Figure of the flirt in American fiction from 1868 - 1928
Item statusRestricted Access
Embargo end date31/07/2022
This thesis examines depictions of the flirt figure in American fiction from 1868-1928, a period where flirtatious femininity was increasingly becoming a subject of social concern. The flirt has often been ignored in literary criticism or else she has been amalgamated with other female types such as the ‘fallen woman’ or ‘coquette’. My thesis argues for the flirt to be read as a specific character with a distinct literary lineage who represents a particular set of challenges in turn-of-the-century America. Positioned between traditional models of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ femininity, the flirt is a transgressive and socially disruptive figure. Often ambiguous, evasive and interpretatively unstable, she represents a type of femininity which is difficult to categorise and therefore control. As a result, flirtatious heroines in this period must pay a price for this rebellion. Whether through social ostracisation, loss of reputation, or even death, the flirt’s controversial nature is revealed in the harsh punishment imposed on her. By foregrounding the figure of the flirt, I highlight how her ambiguous morality and innocence was imagined to be so disruptive that she is treated even more harshly than traditionally ‘bad’ female characters. Furthermore, I argue that her liminal position outside the dichotomy of pure and sexualised womanhood allows her to disrupt, subvert and undermine gender politics and cultural mythologies. Given that so little critical work has been done on this subject, this thesis covers works by a wide range of authors: Henry James, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Louisa May Alcott, Susan Coolidge, Edith Wharton, Booth Tarkington, Elizabeth Weston Timlow, Anita Loos and Ernest Hemingway. Through close readings of these authors’ approaches to this slippery literary figure, I suggest that the flirt’s treatment across this sixty-year period reflects a deep-rooted fear of transgressive femininity.