Poet in a hard hat: Stevie Smith and gender construction
Sims, Julie Ann
Doody, Terrence A.
Doctor of Philosophy
Stevie Smith's work not only prefigures a key debate in contemporary feminism between essentialists and social constructionists, but also the more current debates that have developed as the constructionist position continues to be explored. She takes an anti-essentialist position as her inaugural point and explores the limits of agency in redefining gender identities against established cultural signification. Novel on Yellow Paper is best understood in the context of autobiographical fiction, a genre which maintains that identities are always to some extent fictional and, therefore, subject to self-invention. Smith challenges the notion of a fixed, female essence by utilizing a strategy of multivocality. Pompey, the protagonist, adopts a variety of voices which situate her as a product of literary and social discourses and prevent her cooption into a stable subject suitable for matrimony. In Over the Frontier, however, self-construction seems less ideal. It carries the potential for self-destruction. Smith reveals the failure of androgyny as a solution to the woes of femininity and shows that a woman impersonating a man exposes the category "man" as a subject-position inhabitable by either sex. Smith's hat poems serve as clear examples of the risks and possibilities involved in refashioning gender. Hats serve as vestimentary signs that either reify or reformulate traditional gender identities. Beneath Smith's hats are bodies, not The Body, capitalized, abstracted, and theorized solely as a text inscribed by history and culture, but particular bodies which, in their differences, bear the marks of socialization. In her poetry, she most often tropes female bodies as prisons; in order to escape essentialist definitions associated with those bodies, she revises fairy tales to imagine physical transformations that transport women into other bodies and alternative sexualities. Similarly, the drawings that accompany her poems subvert poetic statements which appear to endorse "proper" feminine concerns and traditional, masculine literary values.
English literature; Women's studies; Biographies