Property By Valerie Martin Essay

Property by Valerie Martin


Although this is a novel about American slavery in it’s infancy it only lightly touches on the plight of the slaves. It is much more concerned with the effect that slave owning has on the slave owners themselves, and an exploration of the ideas of property and ownership, both of material possessions and people. The main theme of the novel is a juxtaposition of slaves as property of their owners and women as property of their husbands.


Manon Gaudet is trapped in an unhappy marriage with a cold, cruel, brutal man. He owns a sugar plantation, and like most business men of the time relies on slaves as labour, both to work his plantation and for housekeeping. Manon’s wedding present from her aunt was a slave girl named Sarah, whom she can’t stand. In fact the feeling is mutual. Manon’s husband takes the idea that he owns everything and everyone in the household literally and has in fact borne two children to Sarah.


The story is told through first person narrative by Manon. She longs to be free of her husband and the house and go back to live in the town. She hates the cruel games her husband plays with the slaves and wishes her husband was more like her father who she believes to have been the perfect slave owner.


“Father was strict and fair. None of our people could marry off the farm, indeed they could never leave it unless they had some compelling reason, and visits by negroes from the neighbouring plantation were strictly forbidden. He didn’t allow them to work garden patches of their own, as he said it gave them a notion of independence and divided their loyalty,so that they might take more interest in their own patch than the farm.”


And after spelling out all the reasons her father was a good farmer and slave owner she finishes by saying


“I didn’t know, as a girl, how remarkable my father was”

This serves to illustrate that although Manon detests the way her husband treats the slaves, she has no moral issue with slavery itself. Slave owning is a normal way of life for her, and one she believes to be right. She issues commands and orders to the household slaves herself. And when she is deciding what to do with her mother’s property, she sees the slaves as part of this property.


However, she feels that she is owned by her husband and that this is wrong. She would love to be free of him and have her independence but does not see how this can happen and despises the system that makes this possible. Talking about a woman who had divorced her husband she says


“Sally sued to have her marriage portion, which was considerable, exempted from his creditors and restored to her. By some miracle she has won. Now she has her own income and is free of her detestable husband. Fortunate woman!”


And again, when dealing with her mothers estate,


“All this is mine, and yet not mine, because my husband can, and doubtless will, dispose of it just as soon as I can get it. ‘Is there no way to preserve this to myself?’ I pleaded with the lawyer. ‘”


When Sarah runs away and Manon goes to great expense to retrieve her, she says that if she has to live with Sarah’s wild offspring, then so does she. They both hate the husband, and they both have to deal with the consequences of being his property.


Incidentally Manon never names her husband. He is always just referred to as her husband, a telling fact that the relationship is one of power and property rather than love and respect!


The book only covers a very short space of time. The first section deals with Manon’s situation and her unhappiness, but there are hints throughout of problems to come with a slave rebellion. When this rebellion finally happens, Manon’s life is changed forever, and she gets the freedom she has longed for. However, the revelations that the end of the book contain just serve to illustrate the fact that women in this society will always be property, and can only be useful if moneyed.


I really enjoyed this. There is so much more to it than I can possibly write here, but it does give an interesting view on what slave owning actually meant for the slave owners themselves, and a good perspective on the rights of women, or lack of them in this period.

Valerie Martin 1948–

American novelist and short story writer.

The following entry provides an overview of Martin's career through 1994.

Chiefly known for her novel Mary Reilly (1990), Martin has received critical acclaim for her neo-Gothic writing style, her psychological character portraits, and her striking evocation of mood and place. Emphasizing sexuality, violence, obsession, death, and issues related to power, her novels and short stories focus on male-female relationships and humanity's link to the natural world.

Biographical Information

Born in Sedalia, Missouri, Martin was raised in New Orleans—the setting for much of her fiction—and attended the University of New Orleans, where she earned a B.A. in 1970. She received an M.F.A. in playwriting at the University of Massachusetts in 1974. Her first collection of short stories, the little-known Love, which has been described in a Booklist review as "[e]motionally painful, iconoclastic, brilliant," made its debut in 1977, and in the following years she published the novels Set in Motion (1978) and Alexandra (1979). Martin has taught creative writing courses at various institutions, including the University of New Orleans, the University of Alabama, and Mt. Holyoke College in Massachusetts. At the University of Alabama, Martin met Canadian novelist, short story writer, and poet Margaret Atwood, who became a mentor and close friend. After receiving various rejections for A Recent Martyr (1987), Martin gave the manuscript to Atwood, who showed it to her publishers and eventually got the work published. Martin is also the author of The Consolation of Nature, and Other Stories (1988), Mary Reilly (1990), and The Great Divorce (1994). The movie rights to Mary Reilly were purchased by Warner Brothers in 1992; the film version of the novel stars Julia Roberts and was directed by Tim Burton.

