Mimetic Desire and Abjection: The Social Construction of Woman in Winterson's The Passion and McBride's A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing.
This paper uses the frameworks of Girardian mimetic desire coupled with Kristevan abjection to interrogate the representation of woman as a social object in the novels of Jeanette Winterson and Eimear McBride. The works of these authors: The Passion (1987) and A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing (2013) enter into a literary conversation which challenges the Westernised positioning of women as objects within their surrounding societies. Both works force the reader to consider the subtle powers of women; their covert and overt sexuality, their resilience in the face of disempowerment and their willingness to challenge their positions as subjected to phallocratic bias. In the introduction to her article, "Queering Girard--De-Freuding Butler," Iwona Janicka argues that Rene Girard's concept of mimetic desire has not "invited an eager feminist response thus far" (44), and she illustrates how Girard developed his theory as applicable to all human beings. Genderless though it may be, the social application of Girard's theory carries with it substantial implications when looked at through the lens of identity politics. Social mimesis is a method of human adaptation based on social survival. Girard's theory does not make an acknowledgement of, or allow space for, a society that is fundamentally gender-biased. Due to the phallocentric tradition of Western constructions of self and identity, this performative mimesis is problematised for women. It is precisely against this gender bias that the main female characters of Winterson's and McBride's novels find themselves pitted. Women, as social objects, have been constructed by a society which is predicated on a phallocracy that marginalises social performance and mimesis, denying the pursuit of power and status to women. Must women then subject themselves to forms of abjection in order to jettison those parts of the self which are incongruent with the socio-cultural codification of their gender?
While The Passion and A Girl might seem dissimilar in context, their thematic preoccupations and their treatment of woman as object represent similarities that offer unique viewpoints as to the social construction of woman. Written just over 25 years apart, both novels are haunted by a Eurocentric religiosity that, steeped as it is in patriarchal sentiment, problematises the accessibility and expression of the self as woman for both Winterson's and McBride's characters. It is this disparate temporal gap and the overwhelming similarities between both texts that is the most telling factor in the changes, or lack of them, for the female social object. The plight of both Winterson's Villanelle and McBride's Girl in relation to enacting their own forms of agency and action in both novels is further complicated by their actual or perceived weaknesses as women. The cost incurred by both of these characters in the process of enacting agency and self-determination is explored in this paper. Interestingly, both novels also share a preoccupation with forms of androgyny and gender liminality that invert power paradigms and allow for the transgression of social boundaries. Couched in a similar socio-religious setting, both Villanelle and Girl must perform psychical (and physical) abjection in order to extricate themselves from their respective social bonds and achieve some semblance of agency beyond the hegemonic social construction of woman.
Both novels feature protagonists who are forced to compromise their self-expression in order to conform to the phallocracy of patriarchal tradition. While both female protagonists are successful in challenging their patriarchal subjugation, they achieve this in different ways. Villanelle's gender fluidity affords her the ability to engage in acts and actions which are beyond the realms of the male and female gender binary of Winterson's Napoleonic Europe. This gender fluidity allows Villanelle to be, at once, seen and unseen and able to exercise power in the liminal spaces of gender. Even in the absurdity of her birth, "born with the toes of a boatman's son" (50), Villanelle's gender and physical ambiguity imbue her with a preternatural power. The character of McBride's Girl is similarly blighted, her gender is both a place of empowerment and disempowerment. As Gina Wisker puts it, "women turn to the experience of liminality to help them find viable alternatives to the patriarchy" (67). Girl, like Villanelle, is a woman weakened by a haunted European religiosity and afforded an androgyneity that protects and empowers her. It is not until Girl's psychical, physical and sexual maturity in her late teens and early twenties that she learns how to wield her sex for the purposes of empowerment--she uses sex to "feel no more pain" (70). Girl's early life is typified by her sexual abuse, mostly at the hands of her uncle. As Girl matures, she learns to take what was once a weakness (her sexuality) and reinscribe it as a tool and space of power. Much as Villanelle uses her androgyny to her advantage so, too, does Girl use her sexuality in order to enact a level of power and control over what was once a weakness. For Girl, however, this power is mitigated by her slavery to the cyclical process of sexual abuse in which her sexual agency only leads to her consequent disempowerment and destruction of self. The characters of The Passion and A Girl form part of a conversation about the expectations of women as social objects. The similarities of these novels in space, place, setting and characterisation necessitate a reading of these texts as part of a larger literary conversation about the construction of woman as a social object.
