James Fenimore Cooper Society Website
Placed on line August 2009
©2009, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta
[may be downloaded and reproduced for personal or instructional use, or by libraries]
Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 2007 Cooper Seminar (No. 16), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Hugh C. MacDougall and Steven Harthorn, editors. (pp. 54-62)
Return to SUNY Seminars Articles & Papers
Criticism on women in Cooper’s novels has developed a flexible framework to help us understand what Leslie Fiedler refers to as his “scarcely indistinguishable ingénues” (75). While James Russell Lowell noted “The women he draws from one model don’t vary,” we can no longer just accept they are “All sappy as maples and flat as a prairie” (66). The general model that comes to the fore when reading through this criticism is dynamic. It places women in “dialectical relationships” to patriarchal figures, analyzes agency within different “gendered spaces,” and notices traditional “feminine” roles being pushed to the most “outer limits.”1 In all these studies, it is argued we can no longer view these characters outside of the larger “social totality” and “cultural matrix” within which they are found.2 Since Cooper’s women ultimately move, and are restrained, within broader social and cultural environments, the challenge is to best understand how they do this moving, and how they relate to these environments.
In The Spy, Cooper presents us with two strikingly different female-to-society relationships. Although Sarah and Frances are both influenced by their culture’s preferred path to marriage and domesticity, one becomes a more passive victim along this path, while the other, a more active heroine. Two theoretical models can help us see how these two paths differ. By reading Sarah in light of recent theories on trauma and memory, this essay will show how society and culture creates what is called an inescapable “selfobject” for this character, a term borrowed from psychoanalysis to describe any person experienced as “subjectively connected” to and “extended” from the self (Kohut, quoted in Harris 28). As a victim of trauma, Sarah’s “cohesive sense of selfhood” is disrupted when she finds out her suitor is already married to another woman, and this lost sense of cohesion results in multiple symptoms found in trauma patients: repetitive thoughts, manic hallucinations, and nightmarish dreams (Caruth, Explorations, 4). Her selfobject is at first an abstract, culturally assumed future husband that serves to empower and extend a grandiose image of omnipotence, meaning, and comprehensive exhibitionism. Over time, however, this abstraction turns into a more concrete figure, and when he is suddenly taken away from her, the assumed world she lives in shatters before her eyes.
In contrast, by reading Sarah’s sister Frances in light of recent kinship theory, this essay will show how Cooper’s heroine increasingly recognizes herself as a woman intended to be traded between men. One might consider Frances in contrast to Sarah’s selfobject, and instead read her as what I will call an “objectself”—a form of self that similarly empowers and strengthens her sense of omnipotence by allowing her to develop and exhibit control over her place in society. Read alongside Gayle Rubin’s essay “Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex,” there is a clear rupture in traditional gender roles brought about by the Revolutionary War in this novel. According to Rubin’s model, the sex oppression of women is strengthened and upheld by three main conditions: clear boundaries between the “traders” and “traded”, an unequivocal taboo against homosexuality, (and hence privileging of heterosexuality), and a limited ability to choose between matri- and patrilineages. In The Spy, all three of these conditions are weakened by the rupture of war, and Frances stretches conventional gender roles as a result of this rupture.
As author, Cooper subtly glosses over this break in history by creating a form of “autonomous agency” in Frances, a form of agency that appears liberating and heroic on the surface, allowing her to escape the harshest forms of trauma experienced by Sarah, but one that is in reality still restrained and controlled by men. The historical romance thus serves as a vehicle to cover up the rupture in traditional gender roles brought about by war. It presents an apparently free and independent heroine in direct contrast to a traumatized sister, and then uses this heroine to construct a flexible, yet rigid model of patriarchy that can only have its boundaries stretched to its own constraining limits.
In 1980, the American Psychiatric Association finally came to acknowledge what many veterans of Vietnam were suffering as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. Trauma is explained as the product of stressors that follow events “generally outside the range of human experience,” such as rape, torture, kidnapping, bombing, natural catastrophes, incarceration, and accidents (Caruth, Explorations, 1; and Willis 26). The general direction that has been taken with this definition has been one of expansion and inclusion, so that not only physical injuries on the body can lead to trauma, but also wounds inflicted on the mind (Caruth, Unclaimed Experience, 3). According to Caruth, traumatic events create a “breach” in the mind’s experience of time, self, and the world; since one’s consciousness is not fully prepared for such traumatic events, they are usually experienced “too soon,” too unexpectedly, so that the only way one’s mind can become “available” to the events is through repetitive flashbacks, hallucinations, memories, and sometimes, even nightmares (Caruth, Unclaimed, 4).
