The religious memoir, The Female American, was first published in 1767 and it gives an account of Unca Winkfield, who is the main character/narrator. She comes from a bi-racial marriage living in 18th century America. Unca’s bi-racialism generates tension within the novel, as she appears to advance Christian views and paganism at the same time. In the opening chapters of the novel, Unca demonstrates Christian values such as praying when she feels alienated or stressed. On the other hand, as time goes by while on the Island, Unca begins to behave like a pagan. She uses an abandoned oracle to speak to the natives. Many scholars who have criticized this book analyze it with close reference to Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel, Robinson Crusoe, and conclude that it has a feminist theme in which Unca’s actions create various impressions particularly religious imperialism and civilization. Also, Unca’s alteration of beliefs is seen to serve as a means of exploiting whichever situation is more appropriate at a given time. However, this assertion is not necessarily true since she seems to exist in a space created by her dual identity. Thus, this paper will argue that the Christian side of Unca’s dual identity commands much control in her life, but the pagan side keeps on manifesting throughout her life. When observed from this perspective, Unca’s subjection at the last section of the novel can be said to be due to a new colonial imperialism that seeks to deprive Unca of her dual identity and puts her within the context of the European values.
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The problems explored
The Female American presents various colonial encounters such as experiencing varying parts of her heritage, which leads to instability of her individuality. This novel also reviews women’s role in feminist independence and religious conversion. Religious imperialism serves the purpose of the novel to propagate the word of Christianity. Religious imperialism propagates beliefs via any means possible provided it serves the purpose of convincing and converting people from their faith (Novak and Fisher 31). Unca’s story implies that people often believe and trust their loved ones. This assertion suggests that Unca’s father is in a position to change her mother based on love and the perceived imperialism. Viewing her mother’s religion as a mistake is a manifestation of religious extremism. The word ‘convert’ is itself intolerant because it suggests the manner of changing from undesirable state to something worthy. Such negative connotations express the religious imperialism of the Christians to the Indian religion. Unca is converts due to her uncle and even though she appears to have adopted Christian values, she still portrays various values of paganism. Several changes happen between her ancestral paganism and the developing European Christianity. For instance, her encounter with the idol provokes her to realize and relink with her pagan heritage.
Unca develops the conviction that her religion is superior and she feels obligated to convert other religions to Christianity. During the 18th Century, missionaries targeted groups that they felt were inferior to them and needed to be civilized (Reilly 89). According to the missionaries, only Christians were fully civilized and any religion was subject to receive their conversion. After she is converted to Christianity under her uncle’s pressure, Unca thinks that she loves her newfound religion and sees herself as a voluntary savior of the Indians. However, in reality, Unca is not different from the imperialists who compel others to abandon their faith. Unca even threatens to destroy the Indians if they fail to obey her commands. Largely Unca does not seem bothered to evade the true Christian values, yet she bullies Indians to abandon their conventional way of life. She does not perceive their religion as important because she believes that they are primitive and her religion is civilized. From this perspective, she assumes leadership and controls the course to convert Indians (Winkfield 40).
Unca’s conviction about Christianity’s superiority makes her think of portraying herself more as a Christian since she feels to be more equipped with Christian values as taught by her uncle. The drift between the Christian and pagan worlds emanates from the environment that she finds herself living in at the time. Since she is a manifestation of the colonial encounter, this condition concurringly displays itself within her. When confronted by difficult situations, Unca finds solace in her religion. She carries her pocket-size Bible everywhere she goes. During challenging times, Unca turns to religion due to her Christian development and this aspect leads to her disapproval of the Indian religion. She is civilized in the European environment that makes her believe in Christianity, which dominates her mind to criticize her pagan roots. This scenario plays out simply because she has knowledge regarding the two religions and each manifests itself when the environment is favorable.
