Art & Cognition: False Images in the Poetry of Spenser and Sidney

UnknownSidney and Spenser both suggest the purpose of poetry is to ‘delight’ and ‘teach’ using ‘speaking pictures’ in line with the Horatian tradition of ut pictura poesis – ‘as is painting so is poetry’. According to Sidney’s The Defence of Poesy, (ll. 219-22) this is to be achieved through mimesis which entails the process of imitating – with a view to perfecting – nature.

Neuropsychologist Merlin Donald suggests that mimesis works because it has played a crucial role in human cognitive evolution, serving as the primary means of representing reality prior to the emergence of language and symbolic thought. According to Donald, mimesisrefers to intentional means of representing reality utilising vocal tone, facial expression, bodily movement, manual gestures, and other non-linguistic means. This is fundamentally different from both mimicry and imitation because mimesis adds a new dimension: it ‘re-enact[s] and re-present[s] an event or relationship’ in a nonliteral yet clearly intelligible way (Kamhi).

So why do we delight in mimetic representations? Kamhi suggests because they are not real; they are carefully crafted representations of reality which require our contemplation. Out of countless possible attributes, actions, and entities, an artist or poet isolates those which he or she deems essential to his or her purpose and integrates them through mimesis into a new, embodied image (Rand, 45). It is in this new image that we take such pleasure in understanding.

During the English reformation ‘images’ were especially suspect. They were seen as impersonators, their deceptiveness offering nothing more than a temptation to idolatry and damnation (Tassi, 24). Both Spenser and Sidney were well aware of this and perhaps they conjured up the ‘false images’ in their own poetry with a view to teaching readers about this very danger. For sure much of Sidney’s Defense of Poesy is given over to justification of why ‘feigning notable images of virtues, vices, or what else’ (ll. 281-82) is such a noble cause. Likewise, in his letter of intention to Sir Walter Raleigh, Spenser defensively notes that he was also aware of the dangers of allegory although he had just created (a long) one.

My essay compares and contrasts the representation of what I consider to be several key ‘false images’ in Spenser’s The Faerie Queen (‘FQ’) and Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella (‘AS’). My goal is to pinpoint patterns in regards to non-linguistic representations in order to better understand how Early Modern poetry attempted to delight and teach through mimesis (as framed by Merlin Donald). In this regard, it matters not what they say but how they say it.

Arguably the most important false image in FQ is Archimago who specialises in conjuring up his own false images to confuse and manipulate (Tonkin, 63). Given Spenser’s concern about false imagery, it is not surprising that Archimago (also representing the original False Poet (id)) is responsible for pretty much all that goes wrong. Along with Redcross and Una, we first meet Archimago on the road (I i 29). It seems a safe enough place – a well-beaten path (which without narratorial comment we could not realise leads precariously one-way) situated on an open ‘plaine’ (having just experienced the dangers of the dark, forest we can appreciate the ability to see for miles around). He is ‘aged’, barefooted, and his eyes are ‘lowly bent’ to the ground. He often ‘knockt’ his breast and ‘saluted’ bowing ‘low’. Archimago appears humble, harmless enough.

Little wonder that the tired travellers accept his offer to stay overnight in his ‘litle lowly Hermitage’. The humble, harmless man seems so much that which we would like him be that along with the tired travellers, we may be forgiven for ignoring that his home lays ‘hard by a forests side’. Is it not with a prick of concern – if not fear – that we encounter the cold, dark, damp forest? Did we not fail to heed Una’s earlier warning that ‘danger hid, the place vnknowne and wilde’ (I i 12.3)? Yet we are tired. The ‘lowly Hermitage’ lays next to a ‘holy chappell edifyde’. Even though ‘oft fire is without smoke’ (I i 12..4), this is reassuring enough – perhaps so much so that we also fail to question the ‘pleasing wordes’ that humble, harmless ‘olde man’ had in ‘store’ with a voice ‘as smooth’ as glas’? Surely everyone with any experience of glass knows how dangerous, slippery it can be (I i 35.10-11)?

In regards to AS, we must search harder for non-linguistic clues for our narrator, Astrophil, appears more preoccupied with words than mimetics (al la Merlin Donald). He opens with an internal debate on how to make words ‘show’ his ‘love’ for Stella. Shall he study ‘inventions fine, her wits to entertain’ or should he just ‘look in (his) heart and write’? Yet if visual ‘images’ are suspect then what about words? Are they not ‘false’, deceiving ‘images’ as well? In Sonnet 35, Astrophil addresses this directly asking ‘what may words say, or what may words not say,/Where truth itself must speak like flattery?’ What is the relationship between images and truth and flattery? If visual and verbal ‘images’ are equally dangerous, is there nothing that can accurately represent truth? Because during this period sonnets were a popular form to strongly emote (perhaps overemote) over some desired and/or detested object (Spiller, 124), we have reason to suspect Astrophil is going to find out the hard way.

In the first stanza of AS, Astrophil declares his love in ‘truth’ but is ‘fain’ (gladly willing (OED adv B) and also perhaps a pun on ‘feign’ suggesting deceit, (OED n)) in ‘verse to show’.His ‘words’ come ‘halting forth, wanting invention’s stay’. In this sense ‘invention suggests a contrivance or device crafted through ingenuity (OED n, 9). Is Astrophil suggesting that his words are as contrived and deceiving as – perhaps – Archimago’s ‘pleasing wordes’? If so, then as readers might this realisation make our brains as ‘sunburnt’ as Astrophil’s? Reaching for our aspirin, at least we may take solace that we now have seized upon a good non-linguistic clue.

The (unnamed) narrator in FQ seems equally aware of problems with expressing truth. In the opening line of his prologue to the entire poem, he advises that whilst his ‘Muse’ did previously ‘maske’ his abilities (i.e. hide his true form and character behind an outward show, OED v 4), he is now ready for a ‘farre vnfitter taske’ which is nothing less than to write an epic poem (he must imitate the opening lines of Renaissance editions of Virgil’s Aeneid for a reason) which is also a Romance (‘sing of Knights and Ladies gentle deeds’(I.5)). Might we as readers be forgiven for wondering just how he might achieve such a complex objective in a single go? What if his ‘Muse’ is as deceitful as Duessa (after all, his muse is also a woman)? According to Dees (537), throughout the entire poem the words of our narrator are frequently oversimplified, contradictory, and misleading. While Dees suggests this might be because they were written in a less sophisticated age than our own, I suggest that it is more likely to have occurred by design. As our narrator moralises and explains his way through the poem, might we be well reminded of Archimago – who could also ‘well file his tongue as smooth as glas’ (I i 35.7)? It matters not what they say but how they say it.

Meanwhile while Archimago is in hot pursuit of Una, whom Redcross has abandoned thanks to Archimago’s ‘false images’, Redcross meets Duessa (I ii 13). She is well-dressed (perhaps too well-dressed) and her manner is one of ‘faire disport’ suggesting the making of merriment and fun (OED n 3). Yet if Redcross had been able or willing to see more clearly, he must surely have wondered how Duessa could have been so merry with her champion one moment and then run away from him ‘with all her powre’ the next moment when he should ‘fall’ (I ii 20.1-4). But her ‘melting in teares’ (I ii 22.1) and ‘ruefull countenaunce’ (I ii 21.1) manages to convince Redcross to accept her tale of ‘fortune false’ (I ii 22.4).

