Critical Analysis

Theoretical Framework
Visual Analysis

Theoretical Framework

This project utilizes several feminist theorists to provide a framework for analysis of Montel. In considering representations of femininity, we can begin with Simone de Beauvoir’s 1949 claim that “one is not born, but rather becomes a woman,” which revolutionized feminist literary criticism as it reemerged in the twentieth century (301). With her assertion that one becomes a woman, de Beauvoir suggests that the notion of “woman” (and possibly all genders, although this is not as extensively addressed in her writing) is societally constructed and, moreover, a mechanism for men to establish their own agency in society while regulating women to the position of inessential “other” (301). Under de Beauvoir’s argument, characterizing women limits females’ identities and therefore strips them of agency.

One “becom[ing] a woman” without agency raises the possibility that females can be pressured to embody particular identities and behaviors in order to be socially accepted as a model of femininity. Judith Butler reinforces this notion with her argument that gender is performative and only exists when it is staged by actors. In her 1988 “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory,” Butler declares that different gender expressions are reinforced by the “stylized repetition of acts through time, and not a seemingly seamless identity” (520). As actors repeat similar actions, coded as masculine, feminine, or an amalgam of the two, they reconstitute and reinforce a societal understanding of male and female genders. Importantly, these actions are performative, acted out for others to watch, mimic, and recast. Butler identifies that repeated gendered performances result in a “script” with consequences when actors deviate from it:

Gender is a basically innovative affair, although it is quite clear that there are strict punishments for contesting the script by performing out of turn or through unwarranted improvisations…Gender is what is put on, invariably, under constraint, daily and incessantly, with anxiety and pleasure, but if this continuous act is mistaken for a natural or linguistic given, power is relinquished to expand the cultural field bodily through subversive performances of various kinds. (531)

Butler emphasizes that gender is not natural or a product of biology, but is constructed and “put on” under “constraint,” suggesting that there are limitations or a perceived artificiality; however, when gender is “mistaken for a natural or linguistic given, power is relinquished” to continue with “subversive performances.” When society assumes that the gender “script” is no longer contestable, formerly hegemonic performances of gender become the only acceptable performances. Thus, as gender is performed, actors must accept that their actions are unnatural and changeable in order to preserve their individual autonomy.

In a literary context, the restriction of women’s identities can be considered in relationship to both women writers and the female characters they create. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar reflect on female characters as archetypes in their 1979 collection The Madwoman in the Attic, famously asserting: “The images of ‘angel’ and ‘monster’ have been so ubiquitous through literature by men that they have also pervaded women’s writing to such an extent that few women have definitively ‘killed’ either figure” (812). Although their criticism is focused on the work of nineteenth century women writers, Gilbert and Gubar point to an important dichotomy between the “angel” and the “monster” that, considering their historical focus, can be traced into literature informed by movements like surrealism and imagism of the twentieth century. They describe the archetypes as extremes, suggesting that few depictions of female figures through nineteenth century literature existed in the liminal space between “angel” and “monster.” Shifting their emphasis to the author, Gilbert and Gubar pronounce, “a woman writer must examine, assimilate, and transcend the extreme images of ‘angel’ and ‘monster’ which male authors have generated for her” because neither “angel” nor “monster” truly captures the breadth and complexity of female characters or the women authors behind them (812).

Using this angel/monster dichotomy as the fundamental lens for this critical examination of Montel, we can consider Gilbert and Gubar’s call to arms for women writers to “transcend” the images of “angel” and “monster” to be Gladys Fornell’s call to the typewriter. As a woman writer following the tradition of authors including the Brontës, Austen, Barrett Browning, and Shelley, Fornell is innately tasked with the need to create more heterogeneous female representation in literature, regardless of whether she considered this while writing. Focusing on two female characters, Alice Montel and Ingeborg Sondegaard, this project contends that Alice and Ingeborg exist as variants of Gilbert and Gubar’s “angel” and “monster” and consequently do not “transcend” images originally generated by male authors. Fornell’s employment of these archetypes, however, is ultimately subversive: the “angel” and the “monster” of Montel are not presented in earnest, but are instead hyperbolic, satiric constructions of each archetype that reinforce the problematic literary and authorial confinement of women.

