he American Heritage Dictionary has eleven separate definitions of the term canon, the most relevant of which is "an authoritative list, as of the works of an author" and "a basis for judgment; standard; criterion." Canon is also defined as "the books of the Bible officially recognized by the Church," and the idea of a literary canon also implies some such official status. To enter the canon, or more properly, to be entered into the canon is to gain certain obvious privileges. The gatekeepers of the fortress of high culture include influential critics, museum directors and their boards of trustees, and far more lowly scholars and teachers. Indeed, a chief enforcer of the canon appears in middlebrow anthologies, those hangers on of high culture that in the Victorian period took the form of pop anthologies like Golden Treasury and today that of major college anthologies in America. To appear in the Norton or Oxford anthology is to have achieved, not exactly greatness but what is more important, certainly -- status and accessibility to a reading public. And that is why, of course, it matters that so few women writers have managed to gain entrance to such anthologies.

Belonging to the canon confers status, social, political, economic, aesthetic, none of which can easily be extricated from the others. Belonging to the canon is a guarantee of quality, and that guarantee of high aesthetic quality serves as a promise, a contract, that announces to the viewer, "Here is something to be enjoyed as an aesthetic object. Complex, difficult, privileged, the object before you has been winnowed by the sensitive few and the not-so-sensitive many, and it will repay your attention. You will receive pleasure; at least you're supposed to, and if you don't, well, perhaps there's something off with your apparatus." Such an announcement of status by the poem, painting, or building, sonata, or dance that has appeared ensconced within a canon serves a powerful separating purpose: it immediately stands forth, different, better, to be valued, loved, enjoyed. It is the wheat winnowed from the chaff, the rare survivor, and it has all the privileges of such survival.

Anyone who has studied literature in a secondary school or university in the western world knows what that means. It means that the works in the canon get read, read by neophyte students and supposedly expert teachers. It also means that to read these privileged works is a privilege and a sign of privilege. It is also a sign that one has been canonized oneself -- beatified by the experience of being introduced to beauty, admitted to the ranks of those of the inner circle who are acquainted with the canon and can judge what belongs and does not.

This canon limits the neophyte reader far more than the instructor, for few students have time to read beyond the reading list. Indeed, few know that one can read beyond it since what lies beyond is by definition dull, darkened, dreary. One must not overemphasize the rigidity of the canon, since the works that are included constantly change. Within the past few decades, for instance, the reputation of Matthew Arnold as a poet has plunged drastically while those of A. C. Swinburne and Elizabeth Barrett Browning have risen, each as a result of -isms: Pre-Raphaelitism in the case of Swinburne and feminism in the case of Browning (and, one may add, also in the cases of Mary Wollstonecraft, Christina Rossetti, and Elizabeth Gaskell). Can you find an essential difference between these two kinds of movements, feminist and Pre-Raphaelite?

Emphasizing that authors enter and leave the canon or shift their relative position within it takes away little from its power. One can look at this power of the canonized work in two ways. Gaining entrance clearly allows a work to be enjoyed; failing to do so thrusts it into the limbo of the unnoticed, unread, unenjoyed, un-existing. Canonization, in other words, permits the member of the canon to be read and hence not only exist, but also be immortalized. Like the painting accepted as a painting and not, say, a mere decorative object or even paint spill, it receives a conceptual frame, and although one can remark upon the obvious facts that frames confine and separate, precisely such appearance within the frame guarantees its aesthetic contemplation -- its capacity to make the viewer respect it, take it with respect.

The very narrowness of the frame and the very confinement within such a small gallery of framed objects produces yet another effect, for the framed object, the member of the canon, gains an intensification not only from its segregation but also from the fact that, residing in comparative isolation, it gains splendor, a glory often based on false notions of uniqueness. Since the canon as a whole and survey courses in particular necessarily exclude so many individual works, those that remain often appear far more original and far more unique than they in fact are.

