What Does Woman Mean? Reading, Writing and Reproduction

By Gunew, Sneja | Hecate, November 30, 1983 | Go to article overview

What Does Woman Mean? Reading, Writing and Reproduction


Gunew, Sneja, Hecate


In line with other current debates surrounding the question of women and culture where images and roles have been replaced by notions of representation so, in the relationship between women and writing, it is no longer a matter of looking for discrete images in any self-contained sense, but of understanding the involved process whereby meaning is constructed, that is, in the relation between elements. In the case of writing, the dominant elements are those between author/producer (both implied and actual), text, and reader (implied and actual). In a recent contribution to the discussion of women and representation, the film critic Annette Kuhn stated that:

patriarchal ideology is defined very broadly as an operation through which woman is constructed as eternal, mythical and unchanging, an essence or a set of fixed meanings.(1)

The object in this paper will be to look at the relationships between concepts of the feminine and representation in three texts and to examine the strategies for constructing female reading positions, both as they are inscribed within a text (implied readers) and how they may be taken up outside a text.

I will examine in some detail three texts chosen because they use female narrators, though not ail are written by women and not all would be immediately classified as fiction by the general reader. David Ireland's A Woman of the Future(2) and Robyn Davidson's Tracks(3) use first person narrators:

The mere use of I does not answer the question of who or what that I actually stands for.(4)

Tracks would not immediately be considered to be a piece of literary artifice but as a transparent and unstructured autobiography. Elizabeth Harrower's The Watch Towers(5) uses the third-person intimate convention in which the point of view from which the story is told merges on various occasions with that of different characters in the text. I will be reading these texts to some extent against each other in such a way that dwelling on their similarities will clarify their differences.

1. Thematic Continuities

The first section will be concerned with thematic continuities, though not in the traditional way of adding up the themes in order to arrive at story content. Another way of approaching these thematic pre-occupations is to analyse them as clusters of metaphors and/or symbols associated with the representation of the female in our culture. The notion of a burden of metaphor lies behind the comment from Annette Kuhn which I cited earlier. And one of the most immediately observable such areas is the one which links woman with the natural, most pertinent in Australian writing and its pre-occupation with landscapes. For example, here is Meaghan Morris's comment on A Woman of the Future:

a brilliant, lucid and completely seductive exploration of two profoundly masculine myths which haunt our culture -- the link between women and the lures of animality, and the image of femininity as a dark, silent continent.(6)

Given these consistent literary ghostings, it is crucial that we analyse how that particular metaphorical burden operates in Australian writing. Levi-Strauss and commentators have described the nature-culture axis as one in which mediations need constantly to occur. Woman is often designated as such a mediating force because she is patently constrained by natural cycles (such as menstruation) so that controlling woman (her sexuality, her fertility, and so on) is often seen as tantamount to controlling Nature. Woman in such a symbolic framework is thus aligned with uncontrolled natural forces, with chaos, with the non-intellectual. Man, on the other hand, signifies culture, control, the rational.

Let us begin with Alethea Hunt. She is described as a "healthy girl-plant" and as communing with the moon (pp. 306-7), in short, as being under the sway of her instincts, particularly the sexual ones. A sceptical reader might be forgiven for seeing her as the ultimate male fantasy: a woman prepared to accomodate or "invaginate" any roving male. …

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