Witchy Girls and Witchy Women: Training for Domesticity in Elizabeth George Speare’s <i>The Witch of Blackbird Pond</i>
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2532
On a morning in mid-April 1697, the brigantine Dolphin left the open sea, sailed briskly across the Sound to the wide mouth of the Connecticut river and into Seabrook harbor.
So begins Elizabeth George Speare’s The Witch of Blackbird Pond. Although generally understood as historical romance, the novel could as easily open with “once upon a time in a land far, far away” for its similarity to the sort of myths constitutive of many fairy tales.1 In its skeleton form, the fairy tale often popular with young girls offers an orphaned heroine who embarks upon a journey and experiences debasement, danger, or a test. Also in these stories a nurturing spirit guides the heroine through her difficulties, and, in contrast to such goodness, an unattractive or ugly character representing cruelty or evil endangers her by means of trickery or falseness. Other motifs might include a mysterious, enchanted forest, birds and other animals, and multiples of threes, or the number seven. However, the part of the fairy tale that most delights its young (and adult) female audience is the prince charming with whom the heroine will live happily ever after.
The Witch of Blackbird Pond incorporates many of these elements. Kit Tyler spends her first sixteen years pampered and privileged in the lush beauty of Barbados, but upon the death of her beloved grandfather travels across an ocean to begin a new life in the stark, Puritan community of Wethersfield, Connecticut, “just a narrow, sandy stretch of shoreline, a few piles sunk in the river with a rough planking for a platform” Arriving with “seven small trunks,” Kit’s new family consists of three women—her once-beautiful Aunt Rachel; her somewhat jealous but lovely cousin Judith; and her other cousin Mercy, kind and forever patient—as well as the patriarchal head, Uncle Matthew, stern yet ultimately admirable. Not unlike Cinderella or Snow White, Kit undergoes the drudgery of household work, and also similar to those heroines Kit endures mistreatment—not by a cruel stepmother, however, but from the harsh glances of the intolerant and suspicious Goodwife Cruff. The immediate eponym of the novel is Hannah, the misunderstood Quaker “witch” who, like a fairy godmother, gives Kit the wisdom and strength to conform to the expectations of her new community while maintaining the vitality of her own identity. And just as the witch in this novel is good rather than evil, so the Great Meadow around her enchants Kit with a magic that soothes her troubled spirit; as Hannah explains, the Meadows “speak” to Kit in a special, perhaps spiritual, way. Birds, cats, and goats play a special role in the story, as does the device of “the test,” which occurs when Kit selflessly nurses her cousins through life-threatening illness. As the story gains in tension, Kit encounters dangers when she rescues Hannah during a witch hunt, only to find herself accused of being a witch. And then, as with all fairy tales of this genre, the novel progresses inexorably to its happy conclusion, Kit’s realization that she loves Nat Turner, who, as son of the captain of the Dolphin, “move[s] lightly and confidently . . . [with] a bounce in his step that matche[s] the laughter in his eyes.” Striding into the courtroom with crucial evidence, Nat saves Kit from the pain and humiliation of being labeled a witch. With new values and wisdom, on the final page of the novel Kit is rewarded with marriage to “prince Nat,” who assures Kit that their life together on Nat’s new ketch will be “for keeps.”
However, if this novel embraces the fairy tale, it also incorporates patterns of the American frontier myth. In her analysis of the frontier myth in The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Sara L. Schwebel (2003) uses Richard Slotkin’s Regeneration Through Violence as a lens to read Kit’s coming-of-age story. In his revision of an earlier frontier myth defined by Frederick Turner, Slotkin says that for early colonists, “the trial of living among Indians . . . facilitated colonists’ spiritual awakening by forcing them to confront the dark corners of their mind” in the form of psychological conflict (quoted in Schwebel 2003, p. 199). The resulting myth, says Schwebel, “comprises . . . separation from settled community [and] regression into the wilderness.” Both “physical and economic,” this regression “proves character building,” which allows the hero to emerge both triumphant and cleansed of his faults, with that rugged character we like to call “American” that enables him to build his fortune for the future (p. 198).
