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How to Apply Poststructuralist Feminism to a Novel

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How to apply poststructuralist feminism to a novel

—an answer to a question on how to begin to analyze a novel from the critical standpoint of poststructuralist feminism.

Well... I suppose it depends very much on the kind of novel you wish to analyze (realist, experimental, feminist etc.) and also on your own interests, priorities, etc. But I suppose one key thing to do would be trying to situate the novel in a specific historical and cultural context: these contexts are always mixed, with influences coming from local traditions, nationalist discourses, globalizing influences, etc. I would try to see how these different traditions, discourses and influences contribute to the making of women's experiences in the novel. Especially as they result in tensions (in society, with other women and men, and also internal tensions within themselves) and how these tensions and the choices women make help make the plot of the novel. Also how the narrating technique uses these different discourses and languages coming from different sources, how the discourse on women and gender "makes" the female characters in the novel. I suppose one essential thing is the basic contrast between traditional images and roles of women (religious or cultural customs, etc.) and the more global, fluid, movable postmodern subject, less constrained by local culture and more by global, "modern" discourses and experiences. But this may result in those tensions, fractures, etc. which are the interesting thing to analyze... Hope that helps. Are you thinking of a specific novel? Although most probably I won't know it, there are so many books in the world... but look, books there are many, but basic kinds of human conflict and experience, there are fewer. That might provide a starting point.

Bapsi Sidhwa's novels seem to be highly conscious of their political and historical context themselves, so the analysis should be at least as politically aware as the novels themselves —of course also criticizing her position or taking a critical distance if you feel your position as a critic on the issues she depicts is not fully coincident. There is much matter for discussion there: women and men in public and private life, childhood/maturity, colonialism/postcolonialism, religious and ethnic confrontations, identity problems, nationalism... Lots of food for the critic! And one thing which complements the formal and ideological analysis of the novel: the reception history. That is, who is she writing for, which audience has responded to her novels and why, different reactions depending on political positions, etc. But this is more or less a recipe for writing a doctoral thesis! For a paper I suppose you will have to choose one or two lines of analysis at most - and always choose the ones which look most promising from your own perspective, the thing you feel is the key of the novel for you. The other issues can be dealt with as a background on which to centre this central issue you wish to foreground.

A reading list of criticism, reviews, responses etc. on the author's work is the best way to start. Also, if there is a lack of secondary literature, critical approaches on other authors dealing with analogous issues or writing in the same tradition may be useful to develop a critical focus. (E.g. Salman Rushdie, Anita Desai, Bharati Mukherjee...). And the work of critics focusing specifically on women's issues in the Indian context is essential, I'm thinking especially of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, e.g. her article on the Subaltern ( "Can the Subaltern Speak?" In Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Ed. Lawrence Grossberg and Cary Nelson. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1988. 271-316). But the main thing... is to be aware of your supervisor's taste, priorities and mode of approach. Supervised research is work by two people, even though only one may do the writing, and it's essential to have a clear shared plan on such issues as work schedule, scope and of course critical approach. Especially given that issues in political criticism, postcolonialism and feminism are an ideological minefield for dissension.

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