Crafting Social Criticism: Infanticide in "The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point" and Aurora Leigh

By Ficke, Sarah H. | Victorian Poetry, Summer 2013 | Go to article overview

Crafting Social Criticism: Infanticide in "The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point" and Aurora Leigh


Ficke, Sarah H., Victorian Poetry


What kind of poetry can promote meaningful social change? Can women rite such poetry? These are two of the questions Elizabeth Barrett Browning grappled with in her 1857 novel-poem Aurora Leigh. Romney Leigh is the voice of dissent in the poem. Early in the text, he informs Aurora that women are "weak for art" and only fitted for "life and duty." (1) According to Romney, this is a result of women's inability to generalize from individual cases of oppression to the larger social problems that cause that oppression:

      The human race
   To you means, such a child, or such a man,
   You saw one morning waiting in the cold,
   Beside that gate, perhaps. You gather up
   A few such cases, and, when strong, sometimes
   Will write of factories and of slaves, as if
   Your father were a negro, and your son
   A spinner in the mills. (2.189-196)

Romney's accusation is drawn from actual debates over women's capabilities taking place in the Victorian press. (2) However, the examples he gives in the passage above are tailored specifically to fit Barrett Browning's own body of work. Just as Aurora proves Romney wrong about woman's capacity to create significant art, Barrett Browning in her own poetry demonstrates the importance of tempering generalization on social problems with the kind of individual approach that Romney deplored. In her anti-slavery poem "The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point" (one of the poems she was likely referencing in the passage above) and in Marian Erie's story of white urban poverty in Aurora Leigh, Barrett Browning employs the popular motif of infanticide in order to write tales of domestic suffering that attack the general hypocrisy and oppression surrounding single motherhood while not losing sight of the important differences that set the runaway slave and Marian Erie apart from one another.

The infanticidal plot of "The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point" has inspired many articles. Scholars have written about the poem's relation to Barrett Browning's life and family history, its rhetorical connections to the Garrisonian abolitionist circle, its representations of infanticide, its textual history, and its thematic links to Toni Morrison's novel Beloved. (3) However, the important connections between the infanticide represented in this poem and Marian Erie's story in Aurora Leigh have yet to be fully explored. The intersections between these two poems demonstrate that Barrett Browning was aware of "the analogy between the middle-class marriage market and the slave trade" and that she viewed "slavery as a feminist issue" that was connected to the oppression of white British women. (4) However, these poems also show that she was sensitive to the differences between white female oppression and African slavery. A close examination of the infanticide narrative in each poem shows that Barrett Browning maintains the separate nature of the enslaved woman's experience from that of Marian Erie, despite the way their stories echo one another.

When Barrett Browning chose to incorporate an act of infanticide into "The Runaway Slave" and allusions to infanticide into Aurora Leigh, she linked her texts with many other works by social reformers on both sides of the Atlantic who also used infanticide as a symbol of the catastrophic failure of various social systems. Infanticide played this important symbolic role on both sides of the Atlantic because of the commonly held assumption during the nineteenth century "that all women, whether biological mothers or not, had a maternal instinct." (5) This instinct was "credited ... with making women nurture their children" as a matter of nature, not choice. (6) Authors, working from this assumption, often used infanticide as an extreme example of how manmade systems subverted and/or destroyed the allegedly "natural" order of things. For this reason, infanticide was, as Laura Berry writes, "separated from a discourse of individual guilt and criminality and was invented instead as a widespread social problem. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • A full archive of books and articles related to this one
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Crafting Social Criticism: Infanticide in "The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point" and Aurora Leigh
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

    Already a member? Log in now.