The Daughter's Dilemma

Family Process and the Nineteenth-Century Domestic Novel
Paula Marantz Cohen
An interdisciplinary investigation into the daughter's role in 19th-century families and their fictional representations.


The Daughter's Dilemma breaks new ground in literary studies through its application of family systems theory to the analysis of nineteenth-century domestic novels. Cohen argues for structural correspondences between families and novels: as systems seeking closure, they are governed by certain analogous laws. She argues further that the father-daughter dyad is the pivotal structure by which the nuclear family and the domestic novel were able to define themselves as closed systems. The study treats novels by Samuel Richardson, Jane Austen, Emily Brontë, George Eliot, and Henry James and places them in the context of the writers' individual family experiences. Drawing on recent work in literary and feminist criticism, anthropology, history, and psychoanalysis, as well as family systems theory, Cohen seeks to critique the limitations of these theoretical models even as she employs them to illuminate the texts under discussion. The study's approach leads to insights about the contemporary family and about the present state of literature and literary criticism. Cohen concludes by suggesting that the modern period marked the demise of an ideology favoring closed systems. The result has been both a nostalgia for those systems and a redefinition of experience and relationship as open and subject to endless interpretation. Such an ideological reformulation helps explain the present insistence by literary theorists on the inescapability of the text and the "reality" of representation.

Praise / Awards

  • "A social history of the daughter's role in the family, based on a literary analysis of plot and character in the nineteenth-century domestic novel. . . . Each chapter deftly balances textual analysis, social history and authorial biography."
    --Women's Review of Books
  • "This highly original and readable book introduces 'family systems theory' into literary-critical analysis of the British novel . . . taking a previously unexplored feminist stance."
  • ". . . her point of view provides a useful ground for interpretation. . . . And because she is a clear and pleasant writer, it is absorbing to watch her build her case."
    --Modern Language Studies
  • " . . . leads to important insights regarding the way in which the family has worked and is working today and about the present state of literature and literary criticism."
    --Studies on Women Abstracts
  • ". . . an important addition to scholarship on the domestic novel. . . . Critics have long recognized the significance of the family in the nineteenth-century novel, but The Daughter's Dilemma, with its attention to the complex dynamics of the nuclear family in history as well as in literature [it] will change the way we read the nineteenth-century family."
  • "[Cohen's] readings are densely argued, thought provoking, and ambitious. She brings each of the novels to bear on the others in insightful ways, developing the resonances among them."
  • "This intelligent and carefully considered book makes a genuine contribution to criticism on the novel. Eschewing jargon, Cohen skillfully draws on postmodernist literary theory, feminist thought, historical and anthropological authorities to back her insights. . . . This stimulating and original study will appeal to a wide range of readers and should be prescribed reading for anyone doing serious work on the novel."
    --Yearbook of English Studies, 1994
  • "Cohen is at her best in her subtle, nuanced readings of the novels and in her meditations on how family systems theory might interact with other theoretical paradigms. For Cohen, mediation is not just a matter of acting out what's wrong with the family the family system but of managing it: daughterly mediation is thus a potential source of power and creativity."

Product Details

  • 6 x 9.
  • 236pp.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Paper
  • 1993
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-08232-2

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  • $30.95 U.S.