Contending Forces Summary
by Pauline Hopkins

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Contending Forces Summary


Contending Forces: A Romance Illustrative of Negro Life North and South is a novel written by Pauline E. Hopkins. It was published in Boston in 1900.

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Plot Summary

The story is set in 1780 and begins when the Montfort family moves from the island of Bermuda to a North Carolina plantation, where they plan to grow and sell cotton. Anson Pollock, a neighbor of the Montfort family, begins to speculate about Grace Montfort's origins and concludes that she is partly black. Pollock is jealous of Charles Montfort for having such a beautiful wife and decides to murder Charles and take Grace as his own. Once Charles has been slain, Pollock enslaves Grace and Charles's two sons. Having first lost her husband and now her two sons, Grace is too miserable to continue on, so she commits suicide.

Pollock sells Charles, one of the sons, to a British man, who takes him abroad and frees him. The other son, Jesse, escapes, marries a widow named "Ma" Smith, and takes on her two children (Will and Dora) as his own. The novel is ultimately the story of Will and Dora's lives.

The action then moves to Boston, where Will attends college at Harvard and Dora takes care of a boarding house with her mother. John Langley, one of the tenants, is engaged to Dora. The other tenant, Sappho Clark, is a beautiful woman with a mysterious past; she and Will fall in love and intend to marry until John decides to blackmail Sappho into becoming his mistress.

Sappho doesn't want to become John's mistress, so she runs away, leaving a letter for Will that explains that she had been raped in the past. Will must tell Dora the truth about John, and once she does, Dora quickly breaks her engagement to John. Will still loves Sappho and looks for her in vain. Unable to find her, Will leaves for Europe to finish school.

Will returns to the US years later and finds Sappho; the two eventually marry. Dora also finds companionship and marries Dr. Arthur Lewis, a prominent educator of African Americans.


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The novel is divided into two distinct parts. The first part traces the fate of the family of a Bermuda planter, Charles Montfort, who leaves Bermuda in the 1790’s with his wife, children, and slaves to avoid compliance with a British law ordering him to free his slaves. He moves to North Carolina, where he soon incurs the jealousy of Anson Pollack, who has Montfort murdered after spreading the rumor that Montfort’s wife is black. She commits suicide, and the Montfort children are remanded into slavery; one son, Charles, Jr., is purchased and taken to England by a British visitor, and the other, Jesse, escapes to New Hampshire, where he grows up and eventually marries a black woman.

The second and main part of the novel traces the fate of one strand of Jesse’s family, the Smiths, a hundred years later. Mrs. Smith, a widow, runs a boardinghouse in Boston. Her son, Will, and daughter, Dora, live with her. Her house is a center for the social and political meetings of the young friends of her children. The plot traces them in their efforts to fulfill their goals in marriage and career. Will Smith is an African American civil rights activist. He is a philosopher whose views on politics and education resemble those of W. E. B. Du Bois. Will is a well-known and highly respected black leader in his community. He falls in love with Sappho Clark, one of the boarders in his mother’s roominghouse. When she leaves him rather than expose him to marriage with a woman of her background, he continues to think of her and seeks her until they are accidentally reunited in New Orleans. His love and devotion finally overcome her hesitation, and they are married.

Sappho Clark is a beautiful mulatto woman. Sappho had been born Mabelle Beaubean to a wealthy New Orleans family of multiracial ancestry. At the age of fifteen, Mabelle is abducted by a white uncle and brought to a house of prostitution. She is rescued by her father, who accosts his brother and threatens to press charges. The next day,...

(The entire section is 1,519 words.)