“Before Father comes home” : fatherhood and domesticity in the nineteenth-century American novel
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This project explores the anxieties and instabilities that inhere in representations of fatherhood in American fiction from 1842 to 1913. I argue that the ideological construct of separate spheres fails both as a historical supposition and as a critical framework for analyzing literature because it cannot account for the father’s place in the home. Bad fathers abound in the nineteenth-century American novel: abusive fathers, absent fathers, impotent fathers. Most pointedly, none of these fictional fathers seem able to function productively within the home. I suggest that the Victorian “cult of motherhood” privileges the mother’s domestic role to such an extent that the father is rendered worse than superfluous. But this tension between fatherhood and domesticity goes further than the simple binary of separate spheres, for just as the notion of the thoroughly domesticated woman did not reflect the everyday reality of life for nineteenth-century American women, the idea of the father solely as a source of financial support did not hew to cultural and legal expectations for nineteenth-century American men. In addition to fiction, this dissertation examines writings from sources such as advice manuals, temperance pamphlets, and transcripts from divorce courts in order to historically situate the nineteenth-century American father. The first chapter looks at nationalism and fatherhood in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and Susan Warner’s The Wide, Wide World, both novels that structure their narratives around a process of paternal auditioning that questions the status and necessity of fatherhood as a facet of American identity. The next two chapters examine two nineteenth-century phenomena that sparked collisions between private and public life: the temperance movement, and rise of divorce in America. The final chapter examines the fiction of Charles Chesnutt, who reinvigorates Harriet Beecher Stowe’s brand of domestic sympathy in order to highlight the continued vulnerability of black fathers and black families as a whole, writing at a moment when Thomas Dixon and other white supremacist authors were invoking sentimentalized versions of the white American family in order to demonize black men, and specifically black fatherhood, as the most terrifying threat to America’s unity and stability.
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