Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

Captivity, Childbirth, and the Civil War in Harriet Prescott Spofford's "Circumstance".(Critical Essay)

Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

Captivity, Childbirth, and the Civil War in Harriet Prescott Spofford's "Circumstance".(Critical Essay)

Article excerpt

Harriet Prescott Spofford's short story "Circumstance" narrates the experiences of a colonial woman walking home through the Maine countryside. She is seized by a panther, borne into the boughs of a tree, and held by the panther through the whole of one long wintry night. First published in May 1860 in the Atlantic Monthly and later reprinted in a collection entitled The Amber Gods and Other Stories (1863), the story confirmed Spofford's status as a rising young literary talent. From Emily Dickinson to William Dean Howells, many of her contemporaries commented on the fascination the story provoked in its readers (Bendixen x). Today, the story is widely anthologized and thus likely to meet with new generations of readers, but it has not yet received the sustained critical attention its complexity warrants. (1)

Perhaps most striking to a modern reader is the imagery of sexual violation that pervades the story. The panther seems quite obviously to be a predator of the sexual variety familiar to late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century parlance. (2) While remaining attuned to the imagery of sexual violation, I will argue in this essay that interpreting the encounter between woman and panther as primarily a sexual one obscures the recognition of another significant set of images within the story, those suggesting that the woman figuratively gives birth while in the tree. By uncovering the childbirth imagery in "Circumstance," I explore how Spofford complicates feminist understandings of the ways the history of motherhood--and more particularly, childbirth--has been suppressed in the literature of preceding centuries. Patricia Yaegar, for example, notes that "the invisibility of gestation and parturition" is "one of our most persistent cultural myths" (263). She calls for feminist scholars "to make these repressed stories visible" by conducting "an investigation into the literary tropes and principles that preside over the presentation, deformation, or concealment of the story of reproduction in literary and cultural texts," resulting in an increased attentiveness to what she calls "a poetics of birth" (263, 264, 269). Critics who have focused on the rape imagery in "Circumstance" to the exclusion of the birth imagery have perhaps unwittingly participated in what Yaeger has identified as a "copulative politics" beyond which she believes critics must move (263).

By turning my attention to images of childbirth in "Circumstance," I do not intend to diminish the importance of the rape reading. The goal of this essay is instead to bring together these two seemingly disparate interpretations by exploring how a scene of rape might simultaneously function as a scene of childbirth. To this end, I will explore the cultural and historical contexts--including Indian-white relations as depicted in captivity narratives, images of panthers attacking women in American literature, and mothers' roles as prescribed in conduct literature--which granted that duality its resonance in the mid-nineteenth century.

After tending a sick neighbor, the unnamed protagonist of Spofford's story traverses the wilderness back to her home. (3) Of a practical nature, she is unshaken by a vision of a winding sheet in the air and a ghostly voice chanting, "The Lord have mercy on the people" and continues on her way, only to be seized by a panther and lifted into the tree (85). (4) As she is mauled by the panther, she screams, discovering inadvertently that the echo of her shrieks seems to quiet the animal. Remembering the adage that "music charmed wild beasts" (86), she begins to sing, a tactic she continues throughout the long night as a method of staving off his attack. Her songs range from lullabies to reels to war songs, and as she sings, she contemplates her own death. Her mind flashes back to scenes of childhood and to the husband and child who are even then awaiting her return in their frontier cabin. …

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