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Charlotte Barnes, The Forest Princess, Or, Two Centuries Ago (1844)

Jacklyn Temares

The startling thing about Barnes's depiction of the rescue is the sexual dynamics, not between Smith and Pocahontas, as one might expect, but between Powhatan and Pocahontas, between father and daughter. Powhatan clearly sounds what we would now call sexist in his response to Pocahontas's persistent plea for mercy. "Is Powhatan a woman, to be moved / By tears?" he retorts, for instance, peremptorily commanding her to accept his decision, delivering such threatening injunctions as "Provoke [me] not to wrath." But in what we might now call feminist fashion, Pocahontas refuses to be submissive, continually resisting the -- frankly -- accurate picture her father paints of their culture's grim future at the hands of the English with such arguments as her filial right to give advice, mercy as a higher authority, Powhatan's future reputation, and the devastating effect of Smith's death on his hypothetical family. When her confrontational strategies are not successful against the stubborn patriarch, however, Pocahontas backs up her words with action, physically shielding Smith in the way so familiar to us and finally stopping Powhatan from executing the execution. So how is this gender conflict resolved, enabling the happy ending? Ironically, Powhatan codes Pocahontas's actions as masculine, praising her, in what is the key line here, for having "A warrior's spirit in a woman's form." Pocahontas's bravery makes her somehow other-than-woman, implying a woman would not be capable of such courage, an even, if it is possible, more outrageously sexist attitude! At this moment Powhatan sees Pocahontas as his equal, sees the conflict as man-to-man. Let's recap. Powhatan finds Pocahontas's "modern," outspoken nature abrasive and only yields to her once she acts in a manner that we "modern" readers -- and dozens and dozens of other depicters of this hallowed scene -- perceive as traditionally feminine. In embracing Smith, Pocahontas is emotional, compassionate, and protective – all classic womanly traits. Ironically, it is Powhatan, perceptive prophet but quintessential sexist, who reads Pocahontas's classically feminine action as masculine, and, twisted as all this seems, the rest is history.