Pocahontas: the widely loved animated Disney movie that portrays the forbidden, interracial love between a white European man and a Native American woman. Despite some inaccurate portrayals of both the white settlers and their interaction with the Native Americans, there is an impactful scene in the children’s film that is historically accurate: the scene where the in love Pocahontas, against all odds, jumps to protect Captain John Smith from being killed by her father, Chief Powhatan. Magawisca, the less known, yet similar fictional Native American woman who is arguably the sole protagonist in Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie, written about more than two centuries later, is romanticized, literary adaptation of a noble savage woman protecting a powerless white man, all from the perspective of a white female author.
Heavily influenced by the audience Sedgwick was writing for in nineteenth century England, Hope Leslie is most likely not titled Magawisca due to the fact that this nontraditional native name would immediately draw readers away, failing to achieve Sedgwick’s whole purpose in writing this novel—to show readers that a Native American was not s heartless barbaric savage. The story of Magawisca is first introduced when she becomes one of the servants for the Fletcher family, white Europeans who recently moved to the United States. Everell Fletcher and Magawisca, whose father, Mononotto is planning to avenge his children’s unjust servitude, become close with each other and they are able to build a high level of trust despite. Once Mononotto has killed most of the Fletcher family, he keeps Everell and Faith Hope captive. Magawisca, although being torn between whom she wants to remain faithful toward, ends up having her arm cut off when she jumps in front of Everell who is about to be killed by her father.
The act of kindness performed by this native woman is vital to understanding Sedgwick’s noble savage trope, as it not only empowers womenkind as a whole, but it also commends the bravery and the humane act of love that can be expected of a Native American. There is great significance in Magawisca’s arm being severed in protecting Everell, whereas Pocahontas is unscathed by her father when she protects John Smith. In a North American review of Sedgwick’s novel the author writes, “That some females seem to have forgotten their sex, and to have prided themselves on throwing off their peculiar qualities, and adopting the coarser habits of men, in their literary performances … [and that] The masquerade [that] is out of nature” (410)
allows this new form of female identity to be formed. Nature, more specifically the wilderness in this case, represents an uncivilized atmosphere, an environment where civilized societal expectations are not found. Under these conditions, both men and women are considered equal, and there is no differentiation of the gender roles—they simply do not exist. Following the scene where Magawisca is wounded, Sedgwick writes “The lopped quivering member dropped over the precipice” (97), physically depicting the scene of Magawisca arm being cut off but symbolically castrating Everell. This ambiguous language subliminally implies that Magawisca and Everell are no longer equal, and even empowers Magawisca, a native woman, to be superior than Everell, the white man she worked for. From the moment, she can no longer be seen as a noble savage, but instead as a good samaritan.
Of course these are all personal interpretations, nonetheless we must recognize authors like Sedgwick and her brilliant writing for allowing readers to see the truth about humankind as a whole. Native Americans, as well any other marginalized minority group, have the potential to do good, and women can be just as powerful as men. The children’s film adaptation of Pocahontas does not fully exemplify this but we can leave Disney to paint the pretty and happy picture of whatever else comes “just around the riverbend.”
Sedgwick, Catharine Maria. Hope Leslie Or, Early Times in the Massachusetts. Reprint ed. Penguin Classics, 1998. Print.