Room for Critique: The Spaces of Institutional Disillusionment of 1970s U.S. Feminist Fiction

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Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own (1929) and Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar's The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (1979) share an archive, but they differ as to how the room, as a set of material conditions and a literary trope, configures gender relations. Woolf's speaker observes that women's material constraints in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were unfavorable to the emergence of an affirmative female literary tradition. 1 In order to cultivate their creative power, female authors need a space guarded off from uninvited guests, children, and spouses ("a room with a lock on the door"); a wage ("five hundred a year"); and sufficient time for this shift in material conditions to have a historical impact ("a hundred years"). 2 Woolf imagines the room as a site of production that could usher in an aesthetic transformation.

Although it also focuses on the second half of the long nineteenth century, The Madwoman in the Attic, arguably the most influential work of feminist literary criticism in the U.S., depicts a roomBertha Mason's attic in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyrethat epitomizes subordination rather than creative emancipation. 3 A room whose lock is out of reach exposes women's social limitations and represents femaleness and femininity as monstrous. 4 The juxtaposition of A Room of One's Own and The Madwoman in the Attic reveals an unstable politics of the room: a paradox between a liberating space that makes literary production possible and an enclosure that dispossesses its female occupant. Woolf, Gilbert, and Gubar agree that women's access to the public realm is limited, but disagree on the possibilities of the private realm. For Woolf, private spaces can accommodate interventions to reverse social oppression. For Gilbert and Gubar, private spaces mirror social oppression.

Two years before the publication of The Madwoman in the Attic, Marilyn French released The Women's Room (1977), perhaps the most popular U.S. feminist novel of the 1970s. The Women's Room follows the character of Mira Ward, a stay-at-home parent turned doctoral student in English literature at Harvard University. French narrates an institutional disillusionment so pervasive that it extends beyond Harvard to encompass everything and anything that might count as an institution, from brick-and-mortar edifices to varyingly codified systems of beliefs and practices like marriage, motherhood, and therapy. 5

French's metonym for institutions is the room. This metonymic room, which figures both material and figurative institutions (sometimes at once), also plays a significant role in the works of other female writers of French's era. The Women's Room, Alix Kates Shulman's Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen (1972), and Erica Jong's Fear of Flying (1973) compose a group of 1970s novels whose riff on the feminist trope of the room exceeds the domains of privacy and domesticity that concern Woolf, Gilbert, and Gubar. In these novels, the room operates as an immersive and enveloping small-scale locale, one that magnifies the affective experience of the institutions it models and theorizes. 6

Feminist awareness and feelings of isolation and stasis cohabit in French, Shulman, and Jong's spatial representations and critiques of institutional experience. The room materializes an unresolved contradiction between captivity and refuge that, I argue, offers the most potent expression of liberal disillusionment from a U.S. feminist standpoint. The room in 1970s novels accentuates institutional limitations to women's liberation, emancipation, and self-actualization, while curtailing individual and collective measures that might compensate for these limitations. 7 As such, various locales imaginatively linked to the roomthe restroom, the hole, the box, the psychiatrist's office, and the hotel room or firetrapaccommodate a politically neutralizing mode of social representation and critique.

If French, Shulman, and Jong's institutional critiques have remained largely unexamined, it has been in part because of these authors' association with white feminism, and in part because of their novels' exclusion from the realm of literary prestige. Feminist and literary criticism have consistently dismissed middlebrow novels like The Women's Room, Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen, and Fear of Flying as "bad objects." 8 This is hardly surprising: contemporary bestsellers have only recently, and unevenly, become legitimate objects of study in literature departments; these novels' realist mission to convey women's experience has been assumed to conflict with the poststructuralist paradigm that rose to prominence in U.S. literature departments in the 1970s; and above all, these novels cast aside rubrics of race and class as they focus exclusively on relatively economically privileged white characters. 9 I worry that the repudiation of these novels signals a counterproductive tendency to see feminists as being particularly bad at feminism. This tendency, of course, does not usually speak its name; it is feminists unenlightened because of race, class, or generational position who are officially found to be lacking. My point is not to exculpate the brand of 1970s feminism that serves as the omega point of these critiques from its shortcomings, but to argue that we have a great deal to learn from the ways French, Shulman, and Jong mobilize the material spaces of elite and bourgeois institutions to stage a drama, and at times a comedy, of liberal collapse.

Some of the principles behind French, Shulman, and Jong's critiques continue to fuel feminist responses to institutional flaws. Mary Ann Mason writes in a 2012 Chronicle of Higher Education column that the uncertainty of the present-day academic job market discourages many female Ph.D. students who have or wish to have children from pursuing tenure-track positions. 10 Popular 1970s novels depict a different economic landscape, but uphold a similar ideal: that women's gender and their choice to be mothers (or whatever they choose to do in their personal lives) not interfere with their capacity to participate in graduate education and academic professions. This ideal relies on a split between private selfhood and public citizenship that Zillah R. Eisenstein and Elaine Hadley link to John Stewart Mill and Harriet Taylor's liberal subjecta sovereign individual who partakes in, but is ultimately distinct from, a social community. 11 Whereas the protagonists of such radical novels as Alice Walker's Meridian (1976) and Marge Piercy's Vida (1979) are suspicious of any efforts to articulate a feminist position within campuses that are unevenly accessible, their more liberal counterparts do not wholly reject the university. 12 In their prioritization of reform over revolution, French, Shulman, and Jong initially express an optimistic attitude toward higher education as a site where women can participate in public life. 13 Accordingly, in these authors' novels, the phrase, "feminist university," understood as an institution that facilitates the flourishing of female students who can afford to access it, is not an oxymoronic ideal. 14

Yet, as tales of disillusionment, French, Shulman, and Jong's novels show the limits of the liberal perspective that their protagonists initially adopt. Their protagonists register the ubiquity of patriarchy as they inhabit and move across institutions. They realize, in Carole Pateman's words, that "patriarchy is not merely familial or located in the private sphere." 15 Pateman's influential critique of liberalism posits that social contracts, including those imagined by John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and in the 1970s, John Rawls, depend on a patriarchal social order established via a "sexual-social pact." 16 This pact casts women as the objects of contracts, not as their makers. 17 While social contracts generate a public realm beyond the reach of patriarchy, the sexual-social pact excludes women from this realm. French, Shulman, and Jong's novels map out a terrain in which participation in the public realm, notably in higher education, offers no guarantees that individual choices and opinions will be recognized, let alone valorized.

