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Resisting the Traditional Construction of Fatherhood and Masculinity in Elizabeth Spencer’s “Sightings” and “The Everlasting Light”

Emmeline Gros
p. 217-231


Dans son article “Where are Fathers in American Literature?”, Josep Armengol reconnaît que l’absence ou la marginalisation du père dans la littérature américaine est l’une des plus grandes angoisses nationales. Armengol recense deux modèles de paternité qui dominent la littérature américaine : les pères autoritaires et ceux qui sont absents. Il s’ensuit que le père comme figure domestique (ou la nouvelle figure paternelle) reste un phénomène littéraire relativement inexploré. Les nouvelles de Spencer dans Starting Over sont remarquables pour leurs personnages et / ou leurs narrateurs masculins. De nombreuses histoires adoptent une approche ambiguë de la figure de la mère ou de la femme qui est souvent physiquement absente de l’intrigue ou demeure invisible. En examinant “The Everlasting Light” et “Sightings”, on remarque que c’est l’absence de l’épouse ou de la mère qui est soulignée par le narrateur et cette présence est remplacée par l’importance donnée à la figure de la fille. Cette marginalisation des figures maternelles trahit également une préoccupation certaine pour l’identité masculine. Les filles, en effet, enseignent aux hommes et aux pères leur vulnérabilité en tant qu’hommes de différentes façons. Ce faisant, Spencer revisite le rôle des pères et interroge les représentations traditionnelles de l’ordre patriarcal.

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Elizabeth Spencer
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  • 1 Seltzer explains that 1949, in particular, marked a summer of many travels to Italy, France, Switze (...)

1Elizabeth Spencer has claimed that it is often easier to understand the South and one’s “southernness” by looking at the region (and the components of Southern identity) from a distance. As she said, “you can’t really know what it is to be southern unless you know what it is not to be southern” (“A Conversation” 61). For this reason, critics and scholars never fail to highlight Spencer’s love for travelling1 and her eagerness to move away from the South, from her kin, from home. Of course, if Spencer’s impulse away from home and family first appears as a voluntary geographical displacement, one should also remember that her split from home was also a literal one. It originated from her father’s rejection of her choice of career: left without financial support, isolated from her family, Spencer eventually found herself—to use Catherine Seltzer’s words—“orphaned,” forced to look at home from a distance, and “[t]his separation from the Father(s) is, of course, imbued with psychoanalytic significance” (89).

2The separation from home and from the patriarch reads indeed as one of the most significant topics in Spencer’s stories. The issue of the exclusion of the father from the text, the marginalization of the masculine from the phallocentric structures of sites of power, as well as the unreadability or mystery of the patriarchal world are of central concern and constant debate for scholars studying Spencer’s texts. According to Seltzer, for instance, this rejection from home led Spencer to write “novels that functioned as paeans to the values of southern patriarchy” (89). In Spencer’s novels, Seltzer explains, “home—and the ideals that comprised it—had been evacuated of meaning” (89).

3There are, however, limits to simply looking for such stereotypes of manhood or fatherhood in fiction, even if the latter may be thought to be strongly influenced by the author’s personal painful relationship with the father-figure(s) in his/her life. Fatherhood (like gendered roles) is a construct and thus, a practice that may be negotiated, contested and embodied differently in different spaces. This may be done in terms of the language or forms the protagonists use to express their unique, distinctive, and alternative expression of fatherhood or it may be in terms of content. Starting from this premise, this article concentrates on the issue of fatherhood and masculinity in Elizabeth Spencer’s Starting Over, notably through the short stories “Sightings” and “The Everlasting Light,” and suggests that Spencer wants to problematize the understanding of “traditional” fatherhood both as identity and practice.

4This study investigates these two stories because they envision family bonds that differ from the normative nuclear family, within which fatherhood can be (re/de)constructed. Both stories offer new insights into a masculine world of emotions and into nurturing and caring fathers. In doing so, Spencer’s stories broaden the outlines of the masculine archetypes (the father, the breadwinner, etc.)—and as a result, the feminine archetypes—adding depth and dimension to a patriarchal figure that, more often than not, has been (as Josep Armengol and other scholars have demonstrated) flatly represented in American fiction.

The Rebelling Daughter

  • 2 Wahlström’s analysis confirms this view: “fatherhood is . . . formed in—sometimes oppositional—rel (...)