Various theorists help us to understand how this experience of time, self, and world is built up before a traumatic event eventually breaks it down. Ronnie Janoff-Bulman argues that traumatic events shatter the subject’s “assumptive world”; this is a term used to describe how individuals develop assumptions about their own “personal vulnerability,” their own sense of the world as a “comprehensive and meaningful place,” and their own “positive value of the self” (Willis 26). While many people may not be consciously aware of this assumed world, everyone holds underlying notions of their relative relationship to the world, whether they consciously reflect upon it or not.
Mardi Horowitz takes this one step further. She draws attention to the way traumatic events can also shatter the self’s relationship with other people. If caused by human agents, traumatic events are often more inflicting than natural disasters because they later prevent one from developing trust in other human beings (Willis 26). For literary critics these models of assumptive worlds are important because in many ways the relationship between time, self, and environment is the product of culture. Especially for young women in the 19th century, the creation of “assumptive worlds” influenced by family, education, religion, advice manuals and novels had a very powerful effect on the minds of young Americans.
When the reader is first introduced to Sarah Wharton in The Spy, her assumptive world is almost fully developed. Through education and the “usual cultivation,” she is “already admitted into the society of women”; she is viewed by men who visit the Locusts as the “belle of the city;” and because of her “fine figure” and “lovely face,” she has almost complete “female sovereignty” over admiring suitors and fashionable young men (24-25). Accepting “idle vapouring of her danglers to be truths,” Sarah accepts her role passively and submissively, giving stock answers to almost all posed questions. Her entire sense of self in this culture is bound up with future time, taking the form of a married wife to an acceptable husband. When describing Sarah, Cooper draws attention to this assumptive world: “Although a woman be not actually in love,” Cooper writes, “she seldom hears without a blush the name of a man whom she might love, and who has been connected with herself, by idle gossips, in the amatory rumour of the day” (45).
Nothing in Sarah’s relationship between time, self, and world is “actual” in The Spy. The self, for Sarah, is located away from her own individuality, caught moving back and forth, in “rumour,” in passing, and in “idle gossip.” Caught in a world of future “mights,” Sarah’s most sincere expressions of a “blushing” face and “native charms” are completely the product of what others imagine her to presently be, and later become. Some psychoanalysts have tried to explain how this selfobject affects a young child’s development. Melanie Klein’s “Envy and Gratitude,” for instance, locates the infant’s first object relation as the relation to the mother, and specifically the mother’s breast, describing how nourishment in the early stages of one’s life creates instinctive desires for a lost sense of prenatal unity with the mother (180).3 In this context, the ability to create what are called “central organizing fantasies” in a selfobject can play in the lives of trauma victims. As a child grows up, the mother is replaced by different selfobjects, and as mentioned earlier, these selfobjects are any persons who are “subjectively connected to” and “extended” from the self; they enable a “cohesive sense of selfhood” to emerge through experiences of being admired, praised, and valued (Heinz Kohut, quoted in Willis). Just as the mother’s breast allows the child to internalize a lost sense of idealized power, unity, and grandiose omnipotence, these later selfobjects function as powerful sources of a young child’s growing self-image and developing sense of worth.
