“Do you surprise? Do you shock? Do you have a choice?”

Assuming the Feminine Role: Subverting the patriarchal System


It is by writing, from and toward women, and by taking up the challenge of speech which has been governed by the phallus, that women will confirm women in a place other than that which is reserved in and by the symbolic, that is, in a place other than silence.  Women should break out of the snare of silence.  (Hélène Cixous 351)


In Rome?  So far away?  To look?  At a statue?  Of a saint? Sculptures by a man?  What pleasure are we talking about?  Whose pleasure?  (Luce Irigaray 91)


The silencing of women observed in patriarchy is the result of the patriarchal belief in a system of binary oppositions that dictates that there are two opposing sides to everything and that the one side is necessarily better than the other.  This dual system indicates that in the binary male/female and all those binaries that emerge from it, the “female” side is devalued.  Any attributes thus associated with the female will likewise be devalued.  In this paper I will emphasize that in order to disrupt the binary system of thought that devalues women, the female, with all those attributes associated with female, has to assert herself as a site of value, thus disrupting the hierarchy imposed by the dual system of thought and which dictates that “male” and its associations are more valuable than “female” and its associations.  Irigaray’s quote reminds us of the impossibility of interpreting the female using male parameters and of the need thus for women to assert the value of their own characteristics.

One of the essential attributes assigned to the feminine or the female is her passivity.  In “Femininity,” Sigmund Freud demonstrates that this passivity is demonstrated to be the result of women’s sexuality:

It is perhaps the case that in a woman, on the basis of her share in the sexual function, a preference for passive behaviour and passive aims is carried over in her life to a greater or lesser extent, in proportion to the limits, restricted or far-reaching, within which her sexual life thus serves as a model.  (115-16)

My aim here is not to argue for or against woman’s passivity, but to demonstrate how passivity, and other such attributes assigned to women, are instantly considered negative implications merely because they are assigned, in a system that necessitates a hierarchical division, to the side with lower importance and lower value.  Whether women are more prone to passivity or not is not the point here.  The point is whether this passivity should necessarily bear a negative implication.  After all, isn’t it women’s passivity that allows us to be more tolerant and thus more capable of performing those roles of wife and mother that patriarchal society assigns us?  To assign women’s passivity a negative implication therefore seems to work against the aims of that same system that renders us passive.

Another attribute assigned to the female is our close link to society, or rather society’s close link to the female.  More often than not, society is seen as the female against which the male (hero) will seek to free himself.  Individuality (another attribute valued under the current system of patriarchy as it dictates man’s withdrawal from his dependence on women, or here, on society) is thus asserted by men when they are able to be free from the restraints of a society—certainly female—that imprisons them.  Here is Nina Baym demonstrating how this works:

It seems to be a fact of life that we all—women and men alike—experience social conventions and responsibilities and obligations first in the persons of women, since women are entrusted by society with the task of rearing young children. . . . And although not all women are engaged in socializing the young, the young do not encounter women who are not.  So from the point of view of the young man, the only kinds of women who exist are entrappers and domesticators.  (72-73)

And the task that faces men and women living in this society is to be as free as possible from these restraints, and since women epitomize these restraints, it is women who are to be fought against.

Similarly, nature is seen as female which needs to be conquered by the male.  As society, in its depiction as female, becomes an enemy that needs to be overcome, so nature becomes another enemy to the individual whose livelihood depends on his freedom from the restraints imposed on him by nature and his ability to overcome these restraints.  Baym explains again:

Landscape is deeply imbued with female qualities, as society is; but where society is menacing and destructive, landscape is compliant and supportive.  It has the attribute simultaneously of a virginal bride and a nonthreatening mother.  (75)

Nature bears a negative connotation, therefore, when it exists as a deterrent to man’s individuality and freedom, and although recognized as benefit to this same man, nature is nevertheless a possible threat when it refuses to yield to man’s molding.  And as an enemy, nature becomes imbued with feminine connotations, hence it is “mother nature:”

The will to annihilate the Other through a false incorporation can be detected in every language sign that tends, by its ever-widening scope of encompassment, to be taken for granted. . . . No conflict exists between what has conventionally been called Father Culture and Mother Nature, except when the pair are thought of as opposite to each other (instead of different from each other) so that Mother becomes a male-fashioned Mother exiled from culture, which is tantamount to saying Father Culture versus Father Nature.  (Trinh 67)

The list goes on with attributes and qualities assigned to the female side and which man must revolt against, hence the revolt against passivity, society, and nature.  As a result, in order for women to escape from being associated with this negativity, they will need to reject all these attributes that are assigned to them.  For the woman to be equal in value to man, she has to throw away her feminine characteristics (whether or not these characteristics are innate) or else her experiences will be considered of no value and her beliefs will be of no importance.  A good writer thus needs to throw away her feminine attributes and acquire masculine ones, or be forever branded not good enough:

What is implied here is her capability to write and think differently from other women who, wallowing in confessions and in personal, narcissistic, or neurotic accounts, are held to be hopelessly inept for either objective, subjective, or universal—that is to say accurate—thinking.  Remember, the minor-ity’s voice is always personal; that of the major-ity, always impersonal.  Logic dictates.  Man thinks, woman feels. . . Old stereotypes deriving from well-defined differences (the apartheid type of difference) govern our thought.  Our province, we hear, is the heart, not the mind, which many of us have come to loathe and despise, for we believe it has a sex, a male one however, for reasons of (in)security.  (Trinh 28)

So in order to be heard, women, being a minority (in terms of power rather than numbers), have to shed their feelings and beliefs on the basis of their being personal and of no value to the whole.

