Annotation: Anne Dalke’s “Original Vice” (1988)
This is an annotation for a paper I am currently writing on Martha Meredith Read’s Margaretta. See my prospectus here.
Dalke, Anne. “Original Vice: The Political Implications of Incest in the Early American Novel.” Early American Literature 23.2 (1988): 188-202. Print.
In this article Dalke argues that the prevalence of themes of incest in early American novels reflect public anxieties about the “absence of a well defined social system” (188). Rather than an actual fear of “widespread incest,” she claims that authors were concerned with what the potential for incest signifies, namely, the inherent dangers posed by increased socio-economic mobility (188). Dissolving class boundaries and the fluid structure of society in the young nation fueled people’s desires for a return to organized, hierarchal arrangements, symbolized in these tales through the characters’ search for their “fathers,” or more broadly, for the protection of a charitable “upper class” (189). While Dalke examines numerous incest narratives, her discussion of Read’s Margaretta is especially relevant to my research. She exposes the conservative strains within the novel, claiming that, “opportunity is open… only to those already well-to-do. No man rises here by his own efforts” (199). The specter of incest that appears in the story therefore serves only to emphasize the importance of parentage and inheritance. Margaretta remains at the whims of her father, relying on his political and material currency to improve her socio-economic status and ultimately marry outside of her class. But while Dalke’s argument enables us to understand how the novel copes with anxieties about the “ease of social movement” and re-imagines an ordered community where distinctions in rank remain clear, I contest her representation of Margaretta, which divests the heroine entirely of agency and ignores the critical role she plays in re-constructing a coherent American national identity (188). Dalke also disregards the complexity of Read’s text when she discusses the characters’ inability to acquire material wealth outside of inheritance. Although this may be true, Read intentionally presents a reversal at the end of her novel that contrasts Margaretta’s newfound riches with De Burling’s impoverished state. The fact that she empowers her heroine with the ability to restore William’s fortune and, essentially, his violated manhood, has greater political and economic implications that I want to explore in my paper.