thesis FINAL kyjakova

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Masaryk University
Faculty of Arts
Department of English
and American Studies
English Language and Literature
Mgr. Martina Kyjaková
Depiction of Slavery in The Bondwoman’s
Narrative by Hannah Crafts
Master’s Diploma Thesis
Supervisor: Mgr. Martina Horáková, Ph. D.
2016
I declare that I have worked on this thesis independently,
using only the primary and secondary sources listed in the bibliography.
……………………………………………..
Author’s signature
I would like to thank my supervisor, Mgr. Martina Horáková for her advice, kind support, guidance and
thorough feedback.
Contents
1. Introduction ................................................................................................................................... 1
2. The Bondwoman’s Narrative and Its Background......................................................................... 3
2.1 Publication and Reception ....................................................................................................... 3
2.2. Authorship .............................................................................................................................. 5
2.3. Slavery in the late 19th Century America................................................................................ 8
3. Slave Narratives and Gothic Novels ............................................................................................ 11
3.1. Slave Narratives.................................................................................................................... 11
3.2. Gothic Novels ....................................................................................................................... 14
3.3 American Gothic ................................................................................................................... 17
3.4 The Bondwoman’s Narrative and its Genre .......................................................................... 18
3.4.1 The Bondwoman’s Narrative as a Slave Narrative ......................................................... 19
3.4.2. The Bondwoman’s Narrative as a Gothic Novel ........................................................... 27
3.4.3 The Bondwoman’s Narrative and American Gothic ...................................................... 33
4. Different Aspects of Slavery Discussed in The Bondwoman‘s Narrative ................................... 35
4.2. Slavery, Literacy and Knowledge ........................................................................................ 39
4.3. Slavery and Family ............................................................................................................... 41
4.5. Master-Slave Relationship.................................................................................................... 49
4.6. Slavery and Race .................................................................................................................. 53
5. Conclusion ................................................................................................................................... 59
6. Bibliography ................................................................................................................................ 65
Summary.......................................................................................................................................... 69
Resumé ............................................................................................................................................ 71
1. Introduction
“It may be that I assume too much responsibility in attempting to write these pages. The
world will probably say so and I am aware of my deficiencies. I am neither clever, nor
learned, nor talented” (Crafts 6). These are the first words of Hannah Crafts’ The
Bondwoman’s Narrative. Despite her modest claims, Crafts, a fugitive slave, wrote a
captivating novel that is a cross between a slave narrative and a Gothic novel and offers a
unique view of slavery.
The aim of this thesis is to explore how the Bondwoman’s Narrative depicts slavery.
As it’s already been mentioned, Crafts choses to work with elements of two different genres;
one authored by definition exclusively by African Americans, and the other one traditionally
by white writers. Also, the slave narratives’ aim was to contribute to abolition of slavery
while the latter focused mostly on amusing and scaring the reader. In short, Crafts combines
two genres that might seem incompatible at first glance.
By combining two genres, Crafts also combines two very different points of view
that are embedded in the genre conventions. Thanks to this multifocal perception, Crafts
presents a unique view of slavery in Northern America. Combining two kinds of tropes,
imagery and clichés in one novel results in a special blend that shows slavery from the
perspective of a female runaway house slave, who is well-read, extremely religious, strongly
aware of the social differences among the slaves and who stands on the border between the
masters and the slaves.
This thesis is divided into three parts. The first one describes the genesis of the novel
and the circumstances under which it was published such as when and by whom it was
discovered, how it was marketed, etc. It also includes some clarifications about slavery
1
around the 1850s when the book was written. The aim is not to provide a detailed picture,
but to clarify some concepts that the novel takes for granted, but which might not be familiar
to the contemporary reader.
The second part is based on the above-mentioned fact that Crafts mixes two different
narrative conventions to deliver the story of a fugitive slave. It examines the novel on the
background of genre conventions. However, the aim is not to establish its position in terms
of genre, but to unveil the major topics that Crafts relates to slavery.
The third part focuses on these major topics that emerged from the genre-based
analysis. They reveal the ways in which Crafts describes slavery; how she adheres to the
contemporary discourse on slavery and how she diverges from it. This part is in fact a deeper
exploration of some of the notions from the previous chapter.
This thesis focuses on depiction of slavery in The Bondwoman's Narrative. This is
done through examining the text from several points of view. The following chapters
explore how slavery was depicted in different contexts in this particular novel and how the
depictions differ from the conventions. But first, some bibliographical details of the book
are outlined and a few relevant contemporary concepts are presented.
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2. The Bondwoman’s Narrative and Its Background
Despite the fact that the manuscript was written in the mid-19th century, The Bondwoman’s
Narrative was only published relatively recently. This chapter focuses on the bibliographic
aspect of the novel; the first part describes the publication and reception and it also discusses
on the question of the authorship. Investigating bibliographical details of this novel is of
particular importance for the purposes of this thesis because it has been proven that it is
semi-autobiographical. The second part of this chapter presents some background
information about the American society of the time that is directly related to the plot and is
therefore necessary to understand it.
2.1 Publication and Reception
The manuscript was written in the late 1850s and it was published in 2002. Henry Louis
Gates points out in his “Preface” to the novel that the manuscript appeared at an auction in
2001 and was pointed out to him by a Howard University librarian and editor Dorothy Porter
Wesley even before then (Gates xi). Gates, a prominent academic and scholar of African
American studies, bought it for $8,500 and upon reading he concluded that “[i]t read like a
book that could have been written only by a black woman and a slave” (Gates xii) [emphasis
in the original]. As a result, he decided to investigate it in detail. It can be said that the novel
owes a lot for its popularity to Gates, who, as a renowned scholar, helped promote it in the
media as well as in the academic community.
Once Gates identified when the novel was written (it was indeed around the 1850s)
and who the owner of the author was, he published the narrative and it soon became a New
York Times bestseller. About a decade later, Gregg Hecimovich, another literary scholar,
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identified the author as Hannah Bond, born on Lewis Bond’s plantation and brought up to
be a house slave, just like the protagonist of the novel (xxxi-xxxiii). While Hecimovich’s
findings seem quite convincing, more space will be devoted to the question of authorship
later in this thesis.
Soon after its publication, the novel received a lot of attention from the media.
According to Paige Turner’s review, “[t]he buzz about this magnificent discovery began
with The New York Times front page article on November 11, 2001 and intensified when an
excerpt appeared in the February 18 & 25, 2002 issue of The New Yorker”. The New York
Times article, written by David Kirkpatrick, briefly outlines the history of the manuscript,
which is followed by a short paragraph on the authentication process. Kirkpatrick points out
that the manuscript would be published by Warner Books in April next year “as its most
prominent title of that season”. Therefore it can be concluded that the novel was heavily
promoted in the media and the publication was accompanied by marketing campaigns.
It seems that marketing the book as “the only known novel by a female African
American slave and possibly the first novel written by a black woman anywhere”, as its
back cover puts it, was successful enough to gain the book the status of bestseller. The
commercial success of the novel certainly helped incite the attention of the academic
community and apart from a number of papers on several aspects of the novel, a book of
critical essays on the topic titled In Search of Hannah Crafts was published as well.
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2.2. Authorship
The authorship and origins of Bondwoman’s Narrative have been unknown since its
publication. Thanks to its popularity, many scholars and enthusiasts saw the niche and tried
to discuss the question of authorship and find the mysterious author of the novel.
Earlier in this chapter it was mentioned that Gates immediately thought that the
novel was written by a person of color. The notion that the author was probably Black must
have come from Dorothy Wesley, who brought the book to Gates’ attention. Therefore,
when Gates first read the manuscript, it is possible that he was looking for confirmation of
this claim. Gates’ reasoning is not particularly transparent; he initially thought that the novel
read as if it was written by a black person (xii).
One of the most interesting essays published before the authorship was confirmed is
by Celeste-Marie Bernier and Judie Newman. They claim that consumer culture seeped into
literary studies and that “[t]he way the press approached The Bondwoman’s Narrative
exemplifies the process” (148-149). They point out that the appeal of the book is based
solely on the fact that Hannah Crafts is a black ex-slave and “its readers are expected to
value it according to the marginal and oppressed status of the author, her racial definition,
and the particularities of her life“(149). The article also draws attention to the fact that: “the
dominant question is ‘who was Hannah Crafts’, not ‘what can this manuscript tell us about
slavery?” or “what literary values does this book have?” (149). This was certainly the level
of research on the novel before the author was confirmed, therefore it can be said that the
scholarship on The Bondwoman’s Narrative was partly slowed down because the attempts
to find the author prevailed over literary and cultural analyses.
5
In addition to individual essays about the novel published in various journals, there
is another publication worth mentioning, In Search of Hannah Crafts: Critical Essays on
"The Bondwoman's Narrative” published in 2004. It contains essays by 22 scholars on
African-American studies. According to Laura Hauptman’s review in African American
Review, some scholars where troubled by “the main character’s snobbery over members of
her race” (389) and, as a result, suspected that the author was actually an abolitionist posing
as a Black author. However, Hauptman makes a very logical point: “paradoxically, this
outcome all but verifies the novel as the produce of a black author. Many essayists point out
that no white abolitionist writer would have allowed a slave to enjoy her servitude or to
subvert the plans of other slaves” (390). Consequently, looking down on other slaves, who
were of darker complexion, less literate, or had a less privileged position can actually be
seen as a proof of authenticity.
In the period between the first publication of the manuscript and 2013, when the
author was identified by Gregg Hecimovich, most of the essays focused on the identity of
the author, which was, according to Ballinger, Lustig and Towsend (211), among the biggest
selling points of the novel. Hecimovich admits that he was skeptical about the author being
a fugitive slave as it was “too good to be true” (xxii).He says that his skepticism was also
supported by other scholars, such as Nina Baym or R.J. Ellis, who “maintained that no
antebellum slave (…) could have possessed the literary skill to write a novel so notable for
its studied allusiveness” (Hecimovich xxii). Confirming the identity of the author was an
important event for the scholarship on the topic since it allowed the scholars to study other
aspects of the novel.
6
In his preface to the 2013 edition, Hecimovich explains how he, drawing on Gates’s
work, traced Hannah Crafts. Hecimovich started from the Wheeler family, whose name was
mentioned in the book as Hannah’s masters. He researched many archival records until he
found the Wheeler plantation owned by John Will Wheeler. The incidents mentioned in the
historical records corresponded to the events mentioned in Crafts’ novel. Moreover, the
connection between the location and the plantation is also confirmed by Wheeler’s residence
in Washington which is also mentioned in the novel. Hecimovich found out that the events
described in the manuscript also appear in the property deeds and Wheeler’s diary (xxxi).
He investigated historical records such as Wheeler’s diary as well as the correspondence
and notes by his nephew, John Wheeler, who had “a secret affiliation with other antislavery
members, precisely as he was interreacting daily with the Wheeler household, near the time
of Hannah Bond’s escape” (xxxii). In the end, Hecimovich pieced together Hannah Bond’s
life story and also “uncovered seven Wheeler-related slaves whose circumstances invited
consideration for authorship of the novel: Milly and Elisabeth Wheeler, Mary Burton,
Margaret Beale, Jane Johnson, Hannah Moore and Hannah Bond” (xxxiii), and he
concluded that the evidence points towards Hannah Bond as the author of The Bondwoman’s
Narrative, meaning that Hannah Crafts is a pen name chosen by the author. As a result, it
was confirmed that the author was a literate and well-read slave and the novel is
semiautobiographical.
Hecimovich argues that The Bondwoman’s Narrative is not only an amalgam of
historical facts and fiction. It also combines the events of Hannah Bond’s life with those of
her “slave sisters” (xxxiv), including the “second middle passage”, sexual abuse, and
attempted escape, which makes it “a portrait of the lives and times of a generation of
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enslaved people whose literary record Hannah Bond marks, uncovers, and vividly brings
back to life” (xxxiv).Therefore, exploring the depiction of slavery in this novel could also
contribute to the whole discourse about depiction of slavery in literature.
