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Feminist Elements In The Lighthouse And Handmaids Tale English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 3683 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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What all of these women have in common is an interest in exposing patriarchal form of power as the cause of the unequal and subordinate status of women in western societies. They were instrumental in developing revisionist literary histories of woman’s writing in to ‘Her-story’, as opposed to ‘His-story’. The OED credits Robin Morgan with coining the term in her 1970 book, Sisterhood is Powerful, concerning the feminist organization WITCH. Morgan writes, “The fluidity and wit of the witches is evident in the ever-changing acronym: the basic, original title was Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell […] and the latest heard at this writing is Woman inspired to commit ‘Her-story’ (p 65).”

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The haunting of her-story has resulted in an increasing crisis for postmodern historicism. Many feminist authors like Virginia Woolf in a Room of One’s own asserts that past history has generally been written by men about men and those women have been rendered almost invisible, their rules, contributions and achievement correspondingly minimized or totally ignored. Jankins in his essay” tries to make a connection between new historicism and Foucault’s ideas on one hand and feminist perspectives on power relations on the other hand, to proof his ideas he asserts that:

Patriarchal power structure admittedly has reduced history parse into his story. Accordingly the impact of feminism project upon historical studies in postmodern era, by contrast with the work done in the field of political, social, psychoanalytical and logistic studies, has been comparatively late in coming, mild in striking and slow in reacting, but is nevertheless crucial and rigorous. Henceforth “gender trouble” analyses, in mainstream new Historicism, are overshadowed by Foucauldian new Historicism’s dominant interests in the circulation and social energy, the exchange of political power and negotiation of self-fashioning forces (6).

According to Jankins, new Historicism should reconcile with the emerging third-wave of feminism or post feminism which have move beyond the boundaries of with bourgeoisie Christian women to cope with the problems of, for instance, non-white working class women, lesbian women and younger women such as teens (9).

Clearly from the first-wave feminism such as Virginia Woolf, Simone De Beauvoir to the second-wave feminism such as Kate Millett, Elaine Showalter and Julia Kristeva and third-wave feminism such as Daisy Hernandez, Judith Butler and Kathleen Hanna, the essential test most feminists have shared is to defy the male-dominated world in respect of the social, political, linguistic and legal inequalities and injustices.

Accordingly, it is beyond argument that the subversive resistance of anti-repression are also at the heart of every theory and practice of a feminist genealogy in the postmodern era. However one should keep in mind that, in The History of Sexuality, Foucault declares that “where there is power, there is resistance; and yet or rather consequently, this resistance is never in position of exteriority in relation to power” (David Ross 158).

Knowing a brief introduction to the related novels and authors may help the readers to understand this research better, According to The Cambridge Introduction to Virginia Woolf, Woolf (born Stephen; 25 January 1882 – 28 March 1941) was an English novelist, essayist, epistler, publisher, feminist, and writer of short stories, regarded as one of the foremost modernist literary figures of the twentieth century. During the interwar period, Woolf was a significant figure in London literary society and a member of the Bloomsbury Group. Her most famous works include the novels Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927) and Orlando (1928), and the book-length essay “A Room of One’s Own” (1929), with its famous dictum, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”(Goldman 1-21).

Before the Second World War and long before the second wave of feminism, Virginia Woolf argued that women’s experience, particularly in the women’s movement, could be the basis for transformative social change. Dr Isam M. Shihada in his essay asserted that, grounding Virginia Woolf’s feminist beliefs in the everyday world, To the lighthouse is considered to be the best, clearest presentation of Woolf’s feminism;” Woolf’s novels, especially Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse are devoted to portray a picture of a patriarchal and imperialistic society, and to detail the factors that have limited women’s opportunities for a meaningful life”(144).While To the Lighthouse is among vanguard novels in feminist movement , it has some different ideas from those we may see in third wave feminism and postmodern feminist movement’s episteme and dominant discourse such as those in The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.

