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The literature of the nineteenth century is abundant with stories about children dying, partially because it was common for people to die young. One of the most popular forms of the dying child in literature is the martyr, who is almost always female. During the nineteenth century, white men held virtually all of the power in American society. The only way female characters could obtain power was through transcendence in death, but white males already had power and thus had nothing to gain by dying.
The image of the pure girl who sacrifices herself for the sake of another seems very positive at first glance. However, this figure perpetuates the notion that girls should be selfless; rather than portray selflessness as a desirable characteristic for any morally upright human being, it is portrayed as a suitable characteristic for women. The female is supposedly the moral center of society, so she is the character who sacrifices herself for others. The martyr figure is a role model for all good girls to follow, while boys have brave heroes to look up to.
Barbara Welter notes “the death of a young girl was so celebrated as a triumph of beauty and innocence that a whole ritual grew up around it” (11), but she doesn’t fully explain why the death of a young girl was so captivating to Americans of the time. The martyr is the ideal woman who will sacrifice herself for others, and in death she attains more importance than she ever could in life. The only way a woman could obtain any substantial degree of power in nineteenth century America was if she was dead. Because a martyr’s worth is only proven in death, this figure is the perfect role model to promote the sexist ideologies of that society because it encourages women to be good but denies them tangible power.
“My Heroine”is a poem about a seven year-old girl who dies while protecting a baby. The author praises the child for her constancy at school, and reports that she is “never careless, never dull.” Of course, the child wouldn’t be a proper martyr if she wasn’t also “as sweet as any seven years’ child you’ll meet.
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Her mother gave the piteous tale:
How that child’s courage did not fail,
Or else poor baby-” She stopped, pale,
And shed tears without number;
Then told how at the fireside warm,
Lizzie, with baby on her arm,
Slipped- threw him from her- safe from harm,
Then fell- here in her slumber.
Lizzie shrieked, “Take him!” and uptossed
Her poor burnt hands, and seemed half lost,
Until a smile her features crossed,
As sweet as angels’ may be.
“Yes, ma’am,” she said, in feeble tone,
“I’m ill, I know,”- she hushed a moan,-
“But”- here her look a queen might own-
“But, ma’am, I saved my baby!” (11)
Lizzie dies so that she can protect another, an act that empowers and kills her simultaneously.
She is held up as a role model for the female readers, but the implication that girls should be selfless is a stereotypical one.
“Little Barbara” is another story about a girl who sacrifices herself for the sake of others. Barbara is only eight years old, but she is a “sweet-tempered, thoughtful, sensible little thing” who is a “very careful, tender nurse” to her two younger siblings (Craik 732). One winter day, Barbara must walk the six miles to town and back to fetch a doctor for her ill father. Her mother tells her to drop her siblings off at the nearest neighbor’s house (a mile away), but the neighbors aren’t home. Rather than waste time by taking the children back home, Barbara tells them to wait in the garden until the neighbors arrive or she returns. However, the children wander into the woods while Barbara is away, and Barbara gets lost herself when she goes after them. She finds the children, but they remain lost in the woods during the cold night.
Barbara does what little she can to save the lives of her brother and sister, but in the process she seals her own fate:
There were dead leaves on the ground, and she gathered them together as well as she could in the darkness, and made the children lie down upon them side by side. They were moaning and crying with hunger and cold. She rubbed their little limbs till they were warm, and took off their shoes and stockings, and warmed their feet upon her breast. She had already taken off her cloak for Davie; now, as they still went on crying, one by one she stripped herself of her other clothes, and wrapped the little ones up in them. Then she lay down beside them, and took them both as best she could in her arms. (738-739)
In true martyr fashion, Barbara sings her brother and sister to sleep before she falls into a permanent slumber. When the children are found in the morning, Barbara’s siblings are still “warmed by the clothes that she had robbed herself to give them,” but she is dead. The author ends the story with this: “Good by to little Barbara! Think of her tenderly, children, but do not pity her; those who live to do what Barbara did, want no pity from any one of us” (739). Although Barbara died, she has attained power that she never would have had in life; for nineteenth century girls, this status comes only through death.
Although Barbara achieves a certain rank through death, the story clearly encourages little girls to put others, specifically boys, above themselves. It must not be overlooked that Barbara gave her cloak to Davie long before she did anything for her sister Lizzy. Even in the illustration, Lizzy is barely visible but Davie is clearly shown. This is symptomatic of the attitude towards women in nineteenth century America. Although Barbara is the heroine of the story, she is specifically labeled as “little” to diminish her power. While the heroine of this tale is a positive female figure, she is used to drive the ideology that men are more important than women.