5The traditional paradigm of the rebelling daughter and absent/distant/silent father should not surprise the casual reader who has long been familiar with such patterns of father-daughter interaction in American fiction. For Stuart Aitken, the explanation for the overwhelming presence of such conflictual kinship relations in the American canon is both cultural and societal. He argues that, in our culture, “our understanding of what it is to be a father hinges on an ‘idea’ that does not embrace the ‘fact’ of fathering as a daily emotional practice . . . Our enduring myths of social reproduction do not seem to support forms of masculinity that encompass a sense of self that is nurturing and domestically orientated” (581). If women are often regarded as biologically-programmed care-givers and nurturers, men/fathers remain distant and emotionally estranged from their children, because fatherhood, to use philosopher Thomas Laqueur’s approach, is essentially lacking the corporeal element of motherhood and domesticity.2 Such is also the argument defended by Raewyn Connell, in her study Masculinities (1995). According to her, masculinity is indeed a relational construct, “always with femininity as a counterpoint that defines what masculinity [and fatherhood] is not” (Connell qtd. in Wahlström 19). Ironically, since our Western societies privilege mind over matter, fatherhood is highly valued in all patriarchal societies. For Laqueur, “the incorporeal quality of fatherhood has been the foundation of patriarchy’s ideological edifice since the Greeks . . . precisely because the mother’s claim was ‘only’ corporeal, because it was a matter of ‘fact’ it was valued less” (158).

  • 3 Among those social historians, see Adrienne Burgess, Ralph LaRossa, and Robert L. Griswold.

6Of course, and as social historians have noted,3 a number of factors may explain the role of men in the family and in the workplace. The beginning of a cultural shift can be traced to the American Revolution: as women endorsed the values of “republican motherhood,” preparing their children to be model citizens, the father’s influence within the home waned, fathers were removed from all affective and emotional aspects of parenting, and increasingly, womanhood was viewed as “the sole repository of national virtue” (Romero 15, qtd. in Riehl 3). As industrialization and increasing professionalization took men away from the home, “more of the domestic responsibilities shifted to women’s shoulders” (Riehl 3).

Fatherhood in American Fiction

7In American fiction, and because “nineteenth-century fatherhood
[. . . became] marginalized and overshadowed by burgeoning ideologies of motherhood and domesticity that allowed no space for fathers” (Riehl 4), a (similar) crisis of fatherhood developed. Michael Kimmel claims that in mid-century, “just as motherhood was advancing, fatherhood was in retreat,” and quotes an 1842 article in
Parents Magazine that bemoans the crisis of fatherhood: “‘Paternal neglect at the present time is one of the most abundant sources of domestic sorrow’” (Kimmel 58, qtd in Riehl 4). Conscious of the removal of fathers from the domestic sphere, literary critic Josep Armengol thus poses the question: “Where are fathers in American literature?”

  • 4 An important study of the “new” father figure can be found in Wahlström.
  • 5 Wahlström remarks, however, that there is no indication that cultural interest in fatherhood is di (...)

8According to Armengol, one of America’s most engrained anxieties is the absence or the marginalization of the father figure in American fiction. Tracing the so-called crisis of masculinity in the absence of effectual fathers, he outlines two models of fatherhood that dominate American fiction: the authoritative or absent fathers. It follows that the father as a domestic figure (or the “new” father figure4) remains a relatively unexplored literary phenomenon and fathers, he concludes, “tend to remain absent and distant fathers as well” (“Where are Fathers” 213).5 Wahlström’s analysis of fatherhood in contemporary American fiction is quite similar. If she contends that “fiction can function as a site where the ideal can be confronted, questioned, and undermined, a space where ‘alternative’ fatherhood stories can take form” (3), she regrets that “the mainstream of literary studies still often unproblematically places women in ‘the domestic sphere’ and men outside of this ‘sphere’” (30). If not “distant or authoritarian,” David Leverenz completes Armengol’s study by noting that a large number of American novels “portray fathers who are either weak or dead, and daughters brimming with independent energies” (49 qtd. in “Where are Fathers” 212).

  • 6 Male escape from the domestic space is also central to Kimmel’s study of masculinity in America, Ma (...)

