restricted access Resisting Bodies: The Negotiation of Female Agency in Twentieth-Century Women's Fiction (review)
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Reviewed by
Helga Druxes. Resisting Bodies: The Negotiation of Female Agency in Twentieth-Century Women’s Fiction. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1996. 230 pp.

In this study of four women writers, Druxes throws many critical and theoretical balls into the air. Some moves make striking patterns, some are hard to follow, and a few ideas fall, undeveloped, by the wayside. The title highlights “Bodies,” resistance, gender, “Agency,” and “Fiction”; the introduction adds the economic terms “Transaction” and “Exchange”; and the conclusion features “Alterity,” while much of the argument focuses on the relationship between women and cities. The theoretical apparatus is equally diverse. To analyze the relationships between female bodies and urban space, Druxes draws upon cultural anthropology, poststructuralist Marxism, Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis, and French feminist philosophy, as well as upon literary criticism and literary history from ancient Greek drama to medieval and Renaissance texts.

Druxes discusses novels by the colonial modernists Jean Rhys and Marguerite Duras, who hail from the British Caribbean and French Indochina respectively, and by the contemporary metropolitan writers Margaret Drabble and Monika Maron, who situate their characters in a decaying London and a totalitarian East Berlin, so that their female protagonists trace a chronological trajectory from the 1920s to the 1990s that is also a political progress. Druxes claims that in these novels, “the city as the epitome of the commodity marketplace becomes the catalyst for critical self-consciousness” and that the four authors demonstrate a “progression from female protagonists as mute exchange objects to vocal agents in the exchange.” In the novels written after the advent of second-wave feminism, a gendered “agency leads to female coalition building that enables a shared systemic critique” of modern market society, which enables “collective acts of civil disobedience against undemocratic social practice.” Thus, the novels trace “a movement from isolated acts of rebellion” in Rhys’s fiction “toward an activist collective agency for social innovation and democratization” in Maron’s.

Druxes focuses on two of Jean Rhys’s interwar novels and on her autobiography. She claims that Rhys’s autobiographical heroines are compelled to a repetition that provides some mastery over the trauma [End Page 486] of enforced female passivity in a predatory, male-dominated metropolis, while their hysterical bodies enact a “violent critique of colonialist practices.” Druxes’s anthropological analysis of the zombie figure in Vodoun belief persuasively confutes other critics’ optimism about Rhys’s disempowered, zombie-like protagonists’ chances for resurrection.

Druxes’s perceptive discussion of Duras focuses on one book, Un Barrage contre le Pacifique [The Seawall ] , and on the difference between gift-giving and capitalist exchange. From this anthropological perspective, Duras’s autobiographical protagonist, the young daughter of a poor white colonial family, realizes her value and attains a measure of agency through both rejecting and accepting gifts from rich suitors without consenting to barter her body at the same time. “By the end of the novel, the vicious circle of (female) commodification has been interrupted” and replaced by a forward-moving narrative like the cinema, and “the city as backdrop becomes a catalyst for personal change.”

The chapters on Drabble and Maron treat more novels—six by Drabble and five by Maron—and chart development not just from author to author but within the authors’ works. The Drabble chapter is the most contradictory in the volume. In Druxes’s overall scheme, Drabble is penultimate in a progression toward self-conscious agency on the part of women writers’ urban female protagonists. The Drabble characters are more multiple and diverse than those by Rhys or Duras, and they sustain themselves through female friendships, as the earlier characters could not. On the other hand, Druxes is more critical of Drabble’s liberalism than she is of Duras’s political radicalism. For her, Drabble is bound by her class perspective so that her bourgeois characters retreat from the cosmopolitan challenge of “liminoid urban spaces” into suburban enclaves. She says that “Drabble fails” her readers by demonizing mothers, and that her class bias “eerily reproduces a colonialist mentality.” Druxes further dissipates her analysis of Drabble by sketchily comparing her as a moral allegorist to Bunyan and Spenser.

More satisfying is Druxes’s treatment of...