Discuss as well as compare and contrast the use of a seduction plot and the issue of American Identity in Susanna Rowson’s early American novel, Charlotte Temple, and Royal Tyler’s early American play, The Contrast.
The issue of the American female identity is related to a wide range of historical and cultural issues. This paper explores the thesis that a novel such as Rowson’s Charlotte Temple was a pivotal element in the establishment of this female identity. The book is analyzed in conjunction with related texts such as Tyler’s The Contrast, from the perspective of the role that these works play in the awakening of female consciousness and awareness in the country to the problems and challenges that faced their gender in a male dominated world.
Charlotte Temple’s Pivotal Role in Establishing an American Female Identity
Charlotte Temple by Susanna Rowson is a bitter, melancholy tale of morals, and young love. It also includes the malevolent evils perpetrated by heartless individuals that corrupt such wholesome ideals. Rowson repeatedly exalts the power of family, chastity and religion throughout her story. They are keystones of the healthy development of a young person according to the author, and must be protected at every moment, particularly the virgin heart, once corrupted; almost invariably begin to spiral into vice and destruction.
Amidst the art of manipulation, the characters of Belcour and Mademoiselle La Rue both reveal that the Rowson does not discriminate between the sexes. Both genders, regardless of social inequality, are highly capable of destroying what most individuals consider sacred, for personal gain or interest. However, as is well illustrated in this piece, the exploitation of woman has become an American pastime. Rape, seduction, prostitution, and deception have rooted themselves in the traditional view of what the ladies in question should come to expect. Albeit, the ensuing circumstances faced by females throughout their life are far more common and relentless than those of males today.
In Rowson’s work, Charlotte continually demonstrates that this is no simple task for parents to accomplish. Despite her pure upbringing, Charlotte is nonetheless slowly turned from the path of righteousness by the subtle romancing techniques used by Montraville. Every time Montraville makes an advance on Charlotte, the young girl harkens back to her moral upbringing. She collects her thoughts, plans out the proper response to the situation, yet just as she is about to follow her instincts, the uncontrollable emotions of love, lust and foolish youthful obsession take over and turn her away from her once strong moral compass.
Rowson was a British-American novelist, poet, playwright, and educator. Her novel titled Charlotte Temple speaks of a cautionary tale, intended “for the perusal of the young and thoughtless of the fair sex.” As the author continues to articulate the basis of her novel in the preface, “this Tale of Truth is designed; and I could wish my fair readers to consider as not merely the effusion of fancy, but as a reality” (Rowson, 5). She urges her audience to seize an opportunity of enlightenment through this testimony, and not to trek too far from the path of righteousness, as it is littered with traps and tribulations designed to break down even the most benevolent of individuals.
Despite being written in the midst of America’s infancy, Rowson is keen to establish the colloquial male-female relationship dynamic that is evident within society today. Since the dawn of time, every male’s genealogical code has it written to become providers; as they demonstrate survival and replication value, women are left to choose a companion or fend for themselves. Under more scrutiny in the public eye, society has developed in a manner less felicitous towards women. Rowson not only made notice of a generation with her work Charlotte Temple, but alerted a precolonial nation; therefore, setting forth the foundation for an American female identity to surface.
Originally published in England 1791; Rowson’s Charlotte Temple did not receive much praise. Moreover, after accumulating a poor response, Charlotte Temple was then redistributed in America in 1794. Where conversely, not only was it part of America’s foremost novels, it became America’s first bestselling novel. Thusly, serving as a monumental staple to a country whose identity was on the horizon. Rowson’s tenure on United States soil played a vital role in American history. The “one nation under God” on the brink of rapid expansion and pre-industrialization embraced her rich language with open arms.
For the most noble of women, like Charlotte, life is often perceived as a series of tests designed to determine who deserves the title of a loyal courtship and fine suitor. However, the way in which they are supposed to respond accordingly, to the spectrum of dangers and temptations poured on by the fashionable elite, is varied. The early sentimental novel, specifically Sussanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple, serves as an essential element in the formation of an American female identity, and plays a pivotal role in the evolution of the modern feminist movement. This New World presented before women is a little more than a narrow corridor lined with the most brutal of devices designed to break the individual’s resolve. Their journey, therefore, will survey the path and pace in which a republic of women would soon represent the United States of America.
