(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Presented as the diary of Count Malte Moritz von Putbus (or Mignon, as he is familiarly known), Speranza consists of this young Swedish aristocrat’s memories and thoughts, combined with his notations of the sometimes puzzling events aboard a slave ship bound for the New World. The narrator’s attempt to understand the truth about his external circumstances becomes the impulse for an inward journey; both processes lead from the comfort of illusion to the dreadful awareness of a new, devastating truth.

Through repeated exclamations of bliss in the novel’s first pages, Mignon creates the impression that the sea voyage is the fulfillment of his heart’s desire; in fact, as the reader quickly learns, the enthusiast is being sent into exile. Inspired by the writings of the philosophes and the bold ideals of the French Revolution, he had founded the Brothers of Liberty, a clandestine group of liberal thinkers dedicated to the spread of an egalitarian creed through social upheaval. Upon learning of this sedition against their class, his father threatened him with a year’s banishment to the Virgin Islands. The son did not take the threat seriously at first, but the intertwining of politics with sex aggravated his danger. Grethel, the daughter of a parish clerk, caught Mignon’s fancy, and he eventually convinced her to cast off the “bigotry” of the old, repressive social order so that she might experience the erotic ecstasy available “under Liberty’s banner.” Alas, she became pregnant. When the young revolutionary allowed Grethel’s tears to wash away his “principled” objections to marriage, his mother, who had entertained loftier ambitions for him than this girl from a lower caste could accommodate, angrily supported her husband’s plan for correcting their son.

The night prior to the diary’s opening entry, the Clotho, on which Mignon had first embarked, began taking on water, and its passengers were forced to abandon it for another ship, the Speranza. Since, as Sven Delblanc reminds the reader, Clotho is the Fate who holds the distaff on which the thread of life is wound, and since the name of the second ship is the Italian word for “hope,” the start of the voyage symbolically implies a shift from the fatalism embedded in the old order of society to the optimistic, revolutionary belief in man’s freedom to invent his life’s course and meaning. Mignon may complain about having to pull off his own boots his first night on the new ship—an adumbration of his class’s loss of privilege—but he also finds the novelty of living as a democrat exhilarating, and (in what is obviously the novelist’s extension of the boot metaphor) he delights in the sensation of sliding over the deck in his bare feet. The Speranza seems to him “a cloudy cathedral of white sails” being carried into the future by faith in human possibility.

The sight on the poop deck of a solitary black woman, beautiful beyond compare in her nakedness, excites Mignon’s imagination to still more rhapsodic flights. Even though he supposes her to be some wealthy passenger’s servant, he describes her as an Aphrodite of the Night—the classical idea of eroticism expressed through the physical perfection of the noble savage. While his mind is given over to aesthetic conceits, however, a terrible stench rising from below decks assaults his nose, and he wonders what cargo could be so foul. At...

(The entire section is 1399 words.)