LITR 5535: American Romanticism
Sample Student Research Project, fall 2003

Kina Siriphant-Lara
LITR 5535
Dr. Craig White
20 November 2003

In Search of the Family: The Recurrent Element of Desire and Loss for Women in American Romanticism

            The Romantic Period in American literature is characterized by certain identifiable traits that easily distinguish it from other literary periods in American history.  What has been labeled the “romantic spirit or ideology” consists of such attitudes as rebellion, nostalgia, idealism, individualism, and perhaps most prominently, desire and loss.  In virtually all romantic texts, characters are separated from some object of desire and must frequently exert a tremendous amount of time, effort, and pain in order to attain their wish.  Unfortunately, whenever a romantic character desires to obtain something new, the realization of it always comes at a significant loss to something else in that particular character’s life. 

In the early American texts of Puritan women such as Anne Bradstreet and Mary Rowlandson, the romantic element of desire and loss is evidenced in comparable ways through the use of a woman’s most basic desire for the family.  Furthermore, these two authors’ contributions to American Romanticism converge in both James Fenimore Cooper’s captivity novel, The Last of the Mohicans, and Harriet Jacobs’ slave narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.  Each of these authors effectively reveal that desire and loss for women in both pre-Romantic and Romantic texts, in some distinct form, always centers around the family and involves devastating personal losses and private sacrifices for the women involved.

            According to Nina Baym in Woman’s Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America, 1820-1870, writing about women “was by far the most popular literature of its time” and reading was established primarily as a female pursuit (11).  Because of this notion, the content of texts involving female leading characters of the pre-Romantic and Romantic periods was chiefly directed towards a female audience who could easily relate to the issues being presented.  Thus, it is not surprising that a desire for the family and the subsequent personal losses endured is an attitude idiosyncratic to women.  In fact, women’s more emotional, nurturing desires for family and the home are generally in direct contrast to men’s more practical desires for power, prestige, and property.  While women of the period experienced a desire to bear children, strove to keep the family unit intact, and continually endeavored to maintain their family’s well-being, men focused more on accumulating material wealth and establishing their social status “out of a desperate need to avoid the facts of wooing, marriage, and child-bearing” (Fiedler 25). 

In the second edition of Love and Death in the American Novel, Leslie A. Fiedler describes the desires of male characters in American literature:

Ever since, the typical male protagonist of our fiction has been a man on the run, harried into the forest and out to sea, down the river or into combat–anywhere to avoid “civilization,” which is to say, the confrontation of a man and women which leads to the fall to sex, marriage, and responsibility. (26)

Hence, it can be inferred that while female characters’ desires are predominantly concentrated in the private, domestic sphere, men’s pursuit of adventure, recognition, and wealth are usually found in the public realm of society.  Moreover, the losses that these women experience as a result of their desires are often more emotionally and psychologically devastating than men’s losses because of the fact that they involve their families, and not material goods.

Perhaps one of the greatest examples of desire and loss for the family in pre-Romantic American literature can be found in the poetry of Anne Bradstreet as her “inner conflict underpinned her finest poetry” (Fischer 11).  In her poem “Before the Birth of One of Her Children,” Bradstreet contemplates the desire to have a child resulting in the potential loss of her life.  She realizes in the opening line of the poem that “All things within this fading world hath end” (1), thus framing her poem with a sense of mortality and loss.  According to Avery R. Fischer, “The prospect of death frightens Bradstreet” and she even “comes dangerously close to declaring her own wish to stay alive” (14).  However, although she is aware of the fact that the possibility of her dying during childbirth is entirely beyond her control, she still expresses her desire to bear more children in order to extend her family.   

In addition to her wishes for a child, she also desires unconditional and unrelenting love from her husband.  Although she warns him that she may not survive childbirth due to her weak physical condition when she states, “How soon, my Dear, death may my steps attend” (7), she still desires that he remain completely true to her after death by caring for their children:


And when thou feel’st no grief, as I no harms,

            Yet love thy dead, who long lay in thine arms,

            And when thy loss shall be repaid with gains

            Look to my little babes, my dear remains.  (19-22)

While Bradstreet’s desire to give birth to another child may give rise to her own death, she still expects her husband to fulfill her desire to be loved by him and remain faithful to her even after she is physically gone.  This earnest desire to keep the family unit intact is a consistent theme for early American women writers such as Bradstreet and Rowlandson, and “the personal struggle embodied in Bradstreet’s best work” is characteristic of many female authors of the period.

