In her novel, Hope Leslie, Catharine Maria Sedgwick tells the story of the “savages” in a way that we as twenty-first century readers can appreciate. Despite being an entertaining read, the novel is very powerful in its presentation of female and male characters as human beings with strengths, weaknesses and feelings, rather than puppets to play along with strict gender roles. Her treatment of Magawisca is especially important when looked at through our class lens of the wilderness and American history. The earlier texts that we read depicted the “savages” as part of a dark, ruthless, and unforgiving wilderness that the colonists were fighting with their “illuminating” religious presence. They were a constant source of fear and anxiety for the colonists and any contact with them brought only death and despair. Sedgwick depicts nature as a place of freedom and beauty in which the “savages” live in unity and harmony. She gives a voice to the “savages” however and allows them grief and emotion that explain their “savagery”. Despite the importance and significance of this voice, the reader is left wondering how Sedgwick could possibly speak for an entire oppressed race. Even Magawisca’s beautiful rendition is lacking in many ways. In the end, however, this novel is extremely important for its effort to tell a story with the voice of the oppressed when it had been told many times before solely by the very biased oppressor.
When looked at through the context of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, this novel, to me, clearly attempts to speak on behalf of the native Americans and argue against their removal. Magawisca stands at the forefront of this attempt. She delivers what I consider to be one of the most important lines in the entire novel:
You English tell us, Everell, that the book of your law is better than that
written on our hearts, for ye say it teaches mercy, compassion, forgive-
Ness– if ye had such a law and believed it, would ye thus have treated
a captive boy? (Sedgwick 53)
The importance of this crucial line is matched only by Segwick’s own line that follows this:
Magawisca’s reflecting mind suggested the most serious obstacle to the
progress of the christian religion, in all ages and under all circumstances;
the contrariety between its divine principles and the conduct of its
professors; which, instead of always being a medium for the light that
emanates from our holy law, is too often the darkest cloud that obtructs
the passage of its rays to the hearts of heathen men. (Sedgwick 53).
In very clear terms, Sedgwick is criticizing the followers of the christian religion who don’t practice what they preach. In his paper for Ohio State university Hope Leslie: Novelistic Rewriting of American History , Kyoung-Min Han states that “the novel specifically questions Puritan accounts of the Pequot War, which usually accentuate Indian “savagery” in order to justify the westward drive and its consequences for Native Americans, namely Puritan violence” (Min Han 47). The forgiveness and love for which Jesus is meant to stand for, was utterly forgotten as the colonists hoped to take on more land. Sedgwick is criticizing this through the voice of Magawisca as she tells the story of how her tribe had fallen in the hands of the colonizers that her father had attempted to make peace with. Magawisca’s retelling is also important because it reveals the lies that were told to cover the truth. Everell was taught to believe that the land upon which his community was built was taken with honor from the horrible “savagery” of the “savages”. Magawisca laughs at Everell’s use of the word “honor” and questions how it could have possibly been honorable to cut down women and children and noble soldiers in their own home with no regard to their attempts at peace. Her warning to Everell is as hauntingly depressing as it is true: “when the hour of vengeance comes, if it should come, remember it was provoked (Sedgwick 48).” Essentially, Magawisca is explaining to Everell that every story he was told was a lie and that the true “savagery” with which her people act was brought on by his people.
To continue off of the idea of Magawisca and Everell, the severance of Magawisca’s arm serves as an important symbol in the novel. If I may offer my own personal interpretation, the loss of Magawisca’s limb symbolizes the loss of her people when attempting peace with the colonizers. It was said in one of Mrs. Fletcher’s letters to her husband that the two children, Everell and Magawisca, had become so close and that should this continue, it would be harder to separate them later on implying that their relationship should be severed. When Everell is captured, Magawisca tries her best to save him and his family yet to do so would be for her to sacrifice her allegiance to her father. When Digby and his men come close to finding Everell, Magawisca desperately wants to shout to them and have them rescue Everell but it would mean the death of her father. When Mononnotto almost kills Everell, Magawisca puts herself before the knife as a sacrifice for him. To me, this signifies the impossibility of their love and the love of thousands of lovers throughout history. In novels such as The God of Small Things and Romeo and Juliet (among a list of many, many books throughout history) there is this idea of the tragedy of lovers that could never be together. In that same way, no matter what Magawisca sacrifices, and she is willing to sacrifice a lot, she can never be with Everell and the severance of her arm signifies that severance that Mrs. Fletcher advised of her husband. History has always been cruel to dreamers and secret lovers (gay lovers, lovers of different religions, social classes, or backgrounds). In the end, Everell marries Hope Leslie as if to right the wrong of Mr. Fletcher not being able to marry Alice and there is a sort of happiness in that but in the end, Magawisca never really had a chance with Everell. He marries who he is supposed to marry. This is not necessarily a judgement on Sedgwick, but perhaps a commentary on her part of how true reconciliation between the colonizers and the natives could not happen paralleled by the way that the lovers simply could never be together. This loss of love is paralleled once more in the novel when Monnonotto comes to kill the Fletcher family and the baby (a symbol of innocence) reaches out towards the Indian chief, right before being bashed against a wall. Monnonotto, for a moment, was about to grab the child and perhaps save him before he is killed. To me this signified the impossibility of some kind of hope of an understanding and true peace as violence could only bring more violence. And there was a lot of violence during this time period.
The fact that Magawisca and Everell can never be together speaks to the limitations under which Sedgwick is forced to work. The breach of boundaries that Sedgwick delighted us with throughout the novel seems to face reality as the lovers are ultimately separated and Everell marries his European counterpart. Once again, this is not a judgement placed on Sedgwick but rather a statement of how she simply could not write a story that went too far. At some point, she had to accept the reality she lived under. We as twenty-first century readers must also accept that reality and be cognizant of the limitations of her novel. The very fact that this is a novel written by a colonizer (not that she herself participated actively in the murder of the Natives) and that the Native Americans never truly had their own voice is extremely problematic. Magawisca, despite being beautiful, brave, and absolutely iconic is still subject to the gaze of the colonizer reader and is shown at times as the “noble savage” who is “good for a savage”. It is a depressing thought, but this story could only go so far and ultimately must please her customers despite what her personal feelings may be. This, however, should not diminish the importance of Sedgwick’s attempt at changing the discourse and the narrative with which the “savage” was written about during this time.