Contending Forces Themes
by Pauline Hopkins

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Contending Forces Themes

Slavery

Slavery has significantly and overwhelmingly negative impacts on all of those involved with it. Hopkins does not shy from showing the hardships that people of African heritage endured through the dehumanizing process of being considered property, nor does she ignore the moral corruption and greed that pervaded white society. While much of the novel takes place decades after slavery ended, the enduring legacy shapes the characters’ attitudes and experiences. Hopkins emphasizes the idea that slavery is fundamentally evil and corrupts everyone who owns slaves, as exemplified by Charles Monfort’s character.

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Race and Inheritance

The complexities of racial hierarchies, as determined by national and regional origin as well as skin color, are extensively addressed in Hopkins’s work. The intricacies of the social and legal systems in different parts of the Americas are also explored. While the contrast of attitudes toward people of African heritage in specific locales includes slavery, it also encompasses the legal status of people of color. The relative ranking of people according skin color is one factor that Hopkins considers, along with laws that assign people to racial categories according to the gender and status of particular parents. The idea of respectability and social “stain,” including that attached to female victims of sexual abuse, is also explored.

Education

The importance of education in terms of academic achievement and moral improvement is stressed throughout the novel. The social environment in which clubs and associations serve their members as vehicles for self-improvement is shown as a crucial element in the north. Institutions of higher education in the south, such as Arthur Lewis's college, are also offered as necessities for African American advancement, providing constant evidence that their intellectual capabilities are equal to those of whites. The debates in which Lewis engages with Will Smith, and their exchanges with the female characters, support this theme.

Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Contending Forces is a significant piece of nineteenth century African American fiction. It is not only a well-told tale (if filled with typical nineteenth century melodrama) but also contains significant social commentary on the life of African Americans both before and after the Civil War.

The first part of the novel, set in Bermuda and North Carolina in the 1790’s, shows the corrupting influence of the slave system, a system based on greed and selfishness. A so-called decent human being, Charles Montfort, is so permeated by the evils of slavery and the wealth it brings him that he is willing to risk everything rather than free his slaves in compliance with British laws governing Bermuda. The needs and wishes of his slaves are inconsequential to him; he moves them to the United States, where his accumulation of wealth can continue. Montfort is a thoughtful, kindly person in many respects, but the institution of slavery has placed blinders before his eyes; he is not able to think rationally or objectively when it comes to slavery. Like many others of his time, Montfort believes that slaves are not his equals and that therefore he has the right to do with them as he pleases. Through the very act of owning slaves, he is abusive; furthermore, he exposes his slaves to the possibility of worse brutality in the event of his death. Hopkins successfully makes the point that, by definition, there can be no such thing as a “good” slaveholder.

A second important point that Hopkins makes in the first part of the novel deals with the whole issue of skin color. The institution of slavery allowed white slave masters free rein over their slaves, and the sexual liberties some masters took with their female slaves was evident in the many biracial slaves born during the slave era. A sizable percentage of these slaves could clearly “pass” as white, but southern law held that such children belonged to the race of the mother; as a result, white-skinned...

(The entire section is 1,450 words.)