Heart Matters: Contemporary American Fiction by Women and the Sentimental Tradition

Defense Date


Graduation Date

Spring 1-1-2006


Campus Only

Submission Type


Degree Name





McAnulty College and Graduate School of Liberal Arts

Committee Chair

Magali Cornier Michael

Committee Member

Jennifer Leader

Committee Member

Linda A. Kinnahan


American Novel, American Women's Fiction, Contemporary Novel, Nineteenth-Century American literature, Sentimental Literature


This study asserts the existence of and examines a political and aesthetic relationship between American novels written by women since 1980 and nineteenth-century sentimental fiction. Nineteenth-century sentimental and contemporary American novels by women interrogate the long-standing privatization of affectional experience in American culture, which became particularly prominent during both the mid nineteenth and late twentieth centuries, through similar logic and linguistic devices. Both novelistic traditions incorporate particular tropes, namely domestic ritual, surrogate mothering, and amateur nursing, to demonstrate how affectional experience can promote a relational model of subjectivity and a corresponding sense of communal obligation, which in turn serves as the rationale for restructuring public practices and institutions from the perspective of interpersonal care and commitment.

Chapter One explores how Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (1868) and Gloria Naylor's The Women of Brewster Place (1982) integrate acts of domestic ritual to de-privatize affectional experience and re-conceptualize social reform on the basis of care. Yet, whereas Little Women concentrates primarily on how affectional experience can compel individuals to combat social injustices, The Women of Brewster Place engages with hierarchical liberation theories associated with Black Nationalism and articulates a methodology of social reform that is firmly rooted in the principles of interpersonal care. Chapter Two investigates how Maria Susanna Cummins's The Lamplighter (1854) and Barbara Kingsolver's The Bean Trees (1988) and Pigs in Heaven (1993) utilize surrogate mothering to posit a relationship between affectional experience and communal obligation and to re-conceptualize the nuclear family on the basis of nurturance rather than of biological kinship. Pigs in Heaven's attention to the historical problem of interracial adoption of Native American children, however, results in a more radical disruption of the nuclear family that involves a gesture toward communal mothering and maximizes interpersonal bonds. Finally, Chapter Three analyzes how amateur nursing functions in Ann S. Stephens's The Old Homestead (1855) and Amy Tan's The Bonesetter's Daughter (2001) to revise capitalist notions of labor in accordance with the principles of human care, paying special attention to how The Bonesetter's Daughter underscores the benefits of this revision specifically for Asian Americans.





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