Literary criticism is the study, discussion, evaluation, and interpretation of literature. Modern
literary criticism is often informed by literary theory, which is the philosophical discussion of its
methods and goals. Though the two activities are closely related, literary critics are not always,
and have not always been, theorists.
Feminist literary criticism is literary criticism informed by feminist theory, or by the
politics of feminism more broadly. Its history has been broad and varied, from classic works of
nineteenth-century women authors such as George Eliot and Margaret Fuller to cutting-edge
theoretical work in women's studies and gender studies by "third-wave" authors. In the most
general and simple terms, feminist literary criticism before the 1970s -- in the first and second
waves of feminism -- was concerned with the politics of women's authorship and the
representation of women's condition within literature. Since the arrival of more complex
conceptions of gender and subjectivity and third-wave feminism, feminist literary criticism has
taken a variety of new routes. It has considered gender in the terms of Freudian and Lacanian
psychoanalysis, as part of the deconstruction of existing relations of power, and as a concrete
political investment. And the more traditionally central feminist concern with the representation
and politics of women's lives has continued to play an active role in criticism.
Lisa Tittle has defined feminist theory as asking "new questions of old texts." She cites
the goals of feminist criticism as: (1) To develop and uncover a female tradition of writing, (2) to
interpret symbolism of women's writing so that it will not be lost or ignored by the male point of
view, (3) to rediscover old texts, (4) to analyze women writers and their writings from a female
perspective, (5) to resist sexism in literature, and (6) to increase awareness of the sexual politics
of language and style.
Feminist science fiction is a sub-genre of science fiction which tends to deal with
women's roles in society. Feminist science fiction poses questions about social issues such as how
society constructs gender roles, the role reproduction plays in defining gender and the unequal
political and personal power of men and women. Some of the most notable feminist science
fiction works have illustrated these themes using utopias to explore a society in which gender
differences or gender power imbalances do not exist, or dystopias to explore worlds in which
gender inequalities are intensified, thus asserting a need for feminist work to continue.
According to Elyce Rae Helford:
"Science fiction and fantasy serve as important vehicles for feminist thought, particularly as
bridges between theory and practice. No other genres so actively invite representations of the
ultimate goals of feminism: worlds free of sexism, worlds in which women's contributions (to
science) are recognized and valued, worlds in which the diversity of women's desire and
sexuality, and worlds that move beyond gender."
Social Critique in The Handmaid’s Tale
The Handmaid's Tale comprises a number of social critiques. Atwood sought to demonstrate that
extremist views might result in fundamentalist totalitarianism. The novel presents a dystopian
vision of life in the United States in the period projecting forward from the time of the writing
(1985), covering the backlash against feminism. This critique is most clearly seen in both Offred's
memories of the slow social transformation towards theocratic fascism and in the ideology of the
Immediately following the overthrow of the government, but before the new order had
completely changed things, women begin to lose whatever freedoms they had previously had.
Offred describes the loss of her own bank account as it is transferred to her husband's control, and
then the loss of her job, before her husband and her daughter attempt to flee. An "Aunt" describes
women's rights prior to the overthrow as "freedom to" (i.e., women having the freedom to do as
they pleased), while the time after is described as "freedom from" (i.e., women having the
freedom from difficulties, responsibilities, and fear).
In the chapter "Soul Scrolls", Offred reflects on what happened. "I guess that's how they
did it," she thinks to herself, regarding electronic banking. It allowed the government to freeze
women's bank accounts once the fundamentalist Sons of Jacob had taken power by assassinating
the President and all of Congress, blaming it on Muslim terrorists. A state of emergency was
declared and the Constitution was suspended by the army, run by Sons of Jacob members. Mass
pornography burnings took place, such as in the "Manhattan cleanup". Women are decreed
unable to work, their bank accounts transferred into their husbands' or male relatives' control, and
the Sons of Jacob set up a Christian fundamentalist state church, which causes rebellion by
Catholics, Baptists, and other denominations, who reject it. The backdrop was "The Big One" in
California, which caused radioactive waste spills and produced "R-Strain Syphilis" that, along
with AIDS, caused widespread infertility. This is alternate history wherein a far-right messianic
Christian movement forms in the government and military, who make a pact with the USSR to
deal with rebellions occurring in their spheres of influence. The latter was explained at the end of
the book in a future historical lecture on the Republic of Gilead, which had long-since
Atwood mocks those who talk of "traditional values", for example, such leaders as
Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan who suggested that women should return to being
housewives (see Kinder, Küche, Kirche and Barefoot and pregnant). Serena Joy, formerly a
television preacher with a high public profile, has been forced to give up her career and is clearly
not content. The religious and social ideology she has spent her entire long career publicly
promoting has, in the end, destroyed her own life and happiness.
However, Atwood also offers a critique of contemporary feminism. By working against
pornography, feminists in the early 1980s opened themselves up to criticism that they favoured
censorship. Anti-pornography feminist activists such as Andrea Dworkin and Catharine
MacKinnon made alliances with the religious right, despite the warnings of sex-positive
feminists. Atwood warns that the consequences of such an alliance may end up empowering
feminists' worst enemies. She also suggests, through descriptions of the narrator's feminist mother
burning books, that contemporary feminism was becoming overly rigid and adopting the same
tactics as the religious right.
Most notably, Atwood critiques modern religious movements, specifically fundamentalist
Christianity in the United States, with a reference to Islamic fundamentalism such as the
theocracy founded in Iran in 1979. An American religious revival in the mid-1970s had led to the
growth of the religious right through televangelism. Jimmy Carter, then president, had avowed his
renewed and reaffirmed Christianity; Ronald Reagan was elected as his successor using a
specifically Christian discourse.
Atwood pictures revivalism as counter-revolutionary, opposed to the revolutionary
doctrine espoused by Offred's mother and Moira, which sought to break down gender categories.
A Marxist reading of fascism explains it as the backlash of the right after a failed revolution.
Atwood explores this Marxist reading and translates its analysis into the structure of a religious
and gender revolution. "From each according to her ability… to each according to his needs"
(page 127) is a deliberate distortion of Marx's phrase, "From each according to his ability, to each
according to his need" — the latter, an ideological statement on class and society; the former, a
stance taken by Gileadian society towards gender roles.
"Literary criticism." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 26 August 2007, 10:55 UTC.
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