Cooper makes the presence of a psychoanalytic selfobject much clearer as the novel’s plot develops. Long absent from the city, the “remembrance” of Sarah had in “some measure been banished” from the mind of Wharton (106). Yet, the “recollections of Sarah” were more “vivid” to herself (106). In every woman’s life, Cooper adds, she reaches a point when she may be “predisposed” to love; “It is at the happy age when infancy is lost in opening maturity—when the guileless heart beats with those anticipations of life which the truth can never realize—and when the imagination forms images of perfection that are copied after its own unsullied image” (106). The desires and needs that the original maternal object of nourishment fulfils is aggrandized and idealized by the child with every mark of absence from the actual object. As the object of fulfillment is lacking, the instinctual desire increases. Similarly, here Sarah is absent from her lover, but her imaginative recollections and images of his presence are of “perfection,” not original copies of reality, but copies after its own “unsullied visions.” This selfobject functions, in Cooper’s own words, to fulfill “anticipations of life which the truth can never realize,” and as contemporary psychoanalysts and trauma theorists believe, “as a mirror for the child’s grandiosity and exhibitionism” (Willis). A period of “opening maturity” that constructs such “images of perfection” reflects back on the subject’s own “guileless” anticipation, marking an “unsullied” future of omnipotent projections.
Sarah’s selfobject serves as an extension and expansion of her own limited self, and it increases in substance and power as time goes on: “At this happy age, Sarah left the city, and she had brought with her a picture of futurity, faintly impressed, it is true, but which gained durability from her solitude, and in which Wellmere had been placed in the foreground” (106). Eventually, as shown in this passage, all selfobjects come to be seen as “true objects,” that is, they are no longer just extensions of the self, but are increasingly experienced as separate and distinct individuals. Wellmere, as a separate and “true object” is here made “durable” and “foregrounded” out of the abstract backgrounds of Sarah’s fanciful imagination. The sheer power of this process on the mind of a marriageable woman in the 19th century quickly intrudes upon the scene, however, when Wellmere walks into the room, “overpowers Sarah,” and forces her to withdraw.
The way in which Wellmere’s presence repeatedly causes Sarah to become “overpowered” foreshadows the trauma she experiences later on her wedding day. To return to Cathy Caruth’s work in Unclaimed Experience, trauma is caused by an event that is experienced “too soon, too unexpectedly, to be fully known”; it is therefore “not available to consciousness until it imposes itself again, repeatedly, in the nightmares and repetitive actions of the survivor” (Caruth 4). Trauma is caused by a “breach in the mind’s experience of time, self, and world,” and the very “unassimilated” nature of the breach—“the way it was precisely not known in the first instance—returns to haunt survivors later on” (4). Cooper’s description of Harvey Birch intruding on Sarah’s wedding day follows closely in line with Caruth’s description of traumatic experiences (or non-experiences):
To Sarah, the countenance of Birch, as expressive as it was, produced no terror; but the instant she recovered from the surprise of his interruption, she turned her anxious gaze on the features of the man to whom she had just pledged her troth. They afforded the most terrible confirmation of all that the pedlar affirmed; the room whirled round, and she fell lifeless into the arms of her aunt (256).
In this scene, the immediate announcement by Birch of Wellmere’s other wife is not registered at all by Sarah, just as most traumatic experiences are non-experienced. The expression on his face, according to Cooper, produced “no terror” for Sarah, and it is only after “she recovered from the surprise of the interruption” and glanced around the room, when she finally fell “lifeless to the floor” (256).
Caruth believes that the recurring images of traumatic experiences are not important for expressing what they grasp, but for what they precisely do not grasp—their “incomprehensibility” (6). Consciousness, in trying to deal with traumatic experiences, becomes an “endless testimony to the impossibility of living” (62). To a great extent, one repeats a struggle to die over and over again. In The Spy, Sarah constantly returns to the event that her mind couldn’t truly grasp the first time she experienced it. To her younger sister Francis, she admonishes, “‘Peace, you foolish young woman…all cannot be happy at the same moment; perhaps you have no brother, or husband, to console you,’” yet “‘you look beautiful, and you will yet find one; but see that he has no other wife—’tis dreadful to think what might happen, should he be twice married’” (270).
