What is Feminist Literary Criticism?

Last Updated: 26 Jan 2021
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Feminist criticism draws attention to "...the ways in which literature (and other cultural productions) reinforce or undermine the economic, political, social, and psychological oppression of women" (Tyson 83). This theory displays male domination in society as well as targets to uncover women discrimination in literary works about women, which can have external and internal forms.

Feminist criticism is also affiliated with less undeniable forms of disempowerment such as the exclusion of female writers from the traditional literary system: "...unless the critical or historical point of view is feminist, there is a tendency to underrepresent the contribution of women writers" (Tyson 84).

Notwithstanding a variety of approaches exist in feminist criticism, there are some areas of society. The following list is quoted from Tyson (92):

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  1. Women are persecuted by men from economic, political, social, and psychological point of view.

  2. In every aspect of life where male dominate, female are the opposite: they are diminished, determined only with their inequality from male standards and values.

  3. The Anglo-European civilization is dramatically connected to patriarchal ideology, for example, the depiction of Eve in the Bible as the primary source of sin and death in the world.

  4. Whilst biological science defines our sex (male or female), culture determines our masculinity and femininity.

  5. The feminist movement, involving feminist theory and literary criticism, has a fundamental aim to modify the world by proclamation of the gender equality.

  6. Gender matters affects every aspect of human production and experience as well as the literature production and experience, either we are conscious of these matters or not.

Switching to people who “gave a birth” to the feminism, Queen Victoria is considered as the ‘’Icon of the Victorian Age and Feminism’’ (Stagl, Farhnberger 2016). According to some theorists feminism is divided into three waves of feminism. The first wave is defined from late 1700s to early 1900's, the second one is specified during early 1960s-late 1970s and the third - started in 1990s and continues to the present time.

As Katherine Mansfield is the modernist of the first feminist wave period, only the first wave should be described in detail. The most talked-about feminists of the first wave like Susan B. Anthony and Victoria Woodhull had a hand in the women's suffrage movement, as a result it led to National Universal Suffrage in 1920 as well as put on airs the Nineteenth Amendment. Accordingly, this amendment granted women the right to vote.

Katherine Mansfield’s experiences growing up in colonial New Zealand heightened her understanding of modern life tensions. She was born in 1888 in Wellington, a town considered as “the empire city” by its european inhabitants, who represented themselves as city’s bourgeois class. In her childhood Mansfield saw the separation between the colonial and the native, or Maori, as well as their lifestyle, caused her to criticize the treatment of the Maoris in several diary entries and short stories during next two decades.

Mansfield’s biographer, Angela Smith, wrote: “It was her childhood experience of living in a society where one way of life was imposed on another, and did not quite fit in” that put an edge on her modernist notion to emphasize moments of “disruption” or confrontations with “strange or disturbing” aspects of life.

Her notion of separation was underlined when she arrived in Britain in 1903 to study at Queen’s College. Mansfield remained a lifelong outsider as well as a traveller between two obviously similar but extremely different worlds at the same time. After her return to New Zealand in 1906, later she came back to Europe in 1908, being living and writing in England and parts of continental Europe. Before her early death from tuberculosis at the age of 34, Mansfield lived in Europe, having a Bohemian and unconventional lifestyle.

Mansfield presents the moment of epiphany in her literary works to disprove them and reveal the prohibition and violence they contain. Katherine’s stories “Garden Party” and “Bliss” dramatize the transformation and inversion of bourgeois lifestyle and domestic harmony. While she tends to exhibit a certain devotion to these standard aesthetic forms, K. Mansfield moderately interrogates many of these conventions in a noticeably modernist way.

Mansfield creates an obviously beautiful or common image, such as the happy family in “Bliss” or “Garden Party” and then gradually challenges it through a sophisticated counter-narrative. Consequently, her arrangement of modernist techniques is less pronounced than that of James Joyce and other modernists. Just as she challenges aesthetic understanding, Mansfield resolves the reader’s ideas about her own stories by presenting a seemingly beautiful, distinct narration that is obsessed by tensions as well as obscurity.

Modernism is widely recognized as perhaps the most important and influential artistic-cultural phenomenon of the twentieth century, either it is mainly considered as a movement, a period, a genre, a style or an ideology. Subsequently the modernist short story, as an important ‘invention’ of modernist writers as well as its main characteristics and features of interest. Katherine Mansfield, one of the great Modernist innovators in English literature, plays a central role in this regard. (Joetze 2010)

Within the framework of science, psychology, philosophy and literary modernism is essentially characterised by the word “uncertainty”. According to social science Karl Marx’s and Friedrich Engels’ “The German Ideology” gives comprehension of the community level so plays a significant role. Consequently, the key feature - our thoughts and behaviour are not spontaneous but suggested by a complex and unconscious system of values and beliefs by those in power.

