‘Give Me Liberty Or Give Me Death’: A Literary Analysis

During the American revolution, Patrick Henry’s cry, “Give me liberty or give me death,” was a philosophy adopted by many as they aimed to separate themselves from the British, but this statement is problematic due to the fact that it suggests liberty is something opposing, or simply different, from death. As a country we continue to value this cry for liberty as a fundamental value, but this same liberty was not given to women after the revolution, or centuries to come.

As a result, there were many women who saw death as being one of the only true freedoms that they would ever be afforded. Novels from the nineteenth century work as evidence to prove that women of the time were presented with two primary choices in order to achieve any sense of liberty: women could choose to find a man — where they could hopefully be allotted some level of autonomy by their husband — or make the ultimate decision to end their lives which would remove the ability of anyone to make any decision for them ever again.

Clotel, written by William Wells Brown, demonstrates this point well as it jumps between a variety of female characters who were slaves in antebellum America; these different characters show the binary choices which women were given as well as the intersection between their gender and their race. By comparing the characters of Althesa and Mary, in William Wells Brown’s Clotel, who find a level of freedom only after they find men to share their lives with, against the title character, Clotel, who makes the ultimate and final decision to kill herself when she is given no choice between that and returning to slavery.

These characters work to show the two choices women were given while also showing an important intersection of race. In addition to this, Tiffany Johnson Bidler’s article “Suicide and the Survival in the Work of Kara Walker” will function well in this argument to explain the theme of suicide in slave narratives such as Clotel. To begin, most women in the nineteen century made the decision to marry because it was what was expected of them, but Brown’s novel Clotel shows that for some slave women it was a romanticized opportunity at freedom.

At two points in the novel marriage to a white man is used to gain a semblance of liberty, and the most successful story being about Mary who ends the novel (Brown 206). When Mary is explaining how it is that she managed to become free in Europe, she tells the story of a French man, named Mr. Devenant, who told her, “‘I saw you some days since in a slave market, and intended to have purchased you to save you from the condition of a slave’” (Brown 204). The man tells her soon after that she reminded him of his sister who passed away a few years back, and because of this, “The love…which I had for my sister is transferred to you” (Brown 204).

These quotes, which go hand and hand in the book, are important initially because they explain how Mary became free. It is only with the help of a man that she would have the opportunity to gain freedom from slavery, while male slaves, such as George who Mary is relating her story to in the novel, were able to escape to Europe, female slaves had to deal with not only their race, but gender as well (Brown 199).

This leads into the second point of importance in the above quote, Mr. Devenant tells Mary that he wished to “save” her, which is an accurate description for what he ultimately does (Brown 204). American society had made it impossible for a woman, especially a black woman, to find autonomy without the assistance of a man, and this is the reason that Mary chose to go with Mr. Devenant (Brown 206). Since marriage was a a tool to get out of slavery, slave women of the time had more motivation than love when marrying a white man (Brown 206). In Clotel, Brown showed the reader, through different characters, different reasons that a marriage may occur.

The fact that Mary’s marriage to Mr. Devenant was not one of love is made clear when Mary describes how she felt about the marriage, “I loved him, but it was only that affection which we have for one that has done us a lasting favor: it was a love of gratitude rather than that of the heart” (Brown 206). This explanation of how Mary loved Mr. Devenent made it clear that the marriage was not one of love, since she says did not feel for him in her heart, but rather a marriage the she utilized as a tool in order to find freedom (Brown 206).

Due to the gratitude that she felt in lieu of actual love, the reader can easily see that her husband had done her a favor in giving her freedom, because she needed him to do so in pre-Civil War America. However, Mary wasn’t the only character in Clotel to marry a white man, Althesa marriage, rather than being out of gratitude, was born out of love (Brown 91). Furthermore, Althesa’s future initially seemed bleak as she was sold from the ownership she had known as her home with her family in order to be the keeper of a woman’s house (Brown 92).

However, it looks up when she meets the sympathetic Dr. Morton and the author writes, “The young man’s sympathy ripened into love, which was reciprocated by the friendless and injured child of sorrow” (Brown 92). This quote shows the reader that, when the two ultimately marry, they both were conscious in the decision to do so, a fact which gives Althesa a level of freedom in where she goes that she had not had previously. However, while Althesa and her husband were happy in their marriage, she never actually achieved autonomy (Brown 154,173).

Following the description of the couple’s love, in a later chapter, the reader is given a glimpse into the lives of Althesa and her husband. Moreover, Dr. Morton is shown to be a man who, driven by the history of his beloved wife, objects to slavery in his private circles (Brown 151). Althesa’s reaction to her husband actions are best described in the quote, “Althesa felt proud, as well she might, at her husband’s taking such high ground in a slaveholding city like New Orleans” (Brown 154).

This quote even better displays the love that the two had for each other, and shows that Althesa’s husband did not see her as a slave, but rather as a partner. While this marriage gave Althesa the liberty to make some of her own decisions, the problematic nature of this marriage is revealed that her freedom was never truly total, but rather just thought to be free (Brown 173).

After both Althesa and her husband, Dr. Morton, die as a result of Yellow Fever, it is explained, “Morton was unacquainted with the laws of the land; and although he had married Althesa, it was a marriage which the law did to recognize; and therefore she whom he thought to be his wife was, in fact, nothing more than his slave” (Brown 173). This statement is important because it not only tells the reader that Althesa never truly achieved freedom, but it also shows that marrying for freedom is risky because it relies on another person (Brown 173). This is not true autonomy since Althesa trusted Dr. Morton to know how to free her, but he did not.

