Harriet Prescott Spofford (1835-1921)

    Contributing Editor:
    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 her contemporaries.

    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 tradition.

    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.

    Original Audience

    Consider the following:

    1. The time period during which the story was written and the New England setting.

    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:

    Emily Dickinson, "Twas like a maelstrom . . ."

    Nathaniel Hawthorne, "Young Goodman Brown"

    Stephen Crane, "The Open Boat"

    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 Press, 1985.

    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.