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Thursday
Apr282011

FUN HOME, Virginia Woolf, and the End of our Literary Sequence

With Alison Bechdel’s FUN HOME, we come to the end of our five books on women’s space, on space itself, on rooms—and on Virginia Woolf, too, for we come to her last essay, nicely situated before this graphic novel.

In some ways, Woolf’s conclusion is the most daunting part of her project on women and fiction. She stumbles several times, makes large parodies of even her own writing, and offers solutions that aren’t.

But two points in the final essay speak to FUN HOME particularly.

 1. Woolf find that women are too often “outside of [civilization], alien and critical.” To remedy this situation, she imagines a man and a women hailing a cab on a street corner, getting in together, and driving away. Natural, breezy, nothing alien about it. They both share the space—yet Woolf still feels reverberations from this “alien and critical” perspective.

Like Bechdel. If there’s one thing gay men and lesbians know, it’s that they exist outside the neat dichotomies of the dominant culture. They exist in a space that is indeed “alien and critical”—the dominant culture treats them so and their own space is such. And I’d encourage you to think of that word "critical" as Woolf meant it: not “judgemental” but instead “analytical” (as in “literary criticism”). To survive, a lesbian must create a “critical” space, a space that is invested in the act of interpretation (that is, criticism). Most people get to take the dominant culture at face value, without questioning its parameters. Not so for a lesbian who stands outside, who must interpret every move to find the cues to meaning that others might take for granted.

2. One of Woolf’s touted solutions is to urge everyone to become more “androgenous.” Or as she writes: “[I]n each of us, two powers preside, one male, one female; and in the man’s brain, the man predominates over the woman, and in the woman’s brain, the woman predominates over the man. The normal and comfortable state of being is that when the two live in harmony together.”

Of course, Bechdel’s character in her book exists exactly on this divide. But one wonders if it’s such a “comfortable” place. One wonders if her gender and identity confusions are not partly the result of fitting into neither pole in a binary world. What if indeed the world is not in pairs but in multitudes? What if there are not two genders, but thousands?

We’ll want to talk more about our five books: Anita Brookner’s HOTEL DU LAC, Elena Ferrante’s DAYS OF ABANDONMENT, Emma Donoghue’s ROOM, Willa Cather’s MY ANTONIA, and Bechdel’s FUN HOME. Do they offer a picture of a distinct “woman’s space”? Are the women successful at creating “room’s of their own”? Or is the matter much more complicated than first imagined?

(Do you want to look again at all the Woolf entries for these books? Simply click the "Virginia Woolf" tag below the line and you'll get all six entries lined up for you.)

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