In addition to promoting this kind of falsification that misleads us about the works inside it, a canon has an even more serious effect on those works left out: if belonging to the canon brings a work to notice, thrusts one into view, falling out of it or being absent, exiled, from it keeps a poem or novel out of it. It is in effect excommunicated. In the Church's excommunication one is not permitted to partake of the divine refreshing acts of communion with the divinity, and one is thus divorced from sacramental life, from participations in the eternal, but one is also kept from communicating with others. One is exiled from community. Likewise, one of the most serious results of not belonging to the canon is that these works do not communicate with one another. A work outside the canon is forgotten, unnoticed, and if a canonical author is under discussion, any links between the uncanonical work and the canonical tend not to be noticed.

Nonetheless, under certain conditions, noncanonical works can appear at the other end of the connections. But such connections and such linkages to the canonical require almost heroic and certainly specialized efforts. The average intelligent educated reader, in other words, is not expected to be able to make such connections with the noncanonical work. For her they do not exist. The connections are made among specialized works and by those readers -- professionalized by the profession of scholarship -- whose job it is to explore the reader's equivalent of darkest Africa of the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century imagination -- the darkest stacks of the library where reside the unimportant, unnoticed books, those one is supposed not to know, not even to have seen. The situation not so strangely resembles that of the unknown dark continent which certainly was not dark or unknown to itself or to its inhabitants but only to Europeans who labeled it so because to them, from their vantage point, it was out of view and perception. They did so for obviously political -- indeed, obviously colonialist -- reasons, and indeed one may inquire if this segregated, separated placement at a distance accurately figures the political economy of works canonized and uncanonized.

Like the colonial power, like, say, France, Germany, or England, the canonical work acts as a center -- the center of the perceptual field, the center of values, the center of interest, the center, in short, of a web of meaningful interrelations. The noncanonical works act as colonies or as countries that are unknown and out of sight and mind. That is why feminists object to the omission or excision of female works from the canon, for by not appearing within the canon works by women do not appear. Solutions to this more or less systematic dis-appearance of women's works include (1) expanding the canon to include more great women's works recently discovered; (2) changing standards or definitions of the canon, so that forms practiced by women, such as letters and diaries, appear as literature; (3) creating an alternate tradition or canon.

Toril Moi (Sexual/textual politics: feminist literary theory, London: Methuen, 1985), a contemporary feminist theoretician, points to the major problems implicit in the idea of a feminist canon of great works (though she does not argue possibility of reading without a canon) when she argues that all ideas of a canon derive from the humanist belief that "literature is an excellent instrument of education" and that the student becomes a better person by reading great works. "The great author is great because he (occasionally even she) has managed to convey an authentic vision of life." Furthermore, argues Moi, thus incriminating all canons with the same brush: The literary canon of "great literature" ensures that it is this "representative experience" (one selected by male bourgeois critics) that is transmitted to future generations, rather than those deviant, unrepresentative experiences discoverable in much female, ethnic, and working-class writing. Anglo-American feminist criticism has waged war on this self-sufficient canonization of middle-class values. But they have rarely challenged the very notion of such a canon. Arguing that Elaine Showalter aims to create a "separate canon of women's writing, not to abolish all canons," she points out that "a new canon would not be intrinsically less oppressive than the old" (page 78).

One cannot simply proclaim the end of canons and hence do away with their bad effects, since they can no more be done away with or ended by proclamation than the laws of perception or the laws of gravity. Grandiose announcements that one is doing away with The Canon fall into two categories, resembling either the announcements, doomed to failure, that one is no longer going to speak in prose or those of the censor that in totalitarian fashion tell others what they cannot read. Doing away with the canon leaves one not with freedom but with hundreds of thousands of undiscriminated and hence unnoticeable works, with works we cannot see or notice or read. We must therefore learn to live with them, appreciate them, benefit from them, but, above all, remain suspicious of them.

The Literary Canon


Gender Matters The Literary Canon: an Overview

Last modified 1989