This same misplaced trust in a partner could be seen in the title character of the novel, as Clotel attempted to find freedom in a marriage at the beginning of the novel (Brown 49). When Clotel, Althesa, and their mother are all sold as slaves at the beginning of the novel, Clotel seems to have the most hopeful life as she is sold to Horatio Green, who claims to love Clotel and want to spent his life with her (Brown 49). Their marriage is glorified at first when it is described, “It was indeed a marriage sanctioned by heaven, although unrecognized by earth.

There the young couple lived secluded from the world, and passed their time as happily as circumstances would permit” (Brown 65). This description of their marriage shows the happiness that the couple originally experienced as they gave birth to their daughter, Mary, but the happiness began to fade as Horatio went out into the world, and left his illegitimate wife at home (Brown 66). This is problematic because Horatio has the freedom to go out into the world and find a new wife, as he does, but Clotel does not since she remains his slave rather than a free person (Brown 90).

When describing the way in which Clotel reacted to her husband’s new marriage it is written, “She felt that the step she had taken in resolving never to meet Horatio again would no doubt expose her to his wrath, and probably cause her to be sold” (Brown 90). This explanation shows the unequal footing that Clotel and Horatio Green were on, and, despite the fact that the two said they were married, he controlled her life long after the marriage ended (Brown 90).

Furthermore, he does take advantage of this control when he allows his jealous wife to make the decision to sell Clotel and use the daughter, Mary, as a slave (Brown 121). This horrific change of heart demonstrates the problematic nature between these women and the men that they choose to marry since, at the end of the day, they remain property rather than women; moreover, this reality is what causes Clotel to be forced onto a path of life filled with struggles, until she makes the ultimate decision to regain control (Brown 122, 185).

After Clotel is sold, she jumps between owners as a result of her attempts to escape so, during her final escape attempt—rather than fleeing to the north— she attempts to return to her home in an effort to save her daughter (Brown 161). As she nears her daughter in Virginia, she is caught impersonating a white man, and her chase comes to a dramatic end: On either hand, far down below, rolled the deep and foamy waters of the Potomac, and before and behind the rapidly approaching step and noisy voiced of pursuers, show how vain would be any further effort for freedom.

Her resolution was taken. She clasped her hands convulsively, and raised them, as she at the same time raised her eyes towards heaven and begged for the mercy and compassion there, which had been denied her on earth; and then, with a single count, she vaulted over the railings of the bridge, and sunk for ever beneath the waves of the river! (Brown 185) This passage depicts the last few seconds of Clotel’s life, where in she makes the final decision to end her life, and these are important because they show that it was “Her resolution” and nobody else’s (Brown 185).

Despite the fact that the men chasing her wanted to capture her, she made the decision to die instead, making her last act one of total autonomy. Clotel thinks, in her final moments, that she will hopefully find joy and liberty after death that she could not find in life (Brown 185). While suicide is often thought of as an act of desperation or depression, Clotel’s suicide can be seen as something different.

While Clotel’s suicide was partially an act of desperation in order to be freed from a society that oppressed her, it was also courageous in that it was an act many would be terrified to do, but she she chose to do it in order to take back the control she was being denied. In her article “Suicide and Survival in the Work of Kara Walker”, Tiffany Johnson Bidler looks at an artist who addresses slavery by making art based on novels, including Clotel’s suicide in William Wells Brown’s Clotel.

Bidler explains, “To the image of Clotel’s suicide included in ‘Chronology of Black Suffering,’ for example, Walker added a red superhero cape…recasting Clotel’s suicide as a scene of heroic self-sacrifice” (Bidler 55). This quote suggests that Clotel’s suicide is portrayed as not one of fear or depression, but rather a brave act that accomplished something great. In this case, her death forced her to no longer be an object to be controlled.

Bidler quotes another author in her article to make a similar point, “‘Suicide, an anguished assertion of personhood, undermined the human commodification … fundamental to enslavement. Once dead, a slave ceased to be an object of property’” (Bidler 53). This quote shows that suicide—in cases such as Clotel’s— tore apart the institution that attempted to control them as slaves. Moreover, slavery strived to claim they could make women such as Clotel act in any way that they want and told her she was a tool.

Yet Clotel’s suicide destroyed these thoughts because she chose to take herself away from those attempting to capture her. Clotel’s suicide was, tragically, the only choice she had that would allow her to have complete autonomy over her own choices. Clearly, women’s choices, especially the women who were enslaved as depicted in William Wells Brown’s Clotel, were given intensely limited options when it came to gaining freedom.

Mary and Althesa showed that these women from the nineteenth century could marry in order to find some level of liberty, but this, aside from lacking true autonomy, was problematic in the longevity of their relationships. The issues of marriage as a solution were displayed with Althesa, when her death made it apparent that she was never truly free; worse yet, Clotel’s betrayal from her husband made the flaws of this solution even more clear since it forced her into a even more difficult life as a slave.

The only true autonomy that was demonstrated by Clotel was when she elected to end her own life, thus ending the ability of others to take her freedom from her. When giving a speech called Freedom or Death in the 20th century, Emmeline Pankhurst said, “You can kill that woman, but she escapes you then; you cannot govern her. ” While death is the most certain way that a person can be assured that no one can control them, no one should be forced to end their life in order to find freedom. This option should have been and should be available in life.