Metaphor as a feminist technique


Metaphor is one of the most fascinating and complex techniques used in English Literature; it is ungrounded and unstable; it can represent anything and everything; it communicates in a way that ordinary symbolic language cannot, deeply and subtly.

In a world that has always been governed by men, it can be argued that even language is imprisoned by the patriarchy. When we consider the provenance of all early Western literature, from Homer to Chaucer, it makes sense that much of the canon, and the literature inspired by it, ascribes to a masculine mind-set. If this is the case, how can women communicate efficiently through the medium of literature? One scholarly view is that male communication can be seen as binary, or ‘digital’, while female communication contains elements that are less fixed, or ‘analogue’. Extreme male rationality is portrayed through order, empiricism and defined goals within literature.  For example, the concept of an ‘end’ in literature is a masculine one. Shakespeare’s habit of tying up his plays with either death or marriage gives the sense that all of the action in the play was leading to one ultimate goal; this can be linked to the male sexual experience. Many scholars have argued that the way in which we create discourse is intrinsically linked with the way in which we experience pleasure, the ultimate driving force in life. While male sexual experience is aimed towards one short pleasurable goal: the orgasm; female sexual experience is different in that both no orgasm and multiple orgasm is possible. In this way, then, female pleasure is shifting, fluid and unpredictable, and so female discourse follows the same pattern.

One way in which we could argue that we are conditioned to interpret literature from a male perspective is that we often instinctively seek to define the texts that we read. We interpret certain literary techniques as pointing to an ultimate all-encompassing meaning in the text: for example, the meaning of Wuthering Heights is unwavering love; the meaning of Lady Chatterley’s Lover is the championing of the body over the mind; the meaning of 1984 is the rejection of totalitarianism. But are we right to do this? Paula A. Treichler thinks not. Treichler rejects the practice of making sense of a text by rationalising, believing that this causes the text to undergo ‘patriarchal closure’. By using this term, Treichler is referring to the oppression perpetrated by the patriarchy, which stunts ideas and imagination and shuts down debate with the aim of maintaining existing power systems. To avoid this closure, the focus should not be on the author but only on the text, as this is where linguistic shifts and power struggles occur.

To explain this method of interpretation I will use the example of Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone. In her novels, JK Rowling constructs an ordered and civilised society in which there is a clear binary between right and wrong, good and evil (represented by Harry’s struggle against Voldemort). The first book in the series is specifically preoccupied with the practice of alchemy, a precise and ancient science (practiced almost entirely by men) that deals with physical objects. It is particularly interesting that the aim of alchemy is to turn one thing into another, with no tolerance of mixed results. This emphasis on order and opposites can be described as the dominant master narrative of the novel, or the male narrative. Under this master narrative is the narrative of the other (or female narrative), trying, but struggling, to break through the symbolic binary language oppressing it.

This can be seen in the metaphors used, particularly in the most important metaphor of the novel: the philosopher’s stone itself. The stone is not simply good nor is it simply evil. Its powers are incomprehensible and certainly not definable, characterised by its power of granting eternal life, a concept beyond human knowledge and understanding. It represents different things for different characters (e.g. world domination, curiosity, protection) and so has no fixed definition.  It is also a metaphor for an elusive and ultimately unattainable perfection, which links to how the female narrative itself is unable to attain perfect control of the text due to the limitations of language.

It is possible to point out numerous other shifting metaphors in the text, another being the moving staircases (which, admittedly, are given far more importance in the films than in the books). The way in which we progress up or down a staircase is the same way that we progress through the male narrative: from one symbolic word to another – metonymically. But the fact that the staircases move unexpectedly means that the end goal is never constant, thereby disrupting the linear progression of the master narrative by introducing the feminine concept of fluidity and unpredictability.

Hogwarts, home to metaphor?

Hogwarts, home to metaphor?

Behind the structured order of Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone, as well as all great, complex literature, there can be found changeable metaphors, which hold a constantly shifting meaning. These unfixed meanings challenge patriarchal order and law within the text by allowing the reader to interpret them in a multiplicity of different ways, which may shift and change as the reader herself does. By allowing these metaphors to be indefinable, it saves the entire text from patriarchal closure, and so leaves it open to be interpreted in as many ways as is possible. Here lies the power of the metaphor.

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