stein, Romaine Brooks, Djuna Barnes, Willa Cather, Carson McCullers, and many others); or by believing themselves to have genders opposite to their anatomy. The book reproduces many fascinating photographs from the period, most notably that of the two personae of Julian Eltinge, an American female impersonator. According to Edward Carpenter (a thinker influential at the time), such “third-sexed” beings (”Uranians” or “Urnings”) have unusual psychic powers, provide a link to the sacred, and are the most creative artists. Similarly, Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929) advances the notion of the androgynous artist, referring to the “man- womanliness” of writers such as William Shakespeare and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Gilbert and Gubar end their book with an exploration of the current debate in feminist theory and criticism, noting that (as in the 1920’s) while some critics “deny and decry gender categories,” others emphasize sex/gender difference. The authors ponder why there has been a seeming reversal in the position of (at least some) male and female critics, so that males (such as Jacques Derrida) are now saying that “all gender is indeterminate, fluid, fictive, undecidable” while females (such as Elaine Showalter) are asserting that there are irreconcilable “differences between the sexes, if only culturally constructed ones.”

Perhaps because at least six of the chapters were previously published in academic journals, this volume is not nearly so stunning as the first. The excitement of the audacious thesis is missing here, and although the close readings give a wealth of evidence, they leave the reader exhausted and wondering if it is all necessary. The volume is less accessible to the general reader than the first, since so much depends on texts of which only the specialist will have intimate knowledge. Still, the book is certainly essential reading for all those interested in twentieth century cultural criticism, and it goes a long way toward providing explanations for that phenomenon called modernism.

No Man’s Land

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The first two volumes of Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s groundbreaking consideration of modernism and its cultural consequences—The War of the Words (1988) and Sexchanges (1989)—argued so persuasively that literary modernism was a product of a “sexual battle” and demonstrated so convincingly that collapsing conceptions of gender roles and rules informed the work of many major writers in the twentieth century that the necessity to overcome an entrenched position is no longer a prime animating force of their project. It is a testament to the consistently revelatory nature of their encompassing thesis that any previous structuring of literary history that ignores (or is unaware of) it now seems diminished, yet their accomplishment has also removed some of the excitement generated by what another reviewer has accurately called the “audacity” of their exploration.

In Letters from the Front, Gilbert and Gubar are less like the discoverers of a new land—Herland—and resemble more in practice the careful mapmakers who chart the intricate detail of the terrain following an initial discovery. This is an important aspect of their strategy, which includes an assessment of much of the relevant scholarship which has paralleled and resulted from their work, and a part of the structural design of the entire project, which involves an overlapping among the three volumes that leads to recurring considerations of writers such as Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath.

The first two volumes were published in successive years, suggesting an overflow of materials divided for practical as well as polemical purposes. The five-year passage before Letters from the Front—whose title is taken from Muriel Rukeyser’s war poem “Letter to the Front,” with its reversal implying that modern women of letters were “on an embattled and often confusing cultural front”—requires an introductory preface in which Gilbert and Gubar recapitulate, reframe, and reiterate the essential elements of their approach. Their insistence on the importance of writers such as Woolf, Plath, H. D. (Hilda Doolittle), Toni Morrison, and Adrienne Rich, who “have a rich and fluent access to the shifting currents and contradictions of the cultural unconscious,” is a continuing affirmation of their core contention that “texts are authored by people whose lives and minds are affected by the material conditions” of their history.

