I have chosen three stories from the Provisions anthology in order to discuss them as “powerful examples of the way a culture thinks about itself, articulating and proposing solutions for the problems that shape a particular historical moment” (Tomkins, Sensational Designs xi). I want to analyze Sigourney’s “The Father,” Phelps’ “The Angel Over the Right Shoulder,” and Cooke’s “Miss Lucinda” in order to discuss the theme of the female as the captive. I will explore how aspects of everyday life, not just slavery, could imprison and control a woman of the 19th Century. I will also try to show that these critiques of 19th Century social behavior offer few solutions to the female, and therefore fail as survival manuals.
“The Father” is a disturbing story about a father who was obsessed with his daughter. The scariest part of the story is that it was to have been written after the father’s “heart has been made better.” (Provisions 116) The story, however, is written in the style of a man who is not well. He makes his daughter the object rather than the subject of his memories, reminding the reader that she is still a possession in the narrator’s mind.
The numerous uses of the word “I” is an example that the story is about him, not her. While she is dying, he says:
“I knelt by the bed of death, and gave her back to her Creator. Amid the tears and groans of mourners, I lifted up a firm voice. A fearful courage entered into me. I seemed to rush even upon the buckler of the Eternal. I likened myself unto him who, on Mount Moria, “stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.” The whole energy of my nature armed itself for the awful conflict. I gloried in my strength to suffer. With terrible sublimity, I stood forth, as the High Priest of my smitten and astonished household. I gave the lamb in sacrifice, with an unshrinking hand, though it was my own blood, that steeped, and streamed over the altar.”
Keep in mind that a girl is dying while the father lamenting his loss and comparing himself to Abraham. Most of the story is similar, dominated by the father. As the reader, we are forced to identify with the father. We see him as a slave to his grief, camping on top of her grave every night.
The sad fact of the father is that he is the jailer, and his daughter is the captive. In life, she is an object for the father to admire, but an object that he has created. He educates her himself: “I was not satisfied with the commendation of her teachers. I was determined to take my seat in the sacred pavilion of intellect, and superintend what entered there.”(112) He has not only created her physically, but he now wants to mold every aspect of her being.
Whether or not God decides to smite down the daughter for the father’s lack of gratitude is uncertain. Religion does not play a large role in the story, though we could look to the Bible’s tales of masculine dominance as the standard for the father to follow. Just as slave owners enjoyed envisioning themselves as fathers to the slaves, the father in this story uses patriarchal ideals to justify his treatment of his daughter. Slave owners would claim they were saving souls or making the savages civilized, or even that the slaves were happy. The father believed what he did was for his daughter’s own good, and her own happiness is dependent upon his. “The inquiry of her mother, if she had been happy, the tender and sweet reply was ‘Yes, --- because I saw that my dear father was so.” She cannot even be happy on her own, but must be an extension of her father. His memory of her does not even provide us with a name, which shows her lack of individualism, and his lack of love for her.
Death is the only escape made available to the daughter. The father, however, cannot accept her death. He guards over her body for the three days before the funeral. He then sleeps on top of her grave for ten days. The father refuses to allow his possession to leave him, and he becomes the guard. In fact, the father does not even acknowledge that his daughter is in heaven until the last paragraph of the story. Her body is in a coffin buried in the ground, which becomes the ultimate prison. Wherever her soul might have been, her body was still being held captive by the father.
“The Angel Over the Right Shoulder” is the story of a woman who wants freedom to pursue her own goals. Mrs. James is held captive by her vows of marriage and domesticity. We see early on in the story that she has some disappointment with her married life. “ ‘Don’t you wish you had never been married?’ said Mr. James, with a good natured laugh. ‘Yes’--- rose to her lips, but was checked by the group upon the floor...”(209) She is unwilling to answer in such a manner in front of her children, but the reader now knows that she regrets aspects of her life.
Mrs. James is a prisoner in her own house. Mrs. James does not even leave the house in the story. Her own servants are given more freedom in their escapades with the children or for food. Mr. James leaves for work, but poor Mrs. James, even when by herself, does not leave the house. She even “retired to her room and locked the door.”(210) She closes herself in even more while trying to flee.
