The Descent of Alette: Feminine Epics as Rebellion

I just turned this one in. It’s for a very basic English class (albeit Honors) that we all have to take as freshmen. I hope it’s at least mildly interesting. Here is the link to the book, The Descent of Alette by Alice Notley.


The Iliad. The Odyssey. Beowulf. Paradise Lost. What do these works have in common? First and foremost, they are the most famous epic poems of all time. More subtly, they are all three masculine tales authored by men. When Alice Notley was writing The Descent of Alette in 1996, second wave feminism was winding down, but it was the atmosphere in which Notley grew up. Thus, the very act of writing a feminine poetic epic was an act of revolution, then. It was not just the act of writing a poem that was rebellion; the content of the poetry, in all of its feminist bravery, and the form of the poem, contributed to the poem’s feminist roots. Alice Notley’s The Descent of Alette epitomizes second-wave feminism as a rebellion against neoliberalism by re-imagining the form of an epic poem that emphasizes the subjugation and liberation of women.




Traditional epic poetry is “an omniscient and objective narrative, one that looks down on its characters and turns them into objects of its gaze, although the characters themselves strive to stand out… the protagonists of epic are action heroes,” (Lovatt 1). Not only that, but the traditional epic poem is authored by a man. Even further, “[the] Epic has long been regarded as the exclusive domain of the male literary genius and as an incarnation of patriarchal values,” (Schweizer). Epics are typically written by men, so they exemplify traditionally masculine themes. Values such as war, power, and physical prowess are prized, while women in the story are exemplified by themes such as manipulation and trickery (Hera in Iliad). Works are objective, too, in that the voice of the narrator never shines through, nor is the work ever meant to be orated; the epic is masculine, it is objective, it is ink on paper. It is within this context that Alice Notley wrote epic poetry. 


Notley wrote her poetry, too, in the context of the tail end of second wave feminism. Commonly cited as “losing its momentum” (Grady) in the 1990’s, second wave feminism was embodied by the “changing [of] the way society thought about women… [prioritizing] the casual, systemic sexism ingrained into society,” (Grady). Second wave feminism brought sweeping changes to American society, allowing female empowerment to reach the average woman as well as bringing about legislative and judicial change such as the Equal Pay Act and Roe vs. Wade. A self described second-wave feminist, Notley “explicitly states that one of her primary goals in writing an epic is to take the form away from men,” (Glenum 1). By claiming ownership of the epic poem, Notley participated in the second-wave feminism of her age. 


It is not just the bare insertion of a female voice into the epic poetry scene that turns Notley into a feminist, anti-neoliberalist actor. Throughout the epic The Descent of Alette, every few words, or so, are wrapped in quotation marks. An “overt serial disruption of epic form” (Glenum 1), the marks chop up the poem into digestible parts, meant to be orated (and indeed, Notley traveled the country performing her epic poem orally). Oration is, in itself, the opposite of objectivity. In enters the quivering of an emotional note, the characters’ distinctive tones, the escalation in volume during a pivotal moment, the quiet after a death, or a tear, maybe. By creating a poem meant to be orated, Notley turned it into a humanistic, subjective practice, or the very opposite of both the traditional epic poem and neoliberalism’s aims. If Alette (as the character) plays a role of the liberator of folks from neoliberalism in the form of the tyrant, Notley plays the role of the liberator of the epic poem from masculine norms. Nowhere is it more apparent than in her use of quotation marks that force oration, force the insertion of emotion and subjectivity into the portrayal of an epic poem. What else is the opposition of neoliberalism, really, than that?


