Dr. Alex E. Blazer

Department of English

Georgia College & State University

Milledgeville, GA 31061




"Naked in the guy-light like an emptied sentence":

Sexuality and Textuality in Two Novellas by William H. Gass

There's no woman who's not, deep inside her, theoretical.

(Willie Masters'Lonesome Wife n.p.)


She would be buried in a book.

(Emma Enters a Sentence of Elizabeth Bishop's 149)

My paper compares the relationship between female sexuality (and by extension, subjectivity in general) and self-conscious, self-reflexive textuality in two novellas by William H. Gass, the early Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife (1968, republished Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive, 1989) and the late career Emma Enters a Sentence of Elizabeth Bishop's (Cartesian Sonata and Other Novellas, New York: Basic, 1998, 144-91). First, I describe the two novellas, then I compare their attitudes toward textuality. Finally, I suggest the broader ramifications of their comparison for postmodern literature. Willie Masters' puts its artificiality on display through the use of varied font types, sizes, and positions (one page must be read in a mirror) as well as collaged pictures of Willie's naked wife and a number of coffee cup rings on the manuscript. The wife is an odalisque composed of language designed to fulfill the author's fantasy of creative sexuality—within the postmodern space of literature. The wife is an artificial intelligence, a plaything who knows she is a construct within an ironic narrative of the author's imagination. As such, she is lonely, desiring to make love while realizing that she is merely manuscript. Willie Masters' constitutes a deconstructive play between creativity and desire both realized in and derealized by textuality. While Willie Masters' turns subjectivity into a game of deconstruction, Emma Enters a Sentence of Elizabeth Bishop's illuminates the equating of sexuality and identity, of locating subjectivity exclusively within language. Emma seeks to escape into Elizabeth Bishop's poetry as a flight from the cruel stare of her father upon her bony body (one wonders if touch follows look). Whereas Willie's wife is full of language and sexuality, the anorexic Emma dissolves and disappears into a line, but not before losing her mind, murdering her father, and finally realizing "Poetry doesn't redeem" (188). In the thirty years between the two novellas, William H. Gass has reconsidered the playful yoking of textualized sexuality and sexualized textuality. The author moves from irony to tragedy, from treating the textualized sexuality of the female muse as a postmodern language game to weighing the consequences of spinning subjectivity into ever-elusive, ever-shifting text. Finally, I suggest that the difference between Gass's two novellas, one written early in postmodernism and the other late, indicates an important shift within the period (it may also suggest a break): the move from the paradoxical play of textualized subjectivity to the traumatic repercussions of such artifice, a descent into the devastated and delusional psyche raised in the poststructuralist belief that everything is a text, that language is all.


This abstract summarizes my presentation, "'Naked in the guy-light like an emptied sentence': Sexuality and Textuality in Two Novellas by William H. Gass," The Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture since 1900, Louisville, KY, February 23, 2008.