The feminist teacher of literature: feminist or teacher?
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Emerita
The new women's movement has revealed to us how thoroughly our social arrangements and our inner lives are pervaded by gender inequities that we have been taught to think of as "natural." As a social and political movement with practical goals, feminism necessarily emphasizes the destructive results of such gender teachings on those humans who are biologically female. As Simone de Beauvoir wrote in the originary text of the new feminist movement, The Second Sex, "one is not born a woman, but becomes one."
In attempting to redress the injustices that follow from, and depend on, acceptance of gender inequity, feminists have developed two different, not always compatible, practical goals. One is to revalue such traditionally denigrated female attributes as compassion, empathy, nurturance; the other is to remove the barriers that have kept women from the sources of power, property, and pleasure in our culture. (1) Neither aim directly ad dresses the fate of men. But feminists usually assume that in a society that values the "female" qualities while giving biological females access to the full range of human choices available in the culture, life will be better for all.
To move from the large social and political goals of the women's movement to the protected artifice of the literature classroom is to narrow one's aims dramatically. But there is no ground to till except what we stand on; only by learning to apply feminist principles in particular instances does one make change occur. Feminist teachers have invented a variety of women-centered courses for undergraduate and graduate students over the last fifteen years. Some of these courses consider works written by both men and women, others works by women only. Feminist teachers have also attempted to open mainstream classes to feminist insights.
In her teaching the feminist generally sets herself one of two tasks: she calls attention to "new" texts--that is, texts not traditionally taught--and she develops "new readings" of old texts, readings that make visible their gender markings. (2) In work by women authors, the teacher usually looks for the signs of a specific female writing presence--sometimes called the "signature"--which may be revealed directly through accounts of gender-specific experience, or more problematically through particular stylistic habits. (3) The feminist teacher may interpret such habits as learned strategies, or as the natural expression of the female; and she may take them to represent the woman writer's resistance to, or her unwitting revelation of, patriarchal pressures. (4)
In considering work by a male author, the feminist teacher often tries to show how it complacently accepts or vigorously defends the biased social structure that gives dominance to males and devalues women. The various strategies of devaluation become the primary focus of her teaching. From this perspective, the male-authored text (and by extension the male author himself) is of feminist interest only in relation to women (and, until recently, only the strikingly, almost parodically misogynist texts were considered useful for such purposes).
Nevertheless, for academic feminists--those who study women within various disciplinary practices and who come together under the rubric of "women's studies"--to consider gender in relation to biologically sexed men is both logical and, for some projects, necessary. To discuss gender as though it pertained to women only is inadvertently to replicate the dangerous cultural fiction that men are not gendered, that they are the disembodied mentality of the human while women are irrevocably embodied in their biological sex: as Beauvoir put it, men equal the transcendent, women the immanent. Feminism, in going beyond women to query the concept of the transcendent male, also queries claims central to our traditional way of teaching literature and justifying that teaching: claims that literature is important because it contains themes, that there is a hierarchy of themes from the local and parochial to the "universal," and that literature containing "universal" themes is the most valuable. Feminism proposes that the concept of the "universal" theme is a delusion, and implies that literature, and the teaching of literature, need some other justification. At the same time, it asks us to look again at the specific strategies that critics and teachers have used to elevate particular works to the status of masterpieces, and it makes ludicrously evident the masculine bias of traditional literary canons. (5) It is perhaps a measure of the importance of these activities that feminism is constantly singled out as the greatest enemy of traditional humanism; whereas, it could be argued--I would want to argue--that feminism represents a logical and inevitable expansion of humanistic principles.
Thus feminist studies have something to gain (though perhaps also something to lose) from an enlargement of their focus to include gender effect per se. To the extent, in fact, that inequities or differences between the genders form the basis of any feminist's argument, she actually cannot confine herself to the study of women since she will then have no grounds to assert the existence of whatever difference it is she wishes to analyze or alter.
While feminist pedagogical activities have, in the view of many, "made decisive and permanent changes in the way literature is studied," they also point to unfinished business and disclose boundaries of their own. (6) One such boundary is the limit of gender itself as an explanatory category. Gender is only one of many factors that constitute individuals and their interior lives, and it is an assumption rather than a certainty that it is the most important of them. Feminism per se does not require that gender be the most important factor; feminism is ultimately a practical decision about where to put one's limited energies and powers as one does one's mite toward improving a radically imperfect world.
Additionally, gender is a concept, a social norm, imperfectly transmitted at best, so that most particular individuals will only approximate it. Women's and men's relation to their assigned social gender can only be partial. Moreover, though for every time, place, and social stratum there are two and only two gender norms--that is what gender is all about--these vary in history and across class, ethnic, and national lines. Therefore, uninstructed attempts to read any particular man or woman by means of a particular gender code may be far off the mark.