The fluidity of gender (mis)representation is a hallmark of Winterson's oeuvre, as it is of McBride's novel. The Passion, written in 1987, captures four vignettes of Napoleonic Europe in which the male protagonist, Henri, and his female counterpart, Villanelle, are both subject to the ambiguity and indignity of their gender. Henri, for his part, is an ineffective and ineffectual man with little of the typical alpha-masculine dominance. In a particular inversion of gender norms, Henri plays the foil for Villanelle's character--a brash and brazen young woman whose greatest fear is the apparent captivity of her gender. However, Winterson allows both Villanelle and Henri, despite their weaknesses, to transgress the gendered physical and psychical boundaries. The Passion opens with the castration of Henri's masculinity. He is an aide attendant to Napoleon's cook during his march across Europe and is emasculated by other dominant, warfaring characters. Similarly, we first find Villanelle in Venice, successfully hustling men and using their own wits and wares against them. Interestingly, the meta-history and mythos of Winterson's narrative, explored in analeptic scenes, is also soaked in the transgression of gendered social boundaries and rituals. For example, Henri's mother escapes her predestined fate--a marriage based on improving the social position of her family and Villanelle's mother. In another instance, Villanelle's mother--now effectively a widow following Villanelle's father's desertion--is seemingly cursed by her enactment of a tradition prohibited only to pregnant married women. When, finally, Villanelle's and Henri's stories cross paths, their gender-specific weaknesses are what anneal their partnership and cement their success, to varying degrees.
In what is a self-described imitation of Joycean stream-of-consciousness writing, McBride's novel follows the psychical, physical and emotional evolution of her unnamed protagonist (Girl) from infancy to her premature death. This narrative style blurs the borders between the psychical and physical, creating liminal spaces in which Girl's existential uncertainty is dissected (Wisker 74). The blurring, conjoining and overlapping of these psychical and physical borders manifests much like other texts in realistic and magically-real fiction. The stream-of-consciousness style facilitates the manifestation of Girl's psychical anxieties in magically real phenomena. McBride displays these phenomena typically in a metaphorical fashion, as Girl is overcome with lust of which she is acutely self-aware,
Later it ran up me. Leg stomach knees chest up head. Like smoke in my lungs to be coughed out. I'd throw up excitement. What is it? Like a freezing pain. I felt me not me. Turning to the sun. Feel the roast of it. Like sunburn. Like a hot sunstroke. Like globs dripping in. Through my hair. Spat skin with it. Blank my eyes the dazzle. Huge shatter. Me who is just new. Fallen out of the sky. What. Is lust it? That's it. The first splinter. I. Give in scared. If I would. Stop. Him. Oh God. Is a mortal mortal sin. (62)
The simple language used by McBride combines with the visceral and life-like description of Girl's torment to render her fear and anxiety as an almost corporeal manifestation of guilt. In the early sections of the novel, McBride's allusions to the psychical conjoining of Girl and her brother delimit the gendered space of the setting. This serves to both decry and interrogate the social objectification of gendering. Much like Winterson's Villanelle, McBride's Girl is also positioned in the space between genders; unlike Villanelle, however, Girl's psychical disempowerment as a gendered object is both her source of power and her ultimate undoing. While Villanelle emerges from her escapades as a questionable victor, Girl is crushed by the dominance of a physical and psychical masculine hand. Girl only overcomes that dominance in her final act, her suicide, an act that, while impacted by her psychical state, is by sheer virtue of its nature, of her own volition.
