Tituba & Gerda Lerner’s Definition of Patriarchy

The concept of patriarchy has been pivotal to the advancement of feminist thought in recent decades. The basic premise is that the general societal structure in which men hold power over women is a major factor in the subjugation of the female gender and a significant aspect of historical incidences of sexism. Patriarchal societies have existed for a better part of human history. Gerda Lerner traces their initiation to the fourth millennium in ancient Mesopotamia (Lerner 7). She claims patriarchal structures were manifested in kinship formations and economic relations, as well as the establishment of religious and state bureaucracies. In patriarchal societies, legal and social powers were mainly wielded by men. Women would only access such power by limiting their child-bearing capacity and restricting their marital relations to a single man. Lerner (238) perceives patriarchy as “the manifestation and institutionalization of male dominance over women and children” and the extension of such power in the wider community. In this sense, she depicts patriarchy as a precursor of female oppression that has endured the ages. This paper attempts to use this definition to deconstruct the persecution that befalls female characters in Condé’s fictional novel I, Tituba, black witch of Salem. The novel reimagines the historical account of Tituba, a slave and significant figure in the notorious Salem witch trials, whose oppression and subjugation is directly connected to patriarchal practices. By summoning Tituba to the realms of literary imagination, Condé gives a new identity while drawing the reader’s attention to the patriarchal roots of her oppression through dramatic irony, allusion, and parody.

            Condé uses dramatic irony and parody to portray the themes of discrimination, religious intolerance, and oppression of women, all of which are somehow linked to the societal practices of Tituba’s setting. The novel overtly dissects the power of women in an inflexibly patriarchal society by diverting the responsiveness of the reader to instances of oppression with dramatic satire. The intimacy that the book instills in the mind of the reader in the first epigraph and the account itself is likely to make one believe that the book is a celebration of Tituba’s heroism. However, this is far from the impression that is left after the culmination of the tale. The novel ends with Tituba’s demise. Here, Condé uses a high measure of irony to showcase how the identity of Tituba is lost during mayhems of her life, as well as how her glimmer of expectation fades away as she confronts patriarchal practices at the cost of her freedom and liberty.

Nonetheless, the author convinces the audience that Tituba has ultimately taken her place in history, and her role is alive despite her character’s death. The deep contrast between the expectations at the beginning and the ending of the novel is what creates the aspect of parody in the story. As Condé’s fictional tale unfolds, the reader is continuously confronted with the hesitation between irony and seriousness, especially in the characterization of Tituba. This presents Tituba as a mock-epic character who seeks to open the minds of the audience to the oppressive realities of her setting.

            The use of satire and allusion helps the reader to present the perspective of Tituba’s character in contrast with that of her adversaries. This is patented by the irony presented in the second epigraph “Death is a porte whereby we pass to joye; / Life is a lake that drowneth all in payne.” This epigraph refers to a quote by a sixteenth-century poet John Harrington who also happens to have been a puritan. Although Tituba’s story did not negate his message, the reference to the endurance of life rather than its enjoyment represents the puritan philosophy, which is inverted as soon as the audience enters Tituba’s notions. As the story unfolds, one immediately begins to see the puritan concepts as diverse and thematically different. Tituba endures mistreatment by the puritans precisely because of her differences and social status. Yet, it is because of her narrative that the fulfillment of the second epigraph is satisfied. The irony of the first and the second epigraphs operate in an inclusive, relational, and differential manner to communicate to the reader about the unsaid oppression.

            The parody aspect of Condé’s story particularly emerges in the manner in which the narrative shifts from the traditional epic form towards the representation of serious events. Traditionally, mock-epics are mainly used to treat a trivial matter. In I, Tituba, black witch of Salem, the author wavers between irony and the weightiness of the repression endured by characters at Halem. The result is a novel that exploits epic and mock-epic elements to suit its purpose. The epic qualities are seen in opposition to puritan hypocrisy and the dissimilarity between their idea of evil and Tituba’s virtue. The author takes an ethical approach to examine the position of the puritans who consider anything different from their culture as evil. On the other hand, the mock-epic details emerge through Condé’s reversal of the extremes. She characterizes Tituba as a right person who dies under the tyranny of the puritans.

            Symbolism also appears in Condé’s novel in instances where she wants to highlight the repression against female characters. The acts of violence that ensued at the beginning of the book are a symbol of the anarchy that will develop in Tituba’s life. This form of foreshadowing is manifested straightway when the white world is first presented as violent and cruel. At the beginning of the book, the reader witnesses the act of violence against Tituba’s mother, Abena, who is horrifically and violently raped. This violence is, however, later linked to the white male sexuality since both Abena and Tituba manage to secure friendships with their puritan mistresses as opposed to their repressive husbands. The first pages of the novel describe Abena’s company with Jenniffer Darnell in similar terms as those that Tituba uses to describe her connection with Elizabeth Parris.

And then I would ask myself, how could their yearning and nostalgia [for Barbados] possibly be compared with mine? What they yearned for was the sweetness of a gentler life, the life of white women who were served and waited on by attentive slaves. . . . We did not belong to the same universe, Goodwife Parris, Betsy, and 1, and all the affection in the world could not change that (Condé 63).

Seemingly, the female puritan mistresses chose to take different moral positions from those of their husbands. In so, white puritan characters shift sides in the moral positions of good and evil as they wish. Condé introduces two more white characters, Benjamin Cohen d’Azevedo and Hester Prynne, who diverge from the order of things after persecution by the puritans. In the end, the two establish positions of counter-resistance and end up disturbing the dichotomies of good vs. evil and black vs. white.            

In conclusion, I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, represents the legacy of atrocity and violence committed by a patriarchal society. The novel depicts the slavery and horror of society while commenting on the evils of society that is drowned in hypocrisy and female oppression. By summoning Tituba to the realms of literary imagination, Condé gives a new identity while drawing the reader’s attention to the patriarchal roots of her oppression through dramatic irony, allusion, and parody. She offers a voice to the ‘voiceless’ Caribbean slave Tituba so that she can retell the tale from her perspective. Her use of magical realism deviates from the traditional narratives that retell the story of the Salem Witch Trials from the view of the white slave-owners. In Conde’s narrative, Tituba is not a slave, but a hero who enjoys the privilege of spiritual and magical power. She raises her voice against the oppression and hypocrisy of a white and male-dominated world. The use of magic, ghost, and witchcraft alienates her from societal norms and expectations. However, these are the very tools she uses to escape gendered and racial violence.

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