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Modern Fiction Studies 46.2 (2000) 565-567

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Book Review

The Girl: Constructions of the Girl in Contemporary Fiction by Women

Theory and Cultural Studies

Ruth O. Saxton, ed. The Girl: Constructions of the Girl in Contemporary Fiction by Women. New York: St. Martin's, 1998. xxix + 178 pp.

This new study begins with the question, "How do women construct girlhood in their fiction?" Thus Ruth O. Saxton introduces the first collection of critical essays to examine the representation of girls in contemporary women's fiction within the context of current sociological and psychoanalytic analyses. Saxton invites the reader to view the work of such authors as Dorothy Allison, Jeanette Winterson, Toni Morrison, Jamaica Kincaid, and Joyce Carol Oates through the lens of the fictional Girl. Saxton refuses, however, to privilege any singular critical means of categorization, and so articles are not grouped or sequenced in terms of themes or theoretical development, but are instead organized to accommodate shifting constellations of themes and narrative patterns--including race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, class, female subjectivity, and nationalism. Saxton includes a brief summary of each essay in her useful and articulate introduction, permitting readers to discover thematic threads and to thereby draw their own conclusions. As an inaugural study of the Girl, this book opens up a provocative, new theoretical topos through a multiplicity of perspectives, rather than attempting to delimit or define it.

Generally, the essays of this collection are quite good. Each offers a fresh perspective that focuses on the fiction(s) of the Girl and the complexities of coming-of-age at the end of the millennium. Several pieces are of particular value. Gina Hausknecht's "Self-Possession, Dolls, Beatlemania, Loss: Telling the Girl's Own Story" explores the paradigm of the Girl's own story as the counternarrative to a corporately produced cultural ideology and canonical authority. Hausknecht reads Jane [End Page 565] Campion's short film A Girl's Own Story (1986) and Morrison's The Bluest Eye (1970) as "anatomies of loss" that explore the impossibility of girls coming fully and safely of age--those defeated by normative cultural narratives in which they become absorbed. Hausknecht then juxtaposes these more pessimistic fictions with Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber (1979) and Kathy Acker's Blood and Guts in High School (1984), which revise the archetypes (canonical classics and fairy tales) from which the coming-of-age story is constructed, providing legends of loss transformed. In "Coming-of-Age in the Snare of History: Jamaica Kincaid's The Autobiography of My Mother," Diane Simmons looks at the development of this West Indian woman writer, commencing with her first coming-of-age novel, Annie John (1983). Simmons contrasts the enchanted "lost paradise" of Annie John, where Kincaid's girl may still manage to discover an authentic self, to the darker vision of her later novel, The Autobiography of My Mother (1986), in which there is no such hope, no possibility of paradise regained. Simmons contends that if Kincaid's recent work seems bleak, it is, in fact, more politically charged, for it forces readers--both black and white--to confront "the trap of history" in which we are all equally caught. Finally, in "But that Was in Another Country: Girlhood and the Contemporary 'Coming to America' Narrative," Rosemary Marangoly George focuses on the trope of "coming to America" in three contemporary literary texts written by women of color: When I Was a Puerto Rican by Esmeralda Santiago (1993), Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid (1991), and Jasmine by Bharati Mukherjee (1989). In her analysis of these three minority texts, George focuses on the ways in which the coming-of-age of girls is calibrated by the stages in which they relinquish their associations with the places they belonged to prior to their coming to the United States. Perhaps the most compelling evidence George provides to support her claim is her reproduction of jacket designs from Santiago's When I Was A Puerto Rican that visually and verbally testify to these sentiments, measuring the Girl's progress...


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