Reflections on Hope Leslie

The Accidental Noble Savage

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?

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3 thoughts on “The Accidental Noble Savage

  1. I really enjoyed reading this article. The picture was great and represented the piece well. I always love a political cartoon. Also, the description of a noble savage was well described and easily related to Hope Leslie. Pertaining to Magawisca, I think Sedgwick did a good job of portraying her as a strong and independent female character which a strong sense of identity. Being that she wrote her like this, I’m not sure if she purposely portrayed her as a noble savage or not. I think if she did it was also because she had to appeal to a certain audience when publishing this book.

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  2. I am intrigued by your definition of a noble savage as a simpleton; your idea that goodness is equated with ignorance really made me think of how Native Americans were viewed as blank canvases and also highlighted the authority that the Puritans assumed for themselves. I am a bit confused with what you said towards the end, I think you are saying that Everell’s presence negates Magawisca’s? Anyway, I do believe Sedgwick wanted to portray the most sympathetic Native American possible for her audience and that would have to be a character that fits the Noble Savage trope. Yet can you really define Magawisca as ignorant and simple-minded? There are moments when Magawisca–definitely in the scene of her trial–where she shows how clear minded and fully aware she is of her fate and of the cruel, lying, unjust nature of the European colonists and I do not believe she could be called ‘inexperienced.”

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    1. Thank you for your comment. It is true that Magawisca is an innovative character, which I note, and it’s why I described her as “loosely” fitting the description of the noble savage. This post was intended to play devil’s advocate, to see how in certain instances Sedgwick may have inadvertently catered to a widespread literary tradition. This does not mean I feel that there is anything truly simple or savage about Magawisca; it means if tasked with speaking this rigid language of the oppressors, there are instances where I believe she accidentally fits this description, hence my title.

      The noble savage is described as innately good because he or she is not originally from “civilization” aka European culture. Magawisca, through the wrongs she and her family face, remains an innately good person as exemplified by her having sympathy for Mrs. Fletcher and her sacrifice for Everell. I did mean to say that Everell can be seen as the negation (typo) of Magawisca; it is not so much Everell as individual, but as I said he as a representation of European settlement, which she in a sense metaphorically defends to her own detriment.

      I agree with you– Magawisca is clearly aware of the treacherous ways of many settlers and is very strong minded. My stance is that despite of this, she reacts in ways that imply her resolute kindness. This unwavering goodness, as ludicrous as it is, is a main characteristic of the “noble savage” (https://www.britannica.com/art/noble-savage).

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