"I Really Must Be an Emma Bovary": Female Literacy and Adultery in Feminist Fiction

By Leonard, Suzanne | Genders, June 2010 | Go to article overview

"I Really Must Be an Emma Bovary": Female Literacy and Adultery in Feminist Fiction


Leonard, Suzanne, Genders


[1] Feminist fiction emerged in both the United States and Great Britain during the height of the second wave feminist movement, marking its entrance with demands for female autonomy, sexual and reproductive freedom, and a cautionary perspective on institutionalized heterosexuality. While feminist activists were at the same time encouraging a radical overhaul of the sex/gender system, feminist fiction often made similar arguments in a more subdued fashion, focusing on larger systemic issues through personal or confessional narratives that depicted the material circumstances of individual women's lives. Perhaps best exemplified by novels such as Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook (1962), Alix Kates Shulman's Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen (1969), Marge Piercy's Small Changes (1972), Rita Mae Brown's Rubyfruit Jungle (1973), Erica Jong's Fear of Flying (1973), and Marilyn French's The Woman's Room (1977) feminist fiction chronicled the psychological and sometimes literal journeys taken by women who come to a gradual understanding of the ways that gender prescribes their lives. Such realizations are frequently accompanied by a variety of plot devices that pertain to the female protagonist, including: her first sexual experience, struggles with men and marriage, forays into higher education, extramarital dalliances, visits to a psychotherapist, difficult reproductive decisions, and parenting challenges.

[2] Despite its tendency to dialogue with a number of real world issues facing its almost exclusively female readership in the 1960s and 1970s, feminist fiction nevertheless held a contested position within the paradigm of feminist literary criticism. Those skeptical of feminist fiction point to its apparently naive belief in the transparency of experience, its unwillingness to move characters from personal understandings to social or political activism, and its authors sometimes public refusals to consider themselves or their fictions as part of a larger feminist movement. While these sometimes highly charged debates began in the late 1970s and continued well into the 1980s, they have received renewed attention of late in critical volumes such as Lisa Maria Hogeland's Feminism and Its Fictions (1998) and Jane Gerhard's Desiring Revolution: Second-Wave Feminism and the Rewriting of American Sexual Thought 1920-1982 (2001). Feminist fiction's political potential and especially its role in paving the way for future feminist thought has also been recently reaffirmed by Imelda Whelehan, whose The Feminist Bestseller (2005) traces a genealogy from feminist fiction to chick lit, the latter having heralded, since around the year 2000, a concomitantly enthusiastic base of female readers. Whelehan argues that the mainstreaming of feminist ideas in chick lit can be tied back to feminist fiction, and celebrates the populist appeal of both genres as indicated by their impressive commercial successes. The importance of female reading practices to the feminist project also informs this article's foray into the genre of feminist fiction. Yet, while Whelehan is forward looking in her examination of how feminist fiction of the 1960s and 1970s paved way for similarly popularized confessionals in the late twentieth century, my project looks back in order to think about how the feminist fiction model derives from, dialogues with, and deliberately revises older models of literary history. In particular, it focuses on how feminist fiction interrogates heterosexual marriage through the plotline of female adultery, arguing that it forges space for a representation of marriage unleashed from the burden of its historical precedents, and from the dramatic (and often tragic) narrative predicaments visited upon adulterous women in earlier literature. This revision has implications for the project of feminist historiography in that feminist fiction is very much cognizant of the literary models it is revising and rewriting, as well as the future of feminist thought as it pertains to heterosexual institutions and especially marriage. …

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