Is There a Woman’s Perspective in Literature?

Carol Iannone

Editor’s Note: The Dolphin Letters, 1970-1979: Elizabeth Hardwick, Robert Lowell, and Their Circle, edited by Saskia Hamilton, was published last year. This excerpt from the essay “Is There a Woman’s Perspective in Literature?” by Carol Iannone in the Winter 1993-94 edition of Academic Questions, discusses Hardwick’s collection of essays, Seduction and Betrayal: Women and Literature (1974).

A fine collection of literary critical essays about women writers and female characters by Elizabeth Hardwick, titled Seduction and Betrayal: Women and Literature, appeared fairly early in the feminist movement, in 1974, placing its author in the company of sensible women that includes [Cynthia] Ozick and [Minda Rae] Amiran. Even though it takes us back quite a ways, it is worth looking at the feminist reception of this book, because it provides some keys to understanding the nature of contemporary feminist criticism. The collection is one of very few works of value to have emerged from the entire feminist movement, and the attacks on it were a harbinger of what would be the fate of any woman who attempted a more traditional or conservative feminism. If feminist criticism had been able to embrace what Hardwick does in this book, it would have forged for itself a very different character from what it has today. But despite feminist claims to be inclusive, its "range of opinion," as [Peter] Shaw remarks, "extends no further than the distance from 'liberal' to 'radical' to 'socialist'—a description recalling the socially conscious butler in the Noel Coward play whose mistress proudly remarks that he reads everything 'from the New Statesman to the Daily Worker.'" In feminist criticism, one of the purportedly "looser" definitions of feminist fiction, for example, formulated by Naomi Weisstein and relayed admiringly in MS. by Alix Kates Shulman, begins with the premise, "Feminist fiction is fiction that does not admire patriarchy or accept its ideology." The idea that patriarchy may be something other than the institutionalization of female inferiority is not considered. An example of a difference of opinion for feminists would be something along the lines of, Do men in the main oppress women consciously or unconsciously? The idea of oppression is an unexamined given, and no other way to consider the relationship between the sexes is considered.

It is true that Hardwick's book does operate within the deliberately assumed feminist strictures of being about women writers and female characters, but within these strictures she has produced something of merit (and one does not have to agree with all of her interpretations to see it). She no doubt intended that this collection be an effort at feminist literary criticism, and indeed, Susan Sontag called it the "most remarkable of recent contributions to the feminist imagination of history." Ironically, however, a number of prominent feminists repudiated Seduction and Betrayal altogether, devoting long articles and considerable energy to denouncing it as reactionary, antifeminist, and even blatantly sexist. They termed it an exercise in nostalgia for the woman as victim and assailed it as a celebration of female masochism. To my knowledge, no feminist ever formally defended Hardwick against these attacks, and so they stand on the record, extremely revelatory of the nature of feminist thought.

Hardwick begins from a premise antithetical to the feminist/ideological approach to literary criticism—she believes that literature is conservative in the most basic, non-political-activist sense, i.e., that it is traditional. A good example is the title essay from the collection, "Seduction and Betrayal," a meditation on the form of the old seduction plot in such novels as The Scarlet Letter, An American Tragedy, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, and The Mill on the Floss. The essay is a delineation of the possibilities for self-realization for the female characters as these possibilities are set within the structure and limitations of the novel form and the seduction plot themselves. Hardwick allows that the novel, "deterministic, bourgeois in spirit," does not seek to "violate the laws of social survival" or to "impose standards of revolutionary skepticism about the nature of all of society's arrangements." The novel understands that society mediates, and, we might add, sometimes mitigates, the inevitable contingencies of the human condition, recognized as inevitable by all but the utopian thought of which feminism is a variant.

Having said this much, however, Hardwick distinguishes between the heroism and "spiritual goodness" that characterizes the behavior of some betrayed women characters, "the betrayed heroine," as she calls them (Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter, for example), and the weakness, vanity, and irresolution of others, "the merely betrayed woman," as Hardwick puts it (Hetty Sorrel in The Mill on the Floss, for example). Indeed, in the strength of character a woman shows in response to sexual betrayal, she can easily surpass the male characters of the novel, for whose part in the seduction plot, at least, both nature and culture often exact a lesser price. As the lessons of life grow sterner, the heroine grows in inner lighting wisdom, grace, and humility. "When love goes wrong," Hardwick remarks, "the survival of the spirit appears to stand upon endurance, independence, tolerance, solitary grief." So, far from rebelling against existing arrangements, as feminists would prefer, Hardwick's heroine finds herself “under the command of necessity, consequence, natural order," and her "bending to these commands" marks her as "a superior being."

