Ambiguous Discourse: Feminist Narratology & British Women Writers

By Kathy Mezei | Go to book overview

text, beyond language, which the "arid scimitar" of the masculinist fictional subject simply cannot penetrate. 6

Virginia Woolf's modernist innovation of the novel in these three works-- the radical displacements of the subject enabled and effected by her experimental structures--cannot be separated from her postwar feminist/pacifist politics. First, Woolf places the universal subject in parentheses in Jacob's Room; second, she carves out a parenthetical space between subjects, but beyond any individual subjectivity, to represent our connection within an intricate web of human affiliation, through which an implicitly pacifist/feminist subjectivity is provisionally defined; third, she uses parentheses to open up a textual space for the unpresentable truths of human experience. The fictional "I" who narrates Virginia Woolf's novels is thus both the means of inscribing her own specifically female subjectivity and of signaling the end of the imperial subject. Although only a narrative poetics can fully account for the complexity and texture of the deployment of subjectivity within the Woolfian narrative, an implicitly universal narratology cannot articulate the feminine/feminist specificity of Woolf's narrative structures and so misses the point--and the difference--of her modernist aesthetic--and of her female sentence.


NOTES
1.
Woolf, Three Guineas, 97. Woolf argues that "once we know the truth about war, and the truth about art . . . , we should not believe in war, and we should believe in art."
2.
By gendering her new sentence, Woolf had already, in 1918, anticipated the textual/ sexual politics that would occupy so many critics in the late 1970s and 1980s. Her insights into sexual difference, while empirically based, already envision notions such as writing the female body. She wrote toward the end of A Room of One's Own, "The book has somehow to be adapted to the body, and at a venture one would say that women's books should be shorter, more concentrated" ( Room, 81).
3.
Although I cannot develop the idea here, the richness of this inextricability certainly supports Barbara Herrnstein Smith's argument in "Narrative Versions, Narrative Theories" against the rigidity of Seymour Chatman's two-level distinction--story/ discourse.
4.
My formulation of the female narrator in this text owes much to Richard Onorato's reading of an earlier version of this essay.
5.
The quotation marks around "blank sheets" here signify their reference to a short story by Isak Dinesen called "The Blank Page." An old woman tells the story of a convent outside of which bridal sheets are hung by the nuns after the wedding night and to which pilgrims travel to decipher the stains. The story--a fable about the indirections of female creativity--is about the possible alternative "readings" of a

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