Moreover, with whatever degree of success socialization manages to control experience and shape behavior, it succeeds far less in its attempts to control subjectivity, where writing originates. Conversely, subjectivity is not a good tool for recognizing oneself as the product of social, economic, and political forces; it is the nature of subjectivity to experience oneself as a source, not as an effect. Therefore, the fit between any particular woman writer and the gender taken as a whole is always at best approximate, even when--perhaps especially when--a writer offers herself as representative of her gender.
A second boundary involves the fact that feminist teachers of literature are teachers, necessarily conveying perceptions within the classroom setting and the conventions of teaching literature. College literature is an institutionally defined subject whose conventions remain--as the examples which follow are meant to suggest--largely unexamined "second nature" to even the most dedicated of feminist teachers. (7) These unexamined settings and conventions may be necessary to achieve our aims, which means that our aims may be internally conflicted. For a long time the literature classroom has been the place where one produces interpretations, interpretations which, it is anticipated, undergraduate students would not have been capable of producing on their own. The feminist teacher has no more reason than any other teacher to expect an unguided student to see what the teacher sees in the text. In fact, students unfamiliar with feminist approaches to literature are apt to find the interpretive strategies of a feminist teacher strange, perhaps counterintuitive. As several critics have observed in other contexts, "reading like a woman," by which the feminist really means "reading like a feminist woman," is an acquired skill even for women. (8)
And since different feminisms may lead to different interpretations of the same literary work, since (for example) a particular work by a woman writer may be read either as resisting or succumbing to patriarchy, the feminist teacher carrying out her objectives may find herself imposing an interpretation on her students. Such an activity requires her to interpret the students as defective readers and then to reconstruct them as the kind of reader required by her kind of feminism. It is this possibility, indeed probability, that the two examples developed at length below are meant to investigate.
My first example, which involves women readers only, shows how a teacher who constructs "a" woman reader may have to override the female subjectivities from which this construction is, presumably, derived. The event is a faculty colloquium on theories of the woman reader held on my campus in December 1986. Everyone attending agrees that, whether male or female, readers demand pleasure; at issue therefore are questions of whether, and how, women might read various specific works pleasurably. The worrisome problem for most at this psychoanalytically weighted meeting rises from the presumption that literary works are structured by male psychological imperatives and convey a male the matics, so that women can find pleasure in them only by assuming the male stance (what feminist film critics in particular call the position of the transvestite), or by accepting and transvaluing a relegation to the narcissist-masochist, delighting in being made the object of oppressive, even murderous, attention, as, for example, in the films of Alfred Hitchcock. (9)
Traditional "women's" texts seem to offer no alternative, because in a system of unexamined gender inequalities--as ours has until recently been and still largely remains--such writing will reflect only the dominant value system, and by reflection seem to substantiate it. No hope here, except for a future in which an as-yet unimaginable sort of woman's writing is to be created. Such reasoning leads to the conclusion that a woman's reading pleasure in any patriarchal society must be a product of false consciousness, that is, of one's having been successfully indoctrinated in ideas hostile to one's true interests. It leaves the teacher with the thankless task of instructing women students in the displeasures of the text.
Evidently this task involves denying and overriding the testimony of women readers themselves. The project contains the powerful, unexamined assumption that there is "a" way of reading proper to women, which it is the job of feminist literary theory and criticism to find, and of feminist teachers to implement. This assumption accounts for the neglect, at this gathering, of texts like those that "real" women readers--that is, nonacademic women--choose to read, when they do read. A focus on texts typically found in English and American literature courses, and a concern with how properly to read them, revealed that by "women readers" this colloquium actually meant women student readers, women dealing with assigned texts to which they might respond inappropriately if left unguided, whether by failing to enjoy feminist texts or by taking pleasure in works that reinforce traditional patterns of male-female relationships. (10) The woman student reader implied here is thus the reconstructed woman student who reads in the manner of her teacher. Ultimately, then, this gathering was about teachers.
This approach correctly understands that no mere expansion of the canon, in and of itself, can guarantee any particular kind of reading. The expanded canon is a potential that can be implemented in a variety of ways. The existence of a broader canon can guarantee, to be sure--and this is no small thing--that students of the future need not perceive "literature" as a fixed, given, eternal storehouse of works created entirely by men. An American literature anthology that includes works by Margaret Fuller and Elizabeth Stoddard and Harriet Beecher Stowe as well as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson clearly creates a teacher's tool for presenting students with a more diverse literary history than the reductive "eight major authors" textbooks of yesteryear. But this is literary history; in the literature class that is about interpretation, about doing things with and to texts, literary history is only the inert background against which specific literary works are incarnated in the teacher's readings. At the moment that the feminist teacher's readings become the content of the course, the woman student is in precisely the same relationship to that teacher as she stands to any other teacher. As feminism becomes another variety of interpretation, the feminist is overriden by the teacher.
