Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Poetry
Motherhood and the Human Condition: An Analysis of The Slave Mother and Room
In The Slave Mother and Room, respective authors Frances Harper and Emma Donoghue use the raw human emotions of hope, fear, and maternal love to convey how people cope with traumatic events. These qualities deepen the enduring human conditions that continue to resonate with different audiences. Both authors draw attention to the way that society often views individuals who are held captive as less than human. Their texts, however, strive to suggest otherwise. Through emotive language, visual imagery, and language choices, Harper and Donoghue educate their readers about the human condition. They deliver this message by discussing the stigma held towards people who face similar challenges as the main characters. The two texts use various symbols of religion to represent hope, as it is one of the few aspects of both plots that remain free from corruption by the antagonists. The authors focus on this emotion, as without it, humanity will never progress. However, the two texts differ when discussing the human response to fear. In The Slave Mother, the persona withdraws from her fight in fear of making the situation worse. Meanwhile, in Room, Ma uses fear to motivate herself to work harder. The instinctive nature of motherhood in the two texts elucidate how a mother will protect her children before herself.
Harper and Donoghue explore how their protagonists use hope to motivate them to embrace the possibility of freedom. Both texts recount the main characters’ moving struggle to flee from captivity and how they maintain their sanity in the process. By frequently including symbols of Christianity, both texts draw attention to how the people often turn to God when feeling hopeless. They suggest that their characters do so as if it is a mother’s last line of defence. An example of this reference to religion is on line 32 of The Slave Mother, stating ‘Oh Father! Must they part?’ By humanising the mother with the use of rhetorical questions, Harper educates the audience to question their own beliefs about slavery and the human condition. Furthermore, although contemporary views of society do not tolerate slavery, The Bible does condone it. By writing through a religious lens, Harper persuasively challenges the reader’s beliefs of slavery. She encourages them to question the ethics behind it, and how the long-term effects take an emotional toll on its victims. The positioning of the audience is achieved through the use of emotional appeal, to create a sense of compassion and justice, which in turn, humanises the characters. In contrast, Donoghue subtly uses religion by characterising Jack and Ma praying for the hope of a better day, rather than questioning their past. Ma raises her son with Christian values, as allusions to Bible stories, such as Peter and Paul, John the Baptist and Samson entertain Jack while in ‘Room.’ Jack embodies Samson, as in the falling action of the novel he cuts his hair following Ma’s drug overdose. He is inspired to become ‘her protector,’ with him wanting to give her ‘his strong…like Samson in the story.’ Ma uses these biblical stories to teach her son valuable life lessons, hoping that with her limited supplies she can give him as normal a life as possible. Furthermore, the imagery of the sun, seen through the skylight in ‘Room,’ acts as a religious symbol, while simultaneously resembling a symbol of hope. She first describes the sun as ‘God’s yellow face,’ with it becoming a reoccurring synonym throughout the rest of the novel. This stylistic feature allows the first-person narrative voice to have greater childlike qualities. By using religious motifs throughout the storyline, Donoghue convincingly reminds the audience that Jack and Ma are regular people despite their grave experiences, by including a myriad of references to the outside world. Through the motif of Christianity, both authors indicate the inherent nature of using hope to better oneself when stuck in a toxic environment.
The two authors also use the concept of human nature to explore the emotion of fear. The main characters display the repercussions of facing life-threatening situations, with the fight or flight response being where the two differ. Harper and Donoghue portray the psychological and physical effects to fear differently, through the traumatic events experienced by their main characters. In the second stanza of The Slave Mother, the persona has a ‘fragile form,’ with Harper using adjectives such as ‘feeble,’ ‘sadly’ and ‘dread.’ She implies how the slave mother gives up all her strength just as quickly as she gains it. Harper depicts both the mental and physical responses to fear, with perspicacious emotive language describing the mother’s complexion ‘pale with fear’ with a ‘look of grief’ upon her face. These literary techniques explore the psychological pain that the protagonist experiences before she sees her child for the last time. Furthermore, Harper uses the metaphor ‘as if a storm of agony/were sweeping through the brain’ to illustrate a confronting image of the anxiety of a slave’s experiences, which creates sympathy, and thus, humanises the slave mother. The use of cacophonous language extends on this idea, exemplifying the terror of the persona as the slave owner rips her son from her arms. For example, ‘That binds her breaking heart,’ uses repetition of the letter ‘b’ to create a stentorian sound on the reader’s ear. The harsh sound stimulates emotions of fear and vulnerability, as Harper skillfully educates the audience to experience similar feelings that relate to their own understanding of the human condition. Donoghue takes on a different approach for Room, as she characterises Ma to use her fear to push her forward. After holding Jack and Ma captive for seven years, it is not until Old Nick loses his job that the protagonists begin to organise their plan for freedom. The author utilises Ma’s fight or flight response to devise the absurd plan that works, ultimately, to free the characters from ‘Room.’ By writing the novel in first-person from the perspective of Jack, Donoghue astutely shields the readers from some of the daily horrors that occur in the novel. Furthermore, by embedding various euphemisms and grammatical errors, the author encapsulates Jack’s innocence throughout the novel due to him being a five-year-old. An example of his naivety, is when he counts the number of ‘creaks of Bed’ every night, which is Old Nick raping Ma. Furthermore, Jack uses singular and proper nouns the objects in ‘Room,’ allowing Donoghue to continue the tone of innocence and childlike nature throughout the novel. The author frequently contrasts the horrors that happen in ‘Room’ to the innocence of Jack, to educate the audience that even in the twenty-first century, inhumane situations like these are still occurring across the globe. Moreover, she justifies Ma’s actions for wanting to escape without any thought of what dangers she could bring to Jack if Old Nick caught them. These qualities are what humanise Ma, as readers can associate with making decisions on impulse, especially when in a situation where they are in harm’s way. Donoghue unsettlingly characterises her to be heroic, as Jack believes that ‘nothing makes Ma scared.’ Through these subtle messages, the author exposes how sexual assault is a taboo topic to discuss. Additionally, Jack’s obliviousness acts as a symbol of how people are unwilling to change the toxic culture surrounding such issues. Both authors use vivid emotive imagery to ensure that the audience feels empathy for the protagonists, thus humanising those in similar scenarios. Furthermore, Donoghue and Harper makes an explicit note that even when struck with fear, a mother will shield her kin from danger, both physically and psychologically.
