Experience as Importance: No Name Woman and Showalter’s Poetics

William Tamplin

Professor Francomano

CPLT-043

15 November 2011

Experience as Importance: No Name Woman and Showalter’s Poetics

In Elaine Showalter’s essay “Toward a Feminist Poetics,” she outlines a critical discourse with which to discuss women as both readers and writers. She assigns the term “gynocritics” to the practice of constructing “a female framework for the analysis of women’s literature, to develop new models based on the study of female experience, rather than to adapt male models and theories” (Showalter 131). Maxine Hong Kingston’s essay “No Name Woman” tells of the author’s paternal aunt’s experience of having a child out of wedlock in rural China in the early twentieth century, the societal repercussions of the event, and the author’s lifelong experience of being haunted by her aunt’s ghost but nevertheless compelled to tell of her aunt’s experience. In this essay I will show how Kingston’s essay embodies the themes and structures of Showalter’s gynocritics, locates itself within Showalter’s “Female” phase of gynocritics, and emphasizes Showalter’s claim of experience as importance through the retelling of her aunt’s experience.

After recognizing the threats posed to feminist criticism by both the Academy and “the activist’s suspicion of theory,” Showalter outlines “a brief taxonomy, if not a poetics, of feminist criticism, in the hope that it will serve as an introduction to a body of work which needs to be considered both as a major contribution to English studies and as part of an interdisciplinary effort to reconstruct the social, political, and cultural experience of women” (127, 128). Showalter makes a distinction between what she terms feminist critique and gynocritics; the former deals with “woman as the consumer of male-produced literature,” the latter with “woman as the producer of textual meaning” (128). If feminist critique is an inquiry into the “ideological assumptions of literary phenomena,” gynocritics deals with female literary creativity, history, language (128). The feminist critique, forever fixated on the past, is “political and polemical” while gynocritics, forever imagining a new female literary future, is “self-contained and experimental” (129).

Central to gynocritics is the development of new models according to the “newly visible world of female culture” (131). Showalter applies gynocritical models to the literary experience of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and states that, in order to interpret correctly the “themes and structures of women’s literature,” we must understand the “framework of the female subculture,” an understanding we can apparently gain through reading literature (133). Showalter shows that the awakening from Victorian womanhood in fiction “is much more likely to end in drowning than in discovery” (133). In Victorian woman’s fiction, the protagonists “wake to worlds which offer no places for the women they wish to become; and rather than struggling they die” (133). Such literature recalls thematically unhappiness, suicide, violence, and self-destruction and structurally “the fulfillment of the plot” as a “visit to the heroine’s grave by a male mourner” (134). Showalter identifies such writing as “the reclamation of suffering” in a larger quest to “discover the new world” (134). Showalter cites the poet Adrienne Rich whose writing “explores the will to change” and “challenges the alienation from and rejection of the mother that daughters have learned under patriarchy” (135).

In “No Name Woman” Kingston tells of her aunt who, in rural China in 1924, became pregnant at time of drought, famine, and war, upset the social order of her village, brought shame upon her family, and after an attack by the villagers on her family, drowned both her child and herself in the family’s well. Rural Chinese society at the beginning of the twentieth century “offered no place for the woman” Kingston’s aunt wished to become (133). As opposed to struggling and attempting to raise the child among an atmosphere of ridicule, she chooses death. Immediately one can notice parallels between the experience of Kingston’s aunt and the Victorian woman who woke to the strictures of her society. The fulfillment of the plot in the Victorian literature Showalter cites is a “visit to the heroine’s grave by a male mourner,” and the fulfillment of the plot of Kingston’s struggle with her past occurs in her recognizing her aunt’s suicide and, if not literally, than mentally “visiting the heroine’s grave” (134). We can thus read Kingston’s writing after so many years of silence as the “reclamation of suffering” which Showalter cites as the beginning to discovering the “new world” of gynocritics (134).