In order to obtain a greater understanding, why the American Woman has become what she is today, it is necessary to acknowledge the fact that the colonial days for women are much different from the norm exhibited today. A woman’s lifestyle, – “what their work and play” was accustomed, “how they thought and felt” through the “joys and the sorrows of their every-day existence” (Holiday) is in representation of the roots of the American female’s characterization. This approach in coordination with Rowson’s Charlotte Temple, which released relative to the timeframe in concentration, will better illustrate the issue at hand. Throughout mankind, individuals normally occupied gender roles in relation to their sex. Men began to adopt dominant qualities that would place themselves into masculine gender roles. As women would qualify themselves into society by embodying more feminine qualities, placing themselves into female gender roles. Therefore, males would better suit themselves as providers demonstrate more domineering qualities. While women would embody and represent nurturing traits vital for exhibiting their potential of child rearing. A woman’s daily routine in society during the 18th century was strenuous and overlooked. Not because all of the males work load was far more difficult, but because it what was at least expected of the woman of this time. Unless of wealth, a woman’s agenda usually consisted of household chores. Not like family errands of today, where a trip to the laundromat, grocery and convenient store are a day’s work. These duties could include tending to animals, gardens, cooking without electricity, cleaning, hard labor, etc. Women, ran down more like family mules for their hardships rather than recognized as household pillars, it is evident their bitter course is further understood today.
For Rowson, writing Charlotte Temple was her premonition for what she anticipates human bias to become. For woman today, they do not find it much of an obligation to occupy more submissive roles within the workplace or at home. However, this evolution within the human dynamic does not happen overnight, but over instances. Mademoiselle La Rue frequently comments on the flighty nature of Charlotte’s heart when she says, “You are a strange girl…You never know your own mind two minutes at a time” (Rowson, 34). This rampant uncertainty, and seemingly random kind of decision making are precisely what Charlotte’s parents are aware of. Montraville’s well demonstrated persistence broadcasted through charming gestures serves as a catalyst for Charlotte’s demeanor in disarray. Throughout his various attempts, Montraville eventually swoons Charlotte away from her comfort zones. This an ongoing example of courtship (or seduction) put into trial and error, demonstrated today. Charlotte’s parents know that young people are prone to sudden, passionate swings in sentiment and logic. Also, that individuals who have an insidious nature are able to take advantage of these shortcomings in reasoning. They have done everything in their capacity to appoint an arsenal of countermeasures within their daughter, but when seduced by a charming individual such as Montraville, and when emotionally infiltrated by such lecherous, selfish individuals such as Belcour and La Rue, even the most stout of heart can be manipulated and broken.
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2. The popularity of Charlotte Temple and its Significance
At first this novel was not very well accepted but following the American publication of Charlotte Temple in 1794, “â€¦readers became so captivated by the ill-fated heroine that the book became the young nation’s first best-selling novel.” (Fudge 43) The popularity of the novel would continue to grow and it was still extremely popular in the nineteenth century. The novel had more than 200 editions. (Fudge 43) This fact is important in terms of the central thesis of this paper; namely, that this book can be seen as being pivotal in the development and establishment of the female identity in America. The fact that a novel in the sentimental and seduction genre attained such heights of popularity is, in the first instance, evidence its impact and effect on the psyche and minds of the female readers of the novel. As one critic cogently notes:
Why a book which barely climbs above the lower limits of literacy, and which handles, without psychological acuteness or dramatic power, a handful of stereotyped characters in a situation already hopelessly banal by 1790, should have had more than two hundred editions and have survived among certain readers for a hundred and fifty years is a question that cannot be ignored.
The initial question that obviously arises therefore is what made this book so popular and in what way does this novel speak to the feelings and aspirations of the readers to make it such a perennial favorite. As Fudge ( 1996) notes,
It is tempting to say that popular taste given the choice between a better and worse book will inevitably choose the worse; but this is an anti-sentimental simplification no more helpful than its sentimental opposite number. Only certain bad books succeed, apparently not by the simple virtue of their badness, but because of the theme they have chosen to handle & #8230; (Fudge 43)
It will be suggested in the following discussion that Charlotte Temple was in many ways representative of a latent and inward desire for personal freedom among women in early America and of the search for identity and existential meaning in the developing social and cultural milieu of the country. In other words, while the book could and has been critiqued in terms of its literary qualities, it contains themes and elements that speak deeply to the underlying needs, feelings and intentions of the nascent female identity in the country. The following sections will therefore attempt to expose and expand on some of these aspects in the novel that were representative of the search for female identity.
3. A brief overview of central points in the novel
Before embarking on a more in-depth analysis of the text in terms of the reason for its popularity and the view that the novel is indicative of the search for female identity in the country, it may be appropriate at this point to summarize some of the central features of the narrative, as a precursor to its analysis.