Unca receives religious education from her uncle, which she acknowledges to have contributed to her conversion. She admits, “His teachings convinced the mind, they changed the heart, and made me love and know religion at the same time” (Winkfield 52). This admission implies that she is persuaded to abandon her beliefs and assume those taught by her uncle. The lectures change her heart meaning that not everything is okay with her heart. In addition, making her love and know religion insinuates that it is difficult or even impossible for Unca to love and know religion on her own. This move is a form of intended civilization by those who perceive themselves as superior and their beliefs as the standard measure and worth following by all people. In chapter one when Unca is abandoned on the Island, she devotes herself to God where she finds solace of her current situation. As she explores the Island, Unca discovers an idol of worship and hides in the secret passageway. She decides to convert the Indians to Christianity by conversing with the idol to guide the Indians in the Christian ways.
In chapter two shortly before Unca prepares to meet the Indians, she examines the temple of the idol. She reckons that the temple is organized beautifully with plenty of valuable stones and gold ornaments. She is amazed by the capability of the idol to transmit her voice and she is further startled by the knowledge the Indians must be possessing. She quips, “What a knowledge of mechanics must the ancients have had” (Winkfield 80). Unca seems to be astonished by the beauty that she sees. However, she does not want to acknowledge that the Indians possess the art, but the ancients. Just like other imperialists, she declines to use the achievements of the Indians to qualify them as civilized, but rather she views the talent as belonging to the ancestors. Also, as she prepares to meet the Indians, she appears to have no issue in admiring the riches that she encounters despite claiming to want to change the Indians to Christianity.
From the works of artistry that she observes, it is a clear indication that Indians are intelligent. They can mold gold and precious stones into admirable objects. This aspect is in contrast with the main claim adopted for religious imperialism that those people being converted are not civilized and they cannot develop by themselves. Given that the Indians manifest the ability to make rattling and complex structures, then Unca has no reason to view them as inferior individuals in need of religious conversion. The same way Unca’s father converts her mother using certain attributes against her, Unca tries to change the Indians by using their language and their idol to propagate Christian beliefs (Winkfield 85). If the Christian religion is supreme, then Unca should have faced the Indians directly without making them believe it is their idol speaking to them. Unca highly refutes what she views as idolatry amongst Indians, but she uses the same veneration in her bid to change them. This practice confuses Unca who questions if such actions are sinful. Unca advances her religious imperialism through trickery and disguise. The entire chapter three suggests that Unca views herself to be better as compared to the Indians. She significantly demeans them due to their religion and she feels mighty when issuing commands (Duffy 29).
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Major themes explored
Religious conversion and dominance are some of the themes that dominate the novel. Unca’s urge to convert the Indians to Christianity prompts her to act beyond normality and she goes ahead to address the Indians through the idol as a kind of a supposed female prophet representing God’s presence. While she is uncertain of the morality of her actions to portray herself as God, she convincingly enforces her supremacy over them. She perceives God as powerful and enabling, yet in times of despair, she lacks the needed patience, and thus she turns to a false idol to offer her safety and sustain her new established superiority over the Indians.
Female autonomy is a common theme all through the novel. From the outset of the novel, Unca presents great power and the ability to manipulate Indians. This novel examines the possibility of a female protagonist showing the emerging decline in male dominance. Unca comes out as an independent woman with the ability to command respect in a foreign setting. Also, she presents her independence in her numerous rejections for marriage. For example, she rejects several proposals from her cousin, thus portraying him as weak and unable to challenge her on how to use a bow and arrow. This aspect exemplifies Unca’s view of the world and her trickery to convert Indians to Christianity. Even though she succeeds while on the Island, she is not genuine because she first reckons that the Indians are intelligent based on their wondrous artwork, but she insists on advancing religious intolerance by insinuating that the Hindu religion is an error (Nordius 8).
Self-glorification is also highly expressed in this novel. Unca develops a desire for others to worship her when she commands the Indians to convert while she presents herself as conveying God’s message. She implies that she is worth God’s praise since she is inspired to convey his will to the people. As Christianity and paganism battle against each other, any progress that Christianity or paganism makes is simply due to self-glorification. Just as in the actual colonial scenarios, imperialists would claim to be civilized and powerful simply to make their subjects feel inferior (Duffy 22). They even allowed their subjects limited freedom to self-glorify and make them feel that they were honored. All these considerations were meant to promote the colonists’ self-glorification and dominance. Unca’s desire to self-glorify makes her convince herself that she is advancing God’s will, but in essence, she is exemplifying herself through an idol, which she claims to ascend to earth as a god-woman. She finds a way to interact directly with the Indians and receive the honor of being glorified by fellow people. She replicates the coming of Jesus Christ when she foretells of her coming, but she even wants to come out stronger. In her self-made prophecy, she predetermines the priests to be her disciples, and instead of rejecting her, they will exalt and exemplify her (Novak and Fisher 44).