Showalter in her essay divides the female literary tradition into three “phases…which correspond to the developmental phases of any subcultural art” (137). The last of these is the Female phase, in which women “reject both imitation and protest – two forms of dependency – and turn instead to female experience as the source of an autonomous art, extending the feminist analysis of culture to the forms and techniques of literature” (139). The literature of this phase “[celebrates] consciousness” and is marked to some extent by “withdrawal and containment” (139).

In the light of Showalter’s definition, Kingston’s essay is a fine example of Female writing. It neither imitates male literature nor protests male superiority as much as it does relate the experience of a woman who was denied a voice by the society to which she belonged and her relatives, too ashamed of her pregnancy and suicide to mention her to anyone except as an example of how not to behave. At the end of her essay, Kingston relates her mother’s words about Kingston’s aunt: “Don’t tell anyone you had an aunt. Your father does not want to hear her name. She has never been born” (Kingston 18). Kingston writes that “[my family wants] me to participate in her punishment. And I have” (18). Her aunt’s real punishment was “the family’s deliberately forgetting her,” and Kingston “alone [devotes] pages of paper to her” (18, 19). Kingston reiterates that she is “telling on [her aunt]” (19). By telling her aunt’s story whose details she had to invent, she celebrates consciousness in the spirit of Female writing, even if doing so means her “withdrawal and containment” within this painful memory (Showalter 139).

Showalter situates feminist literary criticism with respect to Marxism, structuralism, and the “manly and aggressive” schools of “neoformalism and deformalism, affective stylistics, and psychoaesthetics,” among others whose existence their complexity justifies (140). Such scientific criticism, according to Showalter, “struggles to purge itself of the subjective,” and serves as a place where the “experience of women can easily disappear, become mute, invalid, and invisible, lost in the diagrams of the structuralist or the class conflict of the Marxists” (141). Showalter’s thesis that experience is important is based on the recognition that “the questions we most need to ask go beyond those that science can answer” (141). According to Showalter, we need to “seek the repressed messages of women in history, in anthropology, in psychology, and in ourselves, before we can locate the feminine not-said” (141).

Kingston recognizes the importance of experience in the very fact of her writing. Kingston recognizes her aunt’s desperation as a woman impregnated out of wedlock in the rural, drought-ridden China of 1924 and the consequences her pregnancy exercised in the life of both her and her village. Kingston’s account, situated outside structuralist and Marxist analysis, does not allow her aunt’s experience to “disappear, become mute, invalid, [or] invisible” but gives it life simply through its telling (141). Kingston’s recounted nothing if not one of the “repressed messages of women in history” (141).

Though Showalter’s critical discourse assumes an Anglo-American cultural context, it is readily applicable to the story of Kingston’s aunt (if not anything else). Showalter’s discourse illuminates the presence of the themes and structures of gynocritics in Kingston’s account, and, in addition to locating Kingston’s essay within the Female phase of a women’s literary tradition, validates her essay by recognizing the importance of experience. Showalter’s discourse provides an inimitable framework with which to read Kingston’s work.

 

Works Cited

Showalter, Elaine. “Toward a Feminist Poetics.”

Kingston, Maxine Hong. “No Name Woman.” The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts. New York: Vintage Books, 1996. Print.

Wide Sargasso Sea and the Illusion of Race

Joseph Jung

Professor Francomano

CPLT 043

15 November 2011

Wide Sargasso Sea and the Illusion of Race

Raised in a conservative Korean family, race was often discussed in my home. And while our discussions usually addressed politics and culture, I would often catch my parents’ allusions to skin pigment. My parents associated a person’s speech and bodily habits, including gestures, with his/her ethnic background, which they usually based on skin color.  Ian F. Haney Lopez attempts to eliminate this notion of linking physical traits with culture by postulating, “human interaction rather than natural differentiation must be seen as the source and continued basis for racial categorization” (969).

