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Rhetorics of Fantasy
      Feminist Narrative and the Supernatural: The Function of Fantastic Devices in Seven Recent Novels
Farah Mendlesohn
      Katherine J. Weese
Wesleyan University Press, 306 pages
      McFarland, 222 pages

Rhetorics of Fantasy
Feminist Narrative and the Supernatural
Farah Mendlesohn
Farah Mendlesohn teaches at Middlesex University, London. She has been the editor of Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction for six years and is the author of Diana Wynne Jones and the Children's fantastical Tradition (2005) and co-editor of The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction (2006), winner of a Hugo Award. She is the program director for the World Science Fiction Convention in Montreal in 2009.

ISFDB Bibliography
Publisher's website
REVIEW: 1, 2, 3, 4

Katherine J. Weese
Catherine J. Weese is an English professor at Hampden-Sydney College. Her articles on the fantastic and feminist fiction have appeared in Journal of Narrative Theory, Modern Fiction Studies, Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts and Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction.

ISFDB Bibliography
Publisher's page

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Georges T. Dodds

Let me preface my review by pointing out that these titles are written by academics, largely for academics in the field of English literature, so even if you are an academic like myself, but in the field of agriculture, some of this is difficult to wade through if one isn't knowledgeable in the field's jargon. I must admit I had to take notes to sort it all out. This isn't to say the material isn't interesting or the approach valid, just that these aren't the sort of books one takes to the beach.

Feminist Narrative and the Supernatural. The Function of Fantastic Devices in Seven Recent Novels deals with how authors of recent feminist works have used the fantastic to allow female characters to be empowered. The books Catherine J. Weese deals with are The Sea, the Sea by Iris Murdoch, Lady Oracle by Margaret Atwood, Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields, The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, and Paradise by Toni Morrison. I will point out here that I have never read any of these titles, and what I have read of feminist literature is of a far older vintage (e.g. 1, 2)

In her introduction, Weese points out that compared to overtly feminist themes, the role of fantastic elements has been downplayed in studies of contemporary female authors. Furthermore, she suggests that feminists don't highlight the fantastic in women's writing as it might tend to play into the stereotype that women are flighty and imaginative, compared to men. However, she suggests, more recently women have been using narrative forms with fantastic elements to portray a feminine viewpoint, different from that of tradition patriarchal narratives. She describes the fantastic based on Todorov's definition of a situation which leaves the reader hesitant and undecided as to whether the event is supernatural or rationally explainable. When this conflict is resolved, one then falls into categories such as magic realism, the marvelous, or the uncanny.

The first two titles (above) are discussed in PART I. Gothic Fictions and the Fantastic. In Iris Murdoch's The Sea, the Sea, the male character imprisons his love and tries to dominate her in a manner typical of the Gothic novel, but Murdoch uses Gothic tropes to turn the tables on him and empower his victim. In Lady Oracle, Margaret Atwood, uses the astral body of the female protagonist's mother, the protagonist's automatic writing, and the lack of closure in the novel, to upset Gothic tropes and their attendant male dominance, and empower the protagonist. In the next two titles, Shield's The Stone Diaries, and Robinson's Housekeeping, Weese discusses the use of different first and third person narrators and the effects sought in using each. In particular she discusses how doubt about a narratrix's live or dead state, allows such a narratrix transcend the normal strictures of narrative and particularly how both authors use narratrix's. For the remaining texts, some of which also include ghostly narrators, Weese continues to explore the use of different types of narrators. For Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible, she also looks how the use of traditional African storytelling and magic realism allows the author to expand the female character's capabilities and understanding. For Morrison's Beloved and Paradise, African American women must overcome the strictures of their sex, their race, an in the latter their non-standard religious beliefs.

Farah Mendlesohn's Rhetorics of Fantasy is an attempt to divide works of fantasy into a limited number of subgenres and to support this taxonomy with a number of examples and counter-examples -- for her book is for fantasy what Carl Linnaeus' Species Plantarum was for plants. After introducing what her book seeks to accomplish, Mendlesohn devotes four chapters to each of the four types she has defined, and one further chapter to some works that don't easily conform or fit into her taxonomic scheme.

