Critical Essays on Alice Walker

By Ikenna Dieke | Go to book overview

The Occupational Hazard: The Loss of Historical Context in Twentieth-Century Feminist Readings, and a New Reading of the Heroine's Story in Alice Walker's The Color Purple

Dror Abend-David

By entitling her article "Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness", Elaine Showalter presents feminist criticism--which she renames "gynocritics" (335)--as a unique phenomenon which sprang in the empty desert of theory about women. While Showalter's notion of the "wilderness" may point out the fact that feminist theories of literature are the product of the last decade, it may be dangerous to interpret her metaphor of "an empirical orphan in the theoretical storm" (331) as a statement about female history, ignoring earlier discussions of feminism such as those of turn-of-the-century Virginia Woolf, and late-nineteenth-centuryMary Wollstonecraft, Maria Mulock, Florence Nightingale, and Sara Stickney Ellis. Showalter certainly distinguishes between the past of feminist criticism and that of women's history, actually referring to some of the discussions just mentioned in her article, particularly to Woolf. Nevertheless, the "wilderness" is a dangerous term which, in her title, as well as in that of Geoffrey Hartman Criticism in the Wilderness, draws on the old Puritan concept of the American wilderness, a domain free of past histories and traditions and, consequently, one that is flexible to new ideologies, theories, and orders.

But as history teaches us--and American history in particular--the idea of wilderness is very often an illusion which ignores the prior inhabitants of a domain, only to be forced to acknowledge them at a later stage. Therefore, without ignoring the significance of feminist theories in the last twenty years nor of Showalter's summaries of such theories, it is likely that feminist readings of contemporary texts that ignore the "prior inhabitants" of female history and thought run the risk of misjudging the achievements of such texts, awarding them with credit of their precursors.

While feminist readings of pre- twentieth-century texts are necessarily aware of the fact that every work that is written either by a woman or about a woman enhances the possibility that women have spent as much time on this planet as men, it is the occupational hazard of contemporary readings, such as the one

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