Significantly, the novel opens with a discussion that illustrates a particularly male point-of-view. It begins with a conversation between Montraville and Belcour, who refer to their desire to “take a survey of the Chichester ladies as they returned from their devotions” (Rowson 9). From the beginning of the book, by focusing on the male perspective rather than the female point-of-view, the author sets the tone and indicates the social conditions and milieu of women in the young society. This refers to the way they are perceived and their identity as ‘objects’ to be ‘surveyed’. As one critic notes, the social situation is one where “â€¦ men, even if sometimes playfully, are in a predatory posture toward women.” (Whitson 211) The attention of the men, particularly Montraville is focused on the fifteen-year-old Charlotte Temple. Charlotte is in the care of Mademoiselle La Rue, the French teacher at the school where Charlotte undergoing her education.
It is also noteworthy that the villains in the process of seduction are not only male. The author is careful to point out that both sexes can be implicated in the process of seduction and in the distortion of innocent female identity. This can be seen in the way that Mademoiselle La Rue plays a decisive role in the seduction and ruination of Charlotte. She takes as bribe from Montraville so that he can meet Charlotte. This is the first step in Cahrlotte’s “â€¦journey away from obedience to her parental expectations.” (Whitson 211)
The “parental expectation” that Whitson refers to is also another aspect of the social milieu and expectations that surround the young women of the time, and which also forms an important part of the narrative.
The above discussion points to the issue of female identity being determined and restricted by a social complex of norms and values. This is a point that will be expanded on in the following sections.
The predatory attitude towards women exhibited by Montraville and Belcour is offset by the more enlightened and progressive attitude of Charlotte Temple’s father. He has observed how women were virtually prostituted into marriage with older men and holds more fair-minded ideas about the rights of women and their need for an identity that is more than merely being an object to be “surveyed.” Charlotte’s parents therefore form a counterpoint in the structure of the novel to the sexist and dominating views of women that tend to pervade the work. However, Charlotte is destined to “â€¦ ultimately fall into the snares that her parents hope to help her avoid.” (Whitson 209)
The underlying moral dimension of the novel is an important part of work as a whole and this dimension becomes more apparent as the novel develops. We are made aware of the link between immorality and the road to seduction through the character of the French teacher, Mademoiselle La Rue, who is described as a woman who “lived with several men in open defiance of all moral and religious duties” (Rowson 26). This initiates a discourse in the novel between norms, morals and passion, with Charlotte’s identity being tested between these extremes. As Fudge (1996) states in his analysis of the novel;
Charlotte is torn between her passion and her principles. Though in her first rendezvous with the gentlemen soldiers Charlotte is disgusted by their crudities and by the “liberties Mademoiselle permitted them to take” (27), her acuteness is slowly dulled as she continues to join their company.
( Fudge 44)
Charlotte at first rejects the advances of Montraville but this rejection is complicated by the respect and allegiance that she feels towards Mademoiselle La Rue. Her moral reason and innate human passion are conflicted and she finds that she is unable to sever ties with Montraville. She agrees to an elopement with him, on the promise of marriage. However, the larger moral interactions between the world represented by her parents and the world represented by of Montraville and Mademoiselle La Rue continually influence her life and sense of identity. She confronts her moral dilemma when her parents hold a birthday party for her and she decides to leave Montraville. This is her “triumph of reason over inclination,” (Rowson 47) and she attempts to establish her identity in terms of her view of duty. However, this move on her part is countered by Montraville who threatens to kill himself as he cannot live without her. As a result she is virtually kidnapped by Montraville.
It is important to note that in social terms her elopement is as form of social suicide. The norms and values of the society tend to condemn the woman in this situation and, ironically, she is blamed for the ‘loss of her virtue ‘and not the man. This again highlights the social and moral milieu experienced by young women during this period. This aspect is clearly illustrated by the reaction of Charlotte’s grandfather to her elopement. “My child is betrayed; the darling, the comfort of my aged heart, is lost. Oh would to heaven I had died but yesterday.” ( Rowson 50-51) This sentiment is even more clearly expressed in the reaction of her mother: “â€¦save her from the miseries which I fear will be her portion, and oh! Of thine infinite mercy, make her not a mother.” (Rowson 53-54).
Charlotte is now at the mercy of forces that seemingly have caused her to lose her centre of moral orientation. She becomes the object of Balcour’s lust and he is determined to have her for himself, once she has been discarded. Her identity is reduced to that of an object, a sexual prize.
