Shirley Jackson, The Lottery and Other Stories (1948)

Ever since I finished reading The Lottery & Other Stories I’ve been trying to articulate the effect this collection had on me. It’s easy enough to appreciate Shirley Jackson as a superb writer who had absolute control of her material, but when it comes to discussing the content of the stories, I find myself struggling because they seem to say so much and I always end up with more questions than answers.  If I had to try and sum it up, I suppose I’d say these stories explore the high price attached to the modern western construction the “self” as something that must be constantly defended against the “others” it attempts to exclude and deny.

Jackson is very much a gothic writer and one trope that appears in a lot of the stories, and is often associated with the gothic, is that of “the double”.  Her use of doubling produces a sense of what Sigmund Freud would call “the uncanny”, the deeply unsettling feeling that something which should have remained secret and hidden has come to light. Like seeing yourself reflected in a distorted mirror, the uncanny double makes the familiar world appear disturbingly strange. In ‘The Renegade’, we find a middle-class housewife doubled with her “chicken killing” dog. The doubling of woman and dog reflects her position in the family in an unsettling light, but in so doing makes the horror of that position finally visible. Meanwhile, in the story ‘Charles’, the doubling of a supposedly perfect child with his monstrous other shatters his parents’ illusions. Adult denial about the nature of children is a theme in several of the stories. My favourite use of doubling occurs in the chilling story ‘Of Course’ in which a family is confronted with some alarming new neighbours. But this new family is (of course), an uncanny mirror held up to the supposedly “normal” family, the flipside of the deadly, conventional, suburban lifestyle that the story’s protagonist is herself living. The neighbours are horrifying because they are not really so very different.

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Academic Texts Meme

My recent efforts at tagging have rebounded on me.  Irrational Point has honed the book meme and challenged me to list the academic texts (no set number this time) that have had the most impact on me.  Here goes:

1. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: Volume 1, The Will to Knowledge (1976)

2. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (1990)

3. Adrienne Rich, ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence’ (1980)

4. Gayle Rubin, ‘Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality (1984)

5. David Halperin, Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography (1996)

6. Michael Warner, The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics and the Ethics of Queer Life (2000)

7. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Ninteteenth Century Literary Imagination (1979)

8. Jonathan Dollimore, Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and his Contemporaries (1984)

9. Diana Fuss ‘Inside/Out’ (1991)

10. Sigmund Freud, ‘The Uncanny’ (1919)

Ok, I re-tag Andygrrrl.

I’ve left off the academic books that I included in the book meme.

A short post about George Eliot’s The Lifted Veil (1859)

This is the great realist, George Eliot’s, one and only attempt at Gothic fantasy/Sensation Fiction.  It is the story of a young man named Latimer who develops clairvoyant abilities and becomes sexually infatuated with his brother’s fiancée, Bertha, because she is the only person whose mind he cannot read.  The older brother conveniently dies and Latimer marries Bertha, only to find that when her mind is finally revealed to him (the veil lifted): “I saw myself in Bertha’s thought […] a miserable ghost seer, surrounded by phantoms in the noon-day, trembling under a breeze when the leaves were still, without appetite for the common objects of human desire, but pining after moonbeams’ “(32). Unsurprisingly, Bertha and Latimer becomes increasingly estranged and it all builds towards a very melodramatic ending.

In recent years this novella has attracted a lot of attention, especially from feminist literary critics, who argue that it has great significance in Eliot’s canon. Gilbert and Gubar give it an entire chapter in The Madwoman in the Attic.  I’m afraid I don’t buy that argument and I think there was a good reason why she didn’t generally write this kind of fiction – she just wasn’t that good at it. The story has no tension, which is an essential component of gothic and sensation fiction — and the selfish, whining Latimer is so repellent that you really hope Bertha will get away with poisoning him before the end. I’m with Terry Eagleton when he exclaims “If only we could hear Bertha’s side of the story”.   I think the story in an interesting curiosity and tells us something about Eliot’s lesser known interests in mesmerism, phrenology, clairvoyance and revivication, as well as the gothic and fairy stories.  It also contains interesting nineteenth-century anxieties about gender — are men being emasculated by a wealthy consumer society? Are women becoming harder and more competitive?  In some ways, Bertha seems like a less well-developed model for that other dangerous blonde with snake-like coils of hair — Rosamund Vincey in Middlemarch.

