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  • Dissent and the Daughter in A New England Tale and Hobomok
  • Nancy F. Sweet

The American novel of the 1820s pioneers a new role for a character almost universally fated for doom in earlier literature: the virtuous but disobedient daughter. Catharine Maria Sedgwick's A New England Tale (1822) and Lydia Maria Child's Hobomok (1824) are two novels featuring dutiful heroines who, by contravening parental and religious authority, welcome a new era of Enlightenment into the young republic. The disobedient daughters of Sedgwick and Child bring education, refinement, and benevolence into the gloomy old theocratic societies governed by their difficult and benighted elders. Rebellious daughters have been central to Western literature throughout the ages, but the fate of defiant daughters before the nineteenth century was nearly always death or expulsion from the societies disrupted by their disobedience. The defiant heroines created by Sedgwick and Child are an entirely new literary creation, one that reflects a national faith in private judgment so abiding that it could admit, for the first time, the legitimacy of the female dissenter.

Western literature has featured disobedient daughters ever since Genesis, the master narrative that established the defiant daughter as an irreparably destructive force in both the family and society. The disobedience of the daughter traditionally renders her vulnerable to exploitation and ruin and catalyzes the corruption of others, a pattern repeated in other masterworks, including Paradise Lost, King Lear, and Clarissa. In these narratives, daughterly defiance is so irremediable that social order can be restored only with the daughter's banishment and death.

Novels of the eighteenth century take tentative strides away from this master paradigm of daughterly disobedience. In America, seduction novels such as Susanna Rowson's Charlotte Temple (1794) and Hannah Foster's The Coquette (1797) follow Samuel Richardson in cultivating readers' sympathies for their heroines by suggesting poor parenting as a cause of the seduced daughter's inability to govern her passions or to resist the advances of unscrupulous suitors. By representing the eventual repentance and Christian conversion of their heroines, these novelists envision the possibility of redemption for the disobedient daughter. Nevertheless, even Rowson's and Foster's narratives of filial defiance continue to resolve with the daughter's death.

Daughters in the late eighteenth-century novel in both England and America are more typically impeccably virtuous than they are disobedient. Gothic fictions such as Matthew [End Page 107] Lewis's The Monk (1796), Charles Brockden Brown's Ormond (1799), and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) also subject such daughter-paragons to torment and death, but for the purpose of illustrating the depravity of the forces—Catholicism, international intrigue, science—that would make a sacrifice of such rarefied creatures.

The more complex daughter-figures of Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott exhibit intelligence, independence, and a sense of moral propriety often exceeding that of their guardians. Still, filial and religious duty are central to the notion of virtue for the English daughter of the early nineteenth-century novel. Epitomizing such dutifulness is Rebecca of Scott's Ivanhoe (1819): steadfastly rebuffing all threats to her life and honor, she is dedicated above all to the laws of her Jewish faith, which prohibit her union with the Christian men who tempt her. Like her English counterpart, the American daughter in the early decades of the republic is portrayed as eminently dutiful, yet also capable and rational. Turn-of-the-century American heroines are often the scions of weak or foolish fathers. Typical are Constantia of Brown's Ormond and Rip Van Winkle's daughter Judith (in Washington Irving's 1819–1820 story), both of whom exhibit a consummate filial loyalty through their selfless care for aging, decrepit fathers.

What distinguishes the novels of Child and Sedgwick from their American predecessors and their English counterparts is the nineteenth-century American recourse to religion as a foundation of independence for daughter-heroines. The nation's commitment to freedom of conscience—the "first freedom"—affords the American novelist opportunity to place the pious but dissenting daughter in conflict with her irrational and superstitious Calvinist elders without forfeiting the daughter's virtue. Religion in America served as a unique medium for the expression of independence by...


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pp. 107-125
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