This relatively humanistic perspective places Gilbert and Gubar at some remove from the work of French feminist intellectual philosophers such as Hélène Cixous and Luce Iragary, who have had considerable impact on Anglo-American theoreticians whose thinking moves from a certainty that “literature is not a representation of experience” (Nelly Furman). Yet their separation from what they call the “disheartening nihilism” of “so-called poststructuralist (or sometimes, tellingly, ‘postfeminist’) gender theorists” has not prevented reactionary attacks on their work by hostile critics such as the late Allan Bloom (“the latest enemy of the vitality of classic texts is feminism”) or Camille Paglia, whom they regard as “complicitous” in a “reaction formation” designed to undermine feminism. As they state in the preface, these responses are further evidence of the accuracy of their description of the “sex war,” which they see as a “century-long battle we have been exploring throughout No Man’s Land.” As they did in the first two volumes, they try to acknowledge the validity and usefulness of the theoretical suppositions of Cixous, Iragary, and Julia Kristeva, even as they refrain from styles of discourse that call for a “plurivocality” superior to a “contaminated humanism” and that tend to regard women as a “writing-effect” rather than accepting what Gilbert and Gubar insist is the necessary “provisional assumption that there are men, women, and meaning in history.” While not trying to find some bland consensus or shaky reconciliation of varying viewpoints, Gilbert and Gubar are able to move comfortably and authoritatively across a wide range of recent scholarship and to invigorate their erudition with a verbal exuberance emblematic of their enthusiasm for the literature they discuss.

As in the earlier volumes, the authors integrate close readings of important texts with interpretive discussions of social history and popular culture, including many striking and often-unfamiliar illustrations (such as the portraits of H. D.) that further illuminate the work under consideration. In the second volume, some of their detailed investigations tended to be repetitious in places, but here the extended examinations of H. D., Edna St. Vincent Millay, and especially Woolf and Plath are the strongest part of the book, reaching toward the core of the artist’s accomplishments in a series of unfolding revelations that clarify and support the unifying themes of the entire project while drawing the reader back to the original works.

The overarching purpose of Letters from the Front is to present and assay the “future shock” of women (and men) forced to confront a void appearing where the conventional idea of a family anchored by a “Great Mother of Victorian Culture” once stood. When this construct of a dominant culture began to disintegrate, carrying with it centuries-old suppositions about gender roles, attempts to redefine the feminine (and the masculine) resulted in an increasing awareness of the artificial nature of all gender-identity definitions. The opening chapter, which traces the evolution of Woolf’s thinking about their subject in conjunction with her role as a woman/artist, is a brilliant demonstration of the power and applicability of the authors’ method.

Gilbert and Gubar regard Woolf’s oeuvre as essentially an attempt to rewrite history, or more specifically to produce woman’s history, in which the private life of women replaces the “masculine stud book” that was the “official” historical record. In a systematic accumulation of data, they see Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out (1915), as the beginning of the debate between official and unofficial history, continued in Night and Day (1919). Jacob’s Room (1922) is a “radically innovative biography” that sets the terms for both a revisionary history and a “new form for a new novel,” as Woolf herself saw it. Mrs. Dalloway (1925) sets the public world of technology against the private, natural world that is the key to an understanding of feminine possibility—the “little things” that may have as much power for change as the machines that men enjoy. To the Lighthouse (1927)) begins to consider how a new version of the history of the past might lead into a history of the future, with Mrs. Ramsay standing elegiacally for the fading vision of a matriarchal monument, treasured for her strength yet recognized as an obsolete icon ill-suited for an excursion into the unknown future. Pivotally, Orlando (1928) offers a character totally free of gender imperatives. Gilbert and Gubar claim, “Orlando is history. . . . The light of his/her mind illumines time,” so that a previously marginal perspective operates as a device that “simultaneously redefines and questions conventional periodization.”

The section on Woolf covers more than fifty pages, continuing with a discussion of later works like the very well known A Room of One’s Own (1930), the essay/treatise Three Guineas (1938), and novels such as The Waves (1931), which display Woolf’s attempts to imagine a future through overtly experimental, often oblique narratives containing “images or interludes of enigma, paradox, ambiguity.” All these works move toward a dramatization of the idea that any history is ultimately arbitrary. Even if Woolf herself did not quite give “birth to the new,” her writing transformed the field of feminine consciousness so significantly that many familiar assumptions about gender—comforting or confining—became less viable, compelling women who wrote in the aura of liberation cast by her work to seek alternative reconstructions of authentic female experience.

In two substantial chapters covering the life and art of H. D. and Sylvia Plath, Gilbert and Gubar provide similarly detailed discussions of what they regard as the major works of these artists, examining each writer’s style, subject, and aims in terms of language, character, and philosophy to show how H. D. and Plath succeeded in establishing a self not dependent on external, social restrictions. In chapters on some novelists of the Harlem Renaissance, on Millay and Marianne Moore, on the effects of World War II, and then on images of sexuality in the time of the sexual revolution, Gilbert and Gubar chart with characteristic detail the social pressures that forced writers to adopt strategies of deception and distortion, adding complexity to questions of gender through the middle decades of the twentieth century.

