WRITING WITHIN AN ANDROCENTRIC CANON




The majority of the writers published, read, taught, and imitated in Western culture even to this day are, as the expression goes, dead white males. That females are so dramatically underrepresented in the canon of Western civilisation’s literature is proof not of lack of feminine talent at writing, but rather of patriarchy’s stranglehold on all forms of art and culture as a ‘male’ prerogative. Psychoanalytic theory accounts for this phenomena as a result of womb-envy. As Minsky interprets, boys:

As Suzette Henke writes in ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Narcissist’ when discussing A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, "It is not enough, however, to repudiate the female: the artist must successfully usurp her procreative powers. Stephen seems to consider the aesthetic endeavour a kind of couvade - a rite of psychological compensation for the male inability to give birth" (Henke, 1997, p. 138). But not only has patriarchy controlled who gets to write; it also has influenced to no small degree what writers write about and how. So not only have females been discouraged from being the authors, they have also been condemned to seeing females as objects in male art and literature who either fit the passive ‘feminine’ role patriarchy has determined for them or who are punished in some way for not conforming to the patriarchal program. Females have traditionally had to read male authors, often males with patriarchal values, writing about male concepts of the female. As Eavan Boland writes in Object Lessons about reading works from the canon in which males are subjects and females are objects, "I was entering a beautiful and perilous world filled with my own silence, where I was accorded the unfree status of an object" (Boland, 1996, p. 237). The male creations of the ‘feminine’ are frozen forever in art and literature from which future readers and future writers form their views about females. Females themselves are exposed to this patriarchal propaganda from an early age. If strong, assertive, active, powerful, self-determining women are culturally depicted as ‘bad’, as they traditionally have been for the most part in Western civilisation, then there is a cultural bias for males to continue depicting them as such and for females to buy into that point of view. As Ross C Murfin writes in the introduction to the chapter on ‘Feminist and Gender Criticism of Ulysses’ in A Companion to James Joyce’s Ulysses, deconstructing the "male constructed literary history" can only happen "by closely examining canonical works by male writers, exposing the patriarchal ideology implicit in such works and arguing that traditions of systematic masculine dominance are indelibly inscribed in our literary tradition", according to North American feminist critics (Murfin, 1998, p. 131). It is important for readers and writers, both male and female, to be conscious of patriarchal bias when analysing portrayals of females in literature. What Boland writes about females in poetry also applies to females in the other literary genres: "Image systems within poetry are complex, referential, historic. Within them are stored not simply the practice of a tradition but the precedent which years of acquaintance with, and illumination by, that tradition offers" (Boland, 1996, pp. 209-210). In other words, the female objects portrayed in literature are not only a product of the patriarchal past but a prototype for future patriarchal representations of the ‘feminine’; they result from a patriarchal literary tradition and, in turn, strengthen and perpetuate that sexist tradition. Neither Boland nor I am advocating a boycott of the classic literature of Western civilisation; instead, we are both advocating taking a closer look at these classics, not to reject them as misogynistic, but rather to be aware of latent messages encoded in them which could have misogynistic ramifications. As Boland writes about works in the canon, "Had I followed the clear line of feminism...I would have found [these] poems...either oppressive or disaffecting. And I did not. On the contrary, I found many of them beautiful and persuasive. It added both complexity and enrichment that these poems which I needed to reconsider as a woman had shaped and delighted me as a poet" (Boland, 1996, p. 236). It is this reconsidering which must be done, not to prune these works from the canon, but rather to make sure that future literature is free of the misogynistic shackles of patriarchal tradition. As Boland explains, "once I began to reconsider, I could see these tropes and figures as both persuasive and unsettling. And then I read more and with a growing sense of their recurrence in the traditional poem. And once again this was the tradition as I had known it, as both a young woman and a scholar. The works of the British canon. The poems read by the poets who wrote poems which were read by other poets. In such downright ways traditions are made. In such clear and complex ways their legislation is enacted" (Boland, 1996, p. 215). Females in literature have to be portrayed in a more complex and diverse range that is reflective of reality than just either passive feminine objects praised for their "ornamental qualities" (Boland, 1996, p. 211) or active powerful threatening women categorically condemned as ‘bad’ and ‘evil’. And when gifted writers such as Joyce choose to make use of patriarchal symbols, such as the witch, close attention must be turned to the ramifications of making such allusions.


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