Genders OnLine Journal

Issue 51     2010

“I Really Must Be an
Emma Bovary”

Female Literacy and Adultery in Feminist Fiction

By SUZANNE LEONARD

[1] Feminist fiction emerged in both the United States and Great Britain during the height of the second wave feminist movement, marking its entrance with demands for female autonomy, sexual and reproductive freedom, and a cautionary perspective on institutionalized heterosexuality. While feminist activists were at the same time encouraging a radical overhaul of the sex/gender system, feminist fiction often made similar arguments in a more subdued fashion, focusing on larger systemic issues through personal or confessional narratives that depicted the material circumstances of individual women’s lives. Perhaps best exemplified by novels such as Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook (1962), Alix Kates Shulman’s Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen (1969), Marge Piercy’s Small Changes (1972), Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle (1973), Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying (1973), and Marilyn French’s The Woman’s Room (1977) feminist fiction chronicled the psychological and sometimes literal journeys taken by women who come to a gradual understanding of the ways that gender prescribes their lives. Such realizations are frequently accompanied by a variety of plot devices that pertain to the female protagonist, including: her first sexual experience, struggles with men and marriage, forays into higher education, extramarital dalliances, visits to a psychotherapist, difficult reproductive decisions, and parenting challenges.

[2] Despite its tendency to dialogue with a number of real world issues facing its almost exclusively female readership in the 1960s and 1970s, feminist fiction nevertheless held a contested position within the paradigm of feminist literary criticism. Those skeptical of feminist fiction point to its apparently naïve belief in the transparency of experience, its unwillingness to move characters from personal understandings to social or political activism, and its authors sometimes public refusals to consider themselves or their fictions as part of a larger feminist movement. While these sometimes highly charged debates began in the late 1970s and continued well into the 1980s, they have received renewed attention of late in critical volumes such as Lisa Maria Hogeland’s Feminism and Its Fictions (1998) and Jane Gerhard’s Desiring Revolution: Second-Wave Feminism and the Rewriting of American Sexual Thought 1920-1982 (2001). Feminist fiction’s political potential and especially its role in paving the way for future feminist thought has also been reaffirmed by Imelda Whelehan, whose The Feminist Bestseller (2005) traces a genealogy from feminist fiction to chick lit, the latter having heralded, since around the year 2000, a concomitantly enthusiastic base of female readers. Whelehan argues that the mainstreaming of feminist ideas in chick lit can be tied back to feminist fiction, and celebrates the populist appeal of both genres as indicated by their impressive commercial successes. The importance of female reading practices to the feminist project also informs this article’s foray into the genre of feminist fiction. Yet, while Whelehan is forward looking in her examination of how feminist fiction of the 1960s and 1970s paved way for similarly popularized confessionals in the late twentieth century, my project looks back in order to think about how the feminist fiction model derives from, dialogues with, and deliberately revises older models of literary history. In particular, it focuses on how feminist fiction interrogates heterosexual marriage through the plotline of female adultery, arguing that it forges space for a representation of marriage unleashed from the burden of its historical precedents, and from the dramatic (and often tragic) narrative predicaments visited upon adulterous women in earlier literature. This revision has implications for the project of feminist historiography in that feminist fiction is very much cognizant of the literary models it is revising and rewriting, as well as the future of feminist thought as it pertains to heterosexual institutions and especially marriage.
 
[3] As many have noted, feminist fiction tends to defamilarize and demythologize heterosexual romance, and in particular, the way it channels women into matrimony. The gesture to turn a critical gaze on marriage was informed by rhetoric emerging from the Women’s Liberation Movement, which often encouraged a rethinking of the coercive power of love and romance. Radical feminist Ti-Grace Atkinson, for example, famously compared marriage to cancer in a CBS Evening News segment that aired in March 1970 (Douglas 174). One might in fact characterize the late 1960s and 1970s, a period during which feminist fiction flourished in the popular marketplace, as a historical moment also marked by a spirit of marital rejection. Such critiques were localizable in a wide range of activist and theoretical interventions, from the 1969 hex on the Bridal Fair that a feminist group staged outside Madison Square Garden, to the writings of economically-minded academics who claimed that the abolition of marriage was necessary because women’s free labor in the home sabotaged their demands for equal pay outside of it, to the uncompromising calls from radical feminists who argued for the complete demystification of romantic illusions, sentiments which led unsuspecting women to enter into marital agreements that institutionalized their subordination. Such displays were accompanied by a more widespread cultural sense that prescribed roles for women (many of which were overdetermined by marriage) lead to depression, a contention made most famously by Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique. As Stephanie Coontz reports in her wide-reaching volume Marriage, A History, marital commitments were being actively reevaluated and rethought during the 1960s and 1970s, and this process included publicizing less traditional arrangements, such as swinging and open marriages, as well as vocal consideration of some of the longstanding inequalities the institution fostered. Spurred by a realization of these problems, Alix Kates Shulman wrote “A Marriage Agreement” in 1972, a document that called for spouses to measure, quantify, and divide domestic responsibilities so that each devoted equal time to household and child care work. As Coontz reports, such widespread attention was being given to notions of marital parity that Shulman’s contract was reprinted in Life and Redbook, and “by 1978 even Glamour magazine was explaining how to write your own marriage contract” (255). 

