The Wide, Wide World, Susan Warner Essay - Critical Essays

The Wide, Wide World, Susan Warner


The Wide, Wide World Susan Warner

The following entry presents criticism of Warner's novel The Wide, Wide World (1850).

One of the most widely read American novels of the nineteenth-century, The Wide, Wide World established Susan Warner as the nation's preeminent sentimental novelist. Bearing Warner's pseudonym Elizabeth Wetherell, the novel spawned a series of similar works published by “the author of The Wide, Wide World,” a contrivance that would allowed Warner, as one of America's first bestselling writers, to largely maintain her anonymity. Noted for its accurate portrayal of the social limitations imposed upon nineteenth-century women, The Wide, Wide World traces the maturation of a young girl, Ellen Montgomery, from childhood to adolescence. Though generally valued less for its literary merit than for its historical significance, the work is considered one of the earliest examples of the domestic novel—a genre focused on the lives of ordinary women that became extremely fashionable after 1850. Frequently dismissed by the majority of twentieth-century critics as overly sentimental, the novel was “rediscovered” more than a century after its first publication by feminist scholars who have begun the process of evaluating it as an outstanding, if long since marginalized, example of popular literature written by women.

Biographical Information

Born in New York City in 1819, Warner was the daughter of a prominent and ambitious lawyer, Henry Whiting Warner. Educated by private tutors, she studied literature, music, French, and Italian. In 1828 her mother died, and her paternal aunt moved into the household to care for Warner and her younger sister Anna. Her father's successful investments in real estate enabled the family to move several times to successively more affluent neighborhoods, and Warner frequently attended fashionable social gatherings as a young woman. However, an economic downturn in 1837 forced the family to retreat from their mansion at St. Mark's Place to an old farmhouse on Constitution Island. During the next ten years, her father's failing law practice and his involvement in several lawsuits over his property furthered the family's financial difficulties. In 1848, urged by her aunt, Warner began work on The Wide, Wide World with the hope that the novel would serve as a source of income. After being rejected by several publishers, The Wide, Wide World was issued in a limited edition in 1850. Demand for the book exceeded the initial expectations of the publisher; reissued through fourteen editions in the next two years, The Wide, Wide World established an unprecedented record for sales. Encouraged by the success of her first novel, Warner wrote Queechy (1852), another novel portraying the development of a young girl. Throughout the next three and a half decades, Warner remained on Constitution Island and continued writing, producing more than thirty works of her own and six in collaboration with her sister, Anna. None of Warner's subsequent novels, however, achieved the same level of popular success as The Wide, Wide World, which remained in print for almost 80 years and was widely translated. In 1987, after decades of public neglect, the novel was reissued by the Feminist Press in an enlarged edition that featured a concluding chapter written by Warner but dropped by her original publisher.

Plot and Major Characters

At the beginning of The Wide, Wide World young Ellen Montgomery's father has lost a lawsuit, and the family doctor has prescribed a vacation for Ellen's severely ill mother. Because of the family's limited resources, her father, the unfeeling Captain Montgomery, decides to leave Ellen with her aunt in a small, rural village while taking his wife on a business trip to Europe. Separated from the love of her tender and devout mother, Ellen is mistreated by her spiteful aunt, Miss Fortune Emerson, who denies her requests for a formal education and withholds her mother's letters. Ellen suffers from the undeserved punishments and neglect of her aunt, yet obtains support and spiritual guidance from Alice and John Humphreys, the children of a local minister. A devout Christian, Ellen finds solace with the Humphreys and later goes to live with them in order to take care of Alice when she falls ill. Alice dies, as does Ellen's mother, and Captain Montgomery forces his daughter to move to Scotland and enter the household of the Lindsays, relatives of her deceased mother. Proving themselves even crueler than Aunt Fortune, the Lindsays treat Ellen as little more than property. They force Ellen to relinquish her identity as an American and criticize her faith. Nevertheless, she continues to find strength in her resilient Christian piety and in her correspondence with John Humphreys in America. Eventually, John arrives in Scotland with assurances that her life will be happy again if she becomes his wife upon reaching the proper age. With the suggestion that Ellen and John will marry, Warner's novel, as originally published, ends. In a concluding chapter, restored in the 1987 edition, Ellen returns to America, and she and John are presented as a married couple.

