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The Masochistic Pleasures of Sentimental Literature

The Masochistic Pleasures of Sentimental Literature

Marianne Noble
Copyright Date: 2000
Pages: 240
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    The Masochistic Pleasures of Sentimental Literature
    Book Description:

    For generations, critics have noticed in nineteenth-century American women's sentimentality a streak of masochism, but their discussions of it have over-simplified its complex relationship to women's power. Marianne Noble argues that tropes of eroticized domination in sentimental literature must be recognized for what they were: a double-edged sword of both oppression and empowerment. She begins by exploring the cultural forces that came together to create this ideology of desire, particularly Protestant discourses relating suffering to love and middle-class discourses of "true womanhood." She goes on to demonstrate how sentimental literature takes advantage of the expressive power in the convergence of these two discourses to imagine women's romantic desire. Therefore, in sentimental literature, images of eroticized domination are not antithetical to female pleasure but rather can be constitutive of it. The book, however, does not simply celebrate that fact. In readings of Warner'sThe Wide Wide World, Stowe'sUncle Tom's Cabin, and Dickinson's sentimental poetry, it addresses the complex benefits and costs of nineteenth-century women's literary masochism. Ultimately it shows how these authors both exploited and were shaped by this discursive practice.

    The Masochistic Pleasures of Sentimental Literatureexemplifies new trends in "Third Wave" feminist scholarship, presenting cultural and historical research informed by clear, lucid discussions of psychoanalytic and literary theory. It demonstrates that contemporary theories of masochism--including those of Deleuze, Bataille, Kristeva, Benjamin, Bersani, Noyes, Mansfield--are more relevant and comprehensible when considered in relation to sentimental literature.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2365-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-2)
  4. Introduction “Weird Curves”: Masochism and Feminism
    (pp. 3-25)

    In 1881, Lucy Larcom, an American poet well known in her day, published “Fern Life,” a poem that intermingles meditations upon nature with religious and cultural observations. One of the themes “Fern Life” addresses is the resilience of women in the face of cultural oppression. Women, Larcom suggests, are like ferns, which have constraints upon their lives that make it difficult for them to grow in a normal way into recognizably healthy and beautiful plants. The first line of the poem suggests that sometimes it is hard even to recognize them as alive at all: “Yes, life! Though it seems...

  5. One Masochistic Discourses of Womanhood
    (pp. 26-60)

    In 1850, the issue of women’s rights was all the rage in America. The first official women’s rights convention, held at Seneca Falls, New York in July 1848, had declared that “all men and women are created equal,” and at its close the members had agreed to reconvene at a much larger, highly publicized National Woman’s Rights Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts in October 1850. But though these women’s rights activists sought to speak out on behalf of all women, they were far from enjoying unanimous support among women—to say nothing of men. A striking example of the kind of...

  6. Two Sentimental Masochism
    (pp. 61-93)

    We have seen that ideologies representing women’s identity as by nature relative or contingent can inspire in the would-be “true woman” an oppressive longing to merge her female self with that of a far more important, powerful man. The implicit ideal of a noncorporeal woman, which inspires guilt in the woman for her invariable failure to accomplish perfect self-restraint, can direct that longing toward a man who manifests his power in acts of severity. And Puritan doctrines locating power and transcendent pleasures in total self-abnegation, interpreting affliction as a sign of love and authorizing associations between husbands and God, foster...

  7. Three “An Ecstasy of Apprehension”: The Erotics of Domination in The Wide, Wide World
    (pp. 94-125)

    “Though wemustsorrow, we must not rebel,” Ellen Montgomery’s mother admonishes in the opening ofThe Wide, Wide World(12). How does one come to terms with the inevitability of suffering and the prohibition of resistance? Mrs. Montgomery has the answer: “Remember, dear Ellen, God sends no trouble upon his children but in love” (12). If Ellen can learn to interpret suffering as a sign of God’s love, then her suffering will be not only meaningful but rewarding. As it turns out, these precepts of providential Calvinism actually do determine Ellen’s experiences of suffering. When Ellen’s mother dies, Ellen’s...

  8. Four The Ecstasies of Sentimental Wounding in Uncle Tom’s Cabin
    (pp. 126-146)

    In the previous chapter, we saw how desire is both suppressed and expressed through sentimental masochistic discourse, and we considered the implications of this double-edgedness from a feminist perspective. This chapter takes up the political implications of this paradox. The perfect text in which to explore these is Harriet Beecher Stowe’sUncle Tom’s Cabin, a paradigm of nineteenth-century sentimentality and an indisputably important political novel. Nowhere are the complications of a nineteenth-century woman’s exploitation of sentimental masochism for power and pleasure more vividly displayed. Stowe sought to make readers feel the pain that slaves felt in order to force upon...

  9. Five The Revenge of Cato’s Daughter: Emily Dickinson’s Uses of Sentimental Masochism
    (pp. 147-189)

    The letters and poetry of Emily Dickinson prominently feature sentimental scenarios that bear a striking resemblance to certain passages in evangelical sentimental works, likeThe Wide, Wide WorldandElsie Dinsmore, in which helpless innocent females submit to the abusive domination of an extremely powerful male. Many of these scenarios are masochistic, for the victims willingly submit to and even seek to be dominated or hurt.¹ In Dickinson, one important, recurring manifestation of this scenario is the image of a female flower with her head bowed in anguished adoration before a domineering, powerful male figure, who appears as Christ, King,...

  10. Conclusion The Possibility of Masochism
    (pp. 190-198)

    Emily Dickinson’s poetry represents the most aesthetically and intellectually accomplished use of the sentimental masochistic scenarios that have been the focus of this book. Her work reveals the extraordinary possibilities for artistic expressiveness in this literary convention, possibilities that include not only investigations into the nature of desire (as demonstrated by Warner) and into the politics of suffering (as demonstrated by Stowe) but into the most significant of human activities: inquiring about the nature of existence and writing from that inquiry. For Emily Dickinson the pleasures of writing poetry are in large measure masochistic. Writing generates a pleasant feeling of...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 199-234)
  12. Works Cited
    (pp. 235-250)
  13. Index
    (pp. 251-258)