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A Toolbox for Understanding Literature: Seven Critical Approaches

September 26, 2018

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A Feminist Approach to “Woman Hollering Creek”

October 2, 2018

 

Note: 

This is an academic exercise that takes a feminist critical approach to Sandra Cisneros’s short story “Woman Hollering Creek.”  This is not intended to be a well-developed critical paper, but it should prove a useful tool for examining one aspect of Cisneros’s work.  It should also serve to provide an example for students of the feminist critical approach to literature. 

 

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In A Literature of Their Own, Elaine Showalter argued that literary subcultures all go through three major phases of development:

  • The Feminine Stage involves "imitation of the prevailing modes of the dominant tradition" and "internalization of its standards."

  • The Feminist Stage involves "protest against these standards and values and advocacy of minority rights...."

  • The Female Stage is the "phase of self-discovery, a turning inwards freed from some of the dependency of opposition, a search for identity."

Showalter's three stages of feminine, feminist, and female are identifiable in the life of Cleófilas in Sandra Cisneros's "Woman Hollering Creek." Cleófilas begins to internalize the paternalistic values of the society in which she lives at least as early as the ice house scene. She "accompanies her husband," as is expected of her (48). Since women should be seen and not heard in a paternalistic society, she "sits mute beside their conversation" (48). She goes through all of the motions that are expected of her, laughing "at the appropriate moments" (48). She submits, if unhappily, to the rule of her husband, "this man, this father, this rival, this keeper, this lord, this master, this husband till kingdom come" (49).

 

Yet Cleófilas gradually begins to emerge from the feminine stage into the feminist stage, where she begins to revolt and advocate for her own rights. It begins with "[a] doubt. Slender as a hair" (50). When she returns from the hospital with her new son, something seems different. "No. Her imagination. The house was the same as always. Nothing" (50). This is true because the house is not different; it is Cleófilas who has begun to change.

 

Perhaps giving birth to a child has made her aware of the power and importance women possess. She begins to think of returning home, but is not ready for the possibility yet. It would be "a disgrace" (50). She begins to internally protest against the society, thinking about the town "with its silly pride for a bronze pecan" and the fact that there is "nothing, nothing, nothing of interest" (50). The patriarchal society, with its ice house, city hall, liquor stores, and bail bonds is of no interest to her. She is upset that the town is built so that "you have to depend on husbands" (51). Though her husband says she is "exaggerating," she seems to be becoming convinced that her society is a bad one, where men kill their wives with impunity. "It seemed the newspapers were full of such stories. This woman found on the side of the interstate. This one pushed from a moving car . . ." (52). Although she does nothing when he throws a book at her, Cleófilas does (if only meekly) insist that he take her to the doctor. And there she solidifies her internal rebellion with actions: she leaves her husband with Felice to return to Mexico.

 

Felice is more representative of the third, female, stage than Cleófilas, but the fact that Cleófilas enjoys her company suggests that when she returns to Mexico, she may seek to enter that third stage herself. Felice is not phalocentric--she is not interested in revolting against men, she simply does not need them. She doesn't have a husband and she owns her own car. "The pickup was hers. She herself had chosen it. She herself was paying for it" (55). 

 

Felice is most likely a part of a community of women; she is certainly friends with the nurse Graciela. Cleófilas is attracted to Felice, who "was like no woman she'd ever met" (55). At home, in Mexico, Cleófilas recounts the story of Felice's yelling when they crossed the creek. "Just like that. Who would've thought?" (56). Cleófilas seems to have enjoyed her company and has kept the experience in her mind. Felice's laughter, "gurgling out of her own throat, a long ribbon of laughter, like water" suggests that Felice had completed the self-discovery stage. (Water is often symbolic of rebirth.) Cleófilas has witnessed the third stage in Felice, and it is up to her whether she will enter it or regress to the feminine stage and internalize the paternalistic values of her father and brothers with whom she is now living.

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