“Giving It All Away” (to him): Analysing Phallogocentrism in Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip

Bitches love Monkey Grip. And by bitches, I mean me, and every other indie kid and/or English/Creative Writing major in the greater Melbourne Area. But we have good reason.


Bitches love Monkey Grip. And by bitches, I mean me, and every other indie kid and/or English/Creative Writing major in the greater Melbourne Area. But we have good reason.

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“Helen Garner has written a book called ‘Monkey Grip’, about a woman called Nora who falls in love, passionately and most unwisely with a junkie. Hardly a ‘liberated plot’. Yet this is unmistakably a book by a feminist… [Nora is] clearly recognisable as a woman whose central identity is her own.”

Sue King, Vashti, 1978

Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip is regarded as one of Australia’s first feminist novels (Simic)[1]. Although Garner has historically turned her nose up at the classification, her lack of absolute commitment to the ideology in her writing and her commitment to writing the novel she wanted as opposed to the one she ought to write, may be the reason it is so emblematic of the female and feminist experience (Calvino vii)[2]. This isn’t to say that the power of Monkey Grip lies in Garner’s disinterest in writing a feminist text, rather that her prioritisation of depicting real life as opposed to analysing it through a particular lens, functions as an unprecedented representation of what it meant to be a woman in 1970s Australia.

Personally, I’m interested in two coexisting phenomena in Monkey Grip: a. the movement away from phallogocentrism and b. the inability of Garner to completely deconstruct phallogocentrism due to the autobiographical nature of the novel and the patriarchal context in which the novel was written. The co-existence of both realities is prevalent through Monkey Grip’s exploration of the “rift between the emotional” (behaviour) “and the theoretical” (ideologically-feminist), in which many of Garner’s characters live (Scerri).

This milieu is best examined through Derrida’s portmanteau theory of phallogocentrism: the privileging of the masculine (the phallic) in the construction of meaning, which is achieved through words and language (logos) (Nithiyendran)[3].

Garner’s diaries were used as the basis for the novel, an inherently subjective artefact which in Garner’s case functioned as a space of intervention of the phallogocentric. They are her meaning, her reality, a subversion of the contextual and historical reality ‘out there’ in which she exists (we see this when Nora’s interpretation of people and events isn’t synonymous with the way others see them). This achievement is aided by Garner’s radical use of form–amalgamated journal entries containing personal and domestic rumination–consequently, pioneering a feminine literary language. The autobiographical nature of Monkey Grip is the tool used to navigate the rift between the emotional, theoretical and phallogocentric.

Garner’s success at writing away from phallogocentrism and instead from and toward women, is best understood through its compatibility with Hélène Cixous’s conception of l’écriture feminine. The genre is classified as women writing for themselves consequently, reclaiming a space historically gatekept by men (Cixous et al.)[4]. Through the medium of Monkey Grip, Garner “draws her story into history” (Cixous et al.). This alone fights against phallogocentrism because it tells her story outside of the discourse of man and then brings her story into the discourse of man (history). Thus, pulling focus away from the phallic. Garner also follows Cixous et al.’s recommendation through her writing of (or through) the autonomous female body and its inherent sexuality and desires; descriptions of enjoyable sex, as well as contraception and abortion, are commonplace. Through both its form and content Monkey Grip composes a nuanced illustration of both l’écriture feminine and the deconstruction of phallogocentrism.

Through Monkey Grip’s single-mothers, Garner critiques the patriarchal standards that determine the criteria of a ‘good’ mother (Natalier)[5]. Garner’s mothers liberate themselves of the expectation that mothering should look a certain way. Consequently, they redefine the boundaries of ‘successful’ motherhood outside of marriage and the nuclear household, to a role that does not need to consume a woman’s entire sense of self. This is illustrated through the lack of consistency in which Nora mentions Gracie, or her whereabouts. This absence, which at first glance may indicate a lack of concern or care, is rather a lack of interest in performing the role of ‘good’ mother. The only reason for Nora to constantly account for Gracie (when it is irrelevant to the narrative) would be to prove to the reader that she knows where she is, something she feels no desire to do. Additionally, the mothers raise their children together, consistently without the help of their male peers, and it is no rarity for the mothers to outwardly acknowledge the limitations and struggles of motherhood. There is no motherly archetype the characters feel obligated to perform.

