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Legacy 18.2 (2001) 239-240

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The Masochistic Pleasures of Sentimental Literature

The Masochistic Pleasures of Sentimental Literature. By Marianne Noble. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000. 258 pp. $57.50/$19.95 paper.

When Harriet Beecher Stowe famously urged readers to "feel right" as a mode of political response to her novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, she was undoubtedly not referring to the feelings reported by patients of Freud and Krafft-Ebing, who used the novel as a source for sado-masochistic fantasies and masturbatory pleasures. Yet for Marianne Noble, the response of such readers indicates that they have indeed rightly felt the masochistic erotics central to sentimentalism's power and appeal. In identifying masochism as a lure that beckoned to women, in particular, through the popular nineteenth-century idiom of sentimentalism, Noble makes an unsettling claim—a claim that she repeatedly characterizes as double-edged. On the one hand, a masochistic erotics would seem oppressive to women, inviting them to enjoy their own suffering, subjugation, and abuse. On the other hand, as Noble argues throughout this book, masochism offered women a degree of agency, enabling them to express a form of embodied selfhood and desire. In focusing on masochism as a central strategy of sentimental writing, then, Noble overcomes the longstanding debate within scholarship between the claim that sentimentalism was a "rancid" discourse encouraging women to participate in their own confinement (Anne Douglas) and the claim that sentimentalism consolidated new forms of subversive power for women (Jane Tompkins). Noble would answer "yes" to both sides of this argument; her analysis of sentimentalism thus attempts to move beyond (or perhaps deeper within) this "victim/subversion dichotomy" to show how the two positions are profoundly related to one another (4).

While masochism is a term drawn from psychoanalysis, at the start of her book Noble astutely turns directly to readings of nineteenth-century sentimental texts (rather than to psychoanalytic theory) to adumbrate a paradigm of masochism. As a result, psychoanalysis does not stand as a template imposed upon sentimental texts, but rather in Noble's hands emerges as a theoretical discourse that corresponds in broad historical terms with literary sentimentalism. In chapters on Susan Warner's The Wide, Wide World, Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, and Emily Dickinson's poetry, Noble adroitly unpacks and develops a compelling set of readings that evince the historical determinants of women's masochistic desire, including Calvinism, coverture, and the discourse of "true womanhood"—all of which invite women to take pleasure in forms of self-erasure in the name of transcendence and ecstasy. In her reading of Warner's novel, for instance, Noble details the way Ellen's affection for the horse-whipping John Humphreys figures her own desire to be broken by him. "In order for a woman to attain the abiding and elevated delights of spiritual enlightenment in Christian marriage, her will must be broken" (119), writes Noble. Despite arguing that it is "unequivocally [End Page 239] appalling" that suffering is equated with true womanhood, Noble concludes that Warner's novel is "neither simply a tool in the victimization of women nor simply a protofeminist affirmation of female nurture" but "a problematic effort to appropriate agency in one of the most contested arenas of women's lives under patriarchy: sexuality" (125). Noble thus argues for the double-edged force of masochism in distinctly literary and historical terms.

Nonetheless, the central insights of this text remain deeply theoretical, indebted to a range of psychoanalytical and poststructuralist theorists whose names are legion within Noble's footnotes. (It is worth noting that Noble summarizes and conveys these theoretical arguments with extraordinary clarity and compression, enabling them to illuminate rather than control her textual analyses.) Grounded both in powerful readings and in robust footnotes, Noble advances two central claims. Following Foucault, she first describes a subject created through desiring (rather than repressive) relations to power. In The Wide, Wide World, Humphreys does not forcibly break Ellen; rather, she desires it because through this domination she accesses a culturally exalted female subjectivity. Second, leaning this time upon Lacan, Noble...