Gender Roles in “Circumstance”

In Harriet Prescott Spofford’s “Circumstance” there is essentially only one character. The female protagonist is attacked in the wilderness by a savage beast and is eventually saved by her husband. At first glance “Circumstance” perpetuates the damsel in distress stereotype but in actuality it is the woman’s own actions that keep her alive and inadvertently her family as well. The protagonist and her husband both experience nature in an entirely different way, while they both conquer nature they do it in entirely different ways. The protagonist first falls victim to the perils of the wilderness at the hands of a vicious beast; however, rather than succumb to the hopelessness of her situation she acts in the only way she knows how, she sings. Through song the protagonist pacifies the beast, “while the beast listened he would not gnaw” (86) and buys saves herself from death. While the protagonist’s actions cast doubt upon her as a damsel in distress they exemplify the idea of a woman as nurturing and gentle. On the other end of the spectrum is the strong, cold man who brutishly subdues nature. The protagonist’s husband searches for her and upon finding her, kills the beast to save his wife. The husband experiences nature as a conqueror, one that gives little heed to his actions and their consequences. The ramifications of an outlook like this are seen in the end of the story upon the discovery of their ravaged home and murdered neighbors. While this devastates both the protagonist and her husband, there is some clarity and opportunity in their circumstance, “For the rest, —the world was all before them, where to choose” (96). Ultimately it is the method in which men and women view and react to nature that defines the characters of this story. The man represents society as a whole and its blatant disregard for wilderness. The woman symbolizes the unity that humans can have with nature. Though she was unable to definitively save herself there was the ability to exist for a short time with wilderness. Ultimately Spofford comments on the ways in which gender roles affect the society’s reaction to nature. There are many ways to react and there is no argument for which is right, simply a story that demonstrates the differences.


Spofford, Harriet Prescott. The Amber Gods and Other Stories. Ch./Art: Circumstance p. 84-96. pub. Rutgers University Press 1989


2 responses to this post.

  1. I agree with your statements here, but I also wanted to add that Spofford subverts the stereotype of the “damsel in distress” through her usage of female sexuality. The attack upon the narrator by the Indian Devil is described through vaguely sexual language; one example being how the panther holds her “in his great lithe embrace” (86). By singing to it, the narrator is able to seduce the beast, and through her singing she comes to a pseudo-religious conclusion that she must accept whatever happens to her, and thereby she becomes “at one with Nature” (92). Her relationship with nature is described as an “intimacy”, and she even comes to accept what the panther is doing to her, and in this manner nature becomes not just associated with women in general, but associated with unrepressed female sexuality.

  2. Posted by brightgirl04 on November 10, 2011 at 2:27 pm

    I agree that while ultimately saved by her husband the female protagonist challenges the damsel in distress stereotype. Another way in which she challenges the typical female gender role of their place being in the home is that her husband was home taking care of the child and she was out using her skills to help an ill neighbor. The Indian Devil can represent males and how they restrain women from accomplishing everything they are capable of doing. If it were not for the protagonist’s own actions her husband would not have arrived in time to kill the beast.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: