Clotel Summary

William Wells Brown


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Clotel Summary

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Clotel, written by William Wells Brown and published in London in 1853, is a fictional account of Thomas Jefferson’s slave daughters and is widely considered to be the first book published by an African American author.

The novel begins with the introduction of the slave, Currer, a mixed race woman with two daughters fathered by Thomas Jefferson. Because she is a slave, her daughters are also born into slavery due to a law in the state of Virginia. They all live a relatively peaceful life until Jefferson’s death.

Currer’s daughter, Clotel, is sold to Horatio Green who makes her his common law wife since they cannot marry legally. Currer and her other daughter, Althesa, remain in slavery. They are transported further south by a slave broker. A man named Mr. Peck eventually purchases Currer. She dies of yellow fever shortly before Mr. Peck’s daughter was preparing to emancipate her.

Althesa marries her master, Henry Norton, by passing as a white woman. They have two daughters, Jane and Ellen, who are educated. Although he supports abolition, he fails to emancipate Althesa, and when they both die, their daughters are sold back into slavery. Ellen commits suicide rather than submit to sexual slavery, and Jane dies of heartbreak.

Clotel has a daughter with her master eventually, but when Green gets political aspirations, he abandons her and their daughter. He marries a white woman who makes him sell them both back into slavery. Clotel meets another slave, William, and they plan an escape. She dresses as a white man, and he accompanies her as a slave. They reach the free state of Ohio; William continues to Canada. Clotel returns to free her daughter, Mary, but she is captured.

She is taken to the slave market in D.C. but escapes and jumps to her death from the Long Bridge into the Potomac River. Mary is forced to work as a house slave. She meets George and begins a relationship with him. He is part of Nat Turner’s insurgency and is arrested. She eventually arranges to take his place in prison. He escapes prison, and she is sold to a Frenchman who takes her to Europe. She is with him for ten years. When he dies, she meets George again by chance, and the novel ends with their marriage.

Brown uses narrative to present the genuine issues faced by many slave women who entered relationships and bore children with their white masters. Currer’s relationship with Jefferson does not allow her any freedoms, but while he is alive, she and her daughters enjoy a relatively simple life. After his death, they are sent back to the markets where they are separated and sold.

Clotel is attached to Green and dedicates herself to him and their child despite his unwillingness to free her. She is depicted as tragic because ultimately she is separated from her daughter, too, when she is sold at the behest of Green’s new wife. She does manage a daring escape for her lover, another slave, but as she tries to free her daughter, the situation ultimately ends with her committing suicide rather than risk recapture.

Althesa fares a little better because of her marriage. She is able to have more of a relationship with her daughters, but because her husband never officially freed her, her daughters are sold after both she and her husband die. Through them, the line of exploitation continues as they are still subjected to sexual slavery despite being mostly white. In fact, this makes them more in demand for sexual slavery as they resemble white women but are part of the oppressive system of slavery.

Brown also uses several different white characters to expound on the differing opinions and faces of slavery. Although Jefferson is his most famous character, he also uses Mr. Peck, a preacher, to be the hypocritical Christian face of slavery. Peck uses the Bible to justify slavery and has no interest in freeing slaves. His daughter, in contrast, is abolitionist and has plans to emancipate the slaves when her father dies, and they are willed to her. Currer is almost freed, but in a cruel turn of events, dies before seeing her freedom.

Horatio Green, Clotel’s master, has a tenuous relationship with her, having no problem carrying on a sexual relationship with her, but when his political aspirations spill over, he abandons her and their daughter. Any security Clotel might have had evaporates when he marries a white woman who demands under no uncertain terms that she must be sold. This illustrates the tension between white women and slaves as competition, though the competition is not a mutually agreed upon situation. Slave women had no choice in the matter but were still subject to the jealousies of white women as if they had given permission for their masters to use their bodies. This relationship is destructive.

Brown’s narrative brings to light the experiences of slave women through tragic narrative. It allows us to see what kinds of fates befell women and how their unique forms of oppressive circumstances erased them from most of the records.