In “The Social Construction of Race”, Lopez uses several court cases and other historical examples to question the notion that race is tied to genealogy. In this essay, I will use Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea to prove Lopez’s postulate that race is, in fact, a man-made, social construct.

According to Lopez, race “manifests itself in our speech, dance, neighbors, and friends – ‘our very ways of talking, walking, eating and dreaming are ineluctably shaped by notions of race.’” (965). This is easily demonstrated in the way that the Europeans of Wide Sargasso Sea treat one of their own. Antoinette, though a Creole, is a woman of pure European descent. Yet, even though she has English blood flowing in her veins, her husband does not accept her as an “English or European” (61) woman. Even her own mother felt Antoinette was “growing up like a white nigger” (120). In their eyes, Antoinette’s decorum and speech resemble the blacks of the community far too much. To them, Antoinette was a girl of the Caribbean.

Lopez, too, rejects the affiliation of skin pigment with race because of its clear impracticality. Skin color, he says, “differs greatly among persons of the same race, even among Anglo-Saxons, ranging by imperceptible gradations from the fair blond to the swarthy brunette…” (968). He makes a reference to Judge Scalia of the U.S. Supreme Court, who attacks the idea of policy being reduced to “a question of blood…blood, not background and environment” (968). It is clear in Wide Sargasso Sea that Antoinette’s husband and mother indeed do not use physical attributes to assess Antoinette.

Yes, it would not be a stretch to call Antoinette a Creole woman – even her Caribbean nurse calls her a “Creole girl” who has “the sun in her” (143) – however, the society that she lives in do not accept her as one. People call her “white nigger” (22) and “white cockroach” (91), referring to her as a being not suited for either the Caribbean society or the European society. Lopez would likely interpret this as a reaction to the oppression they were recently emancipated from.  He remarks that there is a “close interconnection between racial and class structures” (971). Rhys uses the simplistic language of a child to inform Antoinette that Antoinette’s family is not made up of “real white people…Real white people got gold money” (22). The black community molests Antoinette and her mother because they have no social and economic power. “Real white people…didn’t look at [the blacks], nobody see [real white people] come near [the blacks.” (22). Because Antoinette’s family was in no position to remove themselves from the black community, they faced the brunt of the blacks’ animosity. As aforementioned, Lopez would deem the blacks’ judgment inappropriate, however, he would also find it understandable.

Lopez says, “Race is neither an essence nor an illusion, but rather an ongoing, contradictory, self-reinforcing, plastic process subject to the macro forces of social and political struggle and the micro effects of daily decisions” (966), and that it is because of this whites form a social group of their own. If looking at the situation in this light, it is easier to understand why the blacks harassed a former slave-owning family. Essentially, I am arguing that the community attacked Antoinette’s family, not because they were white or poor, but because of a social construction. Antoinette’s family is persecuted even when they become wealthy because of social tension that stems from the past. The uniform trait of the blacks’ persecutors was their white skin, hence why they spite all those that bear the trait and those that associate with those with white skin – they are lumped together into a group of their own.

“Race has its genesis and maintains its vigorous strength in the realm of social beliefs.” (Lopez 972). “They are produced by myriad conflicting social forces; they overlap and…make sense only in relationship to other racial categories.” (Lopez 971).

It’s still rough around the edges! That last paragraph is not the actual conclusion, but merely the two quotes I am going to center it around.

 

 

Works Cited

Lopez, Ian F. Haney. “The Social Construction of Race.” Literary Theory: An Anthology (2004). 964-972. Print.

Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1966. Print.

 

essay #3

conclusion not really fleshed out yet; but was going to mention that because i was able to understand the characters (‘diagnose’ them) the work grew more meaningful for me

will–as i was about to post this i saw your old essay and realized i used the same essay and work, but i don’t think they’re too similar, i focus specifically on miyake and we come to different conclusions. but i’m planning on talking to prof. francomano just to make sure. thanks!

