In Catherine Maria Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie, Magawisca is a heroic Native American girl who is conflicted with her people and their counterpart, the European settlers. Although she was taken in as a servant for the Fetcher household at a young age, she was treated with kindness and received education. Her most strongest bond is with Everell Fletcher, where they grow great feelings of companionship that is never seen before with Native Americans and Puritan settlers. However, because Magawisca is Native American, she is discriminated and labeled as a “noble savage.”
The concept of the “noble savage” is widely used to describe an outsider, or the “other,” the ones who have not been touched by civilization, according to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The “noble savage” particular to the Native Americans was coined about the 1820’s to enforce the stereotype of Indians with good qualities to subside the fear that most Europeans had about them. In 1620, when William Bradford arrived at Plymouth, he described the wilderness as “hideous and desolate, full of wild beasts and wild men.” Many Europeans were afraid of this untamed wilderness and the desire to romanticise it grew. By giving the Native Americans likable traits, it dispelled the hysteria of them being dangerous and uncontrollable. They have the qualities to improve, but they will never be on the same status as the Europeans.
Magawisca has very charming qualities described as, “slender, flexible, and graceful,” with “freedom and loftiness in her movement,” and “beautiful even to the European eye” (23). Her qualities show that she is beautiful, free-spirited, and wondrous despite the universal depiction of her race. However, this paints a noble savage identity associated with her image. She is characterized as “this daughter of a chieftain, which altogether, had an air of wild and fantastic grace, that harmonizes well with the noble demeanor and peculiar beauty of the young savage”(23). This emits an oxymoron effect, whereas Magawisca is of noble status as a daughter of a leader, but she is considered a savage because she is Native American.
In addition, she shows great intelligence as Mr. Fletcher recalls, “Everell teaches her English and meets with any trait of heroism he straightaway calleth for her and rendereth it into English, in which she hath made such marvelous progress, that I am sometimes startled with the beautiful forms in which she clothes her simple thoughts” (32). He is delighted with her intelligence to learn a new language, yet finds amusement that her thoughts are “simple.” He is illustrating that even though she can process their language, she is still labeled as ignorant and simple as a noble savage.
The act of heroism is still not enough for Magawisca to break out the “noble savage” identity. After saving Everell from being sacrificed on the altar, she loses her arm in exchange for his life. She says, “I have bought his life back with my own. Fly, Everell— nay, speak not, but fly— thither— to the east!”(97). Her action will be remembered, but it will not pay off her social status as a Native American. She risks her life and loses an important part of her body for the sake of Everell, despite his race, but she is not returned with much. She loves Everell romantically, but he says, “yes I might have loved her… might have forgotten that nature had put barriers between us”(214). One of the barriers he is referring to may have been their racial differences, as they were born into two contrasting races. Everell admits that he may have loved Magawisca, but the fact that she is not European blood discourages him to marry her.
As a result, do you think Sedgwick portrays Magawisca as “noble savage” to shed light on Native American stereotypes? Or do you think she evokes pity and displays her a tragic hero?