Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

The Gendered Politics of the Gaze: Henry James and George Eliot

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

The Gendered Politics of the Gaze: Henry James and George Eliot

Article excerpt

Recent developments in the theory of the gaze have much to offer critics who are interested in narrative, perhaps especially with respect to 19th-century realism. Telling a story and "looking" at characters are interrelated activities. As Beth Newman argues, such well-established narrative terms as "point of view" and "focalization" are rooted in the visual and "implicitly invoke a gaze: a look that the subject(s) whose perceptions organize the story direct at the characters and acts represented" (1029). "Looking" is not a simple, value-free activity, however. Michel Foucault makes clear that the gaze is connected to power and surveillance: the person who gazes is empowered over the person who is the object of the gaze. A number of art and film critics have focused on the gender implications of this power imbalance, noting that implicit in the structures of much Western art and many classic Hollywood films is the idea of the male gazer and the female object. Within this context, Linda Nochlin in particular has addressed the issue of "Women, Art, and Power," arguing that the male artist's right to represent women is interconnected with the assumption of general male power over and control of women in society (1-2).

These issues of art, the gaze, and the ways in which they are connected to the representation of women are at the foreground of Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady and George Eliot's Middlemarch, two classic realist texts that employ omniscient narration. The term "omniscient narration" in itself, of course, implies an all-powerful gaze - i.e., that the all-knowing narrator directs the reader's look - but, in addition, "seeing" and "vision" are also specific organizing motifs of each novel. James's concern with motifs of visual representation is indicated at the outset by his use of the word "portrait" in the title, as well as by Isabel Archer's key explanation of what she wants from life and the world: "I only want to see for myself" (134). Similarly, Eliot's fascination with vision reveals itself concretely in her narrator's famous discussion of the random scratches on a table forming a pattern of circles when illuminated by a single candle, "its light falling with an exclusive optical selection" (182), as well as at the climactic moment when, in the midst of her personal suffering, Dorothea Brooke gazes out the window and sees "a man with a bundle on his back and a woman carrying her baby" on the road outside Lowick (544). Moreover, both Isabel and Dorothea themselves are viewed by other characters in relation to, or even as, artworks, and both struggle to see life and art for themselves.

The images of seeing and esthetics, as well as the similarities between Dorothea and Isabel, have not gone unnoticed by critics. Recent theoretical work about the gaze, however, especially in film criticism, can shed crucial light on the different ways in which the omniscient narrators of classic realist texts draw upon the visual, especially in reference to women. For example, because of the frequent identification of "the gaze" with a powerful male subject, the figure of the omniscient narrator might seem another way of subjecting women to an all-powerful cultural gaze that is implicitly male. Applying the insights of film criticism to The Portrait of a Lady and Middlemarch, however, reveals the limitations of such a generalization. In each novel, the narrative technique is complex and tension-laden, and in each the presentation of the female character involves different strategies and to very different effects.

Specifically, I wish to explore how the different narrative techniques in these two novels can be aligned with gendered ways of seeing. Thus while I will be arguing that James's narrator tends to view Isabel through an implicit male gaze in contrast to the more female way that Eliot's narrator views Dorothea, I in no way intend to imply that James's narrator is necessarily or biologically male or a figure for James himself, and I similarly intend no reasoning of this kind in the case of Eliot. …

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