illustration of a woman in a black dress with long black hair swimming down through the water toward a smaller human figure

The Witch of Blackbird Pond

by Elizabeth George Speare

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The Witch of Blackbird Pond Themes

The three main themes in The Witch of Blackbird Pond are personal identity versus duty, continuity and change, and religion, transcendence, and virtue.

  • Personal identity versus duty: For Kit and the other characters in The Witch of Blackbird Pond, personal identity must be negotiated in relation to duty.
  • Continuity and change: In the novel, the past lingers and often guides, shapes, or interferes with the present and even the future.
  • Religion, transcendence, and virtue: The forces of religion, transcendence, and virtue exist in tension with each other in Kit’s Puritan community.

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Personal Identity vs. Duty
Given Kit’s age, and the fact that she is entering a new community at the same time as she loses her known family and becomes an adult, there is no surprise that much of The Witch of Blackbird Pond is concerned with the question of “Who am I?” However, this is not a simple coming of age novel, in which the heroine is allowed to answer such questions freely. Kit, and all the characters in The Witch of Blackbird Pond, must answer that question in tension with another question: “Who should I be?” In other words, personal identity must be negotiated in relation to duty. While Kit experiences this most strikingly, because she is new to the community, all characters must resolve this tension. Kit works hard to accept the duties dictated to her by her family and community, but eventually she decides that her chosen duties to Hannah and Prudence, in which she takes responsibility for both the older and younger generation, is more important than the limits placed on her. Kit accepts this responsibility so fully that she is willing to risk her life to fulfill it. The depth of Kit’s connection to Nat Eaton is indicated through his willingness to make similar commitments: Nat returns to help Kit even though he has been banished from the community and would be whipped for being there. Others in the community struggle similarly with these warring forces. John Holbrook is so committed to doing what his teacher and the community think are right that he is paralyzed politically—and nearly marries a woman he does not love (Judith) because her family has already been given the impression that he is going to do so. Finally, just as the different individuals must figure out how to answer both questions at the same time, so must the colony as a whole. Are they loyal subjects of the crown? Or are they independent? In either case, what does this mean?

Continuity and Change
Another theme throughout the novel is how the past lingers, and how often it guides, shapes, or interferes with the present and even the future. Hannah Tupper provides one of the clearest examples of this. She herself is, of course, quite old and is a living remnant of another age. However, the presence of her beloved but departed husband is forever returning—in memory, in reference, or in the slips of focus that Hannah is prone to. In a similar fashion, Kit’s memory of her grandfather guides and at times guards her; when she sees something that reminds her of him, she is immediately happy. The past hangs on in other ways for most of the characters too. The Wood family is forever haunted by their lost son and brother, and Rachel longs for her lost sister and the England of her youth. Even the emerging political rebellion is in its way conservative and reactionary; firebrands like Matthew Wood do not think of themselves as trying to create something new. Instead, they feel they are fighting for their established rights as articulated in the colony’s charter.

Religion, Transcendence, and Virtue
While duty and personal identity often pull individual characters and the entire community in different directions, the forces of religion, transcendence, and virtue are less clearly opposed. Instead, they are forces that should be unified, but forces that Kit must negotiate on her own. The intensity of Puritan religious conviction cannot be denied, and it is so omnipresent that Kit finds it overwhelming. At the same time, it is so rigid that she finds little or no emotional connection to their worship. Puritans accent rules, punishment, and duty so heavily that there seems little room for joy. Even though Kit takes pleasure in pretty clothes, her soul really sings in response to the wonders of nature. Her purest religious responses in the novel come in moments of nearly wordless transcendence, as happens when she sees the Great Meadows for the first time or experiences the leaves changing in New England.

While Kit would not call those moments “religious experiences,” it is clear to readers that they tap into the same spiritual wellsprings. That’s what makes it so sad when Kit sees her uncle caresses the soil. She recognizes a kinship with him that goes beyond family and that, tragically, there is no way to praise or acknowledge in the Puritan world. In a similar fashion, the Puritans are very concerned with virtue and, specifically, with the relatively sinful or pure status of their own souls. However, they attempt to live this way by rules and regulations—witness the deacons knocking boys who are inattentive during worship services on the head with poles. This requires continual vigilance, leaving them forever on guard against temptation and with no place for the gentler virtues that Hannah Tupper embodies. Elizabeth George Speare’s descriptions of the welcoming warmth of Hannah’s kitchen make it clear how crucial she considers these virtues, and indeed they are essential in the lives of Prudence, Kit, and Nat. While this might be considered an endorsement of Quakers over Puritans, it is better to take it as a more generalized call for the gentler virtues that should be part of any religion, especially one like Christianity, which emphasizes the power of love.

