Frechette, Jacob and Jon C. Adams. "The Circumstances of Harriet Spofford's 'Circumstance.'" The Online Archive of Nineteenth-Century Women's Writings. Ed. Glynis Carr. Online. Internet. Posted: Winter 2000. http://www.facstaff.bucknell.edu/gcarr/19cUSWW/HPS/headnote.html


The Circumstances of Harriet Spofford's "Circumstance"

By Jacob Frechette and Jon C. Adams
 

Though she receives little attention today, Harriet Prescott Spofford (1835 - 1921) was one of the most widely published authors of her era. Her first story, "In a Cellar," was published in 1859 in The Atlantic Monthly and was a success. Emily Dickinson was so impressed with Spofford's work that she asked to be sent everything she wrote.

Spofford was driven to writing due to her family's financial misfortune. In 1834, the year before she was born, her father's business went bankrupt, after which he went West to try to regain the family's financial security. Consequently, her early years were spent in a household headed by women. Unfortunately, when her father returned he was no wealthier and an invalid. Despite her family's poverty, Spofford still managed to receive a solid education, and at the Putnam Free School and the Pinkerton Academy, Spofford's literary inclinations were encouraged.

Writing was one of the few professions in which women of her time could make a living. Spofford's struggle and ultimate success at writing are quite similar to Fanny Fern's character Ruth Hall. Fern describes Ruth's writing experience as a laborious process:

Scratch--Scratch--Scratch, went Ruth's pen; the dim lamp flickering in the night breeze, while the deep breathing of the little sleepers was the watchword. On! to her throbbing brow and weary fingers. One o'clock--two o'clock--three o'clock--the lamp burns low in the socket. (125-6)
At times Spofford would spend fifteen hours a day writing, resulting in painfully swollen and cramped hands (Fetterly 262). Although she also wrote poetry and novels, it was her short fiction that was most prominent. As the years went by, Spofford became less interested in creating work that would merit literary praise and focused more on writing stories that would sell. Her early success and her friends in the literary world enabled her to publish work regardless of its quality (Fetterly 263). Contemporary critics have forgotten Spofford's quality work partly because it was buried by her pulp-fiction.

As the short story "Circumstance" illustrates, Spofford had an inclination toward the romantic and fantastic. Unfortunately, she was writing in a time that was moving away from romanticism and towards realism. In confronting popular taste, Spofford's struggles again remind one of Fern's Ruth Hall. An editor of a paper tells Ruth what the people want to read: "Our paper, madam, is most em-phat-i-cal-ly a paper devoted to the interests of religion; no frivolous jests, no love-sick ditties, no fashionable sentimentalism, finds a place in its columns"(Fern 121). Spofford responded to critics, like Henry James, who spoke harshly of her romanticism by trying to write stories that were more realistic, but the resulting work was not nearly as powerful. One of her most widely known and successful stories was "Circumstance."

The protagonist of the story is never given a name, which allows readers to compare their situation to hers. The reader learns little about the protagonist, and because of this, it is natural to read "Circumstance" in the larger context of Spofford's life. The encounter with the beast is taken from an actual incident that was reported by Spofford's great grandmother, who was pinned by a panther for a night in the woods. Spofford had little choice to write, because she needed to earn money and there were few jobs considered acceptable for women. Although she was successful, it was clearly not her decision to be as prolific as she was, but had she not written as much as she did, her family would have suffered. Similarly, the protagonist in "Circumstance" has little choice about expressing herself. She is trapped by a beast, the "Indian Devil," and must sing to survive. She does not have the ability to determine when to start or when to stop singing, she must soothe his savagery with her voice. This is an "extraordinary, compelling, and harsh vision of the circumstances of the woman artist" (Fetterly 264). The beast in such a reading represents the oppressive culture that is unwelcoming to the woman artist.

