Date of Graduation
Eberly College of Arts and Sciences
This study investigates the ways in which the narrative of salvation contributed to the development of female selfhood in American women's novels before the Civil War. Over time, protagonists of some of the most popular of these novels were transformed from victims of seduction (as in Charlotte Temple or The Coquette) into self-reliant agents of virtue (as in The Wide, Wide World or The Lamplighter). Such a depiction suggests that a similar shift in readers' imaginations of their own selfhood was also taking place, and it paralleled changes in the genre conventions of novels that have been traditionally identified as "woman's fiction." The examination of how selfhood functions in this fiction employs a concept of agency that is grounded in Michel Foucault's notion of "moral action." Because novels such as these generally sought to promote action that was deemed "moral" by the cultural environments in which they were written, the self that existed in those texts did so in relation to the social order of that time. The novel, as a genre, is especially useful in depicting an imaginary representation of those particular models in and against which a relationship with the self develops; through novel reading, one may imagine differing plot lines or disparate realms which function to reinforce or challenge accepted social norms for behavior. This study contends that the foundation for developing agency in these novels was based primarily on the concurrently fluctuating conception of the self in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century religious discourse as it moved from promoting a Calvinist world view to championing individual free will. As the restrictive Calvinist notion of election declined in popular theology, Americans began to embrace the doctrine of universal salvation that foregrounded the importance of the sinner's ability to choose to accept God's saving grace.
Green, Amy Howard, "From Sinners to Saints: Emerging Agency in American Women's Novels before the Civil War" (2013). Graduate Theses, Dissertations, and Problem Reports. 4969.