• Cassandra Atherton and Paul Hetherington

This article explores ways in which our collaborative work of fiction, ‘Dwellings’ – also published in this issue of Axon – uses Luce Irigaray’s assertion of the importance of speech as a starting point to explore the experiences of young women navigating the perils of gender relations within patriarchy. The work employs poetic prose juxtaposed with truncated prose fragments to create overlapping stories that comment analogically and obliquely on one another. The intersecting narrative strands reveal the limited power accorded to female adolescents and children in a patriarchal society, even as they attempt to subvert and defy patriarchy’s encompassing social and moral structures. The work comments on the importance of language in achieving agency and on ways in which young women may construct or articulate new and alternative realities.

Keywords: Inhabiting language – patriarchy – speaking – adolescence – agency

The ways in which children and adults inhabit and share language and the world has been so deeply problematised by patriarchal assumptions and norms, and attendant stereotypes, that it is often impossible to disentangle the relationship choices of individuals from the patterns of authority that surround and instruct them. These patterns of authority not only influence how children understand their sense of agency in the world, but they also inform the child’s experience of nurture. As girls become young women, their process of maturation involves a growing awareness of the unequal ways in which patriarchy constructs relations between men and women.

Luce Irigaray characterises patriarchy as emphasising capitalist wealth and the commodification of women rather than a ‘respect for life and the intersubjectivity between people necessary for this respect to exist’ (2004a: 204). As a way of counteracting patriarchy’s assumptions, and in exploring the irreducible difference between people, Irigaray writes of the importance of speech between them as they negotiate physical intimacy and desire. She argues that this emphasis on speaking is a way of counteracting the tendency for male thinkers to choose ‘not to appeal to language as a path towards sharing the mystery of the other’ (2004b: 15):

Certainly, I will never understand you, I will never grasp who you are: you will always remain outside of me. But this not being I, not being me, or mine, makes speech possible and necessary between us. No speaking about desire is valid without this muted question: ‘Who are you who will never be me or mine, you who will always remain transcendent to me, even if I touch you, since the words have become flesh in you in one way, and in me another?’ (2004b: 15)

Our work of fiction, ‘Dwellings’, takes Irigaray’s assertion of the importance of speech as its starting point as it employs a poetic narrative in prose juxtaposed with truncated prose fragments to explore the experiences of young women trying to navigate some of the perils of gender relations. We constructed this work in a collaborative writing process in which we agreed on the focus for each of our parts of this work and then wrote separately before comparing notes. After that, we undertook some rewriting, joined our separate parts, discussed what we had made and edited the whole. We aimed to create a work in which discrete and yet overlapping stories of girls and adolescents are connected closely in their underlying themes and preoccupations in order for them to comment analogically and obliquely on one another.

In this way, our narrative experiments with a response to Irigaray’s call to create a novel language associated with the female bodily experience – and it attempts this through an investigation into form. In ‘Dwellings’, we join poetic prose, italicised fragments, compressed fiction and the vignette in order to emphasise ‘nearness [and] proximity’. While this does not create effects as ‘extreme’ as Irigaray outlines – in that it does not ‘preclude any distinction of identities’ – it does aim to problematise and, to some extent, rupture patriarchal language (1985: 134).

Furthermore, each of these intersecting narrative strands reveals the limited power accorded to female adolescents and children in a patriarchal society, even as they attempt some kind of subversion of patriarchy’s encompassing social and moral structures. Both strands examine ways in which spoken words may, in Irigaray’s language, ‘become flesh’ and, depending on what is said, either increase or ameliorate the sense of vulnerability these young women experience. Language is shown in this work to be ‘inhabited’ in a variety of ways as the lively and resilient world of female children and adolescents is contrasted with threats posed by adults. Both narrative strands exemplify ways in which silence, unspoken assumptions and limited modes of speech – along with attendant ambiguities and contradictions – may operate to separate men and women.

The narrative in ‘Dwellings’ is a way of housing language and its connections to desire; and a way of contrasting and intermeshing childish, adolescent and adult approaches to experience. We focus, in particular, on the ways in which young people have their own, sometimes rather solipsistic, agency – and the manner in which this agency is often challenged through interactions with adults. One of the key ideas driving the narrative is the way in which young people’s developing agency is often expressed through various forms of play – including the way adolescents frequently seek to perform the role of the young adult. These issues are highlighted through exposing some of the clashing expectations and conventions that govern parent-child experiences.

