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Contemporary Philosophy


Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Feminist Literary Theory

Reading Feminist Intertextuality Through Bluebeard Stories by Casie Hermansson (Women's Studies, Vol 27: The Edwin Mellon Press) Author’s Summary: This book is not so much a "Bluebeard" book as it is a book tracing a link between the Bluebeard fairy tale and intertextuality. From that connection derives another: the Bluebeard fairy tale demonstrates in fact not one type of intertextuality, but two, and they are quite distinctly different from one another. Further, this fundamental distinction within the fairy tale itself has spawned two different traditions in works which use the Bluebeard tale intertextually. One tradition adopts the intertextual repetition at the core of Bluebeard's own ghastly plot, and perpetuates it (with "new" twists, of course). But the other tradition instead adopts the intertextual revisionism of the heroine who cheats Bluebeard of this victim and thereby breaks the cycle of repetition. My focus in this study is to demonstrate that not all intertextuality is "good" intertextuality, as far as the reader goes. There is a type of intertextuality that imitates Bluebeard, and it is the work of feminist intertextuality (with the help of the Bluebeard tale) to show this.

Because my focus is primarily on the intertextual mechanisms and how the Bluebeard fairy tale supports them, my selection of Bluebeard works needs some explanation. I have not been comprehensive in discussing a body of Bluebeard works (recastings or rewritings); they number in the hundreds, and an analytical survey of them is another project entirely. Instead, I have chosen representative examples, most often from fiction, to illustrate the fundamental types of intertextual engagement of both recastings and rewritings. It is my expectation that such a distinction would also extend to Bluebeard works not discussed here: some will privilege the intertextual repetitions of Bluebeard's plot, while others privilege instead escape from this plot. In some cases, the "Bluebeard‑ness of the intertextual work is beyond question: the intertextuality is manifest because Bluebeard is named, or an aspect of the tale is overtly alluded to. In other cases, however, the intertextual connection is not manifest, and is therefore less overt. The novel Linden Hills by Gloria Naylor, for instance, nowhere mentions Bluebeard. Yet it was not selected simply for its use of serial uxoricide (which in some cases suffices, just as it now does in contemporary criminal cases, to bestow the label). Rather, the novel also depicts the crucial chamber in which the wives are imprisoned (as in John Fowles' The Collector, and in Thomas Harris' The Silence of the Lambs, two other Bluebeard works); the chamber represents a literal and figurative mise en abyme; the Bluebeard figure is an artist who mortifies women (in Linden Hills he is a mortician, in fact); and textuality plays a vital role in the last wife's re‑membering of her "sisters," the previous wives. For these reasons, Linden Hills is selected as a Bluebeard work for discussion here. (The different natures of the types of illustrative examples selected are apparent in the description of the three Parts of this book: a textual "haunting" through presupposition, the mise en abyme and representation, and the enigma‑solution model of intertextuality.) For similar reasons, the secondary material is selective rather than comprehensive. I have not sought to include all criticism available on the Bluebeard tale, but to select pertinent materials for the specific focus on intertextuality and feminist intertextuality.

The Introduction maps out theoretical territory in six sections. The first section presents the argument for feminist intertextuality as a "meta‑intertextual" process and connects it to the Bluebeard tale. The second section of the Introduction discusses the Bluebeard tale group in further detail, including principal variants, the tale's various origins, its use as a contemporary label, and the tale's standard interpretations from several perspectives. Section 3 considers the tale as a narrative paradigm, whereby Bluebeard is author, his castle is text, and his wives are readers. This section also presents the role of presupposition in monologic intertextuality (Bluebeard's plot). Section 4 presents the Bluebeard story as two models of intertextuality, using close reading of the tale to illustrate the argument. Section 5 looks in closer detail at the concept of presupposition, its role in standard theories of intertextuality, and the consequent focus of feminist intertextual revisions on presuppositional devices. Finally, Section 6 surveys the criticism already using "feminist intertextuality" to demonstrate that the concept has not been theorized distinct from intertextuality proper, and that what is meant by the term varies from critic to critic.

