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Death Drive, Martyrdom, and Deathbed Scenes. The Narration of Death in Harriet Wilson’s Autobiographical Novel”



Cet article propose d’examiner les circonstances autothanatographiques dans le roman autobiographique de Harriet Wilson. Publié à l’insu de tous en 1859 et ressuscité en 1981, Our Nig; or, Sketches in the Life of a Free Black, North apparaît de prime abord comme un échec commercial. D’un point de vue narratologique, l’intrigue repose à la fois sur des scènes de personnages à l’article de la mort, sur leur lit de mort, et des décès prématurés ou désirs de mort, aboutissant à une théâtralisation de la mort. S’inspirant de la notion de tragédie définie par Aristote, cet article propose de lire Our Nig comme une méditation profonde sur la mort, la race et Dieu. Wilson, en tant qu’autothanatographe, met en scène sa propre mort à travers ce projet d’écriture. Contre toute attente, ce projet va dépasser son objet et faire ressusciter son auteur dans un ultime « death-defying act » (Thomas Couser).

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Introduction: The Autothanatographical Occasion

  • 1 Frado is also referred to as “Nig”, as the title suggests. Nig is the nickname given to her by her (...)

1When she published her novel in 1859, Harriet Wilson was far from imagining that she would still be, today, albeit posthumously, referred to as the first African American female novelist. First published anonymously by a Boston firm (George C. Rand & Avery), in September 1859, Wilson’s Our Nig had been collecting dust on bookshelves until Historian and Literary Critic Henry Louis Gates, Jr., published a facsimile edition in 1983. The bumpy road to edition was for Harriet Wilson a matter of life and death. “Deserted by kindred, disabled by failing health, I am forced to some experiment which shall aid me in maintaining myself and child without extinguishing this feeble life.” (Our Nig 3) These words appearing in the preface aptly encapsulate Harriet Wilson’s autobiographical project. Her purpose indeed was to gain financial support in order to provide for and take care of her infant. In this endeavor, she embarks upon a journey towards life writing. Narrated in the omniscient third-person, Our Nig; or, Sketches in the Life of a Free Black, North chronicles the life of Frado1, a young mulatto girl hired as an indentured servant for the Bellmont household (“a two-story White house, North”), a white family living in the supposedly free – anti-slavery – North. But the Bellmont family forces Frado into “virtual slavery.” Plagued by the chores and physical abuse her mistress inflicts upon her, Frado soon shows signs of ailment and disability. Our Nig foregrounds Frado’s predicament and tragedy of being black and a woman in a free State.

2Wilson’s autobiography is not about life. Rather, it is a story about death – her own upcoming death and others’. Her life was riddled with mourning, misfortune, and abandonment. In Our Nig; or, Sketches in the Life of a Free Black, North, Wilson chronicles a series of anecdotes – or sketches— involving death, be it physical (deathbed scenes) or social (through scenes of ostracism and desertion). The very purpose of her publication was to save her son from dying but the reader will soon discover that death had always permeated Wilson’s life. Her novel, in fact, relates the endless suffering of a child maturing into a young woman and struggling to survive. “I’ve got to stay out here and die. I Ha’n’t [sic] got no mother, no home. I wish I was dead” (Our Nig 46), she cries. The reader witnesses Frado’s descent into hell and plea for dying as a martyr.

3Wilson’s autobiography is also the story of a resurrection. It is the first African American novel written by a black woman. Originally published in Victorian America in 1859, this autobiography was rescued from oblivion and republished by Gates. Literally resurrecting the book from the dead, Gates managed to guarantee her authorship thanks to her death certificate. Our Nig not only embodies the birth of African American women’s writing but it is also representative of a morbid aura which particularly pervades early African American writing.

4Borrowing the phrase “autobiographical occasion” from Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson in their 2010 study on autobiography, this paper considers the autothanatographical “occasion(s)” (Smith, Watson 207) at work in Harriet Wilson’s autobiographical novel as the starting point(s) of the writing process. As such, death appears in various guises in the text. This paper is dedicated to the treatment of death in and through Wilson’s autobiographical enterprise. I will argue that the performance of death and dying in the light of Aristotle’s tragedy is crucial to the development of the plot in Our Nig. In order to conduct this analysis, this article first examines how death shapes the author’s autobiographical writing. It shows how martyrdom is central to the narration as the main character engages in suicidal thoughts, both blaming and denying God. This paper also analyzes the deathbed scenes as a paradigm of Wilson’s writing. Finally, it proposes to outline the aesthetics of resurrection through writing.

