LITR 5535: American
Search of the Family: The Recurrent Element of Desire and Loss for Women in
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
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
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)
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
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 [. . .].
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.
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).
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.
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).
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).
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:
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.
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).
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
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.
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.
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.
Nina. Woman’s Fiction:
A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America, 1820-1870.
Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1978.
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.
Mary. “Infanticide and Cultural
Reproduction in Cooper’s The Last of the
Canadian Review of American Studies 22.3 (1991): 407-417.
James Fenimore. The Last of the
Mohicans. New York: Penguin,
Margaret H. “Mary White
Rowlandson’s Self-Fashioning as Puritan Goodwife.”
Early American Literature 27 (1992): 49-60.
Leslie A. Love and Death in the
American Novel. 2nd
ed. New York: Stein and Day, 1966.
Avery R. “Bradstreet’s ‘On My
Dear Grandchild Simon Bradstreet’ and ‘Before the Birth of One of Her
59.1 (2000): 11-14.
David T. “Women and Indians: The
Last of the Mohicans and the Captivity Tradition.”
American Quarterly 28.4 (1976): 431-444.
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.
Mary. From A
Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary
The Norton Anthology of American Literature.
Shorter 6th ed. Ed.
Nina Baym. New York: W.W. Norton
& Company, 2003. 136-152.
“Surviving in the Garrett: Harriet Jacobs and the Critique of
Sentiment.” American Transcendental Quarterly 8.3 (1994): 189-210.