Year of Publication

2016

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

College

Arts and Sciences

Department

English

First Advisor

Dr. Ellen Rosenman

Abstract

In “The Contest of Marriage: Domestic Authority in Victorian Literature”, I argue that depictions of engaged and newlywed couples in the Victorian novel consistently dismantle the concept of marriage, depicting the process of two individuals attempting to become one couple as a tenuous and even dangerous project to be undertaken during the nineteenth century. By looking at works where the decision to marry comes at the beginning of the novel rather than the conclusion, I examine the ways in which different novelists document and anatomize the consistent failures in the theoretical underpinnings of domesticity and conjugality. Given that gender, separate spheres and even the family unit have been increasingly viewed as unstable divisions and demarcations by prominent voices within nineteenth-century criticism, I argue that certain novelists were consistently engaged in exposing these insufficiencies in not only the establishment of marriage as a concept, but in the home space itself as a hypothetical location of domestic stability and success. This project will contribute to scholarship in the field not only by tracing the similar patterns and structures of seemingly disparate novels, but also by suggesting that the domestic instability discussed in groundbreaking accounts of Victorian gender ideology is not merely a feature of historical and personal accounts of the era, but is in fact a tension running through much of the period’s most popular and widely read literature as well.

In recent years, Victorian critics have collectively worked to demonstrate that separate spheres ideology is no longer a sufficient interpretive tool to employ in our attempts to excavate the nineteenth century's construction of marriage and conjugality. Just as John Tosh has argued for the husband's place within the home and Mary Poovey and Elizabeth Langland have argued for the woman's place beyond it, so too does my work demonstrate that more complex systems of gender and power relationships were functioning within even a "typical" Victorian home. Studies of domesticity have typically focused on either those citizens who embraced its precepts or the rebels who rejected them. In my work, I turn instead to characters whose earnest attempts to embody and enjoy domestic perfection are continually thwarted, proving that many writers consistently locate the trouble with domesticity not in the flaws of specific married couples, but in the implicitly universal claims domesticity makes on all married couples. I argue that in many novels of the period, even marriage enthusiasts are often transformed into its bitterest critics, due to its demands for performance and self-erasure of both spouses. Furthermore, even the seemingly neutral space of the idyllic Victorian home is often shown to be destructive to domesticity's goals, rather than lending structural support to the matrimonial endeavor. I conclude that these authors are suggesting that even marriage's harshest critics can never manage to be as persuasive about the relationship's pitfalls, hazards, and breakdowns as the actual experience of getting married inevitably proves to be.

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

http://dx.doi.org/10.13023/ETD.2016.366

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