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Divorce and the American novel The shifting definition of modern marriage

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Description: In examining Edith Wharton and William Dean Howells' novels about divorce in American society, I demonstrate how divorce blurs the boundaries of the public and private spheres of the late 1800s and early 1900s. With no clear delineation of marriage's role in economic, domestic and social environments, divorce becomes symptomatic of traditional marriage's failure in American society. Through their depiction of divorce, the authors reflect a complex view of modern American marriage and illustrate the increasingly fragile social institution upon which the moral compass of American society is based. By the end of each novel, divorce is neither condemned nor condoned; rather, the ability of a traditional marriage to function in a modern society is brought into question. And, while marriage becomes increasingly commercial in its nature, it also becomes paradoxically private with an increasing emphasis on the individuals' personal emotions and happiness. This dichotomy therefore presents significant confusion in defining woman's place in the home and in greater society, a problem which these divorce novels bring into focus. Building upon and refuting the theories of leading divorce novel scholars Kimberley Freeman and Debra MacComb, and closely examining Twilight Sleep, The Custom of the Country and A Modern Instance, I discuss how divorce novels bring to light the increasingly economic role of previously private, moral institutions, the blurred lines between home life and public identity and the troubled relationship between female identity and marriage.
Language: English
Format: Degree Work