9American authors seem to mistrust paternal domesticity so much that novels, as Armengol remarks, repeatedly lead fathers outside the domestic sphere. To stretch this argument a little further, when too close to home (the space of motherhood), fatherhood lacks definition and direction. Social historian LaRossa, in The Modernization of Fatherhood (1997), comes to a similar conclusion, when arguing that “domestic masculinity” signifies an attempt to “domesticate men,” to tame or feminize them (qtd. in Wahlström 26).6

  • 7 It is for this reason, Wahlström argues, that “white male authorship in the US has implicitly and e (...)

10The American canon has often constructed family and the role held by the pater familias in a similar manner. Readers are so used to these patterns that it is undoubtedly incredibly difficult to move our culturally-engrained knowledge of fatherhood beyond its definition in opposition to mothering, home, and domesticity. As Wahlström explains, “in the predominantly white and male canon since Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1886), the family and the home have often figured as feminized and feminizing spaces that pose a threat to the masculine identity of male protagonists, particularly to their individual liberty and growth” (27).7 If even a cursory examination of American literature would suffice to prove Wahlström’s point, reducing domesticity and nurturing to a matter of the opposition between male and female might cause readers and critics alike to miss other or alternative representations of fatherhood in American literature. Surely, there exist other kinds of fathers in US fictions and these fathers, because they embrace a variety of representations of masculinity, may simply resist all adequate definition and any definite categorization. The need for this kind of criticism, which I believe Spencer defends in her most recent work, is based on the idea that fathers in American fiction have not only been ignored by critics and academics, but they have also been systematically misread, or read according to the expectations and values attached to the male gender. The consideration of American (literary) fathers has indeed been mostly limited to absent, silent, “invisible, or . . . tyrannical figures” (Armengol, Richard Ford 59).

The Figure of the Father in Spencer’s Life and Stories

11If we are to follow Armengol’s argument and thus, position men’s identity outside the domestic sphere (i.e. as absent, ineffectual or deserting fathers), the instability of fatherhood, just like the absence of paternal authority, is certainly highly problematic for the younger generation. Such was certainly the case of the young Elizabeth Spencer whose own father, she recognized, was rather ambivalent about her ambition to pursue a career that “seemed not particularly desirable for a young southern lady” (Prenshaw xi). Like many of the American (literary) daughters brimming with independent energies, Spencer undoubtedly felt that “[her father] was a hard man to know.” As a result, she “gravitated more toward [her] mother and her relatives for a long time” (“A Whole Personality” 207). Spencer’s father was one of those distant fathers and Spencer admitted that she “never had a very good relationship with [him] . . . [for] he disapproved of [her]” (195). Like many of the American literary fathers studied by Armengol, Spencer’s was, of her own admission, “very tyrannical in his ways” (“The South and Beyond”195).

  • 8 “Jack of Diamonds,” a 1986 story, tells the story of Rosalind, her father, and stepmother Eva. Here (...)

12Predictably, several of Spencer’s stories seem to lend support to the view that patriarchal figures are often distant, absent, or even tyrannical. Seltzer remarks that “Spencer’s childhood was steeped in an acceptance of that very tradition. The mythic image of the white, often landed, patriarch . . . was . . . central to Spencer’s earliest understanding of ‘home,’ and consequently, of Southern identity” (16), so much that the issue of fatherhood is a pressing issue in most of Spencer’s earlier works.8

13Such seems to be also the case in Spencer’s latest short stories: what characterizes parents/children relationship in most of them (and to characterize daughters most specifically) is an “uncomfortable mix of tenderness, anxiety, resentment and bafflement” (Browning). In Starting Over, “On the Hill” features the Daugherty’s son who tells a neighbor that his father is going to drown him, which leaves the neighbors “haunted with questions (did a child die?) for which they have no answers” (Jones). In “The Everlasting Light,” a father cannot articulate his feelings for his daughter: “it was all in his throat, but he couldn’t get it out” (106). Spencer portrays a father who (like her own) proves unable to communicate love, emotions, or even practical knowledge to his child. To use Linda Simon’s words, fathers “recognize or have constructed an emotional barrier between themselves and their children that makes intimacy impossible” (225, qtd. in “Where are Fathers” 220). In “Blackie,” the death of Emily’s first husband, a failing father turned alcoholic, allows for the reunion between mother (Emily) and son (Tim). Fatherhood (or rather, the lack of fatherly skills) thus becomes one of the central themes for much of these stories.

