Feminist theory is very different to other forms of key literary theories. Feminist literary theory is not a single unified theory with a single body of work. There is no single key commentator, whose work defines feminist theory. The feminist theory makes few assumptions, and is therefore very adaptable to different contexts. It also draws from many other literary theories, such as Marxism, cultural materialism and structuralism. Feminist literary theory is most often described as simply the use of feminist principles and techniques to analyse the textual constructions of gendered meaning.
However feminist definitions and feminism have gone through a number of changes since the 1970’s. This has made feminism able to use existing feminist insights and apply them in new ways. Over time, feminist theory has been placed into three main groups. The first being, that feminist theories have an essentialist focus. Secondly, the theories are aimed at defining a feminist literary canon or they seek to reinterpret and re-vision literature from a less patriarchal slant. Thirdly, the theories focus on sexual difference and sexual politics.
There are key assumptions of feminist criticism. It believes all literature, dramatises implicitly or explicitly the difference between the masculine and the feminine. It assumes all literature, records the struggle of women and men with the social forces of patriarchy. It also criticises functions, to facilitate the awakening of human consciousness to the gender-delimiting elements of human experience. The use of these assumptions usually fall into three broad feminist approaches; The Socio-Political approach, The Socio-Psychological approach and The Fe(Male) approach.
In my essay I will be looking at the feminist literary theory with relation to Salman Rushdie’s, ‘Haroun and the Sea of Stories’. ‘Haroun and the Sea of Stories’ is a fantasy story. It is about the land where stories are made. Rashid has a gift of storytelling, but when he looses this gift; his son seeks to recover it. The novel mirrors Rushdie’s own troubles in writing after the Ayatollah was forced over him. The novel forms as a way to explain to his son about the events that were happening to him. His persona is taken on most clearly in the character of Rashid, the Shah of Blah, a father and story teller who looses his ability to create.
Although, on face value, feminist ideas are not strikingly obvious in ‘Haroun and the Sea of Stories’ there are some key feminist ideas. Anti-essentialist ideas are key to the feminist theory and anti-essentialist ideas are present in this novel. Essentialism, in is most common sense, is speaking of things as if they have a ‘nature’. This can be about people or objects. In each case, a set of qualities are ascribed to the ‘type’ and are taken to make this thing what it is and not something else. It beliefs things have unseen core properties. These properties give the thing its identity or ‘nature’, distinguishing it from other things.
Therefore, anti-essentialism opposes essentialist ideas. Anti-essentialism eliminates the questions of essence. It thinks essentialists; in their view of essence wrongly presuppose that a common nature exists. The anti-essentialist view believes there is no common property or set of properties in things. Salman Rushdie uses the anti-essentialist ideas in his reversionary use of Princess Rescue stories to show femininity as having no changeless essence. He uses this technique as a way of fighting and questioning images of women. He focuses on passive women, rescued by brave men. This is a fundamental issue within feminist theory.
Feminist ideas promote equality between men and women. The feminist theory believes women have been oppressed, simply due to their sex, and the idea of patriarchy. Rushdie’s novel promotes strength and diversity in women and many of the female characters break the conventional roles considered for a women. Blabbermouth tries to break convention by pretending to be a man to get the job she desires. Princess Batcheat also breaks convention. Princess Batcheat is an exceptional and very unconventional princess: ‘In it was a young woman with long, long hair, wearing a circlet of gold, and inging, please excuse, the ugliest sounding song I have ever heard. In addition, her teeth, her nose… ‘. (P. g 102) I think Princess Batcheat empowers women as she shows that even an unconventional heroine can have a happy ending. She rescues us from the belief that women must be beautiful for men to be happy. Prince Bolo is completely infatuated and in love with Batcheat: ‘To war, to war! For Batcheat, only Batcheat! ‘ (P. g 105). It is said Rushdie wrote this novel for his son, and he truly offers him an anti-essentialist education about femininity as a construction.
He wants his son to see the feminine nature of women and also that everyone will benefit if women’s oppression is brought to an end. However, this diverse picture of the female roles within the novel really gives the reader no typical feminine role to identify with. There is an element of shame alongside all the female characters in the text. Rushdie also makes all the female characters very much secondary to the dominant male characters within the text. The female characters do not play strong, vital parts, it is the male roles that drive the novel along. Rashid features constantly throughout the novel, he is a figure of authority.
His language is very symbolic and authoritive throughout: ‘Hang on. One at a time, please. And slowly; I haven’t done this for a long time, and you’re going to fast for me’. (P. g. 130) Haroun’s mother has even shamed herself by having an affair and leaving her family behind. Soraya does not feature much in the novel and the part she does play is not particularly realistic. After her affair, she returns to Rashid, with no protest or even questioning. This gives Haroun the happy ending, but is quite dissatisfying. It is too constructed and not a reality of what would really happen in that situation.