In stanza five of AS, Astrophil reminds us that ‘it is most true, that eyes are formed to serve/The inward light;’ and that if we swerve from seeing thus, we are ‘Rebels to Nature’. Perhaps he is suggesting that only in nature is truth to be found and that – by analogy – mimesis (represented nature) causes us to miss the truth? Or perhaps he is suggesting that we should elevate the ‘light of reason above our more primative senses? If so, then is mimesis not dangerous for no other reason than because it does not operate in the ‘light’ of reason? In any event, although Astrophil uses the word ‘true’ seven times in this stanza, all he can see is the (irrational) ‘truth’ that ‘I must Stella love.’

We hope that Astrophil will do better with Stella than we suspect will Redcross with Duessa. But when in stanza seven we learn that Stella’s eyes are ‘black’ (highly unusual for English women of the period), we have renewed reason to be concerned. Astrophil’s reference to a painter here is also suggestive of the dangers of representation and we are given further cause for concern when we learn that Stella’s eyes (if ‘no veil those brave gleams did disguise’), ‘sun-like, should more dazzle than delight’. In dazzling sunlight, most would instinctively turn away. Perhaps it is due to his ‘sunburnt’ brain (or the false flattery of anticipate ‘delight’) that Astrophil fails to do the same?

Redcross also has an encounter with dazzling sunlight when ‘golden Phoebus now ymounted hie’ made the road he travels with Duessa ‘so scorching cruell hot’ (I ii 29.3-5). His ‘new Lady’ cannot endure the heat and so they find shady spot whence they are ‘entertained’ by Fradubio’s story of how his association with Duessa ended with his being turned into a tree. Perhaps the brain of Redcross is also ‘sunburnt’ for although Duessa, fearing discovery, faints, he ‘oft her kist’ until she made a full recovery.

Despite being yet again dazzled by Una (unveiled, the ‘blazing brightnesse’ and ‘glorious light’ of her ‘sunshyny face’), Redcross finally manages to see something for it is and marries Una, his heroine. Not surprisingly, after this momentous occasion all goes well for him. Perhaps his aspirin finally took hold? Sadly, Astrophil’s does not. Although his narrative also ends with allusions to sunlight – ‘Phoebus gold’ – it is only to curse it because ‘O absent presence, Stella is not here’ (although he still cannot see that in reality she never really was and that what ‘told’st mine eyes’ was only his own ‘false flattering hope’).

In conclusion, by comparing and contrasting the representations of key false images I suggest we can pinpoint a pattern of carefully crafted non-linguistic images depicting inconsistencies and overreactions that act as signals or clues. Although each inconsistency and overreaction is small, isolated, seemingly harmless enough – taken together they add up to big trouble (‘oft fire is without smoke’): (1) Duessa’s behaviour in regards to her fallen champion, (2) the ‘pleasing wordes’ of a humble, harmless man whose ‘voice was ‘as smooth’ as glas’, (3) the unusual ‘black eyes’ of a woman in conjunction with reference to a painter, (4) for no apparent reason, Duessa faints after Fradubio’s story, and (5) Astrophil’s ‘sunburnt’ brain resulting from mental masturbations over a women we suspect he does not even know (Spiller, 125). I suggest these ‘false images’ serve to demonstrate to readers how difficult will be their task to not be taken in by ‘false images’ – all the more dangerous because such images can be so easily ‘explained away’ with equally dangerous false, flattering, and deceptive ‘words’.





Sidney, Sir Philip. The Major Works including Astrophil and Stella. ed. Katherine Duncan-Jones. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.


Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queene. ed. AC Hamilton and Hiroshi Yamashita and Toshiyuki Suzuki. Harlow: Pearson Longman, 2007.


Bae, Kyung Jin. ‘What May Words Not Say’: Language and Silence in Astrophil and Stella. Journal of English and American Studies (vol. 2, December 2003) (14 May 2014).


Dees, Jerome S. “The Narrator of The Faerie Queene: Patterns of Response”. Texas Studies in Literature and Language. Vol. 12, No. 4 (Winter 1971), pp. 537-568.


Freeland, Cynthia. Art Theory: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.


Halliwell, Stephen. Aesthetics of Mimesis: Ancient Texts and Modern Problems. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002.


Kamhi, Michelle Marder. ‘Art and Cognition: Mimesis vs. the Avant Gard.’ Aristos: an Online Review of the Arts. (14 May 2014).


Rand, Ayn. The Romantic Manifesto: a Philosophy of Literature. New York: New American Library, 1975.


Spiller, Michael. Development of the Sonnet: An Introduction. Florence: Routledge (1992). May 2014).


Tassi, Marguerite A. The Scandal of Images: Iconoclasm, Eroticism, and Painting in Early Modern English Drama. Selingsgrove: Susquehanna University Press, 2005.


Tonkin, Humphrey. The Faeire Queene. London: Unwin Hyman, 1989.

Whispers from a Secret Life – The poetry of Christina Rossetti

Christina RossettiSome have suggested that the work of Christina Rossetti revolves around a secret, which she was either unwilling or unable to disclose (D’Amico, 173). Whether or not this is true, the usefulness of viewing her poetry as ‘whispers from a secret life’ is debatable because we no longer place emphasis on authorial intent.

But this was not the case when Rossetti was writing. Indeed, while ‘psychoanalysing’ an author might, today, be considered to commit the ‘sin’ of intentional fallacy, the study of an artist’s life to explain her work – and vice versa – was an established practice during Rossetti’s lifetime (Wright, 34).

This essay is intended as a brief ‘psychobiography’ through which to explore facets of Rossetti’s ‘secret’ as represented through several of her poems. In no way, however, am I trying to prove or disprove that a secret existed. Even if that were possible, I agree with Ms D’Amico (176) that attempting to explain Rossetti’s poetry through a single secret does not allow her to be the complex, fully-rounded poet that she undoubtedly was. I do believe, however, that this approach shines an interesting light on Rossetti as a person.

Biographers note that when young, Rossetti was passionate and wilful. She had more than the usual difficulties conquering her childish desires (Marsh, 13). Hence I have chosen to use classical Freudian (Id-Psychology based) Literary Criticism which asserts that all art and literature fulfils some repressed infantile desire of its creator much in the same way as do dreams (Wright, 28). Even though contemporary literary criticism often frowns on Freud’s patriarchal (phallas-centred) approach, I suggest it is appropriate for Rossetti who not only lived in a very patriarchal society, but also in a patriarchal household. Further, although literature is not the same as dreams in the sense that an author retains significant control over representation of her ‘repressed reality’, in Freudian terms this does not alter the fact that (1) such repression exists and (2) that it will find expression (Wright, 27).

In the Freudian context, this almost always relates to the Oedipal complex. A young girl like Rossetti, once bound to her mother through homosexual desire, must turn that desire toward father and the wish for his baby (Blass and Simon, 169). Perhaps such a desire would give rise to secrecy in a such a passionate, yet religious, young girl like Rossetti? In any event, to resolve her complex, the young girl must turn away from father back to mother with whom she must identify. This is key to successful integratation into society as a wife and mother in her own right (Eagleton, 135).

Freudian psychoanalytic theory purports that tension exists between these infantile desires and their expression. Freudian (Id-Psychology based) Literary Criticism claims this tension is channelled (consciously or not) by an author into her work (Wright, 18). Hence in investigating Rossetti’s poetry, I will look for tension in regards to setting, characters, and emotion (Wright, 27).