Associating women with pleasure is deeply inscribed in the ideologies of Western Cultures (perhaps non-Western as well), and implicates us in a far-reaching system of invidious oppositions wherein terms associated with the female are always devalued. "Pleasure" is set over against "duty" or "virtue." This configuration exists in a powerful historical line antedating Virgil and continuing to Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida. (By appropriating the Barthian/Derridean term "jouissance," some literary feminists have even planted it in the heart of feminist theory. (11)) To these dualisms are added "body" and "mind," "populace" and "elite," "retrogression" and "progress," "delusion" and "enlightenment," "youth" and "maturity," and (since the nineteenth century) "popular culture" and "high art." (12)
A thinker who wants to rescue a denigrated term must detach it from the female. The writer who would celebrate the body associates it with male prowess and stresses female weakness. If popular culture is the critic's domain, he points out that the field is dominated by male display. To recuperate pleasure, he calls women prigs. (Priggishness is especially in evidence when women fail to derive pleasure from manifestly misogynist, often scatological texts.) But never, under any circumstances, does he deploy a dualism that associates mind with the female, because, for thinkers, mind is the most valuable term. The critical dualism in literary academia, then, is that between mind and pleasure, or between intellectual and sensual pleasure. Interpretive analytic procedures deliberately distance the student from immediate reading pleasure by conceiving of texts as coded artifacts decipherable only through the acquisition of difficult techniques. Pleasure becomes the manipulation of the text into an interpretation.
Since the future of literature lies in the classroom, these dichotomies would be pernicious for their simplification of literature itself, even if they did not also have an effect on how actual gendered human beings are treated. The elevation of interpretation as "the" only appropriate reader activity means the triumph of a term imagined to be masculine; it is therefore deeply implicated in establishment attempts to define and secure literary study and literary production as masculine preserves. (13)
A first response to this dilemma might be to restructure the classroom so that power is less concentrated in the figure of the teacher, thereby to counteract the inadvertent effects of her expectations. (14) Attempts to dismantle the teacher's role have been undertaken by a variety of educational liberationist movements. Almost none of the pedagogical innovations that flourished between the late 1960s and mid-1970s has survived the pressures of the institutions within which they were allowed to develop, not only because institutional inertia is both powerful and co-optive, but also because teaching cannot be other than an intervention. An imbalance of power in the form of an imbalance of knowledge is what makes teaching necessary.
The issue of power is assuredly among the most difficult that feminists face. Power is most often experienced as oppression, and hence the desire for it is frequently disavowed. Yet, insofar as power is the energy and control that get things done, it is not only an ineluctable dimension of any situation, it is something that feminists require. I take it that whenever there is teaching, there is a power relationship; the question is what is produced by and through that relation. Equalization of power is not to be achieved except by the equalization of knowledge, which is not to be arrived at except by the teacher's effective transmitting of knowledge to the student, and this typically has not occurred-if it occurs at all--until the course is over. One problem then is how to empower students in a situation where the ultimate power must remain with the teacher; a second problem is what comprises knowledge in the literature classroom. A possible solution to both problems, it seems to me, is for the feminist teacher to relinquish her interpretation. Or at least, to hold it more lightly.
We all know that there are writers or works whose blatant sexism, once highlighted, can galvanize even the most complacent victim of false consciousness, and at the colloquium which forms my occasion here--and to which I now return--the chief exhibit of this sort was D.H. Lawrence. According to one who spoke on behalf of a woman unfortunate enough to find herself reading Lady Chatterley's Lover, the novel was so thoroughly contaminated by sexism that no woman could possibly derive pleasure of any sort from it. Even the fallback position of female masochist was denied, because the heroine gets what she wants during most of the book as well as at the conclusion.
We were asked therefore to think about this ludicrous conclusion--or rather, asked to assent to the proposition that the conclusion was so ludicrous as to remove the book from any serious consideration as a candidate for female pleasure. The rhetorical conjunction of the word "serious" with the word "pleasure" seemed to me to raise a possibility that the speaker was not confronting--the possibility that she was less interested in pleasure than she thought, was even, perhaps, suspicious of pleasure. An odd position for a speaker devoting herself to the pleasures of the text.
Catching myself thinking these thoughts, I noted that I was evolving, in response to the discourse, into a resisting reader (15)-not, alas, resisting D.H. Lawrence, but resisting a feminist resisting Lawrence. It occurred to me to wonder about my own readings of Lady Chatterley's Lover Fifteen years old when I read it for the first time, I found it, unquestionably, sexually exciting beyond anything I had ever encountered. Along with several high-school friends, I pored over the explicit scenes, which combined for me, in exactly the right proportions, descriptions of the physical with a heady romanticism conveyed in what struck me at the time as wonderful writing. By situating the sexual passages in a love story, and describing them in "literary" language, Lawrence created a safe space for a teenaged female to enjoy the erotic. This adolescent reading of Lady Chatterley's Lover was not gender-aberrant for my time and social class (since the book was being passed around from friend to friend, and all testified to its delightful effect); nor is it now. For, now that video recorders have led to the increasing production of pornographic films for showing at home to heterosexual couples, to women as well as men, filmmakers are finding that they must situate the repetitious, organ-centered moments of traditional male pornography within a romantic story line that decouples sex from violence; pay more attention to setting, character development, and human emotion; and put more "art" into the films. Which is what D.H. Lawrence did in his novel.
