"Shouting from the bottom of the pit": Jennifer Johnston's dialogue with the reductive power of discourse

Barbara Ellen McLaughlin, Marquette University


Despite a publication history of ten novels and several plays and significant literary success, contemporary Irish novelist Jennifer Johnston has received minimal critical and scholarly attention. That which she has received remains reductive and even insulting. One male critic has gone as far as to suggest that Johnston "deserves a good spanking" (Imhof) based largely on his irritation with her narrative focus on women. Critics fail to notice that Johnston's fiction demonstrates complicated layers of narrative disruption and is motivated by political and intellectual concerns. Assessment of the cultural context within which Johnston works enables a reader to grasp the political and intellectual re-negotiations which are going on in her texts. Seven novels feature female protagonists who struggle to supersede the socially-ordained domestic roles women are expected to fill in order to achieve more satisfying intellectual and creative lives. In order to re-negotiate their roles, these characters engage in dialectics with the discursive systems which define and enforce individual and collective experience. Their investigations range from the intensely personal to the political: they investigate cultural and imaginative representations such as those found in literature as well as the "schemes of identification" by which individuals and groups are named. By so doing, they reveal the power struggle which fuels discourse, the effects of which are not equally experienced by all members of society. The efforts of Johnston's female characters demonstrate that Irish women have not benefited from literary, social, or political discourses in that country. Johnston's project does not remain at the level of complaint. Each of these female protagonists becomes an author who writes narratives of her own in order to undermine essentialist, reductive tropes by which women have been identified ("Mother Ireland," "Helen of Troy"). They refuse, as Helen Cuffe in The Railway Station Man puts it, to be called by a name which is "not the name I would have called myself" (4). Johnston's female authors articulate a part of the literary tradition and other social, cultural, and political discursive systems which have not included women on any substantial level.

Recommended Citation

McLaughlin, Barbara Ellen, ""Shouting from the bottom of the pit": Jennifer Johnston's dialogue with the reductive power of discourse" (1996). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI9717063.