Bachelors and Spinsters

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A common theme in American literature of the mid-nineteenth century is a push toward self-realization for both single male and single female characters. Marriage becomes less an expectation and more a reward for the individual who has become developed and fully realized as an individual.


Perhaps the most famous short story that depicts a mid-nineteenth-century view of bachelors and spinsters is Herman Melville's (1819–1891) "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids" (1855). In this tale the narrator finds that bachelors spend their spare hours in the luxurious surroundings of a gentle-man's club. His final assessment of the paradise is:

It was the very perfection of quiet absorption of good living, good drinking, good feeling, and good talk. We were a band of brothers. Comfort—fraternal, household comfort, was the grand trait of the affair. Also, you could plainly see that these easy-hearted men had no wives or children to give an anxious thought. Almost all of them were travelers too; for bachelors alone can travel freely, and without any twinges of their consciences touching desertion of the fire-side. (P. 1264)

Melville gives a fairly modern version of the bachelor as a free spirit who does not rely on a woman to supply the domestic comforts. Whereas conduct books taught women that their goal was to provide a domestic paradise for their husbands, Melville suggests that this is not necessary, as single men can band together and provide that space for themselves.

Melville's story, like his longer works Moby-Dick (1851) and Typee (1846), plays on the theme of the single male who is off on a quest of self-discovery and identity formation. As Leslie A. Fiedler and R. W. B. Lewis detail in their work, many male-authored texts of the nineteenth century focused on the theme of a lone male on such a trek. The single life for men was seen as an avenue for maturation, a way to prepare for their lives as adults. This theme plays out in works by most of the canonical (and not coincidentally, male-authored) works of the nineteenth century, including those by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864) and Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens, 1835–1910). Whereas single females were expected to stay at home and learn the domestic arts, single males like Huck Finn were expected to "light out for the Territory" and blaze a new trail.

James Fenimore Cooper's (1789–1851) nonfiction work Notions of the Americans: Picked Up by a Travelling Bachelor (1828) states that "perhaps a great majority of the females marry before the age of twenty" (p. 192). Whereas this observation would tend to make modern readers assume that the marriage rate was steady or even high in the mid-nineteenth century, historians like Lee Virginia Chambers-Schiller have shown that marriage rates had begun to decline by the late eighteenth century and continued to do so well into the nineteenth century. Despite Cooper's discussion of married women and men in his nonfiction, his most famous fictional works—the Leatherstocking Tales, which include The Pioneers (1823), The Last of theMohicans (1826), The Prairie (1827), The Pathfinder (1840), and The Deerslayer (1841)—focus on the solitary Natty Bumppo, the quintessential American bachelor.

In addition to Huck Finn, several other single male characters in nineteenth-century literature are successful at establishing their own identities in the world, at least to a degree. In Hawthorne's work, however, single males are often tortured creatures who are unable to reach their full potential. Consider Arthur Dimmesdale, the adulterous minister in The Scarlet Letter (1850); his life is anything but the happy bachelor's existence sometimes presented by Melville. Looking at Melville's depiction of single men and women more closely, one finds that it suggests that a life without marriage turns the world upside down; bachelors enjoy the comforts of the domestic sphere, whereas women are deprived of them to work in the world of commerce. Of course, even in Melville's story, there is the assumption that men can and do exist in both spheres—the bachelors are able to afford such luxuries. Single women, however, are not able to exist in both worlds. Instead, the story indicates that they must choose either domesticity or industry. In reality, however, women were beginning to find they could have both—by applying their domestic skills in the outside world, as Louisa May Alcott (1832–1888) did in her efforts to help during the Civil War.


A number of historical surveys try to explain the rise of spinsterhood in the nineteenth century. Nancy F. Cott's The Bonds of Womanhood: "Women's Sphere" in New England, 1780–1835 discusses the growth of industrialization from cottage industry to factory, covering the influence of millwork on marriage rates. According to Cott, the movement of work outside the home led to a dilemma for women; because their economic choices were broader when they could work outside the home, women faced what Cott terms "marriage trauma." Suddenly women were able to make a choice regarding marriage that included how they felt as well as economic necessity. As Cott notes, some women by the 1820s and 1830s decided that if they could not have the ideal married and domestic life with a man they truly loved they would not marry at all.

This shift continued into the middle and latter half of the century. Chambers-Schiller states that between 1835 and 1875 the percentage of unmarried women, or spinsters, in New England rose from 7.3 percent to 11 percent (p. 3). Not only was this trend due to industrialization and new economic choices for women but it was also partially due to the Civil War. Chambers-Schiller notes, however, that the ratio began to shift in favor of women as early as 1840. As young marriage-aged men went off to fight, the women were left home, and single women soon outnumbered eligible bachelors.