The Women's Room, Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen, and Fear of Flying ultimately deviate not only from traditional liberalism, but also from the dominant liberal feminist model of consciousness of their time. Eisenstein indicates that 1960s and 1970s liberal feminism, exemplified by Betty Friedan's Feminine Mystique (1963), amended liberalism's denial of the connectedness of individuals by insisting on the relational character of feminist awareness. 18 In this framework, women who identified as feminists, or who at least recognized their oppression, understood themselves to be part of a sexual class. The Women's Room, Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen, and Fear of Flying show that lifting the veil of the feminine mystique, or becoming conscious as a feminist subject, does not always lead to relationality and collectivity.

The Women's Room, Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen, and Fear of Flying unfold as campus novels that never were. According to Mark McGurl, one of the distinctive traits of the U.S. campus novel is its adoption of a faculty perspective as a means to narrate petty departmental conflicts. 19 Novels by French, Shulman, and Jong highlight interferences with female protagonists' graduate education or their transitions from graduate students to faculty members. These books' narrative thrust is a disillusionment caused by, among other obstacles, the unattainability, unsustainability, or absurdity of the professional position that anchors the paradigmatic campus novel. 20 The university first appears either as an alternative to domesticity or as an institution that promises to reconfigure romantic and family dynamics. The failure of the university to supply a viable alternative to the experience of patriarchy prompts authors and characters alike to view the university, domesticity, and therapy as structurally analogous institutions.

 

Staying in the Restroom and Creeping into a Hole at Home and in the University

The first room depicted in Marilyn French's The Women's Rooma room which, in the chronology of the plot, Mira visits in 1968, as a thirty-eight-year-old graduate student at Harvardis, wittily, a ladies' room, a euphemism for a restroom. 21 This restroom differs from the domestic imaginary of hygiene associated with the figure of the midcentury housewifea figure from which Mira distances herself when she and her husband Norman divorce. Yet, like the suburban kitchen, the ladies' room is a gendered site that suggestsbut in this portion of the novel does not showcaseparticular scripts of socialization among women. 22 With its private stalls in a common though secluded space, the liminal ladies' room, not private but not quite public either, registers Mira's experience of a public realm that feels just as confining as domesticity. The title of French's novel is ambivalent: it is unclear whether the women's room designates a room also for women (i.e. a mixed space) or a room only for women (i.e. a secluded space). French plays with this ambivalence, beginning her story in a gender-segregated space that notably figures a public realm where women and men typically interact.

In the episode of the restroom, French describes for the first time the paralysis attached to the room as a politicized site. Revolutionary graffiti, traces of the ulterior presence of strangers, cover the restroom walls: "Down with capitalism and the fucking military-industrial complex. Kill all fascist pigs;" and "Stay in your cocoon. Who needs you? Those who are not with us are against us. Anyone who supports the status quo is part of the problem. There is not time. The revolution is here! Kill pigs!" 23 On the one hand, the graffiti, which function as a hieroglyph of political radicalism, locate Mira in proximity to a revolutionary discourse. On the other hand, the fact that Mira encounters this discourse via graffiti in a cramped restroom stall stresses her remoteness from civic spaces, like the streets, which in the radical imaginary constitute sites for political organization and action. The graffiti's forceful imperatives"Kill all fascist pigs" and "Kill pigs!"convey a call to action. Yet, this call to action is overwritten by "Who needs you?" a question closer to a statement than a genuine query. The syntax of the similarly abrasive "Stay in your cocoon" fences Mira in, and the term "cocoon" insinuates that she is underdeveloped, infantile. The graffiti, whose message in condensed form is: "If you are reading this, you are not one of us," interpellate Mira as both a non-radical subject and a subject of stasis. Excluded from the radical "us," she is stuck in her cocoon.

Throughout much of The Women's Room, Mira remains in the same state of political paralysis she experienced in the restroom. Mira is certainly aware of the prejudices with which she, a middle-aged woman, is met within Harvard's English Department. She and Val, her closest friend in Cambridge and a radical feminist, are in their late thirties when they undertake their doctoral traininga fact that prompts one eminent professor of English "in this exalted institution" to refer to the two students as members of the "Geritol crowd." 24 But in this coming-to-consciousness novel, the acknowledgement of inequitable treatment within institutions does not yield invigorating and sustainable concepts of political community and action. 25 In a 1978 review, Wendy Stevens aptly summarizes the alienation from political life that The Women's Room conveys. She writes of French (and the same could be said of Mira): "At times it seems she views the women's movement as something she feels so distant from that she can hang it on the wall and look only at it when she gets the urge. She seems incapable of using all the good knowledge and perceptions she has written about." 26 Case in point: Mira accompanies Val to meetings organized by political action groups, but primarily does so "with the half-hope of meeting an interesting man." 27

In showing that Mira remains on the outskirts of political circles, or that she ends up staying in her cocoon, as ordered by the graffiti, French charts a tension between captivity and refuge. The author therefore brings forth a causal puzzle: Mira experiences stasis and isolation because of her location in patriarchal institutions, but she also seeks stasis and isolation to protect herself from the experience of patriarchal oppression. In the restroom episode, Mira muses, in what amounts to an example of unwilling isolation, "I have enough room, but it's empty. Or maybe I don't, maybe room means more than space. Clarissa once said that isolation was insanity." 28 Mira's speculation that "maybe room means more than space" anticipates the symbolic load that material spaces will carry throughout the novel. The allusion to Clarissa, one of Mira's feminist friends, evokes the tragic heroines of Samuel Richardson and Virginia Woolf (in Mrs. Dalloway). These two famous Clarissas suffer from mental and affective pathologies: Richardson's Clarissa dies of a condition described as mental duress, whereas Woolf's is anxious and depressed. 29 In The Women's Room, Mira unsuccessfully attempts to kill herself following the collapse of her marriage. By situating Mira in relation to this lineage of Clarissas, French conjures up a literary tradition that likens femininity to an experience of insanity. 30 For French, just like for Gilbert and Gubar, isolation is dissatisfying at best and life-threatening at worst when it coincides with madness.

