Comedy and the Woman Writer: Woolf, Spark, and Feminism

Comedy and the Woman Writer: Woolf, Spark, and Feminism

Comedy and the Woman Writer: Woolf, Spark, and Feminism

Comedy and the Woman Writer: Woolf, Spark, and Feminism


Recent critics have affirmed the difficulty-perhaps the impossibility-of defining modern comedy; at the same time, some feminist scholars are seeking to understand the special comedy often present in literature written by women. Comedy and the Woman Writer responds to both these concerns of recent criticism: feminist literary theory and theories of comedy. Judy Little develops a critical apparatus for identifying feminist comedy in recent fiction, especially the radical political and psychological implications of this comedy, and then applies and tests her theory by examining the novels of Virginia Woolf and Muriel Spark. Despite recent scholarly attention to Woolf, the profound comedy of her work has been largely overlooked, and the comic fiction of Spark has seldom had the responsible and attentive criticism that it deserves.

The introductory chapter draws upon anthropology and sociology, as well as literary criticism and the fiction of feminist writers such as Woolf, Doris Lessing, and Monique Wittig, to define a modern feminist comedy. Four central chapters then explore the implications of this comedy in the novels of Woolf and Spark. Little distinguishes between, on the one hand, several varieties of traditional comedy and satire and, on the other, the festive or "liminal" comedy to which feminist comedy belongs. Both Woolf and Spark mock centuries-old mythic patterns and behaviors deriving from basic social norms, as well as the values emerging from these norms. It is one thing, the author points out, to find "manners" amusing, to scourge vices, or to mock the follies of lovers; it is a much more drastic act of the imagination to mock the very norms against which comedy has traditionally judged vices, follies, and eccentricities. While the comedy of Woolf and Spark has some precedent in festive or liminal celebrations, during which even basic values and behavior are abandoned, feminist comedy displays its radical nature by implying that there is no resolution to the inverted overturned world, the world in revolutionary transition.

The final chapter considers briefly, in the light of the critical model of feminist comedy, the work of several other twentieth-century writers, including Jean Rhys, Penelope Moritmer, and Margaret Drabble. The presence of radical comedy in the fiction of these and other writers suggests the need for continuing attention to the theory of feminist comedy proposed in this study.


This book began with an idea of Virginia Woolf's—that comedy written by women may be different from comedy written by men. The huge subject assumed a horizon or two as a result of several Modern Language Association special sessions on Virginia Woolf; during these discussions, papers by Margaret Comstock, Jane Marcus, and Beverly Schlack were particularly helpful to me. Two MLA special sessions on "Female Humor," generated by the energy and intelligence of Emily Toth, were extremely important in the development of the critical approach which I have taken in this study. These discussions about female humor helped me to ask the right questions. I began to define some answers as a result of a conference on "Women and Society" held in 1979 at St. Michael's College in Winooski, Vermont. At this conference Helen Trobian's paper "Feminism, Humor, and Religion" was especially stimulating because of the wide and overlapping implications it examined in its threefold subject. Finally, a rereading of the fiction that I planned to consider in my study confirmed my suspicion that the concept of a "norm" required an in-depth redefinition, particularly if a distinctively female comic perspective were to be identified. For this reason my first chapter needed to be more than a friendly greeting; it is substantive, providing the rationale and apparatus for my discussion.

A complete genealogy of this book would be as extensive as a Biblical series of "begats," but I do want to thank Eddie Epstein, whose reading of the manuscript at an early stage encouraged me to keep going, and Louise DeSalvo, whose perceptive criticism helped me to finish the book. Alan Cohn, our Humanities Librarian, has . . .

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