Essay: Gender in Fowles and Mcewan

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[. . .] But it is also a class marker -- we may note that the introduction of women into the fine arts was to a large degree accomplished by the Bloomsbury Group, whose women (including Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, Dora Carrington and Margery Fry) were able to lead lives of "bohemian" artistic liberation largely because they came from a social class higher than Miranda's own. Miranda instead seems more like the later cliche of art student as out of touch bourgeois who art entails something out of touch with proletarian reality: not unlike the female art student depicted in precisely those terms by Jarvis Cocker in "Common People" at a much later date (which I invoke not for its literary value, but for its ability to register a cultural cliche that Fowles is to a certain degree helping to erect). But to a certain degree, her aesthetic awareness is borne out by the arc of her accommodation to confinement, which takes on the sense of an almost religious response to deprivation. By the end Miranda sounds not so much like a rape victim as she does like Simone Weil having a dark night of the soul:

He uses my heart. Then turns and tramples on it. He hates me, he wants to defile me and break me and destroy me. He wants me to hate myself so much that I destroy myself. The final meanness. He's not bringing me any supper. I'm to fast, on top of everything else. Perhaps he's going to leave me to starve. He's capable of it. I've got over the shock. He won't beat me. I won't give in. I won't be broken by him. I've got a temperature, I feel sick. Everything's against me, but I won't give in. I've been lying on the bed with G.P.'s picture beside me. Holding the frame in one hand. Like a crucifix. I will survive. I will escape. I will not give in. I will not give in. I hate God. I hate whatever made this world, I hate whatever made the human race, made men like Caliban possible and situations like this possible. If there is a God he's a great loathsome spider in the darkness. He _cannot be good_. This pain, this terrible seeing-through that is in me now. It wasn't necessary. It is all pain, and it buys nothing. Gives birth to nothing. All in vain. All wasted. The older the world becomes, the more obvious it is. The bomb and the tortures in Algeria and the starving babies in the Congo. It gets bigger and darker. More and more suffering for more and more._

To some extent, the willingness of Miranda to rise to such heights of speculation and public empathy -- with her connection of her own psychological state to a concern with "the bomb" and Algeria and the Congo -- suggests that we are witnessing the birth of a real artist, or the passage beyond from artist into saint. In any case, it does not seem like gender is any longer the point here: even if one considers a certain similarity in the power dynamic of the Book of Job and The Story of O, it is worth noting that Miranda's arc in The Collector resembles more the former.

In contrast to Fowles' writing from a pre-feminist perspective, Ian McEwan by contrast is writing with deliberate awareness of the feminist movement. Before his novel even begins, to some degree he signposts his awareness with the epigraph:

How we dwelt in two worlds.

The daughters and the mothers

In the kingdom of the sons

-Adrienne Rich

It is a specific sort of political act on McEwan's part to select an epigraph from Adrienne Rich. Rich was famous in literary circles as a polite formalist poet, and young married woman, of the 1950s selected by W.H. Auden for a prestigious literary prize on the basis of her polite metrical poems like "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers," which seemed to express even then some vague feminist awareness: then Rich would come out as a lesbian (offering a famous definition of the "lesbian continuum" which contextualizes all women's relationships within a homosocial milieu) and begin composing more openly political, and Whitmanically free, verse like "Diving into the Wreck" in 1973. In other words, McEwan is offering an epigraph from a major American feminist icon, in which the gender divide is troped as "two worlds." Whatever commentary on gender The Comfort of Strangers will advance, it certainly cannot be characterized (as Fowles can) as simply unaware.

If this is the expectation raised by the novel's epigraph, it certainly does not disappoint, for early in the story Colin and Mary are confronted with direct evidence of feminism, in the form of "announcements and pronouncements from feminists and the far Left" which they find fly-posted along the sides of the buildings in the unnamed city (presumably Venice) in which they are taking their holiday. This is a world in which feminism is a vital revolutionary force, in the streets demanding justice, and so it is worth examining in more close detail the passage in question. It begins as Mary moves in for a closer look at the political broadsides posted by the radical Italian feminists:

Mary had climbed the first steps of the palace and was reading the posters. "The women are more radical here," she said over her shoulder, "and better organized."

Colin had stepped back to compare the two streets. They ran straight for a considerable distance and eventually curved away from each other. "They've got more to fight for," he said. "We came by this way before, but can you remember which way we went?" Mary was translating with difficulty a lengthy proclamation. "Which way?" Colin said slightly louder. (23)

Already McEwan begins the passage by putting the two halves of the couple at cross-purposes. Mary has discovered the posters while they are lost within the tangle of streets. Colin is trying to find their way back, so as a result he is evaluating the spatial and geometric relations of the map in which they find themselves, and is utterly disinterested in the human content which Mary is evaluating. To a certain degree we are also invited to see Mary as indulging a linguistic interest (to see if she can actually read the poster) which Colin does not share. But the fact that two different conversations seem to be happening here -- one about direction and one about political radicalism -- suggest a connection, in which the novel is darkly hinting at trajectories etched by issues of sex and violence; as the passage continues:

Frowning, Mary ran her forefinger along the lines of bold print, and when she finished she exclaimed in triumph. She turned and smiled at Colin. "They want convicted rapists castrated!"

He had moved to get a better view of the street to the right. "And hands chopped off for theft? Look, I'm sure we passed that drinking fountain before, on the way to this bar."

Mary turned back to the poster. "No. It's a tactic. It's a way of making people take rape more seriously as a crime."

Colin moved again and stood, with his feet firmly apart, facing the street on their left. IT too had a drinking fountain. "It's a way," he said irritably, "of making people take feminists less seriously." (23)

The irony of the first paragraph just quoted is, of course, that Mary's "triumph" is linguistic: she has managed to make sense of the meaning of the poster, and thus announces its gruesome meaning with inappropriate enthusiasm. She is clearly "frowning" not only in concentration, but with annoyance at Colin's interruption of it with his question about directions -- her forefinger traces instead the direction she prefers to take. But of course she feels satisfaction at having understood a foreign communication, whereas he feels further annoyed at his inability to get her to take an interest in finding a way back to the hotel. Yet Colin invokes a topos in response, "hands chopped off for theft," which at the time of the novel's original publication in 1981 was most likely a reference to the imposition of Shari'a law (including several well-publicized cases of hands chopped off for theft) in Iran after the 1979 Iranian revolution (still in constant discussion at the time of the novel's composition and publication). In other words, the sort of feminism that proposes castration for rapists is, to Colin, no different than reactionary theocracy: in either case, the assumption seems to be that feminism is important and its concerns must be addressed, but like any other political movement anything that increases state-sanctioned violence is presumably a bad idea. Accordingly, he argues that such a radical political stance is a way "of making people take feminists less… [END OF PREVIEW]

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