Beth Ann Bassein takes on a major project in Women and Death: Linkages in Western Thought and Literature: to examine the "image, aura, and actuality of death as they relate to women's lives both in literature and, insofar as art represents life, in reality as people know or define it." In exploring what she sees as the "almost universal" associations among women, death, and sexuality in patriarchal Western culture, Bassein ranges widely throughout history and literature, devoting chapters to gender and language, Christianity, Renaissance poetry, adultery in fiction, the "death aura" in modern poetry, and twentieth-century British and American fiction. She ends with a chapter on Adrienne Rich, whose subversion and revision of the traditional identification of women and death allows Bassein to end the book on an optimistic note. An engaged feminist critic, Bassein is disturbed by [End Page 353] the links she senses between the negative attitudes expressed toward women in literature and male violence toward women in life; she concludes with an Appendix that provides a brutal list of social crimes against women (including female infanticide, foot-binding, rape, suttee, and murder), arguing that literary and symbolic associations of women with death help to legitimate such acts.
The book's ambitious scope—Bassein's attempt to synthesize attitudes toward women and death across cultures and historical periods—is also its major weakness. Because Bassein assumes an unchanging continuity from the Middle Ages to the present in cultural attitudes toward "the inseparable triad: woman, sex, death," she gives us an ahistorical argument, failing to account for changing ideologies as well as for varying social and historical contexts. Hence she also oversimplifies the complex interplay between symbolic and social systems, image and attitude, prescription and behavior. Although she hopes to examine both the "image" and the "actuality" of women's lives, she tends to confuse the two, as in her assumption that a repressive Victorian sexual ideology "cut [women] off from real life" and "stifled their development." Recent studies by Carl Degler and Peter Gay, however, demonstrate that this was not the case: there was considerably more sexual freedom and enjoyment in the nineteenth century for both women and men than the prescriptive literature would suggest. Bassein's attempt to integrate systems of cultural representation—literature, myth, religion—with social/historical actualities is admirable, but her insufficient awareness of social history unfortunately places both her questions and her conclusions on shaky methodological ground.
In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman Linda Huf avoids the problems raised by interdisciplinary scholarship by restricting herself to a literary subject: her concern is the feminist exploration of the interconnections between gender and genre. Proceeding from the assumption that the male kunstlerroman does not tell the woman artist's story, Huf sets out to define and to analyze the female novel of artistic emergence. She devotes an introductory chapter to isolating the common elements in the female kunstlerroman and then applies her paradigm to six American novels, ranging from the midnineteenth to the twentieth century: Ruth Hall (1855), The Story of Avis (1877), The Awakening (1899), The Song of the Lark (1915), The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940), and The Bell Jar (1963). She concludes with a chapter on the contemporary artist-heroine, looking briefly at novels and autobiographies by Erica Jong, Margaret Atwood, and Kate Millett, among others.
Huf proceeds from a familiar, and important, feminist premise: that we need to challenge the supposedly "universal" patterns literary critics have found in literature by recognizing that certain plots...