Over and over again, Cooper’s plot forces Sarah to witness scenes of catastrophe and destruction to reinforce the sense of repetitive, non-ending, near-death experiences. The fire caused by the Skinners and the accidental shooting of Isabella are two such moments, when the manic refrain of the victim becomes blended into the background of blood, gore, and apocalyptic fire. After the latter of these two, Sarah laments: “‘See…but will it not wash away love? Marry, young woman, and then no one can expel him from your heart, unless’—she added, whispering, and bending over the other, ‘you find another there before you; then die, and go to heaven—there are no wives in heaven.’” (281)
Right after the fire takes place, with lights glaring and loud crashes still echoing in the background, we read about much of the same: “‘This, then, is heaven—and you are one of its bright spirits. Oh! How glorious is its radiance! I had thought the happiness I have lately experienced was too much for earth. But we shall meet again—yes—yes—we shall meet again’” (265). Mardi Horowitz believes that traumatic experiences which rupture one’s schemata of human relationships are worse than the types brought about by natural catastrophes. The fire and sudden death of Isabella are two such events that represent each side of the traumatic coin, so to speak. When caused by human agents, it becomes much harder for victims to reconnect with their surrounding community, form new attachments, and establish empathy for others. Repeatedly it becomes clear that Sarah can hardly show empathy for those around her once her traumatic experience with Wharton becomes repetitive. The cognitive overload and flooding of emotions that are symptoms of trauma, and which are dramatically represented by Cooper in the graphic scenes mentioned above, make it extremely difficult for victims to construct healthy interactions with those around them.
Because Sarah’s sense of order in the world was always one that assumed a future husband, the destruction of this human relationship isolates her from the community forever, condemns her to be caught in the manic refrains of her own mind, and traps her in a form of unconscious hallucination that is anything but a proper relationship to the outside world. Cooper’s novel, in this sense, is portraying a very dramatic experience (or non-experience) to his 19th-century readers. The potential for marriage clearly does enlarge one’s sense of omnipotence, grandiose possibility, and constant exhibitionism. It also connects one to the community not on one’s own terms in the present, but on society’s terms for the future. But when this schemata of time, self, and world is broken up, one falls back into what Richard Ulman and Doris Brothers call “narcissistic retreat” (Willis 29). The self feels so threatened, so violated, and so vulnerable, that all of its energies must be drawn back into a task of self-preservation (29). It is beyond the scope of this essay to describe what broader effects this traumatic representation of rupture may have had on female readers of the 19th century. But as I will show in the next section in connection to Frances, the lonely and manic state of hallucination that Sarah experiences is much different than the apparently more heroic path to marriage taken by her sister.
Nina Baym’s “Women of Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales” (1971) is still considered by many to be one of the most influential works on Cooper’s women. For Baym, women play a crucial role in Cooper’s fiction. Since his overall vision is always one of “social totality,” even when women seem like “insignificant beings,” or are very “crudely drawn,” they play an important role as the “nexus of social interaction” (697).
Baym admits that Cooper’s “social totality” is predominantly organized around patriarchal standards. Drawing from anthropological studies by Levi-Strauss on kinship, gift-giving, and marriage conventions, she recognizes that women are the “chief signs” and “language” of communication between males; they are the “mortar rather than the bricks” of patriarchal society (698). Yet, despite this conventional approach to patriarchal societies, Baym reads the position of Cooper’s women in a subtly balanced and sophisticated way. Though women have no power over men in this framework, Baym contends, they are still responsible for the male social structures and bonds that maintain social order. For her, it is important to keep in mind that Cooper’s conservatism does not allow for any existential or romantic selfhood in this structure—male or female. The main focus is always the group, and so while women may be seen as less “persons” than men, the chief “existent” is always what is best for the “social good” (698).
Baym’s main argument about the position of women as “signs” between men in a patriarchal society has been invaluable to scholarship on Cooper. Undoubtedly, many critics writing on this issue in relation to Cooper’s women often use her essay to illuminate their own. I want to do the same, but only as a starting point. Since the time of Baym’s writing, another, equally influential work on the position of women as “mortar” between men has been brought forth. Gayle Rubin’s “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex” (1975) brings a much richer and more complex framework to our understanding of Cooper’s writing.
Rubin’s essay sets out to explain how societies transform biological sexuality into products of human activity. She wants to get at the root causes of gender and sexual inequality, and she is willing to traverse through several different theoretical models in order to understand what modes of thought sustain these inequalities. Her project is an ambitious one. She begins by noting that when placed in certain relations, women are victims to social apparatuses which treat females as raw materials and domesticated women as products. Classical Marxism is one traditional framework used to conceptualize this type of sex oppression, but this model ultimately fails, according to Rubin, because it is primarily a theory of social life, not one at all concerned with sex (160).
