Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 982

The fact that the most important characters of the Beulah Quintet are the rebels points to the dominant theme of the novels: that throughout history freedom must be won again and again from varying kinds of enslavement. There is, first, enslavement by authority. In Prisons , Gideon MacKarkle is pressed...

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The fact that the most important characters of the Beulah Quintet are the rebels points to the dominant theme of the novels: that throughout history freedom must be won again and again from varying kinds of enslavement. There is, first, enslavement by authority. In Prisons, Gideon MacKarkle is pressed into military service first by one side, then by the other, and Robbie Lokyar, who joined the Parliament forces to fight for freedom, is executed because he agitated for freedom of speech, which was more freedom than Cromwell and his subordinates wished to permit. In O Beulah Land, the transported criminals are sold as servants, and Jeremiah Catlett kills a blackmailer who threatens to put him and his wife Hannah once more into that bondage from which they have escaped. In Know Nothing, the emphasis is on the slavery of the blacks, and there, as throughout the other novels, those who have power over others are oblivious to the resentment which that power engenders. Because of the lack of knowledge which seems to accompany power, those in authority are vulnerable to the loss of their power. A second kind of enslavement arises from an accepted social hierarchy. Although often the men and women of the upper classes are well-intentioned, like Sir Valentine Lacy in Prisons or slave-owning Johnny Catlett in Know Nothing, those of lesser rank harbor a bitterness, spawned by injustice and nourished by pride, which often erupts in violence. Sometimes the upper classes realize the menace of those for whom they have contempt; thus, the Catletts in Know Nothing retreat from the anger of “Black Irish” Big Dan O’Neill. Often, however, the anger is unrecognized. Yet in The Killing Ground, Jake Catlett, member of a family now low in the social scale, strikes out at Johnny McKarkle because Johnny has been acting superior all of his life. On the frontier, the less-educated, the unpolished, strike out at the educated and the polished; yet as the frontier recedes and established society moves westward, the hierarchical system follows, and the inevitable anger of those who are treated as inferiors is suppressed until an explosion occurs. The biblical epigraph to Know Nothing suggests that the powerful are themselves victims of their power. Sometimes enslavement is rooted in the social and economic system. In Know Nothing, Brandon Lacey, who is wealthy in land and slaves, is ruined financially because he cannot find cash to pay his obligations. In the same novel, Melinda Lacey and Johnny Catlett cannot marry because she is penniless, and Johnny’s mother expects him to marry money. Women must marry or live as subordinates in other women’s households; if they err, there is no way out. In Know Nothing, Brandon’s wife, Sally, is doomed to dependency by her husband’s ruin; their daughter will be destroyed by her marriage to the cruel, intolerant Lewis Catlett, and Annie Brandon, pushed by passion into marriage with Big Dan O’Neill, will never be able to make him into a gentleman. Finally, enslavement may come from an obsession, which blinds one to reality. For Lily in The Scapegoat, the obsession is her college-learned idealism; because she does not think before she acts, she endangers the very people whom she intends to help. In Know Nothing, Lewis Catlett is so obsessed by abolitionism and religious fanaticism that he strikes out at everyone and everything around him—his father, his brother, his wife, even an affectionate kitten, whom he kills with a kick. Lewis’s family comments on the fact that Lewis, who defies his father and his community for his cause, has never done a kindness to a black. It is clear that the obsession is rooted in Lewis’s love of his mother and hatred of his father, not in pity or in principle. Whatever the source of enslavement, it is battled by Settle’s most sympathetic characters, and the external struggle finally becomes less important than the internal struggle. A real triumph is generally achieved through knowledge, both of the real situation and of the self. Jonathan Church’s final defiance of Cromwell is far more significant than his defiance of his father. In the first case, Jonathan did not understand the degree to which his father was shaped by his past and by his society, and Jonathan’s refusal to accept his father’s authority was based on his own feelings of religious superiority, his own stiff-necked pride. At the end of Prisons, however, Jonathan has come to understand that there is no freedom on either side in the English Civil War and that he himself is imperfect. Knowing that his death will be futile, he nevertheless speaks and dies for freedom. In Know Nothing, Johnny Catlett goes off to war as a loyal son, knowing that the South will not win, knowing that without evil intention he has participated in the evil inherent in the institution of slavery. His triumph is in his compassion, his self-knowledge, and his courage. Similarly, in The Scapegoat, Lily Ellen Lacey must come to realize that her well-meaning idealism has worsened the struggle between mine owners and workers. Her death in World War I is an expiation for the lack of knowledge which, like Johnny Catlett’s, was rooted in a kind of upper-class innocence; like Johnny, however, in her attainment of knowledge and her acceptance of duty, Lily triumphs. In the final book of the quintet, Hannah McKarkle says that unlike the clubwomen, who hide themselves from themselves, she must reject her training as a “know-nothing” woman. Like Antigone, she must bury a brother who was not admirable, and she must seek the full knowledge of what he was so that the burial will be complete. Those characters in Mary Lee Settle’s novels who quest, who wander, and who question all desire the internal triumph which comes with freedom through knowledge.

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