Faculty Focus: Alison Case, Associate Professor of English

Within the field of English, what is your specific area of interest?

My area specialization is Victorian literature and the novel — the novel as a genre. I teach women’s studies, so I’m particularly interested in feminist criticism and women writers.

What is your current research on?

I just published Plotting Women: Gender and Narration in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century British Novel. It’s about 18th and 19th century British novels that use women as narrators, about the literary conventions governing the way women are used as narrators.

That takes a number of different forms, they may be epistolary novels — novels of letters where most of the letter writers are women, and, in fact, in epistolary novels, generally the dominant letter writers tend to be women. Epistolary novels tend to be novels about women, not exclusively but generally — or novels with female narrators or novels with mixed narrators that have both men and women narrators.

Sometimes you get epistolary novels with both men and women narrating, with both men and women writing letters. Or you get a novel like Bleakhouse where half of the novel is narrated by an omniscient narrator and it alternates with a first person narrator who is a woman.

I’m arguing for a convention I call “feminine narration,” in which the narrator doesn’t understand the shape or meaning of the story that she’s in.

The forms of that may vary a lot. That is, if she’s an epistolary or diary narrator she doesn’t understand the shape or meaning of the story she’s in because she is unaware of the story, she doesn’t know where it’s going, she doesn’t know what’s going on.

In other cases it may be because she’s an unreliable narrator in another way, that is, she doesn’t understand the meaning of the story because she thinks the meaning of the story is something other than what she thinks it is.

Those are some of the different forms it takes and in novels that have feminine narrators what you tend to have, I’m arguing, is a male master narrator which may take the form of a fictional editor.

Or with multiple narrators, they may be a male figure who winds up putting all the narratives together or taking charge of the narrative in some way. The master narrator frames the women’s narrative and I’m talking about it in terms of several distinctions or oppositions.

That is, what feminine narrators are barred from is what I call “plotting and preaching.” Plotting being the shaping of the cause and effect and preaching being a sense of meaning, an understanding of what the narrative is about in terms of its moral significance. Those categories tend to be reserved for men. This is much too simple but that’s roughly the line-up.

I’m also arguing that, in fact, issues of plotting and preaching wind up crossing over between narrative form and characters.

Women who narrate are associated with plotters of another kind and if you want to set up a virtuous female narrator you have to keep warding off not only the possibility that she will be seen to be plotting her narrative, but also the possibility that she will be perceived as a plotter in the other sense. It suggests real cultural anxieties about women’s agency and authority that you have this very consistent pattern in the way women are used as narrators.

How did you get interested in women and literature?

This was all the way back in graduate school, like 13, 14, 15 years ago. What happened was that at a certain point it dawned on me that I kept writing on the same subject or rather that several things that I had written turned out to have a common strain to them.

It’s been a process of following up that strain and figuring out exactly what is was. And my sense of what exactly I was trying to argue has shifted somewhat over the years but really by the time I wrote my dissertation, it had solidified into that interest in feminine narration.

So I just kept expanding the scope of it, the number of novels I was talking about. So it was really a question of the subject. It just became clear that I couldn’t stop writing about it anyway…

Have you always been interested in English and literature?

Yes, pretty much. My parents were very opposed to me teaching and that had influenced me sufficiently by the time I went to college that I was pre-law and that lasted, I think, for about four weeks.

Basically as soon as I got into college level English classes it became abundantly clear to me what I wanted to do and I did. I was just doomed. I consider myself very lucky in some respects because other people have to do really self-destructive things to rebel against their parents and all I had to do was become an English teacher.