Another important notion in understanding The Bondwoman’s Narrative are the
textual borrowings that the author uses. In his preface, Hecimovich credits Hollis Robbins
for uncovering the borrowings from other authors, particularly Charles Dickens (xxxv). In
fact, the second section of In Search of Hannah Crafts: Critical Essays on "The
Bondwoman's Narrative”, titled “Rewriting the Canon”, focuses on the ways Hannah Crafts
rewrites other narratives. The most prominent essays by Hollis Robbins and Charlotte
Keyser both discuss The Bondwoman’s Narrative as a rewriting of Gothic novels, in
particular Bleak House by Charles Dickens and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë.
The 2014 edition of The Bondwoman’s Narrative contains an extensive list of textual
annotations that identify the textual borrowings in the novel. As it can be assumed that
Crafts gained her knowledge of literary classics in Wheelers’ library, the annotations also
specify whether or not the 1850 catalogue of John Hill Wheeler’s library contains the
specific title. Apart from the aforementioned texts, Crafts also quotes, paraphrases, or
alludes to Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra, Frederic Douglas’s slave narrative,
Wordsworth’s poems, the Bible, and Walter Scott’s Rob Roy.
2.3. Slavery in the late 19th Century America
It is very likely that the manuscript was written during the presidency of Franklin Pierce or
James Buchanan. While Pierce “believed the abolition movement threatened peace in the
United States” (Rumsch 12). Buchanan is described by Paul Finkelman as “unalterably
8
opposed to antislavery and black rights” (186). According to Finkelman, “some scholars
argue that he was the ultimate doughface – a northern man with southern principles – and
(...) one of the most proslavery politicians in the North” (186). Buchanan was succeeded by
Abraham Lincoln, who led the country through the Civil War and abolished slavery. In
order to maintain consistency with the recent findings about the novel, this thesis will only
consider the events that took place before the Civil War.
It is also noteworthy that even though many slaves were attempting to escape to the
North, some did not find their freedom there. One of the most widely discussed and
controversial laws passed around the time of the publication of the novel was The Fugitive
Slave Act of 1850. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, it imposed penalties upon
authorities who refused to enforce it and individuals who aided slaves in their escape and it
made it impossible for slaves to testify on their behalf. Therefore, it is important to
remember that even in the North, a runaway slave was not safe, particularly if their
appearances could betray them.
Another law that is of crucial importance in the plot of The Bondwoman’s Narrative
is Partus sequitur ventrem, also known as the partus law. Simply put, it established “that
the status of the child derives from its mother” (Morris 43). This goes against the English
civil law, however, as Morris points out that the partus law has roots in the property law
(43).The partus law serves as a basis of various events that take place in the novel.
It is also important to clarify the double perception of slaves as people and as
property. Morris points out that “the permission to use the force against slaves was secured
as well by the claim that the slave was property. Such a claim involved a legally backed
right to use ‘property’ in certain ways. It also involved rights to transfer the slave to someone
9
else, and to name someone to succeed to the ownership on the death of the owner.” (1-2). It
is crucial to remember that in terms of law, a slave was an object of property. Morris notes
that “people assume that there is some discrete collection of laws that we can identify as
specific to slaves and that we can call the law of slavery” which is not entirely correct. They
were mostly thought of as property and therefore, they were considered under property law.
Apart from being property, slaves were also considered as human beings in some
aspects: “[T]he slaves’ humanity even conditioned or altered the application of legal rules
of property that were not specific to them. But it was as human beings subject to the
protection of the law, as well as to its commands and the commands of their owners, that
the slaves’ humanity was most evident. This was especially true when a slave was dealt with
as a victim or a perpetrator of a crime or misbehavior” (Morris 2). Naturally this double
status of slaves created tensions not only on the legal, but also on many other levels. For
example, it was connected to the mistreatment of slaves who were thought of as property
and therefore dehumanized. A concrete example of this is a slave owner selling his children
that were born to a slave mother; these were slaves by law and therefore it as possible to sell
them as property.
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3. Slave Narratives and Gothic Novels
The aim of this chapter is to briefly outline the characteristics of slave narratives and Gothic
novels and to position The Bondwoman’s Narrative on a scale between the two genres in
order to reveal how this narrative depicts slavery on the background of two different
discourses. The Bondwoman’s Narrative represents an overlap of these two different genres
as the author describes the story of a fugitive slave using remarkably Gothic themes and
imagery. The key characteristics that are presented serve as a basis for the final section
chapter that discusses The Bondwoman’s Narrative’s features in terms of Gothic fiction and
slave narratives. The primary goal of this chapter is not to establish what the genre of The
Bondwoman’s Narrative is, but to use the characteristics of both genres to explore the ways
how this novel deals with slavery.
3.1. Slave Narratives
According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, a slave narrative is “an account of the life, or a
major portion of the life, of a fugitive or former slave, either written or orally related by the
slave personally.” James Olney points out that if one should read a couple of slave
narratives, “a sense of not uniqueness but of overwhelming sameness is almost certain to be
the result” (46). Olney also argues that even though many slave narratives claim to be
autobiographies and hardly ever mention that “it is memory that, in the recollecting and
retelling of events, effects ‘emplotment’ (47-48); the events are seen from a temporal
distance and made into a plot. Olney therefore concludes that “the slave narrative is most
often a non-memorial description fitted to a pre-formed mold, … virtually obligatory
figures, scenes, turns of phrase, observances and authentications” (49) Therefore similarity
to other slave narrative is a crucial aspect of any representative of the genre.
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According to Olney, one of the distinguishing marks of a slave narrative is a
remarkable number of appendices (drawings, engravings, letters, newspaper clippings) the
aim of which is to support the authenticity of the text. Olney presents a master outline for
slave narratives that he constructs based on a large number of slave narratives. It is as
follows:
A.
An engraved portrait, signed by the narrator
B.
A title page that includes the claim, as in integral part of the title ...
C.
A handful of testimonials and/or one or more prefaces or
introductions written by either a white abolitionist friend of the narrator or
by a white amanuensis/editor/author actually responsible for the text ...in
which the reader is told the narrative is a “plain, unvarnished tale”
D.
A poetic epigraph, ...
E.
The actual narrative:
1.
A first sentence beginning, (I was born), then specifying a place but
not a date of birth;
2.
A sketchy account of parentage, often involving a white father;
3.
Description of a cruel master, mistress, or overseer, details of first
observed whipping and numerous subsequent whippings, with women very
frequently the victims;
4.
An account of one extraordinarily strong, hardworking slave ...
5.
Record of the barriers raised against slave literacy and the
overwhelming difficulties encountered in learning to read and write;
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6.
Description of a “Christian” slaveholder (often of one such dying in
terror) and accompanying the claim that “Christian” slaveholders are
invariably worse than those profession no religion;
7.
Description of the amounts and kinds of food and clothing given to
slave, the work required of them, the pattern of a day, a week, a year;
8.
Account of a slave auction, of families being separated and destroyed
...
9.
Description of patrols, of failed attempts(s) to escape of pursuit by
men and dogs;
10.
Description of successful attempt(s) to escape, lying by during the
day, travelling by night guided by the North Star, reception in a free state by
Quakers ...
11.
Taking of a new last name (frequently suggested by a white
abolitionist) to accord with new social identity as a free man, but retention
of first name as a mark of continuity of individual identity;
12.
Reflections on slavery
F.
An appendix or appendices composed of documentary material –
bills of sale, details of purchase from slavery ... (6-7)
Slave narratives’ aim is to depict and present the injustices of slavery and the authenticity
of the manuscript is a crucial element: it proves that the author experienced slavery and
knows it from the inside and that what they say is a true and unaltered image of the reality.
This is not only highlighted in the text of the narrative itself, but also in the abundance of
appendices, annexes, and other metatexts that prove that the author was indeed a slave.
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The Bondwoman’s Narrative seems to fulfill many of the points above, however, it
cannot be considered as a pure slave narrative. While it does include many metatexts, these
have been added decades after the manuscript was written. This might be due to the fact that
the novel was found as a manuscript, not ready to be published and the text had not been
appended. The features of slave narratives that appear in the novel are discussed further in
the thesis. Slave narratives provided a framework and a tradition that Hannah Crafts worked
with. However, she was a very well-read person and another genre that she took interest in
were Gothic novels.
3.2. Gothic Novels
Encyclopaedia Brittanica defines Gothic novel as “European Romantic, pseudomedieval
fiction having a prevailing atmosphere of mystery and terror.” In some aspects, Gothic
novels seem to be the exact opposite to slave narratives. While the latter strive to prove
authenticity and veracity of what they are describing, the former are on the verge of reality,
incorporating mysterious events or even supernatural beings into the plot. The Castle of
Otranto by Horace Walpole is typically credited as the first Gothic novels and it also sets
up many of the Gothic tropes. In his Dictionary, Cuddon sums up the general feature of
Gothic narratives as follows:
Most Gothic novels are tales of mystery and horror, intended to chill the
spine and curdle the blood. They contain a strong element of the supernatural
and have all or most of the now familiar topography, sites, props, presences
and happenings: wild and desolate landscapes, dark forests, ruined abbeys,
feudal halls and medieval castles with dungeons, secret passages, winding
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stairways, oubliettes, sliding panels and torture chambers; monstrous
apparitions and curses; a stupefying atmosphere of doom and gloom; heroes
and heroines in the direst of imaginable straits, wicked tyrants, malevolent
witches, demonic powers of unspeakably hideous aspect and a proper
complement of spooky effects and clanking spectres” (355)
These elements contribute to the gloomy and terrifying character of Gothic fiction.
Possibly the clearest combination of these images that is applicable to The Bondwoman’s
Narrative is a young woman entrapped by a wicked tyrant. The atmosphere of gloom and
the ever-present conscience of the possibility of being tied to someone or somewhere creates
a strong link between slave narratives and Gothic fiction. These particular tropes; however
are based on more abstract and general notions that help create what we know as a Gothic
narrative. Such as the Other.
The key concept for understanding Gothic narratives is the Other. As Bienstock
Anolik puts it, often “Gothic fear is relocated onto the figure of the racial and social Other,
the Other who replaces the supernatural ghost or grotesque monster as the code for mystery
and danger ...” (2). For The Bondwoman’s Narrative, the Other is represented by slaves who
are different and therefore seem threatening to the white population. They are different
because they have different culture, different social standing as well as different traditions
and language. These differences are perceived by the whites as deviation from the norm and
deviations are often thought of as harmful and dangerous, threatening to the conformity.
Connected to the concept of Other is the abject, another key feature of Gothic fiction.
According to Julia Kristeva, the abject is “what disturbs identity, system, order. What does
not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite” (4). In
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the Bondwoman’s Narrative, the institution of slavery represents the abject. The slaves are
people, but at the same time they are property; their roots are in a culture that came from
another continent but had been mixing with the local beliefs for many years. They transgress
borders. Mixed-race slaves transgress and disrupt the boundaries of race and class.
Therefore, it is safe to say that slavery fits well with the Gothic tropes.
In his essay “The Nature of Gothic”, John Ruskin presents the main elements of the
Gothic in relation to the buildings: savageness, changefulness, naturalism, grotesqueness,
rigidity and redundance (5). He also translates these “as belonging to the builder”: “1.
Savageness or Rudeness. 2. Love of Change. 3. Love of Nature. 4. Disturbed Imagination.
5. Obstinacy. 6. Generosity” (5). He points out that “the withdrawal of any one or any two,
will not at once destroy the Gothic character of a building, but the removal of a majority of
them will” (6). This can also be applied to novels: removal of one of the Gothic features
does not make it less Gothic; it is the general atmosphere that matters.
While Gothic stories do not seem to have a set structure like slave narratives, there
are some storytelling devices that they prefer to use. One of these is a particular horrorinducing subtext: “One common subtextual element in horror literature is the embedded
tale, a story within-a-story that poses events and characters as interpretation of the frame
story” (Snodgrass 329). The inclusion of an embedded story provides a great chance to
present a particularly haunting tale, possibly verging with the supernatural, without the
responsibility for its truthfulness; since it is told by a different character; the narrator is
distanced from the tale therefore their reliability is not compromised, but the reader still
perceives a terrifying story.