Further, we can consider these hyperbolic representations of femininity in conjunction with Montel’s emphasis on place and nature. Theorist Stacy Alaimo’s “The Undomesticated Nature of Feminism: Mary Austin and the Progressive Women Conservationists” describes the writings of Mary Austin, a contemporary to Gladys Fornell, and points to a shift in early twentieth century literary representations of nature which began “contesting discourses that position women and nature as resources for exploitation… and [offering] women a figure of identification outside the law by depicting nature as a force that exceeds and resists mastery” (73). Alaimo suggests that representations of femininity “outside the law,” or societally accepted standards for appropriate feminine behavior, can be viewed as indomitable in connection with more transgressive, undomesticated versions of nature.

In connection with Montel, Alaimo’s conception of nature as a “potentially feminist space” can be recognized most clearly in connection with Ingeborg, a variation of Gilbert and Gubar’s archetypal “monster,” who is notably unruly and associated with nature imagery (73). It is important, however, to also consider Alice, a variant of the “angel,” as an inhabitant of this nature space: she frequently transgresses the boundaries between the Montel home and the land of Lone Pine before finally, in her most extreme form, emerging on a stage in the woods and sailing away on the nearby lake. This thesis considers both Alice and Ingeborg in connection with an undomesticated, feminized representation nature within the broader context of place in the novel.

Following the mention of satire, it is necessary to pause briefly at a letter that Gladys Fornell received from publisher Mark Paterson, dated August 17, 1962, addressing her manuscript for Montel. With a mention of the hesitancy for British publishers to consider American novels — although he affirms that Fornell has a “better than even chance” — Paterson fleetingly states: “we are a little puzzled by your description of the novel as a ‘quiet satire’. Could it be that this is lost on the reader unfamiliar with today’s Wisconsin life?”[2] (Paterson). In her correspondence, Fornell did not explain what she intended to be “quiet satire.” Paterson’s tone does not seem intentionally condescending or patronizing, like he was attempting to diminish Fornell’s authorial intent; rather, I surmise that his position as a male publisher prevented him from fully recognizing Fornell’s satirical representation of women in Montel. Specific descriptions of “Wisconsin life” that might have prompted Paterson’s comment are not overt, as “Wisconsin” elements are more interconnected with descriptions of nature and the people residing on this landscape. Reading the text in light of this mention of “quiet satire” therefore does not fundamentally alter the argument that Fornell’s extreme portrayal of women is satirical, but rather enhances it and historically substantiates the possibility that Montel’s emphasis on gender is a purposeful undercurrent.

Below, you can view visual representations of this feminist analysis as rendered by Voyant. For further analysis on Alice and Ingeborg, readers can view the written component to this project on Wooster’s Open Works.


[1] Due to the scope of this project, I have limited my focus to two representations of femininity in order to thoroughly explore their nuances and interactions throughout Montel. In particular, Alice and Ingeborg seem to be the most extreme, hyperbolic variations of femininity. There are a number of other engaging characters, however, that would warrant further study given the theoretical framework of my analysis, including: Jane Montel, Lucie Montel, and Grandma Sondegaard.

[2] The spelling from Mark Paterson’s letter, originally “Wisconcin,” has since been corrected to Wisconsin in this project.

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Visual Analysis

The images below provide examples of the ways in which we can use digital tools (for these images,Voyant) to analyze Montel. In the future, this project will expand analysis to address thematic elements more specifically.

The image below traces the themes from my encoding schema, which can be viewed on the Montel page of this site and or the downloadable TEI Encoded Manuscript, over the course of the manuscript.

The image below maps the frequency of the characters Alice, Philip, Jane, Thorvald, and Ingeborg over the course of the manuscript.

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