Date of Award


Document Type

Campus Access Dissertation


English Language and Literatures



First Advisor

Katherine Adams


To date, scholars have focused on the belle as the key organizing figure in the discourse on southern womanhood. My research extends and complicates that critical model. If the belle signifies an idealized and mythic South, the old maid evokes a range of threats to it, including illicit (re)production and barrenness. She becomes the symbol of modern southern ambivalence, embodying a cluster of overlapping tensions regarding regional tradition and futurity. I use the term 'reproductive anxiety' to describe a perceived crisis of transmission--fear that the South's racial, cultural, and agricultural institutions are coming to an end. Concerns about white race suicide, land reform, Depression-era economics, and the New Woman converge in the figure of the old maid. Her body, often subject to desire, becomes a particular site of crisis because the old maid represents both possibility and failure in three registers: as a source of racialized human reproduction, as an analog to the land, and as a metaphor for the South itself. In the work of Ellen Glasgow, William Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter, and Richard Wright, the figure of the old maid serves a variety of symbolic purposes; these writers use her to reject the myths of a glorious past and mourn for the region's losses, satirize the burden of Southern history and fall prey to its allure, and resuscitate and undercut the South's ideological frameworks. Ultimately, I argue, the old maid functions as a southern hyperconvention, one that writers engage with a self-consciousness and irony characteristic of literary modernism.


© 2012, Alison Arant