Publication Date


Document Type


First Advisor

Giles, James Richard, 1937-

Degree Name

Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy)

Legacy Department

Department of English


Yezierska; Anzia; 1880?-1970; Larsen; Nella; Petry; Ann Lane; 1911-; Brooks; Gwendolyn; 1917-; Marshall; Paule; 1929-; Oates; Joyce Carol; 1938-; Meriwether; Louise; Mohr; Nicholasa; Kingston; Maxine Hong; Naylor; Gloria; Schulman; Alix Kates; Cisneros; Sandra; Schwartz; Lynne Sharon; Mukherjee; Bharati; Garcia; Cristina; 1958-; Morrison; Toni; McCloy; Kristin; 1962-; Women novelists; American--20th century; Urban women--United States--Social conditions--20th century


This study provides the first extensive analysis of twentieth-century American urban novels by women. I have selected eighteen women-authored American novels in which the identity of the protagonist(s) is closely connected with the urban spaces she inhabits. I examine the female protagonists' relationships to urban spaces, such as apartment homes and city streets, and how the social structures such spaces house either foster or limit their positive self-development. I argue that in urban environments in which the heroine is part of a supportive community, she has the opportunity for positive self-development and often has the opportunity to alter social structures that limit women's lives. Heroines such as Sara Smolinsky of Bread Givers, Esperanza Cordero of The House on Mango Street, and Maxine of The Woman Warrior claim space in the public world by pursuing or envisioning successful careers and taking the necessary steps to meet their goals as young women. These characters pave the way for other urban women to achieve success in the public and they also reinvent domestic social structures so that they will foster female growth rather than trap women in lives of servitude. I observe that city heroines who do not have the support of significant personal relationships or communities are not able to succeed in the urban environment. Lutie Johnson of Ann Petry's The Street and Maureen Wendall of Joyce Carol Oates's them are destroyed by their urban environments because they lack communities that could provide role models and support systems. I also demonstrate that many urban novels portray heroines who are part of emerging or unsatisfying communities that allow them to thrive in the city temporarily but ultimately do not enable self-fulfillment. In addition, I argue that the city is a special site for immigrant heroines, a site that enables them to create global identities that partake of both old and new world cultures. Global identities are self-fashioned by the female characters and increase their chances for success socially and economically. Finally, I begin to examine the image of the American city that the novels selected for this study portray.


Includes bibliographical references (pages [184]-190)


190 pages




Northern Illinois University

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