This dilemma suggests that if women are to reclaim their value they will need to throw away their femininity and to reject their links to passion, nature, society, or passivity.  Women thus are rendered silent if they are to comply with the system that leaves them little room to maneuver because if their speech is to be heard it must become masculine speech.  According to man’s logic, then, if woman is to speak she can only do that through silence, or through the silencing of her real femininity.  Gilbert and Gubar demonstrate this dilemma through the voice of Mary Elizabeth Coleridge when she writes:

Her lips were open—not a sound

            Came through the parted lines of red.

Whate’er it was, the hideous wound

            In silence and in secret bled.

No sigh relieved her speechless woe,

            She had not voice to speak her dread.  (Gilbert 15)

In a logic dictated by man, women’s voice is silenced because man’s logic, which sees hierarchy in difference, fails to explain women’s difference.  Julia Kristeva sees that women’s “semiotic chora is the site of those meanings and modes of signification which cannot be reduced to the symbolic order and which exceed rational conscious subjectivity” (qtd. in Weedon 85).1  And as women’s experiences cannot be explained by men’s rational logic they exist outside of dominant thought, that being the male’s. 

Women’s differences in feelings and thoughts then are either portrayed as a silence on their part or as insanity.  Reason and speech being most frequently associated with men:

Women as such are associated both with madness and with silence, whereas men are identified with prerogatives of discourse and of reason.  In fact, men appear not only as the possessors, but also as the dispensers, of reason, which they can at will mete out to—or take away from—others.  (Felman 15)

This silencing of women’s voice results in what Irigaray calls a “masquerade.”  She explains her meaning by this word in the following lines:

What do I mean by masquerade? In particular, what Freud calls “femininity.” The belief, for example, that it is necessary to become a woman, a “normal” one at that, whereas a man is a man from the outset.  He has only to effect his being-a-man, whereas a woman has to become a normal woman, that is, has to enter into the masquerade of femininity.  (134)

Women’s silence is therefore a silence dictated to her by a patriarchal system that refuses to accept her qualities and attributes and that insists on assigning a negative implication to all that is feminine.  Here is one of Freud’s explanations of the masquerade of femininity:

The discovery that she is castrated is a turning-point in a girl’s growth. . . owing to the influence of her penis-envy, she loses her enjoyment in her phallic sexuality.  Her self-love is mortified by the comparison with the boy’s far superior equipment and in consequence she renounces her masturbatory satisfaction from her clitoris, repudiates her love for her mother and at the same time not infrequently represses a good part of her sexual trends in general. (126, my emphasis)

Thus a woman renounces and represses parts of her self in order to fit in a society that portrays her as a lack. 

By repressing parts of her self, a woman thus exists only as a fragment of herself.  Her full person cannot manifest itself because she is required by the laws of patriarchy to hide some parts of her self.  Her personality thus becomes fragmented because she has to repress what Kristeva calls the semiotic chora, or what Irigaray terms the female imaginary: “The rejection, the exclusion of a female imaginary certainly puts woman in the position of experiencing herself only fragmentarily, in the little-structured margins of a dominant ideology, as waste, or excess” (30).

To get out of this dilemma, then, women have to assert for themselves a place that allows those repressed parts to re-emerge.  Women have to assert the value of those same qualities that render their silence necessary.  If patriarchy dictates that woman should repress those parts of her self that it, patriarchy, devalues, then woman needs to insist on the high value of these parts themselves so that she can end her silence.  Woman’s passivity, her silence and her madness, are only some of those parts that should be asserted.  With an awareness of the negative implications of these characteristics, French feminists argue that women should wear these characters deliberately in order to change their negative (passive) implications to positive ones.  Irigaray thus argues:

There is, in an initial phase, perhaps only one “path,” the one historically assigned to the feminine: that of mimicry. One must assume the feminine role deliberately.  Which means already to convert a form of subordination into an affirmation, and thus to thwart it.  Whereas a direct feminine challenge to this condition means demanding to speak as a (masculine) “subject.”  (76)

Instead of incorporating man’s logic, a logic that devalues women, women should shake its foundation by changing the meanings it assigns to those “feminine” attributes.  And this is done by an insistence by women on playing their role:

If, in our culture, the woman is by definition associated with madness, her problem is how to break out of this (cultural) imposition of madness without taking up the critical and therapeutic positions of reason: how to avoid speaking both as mad and as not mad.  The challenge facing the woman today is nothing less than to “re-invent” language, to re-learn how to speak: to speak not only against, but outside of the specular phallogocentric structure, to establish a discourse the status of which would no longer be defined by the phallacy of masculine meaning.  An old saying would thereby be given new life: today more than ever, changing our minds—changing the mind—is a woman’s prerogative.  (Felman 20)

And this is done when women attempt to change the meanings assigned to madness, silence and other such negatively imbued words.

Since man’s logic refuses to see woman’s difference as anything other than madness or insanity, it is the woman’s task to demonstrate how this insanity is indeed profitable or valuable since it is the form of speech by which woman can utter her experiences.  Trinh T. Minh-ha argues that woman shocks because her language exists outside the boundaries of man’s logic:

A man’s sentence is bound to be unsuited for a woman’s use; and no matter how splendid her gift for prose proves to be, she will stumble and fall with such a “clumsy weapon in her hands.” . . . Literally, she blabs and crackles and is well known as Ms. Tittle-tattle, . . . Figuratively, she goes unheard (even when she yells and especially when she “shrills,” as they put it) and remain as dumb as a fish. . . Shake syntax, smash the myths, and if you lose, slide on, unearth some new linguistic paths.  Do you surprise? Do you shock? Do you have a choice?  (20)

To surprise and to shock then is the only option available for women whose speech appears to be blabbing and whose blabbing is misunderstood as silence.

