Clotel Summary & Study Guide
SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 74-page guide for “Clotel” by William Wells Brown includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 29 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Christian Hypocrisy and American Hypocrisy.
Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter, published in 1853 by former slave William Wells Brown, is considered the first African-American novel. Drawing on what were, in the 19th century, rumors that Thomas Jefferson had children with his slave Sally Hemings, the novel follows the slave Clotel and her family as they are sold to different masters. The novel is more than the story of a fictional slave, however: Brown includes newspaper articles, advertisements, and real-life anecdotes to present a picture of the horrors of slavery and to add credibility to his account. He also borrows plot details from other stories, a technique critics argue contributes to a sense of shared humanity. Brown published Clotel in London, having lived there during a stint of speaking engagements on the subjects of slavery and abolition. Due to the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, he was unable to return to America and lived in England until 1854, when friends purchased his freedom from his master. In Clotel, Brown depicts the suffering of the slaves as they endure family separation, sexual exploitation, and dehumanization. He also condemns Christian slave owners who, rather than embracing their fellow man, manipulate Christianity to oppress them for personal gain. Clotel’s connection to Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, is a comment on the incongruence of slavery in a nation built on the concept of personal freedom. Though Clotel is a sentimental novel in the style of the 19th century, it is also a call to action.
When Richmond slave owner John Graves passes away, his slaves are put up for sale. Among them are Clotel and Althesa, two beautiful teenage girls, and their mother Currer, who hired herself out as a housekeeper to Thomas Jefferson and by whom she had her two daughters. Clotel had gained the attention of a wealthy young man named Horatio Green, who had met her at a ball and had frequently visited her home. Horatio purchases Clotel, delighting Currer, who longs to see her daughter free.
A slave speculator named Dick Walker then purchases Currer and Althesa and takes them on a steamboat headed for the New Orleans slave market. However, when the boat is docked in Natchez, Mississippi, Currer is purchased by a clergyman. She begs him to purchase Althesa, as well, but he refuses. Althesa is taken to New Orleans, where she is purchased by Mr. Crawford, who seeks a maid for his wife.
The novel returns to Horatio and Clotel, who live as husband and wife in a beautiful cottage near Richmond, and they soon have a daughter together. Though Clotel is happy, she fears for her future and for the future of her daughter Mary, for she knows the law does not recognize her marriage. Horatio soon succumbs to temptation and begins a romantic relationship with Gertrude, the daughter of a political connection.
Meanwhile, the man who purchased Currer is Reverend John Peck. Originally from Connecticut, he is visited by a school friend named Miles Carlton. The two engage in conversation about slavery: Mr. Peck believes the Bible justifies slavery, but Carlton, an atheist, believes people have rights regardless of color. Mr. Peck’s nineteen-year-old Georgiana, having recently finished her education in the North, argues that slavery is inconsistent with the tenets of Christianity and with the life of Jesus Christ. Her speech impresses Carlton, who for the first time sees the “true light” (75) of Christianity.
Eventually, Horatio, citing “the necessity of circumstances” (88), becomes engaged to Gertrude. After their marriage, Gertrude discovers the existence of Clotel and Mary and grows cold toward Horatio. Horatio sends child support to Clotel and desires to see her again, but Clotel does not respond to his letters.
A young Vermont doctor named Henry Morton moves to New Orleans and stays for a time with his friend Mr. Crawford, the man who purchased Althesa. Henry falls in love with Althesa and is disgusted to hear the story of how she was purchased. Henry purchases Althesa and marries her. Despite his growing wealth, he remains against slavery and never owns slaves. He and Althesa attempt to purchase Currer, but Mr. Peck refuses to sell her. Meanwhile, Georgiana converts Carlton to Christianity. The two engage in many conversations in which Georgiana teaches him where the Bible condemns slavery and explains the true horrors of slavery.
With his marriage and his political dreams in shambles, Horatio turns to alcohol. Though he resists at first, he gives in to his white legal wife’s demand that he sell Clotel. He also does not intervene when Gertrude takes his daughter Mary as a slave in his own house, treating her cruelly. Clotel, now living in Mississippi, is also treated cruelly by her new mistress Mrs. French. The Frenches eventually sell her when she continues to grieve over the loss of her daughter.
Carlton and Georgiana fall in love. When Mr. Peck dies of cholera, Georgiana, realizing she cannot free her father’s slaves as a young single woman, gathers the courage to express to Carlton her desire to marry him. After they marry, the two pay the slaves for their labor with the intention of freeing them when they have earned a certain amount. Being paid for their work makes the slaves more motivated and willing to learn Scripture. Currer then dies of yellow fever; Georgiana is saddened, for she had intended to send her to Althesa in New Orleans.
Clotel, along with another slave named William, escapes the home of their master Mr. Cooper by disguising herself as a white man and boarding a steamship to Ohio, pretending William is her slave. When they reach Ohio, Clotel returns to Virginia to look for Mary.
Georgiana dies of consumption, but before she does, she frees her father’s slaves. Althesa and Henry Morton die of yellow fever, leaving their daughters, Ellen and Jane, in the care of Henry’s brother James, who tries to take them North, not realizing Althesa was a slave. The three are arrested, and Ellen and Jane are sold at the New Orleans market. Ellen kills herself on her first day with her master; Jane dies of a broken heart when her master kills her suitor.
Clotel is arrested in Richmond before she can obtain news of Mary and is brought to a prison in Washington, DC. She manages to escape before being sent to New Orleans but, reaching the bridge, is surrounded by officers and jumps to her death.
George, Horatio’s slave, is sentenced to death for taking part in Nat Turner’s slave revolt. He is visited in prison by Mary, with whom he has a romantic relationship. The two switch clothes, and George escapes to Ohio. On finding Mary has been sold at the New Orleans market, he emigrates to England. He is reunited with Mary, now the widow of a Frenchman named Mr. Devenant, after coming across her in a French cemetery: Mr. Devenant had helped her escape, and the two married, though her affection for him was based in gratitude. George and Mary are soon married.