Major Themes

Since the action of The Wide, Wide World focuses on Ellen Montgomery's emotional, intellectual, and spiritual maturation from young girl to adult woman, critics have frequently viewed the work within the generic context of the bildungsroman, with its defining themes of personal and social development. In addition to being a narrative of Ellen's growth, however, the novel also features a strongly Christian message as Ellen, after suffering a reversal of financial fortune, the loss of her mother, exile from her homeland, and ill treatment at the hands of others, learns to overcome her feelings of vulnerability and helplessness by finding strength in her insurmountable religious devotion. In this sense, critics have viewed The Wide, Wide World as a sort of primer in Christian morality, observing that Ellen's sufferings eventually bring rewards as she learns to trust in her unshakable faith. Similarly, the novel has also been interpreted as an example of Christian allegory, analogous to that found in John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, a work that, after the Bible, is Ellen's most treasured book. Additionally, The Wide, Wide World illustrates a collection of more properly sentimental or domestic themes centered on Ellen's circumscribed role as a young, middle-class woman living in the mid-nineteenth century. With only an extremely limited control over the direction of her own fate, she must accept and endure the choices made by her father until she finds another man (in this case, the admirable John Humphreys) willing to save her by making her his wife. Such elements of the novel have been of particular interest to contemporary feminist critics eager to explore the acculturated gender dynamics and historical realities of women's lives depicted in the The Wide, Wide World.

Critical Reception

Extraordinarily popular in the United States and England upon its publication, The Wide, Wide World elicited a broad range of responses, with many reviewers admiring its respectable heroine, charming storyline, and steadfastly Christian content. Generally appealing to dominant Victorian sensibilities, the novel was extremely well received by most. Some critics, however, took exception to the immoderate emotionalism of Warner's novel, as characterized by the excessive weeping of its heroine, and to the fervid religiosity of the work. A few criticized the author's verbose prose style and other stylistic shortcomings, and some dismissed the work outright. Such negative perceptions of The Wide, Wide World predominated for much of the twentieth century, during which time the novel's heavy reliance on the tropes of feminine sentimentality and religious allegory provided ground enough to condemn the book. Nevertheless, a number of more recent scholars have emphasized the difficulty of properly interpreting the nineteenth-century religious and moral values expressed in the work from a contemporary perspective. Recent critics have also remarked on changes in taste over the decades, with twentieth-century scholars admiring Warner's skilled evocation of New England local color as exemplified in the diction of her rural characters, an aspect of the work that Victorian audiences tended to dislike in favor of Ellen's genteel—but to the modern ear stilted—English. Likewise, Ellen's unswerving and self-assured religious faith has frequently struck critics as making her seem unintentionally smug or sanctimonious. Infrequently read, and its interest restricted almost exclusively to feminist scholars, The Wide, Wide World has become a central text in the contemporary discourse on nineteenth-century women's fiction in America, with commentators examining the dynamics of oppression delineated in the story, and disputing whether or not religion functions as a submission to patriarchal authority in the novel. In most cases, modern critics have focused on gendered themes in the work and concluded that the control exercised over Ellen by her father, husband, and other relatives represents an accurate portrayal of the constraints imposed upon nineteenth-century women in making decisions governing their own lives. Given these qualities, The Wide, Wide World serves critics as a valuable historical and literary document of nineteenth-century female experience.

