Campus Only Senior Thesis
Bachelor of Arts
© 2016 Lily J. Comba
Texts such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and Nella Larsen’s Quicksand each present a different understanding and perspective of relationships based on their time periods and social statures. The type of relationship Stowe focuses on in her novel is that of friendship. Friends, defined as people with whom have a bond of mutual affection, and friendships, the state of mutual trust and support (Merriam-Webster), anchor the relationships that Eva and Eliza create with members on the plantation. These female protagonists turn to friendship as a way to live each day more normally – that is, to somehow alleviate the brutal cruelty of living through slavery. Despite varying odds, trials, and tribulations, seeking friendships that had preservative and supportive qualities allowed the female protagonists in Stowe’s novel to survive their own lives. The friendships Eva and Eliza formed discredit what many paternalist pro-slavery authors used as evidence to justify the institution of slavery. In the paternalist proslavery mindset, slave-owner and slave friendships revealed the benefits of slavery – that the two groups would be happier together rather than apart. Stowe discredits this mentality by relating to her 19th century reader’s emotions, representative of the sentimental genre in which she writes. However, in writing about slavery from a white woman’s perspective, Stowe isn’t fully exempt from the paternalist genre. As I will examine later, many of her statements about slavery and the friendships she narrates embody implicitly racist stereotypes and caricatures that complicate the abolitionist approach to her novel. In this way, she falls under the category of paternalist abolitionism, rather than paternalist proslavery. Stowe also highlights the fleeting nature of these friendships. Many, if not all, of the friendships Eva and Eliza form are not able to last, which is one way Stowe argues against the institution of slavery.
Following Stowe, my discussion of Jacobs will introduce a slave’s perspective to female relationships in slavery. The relationships in Jacobs’ narrative are centered on family, and the power of relying on one’s own blood or close-knit community to survive slavery. Writing also within the sentimental mode, Jacobs focuses on her reader’s emotions in order to propel her anti-slavery argument. The female relationships Jacobs details are grounded in literal and metaphorical motherhood. She highlights these relationships as an emotional and familial, particularly motherly, survival method. Jacobs’ text showcases the importance of family, rather the relationships or friendships formed with strangers– thereby differentiating her argument from Stowe’s.
Nella Larsen’s Quicksand draws on the emotional and social difficulties one biracial woman faced in a world affected by the legacy of slavery and World War I. As a biracial woman, Helga develops relationships with men and women she hopes will support her progressive way of thinking and sense of selfhood. Helga’s relationships are more aptly defined as partnerships – given that “partners” may involve sexual, non-sexual, and business-like dynamics between two people. Helga must find authentic, or non-hypocritical, people to assist in her journey for selfhood and kin. But similarly to the relationships in Stowe and Jacobs, the friendships Helga creates often fail her. The question of why they fail in Quicksand connects directly to the question the novel itself is asking: is the search for selfhood more important than the search for kin? The argument all three works make with these failures represents a call to action – not just for the time period in which their novels were written, but also for future American communities. The continuing consequences of racial and gender discrimination exposed by Stowe, Jacobs, and Larsen show us that real social change must come from people – from the relationships we form.
Comba, Lily J., "Literary Relationships That Transformed American Politics and Society" (2016). Scripps Senior Theses. 877.
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