Although some stereotypes are negated in this story, others are present. A stereotype that is clearly subverted is that a "woman's place is in the home." The husband here is mostly in the home, while the woman is placed in the wilderness. Still, her thoughts at the beginning and the end of the story are domestic. On the walk home, "she stops to gather a spray of the red-rose berries or a feathery tuft of dead grasses for the chimney piece of the log house." The wilderness is a dangerous place for her and the male beast is aggressive. Finally, her husband is the one who kills it with his rifle. The protagonist does save herself, but she does so in pleasing and seducing the beast.

Nonetheless, it is possible to interpret the beast in other, more positive terms. We see the protagonist trapped and confronted by the "Indian Devil," who makes the character come to terms with her sexuality, religion, fears, and desire for self-expression. One of the most apparent aspects of the encounter is the sexuality of the scene. The beast controls the woman mentally and physically, forcing her to face the most basic aspects of human existence by threatening her with death. Spofford's language carries most of these scenes as she describes with vivid imagery the fear and desire the beast provokes in the character. "He withdrew step by step toward the trunk of the tree with his flaming balls upon her." Through this description we see the total control the beast has over this woman. "In [a] mid-nineteenth century context [this language] is referring to the unrestrained male sexuality that is let loose on the bodies of women" (Fetterly 266). The protagonist is driven to express herself, which leads her to a communion with the wilderness. She is afraid of this since understanding nature means coming to terms with her own beastliness. Society and prevailing conventions ran counter to women exploring those parts of themselves. Yet this story suggests that an internal or external beast confronts every artist and person and that confrontation can yield valuable self-knowledge.

Spofford successfully uses the image of breath as a symbol of life, and the breath of life in the beast is hot and inflamed. "He commenced licking her bare arm with his rasping tongue and pouring over her the wide streams of his hot, foetid breath." Spofford uses language that is sensuous and primal. The beast breathes heavily; his breath pours over her, conveying the fact that he is savagely alive. The protagonist can physically feel the force of his life. Everything about the beast is aggressive.

Although she recognizes his aggressiveness and brutality, her feelings toward him are still ambiguous. Despite the cruelty of this beast, she sees a connection between the two of them. She comes to this realization by exploring her feelings toward God and nature. While he endangers her, he also enlivens her and enables her to experience her own natural power. "O Lord, thou preservest man and beast!" Spofford's language indicates that part of her nature is her sexuality. She realizes that God is the creator and all are descended from him; then both the protagonist and the beast are descendants of God. The language Spofford uses to describe the protagonist's mindset is ethereal. Spofford constructs a dualism that opposes the earthly concerns of her family and her spiritual thoughts of God. When she is doubtful that her husband, "her one sole hope in life," will save her, she turns to God. Paradoxically, it is in this divine rapture that she thinks, "how at one with Nature she had become!" If she is really at one with the forest around her, then she is also at one with the beast.

"Circumstance" is a story that remains moving and relevant today. It is a powerful example of effective romanticism and can be read as a story about the American frontier, a piece of feminist literature, or as an expression of the universal artist's struggle.
 


List of Works Cited and Suggested Readings

American Women Writers: A Critical Reference Guide for Colonial Times to the Present. Volume 4. New York: Ungar, 1979-1994.

Blain, Virginia, Grundy, Isobel, and Clements, Patricia. The Feminist Companion to Literature in English: Women Writers From the Middle Ages to the Present. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990.

Gold, Eva and Thomas H. Fick. "A 'Masterpiece' of the 'Educated Eye': Convention, Gaze, and Gender in Spofford's 'Her Story'.  Studies in Short Fiction. 30.4 (Fall 1993): 511-23.

Fern, Fanny. Ruth Hall.  1855. Rpt. NY: Rutgers UP, 1986.

Fetterly, Judith.  Provisions: A Reader From Nineteenth Century American Women.  Bloomington: Indiana University press, 1985. 261-268.

Homans, Margaret.  Bearing the Word: Language and Female Experience in Nineteenth Century Women's Writing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Spofford, Harriet Prescott. The Amber Gods and Other Stories. Ed. Alfred Bendixen, 1863. Rpt. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1989.


Next: Harriett Spofford's "Circumstance."

Return to The Online Archive of Nineteenth-Century U.S. Women's Writings.