On the other hand, it is a possibility that Rushdie is showing her great value within the family. At the beginning of the novel, Soraya stops singing and Rashid fails to notice because he is so caught up in his storytelling: ‘Rashid Khalifa was so busy making up and telling stories that he didn’t notice that Soraya no longer sang; which probably made things worse. ‘ (P. g. 16) After her departure he is unable to tell stories, this could reflect her importance to him. In this view, she is a driving force within the novel. In his novel Rushdie seems to be showing his son how women should be treated.
Rushdie does give the women in the novel traditional stereotypical roles. All the men are in the army, whilst the mothers and children stay at home. Blabbermouth has to pretend to be a man to get to be a soldier, and in the end, when she is discovered, she is not allowed to keep the job anyway: ‘ “You’re fired,” he shouted at the top of his voice’. (P. g. 183) It is a male, Haroun that actually saves the day at the end of the novel. This is also a feature of the feminist literary theory. Feminist theorists agree that hierarchically ordered male-female gender relations impact all aspects of humans social existence.
Feminist theorists believe this also includes un-gendered categories of thought, they establish a series of binarisms, e. g. active/passive, presence/absence etc, in which the ‘feminised’ term would occupy the devalued position. The feminist theory also has to consider this is a male-authored text. A male will have different insights to the oppression felt by women. After all feminism is a theory about women: 1’Women are the subjects of feminism, its initiators, its makers, its force; the move and the join from being a woman to being a feminist is the grasp of that subjecthood’. However, women are not born feminist.
Feminism is a social-political reality, a struggle, a commitment, and women become feminists, usually through their experiences of oppression. One of the basic assumptions or concepts of feminist criticism is the view that society is pervasively patriarchal; it is male-centred and controlled. It is organised and conducted in ways that subordinate women to men in all cultural domains. Therefore, for a man, the negotiation will be blocked, he will not have the same experiences felt by women, his experience is only the woman’s own oppression. In the beginning of my essay, I mentioned the three main stands of feminism.
I think ‘Haroun and the Sea of Stories’ belongs to the socio-political approach. This is sometimes considered the British part of feminist criticism and focuses on a neo-Marxist depiction of the patriarchy as reflected in the delimited lives and destinies of female characters in literature. We can see these characteristics and destinies, mainly in the characters of Princess Batcheat and Blabbermouth. The second approach was the socio-psychological approach. I do not think it is really possible to apply this to ‘Haroun and the Sea of Stories’. This attitude is considered the American part of feminist criticism.
It focuses its attention on awakening the female consciousness reflected in literature by and bout women. It stresses a psychological maturation, not just through recognition of gender difference but also through a growing sense of ‘sisterhood’ with other women. This often looks at previously suppressed or overlooked female writers and texts. Language is another central issue within feminist criticism. There is much debate over whether there is a language that is essentially feminine. Virgina Wollfe believed language use is gendered; she said when a women began to write a novel there is: 2′.. no common sentence ready for her use’.
For a male author it is much easier and prescribed. It is therefore felt, women writers are at a disadvantage, as they suffer from having to use a medium (prose writing) which is fundamentally a male instrument. Peter Barry distinguishes the two, he says male writing is characterised by ‘carefully balanced and patterned rhetorical sequences’, whilst, the characteristics of women’s writing (sentences) are that ‘the clauses are linked in looser sequences, rather than carefully balanced and patterned as in male prose’. Julia Kristeva created two terms to designate these two aspects of writing; symbolic and semiotic language.
Symbolic language is linked with authority, order, repression and control. The semiotic language is distinguished by displacement and slippage. It is a much looser, more randomised way of writing. I think ‘Haroun and the Sea of Stories’ may give the impression, at face value, of using semiotic language. I think this is because of the nature of the story and the various themes it contains. It can also be read by children, which also suggests it uses semiotic language. I feel if you look at the language more closely, Rushdie uses much more symbolic language.
Although the subject matter is quite random and unusual, the actual language is very structured and ordered. Rushdie has obviously put a lot of thought into what he is writing. I think it is relatively clear it is a man writing. However, despite these feminist ideas, it is questionable how feminist the novel really is. I do not think feminist ideas are supposed to be the main focus of this novel. Rushdie wrote this novel for his, at the time, young son, and the most important focus in the novel is that of the father and son relationship. The novel is written to try and inform his son fatwa circumstances and the difficulties Rushdie faced.
The novel is to help them bond, despite their forced separation. In the text, Haroun is not really allowed to get too close to anyone, except his father. Haroun’s tentative relationship with Blabbermouth is not allowed to develop and Rushdie’s narrative comes to an end before Haroun is able to accept her invitation to see her again. The emphasis is always most prominently on the relationship between father and son. There is also the issue of gendering within this novel. The stories seem to act out the social process of gendering, how children are socialised into their particular roles and their relationships as boys and girls.
I think ‘Haroun and the Sea of Stories’ can only be considered a feminist text to a certain point. The real emphasis is on male bonding, the female characters and relationships are clearly secondary. When we try and read this novel from a feminist perspective it completely shifts our attention from the more leading and deep felt issues within it. However, Rushdie’s take on feminism breaks it down as a social construct; he seems to portray his own version of femininity. He teaches his son that femininity can be positive, but oppression being felt by women is negative and we would all benefit if it was brought to an end.