The plot line of To the Lighthouse is simple. ‘The Window’ is the longest section of the book, but it takes place in a single day and focuses primarily on the character Mrs. Ramsay, a beautiful, placid, upper-middle-class Victorian wife and mother who devotes herself to family and friends. The years between the planned trip To the lighthouse and the actual event are poetically recounted in the short section ‘Time Passes’, in which the effects of time are illustrated in a description of the slow decay of the Ramsay’s empty vacation home, combined with flashes of imagery of World War I, the physical aging of the characters, and death. Lily Briscoe becomes the dominant character in the third section, ‘The Lighthouse’. A struggling artist who never married, despite Mrs. Ramsay’s attempts to play matchmaker for her, Lily mourns the loss of Mrs. Ramsay, whom she alternately adores and misunderstands, and attempts to resolve her feelings about Mr. Ramsay, whom she considers at times overly philosophical, arrogant, and detached.

Lily also must come to terms with her own decision not to marry and to pursue work as an artist, despite social pressure to lead a more conventional life. In the final scene of the novel, Mr. Ramsay and his children reach the lighthouse at last, and Lily finishes the painting she has been working on throughout the novel, both acts signifying the characters’ attainment of an integrated vision of life, art, and death.

David Staines in his essay “Margaret Atwood in her Canadian Context” introduces Atwood as a prolific writer and a hit with literary critics, who became internationally famous after the popular and critical success of her 1984 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. Atwood began her career in the 1960s, teaching English and at first publishing poetry, short stories and literary criticism. Her other novels include Surfacing (1972), Cat’s Eye (1988), Alias Grace (1996) and the 2000 Booker Prize winner, The Blind Assassin.

As a case in point Atwood has created a stunning Orwellian vision of the near future in The Handmaid’s Tale. This is the story of Offred, one of the unfortunate Handmaids under the new social order who have only one purpose: to breed. In Gilead, where women are prohibited from holding jobs, reading and forming friendships, Offred’s persistent memories of life in the “time before” and will to survive are acts of rebellion.

Howells in her essay regarding the dystopian vision in Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale asserts that “this novel might usefully begin with this statement, for Offred’s fictive autobiography come to us as a written text, and only at the end do we discover that, what we have been reading was actually a spoken narrative which has been transcribed from the old caste types and reconstructed for publication long after the narrator is dead” (165). Then he continues “this complicated transmission process from private speech act to written text illustrates the historical problem of women’s silencing which and also the potentially disruptive effects of women’s writing” (165).

Foucault’s redefinition of power has made a significant and varied contribution to feminism. Sara Mills in her book Michel Foucault speaks of power relations and she asserts that, Foucault’s notion that power is constitutive of that upon which it acts has enable feminists to explore the often complicated way in which women’s experiences self-understandings, comportment and capacities are constructed in and by the power relation which they are seeking to transform. The idea that modern power is involved in producing rather than simply repressing individual has also played a part in a controversial move within feminism away from traditional liberationist political orientations (67-81).

Statement of the Problem:

To the Lighthouse is concerned with the Victorian arrangement of patriarchal society, and it questions the distinction between men and women’s social roles. Throughout the novel, we find that there are two distinctive worlds: the world of men, the masculine, and the world of woman, the feminine which are the outcome of the dominant discourse of that time. But on the other hand some feminists such as Margaret Atwood also found Foucault’s contention that the body is the principle site of power in modern society useful in their exploration of the social control of women through their bodies and sexuality (Somacarrera 44).Peters asserts that Michel Foucault saw the body as a “site of power relations occupying a spatial-temporal location in development of western institutions.” This form of historical study led to not only the differentiation of the histories of the physical body, the social body, the gendered body, and the body politic, but also of figural and metaphorical forms such as the female body, the medical body, the laboring body, and the eroticized and colonized body of the Other (1162).

About the concept of history Atwood in one of her lectures on her first historical novel asked a fundamental question which she tries to answers in her later novels, she asked “What does the past tell us?”Then she answered, “In and of itself, it tells us nothing. We have to be listening first, before it will say a word; and even so, listening is telling and then retelling”. Coomi S. Vevaina tries to explain how far Atwood believes in the concept of history and how far she used this concept in her Novels; he declares that “in all her [Atwood’s] works, Atwood reveals a distinctly postmodern engagement with history”. He then continues that by recording some tapes “Offred becomes an elocutionary act and her narrative” or better to say her story “status warning against moral dictatorship and atrocity is summarily dismissed in an “editorial aside” by the male professional historian how is interested in reconstructing his grand impersonal narrative of a vanished nations history”.