The material on H. D. and Plath, like that on Woolf, is not entirely new (as indicated by the well-organized, informative notes that complement the text). Yet here as well, the logic that determines the order of presentation is very clearly explained. Gilbert and Gubar see H. D. as the formulator of a “numinous female spirituality” growing from a kind of mystical immersion in “a sensual wisdom that serves as a spiritual alternative to the skepticism of contemporary life”—a form of wisdom that enabled H. D. to resist the liability of “female female impersonation” and to counter the exhausted, constrictive rationalism favored by some influential male writers. Examining H. D.’s relationship with and arguments opposing Sigmund Freud, her friendship with Ezra Pound, who wanted to see her as a muse or object and who could not accept her poetic authority, and her critique of D. H. Lawrence’s withdrawal from an awakened female sexuality, Gilbert and Gubar effectively intertwine episodes from the poet’s life with their typically alert, inventively responsive reading of her major work. In Trilogy (1944-1946), they see H. D.’s creation of a prophetic voice as evidence of her survival in “sex wars”— a woman who is freed from the need to pose as nymph or dryad and who is purged of psychic pain by a vision of divine maternal and paternal compassion. Their discussion of the self-sufficiency they find in H. D.’s mature work is purposefully grounded in a type of vocabulary—words such as “mystic,” “spiritual,” “nurture”—that male critics have rejected as somehow inappropriate for serious discourse.

Plath is presented as a embodiment of a new feminine strength—not “a sort of neurasthenic sorceress of syntax or a diligent and decorous ephebe of fifties elegance” but a poet who was aware of and attracted to the male modernist tradition (W. B. Yeats, James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence) and who drew power from her comparison/rivalry with such masters of language. Plath measured her progress against what they had achieved. She worked through her fears about competing with men or losing her sexual self in a search for an intellectual self in books such as Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams (1958). Then she moved on to what Gilbert and Gubar call “an open dialogue with literary history” in Ariel (1965), forging what they designate as “the crucial ‘I am I’ of female identity” by speaking with an “unlimited metaphorical energy” to overcome societal constraints imposed by classifications that contain the self. They read Ariel as a version of a “lyrically incisive Woolfian self-analysis” in which Plath stakes her claim to be an heir of Yeats’s spirit (pointing out Plath’s delight in living in Yeats’s house in London) and then proves it through a process of renaming “terrible territories” to incorporate them in her own mythology. While this may be a slight stretch, the idea of Yeats as an inspiring male muse matching Woolf as a poetic mother/mentor supports Gilbert and Gubar’s argument that Plath was one of the first women to grasp the entire tradition.

The thickly textured, probing investigations of Plath, H. D., and Woolf tend to make the more specifically focused sections seem somewhat partial. Considerations of Millay and Moore as “female female impersonators”—that is, women writers who masqueraded as accepted versions of femininity—are accurate but limited to the selections under scrutiny. Most of Moore’s work is not mentioned, and “Vincent” Millay’s keen mind is offered as a substitute for distinctive voice in much of the poetry.

This chapter, however, is an important foundation for a continuing assessment of how many writers throughout the twentieth century “commented on both the feminine and the masculine from the ironic perspective of the actor who knows that there is a radical gulf between ‘me’ and ‘her.’ ” The later chapter “The Lives of the Male Male Impersonators, the Loves of the Sextoid: Comedy and the ‘Sexual Revolution’ ” expands this idea into a wide-ranging survey of the manner in which writers of every sexual orientation responded to an increasing concern about the artifice of gender. The cultural context that this chapter, like the one that “Charred Skirts and Deathmasks: World War II and the Blitz on Women” provides, is an integral aspect of a book that is itself an answer to the protofeminist request for new visions of history. The sheer number of writers mentioned means that individual “entries” in what is a very sophisticated encyclopedia of literary culture must be uneven, but the same kind of linguistically supple intelligence that was applied to Woolf, H. D., and Plath serves as an incisive instrument for observations about Adrienne Rich, Elizabeth Bishop, Angela Carter, and Doris Lessing, among others. As a digressive excursion into what is almost a parallel universe, a chapter on feminism and the Harlem Renaissance discusses Jessie Redmon Fauset, Nella Larsen, and Zora Neale Hurston as novelists struggling with the limits of both gender and race in an attempt to describe and define “authentic black feminine experience.”

