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Moral fictions : girlhood and the material Bible in the sentimental novel


Sentimental novels, particularly those written by Hawthorne's "damned mob of scribbling women" during the latter half of the nineteenth century, have often been read and dismissed for their overtly religious content and clumsy depictions of female emotion. Increasingly since the 1970s, however, the Bibles and psychologically tortured young heroines that populate these novels have been reconsidered in light of feminist criticism. A handful of feminist critics have considered the Bible as a potentially transgressive text in the sentimental narrative, and have thus turned to readership to assess the dynamic between the sentimental heroine and her Bible. Such criticism has, however, consistently failed to address that dynamic on a material level. Recognizing that this failure represents a gap in literary scholarship, this thesis considers the physical interplay of three sentimental heroines and their Bibles : Eva of Uncle Tom's Cabin, Ellen of The Wide, Wide World, and Elsie of Elsie Dinsmore. In each case, the Bible is shown to perform vital cultural work both within and beyond the novel. For Eva, the Bible becomes a surrogate body that offers an avenue to power in spite of her physical weakness ; for Ellen, it becomes a material analogue whose presence legitimizes her physical body in the eyes of the reader ; for Elsie, it becomes a visual counterpart that underlines the attractiveness and visibility of her body. By reading the Bible in dialogue with the female body, this thesis works toward a reassessment of the Bible and femininity in the sentimental novel

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