Additionally, our narrative explores Irigaray’s argument:

As far as the family goes … the family has always been the privileged locus of women’s exploitation. So far as family relations are concerned there is no ambiguity. (1985:142)

In ‘Dwellings’ Florrie and her sisters – and also Arabella – have been conditioned and, in different ways, exploited by their respective families. This is revealed to have significant repercussions in their understanding of their own agency as they develop. Priscilla Alderson and Tamaki Yoshida write, ‘Rather than static, spatial concepts … structure and agency [in the lives of children] can be seen as dynamic processes interacting across porous shifting boundaries and changing over time’ (2016: 78). In writing ‘Dwellings’, we were especially interested in this idea of the fluid and porous in the relationships we depicted, and also in a broad interpretation of the ways in which children navigate what Allison James calls a sense of agency constructed ‘in and between any numbers of social institutions’ (2009: 42).

‘Dwellings’ begins with a gift of a dolls house – a metaphor for the fantasy of adult life and also a representation of a bleak domesticity. Grace grapples with rules and social conventions in her protection of her sister, Florrie, and yearns to forge and strengthen active female connections that oppose patriarchy’s attempts to insist on female submission:

As a sixth birthday present, Grace made Florrie a dolls house out of balsa wood tacked to a pine frame. She spent days shaping and sanding it, putting dolls made from paddle pop sticks, cotton reels and bits of rag inside it. She painted a sign in strong, blue cursive letters that read ‘Florrie’s Dolls House’.

When Florrie unwrapped it she squealed with pleasure, jumping onto Grace’s lap and hugging her; looking into her face and breathing endearments.

‘Don’t make me sick,’ her father, Peter said. ‘Get off her lap’.

But, for once, Florrie defied him and continued to sit with Grace, causing one of her legs to go numb. She licked Grace’s face, saying ‘You taste yummy,’ giggling quietly.

We are interested in the ways that adults use language to wield power and while our narrative is very different in tone and focus from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, we focus on exposing ‘“magic words”’ that James R. Kincaid argues Carroll hoped would ‘mesmerize his dream child and “hold [her] fast”’ (1998:113).

Furthermore, Beatrice Turner states that in Carroll’s work:

the child becomes defined through a language that adults have the power to use … the child does not possess a reciprocal power to define the adult or the surrounding world according to a corresponding ‘childish’ language. (2010: 248)

In ‘Dwellings’, the language used between adults and children communicates well enough on a practical or utilitarian level but it is relatively sparse and fails to fully bridge the divide between adulthood and childish or adolescent life. The rather tenuous bridge that is made carries considerable hostility, dismissiveness or dissatisfaction. All of the female characters are thus predisposed to prefer silence, or oblique forms of utterance. They inhabit language but much of this inhabitation is private and incommunicable to men – or, if it is able to be communicated, the characters prefer to keep much of what they might say to themselves.

When we mention these difficulties of communication, we are not simply referring to the dialogue between our characters. The narrative voices also convey a sense of people at odds or isolated from one another, trying to make various kinds of connection and failing to do so satisfactorily:

Sunglasses stared back at him from the lawn below. She was lying on her back, reading and he could make out what looked like a smudge of chocolate at the corner of her mouth. The novel’s cover looked familiar even from a distance. It may have been a painting of the Yorkshire moors. He went in search of his cigarettes and bottle of Courvoisier.

In this passage, Arabella – who is playing a dangerous game with her burgeoning knowledge of the adult world, patriarchy and her developing sexuality – is presented as opaque to her lover’s gaze, even as the novel she is reading ‘looks familiar’. The reference to Lolita in a contemporary setting demonstrates the endurance of what MG Durham terms, ‘The Lolita Effect’ and the way it has progressed in society since Nabokov’s publication. She argues:

Perhaps one reason for our fascination with the sexy little girl is her tricky double role in contemporary society – she is simultaneously a symbol of female empowerment and the embodiment of a chauvinistic ‘beauty myth’. She invokes the specter of pedophilia while kindling the prospect of potent female sexuality. (2009: 24)

The male protagonist finds Arabella unreadable even as he desires her, yet is unconcerned by this and pursues her regardless, arming himself with the tools of his intended seduction. At a time when Nabokov’s Lolita has become more rather than less disturbing, Arabella is caught in the patriarchal tropes of romance and weddings. She has enough knowledge of the way society works with respect to power relations in cross-generational sex to have the opportunity to get what she may decide she wants, but her desire remains chained to patriarchy and its structural insufficiencies and frustrations. As a result, her sense of power in the collapsing moment before she answers her mother’s question may be read in a number of ways:

Arabella’s mother saw the streaks of mascara.

‘Sweetie, what’s wrong? ‘Did he hurt you? Did he touch you?’

