"What Did You Mean?": Marriage in E. D. E. N. Southworth's Novels

By Weinstein, Cindy | Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers, January 2010 | Go to article overview

"What Did You Mean?": Marriage in E. D. E. N. Southworth's Novels


Weinstein, Cindy, Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers


Sentimental novels are filled with communication gone awry. This observation applies to the written word, as well as the spoken. For example, in The Wide, Wide World, Ellen Montgomery's Aunt Fortune withholds a treasured letter written to Ellen by her mother and, in doing so, reveals Aunt Fortune's arbitrary disciplinary regime (which is ultimately reversed by Alice Humphreys's intercession). Likewise, much of the plot of Caroline Lee Hentz's Ernest Linwood hinges on a misreading of a "marriage certificate" in which "the difference between the names of Henry Gabriel and Gabriel Henry St. James" goes unnoticed (440). E. D. E. N. Southworth's The Unloved Wife depends upon Lilith Wyvil's reading a "fatal letter" that first helps to destroy her marriage and then requires hundreds of pages to reconstitute it (91).

As conventional as these devices of miscommunication are in sentimental novels of the period, I would submit that the works of E. D. E. N. Southworth reveal a complexity, indeed an urgency, about verbal exchanges. (1) Thus, I shall explore how conversation itself, especially in the context of marriage, where the stakes, particularly for a woman, could not be higher, is the site where language becomes particularly destabilized, putting women in a constant and vulnerable state of misunderstanding. This is why the phrase "what did you mean?" appears so often in Southworth's works. "What did you mean?" is, of course, a question that produces potentially more unclear language, which is why many of the heroines are intent on keeping a close eye on the material documents--that is, marriage certificates--that (seem to) make absolutely clear what was meant when they spoke the words "I do."

But because Southworth's female protagonists are perpetually not understanding what is being said to them and, further, are not being understood themselves, by the time they say "I do" to the individual who either innocently or purposefully misunderstands them, it is too late. Thus, she devotes her entire career either to imagining women who are on the brink of becoming femes coverts (hidden women) and trying to make sure that they are, at the very least, "hidden" by a kind man or to situating her female protagonists within the limitations of being femes coverts and finding ways for them to act as full, even autonomous individuals within those constraints. She does this by scrutinizing the marriage relation and, more specifically, by interrogating the speech acts--and here I am purposefully invoking the theory of philosopher J. L. Austin, whose study of language surprisingly intersects with Southworth's concerns--leading up to and including the words "I do." Southworth examines the pledges (indeed, one of her novels is titled Broken Pledges), the promises, and the vows made before the wedding and even at the ceremony itself, in the process discovering a discursive site both of coercion and consent.

(MIS)MARRIAGE

Very real economic motives drove Southworth to write long and numerous books. She was the sole supporter of two children and had been abandoned by her husband, who occasionally showed up to try to take a cut of her profits based on his rights as her spouse. But her frenzied compositional pace, voluminous output, and incredible plot complications are usefully viewed in terms of her vexed relation to a literary tradition that demanded an ending about which she was deeply suspicious. Simply put, she did not want her novels to end in marriage, which they had to, given the conventional requirements of sentimental fiction, and so her narratives keep their distance from that ending as long as possible. Indeed, in novels with titles such as Family Doom, The Fatal Marriage, The Maiden Widow, The Unloved Wife, and The Missing Bride, it is hard to believe that marriage is the relation to which women ought to aspire and the one in which women will be emotionally and economically cared for. Southworth certainly has her doubts, and she is not alone. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

"What Did You Mean?": Marriage in E. D. E. N. Southworth's Novels
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.