Winter: My Secret is considered to be Rossetti’s signature poem in regards to secrets. The tension is whether or not a particular secret shall be revealed. Usually, the title of a poem is meant to reveal important information about it and a colon indicates that which follows explains or illustrates that which precedes. Winter is a dark, dead time when people are reluctant to go outside. Might winter be symbolic of Rossetti’s well documented secluded life in later years? If so, might it at least in part, have resulted from the secret?

Today, the secret cannot be told; it ‘froze, and blows, and snows’. That which is frozen connects through rhyme with ‘knows’ and ‘shows’. Might the secret be frozen? Although rhyme also suggests a light-hearted ‘gaming’ attitude (perhaps there is no secret but just ‘my fun’), the scansion is at odds with such gaiety – it is illusive and evasive and, perhaps like the emotions underlying it, the metre is an untidy jumble.

Might this light-hearted attitude be a ploy?

Winter: My Secret is structured as a dramatic monologue the major feature of which is the speaker’s desire to achieve a purpose (Pearsall, 68). Here the speaker is attempting to establish herself (the veil suggests the speaker is female) as more powerful than her silent listener. How could she be expected to let down her guard to ‘test’ his or her ‘good will’ with so much potential for ‘nipping’ and ‘biting’ and ‘pecking’? Not only that, but giving in would unveil her – strip her cloak – exposing her to the ‘draughts’ that come ‘whistling’ through her ‘halls’. Would revelation of the secret cause her to being literally ‘frozen out’ in her own home?

While there is little evidence that Rossetti had a difficult relationship with her mother, we do know that during her father’s illness she was more or less forced to be his constant, sole companion (Marsh 47). There is the suggestion that her father, confusing Christina with her mother whom she resembled, might have made excessive demands on her (Marsh, 48). What these might have been, we ought not to conjecture. But we can surmise the scene was set for Rossetti’s Oedipus complex to unfold.

The poem shifts to spring and summer. Yet the secret remains untold. Issues of ‘trust’ endure as does the continued threat of ‘frost’ that ‘withers’ May flowers (virginity?). During the time of her father’s illness, Rossetti, well-developed for her age, changed from a ‘quick-tempered’ but ‘affectionate girl’ to a ‘painfully controlled young woman’ who was ‘mistrustful of the world and of her own self’ (Marsh 49). It was also during this period that she started to self-harm (Marsh, 50). Both suggest the Oedipal complex was in full swing (Gardner, 72).

The poem ends in limbo. The secret will be revealed only at such impossible time as there is ‘not too much sun nor too much cloud’ and ‘the warm wind is neither still nor loud’. Might the speaker also be in limbo in regards to her secret? If so, there are many possible reasons. However in terms of Freudian theory, the most likely is that her Oedipal complex has failed resolve. More often than not, the Oedipal complex is not enacted physically but psychologically. Father is the king and daughter, the princess. But as Rossetti reached sexual maturity, her father became old and ill. If ever he was, he is kingly no more. Rossetti’s biographers suggest she found this extremely difficult with which to deal (Marsh, 49). Possibly, she discovered other ‘father’ figures upon which to hang her desires? Her brother revealed she did hold a ‘rather unusual feeling of deference’ to the (male) head of the family in later years (Marsh, 48). At any rate, there is more than a hint that she never came to grips with her sexuality vis a vis men.

Men, Freud claims, separate women into either mothers/sisters or prostitutes. While symbolising the mother, a woman is a ‘forbidden oedipal object-choice’; she is to be married, not sexually desired. A wife must reciprocate her husband’s establishing her as an asexual mother (‘angel in the house’) so that he may pursue the ‘prostitute’ while avoiding his own Oedipal guilt (Chodorow, 239). Freud does not suggest how this might affect women who may or may not have successfully completed their own Oedipal journeys (he claimed his understanding of women was ‘shadowy and incomplete’, Chodorow, 246). But it is not hard to imagine that these ‘angels in the house’ might resent their sexually promiscuous ‘rivals’.

A recurring theme in Rossetti’s poetry was that of the ‘fallen woman’. This was not unusual. The fallen woman was a recurring leitmotif in Victorian art and literature (D’Amico, 94). However, unlike most artists, Rossetti refused to lay the blame solely on the woman (D’Amico, 95). An Apple Gathering, written in 1857 when Rossetti had already received one of the three marriage offers she would reject, is representative of her approach.

Initially, this poem appears to be either another story of ‘love gone wrong’ or a warning that only virgins become wives. But the use of apples as allegory for the relationship between temptation and ‘original sin’ should not be overlooked. ‘Pink’ apple ‘blossoms’ have been ‘plucked’ (suggesting sexual indulgence) by a young girl for the benefit of her ‘love’. As the result, at harvest (the appropriate time to pick fruit), she has no apples (no husband nor home of her own).

Instead of heaping scorn on herself, however, the speaker turns it on her ‘love’ – for in her eyes, it was he who succumbed to temptation: the ‘rosiest apples offered by ‘plump Gertrude’. How could the speaker’s love be of ‘less worth’ than whatever Gertrude had brought to the table? This is not a standard Victorian response. Even more surprisingly, when the night grew ‘chill’ (the speaker is literally left out in the cold) and her neighbours ‘hastened’ (away), the fallen woman ‘loitered’ and ‘loitered still’, refusing to either tragically fade or die as was socially expected (D’Amico, 102). Given her religious values and social position, it is puzzling why Rossetti would have strayed so far from the party line. Had she perhaps, like the fallen women in her poetry, also succumbed to temptation?

Rossetti often wrote sympathetically about the Eve, ‘the first mother’. Her stance was that, being deceived by Satan (master of guile), Eve’s only error was one of mistake. Adam, on the other hand, was not mistaken. His was not an error of judgement, but one of will (D’Amico, 126). That Rossetti failed to wholesale adopt the angelic ‘mother’ imagery of her time suggests that, having commenced her Oedipal cycle, she failed to complete it by returning to identify with ‘mother’. For Freud, this would account for her apparent inability to form appropriate adult heterosexual relationships. It would also account for her retreat into religion; Freud believed religion was an attempt to master or control the Oedipus complex.

This brings us to the last of Rossetti’s poems that I wish to consider. Up-Hill is hauntingly – yet subtly – evocative of religious imagery (‘day’ and ‘night’ suggests life and death and the weary traveller ‘seeking’ a ‘resting place’ at an ‘inn’ is often used to signify Christians seeking redemption).

Like Winter: My Secret, Up-Hill also focuses on secrets, albeit of a different kind. Like Winter: My Secret, Up-Hill adopts a playful, rhyming tone. Unlike Winter: My Secret, however, the secret in Up-Hill will be freely given if only the seeker knows how to ask. Up-Hill is not a dramatic monologue. The speaker does not necessarily have a purpose to achieve. Instead, it is structured as a question and answer sequence with two speakers, both fully articulated and engaged. They are not equals, however and their relationship is more akin to that of teacher/student or, perhaps because of the riddle-like nature of the responses, that of guru/disciple.

Most importantly, the primary speaker in Up-Hill no longer is anxious or threatened as she was in Winter: My Secret. This suggests that he or she (there is no clue as to the speaker’s sex in Up-Hill) has found solace – perhaps even forgiveness – in religion. As with Eve, ‘the first’ mother’, his or her past sins will be washed away and as Rossetti desired for Eve, this speaker plans to be among the forgiven on resurrection day (D’Amico, 129). This is not to suggest that Rossetti definitively found resolution of her Oedipus Complex (or her secret) in religion. However, it is well-known that she turned down three marriage offers in a society where marriage was expected and, as she grew older, she took increasing solace in her religion.

