Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

A Psychopathology of Everyday Women: Psychoanalytic Aesthetics and Gender Politics in Letting Go and “the Psychoanalytic Special”

Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

A Psychopathology of Everyday Women: Psychoanalytic Aesthetics and Gender Politics in Letting Go and “the Psychoanalytic Special”

Article excerpt

FEMINISM AND PSYCHOANALYSIS

"The fact is that to [him] [. . .] women [are] a strange, inferior, less-than- human species. He [sees] them as childlike dolls, who existed in terms only of man's love, to love man and serve his needs" (Friedan 108). This is not another rebuke of Philip Roth's alleged misogyny, although it may remind us of Hermione Lee's provocative statement that, in Roth's novels, "nearly all the women [. . .] are there to obstruct, or to help, or to console the male characters" (Reading 132), or David Gooblar's assessment that feminist critics have usually deemed Roth's female characters as inferior to his male characters, "mere types, never rising to the complexity or depth of the fully human" (8). The opening allegation is not, in fact, taken from Roth criticism at all, but rather encapsulates Betty Friedan's estimation of Sigmund Freud in her 1963 feminist classic The Feminine Mystique. Decades later, Nancy Chodorow still admits, "Freud was indeed sexist. He wrote basically from a male norm and ignored women. [. . .] He talks, for instance, about women's lesser sense of justice, of their jealousy, shame, vanity, and lack of contribution to civilization as if these were clinical findings" (172). Evidently, charges of sexism and misogyny abound both in Freud and in Roth criticism (Young-Bruehl and Wexler 455; Shostak 112; Gooblar 7). Both have been accused either of neglecting and distorting the female point of view or even of disseminating images of femininity that have proved damaging to the cause of feminism. Roth's allegiance to Freud could thus easily be seen as the bedrock of his own sexist inclinations.

However, such an assessment would jump too quickly from superficial readings of Freud and Roth to a questionable conclusion. Instead, I will argue here that Roth's feminism-his critique of rigid gender roles and sexual politics-is particularly acute where he openly engages with Freud. This argument is far less surprising than the statement by Friedan or the opinions summarized by Lee and Gooblar suggest. First of all, Roth's works have already been associated with feminism. Julie Husband, for instance, notes that Roth's early novels "offer an intriguing view of Roth's struggle with second-wave feminism," in developing "forceful," albeit ambivalent, "critiques of patriarchy" (25-26). Defending When She Was Good (1967), Sam Girgus claims that the novel "suggests that for Roth becoming a man and achieving true sexual and personal liberation require a culture of freedom for women as well" (153), thus also aligning Roth with contemporary feminist politics. Furthermore, several critics have demonstrated how Roth uses subtle narrative techniques to deconstruct the sexism flaunted by his characters. A close reading shows that one-dimensional or stereotypical portrayals of women, which appear frequently in Roth's work, can be traced back to a male character's limited or flawed perspective. Debra Shostak has pointed out that, for "these very reasons, [. . .] Roth's work can appear as much a prescient critique of misogynist attitudes as a purveyor of them" (112). In a mock trial staged between Philip and his mistress in Deception (1990), the writer responds to the charge of sexism and the claim that all his women are "vicious stereotypes" (110) in the following way: "[Y]ou may do your own sex a disservice when you postulate intelligent young women as lacking the courage to be desirable-as having no aggression, no imagination, no daring, no adventurousness, and no perversity" (111). In addition, then, Roth's portrayals of desirous and aggressive women, which have often been counted among these "vicious stereotypes," may add a crucial dimension to a more complex vision of womanhood often occluded by images of female virtue and demureness.

Secondly, even the most vehement feminist opponents of Freud, among them Betty Friedan and Kate Millett, have appropriated psychoanalysis for analyzing sexism (Young-Bruehl and Wexler 456). …

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