Infection in the Sentence: The Woman Writer and the Anxiety of Authorship



莊琬君 (Sarita Chuang) 2003/10/21
Selective Readings of Contemporary Literary Theories




1.      patriarchal literary authority


2.      the polarities/ extreme stereotypes of angel and monster


3.      literary psychohistory: The Anxiety of Influence by Harold Bloom


a)     The psychology of literary history: “the tensions and anxieties, hostilities and inadequacies writers feel when they confront not only the achievements of their predecessors but the traditions of genre, style, and metaphor that they inherit from such ‘forefathers.’”

b)     Applying Freudian structures to literary genealogies

c)      “Bloom’s model of literary history is not a recommendation for but an analysis of the patriarchal poetics”.

à Bloom’s model is helpful in distinguishing the anxieties and achievements of female writers from those of male writers.


The anxiety of authorship


I. “a radical fear that she cannot create, that because she can never become a ‘precursor’ the act of writing will isolate or destroy her.”

1.      The female artists’ battle is not against the male precursor’s reading of the world but against his reading of her. 

a) struggle against the effects of socialization

b) a revisionary process à “Re-vision (an act of survival)”

2. The phenomena of inferiorization mark the woman writer’s struggle for artistic self-definition.


II. a literary subculture

1.      The separateness of this female subculture is both exhilarating and debilitating.

2.      The literary tradition is handed down “not from one woman to another, but from the stern literary ‘fathers’ of patriarchy to all their ‘inferiorized’ female descendants”.


III. the matrilineal anxiety in Emily Dickinson’s poem


        A Word dropped careless on a Page

        May stimulate an eye

        When folded in perpetual seam

        The Wrinkled Maker lie

        Infection in the sentence breeds

        We may inhale Despair

        At distances of Centuries

        From the Malaria


IV. Anne Sexton’s verse & Margaret Atwood’s Lady Oracle

  1. the red shoes metaphor
  2. the despair and hidden madness in female art
  3. conflict between creativity and “femininity”

à women were meant to be muses, not maestros?


V. The effect of patriarchal socialization in the 19th century

   1. extreme stereotypes of angels / monsters

   2. The ways in which patriarchal socialization literally makes women sick, both physically and mentally:

            hysteria, anorexia, and agoraphobia

   3. “’The female diseases’ from which Victorian women suffered were not always byproducts of their training in femininity [training in submissiveness/renunciation]; they were the goals of such training.”

   4. The notion that “Infection in the sentence breeds” is so central that the works of 19th century female writers are often concerned with disease.

            a) Jane Austen’s Henry Tilney

b) Charlotte and Emily Brontë’s anorexic heroines

            c) Christina Rossetti

            d) Fear of the openness of the literary marketplace


  5. Eye troubles / aphasia / ignorance of language / feeling of anomie




1.      What the female authors in the 19th century fear they have forgotten is the aspect of their lives which has been kept from them by patriarchal poetics.

2.      The matrilineal literary heritage is important to woman authors

3.      Bloom’s “anxiety of influence” needs to be redefined.



Some Afterthought / Questions

1.      Is the notion of anxiety of authorship found or observed only in the writings of woman authors of the 19th century?

(How about Anne Sexton and Margaret Atwood?)

2.      The assumption of “the secret sisterhood of their literary subculture” / treating women as a unitary category is questionable.

à Does this assumption focus too much on “the sexuality of the text”, and ignore “the textuality of the sex”?
(Moi, Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory, p.65)

3.      Why “eye troubles” abound in the works of literary women?

“The predominance of the visual … is particularly foreign to female eroticism. Woman takes pleasure more from touching than from looking, and her entry into a dominant scopic economy signifies, again, her consignment to passivity: she is to be the beautiful object of contemplation.” (Irigaray) (?)

4.      Poem 435 by Emily Dickinson


Much Madness is divinest Sense--

To a discerning Eye--

Much Sense--the starkest Madness--

'Tis the Majority

In this, as All, prevail--

Assent--and you are sane--

Demur--you're straightway dangerous--

And handled with a Chain--