Confessional Subjects: Revelations of Gender and Power in Victorian Literature and Culture

Confessional Subjects: Revelations of Gender and Power in Victorian Literature and Culture

Confessional Subjects: Revelations of Gender and Power in Victorian Literature and Culture

Confessional Subjects: Revelations of Gender and Power in Victorian Literature and Culture

Synopsis

Susan Bernstein examines the gendered power relationships embedded in confessional literature of the Victorian period. Exploring this dynamic in Charlotte Bronta's Villette, Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret, George Eliot's Daniel Deronda, and Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles, she argues that although women's disclosures to male confessors repeatedly depict wrongdoing committed against them, they themselves are viewed as the transgressors. Bernstein emphasizes the secularization of confession, but she also places these narratives within the context of the anti-Catholic tract literature of the time. Based on cultural criticism, poststructuralism, and feminist theory, Bernstein's analysis constitutes a reassessment of Freud's and Foucault's theories of confession. In addition, her study of the anti-Catholic propaganda of the mid-nineteenth century and its portrayal of confession provides historical background to the meaning of domestic confessions in the literature of the second half of the century.

Excerpt

The genesis of this project unfolded nearly ten years ago when Michael Ryan suggested my name for a 1986 MLA panel on the reception to Lacan in the United States. I participated in this session with a paper that later became an article entitled "Confessing Lacan." Although this book focuses on Victorian uses of confession, my thinking about confession and power actually began with speculations about Jane Gallop's and Stuart Schneiderman's first-person anecdotes in writing about Lacanian psychoanalytic theory. I was intrigued with the different rhetorical effects of this personal criticism, which I labeled a "confessional mode" because of the way autobiographical disclosure functions as an intrusion where the subject attention shifts from Lacan's texts to the narrating subject. It seemed evident in my reading that both Gallop in Reading Lacan and Schneiderman in Jacques Lacan: The Death of an Intellectual Hero deployed this version of confession as a rhetorical strategy, yet I found Gallop to be more self-conscious, more canny, than Schneiderman about the relationship between power and signification. I observed that Schneiderman's brand of confession revealed his allegiance to his own literary confessional fathers-- before Lacan--that is, to Augustine and Rousseau, inasmuch as Schneiderman's "I" reigns supreme throughout his discourse. Yet Gallop's confessional interruptions, shaped by feminist theories, often dislodge the traditional opposition between subject and object, and through that unanchoring, Gallop draws attention to the power relations between analyst and analysand, between confessor and confessional subject.

But my point here isn't to replay these early arguments, although I must admit it is difficult to resist the compulsion to repeat all of my analytical journeys in moving from then to now, from my first reflections on confessional discourse to the present book. A preface seems a space to gather and place the various filaments that texture an intellectual project. Such an undertaking is necessarily untenable because of the complicated life--and the lives that are also part of this fabric--that any piece of scholarly work entails. My reading of Gallop and Schneiderman reading Lacan marked an early recognition of how confessional modes replicate gendered power relations, yet my abiding fascination with different forms of confession--from my childhood when I accompanied a Catholic friend to church on Saturday afternoons and waited while she disappeared into the confessional booth--has been too ex-

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