Maybe I’m not getting something, but I just don’t see the deep meaning in this story that some critics have ascribed to it; to me, it seems all surface, which is fine such as it is, but Middlemarch, or The Mill on the Floss, it is not.

Charles Dickens, Bleak House (1853)

I first read Charles Dickens’s Bleak House (1853) when I was in my teens and it sent me into hysterics. I thought I was doing fine as Dickens piled on the pathos, but when Esther Summerson woke from her illness to find the mirror removed from her room, that was it, I freaked out.

Aside from my lack of enthusiasm to repeat this experience, I wouldn’t have chosen to read Bleak House again because, at close to 1000 pages, it’s a monster and there are so many other books I ought to read. Still, in this case I’m glad I had to re-read it for work.

Bleak House is a huge, ramshackle, labyrinth of a novel with a divided narrative and a complicated double plot held together by intricate connections.  Dickens, with his incredible appetite for writing, couldn’t seem to pick a genre and stick with it, so we have realism, romance, melodrama, satire, the gothic, and crime fiction all thrown in together.  This makes it difficult to interpret because the way we read books for meaning depends on our knowledge of the genre in which we place the work.  I tend to agree with the critics who read it as a story about the power of secrets and dangers of obsession, as well as the helplessness of the subject under the tyranny of the law. It has been compared to Franz Kafka’s The Trial.

The title is not deceptive: the novel is definitely bleak and I’m not surprised that I had hysterics the first time around. There are nine deaths in this book. It abounds with the grotesque figures Dickens was famous for, but there isn’t much humour.  He interprets Victorian England as a sick, decaying society in which the misery of the poor caused by social injustice spreads to infect everyone, just as Jo the crossing sweep gets “moved along” and infects Esther with the smallpox that disfigures her beyond recognition.

When I first read Bleak House I had very little patience with Esther’s syrupy “Angel in the House” narrative, but now I see its construction as quite psychologically astute on Dickens’s part. Esther’s low self-esteem and self-depreciating remarks should be read in relation to the stigma of her illegitimacy, which is also signified by her scarred face.  It makes sense that a woman with no name, legal relations, or status in society would feel the need to trade in goodness because her only chance in life is to make people love her.  She has nothing else to offer.

The first time around I liked the benevolent John Jarndyce who takes Esther and the other wards of court into his home, but this time I experienced him as a creepy control freak who can’t stop trying to orchestrate other people’s lives.

I remember hating the opening (boring!), but now I think it’s one of the best things Dickens ever wrote.

Victorian feminism makes an appearance in the vicious representation of Mrs Jellyby, the irresponsible do-gooder with a squalid house full of neglected children and a husband who spends his time leaning his head against the wall in despair. Towards the end of the novel it is sneeringly remarked that she’s turned her attention to women’s rights to sit in parliament.**

Despite this surface disdain for women’s rights, Bleak House is actually very interested in gender and the position of women.  The entire book is gendered, with half the narrative told from a self-depreciating feminine position by Esther, and the other half by a presumptively male, confident but cynical, narrator.  Then Dickens can’t help being fascinated with the icy Lady Dedlock who finds her secrets catching up with her and he represents the frightening lawyer Mr Tulkinghorn as an outright misogynist.

Overall it was worth the effort, but I don’t think I’ll be going for a third attempt anytime soon.

If you can’t face reading the entire book, the BBC adaptation with Gillian Anderson is pretty good.

** By Dickensian coincidence there’s a post up at Hoyden About Town about  Caroline Chisholm. Chisholm was allegedly the model for Mrs Jellyby.

