Seduction and Servitude: The Erotics of Women's Captivity Narratives

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My dissertation considers narratives of Indian captivity and antebellum slavery in relation to erotic novels that depict fantasies of willing enslavement. While carefully evaluating the historical context of each narrative, I focus on the psychic dimensions of domination and submission in order to identify desire and agency and then to question when and if desire determines agency. The psychoanalytic model of the seduction fantasy proposes that the eroticization of and the desire for submission may be linked to a structural foundation of human subjectivity. By acknowledging the possibility of a subject's masochistic relationship to the Other, I interrogate the psychic foundation of the desire for submission; such a desire raises an uncomfortable but necessary questioning of both the extent to which and the ways in which a captive is complicit in her servitude. I offer an innovative approach to captivity literature through the development of a transhistorical account of the psychical conditions of servitude by showing that the captive's ability to act as an agent of her own will is subject to both external and internal constraints: the orders of her captors, various historical and material conditions, and her unconscious fantasies, especially her relationship to the psychical Other.
My first two chapters examine Mary Rowlandson's The Sovereignty and Goodness of God and Catharine Sedgwick's Hope Leslie, respectively. I argue that the captives' expressions of masochistic desire are linked to colonial political agendas concerning racial hierarchies and territorial expansion. Next I turn to Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl in which Jacobs endures masochistic suffering to move toward a political goal of freedom. Chapter four focuses on Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale; like Jacobs, Atwood demonstrates the perils of being objectified in servitude. Atwood also explores the constraints of a social and symbolic order that tends to limit expressions of a woman's desire to fantasies envisioned by the male subject. The final chapter considers Pauline Reage's Story of O; it presents the most dramatic and definite example of a consenting captive, allowing me to untangle the complicated relationship between femininity and masochism in psychoanalytic theory.

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American Literature, women's studies, psychoanalysis, masochism


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dissertation or thesis

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