Androgyny as resistance to authoritarianism in two postmodern Canadian novels

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Date: Sept. 1997
Publisher: University of Manitoba, Mosaic
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 6,222 words

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Among the many secrets that Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has disclosed in her Epistemology of the Closet, the one which is most crucial to gender studies in the broadest sense is the agenda that lies hidden in the concept of androgyny. According to Sedgwick, far from offering a way out of the heterosexual bind--as earlier critics like Carolyn Heilbrun had speculated--discourse about androgyny has tended merely to replicate "the trope of inversion" (87), reinforcing the binary oppositions inherent in traditional notions of sex, gender, and sexuality. Registering a similar kind of discontent and looking for a solution, in Gender Trouble Judith Butler has argued that "the best way to trouble the gender categories that support gender hierarchy and compulsory heterosexuality" is "not through the strategies that figure a utopian beyond [as does Heilbrun], but through the mobilization, subversive confusion, and proliferation of precisely those constitutive categories that seek to keep gender in its place by posturing as the foundational illusions of identity" (viii, 34).

Two contemporary Canadian novels, Timothy Findley's Not Wanted on the Voyage (1984) and Thomas King's Green Grass, Running Water (1993), are of particular relevance in the context of such current gender theorizing and problematizing. Both novels take the form of revisionist retellings of traditional narratives which are clearly designed to inculcate the patriarchal gender scheme. Findley's novel retells the Noah story from Genesis and aspects of John Milton's Paradise Lost; King's novel similarly retells parts of Genesis, offering alternatives to the biblical account of creation and the Noah story, as well as rewriting various historical, literary, and popular texts. King's narrative also contains an explicit reference to Findley's earlier text: in his retelling of the story of the Flood, King has his Noah tell another character, "you're not wanted on the voyage" (148). Although this intertexual echo might be seen as signaling that King's revisioning includes Findley's novel as well, I would argue that the reference is better read as linking the two novels in a common ideological project. Findley's Not Wanted on the Voyage is designed to challenge the authoritarian ideology of the Judaeo-Christian tradition which is the foundation of Western culture; King's Green Grass, Running Water challenges that same tradition from a native North American perspective.

Both novels are postmodernist parodie texts, but here it should be emphasized immediately that such a classification is no automatic guarantee of subversive ideological intent or "gender troubling." Indeed, in featuring metafictional play, linguistic indeterminacy and refusal of closure, many such texts may be radically apolitical and thus complicit in the maintenance of oppressive ideological formations. What distinguishes Findley's and King's postmodern texts and makes them truly subversive is the extent to which the metafictional aspect is ethically and politically motivated. As Donna Palmateer Pennee argues in her study of Findley's novels as "moral metafiction," such works are not merely "fiction 'about' fiction, about the construction of discourses and the texture of the past and present" but are also "driven by a moral imperative to articulate counterdiscourses" (19).


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Gale Document Number: GALE|A465696093