Modernist domesticity: Reconciling the paradox in Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, and Nella Larsen

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Domesticity and modernism appears, to many, as an incongruous pairing, the bringing together of two terms that, while they may denote modes that coexist temporally, seem intellectually and philosophically antithetical. A large body of scholarship on nineteenth century American literature explores in depth the notion of separate spheres, both defining and interrogating the division of the domestic realm from the public one. But this intense scrutiny of domesticity tapers off in regard to modern literature, a tacit indication that the domestic is not modern-or, at least, not part of the modernist canon. Blythe Forcey says of domestic fiction, “While the genre has never died out, it became an object of near-constant disdain in the first half of the twentieth century as it was made the icon of everything that modern literature strove not to be.”1 Francesca Sawaya, in her study of women and professionalism in the first half of the twentieth century, notes how modern “civilization” is characterized by specialized, differentiated labor. Women, she observes, “are included in modernity because they engage in differentiated labor-in other words, domesticity. At the same time, women are excluded from modernity along with other ‘primitives’ because domesticity is part of the untrained, undifferentiated labor of the past.” If domesticity is aligned with nineteenth-century ideology, how can it be viewed as modern? Yet, given the modernist focus on ordinary everyday life, why should domesticity be excluded? With an obvious debt to Amy Kaplan’s now famous work on manifest domesticity, I’d like to posit modernist domesticity, a conception of domesticity found in the work of many modern women writers. While we may first think of modernist domesticity in terms of the classic modernist rewriting of domesticity found in Gertrude Stein and Virginia Woolf, writers more associated with a realist tradition, such as Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, and Nella Larsen, proffer a slightly different approach to domesticity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationA History of the Modernist Novel
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages19
ISBN (Print)9781139542395, 9781107034952
StatePublished - Jan 1 2015

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)


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