An Ethic of Innocence

Pragmatism, Modernity, and Women's Choice Not to Know

By Kristen L. Renzi

Subjects: Nineteenth-century Studies, Literary Criticism, Gender Studies, Women's Studies, Cultural Studies
Series: SUNY series, Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century
Hardcover : 9781438475974, 296 pages, September 2019
Paperback : 9781438475967, 296 pages, July 2020

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Table of contents


Introduction: The Problem of Modern Female Innocence

Part I. Negotiated Living

1. A Pragmatist’s Dilemma: The Collusion between Myth and Reality in the Tale of the Hull House Devil Baby

2. Coming of Age via Critical Complaint: Reading Women’s Choices Not to Know in Realist Bildungsroman

3. A Failure of Sympathy or of Narrative? Naturalism’s Jaded Women and the Narrative Cycle of Domestic Violence

4. The Legacy of Naturalism, a Cycle of Leaving: Reading Agency in the Passive, Empty Woman

Part II. Pragmatic Fantasies

5. Are Women People? Discourses of (Non)Personhood in Suffrage Poetry and Protest

6. Making Women, Making Humans: Fantasies and Melancholic Mourning in Modern Sex Changes and Sex Losses

7. Allowing Innocence? Belief, Knowledge, and the Modern Community

Works Cited

Offers a feminist theory of ignorance that sheds light on the misunderstood or overlooked epistemic practices of women in literature.


An Ethic of Innocence examines representations of women in American and British fin-de-siècle and modern literature who seem "not to know" things. These naïve fools, Pollyannaish dupes, obedient traditionalists, or regressive anti-feminists have been dismissed by critics as conservative, backward, and out of sync with, even threatening to, modern feminist goals. Grounded in the late nineteenth century's changing political and generic representations of women, this book provides a novel interpretative framework for reconsidering the epistemic claims of these women. Kristen L. Renzi analyzes characters from works by Henry James, Frank Norris, Ann Petry, Rebecca West, Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, and others, to argue that these feminine figures who choose not to know actually represent and model crucial pragmatic strategies by which modern and contemporary subjects navigate, survive, and even oppose gender oppression.

Kristen L. Renzi is Associate Professor of English at Xavier University.


"An eclectic study with evidence from various genres and periods, An Ethic of Innocence is unified by its groundbreaking focus on 'epistemic innocence' … Highly recommended." — CHOICE

"An Ethic of Innocence recalibrates the critical landscape, revealing blind spots in contemporary models for thinking about knowledge and agency within a feminine context. The author builds a persuasive case from powerful close readings of texts, which invite readers to question their assumptions. I cannot now imagine the field of feminist modernist studies without the interventions of this project." — Barbara Green, author of Feminist Periodicals and Daily Life: Women and Modernity in British Culture

"This is a fascinating and very interesting intervention about the construction of knowledge/innocence within the field of literary studies. Anyone teaching or studying this period will find it of great use." — Stephanie A. Smith, author of Conceived by Liberty: Maternal Figures and Nineteenth-Century American Literature