Date of Award

5-2003

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Major

English

Major Professor

Don Richard Cox

Abstract

Recently, a number of critical studies have focused on the ways in which New Woman fiction reconfigured nineteenth-century concepts of woman and modernity. The fictional New Woman was a complex and intriguing character, one who defined herself in opposition to the image of the traditional domestic heroine. However, to be a woman and to reject normative womanly behavior was to assert an identity whose nature and value were ambiguous at best, and which had no defined space within traditional social structures. In consequence, the fictional New Woman, despite her claims of independence and isolation, could not escape narratives of marriage and romance. Whether she chose to participate in them or to renounce them, authors continually attempted to work out the ways in which the woman of the future would function within the social structures that commonly defined the course of woman's life in the present. Specifically, in this dissertation, I will examine how nineteenth-century authors imagined the New Woman in relation to her romantic and sexual desires, and juxtapose this with the fictional New Woman's frequent inability to participate in marriage, the social structure that traditionally regulated and circumscribed women's desires. Although many authors wrote about New Women characters falling in love, these authors often were unable to imagine these same New Women characters in domestic spaces, playing traditional roles of wife and mother. Additionally, despite the occasional narrative of romantic and sexual fantasy, a majority of fin-de-siecle authors chose not to promote a society that allowed women to participate in sexual relationships outside of marriage. Thus, I would argue that the romance plots in New Woman novels generally conclude in one of two ways. Authors either show New Women changing and losing their ideas and ideals in response to their desire to participate in romantic relationships (and consequently in the domestic sphere), or else they show New Women who cannot change, destroyed by or destroying men as a result of being bound within the social and legal constraints of marriage. A number of modem-day critics dedicate chapters to the New Woman and marriage or to the different ways New Woman fiction approaches issues of love and/or sexuality; however, no writer has done an in-depth analysis of the ways in which issues of love, marriage, and desire are investigated and reconfigured in works about characters who are New Women. My study will illuminate the multifaceted concerns faced by the fin-de-siecle author struggling to write about women who promoted non-traditional ideas about the ways in which marriage could constrain, change, or destroy women.

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