“The Second Greatest Force in the Universe” – Ownership of Property and Personhood in the 19th Century (Part 2 of 3)

The original edition of the cover page to Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs

The original edition of the cover page to Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs

It is clear through various scenes and instances within the novels The Awakening and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl that both Edna and Linda are aware that it is through property that people experience selfhood. The best example of this is in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, when Linda describes the scenes of pillaging and oppression that accompanied the Nat Turner uprising. “It was a grand opportunity for the low whites, who had no Negroes of their own to scourge. They exulted in such a chance to exercise a little brief authority… not reflecting that the power which trampled on the colored people also kept themselves in poverty, ignorance, and moral degradation” (Jacobs, 55-56). In this passage one can see that even the “poor” white people of the region are themselves largely disenfranchised. On the one hand, they are certainly more in the realm of ‘person’ than any of the slaves in the novel, if only because the laws of the land do recognize them as such. But on the other hand, the plantation owners that dominate the region’s social and political sphere still see them as inferior. It is only in these moments when the ‘poor’ whites are allowed by the real property owners to take temporary ‘ownership’ of other people, namely the African-Americans and slaves in the region, that these individuals enter the domain of self-ownership.

A typical southern plantation, as pictured in a painting called Louisiana Plantation Scene, in 1820, oil on canvas,by  M. L. Pilsbury

A typical southern plantation, as pictured in a painting called Louisiana Plantation Scene, in 1820, oil on canvas,by M. L. Pilsbury

For Linda, it was almost impossible that she should own property. Not only was she a slave for most of her life, but even after she had acquired her ‘legal’ freedom, she was still marginalized as a poor, black woman. Even though Linda may “[…] long for a hearthstone of [her] own, however humble” the laws of various states at the time would have forbidden her from acquiring or holding on to such property (Jacobs, 164). This is not the case for Edna, of course. Not only can she buy and sell her own creations, like her art, but she does in fact buy ‘property’ in the sense of land, securing herself “a little four-room house” (Chopin, 79). In Laurel Clark’s essay The Rights of a Florida Wife: Slavery, U.S. Expansion, and Married Women’s Property Law, she argues that by examining “white wives’ property law in Florida between 1820 and 1860” one can see that even though the women of this period enjoyed unprecedented rights to property, and at the same time enjoyed a greater sense of personhood in general, it was largely at the cost of African-American women, both free and slaves. It was only through owning them and disenfranchising them of legal rights that the white women of this period where able to enjoy the rights they did.

It was in the best interest of white women seeking their own power, to keep the same power from their female African-American domestics. (Painting is titled A Visit from the Old Mistress, by Winslow Homer)

It was in the best interest of white women seeking their own power, to keep the same power from their female African-American domestics. (Painting is titled A Visit from the Old Mistress, by Winslow Homer)

While Clark is quick to point out that “marital property reforms did not emancipate women as a class”, she does state that these women were allowed the opportunity to protect their property from the government and from the men in their lives, even though these advantages came at the price of expanding “national borders and slavery.” This is an important point in the discussion being undertaken here; when it comes to the possibilities open to the characters of Linda and Edna, they are not on even ground. As a matter of fact, the two women’s situations are in almost direct conflict. It is only by taking away the right to own property from the largely female African-American domestic labor force that Edna employs that she herself can accrue the property she does and exercise her will over it.

It is not, however, big purchases and ownership such as those mentioned above from which Linda derives most of her pleasure. It is in the relationships she can maintain purely from her own choice and through her own efforts alone. It is in this way that she can be said to ‘own’ other people and ‘own’ ephemeral experiences like ‘love’ or ‘family’. To ownership of these terms, neither Edna nor Linda is barred. It is these modes of property and belonging that both Linda and Edna most enjoy and which bring them closest to personhood.

Furthermore, both women cite the taking over of another person as a moment in which they felt control over themselves, as agents of their own decisions and true members of society. Linda seeks to frustrate the unwanted sexual designs of her owner, Dr. Flint, by taking as her lover another white man and bearing him a child. Although she is for a large part of this chapter consumed with guilt over the sin she has committed, there is a moment near the beginning when she does say that, “There is something akin to freedom in having a lover who has no control over you, except that which he gains by kindness and attachment” (Jacobs, 48). By feeling a certain amount of control over the disposition of her body and of her affections, Linda gets her first taste personhood. Edna has a similar experience the first time she allows Arobin to kiss her. On the one hand, Edna feels sadness that her first ‘romantic’ kiss was not with someone who she was in love with. Even so, Edna does feel that, “Above all, there was understanding. She felt as if a mist had been lifted from her eyes, enabling her to look upon and comprehend the significance of life, that monster made up of beauty and brutality” (Chopin, 84). By taking lovers, both women enter into a deeper understanding of what freedom feels like and of their place in the larger world.

Works Cited

Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. New York: Dover, 1993. Print.

Jacobs, Harriet A. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2001. Print.

Laurel A. Clark. “The Rights of a Florida Wife: Slavery, U.S. Expansion, and Married Women’s Property Law.” Journal of Women’s History 22.4 (2010): 39-63. Project MUSE. Web. 22 Jan. 2011. http://muse.jhu.edu.offcampus.lib.washington.edu/.

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About rsjeffrey

A thinly published author who is widely read. No type of fiction is off limits, and I even enjoy plunging into the odd, well-written nonfiction tome as well. I am driven by a need to continuously move forward, so expect to see a lot of activity from me!
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2 Responses to “The Second Greatest Force in the Universe” – Ownership of Property and Personhood in the 19th Century (Part 2 of 3)

  1. Pingback: “The Second Greatest Force in the Universe” – Ownership of Property and Personhood in the 19th Century (Part 1 of 3) | Simple Complexities

  2. Pingback: “The Second Greatest Force in the Universe” – Ownership of Property and Personhood in the 19th Century (Part 3 of 3) | Simple Complexities

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