Principal Works

The Wide, Wide World [as Elizabeth Wetherell] (novel) 1850

American Female Patriotism: A Prize Essay (essay) 1852

Queechy [as Elizabeth Wetherell] (novel) 1852

Carl Krinken: His Christmas Stocking [with Anna Warner] (children's literature) 1853

The Hills of the Shatemuc (novel) 1856

Say and Seal [with Anna Warner] (novel) 1860

Hymns for Mothers and Children (children's literature) 1861

The Golden Ladder: Stories Illustrative of the Eight Beatitudes [with Anna Warner] (children's literature) 1862

The Old Helmet (novel) 1863

Melbourne House (novel) 1864

Daisy (novel) 1868

Daisy in the Field (novel) 1869

Opportunities (novel) 1871

“What She Could” (novel) 1871

The House in Town (novel) 1872

Sceptres and Crowns (novel) 1874

Bread and Oranges (novel) 1875

The Flag of Truce (novel) 1875

The Gold of Chickaree [with Anna Warner] (novel) 1876

The Rapids of Niagara (novel) 1876

Wych Hazel [with Anna Warner] (novel) 1876

Diana (novel) 1877

My Desire (novel) 1879

The End of a Coil (novel) 1880

The Letter of Credit (novel) 1881

Nobody (novel) 1882

Stephen, M. D. (novel) 1883

A Red Wallflower (novel) 1884

*Daisy Plains (unfinished novel) 1885

*This work was completed by Anna Warner.


Prospective Review (review date 1853)

SOURCE: Review of The Wide, Wide World. Prospective Review 15 (1853): 314-39.

[In the following excerpt, the reviewer describes The Wide, Wide World as an excellent example of morally didactic literature for children but critiques some of its stylistic qualities.]

Except Amy Herbert, we never read a child's story to compare in interest with the Wide, Wide World; and as it has gone far through the wide worlds of England and America, and received a large share of attention from the readers of fiction here and there, it claims, we think, with its sister story, some notice at our hands. We have lately spoken of the important influence acquired...

(The entire section is 8799 words.)

Southern Literary Messenger (review date April 1854)

SOURCE: Review of The Wide, Wide World. Southern Literary Messenger 20, no. 4 (April 1854): 214-16.

[In the following excerpted review, the critic calls The Wide, Wide World “the most delightful tale that has probably ever been written.”]

We have no intention of criticising any production of [Susan Warner's] pen, and only fear that we shall be guilty of extravagance in speaking of her writings. We well recollect our first perusal of the Wide Wide World, and we then predicted its success. It deserved to succeed if a pure and beautiful work of Art, full of the most exalted piety, and as true to life and human nature as reality itself, deserve...

(The entire section is 448 words.)

Edward Halsey Foster (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Foster, Edward Halsey. “The Perils of Apostasy.” In Susan and Anna Warner, pp. 34-53. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1978.

[In the following excerpt, Foster surveys the content and reception of The Wide, Wide World, considering the book “one of the first, and certainly the most famous domestic novel” in America. The critic continues by probing the reasons for its popularity in the nineteenth century as well as the principal sources of contemporary interest in the work.]

[The Wide, Wide World] was written in closest reliance upon God: for thoughts, for power, and for words. Not the mere vague wish to write a book that should...

(The entire section is 8591 words.)

Richard H. Brodhead (essay date winter 1988)

SOURCE: Brodhead, Richard H. “Sparing the Rod: Discipline and Fiction in Antebellum America.” Representations, no. 21 (winter 1988): 67-96.

[In the following excerpt, Brodhead explores the acculturated psychodynamics of Ellen's reliance on her mother, and the effects of the latter's death.]

Susan Warner's The Wide, Wide World (1851), which went on to become one of the four or five most widely read American novels of the whole nineteenth century, is often cited as the first of the new bestsellers. And it is Warner's book that offers the most impressive recognition of discipline through love as a culture-specific historical formation. The Wide, Wide...

(The entire section is 2241 words.)

Nancy Schnog (essay date spring 1989)

SOURCE: Schnog, Nancy. “Inside the Sentimental: The Psychological Work of The Wide, Wide World.Genders, no. 4 (spring 1989): 11-25.