14In Spencer’s most recent understanding of the concept of home also, one certainly finds enigmatic or unreadable father figures. In “Sightings,” the father-daughter relationship is posed from the first page of the story and is rapidly employed as a vehicle for dramatizing father-daughter interaction. Paternal authority is undermined right from the simple declarative opening of the story: “Mason Everett, a man who lived mostly happily in his own mind, hadn’t any idea why his daughter Tabitha had come to visit him” (59). Mason, we read later, “love[s] at a distance” (59) and the narrator explains that he “seem[s] content in his private way” (60). For David L. Ulin, “the whole story is set up in that [opening] sentence—a slightly disconnected father must reckon with his teenage daughter, who has been living with her mother through a custody agreement, choosing to come back to him.”

Mason, the New Father

15Admittedly, most of Spencer’s short stories conform with the traditional American (literary) conceptions of fathers as either distant (if not utterly absent) or ineffectual figures of authority. Such an approach, however, could prove simplistic and quite reductive. Two “father” figures vie for precedence in “Sightings”: Mason, Tabatha’s biological father, whose attempts to connect with his daughter are put to the test when she comes to live with him, and Guy Bowden, the substitute father figure, her mother’s new life partner, who writes letters to Tabitha, rises with resolution, has a voice that commands and bosses around, and “heavy feet like a marching drum” (69). He is presented as a “beefy fellow, large arms, thick legs, heavy feet” (66).

16By opposing these two father figures, the biological father and the substitute father, Spencer not only calls into question the naturalized convention of the nuclear family, but also (and most importantly maybe) interrogates the perceived authority of the patriarchal order, for “Sightings” does question the traditional association between fatherhood and patriarchal authority. Mason admits to being anything but an ideal father, but unlike Guy Bowden, the substitute father who must prove he is the family’s provider and authority, Mason does not restrict fatherhood to the traditional male role of provider—quite the contrary. Spencer distances Mason from patriarchal authority and from an ideology that serves to perpetuate traditional gender roles. Indeed, rather than masculine independence, the focus of the story highlights the need for greater emotional and physical dependence on Mason’s part. From the opening page, Mason is presented as thinking about dinner for his daughter (59) whom he watches “with fragile eyes” when trying to discern into “her aim and direction” (72). The father-daughter dependence—shaped as newly-found intimacy between the two—is best expressed in the passage where Mason “hastened to her, heart beating with unexpected love that now came on full force, out in the open. How urgent it was. To love and to know” (66). To paraphrase Armengol, fatherhood functions here as a catalyst that is able to move Mason out of blindness, out of the “dim” (“Sightings” 73) and into “joy” (73), into emotional engagement to his daughter (71). In the end, self-knowledge—as a man and not only as a father—is spurred as much by interaction with his daughter as it is with introspection.

17Mason literally resists the script of manhood or fatherhood that Guy seems to rigidly adhere to. “Sightings” certainly explores a father, Mason, who is failing emotionally as well as physically (he is “sight-damaged” [62] and looks “scruffy” [66]). If Guy’s voice is “persuading” (69), Mason, by contrast, remains mostly silent and his “own mind” (59) unheard of. Of Mason’s own admission, when it “was the moment to say” (69) something, he did not and preferred “one long silence” (69) instead. Tabitha’s biological father is also frequently presented as an observer whose relation to the outside world is mediated by “thick hexagonal lenses” (62) that filter his accessibility to the exterior world but clearly block human interaction, specifically father-daughter relationship. The story, by presenting the sight damage caused by Tabitha, introduces Mason’s passivity as a kind of natural, innocent condition associated with his glasses and equipment that shield him from the outside world. He works at home now instead of going to some office. He “ha[s] framed up his life” (61) and his passivity, his desire not to act (and not to quarrel with his daughter) is “a habit formed long ago” (60).

18Mason is a man of habits: the following pages show the routine that develops between father and daughter: this routine is paced through alternating cooking moments within the narrative and through repetition, notably in reference to “meat that was edible” (63, 64). The routine is broken (just like the rhythm constructed by the repetitive sentence-structures on page 64—subject, verb, object) when Tabitha’s mother, Celie, calls. Celie (accompanied by Guy) will finally barge in, and her arrival (like her interruptive phone calls) points to the disruptive role of the mother. A controlling figure, she is portrayed negatively as the authoritarian representative of the social order: it is Celie’s voice that keeps calling the passive Mason back to the real world. “‘We’ve got to understand things,’” she claims (65), just like Tabitha has “‘got to understand,’” Guy Bowden claims (68). And yet, what is to be “understood” by Mason or Tabitha is never stated precisely in the text. This impossibility suggests that the bond conceived between father and daughter as well as the mystery of their discourse can never be truly subjugated by any authority.

