Why the Hunts' marriage is not perfect - or why Gilman created this kind of partnership in the mystery novel 'Unpunished'

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2002

24 Pages, Grade: 2,7



I. Introduction

II. Main Part
1. The Genre: Detective Fiction
1.1. Historical Background and the Creation of Conventions
1.2. Fictional Detectives by Women Writers - Conventions of the 1920s
1.2.1. Male
1.2.2. Female
1.2.3. Couples
1.3. Unpunished - The Mystery Novel
1.3.1. The Detective Couple
1.3.2. Jim Hunt
1.3.3. Bessie Hunt
2. The Role of Women in Society
2.1. In the Nineteenth Century
2.2. In the 1920s
2.3. Gilman's Ideal
3. The Hunts' Marriage
3.1. Jim Hunt
3.2. Bessie Hunt
3.3. Telling Names
3.3.1. His
3.3.2. Hers

III. Conclusion

I. Introduction

In the conclusion to Feminist Fiction, Anne Cranny-Francis (compare to 201-202) brings up the question: How can a feminist use the genre of detective fiction which seems superficially to be about detection and revelation, but which is ideologically about concealment and mystification? Charlotte Perkins Gilman made one of the earliest attempts in 1929 out of "feminist despair at what had become of her society and the movements to build a new one from it" (Robinson 276).

"She wrote a novel, a spirited novel in a popular genre, the murder mystery, that would encapsulate her vision of feminism for the new times. The idea, this time, was not so much to hurl feminism into the jaws of post-feminism as to pry open those jaws and slip in a sugar-coated pill" (Robinson 277).

On the one hand, Unpunished has a feminist message about domestic abuse and marital rape. On the other hand, it contains a husband-wife detective team, common stock characters since 1913 (compare to G & K 101/103), not a single woman detective or at least a professional partnership as one could have expected. Creating this unequal couple, it could be said that Gilman adopted the conventions of detective fiction.

First of all, I am going to summarize the history of detective fiction and fictional detectives created by women writers to demonstrate the prevailing conventions of the genre and the way these are converted in the book. I shall confine myself to a consideration of the detective couple Bessie and Jim Hunt disregarding their rival sleuth Gus Crasher.

According to William Aydelotte, conventions are the elements that make detective stories popular because they correspond to wish-fulfillment fantasies and therefore describe the readers and their unmotivational drives (compare to 307-308). This theory appears interesting to me with regard to the fact that Gilman's mystery was not published until 1997. Its underlying fantasies seem to have produced certain sensations that the publishers and the readership were not ready for yet.

My thesis is that Gilman used the detective couple to make fun of the conventions of the genre and to show that little has changed for women. In the next section, taking the usage of (nick)names and the partnership presented in the book as examples, I will try to prove this against the background of the society and the gender relations in the nineteenth century and in the 1920s.

II. Main Part

1. The Genre: Detective Fiction

Maureen T. Reddy defines the genre detective fiction as all works of literature with the main interest in the investigation of mostly criminal events that are covered up in the beginning of the story. Murder or any other crime is not always necessary, and it does not have to be solved with material clues (compare to II 11). I favor her broad definition because a more puristic one would exclude Unpunished. There is no murder in this mystery as it becomes clear in the end.

1.1. Historical Background and the Creation of Conventions

"Puzzle stories, mystery stories, crime stories, and stories of deduction and analysis have existed since the earliest times - and the detective story is closely related to them all. Yet the detective story itself is purely a development of the modern age" (Haycraft 4). It evolved as a literary genre in the nineteenth century. The first murder appeared in Edgar Allen Poe's The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1852). The first series-detective was invented in England: Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes (1887), a character that influenced all following works of detective fiction (compare to Reddy II 9).

Nevertheless, the first novel of the genre seems to have been written by a woman writer. According to Catherine Ross Nickerson, Metta Fuller Victor's The Dead Letter (1866) was the first American detective novel (compare to 29). Howard Haycraft, however, states that Anna Katharine Green whose book The Leavenworth Case was published in 1878 has been the first writer who practiced this form in any land or language (compare to 83-84). She stands in what Nickerson names the tradition of the domestic detective novel. Their main locus "is the domestic spaces of the wealthy professional and mercantile classes" (XI). That is why "surveillance is an intimate act, and the story of uncovering a crime realigns and affirms the important bonds of love and duty" (53).

At long last, detective fiction is popular literature and, whether it is written by male or female authors, just responds to society's demands being "more a commodity produced for mass consumption than a valid social history" (Klein 5). So it appears almost remarkable that the first feminist detective novel, Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers, was published in 1935, only six years after Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Unpunished was refused.

But the genre already started to change in the period between the two world wars:

"The classical style is [...] understood to be primarily devoted to the production of intricate mental puzzles and astoundingly clever detectives [...] to solve them. The hard-boiled style, on the other hand, is generally described and apprehended as more realistic, more interested in basic instincts and motivations (e.g., rage, greed, and lust) in its criminals and in its detectives, and shot through with violence and disorder, even in the investigative stages of the narrative" (Nickerson 5-6).