1. The Performance of Death and Dying in Our Nig

From Life Writing to Death Writing

5Deeply rooted in the slave narrative tradition, Our Nig seemingly stands as an adaptation of the nineteenth-century slave narrative. Traditionally, the slave narrative is characterized by a white-authored preface written by an advocate of abolitionism, “whose authority legitimated, framed and mediated the slave narrator for a white audience.” (McLennan 53) Thus, at the core of the slave narrative lies the idea of a “white envelope” casting a (white) shadow over the voice of the black slave. However, Wilson disrupts the conventions of slave narration to the extent that the preface was written by the author herself and which she signed by the letters “H.E.W.” What is more, she penned her story without the assistance of an amanuensis which was symptomatic of classic slave narratives. In the Appendix, “Allida” considers the narrative as an “Autobiography.” She provides the reader with information on Wilson’s project and subsequently accounts for her authenticity – which was also one of the preoccupations of the time, as far as slave writings were concerned. She writes : “[Frado’s] health is again falling, and she has felt herself obliged to resort to another method of procuring her bread – that of writing an Autobiography.” (Wilson 137) Allida’s testimony serves as a guarantee of transparency and reliability – the two main principles of autobiographical writing.

6More precisely, according to Richard Ellis, the book is to be touted as an autobiographical novel. Ellis as well as Gates have devoted much of their study of Our Nig on genre classification and terminology. The words “slavery”, “southern”, “bondmen”, “anti-slavery” and “colored brethren” appearing in the preface are undisputedly pertinent to slave writing. In this sense, Wilson’s narrative echoes back to slave narratives even though it challenges its conventions, “showing that the shadows of slavery fall even there”, as the subtitle indicates. What is at stake is not the issue of slavery (or a kind of slavery) itself but the truest intentions of the author. What is of significance and of interest in those writings by “African American” subjects is whether it was written by a real African American or not. Gates insists in his Introduction to his 1983 edition of Our Nig that it be considered autobiographical : “What are we to make of the first person lapses in the chapter titles? We can conclude […] that the novel is indeed ‘an Autobiography,’ of sorts, an autobiographical novel.” (Our Nig xxxvii) The “auto” and “bio” dimensions of the autobiography are to be understood as the two most relevant elements of such writing. The medium comes last into consideration. Gates further develops: “Whether the lapses are a sign of an inexperienced author struggling with or against the received conventions of her form, or the result of the imposition of a life on the desires of a text to achieve the status of fiction, these first-person traces point to the complexities and tensions of basing fictional events upon the lived experiences of an author […].” (Our Nig xxxvii) Thus, whether it is written in the first-person or the third does not matter much in this instance as long as the “pact” is fulfilled. McLennan’s study on American autobiography contends that “autobiography is often rendered difficult and dangerous, because so many writers and readers of autobiography confuse the three parts (self, life, writing).” (McLennan 6)

7What remains of significant interest is the “bio” logic, no pun intended. As this paper shall attempt to demonstrate, life is not the main issue in Wilson’s plot. In fact, what triggers an autobiographical enterprise is nothing but death. According to Garett Stewart, “death is aimed always at the central component of plot, at character, and at the center of character: identity.” (Stewart 5) The autobiography lends itself to a reflection on the centrality of death as far as life writing is concerned. In his seminal work, Paul de Man claims that “death is a displaced name for a linguistic predicament, and the restoration of mortality by autobiography (the prosopopeia of the voice and the name) deprives and disfigures to the precise extent that it restores. Autobiography veils a defacement of the mind of which it is itself the cause.” (de Man 930) In the same vein, G. Thomas Couser carries de Man’s theory further by implying that “many classic American autobiographies betray the pressure of a profound concern with death.” (Couser 53) Wilson’s concern with death is noticeable through the chapter structure of her narrative. Five chapters out of twelve bear the word “death” or “departure” in their title. The plot structure tellingly unravels in a dramatic mode reminiscent of Artistotle’s aesthetics of tragedy.

Theatrics, Theatricality and Metatheatricality of Death

8The theatrics of death at work in Wilson’s autobiography takes up the form of “exits and entrances,” a staging-up of death and of the process of death. In the guise of a curtain-raiser, the text opens with a mise-en-scène of a social death (Mag Smith – Frado’s mother – living on the outskirts of a village) and ends up with a dark and gloomy coda going back to the other characters’ deaths. The whole book hinges on death, dying and dead people, so much so that the narrator does not seem to recount the “life of” Frado but the “death” of Frado and her relatives. From the outset, Frado appears as a tragic heroine as she keeps on musing on her plight. The narrator endorses the role of the chorus, describing and commenting upon the various scenes taking place “on stage.” The opening scene showing Mag Smith walking before the reader’s eyes is presented to us as an exposition scene. “Lonely Mag Smith! See her as she walks with downcast eyes and heavy heart.” (Our Nig 5) The catastrophe, as defined by Aristotle, is set in motion at the beginning of the text and is embodied by the mother figure. In this instance, the narrator, like a chorus in the context of Ancient Greek tragedy plays, provides the readership with information on the characters or the plot, the dramatic function of the chorus being to help the audience follow the performance. Likewise, twists of dramatic performance take place when death is threatening.