This is, then, the condition of women under patriarchy: literally blabbing and figuratively silent.  Judith Fetterley further explicates this condition in the following excerpt:

Bereft, disinherited, cast out, woman is the Other, the Outsider, a mourner among children; never really child because never allowed to be fully self-indulgent; never really adult because never permitted to be fully responsible; forever a “young mourner,” a “little woman”; superhuman, subhuman but never simply human.  (ix)

And this is the condition of Robin Vote in Djuna Barnes’s novel Nightwood.  She is indeed “superhuman, subhuman, but never simply human” and nowhere is this more apparent than in the continuous allusion to the animal—and plant life—that surrounds her. 

Robin Vote is, moreover, characterized as the “Other” in the novel, never having a voice herself but more often projected through what the other characters say of her.  She is an embodiment of Irigaray’s description of woman:

“She” is indefinitely other in herself.  This is doubtless why she is said to be whimsical, incomprehensible, agitated, capricious . . . not to mention her language, in which “she” sets off in all directions leaving “him” unable to discern the coherence of any meaning.  Hers are contradictory words, somewhat mad from the standpoint of reason, inaudible for whatever listens to them with ready-made grids, with a fully elaborated code in hand.  (28-29)

Yet it is not enough to say that the novel is about Robin’s Otherness without diving deeper into the reasons for casting her as such; that is the reason the book gives her that position and the reason the reader sees her in that position.

In the following I will trace my own reading of the novel and how further readings allowed me to understand how Djuna Barnes deployed this novel to demonstrate a reversal of some of the terms that exist in the minor side of the binary: woman, insanity, animal, and so on.  The following lines will then describe the text’s success in forcing the reader, myself, into ascribing new implications to the traditionally negative implications of madness or of animalism.

In my own first reading of the text I approached it triggered by the editor’s remarks that it is a book about “Robin Vote and those she destroys.”  Therefore I was very attentive to the book’s portrayal of her as an animal or an evil thing, “a woman who is a beast turning human,” and “who is eaten death returning” (36), a woman who thinks “unpeopled thoughts” and whose prayer is “Monstrous” (43).   “Beast” and “monstrous” immediately took on negative and “evil” connotations with me.  When Robin finally becomes one with the dog in “The Possessed” I saw this as the final degradation of her as it demonstrates her fall to the level of those animals.  In an article on Barnes’s feminine writing, Frann Michel writes that “Robin’s collapse at the end of the novel signals a kind of defeat of the feminine by the masculine order, the feminine’s inability to overcome or persistently coexist with the masculine” (48).  And a shallow reading of the novel will indeed see Robin’s final “collapse” as a defeat.

After resolving the idea of Robin’s final degradation, I tried to understand the reasons for what happened and for Robin’s actions.  The book jacket describes Nightwood as being “the story of Robin Vote and those she destroys: her husband ‘Baron’ Felix Volkbein and their child Guido, and the two women who love her, Nora Flood and Jenny Petherbridge.”  In my first assessment of the novel I agreed with this description in seeing Robin as the cause of misfortune to these people.  However, on further consideration, I paid closer attention to Robin as a person as opposed to my starting perception of her as a “destroyer,” a perception dictated to me by the words written by the editor on the book jacket.  Although Robin is the cause of all the pain inflicted on the other characters, we hardly see her character in the book, and when seen it is through the eyes of the others.  She is often spoken of but almost never speaks.  Her silence intrigued me into trying to find out what it hides.

I decided that in order to understand the work I had to fill in Robin’s silence.  But to do this, to speak for Robin I must know more about her.  I am here forced by her silence to enter her position of Other.  Trinh argues that: “silence as a refusal to partake in the story does sometimes provide us with a means to gain a hearing.  It is voice, a mode of uttering, and a response in its own right” (83).  The book, however, did not give me enough about her.  I didn’t know Robin.  The text would describe how she looks:

On a bed . . . half flung off the support of the cushions from which . . . she had turned her head, lay the young woman . . . Her legs, in white flannel trousers, were spread as in a dance, the thick lacquered pumps looking too lively for the arrested step. Her hands, long and beautiful, lay on either side of her face.  (34)

We would read a description of how she is walking (39), and what she is wearing (40), but we very rarely read what she is thinking or feeling.

Robin’s silence is felt everywhere in the novel.  In her relationship with Felix we read only of what he wants and only what he feels.  Their marriage seems to be a thing suggested by Felix and submitted to by Robin: “When he asked her to marry him it was with such an unplanned eagerness that he was taken aback to find himself accepted, as if Robin’s life held no volition for refusal” (40).  Even her meeting with Felix was not of her choice. She was actually lying unconscious in bed when he first met her (34), and later it was Felix pursuing her until finally running into her (39).  When they were together “Felix was happy. He felt that he could talk to her, tell her anything, though she herself was silent” (39).   It is Felix again who decided that they should have a child and so “Robin prepared herself” (42).  Finally when the time came for birth, we read that “Robin was delivered” (44), not that she delivered the baby.  Even during childbirth she was submissive.  She was not the person to do things but the one who has things done to her.  Louis F. Kannenstine actually describes Robin as “the passive center of all of the narrative’s events” (116).

