Penelopian Figures: Narratives of Work and Resistance in American Literature, 1840-1900

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Penelopian Figures: Narratives of Work and Resistance in American Literature, 1840-1900” examines literary representations of workers who engage in covert opposition to their circumstances. In chapters on The Lowell Offering textile magazine, Rebecca Harding Davis’s Life in the Iron Mills, Louisa May Alcott’s “How I Went Out to Service” and Work, and Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson, I argue that it is necessary to examine everyday scenes of work, which may at first seem unremarkable and commonplace. This project looks across generic categories and identifies a shared threat to the well-being of working bodies engaged in textile labor, iron-mill toil, domestic service, housewifery, and slave labor. Using Homer’s Penelope and her shroud-weaving trickery as a guiding model, “Penelopian Narratives” identifies several thematic criteria among these narratives: working figures emphasize the processes of work over their culminating material products; they work in destructive and cyclical patterns; they steal and suspend time by prolonging their work; and their labors function as tactics of personal survival. By identifying these trends among literary representations of laboring bodies, I provide a new approach to analyzing working figures, which broadens the critical trend of reading nineteenth-century labor from strictly proletarian contexts. This dissertation contends that these authors deploy working figures to examine larger social problems and menaces, such as physical and sexual peril, harassment, and exploited as well as alienated labor. In doing so, they lend urgency to the economic, social, and sexual dangers directed towards working bodies within these allegedly innocuous narrative scenes.

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  • 01/09/2019
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