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38. Romanticism and Gender

Susan J. Wolfson

Subject Literature » Romanticism

Key-Topics literary criticism

DOI: 10.1111/b.9780631198529.1999.00040.x


Literature is shaped by cultural forces as well as individual imaginations; as Percy Bysshe Shelley put it (reversing the emphasis) in his Preface to Prometheus Unbound (1820), writers ‘are in one sense the creators and in another the creations of their age’. This is true of the language of ‘gender’, the culturally generated, invested and disseminated values-political, social, psychological and emotional—attached to sexual identity and difference, and radiating from such words as ‘masculine’, ‘feminine’, ‘manly’ and ‘effeminate’. Sexual identity, ‘male’ and ‘female’, is grounded in anatomy, while ‘gender’ is a socio-cultural product, a historically specific creation of the age. Critical attention to gender is not only a lively project today; gender criticism was also at work in the age of Romanticism, whose literature is one of its founding sites. Before turning to these sites, we need to define more specifically what gender criticism is today, and how it got there. Following a vigorous decade or two of modern feminist criticism and theory (which affected the study of British Romanticism), gender studies emerged in the 1980s, sometimes as a corrective to earlier feminist agenda. In a landmark essay published in 1981, ‘Archimedes and the paradox of feminist criticism’, Myra Jehlen argued that the focus of feminist criticism on women's writing was unproductively narrow and even ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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