Although this is a novel about American slavery in it’s infancy it only lightly touches on the plight of the slaves. It is much more concerned with the effect that slave owning has on the slave owners themselves, and an exploration of the ideas of property and ownership, both of material possessions and people. The main theme of the novel is a juxtaposition of slaves as property of their owners and women as property of their husbands.
Manon Gaudet is trapped in an unhappy marriage with a cold, cruel, brutal man. He owns a sugar plantation, and like most business men of the time relies on slaves as labour, both to work his plantation and for housekeeping. Manon’s wedding present from her aunt was a slave girl named Sarah, whom she can’t stand. In fact the feeling is mutual. Manon’s husband takes the idea that he owns everything and everyone in the household literally and has in fact borne two children to Sarah.
The story is told through first person narrative by Manon. She longs to be free of her husband and the house and go back to live in the town. She hates the cruel games her husband plays with the slaves and wishes her husband was more like her father who she believes to have been the perfect slave owner.
“Father was strict and fair. None of our people could marry off the farm, indeed they could never leave it unless they had some compelling reason, and visits by negroes from the neighbouring plantation were strictly forbidden. He didn’t allow them to work garden patches of their own, as he said it gave them a notion of independence and divided their loyalty,so that they might take more interest in their own patch than the farm.”
And after spelling out all the reasons her father was a good farmer and slave owner she finishes by saying
“I didn’t know, as a girl, how remarkable my father was”
This serves to illustrate that although Manon detests the way her husband treats the slaves, she has no moral issue with slavery itself. Slave owning is a normal way of life for her, and one she believes to be right. She issues commands and orders to the household slaves herself. And when she is deciding what to do with her mother’s property, she sees the slaves as part of this property.
However, she feels that she is owned by her husband and that this is wrong. She would love to be free of him and have her independence but does not see how this can happen and despises the system that makes this possible. Talking about a woman who had divorced her husband she says
“Sally sued to have her marriage portion, which was considerable, exempted from his creditors and restored to her. By some miracle she has won. Now she has her own income and is free of her detestable husband. Fortunate woman!”
And again, when dealing with her mothers estate,
“All this is mine, and yet not mine, because my husband can, and doubtless will, dispose of it just as soon as I can get it. ‘Is there no way to preserve this to myself?’ I pleaded with the lawyer. ‘”
From a modern viewpoint it would be easy to say that Manon is just as bad as her husband for despising the society that chains her to her husband, yet approving of a society that chains other people in slavery, sometimes literally. But Manon is a product of this society and the novel explores the idea of anyone treating anyone else as property is wrong and inhumane. Although we, as modern readers can make the connection, Manon never makes this connection. If she did she would have sympathy for Sarah, who hates her husband as much as Manon does. They are both the property of the same man, and they detest each other. I wonder sometimes if this is because they see each other reflected and can’t bear to witness it.
When Sarah runs away and Manon goes to great expense to retrieve her, she says that if she has to live with Sarah’s wild offspring, then so does she. They both hate the husband, and they both have to deal with the consequences of being his property.
Incidentally Manon never names her husband. He is always just referred to as her husband, a telling fact that the relationship is one of power and property rather than love and respect!
The book only covers a very short space of time. The first section deals with Manon’s situation and her unhappiness, but there are hints throughout of problems to come with a slave rebellion. When this rebellion finally happens, Manon’s life is changed forever, and she gets the freedom she has longed for. However, the revelations that the end of the book contain just serve to illustrate the fact that women in this society will always be property, and can only be useful if moneyed.
I really enjoyed this. There is so much more to it than I can possibly write here, but it does give an interesting view on what slave owning actually meant for the slave owners themselves, and a good perspective on the rights of women, or lack of them in this period.