restricted access 9. The Paradox of Self-Sacrifice: Self-Sacrifice as Self-Empowerment
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203 susan glaspell’s heroes are no mythical figures in the original Greek sense of the term “hero,” but ordinary protagonists waging their realistic revolts in a fictitious world that reflects Glaspell’s extradiegetic reality. If the idealist rebel, scarifying himself or herself in the name of national solidarity, retains the exemplary dimension of the classical hero, who, in Patrice Pavis’s words, “coincides perfectly with his actions” and thus displays his moral strength, Glaspell also stages modern heroes who have lost not only “their mythical value” but also their “exemplary” aura, for they do not stand as models, but appear to abdicate in the face of conventional and political oppression (169). They thus sacrifice, at their own expense, their rebellions so as not to disrupt what their persecutors see as the stability of the home. I have called “domestic heroes” those insurgents, of the idealist or individualist types, who eventually deny their rebellious drives for the sake of the stability of the conventional home. Their final surrender contradicts their original urge to defend their rights, and it appears as a paradox, a paradox differing from the one inherent in the national hero’s sacrifice. The self-sacrifices performed by the playwright’s domestic heroines may be interpreted as an illustration of Glaspell’s own inconsistent attitudes toward feminism. Demonstrating what she views as the dramatist’s contradictions in her own life, Caroline Fletcher writes: Many of Glaspell’s actions display [her] ambivalent relationship to feminism. She defied her father’s wishes and left the small town of Davenport to go to college at Drake; she tenaciously pursued her dream of becoming a writer; she bobbed her hair even before it was popular; and she kept her own last n i n e • The Paradox of Self-Sacrifice Self-Sacrifice as Self-Empowerment d r a m a o f h o p e 204 name after marriage. But she did not participate in the suffrage movement, and even though many other feminist thinkers around her challenged inequality in marriage and struggled to reject the tradition of female self-sacrifice , Glaspell often accommodated herself to the wishes of her husband, fellow writer George Cram Cook. (245) Contrary to all appearance, I argue, Glaspell does not compromise with her feminist views in her plays since her domestic heroes’ abdications turn out to be covert strategies to undermine the oppressive structures from within, as the following analyses of Bernice and Chains of Dew will show. Bernice (1919): “Seemingly, a Play about Self-Sacrifice” “Seemingly, a play about self-sacrifice,” as Ben-Zvi describes it, Glaspell’s 1919 three-act play, Bernice, stages Margaret’s sacrifice of the truth about her best friend’s death in order to protect Craig, the eponymous character ’s husband (“The Political as Personal” 286). Margaret initially appears as a radical rebel, and thus a peer of Glaspell’s Bohemian audience: a fierce upholder of free speech, she also objects to the traditional husband-wife, dominating-dominated structures that Bernice’s husband views as the bases of married life. Yet Margaret eventually yields to what Christopher Bigsby dismissively refers to as “mawkish sentimentality” since, for the love of Bernice, she shields Craig from discovering the truth about his wife’s death (A Critical Introduction 1:126). In this “spiritual mystery,” as company member Edna Kenton named the play, the spectators are left to determine why the absent eponymous protagonist pretended to kill herself for the sake of her husband (qtd. in Gainor, Susan Glaspell 101). In act 1, Bernice’s maid, who has known her since her birth, abruptly reveals to Craig that his wife did not die from illness, as he thought, but “killed herself”: abbie: . . . [Wildly] She killed herself! craig: [Falling back] What—are—you—saying? abbie: She—did it herself. Took her life. Now I’ve told you! You know now! The Paradox of Self-Sacrifice 205 craig: [Roughly taking hold of her.] What’s this you’re saying? What’s this lie you’re trying to—[Letting go of her—in horror, imploringly.] Abbie, tell me it isn’t true. abbie: It’s true. I’m telling you. It’s true. She—didn’t want to live any longer— so she took something—ended her life. That’s all. That’s all I can tell you. Nobody knows. Not her father—nobody. I thought I ought to tell you. Now I’ve told you! Let me go. I’ve told you—I— (98) The...