Annette Kolodny, A Map for Rereading: Gender and the Interpretation of Literary Texts

To a generation still in the process of divorcing itself from the New Critics’ habit of bracketing off any text as an entity in itself, as though “it could be read, understood, and criticized entirely in its own terms,”1 Harold Bloom has proposed a dialectical theory of influence between poets and poets, as well as between poems and poems, which, in essence, does away with the static notion of a fixed or knowable text. As he argued in A Map of Misreading in 1975, “a poem is a response to a poem, as a poet is a response to a poet, or a person to his parent.” Thus, for Bloom, “poems . . . are neither about subjects’ nor about ‘themselves.’ They arc necessarily about other poems.”2

To read or to know a poem, according to Bloom, engages the reader in an attempt to map the psychodynamic relations by which the poet at hand has willfully misunderstood the work of some precursor (either single or composite) in order to correct, rewrite, or appropriate the prior poetic vision as his own. As first introduced in The Anxiety of Influence in 1973, the resultant “wholly different practical criticism” gives up “the failed enterprise of seeking to ‘understand’ any single poem as an entity in itself” and pursues instead “the quest of learning to read any poem as its poet’s deliberate misinterpretation, as a poet, of a precursor poem or of poetry in general.”3 What one deciphers in the process of reading, then, is not any discrete entity but, rather, a complex relational event, “itself a synecdoche for a larger whole including other texts.”4 “Reading a text is necessarily the reading of a whole system of texts,” Bloom explains in Kabbalah and Criticism, “and meaning is always wandering around between texts.”5

To help purchase assent for this “wholly different practical criticism,” Bloom asserted an identity between critics and poets as coequal participants in the same “belated and all-but-impossible act” of reading (which, as he hastens to explain in A Map of Misreading, “if strong is always a misreading”6). As it is a drama of epic proportions, in Bloom’s terms, when the ephebe poet attempts to appropriate and then correct a precursor’s meaning, so, too, for the critic, his own inevitable misreadings, or misprisions, are no less heroic—nor any the less creative. “Poets’ misinterpretations or poems” may be “more drastic than critics’ misinterpretations or criticism,” Bloom admits, but since be recognizes no such thing as “interpretations but only misinterpretations,” all criticism is necessarily elevated to a species of “prose poetry.”7 The critic’s performance, thereby, takes place as one more “act of misprision [which] displaces an earlier act of misprision “—presumably the poet’s or perhaps that of a prior critic; and, in this sense, the critic participates in that same act of “defensive warfare” before his own critical forebears, or even before the poet himself, as the poet presumably enacted before his poetic father/precursor.8 Their legacy, whether as poetry or as “prose poetry” criticism, consequently establishes the strong survivors of these psychic battles as figures whom others, in the future, will need to overcome in their turn: “A poet is strong because poets after him must work to evade him. A critic is strong if his readings similarly provoke other readings.”9 It is unquestionably Bloom’s most brilliant rhetorical stroke, persuading not so much by virtue of the logic of his argument as by the pleasure his (intended and mostly male) readership will take in the discovery that their own activity replicates the psychic adventures of The Poet, every critic’s figura of heroism.10

What is left out of account, however, is the fact that whether we speak of poets and critics “reading” texts or writers “reading” (and thereby recording for us) the world, we are calling attention to interpretative strategies that are learned, historically determined, and thereby necessarily gender-inflected. As others have elsewhere questioned the adequacy of Bloom’s paradigm of poetic influence to explain the production of poetry by women,11 so now I propose to examine analogous limitations in his model for the reading—and hence critical—process (since both, after all, derive from his revisionist rendering of the Freudian family romance). To begin with, to locate that “meaning” which “is always wandering around between texts,”12 Bloom assumes a community of readers (and, thereby, critics) who know that same “whole system of texts” within which the specific poet at hand has enacted his “misprision.” The canonical sense of a shared and coherent literary tradition is therefore essential to the utility of Bloom’s paradigm of literary influence as well as to his notions of reading (and misreading). “What happens if one tries to write, or to teach, or to think or even to read without the sense of a tradition?” Bloom asks in A Map of Misreading. “Why,” as he himself well understands, “nothing at all happens, just nothing. You cannot write or teach or think or even read without imitation, and what you imitate is what another person has done, that person’s writing or teaching or thinking or reading. Your relation to what informs that person is tradition, for tradition is influence that extends past one generation, a carrying-over of influence.”13