Moreover Howells believes that the issue of language and power has always been crucial in construction of dystopias,” throughout the history of dystopian fiction the conflict of the text has often turned on the control of language” (166) and it is Offred’s attempt to “seize it [the language] to make it hers” (Cixous, “Medusa” (343), which gives her narrative its appeal as one woman story of resistance against patriarchal tyranny.

Turning the page of feminism from its early phase to its advanced or post modern phase from the new historicist viewpoint, the researcher believes there is a fundamental and substantial difference between To the Lighthouse as a first wave feminist work wiring and Handmaids Tale which belongs to late modernism or better to say post modern period of feminist writing .

In order to gain this purpose the researcher tries to answer the following questions:

Upon what social understanding do these works depend?

What authorial biographical facts are relevant to these texts?

Do contemporary issues and cultural milieu of the time of each author operate together to create their novels?

What are the main characteristics which make different Margaret Atwood’s feminism with Virginia Woolf’s?

Significance of the Study

As the novelists studied in this thesis belong to different historical periods, it provides a chance to show how the shift in epistemes from one historical period to the next may drastically change how the same subject is seen by authors writing in these periods.

Before the society of ‘Gilead’ originated by Margaret Atwood in 1984, feminists were stereotyped as people who lead marches and waved banners (Wolff 3). They spoke out for the right of women and tried to close the gap between themselves and their male counterparts. In Handmaids’ tale Atwood by illustrating an imaginary country Gilead, tries to show that during Gileadean times women longed for right even to speak their minds. The main character, Offred, constantly have flashbacks to the days when she was free and she took her mother’s feminist outlook for granted. She almost resented it in a way because feminist seemed to occupy more of her mother’s time than Offred did.

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However, Offred could have been called a “silent” feminist in her new society. She is only silent because she was protecting her life. Women were not allowed to read, write, go to school, socialize, wear makeup or even choose a husband. In Gilead you were one of the two types of women: you either gave in to the new rules easily and become brainwashed by the teachings of the aunts, or you silently did everything you could to upraise in your own little way. For Offred, rising up meant playing Scrabble with the commander, hiding a match under her bed to later aid her escape, and sneaking away in the night to sleep with Nick. E.A.Wolff in her essay “Feminism in the Works of Margaret Atwood” point out that “you could say that Offred was feminist of Gilead because of her small steps toward rebellion”.

The constraints of Gileadean society altered the definition of feminist to someone who wanted the simple rights of women like those Virginia Woolf many years ago talked about them in her feminist works such as To the Lighthouse or later in A Room of One’s Own, may not have necessarily been able to act upon their desire in ways which draw attention to themselves. Offred’s quick wit about things and her internal yearning for freedom places her in feminist category.

Review of Literature

This study is a library research and all the information is obtain through different books, whether directly or indirectly discussing the materials, essays, electronic sources and any other possible sources in which the related materials can be found. This research is mainly focused on the original text of selected novels which are published, and also secondary sources, which explain and criticized these Novels, are used in order to help elaboration of the novels. The primarily concentration is on those studies which are related to the conception of feminist and new Historicism.

Feminist Interpretations of Michel Foucault by Susan J. Hekman which is an exploration of the intersection between the work of Michel Foucault and feminist theory, focusing on Foucault’s theories of sex/body, identity/subject, and power/politics. This volume seeks to bring a feminist perspective to bear on the interpretation of a major figure in the philosophical canon.

New Feminist Discourses: Critical Essays on Theories and Texts by Armstrong aim at setting the schedule for feminist criticism in the nineties, The essays argue themes crucial to the development of feminist thought: The problem of gendered knowledge and the implications of accounts of gendered language, cultural constraints on the representation of sexuality, women’s agency, cultural and political change, a feminist aesthetics and new readings of role and class.

