Ira & Isabella and the Problem of Incest

Helen Hunt
Tennessee Tech University

I taught Ira and Isabella as part of a core class for majors in early American literature. I usually teach Charlotte Temple, which I love to teach for it interrogation of consent and display of sentimental masculinity. However, this semester I decided to replace the two classes I spend on Charlotte Temple with Ira and Isabella. I thought that Ira and Isabella’s critique of the seduction narrative would work best when students read an example of just such a text, and since I didn’t have time to teach both Charlotte Temple and Ira and Isabella, I decided to pair the later with another Just Teach one offering: Amelia, or the Faithless Briton.

I started with Amelia, or the Faithless Briton and quickly discovered that what I found impressive about the text—Amelia’s determination to bring her wayward husband to account and her bravery to pursue him across the Atlantic alone—fell flat with my students. Unacquainted as they were with the common plot of the seduction narrative in which Amelia would have been consumed by shame far earlier and died before doing any of those things I appreciated, they found her story dramatically unjust, and they refused to see it as any sort of representation of women’s agency.

They appreciated the happy ending of Ira and Isabella far more. There were a number of things that cultivated their goodwill in this text. They approved of the way the text embraced Isabella’s more relaxed approach to love and were satisfied by Lucinda’s frank sexual desire (and refusal to die). They laughed at Ira’s notions of false delicacy, picking up on how the story gently ribbed his skepticism of his own erotic desire. They laughed with Florio, noticing how, though he appeared foolish, he also managed to highlight the absurdity of Ira’s sentimental ideals.

We couldn’t escape the text’s treatment of incest, which turned out to be the most important part of our entire discussion. We talked about the prevalence of incest as a theme in early American fiction, and how it could indicate fear that the process of sentimentalism, founded in attraction to likeness, is fundamentally perverse, or the disconcerting loss of traditional markers of identity in the new republic in which anyone could be appear to be anyone at any time (and a man may smile and smile and still be a villain). In this sense, the way the story seems to cheerfully lay aside the threat of incest seems to suggest that these fears should not be taken too seriously.

However, what my class really embraced was how the story’s apparent dismissal of the threat of incest was, itself, a sham. Ira and Isabella may not be related by blood, but their likeness remains. Not only were they raised together by the same nurse, but they are so similar that “some persons imagined they looked alike” (12). So when the narrator explains that they are “propelled together by the irresistible force of nature,” it seems as though likeness is the thing that still irresistibly joins them. In this sense, their union still seems to indicate that morality based on likeness is potentially perverse. But even more disturbing is Doctor Joseph’s behavior, which my class seized on. They pointed out the possessive and sexualized edge to his relationship with Isabella, as he delights in her beauty and imagines the pleasure he has missed (and hopes to enjoy in the future) with her. They identified how the language of paternal sentiment sounds quite a bit like the language of a lover when he claims her as his daughter, which he uses to bar her from marrying Ira. What’s most remarkable here, though, is that close reading of the end of the text reveals that Doctor Joseph is not Ira’s father, and he knows it. This blew my students’ minds. If he’s not saying that Isabella can’t marry Ira because they are related, then why in the world is he demanding they part? Their conclusion: he wants her for himself. I think they are right: Doctor Joseph does want Isabella for himself, and his desire reveals the erotic possessiveness at the heart of patriarchal paternalism. So while Ira and Isabella may set aside the threat of incest in one dimension—between unwitting siblings—it reveals a more pervasive, and more pernicious—threat of obscene paternalism, which harmonizes with the story’s wider critique of misogynistic seduction conventions.

In the future, I am definitely going to keep teaching Ira and Isabella, making space for it alongside Charlotte Temple, because that’s a pairing worth keeping. I may also add it in to a general education American literature class that I teach. It would work well with Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher,” and it’s a very digestible length.