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Writing Masculinities: Male Narratives in Twentieth-Century Fiction
Theory And Cultural Studies
Ben Knights. Writing Masculinities: Male Narratives in Twentieth-Century Fiction. New York: Macmillan, 1999. vii + 256 pp.
Ben Knights's thoughtful, nuanced work demonstrates how good scholarship can change lives. Every page of Writing Masculinities breathes with the conviction that narrative is as necessary as oxygen. Knights takes Simone de Beauvoir's feminist adage that women are not born but made and applies it to men, proposing that by becoming aware of the ways that narratives construct masculine and feminine identities, we can develop strategies for resisting the norms such narratives impose. Lucidly explaining current theories of gender and narrative, he establishes a context for his analysis of particular stories. He also ponders the significance of his criticism in his life and the impact of his life on his criticism.
Not only is identity equally contingent for men and women, Knights argues, but both suffer under patriarchy. By positing an imaginary plenitude as the male norm, patriarchy causes men to feel deficient because they fail to achieve it. This failure generates a need to master others in [End Page 1051] order to maintain the sense of self they are taught to seek, and their ensuing acts of revenge are often directed against women. Thus the "gruelling symbolic work of producing the male as complete and invulnerable hero is never finished."
Knights chooses both canonical and popular texts to illustrate how male identities are formed. Joseph Conrad and D. H. Lawrence provide the primary modernist examples. As different as they are from each other, both are "fictional forefathers" of contemporary men's writing--Conrad through his conflicting models of masculinity, Lawrence through his images of male autonomy in relation to the unconscious and women. After presenting illuminating readings of these authors' key texts, Knights demonstrates their influence on James Kelman, David Leavitt, Ian McEwan, and Graham Swift.
Since Knights's theoretical position is that the instruments of social construction are available to everyone, he does not equate male narratives with male authors. With his customary reasonableness, however, he admits that the reader's awareness of the author's gender inevitably inflects every response. Knights's discussion of the ways women represent male consciousness focuses on the social conventions that establish gender identity in Christina Stead's The Man who Loved Children and Nadine Gordimer's The Conservationist.
In all his exemplary texts, Knights identifies recurrent themes in the construction of masculinity. He finds that male characters resist dependency and cast domestic life and ordinary jobs as feminized spaces from which they must flee to be free. Flight is the "mirror image of quest, the penetration of an adventure world in search of an object or an adventure which will validate the hero's being." Both flight and quest validate the hero's individual identity, which is threatened by the "domestic world, the world of work, of the demands of relationships or of routine." When men search for an ideal place, it is often represented as a remote geographical location that can be reached only by overcoming physical and psychological obstacles. Struggles between fathers and sons are also frequent, and the figure of the adult male as child is surprisingly common.
Art is problematic for men. Although creating art allows men to substitute cultural for biological paternity, thus evading the contingencies of nature in their pursuit of an ideal stable selfhood, art has strong [End Page 1052] feminine associations. Men are reluctant to acknowledge that narratives shape them, partly because resistance to the inner world fiction constructs is itself a criterion of masculinity. In addition, the position of the observer is feminized in our culture. Male authors and readers must become self-observers to convert this position into the accepted masculine role of seeking self-knowledge. One way of doing this is to cast the hero as artist. The figure of the aspiring male artist expresses the search "for an ideal father rather than simply making do with whatever...