While Marxism helps to explain women’s usefulness to capitalism in many ways, Rubin claims it does nothing to explain the genesis of their oppression. Women have been oppressed long before the advent of capitalism, and they are often found in similar social positions where capitalism is not the economic system of choice. Even if one accepts the traditional Marxist analysis of reproduced labor, which explains how domestic work in the home contributes to a capitalist’s overall surplus value, it does not explain the underlying causes for why women do the domestic work in the private sphere, and not the men (163). Explanations for this sex/gender system need to have deeper cultural roots; in the end, Rubin faults Marx for subsuming fundamental sex inequality under “historical” and “moral” elements that go beyond capitalist labor and reproduction (164).4
Levi-Strauss’s Elementary Structures of Kinship (1949, 1969) shows how sexuality and marriage can be studied as culturally imposed structures upon the natural facts and necessities of procreation. His work explores the complex and often varying rules and taboos of different societies, touching on everything from marriage, incest, and name taboos, to descent and clan loyalty. Levi-Strauss places much more emphasis on sexuality in human society than Marx. His theory does not assume a genderless subject, but always recognizes humans as male or female. Thus, one can trace sharp differences in the “divergent social destinies” of the two sexes in his work (Rubin 171).
While kinship structures come in many different forms, there are three common elements that appear in many of them. In The Spy, all three of these common aspects are threatened by the rupture of war: clearly defined boundaries between the “traders” and the “traded” are blurred; the necessary taboo against homosexuality is weakened; and choices between matrilineal and patrilineal lineages become intensified. Frances is caught right in the middle of this breakdown in traditional kinship practices; by keeping Rubin’s and Levi-Strauss’s model in mind, we can better understand how her status as an “objectself” contrasts sharply with her sister’s selfobject.
The practice of capturing, releasing, and “trading” soldiers during a time of war produces a significant rupture in the traditional sex/gender system of kinship. Henry Wharton is one particular solider who, before the main action of the novel begins, uses ties with friends to meet up with his family. “Whenever the main army made any movements, Captain Wharton had, of course, accompanied it; and once or twice, under the protection of strong parties, acting in the neighborhood of the Locusts, he had enjoyed rapid and stolen interviews with his friends” (29). While it is debatable at this point whether or not Henry is indeed within the rebel lines, Mr. Wharton explains how he himself was given up to the enemy by fellow neighbors looking to get hold of his land. We find out later that Frances even spent some time in jail with her father as a result. Harvey Birch and Henry are explicit about the way men are “traded” back and forth during time of war: “I brought myself out, and can take myself in,” argues Henry (54). While this at first may seem like men are in complete control of their own “exchange,” this line is quickly blurred: “‘Our bargain,’” says Henry to Birch, “‘went no further than to procure my disguise, and to let me know when the coast was clear.’” “‘Yes,’” agrees Birch, but “‘the pass I gave you will serve but once’” (55). While a few guineas are originally thought to be enough to stave off the greedy Skinners, Birch reminds Henry that even money could not liberate Major Andre (54).
The way in which all of these men are traded, bought, and sold among opposing army camps is not representing the same form of kinship exchange introduced by Levi-Strauss and Rubin. In the end, one could view these types of transactions as nothing more than your normal war-time prisoner exchanges. And Rubin speaks to an importance difference here between men exchanged in war and women exchanged in kinship practices: “Men can be trafficked as slaves, hustlers, athletic stars, serfs, or as some other catastrophic social status,” but “women are transacted as slaves, serfs, and prostitutes, but also simply as women” (176). In order to uphold the “supreme rule of the gift” in kinship marriages, it is crucial that there are clearly defined roles between those who are doing the exchanging and the exchanged: “If it is women who are being transacted, then it is the men who give and take them who are linked, the women being a conduit of a relationship rather than a partner. The relations of such a system are such that women are in no position to realize the benefits of their own circulation” (174).
