Magda Meets Theodora: Language and Interiority in The Aunt’s Story and In The Heart of the Country

Abstract

In ‘Orders of Discourse’ Foucault raises the deeply embedded opposition between reason and folly: ‘From the depths of the Middle Ages a man was mad if his speech could not be said to form part of the common discourse of men’. This discursive rule becomes magnified in the case of women and of the colonised. In Coetzee’s In the Heart of the Country and Patrick White’s The Aunt’s Story, Magda and Theodora demonstrate the precarious marginality of the colonial woman. They are doubly marginalised as colonial women, existing outside settler history, which is the narrative both of the masculine responsibilities of settlement and an attendant sense of displacement. In Coetzee’s novel, Magda plays out a version of The Tempest in which she is subjected both to the Law of the Father and to Caliban, while in The Aunt’s Story Theodora plots a determined path out of the discourse of men into the ambivalently liberating horizon of madness. The differences between the women say as much as the similarities, but both offer a compelling version of the layered marginalities of the female colonial subject. In the writers’ hands the place outside discourse, the peculiar language of the colonial women, becomes the potential location of counter discourse. This essay proposes that the women demonstrate a radical interiority, a capacity to inhabit the lives of others in a way that is considered madness but which enacts the utopian function of literature itself.

What is it that unites these two women in books written thirty years apart? The comparison between White and Coetzee has been productive (Lopez), and Coetzee’s Late Essays (2017) includes two essays on White, so they coincide at several points. But what do they see in these solitary unprepossessing characters? Both women have a relationship with language, place and history that places them outside the ‘normal’ Neither woman is mad, or is she? Foucault says, ‘From the depths of the Middle Ages a man was mad if his speech could not be said to form part of the common discourse of men’ (‘Orders’ 9). This rule becomes magnified in the case of women and of the colonised – in their place outside dominant discourse, they count as mad. But this place outside normality may also offer a unique perspective on the business of literary writing itself. Does literature represent the…

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Published 25 February 2018 in Thematising Women in the Work of J. M. Coetzee. Subjects: Colonial literature & writers, Women - Literary portrayal, Patrick White, J.M. Coetzee.

Cite as: Ashcroft, Bill. ‘Magda Meets Theodora: Language and Interiority in The Aunt’s Story and In The Heart of the Country.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 33, no. 1, 2018. https://doi.org/10.20314/als.b53a824d26.