Gender and Literary Voice

Gender and Literary Voice

Gender and Literary Voice

Gender and Literary Voice


Is literature androgynous? Can a language used by men effectively express women's perceptions? This book debates the presence of a distinctive female style, voice, or content in the literature written by women from the middle ages to the twentieth century. Mary Wollstonecraft and Fanny Bur-ney wrote on the linguistic difficulties of women's prose; Virginia Woolf expressed hopes for an androgynous literary future. The authors of "Gender and Literary Voice" consider thematic and stylistic differences and then range themselves on both sides of this debate. The role of female experi-ence; the passive mode; female appropriation of traditionally male forms of literature such as the bildtingsroman: semantic idiosyncrasies -- these are the elusive topics raised by contemporary critics of women's literature. Among the contributors to this important volume of feminist criticism are Joyce Carol Oates, Judith Wilt, Marilyn Butler, and Mary Ann Caws.


Is there a distinctive female style/tone/content? This is the question which the first annual Women & Literature tries to answer, without, of course, providing anything definitive. Fortunately there are precedents for the volume's diversity in the practice and pronouncements of women writers themselves—in the diachronic dialogues of Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf, for example, or the lexic and semantic embarrassment of Fanny Burney and Mary Wollstonecraft.

"Every being may become virtuous by the exercise of its own reason," Wollstonecraft declares in the second chapter of A Vindication of The Rights of Woman. This is a peculiarly neuter sentence for anyone to write, male or female, and yet one can see how she was driven to it. For when she began to compose The Rights of Men in 1790 it seemed true that women were "men" and "man," and that the male terms were generic, denoting all humanity. But somewhere between words the idea nudged her that the rights of men were perhaps indeed the rights of men. And her next Vindication became The Rights of Woman, where there could be no confusion.

Yet the linguistic difficulty remained for Wollstonecraft. In the first chapter of her new book she uses the simple and ringing "man" and "men" as inclusive and generic, roundly asserting that society should be based on the nature of "man"; then in chapter two she swerves from simplicity to separate out women, and the separation disturbed all her fine and simple statements of liberty and hope. From there to the end of the chapter, men are masculine and the "tyranny of man" places women with the tortured, not the torturers. But she paid an awkward price for her awareness.

Just before Wollstonecraft, a very different writer, Fanny Burney, also struggled with a language whose words, commas, and stops were not organized to tell female truths. Yet Burney is a far . . .

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