Academic journal article Utopian Studies

Sinking "Like a Corpse" or Living the "Soul's Full Desire": Shaker Women in Fiction and History

Academic journal article Utopian Studies

Sinking "Like a Corpse" or Living the "Soul's Full Desire": Shaker Women in Fiction and History

Article excerpt


This article examines the disparity between fictional and historical accounts of Shaker women. The fiction, influenced by pervading social beliefs like the cult of true womanhood, usually portrays a woman who becomes dissatisfied with her Shaker life, concluding that it is a sort of living death that isolates her from love, marriage, and motherhood. Historical records reveal independent and fulfilled women who became Shakers for religious reasons but also for secular opportunities unknown in the outside world, including companionship, refuge from sexual predation, and a chance for professional or governmental fulfillment.


When well-read Americans in the 1850s heard the name Shakers, strange images arose in their minds: reclusive religious zealots, fanatical whirling dervishes, or cold and emotionless adherents to an outlandish faith. For the next one hundred fifty years readers of fiction about the Shakers would not have taken serious exception to these images, unless they had actually become acquainted with some real Shakers, who seldom resembled their fictional counterparts. By the 1790s the historical Shakers, some twenty years after arriving in America with their founder Ann Lee, had developed a system of communal living that enabled them to establish in the next half century nearly twenty flourishing communitarian villages from New England through Ohio to Kentucky. Novels and short stories about Shaker life seldom describe the success of these communities, focusing instead on members who felt trapped and frustrated. These stories, examined in the first third of this essay, particularly distorted the image of the Shaker woman by showing how Shakerism extinguishes her soul, if not her life, how its faith and customs restrict her to an isolated village life, and how it denies her the fulfillment of love and motherhood. Historical documents, described in the last two-thirds of this study, contradict most of the published fiction, specifically revealing that Shaker women seldom remained interned in an isolated village, that they found social and even political power denied them in the outer world, and that they often enjoyed a satisfying life without becoming mothers, sometimes finding in the Shaker village an escape from the sexual pressures of the outside society.

Virginia Woolf notes a similar literary-historical dichotomy throughout the ages: powerful women fill the pages of "fiction written by men" but never appear in books of history. She wonders how male authors could create such dynamic women as Antigone and Lady Macbeth when the real world of the time period in which they wrote so restricted women's existence. (1) Woolf conjures up a picture of the life of Shakespeare's fictitious sister and speculates that if she had desired to live his life, she would have been "an unhappy woman, a woman at strife against herself" and the society of the time. (2) She would have been forced to marry the "son of a neighboring wool stapler," would have been "severely beaten by her father" when she refused, and would have eventually killed herself because social restrictions would have crushed her poetic spirit. (3) Fiction about Shaker women and the historical documents that describe their lives demonstrate a similar disparity, but the American authors reverse the age-old relationship that Woolf delineates: the historical records--private diaries, official journals, letters--describe women who wielded considerable social influence, but the fiction portrays lifeless and powerless Shaker women.

In these stories, the Shaker community threatens the very existence of women. Nathaniel Hawthorne, who once "half seriously considered joining" a Shaker community, describes such a fate in two stories, "The Canterbury Pilgrims" and "The Shaker Bridal" (1852). (4) Each story strongly implies that life without the love of a man, marriage, and motherhood threatens a woman's very being. …

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