Masthead small

Interpolating Harriet Tubman: Representation of Gender and Heroism in David Bradley's The Chaneysville IncidentMaha Marouan

« Previous Page | 1 | 2 | 3 | [4] | 5 | 6

Women are also constructed as unfaithful, as in the case of Clydette, the white woman that Josh Crowley was courting, a relationship that nearly resulted in him being lynched. Old Jack assumes Clydette's guilt and betrayal of Josh. He believes that she was a conspirator in the attempt to lynch Josh, and tells John, "that girl had been settin' him [Josh] up all along" (101), although the text provides no evidence that this is what she did. Old Jack also believes that women do continual damage to men through gossip, as is the case of the "church women." He remarks: "I swear you want to keep somethin' quiet the onliest way to do it is to pass a law against sewin' circles an' tea parties. Better yet, get rid a the women" (85). He believes that women are also constantly trying to prevent men from progressing. He praises Moses Washington with the claim that "Moses wasn't never crazy enough over a woman" (91) because he views any kind of emotional attachment to women as a weakness. [5]

It seems that Bradley, as author, does relatively little to problematize these misogynistic sentiments. While the male characters are multifaceted and are given different dimensions of the sort alluded to earlier in this essay, the female characters are somehow static. Their function in the novel remains superficial and mainly works to reflect on the male characters. Judith, for instance, exists in the text mainly to emphasize John's conflicts concerning his personal development and his attempt to reinvent himself beyond the rigid constructions of race and gender. Bradley explains in an interview that Judith:

is one of the latest structures in the whole business and she's peripheral in this sense . . . I know that John had to have someone to tell this [his story] to, because I did not want him just telling it to a reader—there was no point—and there would be no reaction to direct him in the right way. So the questions she asks move him to talk to the topic.

He explains why he chose for her to be white, contending, "Black people don't sit around talking about this stuff. Who wants two niggers sitting around complaining about white folks? So she [Judith] had to be white." [6] Bradley here implies that Judith exists in the text mainly as a narrative device that allows John to bring racial issues to the surface.

Judith also highlights John's struggle concerning interracial relations. In early chapters, John refuses to trust Judith. He contends: "There was a lot that I needed that she would never understand. For she was a woman and she was white, and though I loved her there were points of reference that we did not share. And never would." (384) The character of Judith is constantly dramatizing John's psychological struggle. She is portrayed as attempting to break the racial boundaries between them by repeatedly asking him to share his past with her. She even leaves behind her life and her job as a practicing psychiatrist, and follows him to his hometown, against his will, to help him in his historical and psychological quest. Yet, John keeps her at a distance and refuses to share his personal life and family's story with her. She pleads with him "I need you to share with me," to which John replies, "there is nothing to share," and "you don't belong here, go home" (261). John's emotional detachment from Judith links him to Moses and Old Jack, who consider any attachment to women as a weakness.

However, a shift happens in John's relationship with Judith towards the end of the novel, which breaks with the existing narrative mode and allows for a more open configuration of gender and racial dynamics. John's progress from misogyny and racial antagonism becomes apparent when he finally accepts Judith's help and starts appreciating her and relating to her. He realizes that he "had underestimated" her (411). John also hides from Judith the truth about her ancestors' role as slaveholders and the likelihood of their involvement in the slave trade. His attempt to protect her from her past also signals the end of his emotional detachment from her. Most importantly, Judith becomes a point of historical reference in his search for an African American identity. Judith helps him locate the runaway slaves' graves as she accidentally stumbles upon one of them during their search. Equally important, Judith imaginatively enters John's world and becomes an audience for his story. He asks her using Old Jack's expression and following his ritual: "You want a story, do you? . . . Fetch the candle" (393). These changes in his relationship with Judith allow for a new development in John's identity, and show his desire to recognize female heroism.

Yet, even as John's attitude towards Judith suggests a movement from racial antagonism, the novel's ambiguous ending interrogates the possibility of white and black unity. The novel concludes with John building a fire and burning his index cards and research tools. The ending also hints towards John contemplating suicide by setting himself on fire. John contends:

As I struck the match it came to me how strange it would all look to someone else, someone from far away. And as I dropped the match to the wood and watched the flames go twisting, I wondered if that someone would understand. Not just someone; Judith. I wondered if she would understand when she saw the smoke go rising from the far side of the Hill. (432)

The significance of John's act of burning, and whether it alludes to his literal death is highly significant in terms of its implications on the way the novel interrogates race relations. John's literal suicide can be interpreted as a pessimistic act that does not express a hopeful vision towards racial reconciliation; as such, this act would also unite him with C.K. and Moses. At the very least, the failure to unite with Judith interrogates the possibility of white and black unity. [7] Critics of Bradley have interpreted this ending in multiple ways. Cathy Brigham contends that it is possible that the ending refers to John's attempted suicide, arguing that John is portrayed as a man of extremes and it is probable that his "ritual to exorcise the demons from his past will include the act of self-immolation." [8] However, while Brigham finds the ending disturbing and symbolic of John considering suicide, other critics—Klaus Ensslen, Trudier Harris, and Philip J. Egan—find the ending optimistic. Ensslen reads it as a utopian expression of the possibility for a union between John and Judith that transcends racial boundaries. [9] Harris interprets the act of burning as a "different kind of rite of exorcism, for presumably he [John] is exorcising from himself all the hatred, all the blame, all the obstacles to commitment which may have existed in his relationship with Judith." [10] Egan sees the ending as symbolizing the end of John's rationalism and a celebration of his new self as a storyteller.

1 | 2 | 3 | [4] | 5 | 6 | Next page »

Maha Marouan is an assistant professor in the department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama.

View Complete Archives