Friday, October 21, 2011

James Scholar Post 1: Didactic Lessons and Crusoe as a "Home-maker"

James Scholar: First Blog Post
“Romancing the Home: ‘The Female Quixote,’ ‘Betsy Thoughtless,’ and the Dream of the Feminine Empire”
Richard Barney’s eighteenth century analytical compilation, Plots of Enlightenment: Education and the Novel in Eighteenth Century England, makes several significant arguments for the Novel’s didactic purpose in eighteenth century society. One of his most interesting chapters, “Romancing the Home: ‘The Female Quixote,’ ‘Betsy Thoughtless,’ and the Dream of Feminine Empire”, draws a very relevant comparison between the protagonist of Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote, Arabella and Defoe’s famous character, Robinson Crusoe. Barney’s argument is rooted in Defoe’s contribution to the emergence of domestic fiction: fiction marketed towards woman that delivered “didactic” messages, or messages that taught women how to properly fulfill their role in nineteenth century society. Although this type of fiction didn’t fully emerge until the nineteenth century, Barney argues that Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, whose narrator’s “success depends at least in part or initially mastering the ways and means of maintaing a domestic economy-the functions usually assigned to women” (269), is a symbol of what women were expected to accomplish as eighteenth and nineteenth century females. Barney describes Crusoe’s story as “a man who learns to master the discipline of domestic management before then applying it to the larger project of forming his personal kingdom” (268). Barney’s argument is that, rather than Defoe presenting an imperialist, masculine figure, Defoe created a character who appeals to the female reader; a character who must establish domesticity to properly function in society. 
Barney is creating an argument that is, interestingly, almost opposite from the way Defoe is commonly compared with female works. In our class comparison of The Female American with Robinson Crusoe, one of the major arguments is that Unca is recreating what Crusoe accomplishes, only she is a female. The reader looks at Unca as a female taking on a man’s role, not a female accepting her already established role. The way in which Unca is often compared to Crusoe revolves around the idea of Unca fighting for her role as the masculine imperialist, proving that she can be a missionary, only a better one. Through Barney’s argument of Crusoe as a domestic figure, is it plausible to envision Unca’s story as a reclaiming of her domestic superiority to Crusoe? Or is she fighting for the masculine role?
Also, if Robinson Crusoe really does mark the emergence of the domestic novel, what would women of the eighteenth century take from Crusoe as their “didactic” lesson? Do we get this same didactic lesson from Unca? And does gender at all play into who does it better? For example, when we look at both characters as domestic figures, does Unca appear more successful? And vice versa, if we compare them as entrepreneurs and leaders, does Crusoe take the lead because of his masculine status?

Barney, Richard A. Romancing the Home: ‘The Female Quixote,’ ‘Betsy Thoughtless,’ and the Dream of Feminine Empire. Plots of Enlightenment: Education and the Novel in Eighteenth-century England. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1999. 255-300. Print.


  1. I get the feeling from "The Female American," that the author is probably female. The difficulty of living on the island is glossed over and the hermit's guide allows the author to skip over the housekeeping details. On my first reading, I thought the point was to provide a female perspective to the Crusoe story. Perhaps it is more about roles than about perspective. Unca has many characteristics typically ascribed to maleness. Besides her hunting skill's and education, she is the sole heir to a fortune, and she takes on the role of converting pagans.
    I don't think it is fair to say that she is fighting for the masculine role. I think gendered power relationship through time are tied to economics and the male as dominant because he holds the pursestrings. When characters in literature are presented with great means, it is usually to bring their narrative to a place where the author can explore concerns outside of economic considerations.

  2. I feel like Unca is fighting for the masculine role. Although I do believe in women empowerment, in the 18th century women did not do what Unca did. Her pure need for power and control is what makes me think that the author wanted her to take over the male role. Unca doesn't use her power and control over the islanders to punish them or hurt them in anyway, she uses it to teach them her religion. Also, Unca has an education which is unusual for women in that time. I really think the author created Unca to take over the masculine role. Unca is so similar to Robinson Crusoe, which is another reason I would say this is true. Unca and Robin Crusoe both seemed to be successful since they knew how to hunt and fought for power on their own island.

  3. I agree with Gina. I definietly think that Unca is fighting for the opportunities that men ususally are provided with and that due to her push of trying to accomplish and gain all of that she can sometimes be overlooked or seen as a more successful. I think that in a way Crusoes character gets underplayed when comparing it to Unca for that reason. Crusoe was fighting for power and control over himself to learn how to do so whereas Unca was fighting to obtain it from society. Thus, although they were both successful, it was percieved that Unca had a greater struggle obtaining it.