Wilderness in “Circumstance”

Wilderness functions as a frightful aspect of nature in Harriet Prescott Spofford’s “Circumstance”. The Indian Devil is the apparition of the evils of the untamed forests in the story while the woman’s husband represents the safety and order of civilization. Spofford uses the mythical Indian Devil to show how unsettled land is dangerous and deadly. While the woman is walking through the forest, she is attacked by “that wild beast- the most savage and serpentine and subtle and fearless of our latitudes- known by hunters as the Indian Devil.” The only way the woman is able to survive the attack is to sing to the beast and calm it with the songs of civilization and the Church. Music represents the only piece of civilization the woman has to defend herself. By singing to the Indian Devil she is able to “tame” the beast and remove the wild, dangerous nature from it.
The scene at the end of the story where the family’s farm is burned to the ground by Native Americans shows the struggle between wilderness and settlement that the farmers of the area had to overcome. By leaving their home, the husband left it defenseless from nature and allowed it to be reclaimed by the wilderness.
This story also expresses the author’s view on the gender roles of the time. The woman is depicted as helpless to defend herself physically from the evils of the wilderness while the husband is able to ward off danger. This gives the story a “damsel-in-distress” feeling because the woman feels that her only hope of survival is the protection offered by her husband. She makes no move to escape the beast or to fight it off throughout the night and only when her husband arrives on the scene to save her does she feel safe from the wilderness.

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6 responses to this post.

  1. I agree that this story reinforces the “damsel in distress” stereotype of women often portrayed in the stories that we have read. The woman is not suppose to be alone in it, especially not at night and once attacked cannot save herself from the beast. She depends on her husband to save her. The only thing she can do is sing to calm the “Indian Devil” and depend on God to rescue her. At the end of the story the only way that she escapes is by her husband shooting the animal. The wilderness is portrayed as a scary, dark place where dangers await those wandering through. The women’s house is portrayed as being better than nature’s wilderness because of its safety and the fact that her husband and child await her.

  2. Posted by bhough on November 9, 2011 at 1:40 pm

    Although there are definite aspects of the “damsel in distress” model in Circumstance, there is also an interesting paradox of gender roles present. Simply having the man stay at home with their child is something that has always been seen as incredibly feminine, and causes uncertainty as to Spofford’s overall motives in writing this piece. This brings up multiple questions for me, mainly as to whether or not Spofford even meant to present such a helpless female character. Another interesting paradox to this gender role discussion is the fact that the safe, feminine “home” is destroyed once the woman returns. In my eyes, Jewett might have been attempting to break down these gendered ideas by presenting a traditional female character that is forced out of her usual roles, using nature as a vehicle to push the woman to do so.

  3. Posted by kbudd on November 9, 2011 at 7:18 pm

    I do agree that the story does depict a damsel-in-distress mentality, but she does not solely rely on her husband to come to her rescue. At first she does call upon her husband, but this does not hold true for the remainder of the story. Spofford writes, “–and then she sought for some eagerly for some reason why her husband was not up and abroad to find her. He failed her–,” (90). After she states that he failed her she resorts to her faith to save her. She calls upon God and recites scriptures to gain a sense of protection and peace.

    The damsel in distress role also has flaws because of she is pushed outside the typical feminine role. Even though she is returning home, on a three mile walk through a patch of woods (85), from taking care of a friend, she always imagines her husband in the home playing music and tending to the child. The gender roles have been flipped, but it adds to the plot line of the story.

  4. Posted by teagueoreagan on November 10, 2011 at 2:44 am

    I believe that in discussing the characteristics of wilderness in Spofford’s “Circumstance” is is important to note that this is a representation of Old World Wilderness. This is demonstrated by Garrard when he states “The Judaeo-Christian conception of wilderness, then, combines connotations of trial and danger with freedom, redemption, and purity…” (Garrard, 61). This is certainly applicable given that the story is full of Christian phraseology and she experiences a dangerous trial followed by her eventual freedom and redemption (her singing of hymns also an exhibition of purity). In your argument that the separation from nature is a key aspect of the story, it would also have been good to employ Garrard’s reading of earlier literary traditions “where beasts existed beyond the boundaries of cultivation” (60). Here nature is depicted as a wild mystical place and the protagonist’s home as a more civilized space so your argument certainly is valid but it could use some shoring up.

  5. Posted by lmc908 on November 10, 2011 at 11:06 am

    Although I do agree with your conclusions on gender roles as presented in “Circumstance,” I have to agree more with the reasoning of the second comment. I actually had a positive view of wilderness and the female role in this text. The only reason the woman survived was because of her singing. The man took a day to find her. If it were not for her strength, intellect (in knowing to sing), and bravery, she would not have survived– these are qualities that are normally given to men. The husband shows up in the nick of time holding the child, reminding me of Sacagawea, but the wife has done all the work.
    I see wilderness as a positive thing in this text because it is what gave them freedom– “the world was all before them, where to choose” (Spofford 96). Wilderness is what freed them from the bonds of civilization, and as bhough said above, it liberates them from the stereotype gender roles of the feminine home. Wilderness has given them the ability to start a new and fresh life in the “forest.” When they see their community on fire Spofford writes, “desolation and death were induced there, and beneficence and life in the forest” (Spofford 96). I do not think that this description is supposed to be taken only literally (as in people are dying because of the fire); I believe Spofford is relating that civilization brings “desolation and death” and that only in the forest and through nature can one find a beneficial and rewarding life.

  6. I agree with most of what your saying but i have to differ on the comment about music being her only peice of civilization in the forest. While language and singing are traditionally defined as aspects of civilized people, the author describes her singing as the wildness in her coming out as an instinct to protect herself.

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