To Have and To Hold: Courting Property in Law and Literature, 1837-1917

Abigail Armstrong Dallmann, University of Massachusetts - Amherst


Beginning in the early nineteenth century, American jurisprudence grappled with the issue of marital property. States under the Anglo-American legal tradition of common law revised marital property allocations to allow wives to hold certain categories of property separate from their husbands. These changes were enacted, in part, to insulate a wife's property from the vagaries of the market but the judicial response reveals a larger narrative of ambivalence and anxiety about women, property, and the suggested mobility of separately held possessions. Marital property reform begins in an historical moment when the question of what a woman could own in marriage morphed into larger cultural anxieties such as the very meaning of ownership and things themselves in the face of new intangible properties. Writers of fiction also captured these anxieties, and created imagined scenarios of marriage and property to expose constructions of ownership, property, womanhood, and marriage. Edna Pontellier in Kate Chopin's The Awakening attempts her withdrawal from her marriage by dismantling the Pontellier home and removing what she believes she owns to a separate physical space. The tragedy of her story can be understood for its legal impossibility under common law, as well as the restricted meanings of marriage and separate property under Louisiana's civil law jurisdiction. At the end of Edith Wharton's Summer, Charity Royall chooses to secretly reclaim a brooch that was a gift from her lover. Her action suggests a desire for privacy and could be viewed as fraudulent to her marriage vows. Pauline Hopkins's character Hagar in Hagar's Daughter repossesses material spaces in which she was forbidden to own and control because of her race and gender, and uses the American justice system to support her claims to ownership and contractual rights. In contrast to Hopkins's tenuous but nonetheless optimistic portrayal of contract, Marìa Amparo Ruiz de Burton's novel Who Would Have Thought It? describes contract and the American legal system overall as empty promises. Marriage and property in Ruiz de Burton's novel work as tropes through which to critique nineteenth-century American society and the destructive force of capitalism within its most intimate spaces.