                        Mary Rowlandson’s A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson is another example of the recurrent element of desire and loss for the family in women’s pre-Romantic American literature.  In “Women and Indians: The Last of the Mohicans and the Captivity Tradition,” David T. Haberly indicates that “In the early narratives of Puritans like Mary Rowlandson, captivity, suffering, and final redemption were all part of God’s plan, and the publication of these events was a Christian duty” (433).  Furthermore, women were responsible for a large proportion of captivity narratives because of the fact that they were “deprived by Indian violence of the protection of husbands or family” (Haberly 434).  In accordance with this notion, after being seized by Indians from her home in Lancaster, Massachusetts, and separated from her husband and two of her children, Rowlandson desires that her and her daughter’s lives be spared and that they be safely reunited with their family.  Like Bradstreet, Rowlandson expresses an intense need to keep the family unit together, regardless of the circumstances.  Following the capture, she has only her youngest child with her and they have both suffered potentially fatal gunshot wounds.  She contemplates her dreadful situation in the following excerpt from the narrative:

All was gone, my husband gone (at least separated from me, he being in the Bay; and to add to my grief, the Indians told me they would kill him as he came homeward), my children gone, my relations and friends gone, our house and home and all our comforts – within door and without – all was gone (except my life), and I knew not but the next moment that might go too.  There remained nothing to me but one poor wounded babe [. . .].  (138)

            Although she realizes that her child’s death is forthcoming and inevitable, Rowlandson displays her immense love for her injured young daughter and desire for the child’s well-being by making sacrifices in order to keep her alive for as long as possible.  In the same fashion as Bradstreet, it seems as though Rowlandson is willing to sacrifice her own life for that of her child if necessary as she states, “At length I took it off the horse, and carried it in my arms till my strength failed, and I fell down with it” (139).  In her article entitled “Mary White Rowlandson’s Self-Fashioning as Puritan Goodwife,” Margaret H. Davis characterizes Rowlandson as a “Puritan housewife to the bone,” who consistently “maintains her stance of pious and industrious nurturer, fiercely protective of her own kind” (56).  However, after struggling for nine days to comfort her dying child, Rowlandson must eventually face this great loss as she asserts, “my sweet babe like a lamb departed this life on Feb. 18, 1675” (140).  She must now undertake the physically and mentally arduous task of regaining her freedom and recovering the remainder of her family alone.

Interestingly, it is her steadfast faith in God and her intense love for her family that allows Rowlandson to persevere through the most adverse conditions.  As indicated by Davis, “For all her spirituality, Mary Rowlandson is a woman of this world who longs to continue in a material sense, and she wittingly pays the price for survival” (54-55) – the loss of her youngest child and temporary submission to her Indian captors.  In the same manner as Bradstreet, Rowlandson conveys her internal desires to stay alive so that she may recover the rest of her family and restore her domestic sphere to order.  Immediately after her deceased child is taken away from her and buried, she desires to seek out her other two children in order to ensure that they are still alive and unharmed.  Furthermore, because she is among hostile Indians and is constantly being watched by them, she must take a dangerous journey towards reunion with her husband and children that will be similar to Cora and Alice’s attempt to reunite with their father in The Last of the Mohicans.  Even though she is still mourning the recent loss of her daughter, her overwhelming desire to see the remainder of her family safely reunited and her unwavering faith in the power of God impels her to continue living and attempt to reclaim her freedom as she asserts, “though we were scattered from one end of the earth to the other, yet the Lord would gather us together” (142).

Through the pre-Romantic contributions of both Bradstreet and Rowlandson, the romantic element of desire and loss for the family first converges in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans.  Although the entire novel is essentially centered around this theme in that the loss of the Mohican tribe is imminent, Cooper, like his female predecessors, also uses a complex female character in his story to exhibit women’s desire and loss for the family.  In her article “Infanticide and Cultural Reproduction in Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans,” Mary Chapman insists that this particular novel, “Structured as an [sic] historical romance [. . .] has as its ostensible quest the reunification of the family” (413).  Cora, the eldest daughter of Colonel Munro, is an extremely strong young woman who eventually loses her life in an attempt to fulfill her heartfelt desires for a complete restoration of the family unit.

Initially, Cora desires that she and her sister Alice be reunited with their father, who is stationed at Fort William Henry and is being severely attacked by the French.  Like Mary Rowlandson, this desire for the family to be reunited is of the utmost importance and cannot be avoided, regardless of the circumstances.  Consequently, Cora is willing to engage in a long, perilous journey through hostile warfare and Indian territory in order to reestablish her domestic sphere.  According to Chapman, “While Alice remains passive and dependent, Cora furthers the possibility of family reunion by suggesting that the scout and his friends go on ahead for help when they are surrounded by Hurons at Glenn’s Falls, and by marking her trial [sic] with broken branches as the sisters are led away by Magua” (414).  Cora also reveals her resolute loyalty to her father and desire to support him as she tells Alice, “I may have been rash in pressing his consent in a moment of so much embarrassment, but I would have proved to him, that however others might neglect him, in his strait, his children at least were faithful!” (61). 