Frances is initially one of these “gifts” caught in a male system of exchange between her brother Henry and her lover Peyton Dunwoodie. While teasing his sister about her professed loyalty to the rebel cause, Henry makes clear the love between two men in a kinship network:
‘What say you to the charge, my pretty sister?’ cried the Captain gaily; -‘Did Peyton strive to make you hate your king, more than he does himself?’ ‘Peyton Dunwoodie hates no one,’ said Francis, quickly; then, blushing at her own ardour, she added immediately, ‘he loves you, Henry, I know; for he has told me so again and again.’ (30)
In order to maintain the taboo against homosexuality, the love between two men can only take acceptable form when it is masked behind an exchange of women. In a time of war, however, both of these first two aspects of traditional kinship practices, the clear line between traders and traded, and the maintenance of a taboo against homosexuality, become weakened.
Henry and Dunwoodie are described as having love for another in the exchange of Frances, but strains of homosexual tendencies become even stronger as the novel progresses—and this time, women are found further removed from the scene. War lends itself to the formation of strong feelings among men, as close knit ties in the face of death and violence force them to bond much closer with those fighting on their side. When Captain Singleton is injured in battle and returned to the Locusts, for example, Peyton Dunwoodie is so emotionally distraught over his friend’s condition that he blatantly ignores any contact with his lover Frances: “The smile of affection that used to lighten his dark features on meeting his mistress, was supplanted by the lowering look of care; his whole soul seemed to be absorbed in one engrossing emotion, and he proceeded at once to his object” (99).
From this sense of betrayal, Frances “felt a chill” at her heart,” and in opposition to any clear taboo against homosexual relations, she quickly comes to view Singleton as a “rival”:
There is a devotedness in female love that admits of no rivalry. All the tenderness of the heart, all the powers of the imagination, are enlisted in behalf of the tyrant passion; and where all is given, much is looked for in return. Frances had spent hours of anguish, of torture, on account of Dunwoodie, and he now met her without a smile, and left her without a greeting. The ardour of her feelings was unabated, but the elasticity of her hopes was weakened. As the supporters of the nearly lifeless body of Dunwoodie’s friend passed her, in their way to the apartment prepared for his reception, she caught a view of this seeming rival. (99-100)
As Singleton is being treated by the doctor, Dunwoodie holds his hand with the most “tender friendship,” constantly “watching his countenance” in “feverish silence” (101). Dunwoodie’s love for his dying friend later becomes stronger than Frances’s hinted at sense of rivalry. When Miss Peyton engages in a conversation with Dunwoodie about his feeling toward Singleton, he is not exactly subtle in expressing the degree of his affection with effeminate, sentimental, flowery language: “‘He is the beneficent spirit of the corps, equally beloved by us all; so mild, so equal, so just, so generous, with the meekness of a lamb and the fondness of a dove—it is only in the hour of battle that Singleton is a lion.’” (103) Miss Peyton’s response is one of surprise: “‘You speak of him as if he were your mistress, Major Dunwoodie,’ observed the smiling spinster, glancing her eye at her niece, who sat pale and listening, in the corner of the room” (103). “‘I love him as one,’ cried the excited youth, ‘but he requires care and nursing; all now depends on the attention he receives’” (103).
As time passes, and the plot thickens when Henry becomes prisoner of the Rebel forces, Francis inscribes her own self into the network of exchange previously carried out by only men. As an “objectself,” France uses strategic delay tactics with Dunwoodie:
‘Dear Dunwoodie,’…softening nearly to tears, and again extending her had to him, as the richness of her colour gradually returned, ‘you know my sentiments—this war once ended, and you may take that hand for ever—but I can never consent to tie myself to you by an closer union than already exists, so long as you are arrayed in arms against my brother.’ (70).
As Pierre Bourdieu reminds us in his Outline of a Theory of Practice (1977), the importance of time in kinship practices is crucial for understanding how these exchanges take place. Delay, strategy, deferment, self-deception: these are the practical components of reciprocity (5, 7-9). When Henry is recaptured by American forces, Frances makes it clear she will not marry anyone who takes part in her brother’s destruction. When Miss Peyton refers to her as Dunwoodie’s future wife, she retorts, “I am not a wife yet, and we have little reason to wish for another wedding in our family” (322). Time, always the most important element when considering kinship exchange, is strategically used by Frances to control her brother’s destiny:
The clock stood directly before the eyes of Frances, and she turned many an anxious glance at the dial; but the solemn language of the priest soon caught her attention, and her mind became intent upon the vows she was uttering. The ceremony was quickly over, and as the clergyman closed the words of benediction, the clock told the hour of nine. This was the time that Harper had deemed so important, and Francis felt as if a mighty load was at once removed from her heart. (369)
In a conventional kinship triangle between Frances, Henry, and Dunwoodie, Frances would have no chance to inscribe her into the exchange of women by men. But because war has ruptured this system, causing Frances to have split loyalties to her brother and lover, her fraternal sympathies comes into conflict with her sexual sympathies. Therefore she can use the unique circumstances that war provides her to challenge the existing sex/gender system.