That female-centered heterosexual pornography takes this form means that one common idea about gender difference between women's and men's texts is probably wrong. I refer to the frequently encountered feminist belief that all conventional, or "classical," texts are structurally male; that traditional Aristotelian narrativity--with beginning, rising action, middles, climaxes, ends, and agents who are characters--is uncongenial to women because we are suited by nature or culture to produce and enjoy open, repetitive, static, or circular structures. It appears indeed that it is men who like repetitious, static pornography. Thus, we must question the division of pleasure into two types, one for each gender--a division I have already objected to on theoretical grounds. If women don't like men's pornography, it is probably because they don't like its content rather than because they find its structure uncongenial.
One might suggest that association of the nonlinear with women is a simplistic product of the very structures of thought that one wishes to escape. In fact, even to define Aristotelian structures as male and therefore antagonistic to women, and then to develop the utopian story of eventually triumphing over them through the creation after struggle, of a truly woman-centered literature, is to cast the issue in Aristotelian terms. Story, that is to say, is a basic human way of making structure. It transcends gender. Women readers as well as men will recognize that I have paused in my story to make this important point.
To return now to that story: it was clear that my first reading of Lady Chatterley's Lover was immensely pleasurable. Why should I deny this or apologize for it? When next I read Lady Chatterley's Lover-1 was a graduate student in my early twenties, preparing for Ph.D. preliminary examinations. My aim was to fit the novel into Lawrence's development. Comparing it to works like The Rainbow and Women in Love, I identified it as the moment when Lawrence's "realism"--that is, his attention to complexity, specificity, and unpredictability--was giving way to a quasi-fascist populism making intellectuals a target by representing them as aristocracy. A nasty strategy, given the middle-class or working-class origins of most intellectuals throughout history. I "read" Lady Chatterley's Lover, then, as incipient right-wing political allegory, as the point when (for my taste) Lawrence's work began to decline. Though I was hardly seeking pleasure in the novel, I certainly derived satisfaction from "mastering" an uncongenial text, thereby escaping Lawrence's designs on me.
These designs on me, however, seemed to have less to do with my being a woman than with my being or becoming an intellectual. In fact, Lawrence's use of Connie's choice as the sign of worth seemed to elevate her status. In my first reading, her choice had appeared to designate the worthier man; it was expanded now to ratify the worthier cause. And, though diminished and intellectualized, the book's earlier sexual power was not entirely absent for me in this second reading. As a respectable graduate student properly married to another respectable graduate student, I was reminded by the book of certain brief dalliances with appealing young men who were, for various reasons, entirely "unsuitable" for a serious young woman like myself. If, in the first reading, Lady Chatterley's Lover had been a perfect instance of female pornography, it had now become a perfect instance of a female escape fantasy, in which the impossible romance is safely realized within the covers of a book that ends before the actual consequences of running away with the wrong man begin.
I want to emphasize the note of safety in both these readings. In the first instance, I was provided a safe space to enjoy the erotic; in the second, to enjoy alternative romances. At least one problem with the approach of the speaker at this gathering, then, could be explained as a negation of the fantasy component of literature.
This second reading of Lady Chatterley's Lover was also my last. Lawrence's writing now seems shrill and clumsy; his pontificating tedious; his social programs dangerous; his ignorance immense. I rejoice that, as an Americanist, I have no responsibility to teach him. But to follow the speaker's argument, I attempted an imaginary reading of Lady Chatterley's Lover. The middle-aged woman I now am, veteran of feminism and many other life events, viewed with interest the spectacle of a novel with a female protagonist whose chief helper (to use Proppian terminology) (16) is characterized affirmatively by attributing to him the ability and desire to give sexual pleasure to a woman.
One might choose to read the stress on Mellors's sexuality biographically, as evidence of Lawrence's defensive insecurity in his relationship with a woman more sexually experienced than he. Or one might refer it to a socially asymmetric world outside the novel, the reader's world wherein women's provision of pleasure to men is the norm, men's to women exceptional. Either way, it seemed significant that Mellors seeks the approval of one woman only, displaying himself as sexual object within a scenario of fidelity.
