Vexing the Terrain: Narrative Form as Feminist Critique
This dissertation is focused upon narrative variations and interventions expressive of feminist critique. Using a feminist narratological interpretive methodology, I examine literary and film narratives containing unconventional treatments of sequentiality, temporality, resolution/irresolution, focalization, diegetic levels, and genre. These treatments are inherently rhetorical and, as shown in the texts discussed, often engaged in a questioning, unsettling or complicating of narrative form. My project is intended to locate and theorize what could be called narrative feminism, legible as narrative disruptions, indeterminacies, and ambiguities that convey feminist commentary or critique.
Rejecting a common article of faith within narratology, where narrative form is presumed apolitical and dispassionate rather than a vessel for critique, I argue that feminist inheres within narrative form, contained in the very composition and sequencing of content within a narrative. In this way, I aspire to give narrative form a more distinct primacy, focusing on narrative disruptions or variations that function as socially symbolic acts, in the sense Frederic Jameson theorizes in The Political Unconscious (1981). In my readings of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride, and a group of cinematic romantic comedies, I explain how each uses narrative form to question or subvert sexist ideas about women and femininity. The title of my project is taken from Volume One (The War of the Words) of Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s No Man’s Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century (1989), which provides an account of women’s literary engagements with gendered social tensions and violence over the last century. The authors posit that the “territory of literature [and also] the institutions of marriage and the family, of education and the professions [have become] a no man’s land – a vexed terrain – in which scattered armies of men and women all too often clash by day and by night” (xiii). I see my project as both vexing the terrain, insofar as it participates in a counter-discourse of feminism’s uneasy alliance with narratology, and also forging new interpretive possibilities among the texts that are part of this study.