Unca displays challenges in establishing her identity. At first, she is a pagan, but her Christian upbringing and particularly her uncle’s influence makes her love and convert to Christianity. All of a sudden, she comes out as a benevolent savior who aims at restoring the Indians. She intentionally ignores the irony in her condition when she presents herself through the idol. In chapter three, she wears the jewels that she finds in the temple and uses the same idolatry she claims as inferior to gain superiority over the Indians (Nordius 7). If Christianity were superior as imperialist imply, then Unca has no reason to use trickery and other schemes that missionaries applied to convince their subjects to convert. Just as Western preachers convinced Indians that their priests were outright liars who sought to manipulate them to earn a living, Unca is doing the exact thing yet she does not see the moral and ethical contradiction because she purports to manifest the real God.
In the article, The Gothic Movement in The Female American, Nordius acknowledges that Unca changes her identity to suit her current condition (7). For instance, while on the Island, she demonstrates both Christianity and Hindu religions at different times when it is socially convenient. When she is trapped in the idol, she becomes terrified as she recognizes that her Christianity is at times insecure and pagan roots can boost her current situation (Nordius 15). Unca is simply experiencing a conflict within herself and even though she is in pursuit of power and dominance, she is experiencing internal conflicts, which seem to affect who she is together with her beliefs. On many occasions, she has no choice to choose who she is or rather she is demonstrating the consequences of a colonial encounter. She has no option of selecting being fully native or fully European. In a bid to survive the course, she is integrated into the narrative as a person who has to incorporate both aspects of these identities. In this context, Unca is seen as having a dual identity rather than having hybrid individuality. In this view, Unca has two sides of her identity, which is a pagan and Christian side, which affects her behavior hence swinging back and forth between the two identities. This aspect is elaborated in the monument that she has built-in remembrance of her mother. The monument is built on an English church ground but decorated with jewels and other precious ornaments matching the dignity of her mother, Princess Unca. This mix of Indian heritage erected on English grounds presents the two civilizations. This aspect implies that Unca is a mix of the Indian and British civilization, and despite having a religious upbringing, she has not shed all sentiments of her mother’s heritage.
Unca’s identity shows what happens in the Western countries following the colonial encounter. The subjects, who in this case are the perceived inferiors, assimilate some of the masters’ ideas whilst upholding some of their beliefs just like Unca and other biracial people cannot claim as being neither fully one nor the other. For example, viewing the monument elaborates the reader’s capacity to understand Unca’s often drift in identity. Viewing the monument from an Indian perspective, one would conclude that it is a native product. However, observing it from a European point of view, one would claim that it is a European product. Nonetheless, both of these assumptions are wrong, as it is a mix of the two cultures. Therefore, it has no choice to decide whether to be native or European. According to Reilly, Unca occupies a unique space in society, which suits her interracial background, but it cannot be viewed as absolutely happening to fit Unca’s agency (90). Unca does not mold new conditions when she feels like she has to adjust, and this condition emerged upon her birth. Her duality and diversity are not impacted by her own decision. On the contrary, they are the consequence of a colonial experience. Due to her upbringing, segments of her heritage are deeply anchored in some situations than others, but ultimately, the two identities move interchangeably back and forth.
Since her actions should have a particular background, the change of her identity is triggered based on the environment in which she finds herself. As shown in the first chapter, when Unca stays with the colonial settlers, she learns and loves identifying with the Christian values. Her father as well as uncle is devoted to directing her into the faith of the Church of England. This aspect is further exacerbated in the closing stages of the novel when she agrees to marry her cousin who endeavors on the duty to convert Indians. While in such surroundings, Unca’s religious identity is protected and her pagan side is not allowed to manifest. On the Island, the situation is the direct opposite as her Christian notion is absorbed by the saturation of the Indian beliefs. Pursuing Indian values in any way is seen as primitive and this aspect becomes a danger to Unca since Europeanism is termed as standard and safe (Nordius 9).
