115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Silence of the Women: Exploring Gendered Silence and Invisibility in A Meeting by the River

Jessica Somers, California State University, Los Angeles

Using Hélène Cixous's gendered conceptions of différance as well as Cheryl Glenn's Unspoken: A Rhetoric of Silence, this paper explores the significance and unlikely empowerment of the silent, invisible women that permeate Christopher Isherwood's A Meeting by the River.


Remarkably little criticism has arisen regarding Christopher Isherwood’s final novel, A Meeting by the River, and virtually no attention has been paid to the notably silent and invisible female characters within the text. The phallocentric narrative follows the exploits of two strikingly dissimilar British brothers Oliver and Patrick in a Hindu monastery as they navigate questions of religious, cultural, and sexual identity. The book, which unfolds in a series of letters from the brothers to one other, their geographically distant female relations, and various sexual and work partners, completely obscures the female voice and being – while sensuous descriptions of native male bodies and sexual desire litter the text, there are virtually no women at the forefront or in the background to describe. Rather, they are geographically and narratorily removed from the plot, and the only women mentioned are Patrick and Oliver’s overbearing mother and Patrick’s wife and young daughter.

Hélène Cixous explicitly extends Jacques Derrida’s différance and his conceptions of hierarchical opposition to the gender dynamic, and asserts the societal classification and order between man/woman, activity/passivity, and speech/silence. I use these concepts as a starting point to question the cause and effect of female silence in A Meeting by the River: are the women truly passive?; does lack of speech necessarily connote lack of power? I will similarly use Cheryl Glenn’s recent work Unspoken: A Rhetoric of Silence to examine the rhetorical act of silence as a means to gain power for the silent British women in A Meeting by the River.

I argue that, despite the fact that the men literally write and thus control the narrative, the women are empowered figures of dominance and control in the brothers’ lives. Though Patrick and Oliver purposely attempt to deceive their female family members in order to hide aspects of their lives they deem inappropriate for the weaker sex, the women catalyze the entire narrative, as their mother initially uses her sway to send Patrick to India to retrieve his wayward brother. It is precisely due to the women’s power in the brothers’ lives that the men must remove themselves to another continent entirely to gain autonomy for themselves away from the women and outside of the strict British mores of sexuality, religion, morality, and familial responsibility that they uphold. Though this bears true for the British women, this does not necessarily extend to the women of India. Though the British women are peripheral to the narrative, they nonetheless exist in relation to it; Indian women, on the other hand, are not only silent and invisible, but they are also imperceptible – they are not part of the brothers' world, and are thus rendered completely inconsequential.

There exists a veritable horde of silent, invisible women throughout the span of literature. They are silenced by their respective narratives and the patriarchal contexts of society and artistic form. It is necessary, with the advent of future scholarship, to explore the significance of their voices in order to better understand the whole of literature. 

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