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3.3 American Gothic
While slave narratives strive to prove that they are a truthful, unaltered description of reality,
Gothic narratives deliberately situate the story on the boundary between reality and fantasy.
However, these two genres come together in American Gothic. Goddu points out that
“Anglo-American Gothic tradition [is] rooted in slavery” (“African American Slave
Narrative” 73). She makes an important observation that “represented as a house of bondage
replete with evil villains and helpless victims, vexed bloodlines and stolen birthrights, brutal
punishments and spectacular suffering, cruel tyranny and horrifying terror, slavery reads as
a Gothic romance” (72). Therefore, it seems that American Gothic is the perfect genre to
capture slavery in writing.
Goddu, however, points out that this combination has its ups and downs. “On the
one hand, the Gothic’s powerful metaphors could unveil slavery’s horrors, making them
strikingly visible. On the other, by recasting history in the terms of a familiar fiction, the
Gothic had the potential to dematerialize those horrors by turning an historical reality into
an imaginative effect” (“African American Slave Narrative”, 72). In other words,
integrating Gothic elements into descriptions of slavery might address wider audience and
help spread the message, but it might also cause the readers to distance themselves from
slavery as something fictitious, far from reality. Moreover, blurring the borders between
fiction and reality can mean that the audience, possibly unaware – or reluctant to be aware
– of the horrors of slavery might classify the real events as too brutal, too cruel to be true
and perceive them as fiction, something that the author made up to make the story more
captivating.
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American Gothic was intertwined with slavery since its very beginnings. According
to Goddu, “the relationship between slavery’s Gothic history and the Atlantic world’s
Gothic fictions, … was mutually constituted. If Gothic fiction relied on slavery’s actualities
for its tropes and terror, slavery’s cultural meanings were shaped through the Gothic within
public discourse” (“African American Slave Narrative” 72). As a result, there are very few
mentions of slavery in British Gothic, but abundance of slave motifs in the American
variety. It should be noted, however, that Hannah Crafts could have been influenced by
both; as it will be discussed in detail later in this chapter, she clearly drew not only on the
tradition of slave narratives, but also on classic British Gothic works such as Bleak House,
an often cited representative of Urban Gothic.
3.4 The Bondwoman’s Narrative and its Genre
Now that the key aspects of slave narratives and Gothic fiction have been outlined, the way
in which The Bondwoman’s Narrative works with both types of characteristics can be
explored. One could argue that since slave narratives have an intrinsic Gothic characteristics
inscribed in their very nature, the novel could simply be read as a slave narrative. On the
other hand, one might say that American Gothic often includes depictions of slavery and
therefore the narrative in question can be perceived as a representative of American Gothic.
However, the aim of this chapter is to present The Bondwoman’s Narrative as a mixture of
the two genres.
It has already been mentioned that the aim of slave narratives was to present the
injustices of slavery from the inside, as seen by the slaves themselves, so it can be said that
they pursue a political goal. Gothic narratives, in contrast, rarely aim for socio-political
18
change; often, they seem to serve entertainment purposes and while some of them do depict
lower social strata, slavery, or entrapped women, they hardly ever have political goals
similar to slave narratives. Therefore The Bondwoman’s Narrative should be analyzed in
terms
of
the
two
separate
genres
before
the
thesis
proceeds
further.
3.4.1 The Bondwoman’s Narrative as a Slave Narrative
The interpretation of The Bondwoman’s Narrative as a slave narrative stems mainly from
its semi-autobiographic features. According to Hecimovich’s findings, many events
described in the novel overlap with real historical events. For example, Hannah Bond
“escaped in May from the Wheeler family plantation outside Murfreesboro after her
demotion and removal to slave huts, just as Hannah Crafts does in her novel” (xxxii).
However, Hecimovich also admits that the narrative has “power of imaginative art and the
alchemy of fact and fiction” and therefore might not be faithful to the reality in every detail
(xxxiv).
The narrative therefore partly fulfills the above-mentioned definition by
Encyclopaedia Brittanica; it certainly is an account of a fugitive slave, in this case written
by the author herself. Upon reading the novel, the sense of similarity with other slave
narratives is quite clear. Similarly to other slave narratives, The Bondwoman’s Narrative
seems to be written from a temporal distance; however, it hardly ever mentions the
possibility of the author’s memory failing, nor does it admit that other slave narratives
possibly served as a mold. It could be said that this novel, similarly to other representatives
of the genre, insists on its authenticity and truthfulness.
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Crafts herself claims in her preface to the novel that she presents a “record of plain
unvarnished facts” (3) and that “being the truth it makes no pretensions to romance, and
relating events as they occurred it has no especial reference to a moral, but to those who
regard truth as stranger than fiction it can be no less interesting” (3). Crafts thus overtly
claims that her narrative is unembellished truth; however, she does worry that she might not
have captured the true essence of slavery: “Have I succeeded in portraying any of the
peculiar features of that institution whose curse rests over the fairest land the sun shined
upon? Have I succeeded in showing how it blights the happiness of the white as well as the
black race?”(3) This therefore shows a diversion from the usual slave narrative narrator that
claims to be reliable; the narrator still declares that the events described are true to reality,
but she undermines her reliability by claiming she might be incapable of describing slavery
accurately.
Another interesting parallel between The Bondwoman’s Narrative and other slave
narratives is the presence of testimonials, prefaces and/or introductions preceding the
narrative. Olney points out that these are usually written by a white abolitionist or editor
responsible for the text (7). The aim of these seems to be to confirm the authenticity of the
text and the fact that the author was indeed a former slave. In this novel, this is only partly
the case. Since the narrative was not published soon after it was written, it remained without
a preface. However, when it was first published in 2002, an introduction by Henry Louis
Gates was added. After the investigation revealed the author in 2012, Gregg Hecimovich
also added a preface detailing his research on the authorship. Therefore, Crafts’ narrative
again simultaneously fits into the slave narrative mold and breaks it; it does contain a preface
and an introduction that prepare the reader for the text, confirm the authenticity of the events
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described and even testify that the author was a former slave. However, these are not
provided by the author, but by the editor and other researchers that explored the manuscript.
Another feature typical for slave narratives that Olney mentions is that they usually
have an epigraph before the text itself. In The Bondwoman’s Narrative, an epigraph or two
appear in the beginning of every chapter. The vast majority of the quotes come from the
Bible and are somehow related to slavery, entrapment, or succumbing to God’s will. The
presence of epigraphs does not have any particular relationship to the depiction of slavery,
however, it again proves the inspiration by slave narratives.
Regarding the structure of the text of the narrative itself, there are many overlaps
between The Bondwoman’s Narrative and the list provided by Olney. Similarly to the other
texts of the genre, Crafts begins her narrative with an account of her childhood. She does
not, however, mention where she was born or who her ancestors were. Instead, she begins
with an overly humble meditation on how the absence of upbringing caused her intellectual
inferiority: “I am neither clever, nor learned, nor talented. When a child they used to scold
and find fault with me because they said I was dull and stupid. Perhaps under other
circumstances ... I might have appeared better” (Crafts 5). Therefore, Crafts’ expressing her
clumsiness and stupidity could be understood as a denunciation of slavery that stops children
from developing their talents.
The narrator also points out that early in life, she observed the injustices of slavery:
”No one ever spoke of my father or mother, but I soon learned what a curse was attached to
my race, soon learned that the African blood in my veins would exclude me from the higher
walks of life” (6). The narrator claims that this was particularly hard for her, since her
“complexion was almost white, and the obnoxious descent could not easily be traced” (6).
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Her white complexion was most likely caused by the effects of partus law mentioned in the
previous chapter. This connection between slavery and race is certainly interesting and will
be mentioned in one of the following chapters.
Crafts also sticks to the slave narrative structure by writing about a cruel master and
an unjust torture of a female slave. Sir Clifford, Hannah's first master, used an old linden
tree to torture his slaves: "Slaves had been tied to its trunk to be whipped or sometimes
gibbeted on its branches. On such occasions, Sir Clifford sitting at the windows of his
drawing room, within the full sight and hearing of their agonies would drink wine, or coolly
discuss the politics of the day ... pausing perhaps in the midst of the sentence to give
directions to the executioner" (21). This way, Crafts introduces a cruel master who coldbloodedly tortures his slaves, following the slave narrative tradition.
In continuation, and in accord with Olney’s points, Crafts gives a specific, and very
powerful example of his cruelty when she describes how he tortures an old female slave,
"who had been a nurse to his son and heir, and was treated with unusual consideration by
the family in consequence" (21). The master has her tied to the linden tree and leaves here
there to die simply because she refused to kill her beloved dog gifted to her by her deceased
daughter. With this image, Crafts highlights not only the irrational cruelty of the master, but
she also touches upon another important topic: how slavery destroys family bonds. In this
case, the family bonds are represented by the dog that was a gift from a mother to a daughter.
The old slave dies and leaves the linden haunted, its creaking scares the inhabitants of the
house, thus creating a Gothic element. So Crafts uses a slave narrative item that is intensified
by a Gothic element.
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Next on Olney’s list is “An account of one extraordinarily strong, hardworking
slave” (6). Here, the narrative diverges from the slave narrative pattern and Crafts does not
depict any particularly hard-working slave. This might be because Crafts did not hold
manual work in high regard. As will be shown later, in the chapter on slavery and race,
Crafts distinguished social differences in slaves that she highlights several times in the
novel. As a result, Crafts presents her unfavorable opinion of slaves who do manual work
on the field and rather than diligence, she prefers other criteria such as good manners, deep
faith in God, etc.
The complicated journey to literacy, another point in Olney’s list, appears early in
the novel. In fact, in Crafts’ narration it is presented in the first chapter, prior to any details
of the slave life, so it is anachronic with regard to the above-mentioned list. Crafts was
taught to read and write by an elderly couple of poor immigrants from the North who lived
nearby. She notes that they did not only taught her to write, but also: “They cultivated my
moral nature. They led me to the foot of the Cross” (10). So in this aspect, Crafts does adhere
to slave narrative features, but she also reveals more; for her, literacy is also connected to
moral improvement and faith.
Crafts does not mention a Christian slaveholder who is more cruel than a nonreligious one. Depicting the hypocrisy of southern slaveholders who praised Christianity,
but often used it to justify slavery rather than exercise humanity, is quite common in slave
narratives. For example, Frederick Douglass in his Narrative of the Life of Frederick
Douglass says that being religious made his master more bloodthirsty because religion
helped him justify his cruelty. The lack of such events in The Bondwoman’s Narrative could
be due to the fact that Crafts is a strong believer herself and as has already been mentioned,
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she sees religion as a natural companion to good manners, morality and literacy. Therefore
in this aspect, Craft diverges from slave narratives and presents her own perception of
Christianity in connection to slavery.
Slave narratives also frequently detail the daily routine, the kinds of work performed
and kinds of foods and clothes provided. In this point, Crafts again rejects the slave-narrative
conventions and chooses not to put a lot of emphasis on this information, even when she
provides some glimpses of it. This might be because as a house slave, she never had to
endure a lack of food or appropriate clothes and therefore might not have a basis to complain
about these. It can be said that this aspect of slavery is largely neglected in The
Bondwoman’s Narrative and a bigger relevance is given to non-material aspects of the
peculiar institution, such as the lack of access to knowledge or faith or impossibility of
maintaining lasting relationships.
Another slave narrative trope is a slave auction. This trope is usually used to present
that slaves are treated as property and that the slave trade is dehumanizing and degrading.
Crafts transforms the slave auction into a truly Gothic incident. In the most intense slave
auction scene of the novel, Mr. Cosgrove sells his mistresses with their children that he
fathered and helped bring up. At the beginning of the auction, his three or four-year-old son
exclaims: “Why pa you won’t sell, will you? You said that I was your darling and little
man” (182). Almost immediately after that, one of the slave mistresses takes a knife and
stabs her infant and then herself because for her, death is better than life in slavery. This
represents another example of a slave narrative trope being turned into a Gothic moment;
this emotional image of death of a mother and a child pushes the text beyond the boundaries
of a slave narrative. Crafts creates a terrifying, Gothic, effect and uses its power to reiterate
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the horrors of slavery. At the same time, she points to slavery breaking family bonds and
causing immoral behavior.
