Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

The Unanswerable Woman Question in William Dean Howells's A Hazard of New Fortunes

Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

The Unanswerable Woman Question in William Dean Howells's A Hazard of New Fortunes

Article excerpt

Contributing to the raging debates regarding the woman question that hovers over the era, late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American literature presents varying perspectives on the issue. Taking a stand for or against women's liberation and women's rights, like the society of the time, the literature asks if woman's move into the work world and away from the domestic sphere, her claim to voting rights and equal education, and her progression toward independence and self-sufficiency will ruin America. Will such a move destroy her and the concept of womanhood itself? Will it so profoundly change family life that the very character of Americans will demonstrate its effects? The novelists of the time offer a wide range of responses to these questions. Some writers continue to portray the romantic heroines and heroes who work their way to happily-ever-after marriage by the end of the novel. Some authors focus on the dire consequences of not following domestic traditions. Still others depict new, utopian societies which base themselves on the equality of all classes, including women, though often these texts explore labor and economics more thoroughly than they examine the position of women. William Dean Howells, however, presents all sides of the woman question and reaches no concrete conclusions. Instead, he conveys the confusion and contrasts endemic to the question, for he views no single choice as fully palatable or ideal. He shows the realistic, negative elements and effects of all of the choices facing women. Nowhere does this approach show more clearly than in his novel A Hazard of New Fortunes. While each of the ten female characters in that novel represents some aspect of the unanswerable nature of the woman question and the negative effects of grasping any one of the possible roles of womanhood, perhaps the most telling effects surface in the characters of Elizabeth Dryfoos, Isabel March, Christine Dryfoos, Alma Leighton, and Miss Woodbum. Together these women represent the multifaceted, confusing, and conflicted microcosm of American female society.

Howells says that "each man [serves as] a microcosm, and the writer who [can ...] acquaint [the reader] ultimately with half a dozen people ... has done something which [no one can call] narrow" (qtd. in Bennett 114). His A Hazard of New Fortunes epitomizes this theory, for its story portrays several different microcosms of society, each small group comprising a membership that together represents some segment of late nineteenth-century American life. As a realist and an American, Howells presents "a debate with the conventions of outdated romance" and "competing versions of reality" (Kaplan 160). The women of A Hazard of New Fortunes become very much a part of that portrayal. Each female character embodies a different element of those competing visions, and as Howells contemplates the problem of showing a society "composed of competing and seemingly mutually exclusive realities" (Kaplan 11-12), he conveys the ineffectiveness of each one. In analyzing A Hazard of New Fortunes, most scholars, including Amy Kaplan, Alfred Habegger, Allen F. Stein, Christopher Diller, Susanna Ashton, and John Crowley, focus on the competing contingencies of the real world and the romantic one, the labor market and the commercial world, the artistic realm and the materialistic one, the family and the larger society, or even the female sphere and the male one, but few examine the competing realities of the woman's world alone. Though Sidney Bremer discusses two types of female characters (the invalid and the actress) in Howells's work, Mary E. Edwards and Crowley scrutinize to some extent the failed female artist, Habegger considers the "tyrant woman" (155), and Stein expounds upon the woman's role in marriage, not one of these critics contemplates the conflicted world of women in A Hazard of New Fortunes. These critics satisfy themselves with analysis of one female character each and, in doing so, fail to see the wholeness of the single American reality present in Howells's conglomeration of A Hazard of New Fortunes' women, particularly in the juxtaposition of Elizabeth Dryfoos and Isabel March, Christine Dryfoos and Alma Leighton, and Miss Woodburn. …

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