University of Florida
The Factory Girl fit well in my lower-level early American women writers course. After reading Charlotte Temple and The Coquette, The Factory Girl seems to read like the same message in reverse; instead of cautioning young women on what can happen if you fail at virtue, The Factory Girl shows young women the rewards they will reap if they remain “good and virtuous” against all trials. My students seemed to agree that Mary is a much stronger woman than both Charlotte and Eliza, not only because she overcomes temptation, but because she sticks to her convictions despite lacking the support of a man. This led to an interesting conversation about privilege and why Mary lacks the luxury of giving up on life when it gets rough.
As expected, one student asked early in the period why the story is called The Factory Girl when the factory is such a small part of the story; really, Mary’s identity lies more in her occupation as a teacher. I suggested the story was less ABOUT the factory girl and more a story FOR the factory girl. This led students to engage with the story as an instructional narrative. From Mary we learn that if we stay good and virtuous, we too can earn a happy ending. We learn how religion operates in everyday life rather than simply reading an author’s moralization. Just as Mary is an example to those around her, she is also an example for the reader.
Earlier in the semester we read Jan Lewis’ article, “The Republican Wife.” The class has been very engaged with that article all semester, and they read Mary as an example of a republican mother. One student noted how Mary’s worth is tied up in her role as caretaker and religious guide. She puts others’ needs before her own and does not let others see her sadness, especially Mrs. Burnam. Even her beauty is described in the rhetoric of the republican woman, as she has the kind of beauty one recognizes as one gets to know her.
One student remarked that Mary does not just become a mother at the end of the story, but is a mother all along; she takes care of her grandmother, her aunt, Nancy and the schoolchildren. So, that student argued, the happy ending is not that Mary became a wife and mother, but that she was finally appreciated for her role as such. The class was very opinionated about whether or not The Factory Girl had a happy ending. One student argued that even though she was always the caretaker, marrying Mr. Danforth gave Mary financial and domestic stability. Some students thought it was a happy ending simply because, unlike Charlotte and Eliza, Mary survives. One student thought the story relayed a more radical message about remaining independent until the time was right; Mary is the head of her own household until she marries.
At first my students thought The Factory Girl was a simple story, but I believe they got more out of it than they initially realized. My thanks to Ed White and Duncan Faherty for organizing JTO and The Factory Girl this semester. It was a fun and worthwhile addition to my class!