[(review date October 1995) In the following review, Blake examines the role of the femme fatale in Sexchanges.]
The second volume of this three-volume project confirms the distinction, authority, and style of Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar as commentators on British and American literature of the twentieth century, and the role of women in shaping it. This major study of modernism worthily follows Gilbert and Gubar's The Madwoman in the Attic and The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, which have made so large a difference in our understanding of nineteenth-century literature by women, and so extended our range of exposure to writings by women from previous centuries to the present.
Sexchanges carries forward the ideas of Volume 1 of No Man's Land, giving more time to close readings of texts, and somewhat more to those of women than men, such as Olive Schreiner, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, and Virginia Woolf. But there is still a strong contextualization of the meanings of the works of both sexes for each other. This is because, contrary to an idea of modernism as masculine--committed to originality, hence phallic (Pound), the grand thesis here is the formation of modernism in the dawning of feminism that opened awareness of female powers of origination and cast much male originality into competition or reaction. Thus the relation of male and female is central to modernism, and it is to be understood as an intensified battle of the sexes producing an accelerated pace of sexchanges.
New Womanhood, dreaming of Herland, raised the specter of No Man's Land for men, often driving them to retrenchment. But on the woman's side Gilbert and Gubar call our attention not to a triumphant Amazon but to an equivocal femme fatale. No Man's Land is land lost but not clearly gained, and it makes an apt setting for Gilbert's and Gubar's conception of modernism. It is true that on this military scene the femme fatale may not quite seem to fit; yet it is with this figure that the book begins. Chapter by chapter she is less or more in view but continues to be important, for she illustrates an idea of what is "damaged or damaging" (p. 148) in women's role. She is no idealized adversary to man, not unscathed by her long history of subordination nor purely and righteously scathing as she rises up against it. Her experience has been fatal enough to make her fatal to men and to herself in certain ways. Certainly, in their preface Gilbert and Gubar note the optimism and hopes for a new relation of the sexes expressed by a number of writers of the turn of the century. And through the book, change for the good is glimpsed, more often by women than men. But meeting such visions are male fears and hostilities and female anxieties, involving weaknesses and culpabilities. The material is "disturbing." Gilbert and Gubar hint that they bring bad news: "All we can finally...