The last chapter is a high-spirited tour de force in which Gilbert and Gubar rewrite the archetypal Snow White tale from multiple perspectives, speculating on the future of sexuality and sex roles and permitting a fair hearing to the contending voices in the raging discussions concerning feminine capability. Their point is that there is “no monolithic tale” about female imagination and that women’s space has widened as certainties about the men’s world have crumbled. In a refreshingly nonjudgmental manner, they summarize the positions of gradualists (such as Carolyn Heilbrun and Nancy Chodorow) and radicals (such as Kate Millett and Andrea Dworkin), then pose a division of “Mirrors” (realists) and “Vamps” (revolutionists). They ask whether this division signifies “feminism’s healthy centrality or its sickening irrelevance in contemporary culture.”

Without exactly settling this issue, Gilbert and Gubar are not hesitant about where they stand. Their concluding pages turn on their contention that “in most cultures the child acquires language through interactions with the linguistic autonomy of a maternal rather than paternal figure.” They reject Kristeva’s theory that “symbolic linguistic order is necessarily patriarchal” and cite the numerous poems produced in these times by the mother/writer who produces a narrative of maternity, who “speaks to her child [and] addresses her words to a future she can now begin to imagine shaping.” In a very optimistic prediction, they envision “the mother as poet” who “begins to heal the fissures of history.”


Ammons, Elizabeth. Conflicting Stories: American Women Writers at the Turn into the Twentieth Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. Deals with seventeen women writers from diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds. Ammons finds underlying themes of unity as these writers, in a wide range of narrative forms, strove to give voice to women’s concerns.

Armstrong, Nancy. Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. Armstrong explores the role of women in shaping modern literary and social institutions. Her detailed historical discussion leads to implicit criticism of Gilbert and Gubar’s stress on victimization.

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979. An excellent study of major women writers in nineteenth century England, this precursor to No Man’s Land received wide critical acclaim.

Moi, Toril. Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory. London: Routledge, 1985. A useful guide to key issues in feminist literary analysis, this small volume contains a detailed critique of Gilbert and Gubar’s approach.

Showalter, Elaine, ed. Speaking of Gender. New York: Routledge, 1989. These essays by leading scholars and critics offer detailed insights on a wide range of texts. They provide discussion of many of the issues raised in more general fashion by the work of Gilbert and Gubar.

Form and Content

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With the publication of their critically acclaimed study The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (1979), Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar began what they envisioned as a sequel that would bring the discussion into the twentieth century. They soon realized that in order to understand the period, they needed to immerse themselves in men’s as well as women’s writing, in social as well as literary history. A single volume could not contain so vast an undertaking. Thus was born a three-part study under the general heading No Man’s Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century.

Volume 1, subtitled The War of the Words, explores the idea that the pen is “a metaphorical pistol” and words “the weapons with which the sexes have fought over territory and authority.” Gilbert and Gubar’s re-reading and reinterpretations of standard literary texts show that, however subtly, the written word tends to maintain and reinforce man’s dominance and power.

When societal changes in the mid-nineteenth century gave greater voice to women and their concerns, a kind of locking of horns resulted. The authors note that many late nineteenth and early twentieth century men saw women as alien forces, summoning trouble, while women viewed men as guardians of an outdated order. They add that the increased visibility of women in the public sphere led men and women of letters into a battle of the sexes.

Volume 1 surveys major changes from the mid-nineteenth century to the late twentieth century in literary influences, in the social status of women, and in the ways in which language that preserves the old order is evolving to reflect the new. It details the conflict that resulted when Victorian concepts of femininity were challenged by the rise of feminism.

