Feminist Interpretation on Literary Discourse
Joni Susanto
English Lecturer of STIBA MALANG
Abstract: the emergence of feminist interpretation seems to be
promising in literary studies since the war - thus it is becoming
more well-established. However, it appears that the conception
of 'feminism' itself has always been the controversial issue at
debate. Over the past decade, feminists have used the terms
'feminist' and 'feminine' In a multitude of different ways. This
essay intends to urge that only a clear understanding of the
differences between them can show what the crucial and
theoretical issues of contemporary feminist criticism really are.
In the first place, it is suggested that feminist interpretation
needs to be seen in a wider context than the literary critical
since the major priority of feminism is to promote social and
political change. On the other hand, it can be argued that the
feminist criticism must seek to reconcile the politics of
feminism and literary contemporary theory. Indeed, what is
likely to keep feminist criticism at the forefront of literary
interpretation is that it incorporarates within itself and in a
particularly powerful form conflicts and tensions that are
central to contemporary literary interpretation in general and
which may develop most interestingly and productively within
a feminist context. For this reason, it seems certain that
feminism will have a powerful role to play in literary
interpretation for the foreseeable future.
Keywords: feminist, female, feminine, politics of feminism
Feminist criticism has in a sense no beginnings.
When in the seventeenth century Esther Sowernain and
Bathsua Makin pointed out that many classical texts
identified powerful deities and influential muses as
women, they were reading from a feminist perspective.
When Mary Wollstonecraft at the end of the eighteenth
century argued that sentimental novels encouraged
Susanto, Feminist Interpretation on Literary Discourse 104
women to see themselves as helpless and silly;.,. she was
practicing a form of feminist criticism (see Belsey and
Moore, 1 '197). The power of feminism within Western
culture since the late 1960's has had a particularly
powerful effect on literary criticism in Britain and
America because of the fact that women constitute a
large majority of the students in the higher education
who study literature. Student interest and demand have
been responsible for feminist courses being offered in
most literature departments, especially in America and
this has necessitated appointing those capable of teaching
such courses. Thus more women have been given
teaching posts, although literature departments still tend
to be dominated by men. Increased attention has also
been devoted to women authors and attempts have been
made to combine feminism with various innovations in
critical theory. Besides, the politics of gender entered a
new phase and since that time feminist criticism has been
developed, debated, institutionalized, and diversified as
never before. In 1970 three revolutionary books appeared
within a few months of each other. The bestseller books
were Germaine Greet's The Female Eunuch, Kate
Millet's sexual politics and Eva Figes' Patriarchal
Attitudes. Millet's book had a particularly strong impact,
but it raises a fundamental question: Is it more important
to change the world than to write criticism that is
powerful purely in critical terms? Or if there is a conflict,
can it be resolved?
Sexual politics studies the work of several male
writers from a committed feminist angle. Their works
are judged negatively if they are seen as expressing
views or ideas which are anti - feminist. Significantly,
when Millet goes on to deal with literature after having
discussed theoretical, historical, and political questions,
she then recalls Marxist reflection theory. Her criticism
is from the standpoint of readers whose main interest in
literature and in an analytic criticism that attempts to do
justice to it, as relentlessly "monological" form of
interpretation. She suggests that there needs to be a
break from formalist and traditional historical criticism
(Millet, 1972: 12).
The method by Millet demands more emphasis is on
an author's ideas rather than matters as artistic structure
hence she admits that there is a tension between her
interpretative approach and the question of aesthetics.
This tension between the aesthetic and moral or political
dimensions of texts has been central to the school of
feminist criticism that has been strongly influenced by
Millet. Donovan (1983) suggests that the Feminist's role
as interpreter is to determine the degree to which sexist
ideologist controls the text; which involves a refusal to
accept any separation between aesthetics and morals.
The goal of this form of feminist interpretation is indeed
political since its aim is to create a situation in which
'literature will no longer function as propaganda
furthering sexist ideology (Donovan, 1983:52).
