Date of Award
Master of Arts (MA)
College of Humanities and Social Sciences
Thesis Sponsor/Dissertation Chair/Project Chair
In this paper I challenge many of the previous readings and analysis of the Gothic servant and mother figures found in the American Gothic works of Henry James and Edith Wharton. Much of the Gothic tradition focuses on moral and social transgressions and their impact on morality and status. Because so many critics chose to focus on the impact of social hierarchies and the horrifying impact of the lower class abducting the role of the upper-class of whom they serve, often times those women in the role of the caretaker and nurturer are painted as social climbers concerned only with their upward mobility. Similarly those in the power to care for those above them in status are often vilified because of their understandings of nature and knowledge of the homes where they care supersedes the knowledge of those for whom they care. I, however, argue that the Gothic servant/nurturing figures found in Henry James’s The Turn o f the Screw, Edith Wharton’s “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell,” “All Souls,” and Ethan Frome do not exemplify the social climber willing to sacrifice the well-being of those in her keep, but rather the intrinsically, benevolent influences of a motherly figure to protect those in their keep.
My Introduction illustrates much of the current criticism written about the social anxieties of class fluctuation and upheaval, the construct of power in mothering roles, and the potential for positive mothering forces in American Gothic works, including criticism from Fred Botting, Allan Lloyd-Smith, Bruce Robbins, Gloria Erlich, Priscilla Walton, Holly Blackford, Karen J. Jacobsen, Claire Kahane, Roberta Rubenstein and lastly Cynthia Murillo. I explain how the working classes enter into a partnership with the aristocracy, willingly or out of sheer desperation, and how it enables the movement of those in the working class to exert power held previously by the aristocracy. I explain how though Fred Botting's work on the Gothic genre is helpful in elucidating the Gothic elements in Gothic fiction, we must fuse and acknowledge later criticism and class examination to ultimately lead us to a firmer understanding of the role of the servantmother and the positive power of her position in the aforementioned works. I go on to highlight some of Bruce Robbins’ Marxist criticism of The Turn of.the Screw and explain both its values and shortcomings in regards to the stance it takes on the intentions of the governess in the text. There is a co-dependent nature that exists between the mistress/master and his/her caretaker, whether it be a maid, caretaker or governess. Once the servant appeases the need of the mistress, the roles reverse and the mistress ultimately becomes reliant on the servant for survival. This paradigm shift elicits a sense of horror on the part of the mistress because she recognizes the limitations of her seeming power and influence and becomes childlike and consequently helpless but is nonetheless, protected from the dangers of the truth by those around her. While this exertion of power may be classified as monstrous because it is out of the realm of the servant’s position, I maintain it is an act of the mothering servant whose intention is to protect those in their care, not, like many critics contend, to lead their mistresses astray for their own gains.
I argue how The Turn of the Screw depicts the confusion inherent in both the social and mothering role of the governess in my chapter "Mothering Figures in Henry James's The Turn of the Screw." While many literary critics disparage the role of the governess in this tale and focus mainly on her possible sexually driven decisions, there is much more to consider about the governess’s actions that actually disrupt this commonly held belief of her as a whore figure. I illustrate through a close read how we must recognize the positive intentions of the governess to play the role of the substitute mother for Miles and Flora but because of her young age, lack of experience and social status, is ill-equipped to be the substitute mother. She does not willingly embody the whore figure like the governess who came before her, but through a series of her attempts to thwart such a fate for herself, while simultaneously mimicking the positive mother role that Mrs. Grose sets out for her, causes her loss of the children in her keep.
In “Mothering Figures and their Power in the Works of Edith Wharton” I recognize the extensive scholarship on Gothic mothers. I argue that though we cannot dismiss the economic motivation and subversive discussion of class and economic commentary, the domestic servants and characters in Wharton’s work, though powerful, do not manipulate the mistresses and family members in their keep for social gain, but rather because they are taking on the role of the nurturing mother whose goal is protecting those within the realm of the home. This argument is substantiated through the close-reading and analysis of Wharton’s works “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell,” “All Souls,” and Ethan Frome. Through my analysis, I explain how these nurturing women capitalize on their ghostlike presence in their homes not to menace but to help those whom they serve and protect.
It is necessary to look at the works of Flenry James and Edith Wharton with a discerning eye that separates the previously held belief that the servants and caregivers’ in American Gothic literature’s ultimate intentions were to usurp the power of the master/mistress from the notion that the intentions of the caregivers is to mother and nurture those above them, despite knowledge they have that those higher in status might view as threatening to their positions. While in some texts the best intentions of the caregivers do not supersede tragedy, it is still necessary to acknowledge the intent and not the effect of the mothering of these benevolent caregivers.
Santo, Valerie Jean, "Gothic Servants : Mothering Power Under the Guise of Servility" (2014). Theses, Dissertations and Culminating Projects. 600.