Posts Tagged ‘Harriet Prescott Spofford’

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


Spofford: Hide Yo Kids, Hide Yo Wife, The Indian Devil is Coming

Harriet Prescott Spofford’s “Circumstance” tells the tale of a woman walking through nature who is then attacked by a vicious and unnamed animal. The “Indian Devil” as the beast is called connotes a sense of something that is native to the land just as the Indians were. The “devil” shows a deep-seated fear and betrays the settlers fear of nature. The legendary aspect of the creature shows the settlers do not understand nature and resort to myths to explain alien concepts of their new land. At first, the narrator is peacefully walking through the fields near her home. She witnesses a strange apparition flying through the sky covered in a white sheet with four hands, delivering a warning. In reaction to this “She might have been a little frightened by such an apparition, if she had led a life of less reality than frontier settlers are apt to lead” (Spofford, 85).  It is clear she and her family have gone through many struggles in order to make a life for themselves on the frontier. It is mentioned several times throughout the work that she lived in a log home, her husband plays a “homely fiddle made by himself from birch and cherrywood,” and the “patter of wooden clogs and the rustle of homespun petticoat” (Spofford, 87).  The author is making is obvious to the reader that the narrator and her husband live off the land and are harmonious with nature. She walks through “the little copse” and lingers to “imbibe the sense of shelter” (Spofford, 84). There is a very positive relationship created between the narrator and nature, and she speaks of it as a warm and comforting friend and place of peace. After she is attacked by the animal this relationship shifts, “The green depths were utterly cold and silent and stern. These beautiful haunts that all the summer were hears and rejoinced to share with her their bounty, these heavens that had yielded their largess, these stems that had thrust their blossoms into her hands, all these friends of three moons ago forgot her now and knew her no longer” (Spofford, 89). This quote communicates the utter feeling of betrayal the narrator experiences. She once thought of the self-same woods as a safe haven and a source to live off of. I think the creature is a representation of warning to the couple to not underestimate nature. The wife had a false sense of security within nature and had no qualms of using it to her advantage, to make a home, clogs, fiddle, etc. The creature first attacks the woman because she was more emotionally attached to the land and therefore more vulnerable. It is significant that her singing keeps the beast from eating her because singing is soothing and non-violent and demonstrates how if we are kind to the forest and treat it gently it will not eventually come to betray us. The husband, however, demonstrates how people are attempting to conquer and dominate nature. He does not attempt any pacifying tactics and opts to violently bludgeon the beast instead. His actions are indicative of the settlers as a whole, destroying nature instead of finding ways to co-exist peacefully.

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

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

Group 2’s 5th Blog Response

Headshot of Louisa May Alcott (November 29, 18...

Louisa May Alcott, Age 20. Image via Wikipedia

For this blog response, write an ecocritical analysis of Louisa May Alcott‘s “Transcendental Wild Oats,” Harriet Prescott Spofford‘s “Circumstance,” or Sarah Orne Jewett’s “The White Heron.” Your blog post should focus on  an ecocritical reading of only ONE of these stories. As you know, there are many directions you can take with this, but here are some questions you may want to consider:

  • How does the story conceptualize nature? What are the characters’ relationships to nature?
  • What ecocritical tropes do you see at work in this text (pastoral, wilderness, georgic, ecological Indian, apocalypse, etc) and how do they function? (NOTE: If you do decide to go this route, you should focus on only one trope for such a short response.)
  • How (or, to what extent) do the characters’ experiences with nature differ, and in what ways are they similar?
  • In what ways do gender, race, and/or class difference influence the way characters experience and/or conceptualize nature in the story?
  • How is this story influenced by its historical/cultural context, especially regarding environmental issues of the era? (See the syllabus for dates of publication and the resources tab for helpful links).
  • If you had to argue that this story had an environmental message, what would it be?

Remember, your posts should follow these requirements and guidelines:

  • Posts must be at least 300 words.
  • Posts must include at least one quote from the text. Is.
  • Stay focused on answering the prompt question above. Avoid repeating the question and be as specific as possible in your answer.
  • Please note that you do not need to answer every “thinking question” I have posted (the bulleted questions after the bold directive). These are just options, so you could focus on one or a few. Avoid writing a response that looks like a Q & A or laundry list of answers to these smaller questions; make sure your response flows smoothly and has unity.
  • Your response should make an argument, not summarize the text. If some summary is asked for in the prompt you chose, keep that summary brief and concise.
  • Use specific moments from the text(s) to support and illustrate your argument.
  • Be sure to introduce, quote, cite, and comment on all quotes.
  • Don’t forget to tag your posts! Before adding a new tag, check the “choose from the most used tabs” menu to make sure it is not already listed.
  • Don’t forget your Works Cited!

Group 2, your blog response is due by class time on Tuesday, November 8.

Group 1, blog comments are due by class time on Thursday, November 10.