The novel “The Invention of Wings”

Sue Monk Kidd’s novel “The Invention of Wings” supports the idea that the future is heavily contingent on the present, and that a person’s actions and actions will fully change and affect the course of his or her life. Furthermore, the current environmental climate, social and political influences have a profound effect on a person’s choices and decisions. Kidd discusses this crucial concept in this historical fiction set in 1803 that delves into the thorny subject of race relations. Those relations play out in the alternating first-person narratives of Sarah Grimke, the white daughter of a plantation owner, and the African-American Handful-a.k.a. Hetty- who, at the age of 10, is given to Sarah as a birthday present for her an 11th birthday.

The social and political environment within which both Sarah and Handful find themselves in play a major role in the choices and actions that they make. It is the factors within their external environment which gives both Sarah and Handful the distinctive voices which they use to communicate with each other and ultimately with us. It can be deduced from the novel’s title that the desire for freedom inspires both Sarah and Handful to make the decisions which they do throughout the novel in an attempt to defy their restrictions. The nature of the relationship between Handful and Sarah plays a major role in their decision making and transformation process. Whilst their identities as mistress and slave may lead one to believe that a conflicted relationship would exist, this is however, not the case as the relationship between the two develops into an unlikely alliance.
Although Sarah Grimké is a born abolitionist she refuses to accept the notion of owning people. This choice that she makes very early on in her life will greatly influence the direction of her life. Her conviction is so deep seated to the extent that the trauma of witnessing a slave being whipped results in a long term physical challenge in the form of a stammer that still affects her. She embarks on a journey with one objective in mind that is to address this perceived injustice. When her attempts to “return” Handful and deliver an official “certificate of manumission,” which would free Handful prove ineffective, she resorts to teaching her to read. This she does despite knowing and fully understanding that it was frowned upon – even illegal – to teach slaves to read and write. Sarah believes that education is the one thing that can never be taken away from someone “l told myself reading was a kind of freedom, the only one l could give” Sarah is willing to suffer the consequences and take the risk to give Handful this right. This infraction results in harsh penalties for both.
Although Handful continues to serve as Sarah’s personal maidservant, the girls share a personal bond. Theirs is a complicated and uneasy relationship, “People say love gets fouled in a difference as big as ours” (p.115). For Sarah, this symbiotic relationship is born out of guilt and for Handful it is based on her knowledge of being listed as a household inventory. The journeys that the characters of these women make are far from equal. Sarah is vehemently opposed to her abolitionist heritage. This strong willed sense of determination continues to surface when she goes against the abolitionist leaders’ directives for her to abandon her quest for women’s equality. She shows her defiance by asking them to “kindly take your feet off our necks” The character of Handful experiences the most dramatic struggle, something that Kidd takes into account in the opening and closing statements of the novel, each of which refer to the flying blackbirds in her mother’s quilt. Blackbirds are used as a symbol of freedom, the black triangles which appear on the quilts represent bird wings and portray the idea and hope that Handful would eventually break the chains of slavery and become free forever.
For both Sarah and Handful, the world of inequality in which they are raised become increasingly apparent and leads to a transformation of their characters. Sarah aspires to be a successful and educated lawyer like her brother, but is confronted with the harsh reality of a patriarchal society which offers no support for women trying to secure masculine positions. After her father tells her that she can never be an attorney, her mother urges her to accept her lot, “There’s no pain on earth that doesn’t crave a benevolent witness” (p81) Her defiance against the patriarchal society again resurfaces when she turns down Israel Morris’s marriage proposal in order to pursue a vocation as a Quaker Minister “l’d chosen the regret l can best live with that’s all”(p.295) Sarah’s decision to defy these traditional norms compromises her public reputation and undermines her fight for abolition. In addition, she is publicly criticized for not being married and failing to follow the traditional norms of women at the time. Handful realizes that her skin colour is the primary factor that dictates the course of her life. She observes inequality within her surroundings and bears witness to the constant abuse of slaves. Very early on Handful understands that she is not equal to Sarah; but is rather Sarah’s property. As she grows older, this inequality becomes more apparent and consequently she joins her mother’s attempts to break household objects as a symbolic escape from the oppression.
In order to escape the inequality that exists in their society; both Sarah and Handful are forced to make specific decisions. Sarah temporarily abandons her family and strives to become a Quaker minister, a group that shares her opposition to slavery. By identifying with the Quakers, Sarah undergoes further transformation as she starts to have hope that she can change the existing norms of her society. Shunned by the Charleston community upon her return as a Quaker, Sarah relies on religion for inspiration. Similarly, Handful draws inspiration from the Denmark Vesey’s church, where many other slaves meet and provide each other with hope for one day attaining freedom. Religion increasingly provides the slaves with power that threatens to potentially change society as it is, and is a significant source of power that gives the slaves hope and motivation, and unites them.
In conclusion, it is evident that society’s inequalities anger and frustrate both Sarah and Handful to the extent that they are driven to make choices that would facilitate an escape from their realities. These decisions would ultimately result in a permanent transformation process and alter the course of their lives.

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