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Title:Embodied female voices: sexuality and artistry in Woolf, Yeats, Joyce, and Beckett
Author(s):Wood, Elaine S.
Director of Research:Mahaffey, Vicki
Doctoral Committee Chair(s):Mahaffey, Vicki
Doctoral Committee Member(s):Rickard, John; Cole, C.L.; Hansen, Jim
Department / Program:English
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Subject(s):Irish Literature
British modernism
Abstract:When asked to consider bodies and sexuality in literature, people often imagine scenes from D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928). In marked contrast to her voiceless fictional predecessor Anne Elliot whose “word had no weight” in Jane Austen’s Persuasion (1818), the female protagonist in Lawrence’s novel gives voice to her erotic desires. The novel’s powerful illustrations undermine her agency, however, by emphasizing her body’s passivity; she always takes up reactive positions rather than active ones. Lady Chatterley could have learned something from the sexual female protagonist Molly Bloom who spoke six years earlier in James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) by taking readers bodily into her world. She has the last word in the novel, concluding with her own words – “What else were we given all those desires for Id like to know I cant help it if Im young still can I” – as she reminds us that a woman can be her own access point to modes of sexuality rooted in the body. It is precisely this shift in literary representations of a woman’s voice in relation to her sexuality that I chart in my dissertation. “Embodied Female Voices: Sexuality and Artistry in Woolf, Yeats, Joyce, and Beckett” investigates modernist literary techniques for creating a female character with a voice who is also active and expressive in her sexuality. These canonical modernist authors found new ways to represent women as embodied, sexual, desired and desiring subjects through prose, poetry, and drama – Virginia Woolf’s Orlando: A Biography (1928), W.B. Yeats’ The Winding Stair and Other Poems (1933), James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939), and Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days (1961), Play (1963), Not I (1973), Footfalls (1976), and Rockaby (1982). Looking at the work of these authors, I argue that the “modern woman,” who pursues her own pleasure and self-realization in the world, represents a literary effort to reclaim the idealized feminine body. Positioned at the nexus of studies on the body and sexuality in modernist literature, this project ultimately addresses the complex ways that “differences” among women are understood culturally, politically, and epistemologically. By rendering sexuality more obviously as a component of female character, these works of modernist literature shape our understanding of the artistic body as a structure for thinking about “woman” as a linguistic construct and material reality. My introduction establishes the theoretical framework for the dissertation. Here, I show how I extend current scholarship on new materialisms (especially Elizabeth Grosz, Jane Bennett, and Sara Ahmed) by also deploying new conceptions of bodies related to Deleuzian theories of becoming woman. Rendering the experiences of embodied female subjects with recourse to actual prototypes (such as Lucia Joyce’s role in Finnegans Wake), Joyce, as well as Yeats and Beckett, are among the first to write more fully realized female characters rather than reducing women to symbols. As Irish writers, Joyce, Yeats, and Beckett can be positioned within a tradition of colonized subjects who are aware of the embodied nature of historical oppression. Identifying “feminization as colonization,” Anca Vlasopolos’ Working Papers in Irish Studies reiterates an established line of critical inquiry about the Irish nation as a woman to be fought over by warring men. Yeats’ “Easter 1916” poem, for example, recognizes this trope while linking “that woman [whose] days were spent / In ignorant good will” with a real political figure, Constance Gore-Booth Markievicz, who was familiar to Yeats. The first chapter, “Clothing and the Female Body in Woolf’s Orlando” demonstrates how Woolf’s theory of “myriad-mindedness” outlined in her non-fiction A Room of One’s Own (1929) comes to life as Orlando, a roman à clef drawn from her romantic and artistic liaison with Vita Sackville-West. Deliberately deconstructing gender binaries with non-conformist modes of dress and behavior, Orlando plays a genderqueer role by refusing expressions that limit subject positions to either male or female. As Orlando writes “The Oak Tree, a poem,” (s)he draws from material published in The Land (1926), Sackville-West’s award-winning poem. In the novel, Orlando’s poem becomes a memoir for Sackville-West’s struggle with the Knole House inheritance, which she was refused on account of her sex. The next chapter, “Yeats’ Female Forms and Poetic Figures” registers a shift in Yeats’ poetics from symbolist aesthetics to materialist embodiment by demonstrating a correlative shift in his depictions of women from the early twentieth century to his Last Poems (1938-1939). Over time, Yeats’ poems increasingly challenge the expansive possibilities of sexual and intellectual depths in the figure of a woman as Yeats appreciates the female voice for the sake of its own desire in his 1933 poems, “Crazy Jane Grown Old Looks at the Dancers” and “Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop.” The third chapter, “Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl” demonstrates how Joyce’s portrayal of the female body is fragmented and multiple insofar as Finnegans Wake does not present the body as an a priori structure that precedes its constructedness as a text to be read/written. I approach Issy’s avatars as distilled versions of her “queen bee” character and demonstrate how various aspects of her character might offer countervailing readings of one another. One of Issy’s iterations is Joyce’s own daughter Lucia, an artist and dancer, whose illustrations were used for Storiella as She is Syung (a part of the novel particularly inspired by Lucia). The final chapter, “Playing the (Body) Part in Beckett’s Theater” analyzes female characters’ monologues as they relate to the staging of physical bodies in Beckett’s Happy Days (1961), Play (1963), Not I (1973), Footfalls (1976), and Rockaby (1982). Linked to depictions of immobility and containment, Beckett’s characters perform what I refer to as a “theatrics of inertia,” which draws from a principle of non-Newtonian motion that Beckett refers to in Murphy (1938). By staging the body as fragmented and restricted, Beckett illustrates particular limitations placed on the female body and amplifies the failures of institutionalized forms of human connection, such as husband/wife roles (inspired by his marriage to Suzanne). The depiction of female artistry in these works prefigures contemporary feminist thought regarding gender identity, disability theory, and erotic embodiment. My project shows that by creating textual space for women, Woolf, Joyce, Yeats, and Beckett simultaneously establish space for real women at the forefront of the cultural and political milieu.
Issue Date:2015-07-17
Rights Information:Copyright 2015 Elaine Wood
Date Available in IDEALS:2015-09-29
Date Deposited:August 201

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