In New York she becomes ensconced in a small house and becomes Montraville’s mistress. She is also well aware that in such a position in society she has none of the legal or moral protection of a married woman. This point again makes the reader aware of the precarious position that women found themselves in a male dominated and patriarchal society, where marriage was the only respectable place in society for a woman. In other words, her identity was circumscribed and restricted by strict normative views and assumptions that were extremely biased in favor of men.
The above remarks refer to the central argument or thesis of this paper; that the popularity of this novel is indicative of certain awareness, a growing consciousness of the precarious situation of women in the early years of the development of American society. This awareness, projected by the author of Charlotte Temple and other works, is the element that was to resonate with readers and can be seen as an originating and pivotal point of reference in the development of the identity and consciousness of the modern American women.
Charlotte is alone and pregnant in a foreign country. The plot of the novel becomes more complex and filled with sordid intrigue. Balcour has ominous and predatory designs on Charlotte, while Montraville is thinking of deserting her and marrying Julia Franklin. However, there is some conscience and morality in his nature and he decides not to desert Charlotte. However, the designing and lecherous Balcour persuades Montraville that Charlotte is not to be trusted in terms of her affection and Motraville leaves the pregnant Charlotte. While Montraville at least promises to support Charlotte’s child, he makes the mistake of entrusting the money to Balcour — which inevitably leads to Charlotte’s abject poverty.
The plot of the novel continues to describe the terrible decline of Charlotte’s situation. While her father journeys to Americas to save his child, she loses her home as a result of lack of finance and is deserted by the friends she has. She gives birth in complete poverty and dies.
In terms of the ostensible and surface message that this novel provides, Fudge suggests the following analysis; “Rowson’s novel strikes a note of caution as it warns young girls to take heed of Charlotte’s fate and avoid it.” ( Fudge 44) However, the popularity of this novel suggests that there is a deeper dimension to the book. This is supported by the view that “â€¦ women must take care in a dangerous world, where they are vulnerable sexually, socially, and even legally, to a social construct that promulgates gender inequity. (Fudge 43)
The popularity of this novel was a result of a number of factors, not least of which is the view that the novel served to articulate the feelings and the inner sentiments of many women during this era. On the one level the novel is a book that deals with the rather sensational and sentimental theme of the seduction of the innocent. However, if we disregard its surface and sensational appeal it is possible to read the novel as one of the first literary attempt in America to enter into a discourse with the needs, desires, fears and aspirations that lay buried beneath a male dominated and patriarchal society.
One could also argue that the novel, in the depiction of the social and personal situation of the central character of Charlotte, represents the inner and emergent growth of a female consciousness in the recognition of the often deplorable social and moral situation that women found themselves in. It can be further argued that it was this awareness which was helped by the novel in question, and which was to lead to the emergence of the American female identity. It is this central subject of female identity that will be discussed in the following section.
4. Towards an American Female Identity
The issue of an American female identity can be linked to a number of different aspects and influencing variables. In other words, a cultural and social identity is constituted by a number of different influences and sources. In this regard one could in the first instance briefly look at the way that historical social influences impacted this sense of identity among women of the time. As Fiedler notes, Charlotte Temple is “… completely a woman’s book — a tale in which female suffering is portrayed from a female point-of-view in order to stir female sympathy; while vice and virtue are judged by female standards. (Fiedler 95)
Fiedler goes on to state that;
Mrs. Rowson, who was in her life governess, lady novelist, actress, playwright, songwriter, and head of a girls’ school, who had been forced by her husband’s failure to make herself a career and forge by her own hard work a shield of respectability, stood unequivocally on the woman’s side in that war of the sexes whose existence she would not for a moment have denied.
The above quotation provides a clear picture of the author as a women struggling to maintain her identity and integrity in a very male-centered and dominated world. She is intensely aware of the situation that women have to face and it is this awareness that she attempts to translate into fiction and which we encounter in Charlotte Temple and in many other of her works.
As has already been referred to in the introduction to this paper, there were strict and obvious gender stereotypes that applied to women as well as men in the early years of America’s colonization. This refers to the view of women as the “weaker sex,” more submissive and whose identity was most often relegated to household chores and marriage. Men on the other hand tended to be characterized as outgoing and active, and their identity was linked to control and power. These stereotypes of course translate into the typical picture of gender inequality and bias that has tended to be the reality of life for many women in the world.
It is suggested in this paper that an awareness of the situation of women and the subsequent reaction against this awareness in the form of the various women’s liberation movements is part of the reason why this book is seen as a playing a pivotal role in the awakening of female cognizance of their situation and predicament. In this regards one could refer to various studies of women in this era. Barton (2000) in a study entitled Narrative Intrusion in Charlotte Temple: A Closet Feminist’s Strategy in an American Novel, clarifies the situation of Women in America during this period.
