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Reviewed by:
Richard Pearce. The Politics of Narration: James Joyce, William Faulkner, and Virginia Woolf. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1991. 189 pp. $37.00 cloth.

This study of Joyce, Faulkner, and Woolf seeks to demonstrate that the writings of these modernists remain inescapably subject to the dominant culture from which they emanate. It argues that, despite the strategies of opposition and resistance suggested by their discontinuities and polyvocalism, they reproduce dominant forms of storytelling and hence reflect dominant culture, broadly conceived in this study. By virtue of her gender, Virginia Woolf is seen as less in thrall than either Joyce or Faulkner to dominant culture and the dominant forms of storytelling in its service.

To analyze the "politics of narration," narrowly defined as the collusion of narrative structures with political domination, Pearce speaks primarily in terms of such formalist categories as voices, stories, and (w)holes. However multiple the voices and perspectives represented in these texts, Pearce argues, the voice of hegemonic authority dominates the others, particularly insofar as it draws the reader (resisting or not) into a presupposed narrative community whose values mirror those of the dominant culture. Linear and teleological, the quest is seen as the dominant story of Anglo-American colonization and imperialist expansion, and Pearce demonstrates its prevalence in Joyce, Faulkner, and Woolf. Finally, Pearce considers the discontinuities in these narratives as more or less pregnant indications of what is excluded from the totalities they represent. He concludes that the discontinuities in Joyce and Faulkner go only so far as to reveal to the dominant narrative community a sense of its limits and exclusions, whereas those in Woolf go further to subvert the structures of dominance and propose alternatives.

Particularly attentive to the exclusion of women from the patriarchal narrative of the quest, Pearce envisions alternatives to the masculinist [End Page 434] journey toward identity and personal achievement primarily in terms of feminist values such as relationships and the (maternal) body. Following Kristeva, Pearce argues that subversion is achieved via semiotic or pre-Oedipal disruptions of the symbolic, generally represented here by the narrative of the quest but also by the sentence as a univocal, linear, and teleological structure. Unlike Kristeva, Pearce assumes that the white women writers he analyzes, namely, Isak Dinesen and Virginia Woolf—alienated from authority by their gender—have privileged access to the semiotic and are therefore more subversive than their male counterparts, Conrad, Joyce, and Faulkner.

Pearce's essentially formalist readings are intended to demonstrate that narrative structure, point of view, and presumed audience reproduce structures of domination, even in narratives that are critical of these structures. To foreground the hegemonic voice in these narratives, Pearce maintains, is to reveal their truth as well as the truth of their historical contexts. Too many critics, he argues, falsely empower marginal voices and perspectives by forgetting their subordination to dominant culture. Pearce's positivistic and reductive view of history and the politics of narration minimizes the capacity of modernist narrative techniques to revise univocal narratives and the narrow collective consciousness they produce and sustain. More complex examination of the marginal in Faulkner, for example, might have altered Pearce's description of Southern oratory and the tall-tale in Faulkner, without so much as a nod to African-American oral traditions, as "American extensions of the high style that colonized Irishmen imitated so well and the adventure story that rationalized and energized British imperialism." To foreground the stories and perspectives of the marginalized voices that disrupt the narratives of Joyce, Faulkner, and Woolf is thus not to misrepresent the truth of their narratives or historical contexts, as Pearce suggests, but, in response to these marginalized voices and in the interest of mediating the enduring political conflicts they represent, to reshape our consciousness of them.

Cheryl Lester
University of Kansas
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