To pursue this line: Lady Chatterley's Lover might be taken as a novel whose main male character is secondary to a woman from whose point of view the male is seen. This male has, as chief at tributes: a desire to pledge himself to one woman; the will and ability to give sexual pleasure to that woman; and a readiness to display himself as sexual object for her approval. (True, he talks a lot, but his talk is part of his sexual display. Charlotte Bronte and a host of other women writers have made clear how appealing to bookish women is the scenario of the male teacher submitting to the woman student. And only bookish women, one assumes, would be reading work by D.H. Lawrence.) Mellors, then, might be a male character who is configured solely with reference to the woman's desire. This makes the novel one that reverses the traditional social positions of male and female. One could read it as Utopian fantasy or escapist daydream. One might also search for moments in "real life" that permit a reversal of the norms of sexual politics, allotting power to the woman and requiring the man to display himself as the object of her possible choice. Of course such moments exist in pockets of Western (and perhaps other) Cultures: they are called courtship.
Lady Chatterley's Lover then might be named a comedy of courtship. And if, during courtship, the positions of male and female are (temporarily) reversed, it can only be that, in a novel about courtship presented from the woman's point of view, the reader positions are also reversed, which means that the implied reader of this novel is a woman. Then, one hazards, the novel itself enacts the courting of a woman reader by means of a male heterosexual display. Lawrence, in sum, is wooing women readers. In my reverie I could easily imagine using this perception (if it were confirmed by a careful rereading of the novel) to initiate a variety of classroom discussions in which formalism, feminism, and historicism--does courtship of this sort exist any longer among our youth?--might all be brought together.
Returning at this point from my meditative excursion, I reencountered the speaker in the process of iterating her insistence that, absolutely, no woman could derive pleasure of any kind whatsoever from this book. It was not difficult now to see why she took this position. She was urging her women auditors to resist the seductions of the text because its promises did not fit the realities of a hard world. Women were being asked to bring their extra-textual knowledge of courtship as fraud to their reading and to condemn the book for its lack of "realism." Precisely because Lady Chatterley's Lover did not work as a "traditional" classic narrative allowing women only the reader positions of transvestite or masochist, and precisely because it gave the reading woman, for the duration of her reading, a power that in "real life" she has only during the brief deception of courtship, the book was deemed particularly dangerous. It was the task of a feminist teacher to uncover the deadly hook beneath the beguiling surface, to create distrustful, resisting readers.
As a member of the audience at this presentation, I was a target for this speaker. I could, of course, recognize and understand her didactic motives. She was the teacher as rescuer, a crusader arming the defenseless innocent against the aggressive sallies of the immoral text. Her stance was, simply, that of Victorian moral realism. This is a common pedagogical position, though until recently not deployed against "canonical" texts; in fact, canonical texts, historically, have been chosen in some large measure for their ability to counteract the dangerous wiles of popular literature. Indeed in my view the very idea of a canon, the sense of a need for it, has risen historically as part of the campaign to organize, routinize, scrutinize, and school the behavior of marginal populations. What is aimed for here is both to rupture the blissful connection between reader and text, and also to obliterate the reader's memory of her previous pleasure by enforcing a new, unpleasurable interpretation. The aim is to create, through interpretation, a new kind of person. For the feminist, it is to create a new kind of woman. (17) In saying that no woman could take pleasure from Lady Chatterley's Lover, the speaker was instructing her audience in womanhood.
But wasn't that previous, unschooled reader also a woman? Wasn't I, occupying the student-position in this event, actually a plurality of women, producing a plurality of readings, no one either more right or more wrong than any other, each exactly congruent with the moment of my life that called it forth? And, too, didn't the very intensity of the speaker's insistence that no woman could take pleasure from Lady Chatterley's Lover betray the real intention: to make women renounce the pleasure they had taken from the book before they were enlightened? That is, did not her very position call for a prior pleasure as its ground?
Deferring to the speaker's seriousness, I decided not to ask these questions at that time. And therefore, acquiescing to the force of a presentation informing me that I had erred in enjoying Lady Chatterley's Lover, I became a silenced woman. And this is what happens to women students all the time. The silenced, perhaps resisting--but how are we to know?--readers are after all typical. Are they more silenced, or less silenced, in the classroom of a woman teacher? Of a feminist teacher? My point is really not to criticize the particular woman who was occupying the teacher's position, but to underscore how the position of certified interpreter is a political position, constraining those who occupy it in a manner that overrides their gender. One might say that the interpreter is always a male, whatever the biological sex.
In a recently published essay, Robert Scholes writes that "more than any other critical approach feminism has forced us to see the folly of thinking about reading in terms of a Transcendental subject: the ideal reader reading a text that is the same for all. This does not happen. Readers are constituted differently and different readers perceive different features of the same texts." (18) Little is gained by substituting two gendered Transcendental readers for the one that we had before.
I turn from this example of a teacher constructing (unsuccessfully, in my case) a Transcendental, resisting, woman reader to an example of a teacher constructing two gendered Transcendental readers. In a fascinating essay called "Gender and Reading," Elizabeth A. Flynn reports on differences between men and women students writing about three short stories-James Joyce's "Araby," Ernest Hemingway's "Hills like White Elephants," and Virginia Woolf's "Kew Gardens." (19) Flynn's thesis is that men and women read (i.e., interpret) differently in ways that accord with gender socialization: men are aggressive, women are cooperative.
