Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

First Advisor

Fred C. Frey

Second Advisor

Peggy W. Prenshaw


In this interdisciplinary study, I apply the materials of family systems theory to the study of five twentieth-century literary texts, each written by a Southern white woman. Arranged in the order they will appear in this study, the five texts are The Keepers of the House (1964) by Shirley Ann Grau; Net of Jewels (1992) by Ellen Gilchrist; The Golden Apples (1949) by Eudora Welty; The Voice at the Back Door (1956) by Elizabeth Spencer; and Can't Quit You, Baby (1988) by Ellen Douglas. In the analysis of these books--all examples of domestic and social realism--I analyze and measure the effects of the family system on the individuation process of each female protagonist, particularly (as the texts are arranged) the increasing degrees of differentiation that the female protagonist achieves as she conforms to or resists the family and cultural forms she faces. A second purpose is to explore and evaluate the potential of family systems theory as a reliable tool for the analysis of imaginative fiction in general and these texts by these Southern women writers in particular. These results indicate that both the specific family structure and the communication processes of each of the five families supported and fostered the traditional Southern roles of Southern belle and lady. Each of the protagonists also found these roles restrictive, yet how each one reacted to these roles was a measure of her family's particular destructive qualities and her unique temperament. From family to family, the central problem varied. Abigail Howland faced neglect and abandonment; Rhoda Manning endured a patriarchal, controlling father; Virgie Rainey experienced the diminished presence of a mother who loved an outsider; Marcia Mae grew up amid secrets and forbidden speech topics; and Cornelia also faced lies and family secrets. Each protagonist, facing various difficulties, employed strategies that were designed to distinguish and differentiate her from the family. They met with varying degrees of success, in their efforts to overcome family difficulties and to integrate the desire for individuality with the demands of family and community.