One of the principal contributions of psychoanalysis to feminist theory has been to differentiate the concepts of woman, female sexuality and femininity. "Woman" may be defined as a concept which has a double valence, as a corporal reality and as a signifier of the difference between the sexes. "Female sexuality" refers to the position of woman as subject of desire. "Femininity" indicates the site of the woman within the cultural order. The confusion of these concepts may occasion various forms of reductionism, whether biological, psychological or sociological, with often tragic effects. To distinguish these concepts therefore enables us to understand processes of subjective organization or disintegration depicted within literature. The functioning of these concepts, furthermore, reveals the way a character functions not as some displaced "real" person but as a discursively constructed sign.
Central to the originality and radicality of Freud's work is his concept of the inherent effect on the body of language, the symbolic dimension, the order of representation. For Freud, the body as "real" is exterior not only to the psychoanalytic field but also to the psychic apparatus. The Freudian concept of psychic reality posits that there is nothing natural that can be grasped as such by the human being; the natural and the signifier are inseparable. Consequently, when we talk about woman or femininity, we do not refer to entities (natural or social) that have a real existence, but to theoretical constructions. It is a matter of signifiers, rather than effects of anatomical sexual difference or social gender divisions.
Lacan has argued that the "symbolic" order, which is imbricated with the imaginary," presupposes mediation in order to accede to the "real." At the same time, the symbolic serves as a bridge between the subject and the real. Thus the symbolic order establishes the difference between the sexes for us as speaking beings. But when this symbolic difference is assumed by a historic subject for whom the real (the body) constitutes an obstacle, it produces imaginary effects that are translated in the construction of a feminine identity, in definitions of woman and femininity, so that these are always ideologically colored.
If we want to free ourselves of the essentialist concepts that infiltrate theories of femininity, not without political effects, we must analyze how Woman is produced as a category. For it is this process of signifying production (derived from and sustaining the structures of patriarchal power) that locates woman in a subordinate position. Psychoanalysis proposes an explanation of the structuring of the sexuated subject in culture. Sexual difference must be inscribed in the symbolic in order to become more than a mere anatomic difference that in itself signifies nothing. Hence the interest in analyzing different representations of woman and the process that constructs them, always keeping in mind that none of them corresponds to a really existing object. The definition and fixation of the sense of feminine identity, independent of the perspective of the one who realizes herself, constitutes a symbolic violence that tends to allay anxiety about the incomprehensible nature of desire and the multiple forms it may assume.
Within these categories, the representation of woman as mother occupies a privileged site as symptom of the patriarchal system, although the mother is herself excluded as a subject, as Marianne Hirsch has shown in The Mother/Daughter Plot. In order to explore this representation I want to examine two literary texts, Yerma and Die Frau ohne Schatten, whose delineation of the problem of infertility exposes European cultural patterns that may fruitfully be compared to anthropological evidence about other cultures. Through this comparison, I shall try to disengage the symbolic deconstruction and construction of maternity and its effects on women's subjectivity. …