Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

The Shadow Narrative in Mary Wilkins Freeman's "Silence"

Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

The Shadow Narrative in Mary Wilkins Freeman's "Silence"

Article excerpt

There are several puzzling features in Mary Wilkins Freeman's "Silence," which first appeared in an 1893 issue of Harper's Magazine. Why, for example, does the scene with Silence Hoit calling for her lost fiance in a shrieking north-wind apparently recall a famous episode in Wuthering Heights (1847) when Catherine Earnshaw calls for Heathcliff in the stormy moors? Why is Goody Crane, who is associated with witchcraft, critical to the realization of Silence's desire to be with David Walcott, her fiance? Why does Goody Crane, in perhaps the most mysterious scene in the narrative, specifically employ a sheep skin to effect the reunion of Silence and David? Such unexplained elements, in a story bearing a title suggestive of more than the name of its protagonist, seem to cut across the grain of the conventional fictional formulae otherwise evident in "Silence."

This short story presents a typical chronicle of separated lovers finally reunited. Embedded in this plot, however, is a triad of provocative narrative properties that contribute structurally to another story suggested in the shadows of the conventional romance. In contrast to the focus on the relationship between Silence and David in the domestic romance, the relationship between Silence and Goody Crane is emphasized in the shadow tale. Goody Crane is the enabling agent in this phantom tale. She can in effect be read as a shadow figure, a type (as defined by Maxine Harris 43-55) whose rebellious behavior represents an archetype of the hidden or as yet unrealized part of a collective female identity presently delimited by social decorum. The shadow tale of "Silence" recounts Goody Crane's role in authorizing the autonomous expression of the witch-like power of female desire.

My mission in this discussion is to disclose this shadow plot. The presence of this plot in "Silence" can be interpreted as symptomatic of the warring sentiments, the authorial self-division, that various critics have generally detected in Freeman's work. Just as, for example, Freeman's compelling psychological portraits of strong women are often framed "with safe, sentimental beginnings and endings," the two story-lines of "Silence" may be construed as further evidence of her ambivalent performance as an author: "Freeman wanted to rebel openly, but at the same time she sought shelter and acceptability, even at the price of enslavement to standards that she knew to be oppressive and unjust" (Glasser xv).

That Freeman nonetheless manifested a feminist sensibility--whether adequately or inadequately--is currently also a critical consensus, and this view is likewise supported by the phantom tale in "Silence." So whereas, on the one hand, this submerged plot may be read in terms of Freeman's ambivalence, it may, on the other hand, also be contextualized in terms of a characteristic of resistance literature. The shadow tale in "Silence," in other words, exemplifies the way resistance in fiction is frequently embedded in the tropes and figures of conventional narrative forms (Slemon 31). While my emphasis necessarily falls on such resistance elements because of the very nature of the shadow tale, I do not deny the possibility that in another sense such an embedding of the phantom narrative reflects Freeman's personal ambivalence concerning its feminist implications. My primary aim is to disclose a heretofore unrecognized facet of Freeman's artistry in a neglected story that provides further and different evidence of her skill with narrative technique (McElrath 255) and her revision of fictional conventions (Gardner 451).

At the level of historical or domestic romance, "Silence" is uncomplicated and unexceptional. It opens on the night of 28 February 1704, when the Abenaki warriors and French soldiers would destroy the western frontier settlement of Deerfield, Massachusetts. Silence Hoit has several premonitions of, and Goody Crane predicts, the massacre of that night. …

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