 

When reading Landscape with Flatiron, I found “The Black Hole of Trauma” by Kolk and McFarlane to be an extremely useful tool in understanding the character of Miyake. When first introduced he seems benignly ordinary, an average man with a predisposition for lighting bonfires, but as the narrative progresses, we start to see the inherent abnormality in his words, actions, and habits that betray his deep-rooted suffering. Applying the model of post-traumatic stress disorder to his behavior sheds light on the motives behind them. His psyche has been altered by some traumatic event that he is continually afflicted by.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is characterized by the “developing of specific patterns of avoidance” caused by the afflicted individual’s “inability to integrate the awful experience” into their lives. We first receive hints of Miyake’s awful experience in his short conversation with Keisuke by the bonfire. Keisuke asks, “But seriously, though, did anybody get hurt? You must have somebody you know in Kobe”, to which Miyake responds curtly, “Let’s change the subject.” Miyake clearly does not wish to talk about the earthquake in Kobe, or the people he knew there. He avoids the subject perhaps because it reminds him of his awful experience. We later learn that Miyake did, in fact, know people in Kobi. He tells Junko about his wife and four kids there, and claims, “I can’t call him an idiot. I don’t have the right. I’m not using my brain any more than he is, I’m the idiot king.” This sudden bout of self-deprecation, though ambiguous, reveals a bit more about Miyake’s distress. He is clearly tortured by some choice he made or some event that has happened to him. Kobi was the site of his trauma. And when asked if he would like to share more by Junki, Miyake responds, “No, I really don’t”. Again, he avoids any reference or possible further discussion about his past trauma.

Another symptom of post-traumatic disorder that Miyake exhibits is that he “organizes his life around the trauma.” He used to live with his family in Kobi, but now lives alone in Ibaraki. His life consists of habitual trips to Junko’s convenience store, casual painting, and, of course, bonfires, his only source of pleasure.  He explains, “It’s almost a sickness with me. Why do you think I came to live in this navel-lint nothing of a town? It’s because this place gets more driftwood than any other beach I know. That’s the only reason. I came all the way out here to make bonfires. Kind of pointless, huh?” Miyake completely uprooted his life in Kobi and created a new existence for himself that is devoid of both point and meaning because his past trauma has affected him so severely. He has organized, or rather, reorganized his life around this awful experience that he has had. His “overall functioning” has become affected by his PTSD and his “interpersonal and occupational problems” can be seen in his relatively solitary life (he does not seem to have any other friends besides Junko and perhaps Keisuke), and his lack of a designated job or career.

PTSD also involves the “repetitive replaying of the trauma in images, behaviors, feelings, and psychological states”. Though the narrative is largely told in the third person limited perspective and does not delve into the minds of the characters, Miyake informs us about his recurrent dreams and thoughts on how he will die in a refrigerator. He says, “I think about it all the time…I’m in this tight space, in total darkness, and I die little by little…I scream but nobody can hear me. And nobody notices I’m missing…I have the same dream over and over again.” The dream is both disturbing and distressing, and a manifestation of his trauma. The fact that this dream recurs constantly reveals the maladaptive preoccupation Miyake has with the event it represents. He frequently replays his trauma because it has affected him so severely.

In PTSD, the traumatic experience is not only replayed, but conserved. It is not “accepted as a part of one’s personal past; instead, it comes to exist independently of previous schemata (i.e. it is dissociated).” The traumatic event becomes another entity, held separate from the rest of the individual’s life. And it is able to be separate and other because it is not integrated or changed in anyway to fit the form of reality. This is the case in Miyake’s dream. He says, “That’s my dream. It’s always the same. Always. Every little detail. And every time I have it, it’s just as scary as the last.” His dream is perfectly conserved and because it has not been diluted or changed through integration, the impact and severity of the event remains intact. He is faced with the full force of its impact every time he falls into his dream.