In summary, while no conclusions can be drawn regarding whether Rossetti’s work revolved around a secret (or whether or how she resolved her Oedipal complex), I believe that by looking through the lens of ‘whispers from a secret life’, we can view Rossetti and her work in new and engaging ways.






Blass, Rachel and Bennet Simon. “The development and vicissitudes of Freud’s ideas on the Oedipus complex (161-174). The Cambridge Companion to Freud. ed. by Jerome Neu. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (online) 2006.

Chodorow, Nancy J. “Freud on Women” (224-248). The Cambridge Companion to Freud. ed. by Jerome Neu. Cambridge University Press (online) 2006

D’Amico, Diane. Christina Rossetti: Faith Gender and Time. Baton Rouge; Louisiana State University Press (1999).

Devlin, Rachel. “Acting out the Oedipal Wish: Father-Daughter Incest and the Sexuality of Adolescent Girls in the United States, 1941-1965.” Journal of Social History, Spring 2005, Vol. 28, No. 3, pp. 609-633.

Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press (1996).

Frankland, Graham. Freud’s Literary Culture. Port Chester, NY: Cambridge University Press (2000).

Gardner, Fiona. Self-Harm: A Psychotherapeutic Approach. ed. by Patrick Parrinder. London: Routledge (2013).

Hassett, Constance W. Christina Rossetti: The Patience of Style. Charlottesville; University of Virginia Press (2005).

Marsh, Jan. Christina Rossetti: a literary biography. London: Jonathan Cape (1994).

Pearsall, Cornelia DJ. “The Dramatic Monologue” (67-88). The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (online) 2006.

Peck, John and Coyle, Martin. Practical Criticism. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan ((1995).

“Religion as an attempt to master the oedipus complex.” Freud Museum London. (3 April 2014).

Wright, Elizabeth. Psychoanalytic Criticism: A Reappraisal. Cambridge: Polity Press (2nd ed.) 1998.


Cosmology and the Fate of Hardy’s Tragic Heroines


imagesTo what extent are Hardy’s tragic protagonists themselves responsible  for the fate that overtakes them?

I suggest that depends on cosmology.


As scientific advancements in the 19th century made it difficult for Hardy to accept his Christian cosmology, he looked for alternatives (Inghan, 181). I suggest that Hardy mixes and matches them to such a degree that it is virtually impossible to assess responsibility.

Using a working definition of cosmology as a theory of the universe as an ordered whole and of the general laws which govern it (OED a), I propose to investigate what I believe to be the three primary cosmologies (i.e. Anglo-Saxon, ancient Greek, and Hardy’s version of Christianity) in his Wessex novels in relation to two of his tragic heroines – Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Eustacia Vye. I will explore whether under any of these individual cosmologies, Tess and Eustacia might be responsible for their ‘fate’ and whether such ‘fate’ would remain ‘tragic’.

Hardy noted that ‘tragedy exhibits a state of things in the life of an individual which unavoidably causes some natural aim or desire of his to end in a catastrophe when carried out (Lathe, 115).

As initially portrayed by Hardy, Tess is ‘tragic’. She desires and aims to be happy with Angel (‘if you could only half know…how anxious I was to have him’ – Tess, 360), yet she also knows that because of her past, this cannot be. Still, she marries him and then ‘blabs’ the truth (Tess, 360). Must this ‘unavoidably’ lead to catastrophe? As the narrator points out, ‘if Tess had been artful’, things ‘would probably’ have been different (Tess, 356). Nonetheless, for whatever reason, she is not artful and catastrophe ensues.


Eustacia is likewise ‘tragic’. She desires and aims to use Clym to escape the Heath knowing it is unlikely he will return to Paris (as he has said numerous times). Yet for whatever reason (she admits that he’d given her no hope – RON, 242), she remains committed to her task and when it cannot be accomplished through Clym, she reengages with Wildeve (‘help me as far as Budmouth,’ she begs him, ‘so I can get to Paris, where I want to be’, RON, 334). Must this ‘unavoidably’ lead to catastrophe? The circumstances under which Eustacia drowns would, on the surface, appear avoidable. Perhaps it is only occurs because ‘having resolved on flight’, Eustacia ‘could not rest indoors’, and Susan Nunsuch, having seen her as a ‘figure in a phantasmagoria’, sticks those pins in that voodoo doll?


This brings us to the relationship between fate and free will, or providence and responsibility. Although fate can mean simply ‘what happens’, more often it implies some degree of determinism, whereby ‘human action is not free but necessarily determined by motives, which are regarded as external forces acting upon the will’ (OED 1).


Fate in this sense was a key feature of Anglo-Saxon cosmology (Trahern, 160). Clearly Hardy’s writing was influenced by Anglo-Saxon cosmology for not only does he make significant use of the memorials and monuments of these older people (for example, barrows in RON and Stonehenge in Tess), but he also sets his novels in Wessex, the Anglo-Saxon kingdom that disappeared about the time of the Norman Conquest (Utter, 129).


In Anglo-Saxon cosmology, fate always plays out against one’s ‘ancestry’ (Utter, 130). Hardy picks up on this when he makes Tess’s ancient d’Urberville lineage – ‘one of the oldest Norman houses’ (Tess, 513) – such a prominent factor in securing her fate. ‘How Are the Mighty Fallen’ is even engraved on her father’s tombstone (Tess, 519). However, the Anglo-Saxon cosmology was not just one of fate, but also one of heroes – and heroines – who, self-reliant by nature, took whatever action necessary (including natural magic) to further their aims (Utter, 133).


Ostensibly, Tess is completely lacking in such initiative. Perhaps she is more scheming than we are led to believe? Certainly her mother thinks so. Upon hearing Tess’s tearful tale regarding how she ‘blabbed’ to Angel about her past, her mother remarks ‘but you sinned enough to marry him first (Tess, 360).


Yet it is Eustacia who best exemplifies the Anglo-Saxon heroine. We first meet her on bonfire night (a Druidic period of power) as she flits about on the barrows. Perhaps we may be forgiven for suspecting her to be a witch? Even she refers to herself as such when, explaining the purpose of her bonfire to Wildeve, she says that she wanted to triumph ‘over you as the Witch of Endor called up Samuel’ (RON, 66).  But it is her mumming adventure undertaken to ensure she meets Clym before he can return to Paris without her that demonstrates the full extent of her talents.


This is not to suggest, however, that self-reliance is the equivalent to responsibility – at least not in the sense in which we understand it as being ‘answerable or liable to be called to account to another person for something’ (OED 3b).  This concept of responsibility was only marginally present with the ancient Greeks (MacIntyre, 81) and with the Anglo-Saxons, it arises only when their traditional understanding of ‘fate’ becomes contaminated by Christianity (Trahern, 160).


Would Tess’s fate have been different in Anglo-Saxon cosmology? This is doubtful given not only her ‘fallen’ ancestry but also her seeming unwillingness to take positive action to help herself. But perhaps the final determinant is the deterministic mind-set she maintains to the bitter end. ‘It is as it should be’, she murmurs when the men have come to take her away to be hanged (Tess, 550). Can she be held responsible for this catastrophe? Not in our modern sense of being called to account by another – because such a concept did not yet exist.