The subjugation of women to the patriarchal hierarchy of social power limits the female characters in The Passion and A Girl who struggle to maintain control over their social status, both real and perceived. While the mechanism of feminine subjugation may have shifted between the publication dates of both texts, the overt and existential essentialism of woman's subjection as a social object has not.
The Girardian concept of mimesis and the problem of Kristevan abjection
Kristeva's conception of Girard's mimetic theory is problematic in a postmodern context, considering the gender spectrum and the dissolution of the nuclear family. Girard's dyad of mimesis was constructed on an object-subject relationship wherein the subject identifies the object (model) and imitates the object in a bid to achieve social success (Reineke 74). On the contrary, Kristeva's construction of mimesis relies on the binary gendering of parental roles and the ways in which these act upon the subject to determine the nature of imitation (Reineke 73). While Kristeva's model relies on parental substitution as the determining factor of mimetic desire and is valuable in more specific applications, the absence of gender in Girard's model allows for greater fluidity when considering the positioning of women in literature.
Kristeva's concept of abjection hinges on the expulsions of the corporeal body in conflict; abjection is the purging of impurities in order to achieve a "clean and proper" body (Bouson 4). In this case, the "clean and proper" body is contrasted with the "dirtiness" that displaces a body; abjection of this dirtiness is necessary in order to achieve successful mimesis, bodily and spiritually (Bouson 4).
Elizabeth Grosz expounds on this link between the corporeal and the psychical self. Taking Kristeva's "conception of the body" to task, Grosz stipulates that the "body's psychical interior is projected outwards and its material externality is introjected as necessary conditions of subjectivity" (Signification 82). Grosz goes on to link the "image of the body" (based on everyday familial and social beliefs) to the self and explains that this body, or "imaginary anatomy," is a "specular and psychical construct" (Signification 84). In this construction of abjection, the subject connects their imaginary anatomy to their objective mimetic desire for the models which construct their familial and social beliefs. The reciprocity between body and mind in identity construction is critical to the link between mimetic theory and abjection (Butler 175-76). Grosz combines Girard's mimesis and Kristeva's abjection, reaching a position wherein the individual is conceptualised. In this instance, the individual jettisons aspects of self that are deemed abject upon reflection of the desired social object. These aspects of self are determined as abject when they are not found in the mimetic object and, therefore, not part of the "clean and proper" construct of the objective model (Signification 82).
The patriarchal foundations of society have impacted substantially upon the social construction of women and, accordingly, upon the mimetic social object to which women aspire, to achieve social inclusion (Gilbert and Gubar, Sexual 515). Simone de Beauvoir addresses this in The Second Sex when she refers to the contradiction of the mythic feminine by "the behaviour of real flesh-and-blood women, it is women who are wrong" (np). Beauvoir's critical assessment of the historical mythologisation of the Feminine illustrates the antithetical concept of woman as Feminine. She uses this patriarchal construction of the Feminine and juxtaposes it with the existential essentialism of women's behaviour to illustrate the untenable situation of women who must conform to societal expectations in order to function within the system. In this way, the characters in the two novels of Winterson and McBride have little choice but to abject themselves to take their place as "clean and proper" women.
