Study Guide

Iola Leroy

by Frances Ellen Watkins

Iola Leroy Summary

Summary (Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Iola Leroy: Or, Shadows Uplifted, a novel set at the close of the Civil War, is a tale of racial uplift loosely developed around the fortunes and misfortunes of the title character. The opening chapters focus on conversations among the slaves and highlight the masking in which they engage around whites to conceal their joy as they follow the progress of the Union Army. Robert Johnson, the most literate of the slaves, provides leadership and counsel as the Union Army approaches and the folk prepare for their lives of freedom. When the army arrives, Robert, Tom Anderson, and many others join in the fight for freedom. After Iola’s rescue from slavery, she is assigned to the field hospital as a nurse. Iola refuses Dr. Gresham’s proposal that she marry him and move to the North as his white wife.

Harper follows these chapters with a flashback to nearly twenty years before the war. Iola is the daughter of Eugene Leroy, owner of a large plantation, and Marie Leroy, his former slave. When her father dies of yellow fever, Iola learns that she is black. She is sold into slavery along with her mother. After the war, Iola, in keeping with her sense of duty, opens a school for the freed, later destroyed by fire, and discovers that Robert Johnson is her uncle. They unite forces in their search for lost family members. During their search, they meet with the folk from the former plantations and learn that they are all thriving. Aunt Linda, a former cook,...

(The entire section is 533 words.)

Iola Leroy Bibliography (Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Carby, Hazel V. “ ‘Of Lasting Service for the Race’: The Work of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.” In Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. Discusses Iola Leroy as a logical extension of Harper’s political activism rather than an aberration. The novel can be viewed as a continuation of Harper’s lifelong crusade against slavery, racism, and the suppression of black women. An examination of her speeches reveals that all the issues raised in Iola Leroy have already been addressed in her earlier speeches and poetry. Thus, the novel should not be evaluated in formal literary terms but in terms that locate it squarely within the political debates of Harper’s time.

Christian, Barbara. “Shadows Uplifted.” In Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition, 1892-1976. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980. Focuses on the contradiction between Harper’s public life as a lecturer and the concerns of the novel. After the war, Harper traveled extensively throughout the South, lecturing to and about impoverished black women, yet the novel centers on a refined and educated octoroon who advocates the right of women to work. For most black women, work was necessary for survival. This contradiction could be a consequence of the author’s attempt to write a novel...

(The entire section is 467 words.)