Domesticity and Self-Possession in the Morgesons and Jane Eyre
Penner, Louise, Studies in American Fiction
Sandra Zagarell has described Elizabeth Stoddard's The Morgesons as a feminist bildungsroman that borrows gothic conventions, particularly from the Bronte sisters' Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, to articulate female discontent with the confining sphere of domesticity in the nineteenth century.(1) However, recent critical re-examinations of nineteenth-century domestic novels have recognized a connection between the representation of the private, feminine sphere and the possession and strong articulation of an individual self in representations of women's lives. Both Nancy Armstrong's Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel and Gillian Brown's Domestic Individualism: Imagining Self in Nineteenth-Century America powerfully articulate this relationship, though in different ways.(2) Their contributions to our current understanding of domestic fiction complicate the impulse of critics such as Zagarell and Stacy Alaimo to see the domestic sphere in the nineteenth century and particularly in The Morgesons as unquestionably a place of social, economic, and psychic imprisonment for women.
These recent re-examinations call for a new look at how the domestic functions in Stoddard's bizarre novel, one that has mysteriously resisted much substantive critical commentary beyond Zagarell's and Alaimo's. Armstrong's theory of the birth of the bourgeois subject through the construction of the desiring domestic heroine in the late eighteenth-century novel invites new interpretations of the relation between the female self and the domestic sphere she inhabits. Her reading of Jane Eyre, in particular, highlights crucial connections between the novel's romantic elements, its ambivalence about the domestic sphere, and its heroine's search for self-possession. These same connections are highlighted in The Morgesons. Brown's focus on the importance of the domestic as a source of American individualism and as a stabilizing force in opposition to the U.S. market economy also creates new interpretive possibilities for domestic scenes, not only in domestic fiction but also in so-called canonical novels. Her focus is particularly helpful in approaching a novel as difficult to assign a generic label as The Morgesons.
Stoddard's first novel tells the story of a New England family who acquire and then abruptly lose great wealth through the shipping ventures of the father, Locke Morgeson, Jr. Narrated by the eldest daughter, Cassy, the novel loosely follows the pattern of the traditional bildungsroman. Cassy focuses on her desire for self-possession through childhood; school; her disastrous first romance with her married cousin, Charles Morgeson; the death of her mother and re-marriage of her father to Charles's widow, Alice; and finally ends with her decision to marry and return to domestic life in her parent's former home. Throughout the novel, she describes a strange sense of disconnection between the family members, particularly between Cassy, her reclusive younger sister, Veronica, their mother, Mary, and their father, Locke Jr. The disconnection evident in the Morgesons' domestic sphere in the beginning of the novel appears to sets a tone of discord and confusion that dominates the rest of the novel. As we will see, that discord appears to have a basis, at least in part, in the instability introduced into the domestic by the father's economic ventures.
Despite my feeling that economics play an integral part in setting the bizarre tone of Stoddard's novel, I am also interested, like Zagerell, in the echoes of Jane Eyre's romanticism that pervade The Morgesons. Stoddard herself insisted that she was by no means a realist author, but rather a romantic one.(3) Stoddard's imitation of Jane Eyre's mixture of realism and gothic romance results in a much more complicated representation of the social and economic functions of the domestic in The Morgesons than its critics have to date articulated.(4) Despite huge differences in the socio-economic and geographic positions of their heroines--Jane is (or appears to be) an orphan left destitute by her Yorkshire parents, and Cassy comes from a newly wealthy New England family--Jane Eyre and The Morgesons present their heroines' struggles to attain and give voice to their own desires in a fairly similar manner. …