Summary and Analysis
Chapter 7 goes back in time to provide the story of Ethel’s life. Ever since she was a child, Ethel dreamed of traveling to Africa as a missionary; she loved the idea of being revered by the “savage” inhabitants of Africa. Her family owned a slave named Felice whose daughter, Jasmine, was Ethel’s childhood playmate. When Ethel turned 8 years old, her father forbade her from playing with Jasmine. Jasmine took over her mother’s role as maid when Felice died a few years later. Ethel’s father began regularly raping Jasmine, and Ethel’s mother sold her across town. By then, Ethel no longer felt any sense of a relationship to Jasmine. When she passed Jasmine on the street, they ignored each other. Jasmine gave birth to a son who looked like a “dark mirror” of Ethel, implying that Jasmine was impregnated by Ethel’s father.
When Ethel told her parents that she wanted to be a missionary among the African “savages,” her father persuaded her to become a schoolteacher instead: Young children, he argued, were even more savage than Africans. Ethel settled for that boring life, married her boring husband Martin, and managed to be relatively comfortable until Martin began risking their lives by continuing his father’s abolitionist work.
At first Ethel had resented Cora’s presence, but she eventually sees it as a blessing. Since childhood, she wanted to travel across the ocean to do heroic things for Africans. Now, she decides, “Africa had come to her,” giving her another chance for heroism. As she tends to Cora during her illness and reads to her from the Bible, Ethel finally feels a sense of purpose.
Ethel is yet another example of the uselessness of passive white “liberalism” as a response to the predicament of slaves. She considers herself someone who is kind to people of African descent: Not only did she play with a black girl named Jasmine in her childhood, but she also wanted to be a missionary to Africa. Nonetheless, Ethel does these things with an attitude of superiority, believing that she is inherently better than a black person. In her dreams of herself as a missionary, she is a hero being revered by African “savages.” Even when she plays make-believe with Jasmine, she always takes on the dominant role. As she reads the Bible to Cora, she is pleased because she finally has “a savage to call her own.”
Ethel’s brand of kindness soothes her conscience without making her feel any responsibility to stand up for blacks when it becomes inconvenient. After throwing a fit when her father forbids her from playing with Jasmine, she accepts his order and begins treating her former friend like any other slave. She has no desire to help Cora because she knows that doing so puts her at personal risk. As the narrator observes, “Slavery as a moral issue never interested Ethel . . . She did, however, have firm ideas about not getting killed for other people’s high-minded ideas.” Ethel’s generosity is limited to the boundaries of convenience.
Two ironies in this chapter also bear mentioning. First, Ethel and Jasmine’s friendship is seen as a transgression that must be corrected, while the fact that Ethel’s father repeatedly rapes Jasmine and is the father of her child is never verbalized. The stark contradiction between these historical attitudes and the contemporary ethical perspective creates tension—that is, nearly everyone today considers rape a major offense and celebrates interracial friendship. Second, by the end of the chapter, Ethel is finally hopeful and optimistic about Cora’s presence because it makes Ethel feel like she is fulfilling her calling as a missionary. Since readers know that, mere hours later, Ethel will deny any knowledge of Cora’s existence before being stoned to death, this scene is full of dramatic irony.