The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd is a novel about racism and sexism in the 19th century. Sarah Grimke is the daughter of a wealthy aristocrat in Charleston who dreams of becoming a lawyer. Handful (“Hetty”) Grimke is Sarah’s 11th birthday present- a black slave girl who dreams of becoming free. Sarah and Handful’s rare friendship stretches over 35 years, in which they both strive to reach a life of their own, away from oppression and discrimination. Their lives are continuously coiled back together by guilt, understanding, rebellion, and sorrow.
The novel is based on the real life of Sarah Grimke, a well-known figure in the women’s suffrage movement. I enjoyed the novel even more after doing some basic research on Sarah Grimke, and the ending was quite lovely in the way my mind pined for more. Even though The Invention of Wings tells an ugly tale of American history, it brings forth the beauty in empowerment and defiance in strong women.
The three things I found the most interesting from this novel were individual battles, marriage, and personal worth.
She loved me and pitied me. And I loved her and used her. It never was a simple thing. That day, our hearts were pure as they ever would get.
Every Person Has a Battle
My body might be a slave, but not my mind. For you, it’s the other way round.
Sarah and Handful are both very strong characters and I adore them both. They fought against the limits imposed on them and contrasted in ways that highlighted each other’s bravery and cowardice. You would think in a novel about slavery, you would feel more empathetic towards Hetty, but I found myself equally upset at Sarah’s circumstances. It is true that everybody has his or her own issues and this novel does a good job of showing that.
At the same time, it can be argued that Hetty is much worse off due to physical abuse and a lower standard of life. Oh poor Sarah, she can’t speak out about her beliefs without being shushed by the minister- what a tragedy! But then there’s Hetty becoming permanently crippled after a punishment at the workhouse. Who has it better?
I don’t like to compare pain. Just because someone has it “worst” than you, it doesn’t make your issues any less painful to you. At the same time, the gaps in disparity sometimes cannot be ignored. By comparison, Hetty has much more to complain about than Sarah. Hetty knows this and is angry at her situation, but she also understands Sarah’s pain and even finds herself feeling sorry for Sarah at times. This awkward balance between feelings of guilt (from Sarah, who is unable to stop Hetty from being abused in her own household) and resentment (from Hetty, who knows Sarah is against slavery but is stuck to live under this societal norm) is what builds such a dynamic relationship between these two characters. Ultimately, it is a mutual understanding of how each other live that propels both Sarah and Hetty to reach greater heights of freedom, which is what we, as readers, dearly wish for them.
Give up on everything and get married
I’d chosen the regret I could live with best, that’s all.
Sarah is proposed to by a man she loves in the midst of her endeavors in becoming a Quaker minister. To be unmarried by 30 is seen to be shameful. Sarah rejects the proposal because the man expected her to become a full time wife and mother. This is a normal expectation, given the time frame of this novel, so it is exceptionally courageous of Sarah to reject his proposal, considering the fact that she actually loves this man.
Equal to her love for this man, Sarah’s passion to be something more in life is at the root of her refusal. Even when she reaches a meaningful position as a speaker and ambassador of anti-slavery groups, she often wonders if she made the right choice in refusing marriage.
This is a common notion for everybody as we wonder what would happen if we had chosen the alternative. The decisions we make at life’s crossroads are more than often irreversible, and when you are forced to choose between two choices, you choose the one that will leave you with a regret you can live with. For Sarah, that was the regret of never fully realizing love, but in return, she does not have to live the other regret: allowing the evils of slavery to pass her by.
Choices are not always this black-and-white, and Sarah’s sister, Nina (also based off of a real person – Angelina Grimke), is an example. Like Sarah, Nina is also passionate about anti-slavery and pro-feminism, but she also finds love and gets married during her aspirations. Although Kidd seems to chalk this up to Nina’s physical beauty, I believe a strong alignment in values for Nina and her husband is what really allows a happy marriage to happen.
And this was the 19th century! If Nina can be happily married and work on her passions, then why in the world can’t people today?
“… Bought his own freedom.”
When mauma saw my raw eyes, she said, “Ain’t nobody can write down in a book what you worth.”
15-year-old Hetty is worth $500 because of her exceptional sewing skills. $500 is more than many of the other slaves, but to see a quantitative value slapped onto a ledger is just like a slap in the face. In the novel, it states that by law, slaves are only 3/5 a person. Hetty is listed as an asset, just like the dining room table or the carpet.
Hetty writes, “The words from the leather book came into my head. We were like the gold leaf mirror and the horse saddle. Not full-fledge people. I didn’t believe this, never had believed it a day of my life, but if you listen to white folks long enough, some sad, beat-down part of you starts to wonder. All that pride about what we were worth left me then. For the first time, I felt the hurt and shame of just being who I was” (p. 112).
Something happens to even the strongest of us. When you hear the same thing over and over again, you start to believe it is true. Some people get their egos blown out of proportion and others are crushed down to the size of a mouse. It’s important for us to remember that we are worth more than whatever other people try to evaluate us with, whether that is salary, grades, skin color, or number of lovers, friends, or objects.
You should be the only one to set limits on yourself (unless you’re a psychopath).