In Juliet Mitchell’s essay “Femininity, Narrative and Psychoanalysis” the history of the novel is studied through a critical analysis of phallocentric language and bourgeois capitalism.
Juliet Mitchell’s essay “Femininity, Narrative and Psychoanalysis” is short, precise, and straight to the point. Originally a lecture delivered in the early 70s, it imagines the novel through a male-dominated literary lens. She uses words such as hysteria, phallocentric, bisexuality and bourgeois to describe men and women’s position within the novel (as a character) and authorial position as creator of literature. The opening line to the essay references Emily Bronte’s classic novel Wuthering Heights, towards the end of her essay Mitchell offers a detailed studied of the novel’s characters to show how it is exemplifies what she terms “the hysteric”. She questions women’s role in the novel and asks whether woman have a voice in the phallocentric realm of novels. Briefly, she touches on Freud to explain how the Oedipus complex or the [pre-] Oedipal contributes to the complexity of examining the role of women in text.
Having read Wuthering Heights twice in high school, the novel’s title was the first words that sprung to my attention upon reading Mitchell’s essay. Before continuing on to the second paragraph, I began to think of Catherine and Heathcliff, and how Mitchell would incorporate them into her study. Once she used the terms “hysteria” and “bisexuality”, I became more interested to see where she would take Bronte’s work. Mitchell says Bronte’s novel questions patriarchal organization and acknowledges that the novel was first published under a pseudonym Ellis Bell. She questions whether women can maintain their feminine presence in a male dominated literary cannon which I found interesting considering Bronte literally kills off her leading female presence in the novel. Another interesting concept that Mitchell alludes to is the infamous quote in which Catherine denounces her presence as a woman by saying “I am Heathcliff, he’s more myself than I am” which further exemplifies Mitchell’s additive of bisexuality as an important factor. While the characters aren’t literally bisexual, they desire to become possessed by the gender of another. Mitchell ties the hysteric into this study of Wuthering Heights by saying the novelist (particularly the female novelist) challenges patriarchal rule by offering this sexual difference. By having a woman claiming desire to be a man (and vice versa), the author offers an image of hysteria that challenges the norms of identity.
Mitchell also uses psychoanalysis by referencing Freud and the Oedipus complex (from Sophocles’ tale Oedipus Rex) which I think tied in well with her terminology of bisexuality and phallocentric texts. However, she doesn’t use the terms Oedipus or the Oedipus complex, which is what’s famously associated with Freud; the way in which she did reference it, “the pre-Oedipal”, was confusing to understand at first. She claimed this to be a political tie in, which I thought was interesting. Considering the Oedipus Rex tale in addition to the Freudian associations, the Oedipus complex referred to the desire to marry the mother and kill the father. Earlier in the essay, Mitchell stressed for the need for more female agency in patriarchal texts. She seems to suggest this need, but in terms of power within texts. By offering this reference, I think it offered a nice addition to her critique.