Body/sexuality/control : female identity in four Fay Weldon novels

Master Thesis


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University of Cape Town

This thesis explores the manner in which female identity is depicted and the concept itself deployed in four novels by Fay Weldon (1931- ), a contemporary English writer. The novels examined are Puffball (1980), The President's Child (1982), The Cloning of Joanna May (1989) and Growing Rich (1992). The thesis's· theoretical focus is feminist, and it makes use of terms, arguments and insights provided by contemporary feminist literary and cultural theory. It thus in part also explores the usefulness of insights provided by recent feminist poststructuralist theory, with particular reference to psychoanalytic theory. On the whole, these insights are found to be useful, even though they do not entirely answer some of the questions generated by the possibilities which are shown to exist for female subjects within western culture. The thesis's conclusion suggests ways in which this lack of definitive answers might in its turn be interpreted. The first chapter, dealing with Puffball, examines the novel's depiction of the effects of pregnancy on a woman's body and in turn on her sense of her own identity. This is followed by a chapter on The Cloning of Joanna May, which also takes female experience of the maternal as its central focus. This chapter shows how Weldon investigates current meanings of birth, children, identity and the natural via a plot concerned with the uses and abuses of contemporary reproductive technologies. A short chapter on Weldon's prose style, which is seen to manipulate aspects of form in order to generate particular effects, follows. In it, the current reception of Weldon's work and her use of humour in her writing is commented upon. This chapter also anticipates the question of the use of narrative voice, which is crucial to the novels dealt with in the final two chapters. In the first of these, which explores Growing Rich, the manner in which masculine power is shown to impact on the bodies of the two central female characters is central. Like the final chapter on The President's Child, this chapter also deals with the narrator's use of narrative as vehicle for both the stories of the female characters which she relates and for her own story. The final chapter focuses on the increasingly open conflict which Weldon depicts between male and female power, and also explores how the public/private division central to western culture is disrupted in this novel. Throughout the thesis, an attempt is made to show how female identity is at present constructed for and by western women: via their own and others' representations of their bodies and their sexuality, and as a concept over which they have varying degrees of control. It concludes that the often contradictory fictional representations of female subjectivity in the four novels under discussion suggest the constraints and difficulties involved in attempts to create new visions of female bodies, sexualities and identities. However, these depictions of such experiences are in addition shown to suggest the possibility of new and different representations.

Bibliography: pages 154-163.