The Best Literary Theory I read in 2008

Nicholas Royle, The Uncanny

As a lover of Gothic Horror, I have an interest in the uncanny, what Freud described as the haunting sense that something which ought to be repressed is coming to light. Royle’s highly theoretical, imaginative and ambitious book works with Freud but isn’t overwhelmed by him:

The uncanny entails another thinking of beginning: the beginning is already haunted. The uncanny is ghostly. It is concerned with the strange, weird and mysterious, with a flickering sense (but not conviction) of something supernatural. The uncanny involves feelings of uncertainty, in particular regarding the reality of who one is and what is being experienced. Suddenly one’s sense of oneself (of one’s so-called ‘personality’ or ‘sexuality’, for example) seems strangely questionable.  The uncanny is a crisis of the proper […] It is a crisis of the natural, touching upon everything that one might have thought was ‘part of nature’ : one’s own nature, human nature, the nature of reality and the world (p. 1)

It’s also a good read for anyone interested in Derridean deconstruction.


Helene Cixous, ‘Fiction and its Phantoms: A Reading of Freud’s Das Unheimliche (The “Uncanny”)’

In which Cixous analyses Freud, unravelling his own essay about the uncanny and reading it against itself.  This is a challenging piece (from which it’s all but impossible to pull a representative quote) but an important exploration of the relationship between literature and psychoanalysis. Cixous effectively draws out the uncanniness underlying Freud’s own text and by implication all fiction.

Thank you to the kind person who sent me this essay when I couldn’t manage to wrest it from JSTOR.

Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (1843)

What can be said about Dickens’s linguistic virtuosity beyond calling it ‘inimitable’? Perhaps all that can be done is to put ‘Wow!’ in the margins of the text or adjacent to a citation’ (J. Hillis Miller)

I spent yesterday afternoon under a blanket with a hot water bottle reading Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.  I’ve read this book, I don’t know how many times, and I never get tired of it. When I was younger, only the death of Tiny Tim in the Christmas future caused me shed tears, but these days I read with a lump lodged constantly in my throat, crying my way through Fezziwig’s party and the Cratchitt’s dinner and Scrooge’s final redemption.  I also watch the BBC adaptation with Patrick Stewart every year on Christmas Eve and I’ll cry again then.  I have to teach it this year, so let’s hope I can hold it together for that.

I wonder why this story still has such emotional power.  Its politics are conservative, it celebrates the dominant values of Victorian society (home, heterosexuality, marriage, family), it treats women as little more than sexual objects and doesn’t even call for any radical social change.  Dickens seems to be campaigning for a more benevolent form of capitalism in which rich people engage in charity, which isn’t a very realistic solution.

But on one narrative level, its lure is quite simple. This is a story about renewal, about getting a second chance in life.  Actually, I remember seeing an interview with Patrick Stewart in which he bursts into tears when he tries to talk about this aspect of the text.  The Christmas Carol, it seems, can make even Captain Picard cry.

Like the best Christmas fictions, the Carol is powerful because it’s built on terrible darkness. Scrooge is standing at the edge of the abyss, not only the abyss of social isolation and lonely death into which he will fall if he doesn’t change his ways, but also the abyss of poverty and degradation, the “ignorance” and ”want” that people like him depend upon.

What I noticed most this time around was the emphasis on memory.  This is a story about a man who has forgotten how to feel and in order to be redeemed, Scrooge first has to learn how to remember.  In particular, he has to remember what it feels like to be a child (Dickens believed that our moral and spiritual welfare is dependent on keeping in touch with childhood).  With its strangely intimate narrative voice (“standing in the spirit at your elbow”), A Christmas Carol puts us in touch with the heightened empathy and emotional response associated with childhood.  Is this capacity something we lose as we grow older, or is it beaten out of us? A Christmas Carol encourages us to indulge in the remembrance of feeling.

Linda Nicholson (ed), The Second Wave: A Reader in Feminist Theory

In between everything else, I’m working my way through The Second Wave: A Reader in Feminist Theory, edited by Linda Nicholson.  The book leaves out a lot because it’s limited to more highly theoretical feminist writing, but it contains some very influential work. I’ve only read the first section ‘Early Statements’ so far, but I already feel like I’m gaining a better understanding of how we got to where we are today.

One interesting factor, which Nicholson draws attention to in her introduction, is the division between the ‘Woman’s Rights Movement,’ which emerged in the early 1960s, and the Women’s Liberation Movement, which emerged out of the New Left in the later 1960s. The Women’s Rights Movement was basically what we now call liberal feminism.  It was largely made up of professional women who put pressure on organisations to end discrimination against women in the workforce. It drew on the dissatisfaction felt by a lot of middle-class housewives at the time.