Woman as the phallocratic subject
The phallogocentric underpinnings of literary and social tradition have written woman onto the spectrum of "vexed and vexing polarities of angel and monster" and, in this way, determined the criteria of what is a socially acceptable expression of womanhood (Gilbert and Gubar, Madwoman 45-46). While feminists have pushed back against this, the phallocratic definition of woman remains prevalent. Luce Irigaray explains the same concept, positioning women within the patriarchal tradition as inescapably linked to the "irreducible alterity" of masculine culture (xii). Martha Reineke alludes to Kristeva's construction of mimetic desire when she suggests that phallocentric linguistics symbolically murder the mother figure and thereby devalue the feminine object of man's mimetic desire (77). Kristeva also suggests that the symbolic murder of the matriarch is key to "gain[ing] access to this masculine realm;" woman must forsake her jouissance by preserving her virginity or "atone for [her] carnal jouissance with [her] martyrdom" (Kristeva, Reader 146). It is important to note that Irigaray argues against this assertion, instead insisting that women's difference operates as a site of power rather than disempowerment--and perhaps, in Girl's final act of agency, this is the case. However, in the situation of Villanelle, we can view her androgyny, power and agency in The Passion as a form of inverting the typified gender-power paradigm. Whenever asked to remove her boots, Villanelle asserts her position as a "boatman" (my emphasis) and invokes the masculinised right to her privacy (103). Similarly, Girl's power in this application is a subversion of the sexual power with which she is imbued, during her interactions with men in the text. Girl reflects on her own promiscuity and sexual power, "Now I know full well what I can do ... I know the fat on his thighs" (87-88). This intimate understanding of the limits of her own sexual ability and of the corporeal bodies of the men Girl sleeps with leads her to realise that her sexuality is her greatest power; she concretises this in the admission, "saying yes is the best of powers" (89). However, the exercising of these capabilities also works to Other both Girl and Villanelle within the phallocratic tradition of Western societies.
Woman's ability to express sexual desire is regulated by the phallogocentrism of Western linguistics; woman is either prudish or promiscuous, virginal or slutty, chaste or immoral--there is no positive connotation to the expression of woman's libidinal self. Judith Butler shows that the presumptive masculine subject is dependent on the female Other, the "'object' who inexplicably returns the [sexual] glance, reverses the gaze;" woman's sexuality is merely perfunctory (xxx-xxxi), insofar as it provides alterity for masculine desire. Thus, the hegemony of masculinity determines the acceptable standards of female sexuality, which is to say that it commodifies woman to the value of her reproduction status and devalues her sexual autonomy (Ellman 179). Indeed, in The Passion Villanelle's clean girl's heart (50) is explicitly commodified as part of a wager and subsequently kept under lock and key by her husband, the Cook (98). Villanelle herself is also sexually commodified to provide pleasure for the "French generals" of Napoleon's army (99). The same can be said of Girl, who is used by her uncle as a sexual outlet sometimes in the guise of charitable auspices (65, 71,131,166,171, 209). Girl internalises these visits as a form of sexually performative self-flagellation or penitence which is "a quiet and worse lie" than exposing her uncle and her own sins (168).
In this way, the woman's body is paralysed by a society and culture that produces her as Other (Reineke 68). The construction of the social female object is one that is at once chaste, but also receptive of the maternal desire to procreate predicated on the assumptive advances of her masculinised husband. Given the displacement of feminine desire in this paradigm, this is precisely as one aspect of self to be abjected by woman in order to achieve mimetic harmony with the idealised, social female object; desire must be placed beyond the will of the subject (Grosz, Signification 96). This form of abjection of self is present in both texts, which interrogate the ways in which "natural feminine existence" must be abjected in order to achieve social mimesis.
