Nancy Armstrong’s Desire and Domestic Fiction

Armstrong, Nancy. “Introduction: The Politics of Domesticating Culture, Then and Now.” Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel. New York: Oxford UP, 1990. 3-27. Print.

In the introduction to her now seminal work, Armstrong begins by noting that studies of the rise of the novel as a form and/or genre have overlooked the causal roles of gender and domesticity. She traces the parallel rise of the domestic woman and social anxieties about desire as vital factors to the rise of the novel. She notes that:

In nineteenth century fiction…men where no longer political creatures so much as they were products of desire and producers of domestic life. As gender came to mark the most important difference among individuals, men were still men and women were still women, of course, but the difference between male and female was understood in terms of their respective qualities of mind. Their psychological differences made men political and women domestic rather than the other way around, and both therefore acquired identity on the basis of personal qualities that had formerly determined female nature alone….It is only by subordinating all social differences to those based on gender that these novels bring order to social relationships. (4)

After this setup, Armstrong explains that her argument will ultimately be that “the rise of the novel hinged upon a struggle to say what made a woman desirable” and that, in so doing, she will be making a larger argument about the stakes of this gendered-rise. Namely:

I will consider this redefinition of desire as a decisive step in producing the densely interwoven fabric of common sense and sentimentality that even today ensures the ubiquity of middle-class power. It is my contention that narratives which seemed to be concerned solely with matters of courtship and marriage in fact seized the authority to say what was female, and that they did so in order to contest the reigning notion of kinship relations that attached most power and privilege to certain family lines. This struggle to represent sexuality took the form of a struggle to individuate wherever there was a collective body, to attach psychological motives to what had been the openly political behavior of contending groups, and the evaluate these according to  a set of moral norms that exalted the domestic woman over and above her aristocratic counterpart. I am saying the female was the figure, above all else, on whom depended the outcome of the struggle among competing ideologies. (5)

Armstrong notes that she makes this argument because it is otherwise very hard to explain why, suddenly, when people began writing about novels they began writing about the domestic woman and assuming a female audience.

In making this argument, Armstrong draws on Foucault’s A History of Sexuality, making three overall points: “first, that sexuality  is a cultural construct and as such has a history; second, that written representations of the self allowed the modern individual to become an economic and psychological reality; and third, that the modern individual was first and foremost a woman” (8).

After this broad setup, Armstrong makes a series of smaller points that will be instrumental in the book as a whole. The most important of these are as follows:

1. “language, which once represented the history of the individual as well as the history of the state in terms of kinship relations, was dismantled to form the masculine and feminine spheres that characterize modern culture. I want to show that a modern, gendered form of subjectivity developed first as a feminine discourse in certain literature for women…” (14).

2. This female subjectivity created a “gendered field of information [which] contested a dominant political order which depended, among other things, on representing women as economic and political objects” (15).

3. In terms of education, the novel became an increasingly respectable and, as Armstrong suggests, “as education became the preferred instrument of social control, fiction could accomplish much the same purpose as the various forms of recreation promoted by Sunday schools…Removing the stigma from novel reading no doubt conspired with activities promoted by Sunday schools to combat historically earlier notions of self, of family, and of pleasure” (17).

—. “The Rise of Female Authority in the Novel.” Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel. New York: Oxford UP, 1990. 28-58. Print.

In this chapter, Armstrong argues that:

Domestic fiction mapped out a new domain of discourse as it invested common forms of social behavior with the emotional values of women. Consequently, these stories of courtship and marriage offered their readers a way of indulging, with a kind of impunity, in fantasies of political power that were the more acceptable because they were played out within a domestic framework where legitimate monogamy–and thus the subordination of female to male–would ultimately be affirmed. In this way, domestic fiction could represent an alternative form of political power without appearing to contest the distribution of power that it represents as historically given. (29)

She delineates Rousseau’s social contract in order to argue that “domestic fiction represented sexual relationships according to an ideal of the social contract” which we might call the sexual contract (30). More specifically, she argues that “as it gave rise to modern liberal discourse, the social contract produced a contradiction on which the rise of the novel depended” (36).

Arguing that, “in fiction, the contract created a language for social relationships that was immensely useful for purposes of an emergent capitalism. This language provided one way of justifying the ideological destruction of fixed status positions,” Armstrong goes on to demonstrate that this is the case using a mix of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novels (37). She states “the novels which best exemplify the genre for us today are those which translated the social contract into a sexual exchange. By representing social conflict as personal histories, gothic tales of sensibility, and stories of courtship and marriage, a relatively few eighteenth century authors were allowed to displace an entire body of fiction in which political conflict was not so thoroughly transformed by middle-class love” (38).

