Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (1844-1911)
Contributing Editor: Carol Farley Kessler
Classroom Issues and Strategies
While it may be difficult for a few of the male students to enter the viewpoint of the heroine of The Story of Avis, many students--especially women--find this a profoundly rewarding novel to read.
I acknowledge to a class that Phelps's style sometimes causes a problem. I explain that she was an anxious person, that in Avis she was tackling taboo subjects--such as the view that marriage is not good for women, and that women are as creative as men. I ask students to note other taboo viewpoints that arise. Then I ask them to consider how they write when they are afraid of how people may react to their ideas. Phelps's writing is sometimes precious, overwritten--the tactic of a worried person. I also point out that sometimes contorted language occurs with personally difficult or socially controversial subjects; students need to consider the possible emotional significance of the text for its author. The problems of style can inform us.
Women respond strongly, positively to this realistic novel depicting women's three-role status (mother-wife-person), which they recognize as unresolved in the 1990s as in the 1870s. Men may be less aware of the potential for overwork entailed in this three-role status; however, some will be sons of single or divorced mothers, hence more aware of the dilemma of women's unpaid, often invisible labor. They, rather than the instructor, may be guided to provide explanations to less-aware men. Also women (and some men) need the conscious support of an instructor to feel safe enough to respond with emotional honesty to male (and some female) classmates who don't understand the issues Phelps tackles.
Perry Miller Adato's thirty-minute film on "Mary Cassatt" (1844- 1926), a Philadelphia artist who worked in Paris, provides an overview of the status of the nineteenth-century creative woman.
Erica Jong's essay, "The Artist as Housewife: The Housewife as Artist," in Ms. (October 1972), reprinted in The First Ms. Reader (New York: Warner, 1973, pp. 111-22), demonstrates surprisingly little contrast between 1877 and 1972.
The marriage/career conflict engages students' attention, as does the general contemporary relevance of the concerns of Phelps's novel. They wonder, especially the women, why these problems continue to exist. They wonder how to solve them. They take the issues addressed by the novel very personally.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
An overview of these matters is Kessler's Introduction to The Story of Avis (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers, 1986, pp. xiii-xxvi, plus notes).
Themes include role conflict and overload for women, conditions needed for creativity, the reality of unhappy marriages for women, freedom with singleness and constraint with marriage, possibilities emerging from atypical choices.
Historical issues: The novel attacks the socialization of women to be "true women" (Phelps's essay, in the Rutgers reprint of Avis, elucidates the role construct of true womanhood--to be compassionate, cheerful, submissive, selfless); it espouses women's movement beliefs in women's right to meaningful work and emotional support.
Personal issues: Avis seems to be an ideal composite of Phelps, her mother, and female relatives (see "A Literary Legacy" in Frontiers 5 [Fall 1980] 28-33). The longest publication gap in Phelps's career occurs between The Silent Partner, 1871, and The Story of Avis, 1877: consider Tillie Olsen's view that "censorship silences" (see her Silences [New York: Delta, 1979], p. 9). In a 1903 letter to Harriet Prescott Spofford, Phelps wrote, "The married are hampered in what they can say. I remember that when I wrote Avis I said 'were I married, I could not write this book' " ( Avis, Introduction, p. xxxi). See also chapters 3 and 7 from The Silent Partner on the silencing of women in marriage.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Form/Convention: A feminized version of the Grail legend, hence a romantic quest, though this is not particularly evident in the two excerpted chapters; Bildungsroman/Künstlerroman--the growth and development of the protagonist/artist; American literary realism, contemporaneous with Henry James and William Dean Howells; also New England regionalism.
Style: Emotionally loaded, highly allusive and imagistic. "Avis" equals Latin for bird; the caged bird, according to Ellen Moers in Literary Women, 1976, pp. 245-51, is characteristic of women's writing; ironic social commentary; occasional Christian sentiment.
Aesthetics: Art for truth's sake--"art implies truthful and conscientious study of life as it is," notes Phelps in her autobiography ( Chapters from a Life, 1896, p. 261); "life is moral responsibility," essential to beauty, she believes; didactic function of literature. She assumed the seriousness of her mission as author.
