Daughter of Earth by Agnes Smedley

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Daughter of Earth Summary

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Daughter of Earth is a chronicle of the life of Marie Rogers, a woman who, like the people for whom she worked and sacrificed her life, was “of the earth” and whose “struggle is the struggle of the earth.” Spanning the first thirty or so years of her life, the account is an attempt to resolve personal and political issues. Searching her earliest childhood memories, Marie traces the development of a political awareness which grew as a reaction to the tragic consequences of poverty and discrimination.

Marie’s story begins with her family’s journey as they leave the meager but stable sustenance of a farming life to look for success by engaging in what they find to be the wearisome and unending toil of a disenfranchised proletariat. Their situation illustrates on an individual level the circumstances of all workers who fruitlessly struggle for financial success. In the same way, the situation of Marie’s mother is emblematic of the lives of women who have no choices once they are committed to a marriage in poverty. The real and threatened violence which Marie’s father inflicts on his wife and children expresses his frustration in never getting ahead.

As Marie’s family drifts from one company mining town to the next, and as their economic status and family cohesiveness deteriorate, an awareness of the all-pervasive systems of class and gender oppression dawns in her mind. She commits herself to the goal of becoming educated, hoping to extricate herself from the inevitabilities of poverty—and of marriage. When young Marie glimpses the relationships between husbands and wives, she sees the threat of ultimate demoralization for herself. Sex becomes for her a cruel exchange in which women trade their bodies for the doubtful economic security of marriage. The legitimacy of married women is, for Marie, less honorable than the lives of women such as her aunt Helen, a prostitute, for at least Helen’s circumstances tell the truth about sexual relations. To Marie’s immature mind, the responsibilities of marriage are naturally repugnant. A cowhand’s proposal is refused because Marie “won’t have nothin’ to do with dooties! . . . some things make me sick!”

Reflecting upon the incidents of her life, Marie attempts to understand her damaged sexuality. A brief, early marriage ends in pain for both Marie and Knut Larsen, her gentle, uncomprehending husband, when she realizes that she cannot compromise in her deep aversion to the implications of any marital situation. Marie’s inability to understand and express her conflicting feelings, as well as the loss suffered when she undergoes two abortions, causes her to withdraw in despair and confusion from the relationship.

As Marie works and sacrifices to gain an education, she begins to understand on an intellectual level what she has always sensed emotionally—the necessary fight for survival of both the working classes and women. In a struggle to better the quality of her own life, Marie finds it necessary to turn away from the demands of her young siblings, who, after the death of their mother, expect her to take over the maternal, self-sacrificing role. When Marie’s brother, working at manual labor, is crushed by a collapsing ditch, the guilt over leaving her family deepens. Ultimately, Marie comes to see the choice of an independent life over a life like her mother’s as a political necessity—the only way to live meaningfully becomes to strive for knowledge and work for change on a mass scale.

Living in New York City, distanced from the scenes of her childhood, Marie finds spiritual and political satisfaction through working with the Indian nationalist movement. Incarceration as a suspected spy in the fearful atmosphere of World War I America marks her as a committed activist; she is accepted by the Indians despite being both a Westerner and a woman. Marie falls in love with, and promptly marries, Anand Manvekar, a native Indian also working for independence....

(The entire section is 996 words.)