[4] While these real world interventions encouraged women to reevaluate marital commitments and make them more equitable, so too did feminist fiction. Though the plotline of female adultery may seem a trite compensation for the heavy-hitting discussions of marriage’s social, sexual, and economic functions taking place in other mediums, female authors routinely employed it precisely for this reason, using their fictions to reaffirm, for example, the need for marital renegotiations in the face of unbending gender roles. Related concerns of the genre included: access to higher education, greater workforce participation, reproductive freedom, rights to sexual expression, and support for creative pursuits. As a whole, feminist fiction took responsibility for publicizing unfair divisions of labor—especially within marriage—and other cultural double standards. This is not to argue, of course, that popular feminist fiction offered a polemic against marriage or heterosexuality tantamount to the uncompromising attacks generally found in radical feminist discourse. Feminist fictions on the whole tended to present a less emphatic critique, although it is perhaps equally important to recognize that this strategy enabled such texts to court a wider cross-section of readers. As Whelehan contends:

Fiction, more freely than political writings, can take opposing sides and study conflicted opinions and ambiguity, and is therefore more likely to chime with the uncertainties of women attracted to feminism but confused by the mess of their personal lives. Feminist bestsellers could actively address and debate the feelings of emptiness and loss of identity felt by women after marriage without recourse to a tortured description of the foundation of patriarchy. (12)
The fact that feminist fiction courted readers who were not already aligned with the movement and gave such readers space to develop such inclinations constitutes a pivotal potential of the genre; as well, this process was often mimicked in the novels themselves, which scripted feminist insights and awakenings as developing organically from the protagonist’s personal struggles.

Adultery Ad Nauseam?

[5] One of the most popular plotlines in feminist fiction is the adultery story, a plotline that, I contend, contains within it the potential to jumpstart a critical conversation about marriage amongst unlikely audiences. The ubiquity of this plotline in feminist fiction is self-evident, and instances of female adultery can be found in four of Alison Lurie’s novels: Love and Friendship (1962), The Nowhere City (1965), Real People (1969) and The War Between the Tates (1974); two of Margaret Drabble’s: A Summer Bird Cage (1962) and The Waterfall (1969); in Sue Kaufman’s Diary of a Mad Housewife (1967), Margaret Laurence’s The Fire-Dwellers (1969), Dorothy Bryant’s Ella Price’s Journal (1972), Doris Lessing’s The Summer Before the Dark (1973), and Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying (1973). Despite the existence of this thematic continuity, feminist critics have traditionally balked at the notion that the affair is worthy of any sustained scholarly attention, even within studies that profess to take seriously the genre of feminist fiction.

[6] Such dismissals are perhaps due to the fact that the affair became too obviously a placeholder for feminist sentiments. In her 1981 article “Convention Coverage,” Jean E. Kennard points out that the female adultery trope became so popular, so fast, that by 1977, when Marilyn French published The Women’s Room, French referred to the scripting of a female affair as an “old rule” she intended to break (72). To be fair, Kennard refers to this cultural shift not in order to criticize the adultery narrative per se, but to point out the rapidity with which certain themes come be regarded as fictional conventions. As she writes, thanks to novels like Kaufman’s Diary of a Mad Housewife and Lessing’s The Summer Before the Dark, by the mid 1970s it came to be popularly understood that when a woman leaves her husband and takes a lover, this was meant to “indicate a woman is searching for self-fulfillment” and that “this search for self-fulfillment should be approved” (72). Kennard nevertheless demonstrates a similarly derisive attitude toward the adultery plotline, noting her opinion that such novels simply borrow from what she terms the “two-suitor convention” of the nineteenth century, although instead of having the heroine select between two potential husbands, the twentieth-century update forces her to choose between the husband she already has and the lover she has taken.

[7] Feminist critics were also frequently disappointed with the female adultery script’s refusal to offer a recognizable “solution” to the problem of marital inequality, since the adulterous wife typically does not leave her marriage in a blaze of righteous indignation. Lamenting this missed opportunity for feminist action, Gayle Greene comments that although the affair represents the most frequent means by which female protagonists are able to escape from the confines of their homes, “usually the function of the lover is to resign her [the wife] to her marriage” (65). Anthea Zeman also refers to the “one statutory love affair the wife involves herself in during the period of depression”, and notes that by the end of novels which feature an affair, order has been returned to the protagonist’s marriage, and the “threads are picked up” (124). As such dismissals indicate, feminist critics denounce the adultery convention because it rarely leads to a dramatic overhaul in the lives of the women who stray. According to this paradigm, adultery earns its feminist credentials only when it propels a woman to begin life anew by choosing to live without the complications of marriage or a long-term partner.  I offer a different reading of the adulterous heroine, one less wedded to the idea that the fictional resolution of her narrative constitutes the criteria on which adultery novels, or their feminist sensibilities, should be judged. Instead, I locate the potential of female adultery texts in their power to demystify certain aspects of marriage and even to complicate certain feminist ideals. Though these novels were published in the 1960s and 1970s, they offer a veritable genealogy of marital critique that explicates longstanding inequalities the institution fostered. While feminist denunciations of marriage have largely receded in the present day, the controversial advent of gay marriage—now legal in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, Iowa, Maine, and New Hampshire, and outlawed in California in the controversial Proposition 8 Vote—has served to remind the American populace of marriage’s and even monogamy’s ability to function as a pathway toward cultural, social, economic, and moral legitimacy. As cultural critic Laura Kipnis reminds us, marriage, whether straight or gay, is one of the most obvious factors by which the populace defines itself. Kipnis writes, “these intersections of love and acquiescence are the very backbone of the modern self […] every iota of self worth and identity hinge on them, along with insurance benefits” (41). Much like the gay marriage debate, adultery in feminist fiction novels attests to the fact that seemingly “private” intimacies nevertheless possess a substantial public currency. If marriage remains as an institution which cleaves the populace according to strict designations of economics, desire, and identity, studying the history of adultery allows for a reconceptualization of the process by which definitions and assumptions about marriage are created. This reminder is all the more salient in the contemporary pro-marriage climate, which frequently papers over historic critiques of the institution.

[8] Feminist fiction, I argue, makes an ideological intervention into the ongoing inquiry surrounding marital practices thanks especially to its enunciation of women’s experience with respect to the institution. While the literary value of feminist fiction was a subject of much debate during the period of these novels production, more recent scholarship has tended, thanks to advent of cultural studies models, to think more about the ideology of such texts than their craftsmanship. A revived interest in this period of female literary production in light of such theoretical paradigms suggests that women’s attitudes toward marriage should continue to be an area of feminist concern, and rich material for an ongoing conversation can be mined from feminist fiction, thanks to such novels insistence on centralizing women’s perceptions.