Mrs. James’ family and servants are her jailers, making sure ƒher sentence is carried out in the house. Mr. James has the idea for Mrs. James to get a system going so that she might have some time for herself. He prevents her from her studies himself when he needs her to “come and sew a string on for me,”(210) and when he forgets to buy food for supper. The readers cannot see him as entirely bad, but he is referred to as “her liege lord,”(211) implying his mastery and her servitude. Her children also manage to interrupt, either in search of mittens(210) or “the kitties.”(212) Her children steal a lot of her time, but so do the servants, who just can’t seem to make their own decisions.
Mrs. James has friends who visit her while in jail. These friends can be seen as visitors who have the freedom that Mrs. James desires. “They had nothing better to do with their time, and when they went, others came.”(213) These friends are stealing her time and her freedom. She is able to see how green the grass must grow at their homes, whether they have no children, no husbands, or no servants. The reader is not told why so many of her friends have such freedom, but we can certainly see that Mrs. James would like what they have.
Mrs. James may be held captive be her physical jailers, but she is also forced into captivity by her duty. Her duty makes her not to tell Mr. James that she was sorry to have married him. She saw it as her duty to sew his shirt and help with the children. Her position in life makes it her duty to give orders to the servants. She must also entertain her friends. Society has deemed certain duties to be those of a woman, but furthering oneself in French and German are not part of those
duties. Mrs. James is aware that she cannot forget all of her duties in order to learn, but she feels she needs “To see some results from her life’s work.” She also wanted “some comforting assurance of what was duty.”(213)
Mrs. James has a dream that explains to her her duty through the use of religion. This dream is the most effective of the jailers because she is convinced that it shows her what God wants from her. The dream allows Mrs. James to see a woman (herself), followed by two angels, both males, who document her every deed. In the dream, the woman is unaware of the angels, but Mrs. James has knowledge of the jailers when she awakes. Her every action, after the dream, is not a result of free will, but of fear that the angels will tattle to God. Mrs. James realizes that furthering herself is of no consequence, and she is resolved to do her duty, the explicit care of her children. Mrs. James is aware that “The Angel over the Right Shoulder would go with her...”(215) She must also be aware that the other angel would be with him. Her home already a prison, religion would now keep Mrs. James shackled to her duty.
Cooke begins “Miss Lucinda” by revealing to the reader that it’s “a little story about a woman who could not be a heroine.”(350) We are forced to read a story in which the author already tells us to expect nothing extraordinary from the female lead. Miss Lucinda is practically a prisoner within her own story, destined to accomplish nothing more than expected.
Miss Lucinda’s father was a parson who “held rule over an obscure and quiet village...”(351) He, no doubt, held rule over his daughter as well. She became “the sweetest example of quiet goodness and industry.”(351) Like in “The Father,” Parson Manners tries to educate his daughter. He fails at teaching her Greek and Hebrew because of “the inferiority of the female mind,”(352) so she gets French instead. This may be taken as an insult to the French, (who must be used to it by now) but it is mainly an insult to all wom
en. Parson Manners controls what Miss Lucinda learns as well as how she feels about herself. Her petty annoyances with others implies that the parson also dictates her feelings for others.
Upon the death of her father, Miss Lucinda is sent to a little house to live. This house, like in “The Angel Over the Right Shoulder,” acts as a prison for the woman. Miss Lucinda is not confined to stay only inside the house, but this would be her prison nonetheless. The little house and garden are described in great detail so that we might see every inch of her imprisonment.
The house and the prison-yard do little for Miss Lucinda’s containment without the aid of numerous guards. We assume that domesticated animals belong to the human, but the opposite is true for Miss Lucinda. She eventually welcomes a pet pig as one pet who “could not tyrannize over her.”(358) Her other pets had all become jailers. Her dog “was so oppressively affectionate, that he could never leave his mistress alone... She would give her own chair to the cat, and sit on the settle herself; get up at midnight if a mew or a bark called her.”(358-359) Even before these guards, she had tyrannized by another dog, other kittens, an old blind crow, and a rooster with three chickens.
Even the pig joins in against his mistress, escaping from his sty when he gets very big. The book exclaims, “What a thing freedom is!--- how objectionable in practice! how splendid in theory!”(361) Piggy has escaped, and he is now master over Miss Lucinda, for she cannot combat his size. I saw this as a possible reference to the Civil War, which began the same year this story was published. The author says that “ ‘Hoggie’ burst his bonds.”(361) The story could easily imply that slaves, once freed, would now be the masters. Regardless of this fact, Miss Lucinda does become subservient to the pig in the scene, and she cannot rescue herself.
