The concept of woman as having a distinctive nature and requiring a separate sphere of activity from that of man was pervasive in the thinking of nineteenth- century Americans. So dominant was this "horizon of expectations" for woman that the imaginations of our finest novelists were often subverted, even as they attempted to expand the possibilities for women through their fiction.
Selecting five American writers—James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Dean Howells, Henry James, and Edith Wharton—Schriber traces the impact of cultural expectations for woman on the art of the novel from the early nineteenth century through the advent of Modernism.
The novels of Cooper and Hawthorne exemplify the male imagination at work before the concept of woman's nature and sphere became burning issues, as they did later in the century. Howells, while attempting to expand woman's sphere in his fiction in response to feminist challenges, in fact demonstrates the recalcitrance of a priori ideas. James, provoked rather than subverted by the ideology of gender, was able to bend the culture's myopia to his own artistic purposes. Wharton's novels, in contrast, document the female imagination seeking aesthetic solutions to the problems of women rather than to woman as problem. Wharton constructs versions of female experience that were either invisible or anathema to her male counterparts.
Schriber's discussion centers on those points in each text at which the culture's horizon of expectations drives the decisions and choices of the artist, sometimes to the benefit and sometimes at the expense of craft. Making full use of gender as a category of literary analysis, she recovers the meanings intended by the texts for audiences of their own time, and distinguishes those meanings from their significance for modern readers.
Original in its methodology and insights, Gender and the Writer's Imagination provides a model for future literary studies.