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“Bound by Briars”: Writing as a Monster “Bound by Briars”: Writing as a Monster

In We Dead Awaken, the poet Adrienne Rich says, “I had a marriage and a child. If there were doubts, if there were periods of null depression or active despairing, these could only mean that I was ungrateful, insatiable, perhaps a monster” (Rich 173). One of the definitions of monster is “one that deviates from the norm; one that is unusual” (Miriam-Webster). If a woman is disloyal to the societal expectations placed on her gender then she is labeled a ‘monster’ or ‘mad’. A woman who expresses her opinions through writing is “scarcely less offensive...than monsters”. (Edgeworth 106). Should women risk being thought a monster in order to write?

Historically, the woman as writer was not unheard of, but certainly not looked upon with favor. “The world did not say to her as it said to (men), Write if you choose; it makes no difference to me. The world said with a guffaw, Write? What’s the good of your writing?” (Woolf 43). For the woman at the turn of the twentieth century, a woman with the gift of thought, speaking out, in voice or written word, was an alien concept to the majority of the culture. In “A Room of One’s Own”, Virginia Woolf postulates that women who have written in history have mostly done so with undertones of anger and bitterness; their poetry and essays are infused with these emotions. They were made to feel that the emotions they had were 'alien'.

Women were thought of as little more than children, they were viewed as emotional and unstable. When these women wrote, they almost always did so with anger, bitterness, and frustration. Therefore, the writings of women had the problem of not being universally valid, due to their undertones of anger and bitterness. Woolf says, “ would expect to find that her mind was disturbed by alien emotions like fear and hatred and that her poems showed traces of that disturbance” (Woolf 44). “Fear” because to challenge the patriarchal society was to risk being taunted and even ostracized. “Hatred” because to have a voice and an opinion but be forced into silence by the patriarchal society was cause for hatred.

Still, to be a successful writer, Woolf admonishes “ is fatal for anyone who writes to think of their sex...There must be freedom and there must be peace. Not a wheel must grate, not a light glimmer” (Woolf 67). The hatred, fear, and anger must be set aside somehow in order for the writing to have universal validity. Speaking of the poet, Lady Winchilsea, “Her gift is all grown about with weeds and bound with briars. It had no chance of showing itself for the fine distinguished gift it was.” (Woolf 45). The gift of the woman writing “bound with briars” is negated by the anger of being silenced.

Woolf suggests that women writers need a steady income and a quiet room in order to create validly but does her research support this thesis? If all that is needed is a steady income and a quiet room than how is the writer to experience the universal life in which she needs to create? How is she to lay aside the anger and bitterness at the patriarchal society's insistence on silence? While an income and a room relieve her of distracting forces of traditional womanhood, she is still facing the demands of a patriarchal system to be someone she is not. She is still being admonished to be silent. She is still being labeled a monster.

While Woolf admonishes women to "to be oneself than anything else” (Woolf 70), does she really believe this? In her essay she does not believe that being a 'monster' was productive for women in the past. To take the plunge and "be oneself " meant to be considered 'mad', meant the risk of literally 'going mad'. She does believe that taking the risk is something that is coming in the future, that women need to take advantage of the education now available to them, that if someone has the courage to “risk being called a monster” (Woolf 43) then the prejudice and injustice laid upon women writers that came before them will validate those writers and bring them to life once again.

THeeding Woolf’s call to ‘be oneself ’, bell hooks encourages all women, not just women writers, to “talk back”. In her essay, “Talking Back”, hooks says, “Moving from silence into speech is...a gesture of defiance that heals, that makes new life and new growth possible” (hooks 76). While Woolf writes of hopeful prospects for women writers in 1929, hooks writes to us in 1989, from a period that we recognize as uniquely ‘ours’. She speaks of the exhortations to silence that young girls grow up with in what is still, in 2003, a patriarchal society that labels not just women, but all people who ‘deviate from the norm’, ‘monsters’.

Also, hooks speaks of the punishments for wavering from the norm. “Madness, not just physical abuse, was the punishment for too much talk if you were female” (hooks 75). Children were taught to be ‘seen and not heard’. To speak without being spoken to was to put oneself at risk of punishment by elders. As hooks points out in her essay, this speaking out was often tolerated in male children but hardly ever in females. What are these female children to do when they can’t speak? Again, they express feelings of anger, bitterness, and frustration. Their deep need to express themselves evolves into ‘alien’ emotions. They are made to feel that having a coherent thought in need of expression is wrong, is monstrous.

Worse, when these woman-children did speak out they felt as if they were “...talking to ears that do not hear you...” (hooks 74). Words of wisdom and truth coming from a female child were simply not heard, or at best, punishable. Hooks recognizes that the time is now to speak out. Of her own experience in ‘talking back’, hooks says, it “was empowering” (hooks 76). She tells women, “It is that act of speech, of “talking back,” that is no mere gesture of empty words, that is the expression of our movement from object to subject–the liberated voice” (hooks 76). Women must risk being thought of as ‘mad’ or as ‘monster’, they must speak out and claim their right to express themselves.

While Woolf hoped that “...some great lady would...publish something with her name to it and risk being thought a monster” (Woolf 43), hooks admonishes women to do it now, to ‘talk back’, speak out, risk being a monster, today. Woolf says, “...if we face the fact...that there is no arm to cling to, but that we go alone and that our relation is to the world of reality and not only to the world of men and women, then the opportunity will come...”(Woolf 72). hooks says that that time, that opportunity is here now.

Finally, in the words of a male writer, William Faulkner, “The artist is of no importance. Only what he creates is important. . . .” (Faulkner Quotes). Faulkner speaks of the author as invisible, of the unimportance of who wrote the words, of the “death of the author”. It doesn’t matter that Faulkner was not speaking of race or gender in this quote, the results are the same. Is the time approaching when gender will be removed completely from the analysis of art? Will the day finally come when we view a movie, read a novel, gaze at a painting, without knowing, or more importantly, not caring, whether the artist was a man or a woman?

What we as human beings can hope for, regardless of gender, is that all who seek to create, who seek to ‘talk back’, will one day be viewed as normal and not as ‘monsters. From Woolf’s time to hooks’ time, great strides have been made in this direction. There will come the time when gender and language intersect, when there is only ‘speech’ instead of ‘man-speak’ and ‘woman-speech’, a time that is absent of ‘monsters’.

Works Cited

Edgeworth, Maria. “Letters for Literary Ladies: Letter From a Gentleman to His Friend upon the Birth of a Daughter.” The Longman Anthology of Women’s Literature. Ed. Mary K. DeShazer. New York: Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers Inc., 2001. 106.

Faulkner Quotes. 2002. Center for Faulkner Studies at Southeast Missouri State University Accessed 29 January 2003. .

hooks, bell. “Talking Back.” The Longman Anthology of Women’s Literature. Ed. Mary K. DeShazer. New York: Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers Inc., 2001. 73-76.

Mirriam-Webster Online. Accessed 3 February 2003. .

Rich, Adrienne. “When We Dead Awaken.” Adrienne Rich’s Poetry and Prose. Ed. Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi and Albert Gelpi. New York: W. W. Norton, 1993. 166-177.

Woolf, Virginia. “A Room of One’s Own.”. The Longman Anthology of Women’s Literature. Ed. Mary K. DeShazer. New York: Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers Inc., 2001. 16-72.

February 2003

K. Y. Hamilton, BA, MA - Copyright 2006

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