During the 1600s, women were stereotyped to behave obediently, remain uneducated, and follow the traditions of their own culture. Although these social norms are clearly oppressive and offensive, to fight against these expectations was a brave act, as Bethia Mayfield demonstrates. In the novel Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks, Bethia becomes exposed to the first Native American to go to Harvard, a coveted yet out-of-reach college education, and a dictating family. From a young age, society expects Bethia to fit right into the mold of women during this historical period. As Bethia grows up through the novel, she learns how to become her own person and transitions from being a submissive, completely Christian, and uneducated girl to being a strong woman. Bethia’s life makes a crossing when she breaks free of the stereotypical role that her society expects a young English girl to play by embracing Native American traditions, chasing an education, and challenging the oppression that women at this time faced.
Despite women’s lack of rights, Bethia courageously manages to become outspoken in order to defend her position as a woman. Even though Bethia is initially obedient to dominant males, she eventually speaks her mind when the oppression becomes too much. Makepeace treats Bethia like an object instead of a person when he trades Bethia’s hand in marriage for her freedom without her approval. Makepeace responds to Bethia’s justified protests by commanding her, “You shall do my will in this, and that is an end of it,” to which Bethia responds, “God damn you, Makepeace” (Brooks, 178). Bethia’s response to Makepeace shows that she has grown up enough to finally stand up for herself instead of letting men dictate her life. Rather than allowing her brother to force her down a path in life that she does not want, she defies the social norm of women obeying superior men. In addition to standing up for her own rights, Bethia becomes vocal about her feminist views. While discussing poetry, she puts her job and potential marriage in jeopardy when she expresses her disapproved opinion to Master Corlett and Samuel by arguing, “Perhaps the very volume in my hands bears witness to the fact that women might sometimes be fit to stand beside men, and not always in every case behind them,” which results in “the elder Corlett raised his eyebrows at that, but his son nodded, considering” (193). Bethia’s comment demonstrates that she believes standing up for women’s rights is more important than quietly going along with the beliefs of superiors, such as Master Corlett and Samuel. She will risk what others think of her if it means that she can defend women. Lastly, Bethia stands up for women by arguing against men instead of letting them control her thoughts. Bethia does not argue against her father when he tells her, “I would do you no favor if I were to send you to your husband with a mind honed to find fault in his every argument or to better his in every particular” (17). However, years later, Bethia disregards her father’s earlier warning by bickering with Samuel about matters such as Anne’s escape. Bethia expresses her own views and speaks against Samuel’s, resulting in Samuel calling her “strong-minded” and “head-strong” (226), which are two characteristics that her father tries to prevent her from becoming with his earlier comment and, in general, characteristics that women at this time should not be. In many cases, Bethia uses the wisdom that her words carry to defy gender roles that were present in the 1600s.
Bethia learns to break out of the box that society has put her in when her choices become dictated by her desire to learn. Firstly, Bethia opts to violate rules in order to enhance her knowledge. Bethia admits to her questionable act when she tells readers, “As often as I could, I would hide in my basket one of Makepeace’s Latin books… If I could get none of these unnoticed, then I would take one of father’s texts” (14). Instead of acting like the expectational, obedient girl that Bethia should be, she commits the sin of stealing and breaks the rules. Bethia is so desperate to learn that she betrays her father’s teachings and his trust just to get unwarranted reading material to study, even though girls should not be studying. Furthermore, Bethia selects her job based on how it will benefit her education. Bethia announces that she has taken a low position at Harvard for the sole reason that she “will have the benefits of those lectures– I cannot help but hear them, as I go about preparing the dinner,” even though Master Corlett argues, “you should not toil as a scullery maid, it is beneath you” (239). Bethia’s new job demonstrates her devotion to learning. While most people would take the best, most dignifying, well-paying job, Bethia has become so devoted to her education that she is willing to sacrifice the possibility of a better job. Bethia not only sees the possibility for an education as a valued factor for selecting a job; she also sees it as a valued factor when she selects a suitor. While considering both Noah and Samuel as potential husbands, Bethia realizes that a life without Samuel as her husband would consist of “no more Latin phrases drifting down hallways, no works of poetry gifted me by tall men in scholars’ gowns, no high rhetoric or witty disputations” (232). Shortly after this consideration, she chooses Samuel over Noah. Bethia’s choice shows that knowledge is a large factor in important, life-changing situations. Instead of choosing her arranged, expected suitor, she decides to marry the man who can benefit her education more. Bethia makes the heavy decisions to steal, choose a degrading job, and base her husband selection off of one singular quality: the ability to learn.
Bethia leaves her path set by society when she dares to appreciate the customs of the Native American culture. Despite Bethia being raised in a heavily Christian environment, she feels connected to the generally disapproved Native American religious traditions. After listening to a customary and entrancing Native American song, Bethia realizes, “There was power here, spiritual power. It moved me in some profound way. I had striven for this power, week following week, as the dutiful minister’s daughter at Lord’s Day meeting. But our austere worship had never stirred my soul as did this heathen’s song” (30). Bethia’s mesmerization would presumably come as an unsettling shock for her society, as most people at the time would argue that the Native Americans’ religion must be replaced with Christianity. Bethia’s admiration for this song is an act of defiance to her society’s expectations. This encounter with Native American religion was not the only time Bethia felt touched by it; at one point, she is also aware of Native American idols’ presence in her life. After Caleb explains Kessakand, the god of sun, Bethia hears, “Satan’s voice, I am sure of it now, whispering to me that I already knew Kessakand, that I had already worshipped him many times as I bathed in the radiance of a sunrise, or paused to witness the glory of his sunset” (36). This quotation shows Bethia’s involuntary abandonment of her Christian God, the one that she has been taught and expected to live by her whole life, for the many Native American gods. The religion that Bethia is once so strongly tied to manages to slip out of her reach as the disapproved Native American religion begins to have a stronger hold over her. Bethia’s emotions are stirred by the Native American culture yet again after her father passes on. The Native Americans honor her father in a touching way by stacking white stones. To Bethia, “it seemed a speaking sort of monument, unlike the mute gray headstones in the English burying ground. We were, I think, taken aback by its power to touch our deeper feelings, every time we went to it” (130). In this direct comparison, Bethia appreciates and is more moved by the Native Americans’ practice than her own English one. The affection she feels for the rock stack further demonstrates her true feelings for the Native American culture. Over and over again, Bethia feels deeply touched by the Native American culture rather than her own.
Bethia defies the expectations set for her and becomes someone much more unique and true to herself. By the end of the novel, she has been educated, explored more than one culture, and is a valued woman by those around her. She would be none of these things if she had let society push her around. She needed to cross over from the stereotyped woman at this time to the best woman that she could be. Her unique opinion on women’s rights, her desire to be educated, and her affection for Native American culture broke her out of society’s mold and let her be her true self. In every case, one should be their own, not society’s product.