Alexandra Gabbard — Rethinking the Feminine Subjectivity of Sister Characters

The main focus of my dissertation is on the development and composition of sister characters in a selected corpus of contemporary novels, in particular The Blind Assassin (2001), by Margaret Atwood, The Other Boleyn Girl (2003), by Philippa Gregory, and Dust (2007), by Elizabeth Bear. I claim that the sisters form a special sort of double, configured through gendered identities, transgressive acts of resistance and complex connections to mother figures. The sister characters’ personas, trajectories, choices and narrative outcomes are directly linked to a self-destructive cycle whose genesis can be traced  back to the subjectivity of these characters. Approaching the issue of the gendered subject, I lean extensively on Luce Irigaray‘s views. Considering Irigaray’s views on the heteronormative conception of the subject in Speculum, I start from her presupposition that the subject is always masculine when the conception and the formation of subjectivity occurs within a patriarchal, masculine centered society. Viewing the female gender as irrelevant within such a cultural context, Irigaray affirms that, then,  only the male sex exists, which develops through a specularization of the female sex and the feminine  identity. The existential subject is thus in the masculine, whereas the unimportant, mirrored double is in the feminine. Ergo, the feminine subject is seen by Irigaray only  as a projection or a creation of the masculinist subject. In other words, Irigaray theorizes that we have to rethink the notions of subjectivity and identity and give up the fabricated gender stereotypes. However, the male/female binary opposition at work in gender politics enforces a compulsory link between gender roles and identities. Hence, the feminine subject, projected as the other, or the Other, is a construct both disempowered and subjected to the masculine subject – this gendered subject within the patriarchal schema amounts to a form of domination. The feminine subject, which was devised to validate the superiority of the masculine subject, is imposed to maintain an unbalanced power dynamics in the masculine signifying economy. Therefore, to reconsider the particularities of the gendered subject is imperative, as well as their re-conceptualization in a positive theorization.

Taking into account Irigaray’s critique of the gendered subject in patriarchy, I argue that sister characters correspond to these gendered subjects and are effectively coerced into submitting to a patriarchal framework to perform their expected normative gender roles. Moreover, the relationship between the sister characters is by design conflicting because of their status as women. Their gendered identities are further  made problematic given the split from the maternal body. The reconnection with  the  figures of the mother and the sister, the positive re-conceptualization of the female bodies, especially of the maternal bodies, and the rejection of the traditional normative gendered roles in favour of gender fluidity are central to elaborate an empowering interpretation of the sister characters. Such theoretical devices can allow a feminist rethinking of the sisters’ subjectivities and identities, of their bodies and their choices to happen.

The gendered identity of the sister pairs is fractured, fragmented and shifting. The special double they form adds to the problematic sisters’ relationship, highlighting the polarization of the binary halves that they compose. Their conflicting interactions and the destruction or disappearance of the more active sister at the end of the narrative seem, at first, to confirm sexist stigmas associated with female characters and the impossibility of a healthy relationship among women, even among sisters. However, the facets which compose the sister’s subjectivities and relationship are exactly what offers readers and critics a challenge to sexist, binary ways of thinking. The sisters’ gendered identities are multiple and mutable. They change throughout the narrative, rising above the conflicts with each other to better reach their identities, choices and their relationships. They do not conform to the polarized, binary halves they initially form. The sisters question the oppression of binary system either in relation to gender or to their subjectivities and attempt to escape or subvert the binary framework imposed on them. The loss of their double does not paralyze the surviving sisters. In fact, the sacrifice of their other half – a half which, by the end of the narrative, is no longer binary but multiple – allows the surviving sisters to better comprehend the signifying economy by which they were tied together and try to bend, shift or transform their positions in a sexist, binary context. The forms of resistance the sisters use, which are shown through both bodily attitudes and psychological tools – for example, their mutable bodies or their positive reinterpretation of motherhood – demonstrate the sisters’ struggles against passivity and normalization.

The insight about the body, identity, and gender issues that this study of sister pairs offers enriches literary and cultural studies and allows critical theory to go beyond gendered binary stigmas and sexist prejudice. I propose a re-conceptualization of the sisters’ conflicting relationship under the lens of sorority, portraying how the positive reconsideration of motherhood and maternity brings the sisters together and enables them to resist the patriarchal control.