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Seduction, prostitution, and the control of female desire in popular antebellum fiction

Renner, Karen J. (2010) Seduction, prostitution, and the control of female desire in popular antebellum fiction. Nineteenth-Century Literature, 65 (2). pp. 166-191. ISSN 0891-9356

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Publisher’s or external URL: http://ncl.ucpress.edu/content/65/2/166.abstract

Abstract

During the antebellum era, increased attention to the prostitute coincided with a prevalent conception of women as, in Nancy Cott's words, essentially "passionless" unless aroused by sincere romantic love. Yet it seems paradoxical that this ideology existed alongside an increasing awareness of women whose livelihood depended upon manufacturing and marketing sexual desire. In this essay I argue that the prostitute became an object of antebellum fascination and concern less because of her defiance of the ideology of passionlessness and more because of the extent to which she could be made to reinforce this ideology. Casting the prostitute as a victim of seduction preserved predominant beliefs about the dependency of female desire on male impetus. The popular novels of George Thompson and Osgood Bradbury elide the sexual autonomy of the prostitute by making her a victim of men, but they do so in different ways. Thompson employs two variants of the seduction narrative that differ according to class, but both result in the subjection of female desire to male control. His indigent females are chaste victims of violent forms of sexual exploitation, while his licentious rich women reveal an inherent tendency toward monogamy or an inability to command their own aberrant desires. Bradbury, in contrast, is remarkable for his willingness to allow fallen women and prostitutes the chance to reform. As refreshingly progressive as Bradbury's novels seem, however, his adherence to the seduction narrative ultimately suggests that female desire is doomed to dissatisfaction unless properly channeled toward working-class men.

Item Type: Article
Publisher’s Statement: Published as Renner, Karen J. (2010) Seduction, prostitution, and the control of female desire in popular antebellum fiction. Nineteenth-Century Literature, 65 (2).© 2010 by [the Regents of the University of California/Sponsoring Society or Association]. Copying and permissions notice: Authorization to copy this content beyond fair use (as specified in Sections 107 and 108 of the U. S. Copyright Law) for internal or personal use, or the internal or personal use of specific clients, is granted by [the Regents of the University of California/on behalf of the Sponsoring Society] for libraries and other users, provided that they are registered with and pay the specified fee via Rightslink® or directly with the Copyright Clearance Center.
ID number or DOI: 10.1525/ncl.2010.65.2.166
Keywords: seduction narrative, popular antebellum literature, nineteenth-century American literature, prostitution, female sexuality
Subjects: P Language and Literature > PS American literature
NAU Depositing Author Academic Status: Faculty/Staff
Department/Unit: College of Arts and Letters > English
Date Deposited: 08 Jul 2016 17:48
URI: http://openknowledge.nau.edu/id/eprint/2938

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