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Almost Speechless: Representations of Womanhood and Female Voices in Turn­-of-­the-Century American Novels

Carmen Sylvia Smith, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


In this dissertation, I close read four turn-­of-­the-­century American novels by Henry James, Kate Chopin, Charles Chesnutt, and Willa Cather to analyze how the voices and silences of fictional women characters work to disrupt cultural ideals about womanhood. Examining which aspects of the characters’ identities are expressed in direct dialogue and which traits are conveyed to the reader through narrative devices reveals how cultural ideals about womanhood restrict women’s self-­expressive autonomy and work to exclude female voices from the public sphere.Chapter One examines Henry James’s The Bostonians (1886) and how erotic rivals Olive Chancellor and Basil Ransom compete to control Verena Tarrant’s voice. Although a public speech artist, Verena is an empty oratorical voice box promoting others’ ideas. Her lack of an original, self-­expressive identity locks her into the private sphere as a static, empty ideal. Chapter Two explores how Edna Pontellier in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899) has two models of womanhood available to her – the “True Woman” Adèle Ratignolle models ideal motherhood, social conformity, and marital submission, and the “New Woman” and independent artist figure Mademoiselle Reisz. Edna cannot reconcile those two competing drives within her to articulate an independent identity, finally seeking solace in suicide. Although Rena Walden in Charles Chesnutt’s The House Behind the Cedars (1900) outwardly conforms to all standards of perfected Southern womanhood, Chapter Three exposes how whiteness is inscribed in conceptions of idealized womanhood; thus, Rena’s invisible blackness disqualifies her from participating in white social politics. Rena’s gender only further exacerbates her already present, racially motivated exclusion from dominant American culture. Chapter Four discusses how Cather’s narrative focalizing of Marian Forrester through male characters creates her as an in­-the-­moment experience for the reader of A Lost Lady (1923). Despite the limitations imposed by this masculine framing of Marian, she asserts herself both through meaningful self­-expression and through silences, succeeding in establishing a comfortable place for herself in society.

Subject Area

American literature

Recommended Citation

Smith, Carmen Sylvia, "Almost Speechless: Representations of Womanhood and Female Voices in Turn­-of-­the-Century American Novels" (2021). ETD collection for University of Nebraska-Lincoln. AAI28713354.