Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

A "Masterpiece" of the "The Educated Eye": Convention, Gaze, and Gender in Spofford's "Her Story." (Harriet Prescott Spofford)

Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

A "Masterpiece" of the "The Educated Eye": Convention, Gaze, and Gender in Spofford's "Her Story." (Harriet Prescott Spofford)

Article excerpt

There have been calls of late for critical attention to the long-neglected works of Harriet Prescott Spofford. Most of these calls have cited "Circumstance," a story concerned with issues of women's voice and characterized by Emily Dickinson as "the only thing . . . that I do not think I could have written myself" (Bendixen x).(1) Spofford's recent editors have also drawn attention to "Her Story," a tale of rivalry between two women, both unnamed, one the wife of a wealthy minister and the other his ward.(2) The wife narrates her story from the madhouse to which she has been committed - "bur[ied] . . . alive" in "this grave" (148) by her husband Spencer. As this brief summary suggests, "Her Story" in many ways anticipates the themes and critical interests of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" (1892). Like "The Yellow Wallpaper," "Her Story" offers a critique of the social conventions that define women as dependent and of the prevailing literary conventions complicitous in this agenda.(3) But unlike Gilman's later tale, "Her Story" is concerned not so much with the divisions between men and women as with the origins and significance of divisions among women. Specifically, it explores the way the oppositions common to male- and female-authored fictions (blond-passive-chaste; dark-aggressive-sexual) serve to divide women from each other. Further, it interrogates the cultural and psychological grounds of these oppositions, locating them in the desire of patriarchal institutions to divide what is frightening or threatening to them. Spofford's adaptation of the Gothic mode demonstrates how the concept of the "other woman" objectifies the status of woman as "other" in the service of intra-gender warfare. For all their apparent differences, the two rivals are shown to be sisters who are equally subject to male authority, which is maintained by the myths of our culture and by the conventions of looking that situate women as objects of a male gaze.

As both psychologists and literary critics argue, the male fear of female sexuality - of the woman as "other" - may give rise to reductive stereotypes that serve to distance and diminish women. One of the most common of these strategies, as Karen F. Stein explains, is to split the concept of woman "into pairs of stereotyped antitheses: saint/sinner, virgin/whore, . . . angel, witch" (124).(4) These schematically opposed types are familiar from classic male texts and popular women's fiction. Among the male-authored texts, James Fenimore Cooper's Leather-Stocking Tales are probably most notorious for their depiction of pure but childish blonds and experienced but compromised brunettes. Conventional oppositions are not, however, restricted to male-authored texts. Mary Jane Holmes's Tempest and Sunshine (1854), for example, follows two sisters - the blond Fanny ("Sunshine") and the dark-haired Julia ("Tempest"), whose nicknames epitomize their characters and plot-functions. Spofford's "Her Story" first appears to center on several equally clear oppositions - dominance and dependence, dark and light, sanity and madness, freedom and confinement - each of which is sustained by the enabling thematic opposition of loving wife and predatory other woman. "Her Story" evokes one of the contrasts common in Gothic and other nineteenth-century American fictions: the good, pure-hearted, submissive women and the scheming vampire and housebreaker. But more than most other writers of the period, Spofford is concerned with the deadly effect of such stereotyped antitheses even as she uses of them.

Spofford is attentive to such matters partly because she wrote "Her Story" during a period of transition and redefinition in women's literature. In the late 1860s and early 1870s, as Nina Baym points out, the once-popular literature she calls "woman's fiction" was rapidly losing its audience. This literature focused on a dependent woman's movement toward independence and self-sufficiency; it chronicles "the |trials and triumph' . …

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