When Robin and Nora meet it is again Nora’s initiative in holding Robin’s hand that begins their relationship.  Robin’s relation with Nora is even more puzzling than that with Felix.  We read that “in the passage of their lives together every object in the garden, every item in the house, every word they spoke, attested to their mutual love” (50).  Yet this “mutual love” is a different kind of love in which Nora seems desperate to keep Robin by her side, and “to keep her . . . Nora knew that there was no way but death. In death Robin would belong to her” (52).  Robin is silent in this relation as well, and when she tries to express herself she is not understood.  She sings but Nora does not understand her singing: “Sometimes Nora would sing them after Robin, with the trepidation of a foreigner repeating words in an unknown tongue, uncertain of what they mean” (52).

Finally Jenny comes into Robin’s life, stealing her and her love for Nora away, and when Robin starts associating and talking with other women, Jenny silences her by ordering the carriage to take them away (62). In the end it is through Jenny’s abuse of Robin that Robin succumbs to her:

Jenny struck Robin, scratching and tearing in hysteria, striking, clutching and crying. Slowly the blood began to run down Robin’s cheeks, and as Jenny struck repeatedly Robin began to go down as if brought to the movement by the very blows themselves, as if she had no will, sinking down in the small carriage, her knees on the floor, her head forward as her arm moved upward in a gesture of defense.  (66)

In all her relations with other people Robin is never heard to say how she feels or what she wants.  The relationships seem to be dictated to her by Felix, Nora, and Jenny.  Because her voice is silenced, it is almost impossible to know her motives and to understand her, so it is our job as readers to understand the reason of her silence.  Irigaray explains that because “woman never speaks the same way” she is “not listened to” and her voice becomes “paralyzed,” yet:

interpreting them [women] where they exhibit only their muteness means subjecting them to a language that exiles them at an ever increasing distance from what perhaps they would have said to you, were already whispering to you.  If only your ears were not so formless, so clogged with meaning(s), that they are closed to what does not in some way echo the already heard.  (112-13)

Although the novel is filled with characters who embody the minority: from Felix the Jew to doctor Matthew the cross-dresser to Jenny and Nora the lesbians, it is not these voices that are silenced in the novel but rather that of Robin Vote.

All these other, usually oppressed characters, are very expressive and are portrayed as the norms in the text against which Robin’s character is set.  Robin here is the Other who stands outside the norms that dictate how people should function.  Robin is a character who is not especially attentive to other people’s needs, she abandons her husband and her son among others who showed they loved her.  She is a “whimsical, incomprehensible” character whose language, when she does speak, is not understood and therefore silenced.  The characters of Felix, Nora, Jenny and the doctor are used to represent normal society members and it is Robin who stands out against them.  The other characters are always ready to speak and pursue what they want, yet Robin, when she does so, does it too late.  When her voice is heard it is usually too late.  After the doctor and Felix come into her room to try to revive her she wakes up saying “I was all right” (35), only after the doctor has been called.  Years after her baby is born she tells Felix “I didn’t want him” (45).

As the story progresses, Robin speaks more often but still not often enough. Finally, in the chapter that caused Robin to be termed a beast, “The Possessed,” Robin gets down with the dog, communicating with it, it seems, better than she did with any of the other human characters.  Tracing her silence I would see that the more outspoken she becomes, the stranger the relationship she is in, finally leading to the most strange of all, her relationship with the dog.  Is the book saying that the voice of someone like Robin needs to be silenced, that such a character needs to be controlled so as not to sink to the level of animals?  Or does Robin, in associating with the dog, finally reach what she wants, and is this text saying that one should speak whether what s/he says is accepted or not in order for that person to reach her goals?

I believe that what needs to be done here is to establish what Robin stands for.  Since all the characters in Nightwood are “society outcasts,” we should find out what Robin’s character stands for and what makes her different.  What intrigues me here, aside from her silence, is her innocence.  There were many references in the text to Robin’s innocence and this is most clearly felt in her association with the animals.  It is actually Felix himself who mentions her need for “someone to tell her that she was innocent” (99).  Karen Kaivola points out that Robin is “frequently associated with childhood,” and has “more natural and comfortable connections . . . with the very young” (88).  Her frequent “playing with her toys, trains, and animals and cars to wind up, and dolls and marbles and soldiers” is a clear sign of her innocence (Barnes 122).  But her innocence is not only a child’s innocence, it is also because she is “outside the ‘human type’—a wild thing caught in a woman’s skin” (121).  Ahmed Nimeiri further supports this position when he argues that "America banishes from its life some of the essential aspects of experience and consciousness because it cannot tolerate them," (102) suggesting that “Robin represents a simple and common form of American expatriation,” and that she is “the American innocent (somnambulist) who goes to or is taken by Europe to be free of the parochialism of her country and to get a cosmopolitan experience" (106).

Coming up with the realization that Robin’s character is an embodiment of innocence, I now wonder at other descriptions of her as an animal and if her animal side is no longer to be taken to mean a corruption of her soul but actually an insistence on her innocence.  She is an animal and a child and is thus innocent of what goes on around her and if animal is a portrayal of innocence why should I take her last action of becoming a dog as any less than her returning to, or winning her innocence?  Her turning into a beast might be an indication of her innocence, and, if that is the case, is she innocent only in the end or has she always been innocent but her role in the society forced her to change?

In the beginning of the novel Robin was lost, she had a problem of fitting in her society.   When I read the line “she was afraid she would be lost again,” I thought primarily that she was lost since leaving Felix (50).  She chooses Felix in an attempt to be part of the society, but when she realizes that this is problematic for her she continues her wandering from Felix to Nora to Jenny, trying to find her place with each.  That phrase did not refer to her feeling of loss away from Felix but actually to her loss in the role that she was forced to play.  Her wandering finally leads her to the point of arrival in which she finds herself, or finds the animal inside her.  However, this animal signifies purity and innocence not depravity or bestiality.  By turning into a beast and associating with it, Robin finally succeeds in finding her self. In a celebrated reversal of hierarchies, Robin progresses from the rational to the irrational.

A traditional, patriarchal point of view would distinguish between rational and irrational, consciousness and subconsciousness, reason and passion, mind and heart, always valuing the former over the latter.  In a feminist reversal of hierarchies, mind, passion, subconsciousness and irrational would replace their opposites and take the higher position in the hierarchy.  When Robin finally turns into the irrational beast, she is actually elevated to a higher position.  It is indeed a departure from the patriarchal, rational world and an arrival into the more acclaimed feminine, irrational one.

With all this in mind I reread the paragraph that first introduced the reader to Robin, accompanied by that which ended the novel.  The first paragraph went like this:

On a bed, surrounded by a confusion of potted plants . . . faintly oversung by the notes of unseen birds . . . left without their silencing cover . . . half flung off the support of the cushions from which, in a moment of threatened consciousness she had turned her head, lay the young woman, heavy and dishevelled.  (34, my emphasis)

From the beginning, the words “confusion” and “dishevelled” surround Robin.  So do the words “silencing” and “threatened consciousness.”  It is not that her consciousness was threatened, but it was threatening to Robin for her consciousness to be in control.  The first two words seemed to belong to the second set of binary opposites that I have just suggested, the irrational one.  Therefore, I can see that the novel begins with Robin actually in this state of irrationality but drifts away from it as a result of getting in touch with other people (Felix and Matthew).  She moves away from Felix, to Nora, to Jenny in an attempt to relocate herself.  After Jenny, “Robin now head[s] into Nora’s part of the country. She circle[s] closer and closer” (138).  The word “circle” started me into another line of thought, linked to the previous one.  Robin is indeed going into a full circle to head back to where she started at the beginning; the state of “confusion.”

In other words, Robin was happily living in her world of “confusion” when Felix and Matthew pull her out of it.  She actually tells them “I was all right” when they revive her (35).  She was indeed “all right” before they forced her to leave her world and enter theirs.  Attempting to return to her world, Robin goes through this quest for transformation, yet it is not transformation she is seeking, but a return to her own true self.  Even her quest does not take the typical, linear form of departure, wandering, arrival.  In an individual’s quest for transformation the three stages one goes through are departure, wandering, and arrival, but Robin actually goes in a circle: departure, wandering, arrival (into a world in which she doesn’t belong), wandering, and finally departure (into her own world).  Robin goes full circle in her quest.  Her physical status at the beginning and the end of the quest support this idea.  We first see her lying in bed, with her face turned and her hands beside her.  In the end she returns to her starting position, “lying out, her hands beside her, her face turned" (139).  Isn’t the circular motion in itself an act of defiance against the linearity of the patriarchal world?

Nightwood is a celebration of the irrational, basically because it goes against the traditional, patriarchal order of things. Robin’s silence, therefore, is no longer a silence but expression in another language, a language not easily understood by anyone who follows the traditional (limited) way of perception.  The reader has to speak Robin’s language if s/he wants to understand the novel.  We have to understand the language spoken by Robin that can only be read in these silences we find around her.

We can no longer see the ending as a tragedy of Robin’s collapse, but rather as a victory.  Robin was able finally to come back to her self and to come to terms with the animal inside her.  Through her wandering into the world of the humans, male and female, she was finally able to return to her original self, to her “bestiality.”  It is not only the structure of the novel that is subverted, nor just the norms of behavior.  The words used in the novel do not carry their usual sense of reference.  The human is not applauded in the novel, nor is the beast condemned.  It is actually quite the opposite.  It is the beast who is applauded for its innocence and its resort to nature while the human is corrupted by its desire to fit in a culture that does not welcome the natural and the innocent.  Robin’s final change into the dog is her victory over the culture that tries to take her away from her natural self and make her as human as possible, even if it meant making her something other than she is.

Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace similarly portrays a character able to be victorious by manipulating society’s description of her as a madwoman.  Grace Marks is accused and convicted of murdering the owner and the housekeeper of the house where she works.  After some years in prison, doctors find Grace mentally ill and commit her to an asylum, only to declare her fit again to return to prison.  Years later, when a doctor of psychology shows an interest in Grace’s psychological case, his interviews with her enable her to prove her innocence of these murders on account of her insanity.

The truth or lack of it as to her actual role in the murders and of whether or not she was mentally unstable at the time remains trivial, truth itself being ever-changing according to who relates it.  What her interviews with the doctor allow is for her to weave for herself a story that enables her eventual pardon from the prison.  As her former lawyer reminds her doctor, the truth is irrelevant in this case as Grace’s storytelling becomes like that of Scheherazade, a way of escape from the Sultan’s harsh sentence:

“Lying,” says MacKenzie. “ A severe term, surely.  Has she been lying to you, you ask?  Let me put it this way—did Scheherazade lie?  Not in her own eyes; indeed, the stories she told ought never to be subjected to the harsh categories of Truth and Falsehood.  They belong in another realm altogether.  Perhaps Grace Marks has merely been telling you what she needs to tell, in order to accomplish the desired end.”  (377)

So when the time comes for Grace to tell Dr. Jordan of the night of the murder she wonders what story to add to the plethora of stories others dictated to her:

What should I tell Dr. Jordan about this day?  Because now we are almost there.  I can remember what I said when arrested, and what Mr. MacKenzie the lawyer said I should say, and what I did not say even to him; and what I said at the trial, and what I said afterwards, which was different as well.  And what McDermott said I said, and what the others said I must have said, for there are always those that will supply you with speeches of their own, and put them right into your mouth for you too . . . And that’s what it was like at the trial . . . my true voice could not get out.  (295)

And the story she tells Dr. Jordan of what happened that night becomes only one way of relating what happened, its truth or falsehood never discovered even when the doctor checks the story she tells him with what the newspapers related as he is reminded again that her stories may as well have been derived from these same newspapers (373).

