Elizabeth Stoddard (1823-1902)
Sybil Weir and Sandra A. Zagarell
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Stoddard's terse narrative style, the limitation of point of view to
the indirect, ironic woman narrator, and the oblique portrayal of the major
act on which the plot turns may make it difficult for students to follow
Huell." Also, students unfamiliar with
conventions of gothic fiction and mid-century history may miss much of
the social commentary. It may therefore be useful to ask students to review
the plot. It may also be useful to give background on sentimental fiction's
featuring of courtship plots and frequent endorsement of female self-sacrifice
and male paternalism (as in The Wide, Wide World
) so that students
get a sense of Stoddard's critique of such conventions.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Although Stoddard's major subjects, like those of many antebellum women
writers, include her protagonists' urges towards selfhood and the sociocultural
conventions that thwart or channel those urges, she is at once far more
ironic about conventions-- including literary conventions--and far more
sympathetic to women's personal ambition, her own as well as her protagonists',
than a Susan Warner or a Maria Cummins. In "Lemorne" she calls
attention to the limitations that gender and class impose on her protagonist
and to the limitations of the feminine strategies of irony and passive
aggressiveness with which Margaret both adapts to and resists her circumstances.
She also emphasizes romantic love as a convention that facilitates the
bartering of women and portrays marriage and family as institutionalizing
the possession of women who are without power. These aspects of "Lemorne"
exhibit the intense critique of bourgeois Victorian American gender arrangements
to be found in much of Stoddard's fiction. At the same time, "Lemorne"
is unquestioning of other dimensions of antebellum America. It uses slavery
and the Fugitive Slave Law as vehicles to suggest the need for more liberal
circumstances for white women while remaining silent about the circumstances
of the enslaved population of the United States. In converting slavery
to a metaphor for the condition of white women, Stoddard participates in
a construction of white femininity that relies on a racially polarized
society and is prevalent throughout the nineteenth century and well into
the twentieth--as Hazel Carby demonstrates in Reconstructing Womanhood
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Primary questions have to do with Stoddard's use of the literary traditions
of her day--traditions of sentimental fiction and gothic romance. She undercuts
the standard courtship plot with her ironizing of the hero as rescuer,
yet sustains a degree of erotic intensity rare in fiction by antebellum
women writers and much influenced by Charlotte and Emily Brontė, whom
she esteemed highly. I'd also emphasize Stoddard's interweaving of the
Fugitive Slave motif and references to European literature, and her satirization
of Newport society.
I would also stress Stoddard's humor and her importance "as an
experimenter in narrative method. She anticipates modern fiction in using
a severely limited mode with minimal narrative clues" (Buell and Zagarell,
"Biographical and Critical Introduction," p. xxiii).
Huell" was first published in Harper's
New Monthly Magazine
, suggesting that Stoddard's fiction was directed
to a middle-class, educated audience. In fact, neither her short fiction
nor her novels were ever popular or recognized beyond a small circle of
intellectuals and writers. Presumably, the audience of her own day was
put off by her elliptical style and by her often satiric questioning of
prevalent assumptions about female virtue, self-abnegation, and religious
piety, as they may also have been by what James Russell Lowell termed her
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
I would compare Stoddard's fiction with that of Stowe
, and Spofford
For example, in what ways does her characterization depart from Stowe's
emphasis on religious piety or Alcott's affirmation of family and domestic
feminism? How do her use of an unusual situation and her intensity compare
with those of Spofford? How, and under what circumstances, do all four
writers emphasize their heroines' self-reliance (or the perils of self-abnegation)?
Other appropriate comparisons and contrasts have to do with point of view
(emphasizing Stoddard's rather unusual use of first-person narration) and
with gender commentary. An interesting comparison can be made with the
journalistic essays of Fern
which also take up the marriage contract, the condition of women, and women's
work, though in a very different mode, and which also use humor, though
of a much broader kind.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing
1. What is the effect of the first-person narrative?
2. In what ways is distance from the narrator achieved?
3. What do you make of the ending? Is it unexpected? How does it affect
your assessment of Margaret's passivity? Of her marriage?