Almost three years ago, I was writing my bachelor’s dissertation on the Italian poet Antonia Pozzi. Back then, I had never thought about things such as women’s writing or feminist narratology. Worse than that: Antonia Pozzi’s was probably the first book written by an Italian woman I had ever read, after thirteen years of education, including a bachelor’s in modern literature.
I clearly remember my state of mind and intentions when talking to a dear friend about my dissertation. Antonia Pozzi wrote some poems considered intimate, autobiographical, and private, focused on love and her feelings and sensations, and this argument was often used to discredit her. I then wanted to find something universal in her writing, something that, lying at the bottom of one own’s life and thoughts could shed light on everyone’s existence, a wider human truth. To universalize and redeem: to relate her words to the universal men’s words I knew from the poets included in the literary canon and prove her worthy of belonging to the range of writers we study in class. A couple of years later, I started to understand my friend’s words during that conversation: why deny autobiography and consider it bad? Today I’m passionate about personal narrative, private stories that can tell us much about politics, society, and gender relationships but also allow us to get closer to our individual bodily and emotional experiences or to confront others’.
Something about that conversation, though, was left hanging and re-emerged some months ago, when I was talking to another friend of mine. He was quite surprised about my persistent interest in women’s literature and struggled to understand why: after all, even if during high school and university he only read books written by men, he never thought they expressed a masculine point of view. Why insist on the distinction between male and female writing, when those books seemed able to talk about universal experiences?
I told him that what resonated in me about the books written by women I read (such as those by Elena Ferrante, Goliarda Sapienza, Alba de Céspedes, or Fabrizia Ramondino) was how women’s subjectivity and corporeality were portrayed, something I had never found in men’s books. Those stories talked about things I thought were invisible, or at best not worth narrating. Things such as domestic activities, female relationships, family life… and, beyond the topics, it was more about the way of looking from inside the female body and showing what it’s like to live as a woman.
Still, something was unclear. If women’s writing is a thing, why would men be interested in reading it when they can choose a universal writing? And before that: were these men’s works really expressing a universal point of view or could they hide men’s one, something that we became accustomed to considering as general and neutral since it has long been the only perspective allowed to have a voice?
Such questions are not easy to answer, but feminist philosopher Adriana Cavarero gives us interesting insights in her book Relating Narratives: Storytelling and Selfhood (Tu che mi guardi, tu che mi racconti. Filosofia della narrazione), published in 1997. Cavarero recalls Oedipus’ story, narrated by Sophocles in his play Oedipus Tyrannus. One day Oedipus, the king of Thebes, discovers that he had unknowingly killed his father Laius and married his mother Jocasta. After the horrific revelation, he pierces his eyes, while Jocasta hangs herself. The tragedy is used by the philosopher to reflect upon the relational foundations of storytelling since the king only discovers who he is when someone else – the oracle – tells him his story. One particular episode catches the eye of the author: the encounter between Oedipus and the Sphinx, a monstruous creature who devours anyone who can’t solve her riddle and who, according to Cavarero (2022, 65), stands for an androcentric representation of women, «the female monster – the tremendous side of animality which Man sees in the feminine». The Sphinx asks Oedipus what creature walks with four legs in the morning, two at midday and three at night, and the king answers «Man» (as a child, as an adult and finally as an old man who needs to lean on a stick). By doing so, he can defeat the Sphinx, earn the kingship of Thebes, and marry Jocasta, but unfortunately, this ostensible victory will only bring the hero closer to his tragic fate.
In Muriel Rukeyser’s version of the myth, Oedipus asks the Sphinx why he did not recognize his mother, and the monster tells him that it’s because he didn’t mention women in his answer to the riddle. Cavarero thinks that «Man» tends to be an abstract, universal subject that claims to be neutral and male at the same time and, moreover, to include women. The occidental philosophical history of the subject tends to exclude the uniqueness of each one’s body and existence, opposing the truth of rationality to the falsity of irrationality and impulses, associated with women. The riddle aimed to bring Oedipus closer to himself by allowing him to think about who he was. However, he could only see himself as Thebes’ king, Jocasta’s husband, a powerful lord: he could only see his role, what he was. And how could he have recognized his mother if he didn’t recognize women’s existence?
Cavarero believes that Oedipus learns too late that his abstract language prevented him from seeing the real and unique appearance of his mother, and she claims (2022, 67. My emphasis) that «the tragedy of the original division between the universal Man and the uniqueness of the self, the abstraction of the subject and the concreteness of the uniqueness – in one word, between the discursive order of philosophy and that of narration – is an all-male tragedy». Women didn’t undergo the same trouble, since they were not allowed to be subjects, to answer personally to the question «what is Woman?»: they were given multiple definitions by men. As a consequence, they were able to escape from the trap of auto representation. Cavarero (2022, 68) claims the stereotype that portrays women as devoted «to the fragile, the little, the exposed» and the accidental, affirming that this is the foundation of narration: telling the story of everything that would otherwise disappear without a trace. In her opinion, women couldn’t universalize themselves in the definition of «Man», so they developed a passion and a talent for narration, which also constitutes the basis of female friendship – let’s think about My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante. This partially explains, according to the writer, women’s interest in autobiographies, their attitude to tell each other their stories and the fact that «male friendship is rarely of a narrative kind, that is that many men prefer to talk about things (football, cars) or about what they are (lawyers, tennis players) instead of who they are» (Cavarero 2022, 80).
