- Unlikely Heroines: Nineteenth-Century American Women Writers and the Woman Question, and: Boundaries of the Self: Gender, Culture, Fiction
"She's got some sort of notion in her head about the eternal rights of women." That was the complaint of Léonce Pontellier as he reported to the family doctor the unnerving behavior of his wife, Edna, in one of the most telling scenes of Kate Chopin's The Awakening. Delivered in another tone, it is Ann Shapiro's observation about much of the fiction published by American women in the second half of the nineteenth century. Shapiro focuses on six of the most important female novelists of the period—Harriet Beecher Stowe, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Louisa May Alcott, Sarah Orne Jewett, Mary Wilkins Freeman, and Kate Chopin. She shows how their novels address the Woman Question, exploring in fictional terms the crucial tenets of the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions, which announced the aims and principles of the American women's movement as they were formulated in 1848 at the Seneca Falls Convention.
Shapiro demonstrates, for instance, that Stowe presents abolition as a woman's issue and represents two possible routes to its achievement, both of them predicated on women's activity. In Uncle Tom's Cabin, slaves are freed when women influence men by exemplifying and teaching maternal values such as tenderness, caring, and self-sacrifice—or, failing that, when women defy men and break those laws that contradict an ethic of compassion. Uncle Tom's Cabin, the most popular novel of its time, shares with Freeman's Pembroke and Alcott's Work a vision of women as morally superior to men, thus far succumbing to "the cult of True Womanhood." But these novels also subvert the sentimental view of women by imagining effective lives for women outside the wifely role and by stressing the importance of work to a woman's dignity. Alcott's Work, Phelps's The Silent Partner, and Jewett's A Country Doctor go still further, depicting single women who first suffer from being excluded from "the professions" and then make the decision to forego marriage and feminine respectability in favor of the reward they prefer—an active life of work and responsibility in the public sphere. Shapiro finds Alcott, Jewett, and Chopin to be the most radical of her grouping of authors because their novels confront the antifeminist arguments on woman's nature that were current in American magazines late in the century. In defiance of the antifeminist position, the "unlikely heroines" of these novels lust healthily, conceive worthy ambitions, and pursue active careers.
The strength of Shapiro's study is the directness and firmness of her approach to her well-focused argument. After a short chapter offering a useful history of the women's movement in nineteenth-century America, Shapiro defends her thesis in streamlined chapters, all of which are divided into three parts: a short section on the author's life, a second section showing how one of the author's novels addresses the Woman Question, and a third section reviewing the criticism on that novel, with special attention to its early reception, its decline in reputation at the hands of male academic critics, and its recuperation by feminist criticism. The general reader, bright students, and literary scholars outside the field of nineteenth-century fiction will find themselves enlightened by this study. Because of its pitch to such an audience, however, scholars in the field may feel themselves [End Page 327] frustrated. Shapiro everywhere shows that she has absorbed the relevant criticism, and she adroitly deploys its insights in the building of sound arguments, but the critical issues and debates she cites on the run call out for more extensive treatment than her format allows. Nonetheless, novices to the work of American women novelists of the nineteenth century should welcome the overview that Ann Shapiro offers, and mey may find her arguments all the more compelling for...