The Wide, Wide World, Susan Warner Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.