Daughters, Fathers, and the Novel is a provocative study of the father-daughter story—a neglected dimension of the family romance. It has important implications for the history of the novel, for our understanding of key texts in that history, and for theories concerning the representation of gender, family relations, and heterosexuality in Western culture.
In the English and American novel, argues Lynda Zwinger, “the good woman” . . . is a father’s daughter, . . . constructed to the very particular specifications of an omnipresent and unvoiced paternal desire.” Zwinger supports her case with an analysis of both “high-brow” and “low-brow” novels and with ingenious textual analyses of five novels: Clarissa Harlowe, Dombey and Son, Little Women, The Golden Bowl, and The Story of O.
In the dominant discourse of Anglo-American culture, the father’s daughter provides the cornerstone for the patriarchal edifice of domesticity and the alibi for patriarchal desire. Zwinger’s analysis of the sexual politics embodied in the figure of this sentimental daughter raises compelling critical and cultural issues. Zwinger shows how different readings of Clarissa’s story form a sentimental composite that makes her available in perpetuity to heterosexual desire. Dombey and Son illuminates the erotic dimension of the sentimental, the titillation always inherent in the spectacle of virtue in distress. Zwinger’s analysis of Little Women in the context of Louisa May Alcott’s own life-text focuses upon the problems of a daughter trying to write the filial romance. The Golden Bowl deploys the daughter of sentiment as a “cover story” for a feminine version of the Oedipal story, founded on the daughter who can’t say yes, but doesn’t say no. The Story of O reveals the pornographic dimension in romantic and sentimental love.
In her conclusion, Zwinger offers an overview of the nineteenth-century novel, asking what difference it makes when the writer is a daughter. She shows how the daughter’s family romance pictures the father as inadequate, ironically requiring the sentimental daughter as a patriarchal prop. She develops a useful concept of hysteria and argues that generic “disorder” and hysterical “intrusions” mark the family romance novels of Jane Austen, Emily and Charlotte Brontë, and George Eliot. And finally, she makes the case that the daughter’s choice to stay home is not necessarily an act of simple complicity, for by staying home she comes as close as she can to disrupting the father-daughter romance.