The image of the nation as a woman in twentieth century Scottish literature: Hugh MacDiarmid, Naomi Mitchison, Alasdair Gray

Stirling, Kirsten (2001) The image of the nation as a woman in twentieth century Scottish literature: Hugh MacDiarmid, Naomi Mitchison, Alasdair Gray. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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This thesis considers the use of the allegorical personification of the nation as a woman in the work of the twentieth century Scottish writers Hugh MacDiarmid, Naomi Mitchison and Alasdair Gray. The image of nation as woman, whether as mother, virgin, goddess or victim is widespread in European iconography from the eighteenth century onwards, but is not common in Scotland until the twentieth century. Not only is the objectification of the female figure intrinsic to such imagery objectionable from a feminist point of view, but the female stereotypes which surround the figure of the nation are contradictory, and it ultimately reinforces a sexist ideology which constructs women as victims. These political flaws and contradictions are highlighted when the metaphor is considered in the context of Scotland's peculiar political situation.

The three authors considered here exemplify very different uses of the nation-as-woman trope. Comparing their work shows that the image is used differently by male and female writers, and that the changes in both gender politics and nationalist theory during the course of the twentieth century mean that its use in the 1990s is much more self-conscious and parodic than when it is used by Hugh MacDiarmid in the 1920s. Nation as woman is a trope which is much more easily used by male authors, as for example in the work of MacDiarmid and Gray, whereas Naomi Mitchison, in appropriating the voice of mother Scotland, finds problems asserting her own voice as a woman writer in Scotland.

The work of all three writers demonstrates an awareness of the problems inherent in the trope. From the 1920s to the 1950s MacDiarmid uses the female figure to represent both Scotland and his creative muse, but acknowledges the lack of such a tradition in Scotland by importing his female figures from other cultures and literatures. The version of Scottishness which MacDiarmid creates privileges the position of a male nationalist in relation to a female nation, and his influence in the Scottish literary scene is such that Naomi Mitchison, as a woman writing in the 1940s, finds it difficult to address the 'matter of Scotland' without resorting to the gendered iconography of woman as nation. Alasdair Gray, writing forty years later, is also influenced by MacDiarmid, but this is shown through his post-modern rewriting of MacDiarmid's key poem A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, and his problematisation of many of the political and aesthetic contradictions inherent in the nation-as-woman trope.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Subjects: P Language and Literature > PR English literature
Colleges/Schools: College of Arts & Humanities > School of Critical Studies > Scottish Literature
Supervisor's Name: Whyte, Dr. Christopher
Date of Award: 2001
Depositing User: Geraldine Coyle
Unique ID: glathesis:2001-1053
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 19 Aug 2009
Last Modified: 10 Dec 2012 13:32

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