Date of Degree
Nancy K. Miller
English Language and Literature
This dissertation looks at maternal infanticide in texts by William Wordsworth, Walter Scott, George Eliot, and Harriet Beecher Stowe in order to trace a relation between the rise of a discourse of the moral mother in the Eighteenth century and literary depictions of infanticide in the Nineteenth century. In Wordsworth's "The Thorn" (1798) infanticide provides a means to express anxiety over modernization, industrialization and authorship in a revision of the traditionally oral and rural ballad. The Heart of Midlothian (1818) by Sir Walter Scott tells the story of the effects of an infanticide that has never occurred suggesting maternal infanticide is a text rather than a reality. Scott's use of infanticide, like Wordsworth's, expresses a relation between genre and figure. In this case, the historical romance and euphemism coincide to express concerns over gender and national identity. The maternal body represented by Euphemia, the mother accused of infanticide, like the figure her name reflects, both conceals and displays itself. Scott's Madge Wildfire and George Eliot's Hetty in Adam Bede both come upon configurations of landscape that explicitly echo the little mound of dirt described by Wordsworth's narrator. While Madge Wildfire's story relates to what has occurred in the past and what is buried in a specific geographic space, by the time of Hetty Sorrel's infanticide in Adam Bede (1859), the plot is already written and is in fact inspired by the particularity of the landscape: a place that does not contain a child cries out for one.
British representations of infanticide express anxiety over social transformations relating to class, gender and industrialization, describing infanticide in terms of the corruption of landscape. American texts, on the other hand, stress race and anxiety related to trouble inside the household, making the family the metaphoric equivalent of the nation. Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) takes the sentimental novel–a genre that gives mothers power and fetishizes their children–to represent infanticide as the natural result of the unnatural institution of slavery. In contrast to British infanticide, Stowe's American version represents infanticide as a heroic act.
Day-MacLeod, Deirdre Mary, "I Couldn't Kill It Any Other Way: Infanticide in Nineteenth-Century Literature" (1996). CUNY Academic Works.