Her subgenres include:

  • the portal quest fantasy, which includes, in general the standard 'old-fashioned' quest fantasy. Here the story is presented in the sort of incontrovertable, unquestioned manner of the storyteller in an old-time men's club (Lord Dunsany's Jorkens for example). The protagonist enters an place unknown to him, frequently led by an authoritative guide figure (like Virgil in Dante's Inferno) who teaches him about the land that is unknown to him. The land serves as a primary character, with discovered documents serving to set out the fixed history and parameters of the world. One example of this type, which Mendlesohn uses is John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress.
  • the immersive fantasy, where the main character comes from inside the world and we join him there, so that there is no element of surprise, the "world is domesticated rather than having attention drawn to its oddities." There is limited need for the protagonist to learn, and when necessary this is done through experimentation or observation, not by accessing ancient wisdom.
  • the intrusion fantasy, where something unseen, but sensed lurk just beyond the real world. Such narrative often use sounds to build the emotional heightening which the impending threat represents. Often it is the threat that is most interesting, and when the disaster itself takes place, it is relatively dull. William Hope Hodgson's The House on the Borderland and many Cthulhu Mythos stories would fall into this category.
  • the liminal fantasy, where the fantastic as defined by Todorov is not resolved, and there is a balance between both the real and fantasy world. This is exemplified by Hope Mirrlees' Lud-in-the-Mist

While Mendlesohn discusses a number of early fantasy works (George MacDonald, Ann Radcliffe, Hope Mirrlees, William Hope Hodgson, etc...) she also illustrates her categories with a number of recent works. While I was familiar with the older works, many of the more recent works were unknown to me (the converse might be the case of many younger readers); however, Mendlesohn presents sufficient information about the works she discusses, in terms of plot and characters, that one can easily follow her arguments, regardless of where ones fantasy reading lacunæ are. Also Mendlesohn is aware that not every work of fantasy neatly fits into her classification scheme, and that some works bridge more than one type, and might be assigned to different types according to the classifier's biaises.

Perhaps because, as a scientific editor I seek to mold texts to be succinct, clear, and generally free of jargon, I found Weese's Feminist Narrative and the Supernatural a very heavy read, requiring a good deal of dictionary consultation, and rereading. In comparison Mendlesohn's Rhetorics of Fantasy, while not completely free of specialist terms, is written in a style much more conducive to being read by an informed outsider to the field. The attempt to fit different fantasy works into genres or types is in a sense a more 'scientific' endeavour that attributing feminist or other intentions to portions of an artistic work. In the case of Weese's book, much of the work is one person's perspective, one person's educated guess as to several authors' intentions. While using a possibly dead narratrix may be a way for the author to allow her to escape male-imposed strictures, it could be that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and a possibly dead narratrix is just a possibly dead narratrix. Where I have trouble with Weese's work is when she proposes that Daisy, in Shields' The Stone Diaries is narrating from beyong the grave, when the author has explicitly stated that her intention was to portray an elderly Daisy writing about the sorts of things she (Daisy) would imagine herself as wishing to write if she were dead. Weese, discounts this and simply goes on to give her posthumous narrator analysis. While I might not agree with every aspect of Mendlesohn's work of classification, she doesn't seem as rigid in her agenda as Weese.

Both these works are intended for an academic audience, but Mendlesohn's Rhetorics of Fantasy manages to be accessible to the non-specialist to a much greater degree than Weese's Feminist Narrative..., though both titles will interest a different audience.

Copyright © 2008 by Georges T. Dodds

Georges Dodds is a research scientist whose interests lie predominantly in both English and French pre-1950 imaginative fiction. Besides reviews and articles at SFSite and in fanzines such as Argentus, Pulpdom and WARP, he has published peer-reviewed articles in fields ranging from folklore to water resource management. He is the creator and co-curator of The Ape-Man, His Kith and Kin a website exploring thematic precursors of Tarzan of the Apes, as well as works having possibly served as Edgar Rice Burroughs' documentary sources. The close to 100 e-texts include a number of first time translations from the French by himself and others. Georges is also the creator and curator of a website dedicated to William Murray Graydon (1864-1946), a prolific American-born author of boys' adventures. The website houses biographical, and bibliographical materials, as well as a score of novels, and over 100 short stories.

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