9The Greek playwright claims that “Tragedy is a representation of a serious, complete action which has magnitude, in embellished speech, with each of its elements [used] separately in the [various] parts [of the play]; [represented] by people acting and not by narration; accomplishing by means of pity and terror the catharsis of such emotions.” (1449b 24-28) The word “representation” is significant as far as the performance of death is concerned. Indeed, the performance of death escapes, resists representation inasmuch as it is implicitly suggested by the narrator rather than being displayed openly. The dialogues, for instance, give a “true-to-life” dimension to the autobiography. By reproducing (and certainly re-writing) the different cues uttered by the characters in the novel, Wilson fulfills her promise of offering to the public the unvarnished truth of her life. This transcription not only stands for the “novelization” (Andrews 89) of the referential mode of autobiography, as suggested by William L. Andrews, but also a dramatization of the plot. It is through dialogues that Frado gives way to her most probing speech acts. One night, after having been tortured by the sour-tempered Mrs. Bellmont, Frado runs away. Aunt Abby ‒ Mrs. B.’s perfect antagonist ‒ finds her hiding place and an unexpected conversation starts between the two. Frado vents all her frustration and deepest pain: “I’ve got to stay out here and die. I ha’n’t [sic] got no mother, no home. I wish I was dead.” (Our Nig 46) Similarly, the re-enactment of her disappearance morphs into a possible death. “They started calling, searching, coaxing, all their way along. No Frado.” (Our Nig 49)

10The well-oiled strategy of this performance of death allows Wilson to raise the curtain on the inevitability of death and Frado’s helplessness in the face of death. This performance is likewise introduced through the device of metadrama. The narratee, for instance, is directly called forth in the opening pages: “Lonely Mag Smith! See her as she walk […]” (Our Nig 5); “Blessed release! may we all respond” (Our Nig 6); “she was seldom seen except as upon your introduction, gentle reader […]” (Our Nig 8). By addressing the audience, the narrator simultaneously presents himself as a performing actor. The narrator also endorses the part of eavesdropper by repeatedly overhearing conversations (Our Nig 28). Similarly, some of the terms related to drama are genuinely used by the narrator himself. Words such as “performance” (Our Nig 44) and “scene” (Our Nig 66) are frequently used which adds to this (meta-)theatrical dimension.

Deadly dramatis personae

11As Richard Ellis summarizes the plot of Our Nig, it comes across that death has acted as a catalyst in Harriet Wilson’s autobiographical project: “Our Nig’s story line is readily summarized. Its main protagonist, Alfrado/Frado/”Our Nig”, is deserted as a young child by her white mother, Mag Smith, following the death of her African American father.” (our emphasis, Ellis 19) From the outset, the course of Wilson’s life was then shaped, influenced by death. She was severed from her mother because her “African American father” died. Thus, death appears to be both a pretext to writing and a device for the plot to unfold. Indeed, it is her father’s death that fosters her abandonment and subsequent ill-fated life. It is almost disquieting how death has played such a role in defining Wilson’s existence. It first started with her mother, Mag Smith. Ostracized after giving birth to an illegitimate child, Mag Smith’s fate is sealed. As shocking as it could be to a nineteenth-century Puritan White audience, Wilson further develops how Mag “[…] sundered another bond which held her to her fellows. She […] descended another step down the ladder of infamy.” (Our Nig 13) Equally significant is the fact that Mag Smith is White, living in the North. She is not the typical Black slave woman whose children have been sold at some slave auction and trying to save from bondage. Mag Smith commits the irredeemable act of infanticide. She feels relieved when her illegitimate child, a few days old only, passes away: “’God be thanked,” ejaculated Mag, as she saw its breathing cease; ‘no one can taunt her with my ruin’.” (Our Nig 6) In this instance, death is welcome as a “release” (Our Nig 15). What is depicted here is not the motherly unconditional love that one reads in traditional slave narratives. Rather, Our Nig runs counter to the figure of the protective mother and foregrounds the impacts of social death. Wilson goes on telling how miserable Mag Smith’s life is: “I don’t believe there is a person in the world but would be glad to have me dead and out of the way” (9). Beyond social and racial satire, Wilson compellingly accounts for infanticide as moral corruption and a lesser evil. “Alas, how fearful are we to be first in extending a helping hand to those who stagger in the mire of infamy; to speak the first words of hope and warning to those emerging into the sunlight of mortality!” (Our Nig 7) The isotopy of death is shown through words such as “degradation”, “foul”, “bury”, “mortality” (Our Nig 7) Mag is not only a fallen woman ‒ another version of Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne ‒, she epitomizes the thwarted social values in an allegedly slave-free society. Moreover, Mag’s story elicits the contrapuntal story of “Nig” trying to save her infant from foster care and death. By contrasting Mag’s motherhood to Nig’s motherhood, Wilson achieves a subtle masterstroke. Reinforced by the homophonic proximity of the names Mag/Nig, the author reinstates her own motherhood in the face of death. Although she does advocate Mag’s condition, she also gets away with appearing as the brave, sacrificial mother.

