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Like Elaine Showalter's A Literature of Their Own and Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's The Madwoman in the Attic, these two studies, both dealing with the representation of women in Victorian realist fiction, have important applications to twentieth-century writing. Moreover, both tend to complicate the connection between feminism and nineteenth-century realism, suggesting ways in which twentieth-century women's writing has effectively constructed "the Victorian novel" as a category of representation encoding certain paradigmatic issues about the relations between women and language. And both are highly sophisticated and innovative studies that finally transcend their immediate concerns with the nineteenth-century novel because they resist the notion that any sort of representation can be natural, transparent, unproblematic.
In the first four chapters of The Flesh Made Word, Michie investigates Victorian theories and practices of figuration, using elegant close readings to demonstrate how tropes paradoxically act both to distance the female body from the text and to subvert that distance. In her fifth chapter, she turns to the mid-twentieth century and to poetry, and the abrupt shift in context reveals that the Victorians were not the only ones to assume that figuration is essentially a mode of concealment, of euphemism. Indeed, those second-wave feminist writers who explicitly set themselves in opposition to what they saw as Victorian prudery and misogyny embraced the same myth about figures: that they constitute a straying from "home," "the security of original meaning." [End Page 680]
The point is especially important because all of Michie's preceding exposition has affirmed that figuration is coextensive with language. The attempt to restore to full presence a female corporeality that metaphor, for example, has displaced or deferred disconcertingly produces more metaphors, not only in poetry—Michie works with poems by Shange, Jong, Rich, and Sandra Gilbert—but in criticism, as when Catharine Stimpson calls for a "severely literal" definition of the lesbian and comes up with the metaphoric formulation "a commitment of skin, blood, breast and bone." For feminist critics as well as feminist poets (the categories overlap), "the body is at once the most literal ground of female experience and a metaphor for its very literalness."
The observation is crucial in approaching Margaret Homans' Bearing the Word, in which "the literal" is frequently a designation for a group of figures. Homans generates her revisionary psychoanalytic theory of language from a fundamental opposition between "the literal" and "the figurative," but in her critical lexicon "the literal" can have varying degrees of literalness, meaning sometimes "the non- (or pre-) symbolic" and sometimes "like the non-symbolic," specifically "like childbirth." The ambiguity derives to a great extent from her Lacanian model and arguably is inherent in any myth of origins that makes language a substitute for something else, but it does locate her superb close readings within an ontological labyrinth that readers are advised to negotiate with extreme care.
The caveat is necessary because Homans' project should have far-reaching consequences. Bearing the Word is the first major attempt to integrate the findings of feminist object-relations psychoanalysts, in particular Nancy Chodorow, with Lacan's reinscription of Freudian theory. Within the limits that the book sets for itself, this "revisionary myth of women and language" is successful, motivating individual readings that are always persuasive and often compelling, as when Frankenstein is construed as a response not only to Mary Shelley's childbearing history but also to Percy Shelley's Alastor. But Homans' premise is that her fundamental instance of the "literal," the nonrepresentational language between mothers and daughters that testifies to the survival of the preoedipal bond, does not appear in novels until the twentieth century. Nineteenth-century women have managed only to thematize or allude to this "literal" as an absent referent—to represent the category of the nonrepresentational. This contention both foregrounds the importance of Homans' book for twentieth-century studies and...