Maternal love and the sacrifice all mothers experience to better their children, is a crucial theme within the two texts, as both authors confirm the lengths that any mother is willing to go to in order to protect her kin. Harper and Donoghue cleverly characterise their protagonists through symbols of nature to inspire them to fight for their child’s future. Furthermore, these symbols also represent the innocence of a child’s love, and that nothing can be done to break the resilient maternal bond between two people. Flora and fauna are one of the few things that remain beautiful even in the most difficult of situations, much like how the love between the characters in the two texts can withstand any of the horrors they experience. In The Slave Mother, lines 27 and 28 read ‘A fountain gushing ever new/Amid life’s desert wild.’ The water is symbolic of the mother’s love for her child, and the immense joy he provides. The barren landscape of the poem juxtaposes this image, as it shows how empty her life will be, once the slave owners take her son away. Harper uses the vivid visual imagery to allow the audience to understand the motive behind the protagonists’ actions. Furthermore, the forceful diction of the first stanza with words such as ‘wildly’ and ‘shriek’ illustrate the animalistic fight of the slave mother. Harper characterises her persistence in saving her son, even if it means putting herself at risk. By humanising the protagonist, the author positions the audience to engage emotionally with the persona, causing them to feel compassion when she attempts to free her only child. Their support for her enables them to feel empathy for her and allows them to relate the situation back to their own experiences. Similarly, Donoghue uses the imagery of the dead leaves above the skylight as Ma’s symbol to motivate her to escape, after seven years in the eleven by eleven foot box. When attempting to explain to her son about the world outside ‘Room,’ he does not believe her, instead saying, ‘Liar liar, pants on fire, there’s no Outside.’ It is not until he spies the leaves for himself that he begins to question all that he has ever known. Donoghue uses this as a turning point of the novel, as it is the first time the pair find the courage to fight for their future. While the skylight is crucial to the storyline physically, it also acts as an ingenious metaphor for a mother’s love itself. Donoghue inspiringly positions the audience to show that no matter how horrifying a situation is, family ties will always be there to comfort them, just like the way that the sun is always reassuringly in the sky. Both authors incorporate several symbols of nature in their texts to portray the two protagonists with enduring motherly love. Their maternal instincts are the driving force that instigates their need for change, ensuring the children can live better lives than their mothers.
The human condition that both texts explore is that which deals with the denial of dignity, freedom from oppression, and gender equality. Both authors reflect upon this concept and the manner in which it responds to adversity. They achieve the sharing of this educative message, by an intimate study of their characters’ lives and by correlation, the lives of their literary audience. Symbols of Christianity repeatedly appear in the two texts depicting the emotion of hope, as the authors demonstrate how people’s faith carry them through seemingly hopeless situations. Contrastingly, Harper and Donoghue use emotive language to emphasise how fear influences the actions and choices of the characters. However, these opposing emotions are linked through motherly love, where symbols of nature represent the resilient maternal bond of the main characters. This is because the main characters’ motives are to protect their kin, with these raw emotions encouraging them to do so. Even though the two texts are written over one hundred and fifty years apart, they share a didactic purpose of illuminating the sins of the human condition and educating others about them. Furthermore, both authors discuss taboo topics for their era. The Slave Mother illustrates the horrific effects of slavery, while Room examines the psychological damage that victims of rape and domestic abuse experience. Through these complex emotions, it situates the two audiences to reject the concept that one group of people are less than another, diminishing their self-worth in the process.