 

 

Cloud reading – Rough draft

Disclaimer:

Hey, guys! This paper is in a REALLY rough state; in fact, I don’t even have an introduction for it yet. I am requesting for you guys to comment on my ideas and concepts rather than grammar and mechanics. Do you think my points are valid? Are the arguments I’m making seem valid? Which of them seem weak and lacking? In which sections do I seem to be making claims that are too broad and bold? Thanks a bunch!

– Joe

 

 

Joseph Jung

Professor Francomano

CPLT 043

21 October 2011

Cloud readings

If ideas are dreams, then works of literature are their manifestations, or rather the means by which the dreamer, in this case the writer, chooses to share them. Freud says that “you are aware that the dream seems foreign and strange to the dreamer himself; how much more so to an outsider to whom his personality is unknown” (194).  For Freud dreams are the keys to opening the doors to the dreamers’ sub consciousness.  When dreams are supported with information, such as “the personality of the dreamer, the conditions under which he lives, [and] the impressions in his mind after which his dream occurred”(158), we are given the position to “translate it at sight” (158). A reader can try to deduce elements in a written work and find messages and symbols that indicate a writer’s political views and social constraints, or lack thereof. And, in fact, when one sees that all of one’s deductions seem to connect smoothly, one believes that one can truly interpret a text; however, what would happen if one finds another with a different “flawless” conclusion? And what if that one found another? And another? Tens of hundreds interpretations could sprout and all of them would be right, or would they?

“The custom among the ancients…was to speak quite obscurely…So that those who were to come after and study them might gloss the letter and supply its significance” (v. 9-16). Marie de France, through the prologue of her Lais, instructs her readers to delve into great depths when analyzing her texts, for there is deep meaning and significance within it. Essentially, she clearly says that there are symbols and messages waiting to be found.

Bisclavret, France’s twist on the traditional werewolf story, is a seemingly standard story of betrayal and revenge. A renowned nobleman is introduced with the mythical ability to transform into a wolf. Upon discovering her husband’s abnormal transformation, she becomes disgusted and recruits an accomplice to ruin the husband. Ultimately, the nobleman attains revenge by killing the accomplice and tearing off his wife’s nose. As you can tell, it is a typical story with a simple plot line. Looking close enough, however, you find details that seem to be far from apolitical. Perhaps the nobleman’s transformation represents men’s freedom. In spite, others may try to strip men of it, but men will suppress those that deny them their God-given right. In a sense, France enforces the idea that righteousness will prevail. Using Freud’s psychoanalytic means of addressing the story, we may see the story as a conflict between the two genders. The nobleman’s transformation may refer to men’s beastly nature. They run and “hunt” as they please without remorse or consideration for their counterparts, who are expected to accept the men’s adulterous tendencies. When the woman of the story attempts to persecute her husband for his atrocious acts and acquire a lover of her own, the nobleman castrates her pseudo-phallus, namely her nose.  One can find the likeness between these examples, but one can just as easily identify the differences in them. Is one more right than another?

Freud explains to his readers that we “think that the translating of the symbols is the ideal method of interpretation” (196); however, he commands us to “clear our minds of so pernicious an error” (196), for “nor everything with which an object or an occurrence can be compared appears in dreams as symbolic of it, and, on the other hand, dreams do not employ symbolism for anything and everything…” (195). Many of our deductions are meanings we desire, meanings that prove our theories and teach grand lessons that we have already subconsciously formed for ourselves. In fact, Freud suggests that our perception “approaches closely to allusion” (159). And though this is a rather discouraging suggestion, it should not be taken as mockery or scoff.  In his Book of Good Love Juan Ruiz welcomes the interpretative mind, and opens his text to readers. He leaves room for addition and correction to those that “know how to write well”. In essence, Ruiz admits that written works do not only belong to the writer but to their readers as well. A man can look at a cloud and find the outline of a ice cream, but another may find a star in the same cloud. Does it matter what nature intended for it to look like, if were to portray anything at all?