12In Our Nig, death is either a catalyst shaping the course of a character’s life or a way out. Nig’s life takes on a new turn at her father’s death. When Mag re-marries and decides to give up Nig to the stormy Mrs. Bellmont, she commits yet another infanticide. Nig gets beat up to death and expounds her death wishes more than once. Other characters in the story are struck by misfortune and death, notably James Bellmont whose deathbed scenes unfold from page 76 to 102, thereby monopolizing much of the novel. The rest of the book is peppered with ailing characters and sickroom scenes. Wilson herself an invalid by the time of the publication does not go without emphasizing her own poor health condition in the course of her writing.

2. The Ritualization of the Pathetic Deathbed Scene

An Iconic Scene in Victorian Fiction

13The treatment of death in Victorian fiction took on the form of deathbed scenes, staging infant deaths or untimely women’s deaths. In fact, the deathbed scene is an iconic scene in Victorian fiction. Death happens at home, in the domestic sphere. Shai Lavi explains: “The deathbed scene was a spectacle to be seen and studied by those closest to the dying person” (Lavi 734). Indeed, the main characteristic of the deathbed scene is that it is a domestic one. As such, the scene is fully integrated into the private, intimate family circle and affects all the family members in one way or another. Used as a plot device, the deathbed scene appears as a focal or pivotal moment in the story. Usually, the scene appears at some climactic moment when suspense has been built in the preceding pages. In this sense, the whole storyline hinges on this specific instant, to borrow Blanchot’s phrase, “the instant of […] death”. The most popular deathbed scenes in Victorian fiction are undoubtedly the oft-quoted Little Nell in Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop and Beth March’s death in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. These two instances, among others, create the paradigm of the deathbed scene. More often than not, these scenes stage frail creatures such as children or women, subsequently adding to the sentimental purpose of such storylines.

14Death and the deathbed are more than just plot devices. They can serve many purposes. Other than simply allowing the reader to wallow in grief, the deathbed scene serves a didactic purpose. It teaches the Victorian audience, for instance, how important it was to live properly and in effect to die well, as a moralizing tool. The scene functions as a means for the plot to unfold, in some occasions as a moral pause, “as a test of character, as a sudden turning point in plot or action, or as a domestic scene to portray family values” (Reed 158-159). Equally significant is the role played by women in the face of death. As a domestic scene, the deathbed is but a female one, taking place in what was said to be the Angel of the Hearth or of the House’s abode. Significantly enough, it is not surprising that such conventions were taken up by women writers who, at their turn, chose to focus on these iconic episodes in their own writing. According to Michael Wheeler: “The deathbed scene […] was a familiar literary convention not only in prose fiction but also in narrative poetry, biography; and a remarkable high proportion of the lyric poetry of the period, particularly by women writers, addressed the themes of death and dying, bereavement and mourning.” (our emphasis, Wheeler 28) Generally ascribed to women writers, the deathbed paradigm is not censured from Wilson’s novel. Rather, it is a crucial tool in her plot.

  • 2 According to Eric Gardner, Our Nig allows itself to be read as a “children’s book” since “most read (...)

15Considered by some critics as a children’s book, Our Nig’s sketches morph into rites of passage and moral lessons addressed to the reader2. Lois Keith contends that “the deathbed scene in books intended for children started off as a way of teaching a moral lesson to those who needed to be saved from damnation and hellfire.” (Keith 34) Those scenes aim at allowing the readers (or other characters in the plot) to redeem themselves. They serve a spiritual purpose as far as Nig/Frado is concerned. The untimely death of James, for instance, hastens Frado’s conversion to Christianism.

