Commentary:

Troubling Troubling Gender and Genre in The Trials and Joys of Marriage*1)


23 November 2002.





Jongsook Lee






Thank you for your wonderful lecture. I wish I could just say that by way of response, and leave you alone. But since I have to perform my own part, as you just have done yours, I'll try to be a little bit more critical than just saying  thank-you, or rather a little bit more explicit in my thanks. Please allow me, then, to trouble your "Troubling Gender and Genre" just a little.

The major trouble I have with your paper is the title, "Troubling Gender and Genre." It is not because it does not accurately reflect what the paper as a whole has to say, but because it seems to suggest that the two categories, gender and genre, could be brought together by juxtaposing them, by identifying them with each other, or by turning them into metaphors for each other, when in fact they interinvolve (or, to use a more tendentious term, interpellate) with each other in a most complex way.

In the theoretical framework section of your paper, you have identified "the trouble with gender with the trouble with genre." The trouble with genre (or with the discourse of it) is that it is "encoded in terms of heteronormativity and sexual difference," and the trouble with gender is that it is regarded as a "given or cultural attribute" (p. 3). The trouble in both cases is the emphases placed on the rigid, traditionally defined boundaries. Using Judith Butler's discussion on gender and gender performativity, you have maintained that gender is able to change in the process of repeating gender performance, and so is genre.

But are gender and genre the same beyond the realm of analogy and etymology? Do they behave and change in the same way? Gender changes are about social constructions of gender; generic changes are about traditional names of the genres. While the question of how to trouble the rigidity of socially constructed sexual identities has been crucial in discussions of gender, the rigidity of generic boundaries in literature has been yet to create any great "trouble" in taxonomical discussions of genre.  Genre is malleable and its boundary in practice, fluid. Its change has always already been a possibility. The fluidity of genre has constituted the main plot of most literary histories including reception histories, as it is in the little genre history that Polonius serves up to Hamlet, when he describes the actors arriving at Elsinore thus: "The best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragic-historical, tragical-comical- historical-pastoral"(2.2. 363-65).

What I am driving at, of course, is this: how gendered could you say your texts here are? To what extent would you say gender determines the way the genre of fabliau is appropriated and echoed in these texts, or to what extent would you say generic requirements of fabliau have determined the way gender is performed in these texts? Would you say the variations in the authorial positions about gender issues have made the variations of the genre of fabliau (which is itself a descendant of courtly romance) we find in these texts? Is gender always of the foremost importance in fabliau?

You have suggested that representations of women, family, and marriage differ in each of these texts, and that the same text (and the representation of gender it includes) might have been received differently by different audiences. But, again, is gender the determining factor in reception as well?

I think one ought to ask these questions in order to understand "the interconnectedness" (in your own words) of the categories of genre and gender, and their ability "to pose a challenge to the social/sexual hierarchies." One ought to ask them unless one is merely saying that gender issues are found to be differently presented in these texts, some of which are drama-satire-fabliaux, some epistle-satire-advice-fabliaux, and some outright advices, each time reverting to thematics to deconstruct, but at the same time define, the boundaries (which are not very rigid in the first place) dividing these forms from one another.

That leads me to your discussions of individual works. In your discussion of The Wright's Chaste Wife, you have pointed out that it deploys fabliau motifs to satirize social hierarchies, but the work may be received as an attempt "to 'moralize' the fabliau to control the transgressive nature of the genre" when it is addressed to a church congregation (p. 8). But, in this narrative, class does not replace gender entirely. Gender is more subtly encoded, as it is so bound with issues of class and trade (money, and the wright's Daedalus-like craftsmanship). Gender is also mystified with the help of the supernatural garland of white roses that never fades as long as the wife's chastity is preserved. The lily(-colored) roses of marital chastity emanate every suggestion of the everlasting flowers (lily and rose) of Virgin Mary, the Immaculate Mother. Clearly it is a variation on courtly romance (a genre that flourished itself on the language of the religion of love), and woman is constructed in not so dissimilar a fashion. If anything, in this narrative woman is still very much locked in the framework of patriarchy. The wife is literally locked in a house dominated by the absent husband. She is imprisoned by the garland, by the pit (which her husband contrived with consummate skill), by the absent husband, and by the idea of chastity (quite aside from the sexual connotations of the garland and the pit). But she cashes on that imprisonment to realize a handsome capital, glorifying in the process the husband's handiwork as well as her own cunning chastity. The nobles were seduced not by the sight of the wife but by the lust to test the magical power of the garland. They are paying for the magic, and the wife (or her mother) is now winning her dowry belatedly by selling her marital chastity and its potent power to tempt, to seduce, and to trap. That is by capitalizing on the men's notion of the bourgeois wife--her chastity and her lust for money. Chastity is capital to both sides.

One might ask, then, if this would have produced different effects on different audiences, since you have suggested that it might have depended on the audience how to receive the gender issues in the narrative. Would you say if the audience had been courtly, it would still have been possible for it to take at face value the very bourgeois triumph of the wife on the three aristocratic men? Would you say if the tale had been on the pulpit repertory (yes, it must have made the congregation laugh, as you suggest, or must it?), it would have been possible for the audience to take it as one of those tales about how to make money even out of marital fidelity?

How would you, then, describe the relationship between the genre of fabliau, whether it is modified or not, and the different constructions of woman (not to speak of the feminine) in this text? Whatever your answer to this question might be, it seems to me that the construction of gender found in this narrative should be read in the context of what had taken place, and was taking place, in the world outside the text. It seems to signal something more than a challenge to the social/sexual hierarchies that transpires and expires only as a textual affair, or a textual troubling of gender and genre.


(Seoul National University)


1)* Editorial Note: This commentary was delivered at the 2002 MEMESAK (then MESAK) International Conference as a response to Dr. Salisbury's plenary speech titled "Troubling Gender and Genre in The Trials & Joys of Marriage." Although the title remains the same, Dr. Salisbury's paper as it is published here is heavily revised from her presentation paper.