Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

"We Must Sorrow": Silence, Suffering, and Sentimentality in Susan Warner's 'The Wide, Wide World.'

Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

"We Must Sorrow": Silence, Suffering, and Sentimentality in Susan Warner's 'The Wide, Wide World.'

Article excerpt

Since its "rediscovery,"(1) Susan Warner's The Wide, Wide World has posed a challenge to critical readers: what is the meaning of the relentless, excruciating focus on the suffering of the young female protagonist in this record-setting bestseller?(2) The novel is structured around flee trials of Ellen Montgomery and her subjective experience of pain. Suffering is a crucial narrative element of The Wide, Wide World and trust be accounted for in any interpretation of the novel.

All recent critical considerations of The Wide, Wide World suggest theories about its depiction of suffering, and arguments about the novel's ideological meaning turn on how one understands the role of female suffering within the text. Jane Tompkins argues in Sensational Designs that through her suffering, the child Ellen learns a lesson in religious transcendence. By accepting suffering, Ellen supplants early patriarchal authority with divine: "So `submission' becomes `self-conquest' and doing the will of one's husband or father brings an access of divine power." According to Tompkins, the novel establishes that self-abnegation is really empowerment because women ally themselves with the most powerful possible authority. A quite different interpretation of the novel's emphasis on female suffering is put forward by Richard Brodhead in his essay "Sparing the Rod: Discipline and Fiction in Antebellum America." He finds that the novel's emphasis on obedience and submission reinforces patriarchy, both within and outside the narrative. Brodhead argues that the novel both represents and incites painful emotions, "indeed brings those feelings to a high pitch of outrage and grief. But the interest it thus excites involves us in its representation of this same disciplinary structure as sacredly founded and morally immitigable." In other words, the very power of the representation of suffering strengthens the imperative to obey the authority that is the ultimate source of the suffering. Tompkins and Brodhead represent poles in the debate over the narrative importance of female suffering and its relationship to the novel's politics.(3)

Because the novel reemerged as part of a feminist recovery of women's writing, there has been a good deal of interesting debate over the novel's gender politics. The novel insists unstintingly on absolute female submission as a social and religious imperative, even while recording the extreme psychic costs of compliance with that imperative. If one focuses on the first part of the equation--insistence on submission--disagreement about political implications becomes almost inevitable; is this emphasis subtle coercion of readers, as Brodhead alleges, advocacy of an empowering self discipline as Tompkins believes, or perhaps a pragmatic recognition of real-world limitations on women, as Nina Baym suggests?(4) If, on the other hand, one sees a subversive subtext emerging through the simultaneous endorsement of female submission and endless iteration of the suffering it produces, the novel comes to appear more ambiguous, indeed strongly divided against itself. Emphasis on narrative tension characterizes the approaches of Joanne Dobson and Susan Harris.(5) This essay will also assert that The Wide, Wide World is in conflict over the fundamental questions it engages. It will focus in particular on the novel's privileging of female subjectivity through its depiction of female suffering, and its simultaneous compromising of other, competing sources of narrative and cultural authority.

Ellen Montgomery's suffering is a central narrative element not because the story explicitly legitimizes the authority figures who cause this suffering (although it does). but because suffering provides her with a compelling means of self-expression. The emphasis on suffering thus constructs two competing sources of authority within the narrative: the literal authority figures who are responsible for female suffering. and the women themselves who suffer. …

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