[(essay date 1989) In the following essay, De Koven notes that two different traditions of Modernism evolved in the works of male and female writers. In that context, she demonstrates how two early female writers not usually associated with Modernism created works that anticipated many aspects of Modernist aesthetics and themes—Gilman’s “Yellow Wallpaper” and Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening (1899).]
Modernism is an ideal literary territory for the feminist critic to rechart. Pioneering work by critics such as Shari Benstock, Carolyn Burke, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Susan Stanford Friedman, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, Jane Marcus, Alicia Ostriker, and Bonnie Kime Scott has given us female modernism: a separate, previously buried or discredited tradition (or anti-tradition) of modernist writing by women that is radically different in many ways from “high canonical male modernism.”1 The important figures so far in this emerging tradition are Djuna Barnes, Isak Dinesen, H. D., Zora Neale Hurston, Amy Lowell, Mina Loy, Katherine Mansfield, Marianne Moore, Jean Rhys, Dorothy Richardson, Gertrude Stein, and, of course, Virginia Woolf. It is characteristic of this female modernism that H. D., in Trilogy and Helen in Egypt, rejects the pessimistic turn toward hierarchical mythologies in the works of many male modernists, offering instead “the unwritten volume of the new” (Tribute to the Angels) and a revisionist, egalitarian mythology in place of the modernist vision of culture we customarily accept as inevitable—the rough beast (Sweeney, Bella/o Cohen), its hour come round at last, slouching through the Waste Land with Achilles, Prufrock, Kurtz, Birkin, Stephen Dedalus, and Quentin Compson toward a scene of monstrous childbirth (made monstrous, of course, by the repression of the mother’s body).
The delineation of the (anti-)tradition of female modernism is an invaluable contribution to the work of recharting the modernist territory, as is the analysis of male-female conflict (“the battle of the sexes”) and its importance to the history of gender in modernism that Gilbert and Gubar develop in No Man’s Land.2 What I would like to offer in this essay, however, is an analysis of two female-signed modernist texts; rather than focusing on a separate female tradition or locating itself in relation to the conflict between male and female modernists, this analysis will consider the ways in which some aspects of modernist form common to all (or most) works we would consider modernist—the invention of which we are accustomed to crediting to James, Yeats, Conrad, Pound, Joyce—were just as much birthed by female writers as they were invented by male writers.
I am not arguing that female modernists preceded male modernists; I do not think such a competitive model is helpful. Rather, I am arguing that female writers fashioned modernist narrative forms at the same time as the customarily accredited male proto-modernists and modernist originators. Specifically, I will argue that The Awakening (1899) and “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1891),3 texts not associated with either proto-modernism or the high modernist canon, deploy features of modernist form—decentered subjectivity, rupture of linearity in plot and temporal structure,...