Document Type

Thesis - University Access Only

Award Date


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)

Department / School



During the mid-nineteenth century, women writers dominated the literary scene, creating the concept of the "best-seller." Although differing greatly in style and treatment of themes, their texts reveal a central concern over women's development and roles in society. David S. Reynolds identifies a group of women writers of the mid-1850s to mid-1860s who respond in an ambiguous way to the woman question of their time. Calling this genre the "literature of misery," Reynolds argues that these women's texts are exemplified by unconventional narrative patterns, manipulative and shifting female characters, and gloomy themes which prefigure Naturalistic fiction. Reynolds contends that the literature of misery genre stems from the women writers' increasing dissatisfaction with both the conventional woman and the politically active feminist in literature and that it expresses their power and powerlessness as women artists. While using Reynolds's definition of the literature of misery genre, my analysis depart from his study in that it does not focus on the psyche of the woman artist. Instead, I argue that the depiction of woman's power and powerlessness of these texts reveals the writers' ambiguity regarding the ability of woman to determine her own destiny. This thesis focuses on the selected texts of Lillie Devereux Blake, Harriet Prescott Spofford, Elizabeth Drew Stoddard, and Susan Petigru King, each of whom challenges in her writing the notion of proper womanhood as well as illustrates the powerlessness of female character to transcend the restrictions of this sphere.

Library of Congress Subject Headings

Blake, Lillie Devereux, 1833-1913 -- Criticism and interpretation

Spofford, Harriet Elizabeth Prescott, 1835-1921 -- Criticism and interpretation

Stoddard, Elizabeth, 1823-1902 -- Criticism and interpretation

King, Susan Petigru, 1824-1875 -- Criticism and interpretation

American fiction -- 19th century -- History and criticism

Women in literature

Sex role in literature

Power (Social sciences) in literature



Number of Pages



South Dakota State University



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In Copyright