Description of failed pursuits to escape follows in Olney’s list. They usually depict
the hardships encountered on the way and the obstacles that prevented the narrator from
running to freedom. The main character of The Bondwoman’s Narrative also endures such
a journey when she runs away with her previous mistress. After Hannah’s master gets
married, it turns out that the bride, a new mistress to Hannah, is in fact a daughter of a slave
and therefore a slave herself. When Hannah finds out, she suggests that they run away
together. Their journey is filled with fear of those searching for them as well as fear of the
future. The two women get lost and find refuge in an abandoned cabin that is haunted, which
drives the former mistress to insanity. In the end, they are found and imprisoned and when
the mistress finds out that the captor is in fact Mr. Trappe who had been haunting her due
to her secret, she dies of horror. This is another instance of Crafts bringing events to the
extreme. She reiterates her point that death is actually preferable to slavery and compares it
to a prison by placing the character into an actual prison. As a result, one can observe that
the narrator implies that slavery is hard to escape and many do not manage to free
themselves and die in the process.
Description of a successful escape is an essential part of every slave narrative, since
they are usually written by run-away slaves. Crafts’ version is again peppered with Gothic
scenes and incredible coincidences. She runs away from the Wheelers after she is reassigned
to work in the fields and given to a field slave to be his wife. Hannah wears man’s clothes
and passes for a wandering white boy. She meets a pair of fugitive slaves, siblings, who
both die in the course of the journey. She also encounters Aunt Hetty, the old woman who
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taught her to read as a child, and who provides her with the funds to buy a boat ride to New
Jersey. Prior to the boat journey, Hannah follows the North Star, just like the other fugitive
slaves. The author also uses this journey to freedom as an opportunity to reiterate her points,
such as slavery harming both blacks and whites (Mr. Trappe, a slave dealer, dies by the hand
of one of his newly acquired slaves), slavery being worse than death (fugitive slaves would
rather die than surrender to slave hunters) and the importance of faith and literacy (Aunt
Hetty helping along the way).
Olney also highlights acquiring a new name as a symbol of a new identity as a free
person and final reflections of slavery that usually conclude a slave narrative. In the case of
The Bondwoman’s Narrative, the story ends differently. On the boat to the North, Hannah
learns that one of her former oppressors, Mr. Trappe, died. In the final chapter of the book,
the narrator describes her new life in freedom: she sets up her own school for colored
children, marries a Methodist preacher and she even happens to meet her mother, who ran
North soon after Hannah was born. Therefore the finale of the narrative shares a positive
ending with other slave narratives. Crafts decides to highlight her happiness and her
contribution to society rather than anything else.
Finally, according to Olney’s description, a slave narrative is followed by
documentary material such as bills of sale, etc. With these, the situation is similar to the
prefaces and introductions: initially, they were not added since only the manuscript of The
Bondwoman’s Narrative was found. However, the first and second published versions do
include appendices. The 2014 edition includes extensive textual annotations, an
authentication report by a historical-document examiner, a testimony of Jane Johnson,
Crafts’ fellow slave at the Wheeler’s, and John Hill Wheeler’s Library catalogue. These
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documents also support the claim that the events described really happened, the narration
is authentic and that slavery is described accurately.
In conclusion, The Bondwoman’s Narrative is similar to slave narratives in its
contents as well as in the structure. Moreover, the novel also carries a clear political message
and aspires to present to the readers the horrors of slavery and reasons for abolishing it, just
like the other slave narratives. It is quite clear that the author takes some of the classis tropes
of the genre (cruel master, slave auctions, sexual abuse, torture, etc.) and gives them an
exaggerated, Gothic twist.
3.4.2. The Bondwoman’s Narrative as a Gothic Novel
The narrative’s Gothic character is very likely related to author’s fondness of Gothic stories
as well as their popularity at the time when the manuscript was written. Moreover, when
considering that American Gothic has very close ties to slavery, and therefore the Gothic
character is almost unavoidable. However, in addition to the nature of slavery itself
(bondage, torture, entrapment, etc.), Crafts also includes other features that are characteristic
of Gothic tales, such as apparitions, events taking place at night, haunted houses, hidden
rooms, a mysterious painting, and so on.
As stated in one of the previous paragraphs, the most obvious Gothic trope that
appears in The Bondwoman’s Narrative is the entrapment of a woman by a male tyrant. This
can be perceived on several levels: first, the physical bond of slavery; second, the spiritual
entrapment imposed by slavery; and finally, an actual imprisonment of Hannah and her
mistress by a slaveholder.
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The physical imprisonment of slaves is obvious. Slaves are the property of their
master and as Hannah says about her first master, “practically he regarded them not as men
and women, but in the same light as horses or other domestic animals” (Crafts 6). The
depictions of physical bondage in this book also become more concrete, for example the
above-mentioned incident of tying an old nanny to a tree, or hiding slave mistresses in
locked rooms. Crafts clearly presents slavery as a physical as well as a psychological
imprisonment.
As it has already been mentioned, Crafts seems to place less emphasis on the
physical matters and leans towards discussing the philosophical aspects of slavery. At the
beginning of the first chapter, she voices her preoccupation about the constraints of slavery:
“I soon learned what a curse was attached to my race, soon learned that the African blood
in my veins would forever exclude me from the higher walks of life. That toil unremitted
unpaid toil must be my lot and portion, without even the hope or expectation of any thing
better” (6). Crafts also adds another Gothic, supernatural element, a curse, to explain the
impact that the slavery has on her and her people. She highlights that slavery does not only
mean physical bondage, but it also prevents people from ascending to higher moral, or social
levels.
The literal imprisonment of Hannah and her former mistress in chapter 6 is also
connected to Crafts’ portrayal of slavery. She and her former mistress are on the run from
the first owner and staying in a haunted cabin in the woods when hunters find then and
transport them to prison. The description of the prison they enter provides a very Gothic
image of a torture cell-like room:
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It was a small, but strong guard room, from which a narrow stair case led
upwards, and two low entrances conducted to cells or apartments on the
ground floor, all secured with the tyrant strength of bolts and bars. The bleak
walls otherwise bare were not unsuitably furnished with iron fetters, and
other uncouth implements, designed for still more inhuman purposes,
interspersed with bowie knives, guns, pistols, and other weapons of offence
and defence. (Crafts 78)
Incidentally, this description is almost a verbatim copy of Walter Scott’s Rob Roy, as noted
in the “Textual Annotations” section of the novel. More importantly, Crafts uses this
haunting image as a starting point for a reflection on the injustices of slavery; she wonders
why it is that despite not having committed a crime, and due to a “mere accident of birth”
(79), they are imprisoned in a country “celebrated throughout the world for the freedom,
equality, and magnanimity of its laws“ (78). Here, the prison could be a metaphor for the
institution of slavery in general; Crafts declares that it is arbitrary and unfair.
The Other, a key concept in Gothic fiction, is also depicted with a particular twist.
Gothic tales were typically written by white writers and therefore, to them, slaves and
slavery were the Other. In The Bondwoman’s Narrative, however, the author/narrator is a
slave and therefore speaks from the position of the Other. For Hannah, it is not the slaves,
but an immoral man, an evil black-clad slave trader, Mr. Trappe, who is demonized as the
Other. Goddu notes that the blackness that is traditionally connected to the Other is reversed
in this case: “While Trappe’s ‘blackness’ trades on Gothic tropes that racialize evil, Crafts
rewrites this typical association by using it to demonise a wealthy white man rather than a
black slave” (“American Gothic” 68).Crafts therefore bends another Gothic trope to work
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in her favor; her judgements are based on moral values rather than skin color, as she clearly
marks Mr. Trappe as the immoral Other that transgresses the boundary of human decency.
Kristeva’s concept of the abject also relates to depictions of slavery in The
Bondwoman’s Narrative. It has already been established that in this novel, slavery is the
abject. It is a status of being both property, therefore bound, and a person therefore free.
Slavery also caused situations out of the ordinary, for example when a father sells his
children and their mother simply because slavery allows him to (Crafts 182-183). Slavery
is therefore presented as unnatural and therefore haunting the lives of both blacks and
whites, both the oppressors and the oppressed.
Similarly to many other Gothic novels, Crafts’ narrative also incorporates a storyinside-a-story into the plot. Usually, these embedded stories allow the writers to include
particularly terrifying scenes, especially if they are told by a character inside the story and
therefore they do not compromise narrator’s credibility. In the case of The Bondwoman’s
Narrative, the main character happens to meet Lizzy, a slave who worked with her at
Lindendale, where the story started. Lizzy announces that her new master is mentally
unstable, moody and “haunted” (176) and then proceeds to narrate a two-chapter story.
The story describes Mr. Cosgrove, who “took a fancy to beautiful female slaves. He
preferred those who were accomplished in music and dancing, and no Turk in his haram
ever luxuriated in deeper sensual enjoyments” (177). When his wife finds out, she makes
him sell all his mistresses together with their children that he had been bringing up. During
the slave auction, one of the mistresses stabs the infant in her arms and then herself with a
butcher’s knife. As explained in the “Textual Annotations”, this might be an echo of the
most famous infanticide of the period by Margaret Garner in 1956 that was also the
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inspiration for Tony Morrison’s Beloved. The story was widely discussed and it is very
likely that Crafts knew it (297-298). Here, Crafts uses a true event and retells it in a Gothic
manner to denounce slavery as an institution that is Gothic by nature.
Apart from the above mentioned key Gothic features, the story is also laced with
Gothic imagery: from haunted places and paintings, through nocturnal imagery, spectres
from the past, images of torture and madness, the proximity of dead corpses, to gloomy
rooms. In the following paragraphs some examples of these are presented and related to
Crafts’ presentation of slavery.
A very representative example of a combination of Gothic features appears when
Hannah and her mistress run away from Hannah’s first master. They find an empty cabin in
the woods and stay there for some time. However, the cabin does not provide as much safety
as they thought. Hannah recollects:
I had a long thought that the cabin had been the theatre of a fearful crime,
and subsequent discoveries tended to confirm this opinion. There was a dark
deep stain on the floor that I could not divest from the idea of blood, and
when we removed the straw in the corner the spears were matted and felted
together as if blood had been spilt over and then dried upon them. Removing
the bundle of clothes we found a hatchet, with hair yet sticking to the heft,
and while searching for berries discovered the remains of a human skeleton
which the dogs and vultures had disentombed. (Crafts 68)
This terrifying dwelling haunts Hannah’s mistress and drives her to madness. At first, she
simply misinterprets the sounds of the nature: “The sounds of the night she interpreted into
utterances from the unseen world, and the shadows flitting across her path she regarded as
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things of eternity made visible“(68). Later, her madness progresses and she “fancied herself
pursued by an invisible being, who sought to devour her flesh and crush her bones. She
would scream with affright, and crouching to the earth point with her finger to the dreadful
creation of her distempered fancy” (69). When the women are discovered by hunters, they
find out that “it is said that a beautiful girl was once murdered here, and that the place is
haunted” (71). In another Gothic novel, staying in a haunted cabin might have been a simple
means of achieving a gloomy atmosphere without a deeper purpose. However, here, the two
characters can’t leave despite their wishes, because of the obstacles created by slavery: their
clothes are torn and they know they can’t ask for help without their identity being revealed
and ending up at a slave auction. Therefore, Crafts again makes use of Gothic tropes to
intensify her narrative and bring the story closer to the readers by using familiar imagery.
Another noteworthy Gothic scene also bundles a variety of characteristic features.
