Teaching Reflection-The Factory Girl

Michael S. Martin
Nicholls State University

 

Sarah Savage’s fictional works are not a known-commodity in American literature, so I first approached my 300-level ‘Survey of American Literature I’ course and its use of this text as something innovative, both for my own teaching and for the students’ experience with the literature.  Therefore, I first showed students the Just Teach One web site and emphasized the newness of this endeavor and of scholarship on Savage’s novel; I wanted them to know they, by reading and analyzing the novel, were a part of such important scholarship in early American literature. This reading came at the very end of the semester, and I sequenced the novel purposely to be a culmination of the course, this after having some prefatory readings on female domesticity and the novel, and male short fiction from Hawthorne and Poe.

For my course, I placed the novel in such a sequence with work/labor and religiosity as the defining dyads and emphasized that the latter takes precedent in Savage’s novel as it progresses. Labor takes a backseat to the family and marriage plotline for the majority of The Factory Girl. Despite this limitation, I found it fruitful to link Savage’s longer work with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s short fiction and therefore used “The Seamstress” for points of comparison with Mary and her labor in the cotton factory within the novel. Particular points of comparison could include the way that domestic space is one of sanctuary and the “hearth” for Savage, while Stowe depicts a sickly space of incessant working day and night. Stowe uses the analogy of “the candle goeth not out by night” in her depiction of a female, homosocial family. Meanwhile, as Ed White and Duncan Faherty mention, Mary uses her home environment as a site for “reflect[ion] [and] careful use of home and leisure time” (par. 1).

The Factory Girl’s opening is comprised of a monologue from Mary’s dying father, one where he implores her to be a “good” girl, among other final, sentimental pronouncements. In this respect, I framed Savage’s rhetorical device in light of ‘death speeches’ in 19th-century literature, particularly Little Eva’s godly one within Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In addition, I happen to teach at a university with a substantial amount of Catholic students, so I emphasized not only the religiosity of Savage’s novel, particularly the religious didacticism at its heart, but also the Protestant work ethic that informs her work and Stowe’s short story. On the final day, I had my students act out scenes of the book since so much of the work is composed in direct discourse; this exercise was a fruitful one. Other approaches that I took during this initial teaching of The Factory Girl included listing Savage’s novelistic shortcomings, including her lack of character development both with the sullen Mrs. Holden and Mary’s eventual husband, Mr. Danforth.