[9] Feminist fiction’s focus on female experience is wrought not only through content but also in structure. Because they typically adopt the form of a confessional, diary, journal, or even stream-of-consciousness narrative, the organization of these novels emphasizes the concept of female voice. Adultery novels exist as a subset of this larger category, and first person narrative strategies are employed in Real People, Diary of a Mad Housewife, The Waterfall, The Fire-Dwellers, Ella Price’s Journal and Fear of Flying. Some adultery novels even posit the creation of the novel itself as a renegade or secretive endeavor, a practice that aligns the writing process with an act of symbolic adultery. Real People, for example, recounts the experiences of an author, Janet, who divulges details from her writer’s retreat (and the affair she has during it) even though she and the other retreat participants have taken a pledge of silence. Likewise, Diary of a Mad Housewife represents the private ruminations of Tina Balser and takes the form of a diary she secretly starts keeping because she fears for her mental health. The plethora of works in this vein suggests that adultery became a placeholder for a much larger betrayal, namely that through the act of writing, female protagonists were defying both male authorities and literary gatekeepers.

[10] The appeal of these novels to contemporary feminist scholars resides also in their high levels of honesty about sex, marriage, and family life. The extent to which fiction can be said to approximate “real life” has been a point of contention amongst feminist theorists, yet most would agree that feminist fictions attempt verisimilitude in their efforts to convey the quotidian aspects of marriage. Sketching disappointing unions, thanks especially to controlling or conversely, absent, husbands, many of the novels depict men who frame sexual acts as demands rather than opportunities for intimacy. Diary of a Mad Housewife’s tyrannical Jonathan Balser, for instance, summons sex with the grating imploration, “Teen, how’s about a little ole roll in the hay?” As Tina explains to her diary, because Jonathan takes a refusal to mean that something is wrong with her, she frequently complies with this request rather than incur his critiques. Even when it is not rendered in such stark terms, however, marital sex generally comes under scrutiny in the adultery novel. Stacey MacAindra, the exasperated mother of four at the center of Margaret Laurence’s The Fire-Dwellers is married to a man who exhibits a barely repressed hostility toward her during the day, yet often wakes her in the middle of the night to make love. During the sexual encounter, he has a habit of wrapping his hands around her neck and pressing down on her collarbone, to the point where she feels as if she is suffocating.

[11] In more general terms, adultery novels critique the compulsory roles that women adopt thanks to their positions as wives and mothers. In The Summer Before the Dark, Kate Brown comes to see that playing “the role of provider of invisible manna, consolation, warmth, ‘sympathy’” is what women did in families, and yet that person who was “all warmth and charm,” “had nothing to do with her”, nothing to do with "what she really was” (46). Similarly, though she has no interest in status climbing, thanks to the demands of her egomaniacal husband, Tina Balser must become a party planner, socialite, and consumer of luxury goods. The Fire-Dwellers also explores the idea that imposed identities can put women in the position of feeling either not like themselves or like a self that is hopelessly fragmented. The novel repeats the multiple duties of Stacey’s day in order to suggest that they have produced in her a divided consciousness, a point the novel renders structurally by alternating between her conversations with others, inner running commentaries, shards of memories, and recollections of dreams. As a collective, feminist fictions point out how these wives’ multiple responsibilities collude to ensure their dependency; at the same time, they expose how sexual, maternal, and consumptive obligations impose competing identities that wives often find difficult to sustain. 

[12] Much of the appeal of the affair in such novels—both to protagonists, and I suspect, to readers—is that it offers fictional wives a temporary escape from compulsory roles, as well as from the spaces of their domestic locales. Whereas this journey may simply take the form of venturing across town to a lover’s apartment, some novels indulge highly prolonged escapes, such as in The Summer Before the Dark wherein Kate travels to Europe for the summer to work as a translator and has an affair with a younger man in Spain. Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying also allows its protagonist a European affair since Isadora attends a conference with her husband in Paris, but leaves him for a weeks-long jaunt across Europe with her lover, Adrian Goodlove. Clearly, these texts exist as wish fulfillments in the sense that the “adventure” affair grants the wife license to leave behind domestic identities and satisfy escapist romantic urges.

[13] While some female protagonists have idealized extramarital relationships with men who are caring and compassionate, many do not, and in fact the affair frequently replicates the power differentials that already exist in the wife’s marriage. Indeed, in Love and Friendship, Diary of a Mad Housewife, Ella Price’s Journal, and Fear of Flying, the women’s lovers condescend to them, and all lack sympathy for the cause of female liberation. A number of the female protagonists also find extramarital sex disappointing, boring, or infrequent. Contrary to Isadora’s hopes, her lover Adrian is often impotent, has sex with another woman while they are together, and unbeknownst to Isadora, plans to return to his wife and children at the conclusion of their time together. Ella’s affair with Dan in Ella Price's Journal likewise lacks sensuality; he fails to engage in foreplay, finishes sex quickly, and then accuses her of frigidity. These novels’ refusal to script a good alternative to the woman’s husband is perhaps not as surprising as it might initially seem, however, since affairs frequently function to make a female protagonist better aware of how patriarchal notions inform social ordering. Indeed, lovers often subject female protagonists to harsh scrutiny, a reality which suggests that these women do not evade patriarchal judgments even within their supposedly more “liberated” sexual arrangements. Tina’s lover George treats her as cruelly as does her husband, and in Love and Friendship, Emmy’s paramour amuses himself with the notion that if her sewing club found out about the affair, they would be all too happy to knit her a big scarlet “A” (209). The rather jovial attitude he adopts toward her potential social disgrace contributes to the novel’s more general critique of the hubris of male privilege.