In order to analyze her students' responses Flynn develops theoretical descriptions of three kinds of reading, two bad and one good. She names one bad kind "dominant" or "resisting": the reader rejects the alien text "and so remains essentially unchanged by the reading experience." This kind of reading, she finds, is unique to the men in her sample. A second kind of bad reading is called "submissive": here "the text overpowers the reader and so eliminates the reader's powers of discernment." This sort of reading is produced by both men and women--indeed, by a majority of them. A third response in which "reader and text interact with a degree of mutuality" (268) is called "interactive" and represents Flynn's ideal, an ideal that she finds more often attained by the women in her sample than the men. On the basis of these findings, Flynn proposes that men tend to be dominant readers, and that women tend to be better readers than men. This is because women possess "a willingness to listen, a sensitivity to emotional nuance, an ability to empathize with and yet judge." (20)
It is difficult to use this experiment to draw such conclusions (and Flynn presents them merely as hypotheses) since the experimenter already knew the genders of the authors of her respondents as she read and interpreted. The hypotheses are also put in question because differences among the men's responses are greater than any differences between the two genders; men turn up as all three kinds of readers while women do not. "Scientifically" speaking, when differences within a group are greater than differences between two groups, no difference between the two groups is significant. Too, if men as a group are much more various in their readings than women as a group, the significant finding with respect to "difference" might be that men are, feel free to be, more "individualistic" readers than women. That Flynn neglects the finding of variability and concentrates on her interpretation of men as resisting readers is probably attributable to the system of gender differences with which she approaches her material. In brief, the experiment was motivated by the desire to find two kinds of response which would fall out along stereotypical gender lines.
Note that the colloquium speaker in my first example has a different idea from this teacher about what constitutes a good reader. The anti-Lawrentian's ideal is the very resisting reader rejected by Flynn. Too, while the opponent of Lady Chatterley's Lover imagines that novel as an aggressive male from whom a female reader could only protect herself by counter-aggression, Flynn appears to imagine her stories as distressed clients needing female ministrations. In effect these two teachers implement the two different feminist goals--allowing women to act like men, praising traditional female qualities.
The interpretive work that the teacher performed as she decided how to classify particular responses bears investigating. Following Iser rather than Bakhtin, she defines a good interactive reading as one that develops a "consistent pattern of meaning from among the seemingly incompatible stimuli" present in the work; "meaning is finally achieved only when tensions are resolved." (21) In other words, a good reading is an interpretation, a the matization of the story organizes it as a single expository voice. That student who declines to advance an interpretation, or who finds elements of a story to be unassimilable to a single reading, is characterized as a "dominant" reader who rejects the text.
Here is how this teacher reads "Hills like White Elephants." The story "focuses on a conversation between an American man and a young woman" which is "tense" because the couple are in conflict. The conflict "is resolved through the young woman's denial of her feelings and the man's assertion of his will." She goes on to say that "this is a story, then, about female vulnerability and defeat. The imagery suggests that the woman's position is life-affirming and that renewal is possible only through her victory over the man. The ending of the story, though, suggests that she is powerless to change the nature of the relationship" (276-77).
This is certainly not a bad reading of the story, although its assumption that the situation applies to all men and women makes "Hills like White Elephants" into an allegory of gender. One can imagine alternative readings, well argued and well documented. If more men than women did not produce this particular interpretation--if more men than women declined to produce interpretations altogether--the explanation could as well lie in the interactions between students and teacher as in that between students and text. For various reasons the women might have been more attentive to the teacher's signals and have produced, not a reading of the story, but a reading of the teacher: the Clever Hans phenomenon. For it is of course the teacher who decided that reading "Hills like White Elephants" well is equivalent to producing the particular reading she has set forth. It could be, then, that our rejecting student is rejecting either the call for interpretation as the appropriate reading activity, or the expectation that a good reading is one that makes unitary sense of every element in a text, or the one particular interpretation that, to the teacher, amounts to the best reading. The gender difference here might be that men are more willing to risk the teacher's displeasure--but this in turn could be a situational matter, since the teacher was a female. And a feminist.
Interestingly, the student most hostile to the man in "Hills like White Elephants" is a male. The teacher calls his response "overly judgmental." He uses two items--the man's detailed knowledge of abortion procedure, and the numerous hotel tags on his luggage--as grounds for a speculation that the man is an irresponsible playboy. One might say that he takes the character as a specific individual rather than as an allegorical male. A different teacher might praise this response for its circumstantial observations rather than criticize the student's judgmental attitude toward the character. Indeed, if the underlying structure of "classical" fiction pits a protagonist against an antagonist, this student might be thought of as going about his reading in just the right interactive way--looking for the writer's clues about whose side he's to take. A different teacher might agree that the depiction of the male character is highly critical, and be pleased that the student recognizes this in a story by a writer often thought to be a prototypical man's man.