Major Works

Martin's writings typically focus on personal freedom, love, sex, death, and the dark side of human nature. In Set in Motion, a novel classified by Margo Jefferson as a "gothic melodrama," the main character, a social worker named Helene, is involved with three men: a drug addict, a friend's fiancé, and a coworker's mad husband. Fear drives Helene, and, trying to remain sane in an insane world, she decides that "staying in motion" and remaining emotionally unattached are the only ways to guarantee her personal freedom. The cryptic Alexandra is largely set in the Louisiana bayou and concerns the relationships be-tween a male civil servant and two women who are possibly involved in a lesbian affair and allegedly responsible for the murder of a former lover whom the protagonist resembles. Infused with references to myth, folklore, and mysticism, Alexandra examines such topics as sexual aggression, manipulation, and betrayal. Sex and violence as well as religion are also central to A Recent Martyr, which is set in a plague-ridden New Orleans overrun with rats. Exploring the nature of love, the novel centers on a heterosexual, sadomasochistic couple and their friendship with a young postulant with a predilection for sacrifice. The popular Mary Reilly retells Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1876) from the perspective of Dr. Jekyll's maid. Continuing Stevenson's focus on the individual's potential for good and evil, Mary Reilly also examines issues related to child abuse, individual growth and development, gender roles, and the hypocrisies of Victorian society. Martin's most recent novel, The Great Divorce, similarly draws upon another popular work in the horror genre. Sharing similarities with the cult film classic Cat People (1942), The Great Divorce incorporates three distinct narratives. While the main plot focuses on the disintegration of one couple's marriage, each story line focuses on the theme of separation—from nature and from loved ones—and features female characters attracted to cats or endowed with feline qualities. Central to the volume is the legend of the Louisiana Cat Woman, who, according to Katherine Dunn, "was transformed into a leopard long enough to kill her brutal husband but resumed her human form to be hanged for the crime." Martin's focus on relationships as well as the link between nature, death, and the human condition are also central to her short fiction. In "Surface Calm" from Love, for example, a woman wraps herself in chain and barbed wire while separated from her husband. The Consolation of Nature, and Other Stories features such fantastic characters as a werewolf and a mermaid, reiterating Martin's focus on sex, violence, the supernatural, and nature. Other stories from this collection concern a woman who kills her male dog after she is betrayed by her adulterous husband, a child whose house is inhabited by a large rat, a character who engages in blood-letting to achieve personal happiness, and a woman who believes that her pet snakes have invaded her imagination.

Critical Reception

Martin's fiction, which has generally been well received, is lauded for its lean prose style and its focus on female characters, power, sexuality, male-female relationships, and humanity's baser, animal instincts. Employing elements of mysticism, folklore, the macabre, and the supernatural in her work, Martin has been described as a neo-Gothic writer and has been favorably compared with such "horror" writers as Edgar Allan Poe. Like other Gothic writers, Martin examines nature's destructive capabilities and humanity's inherent baseness and affinity for violence, but critics argue that she breaks with tradition by focusing on interpersonal relationships and issues related to sexuality, freedom, and betrayal; these critics also stress Martin's use of female protagonists—these heroines, however, have sometimes been castigated by feminists as passive, masochistic, and victimized. Martin remains best known for Mary Reilly, which despite its foreign setting, has been described by Rob Smith as "a quintessential Martin novel." With its emphasis on social mores, unrequited love, and dualities, Mary Reilly has been inevitably compared to The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Although occasionally faulted for offering nothing new to Stevenson's tale, Mary Reilly has been praised as an essential companion piece to the novella and, like Martin's other works, lauded for its insights into human nature and the human condition, moral hypocrisy, male-female relationships, and individual and sexual freedom.

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