Elmer's English 304 Magazine


Negotiated Identities

by Elmer G. Wiens

As individuals mature from infants to adults, they fabricate a personal narrative, a chronicle that accounts and explains their decisions and actions that establish their identities. How people use language in these narratives influences how they determine their identities and their lives. Feminist writers explore the links between language and identity, particularly gender identity, believing that women are affected adversely by language since the rules of language and the meaning of words are made by men. Daphne Marlatt's feminist novel, Anna Historic, details how female characters struggle with language in relating their personal narratives. This paper argues that the theory of language of Ludwig Wittgenstein and his followers reveals how feminist discourses can rid language of male prerogatives and transfigure language.

Freudian psychoanalytic theories maintain the importance of the Oedipal conflict in establishing gender identity, using the meta-narrative that an individual must identify with one sex and desire the other. Freud's theories have been remarkably durable in the face of an onslaught of criticism and scientific evidence purporting to refute his science of human behaviour. In Judith Butler: Gender Trouble, Mary Klages comments on how feminist writers challenge Freudian conjectures of the determinants of gender identity, and question the very existence of a core gender identity. In feminists' analysis, gender is a performance based on personal narratives, not a biological characteristic like brown eyes. Moreover, feminists maintain that Freudian narratives explaining human conduct exclude women, since the language used to create a person's identity originates in the patriarchy. Patriarchal language tends to present women as objects without agency. Language embedded in male sexuality conditions women to accept the role of an object, maintaining the status quo. In response, feminist writers explore the way women express gender and sexuality, by telling stories centered on women's bodies.

In Religion, Truth, and Language-Games, Patrick Sherry investigates the Austrian philosopher Wittgenstein's theories of language and applies them to religious discourse. In his later work, Wittgenstein rejects his earlier notions that words must correspond to objects or "particular mental activities" (3). Instead, Wittgenstein maintains that words are items embedded in a system of rules that govern their use, much like the moves of chess pieces which are determined by the rules of chess. Wittgenstein calls the contexts along with the rules that govern the use of words "language games." Each context or form of life, like religion, politics, or sexual relations, provides its own language game with its own set of rules. For example, the word "love" used in religion to describe God's love for mankind has a different meaning from the word used to describe the feelings between a man and a woman (153). As Sherry points out, God's love, in some religions, is unconditional and everlasting, while human love can be temporary, or even a "fraudulent invention" according to some authors (128). In the way Sherry explores the "issues of religious language, ways of life, truth and understanding ... in light of Wittgenstein's philosophy" (vii), Wittgenstein's theory of language games can also be applied to feminist discourses of identity, gender and sexuality.

In A Wittgenstein Dictionary, Hans-Johann Glock explains Wittgenstein's language-game analogy by observing, "language is a rule-guided activity." The rules of language — grammar — determine "what is correct or makes sense, and thereby define the game/language." A word's meaning "is not an object it stands for, but is determined by the rules governing its operation" (193). Furthermore, a proposition or statement by a person makes sense only in its context, like the suitable chess moves available to a player depend on "the position of the board" (194). Another person's intelligible responses to the proposition compare to the possible countermoves by the opposing chess player. Taking the chess analogy further, a person must play many games of chess to understand how a rook, a bishop, and a pawn can be used to mate the opposing king in a given situation or board position. To play competitive chess, a person must study opening theory, strategy, tactics, and endgame theory, and play hundreds of games using these theories, strategies, and tactics. In the same way, people must participate actively in language games, and even reinvent their rules when the old games become intolerable. The resulting new language games can determine our thoughts and behaviour, and the form our lives take.

Martha Cutter observes in Language that feminist writers claim language affects men and women inequitably. Identity depends on language. Feminist writers claim that since men determine the denotations and connotations of words and their use in language, men also determine identities. Unless men and women have congruent interests, by delimiting human identities men obtain an unfair advantage over women. When men monopolize the determination of language, sexual identities "serve the interests of men" and oppress women. Freudian psychologists champion the importance of the phallus as a dominant symbol in language and in the determination of sexual identity. If Freudian analysis is accurate, women — lacking a penis — "remain marginal to both culture and language." Consequently, feminist writers want to rid language of its phallocentric symbols and discourses; they want language to include women (229-230). By negotiating the use of language, feminist writers negotiate how people determine their identities, obtaining equal status for men and women in society, giving people control of their lives independent of their sex.