The literature of the time represented spinsters in a variety of ways. The second half of Melville's "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids" presents a view of single life for women that is hellish and devoid of any pleasure. The reader might expect that the world of single women will be a pastoral equivalent of the paradise of bachelors. Instead, the narrator must travel past the "bright farms and sunny meadows" (p. 1265) and descend into the world of single women who work in a paper mill. Once inside the mill, he realizes that the women have no joy, no health. Whereas the bachelors have freedom to explore and still return to domestic comfort, the women who work in the mill, the "girls," as the foreman calls them, live a life of unending toil. The narrator inquires, "Why is it, Sir, that in most factories, female operatives, of whatever age, are indiscriminately called girls, never women?" The answer reveals the stark contrast between unmarried women and the bachelors he encountered earlier:

Oh! As to that—why, I suppose, the fact of their being generally unmarried—that's the reason, I should think. But it never struck me before. For our factory here, we will not have married women; they are apt to be off-and-on too much. We want none but steady workers: twelve hours to the day, day after day, through the three hundred and sixty-five days, excepting Sundays, Thanksgiving, and Fast-days. That's our rule. And so, having no married women, what females we have are rightly enough called girls. (P. 1278)

As Nina Baym notes throughout her book Woman's Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America, 1820–1870, there was a counterbalance to the male-authored novels that featured the solitary male in search of his true self. Between 1820 and 1870 female authors were outselling their male counterparts with books like E. D. E. N. Southworth's (1819–1899) The Hidden Hand (1859). Baym points out that the pattern that dominated women's fiction of the period focuses on a young woman in search of her own identity. The typical pattern, according to Baym, is that:

The many novels all tell, with variations, a single tale. In essence, it is the story of a young girl who is deprived of the supports she had rightly or wrongly depended on to sustain her throughout life and is faced with the necessity of winning her own way in the world. This young girl is fittingly called a heroine because her role is precisely analogous to the unrecognized or undervalued youths of fairy tales who perform dazzling exploits and win a place for themselves in the land of happy endings. (P. 11)

As Baym notes, most of the novels written by and for women in this time period include a marriage of the heroine to her suitor. However, often that marriage ends the novel, indicating the importance of the formative power of a single life. For example, Elizabeth Stoddard's 1862 novel The Morgesons ends with the revelation that the heroine, Cassandra, who said she would never marry, has done so. Tellingly most of the novels that show single young women who are able to find their autonomy and form an identity independent of the bonds of marriage only end with a mention of the marriage rather than focusing there as the main story line. Likewise one of the most sensational novels of the period, Fanny Fern's (Sara Payson Parton, 1811–1872) Ruth Hall (1855), deals with an unmarried woman who is rebellious and savagely independent. Although Ruth Hall refuses to marry at the end, it is important to remember that she is a widow at the start of the work. This automatically removes the label of spinster from the character; having fulfilled her obligation through having married once, the character can have a life of her own at the end. Apparently spinsters were not allowed to be fully successful within the pages of literature.

The prevailing vision of nineteenth-century literature that covers single women has been one that follows Barbara Welter's idea that literature of the period aimed at training women to be good members of the cult of true womanhood. Welter's theory asserted that the ideal, as presented in literature and elsewhere, was for women to live up to what she termed the four cardinal virtues: purity, piety, domesticity, and submissiveness. Ultimately the goal of attaining virtues was a good marriage and a happy household.

In this quotation from Louisa May Alcott one sees the tension and fear that often accompanied the single life for women. These words open her short fictionalized essay, "Happy Women."

One of the trials of woman-kind is the fear of being an old maid. To escape this dreadful doom, young girls rush into matrimony with a recklessness that astonishes the beholder; never pausing to remember that the loss of liberty, happiness, and self-respect is poorly repaid by the barren honor of being called "Mrs." instead of "Miss."

Alcott, "Happy Women," p. 40.

Fiction showed characters living up to these ideas. Conduct books and domestic handbooks that instructed women in the domestic arts were also prevalent. One of the most popular magazines of the time, Godey's Lady's Book, began in 1830 and had as its goal to entertain and educate the female reader. The magazine combined fashion plates, music sheets, and instructions for how to make common household items along with poetry and some fiction. The magazine was under the helm of the editor Sarah Josepha Hale (1788–1879) until 1877; Hale had originally published Ladies' Magazine, which she began in 1828 as a vehicle to advocate for advanced education for women. While she managed to balance the fashion with literature in her new venture at Godey's, her view of the magazine as contributing to the education of "true women" is evident in her farewell letter in the December 1877 issue of the magazine: she expressed her hope that Godey's had contributed to "the furtherance of their happiness and usefulness in their Divinely-appointed sphere."

