Opening Acts: Narrative Beginnings in Twentieth-Century Feminist Fiction

Opening Acts: Narrative Beginnings in Twentieth-Century Feminist Fiction

Opening Acts: Narrative Beginnings in Twentieth-Century Feminist Fiction

Opening Acts: Narrative Beginnings in Twentieth-Century Feminist Fiction


In the beginning there was... the beginning. And with the beginning came the power to tell a story. Few book-length studies of narrative beginnings exist, and not one takes a feminist perspective. Opening Acts reveals the important role of beginnings as moments of discursive authority with power and agency that have been appropriated by writers from historically marginalized groups. Catherine Romagnolo argues for a critical awareness of how social identity plays a role in the strategic use and critical interpretation of narrative beginnings.

The twentieth-century U.S. women writers whom Romagnolo studies--Edith Wharton, H.D., Toni Morrison, Julia Alvarez, and Amy Tan--have seized the power to disrupt conventional structures of authority and undermine historical master narratives of marriage, motherhood, U.S. nationhood, race, and citizenship. Using six of their novels as points of entry, Romagnolo illuminates the ways in which beginnings are potentially subversive, thereby disrupting the reinscription of hierarchically gendered and racialized conceptions of authorship and agency.


In her 1926 lecture “Composition as Explanation,” Gertrude Stein points to the fraught nature of narrative beginnings. Referring to her novels Three Lives and The Making of Americans, she describes “an inevitable beginning of beginning again and again and again” (499). in this enigmatic description she repeatedly references the “groping” that attends beginnings, suggesting the personal as well as the textual weightiness of these literary moments. But in this same lecture, Stein also gestures toward the power that beginnings have to transform, to create “the difference which makes each and all [modernist writers] … different from other generations” (497). Beginnings, Stein implies, have the power to link one to convention, and they have the power to break one free.

Despite their power, narrative beginnings have received relatively little attention from scholars of narrative theory. Although critics have offered descriptions and definitions, prior to Brian Richardson’s recent edited collection, Narrative Beginnings, books by A. D. Nuttall and Edward Said were the only extended studies on the topic. While these texts have been seminal, feminist voices on the subject have been notably quiet, a fact that is surprising when one considers the ways in which beginnings evoke authority, tradition, and filiation, all ideas upon which the narratives of patriarchy, racism, and nationalism have heavily relied—ideas that feminist thinkers have historically resisted. Narrative beginnings are acutely relevant to the concerns of feminist narrative theory, which seeks to understand “gender’s effect at the level of discourse” (Warhol 6). Opening Acts draws upon these concerns, querying the role gendered and racialized subjectivities play in the production and interpretation of narrative beginnings.

The term “beginnings” refers, of course, not only to a narratological concept but to a topic that has been extensively thematized in modern and contemporary literary narratives. Writers as diverse as William . . .

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