According to Haycraft, detective fiction became "more natural and plausible, using less 'hokum' and fewer attempts to startle or amaze. The novels are better written and follow the rules of fair play" (Klein 95). By the end of the 1920s, a body of criticism had been produced that tried to lay down the limits within the writers ought to operate. Making a distinction from other literature, the formula demanded for example that clues had to be provided and to lead to rational and inevitable conclusions. Accidents, coincidences and the use of instinct were seen as a failure of the author and as unfair to the reader (compare to Symons 101-102).

1.2. Fictional Detectives by Women Writers - Conventions of the 1920s

1.2.1. Male

"Although women writers dominated the period [...] their detectives were all men; so were the heroes of the male writers. The glittering and glamorous world of the golden age novel easily acknowledged women as wives and mistresses, murderers and victims, assistants and troublemakers, but seldom as detective heroes" (Klein 96).

So female mystery writers used a male main figure, either a professional detective or a gifted amateur (compare to Reddy I 8). Discovering the essential clue and solving the murder, he makes the world simple, comprehensible and orderly. His main function is to give security, certainty and protection. He has power and strength but also uses his intellect as a means of controlling the external world. The male detective is the one who understands the meanings and possibilities of life and reveals its vistas to the reader (compare to Aydelotte 315).

In the 1920s, "the detectives are eccentric, human, and fallible; they seem 'more ordinary'. Nonetheless, Haycraft also finds them "flawed, overly static and mental in reaction to their excessively physical predecessors" (Klein 95-96). The stereotype of the hard-boiled private eye replaced the 19th-century detective who saved the correctness of bourgeois society from subversive external attacks. He "is more concerned with preserving the coherence and autonomy of the individual in the face of a society which is manifestly fragmented and chaotic" (C-F 154). "He is street-wise, smart, cynical, a loner, an individualist who must rely on his own rational power to survive" (C-F 152).

1.2.2. Female

The earliest series female detectives appear at the turn of the century as amateur detectives, as upper-class, genteel, single, intuitive women who conveniently stumble onto bodies. They rarely confront violence, gore or the possibility of being fatally harmed (compare to D & E 3-4). Because their existence threatened the distinctions between public and private spheres of action, they were not allowed to stand as fully integrated, successful characters. Either they were proper women or they were proper detectives (compare to Klein 35). To sell their books, authors had to decide for one of these roles. They could not blend the two in one female character. They and their readership were members of societies whose sex-role definitions allocated all the detectives' usual talents to men. A woman could not be logic, active, rational or even violent and use scientific methods (compare to Klein 4). That would have been too unrealistic but after all "the detective story in its vintage form is not really a realistic genre" (Berglund 138-139).

Between the wars the spinster sleuth rose to fame and popularity although at first glance she seems to go against all rules. But corresponding to the traditional ridiculous old maid, she "is so completely harmless and endearing, and so essentially feminine in her ways and manners, that she can get away with [...] the detection of murder - without threatening male authority" (Berglund 145).

A quite useful strategy that was frequently used was to involve the heroine in a crime so that she can solve it and also be a woman. But this kind of female detective did not have the possibility to change or develop because she could not be turned into a series sleuth (compare to Berglund 143).

1.2.3. Couples

Detecting partnerships are a traditional thematic and structural convention (compare to Kinsman 153). There is a "superhuman sleuth assisted by a trusted, but less able sidekick, who does the legwork, keeps order (domestic and otherwise) and tells the story from a perspective of admiration and utter loyalty" (Kinsman 158). The male detective is a superior, solitary figure. Although he may require assistants, clerks or secretaries to gather information and tail suspects, these figures are subordinate in every way. Their knowledge is fragmented, their participation is limited (compare to Klein 185).

Because the fictional detective historically did not have ordinary feelings, passions and weaknesses, the relationship that is ostensibly based on friendship relies on a hierarchical model. In the 1920s, it veers between trust and acts of professional assistance, to suspicion and rivalry (compare to Kinsman 159).

"A detective 'partnership' connotes shared responsibilities; it implies equivalent if not equal participation; it presupposes mutual respect and trust; it suggests an equality between partners. Inasmuch as this presumed equality is not a feature of female-male relationships in society, it might not be expected in detective fiction" (Klein 186).

Birgitta Berglund observed that the detective's female partner receives much more attention in stories written by women than in those written by men and a more or less strong identification combined with an element of wish-fulfillment. She states that the woman detective is often a projection of the writer herself. Because many female crime writers in the Golden Age did not even dare to fantasize about actually being detectives themselves, they fantasized instead about marrying one and being allowed to help him (compare to 141-142). It was a "very popular strategy [...] to make the heroine the girlfriend, fiancée or wife of the detective. In this way she can at least have part of the fun [...] without losing her feminine qualities" (141).


Excerpt out of 24 pages


Why the Hunts' marriage is not perfect - or why Gilman created this kind of partnership in the mystery novel 'Unpunished'
University of Frankfurt (Main)
Women Writers in the 19th century
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
534 KB
Hunts, Gilman, Unpunished, Women, Writers
Quote paper
Linda Schug (Author), 2002, Why the Hunts' marriage is not perfect - or why Gilman created this kind of partnership in the mystery novel 'Unpunished', Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/47515


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