So Grace assumes the role of a simple maid who occasionally goes through fits of unconsciousness during which she loses track of what happened.  She moreover plays the part of a simple-minded woman when Dr. Jordan asks her to reveal more than she wants to reveal and so gives him a “stupid look which [she has] practiced,” and “although any child could guess” what the doctor means, Grace “will not oblige” and she decides to “go back to [her] stupid look” (38, 40).  Grace certainly understands more than she reveals and is able to employ logic as well as, if not better than, the doctor who examines her.2  Yet she has managed to play the role of an irrational woman because it is by feigning irrationality that her sentence is finally reduced—much similar to court sentences that demand pardon on accounts of insanity, an option not open for Grace during her trial, but one which she seized upon as soon as it became available.

During her interviews with the doctor, Grace succeeds in making the doctor believe, or at least suspect, that she was not fully conscious of all her actions after one of her close friends dies tragically.  She explains the circumstances behind her friend’s death and then tells the doctor that she heard her voice right after:

And then I heard her voice, as clear as anything, right in my ear, saying Let me in.  I was quite startled, and looked hard at Mary. . . . But she gave no sign of having said anything. . . . Then I thought with a rush of fear, But I did not open the window.  And I ran across the room and opened it. . . . I was hoping Mary’s soul would fly out the window now, and not stay inside, whispering things into my ear.  But I wondered whether I was too late.  (179)

And soon after, Grace tells Dr. Jordan that she has fainted and lost track of the events for a long time.  Jordan interprets this as shock resulting in periods of somnambulism and amnesia (189).

When a famous hypnotist suggests hypnotizing Grace, she utilizes her role as a hypnotized woman to further demonstrate the influence of Mary’s death on her personality.  As she recognizes this hypnotist as an old acquaintance, she forms an unspoken pack with him “with everyone looking on but unable to detect him” (306).  So when he begins asking her about the murders she speaks in Mary’s voice saying it is she, Mary, who was responsible for the murders as she was inside Grace all that time:

“I told James to do it.  I urged him to.  I was there all along!”

“There?” says DuPont.

“Here!  With Grace, where I am now.  It was so cold, lying on the floor, and I was all alone; I needed to keep warm.  But Grace doesn’t know, she’s never known!”  (402)

As that session was attended by a variety of people who can influence her pardon, Grace’s hypnosis could serve either as proof for the spiritualists that she was possessed by the spirit of Mary, or to convince the skeptics that she has something close to a split personality.

Atwood draws our attention through this novel to patriarchy’s role in appropriating the feminine through her description of the character of Dr. Jordan who insists throughout his interviews on making Grace see things from his point of view.  Shoshana Felman demonstrates this when she explains that man appropriates what he can’t understand to his own logic, reducing it thus in the process to a spectacle: 

With respect to the woman’s madness, man’s reason reacts by trying to appropriate it: in the first place, by claiming to “understand” it, but with an external understanding which reduces the madwoman to a spectacle, to an object which can be known and possessed.  (Felman 15)

Dr. Jordan’s appropriation of Grace’s case comes in the form of the game of association he tries to play with her as he brings to their interviews certain vegetable in order to get Grace to associate them with the cellar where they are usually kept and where the two murder victims were hidden.  But Grace cleverly reverses this game into her own when she corrects him as to what each of these vegetables represents to her and where they are actually stored (196-97). 

Dr. Jordan fails to understand Grace’s actions, however, and explains her maneuvers away from his line of questioning to be the result of her own failing to understand what he wants:

The question whether, in his [the psychoanalyst’s] logic, they [women] can articulate anything at all, whether they can be heard, is not even raised.  For raising it would mean granting that there may be some other logic, and one that upsets his own.  That is, logic that challenges mastery.  (Irigaray 90)

And as his games and his attempts at explaining Grace fail, he begins to shift his attention from her psychological self to her body as he begins to dream of Grace and to imagine her body naked during the interviews.  And while Grace is aware of these association games he plays, she pretends ignorance of the rules of this game further proving to the doctor that she is of a simple mind.

Even in the final chapters when Grace is finally married we see her wondering as to her husband’s attempt to mold and appropriate her to his needs when he insists she tell him her real story and forgives him for his previous injury to her:

I tell him he did not cause me any sufferings . . . but he likes to think it was him that was the author of all, and I believe he would claim the death of my poor mother too, if he could think of a way to do it.  He likes to picture the sufferings as well, and nothing will do but that I have to tell him some story or other about being in the Penitentiary, or else the Lunatic Asylum in Toronto . . . the worse I make the coarse talk and proddings of the keepers, the better he likes it.  (456)

Appropriated to man’s logic as early as she enters the scene, Grace therefore finds no exit but to perform her role as expected by this logic.  It is only when she excels at this role that she is able to escape its restrictions.  Grace portrays what Cixous calls for when she declares “we are black, and we are beautiful”:

As soon as they [women] begin to speak, at the same time as they’re taught their name, they can be taught that their territory is black: because you are Africa, you are black.  Your continent is dark.  Dark is dangerous.  You can’t see anything in the dark, you’re afraid.  Don’t move, you might fall.  Most of all, don’t go into the forest.  And so we have internalized this horror of the dark . . . we are black and we are beautiful.  (Cixous 349)

