Volume XIV, Number 2, Fall 2018


"Review of Space, Gender, and the Gaze in Literature and Art" by Adél Vékási

Adél Vékási is PhD student at the Doctoral School of Literary Studies, Pázmány Péter Catholic University. Her doctoral research is focused on video games with narratives that place special emphasis on memories and remembering. Vékási examines how these notions impact audience immersion and player experience. Her other academic interests include tropes in popular media, fandom and fan fiction, and social issues and their intersections with media, especially gender- and LGBT-related topics. Email:

Space, Gender, and the Gaze in Literature and Art
Edited by Ágnes Zsófia Kovács and László B. Sári
Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2017
250 pages
ISBN: 978-1-4438-3155-0

 

Space, Gender, and the Gaze in Literature and Art, edited by Ágnes Zsófia Kovács and László B. Sári, collects selected papers from the 12th biannual conference of the Hungarian Society for the Study of English (HUSSE), held in Debrecen in 2015. This volume brings together scholars from the fields of English and American Studies in Hungary, showcasing the works of several young researchers as well as more established academics. The collection is divided into three sections comprising fourteen papers in total, all of which provide their own distinct approaches to theories of gender and space. The diversity of their perspectives is complemented by a similarly wide range of subjects: theology, architecture, and cognitive narratology are brought together with Jane Austen, Suhayl Saadi, and contemporary Hungarian-American artist Orshi Drozdik, among others.

The first section of the collection, titled “Female Spaces and the Body,” includes five papers. These explore how women’s spaces and women’s bodies are conceptualized in literature and—in the case of the fifth paper—the visual arts. Opening this section is Edit Gálla’s essay “‘Who has dismembered us?’: Gender, Consumerism and Disability in Sylvia Plath’s Late Poems,” which examines how illness and disability are interrelated with consumerism and productivity. Incorporating the Kristevian definition of the abject and Baudrillard’s critique of consumer society as well as established Plath analyses, Gálla examines a selection of Sylvia Plath’s late poems which involve bodies that are disabled, dismembered, or machine-like, demonstrating how Plath subverts consumerist ideals and embraces the abject. This is followed by another analysis of Plath’s poetry, “Pregnancy, Deformation and Pathology in Sylvia Plath’s ‘Thalidomide’” by Boglárka Kiss. This rereading of “Thalidomide” argues that by highlighting how pregnancy, monstrosity, and pathology are often aligned, Plath exposes and critiques the ideologies and anxieties that regulate the pregnant body. Pregnancy, like Plath’s thalidomide baby, upsets the corporeal norm, making the reproductive body “a privileged site of ideological concern” (28). The third paper, Amira Benarioua’s “Black Feminist Voices and Space in The Color Purple by Alice Walker,” traces how the ideas of Black feminism and womanism are manifested in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. Benarioua finds the notions of emotional strength, self-confidence, and liberation represented in the characters of Sofia and Shug, and the idea of powerful sisterhood between Black women in how they engender the protagonist’s, Celie’s metamorphosis by the end of the novel. Benarioua’s essay holds an important place in the first section of the collection, as race cannot be ignored when theorizing marginalized bodies; however, it stands out as a paper which only tangentially touches upon the body, focusing instead on psychological (but not physical) transformation and only very briefly on women’s spaces. Next, in the essay “‘[P]ure, dumb canine instinct’: Narrative Space and Motion(lessness) in Don DeLillo’s ‘The Ivory Acrobat,’” Lilla Farmasi examines how DeLillo, by utilizing sense perceptions in “The Ivory Acrobat,” shrinks the narrative space to the protagonist’s body and slows down the pace of the narrative. Farmasi draws on second-generation cognitive theories to analyze embodiment and corporeality in DeLillo’s short story, and demonstrates that DeLillo “creates what is called the fiction of momentum, through following the structures of human embodiment” (60). The first section is concluded by Anna Kérchy’s paper “Queering the Gaze in the Museal Space: Orshi Drozdik’s Feminist (Post)Concept Art.” Kérchy maps how Orshi Drozdik, a New-York based Hungarian artist, challenges prevailing modes of spectating women’s bodies in museal spaces in her intermedial projects. Kérchy argues that by worrying the traditional binary of spectator versus spectated and by giving women the agency of (counter)spectatorship, Drozdik unsettles the established museal gaze.