One of the last common elements found in kinship exchange societies is the strict adherence to either patri- or matrilineage systems. In the case of Frances, even this aspect of tradition begins to break down. In contrast to Sarah in the very beginning of the novel, a sister who takes all the “idle vapouring” of men to be true, and never argues or contradicts with their opinions, Frances mocks Colonel Wellmere and critiques his overblown confidence in the British army. When she refers to a win by the Rebels as a “running fight” by the Loyalists, Peyton intrudes in the background with a laugh, and then adds: “‘You managed him famously, my dear little kinswoman; never— no never, forget the land of your birth; remember, if you are the grand-daughter of an Englishman, you are, also, the grand-daughter of a Peyton’” (27).
It is important to note even here that, like her use of time and strategy with Dunwoodie, Frances’s autonomy is always closer to a form of dependent agency: either way she “chooses,” her power is ultimately a form of secondary privilege. If she accepts the lineage from the father’s line, she remains under the reins of her brother and Mr. Wharton. If she chooses the lineage from the mother’s line, she passes over to the reins of her new husband. By delaying and strategically using time to forestall marriage, Frances is never stepping outside the network of male kinship exchange; she is merely using a form of “autonomous agency” which is liberating only to a very limited extent. As an “objectself,” Frances chooses a form of selfhood that is only “autonomous” to the extent she serves as “agent” for another. Privilege, here, passes right through Frances and back to her male protectors; Cooper reinforces this weak sense of agency in the protagonist’s final climb up the mountainside.
On the way up, Frances is a “heroine” who is “young, active, and impelled by generous motives” (353). Courageously making her way through “scattered grass,” “increasing darkness,” and uncivilized, unexplored land, Frances represents a woman leading a life “without a path, or any guide to direct her in her course” (354). But after meeting with Harper in the hut, Frances, like all women following temporary breaks in traditional social structures, eventually needs to be led back down the hill under the protection and guidance of a man:
Frances felt, as she walked by the side of this extraordinary man, that she was supported by one of no common stamp. The firmness of his step, and the composure of his manner, seemed to indicate a mind settled and resolved. By taking a route over the back of the hill, they descended with great expedition, and but little danger. The distance it had taken Frances an hour to conquer, was passed by Harper and his companion in ten minutes. (362)
In the end Cooper seems to reinforce a rather conservative view toward free-thinking, independent women. While it may be brave and courageous for women to seek their own paths in life, ultimately it is much safer (and quicker) to follow the paths back to society already mapped out by men. Yet despite all this false idealism, The Spy is a fascinating read because in many ways the historical rupture brought about by war escapes the false gloss of romance in Cooper’s novel. History oftentimes speaks for itself in art and fiction, and if the lives and actions of women can speak along with this history, then it is up to us as readers to uncover their voices. Frances eventually may have returned to a male-dominated world by the end of the novel, but for a moment—even if only for a very brief moment—she stood strongly within the repressive kinship structures of her time as an aggressive, participating, and active woman.
More studies mapping the ways women “move” in Cooper’s fiction should be explored in the future. Nina Baym was right when she criticized those who treat his female characters as simply either people or objects. For as this study has hopefully shown, they are oftentimes a little of both. Whereas Sarah’s selfobject increased her sense of omnipotence and power only to leave her in a manic, hallucinatory state of narcissism, Frances, as an “objectself,” used her position as someone (and something) exchanged in order to find a degree of autonomous agency in a society she could never truly escape from.