Miss Lucinda, even before Piggy’s escape, “like the rest of her sex, had been quite unable to do without some masculine help. “(356) She had tried using boys to help her, but she finally settled on a man. The fact that she cannot handle responsibilities on her own makes her his inferior. Monsieur Leclerc breaks his leg while helping Miss Lucinda with the pig. She pleads, “if only there was a man here!”(361) The man that she finds is just as ill-equipped to corral an 800 pound pig as she is, but the fact that she requires him makes him her superior.
Monsieur Leclerc is forced to stay with Miss Lucinda because of his broken bone. He in incarcerated in her home, but he enjoyed all the things she did for him. She takes care of him, like a good woman ought to, so “for the first time, he was at home and happy.”(363) Monsieur Leclerc not only becomes Miss Lucinda’s master , but he becomes master over her pets as well with “a few well-timed slaps.”(364) Leclerc also takes care of getting rid of the pig, doing what Miss Lucinda is unable to do. We even see how Monsieur Leclerc saves Miss Lucinda from embarrassment at his dance class, showing the reader again how helpless she is without a man.
Society itself is another prison guard for Miss Lucinda. She is not a woman of ill-repute like in some stories we have read, but she feels similar pressures from society. A woman of good-repute must always be careful as to not upset her reputation. Society may have determined that some of the jobs required for Miss Lucinda’s existence were not suited to a woman, regardless of how well she might do them. Truly, men are physically stronger, but women were not allowed to build strength of body nor mind without society looking down upon them.
Miss Lucinda shuns potential friends herself because of her ideas of the importance of manners in society. She makes herself the outcast of the true society in order to live in a society that does not exist in Dalton. She becomes her own prisoner, as well as society’s.
Religion nearly stops Miss Lucinda from marrying Monsieur Leclerc, but she is satisfied that he will convert. She is not a slave to religion, but the reader can see that she is its potential slave. She gives up whatever moral misgivings she might have against Leclerc so that she might have a man, for we all know that a woman is nothing without a man to rule over her. (These are Cooke’s views here)
In order to form a conclusion, I need to find a theme that unites all three of these 19th Century works. One might suspect that these are survival manuals for females, but one might be terribly wrong. None of the stories give any means by which a woman might better her own life without a man. The daughter in “The Father” does not exist without him. We are not given any ways in which she would be able to fight her domineering father. In “The Angel Over the Right Shoulder,” the Mrs. James cannot discover the secret of finding time for herself, and the text offers no solution. We see that less time for oneself is actually more appropriate because of duty. “Miss Lucinda” depicts a woman who lives on her own, but in unable to survive on her own. Her independence is wholly dependent on men.
I would ask myself, if I talked to myself, what purpose these works serve if not as survival manuals for women. The language does not imply protest or resistance, especially in “The Angel Over the Right Shoulder” and “Miss Lucinda.” I think we have been focusing on the wrong audience, though. These stories are, in my mind, geared toward the male of the species. The readers are never addressed as women, and “The Father” even has a male narrator.
They are guides to appropriate behavior by men. If a man is disgusted enough by “The Father,” he would not suffocate his own daughter in such a way. A man would learn how bad obsession is for himself, as well as for his unfortunate object. A man reading “The Angel Over the Right Shoulder” might strive to either help his wife with her duty, or at least understand her woes. The reader knows of Mrs. James disappointment, but Mr. James really does not. A man must take the responsibility for his wife’s furthering of herself, or she will never get it done. A man must also be able to take care of his wife, like in “Miss Lucinda.” His wife would be better off, however, if she was also able to take care of herself.
While reading these stories, men are forced to make decisions about themselves. Men must decide whether they agree with what the authors, and whether they intend to change. If the men are convinced to alter their own views, women would be more likely to acquire more power. Men were certainly at the top of the power structure, so an appeal to their sensibilities might have been as effective as an appeal to females. These stories do not attack men, so these men might be able to pay attention, and maybe even help make life better for the weaker (but generous grading) sex.