- The Daughter’s Dilemma: Family Process and the Nineteenth-Century Domestic Novel
Paula Marantz Cohen’s The Daughter’s Dilemma is a meticulously argued, provocative and, at the same time, curiously hampered addition to recent feminist criticism on the domestic novel, the family and the feminine in nineteenth-century British and American literature and culture. Grounding her approach in family systems theory, and drawing especially on the pioneering work of anthropologist Gregory Bateson, Cohen argues that the domestic novel narrativizes the struggle of the nuclear family to maintain itself, usually at the expense of a scapegoated family member. Cohen observes that the family and the novel have followed identical paths of evolution from open, looser structures (the patrilineal, extended family and the picaresque tale) to the nineteenth-century, middle-class ideals of the closed nuclear family and closed domestic novel. Serving primarily to create a stable identity for the father (or father figure), the nuclear family system enacts his own desire and ability to be both inside that system and liberatingly outside of it. In the process, the system relies on at least one family member to mediate between the “inside” and the “outside,” to complement the father and be sacrificed to the family’s demand for interiority and closure.
As the book’s title indicates, that conflicted role falls most often to the daughter who, Cohen observes, is significantly more likely than her mother to perform this function. Her age and gender combine to maintain the basic sex role hierarchies vis-a-vis her father, for she is both younger and female, therefore less powerful than he. Further, her genetic likeness to her father, places her in a biologically complementary relationship to him which her mother simply cannot duplicate. The nuclear family is an unhealthy system, according to Cohen, and the daughter’s dilemma leads to symptomatic responses which are reflective of the illness of the system as a whole. In her analysis of the domestic novels and lives of such writers as Samuel Richardson, Jane Austen, Emily Bronte, George Eliot and Henry James, Cohen focuses especially on anorexia nervosa, the daughter’s disease first identified in 1873 and “so prevalent among adolescent girls in intact nuclear families today” (p. 24). Citing family systems theorists who call anorexia a “family disease,” Cohen claims that it “seems especially suited to cast light on the stabilizing role performed by the daughter” (p.24).
Cohen locates in Clarissa, for example, the “model of behavior” which will define the family and the novel throughout the nineteenth-century. In an impressive reading, she places the focus not on Clarissa as a solitary, even claustrophobic character struggling with a moral quandary and a socially disastrous event but on Clarissa as the daughterly nexus of all the quandaries and struggles and disastrous decisions in the novel. In her words, Clarissa is “literature’s original anorectic daughter,” whose story is “a primal myth for the emergence of the ‘anorexia syndrome’ for the family” (p. 57). Caught in the historically awkward transition between the open, patrilineal system, in which daughters functioned as objects of exchange in marriage, to the closed nuclear system, in which members are bound by the ideal of family solidarity, Clarissa is forced by the Harlowe family to play out its conflicts and contradictions. As the mediating family member, she embodies and must perform two roles: the obedient, submissive daughter who would maintain the system by strictly adhering to its rules, and the rebellious daughter who must be scapegoated in order for the system to close in on itself and survive. According to Cohen, defending the ideal of the [End Page 205] nuclear family was an agenda dear to Richardson himself, and it became equally important to his nineteenth-century successors.
Austen’s Mansfield Park, with its utopic ending, may be Cohen’s strongest argument for the extent to which the nuclear family ideal gripped the nineteenth-century imagination. In the novel, Fanny Price, the outsider and scapegoat...