Providential Defiance: Women Contesting Theocracy in American Historical Fiction
Abstract: Providential Defiance: Women Contesting Theocracy in American Historical Fiction 1827-2008 reads six works of American historical fiction and drama set in Puritan Massachusetts. Each text features women whose commitment to their religious convictions requires rebellion against their government. These characters form a counterhistory in dialogue with and frequently in contradiction to ... read moreconventional narratives of colonial America; specifically, this counterhistory centers the experiences of women whose faith and conscience motivate them to challenge the theocratic governance of their society. At the same time that they claim the liberties of fiction, the writers of these texts reinforce the significance of their depictions of history. Providential Defiance analyzes texts which are, as Catharine Maria Sedgwick put it, "far from being intended as a substitute for genuine history" (6), yet nevertheless do represent important features of Puritan Massachusetts' society for their contemporary readers. Arthur Miller insists in his preface to The Crucible that "[t]his play is not history in the sense in which the word is used by academic historians… However … the reader will discover here the essential nature of one of the strangest and most awful chapters in human history." In other words, historical fiction illuminates what later American writers believe early American history to mean and what relationship they see between that history and their own era. The women characters I highlight in Providential Defiance create a literary historical tradition of principled resistance to government when it demands perfect allegiance and belief. The Puritan government these characters defy is openly theocratic, but as Tracy Fessenden's definition of secularism suggests, contemporary American government depends on and enforces fundamentally religious ideas, and is thus theocratic as well. Much as the evil of Judge Hathorne or Danforth is apparent and Martha Corey and Elizabeth Proctor's resistance to it stark, the clarity these works of historical fiction offer speaks to our time as much as to Longfellow's, Freeman's, and Miller's. The texts I have addressed argue that religious women can, and indeed always have, influenced the course of American history in challenging and defying oppressive structures that deny human rights and women's humanity.
Thesis (Ph.D.)--Tufts University, 2018.
Submitted to the Dept. of English.
Advisor: Elizabeth Ammons.
Committee: Heather Curtis, Nathan Wolff, and Elizabeth Fenton.
Keywords: American literature, Religion, and American history.read less