Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Reading the Wound: Wollstonecraft's Wrongs of Woman, or Maria and Trauma Theory

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Reading the Wound: Wollstonecraft's Wrongs of Woman, or Maria and Trauma Theory

Article excerpt

In writing The Wrongs of Woman, or Maria (1798)-her last unfinished novel-Wollstonecraft would appear to have been paralyzed or in the grip of a compulsion that allowed her only to imagine various scenarios of traumatic disaster for her heroine. While she exposed and at the same rime reified the tyranny of sentimental literary formulae for women, Wollstonecraft also revealed that for women of all classes, life really was the way it was depicted in sentimental fiction-a series of insults, humiliations, deprivations, beatings, and fatal or near-fatal disasters. And as the majority of her critics have noticed, in the two novels she wrote we see in only slightly veiled terms the biography of Wollstonecraft herself, the continual disappointments in the weak mother, the failing father, the dependent sisters and the disappointing female friends.(1) At rimes, in fact, the baldness of the narratives becomes strained and embarrassing, as if the author could not bring herself to conceal in even the most rudimentary manner her extensive history of personal pain. Failing to distance herself from her narratives in what we would recognize as a socially acceptable (read: literary) manner, Wollstonecraft virtually slaps the reader in the face with her anger, her impotence, her frustration. At rimes, when reading the novels, we cannot be faulted for wondering, are we peeking voyeuristically into a virtual diary, a cathartic purging of Wollstonecraft's own disappointing familial and sexual experiences, or are we reading instead works of propaganda, systematic creations of an ideology that was to shape women's consciousnesses for the next two centuries? I have to conclude that The Wrongs of Woman, or Maria was intended to be read and understood as both-personally therapeutic and at the same time historically significant for what it reveals about women's lives under patriarchy and an increasingly claustrophobic capitalistic system.

It is safe to claim that Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) stands as one of the earliest and most important documents in the history of the feminist movement.(2) And when Wollstonecraft is discussed as one of the founding mothers of feminism much is made of her adherence to Enlightenment principles, the writings of John Locke and Montesquieu, and the French Revolutionary tradition of fraternity, liberty, and equality. Virtually everyone who has written on Wollstonecraft's feminism, in other words, sees her working primarily within a male-originated and male-dominated tradition of writers.(3) There is no denying the fact that Wollstonecraft consciously identified herself primarily with male writers, for her intense shadow-boxing with Rousseau throughout A Vindication indicates that her identification with him was stronger and more compelling than any she had with the various female writers of her time. She protests just too much about Rousseau for us to believe that she was anything other than alternately repulsed and intrigued by his vision of women and sexuality. We are not the least surprised when we learn that she confessed in a letter to Gilbert Imlay that she had always been "half in love with Rousseau." But finally Rousseau is not the issue, nor is Catherine Macaulay or any of the other women writers with whom Wollstonecraft was associated at some time in her professional lire. What is at stake in Wollstonecraft's career is her attempt to merge deeply felt personal experiences of pain-woundings, a series of psychic traumas-with a more just social, legal, and political agenda for women.

One might ask, why is it important to recognize Maria as a product or enactment of personal as well as social trauma? Does such a reading change out interpretation of Wollstonecraft and her last work? Most interpretations of Maria as well as the Vindication tend to privilege the Enlightenment dialectic that is supposedly central in both those works. Critics tend to see Wollstonecraft as working in the "individual rights" tradition, also known as the liberal feminist agenda, and they assert that her works are largely social, political, cultural, and economic analyses of women's positions in society. …

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