The Experimental Self: Dialogic Subjectivity in Woolf, Pym, and Brooke-Rose

The Experimental Self: Dialogic Subjectivity in Woolf, Pym, and Brooke-Rose

The Experimental Self: Dialogic Subjectivity in Woolf, Pym, and Brooke-Rose

The Experimental Self: Dialogic Subjectivity in Woolf, Pym, and Brooke-Rose


Acknowledging the importance of Bakhtin's concept of the dialogic, Judy Little utilizes the insights of Bakhtin and theorists such as Derrida, Foucault, and Lyotard as strategies for examining the political complexity of the "self" as Virginia Woolf, Barbara Pym, and Christine Brooke-Rose construct it in their fiction.

Little demonstrates that the tradition of the self-as-individual belongs to a complex, intricately dialogic discourse, with the self being an ongoing experiment in heteroglossia rather than a single, monologic "ism." Woolf, Pym, and Brooke-Rose, she argues, manifest a creative, experimental relationship to Western discourses of subjectivity, and their novels construct ideologically mobile selves that thrive on dialogic appropriation and transformation.

Among the novels in which Woolf explores subjectivity, Jacob's Room and The Waves are the most complex. Little shows that in Jacob's Room, Woolf reverses narrative tradition, the creatively dialogic female narrator appropriating a textually "masculine" status while reserving for Jacob the textual position of the "other," the feminine. The Waves questions subjectivity more radically, the fragmented soliloquies implying that the post-modern self has a relational and "feminine" origin after the demise of grand narratives.

Examining Pym's major novels, Little locates the inventive discourse of the author's eccentrics in their dialogic construction of the "trivial." Pym's strategically conventional narrative style privileges the marginal symbolic discourses by which the experimental selves in her fiction appropriate the insignificant as a mode of signification.

Little notes that whether the experimental selves in the fiction of Brooke-Rose are human or mere texts on a computer screen, they all respond to crises with a courageous faith in the self-inventive capacity of language. These heteroglossic subjectivities appropriate, amalgamate, and generally maneuver the resources of narrative into fresh (and often comic) scenarios of origin, author, and self.

Discussing the novels of Woolf, Pym, and Brooke-Rose, Little defines experimental in terms of subjectivity (how the text constructs the self) rather than in the more traditional terms of the transgression of narrative levels and typographical features. Little also breaks with tradition in her use of Bakhtin. Most studies discuss Bakhtin's views philosophically and theoretically. By contrast, Little employs Bakhtin's ideas as strategies for reading and analyzing the discourses that are present in a text.


In the broadest sense, this book finds its origin in the interpretive community of scholars and teachers who are still responding to recent sea changes in literary theory, especially the invigorating changes that these theories have produced in everything from reading a text to reading politics to reading feminism. I am a convert to the new academic discourse, yet a convert who is concerned less with theology than with the old songs (and the new ones). That is, I will be using theory in this study primarily as a reading strategy, although chapter 1 (and some later notes) will refer readers to discussions of those admittedly important philosophical issues such as Mikhail Bakhtin's relevance (or irrelevance) for feminism and the formidable issue of whether there may be really (and in what sense) a feminine language and a masculine language. These are important issues, but my study of Woolf, Pym, and Brooke-Rose is chiefly concerned with how these and other issues play out textually--and they do play.

This approach means that I have tried to limit my use of recent theory's inkhorn terms and certainly to avoid overuse of those "nyce and straunge" words, which Chaucer feared (in Troilus and Criseyde) that future readers might not understand. Yet I am pleased to thank the English Department's "theory group" for our years of lively, even contentious, dialogue about these "straunge" words and theories. I am especially grateful to Mary Lamb, Iris Smith, and Clarisse Zimra for many hours of invigorating challenge and delight. We are still friends, even though I was more interested in learning (and practicing) how to "do things with theory" than in . . .

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