In the "Social Construction of Gender, Class, Race, and Ethnicity," Gerda Lerner states that language under the patriarchal order gives us the "binary sexual categories" of male and female, and the "binary distinction between heterosexuals and homosexuals" (5986). These groupings limit what society accepts as normal behaviour, marginalizing people who fall outside these criteria. In contrast to these rigid divisions, Sharon Astyk, in Lesbianism, cites feminist writers who claim gender is a continuum by defining lesbianism to include all women who "identify with the love of women" (232). With this broad definition, feminists refute Freud's narrative that a person must either identify with a sex or desire it, since a continuum permits a person to identify with a sex and also desire it. Astyk believes that the idea of gender as a continuum allows women into language. She draws from Luce Irigaray to state that "female desire for the feminine" provides "the door into a feminine language" (233). Psychological narratives should not proscribe an individual's desire by defining what that desire can be. Gender as a continuum can accommodate many definitions of desire and many lifestyles based on individual sexual desire. Feminists want people to accept women's identities based on their own definitions of desire. By way of writing, feminists impress women's subjective identity onto readers, making that identity objective and acceptable to readers. By writing about such feminine subjects as menstruation, giving birth, breastfeeding, and caring for infants and the dying, women invest in their value of one another. In their approach to storytelling, feminists redefine and unshackle language from masculine symbolism, liberating women from patriarchal culture.

The phallus was not always the dominant symbol of language, religion, and culture. In some ancient civilizations like Hindu India, female genitalia played a more important role than male genitalia. Contemporary feminist playwrights and writers, like Eve Ensler, Stephanie Demetrakopoulos, and Marlatt, reinsert women's bodies into human consciousness using language based on women's knowledge. In Ensler's play, The Vagina Monologues, women discuss their vaginas in a sequence of short monologues. Such frank public discourses rid language of taboo "female private body parts" producing new games and expanding existing language games wherein women can share fantasies and experiences. In Listening to Our Bodies, Demetrakopoulos questions the relevance of the Oedipal complex to both sexes, and looks to the novels of writers such as Margaret Laurence and Colette for evidence of the way women mature. She believes women's egos develop differently from men's egos. For example, because daughters can become surrogate mothers to their fathers, the Oedipal conflict between daughters and mothers is less threatening to daughters than the Oedipal conflict between sons and fathers. As a result, girls' egos remain connected to others, while boys' egos separate from self and others. The differences in male and female egos "manifest in later stages of life," when many women rethink their identities and take up new lives, often resuming interrupted careers, reconnecting to larger communities than their families (4-6). By voicing their experiences in short stories, novels, and plays, women empower themselves. They assert agency, and re-enter language, blocking and subverting the infinite regression of repression imposed by the patriarchy.

In Ana Historic, Daphne Marlatt writes of a middle-aged woman, who reconnects with her body and reassesses her gender identity. She uses many different language games to describe Annie Anderson's transition from the middle-aged wife of a university professor to Annie Torrent, writer and lesbian. As examples, Marlatt uses formal language and punctuation in the historical language game where Annie narrates the activities of the nineteenth century Ana Richards (14). She uses imagined, disruptive flashback conversation in the mother-daughter language game between Ana and Ina (60). She employs lower-case letters for words like "I" and for the first word in a sentence, and idiosyncratic grammar using many sentence fragments like "the sheer jubilation" in the Annie as narrator-reader language game (83). Marlatt indirectly comments on these differences in language games when Ana writes in her journal that women "among themselves" do not "speak as they do in a mixed situation." In situations with men, women's discourse is "only an element of response" (106) to men's discourse, not an element of women's agency and initiative. Using Wittgenstein's terminology, women engage in different language games in different situations.

Marlatt's story of women struggling with language in a patriarchal society raises many questions, partly because the novel adopts a non-linear time sequence, and partly because she avoids offering solutions to the dilemma of women's identities. Annie, who wants to write instead of working as her husband's research assistant, is "irritated because she cannot explain herself." Because her writing is "cut loose from history," it will be deemed scribbling by people like her husband Richard (81). Ana, who wants "what womanhood must content itself without" (72), also "cannot find the words to explain herself," since she "literally cannot speak" (105). Although Annie and Ana are aware of their feelings, they cannot express their feelings or desires because they cannot participate in a relevant language game. As the novel progresses, one discovers that both Ana and Annie question their sexual identities, but have no language to investigate and answer their doubts.

