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Emphasis Added: Plots and Plausibilities in Women's Fiction

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 October 2020

Nancy K. Miller*
Columbia UniversityNew York, New York


Feminist literary criticism over the past decade has raised the important issue of woman's relationship to the production of prose fiction. Central to the inquiry have been both the desire to identify the specificity of such a “corpus” and the reluctance to define it by inherited notions of sexual difference. Reading Mme de Lafayette's La Princesse de Cléves with George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss in the context of this double agenda suggests the possibility of deciphering a female erotics that structures the plots of women's fiction, plots that reject the narrative logic of the dominant discourse. Traditionally, the critical establishment has condemned these plots as implausible and generally assigned women's novels a marginal position in literary history. Perhaps the grounds of that judgment are less aesthetic than ideological.

Research Article
PMLA , Volume 96 , Issue 1 , January 1981 , pp. 36 - 48
Copyright © Modern Language Association of America, 1981

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Note 1 Although what is being pointed to ultimately is an “elsewhere” under the sign of an androgyny I resist, I respond here to the implicit invitation to look again. The quote should be replaced both in its original context and within Carolyn Heilbrun's concluding argument in Toward a Recognition of Androgyny (New York: Knopf, 1973), pp. 167–72, which is where I (re)found it.

Note 2 If one must have a less arbitrary origin—and why not?—the properly inaugural fiction would be Hélisenne de Crenne's Les Angoysses douloureuses qui procèdent d'amours, 1538. But La Princesse de Clèves has this critical advantage: it also marks the beginning of the modern French novel.

Note 3 Bussy-Rabutin's oft cited remarks on the novel are most easily found in Maurice Laugaa's excellent volume of critical responses, Lectures de Mme de Lafayette (Paris: Armand Colin, 1971), pp. 18–19. The translation is mine, as are all other translations from the French in my essay, unless otherwise indicated.

Note 4 On the function and status of the confession in Mme de Villedieu's novel and on the problems of predecession, see Micheline Cuénin's introduction to her critical edition of Les Désordres de l'amour (Geneva: Droz, 1970). The best account of the attack on the novel remains Georges May's Le Dilemme du roman au XVIIIe siècle (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1963), esp. his first chapter.

Note 5 I allude here (speciously) to the first definition of “extravagant” in Le Petit Robert (Paris: Société du Nouveau Littré, 1967), p. 668: “S'est dit de textes non incorporés dans les recueils canoniques” ‘Used to refer to texts not included in the canon.‘

Note 6 I refer here, as I indicate below, to Gérard Genette's “Vraisemblance et motivation,” included in his Figures II (Paris: Seuil, 1969), p. 74. In my translation-adaptation of Genette's analysis I have chosen to render vraisemblance by “plausibility,” a term with a richer semantic field of connotations than “verisimilitude.” Page references to Genette's essay are hereafter given in the text.

Note 7 For an overview of the current discussion about women's writing in France, see Elaine Marks's fine piece “Women and Literature in France,” Signs, 3 (1978), 832–42.

Note 8 Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen, Signs, 1 (1976), 878.

Note 9 For a recent statement of her position on a possible specificity to women's writing, see “Questions à Julia Kristeva,” Revue des Sciences Humaines, No. 168 (1977), pp. 495–501.

Note 10 The opposition between these positions is more rhetorical than actual, as Woolf's gloss on Coleridge in A Room of One's Own shows. See esp. Ch. vi.

Note 11 Showalter, A Literature of Their Own (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1977), and Moers, Literary Women (New York: Doubleday, 1976). I understate the stakes of recognizing and responding to an apparently passive indifference. As Edward Said has written in another context: “Any philosophy or critical theory exists and is maintained in order not merely to be there, passively around everyone and everything, but in order to be taught and diffused, to be absorbed decisively into the institutions of society or to be instrumental in maintaining or changing or perhaps upsetting these institutions and that society” (“The Problem of Tex-tuality,” Critical Inquiry, 4 [1978], 682).

Note 12 As quoted by Elizabeth Janeway in her insightful essay on women's writing in postwar America, “Women's Literature,” Harvard Guide to Contemporary American Writing, ed. Daniel Hoffman (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1979), p. 344.

Note 13 See in particular Showalter's first chapter, “The Female Tradition,” pp. 3–36.

Note 14 See Showalter's chapter “The Double Critical Standard and the Feminine Novel,” pp. 73–99.

Note 15 Irigaray, Ce Sexe qui n'en est pas un (Paris: Minuit, 1977), p. 74.

