Friday, August 21, 2009

Louisa May Alcott: "Hot With Helpless Pain and Passion"

Washington, D.C.'s Union Hotel Hospital (setting for Alcott's Hospital Sketches), ca. 1863.

I ended Part One of this post with Faith Dane’s reaction to Robert’s scarred face: “...pain so distorted, and the cruel sabre-cut so marred that portion of his face, that, when I saw it, I felt as if a fine medal had been suddenly reversed, showing me a far more striking type of human suffering and wrong than Michel Angelo’s bronze prisoner.” In L.M. Alcott: Signature of Reform, biographer Madeleine B. Stern describes Alcott witnessing the return of fugitive slave Anthony Burns to his owner in Boston in 1854, under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850: “As she stood on Boston’s Court Square, Alcott saw the houses draped in black, the crowds on the sidewalk hissing the troops, the flags waving Union down. For a moment she caught a glimpse of the fugitive’s face, scarred by a burn or a brand. She would not forget the rendition of Anthony Burns, or his scar.” Stern notes the importance of Burns’s scar in Alcott’s antislavery fiction. It is worth mentioning here that physical scars figure prominently in all three of Alcott’s antislavery stories, although in “My Contraband,” Robert’s physical scar does not cut as deeply as the psychic scars that wound him. Mutilations, both physical and psychic, are among the most debilitating legacies of slavery as portrayed in Alcott’s work.

Faith remains fascinated by Robert’s odd behavior, and curious about why he has been behaving so strangely with the sick Confederate prisoner, Ned, who lies gravely ill in the hospital bed. The strong gothic elements of the story are dramatically brought to the forefront in a scene where Faith has overslept while on night duty. She is in an isolated wing of the hospital late one night with Robert and Ned, and when the clock ominously strikes three (a.m.), she awakens:

I sprang up to see what harm my long oblivion had done. A strong hand put me back into my seat, and it held me there. It was Robert. The instant my eye met his my heart began to beat, and all along my nerves tingled that electric flash which foretells a danger that we cannot see. He was very pale, his mouth grim, and both eyes full of sombre fire; for even the wounded one was open now, all the more sinister for the deep scar above and below.”

Robert confesses that he has thrown out Ned’s medicine. The next passage reads as feverishly erotic, as if Faith is expecting something more—slightly sinister, but sexually charged: “I saw murder in his eyes, and turned faint with fear; yet the fear excited me, and, hardly knowing what I did, I seized the hands that had seized me.” Faith implores Robert not to kill Ned, asking him why he would want to commit such a horrific crime. Robert then reveals that Ned is his former master as well as his half-brother, and he is ready to kill Ned for raping his wife, Lucy. Robert has locked Faith in the room so that she can neither minister to Ned nor call for help.

“My wife—he took her—” Robert says haltingly. Robert’s double tragedy—being a product of miscegenation (his slave mother was raped by his father) and knowing of his wife’s rape by Ned—results in his mad compulsion to seek vengeance. He typifies the gothic antihero—doomed, dismal, and tenebrous.

In contradistinction to the rampant nineteenth-century stereotype of the “loose” black woman as a cause of white degeneracy, Alcott places the blame for Robert’s twin tragedies (mentioned above) squarely on the shoulders of white southern men, whose hypocrisy left black women even more vulnerable to exploitation. “In that instant,” writes Faith, “every thought of fear was swallowed up in burning indignation for the wrong, and a perfect passion of pity for the desperate man so tempted to avenge an injury for which there seemed no redress but this.”

Faith’s sympathies are conflicted—she cannot allow Robert to commit the murder, and yet she understands his reasons for wanting to do so. His claim to full humanity is tied up in avenging his wife’s degradation. The expression of manhood that killing Ned would provide to Robert is very important, Alcott appears to suggest. The underlying eroticism of the story moves to the surface in this scene, as Faith listens to Robert’s lurid family history while tendering caressing his hair: “[I] put my hand on his poor head, wounded, homeless, bowed down with grief for which I had no cure, and softly smoothed the long, neglected hair, pitifully wondering the while where was the wife who must have loved this tender-hearted man so well.”

