Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Posthumous Posturing: The Subversive Power of Death in Contemporary Women's Fiction

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Posthumous Posturing: The Subversive Power of Death in Contemporary Women's Fiction

Article excerpt

Roland Barthes' oft-quoted assertion that "narrative is present in every age, in every place, in every society," that it "is simply there like life itself ... international, transhistorical, transcultural"(1) has devastating implications when taken in concert with the claims of feminist theorists(2) that linguistic forces and practices (including narrative) are inherently mired in sexism. If narrative is as ubiquitous as Barthes posits, and as steeped in patriarchy as feminists argue it is, there seems then to be little hope of constructing an agenic female subject in narrative. Many contemporary novels by women fix their focus upon this issue, attempting both thematically and structurally to resist or subvert patriarchal linguistic and narrative constructs.

The fiction of Kathy Acker, for example, demonstrates an awareness of the diffused web of power in our society, which is as she says "constructed according to the phallus."(3) Her novel Don Quixote which was a dream explores the issue of what possibilities exist for a female subject within the phallocentric construction that is a novel. Acker's novel takes on the seemingly impossible: it confronts and attempts to manipulate the constitutive power that language wields in the construction of the subject. Paradoxically, it is by submitting to the violence and death traditional narrative forms inflict upon the feminine that the protagonist of Don Quixote is able to stage that manipulation. Carole Maso's The American Woman in the Chinese Hat attempts a similar negotiation between language and narrative structure in order to demonstrate the complex difficulties narrative poses for the possibility of a female subject or hero. By grappling with the seemingly inexorable pull of traditional narrative forms, this novel illuminates the heterosexism and violence toward the feminine inherent in those forms and represents a successful attempt to provide a space for an agenic female subject within the prescriptions of the oedipal narrative structure. In other words, like Don Quixote, it is through death that the protagonist of Maso's novel is able to formulate a position of agency and power. It is by dying that the protagonists in both Don Quixote and The American Woman in the Chinese Hat negotiate a tenuous compromise that provides the possibility of harnessing narrative violence for their own ends. These characters make what subversive use they can of the violence and death imposed upon them by the demands of oedipal narrative.

Barthes describes the oedipal narrative by saying: "Doesn't every narrative lead back to Oedipus? Isn't storytelling always a way of searching for one's origin, speaking one's conflicts with the Law, entering into the dialectic of tenderness and hatred?"(4) For Barthes, then, all narrative is oedipal, all narrative leads through obstacles toward eventual knowledge, either of self or of the Law. Unfortunately, in order for this knowledge to be gained, according to Teresa de Lauretis, "the hero must be male, regardless of the gender of the text-image, because the obstacle, whatever its personification, is morphologically female."(5) In his influential essay "Freud's Masterplot," Peter Brooks invokes Freud's The Pleasure Principle in order to point out that the narrative preoccupation with oedipal knowledge derives from a preoccupation with death: "if we inquire further into the nature of the [narrative] ending, we no doubt find that it eventually has to do with the human end, with death."(6) Death, Brooks posits, is always the real telos, the desired direction of narrative structure, while de Lauretis argues that the resulting violence or sadism required for bringing about that death is necessarily directed at the female or the feminine.

Therefore, there remains seemingly little possibility within the confines of the traditional oedipally-inflected narrative structure for a text which does not inflict narrative violence or death upon the feminine. …

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