Conjointly, Garner’s thorough and unadulterated insight into Nora’s cognition and lifestyle reorientates motherhood’s place within female identity. The decentring of this maternal role within Nora’s psyche is an active choice to prioritise herself, frequently demonstrated through her engagement with a wide variety of self-indulgent activities outside of caring for Gracie (Natalier). We are even privy to an example of Nora actively fighting the “housewifely urge” to ignore her personal desires and become consumed by her motherly role. This demonstrates that although King is correct in her statement about Nora’s autonomy over her identity, it does not mean Nora is free from the influence of the phallocentric and misogynistic nature of her political environment. Whilst Nora commits to communities that offer “belonging, resources and identity” in exchange for her contribution to them, she does not expect (or demand) such reciprocity in her male partnerships (Natalier). Her sense of self (and self-worth), though entirely her own, loses importance when Nora considers herself in relation to a man.

The persistence of misogyny[6] within Monkey Grip is best understood through the philosophical work of Kate Manne. According to Manne, there are two complementary social norms for women which can help to classify instances of misogyny:  

  1. She is obligated to give feminine-coded services[7] to someone…preferably one man who is her social equal or better… at least insofar as he wants such goods and services from her.
  2. She is prohibited from having or taking masculine-coded goods[8] away from dominant men, insofar as he wants or aspires to receive or retain them.  

These behaviours are most clearly seen between Nora and Javo in the same order:   

  1. Aside from the recurring attention, affection, and sex Nora gives Javo (the latter of which he does also give to her)[9], she completes domestic labour (e.g., making him food, cleaning his mess, driving him around, giving him money for necessities like food, clothes, and transport– all of which often doubles as an act of nurture (add’l. e.g., he credits her with teaching him things), soothing and comfort are given as emotional labor (e.g., giving advice and consoling him, often about the fact that he’s hurting her; caring for him when he’s coming down) and security (e.g., he comes and goes from her house whenever he pleases). Holistically, Nora functions as a safe haven for Javo whenever he is in a place of need or vulnerability (emotionally and/or physically).

Interestingly, Javo begins by being given these things by Nora (with decreasing gratitude as is highlighted in the scene outside the bank) but by the second half of the novel, he begins taking them without her consent. This is representative of the growing entitlement he feels towards Nora and her feminine-coded goods and services (Manne)[10].

  1.  Again, aside from the obvious loyalty, love, and devotion Javo takes from Nora, he also frequently takes money (or things of value) from her (and her household). Additionally, arguably under the classification of “other forms of wealth”, he consistently takes up her time, space, and emotional energy (e.g., her help when he and Martin are in jail, missing plans, making/leaving a mess, constantly waking her up when she’s sleeping).

The argument could be made that Nora’s giving to Javo is purely due to their romantic connection, and his taking due to the “self-engrossed”, to use his own words, nature of being an addict, and not the gendered dynamic between the pair. I believe this argument to be reductive and against the implicit ideology and the context of the text itself. It cannot be ignored that Nora is not just addicted to love, she’s addicted to love with men.

Kevin Brophy[11] presents a reading of Monkey Grip which deems patriarchal ideology as the true addiction described within the novel. Throughout the novel, we see female characters think and act, both consciously and unconsciously, because of patriarchal influence. For example, despite Scerri’s theorising that the single mothers in Monkey Grip knowingly choose “unreliable” partners due to the apparent lack of power imbalance, this passage from Nora indicates otherwise:

I thought about the patterns I make in my life: loving, loving the wrong person, loving not enough and too much and too long. What’ll I do? How much of myself will be left hanging in tatters when…I wrench myself away this time? I have this crazy habit, a habit as damaging as his, of giving it all away.

