Elizabeth Stoddard (1823-1902)

    Contributing Editors:
    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 "Lemorne Versus 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 Brontë, 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).

    Original Audience

    "Lemorne Versus 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 "coarseness."

    Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections

    I would compare Stoddard's fiction with that of Stowe, Alcott, 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?