Our Nig: A Fusion of Romantic and Realistic Literary Technique

Harriet Wilson’s sentimental narrative, Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, draws on two specific literary areas to disclose the tale of a young, mistreated Mulatto heroine, encumbered by an excessive amount of injustice, hostility, and inhumane treatment as well as circumstance. The concept of romanticism, appealing to the passionate, the verbose, that which is discredited as accurate, rampages through the novel in didactic passages and internal thoughts. Simultaneously, Wilson utilizes succinct descriptions of setting and action which correspond with the themes of realism, detailing in narrative the everyday actions and events of the heroine. Together, the two fuse to create Our Nig, where the hypocrisy of liberation and the abhorrent reality of human action perspire from the page.Wilson opens the novel with an account of the heroine Frado’s mother: a forceful storytelling, didactic and woeful. In traditional romantic spirit, Wilson preaches, “Alas, how fearful are we to be first in extending a helping hand to those who stagger in the mires of infamy; to speak the first words of hope and warning to those emerging into the sunlight of morality!” (Wilson 7). The diction here is almost Biblical, with “mires of infamy” and “the sunlight of morality” imposing with force the intensity of Mag’s situation. The narrator indicates a universal truth, addressing the subject as “we” and telling of the human discomfort with alienation in any sense. Universality is characteristic of romanticism, where truths are revealed and allegory manifested. Choosing the particular word “we” includes all: reader, author, narrator, and human. Such inclusiveness is definitive of romantic writing.Particularly poetic in nature, several scenes are conveyed with fervent emotion. Note the episode of Frado’s open weeping after prayer; Wilson again substantiates the text with heavy language and dramatic description. As written, “Stung by unmerited rebuke, weak from sorrow and anxiety, the tears rolled down her dark face, soon followed by sobs, and then losing all control of herself, she wept aloud… Her mistress grasping her raw-hide, caused a longer flow of tears, and wounded a spirit that was craving healing miracles” (101). Wilson chooses “unmerited rebuke” and “a spirit that was craving healing miracles;” both descriptions which are fond of eliciting emotional response through direct word choice and manner. These emotional passages depend on the force of these specific words and illustrations, and as such they subject the reader to powerful statements.Wilson’s novel also conveys its message of hypocrisy and struggle through the use of realistic mechanisms. Drawing on specific details, Wilson engages the reader in effective text, allowing the theme of the book to run as an undercurrent of the seemingly blase details in Frado’s daily life. “Flocks of sheep had been added to the farm, which claimed a portion of her time… She was first up in the morning, doing what she could towards breakfast. Occasionally, she would utter some funny thing for Jack’s benefit, while she was waiting on the table, provoking a sharp look from his mother, or expulsion from the room.” (52-53) Here Wilson uses simple language and pieces of every day experience to convey the message of injustices; the descriptions are elevated to a position of reality. Specifically sheep have been added, Frado’s time sacrificed. Frado wakes before the others to provide breakfast; her duties speak plainly of a form of slavery, or indentured service at least. Thus, Wilson succeeds in demonstrating the hypocrisy (as opposed to preaching with regards to it) through the seemingly unimportant happenings of the day.A number of other realistic passages exist, describing particular situations with simplicity and modest diction. The fact that the novel is constructed of many passages in both styles leads to its success in thematic communication. The romantic passages appeal to the heart more directly, are interspersed throughout the text to break up the realistic descriptions, and bolster the intended context with openly moralizing splices of conversational narrative. The realistic portions allow for true character emergence, making the reader a direct witness of each character’s actions and, therefore, also a witness to their attitudes and intentions. The inclusion of realism brings substance to the novel, the truly human aspect. With this, Wilson’s text surpasses being simply a women’s sentimental tale of woe and misfortune, and instead becomes a focused sentimental experience of woe, misfortune, and detailed characterization.Wilson, Harriet E. Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black. New York: Vintage Books, 2002.