The trope of the “noble savage” was common in Romantic literature. It describes a character who’s morality remains innocently pure because of his or her inexperience with civilization. Civilization in this sense is Eurocentric and also implies the presence of Christianity. This limited exposure to European culture and religion was thought to make “others”, namely Native Americans, simple minded and innately good. Magawisca, a central character in Hope Leslie fits this description loosely, although it may not have been the author’s intention.
In many ways, Magawisca was an innovative female character. Author Catherine Sedgwick boldly created her to be both physically and emotionally strong while maintaining a classic femininity. Still, Sedgwick allows this character to fall into the archetype of the noble savage, which is exemplified in her feelings toward Mrs. Fletcher. Magawisca was in a sense gifted to Mrs. Fletcher as a servant. Magawisca’s own family was torn apart during a conflict with European settlers, and Mrs. Fletcher behaved as if being in the presence of a Christian white family was a blessing for the lowly Native American: “…you will soon perceive that our civilized life is far easier—far better and happier than your wild wandering ways, which are indeed, as you will presently see, but little superior to those of the wolves and foxes.” Nonetheless, when Mrs. Fletcher was murdered by Native Americans, Magawisca still found it in her “noble” heart to feel sympathy for the woman who did not perceive her as an equal human being.
Magawisca also gives a substantial sacrifice to save the life of Everell, the son of Mrs. Fletcher. While back with her own family, who were involved in the killings of Mrs. Fletcher and her other children, Magawisca’s father decides that Everell should also be murdered to avenge the transgressions made against his people. These transgressions directly affected Magawisca and those that she loved, yet she intervened in her father’s attempt to behead Everell: she threw herself over Everell’s neck and into the path of the falling axe, losing her arm. With this action it could be argued that Magawisca, with all of her complementary traits, still falls into the category of the noble savage. The noble savage is somewhat of a simpleton who is innately good, even when good behavior is not necessarily in their best interest. Sedgwick portrays Magawisca as having not been stained by civilized society and therefore sacrifices a part of her self to save the man who represents the downfall of her own society. While Everell was not necessarily an enemy as an individual, his very presence as a European settlers in away the gates her own yet she is still ready to sacrifice her limb to preserve Everell’s life.
Hope Leslie’s Magawisca is in many ways the genesis of a strong, heroic female literary character. Yet Sedgwick infuses this character with a literary trope that is prejudice. Do you think Sedgwick intended to make this character another noble savage, or was it an accidental trait of a Native American that she herself has heard of many times?