Why study literature by women? Although the literary canon has evolved significantly over the past thirty years, there remains much yet to be uncovered in the female voice. How, then, do we set about exploring this terrain? As Ellen Moers notes, “By some accidental or willed critical narrowness, we have routinely denied ourselves additional critical access to [major female writers] through the fact of their sex – a fact surely as important as their social class or era or nationality, a fact of which women writers have been and still are conscious. How, as human beings, could they not be?”
We will approach the literature in this course through the lens of the female experience itself. Beginning with Virginia Woolf, we will first examine those writers whose work centers upon not only finding their distinctly female voices, but expressing them as well. We will move then to an examination of the treatment of the female body and female sexuality: How do women writers represent their own bodies and sexuality? How does the biological fact of their female bodies influence their writing?
Finally, we will examine what Joseph Boone refers to as the “countertraditional voices” in literature by women – those texts whose premise runs decidedly counter to the traditional structure of narrative, which deems marriage the ultimate (and often, the only) end for the female protagonist. Through a discussion of works spanning from the seventeenth century (Astell’s A Serious Proposal to the Ladies) to contemporary culture (HBO’s Sex and the City), we will consider how these women writers raise their voices against marriage, whether through uncovering the misogynist principles inherent in the traditional structure of marriage, or through simply advocating alternative choices which prove ultimately more satisfying. Under the purview of a “countertraditional” text, we will also discuss Adrienne Shelley’s film Waitress, examining its rejection of the traditional marriage plot, as well as its decidedly less-than-traditional representation of pregnancy.
Our class will culminate in an examination of two seminal works: Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. We will discuss each text in light of the writer’s revolutionary/revisionist treatment of the issues we’ve deconstructed this semester: the female voice, sexuality, and marriage.