This reading of the novel transforms but does not negate understanding it as a fairy tale. To begin with, the frontier myth calls attention to the meaning and importance of what in the novel constitutes “civilized.” On the Dolphin that carries Kit from the lush Barbados to Wethersfield, John Holbrook describes Kit’s exotic origins as “heathen,” infuriating Kit, who protests, “’Tis no heathen island. ’Tis as civilized as England, with a famous town and fine streets and shops.” For Kit, Wethersfield is “heathen,” not in terms of being Godless but uncivilized; it is, in the terms Slotkin provides, a “savage” environment (in Schwebel 2003). Indeed, on her first night Kit hears a wolf howling in the distance, and the fear of Indian attack exacerbates her sense—and the readers’—of the wilderness around her. The danger of her environment drives the plot forward when John joins the militia to fight the Indians, is captured, and returns a new man from his ordeal. Indeed, at moments Kit herself seems to be a prisoner of the Puritan household of Mathew Woods—symbolically, she lives in the “woods,” forced to live a life that is as primitive as it is demeaning. “You will fit yourself to our ways,” Uncle Matthew tells his niece, a phrase that echoes the experiences recorded in captivity narratives of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Her muscles ache from her work, she is criticized by Judith and others for her awkwardness and the trouble she causes, and she longs for the warmth of her island home.
It is through all of these experiences of physical and economic hardship that Kit gains the wisdom necessary to deserve and create a good future. Just as (according to Schwebel’s  reading of Slotkin) “the trial of living among Indians. . . facilitated colonists’ spiritual awakening by forcing them to confront the dark corners of their mind,” so Kit purifies herself by becoming aware of the faults of the elitist ways she brought to Wethersfield from Barbados. Not only does Kit renounce the slavery she originally defends and define herself by way of contrast, but she is also willing to sell her silk gowns, feathered hats, kid gloves, and pretty shoes—all those items piled into her seven trunks—to be “a single woman who must work for a living.” What better phrasing of “rugged individualism” could we find?
But individualism for a woman involves a different meaning than it would for a man. Because the hero is a “she” rather than a “he,” at this moment of Kit’s maturation the frontier myth merges with the fairy tale, so that the real reward, the best fortune that Kit could ever hope to merit, is necessarily marriage. Kit gets, as many little (and big) girls dream of getting, her very own prince charming, as distinctively American as she: Nat eschews slavery, values freedom (symbolized by his life on the ocean), and yet embraces the colorful joy and rebellious spirit emblematic of Kit.
Thus, although part fairy tale and part American frontier myth, The Witch of Blackbird Pond becomes more than either of these. Writing this novel in 1958, when our culture was emerging from the McCarthy scare, on the one hand, and consolidating postwar gender roles, on the other, Speare mixes elements of both genres to teach her adolescent, female audience the dangers of “witch hunts” and meanings of “womanhood” as they existed at that moment.2 The latter are particularly intriguing in light of comments made by Helen Cross, a good friend of Speare’s, when Speare was awarded the Newbery Award for this novel. According to Cross,
Even now that Elizabeth George Speare has become a famous name, home still comes first, writing second. Despite the heavy correspondence and requests to lecture, there is still time to stir up a party during school vacation or to make that lovely red dancing dress for a pretty seventeen-year-old daughter. (quoted in Schwebel 2003, p. 209)
For Kit, too, “home” will eventually “come first,” but it is one that floats on the seas, and if Kit gains a rugged wisdom as the frontier myth prescribes, the fact that she does so as a heroine, not hero, ready to give up those “lovely red dancing dresses,” carries significant implications concerning gender for the young readers of the novel in 1958. Indeed, throughout both the plot of the fairy tale and that of the frontier myth, Kit is nothing if not transgressive, learning some rules even while she continues to break others by wearing her red cloak, her fancy clothes, holding her head high, and befriending a “witch.” Ironically, however, it is through that witch, a figure typically associated with darkness and evil, that Speare finally tames the unruliness of Kit, for Hannah’s supernatural powers reside not in black magic but in the warm spells of love.
