Academic journal article Style

Timely Interruptions: Unsettling Gender through Temporality in the 'The Story of an African Farm.'

Academic journal article Style

Timely Interruptions: Unsettling Gender through Temporality in the 'The Story of an African Farm.'

Article excerpt

With its odd syntax, desultory structure, and peculiar characterizations, The Story of an African Farm (1883) is an iconoclast among the tightly constructed linear narratives that tended to dominate nineteenth-century fiction. Yet Olive Schreiner's novel is an important text primarily because of its anomalous response to narrative conventions. Through its many irregularities, it both questions and unsettles the social construction of gender that governed behavior at the end of the century. As one of the spate of controversial New Woman novels that emerged in an era of widespread nervousness over the volatile issue of gender roles, Schreiner's colonial text queries and rejects the culturally perceived conjunction between biology and behavior. Setting African Farm apart from its generic feminist contemporaries, however, is its strategy for disrupting gender paradigms. The novel problematizes gender construction on both a broadly structural and an intimately textual level through its unusual manipulation of temporality. Appropriating the prevailing essentialist distinction between temporal forms, the novel situates masculine linear temporality as a controlling force and simultaneously disrupts its hegemony through the inexorable intervention of feminine time. In the narrative chaos that ensues, African Farm creates a textual space within which alternate constructions of gender can be imagined and enacted.

To realize this goal, the novel both responds to and complicates Victorian discourses on a subject - time - that was an obsessive concern during the period. The century was marked by a dizzying array of scientific, technological, and philosophical developments that initiated a veritable revolution in the way time was theorized. Lyell's unnerving geological findings, advances in a host of time-based sciences, a widespread faith in history as progress, and, of course, Darwin's explosive theories are but a few of the startling advances that shaped Victorians' temporal perceptions. Yet these conceptions, I maintain, carried an implicit but insistent gender component. In effect, they presupposed and reified a "natural order of time," one formed by and perpetuated through gender-laden values that precluded substantive change in women's prospects. Prominent among such temporally based values were those associated with history, progress, Christianity, and evolution, all of which were weighted in favor of the men who determined both their direction and their interpretation. In Victorian culture, for example, it was the male who shaped the course of history and whose accomplishments furthered the cause of progress. In Christianity it was the male who served as prophet, priest, and typological precursor of Christ. In Darwinian theory it was the male who was the most advanced specimen in the human developmental chain. In seeking to identify its complicity, question its reliability, and negate its authority in prescribing a restrictive female role, Schreiner and other New Woman novelists, however, foregrounded the constructedness of this "natural order of time."

Schreiner pursues this project by problematizing the temporal associations that reinforced Victorian notions of masculinity and femininity.(1) The presumption of masculine and feminine time may seem hopelessly essentialistic to modern critics accustomed to distinguishing between biological sex and gender, but it is necessary to consider temporality as Victorians themselves constructed it. Thus, my project is to explore, not endorse, the temporal ideology at work in Schreiner's text, for it responded to the essentialist designations of time that helped naturalize cultural definitions of gender. Although African Farm is not the only late-century novel to adopt a sophisticated temporal perspective to explore gender paradigms - Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles, H. Rider Haggard's She, Sarah Grand's The Beth Book, and Mona Caird's The Daughters of Danaus, for example, also manipulate time in interesting yet diverse ways - none does so more insistently, consistently, and pervasively than African Farm. …

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