Ellen Gilchrist and Anne Sexton
Rice, Lydia Whitt
MetadataShow full item record
Ellen Gilchrist's work, in its images, themes and techniques, responds to the life andwork of Anne Sexton. Using Gilchrist's own comments, as well as extensive textual evidencefrom Gilchrist's poetry and fiction, I argue that Gilchrist's work is, at least in part, motivated andsustained by her interest in creating a critical space in which Sexton's work can be re-evaluated.Although Sexton was only seven years older than Gilchrist, the timing of their careers is crucialto their success: for Sexton, who began writing in 1956 and committed suicide in 1974, thesecond wave of the American Women's Movement and the raising of the collective culturalconsciousness that it brought came too late. In contrast, Gilchrist began her professional writingcareer in 1978, just in time to experience the benefits brought by the movement that Sexton hadmissed. Throughout her work, Gilchrist pays homage to Sexton and illuminates the contexts inwhich Sexton's works were created, offering the contemporary reader fresh insight into whatGilchrist perceives of as the previously-dismissed works of Sexton. Gilchrist's writing workstoward this end in a variety of ways. In her first novel, The Annunciation, Gilchrist imaginativelyrecreates many of Sexton's experiences, leading the reader to identify and sympathize with awoman in Sexton's historical milieu as she emerges as a writer. In much of her subsequentfiction, Gilchrist proceeds to explore several of the darker issues that led to Sexton's demise andultimate critical dismissal, including the debilitating nature of mental illness and the inefficacyof psychotherapy and patriarchal religion to respond. To counter such darkness, both Sexton andGilchrist emphasize the experiences of writing as a means of self-knowledge and survival. Bothauthors examine the lives of women throughout their life-cycle in a patriarchal culture, focusingon their often conflicting roles as daughters, lovers, wives and mothers. Later in their careers,both women exercise and strengthen the power that such self-knowledge brings by rewritingexisting (male) texts. In examining Gilchrist's work as a whole, I offer the reader an opportunityto consider Gilchrist's poetic lineage and to reread her poetic foremothers, specifically Sexton, inthe light Gilchrist's work provides.