Feminine desire--A site of shame and power
The Passion and A Girl address the subjectivity of feminine desire in varying modes, but the theme of feminine sexual shame is dominant. McBride couches Girl's sexual shame in the seat of dominion held by masculine desire. Girl is forced to break the taboo of incest when she is coerced into having sex with her uncle and, shamefully, her desire and enjoyment cannot be quelled, confused though it may be. Later when he rapes her, she can't help but be "warm in this. Full up. True"--which is overridden by the Catholic God for whom lust "is a mortal sin" (62). While the incest taboo is forced to the back of the mind, Girl is still disallowed her normative sexual satisfaction by the phallocentric moralising of the Catholic tradition (Wisker 58). However, Girl manipulates this masculine power to "feel no more pain" (73); she realises the power of sex and her desire and utilises sex as a site of resistance (Cahill 159), much akin to Irigaray's site of power in feminine martyrdom. Girl is conscious that this sexual desire is "abnormal" in terms of the assumed feminine social object of her mimetic desire. In this way, sexual shame is shown to be a product of the patriarchal construction of "women as passive receptacles of the masculine activity of romantic love" (Grosz 94). Given Girl's pursuit of normalcy, she is forced to abject her desire, she must "prohibit ... a filthy, defiling element" (Reineke 77). Girl is haunted by the Original Sin of her Catholic upbringing, "Sex. Sexism. Sexuality. All the words ... Since I knew what men and women sometimes do but I am something else. I am. Going to the bad" (63). Later, this Catholic conscientiousness manifests through the self-flagellation of Girl's sexual pain, "He filled with. My pain. He is coming ... I must be almost I am dying when he does it ... Feel no more pain" (73). This acknowledgement of the inscription of a Catholic consciousness on Girl's psyche is further reinforced by her own disgust and pain at sex, even consensually. It is in this act of sexual abjection of self that a Freudian sense of control and acceptance is exercised in order for Girl to keep her abjected sexual shame at bay (Cordon 170). In the Kristevan sense she atones for her carnal jouissance; it is, however, an external masculine control that keeps her confined to the limits of her own sense of agency.
Mary Jacobus suggests that the regulation of feminine sexuality can be seen in Freud's reduction of feminine pleasure to the masculine "sexual aim--penetration into a cavity in the body which excites his genital zone" (19). This dovetails with Irigaray's assertion that feminine selves are constructed within the framework of an "irreducible alterity" to masculine culture (xii). Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar illustrate that this relationship of sexual servitude of women to men is a phallocratic tradition that extends beyond the dominant forms of society to subtle forms of linguistics and emotionality (Sexual 516). Girl's uncle subverts the assumed reciprocity of romantic love to take command of her body, "I love you. That is love evermore for me. He says open let me. In. I'll mind you." Taking linguistic ownership he subjects her, "Says come on now it's what's good you and us" (253). In the same vein of assumptive ownership the Gambler/Cook purchases Villanelle's hand in marriage with the promise of "luxury and all kinds of fancy goods" (63). This is only compounded when we later find that the Gambler/Cook has imprisoned Villanelle's abjected weakness, her heart (93), of which she must maintain control in order to exercise her own mimetic desire. Villanelle's heart plays the allegorical role of Samson's hair or Icarus's wings; it is the organ from which Villanelle derives her agency and action. Villanelle describes the loss of her heart as "death: dismemberment piece by piece beginning with the hands" (93). This is an allusion to the hands which were lopped off thieves to render them no longer capable of re-offending. This can be read through the lens of Cixous's perspective on voler and the voleur: Nancy Kline, in analysing Claudine Hermann's work on Helene Cixous, explores how Cixous's use of the verb voler highlights the tension between the "two meanings, flying/stealing" (ix). Kline goes on to illustrate the way in which this verb in Cixous's work is used to transition into the noun voleuse, into which the reader enters a "discussion of stealing and flying in the face of what isn't hers into a consideration of what belongs to woman proper, what is her own" (x). This is precisely the flight that takes place when Villanelle and Henri, exercising their own form of agential action, reclaim Villanelle's heart from the Cook and displace his form of male ownership over her. Ramsay Burt suggests that these abjections of male ownership illustrate a problem with the unquestioned nature of the phallocratic, masculine cultural paradigm (70). As a result, we can read the ways in which Villanelle and Girl reject and resist male ownership as an abjection that challenges the assumptive "superior prestige and authority" of man over the domain of feminine sexuality (Scott 159). The abjection of these phallocratic sexual roles can be further investigated when we look to the ambiguity of androgynous zones.