Like both Cinderella and Snow White, Kit submits to “debasement,” in that she must “prove [she] can be useful” in her new home by performing household chores such as spinning, cooking, candle-making, and cleaning; and her growth to do these domestic chores properly indicates her moral growth as well as her adaptation to the Puritan community that is her new home (Thuente 1985, p. 51). However, unlike these obedient heroines, Kit’s attitude is neither meek nor compliant, and as a result, more than learning the skills of housewifery she must also learn discipline and humility. “Her hands were unskillful not so much from inability as from the rebellion that stiffened her fingers,” the narrator explains. “She was Katherine Tyler. She had not been reared to do the work of slaves.” Delightfully, the tone here is at once sympathetic and judgmental, for it somehow seems right for Kit to resist the hard work these Puritans demand of her, but of course it is also necessarily wrong for her to invoke slavery as a means to set herself above such drudgery. As a result, her readers applaud her resistance to authority yet simultaneously hope she will learn better values concerning her fellow human beings.
Indeed, this ambivalent tone colors the novel’s presentation of many of Kit’s flaws. Her readers smile at her pleasure in clothes, for example, sympathizing with her when her flashy silk dress marks her as an exotic outsider to the prim Puritans. The narrator, for example, says, “Kit’s flowered silk gave her the look of some vivid tropical bird lighted by mistake on a strange shore,” and this causes others to look at her with disapproval. Exoticism was every bit as transgressive for the young girl of the 1950s as it was for the girl of the 1680s in that both grew up learning, implicitly or explicitly, “not to make a spectacle” of themselves, because doing so broke rules of propriety and revoked the prized honorific of “lady.” But many young girls no doubt yearn to dress just as Kit does, and so as readers they scowl at Matthew’s pronouncement of her clothes as “frippery” while they identify with Kit’s audacity in the meeting house to “[tilt] her chin so that one plume [of her hat] swept gracefully against her cheek.”
However, the novel’s characterization of Hannah and Kit’s friendship with her ultimately tames the ambivalence that otherwise arises concerning Kit’s transgressions, for everything about Hannah is domestic, and it is within that sphere that her power lies. Kit marvels at Hannah’s “pretty room. . . and then wonder[s] how that could be when it was so plain and bare.” The message? A good housewife can accomplish much with very little. Hannah’s blueberry corncakes provide moral as well as physical sustenance, for after eating them Kit, Nat, and even Prudence feel transformed, ready to face their difficulties with new strength. The message? Food baked by a good housewife keeps her family healthy and spiritually whole. It is “charmed,” thinks Kit, with “an invisible ingredient that made the cure unfailing. The bible name for it was love.” Water, associated with the feminine as well as with life, is plentiful at Hannah’s—it even surrounds her house—as is peace itself. “Why is it that even the fire in Hannah’s hearth seems to have a special glow?” wonders Kit. The answer, of course, lies in the domestic powers of Hannah, which are such that “in one short hour she had conjured away the rebellion that had been seething in [Kit’s] mind for weeks.”
“Conjured” in this context gains meaning because the novel celebrates the power of words. Kit loves to hear them and to teach them, and she forms her friendship with John, Nat, as well as Hannah and Prudence, through her interaction with them concerning words. Perhaps Speare demonstrates the most subtle use of the power of words by naming this ideal of domesticity a “witch.” In The Devil in the Shape of a Woman, Carol F. Karlsen (1989) explains that in colonial New England, witchcraft was associated with female discontent and heresy. Inverting this meaning, Speare transforms witchcraft into domesticity and “conjure” into cooking, making the dominant ideology subversive, seductive, and as a result, attractive to its young female readers. If Hannah is the first eponym of the novel, certainly Kit becomes the second, not by breaking the rules, but by following them. That she and Nat will live happily ever after on “The Witch” brings together fairy tale, frontier myth, transgression, and domesticity all in one fell swoop.
1. In “Beyond Historic Fiction: Speare’s The Witch of Blackbird Pond,” Mary Helen Thuente (1985) argues that in this novel “Speare enriches [a] realistic blend of history and romance with the situational and thematic resonances of the folktale” (p. 51).
2. In “Historical Fiction in the Classroom,” Schwebel (2003) refers to “womanhood” but more fully addresses the relevance of the witch hunt in the novel to the witch hunt during the McCarthy period, noting ways in which Speare revises historical facts to create meaning for her audience. See also Greg Beatty’s (2007) discussion of Schwebel in his critical overview of the novel.