Nora’s discontent with these romantic patterns implies a desire for change. The quote also elucidates the loss of self that comes with her “giving it all away”. It demonstrates the way in which Nora becomes unable to centre herself when romantic love comes into the equation. Rather than entering history, in the way that Cixous advocates, and bringing herself into the (phallocentric) discourse post hoc, rather, she writes herself alongside and in relation to it.

Nora is addicted to losing herself to a man, despite its misalignment with her values; addictions are not choices and almost never do they come about purely due to the actions of an individual. This “full-scale war between socio-sexual conditioning and the ideologies of feminism” prevents Garner’s women from kicking their addiction, in turn forbidding Garner from eliminating phallocentrism in her work (Brophy). But what if this, is where the power of Monkey Grip, the reason why we still love it today, lies?

While working on this piece, a friend said to me that the reason people still love Monkey Grip is that it’s a perspective, an insight, into the place we live during a different time. People are narcissistic and nostalgic, plain and simple. And whilst I don’t disagree with her, I think things run deeper than that. Examining what your life would have been if you’d been born in a different time encourages us to think about the differences and similarities, more so than if we read something we know to be entirely fiction, to our own lives. We become aware, more observant, and more critical of ourselves and our milieu when we delve into the details of somebody else’s. We realise that while a lot has changed, so much has also stayed the same.

Sue King’s initial statement–her appreciation of Nora’s autonomy over her identity–though correct, encompasses a perception that is naïve to the nuance with which Monkey Grip dissects and reveals the puissant and debilitating capacity of patriarchy. Additionally, it ignores the radical nature of Garner’s decision to write the novel that she wanted; her truth, on her own terms, in her own words. In reading Monkey Grip, we realise how truly we are the product of our environment, our political context, and the 5 people closest to us. An exploration into the impact others have on us, our behaviour, our sense and our interpretation of self. A woman, a feminist, as strong and in touch with and protective of her sense of self as Nora still struggles to navigate the universal experience of patriarchal domination and the ways that it stops us from being the person that we want to be, navigating the impossibly resistant rift between the ideological and the practical that continues to plague us today.

Monkey Grip is familiar, and it’s eye-opening and that, is why we keep reading.


[1] Simic, Z. "‘Unmistakably a book by a feminist’: Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip and its feminist contexts." Arrow, Michelle and Angela Woollacott. Everyday Revolutions: Remaking Gender, Sexuality and Culture in 1970s Australia. ANU Press, 2019. 139-159.

[2] Calvio, I. "Introduction." Calvio, I. Our Ancestors . Vintage UK., 2002. vii-x.

[3] Nithiyendran, R. M. . "Phallocentrism and Phallogocentrism." Naples, N. A. The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Gender and Sexuality Studies. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 2016. 1-3.

[4] Cixous, H., Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen. "The Laugh of Medua." Signs, Vol. 1, No. 4 (1976): 875-893.

[5] Natalier, K. "Reimagining Social Citizenship for Single Mothers: Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip, Then and Now." Pascoe Leahy, C. and P. Bueskens. Australian Mothering. Palgrave Macmillan, 2019. 403-417.

[6] Defined by Manne as the tool that “upholds the social norms of patriarchies [justified through sexism] by policing and patrolling them”

[7]Hers to give: attention, affections, admiration, sympathy, sex, and children (i.e. social, domestic, reproductive, and emotional labor); also mixed goods, such as safe haven, nurture, security, soothing, and comfort” (Manne 130).

[8]His for the taking: power, prestige, public recognition, rank, reputation, honor, “face”, respect, money and other forms of wealth, hierarchical status, upward mobility, and the status conferred by having a high-ranking woman’s loyalty, love, devotion, etc.”
[9] This is not to say that certain goods and services (sympathy, sex, etc.) are only ever given by her. However, there is a significant disparity in the amount that Nora gives in comparison to Javo. Additionally, she never takes any masculine-coded perks and privileges

[10] Manne, K. Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny. Oxford University Press, 2018.

[11] Brophy, K. "Helen Garner's Monkey Grip: The Construction of an Author and Her Work." Australian Literary Studies Vol. 4 (1994): 270-281.

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