19Mason, however faltering as a patriarch, represents an alternative type of masculinity/fatherhood that contrasts sharply with the other male performer embodied by Guy. If Guy lives by solutions and legal agreements (67), Mason lives by questions and welcomes uncertainty. The abundance of questions, of missed opportunities to tell things, and the lack of definitive answers persists in Mason’s speech. In his self-reflective or self-questioning narration, italics point to unasked and unanswered questions, such as “Did Tabby think so too?” (66) or when Mason wonders “So was he being weak?” (67). Mason resists the definitive meaning carried out by words (he refuses the “ought-to business” [62], as he calls it) and prefers instead to upset the paradigms of authority inherent in words. Mason is shown reading through and against the other characters’ language and the narrator’s language so much that two texts (one of which is in italics) seem to exist at once. Sometimes, he reads in his daughter’s eyes “I’m sorry, I’m sorry” and wishes to say “It’s okay, forget it” (63). Further on, readers can witness that “now was the moment to say [to Celie], So you think I wasn’t good to you”—but Mason “didn’t” (69).

20The result is that Mason’s multiple subtexts offer suggestive alternative possibilities of the same story, rewritings that point to Mason’s refusal to collaborate with absolutist authority/knowledge. To use Nancy Walker’s words, Spencer’s narrative of failing fatherhood becomes “a narrative rather than the narrative, a construct to be set alongside other constructs” (6). Mason’s self-questioning (or missed/parallel narrative) foregrounds masculinity as a cultural construction by dramatizing an internal/external division of the male subject in crisis. Still, while Mason’s lack of narrative control and ineptitude at expressing himself problematize the traditional equation between patriarchy and authority, his non-performance of fathering is overridden by his flashbacks and textual asides, which read as the most privileged source of information throughout the story.

21Acoustically, “Sightings” also establishes a sharp contrast between Mason’s interiority, silence, and passivity and the shallowness of the female/mother or femininized characters who talk incessantly but hardly communicate or listen. On numerous occasions indeed, “Sightings” also draws attention to the alienating effect of language (which certainly contrasts with Mason’s inexpressive stance). If mimicry—as Luce Irigaray defines the term in Speculum of the Other Woman—has traditionally been regarded as a feminine tool used to criticize the path or role assigned to the feminine, mimicry here is employed by Spencer in ways that offer a subtle retelling of Guy’s commanding and patriarchal authority. In contrast to Irigaray’s argument that women need to conform even in pretense with masculine standards if they wish to achieve success, Spencer here offers a dramatic subversion of the very idea of mimicry or disguise, a belief always attached to femininity. Guy, for instance, gets caught up in a verbal performance which is tailored to the demands of Celie. Guy, in fact, takes most of his lines by appropriating or mimicking Celie’s own sentences, exemplifying a servile (femininized) condition that challenges his projected exterior self as (masculine) commanding and domineering. For instance, Guy writes a letter to Tabitha, “wish[ing] [she] would come back,” on the grounds that “your mamma misses you, she says so all the time” (64). Later, when meeting Tabitha in Mason’s home, Celie wails “leaving me! . . . it’s been just awful, you leaving me!” which Guy echoes with a “your mother’s desperate” (66). Ultimately and by contrast, it is Mason’s absence and dissociation from linguistic control/authority that emerges as the signifier of a more authentic model of masculinity/fathering.

22Visually also, Spencer draws attention to masculinity as a masquerade in terms of body and behavior. Guy is represented as trapped in a muscular body that, he says, alienates him and makes it difficult for him to make sense of Tabitha’s experience. For Guy, this difficulty, the reader realizes, derives from what could be seen as the ritualized script or unsurprising (understand, typically “male”) talk of manly ineptitude—either physical when he admits, for instance, that he is “‘just a rough fellow sometimes’” (69) or emotional, when he claims that he is “‘always trying to be nice to her. She won’t let me’” (70). Guy, in other words, seems to embody the myth of masculine roughness that is given as an excuse to make up for his lack or his awkwardness at nurturing impulses. In this instance, Guy precisely adopts the stance criticized by Jeffords who suggests that men claim their being betrayed by their own muscular/rough bodies which have alienated them from their (supposedly) inherent goodness. Guy’s line suggests that it is men (and not the daughter) who have suffered the most from their awkward (yet entirely natural) behaviors. By claiming the role of the victimized male suffering from the burden of traditional masculinity, Guy is not held accountable for his actions.