In contrast, later in the novel but earlier in the chronology of the plot, isolation and stasis present themselves as lesser evils to which Mira and her friends resort in the face of a reality they sense as immutable. Before moving to Cambridge to attend Harvard, Mira, having recently divorced Norman, completes her undergraduate degree at a local college near the nondescript suburb of Beau Reve"beautiful dream," a tongue-in-cheek reference to the domestic utopia from which our protagonist feels so estranged. "By this time," Mira recounts, "all of us had a word. It was them, and we all meant the same thing by it: men." 31 Mira and her friends identify a political opponent, but their response to "them" is introversive rather than extroversive: "We crept into our holes and learned to survive." 32 Isolation and immobility within holes designate a survival mechanism: creeping into holes functions as a mode of self-protection in a hostile climate.

Formally, such physical introversion translates into Mira's narrative habit of referring to her younger self in the third person. 33 The narrator is Mira, or in fact an older version of Mira who treats her younger self as a somewhat distinct entity. Both Miras exist side-by-side, the narrator acting as a kind of on-the-scene reporter with access to the protagonist's interiority. 34 The rupture between Mira-the-narrator and Mira-the-character brings to mind Rita Felski's notion of "allegory of authorship," which sheds light on the aesthetic dimension of authorship, or its possible status as a textual object. 35 For Felski, authorship regularly features in feminist fiction as a "potent, densely packed" figure of speech that "[conveys] a large moral, political, or philosophical message." 36 The Women's Room deploys subjective doubling as an aesthetic strategy to distribute and share the weight of patriarchal oppression at a formal level. Self-encounter is what happens to Mira when she creeps into her hole and learns to survive.

Mira's isolation and stasis, whether they stem from undesirable confinement or from self-protection, point to a consciousness that is neither that of a radical feminist (Mira's feminist awareness does not conduce to collective action) nor exactly that of a liberal feminist (she does occasionally feel a kinship with other women, but she ultimately is "her own best friend"). Second-wave feminist consciousness, be it radical, liberal, or, in the case that interests us, disillusioned from liberalism, feels static, says Jane Elliott. Elliott's notion of "static time" designates a "structure of feelings" in which feminists' agency is hindered by their subjection to a historical motion that they experience as inevitable. 37 Second-wave feminism, Elliott claims, is condemned to static time: women's awareness of their conditions of subordination, one of the goals of the narrative of history proffered by second-wave feminism, recapitulates the path to awareness as the unavoidable flow of history, rather than a struggle propelled by human agents. 38 Elliott's argument implies mimesis between historical flow and narrative or novelistic flow. In this framework, politics and aesthetics are not symptoms of each other; they are one and the same. In her reading of The Women's Room, Elliott focuses on French's tragic iteration of the coming-to-consciousness plot. If the telos of the coming-to-consciousness novel is to reveal "the truth of women's oppression," Mira's access to this truth within domestic and educational institutions constitutes a dead-end that offers no viable alternatives. 39 Elliott accurately diagnoses Mira's reactive, rather than affirmative, disposition to the passage of timeher prioritization of surviving over striving. However, this disposition cannot be so easily pinned on some inevitable flow of history. Mira's paralysis derives instead from an acknowledgement of oppression that alone does not generate conditions for individual change, let alone collective action.

"How does [the novel] end?" Linda L. Blum ponders; "Mira endures, but her struggle against a male dominated society does not bring her success, nor does it bring her happiness. We leave Mira bitter, sad and alone; a middle-aged woman who made choices, had high merit, and yet, did not receive the rewards promised by liberal society." 40 French's representations of unsuccessful liberation, emancipation, and self-actualization render a paralysis that shows just how penalizing Mira's gender remains even within institutions outside of domesticity. The ladies' room and the hole magnify a female subjectivity marked by the rupture of liberalism's promise to reward participation in the public sphere. Voluntary and involuntary isolation and stasis reveal a subject, Mira, who critiques institutional alienation from within. French's spatial tropes convey a liberal disillusionment that consists of feeling exempt from institutional promises of personal advancement and achievement without being outright excluded from the institutions that foster such promises.

 

Ending Up in a Box and a Psychiatrist's Office in the Movement Across Institutions

Rooms in 1970s feminist bestsellers do not only figure women's political paralysis within institutions; they also figure transitions across institutions that are neither liberating nor emancipating. Two key passages of The Women's Roomthe restroom episode and a dream about entrapmentdepict a stasis resistant to Mira's decisions to enter or leave particular spaces. This stasis is in fact a static motion: a sense of paralysis in a life where "things just drift along." 41 Unlike Elliott's "static time," the static motion depicted by French takes place on a biographical scale not to be conflated with the movement of history.

Mira's reflection on trans-institutional movement in the restroom episode offers a variation on the theme of the room. She muses, "It doesn't matter whether you open doors or close them, you still end up in a box. I have failed to ascertain an objective difference between one way of living and another." 42 Mira's reasoning recalls Carole Pateman's critique of social-contract liberalism: as women are granted access to institutional life beyond the private realm, they come to experience a patriarchy that also suffuses civil society. Strikingly, even though French refers to opening and closing doors, she does not write that Mira ends up in the same room regardless of the choices she makes. The box insinuates that Mira is packaged and labeled. A box is a unit that is moved around, not one that is fixed or that propels itself forward. The box, then, hints at a trans-institutional structure that produces an aesthetics, but not a politics, of mobility. Mira can, to a certain extent, move between institutions, but she does not pilot this motion. The box suggests not just stasis, but a movement that feels statica transition across institutions that registers as an experience of enclosure.

