Contending Forces Summary

Summary (Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The novel is divided into two distinct parts. The first part traces the fate of the family of a Bermuda planter, Charles Montfort, who leaves Bermuda in the 1790’s with his wife, children, and slaves to avoid compliance with a British law ordering him to free his slaves. He moves to North Carolina, where he soon incurs the jealousy of Anson Pollack, who has Montfort murdered after spreading the rumor that Montfort’s wife is black. She commits suicide, and the Montfort children are remanded into slavery; one son, Charles, Jr., is purchased and taken to England by a British visitor, and the other, Jesse, escapes to New Hampshire, where he grows up and eventually marries a black woman.

The second and main part of the novel traces the fate of one strand of Jesse’s family, the Smiths, a hundred years later. Mrs. Smith, a widow, runs a boardinghouse in Boston. Her son, Will, and daughter, Dora, live with her. Her house is a center for the social and political meetings of the young friends of her children. The plot traces them in their efforts to fulfill their goals in marriage and career. Will Smith is an African American civil rights activist. He is a philosopher whose views on politics and education resemble those of W. E. B. Du Bois. Will is a well-known and highly respected black leader in his community. He falls in love with Sappho Clark, one of the boarders in his mother’s roominghouse. When she leaves him rather than expose him to marriage with a woman of her background, he continues to think of her and seeks her until they are accidentally reunited in New Orleans. His love and devotion finally overcome her hesitation, and they are married.

Sappho Clark is a beautiful mulatto woman. Sappho had been born Mabelle Beaubean to a wealthy New Orleans family of multiracial ancestry. At the age of fifteen, Mabelle is abducted by a white uncle and brought to a house of prostitution. She is rescued...

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Contending Forces Bibliography (Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Brooks, Daphne A. Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850-1910. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2006. Analyzes the relationship between racial activism and gender politics in Hopkins’s work, especially her representations and acts of performance.

Brooks, Gwendolyn. Afterword to Contending Forces, by Pauline Hopkins. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1978. Praises Hopkins’s efforts to write an honest novel in which she urges African Americans to cherish, champion, and trust themselves rather than whites. Brooks recognizes Hopkins’s angry moods and depictions and feels Hopkins would be saddened by events of the latter twentieth century. Brooks believes, however, that Hopkins in style and content proves herself a “continuing slave” by imitating white writers. Hopkins’s mulatto heroes and heroines and their use of the English language say little to Brooks of the lives of nineteenth century African Americans.

Du Bois, W. E. B. “The Colored Magazine in America.” The Crisis 5 (November, 1912): 33-35. Notes that Hopkins was dismissed as literary editor of Colored American Magazine in 1904 because her tone was not conciliatory enough for the new management.

Johnson, Abby, and Ronald M. Johnson. “Away from Accommodation: Radical Editors and Protest Journalism, 1900-1910.” Journal of Negro History 62, no. 4 (October, 1977): 325-328. Praises Hopkins for her honest and outspoken approach to her stories and essays. In Contending Forces and other works, she “examined topics widely considered taboo and usually excluded from conciliatory journals.”

Shockley, Ann. “Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins: A Biographical Excursion into Obscurity.” Phylon 33 (Spring, 1972): 22-26. Discusses the facts surrounding Hopkins’s life and literary efforts. Notes that Hopkins did much public speaking, for which she received favorable press. Most of Shockley’s observations are factual rather than evaluative, but she recognizes the merits of Contending Forces, even though it is told “in the genteel and romantic fashion of its time.”

Tate, Claudia. “Allegories of Black Female Desire: Or, Rereading Nineteenth-Century Sentimental Narratives of Black Female Authority.” In Changing Our Own Words: Essays on Criticism, Theory, and Writing by Black Women, edited by Cheryl Wall. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1989. Examines nineteenth century African American attitudes toward marriage and freedom and concludes that Hopkins’s texts are liberating.

Wallinger, Hanna. Pauline E. Hopkins: A Literary Biography. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2005. Extended work of biographically based literary criticism; includes a full chapter on Contending Forces.