23For Mason, the difficulty comes from the fact that he feels like an alienated individual who is afraid of his own weakness (he wonders “was he being weak? [67]) and who is haunted by experiences that make him incapable of emotional commitment. The narrator explains how “[h]e remembered the terrible day she [Tabitha] had blinded him” (62). This is the reason why he fears that “[i]f they quarreled they would get back to the accident, that blue blinding flash, that had brought guilt in, and blame . . .” (60). Because he “is tired of fighting” (71), he has chosen a life without complexities, one marked by individualism, self-centeredness, and passivity, a life in which he does not even try to see his daughter at allotted times (70). Spencer here grants Mason subjectivity and complexity by adding motivations for his behavior and by revealing man’s vulnerability and emotional instability. In the end, however, and by confronting two (equally failing) father figures, Spencer forces her readers to envision two implied subtexts; one according to which men—because of biology or natural indisposition—can only fail at nurturing (Guy is only a “guy”); another suggesting that a man who shows his emotions (fears, etc.) unconsciously forgets to believe in himself and thus deserts his role and place as a patriarch. In both instances, masculinity is deconstructed and fathering in “Sightings” is foregrounded as a fictional role projected onto and performed (if only reluctantly) by vacant male protagonists who slip from inauthenticity into passivity.

24In “The Everlasting Night,” fatherhood functions as a similar catalyst, one that takes Kemp Donahue away from “reason or warning” (105) and into emotions. Spencer shows a father that is nurturing and care-giving; he is far more “feminine” than his daughter Jessie’s mother, Sheila. As a matter of fact, in this story, the feminine world of emotions seems to be entirely non-existent. Sheila is presented as cold and unemotional to her daughter, mainly because Jessie does not match the prescribed role of the lovely-looking debutante Sheila herself once was. Indeed, Sheila “had always wanted a pretty daughter who had lots of boyfriends begging for her time” (109). As is the case in “Sightings,” Spencer readily discards the mother’s importance and influence, and quite easily avoids representations of motherhood, which Sheila obviously associates with the burden and responsibilities of adulthood. Motherhood, indeed, is described as something which stands between Sheila and her “Sunday sleep” (108) and which reminds her of Jessie’s unrefined looks and manners. Unlike E. Ann Kaplan who, in her study Motherhood and Representation (1992), argues that the mother in American fiction is more often than not an “absent presence . . . [who is] in a sense everywhere . . . but always in the margins, spoken, not speaking” (3), Spencer presents a mother figure that has a gendered voice and agency. As Armengol explains, “fatherhood in American literature, when/if present at all, has traditionally been represented as either distant and/or tyrannical” (Richard Ford 67). In “The Everlasting Light,” however, it is motherhood, rather than fatherhood, which remains inseparable from despotic authority: “Don’t chew like that,” Sheila repeats to her daughter on many occasions (106).

25To be sure, Spencer’s daughters reflect a struggle to define oneself as separate from the mother. As Chodorow points out, the adolescent daughter engages in a “replay” of oedipal issues and the “turn” to the father reflects the ambivalence and tensions in the mother-daughter bond, demonstrating the daughter’s need to reject the mother, to separate from her, while she continues to seek her love. Like Tabitha in “Sightings,” Jessies does not fit into easy categorization. Both daughters combine masculine and feminine attributes in a manner that complicates gender prescriptions.

26Spencer also refuses to maintain the arbitrary link between what can be identified as “essentially masculine” and “fatherhood.” The lack of ability to control speech, tears/eyes, and passions are attributes that contradict normative masculine behavior and drive men into what has always been traditionally linked with the feminine sphere of vulnerability. This boundary-crossing takes a literal form in “The Everlasting Light” as Kemp sneaks into a church to listen to a choir in which his daughter is performing. Kemp refigures not only the conceptions of masculine/feminine, public/private, but also conceptions of outside/inside: Kemp is both inside the church—as the one listening to the choir—and yet outside the church—as the unknown “man [who] came in the back of the church and sat down” (110). The text here, as is the case in “Sightings,” further revisits the role of fathers, undermining representations of fatherhood that have been acknowledged and accepted in traditional American literature. Like Mason in “Sightings,” Kemp finds it difficult to express his emotions publicly. The intimacy, traced in his desire to “talk to his daughter, just him and her” (106), contributes to questioning the often unproblematized portrayal of unemotional and distant fatherhood, and to re-conceptualizing the father figure in American literature. Fathers like Mason or Kemp are prime examples of men who attain recognition, not because they are domineering patriarchs, successful businessmen or bearers of patrimony, not because manliness is synonymous with power and domination, but because they achieve (or at least, desire) some sort of intimacy with their female heir. Spencer’s concern clearly lies in the need to recover father-daughter relationships and in the need to reclaim the position of the father within the home, rather than within the public/business sphere.