What is more, it also represents their repetitiveness. When Hannah runs from her last master,
Mr. Wheeler, she meets a couple of runaway slaves, a brother and a sister. The sister is
feverish and delirious, so the brother finds an abandoned cottage and Hannah helps. The
sister dies and the brother leaves to find some berries for supper, leaving Hannah with the
corpse. Here, Hannah resumes the position of her mistress in the above-mentioned scene
and gets spooked by the darkness and proximity of a dead body:
I retreated to my hut in which the sad wreck of mortality lay stark, stiff, and
immovable. Was it the presence of death, or that my nerves were weak and
agitates, but a great and unaccountable terror seized me. I shuddered in every
limb, great drops of sweat started to my forehead, and I cowered down in the
corner like a guilty thing. ... Mutterings, chatterings, and sounds of fearful
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import echoes through the gloom. Owls shrieked tediously to which was
added the dismal howling of wolves. Then the corpse seemed to leer horridly,
to gibe and beckon and point its skinny fingers towards me. (Crafts 228)
The similarity of this scene and the previous one is striking: both take place at night, there
is a corpse present and the sounds of the night start to drive the character insane. While in
the first occurrence Hannah was a mere observer, in this one, she is the one affected by the
apparitions. The scene is ultimately Gothic and aimed to scare the reader. In this moment,
one might forget about the ultimate aim of the book and focus on the pure spookiness of the
text. However, perhaps by repeating the scene, Crafts aims to remind her audience of the
horrors of slavery and present them like a nightmare come true.
This scene also illustrates that Crafts insists on incorporating Gothic elements as
often as possible on every level. Apart from scenes that are similar, she frequently uses
vocabulary related to the Gothic atmosphere like “gloom”, “fear”, “haunt”, “tortured”, etc.
As illustrated above, there is a clear preference for all things and situations Gothic; however,
after each Gothic section Crafts returns to her slave-narrative-like plot, reinforcing the bond
between slavery and Gothic features.
3.4.3 The Bondwoman’s Narrative and American Gothic
It has already been discussed that while slavery reads as Gothic, presenting it within Gothic
discourse might decrease the credibility of the author/narrator and thus defeat the purpose
of this novel. In the case of The Bondwoman’s Narrative, slavery is not narrated as a purely
Gothic story; Crafts consciously employs some well-known characteristics of slave
narratives in order to eliminate the loss of credibility caused by the Gothic elements.
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Goddu argues that often the Gothic character was imposed on slave narratives as it
served to make the stories more palatable for the white audience: “The Gothic functioned
much like the ‘white envelope’ ... that encompasses most slave narratives: it provided the
framework to make the stories intelligible. Writing within their culture’s conventionalized
representations of slavery, slave narrators were obliged to tell their story in similar terms”
(“American Gothic” 73). In the case of The Bondwoman’s Narrative, however, it is quite
clear that the Gothic aspect of a slave narrative is taken to the extreme, in comparison with
other slave narratives. Based on the above-mentioned examples as well as the fact that the
author cites various Gothic novels almost verbatim, it can be argued that the Gothic
character is not imposed and accepted reluctantly, but employed with abundance and
enthusiasm.
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4. Different Aspects of Slavery Discussed in The Bondwoman‘s Narrative
Having discussed the depiction of slavery in the context of two literary genres, the thesis
now proceeds to explore the key topics such as family, friendship, faith, race or womanhood
to reveal how Crafts describes the “peculiar institution”.
4.1 Slavery and Faith
For Crafts, faith has an utmost importance in her everyday life. As it has already been
mentioned, she acquired religion together with literacy at a young age from her poor white
neighbors. After she narrates how she became religious, she makes the following
observation: “What a blessing it is that faith, and hope, and love, are universal in their nature
and operation – that poor as well as rich, bond as well as free are susceptible to their pleasing
influences, and contain within themselves a treasure of consolation for all the ills of life”
(11-12). Therefore for Crafts, faith is an equalizing element; it is available to all the people
and they are equal in God’s eyes. This equalizing power of faith can be compared to the
medieval topos that highlighted the equalizing power of death; this foreshadows how Crafts
blurs the boundary between the slaves and the free people later in the novel. Here, Crafts
finds another way of denouncing the inequality created by slavery and declaring that all
people are equal through faith.
Faith helps Hannah overcome many of the hardships that are brought around by
slavery. When in need, she often turns to religion for consolation. For example, when she
and her mistress run away from her first master, they get lost at night and Hannah recites
the Bible to her friend to soothe her:
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At first she was painfully awake, and would start and shudder at the least
sound. I well knew the soothing and comforting influences to be derived
from reading portion of the Holy Scriptures, in times of trouble and
affliction, and so commenced repeating many beautiful passages from the
Psalms. (55)
When they are trapped in a prison, a rat bites Hannah in the face while she is asleep, which
terrifies her and immediately after that, her last candle burns out, leaving her in the dark.
Hannah is scared to death, but again seeks refuge in the Bible:
… a cold sweat rose to my forehead, and I trembled with excess of nervous
agitation, when a voice seemed to whisper to my soul ‘God’ and
immediately, like light breaking in the darkness I felt a comforting a
heavenly assurance of his protection and presence. (…) These and the like
consoling passages of Scripture strengthened and supported me. Then I
thought of our Saviour and his agony and drew comfort from the assurance
of his dying love. (82)
Thus for Hannah, a house slave, faith is a supporting pillar that she turns to in the times of
need. It supports her through her journey to freedom and she turns to God for comforting
thoughts during the moments of desperation. It helps her endure the injustice and cruelty of
slavery.
Another point that Crafts makes is connected to the above-mentioned equalizing
power of religion. Crafts voices this notion through a slave trader when the main character
herself is being sold and Mr. Trappe assures the buyer that she is “the best tempered in the
world, kind, trusty, and religious” (108). Saddler, the potential buyer, replies:
36
I hardly think religion would do her much good, or make her more
subservient to the wishes of my employers. On the whole I should prefer that
she wasn’t religious, because religion is so apt to make people stubborn; it
gives them such notions of duty, and that one thing is right and another is
wrong; it sets them up so, you’ll even hear them telling that all mankind are
made of one blood, and equal in the sight of God. (108-109)
Crafts therefore expresses, even though through a negative character, that religion and faith
can help slaves keep their integrity and dignity, despite all the injustices imposed by the
system and the slave-owners. Moreover, later in the scene, Hannah even feels sorry for the
atheist man: “I felt that my condition for eternity, if not for time, was perferable [sic] to his,
and that I would not even for the blessed boon of freedom change places with him; since
even freedom without God and religion would be a barren possession” (112). It seems that
in this case, Crafts claims religion is more important than freedom as it offers a person
dignity and integrity and freedom without God would be unbearable.
On the other hand, when Hannah gets to a religious slave-owner she appreciates that
the master instructs his slaves in religion; however, she notes that they are too low key for
her taste: “The appeals to heaven though not characterized by much grace and elegance of
diction were nevertheless earnest and fervid, and I doubt not that they found a place in the
vial of odours which the angel in the apocalypse offered before the Throne of God” (142).
Here, one can see a strong contrast with Olney’s list of slave narratives’ conventions from
the previous chapter: usually, the slave narratives portray the Christian masters as the most
bloodthirsty, but Crafts presents this master as a kind man who tries to spread religion
among his slaves as much as he can. On the contrary, she despises the non-religious masters.
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Finally, Hannah also uses her faith in God as a justification for running away from
her master. When she’s contemplating her escape, she writes: “[had the mistress sold me or
punished me] I should probably have resigned myself with apparent composure. But when
she sought to force me into a compulsory union with a man whom I could only hat and
despise it seemed that rebellion would be a virtue, that duty to myself and my God actually
required it …” (212). Here, it is clear that Hannah hesitates between her desire of freedom
– and protection of her virginity against an out-of-wedlock intercourse –and the Christian
recommendation to turn the other cheek and being meek and obedient, but in the end she
chooses the former option, claiming that it is God’s will.
After Hannah makes this decision, she seeks further confirmation in the Bible. “I
opened it as chance directed but immediately at the place where Jacob fled from his brother
Esau. The sceptic may smile, but for me it had a deep and peculiar meaning. ‘Yes’ I mentally
exclaimed. Trusting the God that guided and protected him I will abandon this house’”
(213). Hannah thus bases her final decision on the Bible. When she feels desperate about
the bleak outlook of her escape, she remembers a passage from the Bible: “I confess the
way looked dark, the scheme almost hopeless, but I remembered the Hebrew Children and
Daniel in the Lion’s den, and felt that God could protect and preserve me through all.” (214)
Therefore for Hannah, religion plays a crucial role in her decision to flee from her master
and seek freedom in the North; when she first learns about her new position, she uses
religion to justify her right to refuse and then, she seeks encouragement for her journey.
On the other hand, Crafts does not omit the fact that religion was sometimes used to
hold the slaves back and scare them into obedience. During her second escape, she asks a
dying slave whether she ever prays and she answers: “I have heard them, when they called
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it praying (…) Ministers used to come among us and pray, but I never minded them, They
mostly prayed that we slaves might be good and obedient, and feel grateful for all our
blessings, which I know was fudge. It hardened my heart, I could not bear it” (226). This
can be read as a condemnation of those masters who use religion to ensure that their slaves
are obedient and Crafts presents this misuse of religion as the negative way of relating
religion and slavery.
In conclusion, Crafts depicts religion and faith as a very important part of Hannah’s
life. It helps her overcome the hardest moments of slavery such as the haunting night journey
or imprisonment. She turns to Bible for comfort and reassurance. What is more, it also offers
an ideological foundation: it helps slaves maintain some dignity and spiritual life. It also
provides some egalitarian ideas that can blur the moral boundaries between the bond and
the free: for Crafts, being a religious slave is preferable to being an atheist free person. In
the end, she relies on Bible to give her the final sign to flee and the moral strength to pursue
her goal. Crafts implies that being religious can help the slaves deal with the effect of slavery
and it also might encourage them to try and gain their freedom.
4.2. Slavery, Literacy and Knowledge
It’s already been mentioned in the previous chapter that acquiring literacy is a crucial part
of many slave narratives. In fact, Robert Stepto identifies “freedom and literacy as the
dominant issue set forth in the narratives, cast in the form of a quest from enslavement to
liberation. Acquiring literacy skills became for enslaved people a vehicle to obtain freedom”
(qtd. in Rae Connor 37). This is also the case for The Bondwoman’s Narrative; Crafts gives
particular importance to literacy and relates it to slavery in a typical slave narrative fashion.
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Hannah acquires literacy together with religion; however, throughout the narrative,
she repeatedly mentions religion and hardly ever seems to appreciate the fact that she is able
to read and write, unlike many other slaves. She only mentions the acquisition of knowledge
and literacy twice: in the first and in the last chapter. It seems that she takes literacy for
granted, given that she lives in the house, where literacy is common, and not with the field
slaves.
The first mention appears at the beginning of the book when Hannah describes her
desire for knowledge and how it was fulfilled. She presents herself as a child eager to be
taught: “I would quietly steal away (…) to ponder over the pages of some old book or
newspaper that chance had thrown [my] way. Though I knew not the meaning of a single
letter (…) I loved to look at them and think that some day I should probably understand
them all” (7). Later, when the abolitionist couple starts to educate her, she provides the
following contrasting images: “Sometimes in the evening when the other slaves were
enjoying the banjo and the dance I would steal away to hold sweet converse with them [the
elderly couple] (10). This could be read in two ways: either Hannah describes herself
abstaining from the simple joys in favor of education and in line with the religious notions
of asceticism, or she thinks of herself as special and different from all the other slaves. In
any case, she manages to learn to read and therefore gains a great advantage over the slaves
who are illiterate.
The final chapter, in which Hannah lives in New Jersey as a free woman, depicts
how important education and literacy has been for Hannah. She says: “I dwell now in a neat
little Cottage, and keep a school for colored children. It is well attended, and I enjoy myself
almost as well in imparting knowledge to others, as I did in obtaining it when a child myself”
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(244). Even though she chooses to highlight the pleasure of learning over its importance,
the fact that she chooses to set up a school proves that she regards knowledge and literacy
as essential, particularly for the “colored” children.
In the novel, knowledge and literacy are not emphasized as often as religion,
however, they are still considered to be of utmost importance for the slave population. This
lack of emphasis might be due to the fact that the novel is only partly a slave narrative; and
the author did not feel the need to persuade her audience about this particular point. Crafts
depicts literacy as one of the factors that helped her endure the journey to freedom and she
chooses to devote her life to educating children. Therefore, it is presented as very useful for
those who want to gain their freedom and it also opens the path towards religion.
