Before the loathsome crowd: Women on stage in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American literature

Linda Rose, Purdue University


Fictional women characters served as a locus for examining changes in American society during the second half of the nineteenth century. In The Scarlet Letter, published the same year as Jenny Lind's first U.S. tour, Hawthorne initiates a debate over the status of the "heart" in a society that encourages the veiling of one's feelings and attitudes. In The Scarlet Letter and ensuing works, patriarchal society is depicted as a theatrical performance. Hawthorne's portrayal of Hester Prynne addresses the following issues relevant to this study: women's changing social status as they gained legal rights and vocational opportunities; society's increased valuing of outward show or performance over the true expression of one's feelings, attitudes and imagination; and the artist's experience in the changing society. Acting serves the female character to either enforce, subvert or expand socially-imposed roles. Hawthorne's The Blithedale Romance, Henry James's The Bostonians and Harold Frederic's The Damnation of Theron Ware question whether one's emotions and imagination can ever be freely expressed. In each of these novels, a female character adopts a persona in off-stage life. We see only glimpses of the "heart" of each of these characters. The female characters in Louisa May Alcott's Gothic tales and the Little Women series are always playing. Their talent serves the fulfillment of social roles rather than their own creative imagination. We cannot know what lies behind the roles they play. Theodore Dreiser in Sister Carrie and Edith Wharton in The House of Mirth depict a woman's acting talent as serving to fulfill socially-created images. Mary Wilkins Freeman in "The Village Singer" suggests that the creative voice can transcend social limitations. In Mary Austin's A Woman of Genius the theatrical Gift of the successful actress Olivia Lattimore expresses her own imagination. Austin suggests in this novel that a new social order can result when the "heart" takes precedence over restrictive social roles. ^




Major Professor: Wendy S. Flory, Purdue University.

Subject Area

Women's Studies|Literature, American

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