Introduction to Feminist and Queer Analysis of Literature

Introduction to Feminist and Queer Analysis of Literature

Literary analysis is about asking the question “how” a text functions. We are looking at form and how it is related to content rather than focusing on content and comprehension alone. It is the work of interpretation and investigation that ascribes meaning to texts; it is a process of meaning-making rather than meaning-discovery. This analysis assumes that form (the how) has some significant relationship to content (the what).

Any literary analysis must identify and investigate foundational literary tools at work in the piece. These include, but are not limited to:

Chwalibog, Adapted from

+ setting

+ tone

+ diction (word choice)

+ syntax (sentence structure)

+ figurative language (metaphor, simile, imagery)

+ structure

+ characterization

+ themes

In addition to these questions, feminist analysis poses some of the following questions:

· How is gender represented/ constructed in this text?

· What are the text’s assumptions regarding gender?

· What are the images of women/ men/trans people in the text (especially images of women in texts by men)?

· How and why is woman identified as Other (merely the negative object) to man, who is then seen as the defining and dominating “Subject”?

· What are the covert ways in which power is manipulated in the text so as to establish and perpetuate the dominance of men and subordination of women?

· What are the female points of view, concerns, and values presented in the text? And if absent, how so and why?

Feminist literary analysis makes gender and power visible in a text; it questions how meaning is produced in relationship to gender and power, who is being represented and who is controlling that representation. Historically, we find ourselves at an interesting moment in feminist literary analysis. As Barbara Johnson argues:

“. . . on the one hand, feminism has already made a difference: this is what the MLA forums (on feminist criticism) and the anti-feminist polemics both indicate. On the other hand, that difference has opened up and brought into view the energies of contradictionthat had been hidden inside the unsayability of what feminism has now given voice to. Once women begin to speak, we begin to differ with each other.” (Johnson, The Feminist Difference. P. 3)

Feminist analysis, then, is marked by contradiction, transformation, and multiplicity. There is no canonical work whose meaning is predetermined and whose authority must be conceded. Instead, feminist literary work is cultural work that opens up spaces for the examination of vistas just coming into view.

Queer Literary Analysis

Feminist and Queer literary analysis are not mutually exclusive nor are they the same. There CAN be overlap and there is disagreement. Queer literary analysis is often referred to as “queering” a text and was introduced most comprehensively by Eve Sedgwick in her groundbreaking work Epistemology of the Closet. Here are some of Sedgewick’s own web-based “Heuristics for Reading Nineteenth-Century Fiction”(remember that these were designed for the nineteenth-century novel but can easily be reworked for most any literary text) with my addendums:

Questions to consider:

· Do the images of women, men and transgender people in the text seem to function as stereotypes, warnings, models, exceptions?

· What images of the human body are presented? How concrete or abstract are they? To what senses do they appeal? What are their presumptions? How much and what kinds of narrative energy are attached to them? How are these bodies–as bodies–gendered, sexed, classed, and raced? 

· In what systems of evaluation do they seem to be embedded? In your thinking about gender, remember to include characters who may not be invested in the novel’s heterosexual or cisgender plots. Remember that class, gender, sexuality, nationality, race can each be used to offer allegorical representation of arguments about the others. And vice versa.

· What are the thematics associated with women/men/transgender people; with characters of different ages, classes, nationalities, regions, races? Look for distinctive places, distinctive words, distinctive images, objects, grammars. What are their implications? Do they change? Are they differentiated along more than one of these axes?

· What gender and sexual values are implied in the focus and coverage of the work? What/who is included, excluded?

· What audience is implied for the work?

· What reader expectations and assumptions about each of these dimensions seem to be embodied in it? What possibilities of different reading relations does the work suggest for differently positioned readers? Is it an easy or a hard book to read “against the grain”? How does it invite, repel, coopt, amplify, or otherwise deal with obliquely positioned readings?

· What expectations about gender and sexuality/ about age/ about class/ about nation, race, region are already embodied in the work’s genre(s) or subgenre(s)? What is the relation of the work to its genre(s)/subgenre(s), and to the expectations so entailed?

· What is the usefulness of the text for analyzing and describing gender and sexual/ class/ national/ racial, etc. ideology? What are the relations of this text to the ideologies sketched?

· What relationships between/among women are presented? Between/among men? Between/among transgender people? What are the bases of these relationships? What are their dynamics and rules of circulation? Are they differentiated along other axes (class, age, etc.?) How do they support, and how are they in tension with, any heterosexual presumptions that may be structuring the novel?

· Where is one to look for the historical specificity of the treatment of gender and sexuality in the work?

· What models of same-sex and other-sex attachment and desire are in play? What is their history?

· Does the novel present an implicit or explicit definition of “the sexual”? How and what? What seems to be at stake in the answer to this question? To what is “the sexual” opposed, definitionally? How stable are the oppositions? How, and how fully, is “the sexual” defined in terms of gender? In terms of procreation or its absence? In terms of class? In terms of age or generation? In terms of nationality? Of race?

· Does it make sense to talk about homophobia or transphobia as having a distinct function in the text? Think about this in relation to histories of homophobia, as well as in relation to histories of same-sex desire.

· How does the term “family” play out in this text? What families are in evidence? What counts as a family– and to whom? When several characters reside together, what links them? Blood relations (and if so, what)? Legal relations? Economic relations? How many different kinds of household can you find; how are they organized, and how related to each other? To what is “family” opposed, definitionally? How stable are the oppositions? How, how fully, and how stably is “family” defined in terms of gender and sexuality?

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