Donovan's conception of aesthetics itself is narrow,
having much in common with late nineteenth - century
aestheticism in that a work can be considered a
masterpiece in terms of art even though what it is
expressing may be totally objectionable - a form is said
to be separable from content. However, despite its
limitation at the level of both practice and theory, it
created the basis for later feminist criticism in its various
Another direction in feminist interpretation moved
toward the establishment of a specifically female
tradition of writing. Showalter (1979) has coined the
Susanto, Feminist Interpretation on Literary Discourse 106
term gynocritics to categorize her approach which is
concerned with woman as writer. Gynocritics directs its
attention to female culture and consciousness. Showalter
(1977) attempts to show that there is a distinct female
tradition in the British novel, from the mid-nineteenth
century up to the present. She sees this tradition as
having three phases namely "feminine", "feminist" and
"female". Writers in the first group set out to emulate the
achievements of male - centered culture, those in the
second group protested about the situation of women and
those in the third group aimed at creating a distinct
female-centered fiction.
Many of the women writers discussed by Showalter
would unfortunately be regarded as minor in Canonic
terms, but virtually ail of the novels she discusses would
be accepted by women is generally regarded as having
no artistic merit. This has led to attempts to undermine
the basis of the judgments that underlie the construction
of the traditional canon and to efforts being made to
create a critical discourse that can make such works
interesting for the purpose of literary interpretation.
Tompkins (1986) has endeavored to demonstrate
that Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin is not
merely an important cultural document because of its
great influence but that both it and the 'sentimental novel'
of which it is a part can stand up to critical scrutiny. She
both attacks the traditional literary criteria for being
governed by male prejudice as to what is of artistic
interest and argues that such novels cannot merely be
diminished as being without artistic merit on the grounds
that they are sentimental. Tompkin's approach, however,
turns out to raise problems because of its potential to
generate reductio ad absurdum responses that may lead to
feminist interpretation being attacked or diminished by
certain elements within literary tradition. If the kind of
sentimental fiction that she discusses is artistically valid
then what about romantic fiction? Could Barbara
Cartland's novels not be defended as works that are
wrongly judged by the stylistic, psychological, and
epistemological criteria normally employed to decide on
artistic merit when they should be seen as embodying a
radical critique of society from a Christian point of view?
In fact, many male critics would accept that feminism has
altered interpretative perspectives to such an extent that it
is legitimate to question the established canon, but few
would be likely to go as far as Tompkins in setting aside
traditional aesthetic criteria. What should such criteria be
replaced by? If it is felt that feminist criticism and
criticism from other previously 'marginalized' standpoints
- undermines any basis for literary discriminations, then it
will meet strong opposition not only from traditional
forces within the literary institution, which are still
powerful, but also from certain contemporary approaches
which are reluctant to abandon the notion of literary
Meanwhile, Meese (1985) argued that feminist
criticism needs to resist being neutralized politically by
the pluralism of literary institution, which will regard
feminist interpretation as merely another 'approach'. She
suggests that many critics have generally been content to
accept Stanley Fish's idea of the literary institution as
made up of "interpretive communities" - which entails
pluralism - because it appears to allow for freedom of
interpretation without abandoning controls, yet such
controls are benign since they are not asserted by force of
authority. Meese claims that this situation is illusory for
the 'interpretive community' is in fact the 'authoritative
community'. Members of such communities control the
Susanto, Feminist Interpretation on Literary Discourse 108
admissibility of texts, facts and evidence, as well as the
norms constitutive of reasonableness in argumentation. If
feminists' criticism is to resist the apparently benevolent
but in fact oppressive embrace of the institution it must
assert itself at the level of both politics and epistemology.
The field of feminist criticism today could be
divided into two main categories: female criticism and
feminine criticism. Female criticism, which per se only
means criticism which in some way focuses on women,
may then be analyzed according to whether it is feminist
or not, whether it takes female to mean feminist, or
whether it conflates female with feminine. The great
majority of American Feminist Critics nevertheless write
from an explicitly feminist position (Moi, 1977).