Nor is it simply her participation in the world of epic authorship that made her work a feminist beacon. Within the text of The Descent of Alette is embedded the “liberation of women” (Notley) and a discussion of men’s expectations of women. At the beginning of the epic, Alette encounters a woman who says “I’ ‘am a painter’ ‘ I have been trying’ ‘to find’ / ‘a form the tyrant’ ‘doesn’t own—” (Notley 25). Patriarchy (as the tyrant), she intends to say, claims ownership of self-expression, of everything, really. Writes Notley later in the story, “But others,” “especially women,” “looked as if they” “suffered from” “trying” “to fit inside” “this other” “As if his form” “squeezed theirs,” “their breasts & hips,” “very painfully,” (Notley 12). Here, she critiques the subjugation, bodily and psychologically, of women in modern (at her time, and still today) society. In her explanation of the oppression of women lies a call to action, a desire in the reader to rise above the subways to which Alette is banished, face the tyrant head on and become self-actualized. By pointing out and painting grotesquely and frustratingly the subjugation of women, Notley endorses the liberation of women by deterring readers from the patriarchal reality of her book.


Neoliberalism and feminism have long been at odds. The ideology is the sacrificing of individuality, the patriarchal makeup of society. Another way to read the role of the “tyrant” is that of the representation of neoliberalism, one that also encompasses masculinity. The tyrant is distant, objective, or as Notley describes him, “shadowed, unsmiling” (Notley 132). If neoliberalism incorporated humanism, it would cease to be productive or efficient, traits it touts. Instead, it maintains a sense of “unsmiling” poise that keeps distance between the human and the corporation or other objective entity. The tyrant also controls folks, particularly women: their self expression, their sense of self at all. Neoliberalism seeks to do this, too, by pushing every participant, willing or unwilling, to be productive, to have value, to work “under” in a bureaucracy, to give everything up in order to survive and, if you’re lucky, to thrive. By creating an epic in the age of a male-dominated epic poetry scene, Notley directly contradicts a system of self-expression that would naturally exclude her if it could. This is a second wave feminist act, one of contradicting masculine norms. Not only that, but the content of her epic- the highlighting of the oppression of women as well as the confrontation of the tyrant by Alette and self actualization- stands in stark contrast to both the content of masculine epics before hers, and the societal engrainment of neoliberalism, which was the context in which Notley authored The Descent of Alette. So, both the very authorship of The Descent of Alette and its content promoted second wave feminism and opposed neoliberalism, at the dusk of the former and the dawn of the latter.


At several points throughout the poem, Notley’s character Alette stands up to the tyrant and exposes him for what he is. As she is holding the dead body of the tyrant, Alette turns to the onlookers and says “‘This is not really” “his body,’” “I said to them,” “‘The structure we’ve just left — “those around us —” “this city —” “how we’ve lived,” “is his body,’” (Notley 148). In saying this, Alette exposes the tyrant’s insidious creeping into all areas of life. Neoliberalism, too, is not confined simply to the workplace, but is a concept that has spilled into daily life, pushing productivity and loss of consciousness from awakening to falling asleep, again. Alette, the heroine of the story, therefore frees those who had previously been beholden to the tyrant and his way of life. Some people in the story do not take it well, and start to “dig holes in the ground” (Notley 148) in an attempt to reintegrate into the tyrant’s world, but most react favorably. Writes Notley on page 148, “‘This is not really” “his body,’” “I said to them,” “‘The structure we’ve just left — “those around us —” “this city —” “how we’ve lived,”  “is his body.’” As Alette puts it, folks “came to the light” (Notley 148). This is what second wave feminism sought to do. The average woman did not know that a world (relatively) free of oppression existed, but the feminist movement deconstructed previous neoliberal norms, such as female worth being reliant upon household and reproductive productivity and male productivity being that of wealth, prosperity, and power, instead. However, Notley’s book goes further, the true feminist epic that it is, and seeks to portray the freedom from all of neoliberalism, in all of its priority of productivity and objectivity and anti-humanism, by all people. This is what showing the Tyrant’s dead body in Alette’s arms effectively does: feminism, freedom, triumphs.


The Descent of Alette is a feminist epic that serves as a capsule of female oppression, empowerment, liberation, and daring. It does so in the context of both second wave feminism and neoliberalism, and by doing this, Alice Notley displays bravery in the face of male and capitalist oppression. Notley’s The Descent of Alette epitomizes second-wave feminism as a rebellion against neoliberalism by re-imagining the form of an epic poem that emphasizes the subjugation and liberation of women.

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