In contrast to Cora’s intense desire for restoration of the family unit, Colonel Munro virtually ignores his daughters’ pleas for reunion “in order to play the part of colonel to his larger family, the inhabitants of the fort” (Chapman 411).  Even after a temporary domestic reunion in which Hawkeye and the Mohicans deliver Cora and Alice to their father, Munro primarily adheres to his occupational duties as commanding officer of his troops by focusing on the ensuing war and the state of his army and fort.  When asked about the condition of his daughters, he tells Heyward, “To-day I am only a soldier, [. . .].  All that you see here, claim alike to be my children” (171).  However, after this brief reunion with her father at William Henry, Cora is soon after captured by Magua for the second time during the Huron massacre and is not in the presence of her father again until she is buried.  Therefore, because Cooper “permits the family to exist as only a transitory unit,” Cora’s desires for reunification of the family are never wholly fulfilled (414). 

In addition to this, Cora also desires that her younger sister Alice be spared by Magua and safely returned to their father.  Because both of their mothers were deceased at an early age, the stronger, more mature Cora has assumed the role of the weaker, more sensitive Alice’s maternal figure.  At one point in the novel, Alice even refers to her as “my sister; my more than sister, my mother” (115).  In the same manner as both Bradstreet and Rowlandson’s absolute devotion to their children and families, Cora’s maternal love for her sister and desire for her well-being continually surpasses her own wants and needs.  In addition, the sacrifices that Cora makes throughout their entire journey together to ensure Alice’s safety will be similar to the considerable physical and emotional losses that Harriet Jacobs endures for the sake of her two children.  For example, shortly after being captured at Glenn’s Falls, Cora entreats Magua to “At least, release my gentle sister, and pour out all your malice on me.  Purchase wealth by her safety, and satisfy your revenge with a single victim” (104).  Cora’s desire for her younger sister’s life and welfare strikingly resembles Rowlandson’s appeal for both her dying daughter to be alleviated of her pain and her two surviving children to be released safely and uninjured by their Indian captors.  Fortunately, this never transpires as they are rescued by Hawkeye and the Mohicans; but later, they are both again in the evil hands of Magua at the Delaware camp.  This time, Cora desperately pleads with the great chief Tamenund for the release of her sister:

For myself I ask nothing. [. . .]  But yonder is one, who has never known the weight of Heaven’s displeasure until now.  She is the daughter of an old and failing man, whose days are near their close.  She has many, very many, to love her, and delight in her; and she is too good, much too precious, to become the victim of that villain.  (305)

Upon Tamenund’s mediation between Uncas and Magua, the latter willingly decides to free Alice, but refuses to relinquish Cora and intends to take her for his wife.  As Cora departs with Magua to soon face her tragic death, she reveals that she is willing to lose her own life not only so that her only sister and father can be reunited, but also so that Alice can one day have a family of her own.  Thus, Cora demonstrates her maternal love for Alice and desire for her to live a long, contented life by means of the many acts of sacrifice that she makes throughout the novel.    

            Both Bradstreet and Rowlandson’s pre-Romantic contributions regarding women’s desire and loss for the family are also interestingly established in Harriet Jacobs’ slave narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.  As an autobiographical novel about a sexually harassed and physically abused woman who desires to better the lives of her two children, Incidents, like The Last of the Mohicans, presents yet another strong female character willing to sacrifice her own emotional and physical needs in order to free her children from the harshness and brutality of a life of servitude.  However, unlike her Puritan predecessors, Jacobs’ character, Linda Brent, “does not valorize marriage or domesticity,” but rather does whatever is necessary to ensure the safety of her children, even if that requires being separated from them for an extended period of time (Walter 209).      

After a relatively fortunate childhood in which she does not even recognize her true condition as a slave, Brent comes under the control of Dr. Flint, a manipulative, intimidating master who both sexually harasses and physically abuses her.  As stated by Jacobs, “For years, my master had done his utmost to pollute my mind with foul images, and to destroy the pure principles inculcated by my grandmother, and the good mistress of my childhood” (820-821).  Not only does Flint repeatedly threaten to make her his mistress, he also throws her down stairs, hits her in the face, and cuts off all of her hair.  As a result of this abuse, Brent desires to bear children by an unmarried white man named Mr. Sands in order to circumvent being raped by her master, and thus, fully submitting to his power over her.  Unlike Bradstreet, her reason for bearing children is not simply to expand the family unit, but rather to create a new domestic entity for herself through which she can eventually break away from her master.  She attempts to justify her seemingly immoral desires to the reader in the following passage:

I knew the impassable gulf between us; but to be an object of interest to a man who is not married, and who is not her master, is agreeable to the pride and feelings of a slave, if her miserable situation has left her any pride or sentiment.  It seems less degrading to give one’s self, than to submit to compulsion.  (821)

Furthermore, according to Krista Walter, “In her attachment with Sands she sees an opportunity both to spite Flint and to free herself from him” (206).  Not only is Brent interested in achieving psychological triumph over her oppressor, but she also desires to have children with another man so that Flint can never have control over her body or sexually violate her in any way.    

