The Woman As Muse And Begetter: Susan Barton’s “Anxiety Of Authorship” In J.M. Coetzee’s Foe

2458 words - 10 pages

In their 1979 work titled The Madwoman in the Attic, Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar discuss the difficulties faced by Victorian women attempting to write in a patriarchal society. Gilbert and Gubar describe the “anxiety of authorship” experienced by female writers who thus believe they are not capable of creating a successful work. J.M. Coetzee’s 1986 novel Foe, follows its protagonist Susan Barton as she experiences such anxiety in early eighteenth century England. Barton’s anxieties as well as the society in which she lives lead her to employ the writer Daniel Foe to write the story of her experience as a castaway. Throughout her encounters with Foe, Barton describes the difficulty of writing and in one instance, asks whether there exists a muse for female writers as well as males. This question echoes that asked by Gilbert and Gubar in their examination of the differences between the experience of male and female writers. In Foe, despite the fact that Barton gives over the responsibility of writing her story, she maintains some authority and control over the way in which it is written. The most concentrated example of this is when Barton claims the role of Foe’s muse, along with that of “father” of her story. In doing so, she reverses gendered terms associated with reproduction and successfully remains an active participant in the writing of her story despite not writing it herself.
One question raised by Gilbert and Gubar in “The Madwoman in the Attic” is that of the muse in relation to the female poet. Cited is Harold Bloom’s idea that sexual intercourse between the male poet and the female muse is a metaphor for the poetic process. Through this metaphorical encounter, the male poet and the female muse unite with the result of inspiration for the poet, which leads to a finished written work. This model for the writing process imposes a phallocentric idea onto what makes a male poet. One result of this is the question of what then, defines the experience of the female poet. Gilbert and Gubar note the “anxiety of authorship” felt by female poets. This anxiety derives from the fear of the female that she is not capable of creating a substantial work in a patriarchal society, as well as the fact that there may be no women writers to replace or join in the literary sphere. Gilbert and Gubar then write, “this anxiety is, of course, exacerbated by her fear that not only can she not fight a male precursor on ‘his’ terms and win, she cannot ‘beget’ art upon the (female) body of the muse” (1929). This suggests that while the female writer may face difficulty when it becomes necessary to compare her work with those of her male predecessors, her creative process must be entirely different from a man’s because she neither metaphorically nor literally have procreative intercourse with a female muse. If this is the true nature of creation in literature and art, then it would seem that there is no place for the woman poet to enter the process.

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