Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point" and "A Castaway"
In the early Victorian period, a number of poems were composed which served to highlight a specific troubled spot in society. The poets often wrote for human rights groups and the like in order to convey a message to those members of society who could make a difference, namely, the educated white men. Among these poems is Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point.” This piece deals with a female slave who has killed her newborn son and fled to Pilgrim’s Point, where she speaks of her feelings leading up to the present moment. Another poem, which can be placed in comparison to Browning’s, is Augusta Webster’s “A Castaway,” a dramatic monologue of a prostitute who struggles to justify her lifestyle both to herself and to her reader. In each of these works, the female speaker has acted in a morally questionable manner that initially appears condemnable. However, the issue is not clearly defined; many questions arise as to the motives behind and the circumstances surrounding each woman’s behavior. Do the choices made assert the freedom of each woman? That is to say, is the woman to be held entirely accountable for her actions based on the idea that she has freely chosen to carry them out? Upon careful reading of the two poems in question, the answer becomes much clearer. The choices made by the castaway and the runaway slave are in reality not the uninhibited decisions they at first appear. Restricted on all sides by their respective society’s powerful men, each woman faces very limited options. In each of the poems, the idea of choice (and subsequently, the question of its validity) emerges in the areas of maternal responsibility, the presence (or lack thereof) of a God, and the issues of freedom itself.
In “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point,” the speaker spends a great deal of time describing the murder of her newborn son. At first glance, she may seem a coldhearted, if not insane, woman. However, a closer look reveals that the entire situation is virtually out of her control. From the baby’s very conception, the woman is helpless. Raped by the “white men [who] brought the shame” (“Slave” l. 101), the woman becomes pregnant and says that she “could not rest” (“Slave” l. 109) because of what has been done. In this instance, choice is robbed of her as her master forces her to succumb to his wishes. Thus, when the baby is born, it comes as no surprise that the woman cannot “bear to look in his face” because it is “far too white” (“Slave” ll. 116 & 120-21). The whiteness of her child represents the oppression imposed upon her by the master. In fact, she literally sees “the master’s look” (“Slave” l. 144) on the face of her child. The woman does indeed choose to kill her baby, but she does so under the pretense that she can “save it from my curse” (“Slave” l. 146).
Had she been given the right to choose from the...