I liked this book very much; unfortunately, I wasn’t in the mood to focus closely as I read it or to take notes or even gather my thoughts much about it as I read, so I won’t have a long or particularly intelligent post.
But I do recommend it if you haven’t read it and are interested. It’s a good story, and it takes up a lot of interesting ideas, chief among them, for me, about women’s lot in a society run by men. Indiana doesn’t get a great education and she doesn’t have much experience in the world. A lot of what she learned about matters such as love and marriage come from novels — always a sign of danger to come. It is a long and venerable tradition to use a novel to warn against novel reading.
She is married at 16 to an older man so she has no time to explore life and look around her as an adult. She lives in a time when emotional displays are valued in women, but rationality is not; Indiana seems not to have had the opportunities to develop her mind and the male characters seem lacking in the ability to value emotion. How is she to judge Raymon when he comes along? How is she to know she should stay far, far away? She has no real grounding from which to make sense of her situation.
And what an odd situation it is. She is married to Colonel Delmare, a jealous and violent man; she is watched over by the reserved and mysterious Ralph, a childhood friend; and she is pursued by the charming but untrustworthy Raymon. Her closest female friend dies early in the novel, leaving her quite alone. So the men vie for her attention and she falls for Raymon, not realizing that he is incapable of returning her love. The novel becomes the story of Indiana slowly making that realization — that she is a much better, stronger person than the one she loves — and dealing with the consequences.
I was shocked at the descriptions of Delmare’s violence toward Indiana. This struck me as a harsher, more direct condemnation of men’s power over women than I’m used to seeing in novels of the time period. Stefanie pointed out the horrifying scene when the dog Ophelia is brutally killed, and I think you can see this as an echo of what happens to Indiana herself — she is portrayed as an innocent creature brutally struck down by a cruel world.
Ralph is an odd character, with his perfectly impassive face and his seeming heartlessness, although we learn by the end of the novel that seeing him as heartless is a mistake. But through most of the novel he hovers about, shadowing Indiana and rescuing her repeatedly, but not making clear his intentions or his role until the novel’s end. And what makes Ralph an even odder character is his semi-incestuous relationship with Indiana. He’s described as being her brother, her guardian, and her lover. In this sense, I’m not sure what it means that Indiana ends up with him at the end — has she found her true love, or has she settled for something more familiar and calm and safe?
I understand that the novel’s ending is controversial. The question seems to be whether we should see Indiana as subdued once again by the patriarchy — she seems lifeless and spiritless at the end — or whether this is actually a hopeful ending, illustrating how one woman escaped from the two men who caused her so much pain and established a comfortable life devoted to helping others. For she and Ralph decide to spend their time and energy and money buying the freedom of slaves.
I feel conflicted about this. It was my impression as I read that Indiana’s voice and energy were written out of the text; in the final pages Ralph tells her story and all she seems to do is retire early to bed. This didn’t seem like the Indiana of the earlier part of the novel. On the other hand, though, she has escaped, and, most importantly, escaped alive and she will live on to affect the lives of many people — those slaves that she and Ralph are working to free. We are led through the novel to expect her death and to see death as her only option, but the novel’s final word thwarts this expectation.
I’ll be curious to see what others have to say about this.