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Colette, Leduc, Despentes: The Ordinary, the Failed, and the Abject

  • Author(s): Phillips, Marion
  • Advisor(s): Lucey, Michael
  • et al.

This dissertation explores how the concepts of the ordinary, of failure, and of abjection shape the works of three French women writers across the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. I engage with theories of the quotidian, queer and affect theory, feminist literary criticism and work on life-writing, and sexuality studies. Each of the writers under investigation here demands a reorientation to their texts from readers, as styles and subject matter shift to challenge patriarchal discourse.

I focus on the last two original works of Colette (1873-1954), which experiment with her short forms and observational style. I connect her insistence on material objects to the everyday existence and corporeal realities of an aging writer. I then turn to Violette Leduc (1907-1972), a little-known protégée of Simone de Beauvoir whose writings on love and sex between women were censored by her publishers. Finally, I connect Colette’s fashioning of feminine identity to that which is systematically dismantled by Virginie Despentes. Despentes (1965- ), a punk rocker and lesbian activist, tests the limits between cinema and pornography in her films and between feminist theory, philosophy, autobiography, and noir fiction in her writing. She portrays a postcolonial, multiracial, and fractured contemporary French society in her sweeping literary frescoes.

This study prioritizes descriptions of embodied experience and challenges representations of female desires and sexualities. It also considers failure as a strategy for critiquing systems of power that invalidate, silence, and objectify women and women’s writing. After discussing the difficulties in expressing written accounts of the ordinary and the abject, I explore potential ruptures and continuities for Cixous’s écriture féminine as well as the category of women’s writing.

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