While people tend to accept other's sexual identity and lifestyle, many people have difficulty in understanding why someone like Annie switches her sexual identity in mid-life. Such a change is bound to be traumatic for friends, spouse, children, and other family members. Ostensibly, Marlatt's character Annie was heterosexual before Zoe introduced Annie to alternative sexualities. How will Richard, Annie's husband, Angie, their fifteen-year old daughter, and Mickey, their young son, react to Annie's change of sexual identity? Richard could be a secure person, and yet still react sharply to this event. Will Angie doubt her sexual identity? Did Annie submerge her bona fide sexuality because society expects women to conform to stereotypical modes of behaviour? Annie's mother, Ina, required psychiatric treatment for her attacks of paranoia and hysteria (88). Is Annie just overreacting to the possibility of being replaced in Richard's life by one of his graduate students (59,147)? Does Annie leave her family and move in with Zoe? Or does she just have sex with her? What strategies does Marlatt employ to induce the reader to identify with Annie, and to accept her decisions as rational? Reading Marlatt's novel, my list of unanswered questions continues to grow in length. Is Marlatt's writing difficult for me to understand because patriarchal modes of discourse have conditioned my thinking? Whenever I return to Ana Historic searching for answers, Marlatt's text thrusts more questions into my mind, undermining my understanding of her characters and narrative.

Marlatt partially answers some of these questions by inviting one to play an author-reader language game. As Marlatt manipulates the aesthetic distance between her readers and characters, they must commit emotionally to understand her difficult text. On the one hand, when the adolescent Annie feels restricted by acceptable girl play, Marlatt writes, "it wasn't tom, or boy, it wasn't hoyden, minx, baggage, but what lay below names" (13). On the other hand, when Ana frets about the way men look at her as she walks into Gastown, she writes, "But a cold nod never failed to establish distance and they move on" (95). Annie's difficult stream of consciousness distances them; Ana's pulls them close. Moreover, Marlatt differentiates Ana's self-consciously proper, nineteenth century journal entries from Annie's unruly stream of conscious monologues. Ana, fearing what people are saying about her, writes "because they understand me to be a Widow, the men think me most eager for their company" (31). In Annie and Zoe's coffeehouse tête-à-tête, Annie fantasizes, erotically, of their hands "in suspense besides these cups" of cappuccino, with "wreaths around the rim," and on "the corners of our lips, the faint taste of chocolate" (91).

However, before Annie and Zoe consummate their romance, Annie has to learn the language game of lesbians. Shortly after the black leather jacketed Zoe first meets Annie in the city archives, and picks her up, Zoe begins Annie's initiation with the line "i distrust women who smile too much." Annie responds meekly, almost submissively, with "do i smile too much?" (58). Knowledge requires language and language is public. Only when Zoe, sexually empowered and aware, confronts Annie does Annie acknowledge her sexual desires and learn to value her body in a different way.

In Marlatt's novel, Annie researches the life of Ana Richards, a pioneer resident of Vancouver and a schoolteacher. As she writes about Ana, Annie simultaneously shares her disillusionment with her marriage to Richard, and her relationship with her mother while growing up. Annie, feeling estranged from her own body, recalls how as juveniles "our bodies were ours as far as we knew and we knew what we liked" (19). She fears becoming like Ina, with a "body that defeats the self. the body, not even your body. split off, schizophrenic, suffering hysteric malfunction" (89). Her concern with her middle-aged body compels her to write. Can she repossess her legitimate sexual identity by writing? Her marriage to Richard — she was his student and pregnant with Angie — relegated her career to research assistant, and her identity to mother and wife — just like her mother. Angie, now fifteen years old, cannot understand her mother's desire to write, believing Annie enjoys contributing to Richard's book, and submerging her career in Richard's. For whom is Annie living? Annie's mother sacrificed her life for her husband and their three daughters. Annie's relationship with Zoe, a potential mother substitute, influences Annie to reassess her aspirations, desires, and way of living.

Annie no longer desires Richard. Richard and Annie barely endure sleeping together, "the defensive lie our lying together is" (59). Neither Annie nor Richard craves lovemaking; their sexual language game is at an impasse. Whoever makes the first move in their sexual language game "risks rejection" (59). When one player starts with "you don't really want to, do you," the other player responds with "i do, it's you who doesn't" (60). When Richard touches Annie, he does so "gingerly and mainly because he feels he ought to" (147). Neither of them will admit that their marriage is a sham. Richard, who disparaged Annie's writing aspirations, acknowledges he can "train one of my grad students to replace" Annie as his research assistant, implying that he can also replace her as his sexual assistant (147). Losing the patriarchal sex language game, the terrified Annie is left "tugging at the cord that binds," not wanting to be left out of "the book, the marriage, history" (147).

Annie's carefully constructed identity as a dutiful wife and mother collapses, like the "collapsing bridges" of her dreams (78). Whereas feminists may be correct in questioning the existence of a core gender identity, a person's sense of self is still important. Is Annie's identity frail because of her parents? When the pubescent Annie tries on the role of mother to her father, Ina sarcastically calls her "the Perfect Little Mother" trying hard to replace her (49). When Annie wants to shave her legs and wear a bra like the other girls at school, Ina objects, relenting only to give Annie one of her old bras. Ina taught Annie "pride on the inside and on the outside — shame" (61). Ina passes her hatred of her body on to her daughter. Annie's femininity — her feminine identity — becomes an act, a performance just as some feminists claim.

