congruent quotations

For, don’t you mark? we’re made so that we love

First when we see them painted, things we have passed

Perhaps a hundred times nor cared to see;

And so they are better painted–better to us,

Which is the same thing. Art was given for that;

God uses us to help each other so,

Lending our minds out.

–Robert Browning, “Fra Lippo Lippi,”


“The greatest benefit we owe to the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies…. A picture of human life such as a great artist can give, surprises even the trivial and the selfish into that attention to what is apart from themselves, which may be called the raw material of moral sentiment…. Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact beyond the bounds of our personal lot.” –George Eliot, 1856



good news!

Science has great news for people who read actual books!

This is a fun article. It also makes me wonder: how often do you put on your shortest dress (preferably one with lace ornament on the bodice that can easily get snagged on splinters of wood) and go down to a public dock to read a book with your leg in the air?

_Passing_ questions

These questions also appear on a document in our class’s shared Google Drive folder. Please feel free to comment here or on that document.

  • Why does Irene focus so much on Clare’s beauty?
  • Why does Irene want to protect Clare?
  • Why aren’t Brian and Irene intimate?
  • What happens at the end of the novel?
  • Are we supposed to be convinced Brian and Clare are having an affair?
  • In what way is Irene an insider?
  • How is Irene’s insider status related to what McDowell says about Larsen’s literary career?
  • Why is the novel focalized—not narrated—by Irene?

In narratives, it is often useful to decide whether there is a difference between who speaks and who sees In a familiar mode of third-person narration, narratives such as “The Story of an Hour” and “A Cross Line” are told by a speaker situated above and beyond the story’s events–someone who knows and sees everything in all the characters’ minds. In first-person narration, of course, the speaker and seer are typically the same entity–Whitey in “Haircut,” for example, is both seer and speaker. But in Passing, the responsibilities for speaking and seeing are divided up; a third-person narrator speaks while the character Irene sees. Irene’s point of view dominates most of what the narrator chooses to relate in language. The narrator can always choose to omit what Irene sees (as she does at 12–Irene sees a man collapsing on the sidewalk but doesn’t care enough to get a closer look). The narrator can criticize Irene without Irene’s knowledge (as she does at 61, when the narrator separates from Irene and informs the reader of information Irene doesn’t herself understand). But most of the time, the narrator allows her voice to be focalized through Irene, so that Irene’s perspective presents itself as something for the reader to read through, read around, and ultimately interpret.

But why would Larsen shape her novel this way? Why isn’t Irene simply a first-person narrator who both speaks and sees? McDowell, in “Black Female Sexuality,” calls Irene “a classic unreliable narrator.” But this simply isn’t true. By creating a distinction between her narrator and Irene, Larsen can accomplish some important ideological work. Specifically, I’d say, Larsen’s satire depends upon the contrast between the narrator’s arch, savvy, cynical perspective and Irene’s self-satisfied snobbery. I agree with McDowell that Irene’s lack of self-awareness makes that satire possible, but if she were an unreliable narrator the novel would lose a good bit of its economy of length and phrasing, because Larsen would have to establish the urgent problem of Irene’s ideological limitations by other means. Characters might have to comment on Irene’s snobbery, for example, or we might have to see her interacting with people other than Brian, Irene, and Hugh in order to get the picture.

  • Which are the tropes in the novel with the most ideological significance?

all I want to do all day is read bell hooks

From bell hooks, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. Routledge: 1984, 2015.

“A central tenet of feminist thought has been the assertion that ‘all women are oppressed.’ This assertion implies that women share a common lot, that factors like class, race, religion, sexual preference, etc. do not create a diversity of experience that determines the extent to which sexism will be an oppressive force in the lives of individual women. Sexism as a system of domination is institutionalized, but it has never determined in an absolute way the fate of all women in this society. Being oppressed means the absence of choices. It is the primary point of contact between the oppressed and the oppressor. Many women in this society do have choices (as inadequate as they are); therefore exploitation and discrimination are words that more accurately describe the lot of women collectively in the United States. Many women do not join organized resistance against sexism precisely because sexism has not meant an absolute lack of choices. They may know they are discriminated against on the basis of sex, but they do not equate this with oppression. Under capitalism, patriarchy is structured so that sexism restricts women’s behavior in some realms even as freedom from limitations is allowed in other spheres. The absence of extreme restrictions leads many women to ignore the areas in which they are exploited or discriminated against; it may even lead them to imagine that no women are oppressed.

There are oppressed women in the United States, and it is both appropriate and necessary that we speak against such oppression…. However, [by the mid-1970s] feminist emphasis on ‘common oppression’ in the United States was less a strategy for politicization than an appropriation by conservative and liberal [white] women of a radical political vocabulary that masked the extent to which they shaped the movement so that it addressed and promoted their class interests” (5-6).

a response to the class feedback

I’ve tallied up the results of the anonymous feedback. I’m pleased to see so much consensus among you on what’s working in the class. I will give a full report when I see you next. In the meantime, please keep in mind the following:

If you do not understand an aspect of what we have read or discussed, it is your responsibility to ask questions until you understand it.

In ENGL/GSWS 352, you have been trained in two different disciplines. Most of you have more training in one discipline than in the other.

You must be willing to give voice to ideas you find obvious as well as questions you find puzzling.

I guarantee there will be people in the room who have never heard of the ideas you consider obvious, and there will be people in the room who can answer the questions you find puzzling.

And if no one can answer a question at the moment you ask it, make certain to pursue it (online, in subsequent classes, with your own research) until you have an answer.

Feminist literary theory is designed to be read by advanced researchers and theorists–graduate students and professors–who are specialists in two different fields: gender studies and literary analysis. It is not designed to be read and instantly apprehended as crystal-clear by nonspecialists or by people who have studied only a part of one of the two fields.

Finally, theory is only one mode of thought. Some of you in this class will find some theoretical texts highly intuitive and easy to grasp, and some of you will find some (or all) theoretical texts extremely opaque and difficult to grasp. Theory is not everyone’s favorite approach to gender studies or to literary studies. Theory is one option among many for approaching those two fields. If you find this difficult, that’s because it is difficult. If you don’t find it difficult, you may be missing something.

Take courage. Have fun. Be brave and self-confident in class. Let no one intimidate you. Use your commonplace book to vent frustration, ask hard questions, doodle, make complicated charts and graphs–use it for anything that helps you learn.

My highest priority is not that you enjoy the class but that you learn in the class. But if at all possible, I want you to have fun too. I am.

Milton’s bogey

Many, many interpretations of Woolf’s reference to “Milton’s bogey” in her final paragraph of A Room of One’s Own exist in print. I have read only a small fraction of them, I suspect. But to me, as an unabashed re-reader of J. K. Rowling, the definition in the Oxford English Dictionary of bogey was especially useful in understanding Woolf’s meaning. Bogey means devil, goblin, an object of terror. For centuries, bogey has been spelled as bog, bogy, bogie, boguey, bogle, boggle, boggard. To my mind, it’s a short step from there to boggart.