While the restroom episode configures trans-institutional movement as a process of opening and closing doors, a dream that concludes The Women's Room zooms in on door handles and locks as devices that impose specific orders of stasis and movement within and across rooms. 43 The dream, which offers a meta-reflection on the novel's plot, lacks the superficial beauty of the aforementioned "beau rêve." This dream follows a graphically described rape whose victim is Chris, Val's daughter. 44 At this point in the novel, Mira is working as a teacher at a community college on the coast of Maine. In the dream in question, Mira is in a house, and threatened by men. When the police tell her to keep her front door closed, she realizes that the handle is missing: "If I close the door it will lock and I will never be able to open it from the inside. It can be opened from the outside, but I do not believe in the tale of Sleeping Beauty. Even if I did, I could hardly qualify." 45 The absence of a handle on the room's door signals an obvious dead-end: Mira can either "choose" to isolate herself or "choose" to remain vulnerable to men's assault; yet, none of these choices truly feels like a choice. As a result, fantasies of an individual who is empowered to form opinions about distinct sociopolitical alternatives and whose opinions transform both her life and the world in which she lives once again hit a wall.

Whereas for French insanity pervades institutions like the domestic realm and the university, for Alix Kates Shulman, the psychiatrist's office is the inevitable destination for female intellectuals let down by the university. Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen initially depicts the university as a site of personal accomplishment and self-actualizationnot only as a site that promises self-actualization, as in The Women's Room. In college, Sasha Davis, Shulman's protagonist, craves abstractions: "It was impossible for a notion to be too abstract for me. Abstraction was the key to seeing everything at a glance." 46 At first, the totalizing idea of "knowing everything" motivates Sasha, but when she discovers the "abstraction of abstractions, History of Ideas," as well as "the ultimate abstraction, Logic," her obsession turns to the "Great Chain of Being and the Idea of Progress," and to "Numbers, ... Justice, ... [and] Truth." 47 Sasha's relation to academia turns sour, and her attachment to a Great Chain of Being and an Idea of Progress ruptures, when she learns that there exist "only a handful of teaching jobs in the country, all covetedall of them." 48 Her situation worsens when she realizes that the most realistic way for her to inhabit academia is in the shadow of her partner Frank. At Columbia, where they locate, she risks becoming one of many "dissertation widows." 49 Seeing a psychiatrist, Dr. Webber, does not help Sasha, who "[smokes] cigarette after cigarette ... until [Dr. Webber comes] up with a question" and answers with cynicism. 50 The image of Sasha in Dr. Webber's office, chain-smoking to fill the void of their sparse and affected exchanges, delivers a potent illustration of deadlock. This deadlock coincides with the intensification of Sasha's disillusionment with her marriage and the university, as she is discouraged from entering a competitive and gender-biased job market. Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen narrates an institutional enmeshing wherein Sasha is patronizingly shuffled between the university, the home, and the psychiatrist's office. If each of these institutions is dissatisfying in its own way, their symbiosis ultimately reduces the protagonist's range of possible actions.

In The Madwoman in the Attic, the pathologization of femininity operates in conjunction with women's physical exclusion from the public sphere. Mira and Sasha's static motion, however, speaks to an experience of institutional enclosure and isolation that does not presume that institutions themselves are always enclosed, isolated, or private. Some of the feelings of isolation and stasis that these stories communicate are linked to female characters' movement from domesticity to the university, and from the university to psychiatry. In French and Shulman's novels, enclosure is thus more than what precedes or follows characters' transition between institutions. Enclosure is also this very transition. Enclosure takes place not only within the relative privacy of the home, but also in plain sight; not only behind closed doors, but as a non-progressive process of opening and closing doors that leads nowhere beyond the structure in which characters were trapped in the first place.

In a 1972 review of Shulman's novel, Norma Allen Lesser writes that "Sasha Davis tells the story, like she would if she were in a consciousness-raising group." 51 Lesser adds, "Ms. Shulman writes like she has spent many an hour in consciousness-raising groups." 52 Shulman and Sasha might sound like they are at a consciousness-raising meeting, but the isolation and stasis depicted in both The Women's Room and Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen clash with such a collective model of feminist support and advocacy. Shulman recalls, in a piece marking the twentieth anniversary of Kate Millett's Sexual Politics (1970), "the passion, excitement, and high energy of those days which consciousness-raising, the chief movement tool of organizing and discovery, so effectively fostered and tapped; the danger, love, sense of upheaval, community, and exhilaration that exploded into a powerful movement." 53 Shulman wrote Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen around the time of the publication of Sexual Politics, but her novel translates none of the exhilaration of consciousness-raising that she describes in the passage above. Whereas Millett's "audacious connections" between "politics and housework, marriage and rape, sex and politics" stirred lively discussions within consciousness-raising circles, Shulman's own connections among the university, psychiatry, and marriage in Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen share with The Women's Room an aura of frustration and dissatisfaction. 54 The debate over whether novels in general can effectively induce political feelings and actions represents a can of worms that I prefer not to open here. Kim A. Loudermilk argues that popular feminist novels are poor substitutes for the "community building, organizing, and political action" of consciousness-raising, but her argument sugarcoats consciousness-raising by downplaying the aggression and alienation at its core. 55 Still, it is hard to ignore that The Women's Room and Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen do not represent or express the communal impulse that many feminists associate with consciousness-raising. These books instead catalog, as Charlotte Templin puts it, "a multitude of fears about changes in the status quo in a time of significant social transformation." 56 Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen and The Women's Room lay out accounts of affective experiences of flawed institutions, not schemes for holistic social transformation.

