In pre-twentieth century women's fiction, the strains in the relationship between women and the dominant culture were represented through covert modes. The strategies of women writers included subtexts, minor characters, and patterns of imagery, which to various degrees undermined the traditional scripts for appropriate behavior in fiction and life that their surface plots and major characters seemed to confirm.1 Through her heroines, Jane Austen, for instance, maintains a "double consciousness"; as Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar observe, although Austen drives her heroines into a final "docility and restraint," she allows them to uncover the "delights of assertion and rebellion" on the way. In fact, Austen slyly subverted prevailing values through the "duplicity" of the "happy endings" of her novels, "in which she brings her couples to the brink of bliss in such haste . . . or with such sarcasm that the entire message is undercut" (Gilbert and Gubar 168-169). Gilbert and Gubar reveal similar subversive subtexts in George Eliot, whose Maggie Tulliver, they [End Page 353] demonstrate, is the "most monstrous when she tries to turn herself into an angel of renunciation" (491). Thus Jane Austen and George Eliot, to name only two writers that over a decade of feminist criticism has uncovered, offered, whether consciously or not, hidden or disguised challenges to canonical notions of fiction.
Indeed, feminist criticism has neatly deconstructed the Great Tradition materialized by F. R. Leavis. Jane Austen, who Leavis proposed inaugurated "the great tradition of the English novel," and George Eliot, seen by Leavis as solidly entrenched in the Great Tradition, are understood by way of feminist analysis to be compromising the very values their fiction seems to Leavis and others dependably to confirm. Thus two of the five writers Leavis privileges in his Great Tradition are engaged in subverting the order of which Leavis offers them as exemplars. Leavis required a "marked moral intensity" so explicit and plain that what he identified as its exhibition was, in the cases of Austen and Eliot, at least covertly, parody (9).2
That the literary canon is a "strategic construct" (Altieri 42) by which the dominating, patriarchal order confirms its own values, a process that renders the relations between the canon and women problematic, is fairly widely accepted.3 In this context, the "moral seriousness" demanded by Leavis is revealed as a code, rationalizing patriarchal dominance. The operation of this code is evident in the particular vocabulary of his judgments, including key terms such as "morality," "reverence," "civilization," terms driven by imperatives defined and maintained by a strict system of patriarchal constraints. Insights of this kind, in fact, must have preceded and eventually enabled the uncovering of subversive subtexts in women's works.
Yet these internal, disguised assaults on patriarchal values are confined to and thus to a degree disarmed by the traditional fiction that houses them. The realistic mode of women's nineteenth-century fiction did not essentially disturb the structure of the master marriage and quest narratives this fiction covertly interrogates.4 Eliot, Austen, and other writers may have assailed the prevailing order, but as long as they wrote in this mode, they were, to some degree, in complicity with it. Despite the subversive moves on the part of Austen and Eliot, Emma—although she is financially independent—is obliged to marry, and Maggie, because she does not, is obliged to die. What else could Eliot do with such a heroine within the parameters of nineteenth-century realism, impelled as it was by certain [End Page 354] master narratives?
Twentieth-century women experimental writers have not required covert means to express their dissatisfactions. They explode the fixed architecture of the master narrative, break—in the words of Virginia Woolf—the "sequence" of traditional fiction and open up a space, an alternate arena for the writing of an "utterly other discourse" (Brooke-Rose, Amalgamemnon 15).5 In subverting the forms of conventional narrative, they subvert the patriarchal social structure these forms reflect. With such structural disruption, the "woman" in the text is liberated from the secret folds of the fiction and comes to inhabit the entire text. Rather than carrying the dominant discourse that Leavis calls "moral" and...