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Document Type

Open Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Program

English

Year Degree Awarded

2017

Month Degree Awarded

September

First Advisor

Asha Nadkarni

Second Advisor

Emily Lordi

Third Advisor

Mecca Jamilah Sullivan

Subject Categories

American Literature

Abstract

This dissertation offers a new view of 1970s gender and race politics in the United States by analyzing struggles in and over space in four women’s novels: Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays (1970), Toni Morrison’s Sula (1973), Alice Walker’s Meridian (1976), and Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room (1977). My project reads space as a dynamic, politically charged realm of interactions between lived bodies, physical landscapes, and imaginative territories—including the formal characteristics of fiction. Using this critical lens, I highlight how these authors interrogate conditions of sexism and racism by representing their characters making and responding to “demands” for space. These demands occur through embodied, geographically oriented claims—claims to move freely, choose locations, construct one’s surroundings—as well as symbolic attempts to make room for new subjectivities, realign marginal positions, and establish common ground. The authors I consider also mirror these spatial struggles onto the innovative structures of their narratives through shifting voices and uneven or fragmented textual patterns, so that the novels themselves become “demanding spaces” of social action in form as well as content. By attending to these multilayered spaces in a group of texts published across the 1970s but never before placed in conversation, I shed new light on the intersections and frictions among feminist and other social movements of this time period. Just as importantly, I emphasize the possibilities in narrative for enacting and remapping those movements across the stretches of the published page.

My reading of Play It As It Lays shows Didion expressing suspicion towards linear trajectories of women’s liberation by depicting impeded physical movements and blocked conversations and plots, while pointedly ignoring racial and classed inflections of mobility. I suggest that Morrison’s Sula explores the power and contingency of black female relationships through the interdependent movements of two young women, situating their journeys within a broader geographical and narrative landscape across which social inequities are marked out but also challenged. In Meridian, I contend, Walker self-consciously presents her titular character’s body—and the body of the text surrounding her—as mediums for negotiating ideological stances, so that the formulation of “the personal as political” is revealed as crucially important but also particularly burdensome for black women. In The Women’s Room, I find French cynically doubting women’s ability to “make room” for themselves through claiming their physical freedom as well as independent stories, but in presenting a purportedly universalized vision of women’s (lack of) liberation, French further marginalizes—even on the level of narration—the experiences of African Americans and women of color across the globe. Ultimately, I find within and among these novels charged debates about the parameters and trajectories of contemporary social movements and women’s roles within them. These debates are plotted out across the texts’ depicted physical geographies, in their symbolic rhetorics of spatial struggle, and in the terrains of their narrative forms.

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