Engl 730: The New Rise of the American Novel: Readings

Discussion Questions/Talking Points on FEMALE QUIXOTISM

1. I'd like to hear what you have to say about the tone of the novel, especially how one is supposed to take the narrator's voice. For example, on p 26, the narrator says, "So great a power has female virtue, though unaided by external charms, over even the most abandoned of men." Though O'Connor does desist momentarily, the generalization uttered by the narrator seems totally inconsistent with the trajectory of the novel--female virtue does get preserved here but hardly by its inherent power. What gives? Is the tone consistent throughout?

2. Let's also talk some about the relationships between parents and children. Clearly children are to obey their parents but the reasons all seem to be versions of what children owe their parents for raising them, feeding them, and educating them. Dorcasina is not really educated by her father yet he demands allegiance to his power and points of view (though Dorcasina seems to both accede and not accede to both). And Davidson's discussion of the novel centers on the novel as being about female education; she even quotes Dorcasina as to "had my education been properly directed" and so on. Is this really a novel about the types of female education, their limits? What are the sources of Dorcasina's problems--lack of education only?

3. We talked in another novel's context about the ability or inability of "reading" someone's face as keys to proper behavior, perhaps not reading properly the source of being viewed as a coquette. The idea of reading faces seems important here too; on p 66 Mr. Sheldon is more capable of reading O'ConnorÕs face: "Mr. Sheldon viewed the man of his daughter's choice with a scrutinizing eye. [T]he bad qualities of whose mind were written in such legible characters in the lineaments of his face." A few pages later (71) appears: "O'Connor was greatly chagrined, and having now no reason for concealment, the emotions of his mind were instantly painted on his countenance. An indifferent spectator would have there read illnature and vexation; but Dorcasina saw nothing but tender sorrow . . . ." Something is going on here, and I'd like to here what you have to say.

4. What does Tenney seem to be implying by having Dorcasina discover, after all the attempts she has made to find a mate, that Harriot Stanly, though she finds the man she chooses, is somehow diminished after marriage? Is Dorcasina some adumbration of the New Woman which becomes the focus of attention just about exactly 100 years later? Davidson says that the novel ends in first person; I didn't notice that and looking at the last letter, I'm not sure that's a legitimate conclusion. What do you think? And, of course, what is the significance of "Dorcas"?

5. This novel seems the most "visual" of any we've read so far in that the farcical scenes of crossdressing and misunderstood identities would make a good Pink Panther movie. Let's talk about the differences between the humor here and in other novels. Modern Chivalry, for example, is lauded for its humor.

6. Maybe this is related to my number four, but I cannot get a handle on how seriously we are to take the latter part of the novel especially given the "blind incredulity" exhibited by Dorcasina for so many years of her life. Clearly Tenney tries to make more serious the end of the tale, but I wonder if the late-life conversion to insight and understanding ring true. I'd be interested to hear if the rest of you felt the same.