The Controversy of “Eliza Harris” by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s “Eliza Harris” was written in a time where the world was an unforgiving brutal place for African American slaves. Harper uses an intense amount of emotion to try and create a sense of empathy from her readers. She is trying to instill fear and terror in her readers by describing the ugly truth and reality of the lives of African Americans in the United States during this time period. This poem speaks to the individual by humanizing the character Eliza Harris. Harper was an African American abolitionist who lived right in the middle of a time where slavery was very prominent. Even after the Civil War that ended slavery, Harper continued to fight for women’s rights. By writing a piece like this Harper has a lot to lose. She may lose support of people who disagree with her, which unfortunately was a lot of people during this time period. Harper uses fear, introspective ideas making “the individual” relevant, as well as presenting her democratic ideas in a different way that made an impact on her readers.
Harper uses a fear factor to appeal to her readers sense of empathy for humanity. One example of how she does this is, “How the depths of the forest may echo around / With the shrieks of despair, and the bay of the hound?” (23-24). In this quote Harper is not only appealing to emotion but readers can almost hear the shrieks. Also, when a hound is baying it is a gruesome sound that cannot be ignored which would inevitably create a chilling reaction. After reading this it would be hard to not imagine what feelings would ensue if someone was surrounded by these noises. Harper wanted this reaction, she used heavy metrics and simple rhymes so that there was emphasis on the words that she was using. However, her writing was still formal enough that anyone could read it and she hoped that this would cause everyone to get the same dark feeling from her writing. As people read on, it is hard to not put emphasis on the last words of each line because of the heavy metrics and word choice. This makes readers unable to ignore the severity of the problem at-hand.
Harper had a way of speaking to the individual effectively. She does this to pull the readers into her writing by making it feel like they are part of the story and are actually meeting the character, Eliza Harris. Harper appeals to people who have ever loved someone such as families and especially appeals to mothers. Eliza is willing to do anything in her power to keep her infant child from slavery. An example where Harper appeals to families and mothers is when she writes, “She heeded no danger, she paused to not think! / For she is a mother – her child is a slave— / And she’ll give him his freedom, or find him a grave! (6-8). For a mother to say that she would rather her child did not live, rather than her child becoming a product of slavery speaks volumes. For white Americans that are not a product of slavery this is a way for them to understand what it is like to be a mother going through the pain and fear of the unknown regarding the future of them and their child. Any mother that has a bond with her child will hopefully feel how terrified Eliza is, this is exactly what Harper wanted to happen.
Harpers style of writing is a little different that other writings during her time because of her introspectiveness that made the speaker and subject different. In the beginning Harper says, “us”, it is never clear about who us is though. It is introspective in the way that readers know what Harpers opinion is but, non-introspective in the way that the actual piece is not about Harper specifically. In this quote Harper speaks her opinion through her characters, “Oh! How shall I speak of my proud country’s shame? Of the stains on her glory, how give them their name? How say that her banner in mockery waves – Her “star-spangled banner” – o’er millions of slaves?” (17-20) This is Harper expressing her opinion but putting it in her writing instead of putting her opinion out to the public using dialogue. She is basically saying, how can Americans claim that they are inclusive and claim their country is “star-spangled” if there is still millions of slaves suffering. During this time period a lot of American writers wrote in a more narrative way where the “I” was present in their writing, talking about themselves specifically. Harper defies these norms by expressing her opinion through her characters.
The way that Harper writes is almost neoclassical in the aspect that some of these lines are satirical, mocking the unbelievable nature of white American’s against slaves. What makes her writing romantic is the introspectiveness and the opinion that is given in her writing. This also speaks to the way that Harper presents her democratic ideas, raising awareness about the mistreatment of African Americans in the United States. Harper presents these ideas in such a direct, definite, and satirical way that implies that white Americans are stupid to even be living this way. Harper also uses the word “us” to pull readers into her writing, when read aloud people listening will include themselves in that “us”. She explains her views to show her passion for justice, in her eyes this will hopefully cause readers to feel the same way. An example of Harper explaining white American views in a way that is almost mocking their way of life is when Harper says, “A woman whose crime is the hue of her face?” (22). This simplifies slavery in a way that makes other readers stop to think about the reason why slaves are considered “slaves”. Is it really just because of their different skin color? Why do white families treat African Americans with such poor mistreatment, but they do not treat white Americans nearly the same way? Harper writes using questions so that when “Eliza Harris” is read aloud people can hear the satirical mockery and hopefully begin to question their ways of life. This was meant to be read aloud, and it is meant to create a sense of empathy and for people to begin to question the way that the United States is.
Harper created controversy about something that was very prominent during this time against people of her race. This was a bold and very brave move on her part speaking against the norms and fighting for African Americans and women. Her use of fear, the relevant use of “the individual” and the way that she presents her democratic ideas was such a huge piece of commentary during this era. Harper was an abolitionist that was brave enough to speak her mind in her writing to appeal to people enough to start a movement that would hopefully reach enough people to get white Americans to start to change the way that they treated others.