 

The Masochistic Pleasure of the Firetrap

Erica Jong's Fear of Flying eroticizes the confinement that Shulman and French represent and critique. The novel indulges in the excitement of entrapment and the comedy of running in circles. For all of its brashness, Fear of Flying adds nuance to the drab portrait of institutional disillusionment established above. Jong does not undo the narrative of liberal disillusionment; she pluralizes its affective repertoire by adding nonchalance and even pleasure into the mix.

Fear of Flying is famous for coining the phrase "zipless fuck," an "absolutely pure" sexual encounter that is free of ulterior motives and power games. 57 Jong's novel has often been mischaracterized as a novel of sexual awakeningmischaracterized because the protagonist, Isadora Wing, is very much awake from the beginning. Her sexual and romantic experimentation amplifies, but does not radically alter, a preexisting set of beliefs about sex, marriage, and reproduction. Fear of Flying is significant not as a great novel, but as an expression of the sexual liberation that was an essential part of the women's movement. 58 Susan Rubin Suleiman observes that Jong articulates a "sexual poetics." 59 Gayle Greene, for her part, admits that this sexual poetics "[sounds] depressingly familiar: cunt, cock, prick, ass, tits, fuck, fuckable, blowing and being blown." 60 Jong's romantic poetics, too, swarms with clichés. For instance, in a tender reflection on her marriage, Isadora stresses the necessity of having "one best friend in a hostile world." 61 In a more abrasive passage, Isadora claims that "without a man" she feels "like a dog without a master; rootless, faceless, undefined" (110). Jong's sexual and romantic poetics, however unoriginal, at least enable her to fashion a character who delights in the power relations of the institutions she inhabits. Isadora feels trapped in her marriage, and yet she longs for this entrapment. So, Isadora is sexually liberatedmore so than Mira and Sasha in, respectively, The Women's Room and Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen. But Isadora's sexual liberation does not coincide with emancipation and self-actualization within marriage, therapy, or the university. Institutional dead-ends in fact nourish her sexual desire.

In Fear of Flying, the university and therapy lead nowhere, but at least one of them, therapy, provides its fair share of entertainment. Isadora enrolls in graduate school in what she describes as a moment of weakness. Despite having published poems in small literary magazines and received letters from literary agents asking her whether she has been working on a novel, Isadora "[doesn't] really believe the seriousness of [her] commitment" to her craft (79). A "compulsive good girl" lacking "the guts" to turn down the fellowships that her professors dangle before her, Isadora enters, and subsequently drops out of, the Graduate English Department at Columbia (79). "I wasted two and a half years on an M.A. and part of a Ph.D. before it occurred to me that graduate school was seriously interfering with my education," she summarizes (79). Isadora presents psychoanalysis as similarly aimless, but instead of quitting therapy, she delights in the failure of the operation. On a flight to Vienna, she thinks, "God knows it was a tribute either to the shrinks' ineptitude or my own glorious unanalyzability that I was now, if anything, more scared of flying than when I began my analytic adventures some thirteen years earlier" (5). Isadora denigrates psychoanalysis' literal-mindedness: "It was the unimaginativeness of most analysts which got me down. ... The horse you are dreaming about is your mother. The piles of bullshit you are dreaming about are, in reality, your analyst. This is called the transference. No?" (11 [italics in the original]). For Isadora, as for Sasha in Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen, therapy is a deadlock. Yet, Isadora finds pleasure in the debacle not only of therapy, but of psychoanalytic reasoning more broadly. A cynical approach to psychoanalysis' overdetermined interpretive schemes highlights the absurd humor in stasis. The fact that Isadora mocks the university and psychiatry does not mean that she is above their absurdity. It means instead that her game plan is to turn experiences of and transitions between absurd spaces into sources of comedic and sexual relief.

Isadora's description of a hotel room in the last leg of the novel allegorizes her experience of the institutions of marriage, therapy, and the university. As in Mira's dream at the end of The Women's Room, Jong's account of the hotel room offers a meta-commentary on Isadora's relation to the confining spaces across which she hops throughout the picaresque-like plot. 62 Jong's figuration of the hotel room locates vulnerability and defenselessness in proximity to exaltation and play. In Paris, on her own after escaping an increasingly toxic triangle involving her husband Bennett and her lover Adrian, Isadora looks for a place to stay and finds a "firetrap." Offering shelter but no guarantee of escape in case of danger, the hotel room recalls the room with a missing handle of Mira's dream. In contrast to Mira, Isadora expresses the "masochistic pleasure" of feeling trapped:

The place was a firetrap, I remarked to myself with masochistic pleasure, and the top floor was where I was most likely to be trapped. All sorts of images rushed into my mind: Zelda Fitzgerald dying in that asylum fire (I had just read a biography of her); the seedy hotel room in the movie Breathless; my father warning me gravely before my first unescorted trip to Europe at nineteen that he had seen Breathless and knew what happened to American girls in Europe. 63

Isadora and her fatheror rather Isadora and her own recollection of her father's wordsproduce different interpretations of Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless (1960). On the one hand, "what happens to American girls in Europe," the version associated with Isadora's father, probably points to a plot in which Patricia (Jean Seberg), an American, is seduced by the dangerous Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a French man who is on the run after having killed a police officer. 64 On the other hand, by foregrounding "the seedy hotel room in the movie Breathless," Isadora remembers that many scenes in Godard's film qualify as huis closnarratives set in enclosed spaces. While it is commonplace to say that in huis clos the room itself is a character, it might be more accurate to suggest that isolation, voluntary or not, constitutes the narrative thrust of huis clos. This feature resonates with The Women's Room, Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen, and Fear of Flying, which like Breathless contain episodes of huis clos. In the hotel room from Breathless, Patricia and Michel engage in ambivalent power plays: erotic games of breathing and not breathing, of controlling their own as well as their partner's breaths. The lesson that Fear of Flying gathers from Breathless is that power imbalances are the terrain not only of oppression, but also of sexuality. Breathless and Fear of Flying are narratives about masochism: the repetition of something painful keeps open the possibility of sexual pleasure. The figure of the firetrap encapsulates this libidinal structure. When Isadora finds herself enclosed, her sexual fantasies abound.

