Domestic Novel

The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014

Domestic Novel

Domestic Novel

Lori Merish

Given what Ian Watt long ago identified as the novel's generic emphasis on personal relationships and “private” life, almost all fiction might in some respect be classified as domestic (1957, The Rise of the Novel). But the term refers to a prominent subgenre, largely Anglo-American (with cultural roots in evangelical Protestantism), which emerged in the eighteenth century with Samuel Richardson's Pamela (1740) and came to full flowering in the mid-nineteenth century. Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Louisa May Alcott are well-known domestic authors; domestic fictions by these and a host of lesser-known writers were published in book form and proliferated, as serial and short fiction, in numerous widely read periodicals (see SERIALIZATION). Associated with the rise of female authorship (although male writers, e.g., Nathaniel Hawthorne, also wrote domestic fiction) and a female literary readership as well as the increasing respectability of the novel as literary form, domestic transforms domestic incident into plot, centering on the home and family—not only as the sphere that launches the hero, as in the bildungsroman or picaresque novel, but as the locus of significant narrative action; domestic fiction invests the seeming “trifles” of daily domestic life with profound emotional and cultural value (Tompkins, chap. 6). Giving fictional form to the culturally- and historically-specific organization of personal life known as “domesticity” (a particular model of the privatized, middle-class, nuclear family) and to the gendered spatial and social divisions between public and private that defined Victorian society, domestic fiction centered on women; indeed, this literature's emergence coincided with the “rise of the domestic woman,” a moral exemplar and embodiment of “feminine” domestic virtues of modesty, chastity, frugality, sympathy, and selfless devotion to family (Armstrong, chap. 2; see GENDER). While domestic texts could be comic, even satiric, in tone, many were strongly inflected by evangelical Protestantism's vision of the special moral authority and “influence” of middle-class women; domestic fiction of this type (often called “sentimental fiction”) played a key role in abolitionism and other early nineteenth-century movements for social reform. While most accounts identify the waning of domestic fiction after 1870, scholars have traced its sustained relevance within the modernist era and beyond (see MODERNIS), especially among a diverse group of women writers in Britain and America; others detect its imprint on postcolonial novelists' politically charged portrayals of “home.”

The 1970s feminist recovery and reevaluation of women's literary texts launched a lively critical discourse about domestic fiction, one that, in particular, placed a tradition of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century U.S. women's fiction on the literary-historical map. Many (e.g., Armstrong, Brodhead) draw on Michel Foucault to situate domestic novels among other disciplinary discourses (e.g., conduct books) that constitute normative (middle-class, white) configurations of subjectivity and desire; for these scholars, the belief that home is a realm outside power facilitates the ideological efficacy of domestic fiction, by masking its “signification of the sociopolitical within the realm of private experience” (McKeon, chap. 15). This literature's explicit, rich emotionality has also generated important readings by cultural studies scholars examining the affective dimensions of political life and national affiliation, and by scholars of the history of sexuality, who locate in domestic fiction non-normative expressions of kinship, affect, and desire.

SEE ALSO: Genre Theory, Gothic Novel, Historical Novel, Race, Regional Novel, Space.


1. Armstrong, N. (1987), Desire and Domestic Fiction.

2. Brodhead, R. (1995), Cultures of Letters.

3. Marangoly George, R. (1996), Politics of Home.

4. McKeon, M. (2005), Secret History of Domesticity.

5. Tate, C. (1992), Domestic Allegories of Political Desire.

6. Tompkins, J. (1985), Sensational Designs.