Date of Award
Master of Arts (MA)
College of Humanities and Social Sciences
Thesis Sponsor/Dissertation Chair/Project Chair
This thesis examines three nineteenth-century female authors’ use of the ghost story to articulate and illustrate the anxiety and restriction they suffered under the ideals of True Womanhood. It discusses how Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Edith Wharton, and Mary Wilkins Freeman were compelled to use this unorthodox method of expression because its innate characteristics granted them the creative liberty necessary for authentic female expression and an evolution into New Womanhood and tum-of-the-century feminism. It reveals how the ghost story allowed them to be taken seriously by their male counterparts, yet still provided them with the degree of camouflage necessary to prevent societal stigmatization. This thesis explains how their use of the supernatural allows their characterization of the female form to shine forth beyond male-centered classifications of women and the traditional roles imposed upon them.
Chapter 1 explores Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” and her narrator’s use of journaling to break free from the mental and physical constraints of nineteenth-century American culture. Her journal chronicles her investigation of the yellow wallpaper decorating her bedroom and becomes a ghostly tale in which madness is revealed to be a worthy alternative to remaining under the suffocating captivity of her husband and nineteenth-century society.
Chapter 2 examines Wharton’s use of servant and employer characters in her ghostly tale “Luella Miller” to illustrate the ways in which ideals of True Womanhood render women into ghostlike creatures, driving them to a slow and selfless death. Wharton’s characters expose how nineteenth-century American women must aid and support one another in the struggle to successfully destroy the patterns of repression keeping them prisoner in the home.
Chapter 3 investigates how Freeman’s supernatural text “Pomegranate Seed” casts a man as an outsider to knowledge and forces him and readers to face the male gender’s abuse of power and female victimization. Through her female characters, Freeman confronts the ultimate Gothic fear - that in addition to challenging male oppression, women must also face their own femaleness, exposing the detrimental effects of idealized womanhood and the necessity to alter their submissive stance.
This thesis concludes that the ghost story, though an unconventional genre for the time, was a venue that provided women with a voice outside of the domestic sphere and encouraged their thinking beyond its confines into the realm of New Womanhood and feminism. The writings of Gilman, Freeman, and Wharton create a space for women in which they can voice their discontent with the restrictive culture present in nineteenth and early twentieth-century America without becoming ghosts themselves.
Nemiroff, Erin Barclay, "Ghostly Writing : Nineteenth-Century American Women Writers and Issues of Visibility" (2007). Theses, Dissertations and Culminating Projects. 1226.