Faith’s sympathy for him as she listens is palpable, and yet suffused with eroticism. She is “hot with helpless pain and passion,” and her description of Robert’s anger and indignation also reads, curiously, as erotic: “How the man’s outraged heart sent the blood flaming up into his face and deepened the tones of his impetuous voice, as he stretched his arm across the bed.” Robert then reveals that he was whipped mercilessly by the master’s family and sold further down the river. The preciseness of Alcott’s diction when Robert exposes his scarred back to Faith is telling: “With a sudden wrench he tore the shirt from neck to waist, and on his strong brown shoulders showed me furrows deeply ploughed, wounds which, though healed, were ghastlier to me than any in that house.” His virility and concomitant suffering are so magnified in her eyes that she practically swoons as she gazes upon his naked back, and becomes momentarily speechless.

Andrea Henderson has commented on the controlling gaze of the “sympathetic spectator,” who, she states, “…masochistically suffers at the sight of the object of sympathy, but the spectator also enjoys a feeling of separation from, and even control over, that object.” Faith’s gaze has been suddenly transformed by what she sees, and she attempts to gain control over Robert through a convergence of extreme sympathy and superior language skills.

Robert stands with his hands wrapped around his barely conscious brother’s throat, ready to squeeze the life out of him as Faith attempts to talk him out of his murderous intent. She manages to regain her composure and begs Robert not to kill Ned, noting that her tongue and her sympathy are her strongest weapons: “words burned on my lips, tears streamed from my eyes, and some good angel prompted me to use the one name that had power to arrest my hearer’s hand and touch his heart.” The name, of course, is that of Lucy, Robert’s wife. The control Faith exerts over Robert through her religious importuning begins to calm him—he asks whether God will bring Lucy back to him if he lets Ned live. Faith replies, “As surely as there is a Lord, you will find her here or in the beautiful hereafter, where there is not black or white, no master and no slave.” This entreaty comes directly from Paul’s letter to the Galatians 3:28, which many abolitionists quoted as a Biblical condemnation of slavery: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”

The religious tone of Faith’s narration, as well as her entreaties and supplications, tie Alcott to other abolitionist women writers of the 19th century. Alcott scholar Sarah Elbert notes that both Alcott and Harriet Beecher Stowe “believed that spiritual conversion of the heart (sentiment) is the real vehicle of historical social change. The redemptive power of women, who were entrusted with the hearts and homes of the nation, was therefore limitless, as least in literature by women for women readers.”

Faith’s appeal continues as she tells Robert that she is filled with pity and hope and a desire to help him, works, and she leads him back to his room. Here we get more of Faith’s impassioned writing—she will give Lucy back to him—she will “move heaven and earth.” “Thank Heaven for the immortality of love,” Faith writes, presumably about Robert’s enduring love for Lucy. It is not, however, too difficult to substitute Lucy with Faith herself—I read the tenderness with which she cares for Robert as somewhat suggestive here: “…when all other means of salvation failed, a spark of this vital fire softened the man’s iron will, until a woman’s hand could bend it. He let me take from him the key, let me draw him gently away, and lead him to the solitude which now was the most healing balm I could bestow.”

Faith observes Robert intently, commenting that “he fell down on his bed, and lay there, as if spent with the sharpest conflict of his life.” One might read Faith’s actions as more than just plain compassion, especially keeping in mind the earlier discussion of her controlling gaze and Robert’s respondent passiveness.

There's more to this story--I will post my concluding thoughts on Sunday evening, also providing a teaser on Alcott's next story, a sultry, steamy interracial romance set in the midst of a planned slave insurrection--the author of Little Women--who knew?

All best, Rebecca

1 comment:

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