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.
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.
Posted by William Tamplin on November 15, 2011