 

Endnotes: Do you guys mind if I send you both a more polished version via email so that I can get more in-depth feedback?

hanaa’s rough draft paper 2

In “In the Village”, Bishop dedicates a bulk of her narrative to the description of broken and transformed objects. Though the scene in which the child walks Nelly punctuates this general trend with its lack of object description, it provides a contrast that actually re-emphasizes the impact of the broken and transformed objects. These objects represent the child, who struggles with the trauma of having a mentally unstable mother. Growing up without any reliable adult figure has left her with a broken identity that is reflected in the broken objects found in her mother’s trunks. As she struggles with filling in the gaps of her fragmented selfhood, the story starts to include objects that have been transformed into new ones. Even her short glimpses of happiness or, at the very least contentment, is reflected in the story’s utilization, or more specifically, lack of utilization, of objects. Thus, through the description of broken objects, transformed objects, and a sudden lack of objects, Bishop depicts a character struggling to reclaim her identity.

The broken objects represent the child’s fragmented identity. She says, “so many things in the village came from Boston, and even I had once come from there.” Here, the protagonist creates a parallel between her and her mother’s belongings, using them to represent herself. The child goes on to describe each object, the “bottle of perfume [that] leaked and made awful brown stains”, the “big bundle of postcards” and how the “the curdled elastic around them breaks,” the “two barrels of china. White with a gold band. Broken bits,” and so on. The objects, though diverse and miscellaneous, share the common characteristic of being broken. Some event has happened to them that has forced their structures to disassemble. This evokes the fractured state of the child’s identity. She, like these objects, has been broken. The postcards are further described. They have crystals that “outline the buildings on the cards in a way buildings…should be.” The child wishes “there were a way of making the crystals stick.” She admires the buildings in the post cards because they are clearly delineated and thus, defined. There is no question about the integrity of their structure, no question about their identity. She yearns for this same assuredness. Her ordeal has left her with an incomplete sense of self and she, like the postcards are “crumbling, dazzling, and crumbling.”

Much like the broken objects, the objects in the story that undergo a transformation represent the child’s struggle with the trauma she has faced. The child refers to “the horseshoe nail”, that is now a ring, with “a flat oblong head”, and the “five-cent piece” she swallows that will soon be converted into “precious metals.” Again, these objects, though wide in range, share a common characteristic. They are now permutations of their original selves. They have undergone a transformation that has made them new. There is a clear parallel between the metamorphosis these objects have undergone, and the change the child must go through herself to refurbish her identity. She describes the china cup and wonders if “you could poke the grains out? No, it seems they aren’t really there any more…what odd things people do with grains of rice, so innocent and small!” The grains of rice have lost their identity, much like she has, and have been transformed into the china cup. She, too, though innocent and small like the rice grains must find a way to transform herself, reclaim her identity so as to become whole again.

The lack of objects proves to have as much of an effect as the presence of objects. In the scene where the child walks with Nelly through the village, not much is described about the objects that surround her. She refers to them as she passes them by, the objects in the shop’s window, but claims she “can’t stop to examine them now.” She passes by Miss Gurley’s house “but again there is no time to examine anything.” When compared to the rest of the narrative, which is mostly preoccupied with describing the various objects present in the child’s surroundings, this particular scene is paradoxical. Instead of delving into exhaustive depictions of her surroundings, thereby ascribing to them significance and meaning, she disregards them. This contrast is puzzling. Why doesn’t she seem to be paying more attention to the items in the windows? This question is answered when one considers the nature of the scene. In this particular scene, the child is somewhat content. She has been set the task of walking Nelly and is filled with a sense of purpose. The setting is also equally cheerful, with a lovely meadow and blue sky. It seems that, at least for the moment, she is not oppressed with thoughts about her ordeal or the question of her identity. The lack of objects reflects this momentary freedom from the impact of her trauma.

In “In the Village”, the objects seem to tell the story.

 

*conclusion isn’t really fleshed out, but feel free to comment on it!