So long as the poems and poets be chooses for scrutiny participate in the “continuity that began in the sixth century b.c. when Homer first became a schoolbook for the Greeks,”14 Bloom has a great deal to tell us about the carrying over of literary influence; where he must remain silent is where carrying over takes place among readers and writers who in fact have been, or at least have experienced themselves as, cut off and alien from that dominant tradition. Virginia Woolf made the distinction vividly over a half-century ago, in A Room of One’s Own, when she described being barred entrance, because of her sex, to a “famous library” in which was housed, among others, a Milton manuscript. Cursing the “Oxbridge” edifice, “venerable and calm, with all its treasures safe locked within its breast,” she returns to her room at the inn later that night, still pondering “how unpleasant it is to be locked out; and I thought how it is worse perhaps to be locked in; and, thinking of the safety and prosperity of the one sex and of the poverty and insecurity of the other and of the effect of tradition and of the lack of tradition upon the mind of a writer.”15 And, she might have added, on the mind of a reader as well. For while my main concern here is with reading (albeit largely and perhaps imperfectly defined), I think it worth noting that there exists an intimate interaction between readers and writers in and through which each defines for the other what S/he is about. “The effect . . . of the lack of tradition upon the mind of a writer” will communicate itself, in one way or another, to her readers; and, indeed, may respond to her readers’ sense of exclusion from high (or highbrow) culture.

An American instance provides perhaps the best example. Delimited by the lack of formal or classical education, and constrained by the social and aesthetic norms of their day to conceptualizing authorship “as a profession rather than a calling, as work and not art,”16 the vastly popular women novelists of the so-called feminine fifties often enough, and somewhat defensively, made a virtue of their sad necessities by invoking an audience of readers for whom aspirations to “literature” were as inappropriate as they were for the writer. As Nina Baym remarks in her recent study Woman’s Fiction, “often the women deliberately and even proudly disavowed membership in an artistic fraternity.” “‘Mine is a story for the table and arm-chair under the reading lamp in the livingroom, and not for the library shelves,’” Baym quotes Marion Harland from the introduction to Harland’s autobiography; and then, at greater length, Baym cites Fanny Fern’s dedicatory pages to her novel Rose Clark:

When the frost curtains the windows, when the wind whistles fiercely at the key-hole, when the bright fire glows, and the tea-tray is removed, and father in his slippered feet lolls in his arm-chair; and mother with her nimble needle “makes auld claes look amaist as weel as new,” and grandmamma draws closer to the chimney-corner, and Tommy with his plate of chestnuts nestles contentedly at her feet; then let my unpretending story be read. For such an hour, for such an audience, was it written.

Should any dictionary on legs rap inopportunely at the door for admittance, send him away to the groaning shelves of some musty library, where “literature” lies embalmed, with its stony eyes, fleshless joints, and ossified heart, in faultless preservation.17

If a bit overdone, prefaces like these nonetheless point up the self-consciousness with which writers like Fern and Harland perceived themselves as excluded from the dominant literary tradition and as writing for an audience of readers similarly excluded. To quote Baym again, these women “were expected to write specifically for their own sex and within the tradition of their woman’s culture rather than within the Great Tradition. They never presented themselves as followers in the footsteps of Milton or Spenser.”18

On the one hand, of course, increased literacy (if not substantially improved conditions of education) marked the generation of American women at midcentury, opening a vast market for a literature which would treat the contexts of their lives—the sewing circle rather than the whaling ship, the nursery instead of the lawyer’s office—as functional symbols of the human condition.19 On the other hand, while this vast new audience must certainly be credited with shaping the features of what then became popular women’s fiction, it is also the case that the writers in their turn both responded to and helped to formulate their readers’ tastes and habits. And both together, I would suggest, found this a means of accepting (or at least coping with) the barred entryway that was to distress Virginia Woolf so in the next century. But these facts of our literary history also suggest that from the 1850s on, in America at least, the meanings “wandering around between texts” were wandering around somewhat different groups of texts where male and female readers were concerned.20 So that with the advent of women “who wished to be regarded as artists rather than careerists,”21 toward the end of the nineteenth century, there arose the critical problem with which we are still plagued and which Bloom so determinedly ignores: the problem of reading any text as “a synecdoche for a larger whole including other texts” when that necessarily assumed “whole system of texts” in which it is embedded is foreign to one’s reading knowledge.

The appearance of Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening in 1899, for example, perplexed readers familiar with her earlier (and intentionally “regional”) short stories not so much because it turned away from themes or subject matter implicit in her earlier work, nor even less because it dealt with female sensuality and extramarital sexuality, but because her elaboration of those materials deviated radically from the accepted norms of women’s fiction out of which her audience so largely derived its expectations. The nuances and consequences of passion and individual temperament, after all, fairly define the focus of most of her preceding fictions. “That the book is strong and that Miss Chopin has a keen knowledge of certain phases of feminine character will not be denied,” wrote the anonymous reviewer for the Chicago Times-Herald. What marked an unacceptable “new departure” for this critic, then, was the impropriety of Chopin’s focus on material previously edited out of the popular genteel novels by and about women which, somewhat inarticulately, s/he translated into the accusation that Chopin had entered “the overworked field of sex fiction.”22

Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s initial difficulty in seeing “The Yellow Wallpaper” into print repeated the problem, albeit in a somewhat different context: for her story located itself not as any deviation from a previous tradition of women’s fiction but, instead, as a continuation of a genre popularized by Poe. And insofar as Americans had earlier learned to follow the fictive processes of aberrant perception and mental breakdown in his work, they should have provided Gilman, one would imagine, with a ready-made audience for her protagonist’s progressively debilitating fantasies of entrapment and liberation. As they had entered popular fiction by the end of the nineteenth century, however, the linguistic markers for those processes were at once heavily male-gendered and highly idiosyncratic, having more to do with individual temperament than with social or cultural situations per se. As a result, it would appear that the reading strategies by which cracks in ancestral walls and suggestions of unchecked masculine willfulness were immediately noted as both symbolically and semantically relevant did not, for some reason, necessarily carry over to “the nursery at the top of the house” with its windows barred, nor even less to the forced submission of the woman who must “take great pains to control myself” before her physician husband.23

A reader today seeking meaning in the way Harold Bloom outlines that process might note, of course, a fleeting resemblance between the upstairs chamber in Gilman—with its bed nailed to the floor, its windows barred, and metal rings fixed to the walls—and Poe’s evocation of the dungeon chambers of Toledo; in fact, a credible argument might be made for reading “The Yellow Wallpaper” as Gilman’s willful and purposeful misprision of “The Pit and the Pendulum.” Both stories, after all, involve a sane mind entrapped in an insanity-inducing situation. Gilman’s “message” might then be that the equivalent revolution by which the speaking voice of the Poe tale is released to both sanity and freedom is unavailable to her heroine. No deus ex machina, no General Lasalle triumphantly entering the city, no “outstretched arm” to prevent Gilman’s protagonist from falling into her own internal “abyss” is conceivable, given the rules of the social context in which Gilman’s narrative is embedded. When gender is taken into account, then, so this interpretation would run, Gilman is saying that the nature of the trap envisioned must be understood as qualitatively different, and so too the possible escape routes.

Contemporary readers of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” however, were apparently unprepared to make such connections. Those fond of Poe could not easily transfer their sense of mental derangement to the mind of a comfortable middle-class wife and mother; and those for whom the woman in the home was a familiar literary character were hard pressed to comprehend so extreme an anatomy of the psychic price she paid. Horace Scudder, the editor of the Atlantic Monthly who first rejected the story, wrote only that “I could not forgive myself if I made others as miserable as I have Made myself!” (Hedges, p. 40). And even William Dean Howells, who found the story “chilling” and admired it sufficiently to reprint it in 1920, some twenty-eight years after its first publication (in the New England Magazine of May 1892), like most readers either failed to notice or neglected to report “the connection between the insanity and the sex, or sexual role, of the victim” (Hedges, p. 41). For readers at the turn of the century, then, that “meaning” which “is always wandering around between texts” had as yet failed to find connective pathways linking the fanciers of Poe to the devotees of popular women’s fiction, or the shortcut between Gilman’s short story and the myriad published feminist analyses of the ills of society (some of them written by Gilman herself). Without such connective contexts, Poe continued as a well-traveled road, while Gilman’s story, lacking the possibility of further influence, became a literary dead end.

In one sense, by hinting at an audience of male readers as ill-equipped to follow the symbolic significance of the narrator’s progressive breakdown as was her doctor-husband to diagnose properly the significance of his wife’s fascination with the wallpaper’s patternings; and by predicating a female readership as yet unprepared for texts which mirrored back, with symbolic exemplariness, certain patterns underlying their empirical reality, “The Yellow Wallpaper” anticipated its own reception. For insofar as writing and reading represent linguistically based interpretative strategies—the first for the recording of a reality (that has obviously, in a sense, already been “read”) and the second for the deciphering of that recording (and thus also the further decoding of a prior imputed reality)—the wife’s progressive descent into madness provides a kind of commentary upon, indeed is revealed in terms of, the sexual politics inherent in the manipulation of those strategies. We are presented at the outset with a protagonist who, ostensibly for her own good, is denied both activities and who, in the course of accommodating herself to that deprivation, comes more and more to experience her self as a text which can neither get read nor recorded.

In his doubly authoritative role as both husband and doctor, John not only appropriates the interpretative processes of reading—diagnosing his wife’s illness and thereby selecting what may be understood of her “meaning”; reading to her rather than allowing her to read for herself—but, as well, he determines what may get written and hence communicated. For her part, the protagonist avers, she does not agree with her husband’s ideas: “Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good.” But given the fact of her marriage to “a physician of high standing” who “assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression—a slight hysterical tendency—what is one to do?” she asks. Since her husband (and by extension the rest of the world) will not heed what she says of herself, she attempts instead to communicate it to “this . . . dead paper . . . a great relief to my mind.” But John’s insistent opposition gradually erodes even this outlet for her since, as she admits, it does exhaust me a good deal—having to be so sly about it, or else meet with heavy opposition” (p. 10). At the sound of his approach, following upon her first attempt to describe “those sprawling flamboyant patterns” in the wallpaper, she declares, “There comes John, and I must put this away,—he hates to have me write a word” (p. 13).