[14] The lover’s often relatively imbecilic attitude underscores, in fact, the likeness between the protagonist’s extramarital affair and her marriage proper. In this respect, it makes sense that so few of these affairs lead to lasting relationships. Per Anthea Zeman’s point, female protagonists more commonly reconcile with their husbands, an eventuality scripted in a full seven of the novels considered here—Love and Friendship, Real People, The War Between the Tates, Diary of a Mad Housewife, The Fire-Dwellers, The Summer Before the Dark, and Fear of Flying. Protagonists rarely, however, return to a marriage that is completely the same. Rather, the affair precipitates a renegotiated marriage, since, for example, Stacey and her husband talk things out in The Fire Dwellers, as do Tina and Jonathan in Diary of a Mad Housewife. Whereas Jonathan confesses his affair, Tina does not. Both Fear of Flying and The Summer Before the Dark end with the female protagonist on the cusp of a marital reconsideration, although both novels conclude before an agreement has been reached. Only in Ella Price’s Journal and The Nowhere City, in fact, do wives desert their marriages altogether. The fact of a domestic reconciliation does not, however, obviate the potential of this familiar plotline to demystify marriage. Instead, unfaithful wives frequently return demanding new partnerships, unions which reflect the renegotiated understandings that the affair has helped to engender. In this way, feminist fiction forges a symbolic link between the affair and the consciousness-raising process, one that takes place regardless of whether extramarital affairs are loving—or lasting.

[15] To continue challenging the prevailing viewpoint that the extramarital affair does not constitute an effective device through which to encourage transcendence over dominant sex/gender systems, I will now turn to a close reading of Dorothy Bryant’s Ella Price’s Journal, a novel that instrumentalizes the adultery plotline as a means to a feminist awakening.  While the novel dutifully renders the female protagonist’s extramarital affair, its most salient contribution to the process of feminist theorization stems from its willingness to tie adultery, and the writing/reading processes that surround it, to key debates in the field of feminist studies. If one of the animating insights of feminist literary criticism was the problematic way that male authors punish wayward female protagonists, Ella Price’s Journal not only places her in a more sympathetic light but also asserts that the development of “adultery literacy”—perhaps even more so than adultery itself—engenders a feminist consciousness.

Adultery Literacy in Ella Price’s Journal

[16] Ella Price’s Journal narrates the experiences of Ella, a lower middle class thirty-five-year-old who begins taking classes at a local community college in the San Francisco Bay Area. (Most feminist fiction, in contrast, depicted the experiences of the college-educated upper class.) While Ella’s class status is something of an anomaly, in many other respects the text is highly representative of feminist fiction. Like many other female protagonists in the genre, Ella awakens to the circumstances of her life through a process of introspection and education, becomes gradually disillusioned with her marriage and family life, embarks on an affair, visits a psychotherapist, and decides to leave her marriage and abort an unwanted child. Ella’s consciousness-raising is spurred mainly by the changes she undergoes while being instructed by Dan Harkan, the teacher who assigns her the journal for which the book is named and for whom she develops romantic feelings.

[17] Foregrounding the role of literary study and critique in fostering Ella’s intellectual development, Ella Price’s Journal devotes extensive time to recording Ella’s academic explorations. These begin in earnest when she seeks out selections that contain female protagonists, texts that include Antigone, Main Street, and The Golden Notebook. Upon Dan’s recommendation, two of the novels that she reads first—and those on which she repeatedly ruminates—are the famous adultery novels Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary.  Just as many feminist critics were doing at the time, Ella questions these texts relationships to her own life, initially seeking identification with the stories’ literary heroines. Upon her reading of Madame Bovary, for example, Ella dislikes Emma intensely. Emma, says Ella, is “a very simple woman who created most of her problems” and she tells Dan that she cannot identify with Emma, who should be happy, because she has a “good secure life” and “a nice loving husband” (68). Dan then asks Ella whether every middle class woman with a loving husband and nice children is secure and happy, ostensibly to encourage her to reevaluate her own investment in the notion that being married necessarily guarantees women a fulfilling life. Dan’s line of questioning suggests that one can put the adultery text to pedagogical use in that he encourages Ella not only to reconsider her harsh judgment of Emma, but also to use her own marital predicament as fodder for this reappraisal. Dan incorporates Ella’s social and cultural location into the interpretive process, a strategy that suggests he is schooling Ella in reader-response theory. However, it remains debatable whether Dan models this approach in order to encourage Ella to think critically about the novels in question, to help her engage in a process of self-reflection, or merely to seduce her.

[18] Dan’s exhortation that Ella reevaluate her pat answer lauding the virtues of marriage nevertheless succeeds, in that it unmasks Ella’s attitude as a false posture. When she cannot in good faith challenge Dan’s point, she turns instead to condemning Emma’s lack of affection for her child, stating, “You may be right […] but I really couldn’t understand or forgive her attitude toward her child […] never paying any attention to her daughter. That’s unnatural” (69). Dan also attacks this conviction, asking her why, if she is so committed to motherhood, she does not have multiple offspring. Although his is a tactless inquiry, Ella has deliberately chosen to have only one child, and she later confesses to her journal that motherhood initially did not feel natural to her either. As she expresses, she was shocked that more mothers do not talk about the trauma they experienced while giving birth, and characterizes her own experience as feeling like she was literally being torn apart. Ella describes as well her suspicion that having a child pleased her husband Joe because it ensured her dependency on him (71). When Lulu, her daughter, got a bit older, she remembers:

I started to have another feeling (which is another reason why I didn’t have any more children), a nagging feeling that there was something else I should have been doing instead of doing things with Lulu. But I have that feeling while I’m doing most things—a feeling that there’s something missing, something else… but I don’t know what (I don’t feel that way when I’m studying.) Of course, all these thoughts were mixed with others, with great rushes of love for my baby. But some of Emma Bovary’s hatred for it all was there too. But I’ve never admitted it before now. (71)
While Ella initially vilifies Emma for her, at best, ambivalent relation to her child, Ella not long thereafter recognizes in herself emotions remarkably akin to Emma’s. (The likeness between their names, Ella and Emma, is perhaps not wholly a coincidence.) Writing in her journal, Ella ceases to condemn Emma’s aberrant emotions and instead finds in the reflective experience an opportunity to recast her own maternal impulses, and even to question the assumption that women have an automatic and unyielding commitment to child-rearing. Ella’s literary pursuits allow her to reflect back on her own life and see it in different terms, a process consistent with Anne G. Berggren’s observation that female readers often use books in order to absorb “knowledge that wasn’t available through established knowledge systems” (185).

