Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (1844-1911)
Contributing Editor: Carol Farley Kessler
Classroom Issues and Strategies
While it may be difficult for a few of the male students to enter the
viewpoint of the heroine of The Story of Avis
, many students--especially
women--find this a profoundly rewarding novel to read.
I acknowledge to a class that Phelps's style sometimes causes a problem.
I explain that she was an anxious person, that in Avis she was tackling
taboo subjects--such as the view that marriage is not good for women, and
that women are as creative as men. I ask students to note other taboo viewpoints
that arise. Then I ask them to consider how they write when they are afraid
of how people may react to their ideas. Phelps's writing is sometimes precious,
overwritten--the tactic of a worried person. I also point out that sometimes
contorted language occurs with personally difficult or socially controversial
subjects; students need to consider the possible emotional significance
of the text for its author. The problems of style can inform us.
Women respond strongly, positively to this realistic novel depicting
women's three-role status (mother-wife-person), which they recognize as
unresolved in the 1990s as in the 1870s. Men may be less aware of the potential
for overwork entailed in this three-role status; however, some will be
sons of single or divorced mothers, hence more aware of the dilemma of
women's unpaid, often invisible labor. They, rather than the instructor,
may be guided to provide explanations to less-aware men. Also women (and
some men) need the conscious support of an instructor to feel safe enough
to respond with emotional honesty to male (and some female) classmates
who don't understand the issues Phelps tackles.
Perry Miller Adato's thirty-minute film on "Mary Cassatt"
(1844- 1926), a Philadelphia artist who worked in Paris, provides an overview
of the status of the nineteenth-century creative woman.
Erica Jong's essay, "The Artist as Housewife: The Housewife as
Artist," in Ms.
(October 1972), reprinted in The First Ms.
(New York: Warner, 1973, pp. 111-22), demonstrates surprisingly
little contrast between 1877 and 1972.
The marriage/career conflict engages students' attention, as does the
general contemporary relevance of the concerns of Phelps's novel. They
wonder, especially the women, why these problems continue to exist. They
wonder how to solve them. They take the issues addressed by the novel very
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
An overview of these matters is Kessler's Introduction to The Story
(New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers, 1986, pp. xiii-xxvi, plus notes).
Themes include role conflict and overload for women, conditions needed
for creativity, the reality of unhappy marriages for women, freedom with
singleness and constraint with marriage, possibilities emerging from atypical
: The novel attacks the socialization of women
to be "true women" (Phelps's essay, in the Rutgers reprint of
, elucidates the role construct of true womanhood--to be compassionate,
cheerful, submissive, selfless); it espouses women's movement beliefs in
women's right to meaningful work and emotional support.
: Avis seems to be an ideal composite of Phelps,
her mother, and female relatives (see "A Literary Legacy" in
5 [Fall 1980] 28-33). The longest publication gap in Phelps's
career occurs between The Silent Partner
, 1871, and The Story
, 1877: consider Tillie Olsen's view that "censorship silences"
(see her Silences
[New York: Delta, 1979], p. 9). In a 1903 letter
to Harriet Prescott Spofford
Phelps wrote, "The married are hampered in what they can say. I remember
that when I wrote Avis
I said 'were I married, I could not write
this book' " ( Avis
, Introduction, p. xxxi). See also chapters
3 and 7 from The Silent Partner
on the silencing of women in marriage.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
: A feminized version of the Grail legend, hence
a romantic quest, though this is not particularly evident in the two excerpted
chapters; Bildungsroman/Künstlerroman--the growth and development
of the protagonist/artist; American literary realism, contemporaneous with
; also New England regionalism.
: Emotionally loaded, highly allusive and imagistic. "Avis"
equals Latin for bird; the caged bird, according to Ellen Moers in Literary
, 1976, pp. 245-51, is characteristic of women's writing; ironic
social commentary; occasional Christian sentiment.
: Art for truth's sake--"art implies truthful
and conscientious study of life as it is," notes Phelps in her autobiography
( Chapters from a Life
, 1896, p. 261); "life is moral responsibility,"
essential to beauty, she believes; didactic function of literature. She
assumed the seriousness of her mission as author.