In the late eighteenth century, American women were expected to conform to the nascent yet already rigid social protocol assigned them by their English-born forebears who had settled the North American continent the preceding century. Women in America, in so many words, were expected at that time to behave and perform their duties no differently than their female relations in England or anywhere in Europe. Casualties of a patriarchal society, women were largely divested of any sense of economic, political, or cultural power.
This is a telling description and paints a vivid picture of the situation of women. In terms of a broad view of the historical context of the novel the following can be mentioned. The question has been raised in a number of studies as to whether there is as connection between the theme of seduction and betrayal and the historical context in which the novel was written; and whether this connection sheds any light on the central assertion of this thesis; namely, that the novel played a pivotal role in the establishment of an American female identity?
To answer this question, at least to some extent, it must be noted that the mores and norms that existed in the society at the time were imported from Europe and tended to exhibit a strong sense of the importance of the “moral virtue” of women, and the ownership of this virtue by a male centered society. At the same time one also has to take into account the fact that the book was written at during a period of history when society was changing and where women were situated in a context of dynamic social as well as cultural change in the development of a young America.
Stern ( 1997) sheds some light on this complex topic.
In the American eighteenth century, the novel of virtue in distress — maidenhood imperiled, ruined, and ultimately forsaken — exercises enormous appeal. Like the popular captivity narrative that provides the Puritans with a myth of acculturation into the new world wilderness and assuages their guilt over emigration & #8230;
The above quotation suggests a number of intriguing issues that relate to the central thesis of this paper. This includes the view that the ‘novel of virtue ruined’ was linked to the trauma and dangers of colonization and to the puritan ethos which tended to see virtue in a broader social as well as religious context.
The point being made is that women found themselves entrapped in terms of their identity in a social-cultural context of ideas and values. Furthermore, their identity, and the code of virtue, was linked to a wide range of ideas and ideals that were connected with the emergence of a new country and the problematics of colonization.
This trajectory of this research is strictly outside the parameters of the present discussion and should not be taken too far – but the point is important in terms of the thesis. Female identity was strongly influenced and to a certain extent determined by social mores and norms from Europe as well as a male — dominated culture, which was influenced by religion and other factors that shaped female identity.
Greeson (2006) summarizes some of these relevant aspects as follows:
â€¦ in the early Republic, the seduction plot held special relevance for readers living through the upheavals of rapid modernization and social reorganization. By moving the marriage relation out of a broader familial-social context, and into a fraught transaction between two isolated characters, the seduction plot enacted the shift from a society organized around kin networks, community controls, and face-to-face interactions, to a society made up of a collection of atomized and anonymous individuals.
(Greeson 769 )
In this regard Fudge (1996) also makes the point that the extreme popularity of this novel cannot be ascribed to its literary qualities, which in the estimation of many critics is “low” (Fudge). The popularity of the book must therefore be ascribed to something else. This something else is the fact that the book addresses deep emotions and feelings that women felt about their situation in this historical situation. Fudge suggests that the popularity of the book is linked to the emergence of feminist theory and critics of male domination, such as Wendy Martin.
Taking the above views into account it may also be useful to briefly compare the search for female identity and awareness in Charlotte Temple with another work of the time — The Contrast by Tyler.
Royall Tyler wrote his play The Contrast in 1787. This is an American comedy that is based on the tradition of the English Restoration comedies of the seventeenth century. Furthermore, it was the first comedy by an American that was produced by a professional company. The central theme of the play revolves around nationalism and patriotism and the play to a great extent satirizes those who imitate foreign fashions and norms in contrast to homegrown American values. In this play Tyler also succeeds in satirizing the manners, foibles and stereotypes of the period
These stereotypes include the following:”â€¦ highly feminized, passive heroines; virtuous, ideally masculine heroes; treacherous villains who threaten the happiness of others; stark contrasts between beneficial and evil; and, often of central importance, the sexual wrongdoings of men” ( Royall Tyler’s The Contrast (1787)) .
However, while this is a comedy one can also interpret on another level as a play that demonstrates the norms and values that the society had towards women. In this sense it is also a work which addresses the theme of seduction, but in a much more light-hearted manner.
Central to this play is the way that women are perceived and the way that they are seen as objects to the bought through marriage. The play begins with the discussion of an arranged marriage between Maria and Dimple. This arrangement is no longer acceptable to the two parties and they seek a way out. However, the same issues in terms of the situation of women as has been discussed in Charlotte Temple can also be referred to this play. For example, in the second scene of the play, Maria complains about the “helpless situation of [her] sex”:
Who is it that considers the helpless situation of our sex, that does not see that we each moment stand in need of a protector, and that a brave one too?