Successively isolated from conversational exchanges, prohibited free access to pen and paper, and thus increasingly denied what Jean Ricardou has called “the local exercise of syntax and vocabulary,”24 the protagonist of “The Yellow Wallpaper” experiences the extreme extrapolation of those linguistic tools to the processes of perception and response. In fact, it follows directly upon a sequence in which (1) she acknowledges that John’s opposition to her writing has begun to make “the effort . . . greater than the relief”; (2) John refuses to let her “go and make a visit to Cousin Henry and Julia”; and (3) as a kind of punctuation mark to that denial, John carries her upstairs, “and laid me on the bed, and sat by me and read to me till it tired my head.” It is after these events, I repeat, that the narrator first makes out the dim shape lurking “behind the outside pattern” in the wallpaper: “it is like a woman stooping down and creeping” (pp. 21-22).

From that point on, the narrator progressively gives up the attempt to record her reality and instead begins to read it—as symbolically adumbrated in her compulsion to discover a consistent and coherent pattern amid “the sprawling outlines” of the wallpaper’s apparently “pointless pattern” (pp. 20, 19). Selectively emphasizing one section of the pattern while repressing others, reorganizing and regrouping past impressions into newer, more fully realized configurations—as one might with any complex formal text—the speaking voice becomes obsessed with her quest for meaning, jealous even of her husband’s or his sister’s momentary interest in the paper. Having caught her sister-in-law “with her hand on it once,” the narrator declares, “I know she was studying that pattern, and I am determined that nobody shall find it out but myself!” (p. 27). As the pattern changes with the changing light in the room, so too do her interpretations of it. And what is not quite so apparent by daylight becomes glaringly so at night: “At night in any kind of light, in twilight, candle light, lamplight, and worst of all by moonlight, it becomes bars! The outside pattern I mean, and the woman behind it is as plain as can be.” “By daylight,” in contrast (like the protagonist herself), “she is subdued, quiet” (p. 26).

As she becomes wholly taken up with the exercise of these interpretative strategies, so too, she claims, her life “is very much more exciting now than it used to be. You see I have something more to expect, to look forward to, to watch” (p. 27). What she is watching, of course, is her own psyche writ large; and the closer she comes to “reading” in the wallpaper the underlying if unacknowledged patterns of her real-life experience, the less frequent becomes that delicate oscillation between surrender to or involvement in and the more distanced observation of developing meaning. Slowly but surely the narrative voice ceases to distinguish itself from the woman in the wallpaper pattern, finally asserting that “I don’t want anybody to get that woman out at night but myself”(p. 31), and concluding with a confusion of pronouns that merges into a grammatical statement of identity:

As soon as it was moonlight and that poor thing began to crawl and shake the pattern, I got up and ran to help her.

I pulled and she shook, and I shook and she pulled, and before morning we had peeled off yards of that paper. (P. 32; my italics)

She is, in a sense, now totally surrendered to what is quite literally her own text—or rather, her self as text. But in decoding its (or her) meaning, what she has succeeded in doing is discovering the symbolization of her own untenable and unacceptable reality. To escape that reality she attempts the destruction of the paper which seemingly encodes it: the pattern of bars entrapping the creeping woman. “‘I’ve got out at last,’ said I, ‘in spite of you and Jane. I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!’” (p. 36). Their paper pages may be torn and moldy (as is, in fact, the smelly wallpaper), but the meaning of texts is not so easily destroyed. Liberation here is liberation only into madness: for in decoding her own projections onto the paper, the protagonist has managed merely to reencode them once more, and now more firmly than ever, within.

With the last paragraphs of the story, John faints away—presumably in shock at his wife’s now totally delusional state. He has repeatedly misdiagnosed, or misread, the heavily edited behavior with which his wife has presented herself to him; and never once has he divined what his wife sees in the wallpaper. But given his freedom to read (or, in this case, misread) books, people, and the world as he chooses, he is hardly forced to discover for himself so extreme a text. To exploit Bloom’s often useful terminology once again, then, Gilman’s story represents not so much an object for the recurrent misreadings, or misprisions, of readers and critics (though this, of course, continues to occur) as an exploration, within itself, of the gender-inflected interpretative strategies responsible for our mutual misreadings, and even horrific misprisions, across sex lines. If neither male not female reading audiences were prepared to decode properly “The Yellow Wallpaper,” even less, Gilman understood, were they prepared to comprehend one another.

It is unfortunate that Gilman’s story was so quickly relegated to the backwaters of our literary landscape because, coming as it did at the end of the nineteenth century, it spoke to a growing concern among American women who would be serious writers: it spoke, that is, to their strong sense of writing out of nondominant or subcultural traditions (both literary and nonliterary), coupled with an acute sensitivity to the fact that since women and men learn to read different worlds, different groups of texts are available to their reading and writing strategies. Had “The Yellow Wallpaper” been able to stand as a potential precursor for the generation of subsequent corrections and revisions, then, as in Bloom’s paradigm, it might have made possible a form of fiction by women capable not only of commenting upon but even of overcoming that impasse. That it did not—nor did any other woman’s fiction become canonical in the United States25—meant that, again and again, each woman who took up the pen bad to confront anew her bleak premonition that, both as writers and as readers, women too easily became isolated islands of symbolic significance, available only to, and decipherable only by, one another.26 If any Bloomian “meaning” wanders around between women’s texts, therefore, it must be precisely this shared apprehension.

