In This Article Monique Wittig

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews

Literary and Critical Theory Monique Wittig
by
Kayte Stokoe
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0030

Introduction

Monique Wittig (13 July 1935–3 January 2003), winner of the prestigious French literary prize the Prix Médicis for her first novel L’Opoponax in 1964, merits close attention for her fiction, theoretical work, and feminist activism. Wittig wrote four novels, spanning the years 1964 to 1985, as well as short stories, plays, and a body of critical essays. L’Opoponax, Wittig’s first novel, was commended by a number of celebrated French writers, including Marguerite Duras, Nathalie Sarraute, and Alain Robbe-Grillet. The three novels which Namascar Shaktini terms the pronoun trilogy—L’Opoponax (1964), Les Guérillères (1969), and Le Corps lesbien (1973)—are epistemologically, linguistically, and politically revolutionary, constituting an assault on patriarchal, ontological, and grammatical systems. Wittig’s fiction is thus closely intertwined with her feminist—and, specifically, lesbian—politics and activism. Although the striking, political nature of Wittig’s language and themes has led to acclaim for her novels, critics have also attacked her due to her graphic depictions of violence and her emphasis on lesbian embodiment. More recently, French and Anglo-American scholars have also examined Wittig’s rich body of critical writing, in which she developed the discipline of materialist lesbian thought. In 1992, Wittig published the noteworthy volume The Straight Mind and Other Essays, which assembles a diverse selection of her literary and political analyses, dating from 1976 to 1990. The titular essay, which enables Wittig to outline her invaluable analysis of heteropatriarchy and the discourses which promote and maintain it, contains Wittig’s most controversial affirmation: that, as the concept “woman” is shaped extensively by patriarchal thought and by a relationship to men, lesbians are not women. Wittig’s materialist position was markedly shaped by the French feminist context of the 1970s, and by the activism she undertook in the context of the Mouvement de libération des femmes (MLF), and stands in strict opposition to more essentialist feminist views. While Wittig remained politically motivated throughout her life, she took a back seat from activist demonstrations after leaving France in 1976, when she and her partner Sande Zeig moved to the United States. In the 1990s and 2000s, Wittig concentrated on Le Chantier littéraire, in which she developed her existing analyses of authorship and literary strategies. Although Wittig’s work has been ill-understood in certain quarters, many theorists now recognize her as one of the most significant feminist writers of her generation.

General Overviews

Ostrovsky 1991 is the first book-length English language study devoted to Wittig, and focuses on the idea that “renversement” (reversal, overthrow, or subversion) could be the key to comprehending Wittig’s fiction as a whole. Ostrovsky later modifies this position in Shaktini 2005, arguing that Wittig’s fiction offers subtler techniques of transformation and transmutation. From 2000 onward, there was a surge of academic interest in Wittig’s work in France, spurred on by a growing body of lesbian and gay studies and by the publication of Wittig’s volume of prose and short stories, Paris la Politique (see also Wittig 1999, cited under Short Fiction). Ecarnot 2002b, cited under Language was the first academic thesis devoted to Wittig undertaken at a French university. This noteworthy volume highlights differences between Anglo-American and French scholarship on Wittig prior to 2002, and draws attention to the significance of the conceptual figure of the lesbian in Wittig’s oeuvre. Prior to her sudden death of a heart attack in Tucson, Arizona, in 2003, Wittig completed two reflective essays on her fiction for publication in Shaktini 2005. Wittig revised “Some Remarks on Les guérillères” for Shaktini 2005, and wrote “Some Remarks on The Lesbian Body” especially for this volume. Shaktini 2005 also includes an English translation of Wittig’s 1970 feminist manifesto “Pour un mouvement de libération des femmes” (“For a Women’s Liberation Movement”), and a range of insightful analyses of Wittig’s fiction and politics. Bourque 2006 meticulously analyzes two dominant strategies in Wittig’s work: intertextuality and the refusal to remain within existing narrative boundaries, highlighting the subversive outcomes of these strategies. Davis 2010 focuses on the role of formal, aesthetic, and literary violence in Wittig’s novels, demonstrating the way in which her intertextual attacks on existing texts, systems, and traditions enable her to achieve distinct feminist aims. Consequently, Davis’s text provides a thorough introduction to certain themes traversing Wittig’s fiction, while allowing readers to appreciate the roles of materialist lesbian politics, intertextuality, and language in her work as a whole. Seibicke 2015 concentrates on Wittig’s The Straight Mind—see Wittig 1992b, cited under the Straight Mind and Other Essays—focusing on clarifying Wittig’s political position, and on refuting accusations—such as those of lesbian separatism and of naive universalism—made against Wittig’s work. Seibicke elucidates the conceptual figure of the lesbian and its centrality in Wittig’s work, while drawing attention to the occasional lack of clarity in Wittig’s use of terminology.

