Recycling Oppression in Valerie Martin’s Property
Set during a slave rebellion in 1830s New Orleans, Valerie Martin’s Property crafts a voice often unheard of in Southern fiction by allowing its readers a different version of the slave narrative told by the slave owner’s wife. Manon Gaudet is the childless, unhappy wife of a struggling, oppressive slave owner husband. Manon, beautiful and bored, dreams of a better life where a failed marriage and bastard children are not common requirements. But what makes this story about slavery uniquely different from others so commonly read and digested is the relationship between slave owner Manon and her slave girl Sarah. Sarah, a wedding gift from Manon’s aunt, soon becomes the prized, sexual possession of Manon’s boorish husband. Bearing both a son and a daughter to Manon’s husband, Sarah is doubly oppressed by both her master and his wife. And while Manon acknowledges the cruel and sadistic behavior of her husband against the slaves when he dehumanizes and humiliates them for mere entertainment, she simply blinds herself from her own hypocrisy and mistreatment of Sarah and her children. Even though Manon appears to be a sympathetic character in the beginning because of her circumstances, she quickly develops into one of the most detestable characters in the novel as she unleashes a mental dose of power and control over Sarah. In Valerie Martin’s Property, Manon is a clear representation of how the oppressed soon becomes the oppressor.
Evident from the text at its onset, Manon’s life is seen to be in total disarray. Manon is clearly justified in her discontentment with her marital predicament, but her anger and frustration are apparently displaced onto Sarah and her children. Referring to Sarah and her husband’s son Walter as a “bastard”(5)and their daughter Nell as “a dark, ugly thing” (6), Manon is disgusted and appalled at the creatures her husband and Sarah have produced. And while Manon knows (although again, the question of what she "knows" about her husband and Sarah is always in doubt) her husband forcibly rapes Sarah and forbids her to marry another man, she continues to make both Sarah and her children suffer without even considering how they are his victims. But Sarah’s problems, pain, and discomfort disappears in Manon’s self-absorbed narration. Yet under the systems of both marriage and slavery, neither Manon nor Sarah can object to her husband’s cruel but legal indecencies because both Manon and Sarah are property to the same man. Manon’s own mother even understands how patriarchy works and has a clearer grasp on what Manon naively assumes to be uncommon: “She encourages me to show more warmth to my husband, even if I do not feel it, as it is my duty and, with practice, must become my pleasure”(58), but Manon recognizes his pleasure as her oppression. Both women are victims to his sexual oppression. But once Manon’s husband is tragically murdered in the slave revolt and Manon is scarred and crippled from her brave escape, she is on a mission to rewrite Sarah’s fate and make her suffer immensely for her conniving deception and betrayal in running away North in hopes of freedom. While Martin is quick to draw connections here between Manon and Sarah as oppressed by Mr. Gaudet (or the patriarchal system of the slave-holding South generally), but while it's important to draw those connections,we also should be too quick to equate the two women's predicaments as they are very different and carry different weight.
Manon refuses to see Sarah as anything more than property once Sarah betrays her. Before Sarah’s escape, Manon did not like Sarah or her children, but she tolerated her because she was familiar. But now Manon is high on power and will stop at nothing to reclaim her property. When Mr. Roger attempts to purchase Sarah, Manon strongly reminds him of her legal obligation: “‘You seem to think I care for nothing but money. I am going to considerable expense to recover what is mine by right and by law, and recover her I will’” (171). In a twisted opportunity, a selfish and desolate Manon usurps the oppressor role and places an even stronger, psychological hold over Sarah that is more threatening than her husband’s ever could be. Because Manon cannot have the life she envisioned, she will do all she can to make sure Sarah suffers the same fate.
Manon will never realize that she and Sarah are one in the same—women abused by the systems of marriage and slavery—both will always be nothing more than property of men. Yet, Manon seems to revel in the small ounce of power in controlling Sarah’s life. But Property does more than to expose the hypocrisy and moral darkness of Manon because it clearly confirms through Manon and Sarah’s relationship the powerlessness experienced by both black and white women under the patriarchal systems of oppression in the antebellum South