Academic journal article Style

Desire and the Female Protagonist: A Critique of Feminist Narrative Theory

Academic journal article Style

Desire and the Female Protagonist: A Critique of Feminist Narrative Theory

Article excerpt

When, at the beginning of Fay Weldon's The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (1983), Ruth decides she can no longer endure her husband's infidelity and emotional abuse, she articulates her desires and forms a plan of action to fulfill them. "I want revenge," she states, "I want power. I want money. I want to be loved and not love in return" (43). In moving from passive acquiescence to active desire, Ruth breaks several rules. First, and most obviously, she breaks the rules of feminine behavior, what she herself describes as "The Litany of the Good Housewife." Secondly, she alters a fundamental tenet of traditional narrative: that the female principle be passive, rather than active. And, finally, her behavior breaks with feminist theories of narrative that see in Ruth's aggressive, even destructive activity a repetition of patriarchal norms as they are traditionally articulated by narrative. Stories such as Ruth's, in which the female protagonist emulates masculine narrative tropes, pose serious problems for femi nist narrative theories. In this article, I will trace such theories, exploring their rationale but arguing that they prescribe a narrative form that precludes female desire and action.

The story of Weldon's she-devil has been read as a reworking of the Faust legend, [1] and, indeed, that narrative, particularly in Goethe's Romantic version, provides a rich contrast between how masculine desire and activity relate to narrative and how Ruth's claim to desire and activity initiate narrative. [2] Faust, like Ruth, lays claim to desire and in fact predicates his life narrative on the ability to desire endlessly. As Peter Brooks points out, Freud refers to Faust in Beyond the Pleasure Principle as "pre-eminently the representation of man's unquenchable striving" (54). According to Brooks's theories of narrative, this Faustian striving creates narrative; as he explains, "desire is always there at the start of narrative, often in a state of initial arousal, often having reached a state of intensity such that movement must be created, action undertaken, change begun" (38). Faust's articulation of his desires and of his will to desire translates into narrative action, the striving forward according to a linear, teleological movement. If Ruth shares with Faust this intensity of, and commitment to, desire, should her story not take on the same qualities--an active striving towards a goal?

Unfortunately for Ruth the association of desire and action with masculinity (in the linear model Brooks describes) means that narrative movement is suspect--doubly so, insofar as it defies both conventional assumptions of how female protagonists behave and certain feminist assumptions of how women's stories should be structured. According to such assumptions, conventional narratives such as the Faust legend, and indeed, narrative itself, are incapable of expressing feminine desire and thus must be rejected in favor of other forms, most specifically, the lyric. In contrast to the masculine, linear narrative desire Brooks describes as "the arousal that creates the narratable as a condition of tumescence, appetency, ambition, quest, and gives narrative a forward-looking intention" (103), feminist theory posits a lyric timelessness connected to women's bodies and feminine desire. For example, Julia Kristeva suggests that "there are cycles, gestation, the eternal recurrence of a biological rhythm which conforms to that of nature and imposes a temporality whose stereotyping may shock, but whose regularity and unison with what is experienced as extra-subjective time, cosmic time, occasion vertiginous vision and unnameable jouissance" (191). The derivation of lyric desire from the pre-Oedipal, that is, from before the subject's entry into the linear time of history and narrative further emphasizes lyric "timelessness." Thus, as Susan Stanford Friedman explains,

lyric discourse replicates the desire for the imagined early mother-child bond while narrative discourse reflects the later story dominated by the father. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.