Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

"Myopic Feminist Individualism in A.S. Byatt's Arabian Nights' Tale: 'The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye'"

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

"Myopic Feminist Individualism in A.S. Byatt's Arabian Nights' Tale: 'The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye'"

Article excerpt


I take as my point of departure Jane Campbell's view that Byatt's "The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye" "exposes the gaps ... between the worlds in which twentieth-century women live," as I situate Byatt's story within its literary, political, and feminist framework. Viewing "The Djinn" as a condensed pastiche of what Byatt terms "the greatest story ever told," One Thousand and One Nights, rather than a fairy or wonder tale, I read this tale in relation to Chilla Bulbeck's insights in Re-orienting Western Feminisms: Women's Diversity in a Posteolonial World. I argue that in her Arabian Nights' Tale, Byatt has created a myopic orientalized, first-world feminist point of view that relies heavily on the tenets of liberal feminism, ignoring how gender as "fate" is shaped by national history, religious affiliation and the material conditions of women's lives. Byatt's Arabian Nights' Tale does not fulfill the promise of its antecedent text that of saving women from death. Instead this Arabian Nights' tale views third-world women's lives as coincident with death. Their oppressed lives are hopeless and futile; they appear to be living in a limbo world likened to the world the pre-enlightened medieval Griselda inhabits.

Keywords: liberal feminism, third world feminisms, orientalism


Critics have positioned A. S. Byatt's Booker-winning Possession as a postmodern classic that plays with genres, combining elements of the detective novel, Victorian poetry, the epistolary novel, fairytales, and metafiction, as well as a post-postmodern text that returns us to "traditional" storytelling. While Possession epitomizes Byatt's approach to narrative, it also underscores Byatt's scathing critique of literary scholarship and theory, as well as her view of academic feminism, exemplified in her satiric representation of the American feminist scholar Leonora Stern. Stern and other scholars in this novel are criticized and sometimes mocked because of their derivative work that Byatt positions as inferior to the creativity and imagination of the artist/genius. Stern, in particular, is made to seem ridiculous as she writes about the female sexuality that she locates in Christabel LaMotte's poem the "Drowned City of Is," arguing, in a letter to another feminist scholar, Maud Bailey, the "drowned women in the city might represent the totality of the female body as an erogenous zone if the circumambient fluid were seen as an undifferentiated eroticism ..." (154).

Byatt does not ascribe to a particular feminist ideology and is often critical of academic feminism and women's studies, yet Byatt says, "[o]f course I am a feminist" (Coyne 12), an "older, more individualistic feminist" than feminists of the 1970s and 80s (Campbell, 2004, 17) and "[a]ll my books are about the Woman Artist--in that sense, they're terribly feminist" (Tredell 66, quoted in Campbell 2004, I). However, Byatt's relationship with feminism has been called "ambivalent" (Campbell 2004, 4; Franken 88).

In this essay, I am interested in critiquing Byatt's depiction of feminism and first and third world women in her novella "The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye" (1994), what I term her version of the Arabian Nights' Tale. I will read this Arabian Nights' Tale in relation to Chilla Bulbeck's insights in Re-Orienting Western Feminisms: Women's Diversity in a Postcolonial World (1998) in order to expose Byatt's orientalist first-world feminist stance.

Most scholars view Byatt's work positively in relation to women's issues, accentuating the liberatory nature of her work, especially her fairytales. According to Annegret Maack, the purpose of Byatt's fairytales, including "The Djinn," is to "liberat[e] and transfor[m]" women's lives (145), while Jane Campbell acknowledges that "The Djinn" "explore[s] the possibilities and limitations of women's lives in the contemporary world" ("Forever Possibilities" 135). Moreover, Campbell argues that Byatt's story "exposes the gaps . …

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