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Title: Feminine writing and the problem of the self : an examination of Virginia Woolf's novels in the light of recent critical and psychoanalytic theories
Author: Minow-Pinkney, Makiko
ISNI:       0000 0004 2704 4652
Awarding Body: University of Warwick
Current Institution: University of Warwick
Date of Award: 1985
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Central to my analysis of Woolf's work are five novels: Jacob's Room, Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando, The Waves. These are written in pursuit of Woolf's modernist project, but as I shall argue below, her modernism was at the same time a feminist subversion of conventions, and I will analyze the ways in which Woolf actually effects this fusion of her concerns in her texts. I will concentrate on her fiction in this thesis, an area of her work that has been, surprisingly, comparatively underemphasized in the recent, intense revival of interest in Woolf. Directed towards her centenary in 1982, the revival has at its centre a 'family' industry which includes Quentin Bell's biography, the publication of Woolf's innumerable letters and diaries, and previously unpublished material. As a consequence of this extensive, new access to Woolf's personal life, there has flourished a biographical and psychoanalytical criticism, but this latter has tended to focus on her actual mental illness rather than the possibilities of new readings of her texts, a relative neglect which this thesis hopes, to a degree, to remedy. The linkage of psychoanalysis and Woolf is not an arbitrary one, since the Hogarth Press has been Freud's English publisher since 1921. Leonard himself reviewed Freud's Psychopathology of Everyday Life. Though she was never treated by Freudian psychoanalysts, Woolf did meet Freud when he took refuge in England just before the war. It is not until towards the end of the 1930s that we can be certain, from the entries in her diary and her reading notebooks, that Woolf was actually reading Freud. ' Yet we can sense the great impact of Freudian psychoanalysis in her references to 'our psychoanalytical age'(CE II 142). She wrote a review called 'Freudian Fiction', in which she showed her dissatisfaction, not with Freud's own discoveries, nor with the principle of their use in fiction, but with the way a particular novelist (J. D. Beresford) had done so: 'It simplifies rather than complicates, detracts rather enriches'(CW, 154). shall seek to heed this caveat in the studies that follow. Contemporary feminism has, since the seventies, given impetus to this prodigious revival of interest in Woolf; its recent major emphasis has been the re-assessment of Woolf as a radical political thinker. Feminist assessments of Woolf's aesthetics (E. Showalter, Sidney Jane Kaplan) have often been on the whole negative, fundamentally continuous with the criticism of her by the politically committed writers of the 1930's or of Scrutiny: Virginia Woolf as hypersensitive, as a sheltered invalid lady unable to cope with a harsh 'reality'. A pioneer book by Herbert Marder in 1968 stressed the crucial importance of feminism in Woolf's art: 'far from being a mere excrescence on her work, feminism ... is essential to her conception of reality.' But the major shift in evaluation was initiated by American feminists around Jane Marcus, who aim to revolutionize the commonly accepted accounts of Woolf by emphasizing the political dimensions of her writing. These recent books and articles have valuably uncovered previously unknown or repressed aspects of Woolf, which offer the possibility of a new and fuller comprehension of her literary endeavours. Yet, because these works are eager to dispel the old image of ethereal aestheticism, they tend to eschew fullscale dealings with Woolf's formal experimentation, that series of works from Jacob's Room to The Waves which have conventionally been regarded as quintessentially Woolfian, which have supported the image of her work as beautiful, pure artefact, subjectivistic and hypersensitive. What is needed now is to radicalize the reading of precisely these novels and of the aesthetic behind them, and I have sought to bring the resources of contemporary critical and psychoanalytic theories upon them, stressing those aspects of theory which seem to me most germane and illuminating for each particular novel. I shall argue that Woolf's series of major experimental works, which are traditionally assigned to a gender-free category of 'modernism', can be interpreted as a quest for what she refers to as a 'woman's sentence' that would allow 'a woman [to] write exactly as she wishes to write', and what I refer to, in my title and throughout this thesis, as 'feminine writing'. Both modernism and literary feminism - projects which, as I shall suggest below, are uniquely conjoined in Woolf - are a questioning of a previously dominant mode of writing, and the crisis-of narrative that they represent is also a crisis of the self. Lacanian psychoanalysis illuminates this crisis of the subject by bringing Freud's work into relation with structuralist theories of language, and allows us to define feminine writing as a concern which addresses itself to the position of mastery maintained in the order of discourse. The 'feminine' can then be seen as the subversion of a mastery guaranteed by the 'Cartesian' subject or self which also sustains the narrative conventions that Woolf's experimental novels so effectively interrogate. Far from being a flight from social commitment into an arcane modernism, her experimental texts can, I shall argue, best be seen as a feminist subversion of the deepest formal principles - of the definitions of narrative, writing, the self - of a patriarchal social order.
Supervisor: Not available Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available
Keywords: PR English literature