Literary anticipations of sexual difference: explorations in women’s writing 1980–2014
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This thesis offers an exploration of the writing of an irreducible feminine difference in four novels by women. Drawing from the work of the Continental feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray, I read her conceptual undertaking of sexual difference as precipitating an alternative narrative for feminist thought. The crux of this project involves an inscription of the indeterminable, and thus far elided, category of the feminine, back into the uncontested frameworks of patriarchal knowledge. In so doing, the feminine illuminates what Irigaray calls the “otherwise, elsewhere” that troubles the universality of all masculine discourse. Sexual difference can then be extrapolated from these terms, to anticipate a compelling horizon of possibilities for feminism that lies beyond the deterministic confines of the singular present. Its advent marks the creation of radical feminist lines of inquiry that have yet to be imagined. My study builds on Irigaray’s approach to sexual difference to suggest that the transformative space of literature provides a promising blueprint for its otherwise inchoate articulation. The texts I analyse invoke an anticipatory impulse to think the impossible, and offer an imaginative frame of reference for envisioning these processes of sexual difference. By considering four novels by Marilynne Robinson, Jeanette Winterson, Elena Ferrante, and Rachel Cusk, I illustrate that their engagement with sexual difference is a strategic and combative negotiation of our dominant modes of understanding. More crucially, I examine the dialogue that is inspired by these texts when the intimations of sexual difference are brought together with the evocative possibilities of literature, which might accordingly be extended to affirm a new and reflective cartography for the futures of the feminist imaginary. A further narrative can be located in the sequence of the chapters in my thesis, insofar as each of its novels was published around successive decades apart from 1980- 2014. By alluding to the respective contextual backdrops of these texts, I consider the more overarching trajectory of feminist theory and criticism, in which sexual difference has materialised in its contingent narratives as an enduring, and indeed unsettling, question. It circulates as a speculative theoretical paradigm in the multiple intersections of feminist theory, philosophy, and literary studies. My thesis will argue not only for the altogether difficult and necessary unknowability of feminist thought as it looks ahead to the future, but also for the critical relevance of literary perspectives in explicating these processes of feminist world-making.