Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

The Morgesons: Elizabeth Stoddard's Ars Erotica

Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

The Morgesons: Elizabeth Stoddard's Ars Erotica

Article excerpt

This essay takes up the often noted but seldom analyzed rage at the heart of Elizabeth Stoddard's novel The Morgesons. I argue that the outsized antisocial feeling that pervades the book comes out of Stoddard's profound dissatisfaction with dominant social models for being and belonging in Victorian America. While her counterparts internalized their anger with existing models and opportunities for women, Stoddard externalized hers by staging sadistic scenes that bear no trace of the baroque interiority of the sentimental novel. Yet for all its negativity, her rage is generative, enabling alternatives, however unsustained, to conventional notions of family and romantic love. Drawing on insights from what has been termed the antisocial thesis in queer theory, I read the bad behavior in The Morgesons--frustration, anger, narcissism, stubbornness, sadism, masochism--not as behaviors that need to be domesticated but as alternatives to the dominant life narrative and the institutions that perpetuate it. Informed by a nasty sensibility, this coming-of-age story enacts an anti-pedagogy against the domestic novel's lessons of romantic love, family life, and private property. (1) Stoddard foregrounds the life of her anti-heroine, Cassandra Morgeson, from childhood to adulthood as beset with frustration at the limitations that the prescribed passage to maturity entails. As such, The Morgesons chronicles the rage of a frustrated woman sensing foreclosure, not unlike Harriet Beecher Stowe's broad social vision whittled down in her later novels to the pleasures of shopping, decorating, and bossing one's spouse around. Yet unlike her contemporary, Stoddard lets her heroine's rage and the non-normative intimate possibilities it brings into being stand against the meager pleasures of domestic ownership and privatized sexuality. (2)

If the nineteenth-century domestic novel draws the reader into its world as if welcoming one into the comfort of a home, The Morgesons keeps the reader at arm's length in a disinviting gesture: difference is maintained, subjectivity remains opaque, and intimacy is weird. In its coldness, the novel enacts an anti-pedagogy through its bossy sensibility aimed at reorienting the coordinates that make possible intimate interactions. The novel will let you in only if you play by its rules and follow the heroine's instructions. Reading it is a disorienting experience that requires a readjustment of sensibility for readers accustomed to being eased into scenes of sociality and readability.

The nineteenth-century angel in the house may exist in that half-life of disembodied grace, but Cassandra Morgeson is all appetite. She comes first, second to none, "cruel hungry" for experiences inconsistent with her gendered subject position in late-nineteenth-century America (Stoddard 67). Cruelty becomes her own nourishment, an affective modality that functions as a check on the culture's insistence that women identify with the submissive position in the spectrum of power. Unlike her sister and mother, Cassy is not going to starve herself on a diet of abnegation and feminine propriety. She wants to eat her mother and everything she represents; she wants to eat like a man.

In fact, Cassy takes her father as a gender model for a good part of the novel as aggression and dominance are traits she cultivates. Yet this is not to say that Cassy wants to be a man, but that her identification with power is not organized along feminized, masochistic lines. She wants to occupy the dominant position in social and intimate contexts, a position usually afforded men. It is as if, lacking the upbringing accorded a young man, Cassy shapes her identity and desires in a do-it-yourself way that makes this Bildungsroman at once compelling and alienating. Her very own special creation, an embodiment of a Nietzschean will to power, Cassandra experiences pleasure when her romantic love interests are symbolically castrated or killed off. …

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