Academic journal article Women and Language

Hopeful Sentences: Gender and Mourning Language in Two Contemporary Narratives

Academic journal article Women and Language

Hopeful Sentences: Gender and Mourning Language in Two Contemporary Narratives

Article excerpt

Is it not monstrous that this player here, 
 But in a fiction, in a dream of passion, 
 Could force his soul so to his own conceit 
 That from her working all his visage wann'd 
Tears in his eyes, distraction in his aspect, 
           ...And all for nothing! 
                 For Hecuba! 
     What's Hecuba to him, or he to her, 
        That he should weep for her? 
--William Shakespeare, Hamlet, II ii, 545-554. 

Abstract: The essay argues that Western men and women have experienced differently but equally problematic cultural sanctions in responding to loss. While women have traditionally been pathologized for most expressions of grief men have simply been disenfranchised from mourning practice. The essay points to contemporary literary performances as a place for both men and women to hopefully reimagine ways to speak, write, and enact grief both individually and collectively.


I am in my car, listening to NPR as I have been doing continuously since September 11. Terry Gross is asking Beverly Sills what music we should turn to for comfort in this time of grief. Sills has two answers: first, the aria from Norma. (The station plays it. It is spectacular.) Second, the William Tell Overture, because it is so whimsical. I decide that I love Beverly Sills. Later, another journalist is asking an NPR correspondent what literature we should read in this time of crisis. The correspondent recommends a travel book about Afghanistan. I make a mental note of the title, but also register my disappointment in his answer. I surmise that my response is partly a function of gender--my desire for a less pragmatic, more affective choice--but even more a function of genre. I want the literary equivalent of Sills' answer. I'm not sure there is one.

In December of 2000, I completed a dissertation on mourning and contemporary literature. These days, however, questions about how mourning can and might be performed in language seem far from academic. I have felt compelled to reevaluate my own work in light of what is in obvious ways a different world than the one in which I began it. At this moment, months after the memorials for the World Trade Center victims have stopped (though they will surely begin again), we seem to live in a world exhausted of weeping, beyond tears. At the same time, perhaps more than any other time in the last three decades of Western history, we seem to live in a world beyond silence. Still reeling from the destruction of our illusion of security in America and Europe, we simply cannot not attempt to articulate our profound sense of loss.

Who is the subject of mourning, as represented in the artifacts of Western culture? One thing is certain: She is female. Mourning becomes Electra, not her brother. Antigone perishes over her right to mourn. Ophelia weeps herself into an early grave. And if it is a man who weeps in my epigraph from Hamlet, this weeping must be doubly qualified: first, it is not he but the working of his feminine soul that produces tears. Second, even his feminine soul is only released into grief by the frame of fiction.

If the expression of grief has always been the special province of women, it has also always been a province disciplined by patriarchal Western states. In her book, Dangerous Voices, Gail Holst-Warhaft suggests a relationship between the deritualization of death in ancient Greece and the attempt to limit the power of women, whose role was to lament and otherwise preside over ritual mourning of the dead. The ancient city-state considered mourning women's laments dangerous to the women themselves and often classified these women as mad, though perhaps only as a way of preventing them from consolidating the power of expression grief afforded. It also viewed women's mourning as a threat to the patriarchal social order, particularly in so far as grief was often accompanied by rage and could therefore be used as a means to incite violence. …

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