The institutional critique that emerges from the firetrap episode is a style or aesthetics rather than an agenda; and it concerns Isadora's affective disposition toward institutions rather than institutions themselves. Isadora's style of institutional critique, premised on the falsehood of institutional promises of emancipation and self-actualization, consists of trying out and performing new relations to the spaces she inhabits. Isadora blames her own status as a "compulsive good girl" for joining Columbia's English Ph.D. Program. She ends up in a Paris firetrap due to being a compulsive bad girl. As these examples, as well as Mira's identification with Breathless's Patricia (and possibly Michel), suggest, stasis and isolation in Fear of Flying are both effects of and occasions for role-playing. While The Women's Room and Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen imagine protagonists stuck in the tension between refuge and captivity, Isadora avoids the weight of a debilitating political consciousness by designing a style of relation and behavior that reforms her experience of the sites she occupies, not the sites themselves. Isadora can afford, financially and energetically, to imagine liberation by other meansthat is, through a practice of role-playing in potentially dangerous firetraps.

In the novel's I-choose-myself conclusion, after Isadora "[looks] down at [her] body" and "[decides] to keep it," our narrator reflects, "But whatever happened, I knew I would survive it. I knew, above all, that I'd go on working. Surviving meant being born over and over. It wasn't easy, and it was always painful. But there wasn't any other choice except death." 65 If it appeared in The Women's Room or Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen, this passage would no doubt recall the feminist trope of giving `birth to oneself. But in Fear of Flying, Isadora's strategy for avoiding deathbeing born over and over againbrings to mind a virtuosic creative worker who powers through taxing adventures by adjusting and performing accordingly. Jong's novel leads nowhere beyond a firetrap. It nonetheless offers a crash course in livening up the tone of liberal disillusionment.

 

Room for Immersion

Seventies novels do not frame the room as unequivocally right or wrong, as A Room of One's Own and The Madwoman in the Attic do. For French, Shulman, and Jong, the room, as a scale model of institutional politics and an expression of the limits of the liberal feminist political imagination, is flawed. These authors use figuration to deploy a realism whose potency can be partly measured in reader-response terms: through the production of scenes that readers can recognize and, what is more, in which readers can recognize themselves. Roland Barthes writes that "a figure is established if at least someone can say: 'That's so true! I recognize that scene of language!'" 66 The Women's Room, Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen, and Fear of Flying propose an immersive institutional critique. If the rooms of 1970s novels constitute particularly forceful means of representation and critique, it is because they bring readers into spaces that lack a political horizon. For instance, by being catapulted into rooms that model university injustices, readers get a sense of the obstacles that separate protagonists from the professional positions that would turn particular life stories into bona fide campus novel plots. But once readers recognize themselves in novels that, in Mira's words, "[fail] to ascertain an objective difference between one way of living or another," what is there to do? Only Jong proposes a solution to this problem, and not the most farsighted one: individuals must play with, and derive pleasure from, their alienation. Immersion is a gamble: we might get to know a condition better by immersing ourselves in it than by merely exposing ourselves to its theoretical principles, but we might have a hard time moving beyond this condition once it feels like our own.

Jean-Thomas Tremblay is a Ph.D. candidate in English and a doctoral fellow in Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of Chicago. His research tracks breathing as a concept for relationality and encounter in contemporary, Anglo-American literature.

I thank the editors of Post45 and three anonymous readers for their astute observations and recommendations. I am also indebted to Hannah Brooks-Motl, Marissa Brostoff, Maxime McKenna, Deborah Nelson, Jennifer Scappettone, and Kenneth Warren, who have offered guidance and insight at various stages of this essay's development.

  1. Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own (London: The Hogarth Press, 1949), 120-121. []
  2. Ibid., 61, 142, 158. []
  3. Gilbert and Gubar earned the National Book Critics Circle's Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013a testament to the book's lasting influence. See Maureen Corrigan, "How a 'Madwoman' Upended a Literary Boys Club," Fresh Air, January 16, 2013. []
  4. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), 88-89. []
  5. French's institutional perspective on motherhood and marriage was no anomaly in the 1970s. In Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1976), Adrienne Rich insists on the value, both epistemological and political, of reading motherhood as an institution. Such a reading demystifies regimes of adequate actions and affects:

    When we think of the institution of motherhood, no symbolic architecture comes to mind, no visible embodiment of authority, power, or of potential or actual violence. Motherhood calls to mind the home, and we like to believe that the home is a private place. ... We do not think of the laws which determine how we got to these places, the penalties imposed on those of us who have tried to lives our lives according to a different plan, the art which depicts us in unnatural serenity and resignation, the medical establishment which has robbed so many women of the act of giving birth, the expertsalmost all malewho have told us how, as mothers, we should behave and feel. (273-275) []

  6. My definition of the room is indebted to David J. Alworth, Site Reading: Fiction, Art, Social Form (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), 19; and Marta Figlerowicz, Spaces of Feeling (July 2017 draft), 27, 113. []
  7. Liberation here designates a negative notion of freedom (i.e. freedom from patriarchal norms); emancipation suggests a positive notion of freedom (i.e. a term akin to flourishing); and self-actualization means the willful exploitation of one's capabilities. []
  8. In Object Lessons (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012), Robyn Wiegman tracks the categorization of "identity knowledges" (the identity-based rubrics that anchor such analytics or fields as women's studies and whiteness studies) as either good or bad objects (28). White feminism, the bad object that The Women's Room, Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen, and Fear of Flying are often thought to emblematize, is an accusation, not an identity that authors, theorists, or critics claim for themselves. The most influential defense of the literary criticism (more than the novels or other aesthetic objects) labeled as white feminist is probably Susan Gubar's "What Ails Feminist Criticism?" Critical Inquiry 24:4 (1998): 878-902. Gubar fears that by rejecting 1960s and 1970s feminism en bloc on the basis of its presumed universalism and essentialism, feminists abandon the aspiration to produce a coherent political subject (886, 900-902). But Gubar's essay is not only a defense; it is also an attack. If her piece has been so contentious in feminist scholarship, it is because it blames the dismissal of white feminism on feminists of color and poststructuralists (886). Wiegman responds to Gubar in "What Ails Feminist Criticism? A Second Opinion," Critical Inquiry 25:2 (1999): 362-379. Wiegman says that Gubar's argument reiterates the marked identity formation of injured whiteness that is dominant in contemporary U.S. culture (377). I argue that in order to understand the value and significance of The Women's Room, Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen, and Fear of Flying, we should not retroactively ascribe an antiracism or a class politics to these works. A feminism of singularities and particularities means that we can recognize the shortcomings of a cluster of texts, and yet attend to the social, political, and aesthetic idioms it supplies. []
  9. Catherine Belsey, Critical Practice, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2002), 2, 6-7; Maria Lauret, Liberating Literature: Feminist Fiction in America (New York: Routledge, 1994), 1, 3; Mark McGurl, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009), 59.