Eventually Grace’s stories and accounts of this double consciousness succeed not only in winning her freedom from prison but also in dismantling that same logic that dictated her alleged lunacy. The further she goes in her story, the more we see of Jordan’s sick mind at work as he gradually begins to lose the objectivity which characterized his work:

The trouble is that the more she remembers, the more she relates, the more difficulty he himself is having.  He can’t seem to keep track of the pieces.  It’s as if she’s drawing his energy out of him—using his own mental forces to materialize the figures in her story.  (291)

It is when Grace tells her own story, however, that this logic is finally dismantled.  Since her previous story-tellings in the trial and in other interviews were dictated by the listeners they did not succeed in what her final story-telling succeeded in doing.  Because Grace refused to accommodate Jordan in his mind games, she was able to become victorious in the end.  She told her own story in which her “language, in deliberately misunderstanding Dr. Jordan’s speech, resists the patriarchal/linguistic role he has created for her,” since “Dr. Jordan functions within a definition of object-word relationships that denies Grace her own system of meaning” (March 75, 76).  For it is only through dismantling his logic that she can form her own system of meaning:

If she does not ravel and unravel his universe, she will then remain silent, looking at him looking at her.  Or she will, with the enthusiasm of the blind leading the blind, walk in his footsteps chanting R-adical-evolution.  He belongs to that fraction of humanity which for centuries has made other fractions the objects of contempt and exploitation, then, when it saw the handwriting of the wall, set about to give them back their humanity.  (Trinh 47)

Jordan begins his analysis of Grace wishing for the result to be for her to gain back her memory of what happened at the time of the murders as he suspects she suffered from amnesia at that time.  Ironically, it is Jordan himself who loses his memory in the end as a result of playing a part in the war, a game dictated by man’s logic after all.  Jordan’s mother writes about his having been “struck in the head by a piece of flying debris,” and:

As a result of his wound he had lost a part of his memory; for although he recalled his loving Parent, and the events of his childhood, his more recent experiences had been completely erased from his mind, among them his interest in Lunatic Asylums.  (430)

Although man’s logic, here being Jordan’s, fails at re-awakening Grace’s memory,3 it succeeds in the end in erasing the doctor’s own memory.

Grace’s stories, however, continue even after the doctor leaves and they continue in the fragmented, multiple form that they took since the beginning, thus manifesting the characteristics of the female imaginary according to Irigaray who writes that “if the female imaginary were to deploy itself, if it would bring itself into play otherwise than as scraps, uncollected debris, would it represent itself, even so, in the form of one universe” (30).  So Grace makes her quilt following the typical pattern of the Tree of Paradise, but with a difference that accommodates her fragmented self:

three of the triangles in my Tree will be different.  One will be white, from the petticoat I still have that was Mary Whitney’s; one will be faded yellowish, from the prison nightdress I begged as a keepsake when I left there.  And the third will be a pale cotton, a pink and white floral, cut from the dress of Nancy’s that she had on the first day I was at Mr. Kinnear’s, and that I wore on the ferry to Lewiston, when I was running away.  (460)

Grace chooses to represent her life not only in scraps and debris but as scraps from three different universes: Mary’s, Nancy’s, and her own.

As Atwood and Barnes present patriarchy’s attempts to appropriate women’s madness to its logic, Leslie Marmon Silko presents patriarchy’s attempt to appropriate another form of logic to its own system because it also fails to see its difference as such.  In Ceremony, and through the character of Tayo, Silko portrays what it is like to be forced to reject the system of thought accredited by one’s own culture when this culture is a minority.  Tayo’s existence on the edges of the dominant Western culture, however, enables him, as it enables Grace and Robin, to critique this culture and to subvert the negative meanings it assigned to the practices of his own Native American culture.

Tayo grew up with his cousin Rocky listening to the stories of their uncle Josiah, stories about humans and animals communicating and about prayers sung to the rain.  Believing in these stories in their childhood the two boys were soon subjected to school teachers who taught them “not to believe in that kind of ‘nonsense’” (43).  Rocky preferred to believe these school teachers because he saw that only through believing them can he amount to anything in the world:

Rocky understood what he had to do to win in the white outside world.  After their first year at boarding school in Albuquerque, Tayo saw how Rocky deliberately avoided the old-time ways.  Old Grandma shook her head at him, but he called it superstition, and he opened his textbooks to show her.  (51)

Taught not to believe in his folk’s “superstitions” Rocky refused to partake in their rituals as well.  So when the boys go deer hunting Rocky refuses to follow the rituals practiced by his family (51-52).

The army offers Rocky and other Indian boys a chance to further fit in a world that seeks to annihilate them.  In their army uniforms, these boys had the illusion of “belonging to America,” and “Belonging was drinking and laughing with the platoon, dancing with blond women, buying drinks for buddies born in Cleveland, Ohio,” not realizing that these feelings would end as soon as they stepped out of these uniforms (43).  So when the war was over and the Indian boys were no longer part of this America they started turning against each other, picking up fights between themselves, and blaming themselves for no longer belonging:

They blamed themselves for losing the new feeling; they never talked about it, but they blamed themselves just like they blamed themselves for losing the land the white people took.  They never thought to blame the white people for any of it; they wanted white people for their friends.  They never saw that it was the white people who gave them that feeling and it was the white people who took it away again when the war was over.  (43)

Not realizing that belonging to America was conditioned by fighting in the war for America and only for the duration of this fight these Indian boys refused to see that they were being used to fight the white man’s war, a war that resulted in Rocky’s death as it has resulted in Jordan’s loss of memory in Alias Grace. 

