Date of Award


Document Type

Open Access Dissertation


English Language and Literatures


College of Arts and Sciences

First Advisor

Catherine Keyser


In novels of artistic development (or künstlerromane) by women in the early twentieth-century, becoming an artist is intimately tied to becoming recognized as an individual. It would appear that an era of rapid change and expanding opportunities for women would result in affirmative narratives of women’s artistry, but studying texts by Edith Wharton, Anzia Yezierska, Zelda Fitzgerald, and Dawn Powell shows that stringent gender roles can still keep women from realizing artist success.

In Wharton’s The House of Mirth, Lily Bart ruins her prospects on the marriage market by striving for freedom and aesthetic pleasure. Those desires cannot be reconciled with the very real necessity of marriage for financial and social stability, so she finds that her artistic desires are incompatible with her station. Yezierska’s Hungry Hearts and Bread Givers promote the importance of self-making for becoming a scholar or artist. Her heroines all yearn to be legible as American, and Yezierska’s unique take on the künstlerroman requires community engagement in order for inspiration to strike. In Fitzgerald’s Save Me the Waltz, Alabama Beggs presents a proto-feminist slant on artistic development. In the fact of stringent opposition by her peers and her artist husband, Alabama decides to fail spectacularly both as a dancer and as a wife and mother, thus asserting her agency and defying social strictures that would attempt to determine her behavior. Powell’s Ebie Vane swings between high and low culture in Angels on Toast, ultimately finding that modernity’s promises to woman are a lie: Ebie can choose neither love nor career without making distasteful sacrifices, and she certainly can’t have both. Key to all of these artist-heroines’ journeys is failure. These modern künstlerromane dramatize the difficulty of women attempting to enter the public sphere as artists when they are not recognized as autonomous individuals or are instead consumed as art objects.