The father of modern psychology Sigmund Freud analyzed the influence of the unconscious mind on our daily life. As a result, the unconscious became significant for modernist writers as a subject as well as motivation for many uncommon stylistic experiments. Marx’s, Engels’ and Freud’s work developed the perception that humans are not fully controlled by unconscious and social, political or economic forces in their personal lives and relationships.

Modernist authors may be acclaimed by more conservative writers with structure and style renovations. Accordingly, formal innovations are influenced by a broaden use of symbolism and stylistic devices to display the individual approach and consciousness. The improvement of literary tactics like the internal monologue, the stream of consciousness, presenting inner thoughts with the chaotic proximity of their actual appearance, or the innovative mindstyle at the start of the twentieth century. (Joetze 2010)

There exists an opinion that the change of the specifically British modernist short story may be dated at 1878, when Lionel Stevenson published “A Lodging for the Night”. It is also claimed that the symbolist movement gave the significant impulse to the development of the short story in the 1890s. H. G. Wells called this period “the Golden Age” of the short story in England. The main goal of modernist short story was focused by writers on technique and form instead of just on content.

Katherine Mansfield, real name Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp (October 14, 1888 — January 9, 1923), New Zealand-born English master of the short story, who evolved a distinctive prose style with many overtones of poetry. Her delicate stories, which addresses psychological conflicts, have an indirectness of narration and a delicacy of observation that uncovers the influence of Anton Chekhov. Nevertheless K. Mansfield herself had much influence on the development of the short story as a form of literature (Britannica).

After her education (in Wellington and London), at the age of 19 Katherine Mansfield left New Zealand to determine herself in England as a writer. Her first disillusion appeared in the black humour stories collected in In a German Pension (1911). She has been published stories in Rhythm and The Blue Review until 1914, which were edited by the critic and essayist John Middleton Murry, whom she married in 1918 after her divorce from George Bowden.

The death of her soldier brother in 1915 shocked her into a realization that she entitled a sacred debt to him and the remembered places of her home country. A series of short stories beautifully evocative of her family memories of New Zealand with others, were collected in Bliss (1920), which guaranteed her reputation and was conventional to her art.

During the next two years Mansfield had been writing her best literary works, doing her best in The Garden Party (1922) including “At the Bay”, “The Voyage”, “The Stranger” and the classic “Daughters of the Late Colonel”. The last five years of her life were ‘clouded’ by the disease. Her final work was published post-mortem in The Dove’s Nest (1923) and Something Childish (1924).

Her husband Murry edited the Journal (1927, rev. ed. 1954), and also published annotations to her letters to him (1928, rev. ed. 1951). Her letters were edited by Vincent O’Sullivan and Margaret Scott (1984–2008); Scott also edited Mansfield’s notebooks (1997).

Mansfield’s publication of Bliss in 1920 guaranteed her reputation as a writer’s and made her social life opened to Europe’s literary elite. Most of her work was left unpublished until her death and later her husband took charge of her finished works and set to publishing her remaining short stories, letters and journals. Mansfield’s legacy as one of the most productive short story modernists in the twentieth century up to nowadays.

From 1910 publications in periodic publications like the New Age Mansfield was recognized as innovative, psychologically important as well as one of the avant-garde pioneers in the short story creation. Her language was clear and precise, her emotions and reactions to experience were carefully selected and accurate. Her themes were numerous: the difficulties and uncertainties of families and sexuality as well as the fragility and vulnerability of relationships including the complexities and insensitivities of the rising middle classes and the social consequences of war.

Indeed, the tendency to give her writings a biographical reading was actively pursued by her partner John Middleton Murry, an individual who was responsible for publishing much of her diary entries following her death and who was famously accused by the fellow modernist D.H. Lawrence of effectively seeking to publish Mansfield’s “waste paper basket” (Mansfield 2002: 3).

The publication of Mansfield’s journals and notebooks, together with the relatively young age at which she died, means that her writing is often understood to be the expression of a certain kind of youthful rebellion, one that necessarily draws inspiration from Mansfield’s own relationships and unconventional lifestyle.

Taking all the aforesaid into consideration, Mansfield has persistently been praised for the restriction and avoidance of her literary works as well as for her ability to pack complex emotion and transform into the untruthfully simple and direct outlines in her stories. Her works are still considered as a model of the particularly English modern short story and the change of the literary focus itself.

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What is Feminist Literary Criticism?. (2020, Aug 10). Retrieved from https://phdessay.com/what-is-feminist-literary-criticism/

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