Her Side of His Story: A Feminist Analysis of Two Nineteenth-Century Antebellum Novels--William Wells Brown's Clotel and Harriet E. Wilson's Our Nig

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Editors: Juliet Byington and Suzanne Dewsbury
Date: 2001
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 6,121 words

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[(essay date 1992) In the following essay, Mitchell argues that Brown and Wilson differed in their depiction of female characters because of their own gender biases and experiences.]

The first four novels by African Americans were published after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and after the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe's consciousness-raising novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, or Life Among the Lowly (1852).1 Two of these four novels, William Wells Brown's Clotel or The President's Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States (1853) and Harriet E. Wilson's Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, in a Two-Story House, North. Showing That Slavery's Shadows Fall Even There (1859), examine, as one would expect, the major historical concern of their time--slavery. The primary issues for Black and White abolitionists--the paradoxical tenets of Christianity, the monstrous physical treatment of enslaved Blacks, and the psychological devastation of slavery on Black men, women, and children--are all interrogated by both novelists. However, and perhaps not surprisingly, Brown and Wilson approach these subjects from different perspectives. While both novels are undoubtedly propaganda novels, Brown and Wilson render their respective propagandistic notions through different subgeneric forms. Whereas Brown propagandizes within the constructs of a romance, Wilson propagandizes within the constructs of a sentimental novel. Brown, an escaped slave, an historian, and a professional abolitionist, gives a depiction of slavery in Clotel which is highly romanticized, dramatic, and political. Wilson, an indentured servant in the antebellum North, provides a perspective which is also highly romanticized and political, as she too borrows heavily from the literary tradition of the nineteenth-century English and American Romantics, with her emphasis on justice, sentimentality, and the Gothic. But Wilson's novel springs, it seems to me, from what might be called a "secret well of immanent femininity," to borrow an expression from Jane Gallop.2 In keeping with the tradition of the sentimental novel, Wilson portrays her female characters' quest for freedom through hyperbolic renderings of interpersonal, familial, and social interactions. Brown is also concerned with women and their quest for freedom; however, his female characters seek freedom through heroic deeds such as daring escapes and other adventures. Therefore, in what follows I contend that although both novelists are concerned with enslaved females and their quests for freedom, their novels differ significantly in their characterizations of women, a difference mediated by each author's intent and gender.

The search for the female's voice and demand that the voice be heard is central to much of feminist methodology in the study of literary texts. It is a response to the fact that women have either been left out of or included in demeaning, disfiguring, and misleading ways in what has been for the most part an exclusively male account of the world. But when women are allowed to speak for themselves, as Mary Helen Washington says of Black female writers, their literature takes the trouble to record the genuine "thoughts, words, feelings, and deeds of black women, experiences that make...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420034471