Old World Wilderness and Self Discovery in “Circumstance”

Harriet Prescott Spoffard’s “Circumstance” could be marked off as just another reminder to both men and women that you should never walk alone at night! However, this bizarre short story of a woman who is attacked by an Indian Devil in the woods while walking home alone one night also has a deeper message. While reading I noticed a theme of self discovery that can accompany the Old World Wilderness trope. It is clear in this story that the wilderness is a place of terror and fear with the introduction of the “savage and serpentine” Indian Devil (Spafford 85). However, at what point can a full spiritual awakening stem from this terror and fear the woman comes in contact with.

Garrard states that the conception of Old World Wilderness “combines connotations of trial and danger with freedom, redemption, and purity” and this trope is seen with the woman in the story as she discovers religious harmony through her trials in the wilderness. It is interesting that in the beginning of her trials in the wilderness with the Indian Devil “she did not call upon God… [but her husband]” attempts to rely on her own voice to protect her (Spafford 86). However, when both her voice and husband “[fail her]” she turns to her faith and discovers a sense of redemption that can be attributed to her desolation in the terrifying forest (Spafford 90). The woman describes a “common dependence” that left her feeling not only “at one with Nature” but as though her “[soul was being sent] to God in her singing” leaving her at peace, almost welcoming death (Spafford 92). This aspect of Old World Wilderness is also seen in the Bible in what Garrard describes as the “Judae0-Christian conception of wilderness” such as when Moses led his people though the wilderness to  escape persecution and found a closer to connection to God. Interestingly, when her husband finally enters the picture and saves her life so she no longer needs to rely on spiritual faith, she is left surrounded by “desolation and death”  from a surprise attack that destroyed her home (Spafford 96).

Garrard, Greg. Ecocriticism.New York: Routledge, 2004.

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

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2 responses to this post.

  1. I did not notice the self-discovery theme at first when reading Circumstance until after reading this blog. I agree that the women discovered her influence over the beast, that she had the power to calm it or incite it to anger when she thought of her husband and child and stopped singing. She noticed that she could ease her pain by calming the animal so it could loosen its grip on her arm. Also, once she realized that her husband was not coming to her rescue she decided to make her faith in God a tangible thing to rely on. She learned to encourage herself with the belief that God could rescue her by singing songs and reciting Bible scriptures, which also served as a distraction as well.

  2. Posted by kbudd on November 9, 2011 at 7:31 pm

    Yes! The theme of self-discovery is so important to this story and it is also extremely interesting. i agree that the female role had to find herself because of the attack. She is placed in a dangerous situation and she has nobody to call on. When she realizes her husband will not come and she turns to God, we see the aspect of Christianity called into question. This theme also expands the scope of the narrative. The story also returns to some old world imagery with the “Indian Devil” so finding the ecological side of the story is somewhat challenging, but we do see that in the self-discovery because she seems to find herself in nature. She faces the danger of nature head on and eventually comes out alive, and at the same time she escapes the destruction of her home from the Native Americans.

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