Dissolving gender and the creation of iiminal gender spaces
The dissolution of gender borders disempowers the masculine and at the same time removes the glass ceiling of power for Girl and Villanelle, allowing them a position that exists outside the gender binary. McBride's Girl, early in the novel, conflates her experience with her brother's and, in this way, both characters are permitted to straddle the worlds of both men and women. The childhoods of Girl and her brother are experienced mostly in the collective subject "we." Although the objective "I" and "you" are also used, there is a tonal confusion in the cadence of the nouns when so closely juxtaposed. Consider this passage for example:
Tomato soup we made. You opened and only tipped a little on the sideboard block. I wiped it in the darkness. We were keeping still as still ... I was careful and your hand might slip. Put it down there. On the floor there. Just beside her door. Then you knocked it. Very gentle. Saying Mammy in whisper here's your dinner that we made. We had a talk and we'll be good from now on and do everything you say. (22-23)
There is almost a Freudian slippage in the ownership of the noun, which amalgamates the experience of the two children, dissolving the gender barrier. In a similar way Villanelle, a boatman's daughter, born with the webbed toes of a boatman's son, blurs the lines of a binary gender construction with her androgynous, amorphous body (Doan 149; Seaboyer 496-97). For, in Winterson's text, the vocation of the boatman precludes women from the occupation--hence the aberration of Villanelle's boatman feet. Villanelle's and Girl's closest male counterparts lack all but physiology to be considered a masculine archetype. For example, Henri remains nameless and genderless for much of his introduction. The reader learns that he is weak, he cannot "crack a walnut between finger and thumb," nor is he a "cleaver man/' but he has "firm buttocks" and "that's something" (Winterson 5); he is "homesick from the start" (6). Similarly, Girl's brother is the victim of a head injury early in childhood and suffers intellectually and physically and is therefore a subordinated male--if indeed, he is a male--by the schema of the phallocratic tradition. The dissolution and inversion of gender norms in this way undermine the ontological security of gender roles (Ellman 184). Judith Seaboyer argues that Villanelle's webbed toes and her mastery of water act as "a phallic signifier of secret power" (506). In the same way, we can conceptualise Girl's mastery of her own self-inflicted baptisms, as a resignification of a symbol intended to drown women (Seaboyer 506), over which she gains her freedom. Indeed, it is Girl's dominance over water that allows her first and final act of agency, in her suicide by drowning. Water for both Villanelle and Girl "promises rebirth [but] also causes the erosion of distinction" (Ellman 181). It is this lack of distinction, this laxity in the constrictions of binary-gender laws that permits both women to successfully challenge the patriarchal tradition of feminine suppression.
Phallogocentrism and the spectre of Judeo-Christian religiosity
Gender conformity and the social expectations of such, prefigure the religious proposition of socialised gender performativity. Indeed, the women of McBride's and Winterson's novels are subject to fulfilling the performative criteria of their gender under religious auspices. Invoking both Mary Daly and Beauvoir, Anne Marie-Korte exposes the ways in which religion maintains the phallocratic status quo. Both men and women are prevented from "believing in women's power and holiness," and this leads to "continued objectification and rape of women," both metaphorically and literally (93). The reverence of woman as the holy producer of the child "reduces the role of the biological mother to mere provider of a nurturing uterus," as Jacobus puts it (24). Jacobus links this biological reductionism to the Catholicised linguistics of phallocratic heterosexuality with specific reference to the "conjugal act," in which female desire is reduced to vaginal penetration catalysed by male desire (19; 23). Tina Beattie, in a similar fashion, highlights that the patriarchal tradition of religion reduces the function of women to either that of sacrifice or atonement; the sacrifice of Eve's body to motherhood and the constant atonement for her original sin is borne down matrilineally (34). Thus, woman's body becomes a possession of the religious patriarchy; either legislated to a particular subset of performance expectations or required to be the incubator of God's children. In this way, woman must constantly abject her "irreligious" self in order to attain acceptability of that which is represented by the chaste, virginal Mother Mary, the epitome of the female object. Irigaray argues that the spectre of Mary is upheld by religious traditionalism as the yardstick of femininity and that which lies outside of this is considered transgressive (152). Thus, in this way, the socialised woman as object is denied sexual expression to the point of shame and humiliation of her sexual proclivities. The virginal yardstick of Mother Mary sets the bar for sexual expectations of women wherein the immaculate conception offers the only experience by which women can participate in sexual reproduction--an act which is neither seen nor heard but bears fruit only.