This volume is divided into five segments. The first explores male fears of emerging feminism. The second details the female struggle for social and literary independence. The third discusses the sociocultural redefinitions of gender. The fourth shows how eventually having a female literary tradition upon which to draw affected women writers. The fifth shows how language can be used to include and exclude. The authors under discussion include Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, Algernon Charles Swinburne, Oscar Wilde, Henry Adams, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, D. H. Lawrence, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Nathanael West, and Henry Miller.

Volume 2, subtitled Sexchanges, deals with the evolution of sex and sex roles, from the rejection of Victorian concepts of femininity to the adoption of nearly as stultifying codes of conduct (sometimes called the feminization of women) and then to a dramatic shift in earlier perceptions caused, in part, by World War I and the emergence of a “visible lesbian community.” The emphasis, in this volume, though outwardly on men and women of letters, is largely on matters of social history.

Many of the issues and critical works discussed in the earlier volume are given in-depth treatment, with whole segments devoted to Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, and Gertrude Stein. The second volume also provides a more comprehensive discussion of changes in sex roles, in modes of dress for women, and in the very language used by each gender to exclude the other.

The third book, subtitled Letters from the Front, explores the works and lives of such writers as Virginia Woolf, Zora Neale Hurston, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Marianne Moore, and H. D. (Hilda Doolittle). The authors hope that the series willhelp to illuminate the radical transformations of culture that we must all continue to face, transformations that have made not just the territory of literature but the institutions of marriage and the family, of education and the professions, into a no man’s land—a vexed terrain—in which scattered armies of men and women all too often clash by day and by night.


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Some critics have charged Gilbert and Gubar with raising more questions than they have answered, with offering unsubstantiated claims, and with virtually ignoring contemporary feminist thinking and returning to the politics of the 1960’s. Others, however, credit them with identifying the questions that should be asked, with providing a foundation upon which to base further research, and with stirring the waters enough to attract attention and inspire debate. In their forays from the familiar territory of literature to spheres of social history, an area of self-admitted uncertainty, they falter, but not disastrously so. In seeing with the eyes of nonspecialists, they allow the casual reader to explore with them. Even the critics who quarrel with their scholarship, their assumptions, their inclusions of some writers to the exclusion of others, their purported concentration of the works of women but tendency to afford greater coverage to ones by men, and their inability to pass by a chance for a pun or a bon mot do recognize that Gilbert and Gubar have set a standard from which all future scholarship will grow and upon which it will be based.

Their works have given readers a new way of looking at old texts, new ways to assess patriarchal concerns, new methods to detect gender bias, and a new view of underlying causes of tensions that result in battling between the sexes. Though at times bias predominates and scholarship is suited to serve the purpose, these feminist scholars have produced a body of work of seminal importance. Their overstatement and slanting does not negate the existence of troublesome images in literature and the biased language of the creators of that literature. No Man’s Land provides a whole new approach to looking at the period, and, as Carolyn Heilbrun, a feminist writer, critic, and teacher observes, “The study of modernism will never be the same.”

Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar have coedited The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: The Tradition in English (1985) and Shakespeare’s Sisters: Feminist Essays on Women Poets (1979), and they coauthored The Female Imagination and the Modernist Aesthetic (1986) and The Madwoman in the Attic.


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Ammons, Elizabeth. Conflicting Stories: American Women Writers at the Turn into the Twentieth Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. Deals with seventeen women writers from diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds. Ammons finds underlying themes of unity as these writers, in a wide range of narrative forms, strove to give voice to women’s concerns.

Armstrong, Nancy. Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. Armstrong explores the role of women in shaping modern literary and social institutions. Her detailed historical discussion leads to implicit criticism of Gilbert and Gubar’s stress on victimization.

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979. An excellent study of major women writers in nineteenth century England, this precursor to No Man’s Land received wide critical acclaim.

Moi, Toril. Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory. London: Routledge, 1985. A useful guide to key issues in feminist literary analysis, this small volume contains a detailed critique of Gilbert and Gubar’s approach.

Showalter, Elaine, ed. Speaking of Gender. New York: Routledge, 1989. These essays by leading scholars and critics offer detailed insights on a wide range of texts. They provide discussion of many of the issues raised in more general fashion by the work of Gilbert and Gubar.

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