Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

Marketplace Transactions and Sentimental Currencies in Fanny Fern's Ruth Hall

Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

Marketplace Transactions and Sentimental Currencies in Fanny Fern's Ruth Hall

Article excerpt

It is almost a cliche to note that in mid-nineteenth-century America the ideology of separate spheres held significant cultural currency, whereby men dominated the marketplace, while women were protected in the home. This ideology was dependent upon a series of assumptions about gender and class: men were capable and benevolent patriarchs; women, following the Cult of True Womanhood as identified by Barbara Welter, were inherently pious, pure, submissive, and domestic. To ensure this innocent state, women must be protected by men from the outside world, as knowledge of the marketplace and its workings might corrupt them and thus render them unfit to perform their duty as inculcators of virtue in the next generation. In theory, the private home provided the perfect shelter for the middle-class woman. As Jeanne Boydston writes, in nineteenth-century America "home" was understood to be "the antithesis of the economic world--an almost sacred refuge from the ravages of early industrialization and the last resort of all of those qualities of human life that were ground down by the heel of competitive materialism" (ix-x). Emerging ideologies of domesticity figured the home as a feminized space woman created by both her presence and her efforts, and where she presided as an "angel at the hearth," ruling through the persuasiveness of the domestic accomplishments which spoke for her. This sphere was her territory, then, the land she conquered while sweeping and scouring but never scowling. Her housekeeping was not to be a physical exertion but a "spiritual ministry" which she accomplished without visible effort, thereby retaining her femininity. (1)

But to naturalize this ideology of separate spheres is to ignore the way it, too, was manufactured. As historian Janet Wilson James notes, the ideology of separate spheres was produced and reified in response to fears that women might be influenced by discourses of equality to invade "the occupations so long regarded as men's exclusive province." She continues:

   Thoroughly alarmed, the guardians of morals and manners now for the
   first time felt impelled to make an exact definition of woman's
   sphere and insist on her staying within it. Behind this sphere
   propaganda lay a curious psychology. Warning women away from men's
   pursuits at a time when most females were utterly indifferent to
   them, emphasizing the all-engrossing importance of home and home
   duties which few would have thought to question, society's mentors
   and their readers to all appearances were aggressively reaffirming
   the old values at a time when society's familiar patterns were
   quite undisturbed. (150-51, emphasis mine)

However superfluous this insistence on female containment might seem, what it actually reinforces is a masculine prerogative. Interestingly, the contemporary rhetoric does not so much emphasize men's capability as caretakers as it does women's unsuitability for independence. Yet, just as the ideology of separate spheres is a fiction--particularly for the working classes--so too is the concept of all-encompassing male benevolence. What Fanny Fern draws attention to in her 1855 novel Ruth Hall is exactly how specious these ideologies can be. Drawing extensively on her own experiences to create those of her heroine, Fern asserts that sentiment is not a transcendent principle but rather a currency. (2) Furthermore, like all currencies it has an exchange value, one set not by women, but by those men who dominate the terms of exchange. In Fern's novel we watch as her protagonist learns this lesson in the process of acquiring significant marketplace savvy. The end result for Ruth Hall is the ability to determine her own value, both by discarding sentiment in favor of sympathy and in terms of marketplace capital.

Accordingly, Fern argues for her heroine's right to define herself economically and personally. As a widow, Ruth is also entitled by law to support and rule her own family, as opposed to being under the legal rule of a husband-cum-guardian. …

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