On the face of it such statements should appear nothing less than commonsensical especially to those most recent theorists of reading who combine an increased attentiveness to the meaning-making role of the reader in the deciphering of texts with a recognition of the links between our “reading” of texts and our “reading” of the world and one another. Among them, Bloom himself seems quite clearly to understand this when, in Kabbalah and Criticism, he declares: “That which you are, that only can you read.”27 Extrapolating from his description of the processes involved in the reading of literary texts to a larger comment on our ability to take in or decipher those around us, Wolfgang Iser has lately theorized that “we can only make someone else’s thought into an absorbing theme for ourselves, provided the virtual background of our own personality can adapt to it.”28 Anticipating such pronouncements in almost everything they have been composing for over a hundred years now, the women who wrote fiction, most especially, translated these observations into the structures of their stories by invoking that single feature which critics like Iser and Bloom still manage so resolutely to ignore: and that is, the crucial importance of the sex of the “interpreter” in that process which Nelly Furman has called “the active attribution of significance to formal signifiers.”29 Antedating both Bloom and Iser by over fifty years, for example, Susan Keating Glaspell’s 1917 short story “A Jury of Her Peers” explores the necessary (but generally ignored) gender marking which must constitute any definition of “peers” in the complex process of unraveling truth or meaning.30

The opening paragraph of Glaspell’s story serves, essentially, to alert the reader to the significations to follow: Martha Hale, interrupted at her kitchen chores, must drop “everything right where it was” in order to hurry off with her husband and the others. As she does so, her eye makes “a scandalized sweep of her kitchen,” noting with distress that “in no shape for leaving: her bread all ready for mixing, half the flour sifted and half unsifted.” The point, of course, is that highly unusual circumstances demand this of her; “it was no ordinary thing that called her away.” When she seats herself “in the big two-seated buggy” alongside her impatient farmer husband, the sheriff and his wife, and the county attorney, the story proper begins.

All five drive to a neighboring farm where a murder has been committed—the farmer strangled, his wife already arrested. The men intend to seek clues to the motive for the crime, while the women are, ostensibly, simply to gather together the few necessities required by the wife incarcerated in the town jail. Immediately upon approaching the place, however, the very act of perception becomes sex-coded: the men look at the house only to talk “about what had happened,” while the women note the geographical topography which makes it, repeatedly in the narrative, “a lonesome-looking place.” Once inside, the men “go upstairs first—then out to the barn and around there” in their search for clues (even though the actual crime took place in the upstairs master bedroom), while the women are left to the kitchen and parlor. Convinced as they are of “the insignificance of kitchen things,” the men cannot properly attend to what these might reveal and, instead, seek elsewhere for “a clue to the motive,” so necessary if the county attorney is to make his case. Indeed, it is the peculiar irony of the story that although the men never question their attribution of guilt to Minnie Foster, they nonetheless cannot meaningfully interpret this farm wife’s world—her kitchen and parlor. And, arrogantly certain that the women would not even “know a clue if they did come upon it,” they thereby leave the discovery of the clues, and the consequent unraveling of the motive, to those who do, in fact, command the proper interpretative strategies.

Exploiting the information sketched into the opening, Glaspell has the neighbor, Mrs. Hale, and the sheriff’s wife, Mrs. Peters, note, among the supposedly insignificant kitchen things, the unusual, and on a farm unlikely, remnants of kitchen chores left “half done,” denoting an interruption of some serious nature. Additionally, where the men could discern no signs of “anger—or sudden feeling” to substantiate a motive, the women comprehend the implications of some “fine, even sewing” gone suddenly awry, “as if she didn’t know what she was about!” Finally, of course, the very drabness of the house, the miserliness of the husband to which it attests, the old and broken stove, the patchwork that has become Minnie Foster’s wardrobe—all these make the women uncomfortably aware that to acknowledge fully the meaning of what they are seeing is “to get her own house to turn against her!” Discovery by discovery, they destroy the mounting evidence—evidence which the men, at any rate, cannot recognize as such; and, sealing the bond between them as conspirators in saving Minnie Foster, they hide from the men the canary with its neck broken, the penultimate clue to the strangling of a husband who had so systematically destroyed all life, beauty, and music in his wife’s environment.

