Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

Brunner, Edward


During the end of the nineteenth century, breach of promise laws, which had protected unmarried but engaged women for centuries during their vulnerable engagement period, began to come under public scrutiny. The demonization of this legal protection coincided with increased legal agency in other areas of married life for women, but in most historical and critical discussions of this era, breach of promise, also nicknamed Heartbalm, has been overlooked, and the purpose of this dissertation is to examine canonical and non-canonical literature from this period and recontextualize these works in light of breach of promise's historical impact on courting and unmarried couples. Both men and women writers from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century picked up on the dramatic potential of these lawsuits at a time when the definition of marriage was transitioning from a relationship based on fixed economic gender roles established in the nineteenth century to a relationship of companionship and emotional connection. For many young people, the breach of promise suit insinuated that women sought marriage purely out of financial gain and stability, and as such, women were often branded gold diggers, or worse, for their emotional disconnect with their lovers. By bringing together American literature, cultural and legal histories and headlines from The New York Times, this dissertation also informs readers about the serious social activism at work in what might otherwise appear to be insignificant stories about family conflicts over marriage and family finances. The works of William Dean Howells, Edith Wharton, Anita Loos, Margaret Deland and others benefit from putting their texts alongside newspaper headlines and case studies from their era because breach of promise was often a covert force in those stories and only careful reading of the texts brings out the complexity of the characters' pre-marriage anxieties. In the films of the 1930s, however, heartbalm was demonized to the point where it now appeared ridiculous, and in 1935, the law was rescinded in a number of states across the country, and effectively dead. As a protection available for young women, however, its absence led to an increase in unmarried women without any legal tool available to hold an absconding lover responsible for his unfulfilled commitments. Though the study ends with this observation, the 1935 arguments mark a complete reversal from the ideology expressed by nineteenth century lawmakers who enforced heartbalm and defended its existence, and as such, this study traces that reversal, and the accompanying changes in social expectations for courting couples as enacted on the pages of American literature and in early American films.




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