Note 16 Sally McConnell-Ginet, “Intonation in a Man's World,” Signs, 3 (1978), 542.

Note 17 My translations from La Princesse de Clèves are deliberately literal; page references to the French are from the readily available Garnier-Flammarion edition (Paris, 1966) and are incorporated within the text. The published English translation (New York: Penguin, 1978) is, I think, rather poor.

Note 18 Stendhal, “Du Courage des femmes,” De L'Amour (Paris: Editions de Cluny, 1938), Ch. xxix, p. 111.

Note 19 Serge Doubrovsky, “La Princesse de Clèves: Une Interprétation existentielle,” La Table Ronde, No. 138 (1959), p. 48. Jean Rousset, Forme et signification (Paris: Corti, 1962), p. 25.

Note 20 A. Kibédi Varga, “Romans d'amour, romans de femme à l‘époque classique,” Revue des Sciences Humaines, No. 168 (1977), p. 524. Jules Brody, in “La Princesse de Clèves and the Myth of Courtly Love,” University of Toronto Quarterly, 38 (1969), 105–35, esp. 131–34, and Domna C. Stanton, in “The Ideal of Repos in Seventeenth-Century French Literature,” L'Esprit Créateur, 15 (1975), 79–104, esp. 95–96, 99, 101–02, also interpret the princess’ final refusal of Nemours (and her renunciation) as heroic and self-preserving actions within a certain seventeenth-century discourse.

Note 21 Hermann, Les Voleuses de langue (Paris: Editions des Femmes, 1976), p. 77.

Note 22 Freud, On Creativity and the Unconscious, trans. I. F. Grant Duff (New York: Harper, 1958), p. 44. Subsequent references to this edition are given in the text.

Note 23 Brooks, The Melodramatic Imagination (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1976), p. 20.

Note 24 The Essays of George Eliot, ed. Thomas Pinney (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963), pp. 30102. Hereafter page references to this edition are included in the text.

Note 25 On the content of popular women's literature and its relationship to high culture, see Lillian Robinson's “On Reading Trash,” in Sex, Class and Culture (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1978), pp. 200–22.

Note 26 Barbara Bellow Watson, “On Power and the Literary Text,” Signs, 1 (1975), 113. Watson suggests that we look instead for “expressive symbolic structures.”

Note 27 Butor, “Sur La Princesse de Clèves,” Répertoire (Paris: Minuit, 1960), pp. 76–77.

Note 28 David Grossvogel, Limits of the Novel (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press, 1971), p. 134. In Doubrov-sky's terms, love in this universe means “being dispossessed of oneself and bound to the incoercible spontaneity of another” (p. 47).

Note 29 Lotringer, “La Structuration romanesque,” Critique, 26 (1970), 517.

Note 30 The importance of this scene from Austen is underscored by Rachel Mayer Brownstein in Becoming a Heroine (forthcoming).

Note 31 Kamuf, “Inside Julie's Closet,” Romanic Review, 69 (1978), 303–04.

Note 32 Roman Jakobson, Essais de linguistique générale (Paris: Minuit, 1963), p. 33; quoted by S. Lotringer, “Vice de Forme,” Critique, 27 (1971), 203; italics mine.

Note 33 Woolf, The Common Reader (New York: Harcourt, 1953), pp. 166, 173; emphasis added.

Note 34 Eliot, The Mill on the Floss (New York: NAL, 1965), pp. 348–49. Subsequent references to the novel are to this edition and are given in the text.

Note 35 Gutwirth, Madame de Staël, Novelist: The Emergence of the Artist as Woman (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1978), p. 255.

Note 36 Jenni Calder, e.g., in Women and Marriage in Victorian Fiction (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1976), p. 158.

Note 37 I echo here, with some distortion, the terms of Peter Brooks's analysis of the relations between “plot” and “life” in his illuminating essay “Freud's Master-plot,” Yale French Studies, No. 55–56 (1977), pp. 280300, esp. p. 298.

Note 38 Sukenick's essay is quoted from The Authority of Experience: Essays in Feminist Criticism, ed. Arlyn Diamond and Lee R. Edwards (Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1977), p. 28; Kenner's observation is quoted in the same essay, p. 30. Mary Ellman's term is taken from Thinking about Women (New York: Harcourt, 1968), pp. 28–54.

Note 39 Peter Prescott, in Newsweek, 16 Oct. 1978, p. 112.

Note 40 Jacques Derrida, “Becoming Woman,” trans. Barbara Harlow, Semiotext(e), 3, No. 1 (1978), 133.