restricted access "Modernist" Women Writers and Narrative Art (review)
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Reviewed by
Kathleen Wheeler. “Modernist” Women Writers and Narrative Art. New York: New York UP, 1994. 232 pp.

If ever there was a book where one should heed the admonition to not judge by its cover, this is it, for reasons I shall soon explain. First, let me outline what the project accomplishes, and accomplishes extremely well. Kathleen Wheeler proposes to guide the reader through a journey that calls for supreme acuity: “All readers have to press their imagination to new efforts . . . as these works of fiction parody, ironise, and metaphorise the experiences of coming face to face with the ‘Reality’ that is ourselves—in all its disguises and variations.” The kind of critical project Wheeler admires and advocates is one which “seeks to avoid . . . reductiveness . . . by paying close, scrupulous attention to that ‘sharp edge of experiment.”’ Something of the magic of this readerly experience can be gauged by Wheeler’s explanation that she strives “to respect and understand these elements of mystery, of vision, and of art as experiments in original, individual personal acts of imagination, which seek to interpret human life and make it meaningful.” The terrain she explores is the fiction of seven women writers, Willa Cather, Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton, Jean Rhys, Katherine Mansfield, Stevie Smith, and Jane Bowles.

Wheeler offers a clear account for her selection of this particular group of writers (some predictable and others refreshingly surprising; hence the quotation marks around the word modernist in the title), but it is less clear why she has chosen only women writers. In an often beautifully written and always carefully constructed study, Wheeler demonstrates how modernist expression enables these writers [End Page 230] “to act inevitably toward the truth in sight, whatever unexpected ways and means must be used to achieve it. The author’s desire not to swerve away from the unexpected, not to give in, not to comply with the reader’s expectations is one source of originality and beauty in art.” Each writer draws upon a variety of literary conventions or elements (“time, space, order, structure, language, style, action, theme, characterisation, imagery, plot”) so that “everything is pulled and stretched toward some human truth.” And so Wheeler’s critical cards are on the table. These seven individual writers are not bound by their sex, or any other identity or subject position—they, like the “reader,” operate in a vacuum, isolated from history or context.

Unhappily, there is a deadening sameness to the shape of individual chapters. Before moving to a close reading of key texts, most of the chapters begin with a couple of paragraphs recounting often familiar biographical details of each writer’s life. Since no attempt is made to integrate any of this information into the subsequent analysis, one wonders why it could not have been included at the end or in footnotes. Wheeler’s concern is not context, but precise textual detail. She calls repeatedly for the alert reader to place the text under a microscope, so that details, previously dismissed or undetected, will emerge with intense clarity. For example, Wheeler returns to the image of the parrot in Chopin’s The Awakening, and discerns “an image of the ironist, the two birds being images for the two-sided construction of the plot, for the double voice of Chopin the surface narrator and Chopin the voice behind appearance, ironising and criticising the surface”—all of this from what at first glance may seem an “over-used literary convention—all too worn-out and familiar to be very effective.”

Such a reading reveals with equally intense clarity that Wheeler is an exceptionally gifted formalist critic. Her project is to recuperate the aesthetics of literary form by probing “Narrative Art” seriously and earnestly. It is a pity that the publisher did not find this incisive study marketable in its own right, but instead resorted to touting the methodology as “drawing upon insights from feminist theory, deconstruction and revisions of new historicism.” While there are multiple references to feminist scholarship, Wheeler is basically unconcerned with gender. If this study is intended to be taken as a contribution to feminist literary criticism, it should matter that these writers are women. As far...