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From Stabat Pater to Prophetic Virgin: Harriet Beecher Stowe's Recovery of the Madonna-Figure

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This study of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Madonna-figures questions some influential arguments about the novelist's treatment of motherhood and domesticity. Critics such as Jane Tompkins, Elizabeth Ammons, and Gillian Brown have claimed that the novels privilege an alternative maternal culture and may even present the Christian Savior in feminized terms. But the early novels in fact reveal the gender restrictions of nineteenth-century Protestantism, which allowed no sanctified female roles. Uncle Tom's Cabin and Dred, for example, have Christ-figures but no Madonnas. Stowe's travels overseas, which exposed her to European religious art, and her gradual movement from the Congregational to the Episcopal church (documented by John Gatta), had a profound impact on two subsequent novels, The Minister's Wooing and Agnes of Sorrento. Here, for the first time, female characters are made Madonna-figures. But the novelist presents them as contemplative saints and prophetic virgins, rather than as mothers. Only in her late religious writings does Stowe portray the biblical Mary as not only prophet and poet but also mother—and then in an inimitable way. In The Minister's Wooing and Agnes as well as her religious writings, Stowe examines the New Testament sisters Martha and Mary of Bethany, who in church tradition represent, respectively, the active and the contemplative life. These discussions reveal the conflict the author experienced between her domestic responsibilities and artistic vocation, and her misgivings about many of the maternal characters found throughout her fiction. Stowe's contemplative and creative Mary-figures include Mary Scudder, Agnes, and the Virgin Mary herself. The contrasting Martha-figures are domestic geniuses but have “worldly” values, which sometimes threaten their daughters' happiness. These Marthas, who are increasingly subjected to authorial criticism, suggest some needed qualifications of arguments for the consistently positive valence of motherhood and domesticity in Stowe.


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Affiliations: 1: Elizabethtown College


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