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ROBERT MCCLURE SMITH "A Peculiar Case": Masochistic Subjectivity and The Morgesons In their introduction to the University of Pennsylvania reprint of Elizabeth Stoddard's 1862 novel The Morgesons, Lawrence Buell and Sandra Zagarell claim the novel as an important precursor of twentieth-century narrative experimentation. Stoddard, they argue, "anticipates modern fiction in using a severely limiting mode, with minimal narrative clues . . . minimal transitions, and dramatic, imagistic , and aphoristic impact" (xxiii). What an earlier scholar would identify as an "untutored style" lacking "smooth transitions" (Matlack, "Hawthorne" 293) is now, contrarily, viewed as a sophisticated experimental style specifically designed to disrupt readers' "expectations for cohesiveness and orderly progression" (Alaimo 32). Susan Harris goes so far as to argue that the "elliptical language, scantily cued dialogue, and fractured chronology" ("Stoddard's" 1 1 ) of The Morgesons represent the purposeful strategy of a narrator who, via her dislocative first person narration of events past, leads her readers "through the mental exercises necessary to grasp her often oblique prose . . . [creating] a new set of values for women's novels and a new kind of narratee to receive them" (153)·1 We might expect that such audience-implicating narrative experimentation would by now have garnered for Stoddard a significant place in the revised canon of nineteenth-century American fiction. But while important recent feminist studies of the period often neglect to mention Stoddard altogether, the Columbia Literary History of the United States (1988), summarizing her work in two sentences, Arizona Quarterly Volume 58, Number 3, Autumn 2002 Copyright © 2002 by Arizona Board of Regents ISSN 0004-1610 Robert McClure Smith dubs The Morgesons "a striking work of gloomy local color" (303 ).2 Descriptive evaluations such as this one recall Stoddard's own remark shortly after the novel's publication: "Indications are that it will be misunderstood ."3 She has been variously identified as a domestic novelist , an anti-sentimentalist, a local-color precursor of realism, a Brontëinspired gothicist, a uniquely provincial New England gothicist and a proto-modernist, and Zagarell's assessment that "Stoddard's place in American literature has remained negligible primarily because readers have never known how to place her" ("Repossession" 45) is surely valid. Indeed, because recent theoretical constructions of nineteenth-century women's literature have not placed narrative experimentation at a premium (nor made it a defining characteristic of women's fiction of this period), Stoddard's continued elision from the developing canon of nineteenth-century American literature and her bold stylistic experimentation may be related phenomena. The fact that Stoddard's works typically "defy hairsplitting categorical analysis because they consistently disturb the limits conventionally imposed on the categories themselves" (Henwood 43) has thus had significant ramifications for the reception of The Morgesons by the totalizing critical narratives of literary history. The novel has become, categorically speaking, a peculiar case. This is also the category immediately established by Stoddard for her novel's narrator, Cassandra Morgeson. Early in the text, a schoolteacher observes of her recalcitrant pupil that not only is the name Cassandra, "too peculiar" (35) but that the bearer of the name is herself a "peculiar case" (41). Critical discussions of the novel often focus on the degree to which Cassandra is indeed a "peculiar case" insofar as her narrative either follows or subverts the typical trajectory of the novel of development or maturation into adulthood. Thus, Sybil Weir's identification of the novel as a "feminist bildungsroman" (428) and Susan Harris's observation that it "portrays a woman's consciousness as she matures from an unruly childhood into responsible adulthood" ("Stoddard 's" 1 1 ) have been considerably qualified by scholars troubled by what that maturity into "responsible adulthood" ultimately entails, with Stacy Alaimo arguing that "ideologies of femininity and womanly duty . . . interpellate Cassandra into domesticated self-denial" and that the novel traces "the heroine's fall from a wild childhood into a restricted , self-denying female adulthood" (30).4 As the mutual failure of Masochistic Subjectivity and The Morgesons text and narrator to resolve themselves adequately is the underlying concern of these critical studies, it is perhaps not surprising that formal disjunctions should become so easily intertwined with character disjunctions in the textual analysis. For example, Zagarell's...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1558-9595
Print ISSN
0004-1610
Pages
pp. 1-32
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-02
Open Access
No
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