[(essay date spring 1983) In the following essay, Lee contends that Blake's belief in the emancipation of women is not contradicted by his portrayal of the female emanations as subordinate to the male specters, if one views the emanations as fallible characters rather than as symbols.]
The two sexes mutually corrupt and improve each other. --Mary Wollstonecraft
Blake's familiarity with the work of Mary Wollstonecraft has been well documented.1 Most critics have, however, recognized a fundamental contradiction between Blake's vehement affirmation of female emancipation, with its unmistakable echoes of Wollstonecraft, and his recurring portrayal of women as "emanations," subordinate to and dependent upon male figures.2 Nowhere is this discrepancy between myth and meaning more apparent than in Vala, or The Four Zoas. The central themes of Vala--the synchronicity of social and psychic dynamics and the doctrine of sexual reciprocity--echo Wollstonecraft's polemics; however, Enion, Ahania, Vala, and Enitharmon are obviously antitypes of Wollstonecraft's "emancipated woman." Indeed, critics have generally dismissed the emanations of Vala as "shadowy creatures who do practically nothing but wail about," passive choric figures who merely reveal the horror of the world in which they wander.3
This apparent contradiction may, however, exist more in our critical assumptions than in Blake's poem. Critics have assumed that the emanations of Vala derive wholly from mythological and metaphysical tradition (even though their very substantiality reflects a radical revision of that tradition); they have also failed to distinguish between fallen and regenerate perceptions of women in this poem (even though this distinction is a central theme).4 Inheriting a social vision that places women as witnesses rather than as participants in social change, and a model of the imagination that subordinates the "feminine" aspect as the source or barrier to inspiration rather than as the creative impulse itself, critics have not considered the possibility that the emanations of Vala function as characters as well as symbols.
If we base our interpretation not on the traditional concept of the emanation but on Blake's avowed revision of that tradition, we can follow the emanations as figures separate from the zoas. We will then discover that in this early epic Blake used Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) as a paradigm for his portrayal of women in an attempt to resolve the contradiction between traditional stereotypes and his revolutionary vision. There are two issues here: the emanations of Vala are characters whose songs of lamentation measure movement separate from, though complementary to, that of their corresponding zoas; as characters, moreover, they "fall" with attitudes that Mary Wollstonecraft ascribed to contemporary women (dependency, passivity, indolence, sexual immaturity), and they grow toward the state of self-affirming interdependence she espoused as a social ideal.
Although A Vindication of the Rights of Women is the first substantive treatise on women's emancipation, it is in large part devoted to describing the narrow-mindedness of contemporary women. Wollstonecraft freely acknowledged the validity of prevailing views that women are limited in understanding, childishly dependent, and...