Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)

Degree Granting Department


Major Professor

Marty Gould, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Regina Hewitt, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Emily Jones, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Susan Mooney, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Brook Sadler, Ph.D.


Brontë, Barrett Browning, Eliot, Schreiner


This dissertation explores how socially vulnerable characters, often dismissed as lacking access to agency, create space for resistance in nineteenth-century women’s writing. Central questions the dissertation addresses are, “Why is resistance by vulnerable characters not read?” and “How are women writers encoding resistance?” Working within a comprehensive historical picture of the challenges and concerns women writers of the nineteenth century had to contend with, and informed by feminist scholarship on women writers of the nineteenth century, the dissertation looks at vulnerable characters within Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh, George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, and Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm. Each chapter considers how the active female heroines appear to both subvert and reinforce patriarchal norms, frustrating feminist scholars. Through the lenses of women’s studies, ecocriticism, and queer theory the dissertation considers how many of the characters operate in ways that do not conform to a gender binary, that they traverse a range of gender performances and also access agency and resistance through their vulnerability. The research considers how the female (and male) characters generally dismissed as overly feminine, or passive, allows for a more nuanced conversation regarding female resistance. Each chapter traces the strategies women writers use, in conjunction with their more vulnerable characters, male and female, to subvert hegemonic constraints placed upon women and women’s writing, and further trouble hegemonic institutions such as marriage.