Applying Feminist Theory To Literature

hslavitt's picture

Hannah Slavitt

Professor Dalke

Critical Feminist Studies


Applying Feminist Theory to Literature             

Schweickhart’s essay is the basis for what I think is the most important issue in academic, literary feminism: finding and becoming a strong feminist reader. Granted, academia is an extremely specific subset of feminism, but if I incorporate her theme of praxis it can be applied to other areas of feminist thought and action.  Schweickhart presents the idea of “feminist readings of male texts and…feminist readings of female texts” (39).  It’s vital to critically examine the books of the “androcentric canon” through a feminist lens. Similarly, when reading female authors it is also crucial to approach the texts with a healthy dose of skepticism; Jane Austen buys into the same gender roles and expectations that a male writer like D.H. Lawrence does. Gendering the texts by the sex of their author is not the point. Rather, it is to draw from the traditional literary canon while being aware of the need to find female texts that, by default, have been excluded from that canon. I found it crucial that Schweickhart acknowledges that we can love a book that we ourselves as a feminist condemn as sexist.

If I, as a feminist reader, allow myself to enjoy novels by Hemingway, Lawrence and Fitzgerald, as I should, I also must accept the responsibility of being a “resisting reader” (42). Schweickhart almost gives me permission to enjoy the aesthetics and universal truths of what are truly great novels without feeling that I am complicit. By the fact that I am aware of the “patriarchal trappings”, I maintain my role as feminist reader and critic of literature. This issue of what makes a strong feminist reader is crucial and it is not someone who rejects misogynistic texts, male or female, but someone who reads and enjoys this literature while resisting the misogyny and patriarchal themes through close feminist interpretation and criticism.           

 Because being an intelligent and informed feminist reader is so important to me, I would like to hone my skills with both the texts that I must resist and those that are already feminist. I want to this by closing the gap between the very theoretical articles we’ve been reading and the literature itself. I think it’s important to acknowledge that the true merit of theory is in its applications to real life, in this case literature. Applying feminist theory to actual novels makes it relevant for me and gives me an opportunity to practice my feminist reading. Theory becomes irrelevant and frustrating when left in the abstract.

This project would entail addressing the feminist theory that is based or directly related to texts like Spivak, the feminist theory concerning female authorship like Cixous, and the theory about feminism in general.  I would use the theory we’ve read already as well as other articles (Gilbert and Gubar, Showalter, Kate Millet, Woolf, Heilbrun, Beauvoir, Greer, Wollstonecraft etc.) and apply them to a few different novels. One would be a text that requires a resisting reader (Hemingway, Lawrence, James etc.) and one that is already considered feminist (Bronte, Lessing, Parker etc.). I would be able to improve my feminist readership and at the same time put very conceptual theory into practice.   


Serendip Visitor's picture

feminist theory

Hi, it's beautiful essay, I need a help in MA thesis and I want to apply feminist theory to a literary work, can u please help me out

Serendip Visitor's picture

a question

Hi, there;
i have a problem with my MA Thesis. I want to apply the feminist theory to my topic. I need your help. If you please reply to my e-mail. May i get help from you for my topic to apply feminist theories. Pls send me some ideas to my mail id.
Yours sincerely,

Deepika's picture

Hello Madam/Sir,

I have a problem in my MA thesis work.I've took a movie related to feminism. The movie is Provoked,a true story. May i get help from you for my topic to apply feminist theories. Pls send me some ideas to my mail id.

adelmostafa's picture

A question

Hi, there;
i'd like to present my appreciation to your essay, but i have a problem with my MA Thesis. I want to apply the feminist theory to my topic. I need your help. If you please reply to my e-mail
Yours sincerely;

Anne Dalke's picture

"we can love...what we ourselves condemn"

Let me piggyback here, hslavitt, on gail's question: "what is feminist theory"? You seem to say that it is reading enjoyably but resistingly, refusing complicity in the oppressive dimensions of the structures that give you this pleasure. This involves two activities: finding female texts that have been excluded from the canon, and becoming a strong feminist reader.

But your sense of what is oppressive, what not (i.e. "feminist") is a little fixed, as if there are texts which "are already/considered" feminist, and those which need to be critiqued. We've seen, however, how feminism is a moving target, how time and context can change and sharpen and call forth a critique that--in an earlier place, or more homogenous space--might not have been seen as needed.

Some other questions? You say that the "true merit of theory is in its application to real life, in this case literature." That's quite a slide! What does it mean to say that "real life=literature"? Is there no space beyond literature, where life takes place? Is the world of the imagination identical to the material world? Are dreams no more free than the marketplace?

I was also struck by your saying that "we can love a book that we ourselves condemn..." Who is 'we' here? Are there, within each of us, two selves? A narrative self and a reflective self? A pleasuring self and a judging self? Does one call forth the other? How? What is the dynamic between them? Do they revise one another?

You seem to (or try to) arrive @ a place where the pleasuring and the judging selves are attuned, where you can allow yourself to enjoy novels while accepting the responsibility of resistance. I'm not sure I quite understand either the presumptions or the implications of your argument. Do you mean that the act of resisting can itself become pleasure-giving? (If so, this is akin to what Foucault argues in The Use of Pleasure: "There are times in life when the question of knowing if one can think differently than one thinks, and perceive differently than one sees, is absolutely necessary if one is to go on looking and reflecting at all.")

And then what are you doing with Kauffman and Spivak's challenges to such positions? Their notions that western literature, by its very nature and focus, its emphasis on the drama of the autonomous individual, entices and seduces us to see the world in ways that are oppressive to others (if not also to ourselves)?

gail's picture

I understand you!


Your essay is accessible.  Thank you.  You summarize and pull together what we have been reading most helpfully.


“Gendering the texts by the sex of their author is not the point.  Rather , it is to draw from the  traditional literary cannon while being aware of the need to find female texts that , buy default, have been excluded from that cannon.”


Going beyond the writings of the 1970’s and 80’s, for me you  state here what the focus of feminist literary criticism should be in 2007.  I like the “responsibility of being a ‘resisting reader’.” But….


What is “the feminist theory”? I still need help


Again, thank you for letting us alums read your essays.


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