[In the following essay, Schnog declares that The Wide, Wide World is a complex, psychological portrait of feminine sentiment.]

In the past few years Susan Warner's sentimental novel The Wide Wide World, one of nineteenth-century America's most popular novels and the nation's first best-seller, has been at the center of some of the most provocative and detailed discussions of the mechanics and politics of sentimentality.1 A decade ago, on the margin of this revival, Warner's novel was typically...

(The entire section is 7841 words.)

Isabelle White (essay date fall 1990)

SOURCE: White, Isabelle. “Anti-Individualism, Authority, and Identity: Susan Warner's Contradictions in The Wide, Wide World.American Studies 31, no. 2 (fall 1990): 31-41.

[In the following essay, White places The Wide, Wide World in the ideological context of nineteenth-century America and states that the work represents the conflict between the individual and authority during a period of developing capitalism.]

During the 1850s, the decade that culminated in the Civil War, competing interests struggled to shape a definition of America. Issues at stake were whether the national identity would be defined by slave states or free states, by agrarian...

(The entire section is 5518 words.)

Susan S. Williams (essay date December 1990)

SOURCE: Williams, Susan S. “Widening the World: Susan Warner, Her Readers, and the Assumption of Authorship.” American Quarterly 42, no. 4 (December 1990): 565-86.

[In the following essay, Williams remarks on Warner's initial resistance to being labeled a sentimental novelist.]


“Sue, I believe if you would try, you could write a story.” Thus, according to her sister Anna, did Susan Warner's Aunt Fanny unceremoniously suggest that she write a novel. Anna then qualified this anecdote: “Whether she added ‘that would sell,’ I am not sure; but of course that was what she meant.”1 The less pragmatic version of this...

(The entire section is 8827 words.)

Grace Ann Hovet and Theodore R. Hovet (essay date spring 1991)

SOURCE: Hovet, Grace Ann, and Theodore R. Hovet. “Identity Development in Susan Warner's The Wide, Wide World: Relationship, Performance and Construction.” Legacy 8, no. 1 (spring 1991): 3-16.

[In the following essay, the critics read The Wide, Wide World as a sophisticated rendering of feminine identity construction that has been falsely dismissed by many as mere sentimental fiction.]


Recent critical readings of the 1850 bestseller The Wide, Wide World disagree on whether Susan Warner's frequent depictions of tears of grief, rage, helplessness or joy—scenes which seem so emotionally...

(The entire section is 8619 words.)

Veronica Stewart (essay date spring 1994)

SOURCE: Stewart, Veronica. “The Wild Side of The Wide, Wide World.Legacy 11, no. 1 (spring 1994): 1-16.

[In the following essay, Stewart characterizes Nancy Vawse as a subversive trickster figure in The Wide, Wide World who provides a vital commentary on the use of power as represented in the novel.]

In Susan Warner's popular nineteenth-century novel, The Wide, Wide World, aged Mrs. Vawse supplies the most pertinent clue to a comprehension of her incorrigible granddaughter's role in the text when she informs us that Nancy Vawse does not return home “if there's a promise of a storm” (193). As a wild, unpredictable child of storm, aligned...

(The entire section is 7950 words.)

Veronica Stewart (essay date spring 1995)

SOURCE: Stewart, Veronica. “Mothering a Female Saint: Susan Warner's Dialogic Role in The Wide, Wide World.Essays in Literature 22, no. 1 (spring 1995): 59-74.

[In the following essay, Stewart compares The Wide, Wide World with John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, and asserts that Warner's novel is an allegorical, proto-feminist spiritual journey that confronts the dominant literary and religious ideologies associated with nineteenth-century Anglo-American domesticity.]

According to Anna Warner, one of the first reviews of her sister's novel praised The Wide, Wide World (hereafter WWW) as a book “capable of doing more good than...

(The entire section is 8279 words.)

