Yale Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies
Volume 2, Issue 2
spring 2012
Editor, Geetanjali Singh Chanda
Managing Editor, Linda Hase
Layout Design, Nick Appleby

Feminist Fictions

by Samuel Huber

We are all familiar with that most aphoristic of Second-Wave feminist insights: the personal is political.  In “Feminist Fictions,” we read authors who have proven that the same holds true for the literary, either by insisting on the political significance of their writing or by having their texts reread and repositioned by others within a political context.  Their work began long before the Second Wave; in her 1798 novel The Wrongs of Woman, or Maria (the first text on our syllabus), Mary Wollstonecraft tested and ultimately valorized both the novel as a politically deployable genre and the personal as a politically consequential sphere.  The readings that follow bring us to the present day, drawing from a diversity of voices to explore how different ideologies are created and critiqued through literature.

As our syllabus follows a historical trajectory, Professor Homans ensures that each unit includes an overview of the work’s context, a collaborative explication of the tough theoretical concepts it raises, and, most importantly, a detailed and close textual analysis.  More so than in other English seminars I’ve taken, personal experience and instinctive reactions are regularly cited in class discussions. Professor Homans encourages our personal reactions and affirms them as uniquely productive in what they can reveal about the normative frameworks through which we read and live.

Each of the authors we study is contextualized in her historical, geographical, sexual, racial, and socioeconomic time and place. But in our movements between authors certain themes and questions recur: What does one risk in appropriating inherited forms, discourses, and creative vocabularies, and what might they accomplish?  Is the novel, often derided by early feminists as a pacifying diversion of the leisure class, an inherently sentimental and frivolous genre?  What revolutionary potentials might be latent within the form, and what literary alternatives might a woman invent for herself? As we study, each author we also interrogate who and what is excluded.  Writing, as Virginia Woolf reminds us in A Room of One’s Own, depends on the privileges of literacy, economic stability, and time. In each text we must ask who has been denied the privileges of authorship, readership, and representation, and who has been written out of the narrative.

We read these fictions alongside contemporary works of political and social theory in order to gain a deeper understanding of the evolving discourses within and against which these authors position themselves. Balancing these secondary sources against close textual readings enables us to simultaneously consider the work on its own terms and better appreciate its immediate goals and ramifications.

Our first assignment for the course was a straightforward literary analysis of a passage from one of the earlier works. Though, as a junior English major, the task was not new to me. I had never before written a close-reading essay that felt so consequential, so actionable.  In a brief four-page reading of two paragraphs of Wollstonecraft, I not only came to appreciate the nuances of the text but also arrived at urgent and valuable ideas about the viability of emotion as a basis for political engagement.  If the authors on our syllabus affirm the personal and the artistic to be political, then through our coursework we are reminded that so, too, is the academic.

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