Elaine Showalter, “Towards a Feminist Poetics,”
In M. Jacobus, ed. Women Writing about Women (1979), pp. 25-33; 34-6
Showalter begins by distinguishing between what she calls the “feminist critique,” which focuses on “woman as reader – with woman as the consumer of a male-produced literature,” and “gynocritics,” which “is concerned with woman as writer – with woman as the producer of textual meaning.” Feminist critique “is essentially political and polemical,” and is metaphorically similar to the “Old Testament, ‘looking for the sins and errors of the past;’” gynocritics, according to Showalter, “is more self-contained and experimental,” and, to extend the earlier metaphor, is like the “New Testament, seeking ‘the grace of imagination.’”
Showalter then provides an exemplary feminist critique of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge to demonstrate that “one of the problems of the feminist critique is that is male-oriented,” meaning that, in some sense, every feminist critique, even when criticizing patriarchy, is focused toward the male. As an alternative, Showalter presents gynocritics as a way “to construct a female framework for the analysis of women’s literature, to develop new models based on the study of female experience, rather that to adapt to male models and theories.”
To begin to trace out this radically female-centered theory, Showalter notes excerpts from feminist historians and sociologists. She then moves on to an engaging discussion of the experiences of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and other female authors to show the need for “completeness” in discussing women authors’ work way in which “it is necessary to leave oneself room to deal with other things besides [women writers'] work, so much has that work been influenced by conditions that have nothing whatever to do with art.”
From these experiences, Showalter then begins an rough sketch of some of the elements that have characterized women’s writing: awakening, suffering, unhappiness, and matrophobia, among others. She concludes with her classification of women’s writing into three phases that “establish[es] the continuity of the female tradition from decade to decade, rather than from Great Woman to Great Woman.” Showalter sees the first phases taking place from roughly 1840 to 1880; she calls this “the Feminine phase” and declares that it is characterized by “women [writing] in an effort to equal the intellectual achievements of the male culture… The distinguishing sign of this period is the male pseudonym… [which] exerts an irregular pressure on the narrative, affecting tone, diction, structure, and characterization.”
The second, Feminist phase follows from 1880 to 1920, wherein “women are historically enabled to reject the accomodating postures of femininity and to use literature to dramatise the ordeals of wronged womanhood.” This phase is characterized by “Amazon Utopias,” visions of perfect, female-led societies of the future. Finally, Showalter posits the third and (at least in 1979) final phase, the Female phase, which began in 1920. In this phase, “women reject both imitation and protest – two forms of dependency – and turn instead to female experience as the source of an autonomous art, extending the feminist analysis of culture to the forms and techniques of literature.” Significantly, Showalter does not (at least in the excerpt presented in the textbook) offer a characteristic sign or figure for the Female phase, suggesting a welcome diversity of experience that is too broad to be encompassed in a single image.
On the whole, I was rather drawn to Showalter’s writing. It is intelligent, largely devoid of rhetorical extremities, and confidently provocative. Welcomely absent is the stridently ideological tone common to so many theorists; instead, Showalter speaks with calmly convincing authority, as one who firmly believes in the verity of what she’s saying. She is both urgent, in that she sees change needing to occur immediately, and patient, in that she expects that, given time enough, the wisdom and truth of her cause will prevail.