4.3. Slavery and Family
Another concept that the novel works with in relation to slavery is family. The narrator often
points out the importance of family and how it is often destroyed by slavery. The destruction
of family is one of the many abominable effects of slavery. This aspect is one of the most
highlighted notions in the novel; the narrator repeatedly depicts scenes of breaking up a
Black family to reiterate her point and she also often uses Gothic elements to highlight its
haunting aspect.
The first mention of family appears very early in the novel when Hannah says: “I
was not brought up by any body in particular that I know of. (…) Of my relatives I knew
nothing. No one ever spoke of my father or mother” (5-6). Here, Hannah accuses slavery of
robbing her of parents and thus her whole childhood, since no one cared about her until she
was old enough to work. When she starts meeting the elderly couple who teach her to read
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and pray, she thinks of them as a substitution for family and feels grateful: “I should have
thanked her for so much kindness, and such expressions of motherly interest” (8-9). She
calls them Uncle Siah and Aunt Hetty. Hannah thus makes the best pf her circumstances
and creates a family based on an emotional connection rather than a family bond.
Hannah reveals her thoughts about marriage in slavery during a wedding ceremony
at the Henrys where their house slave marries a slave from the neighboring estate. The
celebration is joyous and quite lavish; however, Hannah wonders if slave marriages are to
be celebrated:
I gazed at them and wondered if they were really happy – wondered if no
dark shadows of coming evil never haunted their minds. Then I thought of
the young couple, who had so recently taken the vows and incurred the
responsibilities of marriage – vows and responsibilities strangely fearful
when taken in connection with their servile condition.(…) Did they
anticipate domestic felicity, and long years of wedded love: when their
lives, their limbs, their very souls were subject to the control of another’s
will; when the husband could not be at liberty to provide a home for his
wife, not the wife b permitted to attend to the wants of her husband, and
when living apart in a state of separate bondage they could only meet
occasionally at best, and the might be decreed without a moment’s warning
to never meet again. (123)
Soon, Hannah’s concerns come true: the husband is sold far away and the couple decides
to flee. Crafts therefore claims that if one is not free and cannot exercise free will, marriage
and consequently family is a very fragile enterprise. As she puts it: “Marriage like many
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other blessings I considered to be especially designed for the free and something that all
the victims of slavery should avoid as tending essentially to perpetuate that system” (212).
Therefore Crafts argues that slaves should not get married because that is a privilege of the
free people. Apart from the fact that marriage is only suitable for the free, Hannah also
mentions another crucial aspect of having a family, children.
Another reason why Hannah advises against slave marriages it that is perpetuates
the system of enslaving people. “The greatest curse of slavery is its hereditary character.
The father leaves to his son an inheritance of toil and misery, and his place of the fetid
straw in the miserable corner, with no hope or possibility of anything better” (205). That is
why Hannah decides to set an example: “I had spurned domestic ties not because my heart
was hard, but because it was my unalterable resolution never to entail slavery on any human
being” (213). Crafts therefore points out that slavery has a corrosive effect on families: it
causes disintegration and having children while being a slave can actually bolster slavery.
Only after she becomes a free woman does Hannah recover the family ties. She
meets her mother who had abandoned her as a child and she also gets married. As she has
power over her body and soul now, she is also free to create and maintain family
relationships that slavery had made impossible to her as a slave. In the last chapter of the
novel, Hannah leads a happy family life; however, curiously, she does not mention having
children of her own. This might be either due to the fact that she in fact did not have
children at the time of writing the novel, or it can be caused by the author’s focus on her
own life rather than anyone else’s; that explains the lack of focus on her husband and
children.
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Crafts also highlights the disruptive power of slavery in illegitimate families,
particularly in cases when a white man, usually the owner, fathers a slave’s child. Even if
both parties tried, such family could not be formed and sustained because the woman and
the child are the man’s property and he can therefore control them and they have no word
in their own future. Crafts illustrates this in the previously mentioned scene where a father,
a slave-owner, brings up his children and is affectionate towards the multiple mothers of
his children. However, when his legitimate wife comes back, she makes him sell all his
mistresses and their children. This scene has a particularly Gothic touch when, the emotions
are agitated with a small boy begging his father not to sell him and his mother and then a
mother stabbing her infant and herself (182). Later, the wife discovers another of his
husband’s lovers with her children and she forces her out of the house hoping that she dies
outside (188). Through this story, Crafts explains that family cannot function even if only
one of the members is a slave. This is because personal and legal freedom is essential for
getting married and starting a family.
4.4. Slavery and Womanhood
Even though Crafts hardly ever overtly mentions the different effects of slavery on men
and women, they are strongly implied in many of the incidents described. What is more,
The Bondwoman’s Narrative can be considered a women-centered narrative: the main
character is female and the narrator prefers to focus on the female characters rather than
the male ones.
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In the preface to her book, Winter compares the conditions of women and slaves in
the 19th century as depicted in Gothic novels and slave narratives, and she find many
parallels:
Both genres focus on the sexual politics at the heart of patriarchal culture,
and both represent the terrifying aspects of life for women in a patriarchal
culture. Furthermore, the two genres are remarkably similar in imagery
structure, and social analysis. Nineteenth-century black woman’s narratives
both complement and challenge social analysis articulated in white women’s
Gothic novels because they combine strident attacks on the patriarchal order
with incisive critiques of white women’s racism and classism. (13)
She points out that in the period when Gothic narratives became popular, a full-fledged
system of slavery emerged in the South and that “the exploitation was based primarily on
race and secondarily on gender” (3). Indeed, the effects of slavery that female slaves had
to endure were quite different from those suffered by men.
The fact that the women slaves inevitably made their children slaves as well has
already been discussed. However, it has to be mentioned that many of those children had
a white father, often the mother’s owner. Curiously, Crafts – unlike many female slave
narrators – does not openly mention sexual exploitation of female slaves. Instead, she
depicts sexual encounters between master and his slaves in Gothic, exoticizing terms,
presenting the slaves as a luxurious harem:
Our master … took a great fancy to beautiful female slaves. He preferred
those who were accomplished in music and dancing, and no Turk in his
haram ever luxuriated in deeper sensual moments than did the master of
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Lindendale. More than one of these favorites gave birth to children and the
little ones were caressed and petted by their father with all imaginable
fondness. (Crafts 177)
Even though this harem of beautiful slave women could easily be described within the
discourse of sexual exploitation of slaves and rape, Crafts decides to use it for different
purposes: firstly, to demonstrate the impossibility of family within slavery and secondly,
she depicts the wife’s jealousy of the beautiful slaves who were able to bear a child, which
is something that his wife, Mrs. Cosgrove, did not achieve: “Mrs Cosgrove had never been
a mother. To jealousy in the bosom her fiercest feeling of envy united” (186) Here, Crafts
avoids the usual depiction of sexual exploitation in favor of depicting jealousy and the
influence of slavery on dynamics of marriage.
In slave narratives, the mistress usually vents her jealousy on the slave, often by
whipping or requiring her to perform some particularly difficult tasks. In this case, the
initial fit of anger is projected onto the young slave mistress: "Seizing the young mother
by the hair she dragged her to the floor" (186). However, when she calms down, she feels
compassion with the slave:
That she had made up her mind to some stern resolve was evident, though
the nature of this it might be difficult to determine. She was a woman after
all, and the heart of the proudest and sternest woman has a touch of
weakness, if that which moves to compassion can be so termed…Then too,
the pale creature kneeling so meek and supplicant before her, her low
pleading tones, her mute glances towards her children and the infants
themselves, in their tiny helplessness appealing to every feeling and
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sentiment of generosity in a manner not to be entirely withstood by any
heart retaining a vestige of humanity. (187)
So Mrs. Cosgrove, unlike the other slave owner’s wives who were betrayed by their
husbands, feels compassion towards a young girl with a child and decides to discuss the
issue with her husband rather than flog the girl.
Mrs Cosgrove's way of dealing with jealousy is reiterated when she talks to her
husband: "You are rich enough yet, and have plenty of these human cattle... I tell you again
as I told you before I will not suffer these creatures about the house, and no woman with
the least particle of honor, or womanly feeling would"(190). Here, all sympathies towards
Mrs. Cosgrove disappear. However, the important fact is that the wife is depicted as
discussing the sexual exploitation of the slaves with the one who initiates such liaisons,
rather than the usually defenseless object of aggression. As it has been said before, this is
very uncharacteristic of slave narratives. As a house slave, Crafts could easily overhear
such conversations and therefore she was able to present them in the novel. The way Crafts
depicts the helplessness of the victim and the compassion of the wife indicates that Crafts
wants to explore and explain the nature of the relationship between the Black and white
women at different positions and maybe even offer a suggestion of how to deal with
unfaithful husbands who sexually abuse their slaves.
Later in the story, Crafts depicts Mrs. Wheeler as having less compassion than Mrs.
Cosgove. After she accuses Hannah of gossiping about her, she decides to send her to work
to the fields and marry a field slave: “Those brutalized creatures in the cabins are fit
companions for one so vile. You can heard with them. Bill, who comes here sometimes has
seen and admires you. In fact, he asked you of Mr. Wheeler for his wife, and his wife you
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shall be” (210). For Hannah, this sentence to marriage is devastating, naturally: “most
horrible of all doomed to association with the vile, foul, filthy inhabitants of the huts, and
condemned to receive one of them for my husband my soul actually revolted with horror
unspeakable. I had ever regarded marriage as a holy ordinance, and felt that its
responsibilities could only suitably discharged when voluntarily assumed” (211). This
impending forced marriage goes against all Hannah’s principles discussed above: it is
among slaves, against her will, against religion and it could potentially produce offspring
who would be enslaved. Therefore Mrs. Wheeler represents a mistress that dehumanizes
her slaves and lacks any female solidarity.
Even though she does not idealize female relationships, Hannah clearly prefers
female companionship. For example, she was taught to read by a couple, but she only
mentions the man a few times and clearly prefers to talk about Aunt Hetty: “I still visited
Aunt Hetty, and enjoyed the benefits of her gracious counsels. Seated by the clear wood
fire she was always busy …, while her aged companion sat socially by her side” (12).
Towards the end of the novel, on her final journey to freedom, she meets Aunt Hetty and
only mentions briefly that Uncle Siah died (235). Hannah herself admits that she prefers
female companions. When she is on the run, she does disguise as a boy; however, she tries
to avoid men as much as possible:
I always made it a point to call at the houses at such times as I thought the
men would be probably absent in the fields or on business; I was not long in
discovering that the females were far less inquisitive and curious about my
affairs, besides being more gentle and considerate then the sterner sex.
Indeed had no males belonged to the house I should not have hesitated a
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moment to throw myself on the compassion and generosity of the noble
woman whom I just left. (219)
Hannah is used to mostly female company as there seem to have been mostly female house
slaves in the households where she previously worked and this might partly be why she
feels more comfortable among women. Despite the ambiguous relationship between
mistresses and female slaves, Crafts seems to believe that there can be some compassion
and empathy in this relationship and that sometimes the slaves can seek refuge with the
“more gentle and considerable” sex.
In conclusion, Crafts describes the particular effects of slavery on women: how they
suffer, how they bring their children into slavery just by bringing them to life and how they
are separated from their loved ones. She also describes the complicated relationship
between female slaves and their mistresses. And finally, she presents women as those who
help the running slaves in need.
4.5. Master-Slave Relationship
Master-slave relationships are often one of the foci of slave narratives. In The
Bondwoman’s Narrative, Crafts adds her own twist to this relationship and at one point her
mistress becomes a fellow fugitive slave. Apart from this, she also describes good and bad
masters as well as the attitudes of slaves towards their owners.
The relationship between the slave and his master is often an important factor in
slave’s decision to run away. In The Bondwoman’s Narrative alone, there is always a
breaking point of extreme injustice or cruelty that makes the slave make up their mind
about fleeing. Hannah decides to run away from her last master when she is sent to live in
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the huts, work the field, and marry one of the field slaves; out of which the latter seems to
be harshest punishment, as has been discussed before. Hannah says: “Had Mrs. Wheeler
condemned me to the severest corporeal punishment, or exposed me to be sold in public
slave market in Wilmington I should probably have resigned myself with apparent
composure to her cruel behests” (212). Here, Hannah says almost openly, that she would
be willing to withstand almost any punishment or exploitation but the one she received;
she would have remained a slave until an exceptionally unjust master would cause her
extraordinary pain.
