English | Feminist Literary and Cultural Criticism
L389 | 1980 | Susanna Ryan


WRITING GENDER:  LITERATURE AS CULTURAL CRITIQUE

In the introduction to her collection of short stories by women, WE
ARE THE STORIES WE TELL, Wendy Martin asserts that "to articulate
experience, to give language to otherwise inchoate perceptions, is
always empowering."  In this course, we'll focus on the
identity-shaping potential of narrative, and the political
implications of storytelling for cultural notions of gender identity
in particular.  The guiding assumption of this course will be twofold:
first, that literary works can sometimes serve as the most pointed
form of cultural critique; second, that any discussion of feminist
politics and definitions of feminity must include a discussion of
cultural roles for men as well.  So while the syllabus will include
theoretical and historical essays to provide us with different lenses
through which to read, the focus of our discussions will be on
literature:  novels that themselves work to subvert, question, or
redefine cultural constructions of gender.  And while we will think
carefully about the history of feminism, we will do so with an eye to
understanding the implications of feminist thought for men, reading
several texts that view the revision of relationships between the
sexes as at the very core of gender politics.

We'll begin in the nineteenth century, and think about the Victorian
novel's potential both to reimagine and reinscribe normative gender
roles; our central text here will be either JANE EYRE or THE WOMAN IN
WHITE, both novels that present alternative definitions of femininity
and masculinity, and seek to revise heterosexual norms while working
within the very conventional form of the romance plot.  We'll move on
to read a twentieth-century text that critiques our Victorian novel,
illuminating its dependence on class-based and colonialist ideologies
(either Rhys's WIDE SARGASSO SEA or Byatt's MORPHO EUGENIA).  Virginia
Woolf's ORLANDO will serve as a bridge from our analysis of
Victorianism (since, as a modernist text, it seeks to undo many of the
novelistic conventions of the nineteenth century) into a study of the
relation between gender and desire (since the main character moves
fluidly in and out of gendered, sexed bodies and accordingly in and
out of various romantic relationships).  In ORANGES ARE NOT THE ONLY
FRUIT, we'll encounter a heroine who likewise confounds norms of
sexual desire, and in so doing confronts the constrictions of a
Christian upbringing and the narrative conventions of the fairy tale;
in THE HANDMAID'S TALE we'll explore Margaret Atwood's dystopic vision
of gender, sex, and romantic love in a futuristic society run by the
religious right.  Finally, we'll look at what has historically been
seen as an all-male bastion -- the super-macho realm of war -- and
think about the way two texts (the film CASABLANCA and the Vietnam
memoir/novel THE THINGS THEY CARRIED) use heterosexual romance at the
center of their representations of masculine identity in wartime.

The syllabus is still under construction, and the reading list may
change somewhat.  Interested students should feel free to email the
professor at suryan@indiana.edu if they have questions.