Finding Freedom in a Room of their Own: Margaret Fuller Navigates 19th Century American Literature

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Finding Freedom in a Room of their Own: Margaret Fuller Navigates 19th Century American Literature

Steph Herold

Location: Margaret Fuller's living room, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Women present: Margaret Fuller, host
Hester Prynne of The Scarlet Letter
Cassy of Uncle Tom's Cabin
Aunt Sally of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Margaret Fuller: Welcome, ladies. Please have a seat and help yourself to tea and cookies before we begin.

The three women gather around a set of cushioned chairs. Hester Prynne looks anxious, Aunt Sally a bit confused, and Cassy looks comfortable, but not completely at ease. Fuller sets herself next to Prynne and Cassy, takes out her notes, looks each woman in the eye, and begins.

Fuller: I hope you three do not mind, but I have done an extensive amount of research into your pasts and I am intrigued by your beliefs and actions, particularly your attitudes towards freedom, and

Cassy: What do you women have to say about freedom? I was physically bound to a white man. How can you say you were under any kind of spiritual or emotional confinement when I did not even own my own body?

Prynne and Aunt Sally look at each other with wide eyes. Prynne seems distressed, Aunt Sally, annoyed.

Fuller: I am interested in exploring what this freedom means. Cassy, your concerns are valid in fact, I believe that as women we experience a kind of innate slavery to societal ideals of femininity, and you doubly so because of your race. I am not saying that it is fair or justifiable. I want you to talk about it. Investigate it with us.

Cassy (unsure what to make of Fuller, skeptical): Alright. Go on.

Fuller: I am working on a draft of an essay called "The Great Lawsuit: Man versus Men, Woman versus Women," let me pull it out (Fuller pulls out a stack of ruffled papers from underneath her notes) here it is "It is for that which is the birthright of every being capable to receive it, the freedom, the religious, the intelligent freedom of the universe, to use its means to learn its secret as far as nature has enable them, with G-d alone for their guide and their judge."

Hester Prynne (slightly shocked): What do you mean by freedom of the universe? The universe certainly did not give me freedom. In fact, when I acted of my own free will, the universe punished me by casting me as an outsider.

Fuller: Was it the universe castigating you, or the individuals in your community? (Prynne raises her eyebrows at Fuller) If you were a man, Ms. Prynne, do you think your actions would have been punished?

Prynne: I certainly would not have been condemned to live outside my town if I was a man, raising a child alone on the outskirts of the community.

Aunt Sally: Freedom of the universe is only granted to men. Even my Huck acts so sayin' women can't 'preciate or understand adventure.

Fuller: If women were free, free to fully develop the strength and beauty within themselves, they would never want to be manly, or even manlike.

Cassy: Am I manlike because I used my wit and intellect to escape from Legree?

Aunt Sally (very sure of herself): This isn't about masculinity or femininity. What you did was morally wrong! You should've waited until Legree gave you your freedom. What can freedom mean if it's stolen? You got to earn freedom. It's not just yours for the taking.

Cassy (infuriated): Haven't I earned freedom just by being alive? Why should I wait for someone else to give me something that I should already have? How dare you assume that your race gives your freedom a higher priority than mine.
Fuller: Point taken, Cassy. I think what you're forgetting, Sally, is that as a woman living in a patriarchal society, you are participating in a kind of "acknowledged" slavery. Let me explain women can never stand on their own as human beings, but must be attached to a man in some kind of romantic fashion. Woman as the poem, man the poet. Woman the heart, man the head. See what I mean?

Prynne: Yes. But I think it's a woman's place to navigate the desires of the heart, to understand the emotions in a poem. Men need women as an emotional compliment to their masculine intellect. If Dimmesdale had not allowed me to enter his life, perhaps he never would have explored that visceral, expressive side of himself, even if it ended up with him leaving his profession.

Cassy: What about those of us who can't afford only foster a "feminine" side? If I were to act traditionally ladylike, I'd still be on Legree's plantation, just dreaming about freedom. (pause) And I have another issue with what you said, Margaret. I don't think G-d had anything to do with my freedom. If true freedom means G-d alone is my "guide and judge," how come so many slaves hold that belief about G-d yet remain so unbearably not free?

Fuller: I did not mean that G-d somehow enables freedom. I mean that if anyone, G-d is the only power women are accountable to; we are not to be placed in some power hierarchy where a man's authority over woman supersedes G-d's authority over human beings.
Aunt Sally (exasperated): But men don't think that way! How can women have that freedom when men won't give it to us?

Fuller: Let's step back a second. What if you didn't have to worry about men allowing you freedom? I want to ask each of you a question: what does freedom of the universe look like?

Prynne: Freedom of the universe is soft but with rough edges. It is not wearing an embroidered mark of sin, but letting your whole garment flow with the electric life of being, sin and innocence, tame and wild. It is maneuvering the conventional to a place that feels comfortable, a place that fits.

