Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Richard Kaye

Committee Members

David Reynolds

Talia Schaffer

Subject Categories

American Literature | Literature in English, North America


This dissertation examines the ways the novelists on both sides of the Atlantic use the figure of the theatrical woman to advance claims about the nature and role of women. Theater is a deeply paradoxical art form: Seen at once as socially constitutive and promoting mass conformity, it is also criticized as denaturalizing, decentering, etiolating, queering, feminizing. These anxieties coalesce around the image of the actress. In nineteenth century fiction, the image of a woman performing on stage is a powerful one, suggestive of ideal femininity, but also of negative traits including deception, artificiality and an unfeminine appetite for public attention. By examining nineteenth century depictions of the performing woman, I show these depictions as emblematic of society's ambivalent attitudes in a time when women were demanding more of a public role.

Nineteenth century ideology held that the woman's ideal realm was in private, in the domestic sphere, and the ideal woman should be authentically chaste, loving and modest. However, the very existence of an ideal for women to emulate suggested that this set of traits was merely a role -- an inauthentic performance that women could adopt and discard at will. The need to perform ideal womanhood placed particularly high demands on women in public life. Women in the arts and professions had to negotiate the demand that they be ladylike, attractive and genteel, performing feminine modesty in order to advance public careers.

A host of novels problematize the public/private, authentic/artificial split by using female characters in public space to embody the powerful cultural shifts that modernity and rapid urbanization were bringing to the society. Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Blithedale Romance, Louisa May Alcott's sensational works, Charlotte Brontë's Villette, and Henry James's The Bostonians and The Tragic Muse use the figure of the female performer to address the changing roles of women along with wider issues of social performance, identity, subjectivity and sexuality. These novels feature scenes of female performance in particular because the figure of the performer encapsulates many of the traits of the self-fashioning modern woman, with her ability to manipulate conventions of feminine behavior while being placed between repressive 'Victorian-ness' and the coming of the New Woman.