Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

Inventing, Revising, and Reinventing Women: Feminism and the Fantastic in the Novellas of Steven Millhauser

Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

Inventing, Revising, and Reinventing Women: Feminism and the Fantastic in the Novellas of Steven Millhauser

Article excerpt

Steven Millhauser's novellas variously and subtly employ the fantastic to critique dominant ideologies of gender. Yet few critics have undertaken a gendered analysis of his work, with many emphasizing instead its aesthetic playfulness and self-reflexivity. (1) Douglas Fowler, for example, finds that "in a literary culture poised to reward art in the service of the big issues of social amelioration and sexual politics, Millhauser's imaginative constructs are exquisite, apolitical, socially indifferent--unmistakably art for art's sake, miniatures created solely to accept that heady invitation to 'become God'" ("Steven Millhauser: Miniaturist" 139). (2) But a close analysis of several novellas reveals that when writing about God-like artists and their creations, Millhauser does not always do so in a "socially indifferent" manner: many of his works explore the social implications of the relationships between his male artists/creators and their often female creations by probing ideas about conventional gender roles, female spectacularity, and the male gaze precisely to highlight and critique the ways in which femininity has been socially and narratively constructed. In several novellas, Millhauser's fantastical devices create a complicated interplay between the real and the unreal to lay bare the manner in which conventional representations of femininity in effect "derealize" women.

This essay traces the trajectory of Millhauser's treatment of male acts of creation and representation of the female body from "August Eschenburg" (1986) and "The Invention of Robert Herendeen" (1990) to "An Adventure of Don Juan" (2003), finally considering as well the representation of women in "The Princess, The Dwarf, and the Dungeon" (1993). In addition to thematizing acts of invention, all of these novellas explicitly revise earlier works of literature, calling attention to a process of invention and reinvention that takes place outside the diegesis. "August Eschenburg" incorporates material about the birth of the cinema and introduces ideas about the visual representation of the female body as theorized by feminist critics such as Laura Mulvey and Rey Chow. Their work on the male gaze illuminates Millhauser's project in those novellas that explore the boundary between the real and the unreal in characters' mechanized creations of female bodies. Both "August Eschenburg" and "The Invention of Robert Herendeen" echo, in their depictions of these acts of creation, E. T. A. Hoffmann's tale "The Sandman," thereby invoking and critiquing German Romanticism, a philosophy that also "de-realizes" women, and thus feminist readings of Hoffmann's work further illuminate Millhauser's engagement with the ideology of gender. These parallels extend as well to "An Adventure of Don Juan," which revises not only Hoffmann's "Don Juan" but also other versions of this legend. Finally, in rewriting the Juan tale, Millhauser incorporates references to another of his own novellas, "The Princess, the Dwarf, and the Dungeon," which departs from the other works' use of literal inventions such as automatons and other mechanical devices but nonetheless dovetails with these novellas in its practice of literary adaptation. As a postmodern fairy tale that engages explicitly with gender roles, this novella can be considered through the lens of feminist criticism of more well-known postmodern revisions of the fairy tale genre. Authors (such as Andersen and the Grimms) who produced the kinds of fairy tales that Millhauser revises were participating in a project similar to that of Hoffmann and others who penned Romantic fictions. Thus even when he does not explicitly revise Hoffmann's tales, Millhauser extends his engagement with aspects of German Romanticism and the tensions it explores between the fantastical and the historical world. All of these works reveal that through acts of invention and reinvention- -both as they are represented with the tales' story worlds and as they are enacted in Millhauser's own process of literary adaptation--Millhauser employs fantastical devices, the manifestly unreal, to question the naturalness or reality of socially constructed gender roles. …

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