Cassy: Freedom of the universe is a brilliant light. Not a heavenly light, but a radiant earth glow, a tremendous weight of feeling, of feeling the you-ness in the universe. Freedom of the universe is fighting back, and letting go, and going.

Aunt Sally: Freedom of the universe is complicated. I can't get my head around it it is bigger than me, bigger than the Mississippi, but maybe as wide holding as many fish and mystery creatures, and the possibility of adventure without a script.

Fuller: I want to bring about another thought, something I'm working on for the end of my essay. "Woman, self-centered, would never be absorbed by any relation; it would be only an experience to her as to man. It is a vulgar error that love, a love to woman is her whole existence; she is also born for Truth and Love in their universal energy." I want freedom to be more than escaping your relationships with men. For it to be true freedom, freedom of the universe, you have to define your being for yourself.

This discussion is by no means over. The women continue arguing about freedom, passion, and relationships late into the night, leaving Margaret Fuller's house with a sense of strange, radiant accomplishment.


In The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction, Judith Fetterly declares that "the major works of American fiction constitute a series of designs on the female reader," suggesting that to read American classics such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is to read as a male, with no place for female readers to insert their own existence into the literary experience. Freedom becomes a gendered experience, as the male narrators or protagonists in these fictions so blatantly define the acquisition of freedom, whether physical, spiritual, or emotional, as an experience limited to men. When the hierarchy of power between the genders is so narrowly defined, where can a woman place herself in these narratives?

Fetterly describes the necessity of a kind of reexamination of these narratives through a feminist lens, quoting Adrienne Rich, who states, "Until we can understand the assumptions in which we are drenched, we cannot know ourselves. And this drive to self-knowledge, for woman, is more than a search for identity: it is part of her refusal of the self-destructiveness of male-dominated society." Like Rich, Fetterly demands that we no longer subscribe to the conventional, male readings of these texts, proclaiming a new reality in these novels, changing literary criticism from a "closed conversation" to an "active dialogue."

In constructing a discussion between Fuller and the nineteenth century novel characters, I hoped to begin this redefinition of American literature, exploring the voices of these women and allowing Margaret Fuller's voice to bring out different strands of each character. While Fuller mediated the dialogue, she could not contain the opinions of these women as they explored the space for conversation that they lacked in their respective novels. In discussing freedom, issues of race and personal relationships emerged in the conversation, and for the first time these women were actually able to fully express their beliefs. Fuller empowered them to verbalize what their personal "freedom of the universe" would look like. While these descriptions were more poetic than tangible elements of these women's' lives, Fuller gave these characters the power to define their own reality, or at least their ideal reality.

Aunt Sally, Hester Prynne, and Cassy all come to the discussion with wholly different morals and statuses in society, yet Fuller's living room offers them a space of equality where they can engage in heated discussion and yet are not afraid of being dismissed as inadequate because of their gender. Racial tensions arise between Cassy and Aunt Sally, yet both women are given the opportunity to voice their opinions, with Fuller exploring different intellectual interpretations of their words. They no longer have to answer to the male protagonists in their texts; they provide their own answers to Fuller's provocative questions. The women are prompted by Fuller to recognize the kind of "acknowledged" slavery (literal slavery for Cassy) evident in their experiences within the confines of the patriarchal societies constructed in each novel, and thus, as Adrienne Rich so desires, they begin to comprehend "the assumptions in which we [women] are drenched."

I wrote this text as a woman writing about women for women to read. I am putting my own designs on the reader, feminist designs, and challenging Hawthorne, Twain, and Stowe in their limitations of the female characters in their novels. It will take more than a dialogue for these women to obtain Margaret Fuller's conception of "freedom of the universe." In giving them an intellectual voice and intellectual thought processes, I desired to remove them from the stereotypical female roles they were cast as in their novels and give them brains of their own in addition to simply a room of their own to hold this discussion. In writing this dialogue, I felt a new kind of personal freedom, not only in empowering the characters to speak and think for themselves, but in allowing these women to be in conversation with other women. All of them are in one way or another isolated in their respective novels, and in constructing their conversation, I felt as if I was freeing myself from the feminist anger and frustration I experienced while reading the novels by giving them a sense of female solidarity. I created for them a context of women in which to place themselves, and a context of Fuller's feminist theory with which to reexamine their lives.

These women could not experience "freedom of the universe" within the constraints of their novels, as they were never given the opportunity for a discussion of what that kind of freedom really means. By setting different constraints on them, Margaret Fuller's ideas and theories, they were able to reach a point where they could establish their own definitions of freedom without being pulled down by the constraints of their societal status. Thus freedom is more than just the ability to manipulate within constraints to create your own reality, but freedom becomes the ability to define yourself, boldly and honestly, despite the inevitable presence of constraints.

Works Cited

Fetterly, Judith. The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to Fiction. Indiana University PressBloomington and London: 1978.

Fuller, Margaret. "The Great Lawsuit: Man versus Men, Woman versus Women." Originally published in The Dial: IV, 1843. Text from Emotions coursebook

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