Saturday, February 18, 2012

Charlotte: An American Heroine

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Although it first appeared in print in 170, England; it was not until the novel Charlotte Temple A Tale of Truth was republished in America that its author Susanna Rowson saw its true success. By the nineteenth century the novel sold over two hundred editions. The American readers readily enjoyed the “truth-in-fiction” story of a young naïve woman seduced and deceived by an older gentleman. It was this growing popularity among its readers that turned the character of Charlotte into an American heroine. If one looks deeper into the text, especially the form, including such elements as the narrator, character development and flashbacks, it is becomes clearly evident exactly how Charlotte appealed to the American audience and became their heroine.

A significant aspect of the form has to do with the narrator. In this novel especially, Rowson plays a tremendous role in conveying her ideas to the American audience. As a novel, Charlotte serves not only as a warning to the female sex, but also as a guide to correct womanly behavior; encouraging the “fair sex” to be moral, upstanding and virtuous. As Rowson mentions in her preface she has the purest intentions to educate the women of her time; “I wrote with a mind anxious for the happiness for that sex whose morals and conduct have so powerful san influence on mankind in general”( p881). With this in mind Rowson introduces as well as recommends an entirely new attitude for the “new American woman”. Through her narrative Rowson speaks out against the sensibility which plagues women. This newly developed notion prompted women too look to their feelings as a source of knowledge. In her advice “Oh my dear girls � for to such only am I writing � listen not to the voice of love…” she clearly shows that too much emotional response will lead to immorality and weakness which in turn leads to an ultimate downfall. In her tale Charlotte’s young and naïve heart follows the seductive Montraville and eventually leads her to her untimely death. Rowson stresses that this over-emphasis of emotions will lead a woman astray.

So how could this affect the minds of the American audience? Rowson’s novel was published at a time when American women were looking for their own sense of identity. Having Europe as their shadow, all they had was the corrupt ideals concerning women like the fact that a woman was considered to be mans property and was quite limited in political and social involvements. So with almost a motherly advice Rowson offered her female readers an example by which not to follow but to take with them a learned sense of what a woman should strive for. Perhaps it was this encouraging ideology against sensibility and towards independence which led to the tremendous success of this novel.

Another important aspect of Charlotte is the fact that Rowson plays an omniscient role as narrator. Through out the story she offers Charlotte sympathy through her ill-fated journey. As she is introducing the story Rowson mentions that “the tear of compassion still trembled in my eye for the fate of the unhappy Charlotte” (p881). There are numerous times when the narrator prompts sympathy and intrudes on the story with moralizing and forgiving words; “Pleasure is a vain allusion; she draws you on to a thousand follies, errors and I may say vices” (p87). This sympathy promotes compassion in the reader as well. Since Americans in their own were problematic outcasts; fleeing from Europe to find freedom, this brought about their initiation of Charlotte as their heroine.

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Another aspect of form contributes to Americans excepting Charlotte as one of their own. This is illustrated through the plot sequence if the novel. Charlotte’s journey follows a famous model of a hero/heroine discussed by Joseph Campbell. As he stated the hero goes through a process of separation, initiation and return. These stages can be traced through Charlotte’s story, consequently showing that she truly is a heroine to her readers. It is at the point when Charlotte has to leave her country of England and embark on a journey to America that she experiences the separation form everything she knew; including her parents and friends. Once Charlotte is in America the cruel Montraville deserts and forces her to endure a good deal of heartache and sorrow; this illustrating the initiation into harsh reality for poor Charlotte. Finally Charlotte rejoins her father and although in great pain and misery she leaves this world, it is not without bringing her story to a satisfying conclusion; Montraville will suffer with guilt while her female audience leaves off with a lifelong lesson and memory.

Another element of the form that contributes to Charlotte becoming the bestselling American novel is the way Rowson sets up her characters and offers great insight into their motives as well as the characters psychological pattern of thought. The antagonists in the story could be looked at as symbolical figures for the evil ways of life in Europe. The villains, or those who corrupt innocent Charlotte are all Europeans and dwelling in the American land. During this time, especially with their Puritan heritage the Americans looked on to Europe as a place full of corruption and sin. It is then no wonder that someone like a British soldier like Belcore or a French woman like Madame La Rue could be so detrimental to Charlotte, who is looked at by the reader as an innocent bystander. In one instance Madame La Rue is convincing Charlotte to open Montravilles letter, once Charlotte gives in “Mademoiselle eyed the unsuspecting Charlotte, as she perused the letter, with a malignant pleasure” (p85). The word malignant demonstrates the predisposition to evil by Charlotte’s caretaker and mentor. Rowson’s word choice points out the conniving character of Madame La Rue. By closely describing the antagonists as well as using specific language, Susanna Rowson creates an overall negative view for the reader and he/she sides and sympathizes with the main character. This in all its combination once again brings out Charlotte on top and idolizes her in the minds of the American audience.

Another great force in the novel is Rowson’s masterful use of flash back in combination with character development. In the beginning of the novel she goes back in time to tell the story of Charlotte’s parents; two very caring, trusting and idealistic people. While telling the story of Lucy Eldridge and Temple, Rowson most conveniently sets up Charlotte’s character. By illustrating the purity and the love from which Charlotte had sprung, the reader gets an immediate glimpse of the succession of Charlotte’s values. Hence gaining an understanding for the dangerously naïve girl produced from this pure union. With this the reader does not blame Charlotte but sees that she is an innocent bystander who has fallen to adversity. This once again brings out sympathy in the reader and in turn promotes Charlotte to be seen as a fallen heroine.

Charlotte A Take of Truth by Susanna Rowson was the first best selling novel in America. The story of a young girl fallen to seduction caught the attention of the American public on many levels. This being a story of advice and lesson on morally appropriate behavior for women the character of Charlotte quickly grew to the status of an American heroine. Yet it was not just the storyline that attracted the American reader; the form of the novel significantly contributed to this taking place. Rowson’s narration of the story, character development and use of flashback contributed to Charlotte having this overwhelming effect on her audience. The uncertainty of the times combined with masterful writing gave way to Charlotte truly deserving the name of an American heroine.

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