For the Major

Author Constance Fenimore Woolson
Author Name Variants Constance Woolson, Anne March
Publication New York: Harper, 1883.
Link to Text
Genres Novel
Keywords Bildungsroman, Education, Domestic Science, Reform, Women’s Work & Culture
Contributing State New Hampshire
Research Notes  
Digital Source Notes  

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Katie Pfalzgraff

University of New Orleans, December 2015


            Published in 1883, Constance Fenimore Woolson’s For the Major was a New Hampshire entrant at the New Orleans Cotton Centennial in 1884. The novella tells the story of Madam Carroll and her stepdaughter, the headstrong Sarah, whose lives are thrown out of balance by the degenerative illness of their patriarch, Major Carroll. Readers of For the Major have long been drawn in by the ways these women adapt their lives to give comfort to a beloved husband and father. Woolson’s portrayal of the intricacies of family dynamics establishes her as a master observer of early gender politics on par with the likes of Jane Austen.
            When Sarah returns to the remote town of Far Edgerley after a year’s absence, she finds her sense of identity threatened by her beloved father’s mental deterioration. She takes comfort in a close relationship with her stepmother, whose attentiveness towards the Major cultivates peace in the family home, and in her friendship with Far Edgerley’s very eligible rector. Punctuating the story of the Carroll family are the town’s humorous goings-on, closely observed by Woolson, which the women must carefully negotiate to keep a family secret concealed.
            Sarah’s story exemplifies many conventions of the female bildungsroman. She begins with no adult identity outside of her relationship with her father; it is through a painful loss that she is able to take her first independent steps in the world, entering further into the community as an ideal relationship with her father becomes impossible. By emulating Madam Carroll’s strict control over her emotions, Sarah learns how to negotiate her own desires to appease beloved male figures and how to use masks of femininity to influence the community at large.
            Born in New Hampshire in 1840, Constance Fenimore Woolson grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. Her subtle portraits of communities in the Great Lakes Region, where she spent periods of her childhood, place her squarely at the forefront of American regionalism. For the Major, set in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Asheville, North Carolina, marks a shift from stories of the American wilderness to explorations of the post-Civil War South. In addition to For the Major, Woolson wrote a number of short stories describing for Northern readers the racial climate of the Reconstruction South (Diffley). Woolson spent the final years of her life in Europe, where she forged a close personal relationship with the writer Henry James. Despite her literary talents, today Woolson is primarily known for her association with James, as well as for her untimely death, a likely suicide, in Venice, Italy in 1894.

Works Cited

Dean, Sharon, editor. The Complete Letters of Constance Fenimore Woolson. University of Florida
            Press, 2012.
Diffley, Kathleen, editor. Witness to Reconstruction: Constance Fenimore Woolson and the Postbellum
            South, 1873 — 1894. University Press of Mississippi, 2011.