[19] That Ella’s eventual, if begrudging, sympathy with Emma leads to great epistemological gains also gestures toward the complicated cultural history of Flaubert’s novel, especially as it pertains to female readers. Madame Bovary faced indecency charges in France, accusations stemming in part from the ruling class’s concern that the novel might ignite indecent longings when placed in the hands of married readers. The public arbiters worried: would the female reader learn a lesson from Emma’s tragic fate, or would she be seduced, like Emma, by a tale of lawless infatuation? The desire to ensure the continuation of women’s roles as custodians of moral values informed such preoccupations; according to Barbara Leckie, “Much more disturbing than the prostitute […] is the reader in the house who, as a middle class, literate woman should conform to the angelic ideal but, because she reads, perilously slides, like Emma […] into the region of adultery, addiction, and forbidden desire” (28). In Madame Bovary, this category of the vulnerable reader is both depicted in fictional terms and operates on a metafictional level, for Emma represents precisely the sort of real-life reader the French establishment feared existed in their midst. Given Ella’s shifting response to Madame Bovary, one might ask: Is Ella a vulnerable reader like Emma? Ella too embarks on an adulterous affair, although Bryant’s novel enacts a more complicated dialectic of identification and disavowal whereby the reading process engenders in Ella not a longing for forbidden passion but rather a fledgling critical consciousness.

[20] The danger posed by Ella’s reading habits, in fact, is not that they corrupt her into having an affair, but rather that reading makes available to Ella what feminist philosopher Alison Jaggar years ago named “outlaw emotions.” According to Jaggar, members of oppressed groups may find they do not share in popular viewpoints, precisely because their social situation makes them unable to experience conventionally prescribed emotions. Ella’s disidentification with motherhood constitutes precisely such an emotion, though to her surprise she finds unlikely confirmation for such feelings in fiction. Reflecting, for example, on an occasional fantasy she has in which her house burns down with her husband and daughter inside, Ella reluctantly admits to her journal that in the wake of such a tragedy, in addition to feelings of overwhelming sadness, she also detects something resembling relief. After hearing her instructor quote George Bernard Shaw’s ruminations on how the death of a loved one is often accompanied by similar emotions, Ella writes, “I think I’m beginning to enjoy reading now more than I ever have, because sometimes I find a saying that is something I have always felt but didn’t know I felt it until I read it. It’s exciting to find a great writer that had the same thought as I and was brave enough to say so” (43). In literature, Ella not only finds confirmation for the subversive thoughts she is aware of having but the experience also introduces and creates a theoretical space for perceptions she “has always felt but didn’t know” she felt until she read them. This sequence also rewrites a similar passage from Madame Bovary, where Emma and her would-be lover Leon discuss the frequency with which they “discover some vague idea of one’s own in a book, some dim image that comes back to you from afar, as the fullest expression of your slightest sentiment” (70). While Flaubert’s text mocks this conversation, pointing out the vapid nature of Emma and Leon’s recycled fantasies, Ella Price's Journal legitimizes Ella’s emotions as valid but nonetheless difficult to confront.

[21] At the same time, Ella’s textual seduction is perhaps not so far from what Flaubert’s critics feared would be the fate of the feminized masses—in fact, Ella’s reading process elicits desires which were heretofore unavailable or unrecognized. Such thought revolutions are, however, given an unmistakably positive valence in Ella Price’s Journal since they allow Ella to realize the contingency of her position within her family and to apprehend that feminine ideals such as the celebration of motherhood are based on the codification of dependency behaviors in women. Ella’s “adultery” thus primarily realizes itself in the time she devotes to the imagined worlds of her novels, rather than in moments spent in the arms of a lover. Ella’s husband Joe even blatantly accuses Ella of betraying her marriage with her books; after she resists his sexual advances one evening, Joe says, “You never feel like it anymore […] You’d rather read a book or something” (80). Joe’s suggestion that Ella is cheating on him with books is perhaps not far from the truth, for Ella does find that she would often rather read than have sexual relations with her husband. Even so, she eventually complies with his request, which suggests that Joe successfully (and even intentionally) uses the guilt she feels over her love affair with books to his advantage.

[22] By positing reading as an act of betrayal akin to adultery, Bryant acknowledges that adultery constitutes a significant narrative strategy by which feminist fiction novels accomplish cultural work. Feminist fictions almost unilaterally argue in favor of using literacy as a survival technique, and Ella Price’s Journal spends considerable time aligning Ella’s increasingly more potent awareness of gender relations with her consumption of fictional texts, a practice which opens up an imaginative space for her to use such narratives as a critical paradigm against which to measure her own life. In more general terms, adultery and reading both take wives away from marital responsibilities, and, in their place, offer women opportunity to imagine new lives and alternate realities. Both processes catalyze a critical consciousness than can lead to real life change, though this process can and often does begin from a state of disquietude.  After beginning Anna Karenina, Ella writes, “Sometime I feel awfully bitter about being a woman. Maybe it’s just these books I’m reading, but I don’t think so. I’ve always felt this way. But I’ve never said anything because I was afraid of what people would think” (75). Ella’s encounter with classic adultery novels affords her permission to voice what she in some ways already knows, namely that gender circumscribes her life in a way that she was previously unwilling to acknowledge or lacked the critical vocabulary to articulate. That Ella finds in Anna Karenina reason to be “bitter” about her position as a woman is probably not, in fact, the use Tolstoy intended for his epic text. Hers is, however, a pedagogically useful misreading, and even a strategic one, since Ella appropriates Anna Karenina in a way that furthers her critical understandings. In fact, it is precisely the interpretive elasticity characteristic of fictional texts that expands their utility for readers like Ella, a strategy akin to the way that feminist fiction, such as Ella Price’s Journal, served its own female readership.

