Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Judith Fetterley's The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction

The Indiana University Press of Bloomington, Indiana, publishes a work in 1978 about the role of women in American literature entitled The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction by Judith Fetterley. Fetterley discusses the dominant male environment in American literature and shows how it portrays women. Because of a great tendency for male writers to pervade the American literary world with oppression, they have made it virtually impossible for women writers to stake a claim in the sphere. Fetterley asserts that “American literature is male. Our literature neither leaves women alone nor allows them to participate” (xii). She also notes how male critics have supported this hegemonic masculinity, whether consciously or not, in their articles. She reviews the following short stories: “Rip Van Winkle,” “I Want to Know Why,” “The Birthmark,” and “A Rose for Emily.” She also looks into novels: A Farewell to Arms, The Great Gatsby, The Bostonians, and An American Dream. In most, if not all, of these works, the theme of Americanism is dictated by men and their relationship to women, who have neither a voice nor any power but still inspire misogyny in men. In the case of The Great Gatsby, Fetterley concludes the problem in this way: “America is female; to be American is male; and the quintessential American experience is betrayal by women” (xiii).

The title of the book refers to any female student reading these particular stories from the American literary canon. She faces a challenge of seeing the portrayal of women that does not conform to her reality. She is forced into taking the side of the male protagonist in the story, even if his characteristics clash with her sensibilities. When everything is said and done, women learn to become like men in a process Fetterley calls “immasculation” (xx). The resisting reader then accepts the American literary world as exclusively for men.

Fetterley makes an excellent point that literary criticism is a political act. The case comes up when she analyzes The Bostonians. Fetterley believes feminists can learn from this story because “the critical commentary on it provides irrefutable documentation of the fact that literary criticism is a political act—that it derives from and depends on a set of values, usually unarticulated and unexamined, in the mind of the critic and that it functions to propagate those values” (101). Those values end up enforcing women to serve the privileges held by men in general. In the case of The Bostonians, a gentleman from the defeated South still has a tacit power supported by the victorious North to intervene in a female friendship. Ransom saves Verena from Olive’s “morbidity,” even though he never considers that his cousin’s “man-hating” is “an understandable reaction to the facts of her experience” (132). The male has inherent power while the female has only powerlessness.

I cannot argue that American literature has not been dominated by a patriarchal order. Fetterley does provide a strong case that there is an extreme majority of men that write books compared to women. I do not deny the fact that some men in the literary world want to continue to foster this system of power. I have not read a substantial portion of American literature to state the contrary. And with the few books that I have read of American literature, especially works from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, there is certainly a trend of male power dictating what roles women can and cannot have. I even submit that men have committed a pattern of insidious misogyny at many levels. Yet, I cannot shake the impression that feminism, in general, is just a subtle disguise for women’s misandry. Instead of an occasional battle of the sexes, it is an outright war of the sexes. The causes for equality seem to get overshadowed by an ominous wedge that widens the gap between men and women more and more.

There are things women have that men simply cannot do. Call it a female privilege or power, but men cannot get pregnant, no matter how much they try on their own. I think the ability to have a baby is an amazing power to have. Fetterley mentions this phenomenon and the mythical powers associated with it when she discusses An American Dream: “This mystique of women as psychic has its roots in a biological mythology that […] Women have the power that derives from a fixed and stable identity, a conviction of existence, an assurance of being on the side of life” (172). To have “a conviction of existence” is actually hard to come by in the masculine world. Not every man wants to be an agent of death, destruction, and conquest.

Another power or privilege that women seem to have is this instantaneous support system among themselves, while the majority of men have to go it alone. Even if there is this universal boys’ club, this does not guarantee that men automatically receive their man cards. Many men in this club are more than willing to revoke another’s membership at the slightest suspicion of unmanliness. In a way, the patriarchal order hurts men, too. Maybe the question has to deal with power resting on the few instead of the many.

When I read, I rarely react to controversial statements or opinions. I usually consider the evidence with an open mind, and if I cannot come to a satisfactorily conclusion, I put the question at the back of my mind and wait to see if life bears the argument out or not. However, one statement causes me to object vociferously. In the section where Fetterley discusses the husband’s obsession to rid of his wife’s birthmark, a symbol of natural female fallibility, she writes, “One cannot imagine this story in reverse—that is, a woman’s discovering an obsessive need to perfect her husband and deciding to perform experiments on him […]” (23). Excuse me? I can certainly imagine this story in reverse, and in many ways. I can tell stories of women constantly finding ways to improve their men. It seems strange that Fetterley does not think that the opposite can happen as well.

Like I have said in my other post, I do not think that I will go into feminist literary theory. I like to see and read stories of how the sexes are more similar than they are different. Feminism continues a debate that seems quixotic and endless. The debate held between feminism and patriarchy also seems to be the dirtiest in terms of vilification and resentment. I do not want to be involved in the fray, but if feminists were to push me until I had to choose, I would choose to be a masculist in the belief that there are things which feminists do not consider or recognize. If anything, we need good men and good women to work together in order to address the needs of sexual equality and politics.

The Resisting Reader is a good source for finding approaches and logic for feminist literary criticism. All chapters, with the exception of the last one, confront the issues in a restrained manner. The last chapter deals with a sensational and immoral book, which disgusted me in its objectification and killing of women. Even I could not stand the murderous creep or archetypal macho in An American Dream. After reading Fetterley’s book, I have become a resisting reader, but probably not in the way that Fetterley wants.


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