Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Although The Jailing of Cecelia Capture begins with Cecelia’s incarceration and ends three days later with her release, Janet Campbell Hale also uses the jailing as a metaphor for the “prison” in which Cecelia has lived throughout her life. Most of the chapters begin in the present in the jail, but Hale soon has her protagonist remembering events from her past. These flashbacks, which occur in associational rather than in chronological order, fill in the details of Cecelia’s life, her case history. That history is one of entrapment and confused identity—the novel depicts the protagonist’s journey toward freedom and selfhood. Cecelia Capture Welles becomes Cecelia Capture, which involves the shedding of her “white” past and acquired “white” identity and the embracing of her American Indian heritage.

Cecelia spends her first twelve years on an Indian reservation in Idaho, where her father’s past shapes her life. Because of his failed “white” academic and athletic career at Notre Dame, he desperately wants a son to become the lawyer and athlete he tried to be. Cecelia senses his disappointment and attempts to become a worthy substitute for the missing son. Will Capture insists that she speak English and enrolls her in public school, where the white students make her miserable. Knowing that she must be better than they, she overachieves academically and athletically; but when she loses at a track meet, she understands that her lack of self-confidence has cost her the race....

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The Jailing of Cecelia Capture Context

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

In The Jailing of Cecelia Capture, Hale examines an American Indian woman’s struggle to achieve her identity and freedom. Since the novel is narrated primarily from her protagonist’s point of view, Hale offers a feminist critique of many social ills, among them punitive welfare agencies, dysfunctional families, male chauvinism, mother-daughter conflict, and inadequate health care for the poor (suggested by Corey’s unnecessarily painful birth). Although Nathan, Cecelia’s most oppressive male character, is white, men of color are also criticized. Thomas Running Horse, for example, disparages “educated squaws,” and Raoul, her lover in law school, treats her as a gynecologist would—clinically. In fact, male characters in the novel typically fail their women or abuse them.

Since the novel spans the thirty years of Cecelia’s life—she is jailed on her birthday—it is essentially a Bildungsroman, a belated coming-of-age story about a character’s quest for identity and adulthood. Yet this novel is about a woman of color, not a white male. Sex, education, career—Hale treats all these traditional subjects, but from a woman’s perspective. For example, a young man’s sexual experience often liberates him, impels him toward maturity; Cecelia’s first sexual experience results in pregnancy, welfare motherhood, and dependency on men and institutions—in effect, her “jailing.”

While she occasionally evokes the past (Cecelia imagines herself and Thomas Running Horse on the early plains), Hale focuses on the present and uses a fairly conventional narrative to tell Cecelia’s story, which seems to have much in common with Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982). Hale’s autobiography, Bloodlines: Odyssey of a Native Daughter (1993), and her first novel, Owl’s Song (1974), written for “young adults,” concern the same themes as The Jailing of Cecelia Capture: reservation life, emotional imprisonment, the effect of the past, the struggle to establish identity, and the problem of coping with urban environments. As some critics have noted, she is one of the few American Indian writers dealing with urban problems. While her work concerns the past, it does not stress many of the themes found in other American Indian novels, such as myth, folklore, the oral tradition, the mixture of poetry and prose, and writing about narrative itself.

The Jailing of Cecelia Capture Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Bataille, Gretchen M., and Kathleen M. Sands. American Indian Women: A Guide to Research. New York: Garland, 1991. This standard reference work lists all of Hale’s publications in books to 1991 and directs students to relevant studies of her culture and background.

Berner, Robert L. Review of The Jailing of Cecelia Capture, by Janet Campbell Hale, and Last Fall, by Bruce Stolbov. American Indian Quarterly 14 (Spring, 1990): 214-215. Explores the differing ways both novels treat the concept of tribal identity in relation to “modern individualism.” A brief but incisive examination of Hale’s novel.

Bruchac, Joseph, ed. Songs from This Earth on Turtle’s Back: Contemporary American Indian Poetry. Greenfield Center, N.Y.: Greenfield Review Press, 1983. Bruchac collects several poems by Hale, including some that connect with the world of Cecelia Capture.

Cole, Diane. “The Pick of the Crop: Five First Novels.” Ms. 13 (April, 1985): 14. A generally sympathetic review of the novel, although Cole believes that the cards are stacked against Nathan, the small-minded husband who is almost a caricature. Cole also examines the theme of physical and emotional imprisonment in the novel.

Hale, Janet Campbell. Bloodlines: Odyssey of a Native Daughter. New...

(The entire section is 435 words.)