One reviewer found the book unacceptable, especially for young female
readers; on the other hand, feminist Lucy Stone was sure it was destined
for "a permanent place in English literature." Currently its
return to availability was noted favorably ( Legacy
2 [Spring 1985]:
18). Student reports on standard reference articles-- AWW, 1982; DAB, 1936;
NAW, 1971--provide a challenge as each presents a very different viewpoint
on Phelps, resulting from differing audiences and historical contexts.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Künstlerroman, Roderick Hudson
, 1875, in which the artist is
overcome by a disappointment in love and commits suicide; Louisa
, "Diana & Persis" (written in 1879; in Alternative
, 1988, edited by Elaine Showalter), in which two friends discover
that maybe marriage and art can mix; Gilman
"The Yellow Wallpaper," 1892 ( The Heath Anthology
2), and Endure: The Diaries of Charles Walter Stetson, 1881-88
by Mary A. Hill, Temple University Press 1985), which reveal spousal control
of a woman's creative energies; Kate
, The Awakening
, 1899, in which a woman resists an eventless
married life and strikes for independence; Wharton's
short stories collected as The Muses's Tragedy and Other Stories, 1890s-1910s
(edited by Candace Waid, Signet, 1990), or the novelette The Touchstone
1900, in which women's aesthetic capacities appear ironically twisted;
Song of the Lark
, 1915, a novel depicting the origins and development
of artistic genius. Avis has a stronger character than James's Roderick
Hudson, but has less optimism than Alcott's Persis, less impatience and
rebelliousness than Chopin's Edna Pontellier, less firm commitment to her
art than Cather's Thea Kronborg.
Of the many possible multi-ethnic comparisons, consider the Asian-American
short story by Hisaye
, "Seventeen Syllables," 1949 ( The Heath Anthology
Volume 2), a devastating instance of lost creative freedom, and the final
chapter from Maxine Hong
Kingston's The Woman Warrior
, "A Song for a Barbarian Reed
Pipe," 1976, a vision of empowerment; African-American experience
in Lorraine Hansberry's
play To Be Young, Gifted, and Black
, 1969, a searching examination
of the impact of race upon creativity; in Alice
story "Everyday Use," 1973, concerning the inheriting
and using of art; and in Rita
novel Through the Ivory Gate
, 1992, an upbeat example
of creativity blending education, mime, and music.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing
1. (a) Discuss the conflict between caring and creativity that Avis
experiences. How does Phelps plot this?
(b) Delineate how marriage figures in the plot pattern of entrapment
(c) What ideas about relationships between women and men presented in
the novel are still historically unrealized?
(d) At the end of the novel, Phelps argues that making a woman will
take three generations, pp. 146-47. How, in the chapters read, does she
provide support for this hypothesis?
2. (a) Keep a reading journal of responses to the daily assignments,
with notations of specific (i.e., page, paragraph, word) support for generalizations
(b) In-class paragraphs written during the first fifteen minutes providing
detailed support for an opinion about the novel, on topics assigned for
later class discussion.
(c) Individual reports relating supplementary articles or other literary
selections to the Avis
Legacy: A Journal of Nineteenth-Century American Women Writers
provides critical articles about authors of Phelps's era.
Recent reprints of Phelps's best novels--The Story of Avis
(about a mill town social worker), Doctor Zay
(about a homeopathic physician)--contain useful introductions or afterwords.
In addition, Woman in Sexist Society
(ed. Vivian Gornick and
Barbara K. Moran, NAL, 1972) contains three relevant articles: Jessie Bernard,
"The Paradox of the Happy Marriage," 145-62; Linda Nochlin, "Why
Are There No Great Women Artists?" 480-510; and Margaret Adams, "The
Compassion Trap," 555-75.
The recent collection, Writing the Woman Artist: Essays on Poetics,
Politics, and Portraiture
, ed. Suzanne W. Jones, Philadelphia: University
of Pennsylvania Press, 1991, contains numerous suggestive discussions,
though none specifically on Avis
Finally, see Susan K. Harris, Nineteenth-Century American Women's
Novels: Interpretive Strategies
. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,