Harriet Prescott Spofford (1835-1921)
Thelma Shinn Richard
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Students need to develop an appreciation for "domestic imagery"--
symbols and images drawn from female experience but used to represent universal
values. In addition, they also should become aware of the transitional
elements from romance to realism evident in the writings of Spofford and
To address these issues, show contemporary appreciation of Spofford
in better known authors (such as Dickinson
and Whittier). Help
students discern the patterns of imagery so that they do not dismiss
individual images as "popular" or "sentimental." Point
out the metaphorical implications of the setting which, while realistic
(with its historical roots in Spofford's family), is also part of the romantic
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Major themes include:
The Female Artist
Humanity as Animal versus Spirit
Music/Art as Communication
Romance versus Realism (particularly in defining naturalism)
The Forest in American Literature
Importance of Popular Culture (well-known songs)
Preservation of Family History (true incident)
By basing "Circumstance" on an incident in the life of her
maternal great-grandmother, Spofford shifts time and place to enter Hawthorne's
"neutral territory, . . . where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet."
While Hawthorne turns back two centuries to the suggestion of a historical
event in The Scarlet Letter, however, Spofford chooses a closer
time and a specific personal/historical moment. In doing so, she reflects
the female consciousness that personal events--events recorded orally and
handed down from mother to daughter--define human history perhaps more
accurately than official records. In these records she finds a circumstance
that can embody female and human experience in finite and infinite terms.
Although circumstance refers to essential and environmental conditions
in which we find ourselves, the singular form specifically refers, according
to Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, to "a piece of evidence
that indicates the probability or improbability of an event." While
the existence of God cannot be proved, Spofford can present a "circumstance"
that indicates for her its probability. And so she has in this story. The
religious theme is all the more powerful because it is couched in the "Actual"
and discovered by a woman not given to the "Imaginary." Spofford
reveals Hawthorne's "neutral territory" to be the world in which
we live, and it is in her journey through this world that the narrator
must find evidence of the omnipresence of God.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Spofford anticipates the styles and themes of the realists, even of
the naturalists who will surround her later writing career. Already in
this 1860 story, her narrator must abandon her romantic notions of nature
("If all the silent powers of the forest did not conspire to help
her!") and face that "the dark, hollow night rose indifferently
over her." At the same time, she has recognized the naturalistic corollary
to nature's indifference in humanity's animal antecedents. Impending death
by a "living lump of appetites" forces her to acknowledge the
self-loathing as the beast "known by the strength of our lower natures
let loose." The primitive cannibalism of humanity seems to be reflected
in her fear of becoming a part of the beast again: "the base, cursed
thing howls with us forever through the forest." Such pessimistic
reflections indeed bring misery, as they will to later writers. "The
Open Boat" finds Stephen
Crane's correspondent (also reflecting a true incident in Crane's own
life) similarly trapped in nature and discovering its indifference to him.
Consider the following:
1. The time period during which the story was written and the New England
2. The fact that the story was first published in a periodical.
3. The Puritan background of Spofford's contemporary audience.
4. The familiarity of the audience with the popular music mentioned.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Useful comparisons may be made with the following works:
"Twas like a maelstrom . . ."
"Young Goodman Brown"
Stephen Crane, "The
Henry James, "The
Beast in the Jungle"
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. What songs do you know that she might be singing in each category?
Where did you learn these songs? From whom?
2. (a) Find parallels in your experience to the story, its themes and
particulars (consider sharing family stories).
(b) Examine the roots of a genre (e.g., oral roots of fiction).
(c) Interpret one art through another (art and music here).
(d) Also try traditional thematic and stylistic approaches and comparisons
to other stories.
Fetterley, Judith. Provisions. Bloomington: Indiana University
Halbeisen, Elizabeth K. Harriet Prescott Spofford: A Romantic Survival.
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1935.
Marshall, Ian. "Literary and Metaphoric Harmony with Nature: Ecofeminism
in Harriet Prescott Spofford's 'Circumstance.'" Modern Literary
Studies, 23:2 (Spring 93): 48 ff.
Solomon, Barbara H. (ed). Rediscoveries: American Short Stories by
Women, 1832-1916. New York: Penguin, 1994.