Meanwhile, the feminine theory refers to theories
concerned with the construction of feminity. From a
feminine perspective the problem with this kind of
thought is that it is particularly prone to attacks of
biologism and often unwittingly turns into theories about
female essences instead. At the same time, even the most
determinedly 'constructionist' of theories may vary well
not be feminist ones. The works of Sigmund Freud, for
example, offer a splendid illustration of a theory
formation which, while in no way feminist, provides a
crucial foundation for a non-essentialist analysis of sexual
difference. The alternative, a theory of essential female
qualities, on the other hand, would simply play the
patriarchal game. Although psychoanalysis still needs to
be creatively transformed for feminist purposes, the fact
remains that feminism needs a non-essentialist theory of
human sexuality and desire in order to understand the
power relations between the sexes.
It should be noted here that the case of feminist or
feminism would seem to be somewhat different. The
relationship between words like feminism, sexism, and
patriarchy seem to be more complex than in the case of
female/male or feminine/masculine, possibly because of
the political nature of these terms. What is notable is that
the battle between feminist theories and the patriarchal
knowledge seems to be constant. Postmodern theory,
which emerged as new current in feminist thought, is mot
concerned with laying claim to the truth of what it means
to be a woman or a gay or straight, black or white. Rather,
it calls into question the very possibility of absolute
knowledge or universal meaning, and doing so it radically
exposes the political interests that are at stake invoking
metaphysical categories such as Nature, Reason, Science,
Justice to legitimate the 'truth' of a culture, gender, race,
or language.
In the history of patriarchal knowledge woman has
figured as a metaphor for non - truth, non - knowledge,
everything, in other words, falls outside the confines of
'male reason'. Yet, it should be noted that the
marginalization of woman to the perimeter of patriarchal
meanings simultaneously produces a space from which to
counter the 'truth' of patriarchal accounts of the world
including that of the sexual identity itself.
To the degree that postmodernism implies a
fundamental question of the' great truths' of Western
patriarchy, it is compatible with a feminist politics of
change. For it is the linguistic culture, not nature, that
constitutes the range of meanings available in any time or
place, then it follows that there is no single truth, no
absolute knowledge, which would hold others in place.
However, it is precisely post modernism's
incredulity towards the truth of sexuality that
Susanto, Feminist Interpretation on Literary Discourse 110
simultaneously brings it into conflict with feminist
interest in identity politics. Certainly, as Jardine has
argued, when feminism participates in the enlightenment
project of establishing the truth of woman, it is radically
incompatible with postmodernism. A number of theorists
have maintained that in so far as feminism depends upon
a relatively stable and unified model of female
subjectively, postmodernism's refusal to ground meaning
in any pre-cultural transcendent truth inevitably entails a
From its -conception, feminism has continually been
under revision. The post modem movement testifies to the
wide diversity of feminist theories, each pointing towards
different possible futures and allowing the feminist reader
to peruse a range of narratives other than the male stories
told so far.
"The Intentional Fallacy", wrote Wimsatt and
Beardsley (1951) "is a confusion between the poem and
its origins, a special case of what is known to
philosophies as the genetic fallacy." In those days, their
argument was against a historical or biographical
criticism that wanted to move from information about an
author. Usually drawn from letters or journals or
recollections of friends, to a claim about what some text
bearing that author's name must mean, by virtue of
embodying the traces of a unique personal or
psychological history.
The theory of literary autonomy as Wimsatt
developed (Wimsatt, 1964) had a negative and a positive
thrust. The positive idea was that of a speaker or narrator
wholly internal to the work. Even the older biographical
historical critics against whom Wimsatt was writing had
in certain cases been compelled' to make a distinction
between author and speaker or narrator - the distinction,
say, between Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn, or
Browning and Fra Lippo Lippi. To do so, as Wimsatt
saw, was already in some sense to understand the work as
a sphere of reality existing independent of the writer who
had composed it.