[23] That Ella’s multiple revelations happen with respect to fiction rather than feminist theory has nevertheless troubled some critics who take it as a sign that Ella Price’s Journal may waver in its political commitments. According to Lisa Maria Hogeland, the novel’s allegiance to the feminist movement would be more pronounced had Ella read works by the likes of Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan. Hogeland argues that “an explicitly feminist CR [consciousness-raising] novel more generally might depict women’s encounters with feminist theory and other Movement writers rather than focusing on women’s encounters with fiction” (41). Yet, Ella’s fictional readings lead to similar insights as those found in theoretical texts, and having Ella read Movement theory might compromise the spirit of Bryant’s novel, which achieves its populist appeal thanks in part to its willingness to sympathize with a woman who is initially hostile to nearly all intellectual work. In this respect, the act of reading novels enacts on a fictional level what Bryant’s text was also presumably doing to its own readership, which was to use fiction to engender theoretical reflection, and do so for the benefit of reluctant or unlikely audiences.

[24] Indeed, thanks to Ella’s voracious reading she arrives at an insight remarkably akin to Friedan’s central premise, for she begins to recognize female boredom as a cultural symptom rather than a feeling to be pathologized. Talking to Dan about Emma, Anna, and Carol from Main Street, she observes that all three women possessed, “A kind of spark—no, more like an irritant—that made them restless. Boredom? I guess they had a depth of boredom that couldn’t be covered over by gossip and martinis and things like that” (79). In effect, Ella articulates Friedan’s now-classic notion of the “problem that has no name” a diagnosis that lead, in short order, to demands for women to engage more fully in professional, public, and civic spheres. Yet, Ella’s language here is anachronistic if she is locating the nineteenth century as her focal point, for Emma, Anna and Carol do not turn to martinis as panaceas for their empty lives, although their modern day counterparts (here personified in the figure of Ella) do. That Ella conflates her own boredom and unhappiness with that of these fictional heroines suggests that such identifications lead to important, if painful, epistemological gains.

[25] Ella’s identification with these female heroines unveils the mechanisms by which feminist leanings might be tied specifically to the practice of reading literature and especially, I would suggest, adultery novels. Ella Price’s Journal connects this reading experience to a material reality, namely the influx of women of all ages and classes into the academy in the 1960s and 1970s, women who looked to literature for confirmation of their experiences only to be faced with depictions of heroines created by predominantly white, male authors. According to Kate Millet and Judith Fetterly, whose respective polemics in many ways foundationalized the practice of feminist literary criticism, the reading of male literature can be linked with the creation of an explicitly feminist consciousness, if readers become cognizant of the fact that such portrayals are informed by patriarchal attitudes. Ella Price’s Journal acts out in fictional form what these non-fiction texts argued for in theoretical terms, since Ella identifies with these heroines and yet at the same time finds herself distanced from the attitude male authors take toward their female characters. Of male authors like Tolstoy and Flaubert, Ella tells Dan:

These men, the authors, didn’t really want the women to succeed. They liked their heroines, but being men they were prejudiced about what a woman ought to be. Soft and weak and all. So they couldn’t make their women strong enough to make a go of rebellion. They couldn’t imagine a woman like that. They couldn’t go on liking them as women, feminine, you know. So they had to destroy them. (79)
Ella’s acute awareness of the threat posed by adulterous women to the social order—and even to the male authors who created them—elucidates the degree to which she is capable of understanding how patriarchal precedents inform narrative development. She attributes the shortcomings of such texts to a failure of authorial imagination, wherein these authors could not, as she sees it, envision the creation of a heroine who did not comply with feminine norms. Although her analysis stalls in part thanks to the idea that these authors are personally rather than ideologically responsible for their narrative choices, she offers a trenchant assessment of the conditions of production surrounding a male-dominated literary marketplace, a realm in which female transgression must be denounced.

[26] Because stories of fallen women have the power to enact symbolic violence on female readers, Ella moves to hold authors accountable for the emotional fallouts their works produce. She queries:

      If you destroy the rebel, aren’t you saying that rebellion is useless? If a writer puts a character into a trap and says to the reader, Look, this is a trap this person is in, it’s intolerable, it’s killing her…does the writer’s responsibility end there? Only if he assumes that his readers are just observers, outside the trap—like men reading about poor Anna Karenina, shaking their heads and pitying her but not really seeing themselves in her place.
      But if the reader is an Anna Karenina? If she sees herself in the book, and the author shows her being destroyed one way, then rebelling only to be destroyed another way…what does that do to the reader? I think it destroys the reader in a third way—It teaches despair. (78)
Ella recognizes that male authors assume a male readership who might pity an adulteress, but who would not identify with her, and so shifts the terms of this debate to focus on the (presumably unintended) female reader. Here, Ella notes the paradoxical dilemma represented by the classic female adultery text: although these novels anticipate a male readership, novels like Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary are nevertheless of keen interest to women. To explain how this process of identification can still benefit female readers, theorists of feminist reading practices have noted that despite such text’s overarching patriarchal ideology, there can still be found within them what reader response critic Patrocinio Schweickart calls the “utopian moment,” a term she borrows from Frederic Jameson. Such male texts, Schweickart posits, therefore require a “dual hermeneutic: a negative hermeneutic that discloses their complicity with patriarchal ideology, and a positive hermeneutic that recuperates the utopian moment—the authentic kernel—from which they draw a significant portion of their emotional power” (43-44). This dialectic explains how a reader like Ella might find herself drawn to a novel like Anna Karenina, perhaps as a result of its emotional power and its latent visions of liberation, while simultaneously recognizing the extent to which the story asks her to participate in justifying the ideological necessity of Anna’s suffering. The difficulty of critiquing the text’s ideological imperative while at the same time recognizing in it a vision of the utopian has been acknowledged by Schweickart, who speculates that  “the male text draws its power over the female reader from authentic desires, which it rouses and then harnesses to the process of immasculation” (42). Ella, however, fights against the immasculation that feminist critics have often found latent within the reading project. By asking her paradigmatic question—“but if the reader is an Anna Karenina?”—Ella resists the impulse to, as Judith Fetterley might say, “identify against herself”, to think as a male reader whose experience and perspective would in all likelihood preclude his identification with Anna Karenina. Rather, thanks to her insistence upon her own identification with Anna, Ella gives voice to the despair that, as she feels, sets in when this relationship is attempted.