The religious contexts of the novels, to varying degrees, impact upon the female protagonists: for Girl, a staunch Irish Catholicism is woven into the very fabric of day-to-day existence (Mahon 105), and there remains an omnipresent spectre of European Protestantism/ Catholicism that affects the perception of Villanelle by others and her own self-perception. Winterson situates this in bodily regulation when she juxtaposes a camp follower's record of customers serviced at thirty-nine with the suffering of Christ under the lashings of the Romans, "Christ lost consciousness at thirty-nine" (38). Villanelle is also commodified to "join the Generals for their pleasure"; she is, however, unable "to collect [her] heart" (99) before she has to leave and, without access to it, remains spiritually chaste during this period. The heart of Villanelle is a metonymical representation of her emotionality, perhaps even spirituality, which she must recover from her estranged husband, the Cook. Winterson's interplay between Henri and Villanelle often exposes Villanelle's caprice and callousness, as subject to her absence of heart, at the hands of her patriarchal aggressors (the Cook and the Generals).
While Winterson uses Villanelle to, at times, displace Jesus as the water-walker (because "Christ had been able to walk on water thanks to the same accident of birth" (104)--webbed feet), this commitment to spiritual chastity is a significant recantation of any perceived irreligiosity. Winterson exposes the codification of woman's body as both a subject of and an answer to the objectification of the patriarchal tradition. While it is Villanelle's body that is often used by men to control her, it is also her own control of her physical self that allows her to exploit her bodily commodification by the male gaze to, in the end, reclaim her heart from the Cook. This coup de grace committed by Villanelle and Henri, culminating in Henri's incarceration, re-situates power with Villanelle, because "the one who took your heart wields final power" (145), and this now belongs to Villanelle once again.
The trope of "being on one's knees" is used by McBride to conflate religious devotion to prayer with the sexually connotative position of providing fellatio. "In the chapel. Down on my knees. Oh god Jesus. I beg you. I am pleading. See. I plead. But stones in my mouth" (156). In this way, the "two-kneed genuflect" (91) is juxtaposed with "stones" in her mouth; stones in this case colloquially signifying testicles while simultaneously signifying Christian sin which carries the weight of shame. In conflating these acts McBride represents the spiritually penitent and shameful Girl as seeking absolution and achieving it in her final baptism and suicide, like a good, self-flagellating Christian. In A Girl, the spectre of religious shame takes on corporeal form in the novel's magically real elements. This shame cripples Girl repeatedly throughout the novel--after her lustful--experience (62) or her engagement in penitent sexual acts (73, 188). In one instance of sexual shame, "Jesus rips the tender throat out. Jesus gives the eyes a very stream. He is laughing with at me but about my whirring head. I don't like" (108). Each instance of Girl's religious shame is explored through her consciousness of difference and an aspirational chastity she cannot attain. Religion forces Winterson's and McBride's protagonists to experience the shame of their sin when they cannot realise an appropriate mimesis of the spiritually chaste Virgin Mary. In attempting this mimesis the protagonists must abject their irreligiosity to seek socialised absolution.
Subverting silence--the power of speaking
Silence and speaking are critical components of the social construction of women. There is a pervasive tendency in the patriarchal tradition to reduce women to beings who speak when spoken to. However, this socially constructed paradigm has been, and is continuing to be, challenged by feminist critique. Ruben Murillo suggests that the illustration of silence or the inability to be heard in literature perpetuates the realistic socio-cultural positioning of the subject (14547); in The Passion and A Girl this manifests as the marginalisation of Villanelle and Girl to their male counterparts. While Girl's struggles with silence are, at times, overwhelming, Villanelle's androgyny allows her the power to speak and be heard by men and women alike. As such, it is Girl's silence which is to be further analysed.
