Psychoanalysis and Critical Literary Theory

There are several important ways in which both Freudian and Jungian psychoanalysis can serve as a model for literary analysis as for example looking for the subversive in women’s literature – i.e. that which is not explicitly stated (for any number of good reasons) but nonetheless is still present.images

Most certainly if Austen felt so constrained to so as not to publish her novels under her own name, she felt constrained to express some of her real concerns. If we wish to potentially identify some of these concerns, we might turn to Jungian Literary Criticism which usually begins with the question – ‘what psychological factors (whether an image or complex of concerns) might have been responsible for that text. If for example we wish to identify any feminist concerns that Austen might have held, we would look for clues suggestive of recurring feminist themes. In this regard it is prudent to look to ideas of feminism in play during the period in which Austen was writing (rather than to modern constructions of feminism); one such idea would have been application of the same moral code to both sexes.

In Emma, despite being ‘handsome, clever, and rich’, we find a heroine morally flawed (the citizens of Highbury are not impressed with the way that she treats them). When Emma undertakes to morally improve herself she does not do so on her own but instead seeks instruction from Mr Knightly. This in turn leads to his estimation of her to rise so much that he wants to marry her. In Mansfield Park, Fanny Price is also a heroine flawed and although in many respects she is portrayed in feminist terms – i.e. as speaking her own mind and refusing to marry as her guardian would like, when she seeks to improve herself. Like Emma, Fanny turns to her love interest, Edmund – who not surprisingly like Emma’s Mr Knightly decides that now Fanny, reformed in his own mould, is the girl for him. Arguably Catherine Morland in Northanger Abby is cut from a different mould – for the most part she is left on her own to develop her own ‘understanding’ of what is morally wrong and right – unfettered either by fathers, lovers, or husbands.

Jungian theory might suggest that we make the most of ‘meaningful coincidence’ in respect to these seemingly recurrent themes in Austen’s work. Even if she were not consciously replicating this theme of moral code in line with love interest = marriage, she was most likely unconsciously doing so for the Jungians would be quick to demonstrate that statistically these same motifs regarding equality amongst the sexes (especially in a society when there was almost certainly none) should not have occurred otherwise.

Jungian literary criticism has also highlighted archetypally inspired literary themes that recur across a broad cross-cultural spectrum – for example as with the process of ‘individuation’ whereby a protagonist struggles to experience the ‘triumph of consciousness over the unconscious’ and hence make his or her psyche whole. Individuation is depicted as the ‘Hero’s Journey’ and hence is often associated with the Bildungsroman or classic coming of age novel which has in turn been associated with classic accounts of stifled individuation such as with Dickens’ hero, David Copperfield. Most certainly his nasty stepfather, Mr Murdstone, tries very hard to mould David into his own (rotten) image and when he fails to do so sends him off to work his London-based wine-bottling business. Luckily David escapes this situation and hence commences on his process of individuation allowing him to fulfil himself in his own right – by not only getting the girl of his dreams, Agnes, but also with being a commercial success through expression of his own talents.

Freudian literary criticism also pays close attention an author’s unconscious motives and/or feelings in order to tease out ‘covert’ themes. The assumption is that these ‘covert’ themes are just as important if not more so than the ‘overt’ themes (i.e. those consciously expressed by the author) and also that they demonstrate classic psychoanalytic symptoms of blockage in the emotional /sexual development in the author and/or his/her characters.

Freudian literary criticism asserts that all art and literature fulfils some repressed infantile desire of its creator which it turn almost always relates to the Oedipal complex whereby the son wishes to murder his father because he sees him as a rival for sexual congress with his mother. There are obvious parallels in great literature with, for example, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where when the character by the same name is called upon to avenge the murder of his father by his uncle who in turn married Hamlet’s mother, Hamlet spends all day musing about ‘to be or not to be’ instead of committing what ought to be the fairly straight forward act of revenge-driven murder. Using Freudian theory, some critics have seized upon a possible explanation for such ‘irrational’ behaviour in the sense that Hamlet can not kill his uncle for doing that which he himself wanted to do.

Perhaps a less straightforward application of Freudian literary criticism may be found in the poetry of Christina Rossetti. With a women, the Oedipal complex takes a different form suggesting that once bound to her mother by homo-sexual desires, a young girl like Rossetti would then need to turn her desire toward father and the wish to have his baby. I would suggest that her signature poem – Winter: My Secret may reflect such an urge – and that naturally repressed because she was so religiously inclined – her Oedipal instincts remained her jealously guarded secret, preventing her from developing (1) other poetic themes (she predominately favours religion and the fallen women) in her work and (2) her life – in a society where women were expected to marry, she mystifyingly turned down three suitable marriage offers.

In summary, Jungian-based psychoanalysis can serve as a model for literary theory by rooting out subversive feminist themes in women’s literature, as for example, moral equality as demonstrated in the works of Jane Austen. Likewise Jungian-based literary theory seeks to identify underlying archetypal themes such as the process of individuation – or the Hero’s Journey – that recurs across a cross-cultural spectrum. The Bildungsroman is perfect for this. Freudian-based psychoanalysis also can serve as a model for literary theory likewise rooting out unconscious literary themes relating to sexually repressed desires that prevent either the author or his/her characters from moving forward with their personality development.

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.


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).

Castle, Gregory, The Blackwell Guide to Literary Theory, (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2007).

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.

Gergen, Kenneth J, The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life (New York: Basic Books, 2000).

Hopkins, Chris, Thinking About Texts – An Introduction to English Studies, (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001).

Melanson, Karen, “Queer Theory: Destabilizing Gender”, (27/10/2013).

Meyers, Diana, “Feminist Perspectives on the Self”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2010), Edward N. Zalta, ed.

Post World War II American Literature and Culture Database (27/10/2013).

Thaiss, Janet Mel, “Viva l’orange: Writing in the Open and Outlawed Space of a Feminine Economy”, Third Space A Journal of Feminist Theory & Culture, Vol. 5, No. 2 (2006).

Worldviews. “Postmodern Psychology and Socially Constructed Selves”. 25/10/2013.

Waugh, Patricia, ed., Literary theory and criticism; an Oxford guide, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).