Would Eustacia’s fate have been different? I suspect so. Her lineage was not tainted and she took every possible action to further her aims. Anglo-Saxon women were not so much under the domination of their men as we have been led to believe (Sarmiento, 1). Had Eustacia not been compelled to rely on a man to get her to Paris, she might well have got there under her own steam. Would she have still drowned? Possibly. Would she have been responsible? Only in the sense that fate is ‘what happens’. Would this ‘fate’ have been ‘tragic’? For Anglo-Saxons, to be killed in the line of heroic action was never tragic (Utter, 130).


Fate was likewise a staple component in the cosmology of ancient Greece but it operated differently. Although fate caused everything to happen, its role was limited to an initial prompt leaving individuals, as co-conspirators in their ‘fate’, free to respond as they chose (Brunschwig and Sedley, 172). Further, the events manifesting from such choices were thought to be causally linked (Hankinson, 282-284).


This cosmology is more in evidence in RON than in Tess. ‘If only’ Tess’s ‘guardian angel’ had been in the Chase protecting her then perhaps she, ‘practically blank as snow’, would not have been caught up in a ‘coarse pattern’ of ‘wrong man’ and ‘wrong woman’. But her angel was not on the job and ‘there lay the pity of it’ (Tess, 109). By contrast, Eustacia did not need to rely on guardian angels. She was ‘the raw material of a divinity’ (RON, 68) and although ‘she seldom schemed’ when she did, her plans ‘showed rather the comprehensive strategy of a general than the small arts called womanish’ (RON, 73).


Eustacia’s greatest desire was to be ‘loved to madness’ (RON, 71). Hence she was the model of the ‘ideal, cheerful, sensuous, pagan life’ that so appealed to Hardy (Pinion, 106). By contrast, Tess represented that which Hardy feared (Pinion, 106) –  ‘that over ‘a long line of disillusive centuries’ the ‘Hellenic idea of life’ has been ‘permanently displaced’ (RON, 167).


Hardy was concerned that with ‘the ache of modernism’ (Tess, 182), life will become a thing to be put up with rather than enjoyed(Pinion, 106). In terms of Greek cosmology, this is the fundamental difference between Eustacia (‘she was so well fitted to enjoy’ – RON, 236) and Tess, who was particularly unsuited for pagan hedonism: ‘(t)he basket was heavy and the bundle was large, but she lugged them along like a person who did not find her especial burden in material things’ (Tess, 113).


Would Tess’s fate have been different in the cosmology of ancient Greece? Unlikely. Since the game required co-conspiracy, ‘(her) soul chooseth strangling and death rather than my life’ (Tess, 182). Would it have ended in catastrophe? With such pessimistic views, it is unlikely it could have been otherwise. Would she have been responsible? Not in the sense that she was answerable to anyone other than herself.


Would Eustacia’s fate have been different? Again, I suspect so. She knew what she wanted and went for it (MacIntyre, 82). I also suspect that, Susan Nunsuch notwithstanding, Eustacia’s story would not have ended in catastrophe this time. Even if it had, to be ‘fit for purpose’ was one of the goals of ancient Greeks (MacIntyre, 8). If a pagan was meant to be cheerful and sensuous, as was Eustacia, she made the grade regardless what happened.


Perhaps Angel expresses Hardy’s own sentiments when he told his father that ‘it might have resulted far better for mankind if Greece had been the source of the religion of modern civilization and not Palestine;’ (Tess, 228). But it was not and while responsibility was only marginally an issue in ancient Greece, it became the raison d’ être of Christianity (Hauerwas, 21).


Possibly it was because of his deep sympathies to the Evangelical cause – (Tess’s clergyman father-in-law was ‘an Evangelical of the Evangelicals’ – Tess, 227 and Clym found his vocation preaching the Sermon on the Mount) – that in his Wessex novels, Hardy favoured Old Testament doctrines of sin and atonement (Stotko, 1). Because the basis of evangelical doctrine is the concept of Original sin (Stotko, 11), it is little surprise that Hardy’s heroes (who could easily ‘imagine (themselves) to be Adam’ – RON, 107) and heroines often seem portrayed ‘(a)s if they were Adam and Eve’ (Tess, 189).


Responsibility (in terms of being called to account to another person) now takes on new meaning – especially for women. The word ‘blame’ is used thirteen times in Tess and eighteen times in RON and while Eustacia is ‘blamed’ by just about everyone for something (for example, by Wildeve for her failed marriage (RON, 275)) and by the reddleman for Thomasin’s troubles (RON, 92), in the case of poor Tess, ‘(n)obody blamed Tess as she blamed herself (Tess, 52).  In Tess, Hardy created a character who seemed to be more than aware of the hopelessness of her situation. Not only did she name her baby SORROW, but also the word ‘sorrow’  appears twenty-two times in Tess (fifteen times in RON). Early on Tess knew her world was ‘blighted’ (Tess, 48). Eustacia does not realise how ‘blighted’ is her life, until much later (RON, 346).


It is difficult to see how the fate of either Tess or Eustacia could have been much different under Hardy’s version of Christian cosmology. While Eustacia realises her fate only after her mother-in-law dies (‘There is evil in store for me’ – RON, 297 ), Tess’s fate seemed sealed from the beginning (her mother ‘tried her fate in the Fortune-Teller,’ Tess, 42). Even Tess’s atonement through constant self-sacrifice (in the end, she literally becomes a sacrificial victim on the ‘altar’ at Stonehenge) did not get her off the hook. Perhaps it might have been different had she ever actually met up with her Evangelical father-in-law? Sin such as hers was his speciality. Perhaps Eustacia would have repented her pagan ways in time had she not had such a bad experience with Susan Nunsuch pricking her at church (RON, 176)? Doubtless, but possible. As for responsibility, in regards to any cosmology built on the pillars of Original sin, the woman is always to blame.







Burian, Peter. ‘Myth into muthos: the shaping of tragic plot’ (178-208). The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy. ed. P.E. Easterling. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997 (online).


Brunschwig, Jacques and Sedley, David. ‘Hellenistic philosophy’ (151-183). The Cambridge Companion to Greek and Roman Philosophy, ed. David Sedley. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006 (online).


Hall, Edith. ‘The sociology of Athenian tragedy’ (93-126). The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy. ed. P.E. Easterling. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997 (online).


Hankinson, R.J. ‘Philosophy and science,’ (271-299). The Cambridge Companion to Greek and Roman Philosophy. ed. David Sedley. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006 (online).


Hardy, Thomas. Tess of the D’Urbervilles. London; CRW Publishing Limited (2003). (cited Tess).


Hardy, Thomas. The Return of the Native. London: Penguin Books (1999). (cited RON).


Hauerwas, Stanley. ‘On doctrine and ethics’, (21-40). The Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine, ed. Colin E. Cunton, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006 (online).


Inghan, Patricia. Authors in Context – Thomas Hardy. Oxford; Oxford University Press (2003).


Lathe, Jakob. ‘Variants on genre: The Return of the Native, The Mayor of Casterbridge, The Hand of Ethelberta’ (112-129). The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Hardy. ed. Dale Kramer, Camridge; Cambridge University Press, 1999 (online).


MacIntyre, Alasdair. A Short History of Ethics. London: Routledge Classics, 1998.


Pinion, F.B. Thomas Hardy: Art and Thought. The Macmillan Press Ltd; London (1977).


