Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



Document Type



In Idling Women: The Domestic Bildungsroman and the American City, 1830-1900, I explore urban narratives of female non-development. In city novels featuring female protagonists, there are two normative arcs of development: either women find new opportunities for marriage, work, and, in some cases, independence in the city, or they fall prey to threats of seduction, poverty, and even death. However, these two plotlines fail to accommodate stories of women who wait to develop, fail at it, or otherwise resist what might be considered character growth. By problematizing distinctions between idleness and the American “work ethic” often tied to the industrialized city, I challenge existing feminist scholarship, which often equates non-normativity with active rebellion, focusing instead on rather negative character qualities such as dullness, vapidness, and procrastination. Depicted in texts ranging from Catharine Sedgwick’s Clarence (1830) and Fanny Fern’s Ruth Hall (1854) to Henry James’s Washington Square (1880) and Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900), female characters show upward mobility until their promising plots stall out; others passively wait in the aftermath of failed domestic plots; some refuse to engage in any development whatsoever; and still others navigate common urban pitfalls (including seduction and death plots) by remaining staunchly vapid, self-interested characters. Sometimes dull, often disappointing, these protagonists beckon us to reexamine women in the urban Bildungsroman in order to counter the “marry-or-die” narratives of urban progress and, at the same time, resist more redemptive feminist celebrations of these protagonists’ active resistance.



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Committee Chair

Massé, Michelle