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5. Class and Sex in American Fiction: From Casual Laborers to Accidental Desires

Michael Trask


Subject Literature » American Literature

Period 1000 - 1999 » 1900-1999

Key-Topics class (social), novel and novella, sex

DOI: 10.1111/b.9780631206873.2009.00008.x


Extract

It is habitual for critics of American literature to posit the naturalist turn around 1900 as the moment when the novel shrugged off its high-realist mantle and began to assume the rather different attire of modernist fiction, with its resolute emphasis on topics that the civilized novel of manners had typically defused and dispatched. In this essay I will be concerned to track the novel's change through two of these topics, sexual desire and class difference, by first observing that these too underwent a cultural metamorphosis around 1900. Whereas the novel traditionally depicted class and sex as things that had to be normalized and rectified through the marriage plot, which set desire on the path toward conjugality and thereby mitigated its hazards via the harmonic realignment of social hierarchy, the novel around 1900 began to lose interest in this long-established narrative pattern and to focus instead on sexual competition and material wants as motive forces unchecked by moral stays or cultural mandates. In the American literary tradition, where the commitment to the marital plot had always been relatively weaker than that of its European counterpart, the insistence on thwarting the narrative of marriage and its formal teleology became an imperative that shaped the genre of American realism, which represented its moral and aesthetic program as an assault on the romantic illusions ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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