Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Fiction as Social Fantasy: Europe's Domestic Crisis of 1879-1914

Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Fiction as Social Fantasy: Europe's Domestic Crisis of 1879-1914

Article excerpt

In the years 1879-1914 European fiction took a searching look at entrenched social institutions, scrutinizing the family in particular with a premium on boldness. Indeed, the bolder its approach, the broader and stronger did its appeal tend to be. At first the aim was to turn up problems that might be solved or evils that might be remedied. But a depressive, defeatist, even destructive mood fast carried the day. By the 1890s any ambitious fiction that probed domestic life, as most fiction then did, was apt to present it as a pernicious mistake, and the more pernicious the deeper the probing had gone.

This fictional assault on the family, along with marriage as the familial breeding ground, was only rarely explicit, as when a Tolstoi or a Shaw fell to pamphle-teering within a novel or a play. Nor were authors' own statements of purpose in prefaces or elsewhere authoritative, for even a work of creative genius may convey a message other than its author intended. To tease arguments out of fiction can be tricky, but such a massive fictional trend as this antifamilial one is unmistakable. At the same time, the charges leveled at the family within that trend do not add up to a coherent indictment. Rather, they are like so many swipes taken at it from various standpoints and different angles. Those swipes scored no quick knockout, but they did eventually deflate the received familial ideal.

Europeans targeted the family in literary fantasy just when, in those decades before the First World War, it was thriving among them in public esteem and popular sentiment as perhaps never before. Even so, that onslaught against it was not fiction only; it was the down side of Europeans' restructuring of the family through their widespread adoption of birth control within marriage. This collective demographic doing by Europeans, and especially their innermost feelings about it, are my subject. Both show through Europe's fictional case against the family when that case is seen as a whole and seen as social fantasy. So my argument starts with that case spelled out in some detail from fictional intimations and implications mostly as hazy as they are strong.

A Darwinist-sounding fictional charge against human family life that cut deep at the time was that it constricted and confined a species naturally free and loose. This was the force of Menalque's famed exclamation in Andre Gide's The Foods of the Earth (1897): "Families, I hate you!"(1) Gide's whole generation learned this reason for hating families from Henrik Ibsen. And Ibsen's supreme representation of human domesticity as a false departure from nature was The Wild Duck (1884). In this dramatic masterwork, a stunted household shares quarters with a captive, wounded wild duck lodged in a fake forest. A visitor from the woodlands asks the grandfather, a broken outdoorsman, how he can ever "live in the midst of a stuffy town, between four walls."(2) By way of reply the grandfather points self-contentedly to those indoor, make-believe woodlands where the lamed duck has been growing fat in its confinement. His dreamy, washed-out son explains: "She's been in there so long now that she's forgotten the true wild life; it's as simple as that."(3) In Ibsen's deft symbolism, that hapless duck stood for the human animal in captive domesticity, maimed and degenerating. In his earliest notes for the play Ibsen specified: "Human beings are sea creatures--like the wild duck--not land creatures." And he added hopefully: "In time, all people will live on [the sea], when the land becomes swallowed up. Then family life will cease."(4)

Ibsen taught Europe first off to look at marriage, the basis of its family life as far back as it knew, as an unequal partnership that turned the woman into a mere wife and mother, thereby arresting her personal development. As Ibsen saw it, woman may not have been man's rib to begin with, but her domestication had made her into man's appendix. "You are first and foremost a wife and mother," her husband admonishes rebellious Nora in A Doll House (1879), and Nora replies: "I don't believe that any longer. …

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