Study Guide

Harpers Ferry

by Barrie Stavis

Harpers Ferry Themes

Themes and Meanings (Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The central theme in this play illustrates the evil of slavery and the role of important figures in dismantling it. John Brown saw the detriments of slavery with great clarity, and his vision is dramatized effectively in Harpers Ferry. He was an ordinary man, who, forged by historical forces, struck at the heart of slavery’s inhumanity. The attack on Harpers Ferry was the culminating act of his life, and it transformed him into a legend. He would neither be deterred by compromise nor be intimidated by the violence mobilized by slave owners to defend the billions of dollars they had invested in human property. He saw slavery as a perpetual state of war being waged against the slaves in order to keep them trapped in their subservient positions. The Fugitive Slave Act and other federal laws enacted in the 1850’s had the effect of spreading slavery into the northern states, and in response to this encroachment, John Brown felt it was his duty to join the battle with a direct attack.

An important secondary theme focuses on the deep Christian faith that was integral to John Brown’s character. It justified his abolitionist commitment and motivated his political and military action. His example served to reawaken the ambitious, stubborn Puritan spirit of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries in the United States and to mobilize the forces required to eradicate slavery and rededicate the country to its original conception of liberty for all.

A possible contradiction arises, however, between the love and forgiveness exemplified in the Christian tradition and the murderous resolve deemed necessary by the guerrillas to stop any military campaign. John Brown believed that education was the best way to defeat slavery, at least for the first four decades of his life. He nonetheless advocated a violent rebellion to enact change. The question remains at the end of Harpers Ferry: Could there be another way to bring forth reform? Does the path to a better society necessarily have to ford a river of blood?