However, the fact that Brent gives birth to two children by Sands also results in the loss of her purity, sense of worth, and respect from others.  In contrast to Bradstreet’s desires to bear children in order to enhance her life by increasing the family, Walter suggests that “Brent’s attempt to escape her status as sexual commodity and slave laborer involves not so much a discovery as a denial of self” (192).  As she appeals to free white women “whose purity has been sheltered from childhood” (821), Brent endeavors to rationalize why she has given herself entirely to a man outside the confines of marriage.  Through all of her explanation and justification, after she becomes pregnant for the first time, she is still faced with uncertainty, regret, and humiliation: “now that the truth was out, and my relatives would hear of it, I felt wretched.  [. . .]  Now, how could I look them in the face?  My self-respect was gone!” (822).  Thus, Brent’s desire for children and a true family of her own initially results in the loss of her self-respect and even seems somewhat detrimental to her existence.

  After having two children with Sands, Brent desires to be freed from slavery so that her children will have the opportunity to experience an improved life beyond the imprisonment and servitude that slavery offers.  Because the slaveholders of the period were successful in enacting a law stating that “the child shall follow the condition of the mother” (824), Brent realizes that the only hope for her children’s liberation is for her to escape to the North, where someone will possibly buy her freedom.  In order to achieve this, Brent hides for seven years in her grandmother’s attic and suffers through almost inconceivable conditions, as “the garret was only nine feet long and seven wide.  The highest part was three feet high, and sloped down abruptly to the loose board floor.  There was no admission for either light or air” (826).  In addition to these physically and mentally debilitating circumstances, Brent also suffers from the loss of her ability to be with her children for seven long years: “I heard the voices of my children.  There was joy and there was sadness in the sound.  It made my tears flow.  How I longed to speak to them!  I was eager to look on their faces; but there was no hole, no crack, through which I could peep” (826).  As indicated by Walter, in order to free herself and eventually her children from slavery, Brent must be prepared to “sacrifice her most basic needs,” and also to “compromise her parental instincts in order to beat the master at his own game” (192).  Interestingly, Brent’s willingness to sacrifice her own comfort, happiness, and even life for that of her children is remarkably similar to Cora’s readiness to give up everything for the sake of her sister.  Through her unrelenting efforts and tremendous sacrifices, Brent does finally escape to the North where her freedom is purchased and her family is restored to her. 

As evidenced by the texts of Bradstreet, Rowlandson, Cooper, and Jacobs, desire and loss is an extremely prominent aspect of both pre-Romantic and Romantic American literature.  What is interesting about these particular authors is their ability to use female characters who possess such strong desires and who suffer such great personal losses.  The fact that these women all inevitably lose something significant – whether that be a child, their sense of worth, or even their own life – while striving to attain their desire for the family proves that the element of desire and loss is a substantial, recurrent, and distinctive theme for female authors and characters in American literature.

Works Cited

Baym, Nina.  Woman’s Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America, 1820-1870.  Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1978.

Bradstreet, Anne.  Before the Birth of One of Her Children.”  The Norton Anthology of American Literature.  Shorter 6th ed.  Ed. Nina Baym.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2003.  124-125.

Chapman, Mary.  “Infanticide and Cultural Reproduction in Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans.”  Canadian Review of American Studies 22.3 (1991): 407-417.

Cooper, James Fenimore.  The Last of the Mohicans.  New York: Penguin, 1986.

Davis, Margaret H.  “Mary White Rowlandson’s Self-Fashioning as Puritan Goodwife.” Early American Literature 27 (1992): 49-60. 

Fiedler, Leslie A.  Love and Death in the American Novel.  2nd ed.  New York: Stein and Day, 1966.

Fischer, Avery R.  “Bradstreet’s ‘On My Dear Grandchild Simon Bradstreet’ and ‘Before the Birth of One of Her Children’.”  Explicator 59.1 (2000): 11-14.

Haberly, David T.  “Women and Indians: The Last of the Mohicans and the Captivity Tradition.”  American Quarterly 28.4 (1976): 431-444.

Jacobs, Harriet.   From Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.  The Norton Anthology of American Literature.  Shorter 6th ed.  Ed. Nina Baym.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2003.  813-834.   

Rowlandson, Mary.   From A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson.  The Norton Anthology of American Literature.  Shorter 6th ed.  Ed. Nina Baym.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2003.  136-152.

Walter, Krista.  “Surviving in the Garrett: Harriet Jacobs and the Critique of Sentiment.” American Transcendental Quarterly 8.3 (1994): 189-210.