Analysis of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s The Two Offers

Known as the first short story published by an African American, The Two Offers (1859) also marks Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s first published fiction. From this very first story, Harper emphasizes a womanhood of independence, education, equality, and charity. Harper does so by juxtaposing Janette Alston and Laura Lagrange. Laura Lagrange represents the female tied to the old order because she does not so much choose domesticity as feel it provides the only viable way for a woman to survive. She receives two offers of marriage and cannot decide between them. Janette Alston, her cousin, tells her to accept neither offer, because “a woman who is undecided between two offers has not love enough for either to make a choice; and [. . . her marriage] should only be a mere matter of bargain and sale, or an affair of convenience and selfish interest” (106). Harper’s rhetoric here focuses upon buying and selling, upon selfish action that makes a whore of the woman who accepts such a marriage proposal. Janette points to the fact that the wrongly motivated marriage becomes nothing more than a woman’s sale of herself for her self-preservation.

In spite of Janette’s scathing indictment of marriage for economic surety, Laura replies, “But then if I refuse, there is the risk of being an old maid” (106). Janette immediately asks her whether such a fate represents the worst that can happen to her. Janette does not believe so, yet, though she argues her point with Laura, Janette cannot convince Laura that women need not become wives and mothers. Laura ultimately mocks Janette and accuses her of not understanding Laura’s predicament. Janette’s history, however, contradicts Laura’s theory. Janette has in fact known and lost deep love but has learned to enjoy her life as a single intellectual woman, and often her freedom enables her to minister to others.

Laura becomes one of those others, for she does indeed accept one of the offers, the one from the man who looks “upon marriage not as a divine sacrament for the soul’s development and human progression, but as the title deed that gave him possession of the woman” (109). Once again, Harper uses the rhetoric of commercial exchange—ownership and title deeds—and, in this case, juxtaposes it to the language of its opposite: divine sacrament, intercommunion, and human progression. Through this marriage, Laura does discover a worse fate than becoming an old maid, for her husband does nothing but break her heart, and she goes through life merely weeping and whispering and finally, dying. While Harper demonstrates Laura’s role in gaining such a life by making the choice she has made, she also demonstrates the domestic system’s role itself, for the man merely adheres to the codes of the society by striving mostly to progress through the ranks of career and by drinking heavily. Laura dies of loneliness, of the lack of an intellectual and emotional connection to the husband she loves, because he busies himself with the superficial world. Harper, then, engages with the entire system of marriage and condemns it for its philosophy of creating unworthy men for pure women.

Yet, at this point in the text, Harper neither condemns marriage nor Laura nor her husband but instead offers a different system for women, one in which women’s “conscience should be enlightened, her faith in the true and right established, and scope given to her heaven-endowed and God-given faculties” (109). Laura represents the antithesis of this ideal woman; she has cultivated only her love for her husband, and as a result, she has become a self-absorbed weeping invalid.

Janette, however, represents the woman who meets such demands; she is “too self-reliant to depend on the charity of relations . . . [and] endeavored to support herself by her own exertions” (107). Even after Laura’s death, Janette does not give in to mere fits of emotional weeping; instead, she commits herself to becoming Harper’s perfect woman, for she recognizes that “life was not given to her to be frittered away in nonsense, or wasted away in trifling pursuits” (114). She uses her often noted genius to help the cause of abolition by giving aid to fugitive slaves; to help children, the poor, and the starving; and to write what she considers worthwhile and truthful.

Harper also retells and revises history in this story, for she published it in the Anglo-African Magazine, a publication written for African-American readers and written by only African-American authors with a decidedly abolitionist bias. By itself, this choice signified a departure from history, for during this time, African Americans were deemed too ignorant, too illiterate, and too beyond the powers of all but rudimentary and practical education to write anything worthwhile. Harper proved these types of claims false, for she did write not only the poetry and essays through which both white and African Americans knew of her, but also fiction. While “The Two Offers” dealt primarily with the feminist issues already discussed, it also confronted the actual history of America’s enslavement of millions of African people and their born-in-America offspring. At its ending, Jannette decided to help “the flying fugitive . . . as he stepped cautiously through [the] Republic, to gain his freedom in a monarchial land, having broken the chains on which the rust of centuries had gathered” (114). These two lines summarized a quite stinging reality about America’s history: Though America itself revolted against what it considered unreasonable monarchy to gain its own freedom, it then unrighteously kept the slave in chains, and so the slave had to run from the supposed republic to a monarchy (Canada). Harper’s judgment, then, was built right into the history, particularly as it emphasized the time—centuries— America had had to change.

In The Two Offers, Harper emphasized the causes always closest to her heart: racial and gender equality and living in an earnestly Christian manner.

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Foster, Frances Smith. “Introduction.” In Harper’s Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
———. “Introduction.” In Minnie’s Sacrifice, Sowing and Reaping, Trial and Triumph: Three Rediscovered Novels by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. Boston: Beacon Press, 1994.
———, ed. A Brighter Coming Day: A Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Reader. New York: Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 1990.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. “Foreword.” In Harper’s Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted. Schomburg Library of Nineteenth- Century Black Women Writers Series. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Harper, Frances Ellen Watkins. “The Two Offers.” In A Brighter Coming Day. A Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Reader, edited by Frances Smith Foster. New York: Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 1990.
Peterson, Carla J. “ ‘Forced to Some Experiment’: Novelization in the Writings of Harriet A. Jacobs, Harriet E. Wilson, and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.” In “Doers of the Word” African-American Women Speakers and Writers in the North (1830–1880). New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1995.
———. “ ‘Whatever Concerns Them, as a Race, Concerns Me’: The Oratorical Careers of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and Sarah Parker Remond.” In “Doers of the Word”: African-American Women Speakers and Writers in the North (1830–1880). New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1995.
Rosenthal, Debra J. “Deracialized Discourse: Temperance and Racial Ambiguity in Harper’s ‘Two Offers’ and Sowing and Reaping.” In The Serpent in the Cup: Temperance in American Literature, edited by David S. Reynolds and Debra J. Rosenthal, 153–164.
Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997. Society for the Study of American Women Writers. 19th Century E-Text Library: Frances E. W. Harper.
Tate, Claudia. Domestic Allegories of Political Desire: The Black Heroine’s Text at the Turn of the Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.

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