I finished my prospectus for my senior thesis--here's the slightly raw version, so please excuse grammar/language errors.
In mid-nineteenth century America, among the most popular works of fiction were novels like Maria Cummins’s The Lamplighter that depicted the of an ambiguously raced and classed orphaned girl into a properly Christian white middle class woman. Critics such as Nathanial Hawthorne, James Joyce, and A. W. Abbot wrote off these novels (particularly The Lamplighter) as utterly unimportant to literary history in part due to the sheer volume of tears present in the pages. But what do these tears really mean? The function of the motif of tears in Cummins’s The Lamplighter reveals the complicated nature of sexuality for women in 19th century America. Beneath the flood runs a deeper connotation of sexual desire between women, and the intense paroxysms of tears become moments of sexual release for Gertrude and Emily as they negotiate their life together. Sobbing marks their relationship from the first time they meet and allows the two of them to become physically close. Tears fall to Gerty’s cheeks at moments of intense desire, ultimate confession, and at separation and redefinition of relationships.
I believe that these tears indicate two somewhat opposing things: first, fissures in the performance of heterosexuality as well as true womanhood; second, a purification of Gerty herself, punctuating her path from orphan to the ideal woman. These converse meanings intertwine constantly, complicating a reading that goes one way or the other. While it is subversive to value relationships with women over those with men, a necessary prerequisite for this romantic friendship is stability of identity—only white middle class women get to play the romantic friendship game in the 19th century, and as other literature attests, interracial relationships between women or relationships between women who are on different class levels generally end in strict discipline. Only if Gerty is the ideal woman can she and Emily embark in their queer desire for one another.
Current scholarship on The Lamplighter tends to focus on the seditious ways that gender is undermined throughout the text. Critics like Nina Baym and Jane Tompkins often discuss how these novels were received in their time period and how they related to a female audience. Marianne Noble looks at The Lamplighter through a gothic lens and notes that sentimental fiction in general relies on the gothic to produce sexual tension. Her work centers on sadomasochism in sentimental literature, which will be very useful for my paper. The most recent work around my primary text moves away from discussing these novels as allegory for the oppression of women and moves toward a more complicated understanding of how these texts enforce and break down gender binaries. I hope that my paper will provide a fresh critical take on tears that does not just reduce them to a signpost for the exertion of gender norms.
I will first examine how as a child Gerty marked many adults as her parent, and how this reveals the mutability of her relationships within the text. Crying and sobbing play a key role in Gerty’s ability to manipulate adults into parent relationships with her, and the tears in this section of the book seem to come primarily from anger and rebellion rather than an attempt at empathy. Examining Gerty’s childhood also highlights the beginning of her relationship with Emily and reveal what Emily must change about Gerty for the two of them to begin a romantic friendship. The second section will focus on Emily and Gerty’s adult relationship and how crying spells bring them together, with particular focus on their intersectional identities and how they help and hinder their relationship. I wish to conclude with a rereading of the ending of The Lamplighter, one that challenges the notion that the “happy ending” is marriage, when Emily discusses her deep sense of loss of Gerty after her marriage of Willie. Gerty curiously denies the women in her life tears when she marries Willie. Gertrude reserves tears only for her relationships with women—Willie can never privy to the close relationship that Gertrude has with Emily, and thus cannot experience Gertrude’s tears in a way that brings them closer together.