Works Cited and Consulted
Beatty, Greg. 2007. The witch of Blackbird Pond: Critical overview. In eNotes: The witch of Blackbird Pond, ed. Penny Satoris. October. Seattle, WA: Enotes.com Inc. http://www.enotes.com/witch-blackbird/critical-overview (accessed November 19, 2007).
Karlsen, Carol F. 1989. The devil in the shape of a woman: Witchcraft in colonial New England. New York: Vintage.
Schwebel, Sara L. 2003. Historical fiction and the classroom: History and myth in Elizabeth George Speare’s The witch of Blackbird Pond. Children’s Literature in Education 34 (3): 193-218.
Speare, Elizabeth. 1958/1986. The witch of Blackbird Pond. New York: Bantam.
Thuente, Mary Helen. 1985. Beyond historical fiction: Speare’s The witch of Blackbird Pond. English Journal 74 (6): 50-55.
Puritan Parallels: The Witch of Blackbird Pond and Late-1950s America
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1526
The title of Speare’s novel The Witch of Blackbird Pond can be interpreted in two ways. Ostensibly, it refers to the aged Hannah Tupper, who lives in a kind of localized exile because of suspicions of witchcraft. As the wily, self-possessed sailor Nat points out, however, it also applies to the young heroine Kit, who earns a similar reputation upon her arrival in the Puritan town of Wethersfield. The book itself leads a similar double life. Its esteemed reputation is that of a historical romance for young-adult audiences. Yet underneath Kit’s struggles with her family, Wethersfield society, and several young men who court her is a parable about change. Written in 1958, Elizabeth George Speare’s The Witch of Blackbird Pond serves as a parallel for late-1950s America, when an era of staid conservatism was about to give way to a complete cultural revolution. The Puritan America depicted in the novel and the conservative America of the time in which the book was written align in terms of gender roles, race, and class structure. Furthermore, the rebellious Kit represents the emerging counterculture of the 1960s that would forever change the face of the country.
Gender roles play an important part in The Witch of Blackbird Pond. Kit quickly learns that her rights and responsibilities are restricted to the domestic sphere. Along with her aunt Rachel and cousins Judith and Mercy, Kit cooks, cleans, makes clothing, and teaches little ones at the Dame School. On her first day in Wethersfield, she learns that she must submit to her Uncle Matthew’s will when he forbids her from sharing her flashy dresses with her cousins. In addition, the institution of marriage is the foundation for female personhood in this society. Kit learns early in the story that the only way to free herself from her strict uncle is to agree to marry William Ashby. It does not matter that William—though steady, intelligent, and good—ignites little passion in Kit. His interest in Kit dictates that she should accept his offer of marriage.
1950s America placed women in a similar position. Men were still the primary source of income in most households. Women were expected to manage all areas connected to the home and children. Maternal pop icons like June Cleaver and Harriet Nelson defined the ideal woman in this era. It would take another two decades for feminism and women’s rights movements to advance alternative notions of what it meant to be a woman.
Race also creates a parallel between these two seemingly disparate worlds. Much of Kit’s initial indignation at her menial task work in the Wood home stems from her belief that such work should be performed by slaves. Whether her attitude is merely innocently overentitled or overtly racist, it highlights the different roles that African and Caribbean Americans held in this period. In the absence of people of color in Wethersfield, the ostracized Quaker Hannah Tupper fulfills the role of “other” in the Puritan town. Hannah’s isolated existence, along with her exclusion from community events and religious gatherings, mirrors the segregation that defined race relations in the 1950s. Separate restrooms, drinking fountains, and other public facilities kept Americans of color apart from their white counterparts. In both cases, part of the way the society defined itself was based on who was and was not allowed to belong.
This exclusivity also existed in political spheres and class structures. The seaman Nat is deliberately presented as a contrast to William Ashby along the lines of class. As a mere boatman, he is obviously a less respectable suitor to Kit than the wealthy William. Though many of the residents of Wethersfield are of average to low income, they maintain a position in the town’s society that Nat does not and cannot enjoy.
