This dissertation offers a comparative reading of four novels from the late nineteenth-early twentieth centuries, authored by two Polish and two Russian women writers: Narcyza by Zofia Nalkowska and The Unspeakable by Gabriela Zapolska; and The Wrath of Dionysus by Evdokia Nagrodskaia and The Head of the Medusa by Lidia Zinovieva-Annibal.
I contextualize these works within the larger socio-historical and cultural fabric of their time. I further examine intriguing similarities in the ways that these women writers engaged in critical dialogue with the dominant masculine culture and disassembled traditional patriarchal hegemony, thereby creating provocative visions of new womanhood.
Thus, in Nalkowska’s and Nagrodskaia’s texts, I examine the female protagonists from the standpoint of the epoch’s fascination with sexual and social deviance, androgeneity and erotic excess (as discussed by Krafft-Ebing, Weininger, Tolstoy and Przybyszewski). The female protagonists in these two novels lead unconventional lives as artists and self-sufficient intellectuals, exposing superficiality of social mores and the feared iconoclastic independence of a new cosmopolitan woman. In Zinovieva-Annibal’s and Zapolska’s novels, I illuminate the ways in which the authors deconstruct traditional understanding of such tabooed aspects of femininity as prostitution, by focusing on the concept of degradation, also borrowed from the nomenclature of the epoch’s cultural metaphysics (i.e., Charcot, Lombroso, Nordau, Nietzsche and Baudelaire). Both texts, albeit differently, render patriarchal preconceptions of the feminine simulacra.
Viewed through the lens of Julia Kristeva’s theory of the abject, and supplemented by the formalist theories of Shklovsky and Bakhtin (theories of estrangement and carnival exotopy, respectively), these texts reveal the violence and the absurdities of the patriarchal societies in which they lived, and the boundaries of the patriarchal order against which these women authors chafed.
My analysis of these texts illustrates the cross-national similarities in how their authors challenged the existing patriarchal monologue and its anachronistic visions of femininity. They created multi-voiced Medusan queendoms instead, where goddesses, prostitutes and criminals prevail. In their literature, Polish and Russian women authors of the turn of the century re-claimed their own histories and blazed the path for the female literary canons in their nations.