Catherine O'Connell (essay date spring 1997)

SOURCE: O'Connell, Catherine. “‘We Must Sorrow’: Silence, Suffering, and Sentimentality in Susan Warner's The Wide, Wide World.Studies in American Fiction 25, no. 1 (spring 1997): 21-39.

[In the following essay, O'Connell illuminates narrative tensions between Ellen's feminine subjectivity and the directives of male-gendered authority figures—a conflict that precipitates the protagonist's suffering in The Wide, Wide World.]

Since its “rediscovery,”1 Susan Warner's The Wide, Wide World has posed a challenge to critical readers: what is the meaning of the relentless, excruciating focus on the suffering of the young female...

(The entire section is 7903 words.)

Sara E. Quay (essay date spring 1999)

SOURCE: Quay, Sara E. “Homesickness in Susan Warner's The Wide, Wide World.Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 18, no. 1 (spring 1999): 39-58.

[In the following essay, Quay relates Warner's use of nostalgia and loss in The Wide, Wide World to emerging nineteenth-century middle-class consumerism.]

Taken as a whole, Susan Warner's best-selling novel, The Wide, Wide World (1850), is about the experience of loss.1 In fact, the novel might be said to have been generated from the profound loss its author, as a young woman, experienced when her family moved from their home in New York City to an isolated existence on Constitution Island...

(The entire section is 9791 words.)

Suzanne M. Ashworth (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Ashworth, Suzanne M. “Susan Warner's The Wide, Wide World, Conduct Literature, and Protocols of Female Reading in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America.” Legacy 17, no. 2 (2000): 141-64.

[In the following excerpt, Ashworth explains the thematic significance of Ellen's voracious reading and finds that this characteristic is an important mechanism of identity construction in The Wide, Wide World.]


If [nineteenth-century] women readers were to begin with the interchangeable maxims “read with purpose” and “read no novels,” then they were supposed to end with an eye to...

(The entire section is 9446 words.)

Elizabeth Fekete Trubey (essay date fall 2001)

SOURCE: Trubey, Elizabeth Fekete. “Imagined Revolution: The Female Reader and The Wide, Wide World.Modern Language Studies 31, no. 2 (fall 2001): 57-74.

[In the following essay, Trubey evaluates the portrayal of women's reading in The Wide, Wide World as an instructional but potentially subversive activity.]

The act of reading plays an important thematic role throughout Susan Warner's 1850 bestseller, The Wide, Wide World.1 Ellen Montgomery, the novel's heroine, is often depicted with book in hand, turning to the Bible and other moralizing texts for comfort, edification, and direction. Warner relates Ellen's method of approaching...

(The entire section is 8635 words.)

Jan L. Argersinger (essay date June 2002)

SOURCE: Argersinger, Jan L. “Family Embraces: The Unholy Kiss and Authorial Relations in The Wide, Wide World.American Literature 74, no. 2 (June 2002): 251-85.

[In the following excerpt, Argersinger probes Warner's use of “authorial seduction” in The Wide, Wide World, a process of subtly eroticizing familial and power relations in the novel so as to draw in readers.]

In the originally unpublished final chapter of Susan Warner's The Wide, Wide World, Ellen and her new husband, John Humphreys, stand together before a painting of the Madonna and child and consider its meaning. This ideal woman's beauty, John declares, exists as a mere...

(The entire section is 12051 words.)

Further Reading


Barnes, Elizabeth. “Mothers of Seduction.” In States of Sympathy: Seduction and Democracy in the American Novel, pp. 100-14. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

Includes an investigation of Ellen's internalization of motherly love and authority in The Wide, Wide World as part of a wider discussion of maternal power and the mother-daughter bond depicted in the nineteenth-century sentimental novel.

Baym, Nina. “Susan Warner, Anna Warner, and Maria Cummins.” In Woman's Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America, 1820-1870, pp. 140-74. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1978.


(The entire section is 756 words.)