We have trained and bred one kind of qualities into one-half the species, and another kind into the other half. And then we wonder at the contradictions of human nature.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Women and Economies (1898)
Mary Wilkins Freeman's novel Pembroke (1894),(1) written in the wake of her successful regional collections, A humble Romance (1887) and A New England Nun and Other Stories (1891), confronts the gender/power dialectic at the core of late nineteenth-century America's ambivalent "New Woman" discourse. From the 1880s through the 1920s, the popular press and literary figures as diverse as William Dean Howells, Henry James, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Kate Chopin, and Theodore Dreiser pondered the repercussions of women's suffrage, political activism, sexual liberation, reproductive rights, egalitarian labor laws, communal child care, and educational opportunities upon traditional gender roles, particularly within the patriarchal-dominated unit, the family. According to Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, after a half century of contentious dialogue, fin-de-siecle American society "agreed on only one point: The New Woman challenged existing gender relations and the distribution of power."(2) At its publication, Pembroke's quasi-clinical case study of three fathers' influence upon their daughters' self-esteem and socialization added a crucial perspective to the New Woman polemic. A century later, however, Freeman's fascinating novel is little known, conceivably because its father-daughter narrative departs from her trademark vignettes of irascible older women (although the novel includes those familiar types), and literary scholarship has traditionally privileged the latter characterizations.(3) Additionally, as Lynda Boose and Betty Flowers compellingly argue in Daughters and Fathers, scholarly inquiry has historically favored father-son or, secondly, mother-son narratives. It is "rare," they maintain, "to see any analytical discussion of fathers and daughters."(4) Perhaps for these reasons, Pembroke, piercingly topical even a century later, has attracted little postmodern critical attention.(5)
Akin to Wharton's Ethan Frome (1911), Pembroke has been predominately read as a regional narrative, a critique of stunted New England hubris.(6) But the novel is more than a condemnation of isolationism and orthodoxy: it is a manifesto for the New Woman's essential participation in drafting the range and quality of human existence. This is not to say that Pembroke's daughters are definitive New Women confronting the expansive opportunities the modifier "new" implies. They are not. But the daughters' characterizations suggest the range of response, vitriolic to propitious, that the New Woman question aroused during the decades preceding and following the novel's publication.
In 1899 Freeman called Pembroke, almost clinically, "a study of the human will . . . in different phases of disease,"(7) in no small part because its three narcissistic fathers effectively predetermine their daughters' lives and life choices. The central focus of the father-daughter narrative concerns Charlotte and Cephas Barnard, whose dispute stemming from a political argument endures a decade; Rebecca and Caleb Thayer, Rose and Silas Berry, serve as contrasting foils. In the tradition of women's fiction, the novel functions as a female Bildungsroman, a cautionary tale steeped in the legacy of New England Calvinism. In Pembroke the female journey ordinarily concludes at the altar, and its daughters traditionally confront a long, well-travelled path. Their primary duty is to honor their families and the community by sticking to the thoroughfare. As if treading a narrow plank, they can be undone by a single misstep, and their parents' obligation is to make sure they never falter. The novel, however, links the daughters' psychological motivations to a destructive imbalance of power in their parents' unions. …