One feminist critic, Harriet Rosenstein, mocked Hardwick's distinction between the "betrayed heroine" and the "merely betrayed woman," calling them, respectively, "paper ladies" and "spiritual D-students." Rosenstein admits that Hardwick's analysis is "the way such novels operate," and that Hardwick's readings are "acute," but clearly she is angry with Hardwick for not having politicized the suffering of her seduced heroines by expressing "proper rage at the organization of bourgeois life": "Doubtless, women did, still do, console themselves with the notion that silent suffering enriches them," says Rosenstein,

that stoicism in the face of cruelty or cowardice makes them better people. It is the sort of myth all victims embrace to attain imaginary emancipation, interior breathing space. And it is a myth that seduces outsiders into easy sentiment, cheap thrills. Tolstoy's peasants and Faulkner's blacks have soul; they plump the universal spiritual larder. Transcendent abandoned ladies or transcendent downtrodden serfs---they are luxuries of the imagination. Real serfs, of either sex and any period, can be counted on to grow rich in bitterness, fear, duplicity and despair.

Since Hardwick has portrayed a heroine who not only can endure but triumph in the face of suffering, feminist critics have accused her of exalting female masochism. The trouble here is feminists' incapacity to distinguish the grace of genuine endurance in the face of suffering from sheer masochism. This incapacity exposes one of feminism's weakest points, as it mocks the value of facing life's purifying trials and also makes impossible the tragic view of the human condition out of which much great literature arises, advancing instead a model of protest and revolution against all existing arrangements.

Incapable of distinguishing between masochism and heroism, the feminists also seem incapable of distinguishing literary analysis from actual life. As morally suggestive as her analysis is, Hardwick isn't really prescribing personal conduct. She is articulating the structure of a certain type of novel, that with a seduction plot, and noting the generative possibilities within its form, a "form" as she describes it, "not entirely commensurate with the heedlessness and rages of life." This is not to suggest, of course, that literature and life are not connected; they are. But they are not connected in the direct, literal, and simplistic way that feminists sometimes assume.

For example, feminists often decry the fact that so many novels about women end in marriage or death, because they want to see more options realized for women in literature, and in life. This is silly. No one is telling the female reader to marry or to die. These two are highly resonant and symbolic endings for works of fiction. Even beyond the realization of form that interests Hardwick, marriage, for example, can signify wholeness, the resolution of opposites, the continuity of the social order, the birth of a new generation, the happy placement of the individual in society, and so on. All of this is not available in an ending in which the heroine claws her way to the boardroom (an ending more appropriate for a TV mini-series). Death, too, grim as it can seem as the fate of so many literary heroines, like Anna and Emma, has the sense of conveying the utter seriousness of life, that the stakes under which the most ordinary of existences is lived are high, that one's choices are meaningful, or had better be. Now, with all our superficial, no-fault options, life has less meaning, as does the literature we produce. Fiction influenced by feminism, for example, like that of Alice Walker or Marge Piercy or Grace Paley often forsakes form and resonance to depict PC choices like a lesbian union, or a ménage à trois, or radiant single motherhood. Not that such things can't be depicted in fiction, but they need more context than these miters can provide with their triumphalist feminist perspective.

Often feminism repudiates morality altogether in favor of politics. Take Jane Marcus's readings of Ibsen, for example, which arise in her extended critique of Hardwick's book, particularly of Hardwick's own views of the playwright's female protagonists. In Rosmersholm, for example, Rebecca, the main character, is an idealist who becomes involved with a married man and helps to drive his wife to suicide in order to free him to pursue his "new ideas"; she then suffers remorse. The critic calls Rebecca's remorse a lesson in "social control" and mourns that "radical idealists can be destroyed by guilt Iannone 73 about their family and sex lives." Sighs Marcus, 'The conscience is conservative." Similarly, Marcus tells us that, regarding another Ibsen play, Hedda Gabler, Hardwick cannot see that Hedda is "not fully responsible for the evil she causes." Why? Because "Social conditions and family life have destroyed the possibility of freedom." Furthermore, Hedda has no "useful and interesting work" to do. What a contrast this sociological excuse-making presents to Hardwick's search for heroism and moral choice within restricted, even abusive, circumstances!

