Novel Women at Novels' Ends: The Architecture of Singleness in American Fiction, 1880-1929

Date of Award

Summer 8-15-2013

Author's School

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Author's Department

English and American Literature

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Type



The dissertation explores the reciprocal relationship between the early 20th-century novel, domestic rental architecture, and the single woman in America. The period witnessed two events constitutive for modern singleness: a crisis in the marriage plot and a revolution in urban domestic architecture. Modern singleness was born when it found a home; novelists and architects provided women literary and material spaces beyond the family.

American writers of the late-19th century city faced both an influx of never-married, widowed, and divorced women and the displacement of single-family houses by boarding houses, French flats, and apartment hotels. The novel was remade by this rental city of unmarried working girls who, in Theodore Dreiser's words, "did not exactly count on marriage." The novel had long "cured" young women of their singleness with the marital home; modern American authors, in contrast, explored emerging rental spaces and portrayed women newly at home outside the family. I assemble a constellation of writers, from Boston Brahmins to the women of the Harlem Renaissance, who engaged the design and rental of urban space in order to reshape the position of single women. Singleness, I argue, presented reciprocal narrative possibilities, offering the novel a locus for literary renovation and resistance to the romance plot and its marital closure. As the city's independent women transgressed narrative norms of temporality and closure, catalyzing a renovation of the novel, authors bolstered the single potential of their heroines, real and fictional.

Singleness has remained a critical blind spot in work on compulsory heterosexuality. It has been tempting to subsume it under the umbrella of queerness, or to read persistent singleness as a signpost of same-sex desire. Instead, the dissertation redefines singleness as a category of spatial independence, as the historically specific emergence of self-reliant female occupancy from older forms of family dependency. Its archive of single literature produced a variety of single-occupancy spaces at the turn of century. The "single" was not an identity category, but the shared spatial position of diverse modern women at odds with marital imperatives. While recent scholarship in the emerging field of "singleness studies" focuses on the last fifty years, the dissertation establishes its unacknowledged architectural and literary antecedents.


English (en)

Chair and Committee

Anca Parvulescu

Committee Members

Iver Bernstein, Wayne Fields, Margaret Garb, William J Maxwell, Angela Miller, Vincent Sherry


Permanent URL: https://doi.org/10.7936/K7ZP442W

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