Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

"A Bird Alive in a Snake's Body": The New Woman of Evelyn Scott's the Narrow House

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

"A Bird Alive in a Snake's Body": The New Woman of Evelyn Scott's the Narrow House

Article excerpt

In 1921, with the publication of The Narrow House, the first in her trilogy of the modern woman, Evelyn Scott begins an exploration of the growing separation of the public and private spheres. This break in white, middle-class society into two separate realms came about historically with the appearance of the new woman. Although the new woman's literary equivalent doesn't appear until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, her appearance in political tracts and newspaper editorials is solidly established as early as Margaret Fuller's Woman in the Nineteenth Century in 1845, prior to the Civil War and the appearance in literature of the American Girl.

The separation of men and women at the turn of the century relegated women to the home while men worked in factories or businesses. Women who had previously been involved in businesses within the home were at this time removed from those areas simply by the separation of the spheres. Janet Wolff writes that even though different writers viewed modernism as having different characteristics, "what nearly all the accounts have in common is their concern with the public world of work, politics, and city life. And these are areas from which women were excluded, or in which they were practically invisible" (34). This omission of women from the modernist canon is due not only to their neglect by art historians and biographers, but also to the separation at the turn of the century between the spheres. For women, new subjects arose from the experiences which occurred in the private sphere. Women writers began dealing openly with sexuality, female autonomy, and the investigation of the inner-self. The public sphere was created and controlled by men for men, and the economic, industrialized movement separated men from women. The increase in factories and the move from pastoral to urban further isolated these experiences. Women writers did not react to and therefore did not write about the same stimuli which promoted the production of works by such writers as Fitzgerald, Hemingway, or Faulkner. Ultimately, the portrayals of Daisy Buchanan, Brett Ashley, and Caddy Compson are intriguing representations of the male perspective of the new woman of the early twentieth century. These portrayals provide an exterior view from a male vantage point. However, it is the women writers who first seemed most clearly able to transfer the experience of the private sphere into a literary portrait. Female characters created by writers like Gertrude Stein, Zora Neale Hurston, and Evelyn Scott combine the public image with the private reality. Patricia Raub argues that:

   the "new woman" who appears ... in the most popular novels
   written by women in the Twenties is somewhat different from the
   heroines featured by Scott Fitzgerald ... Unlike Daisy Buchanan,
   who lives for the moment, has become cynical about marriage,
   and contemplates an affair with Jay Gatsby, the women who most
   frequently people best-selling novels by female writers are seldom
   as "liberated" as we might have expected. In novel after novel, the
   protagonist is a woman who has adopted the veneer of flapperdom:
   the clothing, hair style, slang of the times; but who remains
   an old-fashioned girl at heart. (126)

The new woman created by the female modernist writers is a woman with the outward demeanor of the times, but with an inward ambivalence. While male modernists wrote of cause and effect, women modernists explored both the external and internal motives of their characters, suggesting no one reason such as industrialization, war, or a rapidly shifting social movement as the ultimate villain. Perhaps Gertrude Stein's epigraph to Three Lives explains the situatedness of novels like The Narrow House when she quotes Jules LaForgue, "Donc je suis un malheureux et ce n'est ni ma faute ni celle de la vie" [Therefore I am unhappy and it is neither my fault nor life's fault]. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.