On the level of politics, allegiance to the king of England (and his subordinates in the colonies) is a major point of contention for the characters in The Witch of Blackbird Pond. The refusal of Matthew Wood and his like-minded friends to accept the rule of the king leads to a further restriction of their rights. The subplot involving their battles with colonialist troops highlights that having different political beliefs could be dangerous.
The early 1950s were and continue to be defined in part by the influence of Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). The trials, whose goal was to root out communists and socialists living in the United States, were indicative of the conservative mindset of Cold War America. Like Wethersfield’s Royalist/Freemen struggles, the McCarthy trials brought questions of rights and political freedom to the forefront. Playwright Arthur Miller found similar parallels in his play The Crucible, which was also set in Puritan America during the height of witch persecution. The play, widely accepted as an allegory for the McCarthy “witch hunts,” preceded Speare’s novel by several years and presents far more dire consequences for its characters’ convictions of witchcraft.
What makes the parallel between colonial Wethersfield and 1950s America clearest is the novel’s central character, Kit. Despite her royalist stance and her views on slavery, Kit functions primarily as a force of change in Wethersfield. She balks at her domestic tasks and ignores expectations for her marriage. She tires of the town’s lengthy religious services and even skips one. Most damning to her reputation, she consorts with the titular “witch,” Hannah. Kit represents the waves of cultural change that emerged in the late 1950s (concurrent with Speare’s writing of the novel) that would eventually define the culture of the following decade. Changing views about race, gender roles, and social politics set the 1960s apart from the previous decade’s more traditional values.
If Kit is the focal point of the relationship between Puritan and 1950s America, then Speare makes pointed commentary on the changes Kit represents. Despite her insolence and rebellion, Kit does not really change Wethersfield. At the story’s end, her reputation has been cleared, but the stringent ways of the town have changed little. Hannah Tupper is not accepted into society; she is simply removed from it in a resolution that conveniently sidesteps resolving the religious conflict. The same could be said of Nat, who ends the novel as captain of his own ship, a career path that also places him out of direct contact with Wethersfield for large periods of time. This promotion also makes him an acceptable alternative to William. In the end, it is Kit who is tamed by Wethersfield and not vice versa. Despite her longing to return to Barbados, she finds as spring approaches that she has grown to love the place and its people. She has learned not just to accept her domestic chores but also to excel at them. Although she rejects William, she accepts Nat, and her cousins find husbands as well. Order is restored by the acceptance of marriage and traditional domestic roles. What Speare does so deftly is to subtly reinforce the majority viewpoint, so that by the time Kit submits to the town of Wethersfield, it feels like a happy ending.
More than anything, this change in Kit highlights a central theme of the novel: the equation of nobility with suffering. Kit’s crippled cousin Mercy exemplifies this perspective throughout the novel. Her inability to participate in outdoor activities and her slave-like devotion to the limited tasks she is capable of performing help establish her as the epitome of idealized martyrdom. Later, when her love for the young minister-to-be John Holbrook is seemingly thwarted by her own sister, she accepts it and congratulates Judith on her happiness. Finally, perhaps as a lesson to the less selfless characters that surround her, Mercy nearly dies from a plague-like illness. This glorification of asceticism permeates the entire story. For example, repeated references are made to Aunt Rachel’s faded looks. Although Kit initially mourns it, the stripping of Rachel’s physical beauty is established as a contrast to Kit’s prideful devotion to her gowns from Barbados. All of these factors set up the eventual breaking down of Kit herself and the rite of suffering that will ultimately define her character change.
If this suffering was crucial to the Puritans of Wethersfield, what is Speare saying about the youth of late-1950s America? The two periods parallel each other on multiple levels, leading the reader to wonder if Speare is heralding the change that would come in the 1960s or warning against it. The Witch of Blackbird Pond may have a happy ending, but its ties to the culture of the 1950s shed new light on its meaning. Despite its warm characters and well-crafted story, it is ultimately not a story about tolerance. Perhaps Speare recognized that—for good or ill—highly conservative societies are built around structure and rules. Rebels like Kit present a threat to those rules, so they must be tamed through suffering in order for the society to continue functioning. Gender, race, and class were crucial to maintaining both Puritan society and 1950s American society because of the very divisiveness they caused.