    The rejection of what we would now call an intersectional project is especially palpable in Fear of Flying, whose elitism Kathy Acker attacks in a scathing essay fragment, titled "Hello, I'm Erica Jong," in Blood and Guts in High School (New York: Grove Press, 1984), 125-126. Acker's criticism targets Jong's aspiration to authenticity, a kind of thinking out loud that claims a proximity to the reality of lived experience despite being uttered from an almost comically privileged position. []

  10. Mary Ann Mason, "The Future of the Ph.D," Chronicle of Higher Education, May 3, 2012. []
  11. Zillah R. Eisenstein, The Radical Future of Liberal Feminism (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1993), 14, 116; Elaine Hadley, Living Liberalism: Practical Citizenship in Mid-Victorian Britain (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 16. []
  12. Alice Walker, Meridian (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976); Marge Piercy, Vida (New York: Summit Books, 1979). []
  13. Higher education constituted a target for 1970s measures intended to expand liberal citizenship. Implemented in 1970, the City University of New York's Open Admissions initiative intended to compensate for structural inequalities that had mainly penalized African American and Hispanic populations. Open Admissions encompassed two policies: one, the admission of all New Yorkers holding a high school diploma regardless of grades or test scores; and two, the abolition of tuition fees. Though celebrated by some, Open Admissions never received universal support from CUNY employees. As documented by Jen Fain, the narrator and protagonist of Renata Adler's novel Speedboat (1976; repr., New York: NYRB Classics, 2013), the expansion and restructuring of CUNY's colleges in the first half of the 1970s yielded complaints, some sincere and others affected, about a conjectured loss of "standards" in higher education:

    If anything goes wrong, the featherbedding illiterates in our department will join the reactionary pedants in theirs to blame it on Open Admissions, the program by which the university now lets all interested high school graduates in. "Open Admissions" sounds like an outdoor confessional. It is another faculty excuse for doing less and earning more. "Standards are down," the H.B.A.s and holders of degrees in Film and Oral Science will say. "We have Open Admissions, after all." I won't be here next spring. (81)

    "'Open Admissions' sounds like an outdoor confessional": in Fain's narration, Open Admissions did not open up the university so much as it democratized access to its cramped, uncomfortable spaces. The simile additionally points to Open Admissions' open secret: that the policy was enacted in the absence of an exhaustive reform of high school education in New York City's boroughs. Such a reform would have ensured that students who undertook undergraduate studies did so with adequate skills and knowledge. CUNY's Board of Trustees revoked Open Admissions in 1976, during the city's fiscal crisis, thus reversing the diversification of CUNY's racial and class composition set in motion in 1970. See Sally Renfro and Allison Armour-Garb, "Open Admissions and Remedial Education at the City University of New York," New York City Department of Records, June 1999.

    In the 1970s, debates on inclusion at elite private universities like Harvard and Columbia (the main universities portrayed in French, Shulman, and Jong's novels) pertained to the admission of women to undergraduate colleges. Columbia College began admitting female undergraduate students in 1983, following a decade of unsuccessful merger negotiations with the women-only Barnard College, with which Columbia had been affiliated since the beginning of the twentieth century. Harvard College and its associated women's college, Radcliffe, took a different route: in 1977, they ratified a "non-merger, merger" agreement first submitted in 1971. Under this agreement, Radcliffe underwent an administrative overhaul and gave Harvard complete control over most undergraduate expenses, but kept its identification as a collegean identification it ultimately dropped in 1999. The single-sex admissions policies of private undergraduate schools like the Harvard and Columbia Colleges were exempt from Title IX, a portion of the United States Education Amendments of 1972 that stipulates that no persons can, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participating in an education program receiving federal assistance. Still, the beginning of coed negotiations at both Harvard and Columbia was noticeably concurrent with the enactment of Title IX. See Richard Froehlich, "After 229 Years, the College Is Ready for Coed," Columbia Daily Spectator: The Year in Review, May 17, 1983, 2; Laurie Hays, "Defining the Non-Merger," The Harvard Crimson, April 30, 1977; Adam A. Sofen, "Radcliffe Enters Historic Merger with Harvard," The Harvard Crimson, April 21, 1999. []

  14. This perspective is at slight variance with Adrienne Rich's "woman-centered university," which advocates for alliances that benefit all women, scholars or not, working within universities and their surrounding communities. See Adrienne Rich, "Toward a Woman-Centered University," in Modern Feminisms: Political, Literary, Cultural, ed. Maggie Humm (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992), 391-393. Rich's "Toward a Woman-Centered University" is often likened to Virginia Woolf's Three Guineas (1938; repr., New York: Harcourt, Inc., 2006), in which Woolf champions "an experimental college, an adventurous college" for women as the bedrock of a pacific public life (43). []
  15. Carole Pateman, The Sexual Contract (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988), 12. []
  16. Ibid., 1. []
  17. Ibid., 11. []
  18. Eisenstein, The Radical Future, 190-191; Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1963). []
  19. McGurl, The Program Era, 47. []
  20. As Aida Edemariam indicates, "U.S. campus novel" is a pleonasm, considering that campus is an American term. See "Who's Afraid of the Campus Novel?" The Guardian, October 1, 2004.

