Hope Leslie Strong Female Characters of the 17th Century
Strong Female Characters in Sedgwick's Hope Leslie
The United States has not always been a free space for strong female characters. In fact, in its earliest stages, most women were confined to very strict gender rules and restrictions. That is definitely true in the case of the Puritan culture that settled in the North East in the 17th century. Catharine Maria Sedgwick's Hope Leslie presents a surprisingly strong and independent female protagonist who fights for what she believes in and against the constraining gender norms of the very conservative Puritan culture in the early days of the Massachusetts colony. This represents a connection between the American idea of independence and individualism and women's role in American history. Sedgwick is also standing up against the gender norms face d in her own era with such a strong female lead.
The novel itself is a very complex tangling of stories and subplots. It is a tale of love, war, and heart break all rolled into a fictional representation of a very real time era in early American history. The novel centers on a continuing conflict between the Puritans and Pequod Indians in the early days of colonization in Massachusetts. It features the struggle between the Fletcher family and the Pequod tribe from the region. Despite the enormous conflict between the settlers and the Native Americans that result in blood shed, there is hope in the love affair between a young Native Pequod and a strapping young male settler.
Within this tale of love and war, however, is an incredible representation of a female protagonist. It is unique for both the Puritan era, and even Sedgwick's own time period. The novel features a female protagonist that defied the typical gender restrictions of her era. Most women of the time were expected to be reserved and obedient to their fathers, husbands, and other male members of the community. In Puritan society, women were basically second class citizens and were not allowed the same rights and privileges as men. Thus, Sedgwick uses her strong female lead in a way where "the text manages to challenge Puritan self-righteous historiography" (Pelegri, 136). Hope is a character that defies Puritan restrictions on women. She is bold, brave, and independent. Yet, most women at her time were meek and obedient to the men in their lives. Hope Leslie is a rare woman in literature from the time period; she is strong, independent and confident. Sedgwick even discusses this in the actual text, stating that "it has been seen that Hope Leslie was superior to some of the prejudices of her age. This may be explained without attributing too much to her natural sagacity" (Sedgwick, 179). Hope is superior to other female characters because of her strength, a quality that was not often attributed to female roles of the period.
This is thus a strategy closely connecting a female character with the independent nature of life in the colonies at the time period the novel takes place. At the time the novel takes place, the spirit of individualism was just starting to sprout within a colonial American identity. By the time Sedgwick was actually writing this, individualism had sprung into full force with the popularity of Ralph Waldo Emerson and other like minded cultural icons. The period prior to the Revolution and during it was fondly looked back upon as the starting of a new American identity. However, this identity was often restricted to the limited concept of an American man. Women were largely left out of this patriotic narrative. Sedgwick illustrates here that there were female voices trying to preserve a stronger place in American history for female roles. This effectively demonstrates that this patriotic and independent spirit was not reserved to the male pioneers only. In fact, the strength of Hope Leslie helps show a much stronger female character. Hope has to come to grips with the harsh reality of pioneer life; "I should ever bear in mind that life is a race and a warfare, and nothing else" (Sedgwick, 247). In the end, it does not destroy her, but makes her stronger than ever. This is then a hopeful cry for the future of women in the United States announced by Sedgwick herself.
Hope Leslie is willing to fight for what she believes in. It is this fighting independent spirit that allows her to become so close to the members of the native population. Throughout the novel, Hope continues to grow strength and is not portrayed like the other female characters. She is definitely not like the other Puritan women; "as Hope glanced her eye at him, she was struck with an expression of wretchedness and passion that seemed unnatural on a countenance so young and beautiful" (Sedgwick, 247). Her heroic actions develop as the situation between the Pequods and Puritans continues to get worse and worse. Hope even risks her life to help save Magawisca and also supports Nelema. This ultimately shows Sedgwick creating a character that can help found a support group for other women in her time. She is there to help strengthen other female roles when they are in need. Additionally, Hope is extremely open minded for her time. This allows for her to gain understanding of Native American cultures. Ultimately, Hope is a very progressive character
There are other strong female characters in the novel as well, although none truly compare to Hope. For example, there is Magawisca, the young Native American girl that is caught in the middle of all of this strife. She is also graceful and strong, able to withstand being kidnapped from her people and all the suffering the Puritans put her through. She wins the heart of Everell with her strength as a woman; "Everell did not fail to express to Magawisca, with all the eloquence of a heated imagination, his sympathy and admiration for her heroic and suffering people" (Sedgwick, 77). She then turns to be a huge help for Everell as he breaks free from his own captivity. Overall, she is a source of strength for him. Thus, "during the march, Everell had twice, aided by Magawisa, nearly achieved his liberty" (Sedgwick, 120). She never turned her back on Everell, even when he asked her to. Instead, she remained by his side and helped him at every moment se could, showing her strength and defiance of her father's cruelty. Still Magawisca seems too dependent on the men in the novel. She depends on her father, and later Everell. When her father comes to murder the family and take Everell, she is helpless to defend them; "Everell was torn from the lifeless bodies of his mother and sisters, and dragged into the forest. Magawisca uttered one cry of agony and despair as she looked for the last time on the bloody scene, and then followed her father" (Sedgwick, 94). She is unable to truly stand on her own the way Hope does. On the other hand, Hope is much stronger as an independent woman. However, Sedgwick was brave to include a strong female Native American character in her work as well, even if she is further strengthened by Hope's influence.
In many ways, Hope's strength emulates Sedgwick's own desire to create a place for more fiercely independent women. Sedgwick was writing during the early 19th century, and most likely faced obstacles to equality with her male counterparts herself. Women of Sedgwick's era were still not aloud to vote and they lacked equal respect to men in the workforce and in home contexts. Sedgwick is using her character to portray strong females to inspire the women of her own era. Thus, she is clearly fighting her own battle against society's gender restrictions that were being placed on her. According to the external research, "she pursued her literary career at a time of major social and ideological redefinition in the United States. Her texts, written between 1820s and 1860s engaged in a dialogue with the utter transformation of a Republic that witnessed the advance of Jacksonian politics; the triumph of market values; and an impending division that would culminate in 1861 with the outbreak of the Civil War" (Pelegri, 137). The strength seen in Hope is thus the strength directly coming from Sedgwick as a writer during a period of time where most female voices were silenced by their more dominant male counterparts in an extremely patriarchal structure. Therefore, Hope is an embodiment of a new type of American woman, one with strength and honor. By further connecting Hope's character to a period so early on in American history, Sedgwick is also making the statement that such strong female voices have been present in American history since the beginning. Thus, "Sedgwick poignantly set out to reveal the fundamental ideological lapses and actual omission of disenfranchised groups from the revolutionary rhetoric while at the same time Sedgwick paradoxically adopted its very same language" (Pelegri, 137).