Sarmiento, Catori, ‘Reevaluating the Role of Women in Beowulf’. Student Pulse, The International Student Journal, Vol. 4 (2012) pp. 1-21. (12/02/2014).


Stotko, Mary-Ann. ‘Victorian agnosticism; Thomas Hardy’s doomed universe’. Thesis (2009). University of South Africa Insitutional Respository. (13/02/2014).


Trahern , Joseph B. Jr. ‘Fatalism and the millennium (160-171). The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature, ed. Malcolm Godden and Michael Lapidge. Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 2006 (online).


Utter, Robert Palfrey. ‘The Work of Thomas Hardy’, The Sewanee Review, Vol. 25 No. 2 (April, 1917), pp. 129-138.


Wiles, David. ‘Aristotle’s Poetics and ancient dramatic theory’ (92-107). The Cambridge Companion to Greek and Roman Theatre. ed Marianne McDonald and Walton J. Michael. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009 (online).




Comparison and Contrast Using Jungian (Archetypal) Literary Criticism of Extracts from Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss and Forster’s A Passage to India



UnknownIn the context of Jungian (Archetypal) Literary Criticism, I suggest that both these pieces are structured using the archetypal motif of a journey toward individuation. But while Forster’s piece makes significance progress by grappling with the conflicting psychological tensions presented, Eliot’s piece never gets off the ground.

One of the primary purposes of Jungian Literary Criticism is to uncover the unconscious dynamics underpinning the work so as to gain a better understanding of their function (Dawson, 277). Hence Jungian Literary Criticism often begins with the question: “What psychological factor (whether image or complex of concerns) might have been responsible for this text?” (Dawson, 274).

Both pieces are structured as important, personal journeys through the countryside which, by the very nature of journeys, provides passage from one point to another; Eliot uses the highly personal and inclusive first person narrative point of view through which to invite us to join her narrator’s journey and although Forster uses the more distancing third person narrative point of view, the piece remains so highly subjective that readers are encouraged to believe they are privy to his narrator’s most personal thoughts and observations.

One explanation of the psychological factor (whether image or complex of concerns) responsible for such journeys might be that which was coined by Jung as the archetype of ‘individuation’ (also known as the Hero’s Journey) – the process by which the unconscious (collective and personal) is brought into consciousness (Jung, Symbols, 301). Individuation suggests the fullest possible awareness of the disparate or conflicting parts comprising one’s personality. Furthermore, it is achieved only by steady, honest, and demanding self-discipline (Hart, 91). It is worth noting that true wholeness such as that required by individuation is never achieved unconsciously, but only in the context of becoming conscious of those conflicting elements making up one’s psyche (Hart, 94).  images

With individuation, the goal is to “overcome the monster of darkness”; to experience the “triumph of consciousness over the unconscious” (Jung, Archetypes,167). Dark, fertile, moist things (especially those found in nature) are often used to represent the unconsciousness (Jung Archetypes, 27, 82), while consciousness is often suggested through religious symbology (Ualnov, 279). Thus for a successful journey toward individuation we should expect to find imagery suggestive of both.

At least in part, we are not disappointed for the archetypal motif of water, the most common symbol of the unconscious (Adams, 114), is employed in both pieces – and not just any water – but the running water of a river suggesting the flow of libido or psychic energy (Salman, 69). While the libido runs freely, the process of individuation is underway. However, when the free flow of the libido is checked or inhibited (suggesting conflicting psychological tensions) the process of individuation is stopped or even reversed (Salman, 69). Hence we might expect both pieces to evidence restricted libido (for the process of individuation is never easy).

Again, we are not disappointed for immediately upon setting out with Eliot’s narrator along her river on its way to ‘the sea’, symbol for the collective unconscious (Jung, Dreams, 122), the ‘broadening Floss hurries’ straight into the ‘impetuous embrace’ of the ‘loving tide’, which ‘rushing to meet it’, immediately ‘checks its passage.’ On this ‘mighty tide’ are also borne ‘black ships’ – black symbolizing the unconscious (Jung, Archetypes, 185). These ships – perhaps suggesting safe passage from one shore to another – (Fontana,112) – are on their way to ‘red-roofed town’ of St Ogg’s or the reality of the material world (Fontana, 174). That these ships may carry something of value is recognized; ‘fresh-scented fir-planks’,  ‘rounded sacks’ bearing ‘seed’,  or the ‘dark glitter of coal’ (diamonds being, like coal, constructed of carbon crystal – Jung, Dreams, 292). Yet no attempt is made to reach the ships. Indeed they and their cargo remain ‘distant’ – perhaps so ‘distant’ it is not even possible to really see (much less smell) what they carry? Likewise St Ogg’s is kept similarly at bay; Eliot’s narrator chooses not to see it directly but only through its ‘soft purple’ (watery) reflection.  Instead, she luxuriates in the reality of her own unconscious as suggested by numerous ‘loving’ references to fertility (‘rich pastures’ and patches of ‘dark earth’ made ‘ready for the seed’). Indeed, the only ‘living companion’ wanted is the river which, not surprisingly, is ‘deaf’ thus ensuring that no uncomfortable questions need be answered.

Likewise in Forster’s piece, the river does not flow freely. It is ‘scarcely distinguishable’ from the ‘rubbish’ it leaves and the very wood of the buildings lining the river seems made of ‘mud’ – a mixture of water and soil, which are both symbols of the unconscious (Fontana 114). This suggests impeded – but not checked – progress (i.e. the mud remains ‘moving’). Not only is the Ganges not holy here, but it might ‘be expected to wash the excrescence (i.e. morbid, abnormal or disfiguring outgrowth, OED, n. 3a) “back into the soil”. This reference intensifies the sense that this libido’s progress endangered. Luckily, Forster’s narrator is able to see his city (i.e. the reality of the material world) of Chandrapore more realistically than did Eliot’s narrator her St Ogg’s. For although the ‘streets are mean’ and the ‘temples ineffective’, suggesting blighted spiritual striving (Fontana, 77), there are still a ‘few fine houses’ that are ‘hidden’ away in ‘gardens’ (perhaps suggesting the Garden of Eden – Fontana, 105).  Make no doubt about it; in Chandrapore, bad things do happen (‘houses do fall’ (into the river) and ‘people are drowned and left rotting’. Luckily, however, the ‘general outline of the town persists’ and life goes on (even if ‘low’, it is ‘indestructible’). Although Eliot’s narrator is unable to bear witness to any conflicting psychological tensions encountered during her journey (all remains ‘lovely’ and ‘dreamy’), Forster’s narrator does and thus keeps moving.

When in Eliot’s piece, a ‘stone bridge’ (suggesting fixity) is reached, the tone changes dramatically; no longer is everything ‘lovely’ and ‘dreamy’. Now there are ‘threatening’ clouds and we are ‘far in the afternoon’ (darkness is about to fall). Despite the initial promise of fertility, it is now ‘leafless’, ‘chill’, and ‘damp’. It would appear that this bridge – symbolic of dangers on the path of psychological or spiritual development (Fontana, 77) – represents a serious unarticulated threat. Eliot’s narrator ‘must stand’ there ‘a minute or two’.  Will she summon the courage and cross it?