“Good Girls” is an article that outlines several true stories about girls who have risked their lives to save others. The author realizes that girls have been underestimated in the bravery department, as their courageous acts are portrayed in a saintly rather than heroic light:
I now will show you that it is not boys only who can be brave. Some of the boldest
acts on record have been performed by women, and some of them by very young
girls. As these have been commonly deeds of self-sacrifice, those who performed
them are oftener spoken of as “good” than as “brave” girls. Yet brave boys and
girls posses the same qualities of gentleness, truthfulness and unselfishness.
Because girls are seen as good and boys are seen as brave, girls are deified as martyrs and boys are gloried as
One story in “Good Girls” is about an eighteen year-old Russian girl who journeys across Siberia to beg the czar to pardon her father. Not only does the girl free her father, but she supposedly improves the lives of countless others:
She begged that he would inquire into the hard condition of the exiles in Siberia
and make life a little more pleasant to them. This the kind Emperor Alexander
promised to do, and many of the miseries of the exiles were abated during his
Of course, the girl couldn’t make such a difference and live to see it, for “the exposure of her journey brought on consumption, and… she quietly expired, after having closed her eyes and arranged her arms on her breast in the form of a cross” (606). Despite the author’s indictment of the common stereotype, by the end of the article he has fully invoked the image of the frail female martyr who sacrifices herself for a male.
“The Little Beggar-Girl”
“The Little Beggar-Girl” is a story about a little girl named Nora who has no one in the world except her selfish brother Paul. Nora is an absolute saint for putting up with her brother, who speeds her untimely demise. Like the other martyrs, Nora is uncommonly good, “so sweet-tempered that nothing could make her speak an unkind word” (Diaz 556). Paul scolds her for being so good-natured: “You are always being pleased about something,” said Paul. “Anybody would think you had everything you wanted” (557). When Paul takes the few pennies Nora has to buy a cigar, she is actually pleased that she can oblige him, much to his displeasure:
“How glad I am I’ve got you,” said she. “If I didn’t have you, I shouldn’t have
anybody. When I grow up, maybe I’ll be your mother and give you good things.”
“You’re a little fool!” said Paul. “Stop your talk now, and go look for more
bones. There’s no need of both of us sitting idle.”
“O, my feet ache so!” said Nora. But she minded Paul… (559)
Nora’s positive attitude in the face of adversity is a testament to her goodness, making her a typical female victim.
Paul physically and verbally abuses Nora constantly, and he forces her to do all of the work even when her “bare feet were bleeding” (559). When Paul tries to sell Nora’s beautiful long hair, her one and only comfort, she protests in vain: “And I have no boots, and no night-clothes, and nobody to lead me, and so- and so- I want it!” (560). To pacify her, the barber gives Nora a bird: “It was lame; the man had cheated her; he had given her a bird that would not sell. But Nora loved it all the better for this” (561). Nora finally has something to love other than her vile brother, but in less than a week Paul kills it out of spite. Winter comes, but Nora finds a pile of straw next to the church to sleep in so that she and Paul won’t freeze to death. Paul selfishly hogs all of the straw for himself, forcing Nora to wander around the cold streets in search of another source of warmth. Nora watches through a window as a mother puts her child to rest and sings her a lullaby:
And soon, almost without knowing it, she too was singing. But as Nora had never
learned any hymns, she could only sing what was in her mind: “Nora is cold. Nora
has no blanket. Nora cannot kiss any mother.” (562)
Nora finally returns to where Paul is comfortably asleep in the bed of straw, and she curls up next to him and dies. Nora puts up with all of life’s trials like a saint, until she finally dies after allowing her brother to sleep warmly in the straw she has gathered. While her purity and selflessness grants Nora a certain level of respect, her label as “the little beggar-girl” limits her power.
There is no figure in literature more angelic than Beth March of Little Women. All of the girls in the March family undergo a moral evolution in the course of the novel, but none achieves higher moral standing than Beth. When Marmee encourages her children to correct their faults, she says of Beth “I rather think she hasn’t got any.” However, being the honest girl that she is, Beth admits that her burden is “being afraid of people,”(17) and we see her battle this foe throughout the novel. Mr. Lawrence partially helps her overcome this fault when he tells her she can use his piano, “for love casts out fear, and gratitude can conquer pride” (67). She forgets her shyness in her haste to show Mr. Lawrence how much she appreciates his kindness. Later on, Beth pushes aside her painful shyness so that she can comfort a lame boy, causing Meg to exclaim “I always said she was a little saint” (139). Thus, Beth conquers her shyness by placing others above herself. Beth is a model of behavior to all young girls, but in accordance with saintly heroines of nineteenth century literature, she dies and thereby receives the ultimate reward in heaven.