[27] Significantly, Dorothy Bryant is not the only author of feminist fiction to recognize the disastrous fate of errant women, or to lament the pernicious effect of this narrative on female readers. In Gail Godwin’s The Odd Woman (1974), the title character coins the term “Emma Bovary Syndrome,” in order to describe how in literary history one finds  “literature’s graveyard positively choked with women who chose—rather let themselves be chosen by—this syndrome […] who ‘get in trouble’ (commit adultery, have sex without marriage, think of committing adultery or having sex without marriage) and thus, according to the literary convention of the time, must die” (293). Even Erica Jong, whose Fear of Flying was thought to be a frank and rather unabashed account of female sexual desire, admits that the weight of this precedent loomed large in her writing deliberations. In an introduction commemorating the fifteenth anniversary of Fear of Flying, Jong reveals:

In the great novels about women of the nineteenth century, Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, death was the inevitable result of a woman’s quest for life beyond the bourgeois sphere (which invariably took the form of a love affair—the only stab of independence available to most women). I felt considerable pressure to kill off Isadora at the end of Fear of Flying. I contemplated the heroine’s suicide a la Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina; I also contemplated capitulation to bourgeois marriage, an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, a then-fashionable trek into the wilderness to join a (female) commune. Thank the Goddess, I opted for none of these. My deepest hunch as a novelist was to stick with what the character of Isadora would really do under the circumstances. She would go home—chastened, changed, empowered, and redeemed by her adventure—and life would go on. (xiii)
Jong’s insistence that Isadora’s “life would go on” after her affair evidences the degree to which feminist fiction authors deliberately forged less constricting literary modes through which to narrate the lives of female protagonists. This attempt did however represent something of an authorial departure, as evidenced by Jong’s contention that novels like Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, on which she seems to have loosely premised her own, were instrumental in having exerted “considerable pressure” on her to punish her heroine Isadora. Jong’s sentiment renders tangible the fact that women authors who did not censure wayward wives did so in a deliberate effort to rewrite what they saw as problematic patriarchal precedents.

[28] Articulating such processes, Bryant, Godwin, and Jong implicitly call for a reexamination of the ethics of the adultery narrative. All seem to realize that because female readers must deal with the consequences of such portrayals, writers can be held accountable for the representations they produce. In turn, these authors interrogate the assumptions that lie behind the convention of dooming the adulteress and offer confirmation that a revisiting and perhaps even a rewriting of such texts can help readers and feminists to move beyond the despair that Ella locates as the end point of her readerly practices. Specifically, they answer a demand for adultery texts written for readers like Ella, women who want to make a go of rebellion but who do not wish to call down upon themselves the sorts of tragedies all too common in nineteenth-century literature. 

[29] In many ways, of course, Ella Price’s Journal is an exemplary text in this regard, since it situates itself as a novel not only written from the perspective of the female reader, but also for her. Moreover, despite Ella’s conviction that a novel like Anna Karenina can only teach women despair, in fact precisely because she aims to avoid such despair, Ella enacts a wholly different trajectory for her own life, one which leads, ultimately, to her desertion from her marriage. It may seem appropriate, and even expected, then, to suggest that Ella Price’s Journal represents Bryant’s attempt to update the classic adultery narrative, thanks to the fact that Ella has an affair and does not suffer death as a consequence. Yet, in the logic of Bryant’s text the affair itself is hardly the point, for it is the act of reading about adultery which results in Ella’s heightened consciousness. That is, while nineteenth-century novels used the heroine’s affair and the cultural censure it garnered in order to encourage reappraisals of the social order, Bryant’s text achieves a social critique thanks to its insistence that Ella’s gains are accomplished through epistemological rather than sexual means. Such a thought revolution reveals the true modus operandi of the adultery novel, wherein the affair is predominantly a means to the desired end of having women reassess their public and private commitments.

[30] In Ella’s case, Dan, with whom Ella has her affair, is presented initially as an agent of Ella’s awakening; he is instrumental in encouraging her not only to read fictional texts critically, but also to use them in order to train a critical gaze on her own life. At the same time, he appears as a condescending male figure who succeeds in wreaking havoc on Ella’s fledgling sense of self. In response to Ella’s fairly sophisticated idea that male authors like Tolstoy and Flaubert did not want their heroines to succeed, Dan simply says “No, I can’t go for that,” and likewise dismisses her suggestion that his inability to accept this reading may stem from his position as a man (79). Moreover, although Ella’s initial attraction to Dan is intellectual, her desire for him quickly shifts into a schoolgirl’s crush, whereby the latter form of attraction works at odds with the former. The more Ella begins to desire him sexually, the less able she is to argue with him or develop her own ideas.