Hannah also depicts a phenomenon that is might seem somewhat counterintuitive
for regular slave narratives: loyalty of slaves towards their masters. When Charlotte, a slave
at the Henrys, runs away because her husband from the neighboring estate is to be sold far
from her, she invites Hannah to run away with them; however, Hannah refuses due to her
loyalty to her owners:
I could not lightly sacrifise the good opinion of Mrs. Henry and her family,
who had been so very kind to me, nor seem to participate in a scheme, of
which the consummation must be an injury to them no less than a source of
disquiet and anxiety. (147)
And later when Mrs. Henry tells her she will be given away, Hannah implores her to keep
as a slave: “I have an inexpressible desire to stay with you. You are so good, accomplished
and Christian-like, could I only have the happiness to be your slave, your servant… “(129).
Here, Crafts confirms what we concluded previously; that if the master is good and kind,
the live of a slave is vastly improved and chances of him running are slim. In fact, some
slaves – like Hannah – may prefer staying with a kind master to running away since the
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journey was very likely to end in death or in being captured and resold to a potentially
worse owner.
Apart from presenting a good and a bad master, The Bondwoman’s Narrative also
depicts a fairly unique situation when Hannah’s mistress becomes her fellow fugitive slave.
Soon after Hanna’s bachelor master marries a seemingly wealthy woman, her secret is
unveiled. The bride reveals to Hannah that she was brought up as a free woman; however,
one day she discovered that her mother was a slave and therefore, due to the partus law,
she is a slave too. In a truly Gothic fashion, her dark secret is personified in Mr. Trappe
who haunts her constantly. Once the mistress reveals her secret to Hannah, she also claims
that she is no longer her mistress: “Call me mistress no longer. Henceforth you shall be to
me as a very dear sister” (49). Despite that, Hannah always refers to her as mistress and
she feels sorry for her.
When Hannah and her mistress are on the run, Hannah seemingly remains in the
position of a slave: she gathers berries and helps her mistress, but at the same time, she
leads the way, comes up with new plans such as trying to pass for “poor women who
became accidentally lost” (58) and assumes responsibility for securing food and shelter.
So here, even though formally, Hannah maintains the master-slave division, she actually
becomes the leader and proves that slavery made her stronger and helped her learn some
survival skills necessary for the journey.
Crafts also touches upon another phenomenon that is fairly unique and specific to
her position as a house slave; as a house slave, she spent a vast majority of her time with
her masters, serving them, listening to their conversations, learning their secrets. The house
slaves in particular seem to be in touch with both the masters’ and the slaves’ world, as
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Hannah puts it: “It was our priviledge to look and listen” (29). Some masters use them as
their confidants, while others see them as a constant threat and a reminder that their secrets
are never safe.
This is illustrated by the aftermath of the “blackface” incident. While in
Washington, Mrs. Wheeler plans to attend a party that would help her husband ascend
politically and for this occasion, she purchases a new face powder. However, as the night
passes, her powder reacts with the contents of her smelling bottle and turns completely
black, which earns her a few insults from her dinner companions. Mrs. Wheeler is terrified
and ashamed by the incident and soon, the rumor spreads across the town. As the family is
leaves for North Carolina, the mistress expresses that she is anxious about the rumor
spreading there as well. She tells Hannah: “when you get to my place in North Carolina
that you don’t dare to mention that – that – that – … You needn’t make a merit of that as
much as to say Mrs Wheeler has a secret I am keeping it for her, and she is much obliged,
and bound to be thankful, indulgent and what not” (200). In short, Mrs Wheeler worries
that the news about her unfortunate incident will spread beyond Washington.
But in the end, the embarrassing secret is revealed in North Carolina. When
Mrs. Wheeler finds out, she is furious and blames Hannah: “You have disobeyed my
positive commands, exposed me to the derision of my slaves, and made my name the
subject of neighborhood scandal. Fool that I was to have ever retained such a viper in my
family” (208). The fact that Hannah has such power over her makes the mistress very
anxious and as soon as there is the slightest hint that Hannah leaked the information, the
mistress opts for a very harsh punishment: moving Hannah to slave huts. With this incident,
Crafts depicts an often-neglected aspect of master-slave relationship; it is one of the few
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situations when a slave has some power over the master, which results in masters being
overly cautious and giving the severest punishments as soon as there is a shadow of doubt
over a slave’s loyalty.
4.6. Slavery and Race
There are several aspects in which Crafts relates slavery and race. Firstly, this section
discusses how race is depicted in the novel and how it relates to slavery. Then, some issues
of race within the slave community are discussed. It is important to mention that slavery is
closely linked to race; however, several events in this novel show that in the 1850s
recognizing a slave solely based on color of the skin was impossible and both Hannah and
her first mistress-turned-slave make use of that fact.
It has already been mentioned that Hannah was very light skinned for a slave. As
she puts it herself: “my complexion was almost white, and the obnoxious descent could not
be easily traced” (6). Moreover, she could pass for a white boy when she was running from
the Wheelers. The narrator emphasizes that race resides not in skin color, but in the
“African blood that would exclude [Hannah] from the higher walks of life” (6) and which
she says ”gave a rotundity to my person, a wave and curl to my hair, and perhaps led me
to fancy pictorial illustrations and flaming colors” (6).
She further reiterates the point that it is the “African blood” that differentiates black
people from white when she describes her first mistress who later turns out to be a slave:
“I did not see, but I felt that there was a mystery, something indefinable about her. She was
a small brown woman, with a profusion of wavy curly hair, large bright eyes, and delicate
features with the exception of her lips which were too large, full, and red”(27). This
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description seems to hint that the woman might be a mulatto, however, Hannah never
voices this suspicion and she is surprised when the secret is revealed. Unlike in the case of
Hannah, the narrator does not attribute any special race-related characteristics to the
mistress.
As a side note, Hannah’s mistress seems to be a variation on the “tragic mulatto”
trope that was widely used at the time, particularly by white writers (Fabi 2). The tragic
mulatto was depicted as a
light skinned woman as the offspring of a white slaveholder and his black
female slave. This mulatto's life was indeed tragic. She was ignorant of both
her mother's race and her own. She believed herself to be white and free. Her
heart was pure, her manners impeccable, her language polished, and her face
beautiful. Her father died; her "negro blood" discovered, she was remanded
to slavery, deserted by her white lover, and died a victim of slavery and white
male violence. (Pilgrim n.d.)
This description fits Hannah’s mistress almost perfectly and relates her race to her fate as
a slave. At the same time, the appearance of this character confirms that the author was
influenced not only by slave narratives, but also by writing by white authors and this had
an impact of her depiction of race.
Another topic that resurfaces in the novel is that the slaves are not a uniform group
and there are striking differences between the “slave classes”, which are often connected
to skin color. For example, the narrator mentions a slave named Lizzy: “She was a
Quadroon, almost white, with delicate hands and feet, and a person that any lady in the
land might have been proud of. She came, she said of a good family (…)” (33) and that
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“good blood was an inheritance to them” (34). In her descriptions, the reader can perceive
that her "almost whiteness" is somehow related to her "good family, education and great
beauty" (34). However, Hannah remarks to her that her heritage means nothing if she
remains a slave: “I smiled and said it mattered little” (33).
The notion that lighter skin hue cannot be relied on reappears towards the end of
the novel. When the mistress suspects that Hannah revealed her secret, she shrieks: “With
all your pretty airs and your white face, you are nothing but a slave after all, and no better
than the blackest wench” (210) There seems to be a previous assumption that bi-racial
slaves are somehow better than the “full black” ones that the mistress acquired previously
and now she is finding all the slaves are the same. Hannah thus loses her apparent whiteness
in the eyes of her mistress and she retires to weep and reflect on her situation. “Accused of
a crime of which I was innocent, my reputation with my Mistress blackened, and most
horrible of all doomed to association with the vile, foul, filthy inhabitants of the huts”(210211). While the use of word “blackened” might be purely metaphorical, it can also be read
more literally since Hannah is moved from the predominantly “white” environment of the
house to the “black” slave huts.
The slave huts are a home to the lowest stratum of slave society, the field slaves.
Hannah seems to have a very negative opinion of them as she calls them “vile, foul, filthy”
(211) and “promiscuous crowds of dirty, obscene and degraded objects” (213). Crafts
herself depicts the house slaves as being better that the field slave: “… the family residence
was stocked with slaves of a higher and nobler order than those belonging to fields. They
were better dressed, better provided and better looking” (207). The field slaves are depicted
as malicious and almost animal-like: “They regarded me curiously as I entered, grinned
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with malicious satisfaction that I had been brought down to their level, and made some
remarks at my expense; while the children kicked, and yelled, and clawed each other,
scratching each other’s faces, and pulling each other’s hair…”(215). Crafts also points out
that they are hardly aware of their humanity: “Degradation, neglect, and ill treatment had
wrought on them its legitimate effects. All day they toil beneath the burning sun, scarcely
conscious that any link exists between themselves and other portions of the human race.
Their mental condition is briefly summed up in the phrase that they know nothing” (206).
For this, Crafts blames the ill treatment by the owners and overseers.
The main character only spends one day in this society, therefore it is quite clear
that Crafts wanted to mention them briefly, possibly to provide a full picture, but she did
not wish Hannah to permeate into their social structure or try and understand them. What
we get are fairly superficial depictions of evil, dirty and morally corrupt crowd. While this
is not quite in line with slave narrative conventions, it allows Crafts to showcase her ability
to depict slavery through terrifying Gothic imagery.
Later in the novel, the reader can find a depiction of a person not unlike that of the
two above. Here, the narrator describes the overseer and it is noteworthy that the African
features are exaggerated to form a very unfavorable picture: “He was a short thick-set bigheaded man, with a countenance grossly sensual and repulsive. His little eyes set far back
in his head, gleamed the jutting buttress of a rock his thick lips were always parted over
teeth yellow and dirty with tobacco" (214). This naturalist depiction of an overseer is an
exact opposite of the depictions of elegance and grace that are presented with the nearwhite slaves, Lizzy and the first mistress. Curiously, in this depiction, the narrator
deliberately avoids mentioning the skin color and the reader only learns it when the
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overseer sees Hannah's fingers bleeding from work: "I've seen many a gal likely as you put
into the fields to work, though she had never done a hand's turn before. We must all some
to it sooner or later" (214).
The fact that the narrator in The Bondwoman's Narrative sometimes fails to
mention the race or does not mention it first was important during the first stage of
criticism, when the identity of the writer was unclear, because many thought it proved that
the author of the novel was in fact black. Henry Louis Gates himself supported Porter's
observation that "Crafts … tends to treat the blackness of her characters as default, even
on occasion signaling the whiteness of her characters...Often we realize the racial identity
of her black characters only by context."(Gates lvii) Gates is using this argument based on
depiction of race in order to support his claim that the writer was in fact black.
As this thesis is being written, the identity of Hannah Crafts is already known.
However, Crafts' depictions of race still remain a thought-provoking aspect of her novel.
Gates observes that "occasionally, Crafts does not disclose the color or physical features
of her black characters at all, as in her depiction of her mother and her husband... Few, if
any, white novelists demonstrated this degree of ease or comfort with race in antebellum
American literature"(lix). This is certainly true, but considering that Hannah was a slave
due to her mother being one, it is quite clear that her mother was at least partly of African
descent. Regarding her husband, she says that he was "a regularly ordained preacher of the
Methodist persuasion" (246); the "Textual Annotations" section points out that "The
African Methodist Episcopal Church was well established in New Jersey [their place of
residence] by the 1850s"(317). Therefore one could conclude that Crafts not voicing the
race of some of the characters is not as much a proof that "for Crafts, slaves are always,
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first and last, human beings" (Gates lviii), as a demonstration that Crafts relies on the
deduction skills of the reader.
