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ISSN: 0974-892X


Jul 2015 - Jan 2016



Theorizing the Feminist Writers – A Study of Emma by Jane Austen and Surfacing by Margaret Atwood

Dr. Jayshree Singh

HOD English, Bhupal Nobles P. G. College, Udaipur (Raj)

This paper attempts to investigate Jane Austen’s Emma and Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing from feminist writers’ perspectives. Their social intelligence and general knowinge have been voiced in their text as per geographical space, social order, historical constraints, cultural customs and hierarchical forces prevalent in their times.  It also examines the self-creation of femininity that enables women characters to become strong, independent, emancipated and how their determined sexuality is centered on the domains of woman’s lives and minds, interconnectedness and effectual rationality (Rose, Hilary 1986) i.e., women’s identity and existence is not to be dealt epistemologically political or as politics but as holistic and a harmonious relationship with nature and making combinations as wholes in human life (Virginia Woolf ‘Three Guineas’, 1938). This paper attempts to evaluate the state of feminist social attitude and attributes in  Margaret Atwood and Jane Austen. The paper aims to study why bold and strong women are canonized as ‘madwomen in the attic” (Ryan 1999: 104).
Emma’ by Jane Austen was published in December 1815. The novel’s main heroine Emma, despite all her faults, shortcomings and errors of judgment, is liked by the readers. Emma in the novel is depicted as strong-headed, caring and cultivates an image of female difference and experience. She constructs around her an aura of contextualization of knowledge, becomes a necessary human agency, creates a predominant causality in relationships and floats inter-subjectivity and interactive process and even hunts multi-formed regularities or diversity to help other women in order to search better counterparts as according to their disposition and countenance. She stresses the values of empathy, nurturance and that ‘choices’ are really demands of situations (Grimshaw 1986). The book Emma professes its concerns through the characters, who learn about social life and human existence by their experiences and mistakes. For example Mr. Knightley must learn to be teased by his wife. Emma learns to know herself and how delightful it becomes knowing herself. It helps the characters to be morally serious and discriminate the constraints and forces from the contemporary demands and situations. Jane Austen artistically and creatively builds up Emma’s supreme self-confidence but at the same time she differentiates it with her serene delusions in order to convey the readers the message from the novel that women too could be illusory in her perception if she is snobbish, domineering, rash and selfish. The author characterizes her to be able to win the situations with her radical transforming steps. Simultaneously the author evolves Emma’s personality out of complexities of reality in order to show that an officious and self-confident girl does have to cross self-deceptive illusions, misleading appearances, moral preoccupations, social surroundings, unpleasant possibilities for finding some mode of existence. In order to have realization of true self – awareness and to be more self-resolved, Emma’s critical attitude helps her to be expressive and knowledgeable for having better human relationships in the society. In context of characterization of Emma and other female characters in Jane Austen’s novel ‘Emma’, it is apt to relate Mary Wollstonecraft who thinks that women need to analyze their uncultivated understandings, to follow noble pursuits, to allow their  constitution to retain its natural strength,  to condescend to use art for not highlighting little vanities and excite tenderness or to gratify the arrogant power of man, but to use art to assert their claim to pursue reasonable pleasures and render themselves conspicuous by practicing the virtues which dignify mankind.” (A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects , 1972: 41-42)                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   
This book is relevant in understanding British feminism and social ethics in context of Indian settings because the question of woman’s writing as per se feminist thought is to break the silence and the writing connects the space between the private (personal feelings) and the public spheres (social surroundings or state of life). Rajeshwari Sunder Rajan alleges that the writings that inscribed space from the gendered perspective and concept exhibit within the mind of the novelists the polarized categories of “home” and “world’. She further adds that “some sort of division of private and public spheres seems to have always and universally accompanied the construction of genders or as a division between the spaces of ‘aham’ (inner) and ‘puram’ (outer) corresponding to the polarity of love relationships as in European eighteenth century between the bourgeois society and the elite class or in reproduction (child-bearing) and productions as under capitalist social systems (The Feminist Plot and Nationalist Category, 1993: 72-87), so social values as regards feminist consciousness do play significant role in forming excessive or transgressive image of new woman in any society.
Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing articulates through the narrator cum protagonist the issues of gender,  notion of subjectivity, madness, nationality, ecology and narrative power, Eventually it debates in retrospect the question of Canadian’s identity as parallel to the question of a woman’s quest for freedom and autonomy and both questions are resolved in perceiving the surroundings in a new way and as a harmonious natural order. In this novel gender relations are destabilized from a feminist perception and vision because the protagonist attempts to valorize the woman’s effort to gain a self-reflexive knowledge of the power-relations that defines the protagonist’s identity, an identity which will in turn be rejected or shed like a dead skin (Lane 2007: 71). The novel brings thematic shift in two predominant parallel problems. Firstly Surfacing concentrates on the theme “the Canada – as the collective victim” and discusses the threat of Americanism to Canada’s national identity. Secondly Surfacing allegorically deals with raising people’s consciousness against getting alienated from their moorings, their culture, their ideal Canadian pasts, their people, their language that was in a state of creolization and hybridization due to hegemonic influence and technological advancements. Within these global and pluralistic situations lie the symbolic powers of patriarchal codes in context of the issue of a married woman, who searches her identity in the wilderness of being treated as material or spatiotemporal thing. The narrator undermines her status as a married woman and reveals her marital status to be performance or a lie because she goes through the voluntarist notion of subjectivity as regards aborting her child. She felt that her body becomes merely a meeting point of physical and psychical and it becomes a victim of causal relations within itself and in its environment. Her child in the womb (another living body) dies not because of causal relations but because of motivational connections between ‘corporeality and inter-subjectivity’ (Zahavi, Dan 1996) that puts human situation and existence in controversy in terms of subjectivity, freedom and society. To illustrate the notion of an opposition in the words of Beauvoir: ‘there will always be certain differences between men and women; her eroticism, and therefore her sexual world, have a singular form of their own and therefore cannot fail to engender a singular sensuality, a singular sensitivity. Her relations to her body, to that of the male, to the child, will never be identical with those the male bears to his own body, to the feminine body, and to the child (Second Sex 1991: 740). It is because of this sexual difference and dependence in her marital status, the narrator in the novel Surfacing is unable to distinguish at first between embodiment and existence, between for – itself and in-itself, therefore her short married life could not create a rich and convincing bodily subject and she undermines her marital status in the novel. She surfaces through patriarchal language with her own definitions of woman and victim and later through her search of missing father, she defines her own body’s spatiality, motility, sexuality and expressivity (Card, 2003: 74) and she has found an appropriate form for her own story of survival and relations within a quest narrative. She shifts from a position of alienation and victimhood to a new sense of the vital relationship between herself as human and the land she inhabits, though it also signals a further stage which she has to face in coming to terms with human beings in the modern world. Margaret Atwood tries to rehabilitate one’s self in the “home” and the “world”. The narrator discovers her symbolic journey of life through memory of immigration to Toronto from Quebec and then returning to Quebec. Following the empty state of her marriage and search for the father, confused values of her childhood, her victimized adulthood; the narrator goes through nostalgia, neurosis, self alienation at first then she later overcomes through her explorations and direction-finding maps to locations and meanings. Like an escape artist she plunges into the purifying element, the unknown and the unconscious. Thus Margaret Atwood interrogates the incomprehension, confusion and ambivalence of the woman who is caught in progressive insanities i.e. a new way of conceiving not only idea but also events and time that is disturbing and powerful, at the same time providing alternative but isolated perspective that causes suffering on heroine’s peaceful existence and that adds unconscious dimension of herself especially when it comes to women’s power to control their bodies i.e. abortion or dead marriage.
In conclusion it is right to justify that unless the women’s consciousness integrates counter mechanisms with powerful forces of environment, surroundings and conditions, the behavior pattern of women and men cannot be changed for oneness and equality. The women’s movement should constitute the struggle for society free of exploitation, oppression and it should be identical with the aims of proletarian class struggle and feminist contentions as regards self-transformation and participation of women in the issues for women, by women and of the women.




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