The second of the three sections is titled “Alternative Spaces of Masculinity” and encompasses four papers that endeavor to examine subversive or transgressive masculine spaces. The first essay of this section, “Boys will be Boys—but what about Girls? Girls in a Boy Status in Jane Austen’s Fiction” by Zsófia Anna Tóth, analyzes the positions and circumstances of Austen’s “boy heroines:” Elinor Dashwood, Elizabeth Bennet, Emma Woodhouse, and Elizabeth Elliot. Relying on established Austen scholars such as Sandra M. Gilbert, Susan Gubar, and Claudia L. Johnson, as well as on other authorities of literature and sociology, Tóth traces how these heroines acquire first the status of “boy” and then that of “woman” through unconventional identity formation: they fill in the voids left by absent or unfit male heirs, thereby assuming boyhood within their families, and even as they eventually come into their own as women they remain male-coded. Following this essay is Zsuzsanna Lukács’s relatively short but insightful paper, titled “Surveillance of the Subculture: Trials and Niches of Hedonism,” which provides a historical survey of late-Victorian subcultures that challenged the prevailing mores of the Age—namely, the Decadent movement, effete dandies, crossdressers, and molly-houses. Lukács draws on cultural studies to interrogate the systems upholding the late-Victorian conservative dogma and to examine how these gender-transgressive subcultures flourished in such a context. In the third essay, “Haunted in the Suburbs: Form of Representing Evil in Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Documents in the Case,” Renáta Zsámba maps the ways Dorothy Sayers links criminality and interwar gender politics in a British suburban context in her epistolary detective novel. Zsámba argues that Sayers demonstrates how the highly normative, restrictive world of the suburbs—in which both the male and female characters are trapped—leads to a blurring of the lines between the innocent and the monstrous, victim and villain. Closing the second section is “Manifestations of Masculinities in Iain Banks’s The Wasp Factory” by Georgina Bozsó, which examines how different constructions of masculinity are performed and embodied by Banks’s three main characters in The Wasp Factory. Bozsó explains that Banks calls into question normative gender constructions, as one function of such normative systems is ostensibly to provide reference points for the self, yet in the case of The Wasp Factory, they “make [the characters’] states even more problematic” (145).

The third and final section of the volume, “Hybrid Spaces,” comprises five papers and shifts the focus from issues of gender, making these last essays stand out rather oddly even if they manage to achieve some dialogue with the rest of the collection. The section begins with “Edith Wharton and World War I in the Context of her Nonfiction” by Ágnes Zsófia Kovács. Reading Wharton’s A Motor-Flight Through France and Fighting France, Kovács demonstrates that Wharton’s admiration for French historical continuity is manifested in her descriptions of the landscape and architecture—first in her travel writing, and later in her wartime nonfiction. Kovács terms this “Wharton’s architectural rhetoric of war” (151), and traces how this rhetoric reveals the shift in Wharton’s attitude towards US-French relations, explaining that Wharton’s initially critical stance on pre-war America changed once war started to threaten French historical continuity and the States became a potential ally in preserving it. Following this, Katalin G. Kállay’s essay “‘Judgement Day, Limited’: Transgression of Regional and Racial Boundaries in Flannery O’Connor’s ‘Judgement Day’” analyzes three contrasting encounters—instances of interracial glances between the short story’s white protagonist and three non-white characters. Kállay argues that these encounters demonstrate the limitations of vision and imagination, which stand parallel to the limitations of understanding and judgement, and considers the theological subtexts of “Judgement Day:” that precisely due to the limitations of human judgement, it should remain God’s domain. Next, in “The Ghost of Slavery in Toni Morrison’s Beloved,” Zsuzsa Sütő maps out the layers of personal and collective trauma represented in Beloved via literary memory, although the definition of literary memory Sütő employs in her analysis remains unclear. The character Beloved, herself a metaphor for “rememory,” binds and shapes the novel’s other characters and is a catalyst for a chain of other metaphors: those of space, the fantastic, metamorphosis, cause and effect, and layered orality. The fourth paper in the section is Éva Pataki’s “‘Sounds from the Furthest Places’: Language, Music, and the Transfusion of Identity in Suhayl Saadi’s Psychoraag,” which traces the identity positioning and self-expression of the novel’s British Asian protagonist, Zaf, through language and music. Employing the Jungian definition of alchemy and its four stages, Pataki investigates the fluid, hybrid nature of the diasporic experience as represented by Zaf in Pychoraag. The collection is concluded by Andrea F. Szabó’s paper “Cormac McCarthy’s Gothic Westerns,” in which Szabó establishes a new understanding of McCarthy’s later works as gothic westerns, thereby demonstrating a continuity between these novels and McCarthy’s earlier Southern Gothic works. Analyzing Blood Meridian and the Border Trilogy from a thematic and formal standpoint and connecting them to the Gothic tradition, Szabó understands the novels as Gothic, as they incorporate gothic concepts of the individual.

The last section demonstrates most starkly the collection’s chief issue: its lack of cohesion. The title of Space, Gender, and the Gaze in Literature and Art promises a volume where theories of space, gender, and the gaze will converge and overlap, and papers will enter into a dialogue with each other about them. While this does happen, it is perhaps not to the extent one would hope—the collection does not give the impression of one cohesive whole. Most notable is the break between the first two sections and the third, but there is some dissonance within each section as well, and the sections’ titles do not always accurately indicate the contents of each collection of papers: for instance, in the section “Female Spaces and the Body” Benarioua does not reflect on the body and only very briefly touches on women’s spaces, while Farmasi—though writing about a female protagonist—never explicitly explores the gendered dimensions of embodiment and space. Similar issues arise in the other sections as well, making the collection seem somewhat disjointed. But what Space, Gender, and the Gaze in Literature and Art might lack in cohesion it makes up for in fresh, insightful perspectives. The volume is sure to give its readers new frames of reference for thinking about space and gender, whether they are academics, students, or interested general readers. Though the essays focus on English and American literature and art as their subjects, the collection’s potential audience is much broader: anyone with an interest in gender studies will find themselves benefitting from the volume’s wide range of approaches.