Ultimately, Armstrong is arguing that female authors gained authority / access to discourses of the day via writing, although the social consensus that allowed them to write also forbade them to write about men’s topics (politics). Nevertheless, the female novelists’ focus on domestic women and the domestic sphere had a profound political impact. She states, “according to the middle-class ideal of love…the female relinquishes political control to the male in order to acquire exclusive authority over domestic life, emotions, taste, and morality. We have no grounds for assuming that such an exchange was intended primarily to keep women in line. In distinguishing male from female authority, this representation of social relationships sought to break down the prerogatives that traditionally belonged to male aristocracy” (41).

“Respectable fiction, I will argue, was that which represented political conflict in terms of sexual differences that upheld a peculiarly middle-class notion of love” (41). 

“Although it did not seem to be political or economic on the surface, female authority was nevertheless real, for the language of sexual relations itself was considered acceptable feminine writing” (42).

Using novels such as Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Armstrong notes that the heart of the novel (at least, the domestic novel) is a sexual exchange that is well figured in the opening to Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

Armstrong then goes on to suggest that the female narrator became the primary means by which novelistic authority was signified and negotiated with readers. (This is something that Watt implies in The Rise of the Novel, when he states that Austen mastered the novelistic narratives use of formal realism in ways that neither Fielding nor Richardson did, because her narrators were so naturalized within the world of the story. He does not mention the gender of Austen’s narrators, as I recall, but I think that their very femaleness allows them to access the interior (“feminine”) world of the novel with both more authority and more authenticity than male narrators might.

In the final section of this chapter, Armstrong explains “the sexual contract as narrative process” (48). What does this mean? Armstrong clarifies by suggesting that, “unless we regard representations of personal life and domestic relations as a cultural strategy  arising from specific historical conditions and serving definite political ends, our observations will simply reify a nineteenth century model of sexual exchange” (48).

I equate this “cultural strategy” with the fronts of resistance Lora Romero identifies in Home Fronts: Domesticity and Its Critics in the Antebellum United States. In Armstrong’s usage, it isn’t only the domestic space that enables women’s resistance to oppressive cultural institutions, but the domestic sphere, the woman’s authority within that sphere, desire and sexuality itself. That is, novels allowed for the representation of the subversion of traditional sexuality and desire-based relationships–as long as some sort of norm was reinstated by the end. Later, cultural anxiety made it more difficult to portray such subversions, but the female remained the authority in the realm of the subjective and the emotional. Armstrong seems to read in these eighteenth-century depictions the foundations of the nineteenth century obsession with the Angel of the House. She notes, “the dynamics of sexual exchange are apparently such that the female gains authority only by redeeming the male, not by pursuing her own desires. Fiction written after the mid-century mark severely punishes women if they resist the established forms of political authority, no matter how ineffectual their resistance turns out to be” (55).

—. “The Rise of the Domestic Woman.” Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel. New York: Oxford UP, 1990. 59-95. Print.

In this chapter, Armstrong gives an overview of the domestic conduct book and the domestic economy book to demonstrate the crossover of the two forms and the ways in which this sort of literature intended to produce–through education–a domestic woman that would meet all of the economic man’s desires. She argues that

It is the whole purpose of this chapter to show how such points of [class, social, and gender] difference came to be contained within a framework that was remarkably predictable. By dividing the social world on the basis of sex, this body of writing produced a single ideal of the household. But the domestic ideal did not so much speak to middle-class interests as the conduct books helped to generate the belief that there was such a thing as a middle class with clearly established affiliations before it actually existed. If there is any truth in this, then it is also reasonable to claim that the modern individual was first and foremost a female. (66)

I see a lot of overlap with McKeon, here, especially in terms of his double-reversal. In Armstrong, we see writers trying to reify old (aristocratic) ways of doing things into distinctly middle-class ways of doing things: living in country houses without being gentry, dining and socializing with glamor but not with aristocratic ostentation, creating a frugal and respectable household economy that wasn’t defined as such in regard to money, and being virtuous without being noble by blood. Armstrong argues that it is the creation of the domestic woman in fiction that allowed for the navigation of these re-interpretations of things, and led to the creation of a precisely defined domestic woman in real life.

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