James Bellmont as a Christ Figure

16Against all odds, Wilson chose not to depict a female character in a deathbed scene but a male one. Significantly enough, this choice will prove to be quite a clever one. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the deathbed scene is epitomized by Evangeline, in keeping with the Victorian literary conventions mentioned above. Referred to in the novel as Little Eva, Stowe’s angelic and Christian character offers a significant twist to the plot. A feminized Christ figure is born. All the characters seem to be affected by her illness and subsequent death.

“O, Eva, tell us what you see! What is it?” said her father. A bright, a glorious smile passed over her face, and she said, brokenly, ― “O! Love, ― joy, ― peace!” gave one sigh and passed from death unto life!”

“Farewell, beloved child! The bright, eternal doors have closed after thee; we shall see thy sweet face no more. O, woe for them who watched thy entrance into heaven, when they shall wake and find only the cold grey sky of daily life and thou gone forever.” (Stowe 113)

17By choosing a female character, Stowe did not depart from tradition. Conversely, Wilson’s choice is revealing. She is able to establish her own literary authority by this sole difference. The sick character in Our Nig is named James. He is the oldest son in the Bellmont family. Absent at the beginning of the story, he appears towards the middle of the novel even though he showed some interest in “the last acquisition to the family” (Our Nig 42) in his correspondence. To Frado, James is, from the outset, to be associated with a white male figure of authority and spiritual guide. He protects her from his mother’s physical abuse. Once heroic and powerful, James’s vigor will soon decline as Frado grows fond of him. Upon hearing about his sickness, Frado starts fearing the worst: “The first of spring a letter came from James, announcing declining health.” (Our Nig 67) The portentous letter is the starting point of the rising action. Suspense did not last long as she immediately adds: “He arrived feeble, lame, from his disease, so changed that Frado wept at his appearance, fearing he would be removed from her forever.” (Our Nig 67) Although he seems weak, James does not go without comforting his protégé. The nature and name of his illness remain undisclosed which adds up to the mystery surrounding his character. James becomes a saintly character, a Christ figure. His deathbed scene takes on the shape of a beautiful repose. “Oh let me go and be at rest!” (97) The repeated use of “rest” enhances the idea of a peaceful slumber rather than the harsh reality of death. He had come back “home” to breathe his last and in order to have a caring person on his side. He finds solace in Frado and Aunt Abby, also known as “Nab.” Gathering his family around him, he wishes to preserve the unity of family relations. Ultimately, Frado’s conduct will be fashioned in view of death and the possibility of salvation. Taking place at home, the death of the sufferer is the occasion to make his or her explicit farewells to each individual family member. James’s death is not a sudden death so it could leave time for necessary spiritual preparation. It also helps Frado to atone for her former/supposed sins.

Sentimentalization of Death

18Not only is James a saintly figure but he is also a chivalrous one. He is pictured as a knight-errant endowed with heroic qualities. He rescued Frado the night she ran away from the house, “warmed her by the kitchen fire, gave her a good supper, and took her with them into the sitting-room.” (Our Nig 50) He is the one who stands by her side until she falls asleep. Like a guardian angel, James means the world to Frado who increasingly grows fond of her mentor and surrogate father. He promises to take her with him and save her from the evil of slavery and “Mrs. B.”: “Frado felt so happy in his presence, so safe from maltreatment! He was to her a shelter.” (Our Nig 67) Startlingly, James embodies the motherly figure Frado has always been wanting. He is concerned about her safety and makes sure she is well taken care of. Moreover, as he treats her as humanly as possible, James endorses the role of the nourishing mother. Wilson subtly subverts gender codes by depicting a heartless mother in opposition to a caring, sensible man.

19Likewise, James is almost a god-like figure. He guides her to spiritual purity, step by step. “He had found the Saviour, he wished to Frado’s desolate heart gladdened, quieted, sustained, by His presence.” (Our Nig 69) In this instance, James could almost be confused with God, as the possessive pronoun “His” could as well refer to either God or James. The narrator presents Frado’s slow conversion in a romantic fashion. Evidence of sentimentality is shown, for instance, in the attachment James and Frado feel for each other. “He felt sure there were elements in her heart which, transformed and purified by the gospel, would make her worthy the esteem and friendship of the world.” (Our Nig 69) James devotes his last moments to Frado’s translation. In her groundbreaking article about race and conversion in Our Nig, Elizabeth West makes plain how this conversion is nipped in the bud. West suggests that “Our Nig ends as an anti-conversion experience. Unable to dispel inherited social images that equate whiteness with Godliness, the heroine cannot envision blackness in the divine hereafter.” (West 4) If Frado still yearns to become a good Christian at the end of the novel, “her claim to piety is complicated by an inference that self-interest might underlie the religiosity,” explains Ellis (Ellis 87). According to him, Wilson’s spiritual progress is prompted by her dependence on Christian charity and is part of the conventional sentimental conversion narrative.

