Review of No Man's Land, Volume 2: Sexchanges

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Editor: Jeffrey W. Hunter
Date: 2001
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Book review; Critical essay
Length: 2,624 words

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[(review date Winter 1990) In the following review, Fishburn praises Sexchanges for the vastness of the authors' scholarship, and the depth and originality of their insights. Fishburn argues, however, that the book is intellectually flat.]

In this, [Sexchanges] the second volume of their projected three-volume series No Man's Land, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar resume their ambitiously comprehensive re-visioning of modernism. As they did in the previous volume, The War of the Words (1988), Gilbert and Gubar work here from the premise that the originating motives that lay behind the rise of literary modernism can be best explained by the sweeping changes in the status of women that occurred at the end of the nineteenth century. The importance of Gilbert and Gubar's attempt to redefine the material causes of Anglo-American modernism as an issue of gender cannot be overstated as the authors seek to "locate the text in its sociocultural context," believing as they do that "the concepts 'female' and 'male' are inextricably enmeshed in the materiality and mythology of history, which has also ... almost always been experienced as gendered" (p. xvi). They focus, therefore, on the "changing definitions of sex and sex roles as they evolve through three phases: the repudiation or revision of the Victorian ideology of femininity that marked both feminism and fantasy during what we might call the overturning of the century; the antiutopian skepticism that characterized the thought of such writers as Edith Wharton and Willa Cather, who dramatized their discontent with what they saw as a crippling but inexorable feminization of women; the virtually apocalyptic engendering of the new for both literary men and literary women that was, at least in part, fostered by the fin de siècle formation of a visible lesbian community, even more shockingly triggered by the traumas of World War I, and perhaps most radically shaped by an unprecedented confrontation (by both sexes) with the artifice of gender and its consequent discontents" (p. xii).

Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar open Sexchanges with an irreverent and audaciously overdetermined reading of Rider Haggard's She as a paradigmatic example of "the century's bestselling, masculinist mythology" (p. 5), in which they argue that the novel's enormous popularity was a result of the era's sexchanges, "the feared 'recessional' of the British empire, the intensified development of such fields as anthropology and embryology, and the rise of a host of alternative theologies" (p. 7). The novel's "rolling pillar of Life" they read not only as a Freudian penis but also as "a Lacanian phallus, a fiery signifier whose eternal thundering return speaks the inexorability of the patriarchal law She has violated in Her Satanically overreaching ambition" (p. 20). That is, "it becomes, in a sense, the pillar of society, an incarnate sign of the covenant among men (and between men and a symbolic Father) that is the founding gesture of patriarchal culture" (p. 20). "Finally, therefore, naked and ecstatic, in all the pride of Her femaleness, She must be fucked to death by the...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100036843