Re-Placing the Prostitute: Ruth Hall and the Spatial Politics of the Streetwalker
Gilstrap, Melissa Naiomi
University of Kansas
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In Fanny Fern’s 1854 Ruth Hall, the eponymous heroine encounters an opulently maintained brothel immediately after moving in to a third-rate boardinghouse in the slums. Rather than treating this as a marginal incident in the novel as many previous critics have done, this thesis asserts that Ruth’s confrontation with the prostitute, the embodiment of capitalism’s worst impulses, is a key moment that defines and complicates her subjectivity as an urban, mobile, and public female author. After I explore how the prostitute physically invaded boardinghouses, spaces already made suspect for the ways they commercialized and “prostituted” domestic labor, I then show how the antebellum streetwalker simultaneously pervaded not only the streets, but also mid-nineteenth century discourses of urban life. By using Foucault’s 1967 theory of heterotopias, this thesis argues that the boardinghouse, the boarding school, and the brothel are all fundamentally connected as female-oriented liminal spaces, spaces that in Ruth Hall have the potential to either nourish authorial voice or to produce “painted women.” Lastly, I propose that before we can place Fern or Ruth within the modernist tradition of flanerie/flaneuse, as David Faflik does in some of the field’s most recent scholarship on Ruth Hall, we must interrogate how the streetwalker would have complicated the peripatetic female artist’s relationship to the space of the street. Ultimately, I conclude that although Ruth employs various rhetorical techniques associated with the public prostitute to boost her sales and reputation as a public author, the results of this strategy are nothing less than ambivalent.
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