[31] Ella does, however, experience something of a sexual renaissance as a result of this relationship although her husband, not Dan, is the unlikely beneficiary. In fact, Ella’s active fantasy life about Dan intensifies to the point where she approaches sexual relations with her husband with a renewed ardor. Shocked to realize her capacity for deception, she notes, “I’m very turned on sexually, and Joe is benefiting from that. How strange I can write this without shame” (151). Thanks to Ella’s attraction to Dan, she steps outside of her rigid moral order and trains a critical eye on this socially defined value system. Ella again filters her understanding of her affair through the tale of Emma Bovary. While in the throes of her affair, Ella admits “I really must be an Emma Bovary—narrow and petty and worrying about my love affair” and yet she is unable to entirely reject this identity (170). Despite Ella’s willingness to accept, if not embrace, this unlikely moniker, her affair nevertheless does not match up to the fantasy she creates for it. Much like her marriage, gender and sexual inequity structure her extramarital relation, and she becomes the one responsible for birth control so that sex may be made pleasurable and easy for Dan. As well, Ella and Dan have sexual relations only twice, and both times Dan proves to be a selfish and uncaring lover. The affair fizzles after these lackluster encounters, and Ella discovers shortly thereafter that Dan is widely known as a serial adulterer with a habit of sleeping with his older female students. 

[32] As the circumstances of Ella’s affair attest, Bryant interrogates the place of female adultery in the feminist tradition, going beyond the suggestion that the extramarital affair offers a path toward female liberation. In truth, Dan is as blameworthy as Joe for setting a patriarchal precedent in Ella’s life, and Ella recognizes that the two relationships are not entirely dissimilar. Instrumentalized in part to explore the possible coexistence or conflict between feminist ideas and Leftist politics, Dan’s convictions are revealed as lacking a substantive gender perspective, despite the fact that he encourages protest against the Vietnam War and makes racial and class injustice one of the focal points for course instruction. On the other hand, the novel scripts such political awakenings as organic for Ella—she participates in a peace rally after reading protest literature such as The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and her penultimate action in the novel is to spend her Christmas vacation refusing the commercialization of the holiday by helping a friend mail gifts and cards to prisoners.

[33] Ella’s reading process represents the most efficacious means by which Ella comes to a critical reexamination of her life, her marriage, and her politics. Likewise, though Bryant employs the adultery narrative, a script that has clearly been used before, she innovatively utilizes it to offer a rebuke to nineteenth century literary precedents, and in turn to participate in debates central to the paradigm of feminist literary critique. In this schema, adultery becomes more than a means for creating an ideological space for voicing the conditions and contradictions of gender inequity, but rather is rearticulated from a political perspective, whereby it aligns with real life issues facing twentieth-century audiences. Bryant solidifies her commitment to providing contemporary commentary when Ella decides, at the end of the novel, that she must terminate her second pregnancy, a condition which represents both an effort to comply with her psychoanalyst’s urge that she “accept her rightful feminine role” and also a last ditch effort to save her dead-end marriage. When she announces her decision to abort the child, Ella’s psychologist informs her that she needs his approval to do so. Yet, her activist friend tells Ella that thanks to a recent ruling by a county judge, the hospitals in the Bay Area are, for the time being, performing abortions on demand. (The Roe vs. Wade opinion was not rendered until 1973, whereas Bryant’s novel was published in 1972, a fact which suggests that the book was making an implicit argument for the necessity of women’s reproductive freedom). Ella’s difficult decision to abort Joe’s baby resonated with a real world correlative wherein the fight for women’s reproductive rights, and the effort to extract women from the requirements of compulsory reproduction, was at its height.

[34] Thanks to its insistence that Ella’s “life will go on” after her abortion, Bryant’s novel successfully offers itself for the reader who “is a [contemporary] Anna Karenina.” In so doing, it tacitly answers the longings of readers like Ella who may find themselves disappointed and disillusioned by the false promises of marriage, domesticity, and motherhood, which too often advertise themselves as being all things to all women.  The challenge to marriage presented by a text like Ella Price’s Journal, as well as the other adultery novels referenced in this article, in turn remind us of the long precedent of feminist work on the topic of marriage, a precedent that we would do well to remember today. Writing in 2003 on what she saw as American culture’s overvaluation of compulsory couplehood, Laura Kipnis observed, “if adultery is a de facto referendum on the sustainability of monogamy—and it would be difficult to argue that it’s not—this also makes it the nearest thing to a popular uprising against the regimes of contemporary coupledom” (28). Adultery paves way for the recognition that though the many celebratory aspects of marriage garner more publicity than does its status as disciplinary regime, the institution does still function to regulate behaviors and desires in such a way that those who fail to adhere to these strictures face censure and disapprobation. The literary representation of adultery as a narrative form in turn offers a challenge to the regimes of compulsory couplehood, and usefully gives shape to the idea that other selves and other lives may be possible, if one is willing to examine a controversial issue in nonjudgmental ways. Adultery literature remains a useful tool for formulating such visions, as well as for present and future feminist critique for it reminds us that female protagonists have long used adultery to question the role of an institution meant to regulate both their economic and emotional lives. While adultery is no neater in formulation in literature than it is in life, its appearance in feminist fiction at least recognizes the ways that women can image alternatives to lives that seem already highly prescribed. Ella’s last line is “I feel”, a clear reference to her inability to feel during her previous life of marital security. While her domestic disillusions lack a neatly scripted wrap-up, her utterance nevertheless provides evidence that a strong sense of feeling can provide new openings.

Acknowledgements: The author wishes to thank Jane Gallop and Gregory Jay for the countless hours they spent aiding me in a study of adulterous women, Alan Billing for his keen eye and encouragement, and the anonymous readers for their valuable feedback.

WORKS CITED

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Bryant, Dorothy. Ella Price’s Journal. 1972. New York: Feminist Press, 1997.

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Fetterley, Judith. The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1977.

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Leckie, Barbara. Culture and Adultery: The Novel, the Newspaper, and the Law, 1857-1914. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1999.

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Contributor's Note:

SUZANNE LEONARD is an Assistant Professor of English at Simmons College in Boston. She is the author of Fatal Attraction (2009), the inaugural text in Wiley-Blackwell’s Studies in Film and Television series. Her articles have appeared in MELUS, Women’s Studies Quarterly, and in various anthologies including At Home and Abroad: Historicizing Whiteness in Literature and Performance and Interrogating Postfeminism: Gender and the Politics of Popular Culture.

 

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