One reviewer found the book unacceptable, especially for young female readers; on the other hand, feminist Lucy Stone was sure it was destined for "a permanent place in English literature." Currently its return to availability was noted favorably ( Legacy 2 [Spring 1985]: 18). Student reports on standard reference articles-- AWW, 1982; DAB, 1936; NAW, 1971--provide a challenge as each presents a very different viewpoint on Phelps, resulting from differing audiences and historical contexts.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Henry James's early Künstlerroman, Roderick Hudson, 1875, in which the artist is overcome by a disappointment in love and commits suicide; Louisa May Alcott, "Diana & Persis" (written in 1879; in Alternative Alcott, 1988, edited by Elaine Showalter), in which two friends discover that maybe marriage and art can mix; Gilman, "The Yellow Wallpaper," 1892 ( The Heath Anthology, Volume 2), and Endure: The Diaries of Charles Walter Stetson, 1881-88 (edited by Mary A. Hill, Temple University Press 1985), which reveal spousal control of a woman's creative energies; Kate Chopin, The Awakening, 1899, in which a woman resists an eventless married life and strikes for independence; Wharton's short stories collected as The Muses's Tragedy and Other Stories, 1890s-1910s (edited by Candace Waid, Signet, 1990), or the novelette The Touchstone, 1900, in which women's aesthetic capacities appear ironically twisted; Willa Cather, The Song of the Lark, 1915, a novel depicting the origins and development of artistic genius. Avis has a stronger character than James's Roderick Hudson, but has less optimism than Alcott's Persis, less impatience and rebelliousness than Chopin's Edna Pontellier, less firm commitment to her art than Cather's Thea Kronborg.
Of the many possible multi-ethnic comparisons, consider the Asian-American short story by Hisaye Yamamoto, "Seventeen Syllables," 1949 ( The Heath Anthology, Volume 2), a devastating instance of lost creative freedom, and the final chapter from Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior, "A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe," 1976, a vision of empowerment; African-American experience in Lorraine Hansberry's play To Be Young, Gifted, and Black, 1969, a searching examination of the impact of race upon creativity; in Alice Walker's story "Everyday Use," 1973, concerning the inheriting and using of art; and in Rita Dove's novel Through the Ivory Gate, 1992, an upbeat example of creativity blending education, mime, and music.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing
1. (a) Discuss the conflict between caring and creativity that Avis experiences. How does Phelps plot this?
(b) Delineate how marriage figures in the plot pattern of entrapment and escape.
(c) What ideas about relationships between women and men presented in the novel are still historically unrealized?
(d) At the end of the novel, Phelps argues that making a woman will take three generations, pp. 146-47. How, in the chapters read, does she provide support for this hypothesis?
2. (a) Keep a reading journal of responses to the daily assignments, with notations of specific (i.e., page, paragraph, word) support for generalizations noted.
(b) In-class paragraphs written during the first fifteen minutes providing detailed support for an opinion about the novel, on topics assigned for later class discussion.
(c) Individual reports relating supplementary articles or other literary selections to the Avis chapters.
Legacy: A Journal of Nineteenth-Century American Women Writers provides critical articles about authors of Phelps's era.
Recent reprints of Phelps's best novels--The Story of Avis, The Silent Partner (about a mill town social worker), Doctor Zay (about a homeopathic physician)--contain useful introductions or afterwords.
In addition, Woman in Sexist Society (ed. Vivian Gornick and Barbara K. Moran, NAL, 1972) contains three relevant articles: Jessie Bernard, "The Paradox of the Happy Marriage," 145-62; Linda Nochlin, "Why Are There No Great Women Artists?" 480-510; and Margaret Adams, "The Compassion Trap," 555-75.
The recent collection, Writing the Woman Artist: Essays on Poetics, Politics, and Portraiture, ed. Suzanne W. Jones, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991, contains numerous suggestive discussions, though none specifically on Avis.
Finally, see Susan K. Harris, Nineteenth-Century American Women's Novels: Interpretive Strategies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.