When Beth’s mother leaves town, she asks the girls to look after a poor neighboring family. Beth faithfully visits them everyday, but when the baby becomes sick, she asks Meg and Jo to go instead because they would know how to help it better than she would. Unfortunately, her sisters are lazy so they invent excuses to stay at home while little Beth “went out into the chilly air with a heavy head and a grieved look in her patient eyes” (178). As a result, Beth catches the baby’s illness and nearly dies. In fact, she never fully recovers, and her fragile health results in an early death just a few years later.
The description of Beth as she is dying fully invokes the image of the selfless martyr:
Here, cherished like a household saint in its shrine, sat Beth, tranquil and busy as ever; for nothing could change the sweet, unselfish nature; and even while preparing to leave life, she tried to make it happier for those who should remain behind. The feeble fingers were never idle, and one of her pleasures was to make little things for the school children daily passing to and fro. To drop a pair of mittens from her window for a pair of purple hands, a needle-book for some small mother of many dolls, pen-wipers for young men toiling through forests of pot-hooks… . (411-412)
Beth is portrayed as an angelic figure that watches over others who “should” stay behind when she finds her natural place in heaven with the other frail female martyrs. Even though Beth has certainly achieved a high status as she prepares to die, she is still confined to the hearth, as she is specifically likened to as a “household saint in its shrine” that knits mittens for children and tries to pass along the craft to other little girls.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Another prominent martyr in nineteenth century American literature is Evangeline in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. From the first time Tom sees Eva, he can tell she is “almost divine,” and he “half believed that he saw one of the angels step out of his New Testament” (127). Eva reads the Bible to Tom, and tells her father “I’d rather go to church” (157) when he tries to encourage her to stay home and play. Eva’s pious nature is perfectly in keeping with the nineteenth century notion of what a good girl should be.
Eva’s generous nature is displayed throughout her duration of the novel. Sometimes she descends like an angel upon the slaves, “with her hands full of candy, nuts, and oranges, which she would distribute joyfully to them, and then be gone again” (127). She insists that Mammy take her vinaigrette to relieve her headache, and she offers to sit up with her mother at night so that Mammy may sleep. These small examples of generosity illustrate the selfless nature that makes Eva the perfect role model for girls in nineteenth century America.
When observing the situation of the slaves, Eva repeatedly cries “these things sink into my heart” (204). She tells Tom “I can understand why Jesus wanted to die for us…. I’ve felt that I would be glad to die, if my dying could stop all this misery. I would die for them…” (240). She tells her father to free the slaves when she is dead, and her last act is to call the slaves together so she can encourage them to do good and give each of them a lock of her hair as a token of her affection. With that, Eva dies so that others may live in freedom. Although her sacrifice has been in vain, her status as martyr cannot be revoked.
Nineteenth century literature contained numerous stories about children who die for the sake of others, but these martyrs were always girls or minorities. These marginal members of society only achieved power through death, as in the martyr tales. On the other hand, white males already had power and thus wouldn’t gain anything in death. So in literature, white boys recovered from their injuries despite the most overwhelming odds, while girls died and attained a level of esteem that they never would have gotten in life. The white male characters were glorified as heroes while the girls were deified as martyrs. There are several stories in which adult men die during war, but they play a more aggressive part than do the passive female martyrs. The female martyrs were role models for girls, sending the message the women should always place others above themselves.
Stowe recognizes the martyr figure as an important part of her culture:
Has there ever been a child like Eva? Yes, there have been; but their names are always on grave stones, and
their sweet smiles, their heavnenly eyes, their singular words and ways, are among the buried treasures of
yearning hearts. In how many families do you hear the legend that all the goodness and graces of the living are
nothing to the peculiar charms of one who is not. It is as if heaven had an especial band of angels, whose office
it was to sojourn for a season here, and endear to them the wayward human heart, that they might bear it
upward with them in their homeward flight. (227-228)
Martyrs like Eva sacrifice their lives to help others, but these fictional martyrs are female so that they may fulfill another purpose in society—they are the selfless role models that young girls must strive to emulate. These fictional martyrs perpetuate the ideology that women should put others before themselves, thus preventing young girls from striving for power in nineteenth century America.
Alcott, Louisa May. Little Women. Ann Arbor: Tally Hall Press, 1997.
Anonymous. “My Heroine.” Our Young Folks. January 1869: 10-1.
Craik, Georgiana M. “Little Barbara.” Our Young Folks. November 1869: 731-9.
Diaz, A.M. “The Little Beggar-Girl.” Our Young Folks. September 1867: 556-63.
Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1994.
Traverse, Major. “Good Girls.” Our Young Folks. October 1870: 598-606.
Welter, Barbara. Dimity Convictions. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1976.