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5. Conclusion
This thesis discusses the representation of slavery in The Bondwoman’s Narrative by
Hannah Crafts. In the two main chapters the novel was first analyzed on the background of
two different genre conventions and then presented in connection to slavery with regard to
the major topics.
It was established that the text should not be categorized into one genre or another,
it is a combination of both. It presents some typical characteristics of slave narratives, such
as the first-person narration, an account of the journey towards literacy, depiction of
different kinds of masters and descriptions of the injustices of slavery. The author also insists
that everything that she writes is an unmodified and unmodified account of real events and
the text is supplemented with plenty of documents that prove author’s identity. On the other
hand, Crafts’ story breaks the mold of slave narrative; she seems to focus more on the
psychological and spiritual side of slavery, sometimes reveals a lack of sense of unity
between slaves regardless of their position and seems to value her faith more than literacy
and even freedom.
The Bondwoman’s Narrative is also very much a Gothic story. It clearly focuses on
the dark and macabre and indeed aims to scare the reader and curdle the blood. With the
images of maidens in bondage, mysterious cruel tyrants, nocturnal sceneries and focus on
the Other, slavery’s reality is close to a standard Gothic novel. Crafts is aware of Gothic
literary conventions and she reinforces the Gothic aspects of slavery through Gothic
imagery; many of the events take place at night, the female slaves are not only imprisoned
by slavery, but also literally kept in prison, the most extreme human emotions are depicted
(the mistress dies of heartbreak), and slavery is referred to as a curse, etc. However, while
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Gothic narratives generally did not aim for political or social actions, here the tropes of
death and darkness are used to underline the slave-narrative-like intention to denounce
slavery and depict its monstrosities.
Crafts also emphasizes the effects of slavery on different aspects of human life and
she points out that it is harmful not only to the slaves, but also to the free, white folk. These
are discussed in the final chapter of the thesis that is divided into six subchapters: “Slavery
and Faith”, “Slavery, Literacy and Knowledge”, “Slavery and Family”, “Slavery and
Womanhood”, “Master-Slave Relationship”, and “Slavery and Race”. Each of these
discusses how slavery is depicted in a different context, even though naturally, they are
interconnected.
Faith is discussed first because Crafts frequently mentions it as an important part of
her life. She acquires it together with literacy, but she seems to value it more. She uses it not
only for consolation but also to defend her running away from her master. Moreover, Crafts
pictures the re-humanizing effects of slavery; often the slaves are thought of and treated as
animals or property until they internalize this notion and lose their humanity. Crafts believes
that it is religion that can help slaves rediscover themselves as human beings and restore
their dignity. On the other hand, the potential pitfalls of indoctrinating slaves are also
mentioned; some masters use religion to keep their slaves obedient by preaching exactly
what the main character initially thought; that running away is against the religious
principles and that God teaches obedience to the master. Therefore it can be said that Crafts
depicts the possible negative effects of religion on slave population; however, she also
highlights its benefits and presents it as one of the factors that helped her endure the harsh
conditions of slavery and eventually escape it and gain her freedom.
60
For Hannah, literacy came along with faith. The narrator does not seem to highlight
it as much as faith. However in the last chapter she sets up a school for “colored” children,
which indicates that she believes in the importance of knowledge. The Bondwoman’s
Narrative is a semi-autobiographical novel and based on the multiple quotes of classic
literature and Bible in the text, as well as her thorough knowledge of Gothic tropes, one can
conclude that Crafts was an avid reader. However, the main character is never pictured
reading a book except the Bible. As Sherrard-Johnson puts it: “Crafts is careful never to
portray Hannah reading any book but the Bible” (210). This lack of emphasis on literacy is
one of the traits that distinguish this novel from a conventional slave narrative and it seems
quite paradoxical that the author choses to only mention it briefly, given her personal history.
However, it is still presented as something that is beneficial for the slaves and can potentially
help them gain their freedom.
Crafts also clearly voices her opinions on how slavery affects marriage and family.
She argues that trying to form a family or have children while at least one of the partners
(generally the woman) is a slave is not advisable. She sets an example herself when she
refuses to get married because if one is not free, the matrimony is always in danger of one
of the two being sold or transferred. What is more, children born to a slave mother will
always be slaves and therefore having children means perpetuating slavery. The narrator
presents a haunting scene where a woman stabs her baby with a knife and then kills herself
rather than parting with her child. This chilling image reappears in African American writing
in many forms. In 1856, the most famous case of infanticide took place under circumstances
very similar to those depicted in Crafts’ narrative and they became an inspiration for Toni
Morrison’s Beloved, as noted in the “Textual Annotations” to the novel. Crafts discourages
61
the slaves from attempting to start a family and depicts the detrimental effects of slavery not
only on slave marriages, but also in cases where only one of the child’s parents is a slave.
The previous chapter has also shown that there is a clear emphasis on women and
their relationships. This is particularly interesting because slave narrators usually stress the
bond between the slaves as a group, or between parents and children, but hardly ever are
there mentions of interracial compassion between women. When Crafts depicts a master
sexually exploiting his female slaves, she also portrays an angry wife, who, however, feels
sorry for the young mother in the end and redirects her feelings onto her unfaithful husband
rather than a slave girl. On the other hand, Crafts also depicts an owner’s wife who decides
to do the exact opposite and force Hannah into an involuntary union with a man.
Even though Crafts’ account of female relationships is certainly not black and white,
she clearly prefers female companionship and focuses on female characters. It is her female
mistress who turns out to be a slave in the end, and this permeability of social barriers might
indicate the thin line between being a woman and a wife and being a slave. While not
experiencing the same extent of exploitation and dehumanization as the slaves, white
women were also thought of as inferior citizens. Volo and Volo argue that “the woman often
had her own identity legally incorporated into that of her husband” (214) and that in the first
half of the 19th century, “married women did not have the right to acquire any property on
their own” (214). The criticism of 19th century America’s women’s rights might not have
been Crafts’ aim, but it is a part of her depiction of the world from the point of view of an
observant house slave who is sensitive to details and curious about the world.
Master-slave relationships are very important in The Bondwoman’s Narrative. Here,
Crafts again overcomes the slave narrative conventions and introduces the concept of
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loyalty. Crafts seems to be happy working for a good master and at one point, she begs her
owners to keep her. On the other hand, a decision by a bad master forces her to leave. It is
quite interesting that had the mistress never sent her to live in the slave huts and marry a
field slave, Hannah might not have run away because she felt loyalty towards her masters,
even the bad ones. The novel also dives into another curious topic that is specific to house
slaves: they are present in the house at all times, therefore they know all the family secrets.
Possessing such sensitive information makes the house slaves potentially dangerous for
their masters. It can be said that Crafts grasps the master-slave relationship from a very
specific house slave perspective; she focuses less on the material aspects such as food,
clothes and amount of work and more on the spiritual matters such as loyalty, justice and
kindness.
Finally, the thesis also explores some aspects of slavery in relationship to race. Crafts
highlights the hereditary aspect of slavery rather than the skin color and she presents several
characters that can pass for white, but are slaves by blood. By introducing a character
reminiscent of the “tragic mulatto” trope, Crafts incorporates a “white” point of view of race
that creates this stock character. Crafts herself hints at the differences between light-skinned
slaves and the black ones; she describes a beautiful and intelligent quadroon Lizzy and then
the darker field slaves who are dirty and unaware of their humanity. Unlike many other slave
narrators, Crafts does not emphasize the unity of race; instead, she explores the slaves
separately, almost overlooking the field slaves and focusing on the house slave community
that she was a part of.
In conclusion, it can be argued that in The Bondwoman’s Narrative, Crafts depicts
slavery from a unique point of view of a house slave who is familiar with the world of slaves
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and the world of masters. She combines the slave narrative approach to slavery used by
fugitive slaves with features of Gothic novels that highlight its most haunting aspects. The
main character is very religious and the depictions of slavery focus on the abstract notions
of freedom, loyalty, compassion, family and friendship rather than its physical aspects.
Crafts’ semiautobiographical narrative provides a story of many house slaves of the
period. The way she incorporates Gothic elements does not compromise the authenticity of
her novel, which depicts the concrete consequences of slavery on a young relatively
educated mulatto woman as well as the whole American society.
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Summary
This thesis focuses of depiction of slavery in Hannah Crafts’ The Bondwoman’s
Narrative. The first chapter briefly describes the circumstances if the novel’s publication; it
was written around the 1850s, but it was not published until 2002. The chapter also sums
up some slavery-related notions that are relevant for understanding the plot of the novel,
such as the contemporary laws.
The following chapter explores the novel in the context of literary genres. The novel
combines some characteristics of slave narratives with Gothic elements. This combination
is particularly interesting; on one hand, slavery can easily be seen as a Gothic image and the
Gothic tropes of death, darkness, or imprisonment are easily incorporated into slave
narratives. On the other hand, depicting slavery within Gothic discourse might undermine
the authenticity of the narrative. The chapter also explores in what ways the novel
transgresses the conventions of Gothic novels and slave narratives.
The final chapter of the thesis draws on the concepts outlined in the previous chapter.
It discusses slavery in connection to race, family, womanhood, education, faith and it also
explores the master-slave relationships. Crafts strongly highlights the importance of faith in
her everyday life as a slave and depicts it as something that she turns to when she faces
hardship. It is striking that, unlike many other slave narratives, she only mentions the
journey to literacy briefly.
She also claims that it is impossible for slaves to start a family because slavery takes
away their freedom to make such decisions. Moreover, she provides a unique depiction of
master-slave relationship where she respects good masters and feels loyalty towards them.
On the other hand, if a master is unjust, the main character can easily justify running away.
69
Crafts also depicts the particular impact of slavery on women that are not only used for
labor, but also kept as mistresses and forced to bear their owners’ children. Curiously, the
author depicts the field slaves in a very negative way, lacking the sense of unity among
slaves. Overall, Crafts presents a very vivid, authentic depiction of slavery in the 19th
century America, from the point of view of a house slave.
70
Resumé
Práce se zabývá vyobrazením otroctví v díle Hannah Craftsové The Bondwoman’s
Narrative. První kapitola popisuje publikaci tohoto románu napsaného v polovici
padesátých let 19. století a publikovaného až v roce 2002. V této kapitole se také věnujeme
některým pojmům z oblasti otroctví, které přímo souvisí s dějem románu, například
některým dobovým zákonům.
Další kapitola zkoumá tento román z hlediska literárního žánru. Kombinuje totiž
postupy otrokářských povídek s gotickými elementy. Tato kombinace je mimořádně
zajímavá. Na jednu stranu je jednoduché otroctví vyobrazit pomocí gotických tropů jako
smrt, temnota, nebo uvěznění. Na druhou stranu, situování otroctví do gotického diskurzu
může zpochybnit autenticitu vyprávění. Tato kapitola také zkoumá, jakým způsobem román
překračuje hranice Gotiky a otrokářské povídky.
Poslední kapitola dále sleduje témata z předchozí kapitoly. Analyzujeme v ní
otroctví ve vztahu k rase, rodině, ženství, vzdělání, náboženství, a také se zabýváme
vztahem mezi otrokem a jeho majitelem. Craftsová často zdůrazňuje důležitost víry
v každodenním živote a vyobrazuje jí jako pomoc v nejtěžších chvílích. Je zajímavé, že na
rozdíl od většiny otrokářských povídek se tolik nevěnuje témě vzdělání.
Craftsová také tvrdí, že otroci by se neměli snažit založit rodinu, protože otroctví
jim bere svobodu k takovému rozhodnutí. Také vyobrazuje výjimečný vztah otroka
k majiteli; hlavní hrdinka respektuje dobré majitele a cítí k nim věrnost, ale od
nespravedlivého pána utíká bez výčitek svědomí. Román také vyobrazuje dopady na
otroctví na ženy, které jsou využívány nejenom k těžké práci, ale také jako milenky a matky
dětí svých majitelů. Je zajímavé, že autorka vykresluje otroky pracující na poli v negativním
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světle a necítí s nimi soudržnost. Craftsová ve svém románu poskytuje živé a autentické
vyobrazení otroctví v Americe 19. století z pohledu domácí otrokyně.
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