Hostname: page-component-588bc86c8c-ttbdn Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2023-12-01T06:21:04.041Z Has data issue: false Feature Flags: { "corePageComponentGetUserInfoFromSharedSession": true, "coreDisableEcommerce": false, "useRatesEcommerce": true } hasContentIssue false

“A Single Woman … Among So Many Men”: Negotiating Gendered Spaces in John Gregory Brown's Audubon's Watch

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 February 2013


This paper examines the notion of gendered space in Audubon's Watch, the most recent work by New Orleans novelist John Gregory Brown. Focussing on Myra Richardson Gautreaux – perhaps Brown's most intriguing female protagonist – it explores, first, how Myra continuously employs “forbidden” language in order to problematize subjects like physical intimacy and sexual desire and, second, how her linguistic experimentation, combined with her solitary walks through the dark streets of nineteenth-century New Orleans, disrupts the dichotomy of public versus private. It also argues that Myra's consistent preoccupation with disciplines inaccessible to nineteenth-century women – like anatomy, the depiction of bodily functions in painting, or the importance of the artist's gaze – establishes a new notion of identity, which interrogates the acceptable limits of “the feminine” in the antebellum South. Ultimately, the paper shows that Audubon's Watch should be read not only as an interesting hybrid of southern gothic and fictional biography, but also as a multilayered work that attempts to redefine the gendered spaces of language, science, and art.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2013 

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


1 Brown, John Gregory, The Wrecked, Blessed Body of Shelton Lafleur (London: Sceptre, 1996)Google Scholar. See, for instance, Jason Berry, “Divine Inspiration,” Gambit Weekly, cover story, 12 April 2001, available at; and the various reviews collected in Brown's personal website ( Brown, , Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery (London: Sceptre, 1994)Google Scholar.

2 Stewart O'Nan, “Audubon's Watch: Dying Confessions,” New York Times, 23 Sept. 2001, available at

3 Cf. the author's own words: “My father, a physician, died before I began work on [Audubon's Watch], and I was attempting to come to grips both with his life as a physician and with my own life as artist.” See “Interview with John Gregory Brown,” Readers Read, 2002, available at

4 Richard Gray, “Inventing Communities, Imagining Places: Some Thoughts on Southern Self-Fashioning,” foreword to Jones, Suzanne W. and Monteith, Sharon, South to a New Place: Region, Literature, Culture (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2002), xixGoogle Scholar.

5 For a more extensive discussion of Brown's handling of racial matters see also Michailidou, Artemis, “Embodying and Transgressing Race in the Novels of John Gregory Brown,” Journal of American Studies, 40, 3 (2006), 573–92CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6 See Gray's, Richard analysis of Welty's story in Writing the South: Ideas of an American Region (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 237–39Google Scholar. See also Terry, Jill, “Oral Culture and Southern Fiction,” in Gray, Richard and Robinson, Owen, eds., A Companion to the Literature and Culture of the American South (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004), 518–35Google Scholar.

7 Her function in the plot is very similar to that of Molly in Decorations. Cf. also Shelton's unnamed biological mother in Shelton Lafleur.

8 Brown, John Gregory, Audubon's Watch (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001)Google Scholar. Parenthetical page references in the text hereafter correspond to this edition.

9 I am indebted to Emmeline Gros for this argument, particularly her analysis of Caddy Compson's function in Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury; see her unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, “The Southern Gentleman and the Idea of Masculinity: Figures and Aspects of the Southern Beau in the Literary Tradition of the American South,” Georgia State University, 2010, 133, available at

10 Helen Taylor, “The South through Other Eyes,” in Gray and Robinson, 317–34, 326.

11 Ibid., 323–24.

12 Braidotti, Rosi, Nomadic Subjects: Embodiment and Sexual Difference in Contemporary Feminist Theory (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 89Google Scholar.

13 Ibid., 61–63.

14 Talbot, Mary, Language and Gender, 2nd edn (Cambridge: Polity, 2000), 225Google Scholar.

15 See also Weatherall, Ann, “Gender Relevance in Talk-in-Interaction and Discourse,” in Coates, Jennifer and Pichler, Pia, eds., Language and Gender: A Reader, 2nd edn (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 548–50, 549Google Scholar.

16 Lakoff, Robin, Language and Woman's Place (New York: Harper & Row, 1975)Google Scholar.

17 See Spender, Dale, Man Made Language, 2nd edn (London: Pandora, 1985), 10Google Scholar; and Lakoff. See also Talbot, 35–36, 98. Notice, however, the point made by contemporary feminist linguists, who question Lakoff's and Spender's assumed notion of difference in men's and women's language. As Mills, Sara and Mullany, Louise put it in Language, Gender and Feminism: Theory, Methodology and Practice (London: Routledge, 2011), 47Google Scholar, “what is needed is a form of analysis which is less focused on the individual woman or man and the society as a whole, and more focused on the way that context and the individual mutually shape the way that interaction takes place.”

