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The Lion and the Unicorn 28.2 (2004) 317-320

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Christine Wilkie-Stibbs. The Feminine Subject in Children's Literature. New York: Routledge, 2002.

In her readings of seven novels by Margaret Mahy and Gillian Cross, Christine Wilkie-Stibbs identifies "a poetics of reading the feminine in children's fiction" by drawing upon the psychoanalytic tradition established by Freud and Lacan and appropriated by French feminists Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, and Julia Kristeva (xvi). Wilkie-Stibbs explains her reliance upon this theoretical perspective because of its "aesthetics of the inscription of human subjectivity in language and the body as an alternative signifying system which is, it is argued, axiomatic to the idea of the especially literary subjectivity and the idea of both the historical and textualized subject of, and in, children's literature" (1). Wilkie-Stibbs's application of French feminism, which emphasizes the significance of language for the construction of subjectivity, produces thought-provoking and insightful readings of these novels, which highlight the significance of discourse in the process of subject formation.

Each of the fantastical novels that Wilkie-Stibbs analyzes focuses upon family dynamics: conflicts between siblings, parents, and children. As Wilkie-Stibbs explains in "Writing the Subject in Children's Literature: l'écriture féminine," these conflicts are resolved as the main characters recover the feminine Imaginary, or repressed desires associated with the pre-linguistic, pre-Oedipal unity between mother and child [End Page 317] (the term "Imaginary" is Lacanian; Kristeva also calls this state "semiotic"). In Mahy's The Tricksters and The Other Side of Silence, the female main characters reconnect with the feminine Imaginary through writing, exemplifying Cixous' notion that in écriture féminine, woman expresses what has been unconscious and repressed; she writes herself and thus writes her body. For example, Wilkie-Stibbs writes of Harry, the adolescent female writer who is the protagonist of The Tricksters,"by the fact of her having made love with her character, Felix Carnival, Harry has used her writing as a corporeal experience, to connect with the feminine Imaginary and a subjectivity that is mutable, plural, and in process of a perpetual becoming" (61). Thus, writing is shown to be a force that enables the female characters to achieve a "subjective transformation" (43) that enables them to escape the boundaries established by male-dominated, authoritarian discourse.

Clearly, the figure of the mother is crucial in this theoretical framework, and in "Rereading the Mother in Children's Literature: le parler femme" Wilkie-Stibbs analyzes both "monstrous" and liberating mother figures in the two novels by Mahy mentioned above, as well as in Mahy's Dangerous Spaces and The Changeover,and Cross's Pictures in the Dark. As Wilkie-Stibbs describes Pictures in the Dark, "It tells of a boy who escapes from his own body, by a process of dejection, and into the body of an animal, an otter" (93). In fleeing from his oppressive father into the otter, the boy, Peter, attempts to "return to the mother and . . . to reexperience a pre-Oedipal, pre-lingual, Semiotic jouissance that stands in opposition to the Law" (94). One of the most interesting theoretical concepts that Wilkie-Stibbs addresses in her persuasive reading of this novel is Kristeva's "'semiotization of the Symbolic'" (98). Peter's story is witnessed and narrated by another boy, Charlie, a photographer, who through his interaction with Peter, is also profoundly changed. "His connection with the Semiotic language of the maternal erupting onto the plane" of and disrupting the Symbolic, which is regulated by the dominance of the phallus, transforms his vision and his art: "Holly berries flamed scarlet. Cobwebs hung from the dancing bushes like sculptures of spun steel. A lingering elder leaf flapped, acid-yellow, over the stripped stalks of a cluster of berries. . . . Then he began to photograph what he had seen" (97). Through Peter, Charlie connects with the "cyclical time of the seasons," and thus with what Kristeva calls "women's time" (97).

In "The feminine Textual Unconscious in Children's Literature," Wilkie-Stibbs discusses "dream texts...


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