Interview conducted by Tia Byer
In our second visit to ‘Dissertation Corner’ we are joined by Elisha Wise, who is working on expatriation and femininity in the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Edith Wharton.
Tell me about your dissertation.
My dissertation is about American Literature and it is specifically focusing on Tender is The Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. It’s about the women in the text in relation expatriation, so Americans living primarily in France. I will be analysing whether women have more freedom in a different country than they would in America. These texts belong to the interwar period, between World War I and World War II. But what makes it complicated is that it is kind of on the cusp of modernism, but not quite modernism yet. Both Wharton and Fitzgerald were writing at the same time as people like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, but they remain a little bit outside of the movement; Wharton more so than Fitzgerald. So, it is that type of era but still historically a little ambiguous.
How has your dissertation changed from your proposal?
I feel like I threw a little bit of everything at the proposal. So there were things in there about fallen women, things about fashion, and things about flappers. There were a lot of different things and I feel like I have had to cut that down quite substantially. It was also very history-based. In my initial proposal, I was intending to talk a lot about World War I and about women’s movements. But now I feel like I have been focusing on a close reading of the texts, and then I will bring in the historical context as a secondary focus.
How did you come to choose this topic and research area?
It began as a biographical interest, really, and morphed into a literary one over time. An interest in F. Scott Fitzgerald (and his wife, Zelda) led me to do a lot of reading about some of the incredible women who were based in Paris in the 1920s, including Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Beach, Josephine Baker, and Edith Wharton. These women were all amazing in different ways, and I think that part of the reason why they were so amazing was the freedom that living in a new country gave them. For example, Wharton got a divorce and started an independent life for herself in France, and a lot of women had public lesbian relationships there. I wanted to explore the reasons for these freedoms in a little more detail and, as both Tender is the Night and The Age of Innocence feature transgressive women living abroad and are written by writers who were themselves, expatriates, they felt like the perfect texts to do that with. It’s mostly a contextual dissertation, but I love studying the historical aspects of literature so that suits me perfectly.
What are you enjoying about your dissertation so far?
I’m really enjoying the research. I get to talk a lot about feminism and I get to talk a lot about Fitzgerald, which is always amazing anyway! I have really enjoyed getting to know about Edith Wharton as well. The dissertation is a really good opportunity if there is a writer you are interested in but don’t really know a lot about: it is a really good opportunity to dive in and learn more. I guess I am enjoying having the freedom to do what I like and play about to see what works and what doesn’t, without having the really restrained time period that you usually do with an essay.
What would you say has been challenging so far?
Certain aspects of research are proving challenging, especially because I am doing a text which is a secondary text by an author. When you research Fitzgerald most of the material is about The Great Gatsby. It is quite hard to sift through that and actually find research on Tender is The Night instead. Also, I think the planning stages might actually be harder than the actual writing. I feel like now that I have managed to narrow my ideas down, I am on my way. But, it took a long time to get to this stage. At first, I did not know where the hell I was going to go with it all.