Autobiographical intentions and interpretations: Marie Cardinal, Annie Leclerc

Webb, Emma V. (2001) Autobiographical intentions and interpretations: Marie Cardinal, Annie Leclerc. Doctoral thesis, University of North London.


This thesis seeks to provide new readings of the autobiographical fictions of Marie Cardinal and Annie Leclerc. The study has three central aims. Firstly, to present a comparative overview of Cardinal's 'Les Mots pour le dire' and Leclerc's 'Exercices de mémoire'; secondly, to explore the significance of the texts in relationship to developments within feminist theory and practice; thirdly, to develop a mode of reading which ackl0wledges the importance of autobiographical intention, social context and critical reception. My study will make a claim for the importance of considering the situated experience of the author and the reader.

My methodological approach is informed by autobiographical and literary theory, feminist theory and reception studies. The thesis explores a number of themes in the writing of Cardinal and Leclerc including the construction of autobiographical identity in relationship to the reader, the social function of the autobiographical sub-genres of confessional and testimonial writing, the impact of theories of the 'death of the author' on experiential writing and its significance for a feminist agenda. The manner in which gender influences the shape and tone of the autobiographical pact and the relationship between gender and critical reception are further themes under consideration.

A further concern will be to explore the feminist claim that traditional theories of the genre, authored by male critics, fail to account for the 'difference' of women's writing. It will also be argued that early forays into the genre by Anglo/American feminist critics have tended either to essentialise female identity or to erase the self from the text altogether. Acknowledging the shift of interest- in autobiographical criticism from the 'autos' (self) to the 'graphe' (text), I align myself with those theorists who have argued for the need to reinstate the 'bios' (life) back into autobiographical criticism.

While acknowledging the impact of deconstructionist perspectives, this thesis proposes the value of experiential writing as a means of challenging exclusionary identity politics and raising consciousness among readers. I examine Cardinal's 'Les Mots pour le dire' as an exemplary text of the 1970s which illustrates the feminist interest in the communal 'I', and Leclerc's 'Exercices de mémoire' as a more cautious text of the 1990s which nonetheless demonstrates a continuing interest in communal identity, mediated by an awareness of difference. I engage with criticisms of confessional writers for holding naïve assumptions about 'agency." 'communal identity,' and the transparency of language. I argue that Cardinal's confessional and Leclerc's testimonial writing demonstrate an awareness of both the constructed nature of identity and the importance of situated experience. Furthermore, both writers avoid 'speaking for other women' by presenting authorial identity in relationship to the Other. I argue that the gaze of the Other plays an essential role in the construction of autobiographical identity whether it be the imagined critical gaze of the literary critic or the sympathetic identification which the author solicits from her readers.

I conclude that while there are no essential qualities to women's self-writing there is a need for reading with gender awareness. The identities constructed in 'Les Mots pour dire' and 'Exercices de mémoire' are shaped by the social conditions of the time and the constraints of the genre. I argue for situated reading of each women's writing, concluding my discussion with my own personal reading of 'Les Mots pour le dire'.

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