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  • Unnatural Feminist Narratology
  • Ellen Peel (bio)

[Laur] hid her face against Janet's shoulder. Janet—I—held her . . . and Laur . . . kissed her on the mouth. Oh my goodness.

Janet's rid of me. I sprang away and hung by one claw from the window curtain.

—Russ, The Female Man 71

I have begun with a bit of The Female Man, an unnatural narrative told by Joanna Russ. Her novel is replete with various moves in the interplay between feminism and the unnatural in narratives.1 Unnatural narratives are defined more fully below, but for now they can be considered narratives that "feature strikingly impossible or antimimetic elements" (Alber, Iversen, et al., Introduction 1).2 Typically they are "highly implausible, impossible, unreal, otherworldly, outrageous, extreme, outlandish, and insistently fictional narratives" (Alber, Iversen, et al., "What Is Unnatural" 380): in short, they are fictional narratives that narrate something very strange or narrate something very strangely.

In this essay my claims are twofold. First, I propose to show that feminist narratology overlaps with unnatural [End Page 81] narratology (in studies of discourse, story, and the combination of the two); in fact, late-twentieth-century feminist narratology, decades in advance, anticipated a number of the insights of recent unnatural narratology. Second, throughout the essay I will show that the overlap enriches both fields: unnatural narratology can reveal how feminist narratives—when unnatural—fit into a broader system of techniques, and feminist narratology can reveal how unnatural narratives—when feminist—have broader significance in the world.3 Unnatural narratology provides a general, unified framework and vocabulary within which to situate feminist analysis of specific techniques. Meanwhile, though some might believe that the strangeness of unnatural narratives inevitably causes them to lack, or even dissolve, meaning and significance, feminist narratology explains the stakes of unnatural narratives, investigating how they can indeed have meaning and significance, exerting power in the world, creating the potential for action. As Robyn Warhol says: "in attending to the actual reader, feminist narrative theory takes its biggest step away from its structuralist origins" (Herman et al. 146).4

Flourishing from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s—well before the term "unnatural narrative" was coined—and continuing today, a good deal of feminist narratological scholarship has been devoted to the interplay between feminism and unnatural narratives. Perhaps surprisingly, many of the texts examined by such scholarship have not been obscure or esoteric but have instead been by authors such as Doris Lessing, who won the Nobel Prize in 2007. This scholarship in effect has asked, What are some of the ways that narratives employ unnatural techniques to convey feminist beliefs? Or, to put it more precisely, What are some of the ways that implied authors of narratives employ unnatural techniques in an attempt to persuade implied readers of feminist beliefs?5

A number of narratives and narratological texts combine feminism with the unnatural; the ones I discuss below are only meant to be a representative sample.6 After an explanation of how feminist and unnatural narratology question conventional concepts of nature, most of this essay is devoted to a review of certain existing feminist scholarship—some of it explicitly unnatural, much of it implicitly unnatural avant la lettre. The review first examines discourse, especially narrative situation (both focalization and narration); next it looks at story, especially plot [End Page 82] events within the storyworld; and then it briefly turns to the combination of discourse and story, especially in metafiction.7 Then the last part of this essay integrates terminology from multiple theorists to explore a powerfully feminist and unnatural novel, Russ's The Female Man. My essay and the other two in this special section are among the first publications that explicitly combine unnatural and feminist methods in order to do an extended analysis of a single text (also see Weese's "'Tú no Eres Nada'" and her talk, "Transculturation and Defocalization," as well as Romagnolo's talks "Flight Patterns" and "Naturally Flawed?").

The Critique of Conventional Ideas of Nature

We can begin by tracing how conventional notions of nature are questioned by both feminist and unnatural narratologists (and by the narratives on which they focus). Admittedly, feminists—regardless of the degree...


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