Failing or refusing to see the moral issue at all, Vivian Gornick psychoanalyzes Hardwick herself. Hardwick's problem, says Gornick, with impeccable feminist insight, is that she "cannot stop seeing women except in relation to the men in whom primary experience is trapped, and from whom there radiates that proximity to the world and self every sentient being craves expressive contact with." But feminist insight stops poorly short of truth, and here we can assume that we have run into one of feminism's blind-spots again. It's not that Hardwick hasn't shown women achieving "proximity to the world," it's that the "proximity" she has shown, achieved through suffering, acceptance, and humility, is not something feminists would touch with a ten-foot pole.

Gornick reserves a special outrage for Hardwick's aesthetic judgments, however, which for a feminist must be properly politicized to be acceptable. That is, a woman's writing must somehow be seen in view of her femininity. After all, in one of her Seduction and Betrayal essays, Hardwick broke one of the cardinal rules of feminist aesthetics when she said that the struggle to be an artist is pretty much the same for both men and women. Furthermore, Hardwick insists on analyzing and criticizing the writing of Dorothy Wordsworth, Jane Carlyle, and Sylvia Plath, rather than explaining those authors by the fact of their often embattled femininity.

We can rest assured that nothing much has changed since the feminist reception of Hardwick's book. One feminist tactic in the face of criticism is to dismiss it roundly but then to hasten to insist that in any event the feminist critical enterprise has moved so far beyond whatever shortcomings may be cited in the work at hand as to make any criticism of it superfluous. This tactic continues by rendering culpable the critic who has not attended to the latest feminist developments, which of course in actuality always turn out to replicate the old in the major points. In fact, the substance of the debate over Hardwick has been repeated in a few other instances (for example, the exchange between Richard Levin and the feminist critics of Shakespeare in the Modem Language Association's journal, PMLA), and in all of them the same battle lines appear between feminism and any true appreciation of literature.

As indeed they do in the case of our last entry in the sane-voices-from-the-seventies category, Zelda Austen, who in 1976 analyzed the slew of intense, angry feminist criticisms of George Eliot, whom feminists accuse of living the revolution but not writing about it. "Feminist critics are angry with George Eliot because she did not permit Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch to do what George Eliot did in real life," comments Austen, "translate, publish articles, edit a periodical, refuse to marry until she was middle-aged, live an independent existence as a spinster, and finally live openly with a man whom she could not marry." But the great Victorian writers, says Austen, both male and female, wanted to speak for all humanity and not just for themselves or exceptional people like themselves. Likewise, Eliot's focus in her novels is not on the feminist ideal of breaking with conventions to achieve a radical individual independence but on a vision of community that harmonizes individual wants into the larger good. (As James Tuttleton has demonstrated, similar or related feminist misreadings have been made of other women writers of essentially conservative temperament, like Edith Wharton and Kate Chopin.)

Feminist anger is aimed at those who transgress the feminist analysis of the female condition by emphasizing individual responsibility in the face of difficult circumstances rather than blaming outside forces, and by placing ultimate significance upon qualities like moral insight, emotional growth, and spiritual strength rather than on the more material kinds of power and identity favored by feminists.

 Carol Iannone is Editor-at-Large of Academic Questions, NAS's quarterly journal. To subscribe, become a member here.

Image: Public Domain

  • Share

Most Commented

May 7, 2024


Creating Students, Not Activists

The mobs desecrating the American flag, smashing windows, chanting genocidal slogans—this always was the end game of the advocates of the right to protest, action civics, student activ......

March 9, 2024


A Portrait of Claireve Grandjouan

Claireve Grandjouan, when I knew her, was Head of the Classics Department at Hunter College, and that year gave a three-hour Friday evening class in Egyptian archaeology....

April 20, 2024


The Academic's Roadmap

By all means, pursue your noble dream of improving the condition of humanity through your research and teaching. Could I do it all again, I would, but I would do things very differently....

Most Read

May 15, 2015


Where Did We Get the Idea That Only White People Can Be Racist?

A look at the double standard that has arisen regarding racism, illustrated recently by the reaction to a black professor's biased comments on Twitter....

June 5, 2024


Subpoenas for All!

Ohio Northern University gnaws its teeth with an appetite for vindictive lawfare....

October 12, 2010


Ask a Scholar: What is the True Definition of Latino?

What does it mean to be Latino? Are only Latin American people Latino, or does the term apply to anyone whose language derived from Latin?...