  • Bourque, Dominique. Écrire l’interdit, La subversion formelle dans l’œuvre de Monique Wittig. Paris: L’Harmattan, 2006.

    E-mail Citation »

    Rich, meticulous analysis of two of Wittig’s central stylistic strategies—interdiscursivity and intertextuality—and of their impact on Wittig’s work. This volume highlights Wittig’s definition of the two resources most necessary for the writer—the vast corpus of existing literature and the material of language itself, see Wittig 1992b, cited under Language, (pp. 70–71)—and carefully demonstrates how Wittig puts her views into practice.

  • Davis, James D., Jr. Beautiful War, Uncommon Violence, Praxis, and Aesthetics in the Novels of Monique Wittig. Currents in Comparative Romance Languages and Literatures Series. New York: Peter Lang, 2010.

    DOI: 10.3726/978-1-4539-0018-5E-mail Citation »

    Impassioned, vibrant reading of Wittig’s novels, which draws on her materialist lesbian theory and politics, and which situates her work in relation to contemporaneous French feminist beliefs and to queer theoretical analyses. Building on Wittig’s essays, this volume provides a thorough understanding of Wittig’s politics, and cleverly illustrates the relationship between the aesthetic violence in Wittig’s novels and her fervent lesbian feminist critique of heteropatriarchal violence.

  • Ecarnot, Catherine. L’écriture de Monique Wittig: À la couleur de Sappho. Paris: L’Harmattan, 2002.

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    Painstakingly covers ground which had been somewhat overlooked in certain 20th-century French scholarship on Wittig by highlighting the role of the lesbian in Wittig’s essays and fiction, and by emphasizing Wittig’s aim to universalize a minority point of view; see also Wittig 1992b, cited under the Straight Mind and Other Essays. This volume offers a wide-ranging, detailed analysis of Wittig’s work, examining novels, short fiction, plays, and essays.

  • Ostrovsky, Erika. A Constant Journey: The Fiction of Monique Wittig. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991.

    E-mail Citation »

    This volume mobilizes Wittig’s concept of works of literature as potential war machines—see also Wittig 1992b, cited under Language—which can disrupt existing formal, literary, and stylistic models. Scrutinizing Wittig’s stylistic techniques, this volume carefully elucidates the role of intertextuality in Wittig’s fiction. However, readers should also consult Ostrovsky’s contribution in Shaktini 2005, cited under General Overviews, pp. 115–129, as Ostrovsky developed her position on Wittig’s work between 1991 and 2005.

  • Seibicke, Jenny. Dismantling Patriarchy and Heteronormativity: Monique Wittig’s Theoretical Essays. Humanities Series. Saarbrücken, Germany: AkademikerVerlag, 2015.

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    Meticulous analysis of Wittig’s theoretical work and its central preoccupations, supplemented by a close reading of “The Garden”; see also Wittig 2007, cited under Short Fiction. While this volume does not discuss Wittig’s novels in depth, its scrupulous attention to Wittig’s analysis of heteropatriarchal discourses and systems renders it useful for readers who aim to gain an understanding of Wittig’s materialist lesbian position.

  • Shaktini, Namascar, ed. On Monique Wittig: Theoretical, Political, and Literary Essays. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2005.

    E-mail Citation »

    Invaluable introduction to Wittig’s activism, her materialist lesbian politics, and her literary techniques. This text contains strong analyses by diverse scholars. For example, see de Lauretis 2005, cited under Feminist and Queer Theoretical Readings. Moreover, Wittig’s contributions to this volume elucidate her strategies in two of her novels; see Wittig 2005a and Wittig 2005b, cited under Remarks on Novels. This volume is essential reading for Wittig scholars.

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