    Some books by female authors that are set at universities do correspond to, or at least approximate, McGurl's description of the campus novel. Mary McCarthy's The Groves of the Academe (New York: Harcourt, 1952) is widely considered to be the first postwar campus novel. Most of Alison Lurie's worksLove and Friendship (London: Heinemann, 1962), Imaginary Friends (New York: Coward-McCann, 1967), The War Between the Tates (New York: Random House, 1974), Foreign Affairs (New York: Random House, 1984), and Truth and Consequences (1985; repr., New York: Viking, 2005)exemplify the model of the campus novel, whereas Joyce Carol Oates' flirtation with the genre, clearest in Unholy Loves (New York: Vanguard Press, 1979), has been sporadic. In the Kate Fansler seriesfrom The James Joyce Murder (1967; repr., New York: Dutton, 1982), to Death in a Tenured Position (New York: Dutton, 1981), to The Edge of Doom (New York: Ballantine Books, 2002)Carolyn Gold Heilbrun, writing as Amanda Cross, combines the conventions of the campus novel with those of the mystery novel. Mary Gordon's The Company of Women (New York: Random House, 1980) and Donna Tartt's The Secret History (1992; repr., New York: Vintage Contemporaries, 2004) feature meditations on the hermeticism of higher education, but they follow current college students or recent graduates, not faculty members. Jane Smiley's Moo (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995), another satire of university codes and conventions, moves across institutional roles to depict the campus as an ecosystem. See Elaine Showalter, Faculty Towers: The Academic Novel and Its Discontents (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005), 68-86. []

  21. Marilyn French, The Women's Room (New York: Summit Books, 1977), 7-9, 15. []
  22. Ibid., 75. []
  23. Ibid., 7-9. []
  24. Ibid., 231. []
  25. Merja Makinen, Feminist Popular Fiction (New York: Palgrave, 2001), 8. []
  26. Wendy Stevens, "The Women's Room," Off Our Backs 8:2 (February 1978), 18-19. []
  27. French, The Women's Room, 288. []
  28. Ibid., 12. []
  29. Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (1925; repr., San Diego: Harcourt, 1981); Samuel Richardson, Clarissa, or, The History of a Young Lady (1748; repr., London: Penguin Classics, 1986). []
  30. Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" is probably the most famous text in the tradition of women's writing on mental and affective pathologies that French echoes. "The Yellow Wallpaper" is a story about postpartum psychosis and obsessional behavior that takes place inside a bedroom that once served as a nursery. In this story, the normalizing project of domesticity and motherhood is the incubator of postpartum psychosis. In other words, postpartum psychosis is an occupational hazard of motherhood and domesticity. See Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper, Herland, and Selected Writings, ed. Denise D. Knight (London: Penguin Classics, 2009), 166-182. []
  31. French, The Women's Room, 218. []
  32. Ibid., 220. []
  33. Ibid., 221. []
  34. Susannah Radstone, The Sexual Politics of Time: Confession, Nostalgia, Memory (New York: Routledge, 2007), 103-111. []
  35. Rita Felski, Literature After Feminism (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003), 59. []
  36. Ibid. []
  37. Jane Elliott, Popular Feminist Fiction as American Allegory: Representing National Time (Basingtoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 4, 23, 33. []
  38. Ibid., 22, 26-32. []
  39. Ibid., 64. []
  40. Linda M. Blum, "Feminism and the Mass Media: A Case Study of The Women's Room as Novel and Television Film," Berkeley Journal of Sociology 27 (1982): 3-4. []
  41. French, The Women's Room, 137. []
  42. Ibid., 10. []
  43. Ibid., 468-470. []
  44. Ibid., 413-416. []
  45. Ibid., 470. []
  46. Alix Kates Shulman, Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972), 134-135. []
  47. Ibid. []
  48. Ibid., 165. []
  49. Ibid., 180. []
  50. Ibid., 191. []
  51. Norma Allen Lesser, "Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen," Off Our Backs 2:9 (May/June 1972): 7. []
  52. Ibid. []
  53. Alix Kates Shulman, Catharine R. Stimpson, and Kate Millett, "Sexual Politics: Twenty Years Later," Women's Studies Quarterly 19:3-4 (1991): 32-33; Kate Millett, Sexual Politics (New York: Doubleday and Co., 1970). []
  54. Ibid., 33. []
  55. Kim A. Loudermilk, Fictional Feminism: How American Bestsellers Affect the Movement for Women's Equality (New York: Routledge, 2004), 18. []
  56. Charlotte Templin, "Discourses in Dialogue: The Reception of Alix Kates Shulman's Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen," in New Directions in American Reception Study, eds. James L. Machor and Phillip Goldstein (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 195. []
  57. Erica Jong, Fear of Flying (1973; repr., New York: Signet, 2003), 21. []
  58. Susan Rubin Suleiman, Subversive Intent: Gender, Politics, and the Avant-Garde (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990), 122; Gayle Greene, Changing the Story: Feminist Fiction and Tradition (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), 87. []
  59. Suleiman, Subversive Intent, 121. []
  60. Greene, Changing the Story, 90. []
  61. Jong, Fear of Flying, 14; all subsequent parenthetical citations refer to Fear of Flying unless otherwise indicated. []
  62. Robert J. Butler, "The Woman Writer as American Picaro: Open Journeying in Erica Jong's Fear of Flying," The Centennial Review 31:3 (1987): 312. []
  63. Jong, Fear of Flying, 379. []
  64. Breathless, directed by Jean-Luc Godard (New York: The Criterion Collection, 2010), DVD. []
  65. Jong, Fear of Flying, 423-424. []
  66. Roland Barthes, A Lover's Discourse: Fragments, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978), 4 (italics in the original). []