Another even more telling quotation from the play which relates to the central thesis of this paper is as follows:
Reputation is the life of woman; yet courage to protect it is masculine and disgusting; and the only safe asylum a woman of delicacy can find is in the arms of a man of honour.
There is a good argument for a comparison of these two works in terms of their themes and the insights that they provide into the lives of women of the period. The males are mostly seen as villains and the women are in a struggle for their virtue and identity. In The Contrast, “The struggle to defeat the villain invites the audience (and particularly the audience’s female members) to identify with the embattled woman onward the stage being persecuted by dint of the evil man and to relish his downfall.” ( Royall Tyler’s The Contrast (1787)) In both works the central female character attracts our sympathy; Maria with her dreams and Charlotte with her naivete.
In the works of Rowson one must also bear in mind the complexity of sexual roles in the Eighteenth century. There are a number of studies which view the struggle for an American female identity as the struggle against the imported norms and values that place women in an inferior and subjugated role. McAlexander ( 1975) refers to the view that the norms and values surrounding women in America were imported for Europe. This refers to the code whereby “â€¦, women must be kept pure (at least in spirit), pious, self-sacrificing, and domestic; their consequent virtue would inspire their more worldly husbands to similar morality. These books argued that, basically, women were the weaker sex.” (McAlexander 253) Furthermore, the image of men as sexual predators is also a significant factor in terms of the female situation in society. “The world was full of dangers and pitfalls for women — and a chief danger was sexual passion. Men were ever lurking, ready to seduce and deflower the woman who should venture, unprotected, into their path.” (McAlexander 254)
5. The Feminist Perspective
An important way in which the theme of American female identity can be discussed is through the perspective of feminist theory and criticism. This viewpoint is clearly outlined by Barton. Barton ( 2000) in the article Narrative Intrusion in Charlotte Temple: A Closet Feminist’s Strategy in an American Novel states that, ” In eighteenth century America, the female voice was obscured and even muted altogether by an unsympathetic and domineering patriarchal society.” ( Barton 26) Barton refers to the importance of Susanna Rowson as an author who “â€¦demanded to be heard in a society that had relegated the female voice and identity to relative obscurity.” ( Barton 26) According to this and other studies, Rowson used the opportunity offered by the medium of the popular novel to awaken women to their predicament and to the biases that existed in the society of the time. Barton maintains that in books like Charlotte Temple, Rowson “â€¦ undertook a conspicuously spiritual mission-to tend and guide the souls of her female readers-in her writing of Charlotte Temple and thereby disprove various critics’ interpretation of the author strictly as a maternal figure.” ( Barton 26)
The view expressed by Barton therefore open an avenue for discourse and discussion that provides a view of the novel as the precursor of female awareness and consciousness of their biased and marginal situation in terms of gender in the society in which they lived. This in turn can be seen as pivotal due to the intense popularity of the novel.
In many ways the theme of seduction and abuse of women by men is a reflection of the way that many women felt during that period — albeit transformed into the melodrama of a sentimental novel. Nevertheless, if one strips the sentimental approach of the novel one finds a deeper layer of discontent revealed. “The female identity was overshadowed and oftentimes even eclipsed by that of her male counterpart”(Barton 26).
Rowson writes in a time when many theologians attempted to prove that women were intellectually inferior and that women did not even have souls. (Barton 26) In this milieu of prejudice and bias, Rowson realized that women needed to find a voice that would empower them to define their identity in their own terms and that “Such a voice was to be found in the sentimental novel.” (Barton 26) Baron explains this view as follows:
It was here that a woman could articulate what she could express nowhere else. The sentimental novel would become a vehicle for female expression; it would grant women the voice they needed to both defend and demonstrate their credibility as a gender deserving of equality in a male-dominated world.
This is the view that is also suggested by Feminist critics and writers like Wendy Martin. Martin, in her work “Seduced and Abandoned in the New World: The Fallen Woman in American Fiction,” refers to the importance of Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple. In particular Martin refers in her analysis to the ideal of Women’s virtue as a type of “bourgeois economic commodity” where “â€¦ a woman’s virtue (or lack of it) is determinate of her value in the eyes of her community.” (Fudge 43). Martin goes on to make the following analysis;
The moral values of the novel reinforce bourgeois economic reality in which women are totally dependent on marriage for economic survival. In this economic system, virtue is a commodity to be sold to the highest bidder, and virginity relinquished before marriage inevitably means that a woman is less marketable and is therefore less likely to survive economically. (Fudge 44)
In other words, what is being empathized here is that women, or rather the moral value of their virtue that was their main worth, was seen as a commodity to be exchanged and bartered in marriage. Conversely, if a woman, like Charlotte, was seduced and entered into a liaison that was not approved by society, she was lost and had no rights or legal recourse.