Opposing against one another male and female realms of meaning and activity—the barn and the kitchen—Glaspell’s narrative not only invites a semiotic analysis but, indeed, performs that analysis for us. If the absent Minnie Foster is the “transmitter” or “sender” in this schema, then only the women are competent “receivers” or “readers” of her “message,” since they alone share not only her context (the supposed insignificance of kitchen things) but, as a result, the conceptual patterns which make up her world. To those outside the shared systems of quilting and knotting, roller towels and bad stoves, with all their symbolic significations, these may appear trivial, even irrelevant to meaning; but to those within the system, they comprise the totality of the message: in this case, a reordering of who in fact has been murdered and, with that, what has constituted the real crime in the story.

For while the two women who visit Minnie Foster’s house slowly but surely decipher the symbolic significance of her action—causing her husband’s neck to be broken because he had earlier broken her canary’s neck—the narrative itself functions, for the reader, as a further decoding of what that symbolic action says about itself. The essential crime in the story, we come to realize, has been the husband’s inexorable strangulation, over the years, of Minnie Foster’s spirit and personality; and the culpable criminality is the complicity of the women who had permitted the isolation and the loneliness to dominate Minnie Foster’s existence: “ ‘I wish I had come over to see Minnie Foster sometimes,’” declares her neighbor guiltily. “ ‘I can see now—’ She did not put it into words.”

“I wish you’d seen Minnie Foster [says Mrs. Hale to the sheriff’s wife] when she wore a white dress with blue ribbons, and stood up there in the choir and sang.”

The picture of that girl, the fact that she bad lived neighbor to that girl for twenty years, and had let her die for lack of life, was suddenly more than she could bear.

“Oh, I wish I’d come over here once in a while!” she cried. “That was a crime! That was a crime! Who’s going to punish that?”

The recognition is itself, of course, a kind of punishment. With it comes, as well, another recognition, as Mrs. Peters reveals experiences in her own life of analogous isolation, desperate loneliness, and brutality at the hands of a male. Finally they conclude: “We all go through the same things—it’s all just a different kind of the same thing! If it weren’t—why do you and I understand? Why do we know—what we know this minute?” By this point the narrative emphasis has shifted: to understand why it is that they know what they now know is for these women to recognize the profoundly sex-linked world of meaning which they inhabit; to discover how specialized is their ability to read that world is to discover anew their own shared isolation within it.

While neither the Gilman nor the Glaspell story necessarily excludes the male as reader—indeed, both in a way are directed specifically at educating him to become a better reader—they do nonetheless insist that, however inadvertently, he is a different kind of reader and that, where women are concerned, he is often an inadequate reader. In the first instance, because the husband cannot properly diagnose his wife or attend to her reality, the result is horrific: the wife descends into madness. In the second, because the men cannot even recognize as such the very clues for which they search, the ending is a happy one: Minnie Foster is to be set free, no motive having been discovered by which to prosecute her. In both, however, the same point is being made: lacking familiarity with the women’s imaginative universe, that universe within which their acts are signs,31 the men in these stories can neither read nor comprehend the meanings of the women closest to them—and this in spite of the apparent sharing of a common language. It is, in short, a fictive rendering of the dilemma of the woman writer. For while we may all agree that in our daily conversational exchanges men and women speak more or less meaningfully and effectively with one another, thus fostering the illusion of a wholly shared common language, it is also the case that where figurative usage is invoked—that usage which often enough marks the highly specialized language of literature—it “can be inaccessible to all but those who share information about one another’s knowledge, beliefs, intentions, and attitudes.”32 Symbolic representations, in other words, depend on a fund of shared recognitions and potential inference. For their intended impact to take hold in the reader’s imagination, the author simply must, like Minnie Foster, be able to call upon a shared context with her audience; where she cannot, or dare not, she may revert to silence, to the imitation of male forms, or, like the narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” to total withdrawal and isolation into madness.

It may be objected, of course, that I have somewhat stretched my argument so as to conflate (or perhaps confuse?) all interpretative strategies with language processes, specifically reading. But in each instance, it is the survival of the woman as text—Gilman’s narrator and Glaspell’s Minnie Foster—that is at stake; and the competence of her reading audience alone determines the outcome. Thus, in my view, both stories intentionally function as highly specialized language acts (called “literature”) which examine the difficulty inherent in deciphering other highly specialized realms of meaning—in this case, women’s conceptual and symbolic worlds. And further, the intended emphasis in each is the inaccessibility of female meaning to male interpretation.33 The fact that in recent years each story has increasingly found its way into easily available textbooks, and hence into the women’s-studies and American literature classrooms, to be read and enjoyed by teachers and students of both sexes, happily suggests that their fictive premises are attributable not so much to necessity as to contingency.34 Men can, after all, learn to apprehend the meanings encoded in texts by and about women—just as women have learned to become sensitive readers of Shakespeare and Milton, Hemingway and Mailer.35 Both stories function, in effect, as a prod to that very process by alerting the reader to the fundamental problem of “reading” correctly within cohabiting but differently structured conceptual worlds.

