A Slave and A Queen:
Figures of Feminine Resistance in American & English Literature
by Molly Lea, Howard Community College
Abstract: This capstone revolves around the female protagonists of Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe and Le Morte D’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory. The objective of this in-depth literature analysis is to view not only how they are treated by the male characters in the two distinct time periods, but also how they rejected typical feminine ideals. The methodology of this work includes literary analysis and comparisons between the time periods, as well as how race and class impact the personalities and creation of these characters. Conclusions drawn include the idea that by comparing and contrasting Sir Thomas Malory and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s markedly different views on race and class, there is a new way to view the concept of female characters in different eras of both English and American literature. However, they are also seen as women ahead of their time, expressing feminist ideals and working as equals to men long before it became acceptable in not only literary society, but the general society of Britain and America. This proves to be very valuable information in today’s society, when women continue to strive hard to be intellectual equals to men.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin revolves around the life of a slave named Tom, who is sold by his master. While he briefly enjoys life as a household servant to a young woman named Eva, whom he saved from drowning (Stowe 18, 872), he is eventually sold to the evil Simon Legree. Legree murders him toward the end of the novel. In a subplot, a woman named Eliza escapes with her young son before he can be sold and waits in hiding until her husband can join her. The novel was serialized in 1851, before being published as a novel in 1852. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is notable for being the first American novel to portray slavery in a negative light. The novel, perhaps due to being authored by a woman, takes great care in fleshing out the female characters of Eliza and Topsy.
Le Morte D’Arthur (French for “The Death of Arthur”) is a sprawling tale by Sir Thomas Malory (whose exact identity is unknown) (Goodman, 1988, 47). It stretches across King Arthur’s life from prior to his birth to his death in a sword battle by his illegitimate son Mordred. The book was published by William Caxton in 1485 and is believed to be the first book ever in wide distribution throughout Europe. King Arthur’s knights, in the middle of the book, agree to the Round Table Oath, which goes hand in hand with the Chivalric Code. The Chivalric Code, among other things, beseeches knights to assist females in danger, who are more commonly known by the moniker “damsels in distress.” An example of this character type can be found in the wife of King Arthur, Queen Guinevere.
The female protagonists of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Le Morte D’Arthur differ clearly in race, class, and social background. In spite of the differing historical contexts within which both novels are situated, they are similar in one important way: in their depiction of how women respond to their treatment by men in societies still widely defined by patriarchal norms. In many ways, the plight of Queen Guinevere parallels the plight of Eliza from Uncle Tom’s Cabin in terms of how the women are treated. In both novels, the characters are treated as women incapable of leading and fulfilling their own lives, and as women that need to be “rescued”. This need for rescue is literal in Guinevere’s case, and figurative in Eliza’s case, as she plots her own escape from the plantation early in the novel to avoid being separated from her son. At the same time, both novels also find women exploring the possibilities and limits of their agency (or acting on their own behalf) within their particular social and historical contexts. As Lauren Berlant writes in her paper “Poor Eliza”, Eliza’s character arc inspires “awe at the woman’s power in the face of the danger she endures for freedom, love, and family” (Berlant, 1998 , 645). Beecher Stowe makes use of Eliza’s escape, that is, to explore how she takes control of her own life in order to escape the male slave-owner. In this paper, I explore how such efforts of resistance and liberation are undertaken by women in these two novels. I conduct this analysis within the framework of intersectionality (Parent et. al, 2013), which is helpful for illuminating how factors such as race and class also have an impact on the experiences of these female protagonists.
In the 15th century, women, while being treated as inferior by men of nobility, also found ways to wield their own kind of power and force. For example, the sorceress Morgan Le Fay is given this scenario in Le Morte D’Arthur: “Meanwhile, back at her castle, Morgan is proceeding to implement the second phase of her design by murdering her husband, King Urience. She sends a maiden to fetch that king’s own sword with notable coolness” (Goodman 1988, 61). The mere act of plotting to kill her husband, with help from another female character, shows that women in this world are willing and able to confront the power of the male knights portrayed in the same novel. The Chivalric Code, a code of honor and morals upheld and adhered to by King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table, is another factor shaping the condition of women in Le Morte D’Arthur. In an essay regarding the so-called “ladies clause” of the Chivalric Code, author Felicia Ackerman defines the chivalric code in succinct terms:
What does the ladies’ clause require knights to do? Of the various roles knights of the Round Table have in Malory’s world, two are important here. First, Round Table knights function as quasi-policemen and keepers of the peace, who prevent and investigate crimes, rescue victims and potential victims, and, unlike policemen in our society, lawfully sometimes mete out summary, even capital, punishment ” (Ackerman, 2002, 3).
As Ackerman notes, the Chivalric Code requires knights to “rescue” women, but in the society of the Middle Ages, this keeping of the peace also equated to keeping women within their socially assigned gender roles.
Three centuries later, in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the women are again treated as inferior by the male characters of the novel, not just by virtue of their sex, but also by the racialized institution of slavery. The women who are portrayed in need of chivalric rescue in Uncle Tom’s Cabin include the character of Eliza, who, as discussed earlier, showed fierce independence by risking her life to escape with her son. By daringly escaping a life of slavery, Eliza rejects the ideas of the Chivalric Code, a portrayal that has been reinterpreted on many occasions to suggest that women can claim the agency to forge lives of their own. Lauren Berlant writes about the re-dramatization of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the 1951 musical The King and I, particularly comparing the plights of Eliza and Tuptim, the slave girl in The King and I who pushes against the bounds of feminism in 19th century Asia. Berlant notes that “Tuptim also identifies with ‘poor Eliza’, whose story inspires her own subsequent flight from the palace. As Lincoln is an emblem for the King, Eliza models for Tuptim the need for the slave’s courage to invalidate morally unjust law” (Berlant, 1998, 639). While Malory makes no explicit mention of feminist ideals yet portrays them in his unmarried female characters, Uncle Tom’s Cabin shows these ideals by portraying Eliza’s escape as a point of inflection for her character. In addition, the character of Topsy exhibits even more forthright resistance to patriarchal norms: “From the moment that Topsy first appears in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, she stands in sharp opposition to women's gender roles in general and those for middle- and upper-class white figures in particular”(Abate, 2006). This evolution is missing for the female characters in Le Morte D’Arthur, who quickly fall into ruin upon losing the men in their lives.
