Monday, December 3, 2007

becoming a heroine

Brownstein, Rachel. Becoming a Heroine: Reading about Women in Novels. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994. [1982]

Since I’m apparently engaged in trying to bring it back, I thought it would be good to read some ‘personal criticism.’ To that end: Rachel Brownstein’s Becoming a Heroine which is more or less the same age as I am. Brownstein’s basic argument is that the English novel ‘in the Richardsonian tradition’ takes the form of an empirical female struggling to become the ideal woman—a heroine. In Clarissa, a foundational case for Browstein, there is a long (very long) struggle, which ends in death, sealing Clarissa into her idealized status. More often, the story ends with a perfect marriage—but it’s the same story. Brownstein’s point is that ‘we’ can learn about the crippling dynamic of ideal and reality that makes up the ideology of gender (she doesn’t put it quite like that) in the contemporary world, by indulging ourselves and reading these novels. Indeed, the point is to take seriously the desire that many women apparently have to read these ‘serious’ novels. What do these novels do? They teach the reader about how to live up to—or at least struggle toward—the ideal. George Eliot’s Middlemarch is a privileged example for Brownstein because in her reading of the final lines, there is an explicit disavowal of the narrativized ideal—Dorothea does not achieve apotheosis, but rather splits like a river at its delta, and allows her influence to reach the wider social world in a thousand small ways. She escapes the fate of the heroine, suggests Brownstein, and becomes a human. Brownstein’s book is large, so I’ve just picked out a few examples. Virginia Woolf’s Ms. Dalloway also has a special status for her—the tradition meditating on itself.

I enjoyed reading Becoming a Heroine. The early 1980s really were a different time. The book should be filed under reader-response as well as personal criticism. The problem is that the reader—and I know this is a trite objection—really is only Rachel Brownstein. If we allow Brownstein’s ‘women’ any larger meaning, then to my mind it becomes essentializing and useless very quickly. (Today, it seems to me, we’re suspicious of attempts to speak for others, even housewives). However, as an analysis of a person reading, I think there’s really not a great deal to object to. In a way it’s more honest than, for instance, Iser’s phenomenological analysis. One of my colleagues has been talking a great deal recently about ‘the dialogic mode’ of criticism—it seems a perfect way of differentiating Brownstein and Iser. She is dialogic, that is, she asks: I read it like this, do you read it this way too? Iser has no such questions.

Also, and no doubt there are good ideological reasons for this, I can’t help but be surprised that Brownstein isn’t more focused on professional self-awareness. She is so careful (it’s a bit too clean for me, actually) about setting out how her father’s ideal of womanhood influenced her choice of career—why not more reflexivity about graduate school? I can see many problems there. Not least that Brownstein positions herself as non-academic.

I’m glad to have looked at this book, though I need not to get caught in the 1980s. Perhaps they could be a small specialty of mine? One of my sub-subfields?

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