To take seriously the implications of such relearned reading strategies is to acknowledge that we are embarking upon a revisionist rereading of our entire literary inheritance and, in that process, demonstrating the full applicability of Bloom’s second formula for canon formation, “You are or become what you read.”36 To set ourselves the task of learning to read a wholly different set of texts will make of us different kinds of readers (and perhaps different kinds of people as well). But to set ourselves the task of doing this in a public way, on behalf of women’s texts specifically, engages us—as the feminists among us have learned—in a challenge to the inevitable issue of “authority . . . in all questions of canon-formation.”37 It places us, in a sense, in a position analogous to that of the narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” bound, if we are to survive, to challenge the (accepted and generally male) authority who has traditionally wielded the power to determine what may be written and how it shall be read. It challenges fundamentally not only the shape of our canon of major American authors but, indeed, that very “continuity that began in the sixth century b.c. when Homer first became a schoolbook for the Greeks.”38

It is no mere coincidence, therefore, that readers as diverse as Adrienne Rich and Harold Bloom have arrived by various routes at the conclusion that re-vision constitutes the key to an ongoing literary history. Whether functioning as ephebe poet or would-be critic, Bloom’s reader, as “revisionist,” “strives to see again, so as to esteem and estimate differently, so as then to aim ‘correctively.’”39 For Rich, “re-vision” entails “the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction.”40 And each, as a result—though from different motives—strives to make the “literary tradition . . . the captive of the revisionary impulse.”41 What Rich and other feminist critics intended by that “re-visionism” has been the subject of this essay: not only would such revisionary rereading open new avenues for comprehending male texts but, as I have argued here, it would as well allow us to appreciate the variety of women’s literary expression, enabling us to take it into serious account for perhaps the first time rather than, as we do now, writing it off as caprice or exception, the irregularity in an otherwise regular design. Looked at this way, feminist appeals to revisionary rereading, as opposed to Bloom’s, offer us all a potential enhancing of our capacity to read the world, our literary texts, and even one another, anew.

To end where I began, then, Bloom’s paradigm of poetic history, when applied to women, proves useful only in a negative sense: for by omitting the possibility of poet-mothers from his psychodynamic of literary influence (allowing the feminine only the role of muse—as composite whore and mother), Bloom effectively masks the fact of an other tradition entirely—that in which women taught one another how to read and write about and out of their own unique (and sometimes isolated) contexts. In so doing, however, he not only points up the ignorance informing our literary history as it is currently taught in the schools, but, as well, he pinpoints (however unwittingly) what must be done to change our skewed perceptions: all readers, male and female alike, must be taught first to recognize the existence of a significant body of writing by women in America and, second, they must be encouraged to learn bow to read it within its own unique and informing contexts of meaning and symbol. Re-visionary rereading, if you will. No more must we impose on future generations of readers the inevitability of Norman Mailer’s “terrible confession”: “I have nothing to say about any of the talented women who write today. . . . I do not seem able to read them.”42 Nor should Bloom himself continue to suffer an inability to express useful “judgment upon . . . the ‘literature of Women’s Liberation.’”43


1Albert William Levi, “De Interpretatione: Cognition and Context in the History of Ideas,” Critical Inquiry 3 (Fall 1976): 164.

2Harold Bloom, A Map of Misreading (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975), p. 18.

3 Ha Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence : A Theory of Poetry (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), p. 43.

4Harold Bloom, Kabbalah and Criticism (New York: Seabury Press, 1975), p. 106. This concept is further refined in his Poetry and Repression: Revisionism from Blake to Stevens (New Haven, Corm.: Yale University Press, 1976), p. 26, where Bloom describes poems as “defensive processes in constant change, which is to say that poems themselves are acts of reading. A poem is . . . a fierce proleptic debate with itself, as well as with precursor poems.”

5Bloom, Kabbalah and Criticism, pp. 107-8.

6Bloom, Map of Misreading, p. 3.

7Bloom, Anxiety of Influence, pp. 94-95.

8Bloom, Kabbalah and Criticism, pp. 125, 104, 108.

9Ibid., p. 125; by way of example, and with a kind of Apollonian modesty, Bloom demonstrates his own propensities for misreading, placing himself amid the excellent company of those other Super Misreaders, Blake, Shelley, C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and T. S. Eliot (all of whom misread Milton’s Satan), and only regrets “that the misreading of Blake and Shelley by Yeats is a lot stronger than the misreading of Blake and Shelley by Bloom” (pp. 125-26).

10In Poetry and Repression, p. 18, Bloom explains that “by ‘reading’ I intend to mean the work both of poet and of critic, who themselves move from dialectic irony to synecdochal representation as they confront the text before them.”

11See, for example, Joanne Feit Diehl’s attempt to adapt the Bloomian model to the psychodynamics of women’s poetic production in “ ‘Come Slowly—Eden’: An Exploration of Women Poets and Their Muse,” Signs 3 (Spring 1978): 572-87; and the objections to that adaptation raised by Lillian Faderman and Louise Bernikow in their Comments, Signs 4 (Fall 1978): 188-91 and 191-95, respectively. More recently, Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar have tried to correct the omission of women writers from Bloom’s male-centered literary history in The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979).

