Academic journal article Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies

Speaking Up for Catherine Morland: Cixous and the Feminist Heroine

Academic journal article Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies

Speaking Up for Catherine Morland: Cixous and the Feminist Heroine

Article excerpt

Reflecting on the question of Jane Austen's feminism has been an issue of critical concern for almost three decades. (1) Devoney Looser argues for a new direction for feminist scholarship in fane Austen and the Discourses of Feminism: "Rather than continuing to struggle over whether Austen 'was5 or 'was not' a feminist, our time might be better spent describing more intricately the workings of gender politics in her novels" (2) Because Austen writes novels, the contemporary genre most closely associated with women, and because her protagonists often possess feminist traits, following Looser's suggestion on gender politics seems especially important (3) Examining one of Austen's less frequently analyzed texts allows for fresh insight, so this essay will study "the only Austen protagonist to be called a heroine," Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey (4) To provide a framework for the gender politics in the novel, Helene Cixous's insights about women's language and the idea of ecriture feminine --"feminine writing" or language that challenges misogynistic rhetorical norms for women--offers an underexplored approach to the feminist dimension of the book's heroine. (5)

Catherine might seem an odd choice, for she is criticized even by feminist critics. (6) However, she does possess feminist qualities in her ability to transgress the contemporary guidelines for feminine speech. (7) Living in a culture that preferred its women to be simpering or silent, Catherine directly voices her thoughts and feelings, and being able to speak her mind makes her a feminist. (8) The power of Catherine's speech manifests itself not only in her ability to speak her thoughts and feelings directly. In an even more radical move she also teaches Henry Tilney how to deviate from cultural constraints and speak his own feelings, so that the novel also demonstrates a kind of feminist version of the female bildungsroman. (9) While it may be difficult to see Catherine's directness as equivalent to Cixous's call to attack patriarchal language, Miss Morland's speech shows the possible transformative reverberations of Cixous's insight, for Catherine's language lets her navigate the whole matrix of social power.

Helene Cixous targets the centrality of language in the construction of feminine identity in her work, and French feminist scholars have made women's language a central facet of their cultural critique. (10) Although this line of inquiry has been underemployed for the analysis of Austen, the insights of Helene Cixous emphasize the importance of language in allowing a woman to find her voice. In "The Laugh of the Medusa" Cixous analyzes the cultural factors that have traditionally prevented women from giving voice to their experience. Cixous stresses that language has simultaneously been the site of female oppression and the potential launching point for human liberation:

  I mean it when I speak of male writing. I maintain unequivocally that
  there is such a thing as marked writing; that, until now, far more
  extensively and repressively than is ever suspected or admitted,
  writing has been run by a libidinal and cultural--hence, political,
  typically masculine--economy; that this is a locus where the
  repression of women has been perpetuated, over and over,
  more or less consciously, and in a manner that's frightening
  since it's often hidden or adorned with the mystifying charms
  of fiction; that this locus has grossly exaggerated all the signs of
  sexual opposition (and not sexual difference), where woman has never
  her turn to speak--this being all the more serious and unpardonable
  in that writing is precisely the very possibility of change, the space
  that can serve as a springboard for subversive thought, the precursory
  movement of a transformation of social and cultural structures."

Women are narrowly defined by a "masculine" economy, and this binary view of human nature and sexual opposition pervades cultural discourse even as it obscures its true agenda. …

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