Even though Cavarero assigns abstraction to philosophy and uniqueness to narration, these two tendencies can also be found inside narration itself. Robyn R. Warhol, one of the main founders of feminist narratology, analyzed several Victorian novels looking for «signs of gendered difference» (Warhol 1994, 74). What she observed is that women and men writers of the time (such as Dickens, Trollope, Alcott, Eliot, Thackeray, and Charlotte Bronte) used the same figure of speech, metonymy, in very different ways: women made use of it to refer to the concrete body of their characters and readers, while men seemed to do quite the opposite, namely suggesting abstract, allegorical meanings and moving away from the body – thus pushing metonymy towards metaphor. In Warhol’s opinion, this has to do with a concept that Gerald Prince (1988) named «the unnarratable» and includes three categories: «that which cannot be narrated because it is too tedious or too obvious to say; that which is taboo, in terms of social convention, literary convention, or both; and that which purportedly cannot be put into words because it exceeds or transcends the expressive capacities of language» (Warhol 1994, 79). Warhol believes that all these cases have to do with the body and that in this regard Victorian women writers challenged the limits of the unnarratable, while men writers confirmed them.
How does this concretely take shape in narration? Warhol proposes many examples in her article, and one that particularly struck me concerns how differently sexuality – a taboo at the time – was depicted in the novels. In his book Vanity Fair, Thackeray (1986, 738) portrays Becky Sharpe as a siren, thus using a metaphor to identify her as a threatening and monstruous creature to men and driving away the attention from her physical entity: «the siren disappears and dives below, down among the dead men, the water of course grows turbid over her, and it is labour lost to look into it ever so curiously. They look pretty enough when they sit upon a rock, twangling their harps and combing their hair, and sing, and beckon to you to come and hold the looking-glass; but when they sink into their native element, depend on it those mermaids are about no good, and we had best not examine the fiendish marine cannibals, revelling and feasting on their wretched pickled victims». Women writers, on the contrary, opted for metonymic strategies, for example describing a bodily gesture such as the touch of a hand on the arm to allude to the sexual relationship. By doing so, they didn’t move away from the body and found alternative techniques to depict something otherwise unnarratable.
Cooking scenes are described in a very material way in women’s writing of the time and the details that are depicted usually don’t stand for abstract, metaphorical meanings. On the contrary, they point at the user’s body, as in this short extract from Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott (1983, 115): «She boiled the asparagus hard for an hour, and was grieved to find the heads cooked off, and the stalks harder than ever. The bread burnt black; for the salad that she let everything else go, till she had convinced herself that she could not make it fit to eat». Dickens, instead, makes use of gerundive forms to talk about cooking and often employs objects not to indicate the owner’s body but to evoke their social, moral, and psychological features.
The unnarratable, as we can see, has often to do with what is perceived as boring and obvious, but Virginia Woolf points out (1957, 77) that such considerations depend on the subjective point of view. So, as she puts it, traditionally female endeavours such as fashion and domestic activities are considered boring and stupid while their male counterpart, like sports, are important. This has of course consequences on which subjects and ways of telling stories we choose to read and on the development of the literary canon. After all, «Literature is a State», as Giacomo Debenedetti puts it (2019), and as such it is constructed through hierarchies, organizational choices, and rethinking processes that are affected by the link between political, social, cultural power and the point of view that is used to tell stories: nothing natural or unchangeable. This encourages us to reconsider the importance we gave to different narrative styles and techniques and their gendered implications.
Many efforts have been made to differentiate what seemed to be a universal archetype or, at least, the only active model which was considered worth knowing, not only in literature but also in other forms of storytelling such as movies. In 1949 Joseph Campbell described the stages of the mythological hero’s journey in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. After just over fifty years, in 1990, Maureen Murdock (2016) «felt his model failed to address the specific psycho-spiritual journey of contemporary women» and thus published The Heroine’s Journey, which Campbell considered unnecessary, since «Women don’t need to make the journey. In the whole mythological tradition the woman is there. All she has to do is to realize that she’s the place that people are trying to get to» (Campbell 1981).
More recently, Iris Brey (2021) theorized the existence of a «female gaze», after Laura Mulvey’s «male gaze» (1975), claiming that a revolution took and is still taking place in cinema, thanks to women filmmakers such as Agnès Varda, Chantal Akerman, more recently Céline Sciamma and many more. What is at stake in the «female gaze» is the possibility not to identify with the female protagonist, since identification implies ignoring differences, but to feel the character’s bodily experience. This is achieved through different techniques, according to Iris Brey; for instance, the story needs to be told from the woman’s point of view, so that we can feel with her and not watch her from an external perspective, and it needs to question the patriarchal order.
After all, maybe not all of those books were that universal, and talking about women’s literature and writing can be useful to get to know what was historically left highly unexplored, giving women the chance to recognize and feel subjects. On the other hand, one might say that such categories reproduce binary models and confine a variety and breadth of literary styles under a label that still seems to be an exception in the literary canon (women’s literature such as travel literature, horror literature, and so on, as if it was a single genre). This is true, and I believe that such a category shouldn’t be normative but something we use to say: this exists. And more: something we use to question the state of things because studying women’s literature opens up many new issues around the mainstream models we adopted in the study of literature.
Many questions can still be raised. How did the conception of female writing change in history and how did it influence editorial choices? Is it possible to talk about masculine forms of writing? What happens when traditionally male or female narrative strategies mix or exchange (as Warhol suggests for some Victorian authors such as Eliot)? What do these categories tell us about how we think about the body?
I will keep researching these themes and exploring them through some interviews. In the meanwhile, what do you think about this? Do you have a similar experience with women’s literature? Can you recommend a book, a movie, or other works that gave you a new perspective on these topics?