Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Genre and Gender: Autobiography and Self-Representation in the Diviners

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Genre and Gender: Autobiography and Self-Representation in the Diviners

Article excerpt

RECENT FEMINIST CRITICISM of Margaret Laurence's The Diviners explores the representation of female subjectivity and the politics of textuality. Clara Thomas, for example, has identified the novel's perspective as not only distinctively Canadian, but also distinctively female (14). Helen Buss, among others, identifies Laurence's project as a feminist revision of the "Bildungsroman" or "Kunstlerroman" (149). Emphasizing contradiction, Christl Verduyn analyzes Laurence's use of language and genre for female self-representation: "The text includes a struggle against itself as formalized written language, with techniques like the use of memory-bank movies and snapshots, and questions about the meaning of words, challenging the formalities of genre" (67). More recently, Barbara Godard and Gayle Greene have shown that The Diviners alludes to canonical texts, such as William Shakespeare's The Tempest or John Milton's Paradise Lost, as well as modernist texts, such as James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, to revise male literary models. Also addressing the question of genre, Jon Kertzer and David Williams identify the confessional genre in Laurence's work, with its retrospective point of view and "need to invent an autonomous [female] self" (Williams 30). While these critics lay the groundwork for political and genre analyses, further analysis is necessary to demonstrate Laurence's use of genre to represent gender. The confessional genre, as she employs it, becomes a narrative strategy for female self-representation, for a genre is not only a signifying system, but also a signifying practice and means by which the text employs narrative structure to emphasize certain values over others (Cohan and Shires 78). (1) Further examination of The Diviners will reveal that the novel is a hybrid of realist, autobiographical and confessional genres to construct a female subject and establish the authority of a female perspective.

In the last line of The Diviners, the implied author suggests that Morag Gunn finishes her life story as Margaret Laurence completes her novel: "Morag returned to the house, to write the remaining private and fictional words, and to set down her title" (477). This ending invites a reading of the novel as a fictional autobiography, the implication being that the novel in its entirety represents the process of Morag's construction of the fiction of her life story. The interior monologue resembles the editing of a narrative or film: "A popular misconception is that we can't change the past--everyone A popular misconception is that we can't change the past--everyone is constantly changing their own past, recalling it, revising it" (Laurence 70).The text therefore problematizes the narrative to emphasize female subjectivity (McLean 97), particularly the provisional nature of the self, for "I" designates no lexical entity, but rather a "dialectic reality" within the text's language (Benveniste 225). Christian Bok remarks that Laurence remains "aware of the degree to which subjects are produced ... by the discursive system within which they operate," and she participates in a project of "feminist rewriting," an adaptation of masculine genres to a feminist project (87).

In studies of women's autobiography, feminist critics have emphasized an understanding of the self as a fictive persona which, according to Mikhail Bakhtin, is constructed from the polyphonic voices of discourse (Smith 48).Leigh Gilmore argues that even fictional autobiography bears the "mark" of autobiography: "the always problematical deployment of the I" (6-7).Bella Brodzki and Celeste Schenke add that women's writing often differs in this respect from the "(masculine) tradition of autobiography beginning with Augustine [that takes] as its first premise the mirroring capacity" or "universality" of the autobiographer:

   the female autobiographer takes as a given that selfhood is
   mediated; her invisibility results from the lack of a tradition,
   her marginality in male-dominated culture, her fragmentation
   --social and political as well as psychic. … 
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