Marlatt chronicles Annie's awareness of her body, her consciousness entrenched in the patriarchy, conditioned on the approval of males — on how males look at her. When Annie's body slims into a woman's shape, she self-consciously checks to see if her father has noticed her as the other woman in the house (50). Girls, trained to "solicit the look," become objects, not subjects (56), their value in teenage society based on their bodies (82). In reassessing her sexuality, Annie recalls qualms she had about her gender identity. When she and her girlfriend Donna go to Princess Pool to suntan and flaunt their bodies at the boys, Annie looks at Donna, noticing "the soft rise of her breasts under her suit," "the gold blur of hair on her arms," and "her eyes that laughed into mine as she leaned forward, her breasts swinging with her" (82). Annie prefers the act of looking, to being looked at. Annie also recalls walking in the woods with Donna, and coming to a fork in the road. Along one branch was a trail blocked by a car, with two women making love. Annie is struck by the daring of the women and "the leafy tunnel they had chosen, the silence of the dripping woods and, under glass as under water, two mouths meeting each other." At this point Annie broods over the phrase "a fork in the road implies a choice" (107). Recognizing that gender is a continuum, should Annie accept her sexual desires?

Annie's pregnancy and marriage to Richard while still a university student constrains her sexual identity to that of a married woman. She projects her discontent into her writings about Ana Richard, supplementing the few details of Ana's life that appear in the civic archives of Vancouver, imagining a life for Ana that fuses with Annie's own dealings with family and friends. What was Ana's sex life like as the widow schoolteacher, living in the "little three-room cottage back of Hastings Mill Schoolhouse" (29)? Was she serious about giving up teaching, taking rooms in Gastown, and supporting herself by giving piano lessons? Annie imagines Ana witnessing her friend Jeannie Alexander give birth to the first white child in Hastings Sawmill, a birth she describes in discerning detail. Ana, wanting to see what childbirth is like — the ancient rite of the singular act of creation — watches the "massive syllable of slippery flesh slide out the open mouth," a boy (126). Did Ana marry Ben Springer of Moodyville and raise children as the civic records state because she shared Jeannie's experience?

In The Sex Which Is Not One, Luce Irigaray takes issue with Freud's contentions that before a girl can develop into a normal woman her "desire to obtain the penis from the father" must be "replaced by the desire to have a child," and that "the woman's happiness is complete only if the newborn child is a boy" (41). Marlatt is ambiguous on this key principle of the Oedipal complex. On the one hand, although Annie and Richard have a son, Annie apparently leaves her home and family. On the other hand, Ana marries Ben Springer, of whom she disparagingly says, "He is not my match, let me assure you" (119). Rather, Marlatt follows Irigaray's suggestion of jamming Freud's "theoretical machinery" and "suspending its pretensions to the production" of truth and meaning (78). Freud's theories, based on men's experiences of desire, do not need refuting, since the desire of women does not "speak the same language of men" (25). Refuting Freud's theory will give rise to yet another psychological theory based in the patriarchy. Furthermore, a woman is neither object nor subject in the language game of women (78). Women are equal with men, and different from men.

Works Cited

Astyk, Sharon. "Lesbianism." Encyclopedia of Feminist Literary Theory. Ed. Elizabeth Kowaleski-Wallace. New York: Garland, 1997. 232-234.

Cutter, Martha J. "Language." Encyclopedia of Feminist Literary Theory. Ed. Elizabeth Kowaleski-Wallace. New York: Garland, 1997. 229-230.

Demetrakopoulos, Stephanie. Listening to Our Bodies: The Rebirth of Feminine Wisdom. Boston: Beacon, 1983.

Ensler, Eve. The Vagina Monologues. New York: Villard, 1998.

Glock, Hans-Hohann. A Wittgenstein Dictionary. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.

Irigaray, Luce. This Sex Which Is Not One. Trans. Catherine Porter. Ithaca: Cornell UP,1985.

Klages, Mary. English 2012: Judith Butler: Gender Trouble. University of Colorado. 5 Mar 2003.

Lerner, Gerda. "Social Construction of Gender, Class, Race, and Ethnicity." International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences. Eds. Neil Smelser and Paul Baltes. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2001. 5984-5989.

Marlatt, Daphne. Ana Historic. Toronto: Anansi, 1988.

Sherry, Patrick. Religion, Truth, and Language-Games. New York: Harper, 1977.


Copyright © Elmer G. Wiens:   EgwaldTM Web Services  

  All Rights Reserved. Direct comments to