Tayo, however, remained an outsider in this war even though he joined it to be with his cousin.  When surrounded by dead Japanese soldiers Tayo refuses to look at the corpses and when forced to do so he saw in these soldiers the face of his uncle Josiah.  Traumatized by these sights, Tayo is immediately given something to help him sleep and when awakened is reassured by Rocky that what he has experienced was battle fatigue and that it could not have been their uncle there amongst the Japanese corpses (8).  Tayo, however, remained confident that it was his uncle even though Rocky’s logic sought to disprove it:

 He examined the facts and logic again and again, the way Rocky had explained it to him; the facts made what he had seen an impossibility.  He felt the shivering then; it began at the tips of his fingers and pulsed into his arms.  He shivered because all the facts, all the reasons made no difference any more; he could hear Rocky’s words, and he could follow the logic of what Rocky said, but he would not feel anything except a swelling in his belly, a great swollen grief that was pushing into his throat.  (8-9)

The logic that his cousin presents to him fails in convincing Tayo to disbelieve his culture because his feelings dictated otherwise and Tayo prefers to believe his own feelings than the logic of the white man that Rocky uses.  Rocky, however, believes in the devaluation of his culture performed by the white man’s culture and as a result “the only text he allows himself to read is that outside world’s discourse,” a discourse that eventually lead to his death because it does not provide him with the means of writing his own story (Hobbs 304).

Tayo is able to survive the effects of the war to which his cousin fell victim because he, unlike Rocky, was able to “liberate himself from the powerful dominance of various authoritative discourses” (Hobbs 302).  Like Grace, Tayo writes his own story because if he let those authoritative discourses tell it they would end it by his death much in the same way that those telling Grace’s story ended it by declaring her insanity.  Night Swan reminds Tayo that the white men would want to end the story with his death:

“They want to end here, the way all their stories end, encircling slowly to choke the life away. . . . They have their stories about us—Indian people who are only marking time and waiting for the end.  And they would end this story right here, with you fighting to your death alone in these hills. . . . The Army people don’t know.  They don’t know about the stories or the struggle for the ending to the story.”  (232)

And she implores Tayo to resist the white people’s attempt to write his own story and their attempts to decide who he is.  And although it proves difficult for Tayo to resist such a dominant discourse, he nevertheless succeeds in the end against these white attempts to set the Indians against each other:

The witchery had almost ended the story according to its plan; Tayo had almost jammed the screwdriver into Emo’s skull the way the witchery had wanted. . . . He would have been another victim, a drunk Indian war veteran settling an old feud; and the Army doctors would say that the indications of this end had been there all along. . . . The white people would shake their heads, more proud than sad that it took a white man to survive in their world and that these Indians couldn’t make it.  (253)

But Tayo has proven them wrong and gathering his strength from the figures of the strong Indians that he encountered in his life,4 he is able to survive in this white man’s world.

These writers and characters succeed therefore in subverting the discourses of patriarchy by showing how those same characteristics assigned to them and causing them to be considered inferior are indeed characteristics that liberate them when they are able to manipulate them.  “Reverse discourse,” Weedon writes, “has important implications for the power of the discourse which it seeks to subvert. As a first stage in challenging meaning and power, it enables the production of new, resistant discourses” (106).  Yet this alone is not enough to subvert this system but a constant reversal and re-reversal is required that will question the system itself:

What is complicated is that there can be no “woman’s discourse” produced by a woman, and that, furthermore, strictly speaking, political practice, at least currently, is masculine through and through.  In order for women to be able to make themselves heard, a “radical” evolution in our way of conceptualizing and managing the political realm is required.  This, of course, cannot be achieved in a single “stroke.”  (Irigaray 127)

Atwood, Barnes, and Silko present characters who are forced into silence in many different ways, but who succeed, nevertheless, in breaking out of their silence.  Irigaray argues that it is the oppression of women which forces them to live outside the dominant system of thought that enables them to subvert the meanings of this system:

Women’s social inferiority is reinforced and complicated by the fact that woman does not have access to language, except through recourse to “masculine” systems of representation which disappropriates her from her relation to herself and to other women. . . . But this situation of specific oppression is perhaps what can allow women today to elaborate a “critique of the political economy,” inasmuch as they are in a position external to the laws of exchange.  (Irigaray 85)

The oppression of Native Americans can be added to the oppression of women.  Existing outside these laws allows those to question it.  The critique of this system therefore needs to be constantly enacted so as to draw attention to the existence of other systems and to allow these systems to take a more clear existence.  By constantly reversing the meanings assigned to each side of the binary which dictates the system of Western metaphysics, this system will eventually be discredited.


1.  Weedon defines what Kristeva terms as the semiotic chora as such:

The semiotic chora is the site of those meanings and modes of signification which cannot be reduces to the symbolic order and which exceed rational conscious subjectivity.  It is an effect of the entry of the individual as subject into the symbolic order and the repression which this involves (85).

2.  Cristie March explains that “while Grace can access the meaning of his object/language . . . Dr. Jordan cannot access hers” (77).  Jordan fails to understand Grace’s language because hers exists in the wilderness of dominant thought as Elaine Showalter argues, and is thus inaccessible to men:  In terms of cultural anthropology, women know what the male crescent is like, even if they have never seen it, because it becomes the subject of legend (like the wilderness).  But men do not know what is in the wild”  (262).

3.  It is actually the hypnosis that results in what could be considered Grace’s return of her memory as it results in her speaking in Mary Whitney’s voice and thus showing her double consciousness.  Hypnosis is itself questionable according to man’s logic at that time, as Jordan is hesitant about including it in his report for fear he would be discredited by members of the medical profession (407).

4.  Night Swan as well as Betonie provide Tayo with examples of strong Indian characters who were able to survive holding on to their beliefs.


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