The Masochistic Pleasures of Sentimental Literature

The Masochistic Pleasures of Sentimental Literature

The Masochistic Pleasures of Sentimental Literature

The Masochistic Pleasures of Sentimental Literature


"A well-written and sophisticated study of nineteenth-century female masochism and its expression in the writing of middle-class American women of the period. Marianne Noble's plan is impressive: she is at once a thoughtful theorist and an admirable close reader of texts. The result is a work that engages in an illuminating and thought-provoking manner with extremely complex issues."--Suzanne Juhasz, University of Colorado

"Marianne Noble's book is the first study of sentimentality in American women's writing to go decisively beyond the impasse created by the Douglas-Tomkins debate. It brings acute and sophisticated perception to the study of a group of writers whose fate has frequently been to serve as stalking horses for other issues, rather than as objects of individual study in themselves. As a psychoanalytically oriented text, it is remarkably clear and persuasive, using theory to illuminate the dynamics of masochistic fantasy without obscurantism. This is a wonderful book."--Paula Bennett, Southern Illinois University


In 1881, Lucy Larcom, an American poet well known in her day, published “Fern Life,” a poem that intermingles meditations upon nature with religious and cultural observations. One of the themes “Fern Life” addresses is the resilience of women in the face of cultural oppression. Women, Larcom suggests, are like ferns, which have constraints upon their lives that make it difficult for them to grow in a normal way into recognizably healthy and beautiful plants. the first line of the poem suggests that sometimes it is hard even to recognize them as alive at all: “Yes, life! Though it seems half a death” (231). the remark appears to be addressed to someone who is surprised by the vitality asserted in the title,“Fern Life.” It suggests that women, like ferns, in fact are alive, despite expectations to the contrary. the poem goes on to imply that women will assert their right to develop themselves, to create their own art despite conventions dictating that they merely “pencil rare patterns of grace / Men's footsteps about” (231). in the fifth and seventh stanzas, Larcom indicates that social limitations will not prevent women's self-fulfillment, but they will force them to seek unexpected means for self-realization:

Yet why must this possible more Forever be less? the unattained flower in the spore Hints a human distres.

To fashion our life as a flower, in weird curves we reach,— O man, with your beautiful power of presence and speech!

(qtd. in Walker, Nineteenth 232)

Lacking the beautiful powers of “presence and speech” that men have— discouraged from asserting themselves physically and verbally—women have to reach in weird curves. But the poem does not lament victimization; it is about “Fern Life,” the fact that women will make accommodations in order to find pleasure and power within the cultural circumstances in which they find themselves. I want to suggest in this book that the pronounced strain of masochism that is evident in a good deal of . . .

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