The time periods and attitudes of society in which the novels are set play a large role in determining the treatment of the female characters by the authors. Le Morte D’Arthur is set during the Middle Ages, and was written in England at the end of the 15th century. While this historical background might lead one to expect a minimal role for women, J.R. Goodman argues that “the psychology of Malory’s female characters has been unfairly neglected in altogether too much criticism of the Morte Darthur.” (Goodman, 1988, 61). Malory, however, makes painstaking efforts to develop the female characters of Guinevere and Morgan Le Fay into women driven by their own dreams and desires that are separate from the male characters to whom they are connected. At the same time, these two female protagonists embody how women were sanctioned when they deviated from expectations to marry well into nobility and to run a home. Guinevere, a married noblewoman and of a rank that was even given freedom to fight alongside men in some cases, is treated well before being cast off for adultery. Morgan Le Fay, the unmarried enchantress and warrior, is ignored by much of the noble society and is treated as an old spinster witch with a sharp, scheming mind.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin takes place approximately four centuries later, and while Malory makes some effort to present his female characters as equal to the male characters, Harriet Beecher Stowe presents the female characters as socially inferior, yet intellectually superior to their male counterparts. If anything, the women in Uncle Tom’s Cabin are treated even more dismissively than those in Le Morte D’Arthur due to the fact that they are slaves, an issue that will be reintroduced later in this essay. The women in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, however, are more open-minded and rebellious than Malory’s characters, a reflection of the changing historical context in which Stowe wrote. The fact that Uncle Tom’s Cabin has been cited as an influence on Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (Abate 2006, 78-79) helps to frame Stowe’s female characters as not only a commentary on how different races were treated but also a reflection of the very beginnings of what would become the women’s movement in the West.
In the primary female protagonists of the two novels, there is one particularly important difference between the pair: one (Guinevere) is a white European and the other (Eliza) is African-American. In Le Morte D’Arthur, race is not an axis along which Guinevere’s character is situated. She is treated as any female subject would be in that time period: of lower stature than men even if she happens to be nobility. Meanwhile, the mistreatment of Eliza of Uncle Tom’s Cabin is twofold; she is treated poorly both because she is a woman and because she is black and enslaved. By the middle of the 19th century, the deep-seated racism that would grip U.S. society for decades to come was already firmly established. This racism caused Eliza to be treated poorly by her white slave-owners and sold away from her husband and son, prompting her escape with the little boy. Her marginalization by the white people and institutions in her life limits her agency, but ultimately also drives her to rebel against those limitations.
Status and class also become an issue when looking at the large scope of the time periods in which the novels were set. The character of Guinevere is a woman of nobility, well-respected and revered by her kingdom. However, this reverence is destroyed later in the novel when her adultery with Lancelot is discovered and she is ordered to be put to death. Slaves like Eliza, meanwhile, were in a category all their own in the 19th-century U.S. South. They were treated as property to an extent that called into question their humanity itself. Accordingly, the only people who perhaps respected Eliza were her family. The white Stowe’s portrayal of slavery does little to idealize this, unlike other writers of the time. In spite of these important contrasts between Eliza and Guinevere, however, it is instructive to note how abruptly Guinevere loses her own place in high society, going to a nunnery to live out the rest of her ultimately short life.
The concepts of race and class play into a larger concept known as intersectionality. Intersectionality is the study of how different social factors combine to shape the lived experiences of individuals and groups (Parent , DeBlaere, and Moradi, 2013). In this case, intersectionality recommends close attention to how race and class affect the experiences of female characters in different historical periods. By comparing and contrasting Sir Thomas Malory and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s markedly different views on race and class, there is a new way to view the concept of female characters in different eras of both English and American literature.
The novels Le Morte D’Arthur, a Middle Ages good and evil epic by a knighted man who spent many years in prison, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a Southern Antebellum view on slavery by a white abolitionist, have marked differences as first glance. But, as the reader delves deeper into the nuances and messages that each novel leaves within its female characters, one can see that the novels are not so different after all. In their fictional worlds, the female characters are treated poorly and condescendingly, oftentimes horribly, by their male counterparts. However, they are also seen as women ahead of their time, asserting their agency and challenging patriarchal norms and structures long before it became acceptable, not only in literary circles, but in the general societies of England and America.
Abate, Michelle A. "Topsy and Topsy-Turvy Jo: Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin and/in Louisa may Alcott's Little Women." Children's Literature, vol. 34, 2006, pp. 59-82,2,265. ProQuest, https://libproxy.howardcc.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.libproxy.howardcc.edu/docview/195574123?accountid=35779.
Ackerman, Felicia. “‘Always to Do Ladies, Damosels, and Gentlewomen Succour’: Women and the Chivalric Code in Malory’s Morte Darthur.” Midwest Studies In Philosophy, vol. 26, no. 1, Jan. 2002, pp. 1–12. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1111/1475-4975.261050.
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