- Reviewed by
Think back a few years to the television classic All in the Family. Recall Archie Bunker's domineering commands for Edith to "stifle it!" and you will have pictured a rough vignette that approaches the much more refined and authoritative critical perspective of Janis P. Stout in Strategies of Reticence. Beginning with the observation that the stifling of women's speech denotes both repression and victimization, Stout examines the ways in which four female authors have used a lack of speech (silence), or minimal speech (reticence), for rhetorical effect: specifically, as strategies to subvert traditional masculine power. Austen, Cather, Porter, and Didion employ such signifying spaces in their work and then turn that silence "back on their repressors as a weapon." Stout's volume is an exemplary critical study: a fresh and challenging thesis, a justifiably diverse selection of authors, an abundance of cogent examples, and a conclusion that graciously invites further critical contributions.
The chapter on Austen brings to light a number of ways silence or reticence in fiction is tested. One is to demonstrate character. Individuals of the greatest moral substance in Austen's fiction are the most judicious and reserved speakers. Mr. Knightley, in his verbal restraint, is a model of grace and decorum, whereas Mr. Collins' tendency to inflate a simple sentiment into paragraph after paragraph of prattle demonstrates that he is a fulsome windbag. Secondly, Austen employs a comic technique Stout calls the "drop to silence," which is somewhat equivalent to the long pause a comedian offers after the punchline that allows the audience a moment to digest the joke and to respond with laughter. The drop to silence is effective because of its tacit design. Rather than making the point explicit herself, Austen sets up the proper conditions so that the reader arrives at his/her own conclusion, thereby producing a work that encourages reader involvement. And that Austen avoids certain issues—questions of sexual intimacy, money, and gender discrimination—affirms the nature of her aesthetic choices, according to Stout, not the view that Austen was too afraid or too inexperienced to touch delicate subjects.
The task of assessing strategies of reticence in Willa Cather's work is, Stout admits, more difficult. In terms of narrative technique alone, Cather's frequent use of a male persona undercuts Stout's desire to proclaim Cather as a visionary feminist. But once Stout introduces certain relevancies from Cather's biography and from other critical studies, her argument turns stronger. At least Cather led her readers to a heightened sensitivity to gender roles. Beyond that achievement, however, there are clues enough to suggest Cather's indictment of the system for its social, psychological, and economic suppression of women.
Katherine Anne Porter, like Austen, uses her characters' speech as a guide to measure their moral goodness. Stout examines "Noon Wine" at length, "Flowering [End Page 360] Judas," and several of the Miranda stories, and she locates in Porter's female protagonists a quality of passive-aggression. Passive-aggression is a coping mechanism oppressed individuals implement to preserve their own personal integrity, and, in Porter's fiction, it becomes a statement of gentle protest, a "strategy of noncompliance."
Like Austen and Porter, Joan Didion uses absence in her fiction as a device by which to involve her readers. Unlike her predecessors, however, Didion utilizes her minimalist style, the typographical spaces on the page, and a series of narrative chants to further her fiction's overarching theme, which concerns, according to Stout, both the depersonalization of women and their "failure of maternity." Stout's readings of Didion's four novels are sensitive and accurate, but her contention that Didion's voice is aggressive and acerbic is based on only one criterion—Didion's sarcasm—which does not seem evidential enough.
Stout's critical attention to the terseness and elision of these four authors, and her larger conviction that such reticences affirm their concern for gender issues, results in a work of scholarship that...