It would seem not.  Instead, she allows the ‘rush of the water’ to bring a ‘dreamy deafness ‘like a great curtain of sound shutting one out from the world beyond’. ‘I am in love with moistness’. She ‘envies’ the ‘white ducks’ – suggesting virginity (Fontana, 52, 67) – as they ‘dip their heads far into the water’ and remain ‘unmindful’ of their ‘awkward appearance’ in the ‘drier world above’. Only the horses – the subhuman or animal side of the psyche (Jung, Dreams, 107-108) – cross the bridge. Yet even they are reluctant to do so and require the ‘crack’ of whip’.

Meanwhile, Forster’s narrator moves ‘inland’ (to the ‘drier land above’, which made Eliot’s ducks seem so ‘awkward’). As the river is left behind, the ground continues to ‘rise’ and another ‘garden’ is encountered. Because gardens are symbols of nature under the control of the human soul, which like the garden, must be cared for and cultivated (Fontana, 105), we get the impression this libido has been purposefully directed toward higher ground – perhaps all the way to the Garden of Eden – because it is only through nature – the work of God, (the ‘toddy palms’, ‘neem trees’, and ‘mangoes and pepul’) that heretofore was ‘hidden’ behind the ‘bazaars’ (the work of man) that hope survives. ‘Endowed with more strength than man or his works’, nature reaches beyond the ‘disillusionment’ of man.

At the end of Eliot’s piece, we discover the whole of our narrator’s journey was accomplished as she ‘dozed off’ and sat ‘dreaming’. Although in Jungian terms, dreams can be highly revealing, it is only through steady, honest, and demanding self-discipline that this is achieved (Jung, Dreams, 3-7). We see no evidence of such an attempt here. When this narrator wakes, she is aware only that her arms are ‘benumbed’ and that she had been planning to reveal what others (Mr. and Mrs. Tulliver) had been talking about as they sat in front of their ‘bright fire’ of consciousness (Fontana, 110-111).

By contrast, while Forster’s piece begins and ends with those ‘caves’ – ‘fists and fingers thrust up through the soil’ – perhaps associated with the consciousness sought in Plato’s allegory of the cave (Kugler, 78).  Instead of being trapped in a cave of ignorance taking the shadows on the wall as ‘truth’, Forster’s narrator seeks the sunlight – ‘strength comes from the sun’, which symbolizes the unity and divinity of Self (Jung, Dreams, 157).  This lofty ideal is further suggested by caves being located in the Marabar Hills, which, like mountains, symbolize the meeting place between heaven and earth – consciousness and the unconscious (Fontana, 114). Not only that, but the ‘sky settles everything’. Perhaps this is a reference to heaven and with it, spiritual consciousness, as the ultimate prize? It is most certainly possible, reinforced as it is by more religious imagery – ‘glory’, ‘benediction’, ‘prostrate’ and blessings from heaven in the form of ‘rain’ (Fontana, 113).

In summary, Jungian (Archetypal) Literary Criticism asks what psychological factor (whether image or complex of concerns) might be responsible for this text. The primary purpose being to uncover the unconscious dynamics underlying the work. In regards to the two pieces by Forster and Eliot, I suggest that the image responsible for both is that of a journey toward individuation.

Further, I suggest that Eliot’s narrator fails to complete her journey because she is either unwilling or unable to grapple with the conflicting psychological tensions represented by that stone bridge. However Forster’s narrator makes the transition from the waters of the unconscious to higher ground because his is both willing and able to deal with his conflicting psychological tensions (‘mud’, ‘disillusionment’, ‘ineffective’ as well as ‘unconsidered temples’, ‘gardens’, ‘fine houses’, ‘mean streets’  and ‘rotting’ bodies).




Adams, Michael Vannoy. “The Archetypal School” (101-118). The Cambridge Companion to Jung. ed. Polly Young-Eisendrath and Terence Dawson, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Dawson, Terrence. “Jung, Literature, and Literary Criticism” (255-280). The Cambridge Companion to Jung. ed. Polly Young-Eisendrath and Terence Dawson, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Fontana, David. The Secret Language of Symbols: A Visual Key to Symbols and their Meanings. London: Piatkus, 1997.

Hart, David L. “The Classical Jungian School” (89-100).  The Cambridge Companion to Jung. ed. Polly Young-Eisendrath and Terence Dawson, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Ulanov, Ann. “Jung and Religion; the opposing self (276-313). The Cambridge Companion to Jung. ed. Polly Young-Eisendrath and Terence Dawson, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Jung, CG., The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, trans. RFC Hull. New York: Princeton University Press,1990.

Jung, CG. Dreams, Crucial Texts on the Meaning of Dreams by One of the Greatest Minds of Our Time. trans. RFC Hull. New York: MJF Books (1974).

Jung, CG. Symbols of Transformation: An analysis of the prelude to a case of schizophrenia, trans. RFC Hull. New York: Harper & Brothers (1962).

Kugler, Paul. “Psychic Imaging” (71-86). The Cambridge Companion to Jung. ed. Polly Young-Eisendrath and Terence Dawson, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Salman, Sherry. “The Creative Psyche” (52-70). The Cambridge Companion to Jung. ed. Polly Young-Eisendrath and Terence Dawson, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

A Critique of Ecriture Feminine

UnknownCan there be a ‘distinctly feminine mode of writing’?

Cixous says yes.

I suggest the better answer is no.

Nearly forty years ago, Helene Cixous made an impassioned argument for the existence of a distinctly feminine mode of writing, or ecriture feminine (Cixous 1976), which she believed might free women from the ‘exclusionary nature of dominant modes of language and writing’ and provide them with a mode in which to speak and write in their own voice (Thaiss, 134-135).

In this essay I will suggest that because western concepts of ‘self’ have changed so significantly from that relied upon by Cixous in forming her argument, that ecriture feminine is no longer possible.

Furthermore, using three brief alternative (traditional, ecriture feminine, and queer) readings of Christina Rossetti’s In An Artist’s Studio (1856; 1896), I will attempt to demonstrate that even if a feminine mode of writing’ does exist, it could not be ‘distinct’ in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED, adj. 3.b) sense that it is individually peculiar and not able to be confounded with another.

Cixous suggests ecriture feminine is necessary because language reflects culture and Western European languages reflect a culture she calls ‘Logocentrism’ – a hierarchical system that underpins the patriarchal and ensures that women detrimentally remain passive partners in relation to men (Hopkins, 324-325). Her position is underpinned by Lacan’s construction of the self, the ‘Mirror Stage’, which relies on the presence of ‘other’ to reflect back the image of ‘self’ (Blyth, 20).

In particular, Cixous was interested in the ‘Imaginary’ and the ‘Real’ which are two of the three overlapping stages in Lacan’s theory of childhood development – the third stage is known as the “Symbolic”. The ‘Imaginary’ is essentially the pre-verbal state inhabited by a child before his or her resolution of the Oedipus complex during which although the child has developed the beginning of a sense of self, he or she remains identified with mother. Like Freud, Lacan believed the bond with mother must be broken in order to resolve the Oedipus complex and like Freud, he believed this happened through a metaphorical castration or  identification with father and the ‘Symbolic’ (Blyth, 20).

Because the transition from the ‘Imaginary’ and the Real’ to the ‘Symbolic’ is a one-way ticket, in patriarchal societies the ‘self’ of a woman is determined by lack (Blyth, 23). This in turn creates ‘the master/slave dialectic’ that Cixous was keen to overcome (Blyth, 23).

The problem as highlighted by Cixous and Lacan is essentially one of binary relationship. In ecriture feminine, the relationship between ‘self’ and ‘other’ is not juxtaposed but jumbled.

