Major Department



College of Liberal Arts & Sciences


BA (Bachelor of Arts)

Session and Year of Graduation

Fall 2016

Honors Major Advisor

Marie Kruger

Thesis Mentor

Florence Boos


In this work I discuss the evolution of single motherhood in Victorian literature and ultimately its influence in creating social change for women; not necessarily social change through legislation or public programs, but rather in the perception of these women and their stance or status in society. I explore four texts, analyzing each text’s portrayal of the single mother and her ultimate fate – Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth (1853), Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm (1883), Margaret Harkness’ A City Girl (1887), and George Moore’s Esther Waters (1894), with emphasis for analysis on the first of those texts, Gaskell’s Ruth (1853), and the last, Moore’s Esther Waters (1894). Although the title of two of these books bears the name of its single mother protagonist, the novels themselves stand in direct contrast to one another. The forty years of separation between these two publications place each character into a completely different world than the other. Looking critically at both Ruth and Esther Waters, I am m able to easily identify the stark contrast between the representation of single mothers of the early and late Victorian era. I supplement my analysis of the novels themselves with research on the critical reception of the novels, investigating not only what contemporary critics thought of these works, but also what contemporary authors, fellow acquaintances, and society in general believed. I also complement this with biographical information on the authors and in-depth research on historical context, including research on women of the time period, single mothers, and the repercussions of motherhood for unmarried mothers and illegitimate children. Through combining my analyses of the novels with research on the time period, critical reception of the works, and authorial correspondence, I am able to bring this issue to light and track the evolution of the portrayal of single mothers in Victorian England, finding that by the mid-1890s, with the influence of changing literary styles and social attitudes, literary representations of single mothers had become more favorable.


Victorian England, Single Mothers, Victorian Literature, Social Reform, Social Justice, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Moore

Total Pages

52 pages


Copyright © 2016 Steven Raines II