The Feminization of Famine

Expressions of the Inexpressible?

The Feminization of Famine

Book Pages: 272 Illustrations: Published: July 1997

Asian Studies > South Asia, Gender and Sexuality > Feminism and Women’s Studies, Literature and Literary Studies > Literary Criticism

Contemporary depictions of famine and disaster are dominated by female images. The Feminization of Famine examines these representations, exploring, in particular, the literature arising from the Irish "Great Famine" of the 1840s and the Bengali famine of the 1940s. Kelleher illuminates recurring motifs: the prevalence of mother and child images, the scrutiny of women’s starved bodies, and the reliance on the female figure to express the largely "inexpressible" reality of famine. Questioning what gives these particularly feminine images their affective power and analyzing the responses they generate, this historical critique reveals striking parallels between these two "great" famines and current representations of similar natural disasters and catastrophes.
Kelleher begins with a critical reading of the novels and short stories written about the Irish famine over the last 150 years, from the novels of William Carleton and Anthony Trollope to the writings of Liam O’Flaherty and John Banville. She then moves on to unveil a lesser-known body of literature—works written by women. This literature is read in the context of a rich variety of other sources, including eye-witness accounts, memoirs, journalistic accounts, and famine historiography. Concluding with a reading of the twentieth-century accounts of the famine in Bengal, this book reveals how gendered representations have played a crucial role in defining notions of famine.


“A significant contribution. . . . Kelleher’s study is a sensitive and well-documented reading of an important body of texts. As the contemporary television and print media continue to inundate audiences with images of suffering and death, usually occurring “elsewhere,” The Feminization of Famine is not only relevant to scholars of the Victorian period but is also a serious contribution to an urgent political issue.” — Janice Fiamengo, Victorian Review

“Kelleher’s book is a major contribution to work on famine and will have to be reckoned with by all future writers on the topic. It opens the terrain of gender for Irish famine studies, which has not been adequately addressed before, and counts as a work of prime and revisionary scholarship.” — David Lloyd, University of California at Berkeley

“This book is well conceived, the sources intelligently selected, the writing elegant and sinuously argued.” — Maud Ellman, King’s College, Cambridge


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