  • 3 For a more detailed analysis of sentimentality in Our Nig, see Richard Ellis’s third chapter entitl (...)
  • 4 See Harriet Martineau, Life in the Sickroom (1844), for example.

20The deathbed scenes serve as illustrations and justifications for the narrator’s own descent into hell, her disability and illness. Frado shows her inconsolable grief for the dying. She sees to care and give solace to this father figure. She nurses him daily. Some of these scenes result in mawkish deathbed scenes3. It does add melodrama to the plot, for sure. The romantic strains of the deathbed scene offer an overemotional and melodramatic encounter: Eros meets Thanatos. These scenes show an unconditional love and bond beyond death or occasioned by death (bereavement, mourning, declining health as sympathy for the sufferer). The horrors of death are transformed into a spectacle of pleasure and beauty. Jalland contends that deathbed scenes became romanticized and “represented the Christian ideal rather than the historical reality” (Jalland 233). Disease also became romanticized during the nineteenth century, especially in the middle and upper classes of society4.

21However, this romanticization of death and the deathbed scene reveals the brittle conversion of the autobiographer. In the wake of James’s death, Frado wishes to convert to Christianism in order to be reunited to James in the afterlife. She confesses: “He was the attraction. Should she ‘want to go [to heaven] if she could not see him?” (Our Nig 100) A minister also “endeavored to make Christ, instead of James, the attraction of Heaven” (Our Nig 103) Ironically, Wilson decries the apocryphal Christians such as Mrs. Bellmont who denies her the right to go to heaven and who subsequently lacks the compassion and mercy usually expressed by believers. The hated Mrs. B. prevents the young girl any further church attendance and scolds her every time she catches her reading the bible. This hypocrisy is also denounced through another male character: “the long absent” Samuel (Our Nig 128). Frado’s marriage to Samuel does not last long. She depicts him as a phony black slave who only fed “hungry abolitionists” (Our Nig 128) with his “illiterate harangues” (Our Nig 128). No wonder Samuel soon deserts Frado and eventually dies of yellow fever. Frado is left to her fate, again, and the novel’s closure proposes but an overwhelming sense of emptiness.

3. Ars Moriendi: Enacting One’s Death

Revisiting Martyrdom, or the Art of Dying

22Emptiness, desertion and forlornness are Frado’s lot. Her mother abandoned her when she was six years old and Mrs. Bellmont is anything but a surrogate mother to her. She is a victim of her wrath and potential jealousy. The one person she felt close to eventually dies. Even her husband passes away shortly after they got married. All in all, Frado’s life is riddled with misfortune and death. The nineteenth-century (supposedly female) reader is introduced to a hopeless character whose death wishes, however provocative they might be to a religious audience, are not scant. The manifold instances of Frado’s unheralded desire to die intimate a sense of martyrdom which is reinforced by her spiritual progress by the end of the novel. “I’ve got to stay out here and die. I ha’n’t got no mother, no home. I wish I was dead.” (Our Nig 46) Her death wish is linked to her desolation of being motherless. In the nineteenth century, suicide was seen as the worst of all deaths, a personal crime against God, in other words, the complete opposite of the good Christian death. Frado’s death wishes somehow contradict the author’s wish to live. Indeed, by publishing her autobiography, Wilson seeks the assistance of her “brethren” (Our Nig 3) to keep on living. This very act of publication can be construed as a declaration of faith on her intentions to live and to live on through her autobiography. In addition, as the plot unfolds, Frado seems to embrace Christianity. It is James who reports Frado’s death wishes to his aunt in view of reforming her. “‘Oh! Oh!’ I heard, ‘why was I made? Why can’t I die? […] You lazy nigger, lazy nigger ― all because I am black! Oh, if I could die!’” (Our Nig 74-75) This “embedded death wish” through a White voice mitigates the violence of such suicidal thoughts. Furthermore, James and Aunt Abby combine their efforts to save the young child from fire and brimstone. They both believe in “the elevation of her race” (Our Nig 76) which revealingly associates Frado’s desire to die with her race. In slave times, bondage was accounted for on a religious basis entailing that Black people were cursed, no matter how hard they tried to redeem themselves.