18 Taylor, 321.

20 Soja 1996, quoted by Taylor, 321.

21 Taylor, 321.

22 Ibid., 326.

23 Ibid., 326, original emphasis.

24 Ibid., 326.

25 Foucault, Michel, History of Sexuality (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978), vol. 1Google Scholar; quoted by Mills and Mullany, 138.

26 Mulvey, Laura, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen, 16 (1975), 618CrossRefGoogle Scholar, reprinted in Warhol, Robyn R. and Herndl, Diana Priece, eds., Feminisms: An Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism, rev. edn (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1997), 438–48, 442CrossRefGoogle Scholar, original emphasis.

27 Rodowick quoted by Studlar, Gaylyn, “Masochism and the Perverse Pleasures of the Cinema,” Quarterly Review of Film and Video Studies (1984)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, reprinted in Kaplan, E. Ann, ed., Feminism and Film (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 203–25, 213Google Scholar, original emphasis.

28 Gruber, Elizabeth, “ ‘No Woman Would Die Like That’: Stage Beauty as Corrective-Counterpoint to Othello,” in Block, Marcelline, ed., Situating the Feminist Gaze and Spectatorship in Postwar Cinema (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010), 226–39, 230Google Scholar.

29 Block, xxiv.

30 See also Chaudhuri, Shohini, Feminist Film Theorists: Laura Mulvey, Kaja Silverman, Teresa de Lauretis, Barbara Creed (London: Routledge, 2006), 35Google Scholar.

31 Although Kathryn Lee Seidel has argued that the erotic awakening of Chopin's character should not obscure her efforts to attain artistic maturity, most critics would agree that Edna's output is rather limited, since it consists primarily in conventional portraits of her friends that leave her unsatisfied and yearning for a greater purpose in life. See Seidel, Kathryn Lee, “Picture Perfect: Painting in The Awakening,” in Petry, Alice Hall, ed., Critical Essays on Kate Chopin (New York: G. K. Hall, 1996), 227–36Google Scholar.

32 For a similar argument concerning Caddy Compson's function in The Sound and the Fury see also Gros, “The Southern Gentleman,” 129–38.

33 Gatens, Moira, Imaginary Bodies: Ethics, Power and Corporeality (London: Routledge, 1996), 41Google Scholar.

34 Taylor, “The South through Other Eyes,” 326.

35 See Singal, Daniel J., William Faulkner: The Making of a Modernist (Chapel Hill: The University of Carolina Press, 1997), 19Google Scholar; Gros, 128.

36 Monica Soare, “Return of the Female Gothic: The Career-Woman-in-Peril-Thriller,” in Block, 88–119.

37 Of course, the question that arises here is whether Brown's female protagonist is eventually relegated to being an abstract concept, rather than an actual character. Even though much can be said about Brown's decision to focus on a woman who is dead within the immediate frame of the narrative, it seems that Myra's death was largely envisioned as a tribute to Faulkner, who refused to give Caddy a voice in The Sound and the Fury because she was “too beautiful and too moving to reduce her to telling what was going on,” and because “it would be more passionate to see her through somebody else's eyes.” See Frederick L. Gwynn and Joseph Blotner, eds., Faulkner in the University (New York: Vintage Books, Random House, 1965), quoted in Gros, 133. Technically speaking, Brown's choice may have been quite successful, since Myra paradoxically becomes even more alive as the narrative unravels, and yet there is also a deeper layer associated with this emphasis on death. As Audubon's repeated, guilt-ridden references to Myra's corpse suggest (Cf. 93: “What sickness of spirit, what ill breeding, would cause my eyes to linger on a corpse?”, 123: “My eyes would not be kept from Myra Gautreaux's form, from memory, from the dark and wretched corridors of desire”), Brown's preference for a dead female protagonist was meant as a further exploration of the controversial concept of the gaze. By freeze-framing Myra's body and by allowing it to become an object of both scientific and artistic scrutiny, Brown not only concurs with the view that posits death and femininity as “the two central enigmas of western discourse” (Bronfen, Elisabeth, Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity and the Aesthetic (New York: Routledge, 1992), 255Google Scholar), but also invites us to consider the more obscure parameters that make scientific and artistic scrutiny so appealing. See also Gruber's similar argument concerning the appeal of murder simulation on stage. Gruber, 230–31. To put it differently, Brown is involved in exactly the same process of experimentation as his female protagonist, and the latter's mysterious death serves both as a technical twist mirroring Faulkner's notion of passion, and as a clever move that facilitates the author's own effort to problematize the link between the desire for higher knowledge (science/anatomy) and its artistic representation.

38 Gray and Robinson, A Companion to the Literature and Culture of the American South, 17, 6–7.

39 Consider also Wald's, Gayle argument with respect to US narratives of racial passing in Crossing the Color Line: Racial Passing in Twentieth-Century U. S. Literature and Culture (Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2000), 8CrossRefGoogle Scholar.