Women, as we see in the novel, were therefore objects and this objectification of women and the reduction of their worth as individuals is one of the central themes of the novel in question. We see this aspect clearly in the reaction of Charlotte’s mother to her elopement. This shows that the loss of social and moral virtue is a central and determining feature of a woman’s identity. This disregards the fact that was Charlotte was an innocent of fifteen who was seduced by an older man and woman. These aspects are not taken into account by the society in their condemnation of her sections – and this is a cardinal aspect that is stressed in the narrative. The above leads to the conclusion that Charlotte’s identity as an individual is not deemed by the society to be of any real significance. This is the crux of the matter and the reason why a sentimental novel of seduction like Charlotte Temple is important as a precursor to the awakening of female consciousness and awareness of their situation.
We can also again refer to The Contrast by Tyler in this regard. In this play Maria has been promised in marriage to Billy Dimple. This again emphasizes the theme of the women as an object whose virtue is to be bought through marriage. While this play is a comedy of manners, from a more serious perspective we encounter the same type of prejudices and biases towards women that we find in Charlotte Temple. For example, even though Maria tells her father that she does not love the man that she has been arranged to marry, he still insists that she marry him. He states that “money makes the mare go.” ( Tyler) One could hardly think of a more offensive and callous way of discussing the identity and dignity of women.
For Marias’s father, his daughter’s feelings are insignificant and money is the most important thing she should look out for. This leads to the typical syndrome we also find in Charlotte Temple, of male domination and the loss of female self-identity. Maria is not expected to think or to reason and only to accept the decision of her father and other males.
Returning to Charlotte Temple, in terms of a more expansive analysis of this novel, Weyler ( 2009) notes that there was an incompatibility between the normative and stereotypical role of women and the changing society and cultural setting of the new world of America — and that these changes are reflected in the works of Rowson. Weyler refers to the “incompatibility between women’s expanding influence as authors, teachers, and charitable workers and an increasing emphasis on domestic containment and self-regulation.” ( Weyler 162) This incompatibility between what women were supposed to do and be and what they were actually involved in society in terms of their changing identity, was what Rowson focused on in her works. In Weyler’s words, Rowson “â€¦ explored alternatives to this incompatibility throughout her long public career.” ( Weyler 162) In her later works, Rowson “â€¦moves toward advocating the necessity for women to engage in active learning and to have opportunities for respectable work and the practice of active virtue via philanthropy.” (Weyler)
To add to the view that Rowson’s works, and particularly Charlotte Temple, were in fact early forms of feminist critique of the society in which she lived and therefore pivotal in shaping the American female indentify, Julia Sterne ( 1997) states that the common view that Charlotte Temple is about matriarchal power is incorrect. Rather, Sterne is of the view that Rowson “â€¦ intended to employ the sentimental novel as a means to appropriate the voice and attendant powers of a Puritan minister and thereby reach out to her “congregation” of female readers” (Barton 26) . In other words, she intended this novel to be a voice to awaken women to their situation and predicament in society; and therefore as an important part in the shaping of the identity of the modern American Woman. In this vein, Sterne goes on to note that “At the heart of Charlotte’s performance … lies a feminine representation, the novel’s narrator….This unnamed and overly present narrator functions as the novel’s absent emblem.” (Sterne 3). This is the voice of the author directing the plot and narrative but acting as well as a subtle commentator on the situation of women. This important point is also noted by Barton (2006).
The simple structure of Charlotte Temple, two volumes comprised of thirty-five chapters ranging from one to four pages in length, allowed Rowson to interpolate her personal addresses to her audience with relative easeâ€¦While these authorial intrusions comprise only a small portion of the text, they are a vital and indispensable part of the novel and the crucial message it seeks to impart.
( Barton 26)
In other words, by adopting a narrative approach, “â€¦ Rowson could introduce herself as a functional character capable of elucidating the story she was relating and thereby gain a greater degree of authority and control over her work.” (Sterne 3). This rational and authoritarian role also belies the view that women have a “â€¦latent propensity for hysterical dissolution” (Sterne 3).
A central facet that should not be forgotten and which forms an integrals part of any discussion of the advancement of women in society is of course the role of education. Education or rather the withholding of educational opportunities has been an instrument of subjugation and domination between the sexes in many societies and cultures.