23Frado’s trials contrast with James’s. In sickness as in health, James’s unwavering faith portrays him as an ardent believer. Conversely, Frado’s trials elicit a meditation on suicide, death and the purpose of such suffering. Thereby, Frado revisits the notion of martyrdom. In chapter eight, another kitchen scene of unparalleled brutality takes place and prompts Frado to this perspective: “Frado hoped she would end her misery by whipping her to death. She bore it with the hope of a martyr, that her misery would soon close.” (Our Nig 82-83) The “hope of a martyr”, here, is a representation of the protagonist’s death drive. Through her religious education, she realizes that suicide would lead her to eternal damnation but would also run counter to the creed of the “True Womanhood.” The four “cardinal virtues” laid out by Barbara Welter, in her seminal article on “The Cult of True Womanhood”, comprise “piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity.” (Welter 152) In keeping with the sentimental genre, Frado ought to conform to this ideal, and “if religion was so vital to a woman, irreligion was almost too awful to contemplate.” (Welter 154) Accordingly, Frado’s death drive is quite limited. As she strives to be a good Christian, she feels responsible for sketching “a good Christian death,” hence her hope to die as a martyr. The word “martyr” stems from the Greek meaning “witness.” As far as “Nig” is concerned, being a martyr is reduced to being a witness of her own suffering and subsequent death. Martyrdom is a way of giving vent to her emotions and anxieties, to assuage her fears. Frado seemingly indulges in being the scapegoat.

24Similarly, the “L chamber” she sleeps in is so difficult to get access to that Frado seems to be confined to her own tomb. The room is described as “an unfinished chamber over the kitchen, the roof slanting nearly to the floor, so that the bed could stand only in the middle of the room. A small half window furnished light and air.” (Our Nig 27) Furthermore, it is worth noting that when arriving to her “new home,” the epigraph to chapter three indicates: “And the prayer-lisping infant would ask for the tomb” (Our Nig 24), which is quite telling of the overall atmosphere of her new dwelling. The reader does not have much difficulty to imagine the size of that room. If the room is so narrow that a six-year old feels squeezed in it, the room must be the size of a small garret. This living tomb will soon take the shape of a purgatory in which Frado will enjoy some “time off” to read the bible. “But there was one little spot seldom penetrated by her mistress’s watchful eye: this was her room, uninviting and comfortless; but to herself a safe retreat.” (Our Nig 87) Frado stands in a “little spot” between faith and doubt, heaven and hell, in other words, a purgatory: “Here she would listen to the pleadings of a Saviour, and try to penetrate the veil of doubt and sin which clouded her soul, and long to cast off the fetters of sin, and rise to the communion of saints.” (our emphasis, Our Nig 87) Wilson’s rise is illustrated by her “autothanatographical novel” as the final resurrection of the dead (subject).

Literary Resurrection

25Henry Louis Gates, Jr., notes that it is Harriet Wilson’s child’s death certificate that enabled scholars to determine her race and her authorship of the text. “Ironically,” Gates explained, “George’s death certificate helped to rescue his mother from literary oblivion […]. The record of his death, alone, proved sufficient to demonstrate his mother’s racial identity and authorship of Our Nig” (Our Nig xiii). Wilson’s autobiography was not published posthumously in the strict sense of the term. However, the authenticity of her autobiography and of its author being attested over a hundred years after its original publication stresses the fact that her voice is one coming from the vault. On November 8th, 1982, The New York Times devoted one of their columns5 to the discovery of “Our Nig.” In the article entitled “An 1859 Black Literary Landmark is Uncovered,” the words “resurrected from oblivion” stand out from the outset. Interestingly, the word “resurrection” appears every time a commentator mentions Wilson’s Our Nig. It has been, by far, the one major characteristic of the book6. The novel, indeed, comes back to life after Gates gets his hands on one of the 42 original copies available throughout America. Not only does he offer the book a second life, but he gives rise to a revival of African American Literature as well. Our Nig has been labelled first African American novel written by a woman ever since7. To borrow a phrase used by Toni Morisson, Wilson epitomizes “the disremembered and unaccounted for” (Morisson 336).

