Date of Award

Spring 5-2018

Degree Type

Honors College Thesis



First Advisor

Jonathan Barron

Advisor Department



Proto-feminist novels have garnered great critical attention in recent decades, largely owing to the reclamation efforts of feminist scholars from the 1960s onwards. These feminist scholars have remarked the fin-de-siècle emergence of a recurring narrative archetype: the unabashed New Woman, whose exploits in what were traditionally male-dominated spheres distinguished her from the domesticated matrons and sentimental bachelorettes of past literary paradigms. While the New Woman is now a commonplace among feminist critics, the following thesis uniquely interprets this feministic archetype in conjunction with the concurrent movement of American literary naturalism—a genre that proffers a deterministic worldview and is often regarded as “the most hypermasculine in American literary history” (Fleissner, Women, Compulsion, Modernity 6).

I therefore analyze the seemingly tragic suicides of two prominent, New Woman characters—Edna Pontellier of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899) and Lily Bart of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (1905)—through a naturalistic framework. I contend that these female protagonists are imprisoned by the deterministic force of motherhood, and so are apparently doomed to unfulfilling existences as mothers and homemakers. Their only means to liberate themselves from the clutches of domestic motherhood is through their suicides, which are thus transformed into triumphant acts of self-emancipation rather than tragedies.


Honors College Award: Excellence in Research