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Dr. Laura L. Runge
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    LIT 4386 British and American Literature by Women


    Class 27


    Rich, "When we dead Awaken" (1980); "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers" (1955); "Snapshots of a Daughter-in-law" (1955)
    POST #12 Group A


    Class Objectives:

  • To interpret Rich's essay and poems
  • To analyze the continuities between Woolf and Rich and developments for women


    Rich's important essay "When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Revision" is a long and detailed analysis of her life as a woman and artist and her response to literary criticism. This essay was originally presented in 1971 at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association. It has since entered into the "literary" canon as provocative and necessary "revision" that sparked a whole tradition of feminist writing. It is a founding document in current feminist scholarship.

    I have provided an outline of major points from the essay that will help you make sense of the work. After the outline, I have provided some discussion questions. I also would like to spend some time examining her poems that she uses as examples in her essay.


Notes and Discussion Questions:

1. Adrienne Rich, "When We Dead Awaken" (1980)

What is it?

How does this differ from a short-story? A Memoir? An Autobiography?

What does it share with these?

How does it compare with V. Woolf's essay, A Room of One's Own?

What style is the writing?

What is the context (if not setting)?

2. Part I -- The "Tradition" of Women's Writing and its importance

  • "Re-vision -- the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction -- is for women more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival. Until we can understand the assumptions in which we are drenched we cannot know ourselves. And this drive to self-knowledge, for women, is more than a search for identity: it is part of our refusal of the self-destructiveness of male-dominated society" (1982).

  • She describes the act of creating a new language and new imagery for woman as "difficult and dangerous walking on the ice . . . with little in the past to support us" (1982).

  • She points to the successful work of two female poets, Plath and Wakoski, and identifies one of the sources of danger and difficulty as "Man's power -- to dominate, tyrannize, choose, or reject the woman" (1983).

  • "Until recently this female anger and this furious awareness of the Man's power over her were not available materials to the female poet, who tended to write of Love as the source of her suffering, and to view that victimization by Love as an almost inevitable fate" (1983).

  • She emphasizes the role that men have played in the lives of women writers -- as the judge not merely of her work, but of her person, her desireability as a woman. "The specter of this kind of male judgment, along with the misnaming and thwarting of her needs by a culture controlled by males, has created problems for the woman writer: problems of contact with herself, problems of language and style, problems of energy and survival" (1983).

  • She looks to Virginia Woolf's famous essay on women's writing, A Room of One's Own, and finds Woolf trying not to sound angry, even though she is writing for an audience of women: "she is trying to sound as cool as Jane Austen, as Olympian as Shakespeare, because that is the way the men of the culture thought a writer should sound. No male writer has written primarily or even largely for women, or with the sense of women's criticism as a consideration when he chooses his materials, his theme, his language. But to a lesser or greater extent, every woman writer has written for men even when, like Virginia Woolf, she was supposed to be addressing women" (1984).

    3. Part II. Rich's Awakening as a Woman and Poet

  • She describes the confusion of the female poet in search of language to describe the female experience: "She goes to poetry or fiction looking for her way of being in the world, since she too has been putting words and images together; she is looking eagerly for guides, maps, possibilities; and over and over in the 'words' masculine persuasive force' of literature she comes up against something that negates everything she is about: she meets the image of Woman in books written by men." (1985).

  • Her early writing was informed by male poets -- Frost, Dylan Thomas, Donne, Auden etc. Her early poetry met with great success.

  • "Because I was determined to prove that as a woman poet I could also have what was then defined as a 'full' woman's life, I plunged in my early twenties into marriage and had three children before I was thirty" (1987).

  • After publishing her second book she falls into a depression: "I was writing very little, partly from fatigue, that female fatigue of suppressed anger and loss of contact with my own being; partly from the discontinuity of female life with its attention to small chores, errands, work that others constantly undo, small children's constant needs" (1987).

  • "I had thought I was choosing a full life: the life available to most men, in which sexuality, work, and parenthood could coexist. But I felt, at twenty-nine, guilt toward the people closest to me, and guilty toward my own being" (1988).

  • Her production, "Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law" (1958-1960) was the first poem she wrote in which she identified herself as a female poet. She had been unwilling to write in such a way before because "I had been taught that poetry should be 'universal,' which meant, of course, nonfemale" (1989).

  • From then on her poetry and her life as a woman come together and she explores the issues of womanhood in her poetry, but not without difficulty. "The choice still seemed to be between "love" -- womanly, maternal love, altruistic love -- a love defined and ruled by the weight of an entire culture; and egotism -- a force directed by men into creation, achievement, ambition, often at the expense of others, but justifiably so. . . . We know now that the alternatives are false ones -- that the word 'love' is itself in need of re-vision" (1990).

  • "And today, much poetry by women -- and prose for that matter -- is charged with anger. I think we need to go through that anger, and we will betray our own reality if we try, as Virginia Woolf was trying, for an objectivity, a detachment, that would make us sound more like Jane Austen or Shakespeare" (1992).

    4. Questions

    Anger (cf. Woolf on Jane Eyre for instance) - one of the central issues Rich deals with in the essay is the importance and usefulness of women's anger. Although we have seen a great deal of anger expressed in the literature by women, rarely has it been viewed as positive. Why does Rich see "anger" as positive or necessary for women? What are the problems associated with women expressing anger? Do you think the culture we live in still frowns upon women's anger? Why or how? Is it any different for men? Why or how? Do you think we have or should have strategies for addressing and "working through the anger" as Rich says?

    Awakening - Rich picks up on the image of awakening that we have again seen several times this semester - most memorably in The Awakening. From what does Rich (and the feminist movement of the 70s) awaken? How does this compare with Edna's awakening in the novel? How is Rich's experience as a mother and writer like Edna's? How does Rich's conclusion differ?

    The myth of genius (isolated, cold, egotistical) - again we see the theme of isolated or egotistical genius - locking yourself up in a room of your own. But Rich recognizes, as have so many of the women writers we have read - cf. Paule Marshall - that making yourself unavailable is neither possible nor desirable for women. What is to be gained by relations - see Marshall, for instance? What does Rich say about the choice between love and egotism (see page 1990)?

    Many types of women - what does Rich have to say about the "special woman"? Note that she returns to Woolf's essay and points to the women she has left out - page 1984 - who is left out? Why does Rich mention them? Note too how she credits the differences among women with changing and improving the goals of feminism - the needs and criticism spoken of by Black women and lesbians. How do these different voices improve the goals of feminism for Rich? How does it change her vision of what needs to be done in literature?

    Note Rich's awareness of the changes that take place from decade to decade and the historical forces that shape the challenges women face. What do you think has changed since Rich wrote this in the 70s? What challenges remain in place? What new challenges does she overlook?