"If these walls could talk": The semiotics of domestic objects and the expression of ipseity in nineteenth-century American women's literature
Coulombe, Lauri Donna
Doctor of Philosophy
This project examines the decorative/architectural encoding of women's transgressive individualist desires in nineteenth-century America as depicted in women's literature. This literature illustrates the crucial role the interior of the home and everyday domestic objects such as wallpaper, looking glasses and textiles played in the formation and expression of women's ipseity. Because of the difficulty of narrating such transgressive stories of the interior of the self as the search for selfhood, individuality, sexual or intellectual freedom, these writers told their stories through narratives of "things" with which they were intimately familiar, allowing the lives of domestic objects and spaces to express the socially subversive lives and experiences of the women who lived among them. In my examination of this literature, I analyze wallpaper as a replacement object for written text and intellectual stimulation, looking glasses as tools through which to conceptualize and find evidence of a developing individualist self, "creature comforts" as necessities in the display of an independent and sexually aware self, and intimacy with personal possessions as indicators of intimacy with the owner of those possessions. Although critics recognize the importance of women having a "room of one's own" in which to develop a sense of self, very little has been said about the importance of the actual interiors of the rooms in which these women lived, despite the fact that that there was an immense quantity of objects found in the homes of the middle and upper classes in the nineteenth century and that this quantity is reflected in literature, and despite the seriousness with which women were expected to study and utilize these objects. Theories of identity formation in literary studies lack an approach that considers how identity is mediated by and revealed through a subject's non-consumeristic interaction with objects and specifically with objects that have what I call "object individuality." Objects, social scientists argue, have a direct impact on our "selves," and, as the inherent qualities and particularizing features of an object limit and direct an object's use and meaning, object individuality has a direct impact on subject individuality and should be considered.
Women's studies; American literature