Hale also published Early American Cookery: "The Good Housekeeper" in 1841. Recipe books and household management books were quite popular during the mid-nineteenth century. Lydia Maria Child (1802–1880), known for her advocacy for the fair treatment of African and Native Americans, also produced a cookbook titled The American Frugal Housewife (1835). Such books contributed to the overall trend toward household training for women; even Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896) coedited a household management book, The American Woman's Home, in 1869 with Catharine E. Beecher (1800–1878). All of these women were critical of the idea of separate spheres, yet they also created works that were aimed at educating women in household arts, indicating the shift toward higher education for women. Home economics and higher education for women began in texts that made domestic tasks a matter of household science and economics.

That single women took the skills they were normally expected to utilize in the household and used them outside the home is evident in works like Louisa May Alcott's Hospital Sketches (1863). In this memoir, Alcott recounts how she did the thing her protagonist Jo March in Little Women (1868–1869) is not allowed to do—serve as a nurse in a hospital dedicated to helping soldiers wounded in battle. Alcott, who never married, recounts how she took the skills that were initially meant to aid in her becoming a good wife and mother to gain employment and aid the wounded. The fact that Jo March will later only be able to sell her hair, her "one beauty" (p. 150), in order to help with the war effort is telling; while single women were being seen as valuable in the outer sphere in professional positions, in fiction that would sell, the women have to be reined in so that they will appear acceptable. That Jo settles down and marries at the end of the work is characteristic of the tension between the realities of the period and the lingering cultural expectations.

Contrasting with Welter's theory is what Chambers-Schiller calls the "cult of single blessedness." According to Chambers-Schiller, as the trend in marital rates went down, so did the portrayal of marriage at any cost as the ideal. The Civil War contributed to the idea that women could be healthy and productive without being married; not only did the sex ratio change, causing single women to outnumber men, but women were moving from home education to higher education in college settings. Texts like Catharine Maria Sedgwick's (1789–1867) Married or Single? (1857) actually began to advocate that a single life is better than a bad marriage. Instead of only teaching women that their role is always to be a wife and mother, texts began to put the development of the individual for her own sake above that of the development of the "true woman" fit for marriage. Margaret Fuller's (1810–1850) 1848 exclamation "let them [women] be sea-captains, if you will" (Woman in the Nineteenth Century, p. 102) speaks to this notion. Her argument is that women should not be enticed to fit a specific mold in order to find a husband; instead, they should be allowed to develop as their inclinations lead them. As educational opportunities for women grew, so did the literary representations of the single woman who was successful and did not need a husband or family to be fulfilled.

By 1870 educational and economic opportunities had widened considerably, leading to a reality for women that was unlike any they had had before. However, the fiction did not quite live up to the reality. Louisa May Alcott was able to say to her fellow single women: "It is not necessary to be a sour, spiteful spinster, with nothing to do but brew tea, talk scandal and tend a pocket-handkerchief. No, the world is full of work, needing all the heads, hearts, and hands we can bring to do it" ("Happy Women," p. 42). Yet she and others like her knew that such images would not lead to the kinds of sales that would allow her to sustain herself. In the end literary representations of single men and single women more closely resemble that of Melville's short story and Alcott's longer fiction than they do the reality.

See alsoDomestic Fiction; Education; Factories; Female Authorship; Individualism and Community; Marriage; Ruth Hall


Primary Works

Alcott, Louisa May. "Happy Women." 1868. In Louisa MayAlcott: Short Stories. New York: Dover, 1996.

Alcott, Louisa May. Little Women. 1868. New York: Signet, 1983.

Cooper, James Fenimore. Notions of the Americans: PickedUp by a Travelling Bachelor. 1828. Introduction by Robert E. Spiller. New York: Frederick Unger, 1963.

Fuller, Margaret. Woman in the Nineteenth Century: AnAuthoritative Text, Backgrounds, Criticism. 1855. Edited by Larry J. Reynolds. New York: Norton, 1998.

Melville, Herman. "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids." 1855. In Herman Melville: Pierre, Israel Potter, The Piazza Tales, The Confidence-Man, Uncollected Prose, Billy Budd. New York: Library Classics of the United States, 1984.

Secondary Works

Baym, Nina. Women's Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America, 1820–1870. 2nd ed. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993.

Chambers-Schiller, Lee Virginia. Liberty: A Better Husband;Single Women in America; The Generations of 1780–1840. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1984.

Cott, Nancy F. The Bonds of Womanhood: "Woman'sSphere" in New England, 1780–1835. 2nd ed. with a new preface. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1977.

Fiedler, Leslie A. Love and Death in the American Novel. 1960. Introduction by Charles B. Harris. Normal, Ill.: Dalkey Archive Press, 1997.

Lewis, R. W. B. The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy, and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955.

Welter, Barbara. Dimity Convictions: The American Woman in the Nineteenth Century. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1976.

Angelic Rodgers

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Bachelors and Spinsters

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