1. For the importance of father-daughter relationships in Cooper, see Susan Shillinglaw’s “Cooper’s Father and Daughters: The Dialectic of Paternity,” which argues there is a “generational and historical” tension between Cooper’s fathers and daughters (par. 4). As the daughter figure grows older and begins to assert her individuality, the father figure supports this process as he approaches mid-life, begins to decline, and gets weaker (par. 5). A “dialectical relationship” between dependence and independence develops between them, as daughters defy and re-inscribe the father’s power along their path into adulthood (par. 8). In “The Perils of Parenting: Paternal Manipulation in the Leatherstocking Tales,” Signe Wegener reveals a similar dialectic by examining how fathers often manipulate and use their daughters for future self-interests. But because they are also depicted as weak and flawed characters, Cooper simultaneously “asserts and undermines” the father’s central role in society’s “patriarchal script” (par. 3). And finally, William Owen’s “From Resistance to Autonomy: Daughter-Father Relationships in the Last of the Mohicans and Pathfinder” also calls our attention to the ways in which Cooper’s novels “present sites of contestation between the values of the father and the emerging ones of the daughter,” noting a similar “generational” tension that Shillinglaw discusses (par. 1). In relation to the importance of gendered spaces in recent criticism, Rebecca Flynn’s “Gendered Space and Judith Hutter in James Fenimore Cooper’s Deerslayer” argues that examinations of social boundaries in the text reveal that domestic spaces are “constructed” in relation to others, noting how occasionally Cooper’s are represented with power but only away from the home (par. 1). Related to the issue of challenges to traditional male-female relationships, Abby Werlock argues that in order of publication, Cooper’s women become “more complex, more active, and more realistic” as his career went along (“Courageous Young Women in Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales,” par. 2). She highlights the positive qualities of Elizabeth Temple in The Pioneers, Cora Munro in The Last of the Mohicans, Ellen Wade in The Prairie, Mabel Dunham in The Pathfinder, and Judith Hutter in The Deerslayer. Most interesting is the way she notes how Ellen Wade is an “active” character despite the “watchfulness” of the men who “own” her. In The Pathfinder, Mabel Dunham actively travels into the wilderness, symbolizing for Werlock a woman’s push into the “outer limits” of male-female relationships. It calls attention to one of the crucial paradoxes of what I will later call “autonomous agency” in Cooper’s women: they are dependently independent, in that they can only serve as autonomous selves to the extent that their autonomy is a form of agency underneath patriarchal designs. Anne Bower notices a similar idea in “Resisting Women: Feminist Students and Cooper’s The Pioneers, with a few Thoughts Concerning Pedagogical Approaches to The Prairie.” In this study, Bower and her students came to see that “no matter how brave and bold Elizabeth could be, Cooper and his belief system, his world in fact, would always put her at the mercy and/or protection of men” (7).
2. While I will be referring back to Baym more extensively later in this essay, at this point I will note that in “The Women of Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales,” Baym argues that “women are of central social significance” in Cooper’s novels, an “inseparable part of the social totality,” and are most importantly depicted as the “nexus of social interaction” in a broader cultural order (697). Signe Wegener’s more recent book James Fenimore Cooper Versus the Cult of Domesticity: Progressive Themes of Femininity and Family in the Novels shows how Cooper can be read along with many of the other female writers of the day, all of whom were firmly entrenched within the 19th century’s fascination with the “cult of domesticity”: “No matter where in time the writer chooses to pitch a literary tent, the contemporary cultural matrix remains, flavoring subject matter, plot, and character development. And for the early to mid-nineteenth-century American, male and female alike, an important part of this cultural matrix was what can best be termed ‘the cult of domesticity’” (1).
3. Klein reminds us that external circumstances play a big role in determining whether the mother’s breast as object is viewed as either a positive or negative one. She writes: “I am implying that the capacity both for love and for destructive impulses is, to some extent, constitutional, though varying individually in strength and interacting form the beginning with external conditions” (180).
4. Rubin also considers Engels’ Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884) to find an explanation for sex inequality. Engels does make an important distinction between economic reproduction, which is determined by the stage of development in labor, and social, or sexual reproduction, which is strongly determined by cultural development of family. By making this distinction, he allows us to see how the ways in which humans satisfy their needs of food, shelter, and clothing are just as culturally determined as the ways we satisfy our needs for procreation, sex, and childrearing.