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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Reader as woman: gender and identification in novels Roberts, Nancy


This dissertation, as its title suggests, is a study of gender and identification. The main body of the thesis is s consideration of four novels (Clarissa, The Scarlet Letter, Portrait of a Lady, and Tess of the d'Urbervilles), all of which are centered around a heroine defined by her suffering. In the figure of the heroine/victim is conjoined the activity of the hero and the passivity of the victim. Such a conjunction raises perplexing problems. One of these is that the "heroism" or "greatness" of the heroine is measured by means other than her action, for as victim she can do or move very little. Her heroism is measured instead by the pity and sympathy she elicits from other and by the extent to which she moves them (us). What this means for reading is that we cannot study the character without studying the response she generates. A study of character becomes a study of response - of both the responses represented in the text (those of other characters) and of our own response as readers. I read each of these four novels as a type of "school of sympathy," as a place in which readers are instructed how to feel. Novels, in this view, are social agents doing social work. Their work, in this case, is the construction of subjectivity. Each novel constructs the reader's emotions toward the heroine as much as it constructs the heroine herself. Gender plays an important part in this construction. Following some recent film as well as literary theory, I discuss to what extent the reader's position in these novels is constructed as male, and then go on to consider what implications this has for identification with the female. Each novel presents us with a type of cross-gender identification in which our sympathy for the heroine appears to depend upon the imposition of clear and distinct gender boundaries, boundaries which are established only to be crossed. In my sixth and final chapter, I turn to the work of two twentieth-century female authors, Margaret Atwood and Angela Carter, to see in what ways they "talk back" to the tradition which has defined woman as other, to see in what ways, if any, they re-define the possibility of female heroism, and, finally, to consider the implications for the reader.

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