Engl 730: The New Rise of the American Novel: Readings
Discussion Questions/Talking Points for "Story of Margaretta"
[page numbers refer to Selected Writings of Judith Sargent Murray, isbn0-19-510038-7]
As we discuss the novel itself, let's keep in mind the essays we read earlier. What, if any, are the connections between Murray's arguments in, for example, "On the Equality of the Sexes" and her portraits of men/women in the novel? Does her fiction essay to "prove" her arguments provided in that essay?
In "Observations on Female Abilities" Murray lists ten attributes of which she believes women are at least as well endowed as men. How would you characterize that list--do they seem gender biased in any way? Are the selected attributes less about gender differences/similarities and perhaps about basic qualities of an "ideal" citizen? Are there any key attributes she seems to have overlooked? In "Story of Margaretta" do the women exhibit these ten key traits? Do the men?
Is Murray's essay "Desultory Thoughts upon the Utility of Encouraging a Degree of Self-Complacency, Especially in Female Bosoms" obviously relevant to Margaretta's situation in the novel? Do Margaretta's stepparents err in not sufficiently providing for Margaretta's self complacency? What are the prime causes for the distresses upon the characters in the novel?
Be prepared to summarize Murray's basic political position as she articulates it in "Sketch of the Present Situation in America, 1794" especially as it relates to class and gender issues. What are the distinctions she is drawing especially on page 62 where she argues for preserving the "regular succession of order," the "necessary arrangement of civil subordination," and "the beautiful gradation" of society. How do these sentiments jibe with her arguments that women should be seen as equals rather than as natural subservient and subordinate to men? How do these sentiments jibe with her implied criticisms of the wastrel males in the novel; what exactly constitutes this "necessary arrangement"--if the weak of character fall to the bottom of society, so what? Why bother to rescue them or resuscitate their fortunes--why isn't their lowered status part of a natural order of things?
What do you make of Murray's portrayal of the fragility of women's minds? At several times in the novel Margaretta falls lifeless as a corpse and other characters fear for her actual death because she has been exposed to some emotional turmoil (see, for example, her fainting at the return of her father). Is this frailty consistent with those claims made for women in other of the writings we read?
What of the ending wherein Margaretta's father "returns from the dead" just in time to save Edward from having to earn his own way and potential capture by pirates? Does it seem over contrived? Is it more contrived than other happenstances in the novel? What seems to be the message that Murray might be trying to convey with this authorial manipulation at the end of the text: does it undercut some of the other themes? Perhaps the theme of economic responsibility or irresponsibility exhibited by both Courtland and Edward?
How successful is Murray's choice of narrator for the novel? How would you characterize him? What of his attitudes toward his wife, Margaretta, the younger men in the novel? Is he overall an admirable character? Do you think he is a reliable narrator?
The narrative position seems to be both inside and outside the novel at the same time. In other words the narrative frame is broken by speaking to the reader directly or referring to the fact that the novel is being written in installments. Or again towards the end the father returns because he has read the prior installments of the novel (in which he is a fictional character!). Be prepared to briefly describe the narrative strategies and to say whether they are successful. How about the epistelary sections--do they work? What about the poetry interspersed--does it work?
What details of the novel are most relevant for assaying Margaretta's character? For example, she foregoes some pretty feathers to do a good deed. This is meant, I hope you will agree, to establish a positive impression of her. What else in the novel does similar work? What, if anything, in the novel establishes Margaretta's shortcomings? Let's think about applying this template of evaluation to other characters as well: Courtland, Serafina, Edward and so on.
Read what Davidson has to say about Murray's novel especially pages 129-130. Davidson maintains that Murray's novel shows that "virtue" is possible for a woman within "an oppressive system." Is that your reading of Murray's novel as well?