27With Starting Over, Elizabeth Spencer, who is famous for having constructed female characters who break out of the constraints of gender stereotypes “with their intrepid confidence and faith in the future” (Town 18), reveals her desire for creating male characters—fathers specifically—who break out of gender stereotypes by forging an intimacy with their daughter and by exhibiting qualities usually attributed to the female “other.” She readjusts the conception of fatherhood and manhood by deconstructing the mastery of the father through disoriented characters, thus challenging assumptions about the so-called authority of patriarchy. Spencer’s stories not only suggest a desire for reformulated fatherhood, but also suggest that a man’s identity—rather than simply obeying a ritualized script of manhood—may be better found by moving against rather than following prevailing myths about men, one of which being man’s absence and (biological) ineptitude at fathering.

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1 Seltzer explains that 1949, in particular, marked a summer of many travels to Italy, France, Switzerland and Germany. Spencer herself used to call it “the magic Summer” (Landscapes 213, qtd. in Seltzer 86). Upon her return, Seltzer explains that Spencer often found herself as “a stranger in her own land” (89).

2 Wahlström’s analysis confirms this view: “fatherhood is . . . formed in—sometimes oppositional—relation to motherhood, in ways that produce differences rather than similarities in parenting across genders” (19).

3 Among those social historians, see Adrienne Burgess, Ralph LaRossa, and Robert L. Griswold.

4 An important study of the “new” father figure can be found in Wahlström.

5 Wahlström remarks, however, that there is no indication that cultural interest in fatherhood is diminishing. President Barack Obama’s book about his father remains a bestseller and popular texts about fatherlessness call for the return of the father to the American home and social studies on gay or nurturing fathers in heterosexual, homosocial contexts continue, she claims, to interrogate the meanings of contemporary fatherhood from a variety of critical perspectives (138).

6 Male escape from the domestic space is also central to Kimmel’s study of masculinity in America, Manhood in America, initially published in 1996.

7 It is for this reason, Wahlström argues, that “white male authorship in the US has implicitly and explicitly been defined in terms of ‘domophobia,’ that is resisting domesticity and family” (28).

8 “Jack of Diamonds,” a 1986 story, tells the story of Rosalind, her father, and stepmother Eva. Here, the relationship between the father and his daughter is a difficult one, and the daughter cannot understand her father. In “Knights and Dragons” (1965) or in The Snare (1972), father-daughter relationships are destructive. Inadequate fatherhood is also a recurrent theme in “The Light in the Piazza” (1960).

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Emmeline Gros, « Resisting the Traditional Construction of Fatherhood and Masculinity in Elizabeth Spencer’s “Sightings” and “The Everlasting Light” »Journal of the Short Story in English, 72 | 2019, 217-231.

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Emmeline Gros, « Resisting the Traditional Construction of Fatherhood and Masculinity in Elizabeth Spencer’s “Sightings” and “The Everlasting Light” »Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 72 | Spring 2019, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2021, consulté le 29 novembre 2023. URL :

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Emmeline Gros

Emmeline Gros is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Toulon on the French Riviera. She is also the Chair of the Department of Applied Languages. She specializes in Southern American Literature and has written her Ph.D. dissertation on the figure of the Southern Gentleman and the reconstruction of masculinity in Post-Civil War years. As a fellow of the Georgia Rotary Student Scholarship, she attended Georgia State University from 2002 to 2008 and then the Université of Versailles-Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines in France from 2008 to 2010. She wrote her Ph.D. under the international joint doctorate direction of Dr. Thomas McHaney (GSU, USA) and Dr. Jacques Pothier (UVSQ, France) and has published articles on Ellen Glasgow, Eudora Welty, and Margaret Mitchell and given talks about John Pendleton Kennedy, Tennessee Williams, and Julien Green.

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