Consistent with the teacher's emphasis on reading as equivalent to deciphering meaning and figuring out the right interpretation, Flynn put all responses that acknowledged difficulties with reading the stories in the category of "resisting." And it is only men who said that they find the stories hard to read. To the teacher this means that the women are better readers than the men. But since, in fact, all three stories are difficult when compared to the kind of fiction that the non-major undergraduate student is likely to know, one might counter that the men are more honest readers than the women--or, more precisely, that they are more honest responders.
Here is one male student's response to "Hills like White Elephants":
My impression of the story was that it wasn't a story at all. It was just a short conversation between two people. The story consisted of just a couple of pages filled with quotes.... The story just starts right up and doesn't tell anything about who the people are or about what is going on. I had to read through the story a couple of times just to figure out what they were talking about. Nothing was said right out in the open about getting an abortion. 
To this teacher, the student "rejected the story because he could not understand it. The text, for him, was 'just a couple of pages filled with quotes' " (277-78). Actually the student doesn't say that this is what the story "was," but rather what it "consisted of," and one could maintain that he is correct. He has approached the story as a construct as well as a transparent medium for the conveying of meanings, has noted its unconventional brevity and its virtually exclusive reliance on dialogue. Though lacking a technical vocabulary, he points toward the absence of the omniscient narrator, the omission of a description of the setting, the lack of capsule biographies for the characters, the reliance on dialogue, and the use of dialogue that is particularly unrevealing. In other words, he senses that "Hills like White Elephants" omits almost all the aid that a traditional narrator gives a reader. One could argue that a response to this story that recognizes its formally innovative features is interactive with it. Or, one could argue that the reader response to a writer who omits traditional reader aids should be resistant. The avant-garde artist wants to distress the bourgeois; Hemingway is, or was, an avant-garde writer.
Now, what is it that makes the women students ignore (or at least fail to write about) the experimental craft of "Hills like White Elephants" and focus on relationships? As in this example: "typically, in the end, the male's dominant views have come through. She agrees to have the abortion and says that there is nothing wrong. Unfortunately this relationship will probably end because conflicts are not resolved. To have a meaningful relationship, they must be more open" (281). It could be that the women are more experienced readers than the men, so that Hemingway's formal innovations no longer presented difficulty to them and have therefore become invisible. If so, the difference discovered might be linked to gender, although not by virtue of the different character traits that Flynn attributes to women and men. Women might be better readers than men because they read more. Then the question would be: why do women read more? Again, though, the women might have been more hesitant to admit difficulties because they are more concerned with the teacher's good opinion than the men. Perhaps the women readers, that is to say, have been silenced. And while this teacher was not solely responsible for the silencing of women students, I think it likely that this particular class did not help to empower its women readers, to help them overcome the silencing to which they had learned to accommodate themselves.
Do I have an easy solution, or even a difficult one, to the dilemmas I describe here? No voluntary disempowerment of the teacher, per se, will be of much use. Yet, to teach a wide range of works in a variety of ways, to rethink the dominance of interpretive activity in the classroom, to understand that all interpretations are contingent and none are correct, may allow a teacher to tap into the possibilities that feminism suggests. Above all, perhaps, the teacher needs to encourage her women students to say what she does not expect them to say and perhaps would rather not hear. Otherwise, the only real reader in the class will be the teacher. Whether she is a feminist or not.
(1) See Linda Gordon, "What's New in Women's History," in Feminist Studies/Critical Studies, ed. Teresa de Lauretis (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1986) 20-30.
(2) I use feminine pronouns because there are very few male feminists and because, after all, feminism is about women. It is the difficulties of women teachers who are feminists as we try to bring about feminist goals in the literature classroom that concern me. As the title of my essay means to suggest, the incarnation of the teacher in a woman feminist creates part of her problem.
(3) See Peggy Kamuf, "Writing like a Woman," in Women and Language in Literature and Society, ed. Sally McConnel-Ginet, Ruth Borker, and Nelly Furman (New York: Praeger, 1980) 284-99.
(4) The questions of what a specifically female writing might look like, whether it has yet come into existence, and whether is its in fact confined to the productions of biological females, are central in the deliberations of academic feminist literary theory, which has become inextricably involved with what is called--on this side of the Atlantic-French feminism, and accordingly with principles of Lacanian psychoanalysis. See Toril Moi, Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory (New York: Methuen, 1985), and Alice Jardine, Gynesis: Configurations of Women and Modernity (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985). Jardine's study, which follows Julia Kristeva's lead, makes such male modernists as James Joyce into paradigmatic authors of "ecriture feminine."
(5) See Nina Baym, "Melodramas of Beset Manhood: How Theories of American Literature Exclude Women Authors," in The New Feminist Criticism, ed. Elaine Showalter (New York: Pantheon, 1985) 63-80; and Paul Lauter, "Race and Gender in the Shaping of the American Literature Canon: A Case Study from the Twenties," Feminist Studies 9 (1983): 453-65.