12Bloom, Kabbalah and Criticism, pp. 107-8.

13BIoom, Map of Misreading, p. 32.

14Ibid., pp. 33-34.

15Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (1928; reprint ed., Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1972), pp. 9-10, 25-26.

16Nina Baym, Woman’s Fiction: A Guide to Novels By and About Women in America, 1820-1870 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1978), p. 32.

17See ibid., pp. 32-33.

18Ibid., p. 178.

19I paraphrase rather freely here from some of Baym’s acutely perceptive and highly suggestive remarks, ibid., p. 14.

20The problem of audience is complicated by the fact that in nineteenth-century America distinct classes of so-called highbrow and lowbrow readers were emerging, cutting across sex and class lines; and, for each sex, distinctly separate “serious” and “popular” reading materials were also being marketed. Full discussion, however, is beyond the scope of this essay. In its stead, I direct the reader to Henry Nash Smith’s clear and concise summation in the introductory chapter to his Democracy and the Novel: Popular Resistance to Classic American Writers (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), pp. 1-15.

21Baym, Woman’s Fiction, p. 178.

22From “Books of the Day,” Chicago Times-Herald, June 1, 1899, p. 9; excerpted in Kate Chopin, The Awakening, ed. Margaret Culley (New York: W. W. Norton, 1976), p. 149.

23Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper, Afterword by Elaine R. Hedges (Old Westbury, N.Y.: Feminist Press 1973), pp. 12, 11. Page references to this edition will henceforth be cited parenthetically in the text, with references to Hedges’s excellent Afterward preceded by her name.

24Jean Ricardou, “Composition Discomposed,” trans. Erica Freiberg, Critical Inquiry 3 (Fall 1976): 90.

25The possible exception here is Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly (1852).

26If, to some of the separatist advocates in our current wave of New Feminism, this sounds like a wholly acceptable, even happy circumstance, we must nonetheless understand that, for earlier generations of women artists, acceptance within male precincts conferred the mutually understood marks of success and, in some quarters, vitally needed access to publishing houses, serious critical attention, and even financial independence. That this was not the case for the writers of domestic fictions around the middle of the nineteenth century was a fortunate but anomalous circumstance. Insofar as out artist-mothers were separatist, therefore, it was the result of impinging cultural contexts and not (often) of their own choosing.

27Bloom, Kabbalah and Criticism, p. 96.

28Wolfgang Iser, The Implied Reader: Patterns of Communication in Prose Fiction from Bunyan to Beckett (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974), p. 293.

29Nelly Furman, “The Study of Women and Language: Comment on Vol. 3, No. 3,” Signs 4 (Fall 1978): 184.

30First published in Every Week, March 15, 1917, the story was then collected in Best Short Stories of 1917, ed. Edward O’Brien (London, 1917). My source for the text is Mary Anne Ferguson’s Images of Women in Literature (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973), pp. 370-85.

31I here paraphrase Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973), p. 13, and specifically direct the reader to the parable from Wittgenstein quoted on that same page.

32Ted Cohen, “Metaphor and the Cultivation of Intimacy,” Critical Inquiry 5 (Fall 1978): 78.

33It is significant, I think, that the stories do not suggest any difficulty for the women in apprehending the men’s meanings. On the one hand this simply is not relevant to either plot; and on the other, since in each narrative the men clearly control the public realms of discourse, it would of course have been incumbent upon the women to learn to understand them. Though masters need not learn the language of their slaves, the reverse is never the case: for survival’s sake, oppressed or subdominant groups always study the nuances of meaning and gesture in those who control them.

34For example, Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” may be found, in addition to the Feminist Press reprinting previously cited, in The Oven Birds: American Women on Womanhood, 1820-1920, ed. Gail Parker (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1972), pp. 317-34; and Glaspell’s “A Jury of Her Peers” is reprinted in American Voices, American Women, ed. Lee R. Edwards and Arlyn Diamond (New York: Avon Books, 1973), pp. 359-81.

35That women may have paid a high psychological and emotional price for their ability to read men’s texts is beyond the scope of this essay, but I enthusiastically direct the reader to Judith Fetterley’s provocative study of the problem in The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1978).

36Bloom, Kabbalah and Criticism, p. 96.

37Ibid., p. 100.

39Bloom, Map of Misreading, pp. 33-34.

39Ibid., p. 4.

40Adrienne Rich, “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision,” College English 34 (October 1972): 18; reprinted in Adrienne Rich’s Poetry, ed. Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi and Albert Gelpi (New York: W. W. Norton, 1975), p. 90.

41Bloom, Map of Misreading, p. 36.

42Norman Mailer, “Evaluations—Quick and Expensive Comments on the Talent in the Room,” collected in his Advertisements for Myself (New York: Berkley, 1966), pp. 434-35.

43Bloom, Map of Misreading, p. 36. What precisely Bloom intends by the phrase is nowhere made clear; for the purposes of this essay, I have assumed that that he is referring to the recently increased publication of new titles by women writers.