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Lesbian Figures and American Literature
Valerie Rohy. Impossible Women: Lesbian Figures and American Literature. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2000. 191pp.
Lesbians are ideologically "impossible" in patriarchal culture--both intolerable and supposedly nonexistent; that is, as Valerie Rohy argues, lesbian desire becomes possible within homophobic discourse by being named as impossible; the denial of lesbian desire structures its articulation. As this deft formulation suggests, Rohy reads lesbianism as a rhetorical figure, drawing on poststructuralist queer theory to analyze texts by Hawthorne, James, Chopin, Hemingway, Hurston, and Bishop. Impossible [End Page 1038] Women is ideal for Americanists looking to integrate queer studies into their teaching and study of canonical works: Rohy assumes the reader's knowledge of the fictional texts, and she distills and develops some major strands of lesbian literary theory.
Within the heterosexist discourses of American ideology, lesbianism signifies a failure of signification, resists narrative closure with compulsive repetition, and deconstructs the privileging of writing over speech. In readings of The Blithedale Romance and The Bostonians, Rohy's deconstructive and psychoanalytic orientation provides productive engagements with traditionalist accounts of these novels in terms of generic categories of allegory and realism. In both works, Rohy notes, sexual perversity signals linguistic perversity, as lesbian figures mark challenges to the novels' generic conventions. Connecting American realism and the Lacanian real, Rohy finds that both Hawthorne and James associate lesbianism and the uncanny effects of the female voice with a resistance to representation that both threatens and sustains the symbolic order.
Later chapters similarly emphasize psychoanalytic theory even while placing the fictional works in specifically national and historicist contexts. Reading The Awakening against texts by Emerson and Fuller, Rohy analyzes the patterns of metonymic displacement that characterize both Edna Pontellier's refusal of her culturally prescribed role and the structures of literary realism; further, Rohy analyzes the displacement of such displacement in the American myth of individualism. Reading The Sun Also Rises with early-twentieth-century sexology, Rohy focuses on connections between the repetitions associated with lesbian desire and the repetitions associated with decadent literariness.
But Impossible Women also shares the limitations of the theories on which it draws. Despite its ideological centrality to American culture, the concept of race appears only in Rohy's chapter on Hurston. This is particularly disappointing given the parallels between Rohy's project here and, say, Toni Morrison's in Playing in the Dark. Both books are short, accessible rereadings of canonical American literature for the centrality of figures--lesbian or Africanist, respectively--often seen as marginal. Yet, eight years after Morrison's reading of The Garden of Eden, Rohy misses the opportunity to examine, in her own discussion of that novel, the ways that Africanist and lesbian figures intersect. That Rohy's use of psychoanalysis is incompletely inflected by critical race studies is also [End Page 1039] evident in her chapter on Hurston, where repeated formulations such as "whiteness, like the phallus" suggest the analogical grafting of theories of race onto theories of sexuality, rather than their integration. Still, she offers a suggestive account of Their Eyes Were Watching God as recuperating orality (as both speech and eroticism) from its culturally devalued positions.
The most engaging chapter is also in some ways the most anomalous. Rohy examines two short stories by Elizabeth Bishop ("The Country Mouse" and "Gwendolyn") that address the question of what it means to be a little girl in a linguistic system of sexual discipline. These are the least canonical works discussed here (Bishop is better known, of course, as a poet), the only ones that are not novels, and the only ones written by an author one might identify as herself lesbian. But though Impossible Women is not always successful in bridging lesbian reading and canonical text, psychoanalytic theory and national literature, it remains a valuable contribution to an important and continuing critical project.