As Unca explores the temples and the idol, she demonstrates interest in material goods such as the precious stones and the gold carvings. Her expression of interest on materialism, as opposed to spirituality, reveals that religious imperialists aimed at exploiting their subjects’ resources as they purported to propagate the true gospel of God. Unca does not show remorse as she explores the areas that signify the worship of an idol. Instead, she wears one of the gold rings and bracelets (Winkfield 80). She believes that material wealth represents power, and thus it will help her adjust to her new role without the natives realizing the scheme. The Western preachers and other imperialists use wealth to measure the level of civilization. Even when they find that their target subjects are their equals, they still find ways to imply that whatever they possess in the form of art or any other material forms belongs to their ancestors. When the Europeans appear on the Island and after the Indians are converted to Christians, the Europeans collect all the precious stones and gold without the natives’ permission and spend it on European goods by claiming to be converting all paganism to Christianity (Reilly 90).
During Unca’s struggle, while trying to identify herself in a Christian individuality, the tensions surrounding the colonial encounters in The Female American resurfaces. Albeit Unca is successful in the way she explains God’s love to the Indians and converts them to Christianity, how she uses it demonstrates a lot of fear. While trapped in the idol, she is afraid that Indians might discover her tricks, and thus she decides to foretell of her own coming to live amongst the Indians. In chapter three, it is shown that Unca warns the Indians not to ask her about her origin or even follow her when she seeks to speak to God (Winkfield 84). This aspect explains her insecurities as she prepares to live among the Indians. However, her dual identity helps her live as part of the Indian society while at the same time giving an account of Christian values. By acting cunningly, it implies that Unca is aware that the Indians are already civilized in their way and changing them requires trickery rather than usual confrontations.
From the narrative, it is evident that Unca presents various dimensions of colonialism. From the onset of the novel, Unca is presented as having a biracial identity, thus living a conflictual life as half Christian and half pagan. On the Island, her pagan side dominates, but in a way that exemplifies the Christian faith. In other words, this narrative justifies religious imperialism because some individuals such as Unca use religion as a means of exploiting other people’s faith and make them commit to their will. Even though the statue grants her power to command the Indians, it as well succeeds to convert her to the Hindu religion unknowingly. Later when the Europeans appear on her Island, she is recolonized and restored to her usual Christian faith. Her paganism is deprived of its power. In the closing chapter, while Unca duality persists, she is re-colonized by her cousin, thus alleviating nearly all of her paganism. She assumes her previous role of the good Christian since her new environment needs her to act that way. The proportion of her duality changes, as she seems to behave like a real Christian. Having helped the imperialists in their colonial and religious activities, she loses her power and resumes her role as a good Christian woman. The civilized society that she joins after marrying expects her to assume her husband’s name, which further re-subjects her to Europeanism and her pagan side fades, and thus she is of no threat to anyone.
Duffy, John-Charles. “Can Deconstruction Save the DayFaithful Scholarship” and the Uses of Postmodernism: Dialogue.” A Journal of Mormon Thought 41.1 (2008): 1-33. Print.
Nordius, Janina. “Thus might I reason with a heathen…’: The Gothic Moment in The Female American.” Nordic Journal of English Studies 7.2 (2008): 1-18. Print.
Novak, Maximillian, and Carl Fisher. Approaches to Teaching Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, New York: Modern Language Assn. of America, 2005. Print.
Reilly, Matthew. “No Eye Has Seen, or Ear Heard”: Arabic Sources for Quaker Subjectivity in Unca Eliza Winkfield’s The Female American.” Eighteenth-century Studies 44.10 (2010): 83-261. Print.
Winkfield, Unca. The Female American; Or, the Adventures of Unca Eliza Winkfield, Michigan: Gale ECCO, 2010. Print.
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