This referred as well the denial of knowledge and education to women during this period.
In a time when women usually were detained from enlightening their opinions by means of literature (biographies were acceptable, but no novels, since they were thought to produce a wrong world view), her father concludes that her sadness comes from “these vile books.” Not wanting to disappoint her father, Maria consents.
(The Contrast (play))
Education can therefore be seen as a vital element in the emergence of American female identity. This naturally refers to the novel and reading and also to the popularity and wide readership that Charlotte Temple has enjoyed. In fact the ostensible aim of this novel is as an educative instrument to make young women aware of the dangers of seduction.
3. Summation and Conclusion
The above discussion has focused on the role of Rowson’s sentimental novel in the establishment of a unique female identity in America. As has been refereed to, there are many aspects, variables and elements that constitute female identity. However, what this novel clearly illustrates are the barriers that existed in the society of the time to advancement towards and Independent female identity.
What is clear for the above is that Rowson emphasizes the mores and norms in a male dominated society that relegates women to the status of objects and which consequently deprives them of their individuality. This refers in particular to the aspect of a woman’s virtue, which becomes an object of male desire and domination.
This important aspect is also clearly evident in other literature of the period, such as The Contrast, where, from a less serious perspective, the central female character is forced into marriage against her will and her individual significance is reduced to the prize of her unsullied virtue.
Therefore, through the sentimentality of a seduction novel Rowson’s narrative serves to reflect the situation and the suffering of the women at the time, as well as the consequences of a moral and ethical societal structure that failed to recognize the individuality and identity of women as people and not objects.
While the sentimental novel as a genre was condemned by critics as being ‘sordid’ and ‘scandalous’ it served an important purpose in that it enabled women to express their inner feelings about the societal norms. The importance of Rowson’s novels was that it rebuffed the “â€¦ baleful eye of American conservatism.” (Barton 28) The acclaim and popularity that it achieved is an indication that despite criticism about its literary qualities it fulfilled an important if not vital role in the development of a female identity in America.
Barton, Paul. “Narrative Intrusion in Charlotte Temple: A Closet Feminist’s Strategy in an American Novel.” Women and Language 23.1 (2000): 26. Questia. Web. 10 Dec. 2011.
Fiedler, Leslie A. Love and Death in the American Novel. Rev. ed. New York: Stein and Day, 1966. Questia. Web. 10 Dec. 2011.
Fudge, Keith. “Sisterhood Born from Seduction: Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple, and Stephen Crane’s Maggie Johnson.” Journal of American Culture 19.1 (1996): 43+. Questia. Web. 10 Dec. 2011.
Greeson, Jennifer Rae. “‘Ruse It Well”: Reading, Power, and the Seduction Plot in the Curse of Caste.” African-American Review 40.4 (2006): 769+. Questia. Web. 10 Dec. 2011.
Kerrison, Catherine. “The Novel as Teacher: Learning to Be Female in the Early American South.” Journal of Southern History 69.3 (2003): 513+. Questia. Web. 10 Dec. 2011.
McAlexander, Patricia Jewell. “The Creation of the American Eve: the Cultural Dialogue on the Nature and Role of Women in Late Eighteenth-Century America.” Early American Literature 9.3 (1975): 252-266. Questia. Web. 10 Dec. 2011.
Rowson. Charlotte Temple: A Tale of Truth / . New York: Hurst, 1889. Questia. Web. 10 Dec. 2011.
Rust M. Prodigal Daughters: Susanna Rowson’s Early American Women. Chapel Hill:
University of North Carolina Press, 2008.
Royall Tyler’s The Contrast (1787)) . Web. 10 Dec. 2011.
Siebert, Donald T. “Royall Tyler’s “Bold Example”: the Contrast and the English Comedy of Manners.” Early American Literature 13.1 (1978): 3-11. Questia. Web. 10 Dec. 2011.
Stern, Julia A. The Plight of Feeling: Sympathy and Dissent in the Early American Novel. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997. Questia. Web. 10 Dec. 2011.
The Contrast (play). Web. 10 Dec. 2011. (http://www.ask.com/wiki/The_Contrast_(play)).
Tyler R. The Contrast. Web. 10 Dec. 2011.
Weyler, Karen A. “Prodigal Daughters: Susanna Rowson’s Early American Women.” Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers 26.1 (2009): 162+. Questia. Web. 10 Dec. 2011.
Whitson, Kathy J. Encyclopedia of Feminist Literature. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2004. Questia. Web. 10 Dec. 2011.
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