Wimsatt's radical move was to extend this
distinction to anything understood as a literary work, to
insist that the "Keats" who speaks in When I Have Fears
is no less a voice within the text, created and sustained by
its discourse and belonging to its world, than Huckleberry
Finn or Fra Lippo Lippi. The 'personal,' on this account,
event at its most intimate or self-revelatory, must always
nonetheless be seen as an effect of language in its public
aspect as literary discourse.
Humphreys (1980) argued that much discussion of
the body in the feminist criticism has been a way of
smuggling in an essentialist idea of gender that is, strictly
speaking, forbidden to such criticism by its own
postulates - a more generalized version, in short, of two
genetic fallacy as discussed in this paper. To the extent
that feminist criticism takes seriously the notion of the
'female' as a cultural construction, Humphreys argues, and
to the extent that it is able to grasp sexuality as a primary
site of such construction, feminist criticism must by its
own lights be guided by "a recognition that gender
difference functions as a trope, subject to reversal and
substitution." This is the sense in which the literary work,
even for the most politically engaged feminist critic,
"already contains the antidote to phallocentrism." In other
words, its very textuality subverts the logic of essentialist
or "natural" categories on which an ideology of
domination must, on the account of gender criticism
Susanto, Feminist Interpretation on Literary Discourse 112
itself, be ultimately based.
The answer to this sort of argument by feminist
theorists has been that it, too, is made of male
domination. Thus, for instance, de Lauretis (1987) puts:
This kind of deconstruction of the subject is effectively a
way to recontain women in feminity and to reposition
female subjectivity in the male subject, however, that will
be defined (de Lauretis, 1987: 24).
In this way, men of economy position themselves in a
certain sphere, including the lawless sphere of
instinctuality that is his unconscious. There is, as it
follows from this 'denial', the absolute refusal of his
conscious mind to register or acknowledge intolerable
truths about himself.
To argue that contemporary gender criticism rests
on the genetic fallacy is simply to make a theoretical
point made long ago by Wimsatt and Beardsley. But to be
told that this sort of point is itself one of the ruses of
masculinist or patriarchal domination - that theory as
such, as de Lauretis says in an influential formulation, is
a 'technology of gender' - is abruptly to reach what at
least feels like a dead end. As with the Freudian
Psychoanalyst, one does not see exactly how one could
enter a meaningful objection to a system defend in this
Wimsatt and Beardsley were theorists of literary
autonomy. That theory, though it has been politically
denounced, has not yet been shown on any persuasive
theoretical grounds to be mistaken. In recognition of that
fact, perhaps, even though they passed from the scene
long before the arrival of gender criticism might have
said "the poem is not the critic's own and not the
author's." It is detached from the author at birth and goes
about the world beyond his or her power to intend about
it or control it. Literature belongs to the public. It is
embodied in language, the peculiar obsession of the
public, and it is about the human being, the object of
public knowledge.
Belsey, C. and Moore, J. (eds.). 1997. The Feminist
Readers. London: Macmillan.
de Lauretis, T. 1997. Technologies of Gender: Essays on
Theory, Film, and Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana
University Press.
Donovan, J. 1983. Beyond the Net: Feminist Criticism as
a Moral Cristicism. Denver Quarterly 17: 40-57.
Humphreys, J. 1988. Troping the Body: Literature and
Feminism. Diacritics 18: 1
Meese, B.A. 1985. Sexual Politics and Critical
Judgment. In G.S. Jay and D.L. Miller (eds.). After
Strange Texts: The Role of Theory in the Study of
Literature. Alabama: University of Alabama Press.
Millet, K. 1972. Sexual Politics. London: Sphere Books.
Moi, T. 1997. Feminism, Female, Feminine. In C. Belsey
and J. Moore (eds.). The Feminist Reader. London:
Showalter, E. 1997. A Literature of Their Own: British
Women Novelists From Bronte to Lessing.
Susanto, Feminist Interpretation on Literary Discourse 114
Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Wimsatt, W.K. 1964. The Verbal Icon. New York:
Farrar, Strauss.
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