Arabella looked at the pile of bridal magazines under the bed and looked back at her mother. Her eyes shone like stars.

The suggestion is not only that Arabella has considerably less power and control than she imagined but that her dreams are threatening to outrun her. She is the product of a society who fails to ‘face facts’ and acknowledge that ‘Sexual activity is rapidly becoming a reality of childhood and adolescence; sexual awareness and activity are occurring at earlier and earlier ages’ (2009:45). Referring once more to Carroll, Aihong Ren argues that ‘Alice escapes from her disadvantaged position and shows to the adults that her power as a child should not be belittled. Children, like adults, have their unique needs and they also long for power’ (2015: 1663).

In ‘Dwellings’ both Grace and Arabella, no matter how divergent their circumstances, aim to show adults that they have and may manipulate power despite being adolescents. Both are also trying to create power outside of their relationships with their parents. However, although both have some success through taking serious forms of independent action, through play and through saying what they know, such activity and speech continues to be implicated in and limited by the patriarchal structures that encompass their actions. They are on the threshold of Irigaray’s rousing call:

Women, stop trying. You have been taught that you were property, private or public, belonging to one man or all. To family, tribe, State, even a Republic. That therein lay your pleasure. And that. Unless you gave into a man’s or men’s desires, you would not know sexual pleasure. That pleasure was, for you, always tied to pain, but that such was your nature. If you disobeyed, you were the cause of your own unhappiness. (1985: 203)

Indeed, in ‘Dwellings’, the liberty the female characters gain through the manipulation of their circumstances and their language is to some extent turned against them. Where Carroll sometimes uses nonsense and gibberish to try to deconstruct conventional language use, the suggestion for all female characters in this narrative is that language, however thoroughly it may be inhabited, remains problematic. Nevertheless, there are strategies involving play, the re-narrativisation of experience, and the poetic that constitute a form of relief and redress:

On one of her visits Florrie brought the dolls house into the lounge room. Elspeth had retrieved it while it still was in good condition and it was now strewn with 50 or more dolls and beds, chairs and chests-of-drawers. There was even a small garden at the front of the house with plastic trees and a white picket fence from a child’s toy set.

‘Elspeth fixed it for me’, Florrie said. ‘In the last few weeks I’ve made lots of new people.’

Florrie and Grace revived stories of Mrs Grumble who went to the local store to buy four packets of anger, of Mr Grumble who planted fighting trees in his garden and watched them grow with their boxing glove leaves. Of Aunty Grumble who baked animosity pies and of Grandpa Biscuit who sat in a chair and snored most of the day while fungus grew out of his ears into the shapes of balloons and floated away.

This scene reminds the reader that speech between people, so important as ‘a path towards sharing the mystery of the other’ (Irigaray 2004b: 15), may also develop into stories that master difficult personal circumstances through fictionalising and re-narrating them. To inhabit language in this way is to use the inexhaustible resources of storytelling that have served human communities for millennia. The act of inhabiting language through making subversive stories is not only a way of sharing the other’s mystery but it is a way of subverting power structures that try to insist on limiting women’s self-expression and agency.


Works cited: 

Alderson, Priscilla and Tamaki Yoshida 2016 ‘Meanings of children’s agency: When and where does agency begin and end?’ in Florian Esser, Meike S. Baader, Tanja Betz and Beatrice Hungerland (eds), Reconceptualising agency and childhood: New perspectives in childhood studies, Abingdon, Oxon, 75-88

Durham, MG 2009 The Lolita effect, London and New York: Duckworth Overlook

James, Allison 2009 ‘Agency’, in Jens Qvortrup, William A Corsaro, Michael-Sebastian Honig (eds) The Palgrave handbook of childhood studies, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 34-45

Irigaray, Luce 2004a ‘Civil rights and responsibilities for the two sexes, in Luce Irigaray, Key writings, London: Continuum, 13-22

Irigaray, Luce 2004b ‘The wedding between body and language’, in Luce Irigaray, Key writings, London: Continuum, 202-213

Irigaray, Luce 1985 This sex which is not one, New York: Cornell University Press

Kincaid, James R 1998 Erotic innocence: The culture of child molesting, Durham and London: Duke University Press

Ren, Aihong 2015 ‘Power struggle between the adult and child in Alice’s adventures in wonderland’, in Theory and Practice in Language Studies, Vol. 5, No. 8, 1659-63

Turner, Beatrice 2010 ‘“Which is to be master?” Language as power in Alice in wonderland and Through the looking glass’, in Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, Vol. 35, No. 3, 243-54