The three Parts of the book following the Introduction contain close readings of select works pertaining to both the restrictive tradition of intertextual Bluebeard engagement, and to the liberatory tradition. Each Part contains three chapters which together describe a different type of intertextual relationship, from two perspectives. The first chapter in each Part outlines the type of intertextuality; the second chapter reads works representing this relationship through restrictive (monologic) intertextuality, and the third chapter in each Part analyzes works which instead represent the same relationship in a liberatory and self‑consciously dialogic fashion.

Part One (Chapters one to three) examines the Gothic use of presupposition as the "hunt for the ghost intertext" and then applies this in two further chapters to analysis of two Gothic‑marked novels, Caleb Williams by William Godwin and Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey. These two novels foreground the specifically metafictive potential of the Bluebeard story and the process of encryption through the structures of rhetoric. But while Caleb Williams expertly dramatizes the over‑determined replications of Bluebeard's plot, with Ferdinand Falkland as Bluebeard to Caleb's "wife," Northanger Abbey illustrates the transference of Bluebeard from an actual figure in the story to a mere presuppositional reflex of the reader, Catherine Morland. While Caleb Williams ultimately participates in an endless repetition whereby Bluebeard's plot proliferates in a Gothic, monstrous life of its own, Northanger Abbey stylistically effects an alternative positioning, largely through its subversive use of compound negative constructions. Bluebeard's ability to "haunt" texts is shown in both works to be effected through the medium of intertextual presupposition.

Part Two, "Buried Secrets: the Mise en Abyme" (Chapters four to six), looks at the nature of the mise en abyme as it is used in Bluebeard's plot and juxtaposes this use with that of the feminist intertextual works which focus their revisionism on the mise en abyme. The regressus in Bluebeard's plot takes the form of a tableau of corpses that are at once a projection of Bluebeard's vision of the reader and an uncanny reflection of the witness encoded in it. This "artistry" often leads to portraits of Bluebeard as a visual artist. Analysis of two films, both called Bluebeard (one by Edgar Ulmer and the other by Edward Dmytryk) prefaces a reading of John Fowles' The Collector, Kurt Vonnegut's Bluebeard: A Novel, and Peter Ackroyd's Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem. These five works depict the repressiveness of Bluebeard's artistry and its encryption. However, in Angela Carter's The Magic Toyshop and Nights at the Circus, and in Gloria Naylor's Linden Hills, the mise en abyme is not of the subject or the reader, but of the Bluebeard story itself, reflecting instead the mise en abyme already in place in the Bluebeard story.

Part Three, "Murder in the Dark: the Textual Mise en Scene" (Chapters seven to nine) examines the stylistic structures of the feminist intertextual work. The structures of encryption and embedding form the mise en scene of the text's thematized game of murder in the dark. This Part discusses feminist intertextual fictions which dramatize resistance as a practice of reading. These works foreground the submerged enigma‑solution model and its relation to textual overdetermination and to readerly entrapment by thematizing a "detective" hermeneutic. The paradox of presupposition‑that it must be evoked in order to be disproven as a reliable reader‑oriented model‑itself becomes a feature. The "detective lie" at the heart of Bluebeard's story is frequently used this way. Both Margaret Atwood's The Robber Bride and Emma Cave's The Bluebeard Room draw thematically on the Bluebeard story as a contemporary murder mystery. The theme of research in detection becomes foregrounded in the thematized detective readers of Atwood's story, "Bluebeard's Egg," and of Max Frisch's novel Bluebeard: A Tale. In the last chapter of this Part, two postmodern stories are analyzed to show how they dramatize this hermeneutic: Donald Barthelme's "Bluebeard," and Meira Cook's "Instructions for Navigating the Labyrinth." These two fictions offer a shattered mosaic or puzzle form for which presupposition is offered as a reconstitutive principle that ultimately proves unreliable.

Elaine Jordan sums up the feminist revisionist investment in context: "Whether a myth is liberatory or oppressive depends on the existing power relations, the company it keeps, the context of its use" (23). This study shows Jordan's statement to be valid with regard to the Bluebeard fairy tale but, just as importantly, with regard to intertextuality itself.

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