The underlying issue of the devaluation of women's communications is articulated by Irigaray when she stipulates that "the encounter between [man and woman] requires the existence of two different worlds in which they could enter into relation or into communication ... that are irreducible the one to the other" (xii). The act of speaking is, in its own way, an abjection of the self; it is a purging of the psychical self and, for Girl and Villanelle, it is an attempt to achieve a psychical balance and purge aspects of self which are not acceptable in order to achieve mimesis of the social female object. Irigaray clarifies her position, asserting that the dominance of men's communication over that of women is reliant on the "lack of feminine subjectivity in language" and, as such, there is no liminal space into which women can speak (xi). Maud Ellman suggests that Tereus's rape of Philomena, and his subsequent removal of her tongue to prevent her accusation, in Ovid's Metamorphoses, is allegorical in terms of the way in which women are silenced--as a reaction to, or a proactive prevention of, their potential linguistic power (Ellman 186). Taking this into account, we can view Girl's attempts to vocalise her own victimhood as problematised by the repeated trope of the muffled mouth. Over a dozen times through the novel, Girl's voice is silenced; for example: after the arrival of her uncle, "I won't breathe that ... The shape of what's coming inside my mouth. Like rats. Like scum," (165) and before being raped by her uncle, "I shut the lights out. Shut the air ... I refuse to breathe" (209). This inability to speak of a defiling moment leads to an act of abjection, and problematises the process of mimesis (Reineke 77); for Girl this manifests as an enforced and hystericalised mutism.
Rachel Jones suggests that the "'hysterical' mute can be read as taking woman's role too far in an unconscious act of resistance" only insofar as because this is imposed upon them by phallocratic traditionalism (140). Girl is certainly positioned as a "hysterical mute," since her mental health is frequently problematised by her inability to reconcile her exploitation by men (namely her uncle) with the Catholicised moralism that insists on her chastity and purity. Susan Cahill suggests that the "destruction of language and self" in A Girl is the product of a "patriarchal and stifling climate" (160). This enforced mutism resonates with Irigaray's position of feminine lack linguistically. Reineke corroborates this, suggesting that the lack of harmony between speech and action for women necessitates some violent action or abjection (68). The problematisation of the act of abjection in order to achieve psychical balance through the expunging of shame and guilt results in an inability for Girl to achieve mimesis despite her desire. This results in her final attempt at psychical absolution in her suicidal drowning. Girl's inability to achieve mimesis attests to the impossible standards that are expected of women in order to become the female social object. While speaking is considered an act of resistance, it is a necessary act required to achieve the psychical balance required for an accurate mimesis, because it allows the subject to purge, to abject. In this way, the socialised silence of woman is a contributor to the feminine social object of mimetic desire and any destabilisation of this--such as Girl embodies through her attempts to speak and be heard--can be seen as transgressive.
The socially acceptable woman is a construction of Western society steeped in the tradition of phallogocentrism. What it is to be woman, and to be accepted as such, has been defined by a society that empowers and privileges masculinity to the disinheritance of the feminine. The Passion and A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing feature dominant characters who struggle and rail against this notion of a socially accepted female. While Villanelle and Girl attempt to seek acceptance of self on their own terms they are thwarted by the precepts of socio-cultural expectations placed on their gender. Their non-conformances are punished and they are forced to abject these expressions or aspects of self in order to achieve an acceptable mimesis of the socialised construction of woman. While the mimetic object that is constructed for them by societal patriarchal standards is variant in some ways, there remains a Westernised archetype of expectations that is similar for both women and focuses upon chastity, meekness, and silence. In the conflict between their true expressions of self and achieving mimesis the women abject those parts of self which do not meet these expectations. This self-abnegation underscores the codification of the social female and the ways in which woman must abject herself in order to achieve social acceptance.
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|Title Annotation:||Jeanette Winterson, Eimear McBride|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||May 1, 2017|
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