This is all very well and good however the self at the heart of any distinctly feminine (or traditional) mode of writing – jumbled or otherwise – remains a singular self and as such can relate only through binary means.

Today, we no longer perceive of self in this way.

According to Kenneth Gergen’s theory of the ‘saturated self’, no longer is there a single ‘self’ but a multiplicity of ‘selves; not only friendship selves, parent selves, child selves, professional selves but also possible selves and ideal selves. Furthermore, although socially constructed like Lacan’s ‘Mirror Stage’ self , Gergen’s ‘saturated self’ does not relate through lack. Instead the ‘saturated self’ has multiple opportunities for interaction and as the result of playing so many roles concurrently, finds it impossible to categorize itself along traditional lines such as gender (Worldviews).

I suggest that progressive theories such as Gergen’s have actually led to the destabilization of binary determinations of gender to such a degree that ecriture feminine as envisioned by Cixous is no longer possible.

For example, Queer Theory, developed in part on ideas about gender put forth in Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble,  suggests that it is meaningless to talk in general terms about ‘women’ or any other group because identities consist of so many elements that people can never be classified by one (Melanson).  Furthermore, based on Butler’s work, Queer theory suggests gender may even be a performance – an imitation – not of an original (gender), but as a parody (or pastiche) of the very notion that there is an original (gender) to be imitated (Butler, 175-176).

In the wake of Queer theory, I suggest that the binary oppositions between ‘feminine and masculine’ supporting Cixous’ ecriture feminine have dissolved. Indeed queer now uses ‘the open mesh of possibilities’ – those ‘gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning’ (Bennett, 217) which Cixous once claimed for ecriture feminine.

I further suggest that even if were a ‘feminine mode of writing’, that if the same text can support multiple readings, then it can not be considered ‘distinct’ in the OED sense that it is individually peculiar and not able to be confounded with another.

As an experiment to support my supposition, I purpose the following brief, alternative readings for Christina Rossetti’s In An Artist’s Studio (1856; 1896):

One face looks out from all his canvases,

One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans:

We found her hidden just behind those screens,

That mirror gave back all her loveliness.

A queen in opal or in ruby dress,

A nameless girl in freshest summer-greens,

A saint, an angel — every canvas means

The same one meaning, neither more nor less.

He feeds upon her face by day and night,

And she with true kind eyes looks back on him,

Fair as the moon and joyful as the light:

Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;

Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;

Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.

1)   Traditional reading – Traditional modes of writing represents the symbolic; they are linear, logical, and authoritative thus reinforcing the master/slave dialectic (Waugh, 336). This poem most certainly does that. It begins with a male artist gazing at one of his canvases – a picture of a woman he has painted. As he ‘feeds upon her face by day and night,” he sees her mainly in terms of frozen poses and the roles in which he has painted her (‘a queen in opal’, ‘a nameless girl’, ‘a saint an angel’). She is ‘hidden’ and comes alive ‘not as she is’ but ‘as she fills his dreams’. This poem is both about contrasting images of reality (the picture vs. the woman) and domination and control. The woman in the picture  is not tolerated to exist on her own but only in relation to the male artist. Once the image is captured on canvas, there is no more room for the expansion of possibilities leaving only a fixed past represented by a single image of the feminine – the ‘other’ – as framed by the patriarchal eye (Hopkins, 314-315).

2)   Ecriture feminine reading – Ecriture feminine focuses heavily on the female body (Blyth, 24-28). This poem is an example of the female body being written into discourse – ‘her face’, ‘her figure’ as she ‘sits or walks or leans’. Ecriture feminine plays with language through pluralistic, non-linear and imaginary techniques (Thaiss, 135) and in the poem, the women is imagined in pluralistic aspects of the Victorian ideal – ‘a queen’, ‘a nameless girl’, as well as a ‘saint’ and ‘angel’. Ecriture feminine desires to establish space in which the self can explore and experience (Butler, 15). Although the form of the poem is traditional (Petrarchan sonnet), the emphasis on the ‘s’ sounds the end of each of the first eight lines (canvases, leans, screens, liveliness, dress, greens, means, less) gives it such a sense of fluidity that also in keeping with ecriture feminine it carries rather than holding back. To avoid essentialism, Cixous couches her distinction of ‘feminine’ in terms of ‘libidinal economies’ – sexually related sensation and experience.  Although we learn nothing of the subject’s actual physical characteristics, in terms of her sensation and experience or jouissance, we are assured she is ‘not wan with waiting’ or ‘with sorrows dim’, but ‘joyful as the light’ which most certainly sounds blissful if not downright heavenly. It is only with the turn in the ninth line of the poem (night) that we plunge into darkness and death, both also important themes in Cixous’ ecriture feminine (Blyth, 42-25).

3)   Queer Theory reading –   Queer readings of literary texts involve ironic reconstructions of traditional gender roles, reimagining supposedly heterosexual characters as closeted gays, and turning formerly marginal forms of pleasure and desire into acceptable, mainstream ones (Post World War II Database). In this poem, a Victorian male artist regards the image of a woman he has painted as if in a ‘mirror’ reflecting various aspects of the Victorian feminine ideal – ‘a queen,’ a ‘nameless girl’ and an ‘angel’ and ‘saint’.  For this artist, these images hold the ‘same one meaning’ and because ‘he feeds upon her face by day and night’ we know they are of serious import to him. Yet we are given no reason for such preoccupation.  We are not even told the relationship the artist has or would like to have with the woman. Queer reading tries to pinpoint ambiguities in traditional gender relationships and evaluate them in ways that do not support traditional roles (Brizee).  Perhaps if the subject of his painting is neither his wife, lover, sister, or muse (as traditionally might have expected) but instead the image the artist might like to appropriate for himself? After all, throughout history, creativity has been associated with the feminine and in regards to male artists, homosexuality. Queer reading also seeks to pinpoint literary devices and strategies that support gay or lesbian social and political experiences (Brizee). Perhaps it is significant then that the woman subject is ‘hidden just behind those screens’? Might the allusion to ‘queen’ (the first image on the list) further suggest homosexuality? According to the OED the word ‘queen’ in respect of homosexuality was already in use when this poem was written (OED, n. 13). Queer reading examines texts in terms of ways they might reveal the social, political, or psychological operations of homophobia (Brizee). Perhaps the image the artist has captured on canvas even ‘fills his dreams’ of the future of gay pride?

In conclusion, if our concept of ‘self’ is no longer singular then identification along binary gender lines (the basis for ecriture feminine) is no longer possible. Furthermore, even if a feminine mode of writing would exist, it can not be distinctive because the same literary text can be read in terms of traditional, ecriture feminine, and queer theory (the later, which interestingly relies on many of the same techniques as ecriture feminine to give voice to yet another marginalised group).



Bennett, Andrew and Royle, Nicholas, An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory, 4th eds., (Harlow: Person Longman, 2009).

Blyth, Ian and Sellers, Susan, Helene Cixous: Live Theory, (London: Continuum, 2004).

Brizee, Allen and J. Case Tompkins, “Gender Studies and Queer Theory (1970’s – present)”, Purdue Online Writing Lab (2/11/2013).

Butler, Judith, Gender Trouble (London: Routledge, (1999).

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Cixous, Helene, “The Laugh of the Medusa”, trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen, The University of Chicago Press, Vol. 1, No. 4 (1976), pp 875-893.

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