William Wells Brown defies notions of race and gender in his novel Clotel, or the President's Daughter by subverting the traditional norms associated with gender via the "cult of domesticity" that saturated the American public consciousness throughout the 19th century, locating true womanhood within the domestic work and life of the home. Brown's portrayal of womanhood, however, in Clotel contradicts the "cult" mentality by depicting not only a strong woman but a strong black woman -- which challenges the racial stereotypes and "ethnic notions" popularized by American media in the antebellum years as well. This paper will show how Brown achieves this contrasting view of race and gender in his novel by developing the character of Clotel in such a way that she resists all stereotypes and even takes on the persona of the tragic heroine when she jumps to her death at the end of the novel to avoid being placed back into slavery.
Brown's depiction of Clotel is one that defies the popular notions of race and gender in the 19th century in America. Blacks were viewed as buffoons or as human-simian hybrids, and as chattel. Brown showed through Clotel that there was more to blacks than what the white establishment was giving them credit for. Clotel was at once a self-sacrificing strong, female heroine and an independent woman who could rise above her obstacles to approach the destiny that she chose for herself. At one point, Brown even has Clotel dressing in man's clothes to escape to freedom -- a gender-defying, unconventional act that clearly establishes Clotel in a category alongside that of Shakespeare's heroines.
Clotel's daughter Mary moreover is a race-defying character -- the fruit of Clotel and Horatio -- a mixed-race slave, who resembles the flower depicted by Lydia Maria Child (1842) in "The Quadroons" -- "the Pride of China mixed its oriental-looking foliage with the majestic magnolia" (p. 115): Mary is the fruit of the mixture of Horatio and Clotel, thus the pride of two different "races" that is yet a beautiful flower in her own right -- yet still considered as much a foreigner in the South as the "oriental-looking foliage" of Child's story. For this reason, Mary is enslaved by Horatio's wife, who feels insulted by Horatio's relations with Clotel. For this reason Horatio is reduced to "the deepest humiliation" as he is forced to watch "his own child, brought into his dwelling as a servant" (Brown, 1853, p. 153). And in this manner, Mary resembles Clotel, who is the daughter of another slave owner who watched his children grow up in slavery, though he also showed some care for them. It is a complicated situation through and through, but Horatio's wife provides the human weakness side of it: "His wife felt that she had been deceived, and determined to punish her deceiver" -- that is, by hurting Mary she is attempting to hurt Horatio (Brown, 1853, p. 153). It is a vicious cycle of human failing that runs deeper than race or gender and touches everyone -- the need to act out in spite, to exact revenge, to injure in whatever way possible. In this manner, Brown crosses all stereotypical boundaries and puts all people on an equal, human footing, regardless of race, gender or liberty: each is a human with needs, feelings, and sensitivities, and some act with greater tenderness than others and some with more cruelty for want of the right kind of spirit with which to approach others.
At the same time, Fabi (2001) notes that "Brown's representation of resistance as gendered makes it possible to reconcile his use of the octoroon as a 'narrative device of mediation' with the often underestimated militancy of his novel" (p. 10). In other words, there is some pull between masculine heroics and the "feminine way to escape" that Brown depicts: or, in short, the act of escape is depicted in a gendered way, which is feminine. At the same time, the militant resolve that Clotel…
Sources Used in Document:
Brown, W. W. (1853). Clotel, or The President's Daughter. London: Partridge & Oakey.
Child, L. M. (1842). The Quadroons. In, The Liberty Bell. Boston: Anti-Slavery Fair.
Fabi, G. (2001). The Mark Without. In, Passing and the Rise of the African-American