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Composing the family: A reading of "Bleak House", "Wives and Daughters", and "Daniel Deronda"

Kay A Satre, University of Massachusetts Amherst


Drawing upon historical studies of the family and feminist studies of discourse and culture, this dissertation explores representations of the family in Charles Dickens's Bleak House, Elizabeth Gaskell's Wives and Daughters, and George Eliot's Daniel Deronda. It situates each novel's representation of the family within a central ideological undertaking in Victorian culture—the attempt to confirm individual autonomy without sacrificing collective responsibility. It claims that a new family paradigm, the affective family ideal, gains cultural currency because it appears to reconcile these competing values by, on the one hand, giving a new primacy to individual feeling and choice and, on the other hand, insisting that individual choice be contained by familial bonds. This dissertation thus delineates the network of associations—among them individuality and collectivity, natural law and social progress—that composes the affective family ideal and explores its implications. It suggests that normative conceptions of gender and selfhood mandated by this ideal actually obstructed individual choice even as its new articulation of class difference undermined collective well-being. Fundamentally, it claims that the affective family ideal, despite its construction as individualism's antidote, rationalized practices central to the ideology of individualism and promoted middle class hegemony. The first chapter summarizes historical developments that produced the affective family ideal and explores the ways in which gender, class, and subjectivity were shaped within the context of that ideal's construction. Each succeeding chapter analyzes the discursive construction of the family in one Victorian novel. In each novel, three entities structure the family narrative: the aristocratic patrilineal family, individualism, and the affective family. Besides tracing these recurrent figures, this dissertation demonstrates the complex nature of nineteenth century domestic ideology by identifying points of consensus and dissent among these representations of the family. It claims that, despite notable differences, both Bleak House and Wives and Daughters identify the affective family ideal as a distinctively moral alternative to the traditional patrilineal family and individualism. It argues that Daniel Deronda, despite its similar critique of both patrilineal family and individualism, rejects the family ideal that the earlier two novels posit as the key to individual and collective progress.

Subject Area

British and Irish literature|History|Womens studies

Recommended Citation

Satre, Kay A, "Composing the family: A reading of "Bleak House", "Wives and Daughters", and "Daniel Deronda"" (1998). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9920648.