The Cambridge Introduction to Virginia Woolf by Jane Goldman is a clear and informative introduction to Woolf’s life, works, culture and critical context, it covers the major works in details, including, To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway, The Waves and the key short stories. As well as providing the researcher with essential information needed to study Woolf.

Coral Ann Howells in The Cambridge Companion to Margaret Atwood tries to gather essays by Twelve leading international Atwood critics, provides the most comprehensive and up to date account of Atwood’s novels. These essays consider Atwood theme, language, humor and narrative techniques.

The Blackwell Guide to Feminist Philosophy edited by Linda Martin Alcoff and Eva Feder Kitty, is a definitive introduction to the field, consisting of fifteen essays that apply philosophical methods and approaches to feminist concerns. The Guide is an excellent recourse for those who wish to explore how feminist philosophy is transforming the very nature of philosophical inquiry.

French Feminist Theory by Dani Cavallaro is a good source which offers an introduction to the key concepts and themes in French feminist thought, both the materials and linguistic and psychoanalytic traditions. These are explored through the work of a wide range of theorists.

The Greenblatt Reader edited by Michael Payne makes available in one volume Greenblatt’s most important writing on culture, Renaissance studies and Shakespeare. It also features occasional pieces on subjects as diverse as storytelling and medicals, demonstrating the range of his cultural interests. Taken together, the text collected here dispel the idea that new historicism is antithetical to literary and aesthetic value.

The Routledge Critical Thinkers series offers introductions to major critical thinkers who have influenced literary studies and humanities. Each book will equip the reader to approach these thinkers original text by explaining their key ideas, showing the reader why they are considered to be significant; Stephen Greenblatt by Mark Robson is the one book from this series which not only introduces Greenblatt as a leading figure of new historicism but also ties to explain exactly what new historicism means and the relevance of new historicism to all aspects of literary criticism.

Various articles which make use of the theories of Foucault are referred to, such as Saundra lee Bartky’s “Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power,” in which the author exclusively examines the discursive pressures upon the female body.

In ­The History of Sexuality, Volume I: an Introduction Foucault provides much useful information on the origin, definition, and the treatment of the sexual body. This information is also useful in discussions concerning feminism. ­

The Norton Anthology of Literary Criticism edited by Vincent Leitch, and Modern Criticism and Theory: a Reader edited by David Lodge apart from providing information on Foucault, Kristeva, Gilbert and Gubar, and Cixous serves as a major sources of articles by some of these authors.

Approach and Methodology

This study consists of the comparison and contrast of two feminist authors according to the new historicist approach based on examples from one selected novel by each author.

The introduction, definition of the notion and the various related theories of the new historicism and elements of feminist, will come in the beginning of the thesis and, two chapters will be assigned exclusively to the application of the theories to the related novels after the introduction. The analysis will be conducted in a theme based manner, that is, various pieces of related material in the text will be brought under a common category, and will be discussed and analyzed using corresponding theories.

The researcher first of all tries to discuss new historicism theory and apply all important key terms of this theory to the selected novels, Then she tries to make a link between feminism and new historicism and find the similarity and difference of the selected novels according to these two theories by considering most important factors of the new historical approach, such as the dominant discourse in historical time of both authors

Limitations and Delimitations of Study

The present study is concerned only with Virginia Woolf and Margaret Atwood’s two Novels, rather than their poetry or short stories. The choice of novels was also difficult because these two novelists, Virginia Woolf and Margaret Atwood, have a variety of novels which more or less deal with the notion of feminism: therefore, it is not possible to cover all of them in one study. As a result, the researcher concentrates only two novels which are most famous and better suit the study.

These selective novels can be studied from different approaches but the researcher is not going to say what other have said, so she chooses to examine the notion of feminism in new historicist reading of text which has not been analyses by the others yet. According to present study the new historicist elements such as Apparatus, Discipline, Discursive Practice, Episteme, Ethics, Identity and Power will be discuss fully in the shadow of feminism by helps of different views of Stephan Greenbelt and Michel Foucault. In this study, the researcher will use the philosophers and theories which are related to her discussion and help its progress.


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