26Furthermore, one of the most striking aspects in the publication of Wilson’s novel is that it occurs only seven years after the release of Stowe’s best-seller and the whole “Uncle Tom mania” that raged subsequently. As Gates puts it, why this prominent novel has been brushed aside at the time of its publication and even today is a mystery. “That such a significant novel, the very first written by a black woman, would remain unnoticed in Boston in 1859, a veritable center of abolitionist reform and passion […] remains one of the troubling enigmas of Afro-American literary history.” (Gates xxx). One may wonder indeed what remains of this “literary event.” Assuredly, by depicting miscegenation and interracial marriages, Wilson signed her own (literary) death. Besides, this “troubling enigma” lends to the autobiography a sense of haunting. What is more, the personal pronoun “our” in the title suggests that the novel was meant to serve as a collective autobiography. “Frado has passed from their memories, […] but she will never cease to track them till beyond mortal vision” (Our Nig 131). Our Nig is part of what Toni Morrison calls “the ghost in the machine,” it both haunts and founds American literature and most importantly, as Thomas Couser notes, it “offer[s] intimations of [its] own immortality” (Couser 53). The word “immortality” is equally significant inasmuch as an autobiography whose main focus is death, the dying, death drive and sacrifice can be construed as a form of “memento mori” (“remember that you have to die”). It shows future generations how to die a good Christian, to reform oneself and learn from the elders. Thereby, as a symbolic reminder of mortality, autothanatography is not just a “death-defying act” (Couser 66). Rather, it is a means to an end, a bridge between earthly life and the afterlife.

Conclusion: Thresholds and Liminal Spaces

27Our Nig; or, Sketches in the Life of a Free Black markedly abounds in death-related scenes. As an autobiography, Wilson’s narrative seemingly runs counter to its original pledge of delineating one’s life. Thanatos being the polar opposite of Eros, the word “auto-bio-graphy” falls short of its goal. In fact, the narrator’s preoccupations with death throughout the text impair the notion of life writing and turn it into death writing. By revisiting the very notion of autobiography, the text reveals the quintessence of autobiography itself. In the case of Wilson’s autobiography, the act of writing was prompted by death and the fear of death. Death is the starting point of her writing and lies at the root of her storyline. All the characters have to grapple with death, at some point, or deal with an ailing relative. Accordingly, autothanatography supersedes (and overrules) autobiography inasmuch as such writings are motivated and shaped by death and the characters’ experiences of – and encounters with – death.

28However, if the very principle of life writing poses the question of death writing, it also draws our attention to the transience of this “occasion,” be it autobiographical or autothanatographical. From a narratological perspective, the death scene is to be regarded as a threshold. It is the pathway from life to death, the “occasion” to pass the Great Divide. In any case, the trope of the narrated death in an autobiographical work gives way to a reflection on the (written) subject. Wilson brings to the fore, by a well-oiled masterstroke, the liminal space of life and death in ways that had not been explored before and shrewdly shows how the subject deals with life by virtue of death.

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1 Frado is also referred to as “Nig”, as the title suggests. Nig is the nickname given to her by her “owners”.

2 According to Eric Gardner, Our Nig allows itself to be read as a “children’s book” since “most readers were children at the time of the publication”. Eric Gardner, “’This Attempt of Their Sister’: Harriet Wilson’s Our Nig from Printer to Readers”, The New England Quarterly, Vol. 66, No. 2 (Jun., 1993), 226-246.

3 For a more detailed analysis of sentimentality in Our Nig, see Richard Ellis’s third chapter entitled “Sentimental Fiction, Sentimentality and Religion” (Ellis 77-100).

4 See Harriet Martineau, Life in the Sickroom (1844), for example.


6 Whether it would be Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Richard J. Ellis, Gabrielle Foreman, the critics and scholars all use the word “resurrection” to encapsulate Wilson’s re-publication in the 1980s.

7 The discovery and publication of Hannah Crafts’s The Bondwoman Narrative by Hannah Crafts by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in 2002, could have swept Wilson, taking over first place. However, this has not been verified yet, for want of information.

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Karima ZAARAOUI, « Death Drive, Martyrdom, and Deathbed Scenes. The Narration of Death in Harriet Wilson’s Autobiographical Novel” », E-rea [En ligne], 15.1 | 2017, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2017, consulté le 22 janvier 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.6022

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Karima ZAARAOUI is a Doctor in English. She earned her PhD at the Université Paris 3 Sorbonne Nouvelle. Written under the supervision of Professor Patrick Badonnel, her dissertation – “Genre and Gender Issues in Early Black Women’s Writings: A Comparative Study of Harriet Jacobs, Harriet Wilson and Hannah Crafts” – opens up new perspectives on the specificity of the female subject. Her most recent work includes contributions to a new edition in French of Harriet Wilson’s autobiographical novel. Her research focuses on 19th-century black women’s writings and the intersections of race, class and gender in female slave literature. She teaches English for specific purposes both at University and High School levels. She is also head of the editorial board of the upcoming issue of “Traits d’Union”, a Journal made by PhD candidates of The University of Paris 3 Sorbonne Nouvelle and is working on her own journal dedicated to African American Studies.

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