Date Awarded


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (M.A.)




Susan Kern

Committee Member

Carol Sheriff

Committee Member

Hiroshi Kitamura


In Reading the Gothic at Madame Rivardi’s Seminary, I study the reading patterns of young women in the early American republic using letters exchanged between students who attended Madame Rivardi’s Seminary in Philadelphia. By examining the language employed by young women in their discussions of gothic novels and romantic fiction, I argue that young women’s engagement with these texts defied the expectations of educators and moralists, especially in regards to the practice known today as sympathetic identification. By reading, comparing, and identifying with works from these two genres, young women participated in broader discussions regarding artifice and virtue in the early American republic and established a group-specific vocabulary that facilitated communication within their closed social circle. In Prodigal Sons and Virtuous Daughters, I consider how concerns regarding education, counterfeit identities, and corruption found expression in seduction literature. By focusing on the boarding school as a site of seduction, I argue that this space, and the bodies of the students who inhabited it, provided a focus for the political and social anxieties that plagued the early republic. The most significant of these fears concerned the inability of the young women, and American society as a whole, to distinguish between fiction and reality—a process known by modern scholars as sympathetic identification. I also argue that anxieties regarding seduction influenced the educational opportunities available to young women. Many educators sought to combat seduction within their schools by encouraging the formation of close-knit, female communities that protected students from falling victim to the schemes of opportunistic suitors.



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