Elaine Showalter as a Feminist Critic

Elaine Showalter is an influential American critic famous for her conceptualization of gynocriticism, which is a woman-centric approach to literary analysis, Her A Literature of their Own discusses the -female literary tradition which she analyses as an evolution through three phases. She observes that literary “subcultures” (black, Jewish, Anglo-Indian) tend to pass through these stages: 1) Imitation of the modes of the dominant tradition and internalization of the artistic and social values. 2) Protest against these standards and values and a call for autonomy, 3) Self discovery — turning inward free from’ some of the dependency of opposition, a search for identity.

Viewing the women’s literary tradition in terms of these phases, Showalter calls the first phase as “feminine” spanning from 1840 – 1880 (a phase of imitation, when women writers like George Eliot wrote with male pseudonyms); the second phase as the feminist phase (1880-1920, the phase of protest) when women won voting rights; the third phase as the female phase (1920- till around 1960) when women’s  writing entered a new phase of self-awareness.

Showalter points out that although women writers since the beginning have shared a “covert solidarity” with other women writers and their female audience; there was no expressive communality or self-awareness before the 1840s. Even during the feminine phase, women writers did not see their writing as an expression of their female experiences.Yet the repressive circumstances gave rise to innovative and covert ways to express their inner life, and thus we have the mad woman locked in the attic, the crippled artist and the murderous wife. Despite the restrictions,  the novel from Jane Austen to George Eliot talked about the daily lives and values of women within a family and community.

In the feminist phase which denotes political involvement, women writers questioned the stereotypes and challenged the restrictions of women’s  language, denounced the ethic of self-sacrifice and used their fictional dramatization of oppression to bring about social and political changes. They embodied a “declaration of independence” in the female tradition and stood up to the male establishment in an outspoken manner. Challenging the monopoly of the male press, many feminist journals came into being, and some like Virginia Woolf, controlled their own press.

The female phase was marked by courageous self-exploration and a return to more realistic modes of expression. Post 1960 writers like Doris Lessing, Muriel Spark, Iris Murdoch and Margaret Drabble undertook an authentic anger and sexuality as sources of creative power, while reasserting their  continuity with women writers of the past.

Showalter also posited that feminist criticism falls into two categories: woman as reader (Feminist Critique) and woman as writer (Gynocriticism). In the first category, women are consumers of a male-produced literature and this aspect of feminist criticism is concerned with the stereotypical representations of women, fissures in male-oriented literary theory and how patriarchy manipulated the female audiences. Gynocriticism attempts to construct a female framework for the analysis of women’s literature and focus on female subjectivity, female language and female literary career.

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Categories: Feminism, Literary Theory

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6 replies

  1. In her essay Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness (1981), Showalter says, “A cultural theory acknowledges that there are important differences between women as writers: class, race nationality, and history are literary determinants as significant as gender. Nonetheless, women’s culture forms a collective experience within the cultural whole, an experience that binds women writers to each other over time and space”. I want to understand this please ?

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    • The theory of culture as a factor affecting women’s writing is inclusive of the theories of biology, language and psyche. The influence of all these factors is guided by the cultural situation of a woman. History has not included female experience. Thus, history is inadequate to understand women’s experience. Woman’s culture is not a sub-culture of main culture. They are part of general culture itself. If patriarchal society applies restraints on them, they transform it into complementarity. Thus, women experience duality of culture including general culture and women’s culture. Women form ‘muted group’ in society and men form ‘dominant group’. Ardener suggested a diagram with two circles representing these two groups respectively. All language of the dominant group is all acceptable language. So, the muted group has to follow the same language. The part of the circle representing the muted group which does not coincide with the other circle represents that part of women’s life which has not found any expression in history. It represents the activities, experiences and feelings of women which are unknown to men. Since they do not form part of men’s life, they do not get representation in history. This ‘female zone’ is also known as ‘wild zone’ since it is out of the range of dominant boundary. Women could not write on experiences belonging exclusively on the wild zone. They have to give representation to the dominant culture in their texts. There are other muted groups as well than women. For instance, literary identity of a black American poet is forced upon her by the trends of the dominant group.
      Feminist critics try to identify the aspects of women writers which do not follow the trends established by the male writers. For instance, Woolf’s works show tendencies other than those of modernism. However, these tendencies are visible in the sections which have so far been considered obscure or imperfect. Feminist critics should attempt ‘thick description’ of women’s writings. It is possible only when effect of gender and female literary tradition are considered among the various factors that affect the meaning of the text.
      Showalter concludes that the ‘promised land’ or situation when there would be no difference in the texts written by man and woman could not be attained. Attainment of that situation should not be the aim of feminist critics.

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  2. Thank you so much sir for generous help but does Showalter refer that women would be writing alike ? By having the same female literary tradition, would they supposedly write alike ?

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  3. What is value of gynocriticism in the context of feminist criticism?

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  1.  Gynocriticism A Brief Note – Literary Theory and Criticism Notes

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