Saturday, June 30, 2012

Oppression and True Womanhood in Ellen Glasgow's Virginia

Here're a couple of snippets of the paper that I wrote for ALA 2012. Enjoy! And offer feedback, as I'd like to turn this into a full-length article:

In scholarship on Ellen Glasgow’s 1913 Virginia, surprisingly little has been said of the title character’s name. This is curious because, in its obvious allusion to her home state, the name that Glasgow bestows upon the protagonist of her eleventh book seems to position Virginia, the character, as representative of Virginia, the state in which the novel also takes place, and, by extension, of “the South” itself. It seems to me that, by considering the implications of Glasgow’s choice to name her central character after the state, we can start to delineate the ways that Virginia’s circumscription as a True Woman—which is an aspect of the novel that has been well-documented in the scholarship—reflects the oppressive functioning of the Southern body politic. I’m going to argue in this paper that the novel portrays the ideology of True Womanhood as not only leading women like Virginia to lives of sacrifice and ultimate abandonment but—and perhaps more importantly—as also working to maintain the functioning of the body politic that prevents social change within the South as a whole.

And I will start, as I’ve already suggested, with the name that Glasgow gives her title character. Virginia’s name has a proud history, at least for the citizens of Dinwiddie, Virginia, where the story is set. In the first few pages of the novel, we are introduced to a group of townspeople, who even 19 years after “the war,” continue to show respect for the those who fought to preserve the antebellum way of life by addressing these men by their military titles, people who even “a quarter of a century after ‘The Origin of Species’ had changed the world’s thought,” have never seen the book (14). Despite the defeat of the Civil War and Reconstruction, the people of Dinwiddie carry on with “cheerful fortitude” (9), considering their home state to be all that matters: “Of the world beyond the borders of Virginia, Dinwiddians knew merely that it was either Yankee or foreign, and therefore to be pitied or condemned according the Evangelical or the Calvinistic convictions of the observer” (14).

Like Virginia, the True Woman, Virginia, the state, is both cherished and carefully policed; she is idealized and protected from foreign infiltration. The etymology of the name “Virginia” augments this discussion of Virginia, the character, as representative of a body politic in need of border patrol. The first usage of the name “Virginia” appears on a 1587 map of the British colony in North America; the colony was named for Elizabeth I, “The Virgin Queen.” In this way, of course, Glasgow’s use of the designation “Virginia,” a name originally denotative of sexual chastity—particularly in a woman—reveals the author’s specific concern with the rhetoric surrounding the regulation of female sexuality. Indeed, through its depiction of Virginia’s cultivation as a virginal young girl, carefully controlled reproduction throughout her childrearing years, and ultimate abandonment once she has “outlived her usefulness” (445), the novel plots out the way that women of “leading families” (12) have been utilized similarly to the once ripe land of the colony, and then state, of Virginia—mostly for the benefit of middle-to-upper-class white men.

. . .

The one episode in Virginia that most fully reveals the connection between True Womanhood and the maintenance of the white male power hierarchy of the South is that of Virginia’s young son’s bout with diphtheria. Not insignificantly, Harry starts to show signs of illness immediately following Virginia’s decision to leave the children in her mother’s care—for the first time except for once when she thought that Oliver was sick and needed her in New York—and go with Oliver and a few friends to Atlantic City for a short getaway (329). In the middle of the night before Virginia and Oliver are set to go, Harry wakes up with a sore throat. His primary complaint, however, is that Virginia will be leaving him unprotected from “the black man” who frightens him in the hours between dusk and dawn: “But suppose the black man should come in the night while you are away, and I’d get scared and nobody would hear me” (331). In this way, sickness and blackness start to become confused, and, in Harry’s mind, at least, Virginia—possibly because, as his father had sensed years before, Virginia’s soul possesses a fierce “purity” capable of snuffing out “evil”—is the first line of defense to be employed against either or both of these threats. Of course, Virginia quickly decides that she must forego the trip to Atlantic City to stay home and protect her son. And when the illness sets in with more force, Doctor Fraser affirms Virginia’s belief that she alone can bring Harry back to health, telling her “sternly,” “[Y]ou must bear up; so much depends on you” (350). Obediently, Virginia not only nurses Harry day and night for three days, but also guards her son from the scary black man, making a point of telling him, even as he is delirious with fever, “Remember there is no black man, and mamma is close here beside you” (349). Throughout the diphtheria episode, then, Virginia plays the part of the perfect True Woman—providing round-the-clock care to her child, thinking nothing of her own safety or comfort but only of Harry’s wellbeing, praying unceasingly to God to take from her all worldly happiness in exchange for the sparing of her son’s life, and heeding the orders of the male authority Doctor Fraser. Ultimately, the diphtheria runs its course, and Harry pulls through—probably just as well as he would have had Virginia not completely abnegated herself during his sickness.

Symbolically, though, the episode demonstrates the ideological function of True Womanhood to protect the empowered white male citizenry (or, in this case, the future of the white male citizenry) from the threat—real or imagined—of either blackness figured as illness or illness figured as blackness. For, as Virginia points out when she wonders “whether the fright makes [Harry] sick or the sickness brings on the fright” (333), the two are really one and the same; to allow black men and women to advance socially would be to allow for a type of “sickness” to infiltrate the social body, according to a Dinwiddian perspective.

The diphtheria episode reveals, then, the faulty logic of the rhetoric surrounding lynching, showing that it is not white women who need protection from the sexual penetration of black men but, instead, white men who need defense against the social advancement of black men in order to preserve their own privileged status. In this way, the True Woman—as a representation of the Southern body politic—functions symbolically to protect the social and political interests of white men.

. . .

Works Cited

Glasgow, Ellen. Virginia. New York: Double Day, Page & Company, 1913.