The Women’s Liberation Movement developed the approach now known as radical feminism.  It was concerned with getting women and men ‘to recognise the importance of women’s oppression, its presence across large stretches of history and its fundamentality as a principle of social organisation.  This meant developing a theory that explained the origins of women’s oppression and the means by which it has been sustained’ (2). Of course these different strands were not completely independent of each other but they represent radically different approaches to the same problems and it’s important to be aware of them.  While much of the creative thinking (and therefore most of the essays in the book) came from the Women’s Liberation Movement, the Women’s Rights Movement has been hugely influential in determining the feminist agenda.  These days you quite often seem to get people working with a combination of the two strands in ways that can be problematic.

The first chapter is the ‘Introduction to The Second Sex’ (1953) by Simone De Beauvoir. In trying to account for the historical oppression of women as a group, De Beauvoir argues that physiological differences between men and women gave men the opportunity to define themselves as subjects and women as ‘other.’  Biology therefore became elaborated as gender:

‘It amounts to this […] there is an absolute human type, the masculine. Woman has ovaries, a uterus; these peculiarities imprison her in her subjectivity, circumscribe her within the limits of her own nature. It is often said that she thinks with her glands. Man superbly ignores the fact that his anatomy also includes glands, such as testicles, and that they secrete hormones.  He thinks of his body as a direct and normal connection with the world, which he believes he apprehends objectively, whereas he regards the body of woman as a hindrance, a prison, weighed down by everything peculiar to it.’

I love the opening quote:

“For a long time I have hesitated to write a book on women. The subject is irritating, especially to women; and it is not new. Enough ink has been spilled in the quarrelling over feminism, now practically over, and perhaps we should say no more of it’ (11).

The quarreling about feminism over? In 1953? Oh how we laugh now!

The second chapter is from Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex (1970). Drawing on Marx and Engels Firestone continued the project of trying to account for women’s oppression by locating the problem in biological differences, specifically reproduction, arguing that women’s capacity to bear children put them in a relation of dependence on men which allowed men to oppress them.  The solution:

‘to assure the elimination of sexual classes requires the revolt of the underclass (women) and the seizure of control of reproduction: not only the full restoration to women of ownership of their own bodies, but also their (temporary) seizure of control of human fertility – the new population biology as well as all the social institutions of childbearing and childrearing.’ (24).

Is that all then?

It’s a powerful argument, but also a problematic one.  As Nicholson notes in her introduction to the book: ‘Are not all of us dependent on each other in some way or other?’  Does the existence of relations of dependence really explain the oppression of more than half the human race?  What about all the women who have never born children with men? And why should reproduction automatically be interpreted as a reason to oppress women?  Why was it not interpreted as a source of power, as seems to have been the case in some early societies? Perhaps Firestone answers these questions in the rest of her book, but I think her argument also puts women with children in a difficult position with regard to feminism because under current conditions there is no way they can seize total control of human fertility.  In having children with men at all, they are doing something arguably anti-feminist.

I prefer Gayle Rubin’s argument in the following essay, ‘The Traffic in Women’ (1975), which locates gendered oppression in the exchange of women which takes place within kinship systems.  I also love this essay for its sheer audacity. Rubin manages to weave together Marx, the anthropology of Levi-Strauss, and the psychoanalysis of Freud and Lacan.  I’m going to write a separate post on  this one because I think it deserves a more in-depth discussion than I can provide here.

The next chapter is The Combahee River Collective’s ‘A Black Feminist Statement’ (1979), which I also think deserves a post of its own.  Basically, the statement defends identity politics, rejects separatism and insists that gender cannot be abstracted form race and class:

‘The most general statement of our politics at the present time would be that we are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking. The synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives.’ (63).

More on that when I have a moment

The final essay in this section is the ‘The Equality Crisis,’ the one Women’s Rights Movement piece in this section and I haven’t read it because… I can’t get up much energy for liberal feminism at the moment.  I may go back to it later, but right now I have skipped to the next section which is on feminism and Marxism and interests me more.