Personal Identity vs. Duty
Given Kit’s age, and the fact that she is entering a new community at the same time as she loses her known family and becomes an adult, there is no surprise that much of The Witch of Blackbird Pond is concerned with the question of “Who am I?” However, this is not a simple coming of age novel, in which the heroine is allowed to answer such questions freely. Kit, and all the characters in The Witch of Blackbird Pond, must answer that question in tension with another question: “Who should I be?” In other words, personal identity must be negotiated in relation to duty. While Kit experiences this most strikingly, because she is new to the community, all characters must resolve this tension. Kit works hard to accept the duties dictated to her by her family and community, but eventually she decides that her chosen duties to Hannah and Prudence, in which she takes responsibility for both the older and younger generation, is more important than the limits placed on her. Kit accepts this responsibility so fully that she is willing to risk her life to fulfill it. The depth of Kit’s connection to Nat Eaton is indicated through his willingness to make similar commitments: Nat returns to help Kit even though he has been banished from the community and would be whipped for being there. Others in the community struggle similarly with these warring forces. John Holbrook is so committed to doing what his teacher and the community think are right that he is paralyzed politically—and nearly marries a woman he does not love (Judith) because her family has already been given the impression that he is going to do so. Finally, just as the different individuals must figure out how to answer both questions at the same time, so must the colony as a whole. Are they loyal subjects of the crown? Or are they independent? In either case, what does this mean?
Continuity and Change
Another theme throughout the novel is how the past lingers, and how often it guides, shapes, or interferes with the present and even the future. Hannah Tupper provides one of the clearest examples of this. She herself is, of course, quite old and is a living remnant of another age. However, the presence of her beloved but departed husband is forever returning—in memory, in reference, or in the slips of focus that Hannah is prone to. In a similar fashion, Kit’s memory of her grandfather guides and at times guards her; when she sees something that reminds her of him, she is immediately happy. The past hangs on in other ways for most of the characters too. The Wood family is forever haunted by their lost son and brother, and Rachel longs for her lost sister and the England of her youth. Even the emerging political rebellion is in its way conservative and reactionary; firebrands like Matthew Wood do not think of themselves as trying to create something new. Instead, they feel they are fighting for their established rights as articulated in the colony’s charter.
Religion, Transcendence, and Virtue
While duty and personal identity often pull individual characters and the entire community in different directions, the forces of religion, transcendence, and virtue are less clearly opposed. Instead, they are forces that should be unified, but forces that Kit must negotiate on her own. The intensity of Puritan religious conviction cannot be denied, and it is so omnipresent that Kit finds it overwhelming. At the same time, it is so rigid that she finds little or no emotional connection to their worship. Puritans accent rules, punishment, and duty so heavily that there seems little room for joy. Even though Kit takes pleasure in pretty clothes, her soul really sings in response to the wonders of nature. Her purest religious responses in the novel come in moments of nearly wordless transcendence, as happens when she sees the Great Meadows for the first time or experiences the leaves changing in New England.
While Kit would not call those moments “religious experiences,” it is clear to readers that they tap into the same spiritual wellsprings. That’s what makes it so sad when Kit sees her uncle caresses the soil. She recognizes a kinship with him that goes beyond family and that, tragically, there is no way to praise or acknowledge in the Puritan world. In a similar fashion, the Puritans are very concerned with virtue and, specifically, with the relatively sinful or pure status of their own souls. However, they attempt to live this way by rules and regulations—witness the deacons knocking boys who are inattentive during worship services on the head with poles. This requires continual vigilance, leaving them forever on guard against temptation and with no place for the gentler virtues that Hannah Tupper embodies. Elizabeth George Speare’s descriptions of the welcoming warmth of Hannah’s kitchen make it clear how crucial she considers these virtues, and indeed they are essential in the lives of Prudence, Kit, and Nat. While this might be considered an endorsement of Quakers over Puritans, it is better to take it as a more generalized call for the gentler virtues that should be part of any religion, especially one like Christianity, which emphasizes the power of love.
The Power of...
(The entire section is 2168 words.)
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