(6) J. Hillis Miller, "Presidential Address 1986: The Triumph of Theory, the Resistance to Reading, and the Question of the Material Base," PMLA 102 (1987): 285.
(7) See Gerald Graff, Professing Literature (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987).
(8) E.g., Elaine Showalter, "Critical Cross-Dressing: Male Feminists and the Woman of the Year," in Men in Feminism, ed. Alice Jardine and Paul Smith (New York: Methuen, 1987) 116-32; andJonathan Culler, On Deconstruction (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1982) 43-64.
(9) The most important statement of this positon is Laura Mulvey, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," Screen 16 (1975): 6-18.
(10) See Tania Modleski, Loving witha Vengence: Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women (Hamden, CT: Archon, 1982); Janice A. Radway, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1984); Madonna Miner, Insatiable Appetites: Twentieth-century American Women's Bestsellers (Westport, CT: Greenwood P, 1984); Kay Mussell, Fantasy and Reconciliation: Contemporary Formulas of Women's Romance Fiction (Westport, CT: Greenwood P, 1984); Leslie W. Rabine, "Romance in the Age of Electonics: Harlequin Enterprises," Feminist Studies 11(1985): 39-60. Since works designed for mass consumption are constructed from evidence of what women like to read, they can be thought of as having in some sense been written by their women readers. But the cited studies exemplify the difficulty of understanding why women like these books. Of the group, only Radway has worked with "real" reader responses--that is, with responses provided by women who read these books for pleasure rather than by the critic herself who has read them in pursuit of a thesis. But finally, like the other authors, she turns to some version of psychoanalytic theory for explanation. Such theory, but its very nature, presumes that women cannot really say why they like these books; and also that there is within the culutrally constructed woman a "real" (i.e., noncultural) self tapped into during the reading process.
A different approach can be seen in Elizabeth Long, "Women, Reading, and Cultural Authority: Some Implications of the Audience Perspective in Cultural Studies," American Quarterly 38 (1986): 591-612.
Perhaps, however, the question for literary critics to address is not why people read, but how they read.
(11) See Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron, eds. New French Feminisms (Amherst: U of Massachussetts P, 1980). The idea that pleasure for a male consists of mastery and consumption of the object, while for a female it consists in oceanic submission to the power of the same object, represents another dualism in which the female is devalued. The dichotomy derives from crude distinctions between male and female sexual pleasure. Not only does this model assume that sexual pleasure is the only kind of pleasure that there is; it presents a caricature of human sexualities.
(12) See Ann Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture (New York: Knopf, 1977); and Andreas Huyssen, "Mass Culture as Woman: Modernism's Other," in Studies in Entertainment: Critical Approachs to Mass Culture, ed. Tania Modleski (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1986) 188-207.
(13) I owe a great deal to Susan Sontag's classic essay, "Against Interpretation," although she did not identify her approach as feminist (New York: Dell, 1966).
(14) A good description of this goal is Constance Penley's "Teaching in Your Sleep," Theory in the Classroom, ed. Cary Nelson (Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1986) 129-48.
(15) The original and still best formulation of this concept is to be found in Judith Fetterly, The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1978).
(16) See Vladimir Propp, The Morphology of the Folktale, 2nd ed. (Austin: U of Texas P, 1968).
(17) See Nina Baym, Novels, Readers and Reviewers: Responses to Fiction in Antebellum America (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1984).
(18) Robert Scholes, "Reading like a Man," in Men in Feminism 206.
(19) Elizabeth A. Flynn, "Gender and Reading" in Gender and Reading, ed. Elizabeth A. Flynn and Patrocinio P. Schweickart (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1986) 267-88. Since I quote only some of Flynn's examples I urge the reader of this essay to think of "Flynn" in my text as a personage constructed by my text.
(20) Flynn 286. Two theoretical books on which academic literary feminists have depended for accounts of gender difference are Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering (Berkeley: U of California P, 1978); and Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1982). An opposing view can be found in Anne Fausto-Sterling, Myths of Tender: Biological Theories about Women and Men (New York: Basic Books, 1985). The burden of several essays in Catharine A. MacKinnon's Feminism Unmodified (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1987) is that "a concept like the difference is a conceptual tool of gender inequality" (9).
(21) Flynn 270. The two narrative theorists contrasted here are Wolfgang Iser, The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1978) and M. M. Bakhtin, The Diabgic Imagination (Austin: U of Texas P, 1981).
By preserving an independent stance among theories and ideologies and historicisms, new and old, PLL has not merely survived for a half-century, but continues to flourish. The range of topics in any one issue guarantees that readers will always be surprised, and always learn something new. Congratulations to the founders, and to those carrying the work forward.
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|Publication:||Papers on Language & Literature|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2014|
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