Bright lights, big city : electrified female desire in Edith Wharton and Theodore Dreiser Public Deposited

http://ir.library.oregonstate.edu/concern/graduate_thesis_or_dissertations/8623j285s

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  • This thesis explores the electrified female subject in two novels, Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie (1900) and Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth (1905). As cultural touchstones, two literary works that prominently feature electricity -- Henry James' story "In the Cage" and Henry Adams' biography The Education of Henry Adams -- provide a contemporary framework that structures my underlying interest in electrified social spaces occupied by women. In all of these works, I explore how female desire is characterized in terms of its electric charge. My major finding is that the electric configures promises (charged and magnetic ideals) while also representing the inverse of such freedoms. Because electric current is powerful but also invisible, the writers I examine see it as a potent modern energy that cannot be harnessed. Thus women electric with desire -- and haunted by their states of un-fulfillment -- are the subjects of my thesis. In Chapter One, I offer a new reading of Wharton's Lily Bart. Unable to reconcile her desires with the realities of the modern world, Lily's downfall and ultimate suicide (described in heavily electric terms) reveal the false promises of electric ideals as those ideals were addressed to the bodies and minds of modern women. In Chapter Two, I argue that Dreiser's Carrie is fueled by electric desires that propel her action in the novel. However, because she is unable to articulate and achieve her electric dreams in the real world, I suggest that Carrie's persistent daydreams and visits to her rocking chair are indicative of her awareness that what she desires will always remain unseen, invisible, and as impalpable as electric current itself.
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