The Power of Words
It is impossible to overestimate the power of words in The Witch of Blackbird Pond or in Puritan New England as a whole. This is seen on the artistic level, the personal level, the social/political level, and even the metaphysical level. On the artistic level, one of the first ways Kit really recognizes her connection with Nat is through their mutual appreciation of Shakespeare. When John Holbrook reads Anne Bradstreet's poetry out loud, it has a transforming effect on their social circle, as Kit suddenly recognizes the love John and Mercy share. On the personal level, Nat is deeply hurt that Kit did not tell him that William Ashby was courting her. In this community, making such matters public is an obligation and also simply good manners. This leads directly into the role of words in the social and political realms. There are established ways that things are done in Connecticut Colony, and most of them involve making explicit statements of intention. One action that marks Kit as an outsider is that she did not write ahead to ask permission to live with the Woods. Another is that Kit is willing to take words as mere words, rather than as spiritually fraught.

The Puritans, on the other hand, felt the power of words on a metaphysical level. They used the Bible not “merely” as their sacred scripture but as a guide to all of their life on earth. Knowing it, understanding it, and interpreting it was so important to them that all other written material paled in importance. This emphasis on reading and interpretation extended into the world; the Puritans read the world and human action hermeneutically—that is to say, as if it were a text in need of interpretation. There are no random acts and no meaningless acts. Instead, every action is caused and meaningful, and a major duty of the religious Puritan was making sense of even the smallest detail. This is why people like Judith Wood are so attentive to even the slightest nuance in casual conversation, why Matthew Wood sees fancy clothes not as mere decoration but as vanity and temptation, and why he and the entire community are so afraid of drama. In the Puritan mind, there should be a one-to-one relationship between word and deed, but in plays, words are spoken that are not meant to be taken seriously. As an entertainment, plays are an assault on the metaphysical underpinnings of the Puritan mind. This, then, is also why the colony is so vulnerable to contagions like the fear of witchcraft. The many things that go wrong in daily life are not mere accidents or random happenings; they are read as meaningful actions by a malicious devil, as “written” into their lives by one of his servant authors: a witch. It is only logical, in such a mind, that a piece of paper with Prudence’s name written on it repeatedly is a spell. After all, hadn’t so many of the colony’s young people just been deeply ill?

The Nature and Cost of Freedom
Closely related to other themes, especially themes of duty and religion, is the theme of freedom: what it means, what it costs, and how to create and maintain it. This is quite literally debated throughout the novel, largely by the male characters. If their debates are a bit stiff, it is because they are stumbling toward something new. Kit is part of these debates, though on a more emotional and reactive level. She knows that she wants to escape an unwanted marriage back in Barbados and that she wants to escape the life of ceaseless toil she encounters in New England, but what she wants in its place is unclear. Kit finds her way to her freedom in stumbling fits and starts, and, to be frank, at times she is simply lucky. For Kit to have talked to John Holbrook about reading and for him to have mentioned it to those making decisions about teachers, for Hannah Tucker to live by the meadows and to be walking in them when Kit has such emotional distress, or for the Dolphin to emerge on the river when Kit is trying to help Hannah escape the mob, all of these are lucky coincidences indeed. However, in Kit’s actions we see the personal and emotional components needed for freedom: one needs to be born free, to be educated, to have a loving upbringing, and to meet up with good people. The men, by contrast, pull and tug at one another as the colonists try to articulate the conceptual and political nature of freedom. The Puritan vigilance about the state of their sins can be bent to this end: as every word and action can be inspected for the scent of sin, so can every word and action be sniffed for traces of disloyalty. Though hotheaded and at times amateurish, the men of the community do take part in communal negotiations, creating democracy in their own company rooms and worship houses. The back and forth between the emotional investment of blood spilled for land, the obligations preached by the Bible, and the rights articulated in the charter put into place a set of ideas and practices that will lead directly to the American Revolution. Like that revolution, though, all freedoms in this novel have a price. For Hannah to be able to not attend Puritan worship services, she has to pay a fine; for Kit to not be convicted of witchcraft, a heroic man must risk his life to bring her a witness. The final elements of freedom, then, are personal risk and bold, dramatic gestures that crystallize communities and symbolize ideals.

Gender Roles
It is obvious that men and women play different roles in The Witch of Blackbird Pond and, by implication, in colonial society. This is a basic historical fact. But what is striking about the novel is how Elizabeth George Speare reveals two truths: how men as well as women are trapped by their roles, and the emotional implications of these strict gender roles for all characters. While he often seems a bit foolish in his stiffness, William Ashby here deserves the reader’s sympathy as an example of the period’s rigid gender roles. He is genuinely baffled by Kit from start to finish and cannot understand why she does not want to marry him. By all the criteria his society has established, he is a prize, and for her to choose otherwise simply makes no sense. Rachel Wood is likewise a good mother, a devoted wife, and a committed Puritan—and yet she too suffers from these roles, looking with longing on the pretty clothes Kit offers as gifts. This society’s gender roles bind too tightly, and, because the gender roles were, in the Puritan mind, bound up with the proper organization of the world as dictated by the Bible, challenging and changing them was no simple or easy matter. Instead, it is a feat that literally threatens one’s immortal soul. That neither Kit nor Nat are completely bound this way—Kit swims and thatches roofs, while Nat admits to having run away to Hannah’s in tears—once again marks them as soul mates in this world. However, even they cannot buck the weight of these roles completely, and that is why they must leave the colony and sail away soon after the book’s end. In The Witch of Blackbird Pond, to be one’s own man or woman, one must be married and be far away from those who would limit you.

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